Friday, August 4, 2017

The Storm of Self and Otherness, Finding Refuge and Living in the World

I'd venture we identify with words like "tolerance," "inclusion," and "empathy." We fancy ourselves unbound by dogmas, receptive to differences, and willing participants in diversity. We even try to think about these feelings and issues, understanding that our personal views are shaped and are being shaped by social, cultural, and political forces we neither control nor approve.

There are lots of reasons to be frustrated, infuriated, and eager to withdraw. We need consolation and reprieve, tools for mental health, and methods to flourish when just surviving is no small matter. These stresses are real because no one can manage them to immunity or invulnerability. Being human is a storm punctuated by moments of fair weather. It seems enough to have to care about our own lives, it will require that much more to care about others.

This piece makes a simple enough argument and uses an example that is likely unfamiliar to most.

*First, we must find a deeper peace in the disturbance itself. The hurricane may not feel like refuge and it may not be safe, but that's the first acknowledgement to be made. There is no safe and refuge is not just in some calm eye or at the periphery or in the few days we get "off." Meditation may take us from the hurricane's forces but the weather awaits us wherever we go. Our thesis is that the storm itself is our primary resource. Put another way, it is in being with our contrariety that we become more attuned to the feelings and ideas that shape us and that we try to shape.

*Second, we need to look at others' worlds, others' views, others' imaginings, histories, and traditions. We must do this not only because we live in the world with people with differing views and values (like it or not) but because to see oneself we must learn how to imagine who we are not. Introspection is comparison, evaluation, and preference--- to think otherwise because you are tolerant or inclusive is another kind of self-delusion. We cannot question our assumptions but from within the greater structures ---somatic, cognitive, social, historical--- in which they already exist. To frame worlds we need to try to find the outlines, the dimensions, and the forms that shape. None of us are immune to our bias and neither should we be. If we have done the hard work of contrariety then our opinions are hard won _and_ we might be willing to be changed. Let's embrace that paradox to move this argument forward.

In the deeply arcane world of modern theologies where angels still dance with pinheads, I take a certain notice. It's my job and I still work to fend off too much familiarity, because with too much "I got this" and one becomes lazy, predisposed to think that you _really_ got this. We're better off staying curious enough to read closely, reach out to hone our critical skills, and remember that contrariety means looking for _yet another angle, argument, point of view_. Part of being in the storm is knowing that you can't always predict the weather. Taking imbalance, asymmetry, and limited lines of sight as normal creates more alignment, greater resilience, and honest perspective. Let's not get grandiose: our limitations are crucial to developing our gifts and making the most of our assets. To progress and to grow is to invite the discomforting and trial some for the sake of greater findings.

To take up the contrarian life is to bathe in the irony that to cultivate "contrary" is to soak in empathy. To criticize ---not to diminish, discredit, or project disdain--- but _to understand_ means doing the impossible: trying to see the world as others see, imagining a life you don't lead and aren't likely to embrace. And then apply this very strategy to one's self. This is the core of the contrarian method: learning to imagine, to think, to feel so that one can evaluate, take stock and pause before a hasty judgment. And, yes, you _will_ judge, to dismiss judgment is just another form of judgment. We are always in the business of deciding, classifying, ranking, gauging and guesstimating.

Vital to the process is how we understand the stakes. When the stakes are low for us ---what do you think of the guy who doesn't share your love of beets?--- we need not lean so angularly into our preferences as if they are superior. We endanger our abilities not only to tolerate but to fathom the difference between what is important and what is not. But make no mistake about it, we may be flawed, inadequate, and out of our league when we assay the world, but we are going to do it anyway.  Even the most virtuosic stumble and fail.

Rajanaka calls that humbling process of learning "contrariety" so that we find out what more is possible than confirming our opinions. Rather, we learn more about how to question, placing our arguments (not quarreling, arguing) and feelings (bias, preference, structural prejudice) more in front and before. This could take time to explain but the storm will not wait. Contrariety is the process of being in the storm, staying in the storm, storming back at the storm, and knowing that whatever fair weather you enjoy is worth cherishing. It's coming again, there's nothing to protect you but your willingness to stay in the tempest of learning.

It's crucial too to consider how much is decided, appraised, sized up and negotiated _before_ we are aware cognitively. Our bodies assess first, our minds follow, and the process of choice is neither self-evident nor always actual. Appa used to say that the unconscious is front of us looking back towards us---even when we think it is deeply buried or informing us from behind our awareness. What has been chosen or adjudged, derived and reckoned is no small matter. There are many tools for interrogating these processes, not the least of which are the evocative, symbolic, allegorical resources of myth, poetry, mantra, and other forms of "indirect" inquiry and exploration.

To discover more about ourselves we actually have to care about how others formulate their worlds. We need not assume everyone wants the same things from life, much less that there is a right way, a destination, a goal, or meaning that we all share. In fact, none of those things might exist at all but for our complex processes of invention and contrivance. This doesn't make them less real, only more human: conditioned, provisional, unfinished, and dynamic. "All," "every," "always," are words that we must use and cautiously if we are to fathom the real diversity and difference that is just as human as our sameness in species.

