Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Institute of Prophetic Activist Art 
will be offering two courses in applied mysticism
"Bringing the spirit to life through action"

Great Books explores mystical thinking by reading from texts of great spiritual thinkers throughout the ages to spur us on to see our lives, and the surrounding society, from a very different perspective.  Every week, we read 30-50 page excerpts of one book, then spend the class discussing the ideas, as well as how they might impact the manner in which we view the world, and our place within it.

The course will explore:

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Early Upanishads (Hindu)
Confucius and Mencius (Taoism)
Bodidharma and Buddha's Diamond Sutra (Buddhism)
Epictetus (Stoic)
Origen (early Christianity -- before it became a state relgion) 
Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (Sufism)
Martin Buber, Hasidic Sayings and Tales (18th-century Hasidism)
Black Elk Speaks (Lakota Sioux)
Gandhi (contemporary peacemaker)

Wendell Berry (contemporary Animist)

Cost: $200, with all reading materials provided as pdf documents

Prophetic Activist Art: Strategies for a Spiritual Revolution
Prophetic Activist Art offers an intensive workshop to build individual art-activist projects over the semester-long seminar. Classes include an introduction to the specific aspects of the Prophetic Activist Art model (developed by Tom Block out of his own work), and then an exploration about how these ideas can be applied to each artist and their endeavor.

The class will base its work on Tom Block’s manifesto/handbook of art activism: Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution  (Centre for Human Ecology, Scotland, 2014).  Mr. Block ( will be running the seminar.  A copy of the book will be provided.

The eight session seminar will explore the motivations and strategies for each particular activist art project.  It will then introduce artists to the specific ideas of the model, including co-opting political, business and social energy; partnering with non-profit groups; making liaisons with other artists; utilizing unusual exhibition and outreach methods; “Machiavellian” activism; how to build a project from inception through completion; how to imagine and successfully attain quantifiable activist goals and other specific aspects of a Prophetic Activist Art intervention.  

