Tuesday, August 28. 2007
This weekend some SKS members were out painting a Cube (a big free-standing sign in front of the student union), and as we stood there waiting for the first coat of paint to dry, a large group of fifty or more young women walked by. They were all wearing light summery dresses and open-toed shoes, all good-looking in a non-descript sort of way. They all filed into the student union, with an air of formality that would have been grim except for all that hair and exposed skin. I hadn't seen so much good looks headed for an obviously non-fun gathering since my days in the Baptist church. "Hmmm," I thought, "Well, it is Sunday . . . "
But then another troop of a hundred young women walked by. And another. And another. I felt alternately conspicuous and invisible, standing there in the heat in ratty painting clothes while so many composed-looking women walked by. I imagine the Hispanic laborers must feel this way. And then I realized: "Must be the sororities rushing."
I confess that I never really understood the Greeks. It sounds so good on paper: young men and women joined together in societies to develop leadership, scholarship, service to the community and each other . . . at its best, you would think it was "Dead Poets Society." Except that, weirdly enough, nobody really associates any of those qualities with the fraternities and sororites. I am not a knee-jerk Greek-basher. I would take all their self-descriptions of themselves at face value, were it not that nobody else took it seriously. I never knew a single person who said, "Boy, I really want to excel at my studies here . . . I know! I'll join a fraternity!" or "I really want to help the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged, which is why it's so important for me to pledge."
Of course there are obvious exceptions. Any fraternity or sorority that was "about" something -- music, religion, ethnic identity -- made perfect sense to me. You want to be a musician? Hang out with other musicians. But the "general" fraternities, the social organizations . . . what were they aspiring to be? I can't accept that it's just "get drunk, get high, get laid," because in the morning these people have to look in the mirror and feel good about themselves. There is some other need being met here.
I think the answer is: "normal." They want to be normal. Meaning: accepted. The Greek system, with its elaborate kabuki dance of rushing and pledging and initiation, is first and foremost geared to create a sense of belonging. Everyone wants to find themselves in good company, and as long as you are surrounded by good-looking, well-dressed and well-heeled people, you can feel fairly certain you are not alone in the universe. The Greek system is engaged in the most obvious and straightforward attempt to deal with existential anxiety. If it looks superficial, it's only because it's so universal. Which is why someone like me, who never drank or smoked or hooked up or even so much as attended a football game, can still feel self-conscious when the rushees march past.
Of course the rushees are not doing themselves any favors by plugging into ready-made social identities. The whole point of the college experience is to find out who you are, notÂ answer the questionÂ in the first two weeks of the first semester.Â Personally, I would hope for them that they burn through the comforts of society-for-society's-sake,Â and get hungry enough to look for greater fulfillment beyond. But I doubt it will happen. In fifteen years of the Self Knowledge Symposium on several different campuses, to my knowledge no Greek has ever actively participated. For better or worse, they seem to have found their answers.
Saturday, August 25. 2007
An article in this week's Time contemplates Mother Theresa's near-constant spiritual desolation, recently revealed in a book of her letters to confessors ["Her Agony", David Van Biema, September 3, 2007.]Â I had heard a number of years ago that Theresa had undergone long periods of unrelentingÂ dryness, but now that her postulator has made it all public [Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Doubleday, 2007] people will finally be talking about it seriously.
No doubt her experience will force many people of "simple" faith some cognitive dissonance. Saints are supposed to be blessed with a sense of God's presence, right? And yet Mother Teresa, whom millions looked to as an active manifestation of God's love, felt none of it herself. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God -- tender, personal love," she wrote. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.' "
So is it, as professional atheist Christopher Hitchens would have it, pure hypocrisy? Or is it a story of profound spiritual heroism -- perseverence to do tremendous works in spite of a loss of faith? Kolodiejchuk is betting that the world will believe the latter, since every believer has their periods of doubt. Anyone who saw Mother Teresa at work cannot help but believe that she was a saint. At least, her actions were the actions of a saint, and that is probably enough.
The challenge that this new vision of Mother Teresa presents is going to hit believers hard, but not in the way the atheists might anticipate. Their realization is not going to be, "Oh my God, maybe their isn't a God if Teresa was in doubt," but rather, "Oh my God, Teresa's goodness wasn't the result of divine inspiration . . . which means that God may expect saintly behavior of me." As Augie Turak points out, "we rationalize that those who do accept the challenges inherent in self-transcendence are uniquely gifted and specially graced." But the truth is that everyone is called to goodness, and that a life of goodness is as much a matter of will as inspiration.