So again, what's with people? And more pointedly, their deepest convictions, traditions, traumatic histories, morals, and feelings that get channeled through the word "religion." If you prefer to say that you are "spiritual" and not "religious" it's worth considering more seriously what it is you think makes you warm to one word and rebuff the other. It matters more that you embark on this more illusive task: what do you want from this distinction rather than what you already believe is the distinction you think you're making.

I'm making a claim here that warrants divulgence. Religion deals with incongruities: between what we want and what say we want, what we hope and what happens, about the difference we try to fathom between what we experience and what appears without our input or consent. In Rajanaka we use the word "paradox" to describe our human condition. The world we see does indeed "go on" without us ---before, during, and after, there's a world "out there." But that same "object" world is our human experience world and we are each "subjects" in it and deciding about it (until, of course, we are not). So there's a there out there and it's also in us and this situation of realities isn't one way or another, it's both and. We left to consider what's on offer and what do we want. Religion is a real part of that story because it informs from behind, during, and it helps determine important issues for our future. The point I want to emphasize is that we're not all the same even though we are all human---more paradox to embrace. I don't expect everyone to agree. (This fact only makes the point, of course.)

I have a good friend who describes himself as a faithful, relatively conservative Catholic. No amount of 21st century evaluations of the natural world's origins and processes repudiates the tenets of his faith. He is educated, sophisticated, and skilled in critical thinking. But he _really_ believes this stuff and when I tease (not really) and say things that would offend (deeply), he takes it well and maintains that his convictions inform his life. I am content to regard these matters in terms of his behavior. He would not contend that one has to be Catholic or religious to be moral or even to get to heaven, where he assures me he will advocate for my inclusion should Peter not find me wholly in the Lord's graces. I jest, but the issues at stake are certainly practical: how do people treat one another, what do they expect of others, and in what ways do their views and values shape, influence, and impose on others. Who gets to decide what?

Appa took ultimacy off the table. He centered his concerns on living our mortal life as wholly mortal. He didn't think that opinions, feelings, and behaviors about things ultimate don't matter. If you think there is a God, an afterlife, a before-life, enlightenment, superior forms of awareness (put here _every_ meditation tradition's claims), all of these sorts of beliefs tell you not only what you want but how you might interact or influence others. We might claim that we are not interested in imposing or indoctrinating others but that is always more a matter of degree than of fact.

It's not a simple equation that allows us to say 'live and let' live is an absolute, no matter how that value plays its part. We actually care what others insist is theirs to believe even if they insist they harbor no views at all (this is an interesting Buddhist claim, for example) or that their views do no mean to impede others' freedom. The important difference between what one believes one "should" or "must" do--- and so others too--- and what one will tolerate even when such ideas or actions violate one's own norms or tenets. What really is okay with us is not always okay with others, not by a long shot.

Inside the Catholic Church right now is a deeply insular argument that involves the role of Catholic dogma and political involvements. If you can stand it, look at this piece in the NYTimes where the factionalism and the dispute involves Vatican politics that represent very different interpretations of dogma.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/europe/vatican-us-catholic-conservatives.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=19&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2017%2F08%2F02%2Fworld%2Feurope%2Fvatican-us-catholic-conservatives.html&eventName=Watching-article-click).

If you have a real fascination with how these things are argued using terms like "dominionist theology," "Manichaeism," "prosperity gospel," and all the way to "in hoc signo vinces," go read the article that is all the current fuss.

(here: http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/evangelical-fundamentalism-and-catholic-integralism-in-the-usa-a-surprising-ecumenism/).

Okay, that was asking a lot. So here are the two crucial paragraphs that outline the so-called liberals' position.

"The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.”[2] Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.

Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere."

This is not easy to interpret, as if Pope Francis is somehow okay with legal abortion rights (actually human body rights), same-sex marriage, or other matters the Church is willing to see politically to its own ends. So what in fact is the tribal fight among Catholic theologies (authorities, hierarchies, etc.) if both sides agree that certain claims on human behavior require "moral" adjudication with plainly political outcomes? Both conservatives and liberals believe the sin of abortion warrants political intervention. How is their moral and religious conviction not political?

It's complicated then how these folks think their religious worldviews implicate others who share neither worldviews nor values--- and would oppose their impositions should they demand too dominance in doctrinal views in the realm of opposed secular law. The liberal authors in the cited article clearly see the threat of secularism to be a major concern. But the heart of the matter for them is that conservative Catholics are distorting religious views _and_ becoming political bedfellows with evangelical Protestants in America particularly. They are indeed arguing for _some_ kind of important distinction between Church and State, though it's seems too nuanced to give them more leverage than the conservatives' who say in effect "our beliefs demand _these specific_ political actions." Black and white is always an easier sell and that is a real part of what hovers around the issues dividing these factions. After all, rearranging hearts and minds means finding triggers, appealing to visceral experiences, thinking-less, feeling-more is the easy path.

