Monday, November 24. 2008
One of the themes that Tom Robbins develops in Skinny Legs and All is the general condemnation of religion. Any book that examines the Middle East (or any religious conflict) is almost bound to walk away seeing religion as the root of all evil, or at least the root of all organized atrocity. It's such an easy, natural argument to make: "So much killing and oppression, all in the name of God. Religion sucks!" Recent outspoken atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are pretty blunt about it: religion is an evil that needs to be eliminated. They seem to believe that if we removed religion, all this violence would be avoided.
Tom Robbins position is somewhat more nuanced. A belief in the divine is not the problem – it's the patriarchal, literate, overly-intellectual religion that's the problem. Religion that attempts to constrain the divine, shrink it down to a manageable size, codify it in a set of rules. Religion that suppresses the feminine, that cuts us off from the earth, that denies everything natural in an attempt to glorify the super-natural – that's the Big Bad. According to this narrative, religion is the vehicle used by men to repress women, to repress people different from themselves, and in fact attempt to control everything. Religion equals totalitarianism. Oh, if only we could return to the earth, and get in touch with the natural, we would once again discover magic and vitality and love and sing kum-bay-yah.
Such an argument has gained a lot of ground in the 18 years since Skinny Legs and All was first published. With environmentalism on the rise, loving Mother Earth has a new chic. Materialism, consumerism, capitalism – these are the threats to our world and our harmony. If only we could cast off global capitalism and the rampant consumption of natural resources, there would be plenty for everyone and no more war!
Ok. Fine. Some good points here. Definitely worthy of consideration. But before the super-green-anti-religion-For-the-People brigades mobilize, just consider this: almost exactly the same rhetoric was used by the Khymer Rouge, the Communist regime in Cambodia that directly killed half a million people, and killed as many more though starvation and disease. What were the central ideas of their rule?
It is not my intention to imply that all liberal-leaning, religion-despising people are equivalent to a brutal dictatorship. I just want to make it clear that religion has not cornered on the market on war, oppression, and brutality. You can have a perfectly good genocide without religion being involved (like, say, in Rwanda, or Darfur). You can embrace all the popular non-religious themes of our time – nature, simplicity, anti-consumerism – and still wind up with a totalitarian hell. The point is that war, oppression, and brutality are not about religion. It's about power. Religion makes a great pretext for seizing and abusing power; but if we took it away, people would find some other equally erroneous pretext for seizing and subsequently power. They already have. Anything sufficient broad and poorly defined will do. "It's the will of God" worked well for centuries; "for the good of the People" worked equally well in the last 100 hundred years. What comes next? "For the good of the environment"?
Sunday, November 23. 2008
The book club selection this time around is Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins. Overall, a good pick.
I was turned on to Tom Robbins in high school. High school and college is probably the perfect time to read him; the mix of zany characters, surreal plots, delving philosophy, and (last but not least) racy sex is irresistible to young people trying to figure out what life is all about. Lots of people use his books as a litmus test for prospective boyfriends or girlfriends – "If he likes this, then I know we're compatible." At least, that's how I was initiated into Robbins fandom. His books (Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction) affected me, giving me a vision of life in which people could live boldly, unafraid, full of intensity and liberated from religious dogma. I was affected, but not entirely convinced; I was enough of a prude then (and even now) to be suspicious of his glorification of sex, and still too early in my spiritual development to accept his blanket denunciations of religion.
Tom Robbins affects people in much the same way as Kurt Vonnegut, although with an entirely different flavor. Both create fantastical characters in ludicrous situations, and somehow make it all seem appropriate. Both us humor to grease the wheels of their philosophies. Vonnegut seasons his dishes with tragedy and unvarnished truth, which oddly enough makes him both funnier and more compelling. Robbins seasons heavily with sex and a prose style that does death-defying tricks (kids, don't try this at home). Both authors manage to change people's opinions about life. Both inspire writers to mimic their style. With both, I recommend that people read their books, but limit yourself to one per year at most. Like potato chips, the taste is wonderful, but you can easily overwhelm your palate with too much.
