Thursday, December 19, 2019

Looking into Soul and the Soulless

"I urge my colleagues in the House and in the Senate: Look into your soul." ----Rep. Steny Hoyer

First a few paragraphs of sermon. Apologies in advance. This is the morning after the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. America hasn't been this divided since the brink of civil war in 1859. So let's ask about soul and what that means. We're gonna need some.

Soul? Truth is, you won't see what isn't there. Soul isn't a cosmic entity; it's not something we possess much less save or have saved. Soul is where we go in the depths of character to experiment with truth. Soul is the place where feeling and knowing converge. It is the decidedly human feat of reaching into conscience, into one's heart, into the differences that make all the difference and deciding for the truth.

When we make that kind of decision we can't mistake what it does to us. It asks something _from_ us. As the Upanishad put it, soul asks us to choose the real over what is merely preferred. We're going to have to start with the idea that the harder truths are not easy to accept even when they are plain as day.

Contemporary soul seekers tell us that this process begins with "radical acceptance." When we enter into radical acceptance to recognize the hard facts then what we feel takes hold in ways that cannot be denied in the conscious world, and _that_ is the soul, emergent from beneath it all.

Soul makes you joyful because it revels in such truth, even what that hurts. Soul leads you to the truest sorrow because it is the grief that must accompany love as its shadow. Forget the metaphysics. Soul is when your humanity wins out over all of the other possibilities. Your humanity doesn't always win. It can even choose not to feel itself at all.

Not everyone evolves their soul because we have to want to, we have to learn how, we can always ignore it. And it's easy to lose it because even the best of us do, sometimes. The longing to find and re-find our soul is the process of feeling more human and so more humane. Soul is when your humankind-ness becomes human-kindness.

But it's also possible to lose your soul. Entirely, even forever. You can want to do that because you have your reasons, your goals. Goals are a way of postponing the longer look into your soul. Goals substitute for meaning because goals can be achieved but meaning has to be made. The hard way. That's breaking into the soul and sometimes breaks the soul.

Not to worry. A broken soul hurts but if you know its broken then you can take up the broken pieces and make more. Sometimes other people will help too with their broken pieces and together you can make a soul that feels its worth. But when you decide to lose your soul or give up on it? There are consequences. It's decidedly human to want what you want more than anything that is true. You can be soulless. That is human too.

So back to the point of Representative Hoyer's plea. America's soullessness doesn't end with these elected Republicans. It extends into Fox Culture (I know, I know, an oxymoron). The soulless now include a significant number of rural whites who form the Fox Base. Why am I so hard on them? Because they don't want to look for anything more, anything else that moves them to look again, more deeply. They would rather have their souls saved by something other than their own efforts to look into self.  They want to be forgiven rather than learn from their mistakes. They would rather revel in their grievance culture and claims of victimhood than take up their soul work. Most don't even know that the soul needs work and that that work will be the hardest thing they ever do.

But the story gets worse because there are educated suburbanites and exurbanites who you'd think_could_ know better but they've chosen soullessness. Why? Because they have "goals" and that gets simpler still: it's really only about the money. Meaning is for losers, only goals matter. There are no moral considerations, no matters of character that they will prioritize over their "kitchen table issues"---their ethics are purely transactional and amenable to Trumpism's soullessness because they care more about money than anything else. They have personal goals, goals for their families, and nothing else has priority. This is why the Republican Party is a pathology and, more dangerously, a political force in an America that has lost its way.

All is not lost. We can look for America's soul when we look into our own and ask what more we want from life that makes ourselves a gift to others and to those deeper feelings of truth. It's the long way home.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

So? "Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That?

"Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That? So?

Say "hwaet" as if you were saying "wait," only a little breathy to start. Hwaet is the first word of Beowulf. The whole line reads in the original like this:

Hwaet wē Gār-Dena in geā-dagum, p(th)ēod-cyininga p(th)yrm gefrūnon, hū dā-aep(th)lingas ellen fremedon. 

You can figure out a slim bit of what it means, just sort of sound it out, that's the first trick to reading Old English. There's an even better way. Take three long shots of any Irish or Scots-Gaelic whisky, let the feeling go directly from the warm rush in your brain to your tongue, and you will be realizing that "whisky" is really the older word "uisce" from which we get, yes, you guessed it "water." Thus drinking whisky is drinking water. My father thought that.

If you take a few more shots sitting beside, say, the River Usk in Britain and you might as well be anywhere because you'll be teetering happily beside the River Uisce, which is in the modern tongue is the River Whisky. I was sitting not beside that river but in it about half way down a bottle of Jameson while reading three books. But all of this is to say that reading Old English begins to happen when you say the sounds on the page as if you've had a few too many. Or just have a few too many and read Beowulf, which is what I was doing late last night or really very early this morning. Either way. You may need a few other tricks to work out the intricacies of phonology and syntax, but I assure you it's easier than Vedic or Tocharian B.

