Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, September 22, 2006

First fruits

(I was sick yesterday, and most of the evening before that, and I missed posting. I'd like to make up for lost time, especially since Bob just gave me such a nice shout-out for inspiring him with my do-it-every-day talk. ;-} )

Let me just go on the record now as saying that early morning is the absolute best time to work on the things that are most important to you. I spent a couple hours writing about spiritual stuff this morning, and traded some emails with SKS students, and I feel a million percent better. It's so much easier for me to face my regular job and the mundane requirements of my life when I feel grooved in on the things most important to me. It's vastly superior to waiting to do that stuff until the end of the day, when one is tired and discouraged and less-than-enthusiastic.

The monks at Mepkin have spoken of this precept -- they say you should "give the first fruits to God." The bulk of their spiritual practice -- three services of the daily office, plus time for reading and mediation -- takes place in the early morning hours, before they do anything else.

If you're finding the "do-it-every-day" advice to be difficult to implement, consider using the early morning. Aside from its other virtues, it is also a part of the day that few other people in your life will try to claim from you. Children, bosses, spouses, and telemarketers are usually not trying to get your attention at 5 am.

What's wrong with evolution?

I mentioned in my last post that evolution is the buzzword for the spiritual world these days. Eckhard Tolle, Ken Wilber, and lots of others (some of whom I don't care to grace with a better PageRank by mentioning them) are talking about an evolving universe, one strugging to know itself, and we are sitting on the cutting edge of that evolutionary process. "You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are!" says Tolle.

Let me start by saying that I go against this wave of spiritual opinion at my peril. I think it is largely true . . . or, at least I can't come up with a more elegant theory to explain what God is up to with this crazy universe. And yet . . . something bugs me about the way people have embraced this framework for thinking about spirituality, and I keep coming back to trying to articulate why it rubs me the wrong way.

The evolutionary camp holds up the physical evolution of the species as Exhibit A. "See, life is becoming increasingly complex! God's highest creation has emerged, and continues to emerge, in a process of evolution!" This is superficially true, and at the same time seems to ignore some inconvenient truths about the nature of physical evolution:
  1. Evolution is a chance process. There is no teleology to evolution, no direction. Yes, more complex forms of life have emerged as a result; so have less-complex forms of life. The human and the virus share the same planet, and have equal claim to God's love. So it seems a little presumptious to leap to the conclusion that evolution is "about" making more complex, self-aware life. Evolution results in whatever is most appropriate to the environment; usually, it would prefer the less complicated solution. I sometimes comment: "Gee, if God is into complexity, he sure likes bugs a lot."
  2. Evolution doesn't have any winners. We might be tempted to think that we're the pinnacle of evolution, the "cutting edge", and therefore the purpose of the universe. Yeah, well, the dinosaurs probably thought the same thing. And they're dead. Like, really dead. They aren't alive, and not even their descendents got to inherit the earth. Some lousy mammals took over, the bastards. So, maybe we're the wave of the future . . . but it is also equally likely that we, too, will expire as a species, and Nature will try again with something else.
  3. Evolution has lots of losers. When people talk about participating in the evolution of the universe, they think of themselves as contributing to some great overarching work, like they were posting to God's Wikipedia or something. They imagine that their life is somehow a cumulative, concrete, permanent addition to the progress of the universe. But evolution (physical evolution, anyway) is not like that. For every useful adaption, there are thousands, maybe millions of individual lives that don't do dick to help evolution. In fact, most of the variation that happens will probably be retrograde -- failed experiments, if you will. Most people don't like to think of themselves as "a failed experiment" -- but evolution would suggest that, most likely, yup, that's what you are.

Now, it may not be fair to carry over the nature of physical evolution to the realm of mental, or cultural, or spiritual evolution . . . but hey, if you're going to latch onto all the positive aspects of an idea, and ignore all the negative ones, I'm going to get suspicious. In fact, I'm going to start suspecting that the current crop of evolutionary-minded thinkers are doing what many thinkers of the past have done: project their preconceived ideas upon the world, and presume they have found "evidence" for their ideas in the nature world.