I could tell you the plot of Skinny Legs and All, but that wouldn't really be telling you much. The books are about the characters and their thoughts, and the language. I had read that Robbins writes one sentence at a time, polishing each to a high shine and then abandoning it for the next one, and often with no idea of where he's heading. It figures. Each of Robbins sentences contains its own literary, artistic, philosophic, and humorous payload; you rarely get bored, because you don't have to wait long for the payoff. Like this description of New York on an early spring evening:
The unfinished and unfinishable symphony to which they move is composed of salsa, rap, and funk from boom boxes, strains of Vivaldi sifting out in silvery drizzle from fine restaurants and limousines, the sophisticated rhythms produced by Cole Porter's phantom cigarette holder tapping upon the vertebrae of tourists and businessmen in hotel lobbies throughout midtown, fey techno-rock in SoHo bars and art lofts, drum solos banged out on plastic pails and refrigerator trays by brilliant buskers, androgynous anchorpersons announcing the "news," a loud screeching of truck and bus wheels, an interminable red bawling of sirens, the tooting of taxis, an occasional gunshot or scream, girlish laughter, boyish boasts, barking dogs, the whine of aggressive beggars, the yowls of the unsheltered insane, and on many a street corner, the greased-lung exhortations of evangelists, ordained or self-proclaimed, warning all who pass that this could be the last April that God will ever grant, as if April were a kitten and God an angry farmer with a sack.
But the premise, for what's worth: an aspiring artist from the South and her welder husband move to New York, where they become haphazard participants in plots to save (or destroy) Jerusalem. The plot includes greasy evangelists, a Jewish-Arab team of restauranteurs, inanimate objects brought to life by ancient Phoenician artifacts, and young belly-dancer who calls herself Salome. As many a back-cover blurb might say, it's "a fun ride."
The book has its philosophic points to make – the perils of religious dogma, the purpose of art, the meaning of life – and I suppose Robbins does a good job with them, though towards the end he pulls a deus ex machina plot twist to excuse an extended philosophic brain dump. By exploring the history of Jerusalem, he puts a spin on the Middle East that I had never read before. He shows the pagan roots that preceded both Judaism and Islam, in an attempt to do the impossible: get Arabs and Jews to lighten up, already. I have my own beefs with Robbins philosophy, which I'll come back to, but on the most important things he gets it right. Here's a keeper, one for the SKS Quote of the Week archives:
Was there a more difficult lesson for a human being to learn, a paradox harder to accept? Even though the great emotions, the great truths, were universal; even though the mind of humanity was ultimately one mind, still, each and every single individual had to establish his or her own special , personal, particular, unique, direct, one-on-one, hands-on relationship with reality, with the universe, with the Divine. It might be complicated, it might be a pain in the ass, it might be, most of all, lonely -- but it was the bottom line. It was as different for everybody as it was the same, so everybody had to take control of their own life, define their own death, and construct their own salvation. And when you finished, you didn't call the Messiah. He'd call you.
Friday, November 21. 2008
My son came home this afternoon, with a fresh supply of yarn to supply him for the holidays. Aidan is a high-energy, emotionally volatile kid, and handcrafts (one of the fortes of Waldorf Education) help him settle himself. He churns out knitting projects of his own design and devising at a furious pace. What starts as a wad of loose knits is, a few days later, a stuffed lion. Then he churns out a sweater for the lion. And booties.
This afternoon, however, he is far from settled. He is sobbing hysterically. He started trying to undo one of the skeins of yarn so he could wind it into a ball, but has wound up with an amorphous mop, a glob of fuzzy spaghetti in a colander. "I'll . . . I'll . . . never get untangled."
"It's not so bad," I say. "Look . . ." and I start to wind up the ball, turning over the yarn blob occasionally and fluffing it out to keep the loops from tangling too tightly. "Just keep doing this, and eventually you'll get it all . . ."
"NOOOooo. I'll never get it. It will take forever."
"Well, it might take a little longer than usual. But really, it's not so bad."
"NooooooooOOOOooooo. It could take WEEKS, and I don't have WEEKs . . ."
"Aidan, really. Honest. It's going to be all right."
We went on like that for a while, until eventually Aidan went off to his room to mope, and I just kept compulsively untangling yarn.
