Tuesday, July 31. 2007
So, for the first time in nearly a decade, I took a real vacation: leave home, go someplace far away, and have no contact with the rest of my ordinary life. How did that work out?
Monday, July 30. 2007
I read the seventh and final Harry Potter book while on vacation. Since I made some predictions (and Kenny joined in) I should evaluate how well I did. (Remember that I had mentioned that Augie Turak had always valued the ability to predict human behavior . . . part of that formula depends on keeping careful score on how well your predictions turn out, so you can continually recalibrate your understanding.)
So, I'll keep my spoiler-laden discussion under the extended body, so those who haven't read the book yet don't have any suprises spoiled. But here's my spoiler-free comments:
OK, now on to the spoiler-laden good stuff . . .
Continue reading "Hallows Scorecard"
Saturday, July 21. 2007
I fly out for Colorado this afternoon. For the first time in eight years, I'm actually going somewhere for a vacation. For the first time in my life, I'm leaving my computer and all vestiges of work behind and actually concentrating on enjoying myself. I committed to doing this at the beginning of the year, when I realized that my workaholism was unmanageable. So, what could possibly be spiritual about taking a week off?
Let's see what happens. Back in a week.
Friday, July 20. 2007
The final Harry Potter book will be released at midnight tonight. So this is my last chance to make any predictions. I know, I know . . . I am duplicating the efforts of millions of other bloggers, and what would make this remotely spiritual, anyway? Augie Turak always encouraged both his spiritual students and his salesmen to make predictions of all kinds. He considered spiritual seekers to be primarily students of human nature, and best way to test one's understanding of human nature was to make predictions about howÂ human beings will behave. One of the most common phrases in the RGI sales pit was: "Bet you a quarter that . . . " Also, it's a common game among writers to watch half a TV show or read half a book and then make predictions about how the plot will proceed. It flexes your narrative muscles and teaches you how stories are structured. (Mostly it gives you an appreciation of how difficult it is structure a plot that is both unexpected and yet completely satisfying.) And on top of all that, I'm leaving for a weeklong vacation tomorrow and am in a self-indulgent mood. (And no, I did not schedule my vacation to coincident with the book's release. I swear to God.)
So . . . predictions for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows (mega-spoilers if I'm right):
Thursday, July 19. 2007
I started listening, once more, to "Even the Sun Will Die", an audio interview with Eckard Tolle. (An eternity ago I had accepted the CD from a friend on the condition that I write a review, and I have to make good on the deal.) I love listening to Eckard Tolle; he has a gentle matter-of-factness in his voice, a tone of reassurance and acceptance that allows him to say the starkest of truths without it being disturbing. Tolle can, for instance, say: "In a little while, maybe few years, maybe sixty years, it doesn't really matter, you'll be dead." Yet, just from the tone of his voice, you get the sense that he's right: it really doesn't matter how long, and even being dead is not cause to be disturbed. It's that imperturbability that makes him so compelling; you can't help but feel like this guy knows something that is unshakable.
Reviewing TolleÂ has beenÂ difficult for me, though, because his teaching slides so smoothly off his tongue, and grooves so completely into a lot of stuff that I've heard before, that it almost completely bypasses my brain. I keep jolting up, realizing I've been listening for twenty minutes and I couldn't quite remember what he's been talking about. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, since most of what Tolle is teaching is paying attention to the "spaciousness of Being" and not getting attached to the content of one's mind.
Not to imply that Tolle is just another breezy voice on a meditation tape, soothing the mind into thoughtless repose. Tolle has a consistent philosophy, rather indistiguishable from Vendata-style non-duality. He speaks it sensibly and well. It's just that Tolle is pointing to something quite outside of thought, which doesn't give the mind much to do. Thoughts just spin around, punching at empty space.
Wednesday, July 18. 2007
Ok, ok . . . I would agree that the Harry Potter books are not on a par with Narnia or Middle Earth when it comes to spiritual content. But since I threw my hat into the ring yesterday to defend Harry against charges of godlessness, let's look at what is spiritual about the series (warning: spoilers follow):
Tuesday, July 17. 2007
Time Magazine put out a commentary on Harry Potter ["The Doubting Harry: Why we love world where dragons are real and religion is the fantasy", by Lev Grossman, July 23, 2007] of such startling lameness that I couldn't let it pass. Not thatÂ Harry Potter needs defending -- I'm sure millions of loyal fans are blasting Mr. Grossman as I write this. But logic, common sense and some decent thinking about religion can always stand to have another voice in their defense.
