Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Great Books

Class IV: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Things turned a bit more contentious today -- moreso, at least, than one would expect when discussing the gentle exhortations (to himself, no less) of the far-off Roman ruler and Stoic philosopher (Marcus died in 180 C.E., at the age of 59).

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno in the early 3rd century BC. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, of the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (prohairesis) that is in accord with nature. Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life (lex devina), and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved

Marcus Aurelius
We launched right in with a decidedly 21st-century question about Marcus's Meditations: Did Marcus's station in life (he was a child of privilege and born to be an emperor) somehow denigrate his spiritual struggle?  Did the fact that he had the time and energy to think about such lofty things as how to apply a Stoic philosophy to his life simply represent his luck in having so much wealth and power, and therefore make his actual ideas less important?  No homeless person, prostitute, day laborer or slave would have had the time to think in such a manner, after all.

In a more general sense, does having privilege by itself make our philosophical and spiritual struggle less relevant?  

Needless to say, I was disturbed by this line of thinking.  People have privilege.  It's what they do with this good fortune that matters.  Poverty or affliction does not make one a better person simply for having these attributes; nor does having chances and options make one "bad."  It is always how one reacts to their situation.  Of course, as it was pointed out: this is easy for me to say, as I am a child of privilege.

We moved on to note that the idea of a ruler who looked to philosophy for grounding was in itself hopeful.  Nowadays, politicians look to lobbyists or, at best, some narrow version of religion for their lode star.  Gone are the days when leaders tried to understand their role within a much larger, and deeper spiritual system.  We saw echoes of the work that Lao Tzu attempted to do, as he devoted his life (generally unsuccessfully) to trying to influence temporal leaders with spiritual values.  Marcus Aurelius, it seemed, tried to do this to himself.  Pretty impressive!

Stoicism, however, still continued to rankle.  While one of us noted that it seemed to mean "accept fate with a smile," another retorted: "sure, if fate has been good to you!"  It's easy enough to accept your lot when you are the emperor.  But if you are struggling to put bread on the table?  Or homeless?  Or in chronic pain?

Wish for everything to be exactly as it is,
and your life will be serene
Another point of contention (and certainly for an activist): how can one both live in the moment (the highest form of "consciousness"), and strive for social good or personal growth at the same time?  Although much of Stoicism seems to echo Taoism (in terms of acceptance and non-action), social action demands engagement.

Marcus argued: "Everything is borne out of change -- and no change should be viewed as better or worse," just different.  Indeed, Marcus Aurelius keeps life's biggest change in the forefront of his thought, spending an inordinate amount of time talking and thinking about death: the great equalizer.  By keeping death in the forefront of the mind, it helps to keep everything else is perspective.  But how exactly does it all fit together?

We brought Taoism to bear on our understanding of Stoicism.  These ideals of which Marcus Aurelius speaks are not goals -- no one can truly live a mystical existence (no matter how much they assure they are doing so in print).  These are goals, guideposts, things that one should keep in mind, which should influence day-to-day action in the grocery store checkout line, in the subway, in speaking with friends, in passing a homeless person.  And in that vein (one of us assured), they might comfort as securely as Linus's tattered blanket -- soft and always at our side.

Mystical ideals, after all, are not immune from the bombardment of a life lived in society.  And Marcus Aurelius himself noted the social aspect at the center of our existence by commenting that any action not directed toward a social end (betterment) was not in keeping with nature's harmony.  So these ideas are meant to influence action, and relationships.  A good person acts in harmony with nature.  How is she to know if her actions are in harmony?  By their social import, it would appear.  As activists, we were now back on familiar ground.

Little Girl Mystic
So within this construct, how to communicate with people?  Never lie.  This is a start.  Not even those little white lies we tell so as not to hurt someone ("you look great in that!"  "Of course, I'm not having an affair!?"  "I only had two at the bar" etc.).  So what should we say?  How about: nothing.  Silence is an underrated manner of communicating.

Action grows from conflict, from hurdles in our path.  Without the impetus of conflict, we might not act at all.  And action is necessary, according to Marcus Aurelius, though like the Bhagavad Gita, we must divorce ourselves from the fruits of action.  We must also undertake our sacred obligation (much like Arjuna on the field of battle).