Cost: $200, with all reading materials provided.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Great Books
Class XI: Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
So, we reach the end of our path – the last class.  Or is it simply another beginning? 
We sat together, New York’s air now having grown cold and dry with the change of seasons, the encroaching evening – it would be pitch dark by the time we reentered the world – already present at 2:00 in the afternoon.  The longest day of the year hulked just over the middle of the week, a couple days away.
Thomas Merton wrote in the 1950s and 60s, yet his words could have been penned yesterday.  Such is the vision of the prophet and, unlike most of those we read, he lived in our same culture, spoke our language and grew up somewhere in the American middle class.  His ideas on engagement, activism, politics, the vast emptiness of the public mind, the use of language as violence, the supine sloth that lurks in each of us, the struggle with how, exactly, to engage with a world that seems to be spinning ever-more hysterically into insanity, our death wish in how we deal with the environment, international relations, our neighbor – all seem so prescient and present. 
Merton was only the second of our mytics who dealt directly with our social compact: our need, as
humans, to engage with the world.  Of course, Merton more than our other social mystic (Marcus Aurelius), struggled with how best to engage.  His push/pull with social obligation brought a saying by one of his favorite thinkers, Chuang Tzu, to mind:
Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?
But in his struggle to understand his own path, and his assurance that all humans are inconsistent, inconstant and struggling (just like us!), his writing made it feel “O.K.” to be human.  Even the best among us have guilt and failure larded through our lives.  And at the core, all of us need some portion of public approval, even if we sacrifice Truth to get it from the surrounding people in our lives and society in general.  It is part and parcel of our struggle, and our inevitable failure to be perfect human beings.
We talked of Merton himself – his personal failures and inconsistencies.  Merton, depressive and socially insecure, had a love affair with a much younger woman, cut it off and then died under dubious circumstances, which might have indicated suicide (after having taken a first-class flight!) in Thailand:
He fell in love (at 53) with 19-year-old Margie Smith. It was a situation which was obviously provoking an acute inner crisis in Merton who was perceived to be in a mid-life fling with a young woman. On Saturday, June 11th, 1966 Merton, by now back at Gethsemani, arranged to “borrow” the Louisville office of his psychologist, Dr James Wygal, to meet Margie, where they drank a bottle of champagne and became intimate.
None are immune from imperfection – but at what point do these most human “foibles” become disqualifying?  Look too deeply into the private lives of any of our heroes – be they mystical, political, athletes etc. – and we are sure to grow disappointed, and often disgusted.
Mystic with a Trench Coat
Merton struggled with happiness.  If one grows happy, does this simply mean they have “given in,” supine accomplices to a world rife with injustice, hatred and pride? Is happiness, in and of itself, an admission of guilt?  And if we are not to be happy, then what struggle is “worth” it?  What kind of war should we be fighting, and with what armaments? 
Merton spoke convincingly of retaining one's sense of self, one's own thoughts and points of view.  Too many struggles – whether for good or ill, as activists or nativists – simply efface the individual in a program of slogans, propaganda and other people’s desires.  Sometimes, true struggle takes place on the human plane – as amongst a few people gathered quietly in a room in the Lower East Side, struggling toward some Truth, while the world itself careens by outside the darkening windows.  After all, Merton noted:
Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be 
free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the more 
significant, because they are unpremeditated and they cannot 
be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.
It is best not to join a program or a movement.  The messages concerning the “correct” path resides within, and must be plumbed and respected.  And even then, these messages can appear confusing, contradictory and unclear.  Such is our life.
Echoing the Baghavad Gita, we are to act without becoming lost in the group or action.  Act for ourselves, inspired by personal need and experience.  Armies, politics, the church – these create systems which overwhelm, snuffing out the individual.  This kind of uncritical following represents the antithesis of mystical yearning.
But still.  How to apply these ideas to our banal lives, the day-to-day, the myriad of confusing interactions which come at us everyday?  What, exactly, is Merton asking us to do?  One participant noted that he seemed more like a mystical cartographer (a beautiful image!), mapping what the spiritual world looks like, with all its peaks and valleys, rivers and oceans, yet not providing a clue as to how to manage our way through the terrain.
Given our current political travails, we talked of how Merton’s ideas apply to our struggle with “otherness” and “sameness,” “us” and “them.”  How do we obliterate (within ourself) the sense of people being “different,” even categorically so?  For myself, I have always thought of my embedded racist thoughts and feelings as similar to alcoholism: I have to be ever-vigilant of my own prejudices, and even then, must be aware of how easily I can slip back into the illness.  We are conditioned to see “otherness” – it is human nature.  Overcoming this is a lifelong struggle, at least for me.
Merton assures that if the goal is to realize what unifies us, talking will not get us there.  The minute we open our mouths, after all, we are little more than hippocrites and liars!  The experience of “sameness” is an internal experience, beyond words, and expressed through gentle action.
Merton talked of acceptance – a concept we have often run across in our mystical travels – but with a twist.  Not that we should accept ourselves as we are – certainly not that!  But the world, and especially a world that just doesn’t make sense sometimes.  And the aspect of ourselves that mirrors the incomprehensibility that we see through our little eyes, especially when we don’t make sense or are inconsistent.  Can we accept the senselessness?  Or must everything – both about ourselves and in the world – fit into our preconceived vision we hold in our consciousness?
Merton is a social mystic.  So we spoke (yet again) of his view of the world, and how we fit into it.  He assures that “history” is nothing more than attempting to stop the moving picture of history and examine one single frame, and from there separate what is “important” from the rest.  However, we are embedded in the moving picture – we move with it across time.  Our sense of history is little more than a fantasy, colored by the politics of the winners.
You cannot be a “good” person in some ways, yet “bad” in others.  There is no scorecard where a 51% tally marks you as "good." "Good" is a verb; it is found through action, and though  no one will never be perfect, the individual must define this “goodness” for themselves and then yearn toward it.  And be honest.  Part and parcel of this search is the ideal of equanimity: to not care what others say about you, either good or bad.  To be “respectable” is to be lost.  To respect yourself and your actions is to begin to become found.
We spoke of so much more, of course.  In our meandering path from something that happened to one of us an hour ago to the timeless wisdom of Merton, his love of Chuang Tzu, his tortured personal story, his exhortations and admissions, his honesty.  Though like all of us, his honesty was only to a point. 

