Monday, December 31. 2007
I started to do a typical "year in review" blog entry, writing about the best and worst in my life over the last year. Interestingly, I had a hard time with it; I just didn't feel like writing about myself. What I've done, what I'm going to do, me, me, me, blah, blah, blah. I've spent pretty much all of my adult life promoting introspection, retrospection, and conscious living, so the irony is unbearable when I get to the point where I'm just simply fed up with myself. Maybe the coffee just hasn't kicked in yet.
I like New Year's resolutions, for the simple fact that they actually seem to work for me. I started a number of important disciplines at the beginning of 2007 that made a big difference in my life. Why an arbitrary calendar event should make any difference defies logic, and only proves how irrational human beings are. For me, all things are made new at the turn of the calendar.
Resolutions, however,Â are the province of the ego, which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your spiritual attitude towards the ego. If you're a Vedanta type who sees the ego as an illusion, resolutions are merely an occasion to loudly repeat the mistake of believing you are an individualÂ person in need of reforming. I fall in with teachers like Augie Turak, and Richard Rose, and Andrew Cohen, who urge the seeker to dis-identify from the ego, but still recognize it as a necessary organ of the human psyche. For them, New Year's Resolutions demonstrate the ego doing what the ego is supposed to do: regulate the individual towards its well-being. Rose would call it "milk from thorns" -- if you can use the ego to shed some pounds or spend more time on the meditation cushion, so much the better.
I have no doubt my ego will kick in and lead me to new and better things in 2008. But not right now. Right now I just want to be quiet.
Friday, December 28. 2007
One theme that Adyashanti touched on in his interview in The Sun that intrigued me was his emphasis on the individual's own deepest desires. He says:
I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I'm deeply suspicious of the whole "follow your bliss" framing of the spiritual quest, because it opens the doors to massive self-deception and rationalization. Lots of spiritual traditions recognize that the individual's personal desires are the least reliable source of guidance. Moreover, self-directedness is not the highest value. Sure, at the end of my life I'd like to be able to say: "I did what I wanted to do." But that's not nearly as important to me as: "I did the right thing. I loved that which was worthy of love."
On the other hand . . . empirically speaking, Adyashanti's got a point. I have lived long stretches of my life doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, without necessarily feeling a strong personal connection to it. That's not a bad thing. I am, in fact, very proud that I was able to suck it up and do what needed to be done, for the right causes. Everyone should at least be able to do that. However, I've also seen lots of people (myself included) totally burn themselves out trying to serve strictly out of a sense ofÂ duty.Â You can go on a long campaign of duty, sometimes years at a time. But ultimately, you need to find a deeply compelling personal connection to what you're doing, or you won't be able to go the distance. To accomplish anything of great merit, passion is not merely recommended, but vitally necessary.
In that light, it's always valuable to at least ask the question: "What do I really want?" We don't need to take the answer at face value, but that doesn't mean it's totally irrelevant, either. If spirituality is anything worth having, then it ought to resonate with you. I once heard a Buddhist teacher define "joy" as "pleasure in virtue" -- when what you want to do, and what you ought to do, are one and the same thing. All of spiritual work may boil down to just that -- aligning one's self and one's role in life until duty and desire are synonomous.
Thursday, December 27. 2007
Janet passed on to me a Sun Magazine interview with Adyashanti, a contemporary spiritual teacher in California. I'm gladÂ I read the interview before I looked at the website, because I think he comes off very well in the interview, but looks like just another Western guru with a funny name on the website. He has a teaching similar to Eckhart Tolle, but a tone that has slightly more edge and reminiscent of Augie Turak or Richard Rose. Some passages that caught my attention:
"I'm a truth guy, not a comfort guy."
"The role of spiritual practice is basically to exhaust the seeker. If the practice does what's it's supposed to do, it exhausts our energy for seeking, and then reality has a chance to present itself. In that sense, spiritual practices can help lead to awakening. But that's different from saying that the practice produces the awakening."
"Reality is always looking for a moment of vulnerability, when we let our guard down . . . it can be prompted by some tragic event: an illness, or a death of a loved one, or a divorce. Reality rushes into the cracks and presents itself."
Q: "What method do you teach people to sustaining awakening?"
Q: "What do you think is the significance of routine in spiritual practice?"
"Looking back I could easily say, 'Boy, I made a lot of dumb mistakes.' But I needd to do it that way. I wasn't going to let go of those identities on the meditation cushion. it would have been nice if it could have been contained in this safe environment -- bowing and meditating and meeting with the teacher -- but it often doesn't work that way. Spirituality is much more of a bloody mess than we like to admit."
"No emotion or experience is necessarily excluded from my life. Do I ever get angry? Sure, I get angry. Awakening shows us that emotions are illusions -- but that doesn't mean they will cease to arise."
Q: "What do you think happens to individual consciousness after the death of the body?"
"Statements about the ego 'disappearing' miss the mark. The ego is still there; you just see it to be an illusion."
