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.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Meditation Blues

I was listening to the very end of The Marriage of Sense and Soul, and Wilber was talking about the value of meditation and all the physiological, psychological, and spiritual effects that it has. I said to myself, for the bazillionth time, "Why don't I make a regular discipline of meditation?"

I have been a serious meditator in the past. I undertook some intense meditation retreats in the past -- 10 days of meditating twelve hours a day. For about eight months I meditated two hours a day. For about another year I meditated an hour a day. In fits and starts I have engaged in various meditative disciplines: vipassana, Zen, vedanta, and good old-fashion Christian rosary. And yet I have never been able to make it a permanent part of my lifestyle . . . in spite of the fact that most every spiritual teaching makes it clear that it's strongly advised, if not mandatory.

Why don't I keep it up? I have a few ideas:
  • It's entirely possible that meditation is not compatible with the way I live the rest of my life. In all aspects of my life -- career, home life, and spiritual community -- I am continually persuing a relatively ambitious, hectic, time-crunched, over-committed agenda. I invariably hit periods of time when one of my doing priorities overwhelms my committment to meditation. "I really can't sit right now, I have to get this stuff ready for the SKS meeting tonight." (Of course, the SKS tradition would argue that confronting all those competing priorities is a kind of meditation, but that's beside the point. The commitment to cultivating an interior state is not as strong as the commitment to building an external, tangible result.)
  • I've never really felt any progress in a daily discipline. In intense meditation retreats I have gotten to extraordinary states of concentration, peace, and calm . . . but daily sits of limited duration have never gotten me to that state. It is more likely an exercise in frustration, attempting to push out distractions and thoughts, or just keeping from falling asleep. Goenkaji's vipassana tradition insists that two hours of meditation a day should be enough to alter your daily state of mind . . . but I could never really tell if it was doing anything for me. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was very relaxing and comfortable, but it just didn't seem to be at all transformative. It's hard to maintain a steady discipline like that without seeing some results. (Of course, the Zen tradition would maintain that even thinking in terms of results would be wrong-headed and contrary to meditation.)
  • My theology never really came to terms with meditation. When it comes to brass tacks, I have more faith in doing than being. Somehow I think God will love me better for serving the Group or building or making something, instead of just changing my interior states.

So, if I wanted to change any or all of that, what would I have to do?

  • Get a meditation teacher. I count Augie as my spiritual teacher, but he has never been a teacher of meditation. That's not a critique at all; it's just not what he does. If I want to get better at it, I need some real guidance from experienced teachers.
  • Sit with a group. I used to meditate with various groups in the SKS, and I could probably do it again, if I made it a high enough priority.
  • Give up something on the material side. There's just not enough room in my life right now for meditation, so something's got to give. I know that if I was smarter about my work, more conservative in my estimates, more modest in my expectations, maybe I could get the time back. But that, in itself, is a meditation of the highest order . . . if I could do that, I'm not sure I would even need to meditate.


The Crucible

We just watched Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It's the kind of movie you need to watch in the middle of the afternoon or early evening, because it's going to take a little while to get it out of your system. Courtroom dramas can be quite intense, but seventeenth-century court dramas are excruciatingly more so, because the stakes are so much higher.

What struck me most about the story was the depth of the roles given to the women. Usually in such stories, the woman is the defender of life and love and the man is the defender of principle. There is usually a High Noon moment when the woman says, "If I love you and you love me, what does it all matter?" and the man says, "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." But we don't get that here. John Proctor does believe in principle, but his wife Elizabeth even more so. John tries to get Elizabeth to tell him what to do, wants to live for his family, but she refuses to take the burden of principle from him. When people are pleading for her to try to get John to confess, she says, "He has his goodness now -- God forbid I should take that away from him."
The play convinces you, in heartbreaking fashion, that there are some things more important than life or death.

What also struck me about the play (or, at least, this rendering of it) is how much time it spent on both sides of the story. Normally, you know the bad guys from the good pretty quickly . . . but here, we spend a good half-hour seeing most of the story from point of view of Abigail and her family. We identify with her, at least enough to know that she's over her head, and hoping that somehow she will redeem herself. But after the first scene between Abigail and John Proctor, we feel the momentum shift. What was strength and determination in Abigail is now seen as weakness and wickedness. Then the story circles around John, and his virtues and sins. Even that would have been enough for most stories, but then it expands to be about Elizabeth, and her role is in some ways the most definitive and encompassing perspective of the whole play.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Foley artist

After several days of press coverage, I've about had it with the whole Foley flap. I don't feel particularly inclined to defend the guy, since what he did was certainly sleezy. But the fact that no legal body can find any legal grounds to press any charges only proves that he was merely sleezy.