In another strange feature of this story there is yet another NYTimes piece from a conservative Catholic the core of the argument is that to be an "orthodox" Christian will take removal not only from political allegiances but from the secular world as such. These folks are advocating for a kind of Catholicism that like orthodox Judaism has restricted contact with non-believers and even less political investments. They have decided the jig is up, they've lost to secularism, and it's time to retreat into their own kinds of belief communities. This is a very different strategy that will appeal to very few.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/trump-scaramucci-evangelical-christian.html)

Just how we think our beliefs and values _should_ enter the world in ways that impose upon others is something we all need to think about. Not only because America is politically in the hands of religious fanatics but because _everyone_ harbors convictions that are beyond compromise. Differences cut deeply and when they cut to the core, we must each ask ourselves what we are prepared _to do_, what will we demand and insist, when do our beliefs and values ask more from us than tolerance. The storm will never rage less.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Five Essential Epic Truths, On the Field Where Politics Meets Spirituality


My spiritual life has everything to do with being a political person. I don't know how or want to live a life in which my responsibilities to family, community, and my own conscience are somehow separate or sequestered.  None of these "worldly concerns" are other than my spiritual life. Where to start? Life is a storm, I'm happy to start there. Who doesn't love the fair weather, the ease and beauty that also comes? Who doesn't love the sweet life and wish for more of it? Life brings it all. Let's go there.

Out there in my public life, I'm getting it again for being "negative." Meh. We all deal, we all cope, we all have our ways of addressing the mortal condition and our shared humanity. I'm not doing anything in my life to be popular, rich, and I do indeed have the luxury/privilege to say pretty much whatever I want because "the man" owns me a lot less than others. I get why people don't speak up or can't.  I get why people take a break, retreat, or check out.

Everyone does what she or he needs to do and if there is #0 Epic Truth, it's that: do the needful.  I have no complaint, grudge, or advice about how _you_ need to deal with events personal, political, or spiritual. But my own views are grounded in a great work that is hard to fathom because, like life, it is written as a riddle that is incomplete, digressive, and filled with contradictions.

More than any other historical or spiritual resource, the Mahabharata shapes my world. This is not a story about how great its going to be. It's the story of making success out of the horror you can expect and greatness from what you could not have anticipated. And here are a few epic points of departure.

One can be happily "negatively" motivated because,
(1) most positive motivating claims are basically wishful thinking that stand no chance in hell of coming true. Justice does not prevail, there is no arc to goodness, and people are just as capable of being venal as they are wonderful.
Epic Truth #1: The most likely possible things must be given priority to know what is coming next.

(2) being honest about how things actually work is a far better strategy for winning. You might still lose but it's vital to keep it real about your strengths, weaknesses, and your opponents. They may be detestable but you have to learn to think like them and with them to deal effectively. I'm all about winning because losing means those jackasses are in charge and that is far, far, far worse than our worst people. If you start with the acidic facts you can develop a strategy based on the truth rather than what you wish were true or some rosy picture scenario.
Epic Truth #2: Do not be a victim of principle when you can be a victor that changes the world incrementally for the better, even if that's not all you want or hope for.

(3) you are dealing with the real world where bad things will happen, best to be well-prepared, and give it your worst. This doesn't make you a "negative" person, it's not cynical, and it's not somehow "dark" or worse. Rather it's a way of dealing with a blind, pitiless, often meaningless world so that you can _make_ some meaning, create lots of happy, and manage to do lots of good. Keeping it real is often a darker than lighter task and, NO, it's not "all light" now or in the end.  If you need pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows, we'll take care of you when that doesn't happen.
Epic Truth #3: Krsna means "dark" and refers to the color of storm clouds ---take his advice, prepare for what the world will do to you and you stand a chance to love life more and more.

(4) it's important to sell hopey hopey positivity because most people _need_ to feel this way just to deal.  Heaven? God knows all? Karma will balance the scales?  Have it your way.  This is why any  candidate, any successful public hero will bullshit us with how great or better it's going to be blah blah.  They are never all wrong anymore than they are all right.  Truth is, you can't sell laundry soap, cars, liberation, entrees on a menu, goodness, or just about anything without telling people it's great, it's going to be great, while you keep that happy face on. 
Epic Truth #4: Lying in the service of deeper truths is why we need myths but a certain amount of dissimulation to reach far better outcomes is going to happen, needs to happen, and is part of the complexity of the deal. Make that deal carefully, with as much savvy as you can.

(5) humans are flawed, deeply flawed, being in politics requires some soul-selling and corruption just to survive, get used to it. The perfect really is the enemy of the good. Good people are far less than perfect. Now take the money, the ethical compromises, the humiliation, the vitriol, the criticism, and the heat it takes to be political, or to live a life in public, or even try to do some _good in the world_, and the outcome is complex and likely morally indefensible. Good deeds will be punished, good people make mistakes and do bad things. We're all accountable and we all need to make our judgments about the company we keep.
Epic Truth #5: Even Yudhisthira. No one gets a pass. He, the very best of us, did the very best he could, and so should we. But no one gets out alive. And even Yudhisthira failed, lied, and did things he regretted. So will you, so will the people you love. Keep good company.