The mystics in the house will find cold comfort in Teresa's life, as well. Those longing for direct communion with God often looked to Teresa's mission to "be God's hands" as a way to find God's love in the immanent world. If we loved the world the way God loves the world, the thinking goes, why then we might join directly with God himself. I have no doubt that all those who received Teresa's help did see something divine in her . . . but we were wrong to assume that she felt it, as well. God remains as mysterious as ever, and no simple formula exists for finding Him.
The "dark night" of the soul is a common aspect of the mystical experience. We often assume that the darknessÂ inevitably givesÂ way to light, that our questions will be answered and "all that was hidden will be revealed." But the resolution to theÂ "dark night" is not necessarily revelation. It is, first and foremost, surrender.Â The biggest challenge in surrendering to God is surrendering to the Unknown. It took Teresa decades to finally make peace with the darkness.
Friday, August 24. 2007
In journalism, the term "toe-touch" is means "to make a quick trip to a particular place, just so you can claim that location in the dateline of the published story." It's considered an unethical practice, since the dateline implies that the writer actually did the reporting in that location, when in fact they might have done all the reporting via internet.
I've seen the same toe-touching phenomena in blogging, where people make lame or irrelevant posts to their blogs just so they can keep up a high frequency of posting. You could think of the toe-touch as any action you take to comply with the letter of the law, even though it obviously contradicts the spirit.
When I started blogging, I decided that the most important thing was to write every day -- even if it sucked, it was more important to produce regularly than to get hung up on endless self-editing. But I also felt committed to not "toe-touching" the blog when I had nothing of value to add, because regular readers wouldn't give a fig about me living by the letter if the law if the writing sucked. I noticed that Adam Felber had some absolutely amazing posts, but the increasing frequency of his "I've-got-nothing-to-say-so-gee-whatever" posts drove me nuts.
But, here we are . . . my daily posting has slipped over the last two weeks, primarily because the start of school: the UNC Self Knowledge Symposium was starting up again, my son started school, and host of other inescapable demands on my time. So the question is: am I betterÂ off living by the letter of the law, maintaining the habit even if I have too little time to commit to the blog? Is a toe-touch better than nothing at all? Will God love you better for abiding by the letter?
Oddly enough . . . yes, toe touching is ok, at least in this context, because:
Too many of my disciplines of died strictly because I lost the habit. I once meditated every day for two hours a day for nine months running . . . but once I went a whole week without doing it, for some terribly good reason I can't remember now, I totally lost the practice. It may be fashionable in modern spiritual circles to focus on the spirit to the exclusion of the letter, since the foolishness of Pharisee-like adherence to rules is one of the dominant themes of the New Testament. But the letter of the law can still serve the spirit, so long as consciousness is maintained.
Monday, August 20. 2007
Psychologists have observed that learning is somewhat state-dependent: that is, if you learn something in a certain physical or mental condition, you will recall that learning better in that same state. If you always practice piano at the same time in the same place, just being in that place at that time will put you in the proper frame of mind to play. And, conversely, you'll have a harder time playing when you play at a radically different setting.
My writing, alas, is really state-dependant now. I find it easy to write at the beginning of the day, and torturous to write at night. I had cut out time in the morning to write because it was the least susceptible to disruption by my work schedule . . . but no time is completely safe from disruption. I was at UNC's FallFest last night and didn't get in until 1:30 am . . . which was a blast, but it's waaaay past my bedtime. And then I had to go to Winston-Salem in the morning to be with my mother-in-law for a doctor's appointment. All it takes is two back-to-back disruptions to smash out my writing time . . . and if you string enough of those together, a healthy habit is toast in no time.
I've always taken great pride in being flexible in my schedule, and willing to work long and hard . . . but I am continually rediscovering that "long and hard" is not nearly as efficient and "conscious and consistent."
Sunday, August 19. 2007
My momâ€™s neighbor, a fairly active participant and facilitator of various Native American / Wikkan / New Age rituals, was hosting a firewalk this weekend. I was kinda curious about it, but my wife and my mother were worried the kids would try to imitate it, and categorically vetoed the idea of going.
I got to thinking about my attitude toward a whole wide range of paranormal phenomena. For a lot of people, especially in the New Age and esoteric spirituality circles, interests in spirituality and paranormal phenomena tend to combine and blur together. If you believe in any kind of non-material reality â€“ even vague notions of spirit and God -- then you are theoretically open to the notion of paranormal phenomena, and if you believe that such non-material realities can be directly encountered and experienced, then you are even more inclined to chase after anything that smacks of other-worldliness.