I can find no internal consistency in our society's attitudes about sexuality. Teens have sex with other teens, and we shrug it off. People sleep with each others' wives, and we seem to think that's their "private lives." We douse ourselves in media that has gone beyond suggestive into obscene. And then we are shocked, shocked to hear that someone sent suggestive messages to someone else that they shouldn't have sent. It's not that there wasn't a line crossed -- it's just that our reaction seems profoundly out of whack with everything else that's going on. If sixteen-year-olds need that much defending against sexual predation, then can't we defend them from each other, for God's sake?

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Free market ethics

I am a big fan of our capitalistic, free-market economic system. At least, I believe it is the best of all options when it comes to intelligently directing resources and correctly valuing all things. Markets are savvy exchanges of vast amounts of information, flexible and collective and (for the most part) quite rational. Still, it has its flaws . . . the biggest of which is a paucity of true ethics.

Many people cite the ever-increasing number of business scandals as evidence that capital has no morality. But the WorldComs and Enrons and Tycos don't bother me too much, because most people (especially in business) still recognize that what those executives did was wrong. What really bugs me is when our very notion of right and wrong starts to slide, and ethical lapses clothe themselves in the market language of competition.

Take negotiations, for instance. In the idealized vision of free markets, two free parties will negotiate with each other over a transaction, and if both parties freely agree to the terms of a particular arrangement, then those negotiations are termed "fair." That sounds good on paper, but it quickly devolves into a hypercompetitive aggressive stance that says, in effect, "What's fair is what I can get away with." Businesses routinely beat up vendors over their prices, getting quotes from multiple sources and then using the best price from the deepest discounter to pummel a better deal out of the others.

That is the way of markets. I suppose it forces everyone into the most realistic price. But just think about that mentality: "What's fair is what I can get away with." What was fair in the context of negotiations suddenly gets shady when applied to other realms. "I probably won't get audited on this deduction, so I'll go ahead and take it. That's how the game is played, right?" "Oh, those employee will never notice that we took a little off the top of the pension fund." "Well, I did take an obscene bonus from a company that is floundering and back-dated my stock options to boot, but hey, the board approved the package."

In only a few steps, the ethic of competitive markets becomes . . . no ethic at all. "What's fair is what I can get away with." In other words, "Cheat . . . but don't get caught."

This mentality has pervaded all of the business world, not merely the ranks of corporate CEOs drunk with their own power. I see it especially when it comes to Accounts Receivable. It's the most basic part of doing business: getting paid. But, oh, the tangled webs we weave to postpone paying our bills. We're still stuck with this quaint system of "terms," where we give people stuff and then don't expect to get paid for a month. (That might have made sense fifty years ago, but in an age of computers and modern banking, it's silly.) So businesses routinely play this little passive-aggressive game called "collections": "Gee, that invoice? I don't think we ever received that invoice . . . why don't you send it again." Some organizations don't even think about paying a bill until someone asks them point-blank for the money. And if no one comes calling to collect? "Oh, I guess we don't have to pay that bill." It's like the debt never existed.

Occasionally, with fits and starts, businesses awaken to another way to think about things. There is very serious talk about how "our people make the difference," and how we need to "delight the customer." Naked capitalism is capable of seeing the benefits of true service and true concern for the other guy. But we could still use a lot more of it.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mispaling Viroos

I had a few embarrassing lapses in spelling in a number of the last few posts I put up. Ok, who am I kidding . . . I've had errors in most every post I put up. Misspelling "empiricism" is a good way to lose your credibility to anyone who knows what you're talking about in the first place.

Fortunately, I have a loyal reader who catches these things and brings them to my attention. Thanks, honey. Unfortunately, I seem to have been unable to internalize the lesson, which is to use the damn spell-checker. So what's going on in my head, that I don't avail myself of such tools?

Part of it, ironically, is that I'm a spelling snob myself. My vocabulary is well-stocked with three-dollar words, and I know how to spell 99% of them, and it pains me to see obvious errors in others' work. The only problem is that my wife is better at it than I am. (A better speller, that is. I would also say that she's a bigger sn -- OW! OK, OK! Leggo of my arm! She's a better speller, and not at ALL hung up on it. She's wonderful, really! Sheesh.) So, there's some demon in my head that insists that the little button with ABC-check is for shlumps who don't know the difference between "it's" and "its".

I went through similar delusions of grammatical ability when I was a freshman in college. I had spent most of high school writing (herm-herm) very impressive essays, and I thought my freshman comp teacher would be equally amazed at the depth of my insight. Then a got back my first paper: "Two misspellings, two grammar errors, one attribution error: F." She wasn't blind to quality of my thought; she was just utterly unyielding on matters of form and style. She later told me, "I'm not here to teach you literary analysis. I'm here to teach you to write. So get used to it." I learned my lesson; I proofed my papers very carefully from then on.

Or, at least, I thought I had learned my lesson. Maybe I can blame it on Jasper Fforde's mispaling viroos. There's a lot of that going around, you know.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Empiricism uber alles

I've been really enjoying Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul, since he's trying to articulate a vision of spirituality that we've been working on for the last fifteen years in the Self Knowledge Symposium. It is essentially a philosophy of the ultimate empiricism: all knowledge -- physical, mental, and spiritual -- is validated by direct experience.