Grossman opens with mean dig at J. K. Rowling, saying that her middle initial is an "empty invention." You don't mean to tell me that people use pseudonyms in works of art? Next you'll tell me that John Wayne's name isn't really John Wayne, that Charlton Heston's name isn't Charlton Heston, or . . . oh. Wait minute. Never mind. Is that the worst mud you can find to smudge Rowling's name, that it has an extra letter in it, Mr. Grossman? If that is indeed your real name? Such pettiness.
Next Grossman goes on to cite how previous fantasy greats like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia were infused with religious thought, while the Harry Potter series is godless. Ummm . . . did you actually read any of those books, Mr. Grossman? Because if you did, you would note that God is not explicitly mentioned in any of them. The elves did not pray, the hobbits did not invoke the name of the deity, and the Talking Animals did not preach the gospel. What exactly did they have in them that made them so laudable, while Harry Potter was so profane?
Oh, they're allegories for the spiritual, you say. Ahh. Yes. I see. So you're saying that something can have a spiritual or religious message without explicitly talking about religion? Ok. I can see that. Hmmm. Ya know, those Harry Potter books have a lot of good versus evil, with the evil guy trying to preserve his life through artificial means, while others accept death and find some kind of afterlife . . . and the whole storyline is about this guy who may need to sacrifice his life in order to save the whole world. You don't suppose that Harry Potter could be an allegory for . . . no? You're sure? Gee, Mr. Grossman, you seem upset that I would even suggest such a thing.
While we're on the subject . . . are you saying that every piece of art needs to have an explicitly religious message in order not to be considered ungodly? Because, last I checked, no one is asking, "Where's God?" when they watch Sesame Street . . . or Teletubbies, or the Rugrats, or American Idol, or Die Hard, or The Transformers, or 99.9% of every other form of popular entertainment in America today. Are you saying that Big Bird is an atheist?
Grossman concludes the commentary by snidely suggesting that, because the Harry Potter universe doesn't have religion, Harry will have to face death without the comforts of an afterlife. Yup, Harry's going to rot in the ground and descend into oblivion, because he didn't have Jeeeesus in his heart. Really, Mr. Grossman: how mean. Your tactics are on a par with the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers of days gone by.
What torques off Grossman and many others in traditional religion is not that Harry Potter is without religious or spiritual messages. It's that someone else's mythology is more compelling than their own. But that's hardly a new problem. I remember thinking, after reading the Narnia books in my youth, "Gee, I wish Jesus was even half as interesting as Aslan."
Monday, July 16. 2007
In 1999, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko published The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy. Their discovery: all our typical preconceived notions of millionaires were wrong. You might imagine that a millionaire drives a luxury imported car, wears expensive suits and watches, lives in an enormous house, and works in glamorous field (if he works at all). But the bulk of the real millionaires do nothing of the kind. They drive the same car for ten years, wear ordinary clothes, have boring businesses, and live next door to you. The rise of the "mass-affluent" had snuck up on us, culturally, and the millionaires themselves were a quiet, inconspicuous lot. It turns out that our image of millionaires was more appropriate for billionaires -- and even they are trying to tone things down, as shown by the rise of the "yawn": "young and wealthy but normal" people like Bill Gates. The lesson to take from all this, if there is a lesson at all, is that reasonably high wealth is not all that unattainable, nor does it look much different from garden-variety thrift and diligence.
Which is why I think my first book should be entitled The Spiritual Seeker Next Door. Our culture's image of spiritual seekers is about as skewed as its view of wealth. People assume that in order for someone to make spiritual life their number one priority, they need to put on some robes, live in a different place, eat completely different food, follow a completely different schedule, and basically lead a life that would be unrecognizable to the average suburbanite. (Or, if you're Christian: quit your job, go to seminary, go overseas as a missionary, etc. etc.) While those descriptions do apply to some people living at the extreme edge, it is equally possible that many more are living out their spiritual priorities in a very ordinary-looking context. Perhaps they are deliberately underemployed, working unassuming day jobs while pursuing their real vocations in the off-hours (something The Onion did a pretty good job of portraying). Or they build "lifestyle" businesses around their pursuits, using the freedom and flexibility of self-employment to accommodate their interior life.