A theology of good deeds

Janet and I were talking last night about the various volunteer commitments we both have. We were not the most civic-minded people when we were in college, but our time with the SKS left us with a permanent need to serve which seems to defy all logical reasoning. That's not meant as a big pat on our backs; it really does defy practical reason, because when we try to figure out whether we are doing the right things with our time, we have a hard time justifying the commitments we've made, or choosing between them.

I've been feeling the need for a theology of good deeds; that is, a consistent philosophical explanation for why we are doing the work we are doing. Or, I should say, a new theology of good deeds, because there are plenty of models lying around, but none of them seem to work for me:
  • Spiritual materialism. This was Chogyam Trungpa's term for the notion of "laying up treasure in heaven" -- the notion that the good deeds one does are somehow accumulating credit for the individual in some kind of afterlife or higher spiritual reality. On the surface, it seems sensible enough, except that it is ultimately an egotistical, self-centered and self-interested view of good works. Good works do earn the doer a level of respect and admiration from peers and on-lookers, but we all know in our bones that that's a shallow motive and contrary to the true nature of what should be driving a life of service. And that's tough news for someone asking the question, "What is my life's purpose?" because it calls out the fact that all this talk of life's purpose is really all about Me-Me-Me. Since when was it your life, anyway?
  • Spiritual evolution. A number of current gurus (Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, etc.) have framed up evolution as the central theme of spirituality. In this view, God is unfolding within the universe in a continual path towards greater complexity, sophistication, and self-awareness. Each individual is a part of that unfolding, and the degree to which we can manifest that direction in our individual lives is the measure of our contribution to the overall direction of the universe. There's a lot going for this perspective, not the least of which is that it seems to be factually true: evolution is happening, and evolution is a very elegant theory for explaining all sorts of things. It gives people a sense of teleology, a sense that all of this is going someplace, and that they are a part of a God's creative process. Nonetheless, I suspect there are some flaws in the model, or at least in the conclusions people draw from it. I'll explore these in a later post; suffice it to say that evolution looks quite grand in its full sweep, but is cold comfort to the individual.
  • God-immanent. Some would suggest that the work we do is a way of immediately realizing God within the scope of human experience. Jesus was not really kidding when he said, "Do this unto the least of these, and you do it unto me." We really are serving God when we serve man, and, more importantly, we become God when we serve. Under this model, the service is a goal unto itself; you don't have to question the direction, or motive, or effectiveness of the current means to be manifesting divine Love in the world. I like this model for its simplicity and directness; I think to some extent it is certainly true. However, I think it can lead to a soup-kitchen mentality of good works, where people happily content themselves with the good vibes of doing the most obvious kinds of charity, and neglect the really hard work of thinking through the best solution. Handing someone a blanket is almost always gratifying, for both parties; crafting social policy to avert homelessness, so they don't need the blanket to begin with, is a lot harder.
  • "Follow your bliss." "Geez, man, you're just thinking about this way too hard. Why don't you just do the thing that you find personally most rewarding and satisfying, and not worry so much about this 'highest and best use of your time' crap?" I get this a lot, especially from the people who see me struggling to do the work that doesn't come easily and that I would altogether rather not do, except for the fact that it needs doing. There is definitely some room for personal preferences and temperament when it comes to a life of service; you might think that living like Mother Theresa is the best way to be, but you just might not be cut out for it. Or, in my case, I think the highest path is to be an organizer who makes things happen, when in fact my talents are more geared to being an intellectual and teacher who (hopefully) instructs and inspires. But here, too, I think the approach is too often misused. Spiritual work is hard; charity is hard. If you don't think so, you're probably not trying hard enough. Using one's personal sense of blissiness as the measure of one's direction is not entirely trustworthy.