This feels like the human condition. One person looks at a problem, and sees an insolvable tragedy. Another looks at it, and sees a little extra work. You could argue that the difference is experience – I've learned certain techniques for successfully untangling string. But what's even more critical is a meta-experience I have and he doesn't (yet) have – knowledge that problems are generally solvable, that patience and persistence work better than weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because I've been through so many problems, even when I'm lost, I don't feel lost. I have a certain kind of faith that sustains me through confusion.
This seems especially pertinent after reading Kenny Felder's essay, "Humility and the Nature of God, or, The Parable of the Dog." The point of Kenny's essay is that we need to acknowledge how dreadfully limited and insufficient our models are in understanding the universe: we can no more understand the full nature of God than our dogs can understand what we do at work all day. The take-home message is intended to be one of humility – "Don't pretend to think you know what's really going on here." But I think you can also turn the parable over and find Hope. No matter how insolvable, intractable, impossible a problem may seem . . . there is probably a way to understand it. Maybe it will take God-like understanding to comprehend it . . . but then again, maybe understanding is not be nearly as far away as you think. At work, we have even codified this principle into Harry's Law: "If you're doing something, and it seems to be really hard, you're probably not doing it right." Once you realize that your current understanding can be transcended by a higher level of understanding, you aren't quite so scared by confusion. You merely pass through it, like walking down a dark hallway from one brightly lit room to another.
Aidan eventually came back downstairs, and seeing how much Malcolm and I had untangled together, got inspired. I showed him the tricks, and he finished unraveling the last of it on his own. "I guess I learned my lesson," he said. (No, really, he really said those exact words.) I was tempted to ask him, "What lesson is that?" just to see what he would say, but it wouldn't matter. It's the experience that matters, the repeated movement from darkness to light, which will ultimately give him Faith.
Thursday, November 20. 2008
In one of his recent New Yorker articles, "Late Bloomers", Malcolm Gladwell delivers good news to me: not all genius artists are young. Some, like Picasso or Melville, do their greatest work in their twenties, but then others, like Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, or Cezanne, make their greatest work in their forties and fifties. It's not too late for me!
Well, maybe the news is not as great as I first thought. Gladwell goes on to explore what makes these two artistic life cycles so different. The late bloomers, he explains, are exploratory -- they don't know where they are going when they start, and they spend a great deal of time trying to discover what they want to express in the process of creation. Ok, that sounds like me: a guy who starts writing a blog one day with no clear direction.
Now the bad news: those late bloomers can take a looooong time, years and years, to get to great work. Their early work is often poor . . . which means they have to spend a lot of time compensating for their lack of native talent with practice, experience, and brute trial-and-error. The process often requires patronage -- external support from sponsors, friends, spouses, and day jobs.
I got a lot of work ahead of me.
I guess I can still hope that I'm a young genius who is just getting a late start, instead of a dedicated grind who might eventually slave his way to greatness. I wrote some pretty good stuff in my twenties. . .
Yeah, right. I got a lot of work ahead of me.
The variation that we see in the life cycles of artists might be reflected in those of spiritual figures as well. Sometimes relatively young people (Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle) are seized by spiritual experiences and seem to reach some high level of insight without much evident struggle (though sometimes tremendous pain). Others, it seems, have to live through life, suffering through disillusionment and a long series of humiliations before they finally break through. Richard Rose guessed that any dramatic spiritual awakening had to happen before the age of 30, or else the seeker wouldn't have enough vital energy to "make the trip." Andrew Cohen, on the other hand, speculated that most people had to be over thirty before they would be disillusioned enough to seriously devote themselves to liberation. Vedic traditions recognized intense spiritual lifestyles could be appropriate for the young (the brahmachari) and the old (the sannyasi ).
Lots of ways up the mountain . . . some a lot longer than others.
Wednesday, November 19. 2008
If you haven't already read Kenny Felder's "Feeding the Ego" essay, go read it now, if for no other reason than to read my commentary on it. In it, Kenny tackles the insatiable desire for fame, and thought experiments to defeat it.
The ego is almost always the moustache-twirling villain in spiritual dramas. Ego, booooooo! The reasons usually provided for why the ego is supposed to be so bad are:
Kenny's essay seems to be based on these assumptions. And I wouldn't argue with them, either. However, I think some distinctions are in order . . .