Convincing people of the relative ordinariness of spiritual life is important because, as Augie Turak puts it, "we rationalize that those who do accept the challenges inherent in self-transcendence are uniquely gifted and specially graced." A spiritual life is radically different . . . but not in the ways you might expect. And certainly not so different that you couldn't undertake it, no matter what your current circumstances. Many more people would accept the challenge if they really saw how possible it was for them . . . and that others, perhaps right next door, were already doing it.
Saturday, July 14. 2007
My thanks to all who wrote to me (on and off the blog) to express their support when I reported an emotional blowout. I did "get help" -- I talked to the people closest to me. My wife, my spiritual teacher, and one of my closest friends all had the same advice: slow down, listen to what this experience has to tell you, and then do something about it. I did, out of morbid curiosity, google up "depression symptoms," which of courseÂ brought up twenty different sites that thought what I really neededÂ was a pill, and none of which advised talking to anybody other than someone who could give me a pill. The medical community shares my prejudice against emotions: if the emotions don't make sense, and you don't like how they feel, then let's just get rid of them, shall we?
I've always been slightly disconnected from my emotions, or at least from the expression of them. I went through a phase in my pre-teen years when I was extremely sensitive and would fall apart in frustrated tears at the drop of a hat. I despised being at the mercy of such outbursts, and trying to tell people, "No, really, I'm ok, this just happens sometimes" while I'm blubbering on the floor.Â When I finally stopped happening (God knows why) I was relieved, and decided that stoic reserve was infinitely preferable to unbridled emotion.
You can't sideline emotion, though, especially when it comes to philosophy. Christian theology puts "love" smack in the middle of everything, and that sounds an awful lot like emotion. I spent the early part of my spiritual search trying unconsciously to write "love" and other such messy emotional stuff out of the spiritual script. I latched onto writers like M. Scott Peck, who could conveniently redefine love into something more tangible and practical ("love is work"), or onto certain mystical traditions that sought "Truth." Ahh, hard, bright, clear Truth . . . nothing squishy there. Nothing unpredictable.
Nietzsche would call that an "Apollonian" position: glorifying the rational and the transcendent, and condemning everything fallible and fleshy. He detested that sort of hairshirt Christianity, mortifying the flesh, because while the Apollonian ideal has lots of control and clarity, it lacks energy. Rationality can direct, but it can't act.Â It has no ooomph, as Augie Turak would say.Â The ancients were well aware thatÂ emotion was the language of action. Jay Heinrichs tells us that when cool rational Cicero spoke, people said, "What a great speech," but when the firebrand Demosthenes spoke, people said, "Let's march!"
Instead, Nietzsche proposed a "Dionysian" ideal, in which the dynamic energy of the passions is guided and transmuted by the rational and transcendent. Emotions are not to be supressed or repressed, but recognized as the fuel for all creative action. Steven Pinker and other cognitive scientists would probably approve -- mind, body, emotions are all part of the same computational organ to them.
None of this tells me anything more about what my emotions are up to . . . it just makes it a little easier, philosophically, to allow my subconscious to have some veto power in my life.
Friday, July 13. 2007
I didn't write the past two days. Wednesday I didn't really have a good excuse -- I went to Charlotte for the day on business, which makes for a really long day, but I fully expected to post in the evening. But I couldn't.
Then Thursday, I was tired and unmotivated. First rule of mental health: "Depression is almost indistinguishable from lack of sleep." I slept a little later, gave myself some extra time to exercise and get myself together. But I sat back at the desk at 9 am, and I still couldn't do anything. The phone rang, and as long as I was reacting to something I seemed to be functioning normally. But I couldn't seem to initiate anything. I tried sleeping. I tried drinking coffee. I took a walk. Then it deepened into physical pain, headache, breaking down crying.
Yeah, sounds like depression.
All through this my rational mind sat on the sidelines, clinically interested and mildly exhasperated. "Jeez, this guy is falling apart. Pull yourself together, nothing's really wrong." I went through some very similar episodes when Father Francis Kline died, so I suspected this was another instance of my subconscious bushwhacking my body. This is the price that I pay for being emotionally reserved and stoic -- my negativity builds up and explodes in embarrassingly irrational ways. I know that this will pass.
The question is: what the hell is going on?
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