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 14, 2006

The Consumer Apathy Index

If Americans are so unhappy with their government, why don't more of them vote? The usual answers that we receive from the media -- ignorance on issues, loss of faith in democratic process, etc. -- have never really satisfied me. These sound like the comfy rationalizations for people who can't be bothered to make a side-trip before work to cast their ballot.

I have a much simpler answer: they are basically happy.

Let's face it: most of the issues that are decided in government are not affecting most citizen's day-to-day lives. Notice I did not say, "does not affect most citizens." Everything government does will indeed affect everyone, especially when it comes to the tax bill we pay for it all. What it doesn't do is directly, immediately impact the way the average citizen is living his daily life. If a citizen doesn't participate in the political process, he may pay a higher tax bill in the Spring . . . but he will most likely still get up in the morning at approximately the same time, go to the same job, come home to the same family, and watch the same TV shows. It is possible to watch three back-to-back seasons of "Survivor," paying no attention whatsoever to politics, and never notice a change.

I suspect this is also why government programs rarely get axed. Government programs, by their very nature, focus funds on specific people and issues in order to make direct, immediate impacts on people's lives. If you raise taxes, people grumble; but if you cut a program, you are certain to totally piss someone off.

Most people lament this state of affairs: "How awful. Americans are stupid cows. They don't care about anything important anymore." And I suppose this is true, to an extent. But I choose instead to focus on the underlying blessings that have allowed this to happen. We, as a nation, are so freakin' rich and peaceful that we have almost no concerns past who's going to make the playoffs. That we are apathetic is certainly a problem -- but it's a good problem to have. The very luxury that breeds this kind of apathy is also the same luxury that gives us enough time to notice and to care.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Wireless Homecoming

I was one of the relatively early adopters of wireless networking. I had a "B" network, the second generation technology that was a fraction of a 10base-T and had a range of about three feet short of the most comfortable chair. My first house had a lot of unshielded wires in the walls, so the wireless signal could barely get out of the office where I first set up the hub. Ironically, I wound up running more wires around the walls in order to position the router in the exact center of the house, so the wireless signal could reach to the kitchen or the bedroom.

Alas, the promise of wireless freedom was complicated by the reality of children. I thought it would be good for Janet to have a laptop in the kitchen, but toddlers could still pull on power cords, knock over sippy cups onto keyboards, etc. And it goes without saying that young kids are mesmerized by computer screens and will, like hyperactive zombies, stop at nothing to put their hands on that brightly colored square.

But now my kids are 5 1/2 and 2 1/2, which is just barely old enough for both of them to know they need to leave daddy's stuff alone. And in the last five years, the technology has matured. Between the extended battery life and the super-extended wireless range, you can finally kick back on the sofa with a laptop and not feel an invisible tether around you.

So that's where I am, right now. I rarely blog away from my desk, but when I do it feels luxuriant. I'm having a hard time now imagining how anyone could make the user experience any more comfortable. If they could make it indestructable, that would be nice. But beyond that, this seems to be as good as it gets.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Peace in our timelessness

I've been listening to Even the Sun Will Die, an interview with Eckhart Tolle that took place on September 11th. Eckhart Tolle is one of those people you have to hear as well as read, because you pick up a lot from him just in his voice.

The center of Tolle's teaching is that of timeless awareness; essentially, "Only the present moment has reality." Past and future are creations of the mind, and the only thing that is ever real is what is happening right now. All thinking (and therefore all the traps that thinking can create) is focused on past and future: we remember events from the past, try to make a story to make sense of it, and hope and fear about what's going to come. Focusing on the Now immediately removes a person from most of what they thought was real: a person has almost no identity in the present moment, since our memories of past and ambitions for the future are most of what we consider ourselves to be.

Tolle is not really breaking new ground here; "be here now" is one of the most hackneyed spiritual truisms of the last century. Which, I think, is why it is finally hitting me so directly. I had spent so much time being dismissive of such hippie-talk, which often served as a thin rationalization for evading responsibility, that I had missed the truth that it contained.