Is Kenny criticizing vanity, or ambition? Vanity is caring too much about what other people think of you, and yes, that's bad, or at least very shallow. Many of the rich and famous are vain. Steve Jobs, for all of his drive and talent, seems to be very much into "being Steve Jobs." Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corp., and probably every other filthy-rich person who owns yachts and mansions, are vain. But I think it's worth noting that in every field of endeavor, there are also top-notch people who are not vain. Bill Gates has always struck me as someone who cared an awful lot about making software, and otherwise didn't give a damn about what people thought of him. Warren Buffet is a great investor, but he hasn't a shred of pretension or pomp. But Gates and Buffet are both very ambitious – they are fanatically dedicated to being the best in their fields. And is that really so bad?
In a scene from Doctor Who, a young math genius named Adric struggled to solve a fantastically complex problem in order to keep the Cybermen from crashing a spaceship into the Earth. Right before he could plug his solution into the computer, however, a Cyberman blew up the control panel. Adric failed. But his last comment, before the space station blew up, was not, "Darn, now the Cybermen have won," but "Now I won't get to see if I had the right answer." It was supposed to be a laugh line, but it stuck with me. It has a certain beautiful innocence about it, when one's involvement in something transcends the mere results of the work. "You only have a right to the labor, not the fruits of the labor" says the Bhagavad Gita. As Kenny had argued earlier, if your sense of significance depends entirely on future results, then you will never know how your life measured up. If you are passionately involved in the creation of something good, then the moment is completely sufficient.
In that light, I think ambition is a good thing – so long as it is the product of a passionate interest in doing something, and not merely the empty desire for recognition.
Wednesday, November 12. 2008
Let's get back to that whole discussion about what the meaning of "meaning" is. I don't mean to be tedious, but if "meaning" is what we're after then we really have to stop and at least try to define what we, umm, mean.
In philosophic discussions, people often equate "purpose" and "meaning". They are not necessarily synonymous, nor are they even equivalent metaphors. The two words point to different but related things.
"Purpose" implies intentionality (someone intends to do something) and teleology (events are significant insofar as they move towards some End.) To ask, "What is my purpose?" is to look for some intentional direction for your life that will result in a desired goal. The intention might be your own (e.g. "my driving purpose in life is to help dogs") or God's (e.g. "God's purpose for my life is to save the souls of dogs.")
"Meaning," in the linguistic sense, is the intended communication, the "message" of something. In that sense, "meaning" also essentially implies intentionality. You can't conceive of the "meaning" of something unless you posit that someone is trying, directly or indirectly, to say something. To ask, "What is the meaning of this sign with the picture of a dorsal fin?" acknowledges that someone put the sign there, and they had the intention of warning you that these waters are shark-infested. To speak of the "meaning" of a work of art is essentially the same -- the person observing the artwork tries to discern the intent of the artist. (There are some postmodernists who disagree with this -- they think the meaning is entirely constructed by the observer, and the artist and his intent have nothing to do with it. Maybe we'll get back to that, if I decide that such people are worth arguing with.) So, to speak of the "meaning of my life" is to ask what someone -- either you or God -- is trying to express with the medium of your life.
The difference between "life's purpose" and "life's meaning", then, is the difference between doing something and saying something. Is life God's project, or his work of art? Is life a job that needs to get done, or a notion that needs to be expressed? Either way, it seems significant to me that intention is critical to both. Which opens another whole can of metaphysical worms . . . whose intention? Or, as Ramana Maharshi would say, "Who is it that intends?"
At this point a part of me unleashes a new string of expletives. God diddily dammit, you can't say shit about philosophy without winding your way right back to self-knowledge and self-definition.
Tuesday, November 11. 2008
A friend of mine, a young person a few years into a spiritually-oriented direction, recently approached me for advice. Well, advice might be too strong a word . . . some counsel. They were in a slow-boiling spiritual crisis. After an intense epiphany and a highly energized life of service, they were now in the spiritual dumps, so to speak. Feeling isolated, with no one to talk to, and a sense of dread and uncertainty about the path in general. They approached me as one of the few people they knew to talk about such a thing.