Translating from English to English, Our Poem begins: "Wait. The Spear-Danes in bygone days, and their ruling kings of courage and greatness, We've heard of those princes' heroic campaigns."

There are a lot of interesting words here but let's just look at how the text begins. Usually "hwaet" is translated something like "behold" or "lo". I hate it when translators regress into Anglican Book of Common Prayer speech to try to capture the dignified tones of Downtown Abbey. Really, we can do better than that.

'Hwaet' can mean 'listen up', 'attend here', or even lookie here, yo. It's not quite 'hey, numb nut!" If we compare it then, hwaet, it's functioning not unlike the way the word "atha" often behaves in Sanskrit. Words can behave and misbehave but that is another essay entirely. In fact, 'hwaet' is doing two different things at the same time, which is why it does indeed function more like Sanskrit's "atha" and less like other exclamations like "bho". (You often find 'bho bho' in Sanskrit as an exclamation that both means to cheer something and as a way of getting someone's attention, the way we might use "yo!" on the streets of Jersey.)

Hwaet functions in these multiple ways too, that is, it means to cheer, to call you to attention, and to invite you to something worthy of your being excited, interested, usually for better not for worse. Hwaet, like atha, portends something that is asking something _from_ you and _of_ you, not just taking up space. But there is also tad more going on here.

My daughter Charlotte was the first in our family to do the, "Wait. What?" as manner of pausing to think, to be stunned, offer a deer in the headlights look, express being confounded or a bit confused about what just happened or was said. Thus, "wait." means I need to stop for a second and rethink, revise, express incredulity, doubt, wonder, wtf-ness. The "what" gets in both the content of what and the wtf-ness of what _I think you just said_. All of this might be my imaginings of some millennial affectation but it's now all standard faire in our house.

Wait. What? Someone says something that causes the need for delay and punctuation, as if something happened, we are not quite sure what, and need to express both doubt and our own introverted shock. We wonder if we are on the spectrum or if the world could possibly be what we just thought we heard. The wonder of all is directed outwardly towards the wtf-just-happened part and inwardly to the I-think-I-didn't-get-that-but-if-I-did-then-wtf part. 

Where this comes back atcha' in Beowulf's "hweat" it is dialectically like a streets of Jersey argot I would hear in my youth. When someone would say something that was supposed to have been important or meaningful we would stop them in their tracks and stop ourselves too. We'd say in reply, "So?" Not as a declaration of pause only, which is how Heaney wants us to take 'hwaet' to arrest and thereby obliterate all previous narrative before going forward but also with something like the need for more. "So?" includes a bit of confrontation, which may not be in Beowulf except as an underbelly of danger, but danger is always in the game, anywhere. Thus---this being another kind of 'hwaet' where we are being both stopped and being told urgently to keep going. Listen and Go, at the same time.  We are being confronted but, you know, in a good way.

So? Someone would say something like, "You know, it's gonna be cold on Sunday..." And taking the "you know" to be yet another version of 'hwaet', you'd say in reply, "So?" Meaning, that's important because? I should stop and think about that coldness for a reason? Why are you telling me this? I think all of this is also included in Beowulf's "Hwaet." Now it's not nearly as elegant to put the question mark after the "So." So?

I think Heaney is right when he says that the word means to stop us in our tracks. But I think it's also working like an ellipsis or even a question, that is it is literally waiting for the next sentence, it's got anticipation too, so not just a stop sign. It's a then, an atha. Heaney puts down the period and thus: "So. The Spear-Danes..." But like Sanskrit's "atha" (think: atha yoganuśāsanam), we actually not supposed to stop the previous narratives (i.e, the things we are supposed to know beforehand), but rather include them. Meaning "take all of what came before up to this point and NOW go forward" is closer to the sense.

But Heaney isn't wrong that sumthin'big is about to be said  (invoke Tom Petty's voice here to get the proper effect) and we are being called to attention and asked if we know about that. It's the ask that is coming with the 'hwaet'. There's more coming, we're not being halted only. Read it: "So? You know those Spear-Dane Kings, well, I got something here for you..." You would have to already know something about spears and their bit with Danes and their Kings, and off we go. Just like "atha" means "now" both in the sense of 'you _are_ ready for this even though it makes you wait..." and 'are you ready for this? 'cause incoming!'