The phrase that Tolle repeats that haunts me is: "Many spiritual seekers think they need more time to become enlightened. But the one thing that is essential -- your true nature beyond form -- time cannot give you. You can only find it right now."

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Bone Collector

We all have certain movies that we are ashamed to admit that we watched to the end. The Bone Collector really sucked, and yet I somehow sat here, laptop in lap, meaning to start writing something else, and just sat here and subjected myself to a poorly written crime thriller.

I'll cut myself a little slack. I've had a very stressful day, and I had no strength to resist cheap plot devices, wildly improbable investigative leaps, and paper-thin premises. In a forensic-driven story, you expect to see some brilliant deductions from tiny bits of evidence . . . but here all the clues are neatly packaged for Amelia to discover: "Oh, look, a bolt with a little piece of paper on it." "Oh, look, a matchbox with a little piece of paper on it." "Oh, look, a bone with a little piece of paper on it." Eventually we get pretty tired of congratulating Amelia for her brilliant instincts at finding small objects with little pieces of paper on them. Especially since the editing and camera work never really gave us the chance to play along, looking for the clues ourselves.

But, hey, we learned some very interesting things about forensics:
  • Crime scene analysis for a serial homicide case must be conducted solely by one untrained but good-looking police officer in an extremely dark, underground crime scene with a Mag light and two or three little baggies.
  • In order to get good fingerprints from a pair of handcuffs, you must cut off the victim's hands with a hacksaw.
  • Photographs can be infinitely zoomed to read tiny print from far away. (But then again, we had already learned that from Bladerunner.)
  • Every bolt, bullet, or pile of sand can be sufficiently analyzed to lead you unerringly, with MapQuest-y precision, to a specific intersection in downtown Manhatten.
  • Crime scene investigators pack heat.

It's a good thing that we got such interesting, accurate information about forensics, because after indecipherable clues, inscrutable motives, irrelevant rescues, and utterly unsatisfactory non-conclusions, we didn't have much else to keep us going.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Learning by teaching

In a really ironic way, many of the things I have learned to do well, I learned because I had to teach them to other people.
  • I taught courses in "writing as a spiritual discipline" for years, but always felt like a fraud because I didn't have a really solid writing discipline myself. It was that cognitive dissonance that forced me to daily blogging, where I rediscovered and internalized many of the things I was teaching.
  • In the SKS, I'm always teaching the students about the value of making and keeping commitments . . . which invariably forces me to reevaluate my own capacity to make and keep commitments (which sometimes has been less-than-stellar).
  • As a consultant, this is a regular part of business. Sometimes people hire me because of my specific knowledge in a specific field, but given the breadth of my projects and their very nature (systems integration) there are always lots of things I'm learning on-the-fly. And, with most technical things, you don't have to know that much more than everyone else to become the local expert.

It comes down to making the committment to learn. Once you get up in front of a bunch of other people to teach them something, you feel an awful lot of pressure to know what you're talking about. And because the teaching always has a deadline -- an explicit time and place when the class takes place -- you don't have a lot of room to procrastinate or fudge.

If we embrace this approach, it turns into a kind of conscious hypocracy -- teach the things you know nothing about, model the behaviors you yourself are lacking. Weird. But, as Hamlet said, "Assume a virute if thou hast it not." We will fake it until we make it . . . or, more precisely, fake it in order to make it.

This also is why I think teaching should be a core part of the curricula in education at nearly all levels. The process of trying to model and transfer skills and understanding is a powerful way to motivate and reinforce your own learning.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Five Star Student

In thinking about the teacher ratings, I recalled something Augie said once: "Finding a good teacher is not a problem. There are lots of good teachers. Finding good students -- that's the problem." His point, I think, is that it is rarely the teacher that is the limiting factor on a spiritual seeker's quest. The student is ultimately responsible for the results of his spiritual effort, and, as Rose said, "Results are proportional to energy applied."