"Most people who think they're part of the greater awakening of humanity are actually just aggrandizing their own egos . . . one of the best ways to stay asleep is to wait for a future when we'll all be awake. But, like I said, I hope I'm wrong. If the whole world wakes up tomorrow, I'll be glad that I was wrong."
Wednesday, December 26. 2007
The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed last week that jousted at another favorite topic of season, our notions of happiness ["The Happiness Myth," by Steve Salerno]. A part of the Journal's practical, curmudeony character is that it has little use for the younger generation's endless mantras of self-affirmation and self-actualization. The editors do believe fervantly in the empowerment of the individual and energetic optimism -- this is, after all, the flagship publication of the capitalist free market -- but those attitudes are also perpetually grounded in a sense of obligation to the whole. To work merely for one's own fulfillment is, to them, self-evidently shallow. The only proper reasons for getting rich are to serve one's family, one's community, one's country, or for the sheer love of work itself.
This was one my mind because I had finished up my lecture series on ancient Greek philosophers, and I was mulling over Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, especially his take on happiness. The Greek word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (literally, "to have a good guardian spirit") and is described as "not a mood or temporary state, but a state achieved through a lifetime of virtuous action, accompanied by some measure of good fortune." I like the fact that Aristotle recognizes that virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness -- even the best of people are not guaranteed happiness, which I think is part of the current generation's malaise. Modern Americans feel guilty and insufficient for not feeling perpetually sun-shiny, which leads them to ultimately self-destructive quests for the next thrill, not to mention undermining the basis of all deferral of gratification and self-control. I also like the connect to virtue, which elevates happiness to more than mere circumstance or pleasure. And for Aristotle, virtue is (like everything) a matter of teleology -- everything has a purpose and an end, even people, and happiness is to found by best fulfilling one's purpose.
"Fulfilling one's purpose" sound suspiciously like Work. This also, I think, is the downfall of the current generation, which often equates leisure with happiness. I'm not the first one to notice the connection between work and happiness, either. M. Scott Peck went so far as to define love as fundamentally a matter of Work. Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiÂ noticed that the activities that make people feel most fulfilled (music, gardening, writing, and intellectual debate, to name a few) combined aspects of work and leisure. There needs to be purpose, direction, and active engagement with experience in order to be anything close to happy.
All of which makes me feel better when I'm itching to do some work on December 26. Happiness is the freedom to work on whatever you want.
Tuesday, December 25. 2007
A staple of media these days is a reflection on the nature of Christmas, since Christmas seems to be holiday everyone loves to hate. Recognizing that it's a holiday with a patchy provenance, owing more to Roman Saturnalia and Coca-cola than to Christian traditions, everyone seems free to suggest their improvements.Â Of course, as long as I've been alive people have been calling for a more Christian, less secular observance of Christmas, but now people are even rebelling against some of the supposedly wholesome elements. The Wall Street Journal's "Houses of Worship" column ran it's own little manifesto rejecting not only the hyperproliferation of gift-giving, but also all obligations to visit extended family or even send Christmas cards.
So, in the for-what-it's-worth category, I'll make my own suggestions:
That being said . . . Merry Christmas!
Monday, December 24. 2007
I saw a curious and sad irony in the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages yesterday. On one page, a freelance journalist mourns the death of Sonny Iovino, a mentally ill Vietnam War veteran in Iowa who froze to death under a bridge because local authorities refused to commit him for treatment. "Civil libertarians seem more concerned with a patient's civil rights than with his very survival," he fumes.
But just opposite his op-ed is a piece by Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and leader of The Other Russia, a brutally oppressed opposition party protesting the complete rollback of democracy and civil rights by Vladimir Putin. While Kasparov doesn't mention it in this article, regular readers of those pages will know that one of Putin's favorite tactics for silencing his opponents is to have them committed to mental institutions.
Ah, what a sticky wicket. On the one hand, we all still remember Seung-Hui ChoÂ well enough to think that involuntarily committing mentally ill people is a no-brainer. With some people, it's pretty darn obvious that they are ill and dangerous and need help. On the other hand, the power to take away someone's freedom is an awesome power, and destined to be abused. If you think that protecting civil rights and due process is not a compelling concern in our country, compared to the danger posed by the mentally ill, then you haven't been paying attention. The only thing that separates a free society like the U.S. from the current totalitarian regime in Russia is our complete distaste for restricting someone's freedom "for their own good."
Brave men and women in Russia are dying for the sake of their freedom. Sadly, Sonny Iovino has also died in the name of freedom. While I think it's right to mourn both losses, I would not say they had died in vain.
Friday, December 21. 2007
I don't like stories about adultery. It's not that I'm so morally high-minded that I find the notion repugnant (though I do). It's rather the opposite: I can project myself all too easily into the shoes of the adulterer, and the lurking dread of being exposed for one's shameful deeds is so emotionally disturbing to me that it leaves me visibly distraught. It is, literally, an Enneagram Three's worst nightmare. When Rico Diaz's marriage hit the rocks on Six Feet Under I could barely sleep at night; the notion of good people destroying their lives with a few bad judgements terrifies me.
