Thursday, May 31. 2007
Most biographies are factual examinations of the past: what someone actually did in their lifetime. But if you want to know what someone's experience of life was like, it would be just the opposite: what they thought their future life would be like, and how that vision changed over time.
So, for instance, my biography-of-the-future might read like this:
What can we conclude from such a biography?
Wednesday, May 30. 2007
This weekend the Self Knowledge Symposium will be going as a group to see Into Great Silence, a documentary of Carthusian monks. I would say, "a documentary about Carthusian monks," except that this is not a film about anything -- the objective knowledge is not the point. Instead the movie invites the viewer to directly experience the stillness of the cloistered. This is, as one reviewer put it, "film as meditation," so come come prepared for a meditative experience.
Popular spiritual publications like Yoga Journal or BeliefNet.com pump out a cliched headline, as regularly as women's magazines put out diet tips: "Slow Down". A truism among spiritual-minded maintains that our modern lifestyle is too fast, too frenzied, too distracted to allow for a deep, contemplative state of mind to emerge and have any staying power. And yet . . . I'm lookin' around, and I don't see very many people slowing down, or even really trying that hard to slow down. Even me. Why is that?
Being busy is an ego trip. Everyone I know, even the slackest of the slackers, insists that, "Man, am I busy. I'm just slammed right now." It's a way of demonstrating one's importance. "I've got a lot going on right now." Having a multitude of roles and activities competing for one's attention makes life seem full . . . the temporal equivalent of materialism. We might complain that we don't like being so busy, but we continue to set ourselves up for it . . . perhaps because we're afraid of what life would be like without it.
Not only do we not dislike our busy pace as much as we claim, we also don't relish simplicity as much as we might claim. With all distractions removed, the mind rebels, desperate to wrap itself around something. Spiritual retreats, rather than being placid floats through paradise, are excruciatingly intense encounters with one's one mind. Augie Turak's greatest success in his writing about Mepkin Abbey is clearly communicating that spiritual life is not merely quietude, but an intensity born of single-minded focus.
Tuesday, May 29. 2007
My wife commented the other day, "Gee, I read your blog [about not knowing the purpose of my life] . . . it must be depressing to spend so much time in spiritual work and still not have an answer."
Actually . . . not really.
The goal of spiritual life is to see things as they really are . . . and sometimes the truth is, "I don't know." Zen teacher Albert Low, in his book The Butterfly's Dream, went so far as to say that the essential truth of the human condition is "I don't know," and that awakening to that "I don't know" was the door to a perfect unconditioned state beyond all form. Augie Turak's teacher Richard Rose once said, "Your task is to remain undefined, except to define yourself as the person seeking definition." In the sense of "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao," if I knew for certain the full purpose of my life, I would almost certainly be wrong.
It takes some very alive and subtle thinking to be able to tolerate ambiguity. When I was a scientist, I once worked for a professor who was always in a hurry to get the meaning of things. Every time I showed her the results of an experiment, she would say, "So what does it mean?" And she literally would not walk away from the conversation without declaring what the results meant. And, as a result, everyone in the lab learned an important lesson: hide your results from the boss, at least until you had enough data to form a conclusion you could live with. Otherwise, there was a high likelihood of getting sidetracked by a premature (and incorrect) conclusion.
When I was in a math class at the NC School of Science and Mathematics, one of the students, obviously frustrated, threw down her pencil on her desk and slumped in her chair. "What's the matter, Lake George?" asked Dr. Davis. (He had nicknames for everyone, and he called Laurie "Lake George" because she often wore a gray sweatshirt with "Lake George" embroidered on the front.) "I just don't get it. I'm just confused," she said. "So?" he answered. "Stay in the confusion. Don't stop working just because you don't know what's going on. All new understanding emerges from confusion. You've got to learn how to operate while confused, to work when you don't know."
Augie's role as a spiritual teacher is exactly like that. Many times you're just slumped in the chair, and he's saying, "Stay with the confusion. Keep going, keep working, keep looking. The Answer is there, but you have to stay with it."
Monday, May 28. 2007
Secular humanists are continually tempted to see virtue and civilization as a manifestation of enlightened self-interest. As the Avenue Q song goes: "When you help others, you can't help helping yourself." In this pro-social, non-violent view of the Cosmos, we give freely to help others, feeling good about it and reaping the rewards of reciprocity. Modern environmentalism is founded on this attitude: "Don't destroy the earth, because you're destroying your own home."
Memorial Day calls us to a very different moral view of the universe. This is a world where all is not sweetness and light, and not all conflicts are resolved by dialog and diplomacy. Conflicts are real, and real people are called upon to struggle and fight. And there is more than mere sharing . . . there is sacrifice.