So, if it's fair for the students to rate their perspective teachers, it's equally fair for the teachers to rate their students. Criteria would include:

  • Consistency of effort. Does the student show up regularly for meetings, meditations, and other activities? Or is their attendance spotty, or overly dependant on other factors?
  • Understanding. Does the student display an understanding of the teaching? Can the student correctly articulate the teachings, and demonstrate their application in their daily life?
  • Selflessness. Does the student simply show up to take what the community has to offer, or do they contribute to the overall effort to sustain the community and the teaching?
  • Dedication. Does the student ever dedicate themselves to an in-depth study of a particular teacher or teaching, or does she perpetually float from one teaching to another, without making a commitment to the path?
  • Humility. Can the student, as they say in the movie biz, "take direction?" Are they willing to listen to the teacher, take all advice under serious consideration, and even take some advice on faith, even when it doesn't immediately make sense to them? Or is the student "full of themselves," unwilling to change their ways or acknowledge any authority beyond their own ego?
  • Character. Is the student reliable? Dependable? Trustworthy? Are they capable of making a decision and carrying it out? Or are they flighty, dissolute, or have their head up their ass?
  • Stability. Does the student live a life that has sufficient stability to support a spiritual life and practice? Or is their continual crisis and drama that interrupts any consistent effort?

What if the students showed up with similar report cards of their capacity as students? Would the teachers still be willing to work with them? The teacher, after all, can have just as much investment in the student as the student has in the teacher, and just as the student doesn't want to waste time on a bogus teacher, the teacher doesn't want to waste their effort on a hopeless student. I remember Andrew Cohen saying, "I always make the mistake of taking the student more seriously than the student takes themselves seriously."

I also think the two ratings will feed into each other. I will be much more inclined to accept a rating of a teacher if it's coming from someone who is recognized as a good student. A student's credibility will be enhanced by working with a highly regarded teacher.

If all of this seems unlikely, bear in mind that some dating services now allow members to rate their dates and leave comments. Should we expect less seriousness in our spirituality than in our choice of mates?


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Five Star Guru

With Ken Wilber's talk of a "deep science" of spirituality, with all the same aspects of verifiable direct experience that come with material science, I started thinking about how that world-view jives with what's really happening in the spiritual world. Although there is a lot of consensus on big-picture things in the spiritual realm, there are an awful lot of gurus and teachers and systems that all make absolute claims in terms of their spiritual teaching. If all of it is so darn verifiable, why are there so many variable teachings, meditations, and practices? And what standards will we use to evaluate them all? It's not enough to, as Wilber says, "Take up the injunction" and run all the experiments ourselves. Most of the spiritual injunctions put out there require months and years of investment -- we don't have time to test them all.

I started to imagine a Guru Rating System, something that would allow people to cut through some of the noise with some semi-objective knowledge of what the teachers and their related schools offer. After about two minutes fantasizing about Consumer Reports-style circles and categories such as "Time Commitment," "Style," and "Exposes", it occurred to me that someone has surely attempted this already. Sure enough, "Sarlo's Guru Rating Service" is a pretty thorough attempt to categorize and rate ~1,500 gurus. He takes a relatively light tone (the home page has starburst declaring "now with 28.7% more credibility!") but it's clear he's made an honest attempt to read all available material and make an informed editorial judgement. I was happily surprised to see that Richard Rose got top ratings, in the same league as Nisargadatta Maharaj.

There are, of course, lots of pitfalls to evaluating spiritual teachers in such objective terms. There is the potential for bias, for misunderstanding, for politics and favoritism. And the whole notion of the students judging the teacher is somewhat upside down; after all, the whole reason we look to teachers is because we suspect that our world-view is incomplete and flawed, and our native judgements potentially invalid. Still, I think the perils of doing such evalutations are outweighed by the perils of not doing them. There has to come a point where the spiritual marketplace is held accountable for its offerings.