Richard Rose was the same way. He was interested in finding absolute answers, but for a while that led him into spiritualism, trying to contact the dead or witness materializations of non-human beings. Rose had studied science, though, and had a pretty jaded notion of human beings, so he was always on the look-out for â€œhucksters.â€ His eventual conclusion: most claims to paranormal phenomena were frauds or delusions, and the very few that appeared to be genuine were not that helpful. While the individual might gain inspiration from realizing â€œthere is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy,â€ it doesnâ€™t teach you how to live, or how to die, or what is ultimately real.
My own attitude towards paranormal phenomena is pretty much the same. It appears to be a rare position, to believe that paranormal phenomena could be real but still be skeptical of most claims to paranormal experience. Most folks canâ€™t balance on that fence; either they are True Believers who readily and uncritically accept tales of paranormal stuff, or they are self-righteous Atheists who feel it their solemn duty to debunk any and every challenge to rationality. Ironically, both groups have the same strategy for dealing with cognitive dissonance. New Agers hate seeing phenomena debunked, because it casts doubt on all their varied beliefs; likewise, the materialists canâ€™t afford to let a single thing go unexplained, lest they doubt the absoluteness of their convictions.
I take much more peace in a quieter, less-militant form of skepticism. I donâ€™t feel like I am denying God his due if I donâ€™t immediately presume every happy coincidence is his direct doing. Nor does my faith in science topple if the world is occupied by spirits. My equanimity is entirely based on the realization that spiritual experience is not an experience at all, but rather a fundamental shift in one's point of reference. We don't need to see pillars of fire to know that God is real -- we just need to see the world and ourselves as it really is.
Saturday, August 18. 2007
For those who might be wondering, "what happened to the blog for the last few days?" I have a simple answer: it was eaten by a marketing challenge. I sat down Wednesday night to whack in a poster for August Turak's "What Is Spirituality?" lecture at UNC, and found myself submerged in the near-hopeless task of describing the indescribable.
In the movie A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean describes how his father, a stern Presbyterian minister, taught him to write. He would hand his essay to his father, who would read it and then simple say, "Good. Now, half as long." And he would come back with another rewrite, and his father would say again, "Good. Now, half as long." And again. And again. I always liked that scene, because it recognized that all the art and skill of writing was in using as few words as possible, to distill away every useless word and phrase until ever single piece of it is necessary and important. (This is also why I have always detested abridgements of novels -- any story that could stand to be significantly compressed could not possibly have been a well-written story to begin with, and if it was the abridgement certainly did violence to its meaning and purpose.)
That process describes pretty accurately what it's like to write marketing copy. You might start with pages of information about a speaker: his full biography, his topic for the talk, quotes from his writing, quotes from other people about his writing, testimonials, descriptions, etc. And then the boiling begins.Â You ask yourself: what are the most important pieces? Your first pass at a summary might become a web page for the talk (where you can afford to be verbose). The next draft (half as long) may become a press release for the event.Â Two more passes will get youÂ a blurb for the poster. And sometimes even the blurb, three orÂ four sentences of excruciatingly tight prose, gets boiled further to get a headline, a call-out, orÂ the title of the talk itself.
Even that makes the process sound more linear than it actually is . . . because then there is feedback.Â Your peers may have an entirely different take on what's most important. Your audienceÂ may come back with a completely different connotation from a phrase.
As incredibly frustrating as the whole process is, do not think you are wasting your time with it. The word limit is a powerful tool for reflection. It's like chanting a mantra in reverse. Rather than repeating a single word endlessly to open up a universe of perception, the writer meditates ceaseless on a mass of knowledge until he returns to this plane with the essence of a topic in handful of words.
If he's lucky . . . as Norman Maclean says of his father: "To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy."
Tuesday, August 14. 2007
Ok, bias to action, sounds good, but what does that really look like? Here's of examples of how an action-orientation could affect one's spiritual life:
Two guys get interested in meditation after seeing a public talk by Sri Bubbananda.
The first guy buys Bubbananda's book on meditation, reads it, and begins doing meditation during his lunch breaks. Sometimes he has a good meditation, and returns to his work refreshed and alert. Often he drifts off to sleep. Sometimes his work schedule gets too busy, and he doesn't take a lunch break at all, and therefore doesn't meditate every single day. If an attractive girl mentions her yoga classes, he will tell her that he meditates regularly.