So you'd think I'd have no use for Notes on a Scancal, an adultery tale in which Judi Dench plays the aging, diary-writing observer of her young colleague's affair with a student. Â Ah, but this is Judi Dench, whose acting ability only grows with her ever-advancing age, and the sheer spectacle of her portrayals makes it worth the emotional upheaval. Â I don't think anyone else could play the role of Barbara Covett, whose character drifts from tartly sympathetic to utter pathetic to nastily evil to (at last) sympathetically pathetic. This is one of those movies where everyone is superficially likable and deeply flawed, and you are reminded again of just how much sin is the result of weakness.
Some other thoughts (warning: spoilers follow):
A couple years ago I got my very first callback from a routine physical. "Nothing serious," said the receptionist. "The doctor just wanted to talk to you about your blood work." My cholesterol had crept right up to the edge of unhealthy, so I had to endure the mandatory lecture about diet and exercise and oatmeal and omega-3 fatty acids. I was shocked, because I have been rail-thin most of my life. My father eats bacon-grease on toast for breakfast and still has low cholesterol. I had gotten into the habit of thinking that I had magic genes that would keep me healthy my entire life. Now I had the faintest shadow of mortality across me . . . not to mention paying another $30 co-pay just to have someone tell me what I already knew.
The next year I didn't do much to change. I moved to another city, got another doctor, and eventually had another routine physical that confirmed my lipids were continuing to lurk in the shadows. But at the beginning of this year, I made the conscious decision to reform my ways and live according to a strict schedule that ensured I gave time to the important things that were habitually neglected. One of those things was exercise, and in this year I've been more faithful to an exercise regimen than I've ever been in my entire life. As with my writing, I set aside time to exercise every day, since it seems the only routines I can respect are the daily ones. I also started eating oatmeal again, something I hadn't touched since I OD'ed on dried goods when I was living in isolation in West Virginia.
Last week I had the routine physical. I was half expecting the same cholesterol talk, something along the lines of "yeah, still high, probably genetic, let's keep an eye on it." But instead the doctor said, "Wow! Your cholesterol and LDL dropped twenty points. What did you do?" I was mildly embarrassed at how happy I was. A modest gain in health, really, nothing to write home about. But the important part was I did it. I consciously changed the way I was living, and it manifested measurable results. I stiff-armed age and ill-health. I can change my destiny. Me. Wow.
Tuesday, December 11. 2007
For marketing and fundraising purposes, the Emerson Waldorf School was looking for some short verbiage about why we send our kids to a Waldorf school. I had already written some lengthier posts about why I don't send my kids to public schools and why we chose Waldorf education. But my deathless prose won't fit in a call-out box on a brochure, so we need something a little tighter. Here are some attempts:
Sunday, December 9. 2007
The topic of marriage and its decline seems to be hunting me down lately. Over a year ago I heard a radio interview with Kay Hymowitz about her book Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, and I dutifully jotted the title down on my Treo because I knew I would have to write about it eventually. I usually stay away from writing about race and class issues, because it's such a lightning rod for being misunderstood, and so unlikely to actually influence anyone's opinion. But then a review of Hymowitz's book turned in up First Things this month, and a Wall Street Journal op-ed this weekÂ highlighted Bill Cosby's attempt to rally parents in Detroit, and the topic of the decline of families came up at a recent SKS reunion. Looks like I won't be able to duck this one.
The basic thesis looks something like this:
Almost all sociological arguments swirl around cause-and-effect. Does marriage promote self-discipline and self-sacrifice, or do disciplined people get married? Does single parenthood produce poverty, or does poverty produce single parenthood? When cause and effect are so close together, one can find enough wiggle-room to make whatever argument best suits one's political outlook. Conservatives will claim that family values are the root cause of happy circumstances, while liberals will proclaim that happy circumstances are necessary for such values to thrive.
Still, I think it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to claim that values are neutral. The liberal orthodoxy would like to maintain a perfect cultural relativism, claiming all cultures to be equally valid and worthy of celebration. And yet the overwhelming evidence is that some cultures work better than others, at least in terms of economic prosperity and security. It's considered a grave insult in political dialog to say that someone is "trying to impose their values on others," and yet it seems that imposing values is exactly what is needed. If weÂ fail as a culture to impose values at a subtle levelÂ ("get married before you have that baby") weÂ just wind up having to impose our valuesÂ more forcefully later -- through incarceration. Do people really need to get killed before we start demanding conformity to certain norms?
You can't say such things these days without someone wanting to draw a Hitler mustache on your picture. It sounds too dictatorial, too smugly self-righteous for anyone to stomach it. But there again, people misunderstand. I don't want to change laws, or create a new government program, or try to impose marriage on people from without. All I can do is keep the culture alive in my own community, by celebrating dedicated motherhood, and committed fatherhood, and marginalizing those who don't. By the time you need a government program to enforce the basic values of a culture, it's already too late. That's why Bill Cosby is trying to "get parents fired up." Paradoxically, the imposition of values is something that can only come from within.
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