My politics are my spirituality. Mahabharata is not a particularly popular text in Indian spirituality unless its innate conflict, real corruption, its lies and gambles, and above all its ethical compromise are utterly whitewashed. This is the usual interpretation because reality, well, that's a lot harder to take. But there is nothing else quite like it because the great epic invites us, like no other source, to love our humanity for _all_ that it is.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Contradiction, Paradox, and Your Inner Spock, Puzzling Our Humanity in this Age of Irrationality

I was an original Trekkie. Never missed a first episode, saw them all in black and white because we didn't have a color TV. My hero then as now was, of course, Spock. I wanted to be Spock and it took me forever to understand that Spock's Bestie was McCoy, his nemesis. Everyone loves the Captain, don't mistake me. But it's the person who brings out your shadow and so provides your better half that is that special friend. Think Mick and Keith, who may not even like each other. Same kinda' thing.

Spock's issue was made out to be his inner conflict with his half-human side. (I have the same problem.) But I think that's too easy. This guy could play three dimensional chess with himself the way Professor Ingalls could do Sanskrit and Greek at the same time. (I wish I had this problem.)

Spock would be puzzled by we humans' resorting to the irrational, how we would respond in situations that demanded logic with illogic. When you feel deep emotions you need not to lose your head. Spock was a lot like Krsna in the Gita when he made this point and when you need calmer minds to prevail in crisis, he was your Vulcan.

But then he would also be astonished when the non-rational came into play and the Captain--- so very human that you couldn't tell if William Shatner was acting or not--- knew what to do about it. He'd grudgingly admire that those who could understand the illogical sometimes had an advantage, though this didn't actually compensate for irrational choices. Always willing to learn, he'd find room for non-rationality (not to be confused with irrationality) in order to fathom what humans would likely do. People don't do the logical or rational thing, and _that_ too is predictable. Kahneman won a Nobel for this sort of thinking.

Spock wasn't failing to appreciate our nonrationality or its value. Rather, he failed to fathom the fundamentals of contradiction as a human _want_ and the ways self-interest denies the important power inherent in paradox. For this we need to understand Spock's father issues and his father. Sarek, after all, married his human mother.

Pundits query over Trump's irrationality, why he appeals to what appear to be otherwise sane people by non-rationality, and what to make of it all. Is it that they are compelled to espouse some sort of innate goodness? (They need more Hsun-tzu, less Mencius, please take my Religion 106.) I have pals who re-watch Maddow not only because she is really smart and sometimes as hard to follow as any gifted post-linear thinker but because she's trying to make _sense_ of what is going on. I have no doubt she understands far, far more than I ever will about everything except IE linguistics, the history of rock n' roll, and Fergie Porsche's invention of the 911. (She'd know more about those things too if she applied herself.) So what's my point?

The TV Punditry can't ---for reasons of sales, imo--- admit to enough human self-interest. We could call it venality or selfishness. If you had read more of Kautilya's Arthaśāstra on the "science of government" and not dismissed Machiavelli so quickly, you'd have a better idea of what is going on. Kautilya has whole chapters on the politics of lying, spies, and eliminating your enemies. He makes the Don (Coreleone or Trump) look like Saint Francis.

What Kautilya (not his real name, he likely didn't even write the book) knows is that people are capable of the worse. TV Punditry can't really go there. Either from denial or the need to sell soap, our brilliant analysts can't say aloud what they somehow must know in the marrow of their bones. People want what they _want_ and that self-interest, raw selfishness, is _as real_ as altruism, compassion, and human care. Love may triumph but its got only the slightest edge. Right on its heels, the fact is we humans suck. And we don't like to or want to admit that. Before you tell me I'm a cynic, I _just said_ that love triumphs (but just barely and not unwounded).

Let me give a short example. In today's Washington Post there's a piece looking to sort out the Newt Gingrich/Tom Price stronghold known to the techopolitical as GA-6. The article gives us lots of local voices from this mostly affluent, very white, reliably Republican district. And what's the take away? They will tolerate, even endorse Trumpism, if they can have lower taxes, great infrastructure, excellent cheap healthcare, a vibrant military and law enforcement, and make a profit for themselves. Paying for these things, well, that is not mentioned. They want what they want but the costs to themselves, to others, to society? Those are not taken seriously. Word has it too that there are gourmet donuts and who would not like that?

Now the residents of GA-6 reflect the other side of affluence, the privilege of education, so they aren't stupid. They just want what they want. That you can't have all of this Good Stuff without having to pay a lot for it, out of your own affluent pockets, is seemingly a contradiction not important enough to warrant thinking about logically. Embrace the contradiction but deny the paradox. This is the heart of the matter (and Spock too never quite got it either).

So we may know that you can't really have your cake and eat it too unless someone else is footing the bill. But why let that stop you? So when you hear Trump's 4th grade vocabulary (apologies to all 4th graders) and his promise of "great again", you're not only hearing white supremacist entitlement, you're hearing the human desire to embrace any contradictions that serve one's emotional needs. It's simple: ignore the irrational, embrace the non-rational, and forget the rest because, well, you're busy. The alternative?

Human nature isn't as complex as understanding human choice. We are selfish, we are not. We love a lot more than we reduce ourselves to selfishness but that doesn't always carry the day. When it does, it's heroic too because we have to defeat our self-preservation, our tribalism, our narrowness.