As someone who had been involved in this sort of thing for twenty years, you'd think that I'd have a lot to say on the matter. But, as Thomas Szasz said, "All psychology is either biography or autobiography." All I can really do is describe the experiences that I had in the path, and that I had heard others had, and offer some pretty generic-sounding advice based on that limited knowledge:
I believe all this to be true, and consistent with the spiritual teachings of many others as well. The problem is, I find it to be somewhat unsatisfactory. It might provide some solace, but it doesn't tell the person what to do, exactly. It is not actionable. What does it mean to "keep going?" It is entirely possible that there is nothing more specific that can be said, and that they have to "work out their own salvation with fear and trembling."
The other, darker realization for me is that, for all the time I've spend involved in spiritual work, I'm hardly the best role model to follow. I am, in some ways, just as lost as they are. I've just spent more time lost, is all . . . and learned to cope with it. Maybe learned to cope with it too well.
Saturday, November 1. 2008
In response to my recent posts on necessity and freedom in relation to a meaningful life, Kenny writes:
"...There is this huge overwhelming trumps-everything question of whether the word "meaning" refers to anything at all, and if so what, and so on. Doing something that "means something" is the ultimate question. But it seems to me that you're talking around it, asking the question "Do you arrive at meaningful actions by doing what you have to do, or what you want to do?" which is impossible to ask, much less answer, without first addressing the question of what it means to mean anything at all, if you see what I...well, what I mean."
Kenny is referring, in part, to one of his own essays, "Only the Eternal Matters," in which he challenges the notion that anything can be said to have meaning if everything is impermanent. (If you haven't read this or any of Kenny's other excellent essays, check them out.) His reasoning goes something like this:
Kenny concludes that this is a reductio ad absurdum – if we are to believe in meaning at all (and he does) it must not have permanence as an essential attribute. But he leaves the question open: if not permanence, what makes something meaningful?
I agree with Kenny. I don't think you can find meaning by looking at some "final outcome" of one's life (see my previous post, "The Meaning of Now"), but rather at the present moment. But we still haven't identified what makes something meaningful. Here's a partial list of contenders:
Can anyone think of any others to add to the list?
Thursday, October 30. 2008
I've been sick today . . . the in-bed, sleep-all-day-and-still-feel-like-hell kind of sick. So I don't have much to say about meaning or purpose today, other than that I simply don't care right now.
But that in itself should be telling. When we're healthy and awake, we have all kinds of notions of the Good and the Right and the True . . . only to have all of it go out the window when we're in pain.
This is only an extreme example of problem we have all the time. Our values -- our conscious, thoughtful evaluations of what's most important -- are supposedly fixed and constant, but our priorities -- the things we actually care about in the moment -- are constantly shifting. One measure of our character is how much our day-to-day priorities drift from our true values.
If you live a good life, supposedly you can lie on your deathbed with ease, knowing you lived a good life. But I'm afraid the only thing I'm really going to be thinking about is, "Arrgg, ouch . . . when will this be over?"
Thursday, July 24. 2008
Today's Wall Street Journal reported that the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the architect of "ethnic cleansing" in the Bosnian War, was finally captured. The fact that he had evaded capture until there was a political power shift in Belgrade should not be surprising â€“ even genocides can cut deals to stay alive. What was truly shocking, though, was where and how he was living: right in the middle of the capitol city of Belgrade, practicing alternative psychiatric medicine in a private clinic. With white hair, a full face-covering beard and thick glasses, he looked more like Santa Claus than a brutal killer of hundreds of thousands. In his identity as "Dr. Dabic," he styled himself as a "Spiritual Explorer," and even gave public lectures on Orthodox meditation and "Human Quantum Energy."
This story is a shoo-in for Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, the humorous NPR news quiz. I can already hear Peter Siegel: "Now, panelists: what will Radovan Karadzic's next disguise be?" Adam Felber will go on a riff: "I wonder what kind of advice he gave his patients? 'Kill two Croats and call me in the morning.' (One second pause for laughter.) 'No, really, a murderous hatred of Muslims is perfectly normal.'"
I would laugh, but actually it fills me with a murderous rage to see how easily evil can clothe itself with the trappings of spirituality. "Spiritual exploration" is a catch-phrase that I and the Self Knowledge Symposium had used frequently. I would not be surprised if dozens, if not hundreds of people listened to "the good doctor" (as he was sarcastically known during the war) and thought his spiritual pronouncements to be full of wisdom and virtue. What do those people think of his lectures now, once his identify has been revealed?
This kind of story only reaffirms a few principles the SKS has long championed:
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