Who am I to argue with the great Seamus Heaney and his "big voiced Scullions" whose every utterance was closer to a pronouncement from Scripture quoting the Lord Almighty than it was a mere sentence. But I think he might take up the idea that being stopped in your tracks is not only meant to arrest all as you begin something of Great Import. It is also to be confounded, be-wondered, lost a bit in what just happened and asking for more, asking itself, being asked to bring the past forward, being asked to see how the future will change the present if you create an opening, how what comes next is just as important as being halted to pay attention to the moment. Wait. What? What did he just say? Right. Like that.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Learning to Dream Yourself into Being

A student asked me a question today that drifted into personal matters, the sort that I usually try to deflect, at least at the University. I try not to let on too much about myself or my personal reasons for study---they should learn the history of religions and take what they want for themselves without my personal bias known to them. This way they don't feel any compulsion to approve of my opinions or deal with my overt bias, they should be able to think and express themselves without fear of offending my bias. I'm not saying that I don't have bias. I'm saying that they should not fear not to share my bias.

The question was how did I choose the study of India at such a young age (I was 18 and think now how late I was to the dream...)  But a life of language and literature, art and philosophy, and especially India's religions--- and what possessed me to go to India and accept the invitation to take up a life of cultural immersion, stay so long away from home, live like that?  And then on to what seems to be nothing less than obsession with literacy and studies in language, literature, philosophy in the west, without much reference to my academic speciality.  She put all of this out there and seemed determined to wait for an answer.

What prompted the question?  Well, I had been talking about how much of the mythological material we have been learning is not in printed sources, that comes from oral traditions. How did I gain access to that material, to the world that created those stories? This led to some explanation of how I came to learn from Appa and the further connections that arose came from those experiences. I had also mentioned in passing that I am going to teach the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in my course next semester on comparative mythologies---eyes lifted, smiles all 'round.

My answer will not likely surprise but I thought you might find it, maybe, amusing.

We're all dreamers, sooner or later. What we dream isn't pure self-invention and that's where we must start. We come into the world in fact made by other people's dreams and hopes and aspirations and decisions and choices, successes and failures. We are made well before we begin to make ourselves because history and circumstance, context and culture, happenstance and structural facts invent us before we begin any process of breaking into those facts to shape ourselves to our own dreams. We're not helpless to create ourselves but we have to begin with all that had to have happened just to be here at all. We didn't choose our birth and we don't merely invent ourselves through the powers of individuality without myriad forces and circumstances in place, doing the shaping for us. Prelude done.

There's a pretty simple thing that happens once you are privileged enough to be able to dream. Of course it's hard to dream if you are just trying to survive or if you are being abused or hurt in ways that stifle or demean or cripple your dreaming. So you need some of The Lucky to be a dreamer at all. Maybe a lot of it since it goes back to that way you are invented by the world first. Anyways, I can think of at least a few things that went down like this:

(1) Wait. What is _that_? What just happened?

(2) _That_ is cool, I think I really love _that_.

(3) Wait. You mean you could _do_ that? Because here it is, being done.

(4) I really really _want_ to do _that_. If they did that, could I do that?

(5) I'm going to do _that_ and nothing is going to stop me.

If you can figure out what makes this happen for you then you are beginning to learn how to dream and how to dream yourself into a life of living dreams. It's not the same as making a career or a living. It's about deciding who you want to be because your dreams decide that at least as much as all the rest you have to do to live.

Let me give you a few of my own personal benchmarks for the Dreamer's Dream.

---I was seven years old when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That night I said to myself: THAT is what I want to be able to do.

---At 12 I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Everything changed. There were worlds of language and learning, power and conflict, goodness, friendship, love, loss, evil, pain, imagination, myth. And they weren't literal Christian nonsense. Myth became as meaningful and as profound as music. I wanted not only to be Gandalf, I wanted to be Tolkien: learned enough to invent Middle Earth and their languages and endless histories.

---At 14 or so, Hesse, Siddhartha, then I met the Buddha, then came my first real taste of the Hindus in art and images and little bits of teachings of an ancient India filled with its own gods and demons, dreams and artistry, languages and cultures, all of which went right to the core, to the same place, the same feeling that was like seeing The Beatles or reading Tolkien. What is THAT? You could learn to do that? You could understand that? You could want that? I want that. Oh, you mean it's hard and going to take every breathing minute of your life to even get close to that at all? Okay, sign me up.

---At 18 India was going to happen and within those next few years meeting a handful human beings who had dreamt lives and done the real work to achieve despite all the travail, no matter what the world demanded. I was lucky again. I had examples, guides, and a helping hand because they had dared to live their dreams.

The last thing I said to this student was that it's not that important what I saw or liked or wanted or dreamt about. It's only important to have your curiosity, to like what you like, to imagine its value, to create your own dream and go live that. Now. Do that now. Keep doing that.  That you are.  Perhaps that's another take on tat tvam asi.