Still: what kind of resonance can this sort of mystical thought have in a world of bleating and tweeting, crooning, Candy Crush, yearning, Vine, Youtube stars and vapid, content-less fame and fortune?  The question kept returning, as did answers: It can only have meaning on the personal level, in the realm of interpersonal relationships.  We can hardly hope that one of our contemporary leaders will, like Marcus Aurelius, devote herself in secret to timeless ideals.  What we see in the latest trove of "wikileaks" emails is a completely different relationship with power politics: Machiavellian, not Marcus-like.

We continued in the realm of the personal.  How should these mystical ideas -- those of equanimity, acceptance, perspective, social gentleness -- affect us in our day-to-day lives?  And the idea of privilege popped up again: are we simply fortunate to even be able to think about such things?

I noted that "guilt" never plays a role in mystical thought.  "Guilt" is for religion, for systems which assure they know "right" from "wrong."  Mysticism is about faith, silence, listening, acceptance, tenderness and yielding.  "Guilt," in the sense that we feel compelled to act in a certain manner, has no place in this world.  One acts out of intuition, harmony and faith.  And if one can't figure out, one listens instead of speaking.

Back to privilege: does the freedom that comes from economic and social privilege, the security to think about mystical things, somehow negate the worth of such pursuits?  Is the only honorable course to find barely enough sustenance and a spare roof over one's head, and after that, all other pursuits are irrelevant, and perhaps even unsavory?

I pointed out that although many mystical paths advocate an ascetic lifestyle, not all do -- some have strong sensual components woven into them (Sufism and Hasidism come to mind).  These sensual pleasures are to be taken as metaphor -- the sighs between lovers are, as Bahā ud-Dīn Walad (Rumi's father) noted, simply messages from God to God.  I also noted that although an ascetic lifestyle is often advocated for, in no system is mystical thought considered privy only to the monks and anchorites.  It is, and should be, central to any person's thought (as it was to Marcus Aurelius), be they emperor, bus driver or even artist (!).

We finished with a discussion of consciousness.  What does it mean to be "conscious?"  How can we achieve it?  One of us proposed that they feel most "conscious" when they are lost in the moment.  This echoed Marcus's assertion that the moment is the most beautiful thing we have.  "But that means that consciousness -- the act of watching ourselves -- plays no role in being conscious?"  The proponent of the idea shrugged and smiled.  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Great Books

Class III: The Bhagavad Gita

This class, we discussed the most disturbing of the books well read this semester - as well as the most religious. Although the Bhagavad G
Bhagavad Gita
ita certainly trays mystical ideals, it is a foundational religious text, and therefore has more political and nationalistic ideas than the other, mostly heretical and iconoclastic works we're reading this fall.

The story is set on the field of battle, with Krishna (God) urging Arjuna to undertake his sacred duty: going to battle with a clan of family members. In this case, the battle is not a metaphor. It is full of blood and death, and not in the good way, either!

My questions were more plaintive this week, urgent. I ones by boring the slippery slope that obedience could lead to. From the gita to a religious justification for war is a very short path. One that I explored in my book, a fatal addiction: war in the name of God. In fact, the gotta had a prominent role in that exposition!

How central is obedience to mystical behavior? And obedience to what? Our "sacred duty"? How do we know what our sacred duty is? We were unanimous in assuring that the impetus for knowing this answer couldn't come from outside our heads. So the discovery of a sacred duty came down to a combination of intuition and faith. And if we were wrong?

There are no signposts on the road of mysticism...

We found many contradictions in the text. The highest ideal is removal and meditation, they the highest ideal is also sacred action. One should act with complete intention, yet completely disregard the fruits of action. One should consider themselves both already dead, as well as indestructible.
All mystical truths come from and return to paradox. A clear and consistent truth is a lower truth of the senses, politics and society.

We continued to chew over the idea of action without attachment to the fruits of action. For instance, to me, things means creating art, plays, books, institutes etc. Without worrying about audience. Doing it only for the pleasure or meaning taken through the act of creation.

We discussed other values explored in the text: discipline (not at the top of western values); asceticism (another non-starter in a capitalistic system) and obligation. How might we apply these
ideals to our lives? Specifically? How might spokesperson for the importance of these ideas affect us in our day-to-day?

Well. So. Action is OK, as long as it is disciplined. Not grotesque or yearning or pointed entirely toward the fruits of action, outcomes or goals.

We cycled back to one of the most disturbing aspects of the ancient teachings: that we might have to accept violence as a necessary spiritual obligation.  I should understand, right?  It was exactly five years ago that I, myself, stabbed a man almost to death.  And not only in the moment did I experience a clarity unlike anything I have ever felt, but for not one second since that time have I ever regretted it.  Could a sacred warrior look at their work in the same light?  Even when the violence is subsumed in politics, religion, greed, ignorance and patriotism (which is stupid and immoral, as Tolstoy assured)?

Is violence a central aspect of human nature, and therefore cannot be denied?  Is the only possibility for a stable civilization to channel this violence institutionally, either through politics or religion?
I proposed in my book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, that violence is, indeed, a central aspect of human nature.  Stemming from our lowest, animal nature, violence mixes in the human soul with the yearning for the spirit, which represents the highest aspects of our being.  As Rumi noted: 
Man is a mixture of animality (haywani) and rationality (notq), and his animality is as inseparable a part of him, as his rationality. He is like a torrent in which mud is mixed.
The clear water is his rational speech, and the mud his animality.
A Fatal Addiction asserted that both violence and spirituality are so deeply embedded in the human soul as to be inseparable: they represent the very same yearning (for something "more"), just in different (and opposing) vernaculars.  In fact, violence can be a form of prayer -- something that we definitely see evinced in the Gita.

We moved on to discuss reincarnation.  There was a general sense among us that we have experienced whispers and vague messages from places we could not understand: past lives, past relationships, past experiences.  I told how when I was young, I was convinced that my parents had mis-named me: I was, in fact, Pietr, and I had been in the infantry in the German Army in World War II.  I also have a strong affinity with Spain -- was "I", at some earlier time, a Sepahrdic Jew, living as a poet or searcher in the magical world?

One of our participants told of shades and shadows visiting her, just outside of her conscious grasp.  We talked further of uncommon connections -- relationships which flared so quickly, that they might well reach back into an earlier lifetime -- or series of them.

Can you share a soul with another living person?  A literal soul-mate?  What might this feel like?  Would you necessarily encounter them?  Or simply reconvene after both embodiments had passed away?

Is the idea of reincarnation just a "cop-out," borne of the fear of death?  And why are we so afraid of death?  Can we ever be ready for death?  The mystics certainly are -- they live as if already dead, and great the actuality with a glowing acceptance of having already been there.

Stories were told of people that we know in their 90s, hanging on desperately to a life that appears -- from the outside -- not to be much worth living.  Why couldn't they come to terms with the next stage of their existence?

I told the story (recounted in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which we will read later in the semester) about monks who were said to cross the frontier between living and dying while still here with us.  When their body finally did give way, and they were declared "dead" in the Western sense, their carcasses cooled slowly over weeks, as their essence made their way leisurely through the Bardo regions between the two states.  This has been documented.

According to the Gita, death should hold no fascination or fear.  We are both already dead, and indestructible.  Even so, we should welcome death.  As Rumi noted: "Death is the bridge whereby the lover rejoins the beloved."

Yet still.  We all know people -- probably including ourselves -- who are close to death, appear to have miserable lives and no future possibilities, yet still cling desperately to life.  We discussed this in the context of how differently death is represented in mysticism (as a transition) and contemporary culture (as an enemy).

We talked of suicide.  Those who commit suicide are not usually the homeless, the abject, the refugee, the completely miserable.  The kind of existential crisis which leads one to commit suicide is an internal state, and not one of physical means.  In fact, it is usually those with at least some material means who do kill themselves.  And those who do so for religious reasons, of course -- as an act of prayer.  The highest form of faith.

We finished by discussing who might be a "teacher," in the sense that Krishna was for Arjuna.  If those who know don't speak, and those who speak don't know (Lao Tzu), how are we to chart our way forward?  
The disciples of the Baal Shem hear that a certain man had a great reputation for learning. Some of them wanted to go to him and find out what he had to teach. The master gave them permission to go, but first the asked him: “and how shall we be able to tell whether he is a true zaddik?” (i.e. spiritual leader of the community)
The Baal Shem replied. “Ask him to advise you what to do the keep unholy thoughts from disturbing you in your prayers and studies. If he gives you advice, then you will know that he belongs to those who are of no account. For this is the service of men in the world to the very hour of their death: to struggle time after time with the extraneous, and time after time to uplift and fit into to the nature of the Divine Name.”
So, what are we left with?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Great Books

Class II: Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Chuang Tzu, The Way of Chuang Tzu

So we sat again, against the onrushing tide of New York City's Monday afternoon, a few people huddled together, trying to scrape into the ground of Truth with our fingernails.  Lights gentle, the outdoor sounds muffled, the air gentle and quiet. 
We traveled to ancient China, into the world of Tao, a decidedly un-Western view of spirituality, life and striving.  We asked: can one be content in their striving?  Can action and inaction live in harmony in one's life?  What is harmony, for that matter – for a person, for a species, for the world?  What is the patience necessary to allow the interior mud to settle, and for the internal waters at the heart of your being to clear and shine forth?
So we began to lower ourselves into the waters of the Tao, where the soft always overcomes the hard, the gentle overcomes the most aggressive.  A world we are not accustomed to, yet one which holds much in the way of peace and patience, for the reader and even more so for the practitioner.
Lao Tzu
The Chinese philosophers, Lao Tzu (d. 531 B.C.E.) and Chuang Tzu (d. 287 B.C.E.) offer a vision of spirituality and the meaning of life far different than our Western heritage does.  Gone are moralities and hell; familial, social and traditional obligations; desire for “goodness” or fear of eternal damnation.  In their place, the simple sound of lake waves lapping against the side of a drifting canoe.  In their place: the removal of "self" from the internal space; the discovery of non-action; the quelling of desire and an almost Puck-ish appreciation for the absurdity of life.  (Indeed, a longer compilation of Chuang Tzu’s work is entitled in English: “The Genius of the Absurd.”)
Of course, in our culture, we are not going to devote our days completely to a search for the Tao, or the energy that lies at the heart of being.  This ultimate reality – known for Hindus as “Atman” or the “unmoved mover” to Aristotle – represents an energy with which to align oneself, an ultimate reality that underpins all other lesser realities.  Yet we are so damned busy!
So our question, of course, becomes how to assimilate such an idea into the maelstrom of our Western, cell-phone and twitting-infused lives?  How to allow an appreciation of this ultimate, gentle and feminine power of Being to influence us as we scrabble like ants up the tiny little hill of our personal desperation?
What does “patience” mean in this milieu?  For Simone Weil (who we will be reading toward the end of the class), it meant “not transforming suffering into a crime.”  But this is hardly the sense that our Chinese brothers had in mind.  For them, it tinged with acceptance, non-action, and the occasional giggle at the absurdity of it all.  What might this attitude look like while churning through Hell’s Kitchen toward a rehearsal?  Or selling cheese in a small shop?
Paradox suffused the afternoon.  How to find non-action in action; how to "try" and not "try."  How to accept the world as it is, yet work our hardest to change things.  As Chuang Tzu noted:
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?
How do we digest and then apply such teachings to our lives?  How can we move beyond certainty to the question mark at the heart of all being, and then further still: to an acknowledgement that paradox is at the heart of the question mark (i.e.: action and inaction; trying to make the world better and accepting it as it is etc.).
For what mental state do these sages advocate?  An internal emptiness – shorn of expectation and judgment?  Is that synonymous with the lack of an interior monologue?  Are we able to let experience wash through us without the governor of our wry, knowing, highly ego-centric internal monologue?  Can we move through out day without judgment?  In the frenetic, New York City social and professional worlds, can we remove the desire for fruits of action from our actions?  How might this sense of internal peace affect our mundane interactions?
Karl Christian Rove, a real advisor to kings
Lao Tzu fashioned himself an advisor to kings.  He tried to become such, though in the end, his ideas were so antithetical to Machiavellian leadership that he usually offended his charge and was driven from the kingdom.  And as Chuang Tzu noted, only those who don’t want to lead the nation are fit to lead it, anyway.  In the middle of this particular election season, we certainly see no indication of how this energy might be applied to our political system.
Again, it comes back to the individual.  To those few souls sitting in the small room in the Lower East Side.  How do we apply these values to our own lives?  Strive, yet accept.  Fashion ourselves leaders, yet lead only by example.  Move through this increasingly hysterical world, yet retain the cool, sweet waters of patience within.  Believe in poetry, beauty and solitude, even as the world further abandons such values.
And we talked of “harmony,” a central theme for our far-off Chinese brethren.  How does it look?  Is it dependent on outcomes?  Is it an internal or external state – or some combination of the manner in which all interact?  With such disharmony in the world, how can we seek it on a personal level?
As Lao Tzu noted:
When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
Look around!  We are clearly not in harmony with the Tao.  And though Lao Tzu assures that for dissolving the inflexible, nothing is more powerful than the soft and yielding, how can we as activists apply such a gentle force to the world around us, desperately looking to instill “harmony” in a species spiraling ever-more hysterically out of control?
It comes back, again, to the internal.  To patience.  To personal harmony.  To becoming an oasis of clear water in the tempest of contemporary human experience.  We must act in harmony, must strive to be in harmony.  A small oasis of sanity in a mondo cane.
We discussed what was natural, what “unnatural.”  I proposed that humanity – the coming climate disaster, our greed and rapacious relationship with the Earth – is but one more natural disaster, like the meteor in the Yucatan or the last Ice Age.  How are we any different?  We – like those natural disasters before us – will simply reset spaceship earth.  We cannot destroy it.  Who knows what comes next?  But in any event, we are no different than those earlier geologic events.  There is nothing that we can do that is “unnatural,” as we exist in the universe as surely as everything else does – even the Tao.  That we were programmed at the outset to self-destruct simply makes it sad on the human level, but certainly not on the universal level, or perhaps even in disharmony with the Tao.
We scurried quickly back into the realm of the personal.  We discussed the fear of standing alone with views which don’t accord with the norm,” even while acknowledging that the “norm” is a form of insanity.  How much internal confidence and force to apply ideas from Lao and Chuang to an everyday life in the Big Bad City?  Can one walk confidently and alone – or nearly-so – through the world, assured by those with knowing and wry voices that we are wrong and they are right (just look at the polling data!)?
Lonely Mystic
We discussed “equanimity” – the spiritual value where one is untouched by either praise or denigration.  How does this pair with the idea of holding fast to one’s timeless ideals, yet not turning our backs on the society, or our own temporal goals of fame and fortune?  How difficult is it to not allow others’ views of our ideas and actions influence us?  What role does personal psychology play in our mystical objectives?  Can we accept our personal, psychological foibles, and then move deeper past them, into the realm of the timeless, which lies at the heart of our being, indeed all being?
We talked about what defines the “I.”  Are we the collection of experiences, traits, ideas, hopes, dreams and failures?  Or is there something more fundamental beneath it all.  How can we appreciate the deeper “I,” when ultimately it is a completely personal experience, and one that we might not even be able to share – or even access ourselves.  Once again, it comes back to acceptance (of the unreachable, eternal “I” within), in lieu of striving (for something that will define our “I” as successful and noteworthy).
Preparation and letting go.  Action and inaction.  Acceptance and striving.
Lastly, how should we flag “success”?  Something seen and noted?  Or an internal experience of patience, of solidity, of acceptance?  If we don’t read about ourselves in the Times or appear on Good Morning America, are we really doing something “worthwhile”?  How can we define personal worth outside of the normal social construct?
Like a drug that must be taken to quell symptoms, but will never heal the illness, we must continue to read and think about these timeless ideals.  If not, we fall quickly back into the illness of the temporal, of human hysteria, of values which stem from fear and not patience.

So read and discuss we will: next week, the Bhagavad Gita.  Obligation, action, desire and the quelling thereof.