So what model does work? That's just it -- I don't know. I think the truth is woven into all the above, but I haven't heard it formulated in a way that speaks directly to me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

I had posted recently about an ongoing dialog with SKS people about the relative values of "finding the truth" versus "doing good." I found it even more interesting when I read Ken Wilber discuss "the differentiation of the value-spheres" into "the Good, the True, and the Beautiful." As he discusses it in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, the virtue of modernity was that it allowed the value spheres to differentiate, so that the search for truth (science) could progress without inteference from quest for the good (ethics) or the beautiful (art). The result is that we have much more sophisticated knowledge, social values, and aesthetics, since the value spheres are allowed to do what they do best, without getting in each others' way. It has also, alas, opened the door to dissociation of the value spheres, so that science denies validity to religion, and vice-versa.

I had always been somewhat suspicious of the philosophy cutting up "the Good" and "the True" -- while I can understand it readily enough, it always smelled like an ultimately arbitrary distinction that the Greeks (especially Aristotle) were so given to. But Ken Wilber has convinced me that the distinction between Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not arbitrary, because he ties them directly into modes of perception:

Truth = objective third-person understanding = "it"
Goodness = interpersonal relations = "we"
Beauty = subjective experience = "I"

What makes this especially interesting to me is the relative paucity of good spiritual guidance on the nature of the Beautiful. Religion seems to have lots to say about the True ("believe in this") and the Good ("live this way"), but doesn't seem to have a whole lot to say about the Beautiful. Sometimes, in the mystical poets like Rumi, you will find hints of how beauty relates to the divine . . . but its rare. More often, you will find something going the other way: authors and poets given over to the wonder of the creative process, and feeling a sense of awe that is almost indistinguishable from religious reverence. Poets like e. e. cummings and Carl Sandberg would show their heartfelt awe for the world and its creator, and also betray a certain distrust for any religion or politics that was full of prescriptions for knowledge and goodness, and yet had nothing to say about the eye with which they saw the world. Their romanticism, their trust in the individual, his perceptions and his creations, have been a continual koan for me. I have always had an intuition that the spiritual philosophies that I have trafficked in have been missing something important. Yes, we are called to discover the truth, and we are compelled to love our neighbor . . . but maybe even before that, more primal and immediate and real, we were called to something more basic: to be a witness to the universe. God has come here to See something. Open your eyes.

The Morality of Sleep

I passed out with Aidan when I put him to bed last night, and didn't wake up until 5 am. Sometimes I will go to bed early with the kids and then get up extra early in the morning, but 5 am barely qualifies as early, anymore, since the kids start stirring at 6:30 am and banish the peace.

I don't have a very good relationship with sleep. I sleep heavily and easily, but don't have much trouble functioning on six hours a day, which seems to be on the low end of most people's requirements. I should feel lucky about that, but mostly I still resent the need for sleep. I'm especially put out when my body suddenly demands more of it than I was prepared to give. I have fantasies about being one of those genetic freaks who need almost no sleep at all.

I'm just tired enough that I can't quite remember if I've written about this before. . .

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The elephant in the cathedral

Pope Benedict has discovered how dangerous it is to make sweeping generalizations -- or even to appear to be making sweeping generalizations -- about another religion, especially when that religion is Islam. I find it remarkably ironic that observers at once point out how "offensive" the pope's remarks are, since they imply that Islam is inherently violent and barbaric, and then immediately try to hold him responsible for the consequences of his words by tying the statements to the death of nun at the hands of Muslims. "Because you called the Muslims barbaric, they went and did something barbaric. Shame on you!"

I've been reading a lot in the blogs and news lately of various people, both from the Muslim world and the Western world (both Christian and secular), trying to answer this question: "Is Islam a peaceful religion? Or is it inherently violent?" There is a lot riding on this question, since so much of the "global war on terror" is either explicitly or implicitly framed as an ideological clash of cultures with radically different views of what society should be like. Or, to put it in simpler terms: "Westerners are decadent dogs" vs. "They hate our freedom."