Try, just for a moment, to release all your filters for overblown nationalistic rhetoric, and just try to grok the notion that someone, a real person, actually died so that you can live your life as you do now. Someone actually voluntarily gave up their future happiness, deprived their children of a parent, deprived their spouse of a mate, in order to make this cultural experiment possible. Pick anyone at random in your life: a coworker, a friend. Kenny Felder. Now imagine that person gone, blasted off the face of the planet, because they wanted you to have a life worth living. Just let the reality of that sacrifice sink in for a moment. Don't even bother trying to multiply it by a thousand, a million . . . your mind will not contain it. Just think about that one person who gave up everything for you.
Since the beginning of time, martyrdom has been recognized as a miraculous event. The cynical will see it as madness. Many will see it as misguided or stupid . . . which, oftentime, I suppose it is. (Suicide bombers provide a continual reminder that not everyone who dies willingly necessarily died for a good reason.) But sometimes it is a manifestation of genuine transcendence. Somebody literally loved something more than life itself. May we all love so much, to live, and perhaps to die, for something beyond ourselves.
Sunday, May 27. 2007
Time Magazine gave a "report card" to the "No Child Left Behind" education reform. Parts of the story they got perfectly right: states have continually dropped their standards to create the illusion of progress, and an enormous emphasis on basic reading and math skills is deforming the educational process, squeezing out other subjects and ignoring students at either end of the Bell curve.
And yet . . . how did Time manage to get through an entire seven page article without ever talking about what was causing the schools to fail in the first place? Not once in seven pages could they screw up the courage to talk about suspected (but still hotly debated) causes of low performance in inner-city schools: black culture that undervalued education, low involvement of parents, diminished expectations due to continuous poverty (perhaps caused in part by racial discrimination), more single-parent homes, less unstructured play, more television watching, and (God forbid we should say it) poor quality of teachers. At least the New York Review of Books could talk about these issues, addressing important factors without rushing to find single causes or single solutions to the problem.
I suspect, more than anything, that discussing such factors would make their recommendations less compelling. Every single recommendation that Time makes -- remove punitive measures, create national standards, don't do drastic overhauls of schools, provide more funding for teachers -- are practically identical to the talking points from the teachers unions. Hmmm . . . is this really an unbiased evaluation?
I should hope that it's clear that more money is not the answer . . . at least, not pouring more money into the current system. While those defending the education status-quo have sliced and diced assertions that we spend more money than any other industrialized nation on education, there are numerous internal examples of how some schools get vastly improved performance without spending more money. (See the NYRB article for descriptions of the KIPP Academies.) Some complain that the strategies of such schools "cannot be widely reproduced." That may be true . . . in the current culture and the current system.But who said we have to keep the current system? Oh . . . yeah . . . the unions.
Saturday, May 26. 2007
Last night all the parents of rising first-graders gathered at the school to meet The New Teacher. In the Waldorf pedagogy, a teacher starts with a first-grade class, and then remains the teacher of those students for the rest of their time in the lower school, through the eighth grade. In terms of having a teacher intimately familiar with his students, it's a very useful arrangement; everyone is spared the awkwardness of readjusting to each other from year to year, and so they can stay focused on the curriculum with a minimum of disruption over time. It also means that you've got a lot riding on one person in your child's education. So, when the parents are gathered together to meet The New Teacher for the first time, it's rather like an arranged marriage: "Hi there, we're going to be a major part of each others' lives for the better part of a decade."
It would be gauche to "review" the guy in a blog, so I won't get into details, but suffice it to say that I'm pleased and think he's going to work out fine. I will share a few things that struck me:
Friday, May 25. 2007
When I wrote yesterday about judging one's life, I was coming at the whole question from a teleological perspective: that is, I was evaluating a whole life from the perspective of where you end up. It's the final end, or teleos, that matters, and everything else is judged by how it gets you there. From a traditional Christian perspective, that approach makes perfect sense: we are preparing for a final Judgement Day, and how things play out on that last day is supposed to have eternal consequences.
That is not, however, the only way to go about thinking about meaning. You could start evaluating meaning at the other end of time: the present moment. A rich tradition of mystics across ancient and modern traditions would assert that past and future are only projections of the mind, and that only the present moment has reality. In the context of that theology, the question of the meaning of one's life becomes very different. Instead of saying, "What's the goal? Where I'm I going?" the question changes to: "This is it. All I have and all I ever will have is right now. So . . . how do I feel about right now? Is this the life that I want? Am I the kind of person I want to be?" And, if you feel like your life ought to be different, you change it . . . right now.
This flip in meaning evaluation -- from "The End" to "The Present" -- was brilliantly captured in my very favorite episodes of Angel ("Reprise" and "Epiphany", Season Two). Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul, struggled for centuries to enough good to redeem himself of all the evil his vampire-self has caused. A sense of redemption continually eludes him, though. When a "senior partner" from the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart visits from the "home office," Angel seizes the opportunity to go through the demon's portal. Clearly he wants to make a suicide run at the source of all evil, to use himself up completely in his fight against wickedness. But when he arrives at the "home office," he finds that he's . . . back home in Los Angeles. Evil, it turns out, is in the hearts of humanity, and no permanent victory is possible. In describing his "epiphany," Angel later says, in effect, "If there is no final victory, no end, then all that matters is the good that you do right now. And that good, no matter how small, is the most important thing in the universe."