We may have to reject contradiction ---though we will not--- but more importantly we must embrace our paradoxes. We become more savvy, even more powerful, when we realize that contradictions are normal. We are bundled together to be both/and, so how to embrace that as paradox? Know when to give the edge. Choose the love over the selfishness even when its hard. Try to see when your love is your selfishness too or when being selfish is the better call. This I want to call the embrace of paradox. When the contradictions appear you may be as befuddled as Spock to fathom how humans can be so illogical but you will be far better equipped to deal with our far more than (and less) rational human nature.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soul Listening What Do You Hear When You Listen for You?

“When in matters of real disquiet one must turn towards the inner actor for a measure of truth.”
---Kalidasa from the Abhijñānaśakuntalam

The greatest of the Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, makes a lovelorn prince rehearse this line aloud to himself as he confronts his conflicted thoughts and unambiguous feelings. Our prince is conflicted over propriety and decency because he has the idea --- ill-founded we later discover--- that his real feelings of affection are misguiding him. Should he act upon his understandings or his feelings?

The poet tells us to use the measures and the means we possess inside ourselves. Rather then plead to an almighty resource or diminish our human abilities, he insists that we listen more deeply to what lies at our core. Kalidasa tells us we need to be soul listening and while he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do this, it’s clear he has an idea about what we’ll need to bring along on the journey. It’s a journey we need to take now because the time will come when, like our prince here, we’re going to need to have been such pilgrims of the heart.

The “means,” the “measures” to which the poet refers are the powers of the senses, the gifts of a well-tuned mind, and the sum of our experiences. There are technical matters here for the philosophers with the Sanskrit word pramāna (“means of valid cognition”) and our poet surely has those in mind too. But he’s not asking us to rework our formal lessons so much as apply them. We need to have done some of this work if we are going to do any of it when the time comes. But the key is simple: he wants us to use all of our resources to feel, think, and remember all that we can so that we will act from that soul listening turn.

The “inner actor” he has in mind, what he calls the antahkarana, is another technical philosophical term. Once again I think it wise to ask if Kalidasa has something more in mind. Were we not rich in other vocabulary that conjures notions of soul and self, we’d translate this “inner actor” by one or the other. Listen to your soul. Go to the self. And that is exactly what the poet wants us to do. But now the philosophers help us a bit more, not for what they say about the importance of connecting to our feelings but for what they don’t.

It’s not unsurprising that most traditionalist schools of yoga philosophy teach us to be deeply suspicious of our feelings ---misled as we are by impulse and the seductions of pleasure and gratification. Katha Upanisad reminds us (2.1) that the good is one thing and the pleasurable another. This is sound enough advice: doing the right thing is not always a pleasure and certainly not all pleasures are right or encourage us to do what’s right. The task is discernment---more technical vocab could enter the picture now, but let’s demur and take a less straightforward course. Our prince is not consulting philosophers. He is trying to hear his heart. But before that, one more point.

The mind’s wandering and the ideas we have of ourselves ---usually called ego, judgment, or just mind--- are also brought under similar philosophical suspicion. India’s yoga philosophers are unambiguously mistrustful of “going with how we feel” and skeptical, leery, far more than just cautious about where our minds can take us without a great deal of courageous effort and cognizant apprehension. We’re taught to be “mindful” ---usually involving some form of witnessing, that is watching the watching and the watcher. Or we taught some or another form of quieting, silencing, or focused re-focusing without subject interference or object appropriation. These are the twin cynosure of meditation practices: mindfulness and serenity. All still quite familiar to even the most preliminary practices of yoga.

Kalidasa the poet and playwright offers something more. I don’t mean to say that he in any way disputes or diminishes the philosopher yogi’s prescriptions and strategies. I think that would rather miss his point. Rather I think he’s inviting us to a further human assignment. He wants us to do more soul-listening with our bodies, minds, and hearts gathered all at once to the great project of being more human.

Act from the inside out, surely. But bring all of yourself to bear. Go from the surfaces, go with them further and further until you cut to the core. And there in the beating of a heart, in the real pulsation of being yourself, discern and choose, contemplate as your inner actor. We need to be more whole, integrative, and willing to incorporate what we experience from outside in. Kalidasa is asking us to do something far more difficult than sort out, discriminate, and use our suspicions as wisely as we can. He’s telling us that we have to bring all we have to bear on all we are because that soul listening reveals itself when we act, when realize that what we do tells us about the work we have done.

In the scene in which this magnificent moment of self-reflection and self-care appears our heroic prince wants to know what to do and he wants to do right. He is checking his moral compass but his wisdom lies in his willingness to do that work, to make the effort to act using the sum of his experience to create choices. Whatever may be possible to do, he is looking to make the right choices. These choices are, in truth, restrictions and qualifications, reservations and circumscriptions. Whatever might be possible is not the same as the wisest choice, and we all know that. But how does our course of action tell us about the course of our innermost being?

What we decide to do will depend on how we arrive at the core of our being. When we don’t know how to get there it’s because we won’t or don’t know how take the all of us with us on that soul-listening journey. More troubling still is that so many don’t know that this journey takes effort, that it requires skills and competence and artistry with one’s self wholly committed.

You can’t do this kind of yoga unless you know that you need to, that there is such a yoga to do. And then we have to learn how, do the work, move through the layers of feeling and thought to find what lies within. What we will find is more than mere certainty or clarity or answers to our questions. What we will find is a heart beating together with other hearts.  When you bring all of yourself, when you arrive at the heart you will hear still more and know there is more yet to hear.

As we become more soul-listeners we hear more than our own self or just our own heart. We hear others listening, indeed come to recognize that there are those not listening closely enough, and that we don’t always know the difference. Most importantly, we discover how all hearts beat together whether or not we learn to take their measure. We come to realize as we journey and listen that we want to take this journey to light and shadow together, because there’s room for everyone who wants to come.

As soul-listeners we need not arrive at the same destination or claim it is same for all. The soul is too vast, too deep and complex, it harbors too many secrets and casts too many shadows to reveal its all. What we mean by soul is not a matter we will resolve ---or even if we have one. But what Kalidasa asks us to do is something we can agree is wholly human, and that invites us all.

Look with yourself and with all your effort and grace bring all of yourself along with you. Do just go with how you feel, don’t just think it all through, don’t distrust everything or believe everything because that’s not enough, that’s not what he’s asking from us. He’s asking us to include everything we can about ourselves as we choose, so that we can choose. And in the end, it’ll be in the moments, sometimes when we least expect it, when we’ll have to act that the work of this complex, often unsettling and formidable task of soul-listening will make all the difference.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tests of Character and the Social Contract Comey as Janaka in the Age of Trump

The Tests of Character and the Social Contract
Comey as Janaka in the Age of Trump

The issue before is the test of character. It was not merely the test of two different persons but of the meaning of character. Because there is so much substance to the issues---collusion with an enemy of democracy and an indifference to the fabric of the republic, the separation of powers and respect for the institutions of government--- we can substitute their gravity for a lesson just as important.

What we learned is that American democracy is in jeopardy because the President's self-interest, venality, and incapacity for the truth is beyond any doubt. The person sworn to uphold the law _and_ represent our national character in symbolic and parliamentary roles is more than tragically under prepared and unfit: he is pathologically incapable of the truth and has utter disdain for foundational principles within healthy relationships.

We usually don't think much about the "social contract." It's too abstract and, in America, we try to act _as if_ it supports our everyday worlds. We make provision for real dissent by demanding that liberty's expressions retain some modicum of order. Freedom of assembly isn't supposed to devolve to riot, freedom of speech protects public discourse, and freedom of religion secures conscience. It isn't truth that grounds us, it is the trust we have in collective character. And that too is under siege. This is as much why we feel so unsettled.

Character is not an abstraction. We see it when we experience consistency, resilience, and enduring principles. There is the sense of fairness, the willingness to admit differences, and foster change through process. Like Comey, character can also seem self-righteous and too secure in institutional structures, but we humans fail at everything without community standards implicit and sustained by our "contracts." How easily we will degenerate to "the war of all against all" is why we have laws at all. We are creatures of propositions and needs that must make our inventions, imaginations, and conventions _real_ enough to "hold the world together."

The Bhagavadgita makes this insistence on character a vital starting point for every choice. Character does not finish the job but without it we cannot even begin. Krishna says to Arjuna, "For it was acting without selfish purpose that [King] Janaka and others achieved success, so you too must act acting only to hold the world together." (2.20)

It is in violation of this principle of individual responsibility coupled to social purpose that we are re-traumatized daily in the person of Trump. Somedays are more like a psychotic break, others normalize the horror. But the Comey hearing pointed out more than our national political divide--- it revealed how people with purpose deal with truth and its relationship to character. To be individually responsible requires trust in the greater goodness to which we aspire.

Speaker Ryan deflected Trump's pathology by calling him a political naif. Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee provided cover, the kind meant to suggest that there is no illness, nothing more unusual here than politics. Their mention of Secretary Clinton as frequently as they could was more than talking points for Breitbart and Fox. It was a symptom of their willingness to condone Trump's pathology because they have more and bigger fish to fry, above all their own maintenance of power.

When we witness character itself so flagrantly abused, sane people are forced to assess their needs. We have to try to retain our own decorum as we are being traumatized. That was what we saw in the stolid matter of factness that appeared on Comey's face.

This wasn't merely about Comey being in the right or representing institutions of legal principle, it was meant to offer a _comparison_ of character. There was Comey, under threat of perjury, telling us about a President so bereft of character, so pathological in his agendas of self-interest, that we must make this a test of character.

The take away had little to do with Comey vs. Trump's believability but rather how we all make our case for decency when character is so plainly revealed. Republicans took a page from Trump: we must not doubt their priorities of self-interest.

It is obvious that the real failure had less to do with Trump than with the state of the nation's character. We, the majority, _know_ who he is. Our more tragic failure to see the Republicans excusing his inexcusable pathology of character. Worse than that is the fact that some 62 million Americans failed the test to recognize such tragic, dangerous absence of character and voted for Trump.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Yoga Conflates and History Conceals

What Does it Mean to Mean Something?

The conflation of the word "yoga" is its very history. The word is defined by associations and claims, by _usage_ rather than specific common actions. What "yoga" means in Indian sources, in Sanskrit and any other language, is so varied, complex, and nuanced that we should understand all of the phenomena to which "yoga" _might_ refer have no normative guidelines, no simple definitions. Yoga means what any author in those sources say it means and no two ever completely agree. You are in effect no different when you use the word "yoga." There is no "real" yoga in any empirical sense but to discover meanings in the _use_ of the word by those who use it. The history of yoga is the history of the appropriation of the word and all words appear in cultures. So deciding its meaning is itself to appropriate from within cultures: words don't belong to cultures, they are used in them to mean what people think they mean.

The same must be said of "tantra" or even "kundalini" or other vocabulary that inhabits the language-worlds of "yoga"---pick nearly any word that was once used in other languages and now is an ersatz-english word. Did you know that "nirvana" is in English dictionaries? What it means in English is difficult enough to fathom, how much more so in Sanskrit where its definitions are formed in entirely different worlds of meaning. The transference of the vocabulary in complex histories of use and into differing linguistic and cultural settings is what we are _really_ studying. We're not studying "yoga" as such, we're studying what we _think_ people mean when they say the word.

I'd contend that something like modern postural yoga (MPY) is what is meant by "yoga" now in America in the meme-sense, in the sense of a broader identification. It's what I call the Aisle 11a argument. (Aisle 11a is where you find YOGA next to CANDLES and OUTDOOR GOODS at our local supermarket.) Yoga is sold there next to other stuff that smells, some organic fiber clothes, and right next to various kinds of bottled water that purport to be good for you. Yoga is _by association_ being defined as well. My point is that the argument over how the word is used in our common parlance is largely over and I am not here to dispute that. We are studying associations and uses and, for the most part, when we say "yoga" in America it refers postures. There is no "real" yoga anymore than there is a false use of any word.

How one is led to make associations with words is the issue but there is no misleading, there can be no this is _it_. I mean, think about it, how did Pringles make it into the potato chip aisle? Are they _really_ potato chips?

How teachers of yoga conflate meanings is the new yoga. What's "spiritual" about it? What's primarily exercise?
What yoga was is all mixed up with what yoga is nowadays and that is not easy to sort out. When yoga is religion ---and it is indeed that by any traditional empirical account--- it is liable to the same hucksterism, abuse, and snake oil as any religion. As for "yoga ethics" I think we can be clear about one thing: there are no special ethical rules for yoga teachers who teach modern postural yoga except those that would apply to anyone who touches someone else. When we are conflating with religion or even "spirituality," then you must beware the usuals of all religious power plays, and don't put yourself where you're not invited, using every ounce of your awareness and care. Err on the side of less. Yoga is now _yours_ to define and what you decide it includes or is about, what you decide it means is not some new age appropriation. The history of "yoga" shows us that the meaning of yoga has _always_ been the history of the word and its applications. To define yoga is to do yoga: apply yourself to meaning and you will define what you mean.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Trust in a World That Tests Values

Trust in a World That Tests Values
London, Kabul, and Wherever You Are


What holds us together is our credibility. To be credible is to have heart, to take matters to heart, and there to test them in the crucible of experience, in time and trial, in character and value. Testing is trusting. We might call that another test of our character. If you are trusting without tests of character is that credible?

The word "credibility" itself tells us as much, look for cognates in "courage," the French "la coeur," in the deeper meaning of "creed," and then all the way to the Sanskrit word shraddha, too often (mis-)translated "faith." Shraddha doesn't mean "faith" that bypasses our _most critical_ awareness, it doesn't mean "believe me." It means "test me." Shraddha means the trust we put in those persons and values that have earned our confidence, won our deepest sense of fidelity. No one is beyond criticism, none without foibles or faults. But one of life's true tests is to assay words, actions, and histories, to take the tests of trust seriously. Mencken once wrote, "For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together."

While our country faces these tests in ways most of us truly cannot fathom, such matters will surely appear in your own life. One hopes most days pass with bluer skies and gentler breezes but when the storm rages, shake your fist and look inside, look to your heart and your head. Look to history and time and take their measure. Then look beside you and see who is there. If you repeat the inane meme "not to judge" you abdicate your power to draw upon the test of your heart, the power of your reason, your human ability to choose your company.

I have a few friends, maybe far more than I realize, who would leap with me into the fray as if every day were the Battle of the Somme. I hope you do too. When that whistle blows, go with them not only because you trust them. Go because they trust you. One of the most important things in life to realize the value we have to each other: you have earned that place beside each other, you're inside their hearts and they are in yours, and the company we keep makes all the difference.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Liberation and the Values of an Education

Higher education in America is prohibitively expensive if what you want is an education. That's because it will require more than the skills you need to be employable. To be educated is not merely to be skilled or employable. Bees, ants, even planaria can _learn_ but I'm as sure as human can be that they can't be educated. To be educated is to learn how to think, not what to think. It's no small task. I'll take this a step too far too: to be educated is, dare I say? My religion. That's because the only salvation, the only liberation I can admit myself to being real is learning _how_ to learn.

Every what needs a so what, but none of that matters unless we can think with thinking. That's more than learning. (I'll also claim fellowship with Van Zandt and the Boss that rock n' roll is my other religion but that's another essay. And, yes, you can have more than one religion. ) All the rest of "religions" are to be learned from and to be learned about, but take note of how rarely they educate us in learning how _to learn_.