It's not hard for someone to find passages in the Qu'ran that explicitly direct Muslims to convert people with the sword. So, if you want to pull a Pope Benedict, you can call it an open-and-shut case. But, in practice, it's been a mixed bag with Islam; some Muslim cultures have been remarkably tolerant (think Toledo in Middle Ages), while others have been brutally repressive (who else but the Taliban). And, it's going to be quite a shoot-out if you put Islam next to Judaism or Christianity in terms of tolerance. The Old Testament texts always seemed to be just as blood-thirsty as the Qu'ran, when it comes to conquering the Other Guy. Christianity might have a slight leg up in terms of straight theology with the whole "love your enemy" thing, but Christianity's track record on tolerance is almost as spotty as Islam's.

Reading Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul has given me a different perspective on this debate. Wilber points out that most of the values that we point to today as the pinnacles of our moral achievement -- the abolition of slavery, the rule of law, human rights, equality of women, etc. -- are the fruits of modernity. While they may their roots in the premodern religions, they are things that only came about in modern cultures, and were never realized by the strictly premodern religions. Jesus never said that slavery was wrong. Nor did he try to disrupt the status quo when it came to political or economic rights -- "give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" means that, when it comes to questions of worldly rights and order, Jesus is going to punt.

Now, I happen to think that Jesus got it right. He focused on the important stuff -- "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart . . . . and thy neighbor as theyself" -- and I feel no need to turn him into a progressive liberal in order to recognize the essential truth of his message and the sanctity of his person. But it's important to recognize that Jesus' message of love was only the starting point. It took modernism to allow that love to progress into societal values we have today.

So, all the monotheistic religions of the world are facing the same conundrum. They want to believe that God gave them, straight from the mountain top, the values that they have today. (Whether that mountain is Hira, or Sinai, or the Mount of Olives, is up to you.) But the original messengers of all faiths seem to have some rather embarrassing lapses of values, if by omission if nothing else. At some point, everyone has to acknowledge that peace, love, and understanding doesn't come from the revelations of the past -- it comes from the revelations of the present. It comes from us.

Every day or never

Have you ever noticed how many good-for-you things you're supposed to do once a week, or three times a week, or once a month? Nobody (well, almost nobody) insists that you exercise every day, or go to church every day, or clean your house, or reassess your goals. And yet, those are the things that seem to be the easiest to slide on, and the easiest to let go of. Miss going to a weekly meeting two weeks in a row, and suddenly going back seems like a monumental effort. Miss going to the gym for four days straight, and you stop even asking yourself if you have time to go to the gym.

For myself, it seems like the only sustainable pace for doing anything is "every day." If you have any choice in the matter, I will usually find myself putting it off -- whatever it is. Part of what has made my renewed commitment to writing as successful as it has been that I do it every day. (Ok, well, every day in a kind of flex-time, three-o'clock-in-the-morning-still-counts-as-yesterday kind of way.) As a result, I've developed a level of writing consistency that puts me in shooting distance of a professional routine. I haven't done that with exercise, and predictably my exercise is quite inconsistent -- maybe twice a week at most.

Interestingly, the every-day rule is especially pertinent for blogging, because readers are creatures of habit as much as writers. When you have a moment of downtime, and you're sitting in front of the computer, there are probably half-a-dozen sites that you might hit for quick read. (Mine are Dilbert, The Daily WTF, The Onion, Fanatical Apathy, and Hatrack River.) Interestingly, the order I check them (as listed) is not directly related to my level of interest in them, but in my subconscious understanding of how often they get updated. I know I will always get something new, every day, on Dilbert, even though I would much rather read an essay by Orson Scott Card. If you want to have readership, you have to produce every day.

So, what should you be doing every day?