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 28, 2006

Believe in me

Wired had an interesting cover this month: "The New Atheism: No Heaven, No Hell, Just Science. Inside the Crusade Against Religion." I expected something splashy and superficial, but it actually turned out to be an extremely thoughtful treatment of the most famous non-believers and their current attempts to dispel religion from modern thought.

The author makes no bones about being generally sympathetic to their cause, and he lets the proponents of non-belief -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett -- make their case in their own terms and on their own turf. He also isn't shy about bringing up the natural counter-arguments to their positions. How can they be so critical of close-minded certainty, when they themselves are so damn self-righteous about knowing the truth? Dawkins, especially, seemed to be full of social-engineering aspirations, thinking it much better if the state could teach children instead of the parents.

The most interesting exception the tone of strident rebellion was Daniel Dennett. I've always had mixed feelings about Dennett, because I loved The Mind's Eye, and yet the man himself was rather unpleasant, in a sneeringly superior way, when I extended him an invitation to speak at my school. (The experience contrasted strongly with my talk with Douglas Hofstadter, Dennett's co-author of The Mind's Eye, who was extraordinarily nice to me, even though he turned down the offer to speak.) But I liked Dennett's tone; he was not out to get faith, like all the others. More importantly, he knew that reason alone could not generate values, and that at some point humanity had to have faith in something, even if that something is just their moral intuitions. It was a subtlety lacking in almost all the other atheists.

I guess I was most disappointed in the fact that no one, not even Dennett, really addressed the question of meaning. The atheists recognized that they needed to do more to make their philosophy more attractive, if they were going to change people's minds. It seemed to me that the first job of such a philosophy would be to make a compelling case for morality, meaning and purpose. There are a brave few, like Stephen Pinker, who are trying to show that you can have a real morality and purpose without positing divinity. I wish there were more . . . but then again, if they were fully aware of those needs, they might not have been atheists in the first place.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 27, 2006

POST traumatic stress disorder

Dang. I wrote stuff yesterday, and the post kept failing. I tried one last time, and poof! the article is gone. Lost in the void. That hasn't happened to me in a long time. Time to get that Word add-in working.

Ironically, I'm proud of the fact that I have put as much energy as I have into writing and not gotten hung up on the technology involved. Before, I wasted so much time worrying about implementation that I never got around to writing. I still chafe occasionally at having a default-setting, bug-ugly site, but it always reminds me that the energy that is available is going into the right things. I read once in an organizing-your-life kind of article: "You can only feel good about what you're doing when you can feel good about what you're not doing."

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Is Suffering Necessary?

Is suffering necessary for spiritual growth? It's a point of much discussion, especially among the more modern seekers who are trying to define a spiritual path both apart from and yet informed by the traditions that have preceded them. Everyone agrees that suffering happens to everyone. Most agree that something can be done to alleviate, perhaps eliminate suffering from the individual human life. (Many people, following the Buddha's lead, actually define the spiritual path as the quest to eliminate human suffering.) But the question of whether suffering is essential to the process of spiritual illumination . . . well, that's a toss-up.

Plenty of spiritual disciplines have consciously employed suffering to spiritual ends. Fasts, vigils, sackcloth and ashes, pilgrimages, sacrifices, mortification of the flesh . . . yes, lots of people think that enduring suffering can be a spiritual practice. But that whole approach is usually layered in pre-modern religious traditions that may seem at best quaint, and at worst masochistic and barbaric. Few modern seekers are going to break out the flails any time soon.

So what's the essential truth that we should take from the traditions that glorify suffering? The Buddha identified desire as the root of suffering -- it's our craving for pleasure and (more importantly here) our aversion to pain that leads to our constant suffering and discontent. By consciously embracing suffering, the seeker overcomes the automatic aversion and (in theory, at least) learns to be detached and equanimous in the face of pain.

There is another, more psychological take on the suffering, one employed by ancient Zen masters and "crazy wisdom" teachers and Marine drill seargeants. They seek to put students in a position of perpetual stress, so that the suffering will drive them inexorably to a change of being. Such teachers see suffering as an essential part of the process, because only intense suffering will force the student to release their old ways of thinking and surrender to a new perspective. Eckhart Tolle described his own spiritual awakening as being the result of intense psychological suffering, and he generally sees suffering as part of the process of any awakening.

This is, of course, bad news to everyone who would prefer not to suffer. Boot camp is hard. And it also calls for careful discernment -- just because suffering can be transformative, does not mean that it always is transformative. Some suffering may just be plain old ordinary sucks-to-be-you suffering, with no other eternal benefit, and ought to be avoided. So how do you know the difference?


Monday, October 23, 2006


In The Purpose-Drive Life Rick Warren proposes that the purpose of all existence and life is "the greater glory of God." It's such a heavy word, "glory," that it's possible to miss his meaning. Thankfully he quotes from C. S. Lewis a lot, recognizing that giving glory to God is fundamentally about recognizing and appreciating the goodness of God's nature as reflected in creation, not just mechanically churning out hoseannas. It's getting pretty close to Aquinas' theology about the nature of creation -- the universe is an essential manifestation of God's nature. It is this way, because it is in God's nature for it to be so. The universe is the expression of God. How could it be otherwise?

And yet . . . this all seems to run counter to the whole notion of afterlife. If God's glory is fully revealed in Creation, then why bother with an afterlife? If the play is good and complete, why include an epilogue? The whole notion of Heaven seems to reflect a dissatisfaction with the world as it is -- "This couldn't possibly be all God intended . . . there's gotta be a second act, because this place sucks."

Again, this doesn't disprove afterlife . . . it just leads me to believe that it would be that much more grand if you could see life right now, as it is, as the manifestation of God, without needing to hope for some spa resort in the sky. Sometimes, especially when I'm anxious or bored or frustrated, I stop and say to myself, "You are already in Heaven. You are already in the midst of God." I don't always believe it, viscerally, but it stops my head. All my fear and concern and anxiety just bobs its head in Xander-like fashion and says, "I'll just shut up now."

Labels: ,

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Life is a (metaphor)

Rick Warren finally came through with something genuinely interesting. He explicitly addresses the metaphors people use to describe life. "If you think life is a party, then having fun is going to be the most important thing to you. If you think life is a race, then speed is going to most important to you, and you're going to be hurrying a lot. If you think life is a battle or a game, then winning is going to be very important." And he challenges the reader to identify the metaphors that currently guide their life.

This is good, solid self-knowledge. I could use this for an SKS meeting. There are a lot of popular metaphors these days: life is a journey, a quest, a game, a school, a dream. I find it remarkable that Warren recognizes the psychological power of these metaphors and how they shape attitudes.

The first thing that popped into my mind was, sadly, "Life is a job." I process all of my life through the filter of Work. According to my ruling metaphor, life is full of customers and coworkers who must be appeased, tasks to be accomplished, deadlines to be met, and the primary reward (other than the occasional pleasure in the work itself) is that I get to get up and do it again the next day.

Labels: ,