Whether you accept the non-teleological theology or not, focusing on the present moment has a lot going for it. Rather than making grand speculations about the end of life and the end of time, the present moment has an existential simplicity that cuts through endless rationalization. You don't have to posit the meaning of capital-L Life to be able to discern what's better or worse in the present moment. Richard Rose called it "backing away from untruth" -- rather than presuming to know what the truth will ultimately look like and setting out to find it, we start where we're at and reject the less-true in favor of the more-true. Even if you believe in ultimate truth and ultimate ends, the best way to get there might be to pay attention to what's right in front of you.
Thursday, May 24. 2007
I've been chewing on an existential question for the last few months, and have not made any serious headway on it. I'm not even sure it's a legitimate question, but it keeps popping up in my contemplations. The line of thinking goes something like this:
There are a couple ways to answer #3. The classic theistic response is surrender to a higher power: "I'll do whatever God wants me to do." That's a whole new can of worms, with lots of underlying assumptions to root out:
So . . . if you decide that there is no judging God in heaven (either because there is no personified God to begin with, or because He's just not the judging type), how then will you formulate your life mission? Now you are thrown back on your own resources to answer the question. And that's a mess to sort out as well:
Comments are welcome. I haven't completely finished all the different lines of thought I have on this, but this is the basic shape.
Wednesday, May 23. 2007
Kenny makes a good point about democratic systems of government: only a minority of people are really qualified to participate. Or, as the Onion put it in a recent headline: "38 percent of people not actually entitled to their opinion." And I, like Kenny, put myself in the category of the unqualified, at least for the vast majority of local elections and many national issues as well.
Unfortunately, it's very easy to go from that insight straight on to the sort of snooty, the-intellectual-elite-know-best kind of attitude that Al Gore and many New England-educated blueblood blue-state progressives evince. Underneath Gore's plea for a more reasoned government, I hear an intellectual's arrogant frustration: "Fools! Everything would go so much better if you just acknowledged that I'm right."
The weird thing is, in spite of the seeming collective stupidity of so many people, massive amounts of useful information can be extracted from collective opinions. For instance, predictive markets that allow people to wager on the outcomes of elections are incredibly accurate at predicting the outcomes. And free financial markets have worked for decades on the assumption that the market as a whole is going to be smarter than any single individual. Markets are messy and they are often wrong, but they seem to be pretty good at handling all kinds of complex calculations. So maybe the same principles can be applied to political decisions, as well. Any one of us might be pretty stupid, but collectively we may manage to make reasonably good policy.
Tuesday, May 22. 2007
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Al Gore bemoans the diminishing role of reason in public discourse. "Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?" he intones seriously.
Ok, Al, if you just stopped at "reason playing little role in decision-making," I would have been right there with you. You're right: a population that spends most of it's free time watching American Idol is not likely to be a hotbed of intellectual debate. But the moment you say "sharply diminished," I just had to bust out laughing.
Sharply diminished from what? Perhaps you thought you and Bill and epitomized rule-by-policy-wonk -- government by the smart. Perhaps you flattered yourself by thinking that you shared the essential ingredient of success with Clinton, which was being really smart. But that's where reason has actually clouded your vision. You saw William Jefferson Clinton, voracious reader of white papers. We saw Slick Willy -- a creature of charisma, for whom intelligence was merely a tool for power and pleasure, and definitely not a being dedicated to "the truth."
No, we didn't have more rational policy and reasoned debate back then. There neverwas a Golden Age of civil debate, even if you go all the way back to ancient Athens. Read the newspapers of century ago; the invective was more furious, the slanders more vile, the demagogery more numb-skulled than even today. Even Jesus was sold out by the mob . . . so why should you be surprised, if things are no better now?
Nor has the populace at large changed that much, either, for all of our television sets. Television was merely quantitative -- not qualitative -- advancement in mind-numbing technology. Before television, we had booze, and cards, and dice, and burlesque shows, and many other methods of pleasantly stifling the activity of our neurons. You needn't lecture me on the evils of television -- believe me, Al, I'm with you on that one -- but don't for a moment presume that, if you took away their televisions and gave them all blogs, you would have a nation of philosopher kings.
And don't think I'm putting down the intellect, Al. I'm a nerd, too. I believe in brain-power. I want to believe that the geek will inherit the earth. But that is not human nature, Al. Go back and read your Hume: reason is the handmaid of emotion, and not the other way around. Or, as Augie Turak puts it in more modern language: "Intellect has no oomph." People might be persuaded by intellect, but they are not motivated by intellect. Motivation is a phenomena of the imagination, desires and emotions . . . and politics is ultimate game of mass-motivation. Do not be deceived by raw intelligence, or the lack thereof. Political power always belonged to those who were long on conviction and brief on their talking points. Reagan was the "three-by-five card President" . . . and Clinton was the stay-on-message candidate who forsook analysis for "It's the economy, stupid."
(Page 1 of 2, totaling 14 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog