Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Great Books

Class VIII: Rumi: Fihi ma Fihi

Well.  Much to my surprise, there was a bit of concern with the reading this week.  Rumi, it seems, is obscure, unclear, confusing, contradictory, too verbose, not talkative enough, arrogant, unsure, way too confident and generally never seemed to say what he meant.
Rumi,  by Tom Block
At first, I was taken aback by this commentary on our excerpts from Rumi’s Fihi ma Fihi, which was actually written by Sultanwalad, the eldest son of Rumi, and describes many important Sufi concepts (using aphorisms, short tales, descriptions, allegory, metaphor and other literary devices).  But then I saw it as a natural outgrowth of the clash between our western, linear way of thinking and the Sufi manner of presentation: circular, confusing, ebbing, flowing – using literary devices to break down arguments, not build them up and “prove” them, or even cleanly assert them.  Indeed, Rumi assures that we must “sell our cleverness and buy bewilderment,” and he helps us along with his manner of teaching!
I breathed a sigh of relief.  Rumi would remain central to my conception of the pathway into the spirit.
Rumi does not offer religious or prescriptive ideas.  His stories obscure known answers and raise deeper questions.  Some things he says are directly contrary to virtually all mystical paths we have encountered thus far.  For instance, he assures that marriage is vital to the spiritual way, “so that we can endure the trials of living with the opposite sex, to listen to their demands, for them to ride roughshod over us, and so in this way to refine our own character.”
At least we chuckled over this!
We still struggled with coming to terms with the messenger.  Although written by his son (and it should be noted that there were travails in the relationship between father and son, due to some of Rumi’s life choices with his own teacher named Shems-i Tabrizi), Rumi’s ego shines through.  He is presented (as one of our more Rumi-dubious participants assured) as having "achieved," something a true mystic almost never asserts.  As if speaking from some lofty spiritual heights to peons down below.  There was an arrogance, this person assured.
His message also seemed at odds with Meister Eckhart from last week – Eckhart seemed to guarantee that unity here on this earth was possible, while Rumi says that the spiritual paths will only unify after death.  Until then, we must have diversity.
I noted that I thought this was a beautiful sentiment, as appreciating and accepting diversity here on earth – with the myriad cultures, ethnicities, religions etc. – would be the first step away from “otherness” and toward a sense of healing respect.  While we might not all practice the same spiritual path, each and every one of them would have the same “weight,” be accorded the same respect and appreciated as valid.
We talked about Rumi’s idea of emptying oneself for God.  The room is only big enough for one of us – God or me.  And God isn’t going anywhere, so we had to still our desires and our ego to allow God to become present within us.  Rumi’s somewhat odd story of the two birds was mentioned:
Tie two birds together, and despite their familiarity and the fact that their two wings have been changed to four, they will not fly. That is because duality exists. But let one bird give up its life and the other—even though tied to the first—will fly, because duality has vanished.
We discussed the tension between “giving in to God’s will” and yet still striving, still engaging, still living life and struggling to make oneself and the world a bit better.  I noted that I felt the Baghavad Gita had the answer to this:
Be intent on action,
not on the fruits of action;
avoid attraction to the fruits
and attachment to inaction!

Indeed, many of the thinkers we have encountered this semester –Chuang Tzu, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius and others – echo a similar sentiment.  You are not to go to bed and remain there – and in this Rumi is very clear.  One lives life.  They get married, they undertake a profession and perhaps even a passion.  Yet they release themselves from the desire for worldly success and acknowledgement: the fruits.  (This is not to say that these fruits might not appear, just that they are a by-product, and not a goal.  Important but subtle distinction.)
We talked of worldly yearning, and specifically cozying up to people with power to advance our own careers.  Must this entail hypocrisy or compromise?  I believe it does.  And as Rumi assures:
Not all gallows are made of wood.  Official positions, exalted rank and worldly success are also very high gallows.  When God wishes to catch someone, He gives him a great position or a large kingdom in the world.  All that is like a gallows on which God puts them so that all people may be aware.
To traffic with those in power for one’s own betterment – even if the ultimate goal is to accrue power so that one may make the world better – only dilutes to the power of “goodness” or sincerity in the world.  One cannot compromise spiritual values without a loss, even though one might not be able to reach as many people or affect as much change because of this lack of spiritual fungibility.
We noted the parade of ass-kissers falling over each other to get at Donald J. Tump’s bum, when just six months ago they couldn’t get far enough away from him.  Not a single spine among the whole Republican Party!  And the lack of the same within the other major American political party is well-documented (we’ll get ‘em next time!).
We talked of perspective.  The human mind recoils from the mystical point of view because it offers too much perspective, too much information: most of us just can’t handle it.  A mystic perceives the big and small, the great and huddled, the broken and successful – and sees them all on the same plane of existence.  No difference between them.  Just various and sundry representations of God.  They open themselves to the pain of the downtrodden, the blind arrogance of the wealthy, the yearning hope of the failed, the hopelessness of the abject.  All of the energy.  But who amongst us can take all of that?  The rest of us shield our gaze, remaining within the vision provided by our eyes, in a normative reality described by newspapers and seen on TV.
Rumi assured that we must not turn away.  Pain, regret and suffering are proof of God’s existence.  Without these forces, we would have no conception of God, we would be self-sufficient.  The challenge is to move from seeing the cause of pain as being in others, and to begin seeing it in ourselves, experiencing, “owning” it, learning from it.
The purpose of life – the ultimate purpose of life – is twofold: knowledge and love.  The knowledge, of course, is not book learning or of the Periodic Table: it is of the “real.”  And love – how to open oneself to others and the world, accept everyone as their own representation of God, accept that everything is exactly as it should be, yet try to change it for the better, nonetheless.
Realizing Mystic
We talked at length about Rumi’s assertion that: “All are doing God’s service; reprobate and righteous, sinner and disciple, devil and angel.”  How could this be?  How does it fit with our conception of “good” – is “good” little more than things that don’t hurt us, that make us feel “good?”  In a cosmic sense, might “good” have a very different meaning, especially since pain and regret are necessary, and the true purpose of life is to learn and love?  Pain and failure lead to knowledge and humility far more assuredly than success and riches. 
We spoke of much more – how three hours in a small room in the Lower East Side talking of such matters is nurturing and perhaps even necessary; of God’s service in terms of each of our lives; of the inherent aspects of God; of alchemy, the difference between “seeking” God and “allowing” God, of listening to others, of thoughts standing-between instead of leading-to.
But enough has been said of all of that.  So I close this week’s blog and turn to the Hasidic masters, our teachers for next week.  Perhaps they can, once and for all, solve the riddle of existence for us?  And if not them, maybe Simone Weil, the week after that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Great Books

Class VII: Meister Eckhart

As we sat down, I said: “no politics!”  Though with the recent election still reverberating, and with white supremacists, blatant racists, economic charlatans, climate deniers and the like moving into the halls of power, it was impossible to steer completely clear of the sad subject.
Meister Eckhart
We spoke this week of Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Catholic mystic and, by medieval Christian standards, heretic.  His open-minded, far reaching vision unpacked and personalized Catholic liturgy for one of our Catholic participants, adding meaning and depth to the words she had heard in church her whole life.  Unfortunately, the Church itself was not as impressed, and Eckhart was declared a heretic toward the end of his life, and his writings were suppressed for nearly half-a millennia, before being resurrected and included in the canon, in the 19th century.
No wonder he so frightened medieval Catholic leaders.  He advocated for finding the mystical path straight to God, bypassing completely the hierarchy of church leaders.  Eckhart assured: “Not all people are called to follow the same path to God.”  We responded strongly to this, as it allowed each of us the space to find our way into our spirit in out own manner, through our own work, our own devotional – and not by following some prescribed path.
We talked of pain.  Eckhart assures that “all suffering comes from attachment and affection.”  This encompasses even the good: love, pleasures, helping others (while still expecting to receive positive reinforcement for doing so).  According to Eckhart, we must cleanse ourselves of all attachment – including to those most dear, be they lovers, family members, children. 
We were not willing to go this far.  While we very much agreed with the perspective that Eckhart brought, we all felt that personal love still has a place in our lives.  Perhaps understand and appreciate its ephemerality, and realize that there is another, higher love (that of “God”) behind it, yet don’t scrub one’s life of personal attachment. 
The Humility of Acceptance
We are therefore doomed to suffer.  People will die, they will turn away from us, they will disappoint us.  This will cause us pain through our very human attachment to them.  But pain has a positive side: it is a great teacher.  We learn patience, forbearance, new ways of accepting, of seeing, of appreciating what we still have. 
We talked of honesty – and lying.  I revealed my own indiscretions.  (The only way you are going to hear them is to take me out and get me likkered up!)  Others did the same, some explicitly, some more obliquely (and you know who you are!!).  Ultimately, I said that I believe that honesty is the deepest form of worship.  As Gandhi said, God is Truth.  We noted that we all tell “little white lies” (or big whoppers) so that we don’t “hurt” the other person.  However, one of us noted that being told a lie means that you have been stripped of the ability to say “yes” or “no.”  You are left only with the question: “why.”  It is arrogant and disrespectful – and something we probably all do more than we would admit.
We talked of the need to be seen, the opposite of mysticism.  Being seen means acting in the world, caring what people think, looking for positive reinforcement. 
We spoke of the obligation (or lack-thereof) to be a “good” person, when you were on one end of an aggression.  Specifically, women suffer much sexual aggression in the public square, either verbal or, in the worse of cases, physical.  What is the mystical response to such attacks? 
How do these very human challenges square with the fact that we are to empty ourselves, so that God can flood in?  Is one able to view all aggressive action as simply that of a broken or immature soul, and not allow it to affect us at all?  Such might be the “mystical” response.  But, we noted, we are not mystics.  So how to assimilate the one (mystical energy) into our lives, without simply rolling over and taking whatever life shoves down our throats?
We spoke of empty words and easy platitudes.  A lot of what Eckhart says has a deep resonance – but when they are words spoken from a community member to a person dying of cancer (say), they ring hollow, absurd, mean-spirited.  Is it really the best that religion can off, to have an acquaintance tell a dying 20-something that God would never give them more than they could handle?  The mystical ideals ring completely hollow when not attached to the soul.  Perhaps the best thing would be to listen to the person in pain, instead of talk.  Just listen.
“Presence” is something to strive for.  Being there in your moment, feeling your skin against the air, hearing the words or the silence or the sound of the radiator (this being New York in winter, after all).  Those moments.  “Being” is a verb.  “I am” should always be followed by the word “becoming.”  We spoke of “greatness” being a form of humility.  And that our “greatness” might not actually be recognized or acknowledged by those around us.  Only our attachment to a sense of “self” or the desire for social approbation might cause us pain.  But these desires are extremely difficult to turn out backs on.
Obedience.  Eckhart notes: “True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues.”  But obedience to what?  Obviously, not temporal power or religious instruction (our instructor was a heretic after all).  So what, exactly?  To the dictates of our lives, we decided, in the end.  “Wish for everything to be exactly as it is, and your life will be serene” (Epictetus).  So, it is obedience to “God’s will.”  To accept our lives as they are.  Keeping in mind that “I” am a verb; that movement and applied mysticism are our goals.  Not the solipsistic retreat of the Church fathers.  We remembered that all are drawn to a different path.  And, as Eckhart noted, even if we don’t feel the spirit within, it is no further than the door.  And not “lurking,” but quietly waiting for us to turn to it!!
Finally, we cycled around to the horrifying current events.  One participant noted that Eckhart offered an astounding sense of open-mindedness.  He was, as I assured, deeply influenced by Eastern thought, by Socratic thinkers, by Sufi and Buddhist ideas.  This worldview is directly in contrast to our current political and social situation.  Now, our public square is filled with walls, anger, overt White supremacist racism, blindness – Trump represents the desire to hold tight to all these boundaries in the face of a creeping openness.  Fear drives this, not acceptance.  Not obedience.  Not love.
Finally, we noted that the recent election offers us a journey to obligation.  We are no longer self-indulgent intellectuals gathering to talk about philosophical matters because we can.  We are subversives, keeping a small light of the spirit burning, while the country descends into political darkness.  We must not only bear witness, but we must take action.  We must transform the mystical energy and spiritual messages we receive into action – action that mimics and spreads the things of which we speak.  Our “becoming” must involve the transformation of positive personal energy into social engagement.
As Marcus Aurelius note: we are a member of society, and must take part in it through our actions.  Any action not directed toward the social good is mistaken.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Great Books

Class VI: Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Perhaps it was extremely odd, or simply exactly correct to sit in the small, dark room in the Lower East Side and talk of death throughout the afternoon.  The recent election of the logical end of American democracy, aided and abetted by what was once referred to as “the party of Lincoln,” has cast a pall on everything we do, these days.  The constant exhortations from art groups and leftist politicians do little to assuage the feeling of doom.  Might a far-off teaching on dying have an influence on what we are experiencing today?
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, is a 21st-century tract bringing the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on the centrality of death to life.  It offers a specific conception of exactly what happens after a person passes on.  It is the most beautiful, honest and relevant books on what awaits us all that I have ever read.  And as we mourn the passing of hope in the political sphere, it seemed like the perfect text to be discussing as we keep up hope in the hereafter (at least).
We began by discussing how to apply the ideals engendered by a constant awareness of death to our daily lives.  How does this awareness affect our actions?  We discussed how a belief/faith/certainty in a life after death would alter one’s actions in life.  After all, Songyal Rinpoche (the author) assures: “without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most people live lives deprived of any ultimate meaning.”  And it is “ultimate meaning” which gives us the perspective to suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Shakespeare), as well as to operate in a bubble of hope and goodness in a world seeming gone mad. 
And just to clarify, the Rinpoche also assures that the world is, most certainly, a house or mirrors and horrors: “Our so-called ‘ordinary’ world is extraordinary: a fantastic, elaborate hallucination of deluded visions.”
In light of this, and the current events, we kept cycling back to how we would or will behave if we simply worry about what is happening inside of us, as well as within arms reach – at all times.  How would this perspective affect our moment-by-moment behavior, our thinking, our outlook?  Our interactions with friends and strangers?  Our decisions of how to spend our time, each moment?  With more consciousness in our decisions?
We returned to the theme: dying.  After all, teaching and learning always centers on experience, and although many mystical and some religious paths assure that we have died a thousand deaths before the one that awaits, almost none of us have an awareness of it.  So how can we truly know anything about dying, if we have no experience in it?  And the experience discussed in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: how are we to believe that it comes from anything other than another fantasy?
In a sense, it doesn’t matter.  We made certain not to get lost in arcane arguments or discussions on the merits of whether this book was fantastical or, as the book assured, all of life was, with death the only and true unifier of all humanity.  For even if we don’t “believe” in the propositions laid out in the text, by keeping an awareness of death by our side, it would certainly positively influence our actions and thoughts. 
“Death is a mirror in which the entire life is reflected.”  And what, exactly, does this reflection show us?  How we have spent our lives.  How, in light of spiritual and timeless values (as opposed to social and cultural ones), have we succeeded in aligning our actions with who we think we are, who we want to be.  After all, Rinpoche assures that “Goodness is what survives death.”  Not a “good name” or good time or our social standing or a cultural legacy.  “The whole of our life is a teaching of how to uncover that strong goodness, and a training toward realizing it.” 
And death is the greatest teacher in this regard.
So, why is our culture, and the people within it, so frightened of death?  It is no less a part of life than birth or taxes.  As Drakpa Gyaltsen assured: “Human beings spend all their lives preparing, preparing, preparing . . . only to meet the next life unprepared.”  We talked of people we know or knew in their 80s and 90s who, as they approached death, seemed terrified and completely unprepared.  Why cling to life?  Especially when so many commit suicide, and so many more have thought of it?  Does this represent a “cult of death” which understands “death” as a way out from pain (our reading would strongly disagree with this sentiment), and just another expression of ignorance, though this one solidifying pain and spiritual immaturity?  After all, the thing about life is we have been given various tools with which to grow and understand.  By killing oneself, they simply remove the tools for growth, while locking in the pain and ignorance.
There is no escape, other than by hard spiritual work and yearning toward comprehension.
Death can be present and not scary.  Carried through every moment like an exhortation to live more fully, more aware, with more attention to our acts and thoughts.  Influencing us, but not taking us over.  If one simply removes “fear” from the thought of death, then a world of positive things unfolds before us, our interactions with the world heighten and deepen.  We are far more “alive” when aware that death awaits (not “stalks”!), when we see our life as preparation, instead of finality.  Accept the fact of death, and life reveals its many facets, instead of simply being the fantastical hallucination proposed by surrounding culture and society.
We get lost in “busy-ness” – the “active laziness” of doing anything except what we should be doing (devoting ourselves to “living” in the fullest manner possible).  Our society has a cult of activity, in which there is a constant pressure to remain busy, and busier still.  But stillness often holds many jewels that are unreachable through activity.  However, anxiety drives us from ourselves, as does a fear of our inevitable demise. 
So, how do we find the spirit within the mundane?  Must we meditate?  Can we find it in activities such as doing laundry, cooking for ourselves or for friends, walking in the street, riding the subway?  Can the banal be a road to the eternal?
What about other so-called “negative” aspects of life?  Pain?  Regret?  Mistakes?  Hurtful actions?  Can these become teachers?  If we are aware of them, assimilate them in a certain manner?  Milarepa said that his “religion is to live – and die -- without regret.”  Given that this is unachievable for the rest of us mortals, what role can “regret” play in our lives?
So much of what we consider “normal” is, in fact, symptomatic of a social illness.  The ideas discussed in this class – which run contrary to the illness which too-often defines our social interaction – must become goals, signposts, a practice, instead of just an ideal, read about and discussed, but never implemented.
We talked of letting go.  Of the image of a coin, grasped in a palm.  Held face down, the fingers must hold tightly to the coin so it doesn’t drop.  Held face up, the coin can rest in the palm, the fingers opened.  This metaphor becomes a guide for how to go through life: to “have” without holding. 
And finally, which is more difficult: asking or giving?  One of us told of “asking” as an exercise, to see what it was like.  She stood next to the train turnstile and asked for a swipe.  She discussed her discomfort.  He sense of humility, or humiliation, or steadfastness in forcing herself to ask strangers for something.  The homeless must do this everyday.  Do they do this as a favor to us?  To remind us, hold a mirror up to us, discomfit us?  Is each of these moments a spiritual test, for us and for them?
This is but a spare compendium of the things discussed, as the light slowly darkened outside the windows and the super moon rose above the surrounding buildings.  Ideas came and went, ebbed and flowed, fluttered into the room and then butterflied out again.  And then, finally, with the sun already disappeared beyond the old tenements of Chrystie Street, we hiked our little rucksacks onto our backs and returned to the real life of New York City’s streets.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Great Books

Class V: The Dhammapada (Buddha)

How odd, to be writing of far off spiritual path, in the shadow of the most recent election.  And yet, when do we need this kind of perspective more, than at a time when the world "out there" seems to have definitely slipped into a "mondo cane" (world gone to the dogs).  The perspective afforded by our afternoons in the Dixon Place lounge grows ever-more nourishing in the face of such events -- and necessary. 

The Dhammapada is a short work of aphorisms, statements and exhortations.  It did not leave an intellectual mark on our memory, or fill our head with memorable quotes and statements.  It did, however, leave a gentle impression.  And idea of how to cleanse the thought process, step back from the mundane, devote oneself to a healing of the spirit and the muddy waters of conscious sludge (thoughts).

Although the work seemed like a re-hash of other ideas, though definitely more austere in its vision (advocating a relentless retreat from sensuality and society), it still offered a soothing counterweight to our frenetic, advertising-driven culture.  The message of the Dhammapada is not about winning and losing, or accruing the most toys before dying, but about ignoring the hysteria of external reality and diving into the internal eternity, the quietude, the universal "naught."  It represents, as one participant noted, the ultimate "counter-culture" message, perhaps even moreso than the 50s Beatniks or 60s Hippies.

We discussed why this message has so little resonance within our culture.  After all, I noted, America was built from Type A personalities -- the exact opposite energy from the contemplative, inward-looking mystical world view.  Every one of us -- other than Native Americans or African Americans -- is descended from a forbearer who had the wherewithal to leave everything known behind, often with only a few pfennigs in their pocket, to embark on a journey to the unknown.  And this "journey" was almost never the an interior exploration of the eternity at the heart of their being.

This anti-mystical attitude is literally part of the American DNA.

But how then, might we keep the ideas of which we read -- of renunciation and dedication and selfless love and a wide-angled perspective -- present in our life?  Even in this mystical tract, the idea of rewards and punishments pushed in through the gentle exhortations.  Is this the only manner of moving toward spiritual health?  To do so out of fear of retribution?  After all, the words "heaven" and "hell" appeared in the text on more than one occasion.  

We discussed the need to remain busy.  After all, in NYC, everybody is sooo damned busy.  It is, I proposed, one manner of burying or channeling the anxiety of being.  After all, the Dhammapada exhorts us to turn into the anxiety, master it, and through concentration and meditation, overcome it.  Sand it down.  All our post-modern hysteria does is channel it into a bunch of smaller and smaller tasks, obligations, deadlines, meetings and wispy dreams (I wish I could buy that new pair of shoes I saw!).

Mysticism is indeed a manner of dealing with the anxiety of being (an anxiety rooted in the fact that we've been given enough of a consciousness to know that something is going on here, but not enough to figure out what the hell it is).  But it takes marginalizing oneself from the mainstream, from general society, to do so.  And we are social beings, after all . . .

We do, indeed, live in a culture of "winners" and "losers" (made all-too evident in the results from last night's election).  What is the culture of Buddhism?  A culture based in acceptance (of the world on its terms; of the limits of a human life; of the ability for aggrandizement etc.).  Buddhism is a yearning for stillness and quietude, regardless of the cultural vessel in which one lives.  It is a working as hard as you can to achieve piece, instead of working as hard as you can to never be quite good enough, never have enough "stuff," never be satisfied.

In this spiritual vernacular, what is the responsibilities to others?  Is it simply a narcissistic voyage into the psyche of the self?  I, personally, have sometimes felt that mysticism of this sort (as opposed to legislative, socially engaged mysticism of the sort that Marcus Aurelius proposed) was the ultimate selfish act.  Can the cultivation of internal peace lead to better interactions with the world around you, from that homeless person we see everyday in Union Square, to friends, enemies, family etc?  We think it can have that effect, through expanding our understanding of ourselves, and of our ultimate "goals."

One of us proposed that giving in to the messages proposed by the Dhammapada was like surfing, riding a wave, loose and in control at the same time.

We discussed giving.  Getting to the point where we can give without it being transactional.  One of use told stories of their father, who would help out his family with monetary aid, yet never ask how the money was spent.  Could we do the same with a homeless person?  Is it different in terms of our giving if they spend it on whisky instead of bread?  When we receive a paycheck, no one ever asks how we are going to spend the money.  Do people have to "earn" the right to be given to?  Can we remove our ego from the giving equation, and give solely for the sake of giving?  After all, the Dhammapada proposes that we should give to everyone who asks -- even if we are only able to give a very little.

We returned to the internal experience of mysticism.  What is attention?  This idea is much spoken about in Buddhism.  Does this mean to not be influenced by either internal or external stimuli?  Not caring what other people think?  Is it the opposite of mental "carelessness"?  Or simply attention to the moment.  The Sufis note: "The true Sufi's thoughts never move faster than his feet."  Wakefulness to the fullness of the experience of living in that particular moment -- its smells, sights, sounds -- not thinking about what has to happen by next Tuesday.  To be embedded in your moment.  

What is the practice which would lead to such a state?  Is meditation the only way?  After all, searching for this elusive "attention" is usually thought of as inward looking, individual, solipsistic.  Can it involve sharing?  Cooking?  Interpersonal interaction?  Or some aspect of the mundane?

We finished by discussing the motivation for mysticism.  I proposed that it was the pain of being -- and looking for an antidote.  But pain is such a powerful teacher.  Without pain, there would be no human consciousness.  There would be no conception of God . . .