He makes his case well. He disproves classical empericism with a few deft strokes; since science itself depends on purely mental phenomena such as logic and mathematics, science cannot deny reality and validity to all interior states. I think any reasonable scientist would follow him quite willingly out of a narrow empericism of physical phenomena and into an empericism of mind, in which interior phenomena can be observed and understood as well as exterior phenomena.

Things get a little harder, though, when Wilber turns to the notion of an empiricism of spirit. It sounds good, to speak of spiritual injunctions (experiments) and validation, peceived "with the eye of contemplation." But it is, by its very nature and definition, ungraspable by the "eye of mind." The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao. I think I know what he's talking about. I have certain intuitions about the nature of God and reality that cannot be reduced observable phenomena or logical ideas, and yet which have a consistency and internal validity. But it's still hard to know for sure whether Ken isn't pulling a fast one on me. It was easy enough to imagine a unification of the physical with the mental in a single integral Science; since the mental is a "superior holon" to the physical, it can contain both the physical and mental together in a single mental system that we call "science." But I'm not sure you can talk about a "science of spirit," because science still seems to be a mental construct, and the lower mental sphere cannot completely contain the higher spiritual sphere.

The only way such a synthesis could continue is from just the opposite tack: rather that scientificizing the quest of the spiritual, he would have to demonstrate the Spirit that informs and underlies science. "Who is it that wants to know?" still seems to be the scientific question that points most directly back into Spirit. I know that Ken knows this, too, so either he is just trying to keep the rhetoric unmuddied for now, or there is something yet to come in the book that tie this up, too.

Frank Muller

Yesterday my family went out to Creedmoor to visit Frank Muller. Frank was the most recognized name in audiobook narrators for the last twenty years -- practically as long as there have even been audiobooks. On long trips to and from West Viriginia to see Richard Rose, Augie and I listened to countless books narrated by Frank: spy novels by John Le Carre, Westerns by Cormac McCarthy, and of course, the unending masterpiece ofMelville's Moby-Dick. Augie has worn out two copies of his Moby-Dick tapes, listening to the utter beauty of the work that Frank managed to evoke in every scene. (I know I would never have understood Moby-Dick without the benefit of Frank's narration.) We were fans, and found ourselves reading books we might never have picked up, simply for the fact that Frank was reading it. We cannot read Moby-Dick without hearing Frank's voice: "Call me Ishmael."

Frank suffered devastating injuries in a motorcycle accident in the fall of 2001. His career as a narrator ended. Many of the celebrity authors whose works had been graced by Frank's readings -- Stephen King, Pat Conroy, John Grisham -- sung his praises in fundraiser readings. I felt the awful sadness and shock of the loss, but heard little more about him.

Five years later, I got an email from Recorded Books, with a new plea for assistance from Frank's family. There was a picture of his wife and two children, and I read that he was in a treatment center in Creedmoor, no more than an hour away. I showed the email to Janet: "I didn't know he was so close." And Janet gasped: "Oh my God, that's Erika. And Morgan. And Diana." Janet had become friends with Frank Muller's family at the Emerson Waldorf School, and we had no idea.

So we finally went out to see Frank. Augie was thrilled to meet his hero, even in his diminished state. Augie told Frank that how much he loved Moby-Dick, and Frank responded: "Best book ever." There was light in his eyes when he said it; you could see that Frank was still there, obscurred though he was by a broken body and battered mind. Erika had to translate most of Frank's comments, holding his hand and looking into his face with the patient, full attention of familiarity and love. (Later Augie commented, "I think Erika is as remarkable as he is.") We talked about his many works, what we loved about them, how he got the accents right.

It is heartbreaking to see tragic circumstances: a master of words divide from his craft, and the very language he lived for. And even more heartbreaking to see love reach out, again and again, across the divide.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Scope of Work

Going to this architectural planning meeting school has brought me back to thinking about my "theology of good works." Whenever you start thinking about "what should I do with my life?" you immediately realize that it's not merely a question about direction; it's also a question about magnitude. You can't merely say, "I will dedicate my life to education," because the very next question is, "Ok, how much is enough? What do I realistically think I can accomplish in this lifetime? And is that going to be enough to satisfy me?"

I don't think these are trivial questions, because if you over-estimate or under-estimate your potential, you can wind up with what amounts to a wasted life. If you over-reach, you might wind up with a collosal failure on your hands, something that wastes huge amounts of time and energy and amounts to a net loss to the community you hoped to serve. If you undershoot, however, you wind up denying the world the benefit of your true potential.

I don't think there's a good answer to this conundrum. It's clear to me that some of the most effective people I have ever met have been perpetually frustrated with the limits of their accomplishments, no matter how great. The answer seems to be, "It's never enough."