The second man buys Bubbananda's book on meditation, reads it, and begins doing meditation during his lunch breaks. He, too, sometimes drifts off to sleep, or gets interrupted . . . so he starts meditating first thing in the morning instead, when he's well-rested and not going to be interrupted. He meditates every day, but is still drifting off to sleep on occasion. He goes to a local Bubbananda meditation group that meets at the Unitarian church, and asks questions of the teacher there. He finds that he never falls asleep when he's meditating in the group sessions, so he begins driving twenty minutes every morning to meet with three other people to meditate. His meditation buddies like to meditate for an hour, longer than his usual twenty minutes, but he gets used to it and eventually can't do with less. He has to leave evening social gatherings fairly early so he can get enough sleep to meditate well, which is source of constant irritation to his girlfriend (she wishes he'd go back to meditating on his lunch break). He eventually breaks up with his girlfriend and begins dating another girl, who also meditates. He gets more involved with her circle of friends, with whom he can talk openly about his practice. Meanwhile, he has lost hisÂ morning-meditation buddies: one went to India to study with a guru, and the other got married and stopped practicing altogether. So the man starts organizing his own meditation group to find other practicioners. He puts up posters, develops a presence on MySpace and blogs regularly about meditation. By this time he's realized that his current job (developer of video poker games) is not conducive to his meditation practice, so he quits his job and starts doing contract-work from home. He moves into a smaller apartment so he can afford to work less hours, so he has more time to meditate.
What's the point of this parable? Both men are meditating . . . but who do you suppose is having better meditations? What is it that distinguishes their practices?
Monday, August 13. 2007
An emphasis on action is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Self Knowledge Symposium. But what does that really mean? Several different things, as it turns out:
So, even though spiritual practice has a reputation for being ineffectual navel-gazing, it can instead be an intense observation of one's actions and the motivations that give rise to them.
Sunday, August 12. 2007
I've continued to sample from Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, since I found so much spiritual significance in Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. When we started watching Princess Mononoke, we only got twenty minutes into it before we're groaning: "Oh no, not another eco-fable!" Surely, surely Miyazaki-san is not going to rehash the increasingly tired genre of Nature-resists-evil-industrialism. A town of iron-smelting humans threatens the forest where ancient spirits dwell, and a prince must try to save it . . .
Well, yes, that's exactly what Miyazaki is doing . . . but with all his subtlety for character development, he manages to pull it off without the usual cliches. What I love the most is that, once again, Miyazaki delights in introducing heroes and villains in seemingly black-and-white terms, and then proceeds to fuzz the boundaries between them throughout the story. The tale opens with a horrific demon-boar attacking an innocent village, only to be slain by a valiant prince after it ignores all attempts at peaceful resolution. Clearly: Prince Good, Boar Bad. But then we learn that the Boar was actually a forest-god, driven mad by an iron ball shot into his breast, and that the good prince is now touched with the same curse of hatred that consumed the boar. Hmmm, now both boar and prince are victims of evil industrialists. The prince sets out to find said Evil Industrialists, and finds one of their wagon trains under attack by the wolf god. We see the Lady Eboshi, a cold witch of woman, shooting down the wolf-god with her terrible Gun. Aha, we have a real villain now! Except . . . later we find out Lady Eboshi is a feminist, saving young girls from inner city brothels, and showing mercy to lepers. Ok, er,Â so she's a progressive witch . . . still kinda villain-y, but now we're not so sure. Then we see the beautiful wolf-princess of the title, the noble savage for whom the prince has great sympathy . . . but then we see just how savage and hateful she really is, and we start to wonder about her, too.
It goes on and on like that -- the villains not-entirely-despicable, the good guys less-than-completely-noble. Only Prince Ashitaka, whose explicit mission was "to see with eyes unclouded by hate," is able to see past partisan loyalties and continually work for a common peace. Even he struggles to keep his demon-possessed right arm from going ballistic from time to time. All the warring factions -- wolves, boars, men, women, imperial powers, mercenary hunters -- get their share of rhetoric, but Ashitaka is (thank God) free of moralizing speeches. He is a man of action, and he kicks just enough butt to make you respect his moments of heroic restraint. The more-or-less expected eco-fable plot plays out as you might expect, but with a much more nuanced treatment of everyone involved, and a much higher body count than Disney would ever dream of. If I had no patience for ecological themes before, it's because I had never seen it done well. Now I have.
Augie Turak will be giving a talk at UNC in a couple weeks -- the working title is "What is Spirituality?" I'll also be meeting with the other facilitators for the UNC Self Knowledge Symposium soon to plan the curriculum for the fall semester. So I'm thinking a lot about "essential" spirituality -- knowledge I would wish for any spiritual aspirant, in any tradition or non-tradition. Here's a quick stab:
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