What we learn is not unimportant. How we learn changes _everything_. Yesterday I was trying to explain to a perfectly lovely soul that his son, who wants to be an engineer and is working as a carpenter, might also want to be an English or a History major or study religions or poetry or storytelling because _education_ adds to _life_. More importantly, that learning how to learn in these subjects is practically different from analytical sciences. We have to become more willing to suffer ambiguity and like it. We have to like confusion as a vital feature of learning. That imagination is not unreality. Well, you get the point. But much is the same no matter what we learn:
(1) ask every, any question, even the ones, especially the ones that make you deeply uncomfortable;
(2) follow the road, the evidence wherever takes you, and be prepared not to be applauded for changing your mind;
(3) and always look for the black swan. (Check the Rajanaka Sammelana and Contrariety blogspots for plenty more about this.) These are all familiar bits from me. Are you still awake?

Here's today's point: yesterday's case for education was downright impossible and proved impenetrable, utterly. Everything had to be reduced to utility. "What are you going to do with that?" This wasn't the issue so much as, _everything_ must have utility and translate into skills for commerce. I thought to myself, is this a feature of unadulterated American pragmatism? Must education always be useful because it translates into commerce, into things? But what's practical and useful is in fact not the same as what's sellable. We might need education to be human enough to share a world in which commerce, use, and ends will destroy if we don't imagine more. But if we never learn to think it becomes tough to imagine what more an education offers--- because unless we are taught to think all we can do is learn.

Belief in A Shared Humanity, a Parenthetical Response.

Belief in A Shared Humanity, a Parenthetical Response.
Our Sunday Sermon (Apologies for the Preachy), Part I
(Because Part II Remains Unfinished)

With whom do we stand when we stand together? This is far more than a political question. It tests the very meaning of civilization. Global warming, terrorism, the relentless stress on our shared human fabric are all at work, no one can deny. The news from abroad is terrifying and sad, much like it is at home. We must admit that there are those who just want to see the world burn. Whether they are terrorists killing innocents or elected and appointed government happy to isolate us from the facts of climate change. We are victims of others' beliefs and too often of our own. But without belief in a shared humanity can we be human? On this we must disagree too.

At the heart of a shared humanity is something far more deeply interfused: it is how we must each decide to the limits of our abilities, how we to _choose_ to be human. Whatever choices are made for us--- by history, by circumstance of culture and upbringing--- those are also in play. And on all such matters it should be plain that all of us will not agree. We are creatures of difference; that is our shared lot. Without our differences everything is lost. Living with our differences is a challenge we must learn to love.

Choice is a restriction we place on opportunities we consider truly possible. We are only as free as we are willing to acknowledge meaningful boundaries and their changeability. I was recently at a "yoga gathering," a roomful of progressive, thoughtful people where the speaker said, "the objective scientific view is USELESS here." I object to this proposition with every ounce of my being. It is, in a word, nonsense. We cannot, we must not throw away truth to find "truth." I also realized that some in that room needed, really needed to believe. This is the question that then stormed inside me: is their belief a positive detriment to our shared welfare? I found their assent to this proposition of rejection terribly frightening but another important part of our story of belief.

People believe because it's so damn difficult to deal with the more complex tasks of coping with our always unfinished, oh so human knowledge. But however we negotiate truth because it is a construct of minds and interpretations, we must not reject what we can know for mere personal opinion. That is to resort to ideology, dogma, and alternative facts. The elements on our humanly constructed periodic table don't depend on us to be real. Belief will not set us free when it claims truth has no boundaries. Not in the name of mysticism, much less for profit, a global 21st century civilization needs resilient facts engaged in honest discourse. I believe in a "spirituality" that includes all of what we can call "facts" because those are not mere beliefs.

Not every kind of human endeavor of real value is objective enough to be deemed science. My point here is not to be reductive. What we learn from myth and metaphor, poetry, art, and deep contemplations of the heart is of inestimable human value. No one could love exploring those worlds more than I do. I've made it my living to study them. I hope you do as well. Well, at least study them. We can share in these matters too knowing that we need _not agree_ to find something purposeful, meaningful, and helpful to one another. What are we in this life for? Is it just to believe what we want or is there _more_ than that to share?

Our democracy was not created for unity but to secure human rights, and foremost among them our rights to dissent. These are complex and demand our engagement. To take them for granted, to abdicate the discourse is to believe that your belief will suffice. To realize there is more at stake, that learning is unfinished business and human purpose a creative enterprise makes us a messy lot. We don't have to agree with those with whom we disagree, we don't have to unite, and we don't have to ever believe we will. Such disagreement is a shared principle of freedom. It also means we will have irreconcilable differences. The issue at hand is not resolution or unity, both of which will stifle our pursuit of truth, but how we choose to live with our pursuits.

We live together not to unite but to share. Sometimes that means "coming together" and sometimes it's far better to admit that good fences make good neighbors. Fences, not walls. Open hearts and minds, not dogma, censorship, or tyranny. When does your belief help others or, at the very least, not cause a positive disadvantage to others? Frame more worthwhile questions because belief is not the same as the pursuit of truth.