And then it was over.  Eleven sessions in a small room in New York’s Lower East Side.  Scrabbling with our fingernails into the hard crust of Truth, like children in a back yard with tiny shovels, digging a hole to China . . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Great Books
Class X: Simone Weil: Waiting for God

We gathered in the warm room, the dim lights suffusing the space.  Our second to last class; the last time we would all be there (one of our participants will be flying south for the holidays before the last class – the little bird).  We were with Simone this week, a true joy – and a soul companion to Van Gogh (I believe), though their lives overlapped.  Perhaps Vincent returned as Simone, to continue and perfect his path?
The sentiment that most struck me was Simone’s assertion that there is no ultimate justice in this world – that ultimate truth and justice only reside in the universe.  We might have an echo of it in a great judge or the fantasy of it in politics or a mimicry (mockery) of it in the shared space of the “news,” but in reality, we can only scrabble around in the gray world of imitation.  Absolute values are reserved for only two things: the universe, and beauty – that which is an end in itself (unlike all other objects or values in our lives).
I was struck by this as it clarifies our world so much: that we are lost and awash in a world lacking a true moral center.  Religion does not provide it (Simone makes that very clear!), nor the shared public spaces of television news, popularly held beliefs, tradition, patriotism, myth and even “knowledge.”  All is relative, here.  Only “there” – and through the ultimate universal language of beauty – can the absolute be found.
I breathed a sigh of relief.  One limit, at least, is now understood. 
Simone’s path, then, is about quietude, attention, stillness: “waiting.”  Yet, what is “waiting” for God?  What form does this take in our lives?  It is the opposite of the “stolen” grace that we read about in both Eckhart and the Hasids.  Is it the antithesis of those paths?  Or simply the other side of the coin? 
As with all matters in this class on “applied mysticism,” was asked: what would this look like in our lives?  Unplugging from the phones and simply sitting on the subway.  Not trying to connect with the world around us, but letting the world – in its greater wisdom – approach us, as we sit attentively, waiting?
We talked of Simone’s death, in 1942, in a sanitarium in London.  I assured that she starved herself to death (such is the beginning of myth) – which caused much consternation and bewilderment, as her whole philosophy pointed to the acceptance of the joy and suffering of life to bring one closer to God. 
Alas.  I was wrong.  Simone died of Tuberculosis.  The myth I had created in my head was nothing more than that.  Although I was insistent and certain during class yesterday, today I hang my head in shame.  I was wrong.  I open the window in my small apartment on the edge of Jackson Heights, Queens and scream to a world that doesn’t care: “I was wrong.”
“So sue me,” I mutter under my breath, pulling the window tight against the chill.
We cycled back to matters based in the text.  Simone “always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life.”  That this awareness would keep us grounded in our waiting.  Also, that at that instant, all the yearning, all the questions, all the uncertainties, all the sincere effort toward understanding would into the consciousness as complete and total understanding.  And then: poof.  Over.
The question for us in the applied mystical arts is how can we expand our awareness of death in our daily lives?  Can death accompany us through life as a friend?  Not as a threat or a shadow, but the promise of something which surely awaits?  Our culture is terrified of death – it is the enemy (an enemy which will never be vanquished).  But other cultures simply view death as a next step, a natural progression, even “as a doorway whereby the lover rejoins the beloved.” (Rumi)
We talked of beauty.  Beauty, according to Simone, is a relationship between the perceiver and the perceived.  “The beauty of the world is not an attribute of matter in itself. It is a relationship of the world to our sensibility.”  It is a verb.  Something ensconced in time, a moment.  It is also the only absolute value to which we have access.  Beauty is the only thing to which we have access which is an end, and not a means.  Everything else in our lives is used to attain, to run, to change, to grow, to hide.  The experience of beauty is the only thing which allows us a small glimpse into (a way to feel) the obscure awesome power of the universe.
Simone takes great exception with organized religion (God bless her).  She assures that it must understood that religion (the act and form of worship) is nothing more than a “looking.”  A completely private experience between an individual and God.  By the same token, she assures that the greatest form of sympathy and love between two people is simply to sit down together and to ask: “what are you going through?”  And listen.  Just listen to the answer and what that other person is experiencing.
Simone does not turn her back on sensual love – at least not, theoretically (she eschewed it completely in her personal life).  She assures that it is a way in, a doorway, a manner to experience beauty (the highest value available to us).  The yearning for the beauty of the universe (not “understanding” the universe, but simply experiencing it) represents a impetus for “waiting.”
One of our participants cribbed off my notes and asked me my question.  Much surprising me, at first.  “I had that question, too!” I said, before she puckishly informed me that she had read off my sheet. Still, it is a good question: what sacraments, she asked, did I practice?  There are some, perhaps – creating things, the class I was sitting in, sketching in jazz bars – anything that brings one closer to an appreciation of beauty as both an experience and an end in itself.  But truthfully, the goal of all these paths is to make each moment a sacrament – to literally sanctify the act of living.  From walking to the subway stop to sitting with friends at happy hour to standing in line to gathering for a rehearsal.  The experience of beauty and love lurks in every moment: it is simply our task to uncover this.
Simone asserts that if one has experienced even the slightest light of Life, after having wandered aimlessly (and perhaps hopelessly) through the labyrinth of faith.  For faith alone can remain unmet: cold, lonely, desperate.  But one must retain faith, and at the end – sometime – all of the intention of that faith will flood back into one’s awareness, in the form of life.  Once one has experienced this awakening, they can’t help but seduce, and even push people into the mouth of the labyrinth of yearning. 
An unusual image for one whose highest value is “waiting.”  But such is the interior life of the mystics . . .
We returned to the core of these discussions: how to bring mystical awareness into one’s everyday life.  Always the same central point: this is not a class in theory, after all.  It is a class in applying these ideas and values to our broken little lives in early 21st-century New York City.  In the era of Trump.
Experiments in empathy.  Listening and not talking.  Believing without demanding.  Asking without telling.  Accepting.  Struggling.  Quietude.  Activism.
Contradictory.  Of course – but what did you expect? 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Great Books

Class IX: Hasidic Masters

We gathered in the warm interior, the cool December day bright in Dixon Place’s windows, to talk about the Hasids.  Unlike other paths, we had all seen and perhaps even met Hasids – they were just across the bridge in Williamsburg, after all.  We could have spent the class time walking over to them and shaking their hands.  Well, not really – they don’t much traffic with non-Hasids.  But we could have seen them, at least.
But Hasidism has changed greatly since it was founded by the Baal Shem Tov in 1740.  Then, and for   Now, it appears more of a repressive sect, a social organization meant to enclose, wall-off, shut down.  Even though one participant noted that such a system – where people knew their roles and what they should and should not do – might free one to explore their spirituality more fully.
Baal Shem Tov
the first century or so afterwards, it was an open-minded, searching path heavily (if unwittingly) influenced by Sufism.
Our Hasids, though – the original Hasids – spoke of opening to God, to life and to others.  As Rabbi Pinchas noted: “A prayer not spoken in the name of all humanity is no prayer at all.”
We dove right in.  The Hasidic masters of yesteryear focus on the suffusion of God through all matter, seen and unseen.  The Divine Spark can be found everywhere; we all share a single, universal soul.  This idea manifests through a sanctification of every moment, of every person, of every object.  “Put off the habitual which encloses your foot and you will recognize that the place on which you happen to be standing at this moment is holy ground.”
How to make this a part of one’s life?  Of one’s daily awareness?  How to view people you disagree with, you don’t like, you don’t know or are attracted to know?  How to find the “holy” in the mess that we call New York City, our political disaster, our fraying social compact?  How to switch from frustration, helpless and anger to a sense of appreciation, wonderment and joy?
Stolen Grace
We are to take it, this joy and appreciation.  Much like Meister Eckhart, the Hasids say that you should not wait for “grace” to approach you, you must go forth and take it, steal it if necessary.  But how do you “steal” grace?  Our reading proposed three methods: break the lock, don’t pick it; operate in the dead of night and risk everything, even if you only make off with a little grace.  For a little grace is a lot – and the need for more bleeds quickly into greed.  How much grace do you really need?
Once again, the importance of personal pain emerged.  How can one find radiance and joy in pain?  The dark informs our experience of “light.”  You cannot have one without the other.  In fact, one must center their worship in breaking down the ego, the thought structures, the heart.  The Hasids emplore us to “break your heart” for God.  What does this mean?  A diminution of the self?  A sense of turning from the place of self-reliance?  A pathway, not a goal – and most certainly not a trip to dejection and hopelessness.
The way forward is fraught with danger.  As our Hasidic friends assure: “The way in this world is like a knife’s edge.  On this side is the underworld, and on that side is the underworld, and the way of life lies between.”
We found more of a social compact within Hasidic thought – that the interaction, the social goal, the obligation between people (not just between an individual and God) came to the fore.  Social behavior is an act of sanctification.  Doing good in the world becomes prayer.  This felt more approachable, as well as attractive, as we sat together not only as seekers, but as activists.
We discusses our spiritually desiccated era.  Is our time more bereft of mysticism than others?  I said that it was: capitalism has fomented an anarchic cult of the individual, based in acquisition of goods, which is directly contrary to mystical and spiritual appreciation.  I said that I believed there was more respect for this path in other times (mystical poets were treated like rock stars in 8th-13th century Muslim lands, for instance).  Even today, I felt there was more appreciation for this path within Eastern cultures, from India to South Asia.  With the advent of globalization and the tidal wave of western values overtaking all, however, I feel that even this is on the wane.
One participant noted took exception with this, noting that it was self-defeating to claim that our culture didn’t support this form of exploration.  After all, there we were, hosted by Dixon Place, with all participants having become aware of the class through social media.  Whether more people came or less, the fact remained: our culture supported this search, and did not forbid or dissuade from it.
Fair enough. 
But if/when one meets a true mystic, how are they to even know it?  There is in the Hasidic as well as Sufi tradition the idea of the “hidden” mystic, hidden sometimes even to themselves.  I remembered the story from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, in which the author, in watching an aunt die with dignity, acceptance and love, realized that she had achieved a lofty height.  Nothing in her manner of living had presaged this moment, at least that one could see from the outside.  I also said that in my experience, the true mystic giggles a lot.  It is the religious who pass through life with a frown on their face.
We must go through life with giggles on our face.  And find in the mundane – either painful or joyful – the essence of what lies beneath.  We must find miracles in the everyday, shucking off the wry, ironic all-knowing posture of our era and understanding that there, just beneath, rests the miracle of being, of every moment, of every scientific “truth” and banal interaction. 
We talked again about death – and life.  Like many of our previous readings, the Hasids assure that one must die to live, must die into life.  What does this mean?  Die from expectation and accept each moment as unique; die from dream and awake to the dream in which one lives; die from need and awake into acceptance; die from demand and awake into the fullness of what one has; die from the “I” and sink into the “thou” – the aspect of oneself which is part of the universal soul.
Easier said than done, am I right?
We cycled back to religion.  Why does religion so seem to not on not support mystical thought, but be antithetical to it?  Succinctly put, the difference between religion and mysticism is the difference between “you should” and “I should.”  And mysticism involves no social control, no political aspect, no walling off of “us” v. “them.”  In a word, it is completely subversive to the social structure and hierarchy.  Which is why virtually all of the mystics we have read – including the Hasids – were considered “heretical” when they first began practicing and disseminating their paths. 
Mysticism also places a question mark at the heart of being, while religion puts an exclamation point there.
We talked of the beautiful duality within the Hasidic path.  It seemed to set off opposites or contradictory statements to reach a deeper plane.  One participant noted the saying:
Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: “For my sake was the world created,” and in his left: “I am dust and ashes.”
The idea that we are nothing and yet the reason, this captures the meaning of Hasidism, of mysticism.  As Mahatma Gandhi said (echoing our Hasidic friends): “Know that you are completely insignificant, and entirely necessary.”  Other Hasidic dualities washed through us . . .
And so it was.  Time had passed.  The sky outside darkened.  It is cold now, when we hit the street, and we bundled into our coats and scarves and gloves.  We would emerge into the New York City dusk, and hopefully see things just the slightest bit differently than usual: with the faintest glow of the universal spirit shining from within everything.