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, February 17, 2007

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is one of those films you watch strictly by reputation, because it has actors you love (Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson) and you keep hearing about it in places and wondering whether you missed something. Certainly there is nothing flashy in the premise: a lifelong butler dedicates himself to the service of his lord, only to realize eventually that his loyalties were misguided. No dramatic clashes occur. No witty dialog, no dramatic speeches. Everything is smooth, quiet, and impeccably, insufferably British. In fact, I suspect the trailer for the movie must have been heavily voice-overed, because almost nothing distinct happens in the movie at all.

In fact, this is the consummate anti carpe diem movie. Some movies have the patience to show you a character, put you in their world, and then rachet up the tension to bring you to moments of unexpected significance. The Remains of the Day does that; you come away with a sense of what it would be like to be "in service"; you marvel at the armies of servants, consider the oddity of mopping a floor in a three-piece suit, and respect James Stevens' passion for serving to the utmost. So we do come to identify with the bachelor butler, feel his ambiguity as his lord's Nazi sympathies start to manifest, and writhe in the romantic tension between Mr. Stevens and the housekeeper Ms. Kinton.

Most movies, however, rachet up that tension in order to ultimately release it in a dramatic moment. You expect the butler to have a Lord Kent moment, where he rises up against the foolishness of his beloved Lear. You expect the leading lady to leap from the bus, run into the hero's arms, cast away all reserve and embrace what is true and right. But not here. You see these people -- lord, butler, and housekeeper -- face these moments of significance, and let it slip away, again and again. They decend into lives of quiet desperation, and . . . well, that's it.

So why should you watch it? It's a tribute to the actors that you actually can stay interested in two hours of almost nothing happening. Like Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, Anthony Hopkins displays his virtuosity by making internal struggles palpable with the most reserved of performances. It's so subtle that you don't even know, consciously, how he does it. As for unhappy, undramatic endings . . .well, that's life. Sometimes people marry the wrong people, pursue wrong-headed goals for the right reasons, and otherwise waste their lives. But how often do we feel the enormous tragedy of that, in a mere two hours?


Friday, February 16, 2007

Top Five Spiritual Books for the Serious Reader

I couldn't throw out a "top ten short spiritual books" without asking myself about the other side of the spectrum: spiritual books that were dense, long, and/or not necessarily accessible, but still profoundly worth the effort. Here's what I came up with. I could mention many others that would be worthwhile, but these seemed especially challenging.
  • The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. This 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning study in psychology and anthropology is a potent spiritual astringent. Becker builds a profoundly compelling case that most of our culture and individual psyche are elaborate mechanisms for denying our mortality. If you want to really get the full effect, read The Denial of Death while simultaneously reading The Death of Ivan Ilych -- then your intellect and emotions will get the full impact of the message and reinforce each other.
  • I Am That, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta (whose honorific name means "spontaneous one") is one of the few spiritual teachers whose profundity can be felt even through writing. This collection of transcriptions of conversations between Nisargadatta and questioners is probably the best way to emerse yourself in Vedantic, non-dual perspective.
  • The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilber. (Or, really, most anything Ken Wilber has written in the last five or ten years.) Ken Wilber probably has the best intellectual grasp of what's really going on in the world. His "theory of everything" goes a long way to integrating a massive spread of human thinking. There is just nothing that guy hasn't read; for any given idea, he can give you the intellectual geneology of it and name fifty authors who had anything to say about it.
  • The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Personal Development, by Ken Washburn. Similar to Wilber, Washburn provides an intellectual model for understanding the nature of spiritual experience. The difference is that Washburn seems to be writing bottom-up, examining real experience in detail and theorizing upward, while Wilber sometimes seems to be coming down from the clouds.
  • Tuning Into Grace, by Andre Louf. A monk writing for other monks, Andre Louf provides a roadmap for people who have dedicated their lives to spiritual contemplation. I think you probably have to be many years down the spiritual path before you can begin to appreciate it.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Shadow Returns

I've had a taste of my old life return. Yesterday was Valentine's Day, which is usually a time for paying attention to the ones you love most. Unfortunately, today is the day I have to make a big presentation to a big customer, and I have been hopelessly distracted, absorbed, and otherwise preoccupied with it. It was almost comical, how I would be in my own world, completely missing the "could I have more milk, please" from the kids, wandering around in a daze while the kids run wild around me. It was an unfortunate reminder of how much of my life was lived that way before. Janet and I had explicitly planned on doing nothing much for V-Day, but still, I wasn't in a frame of mind to be there, and that's a failure. Holidays, it seems, are my built-in reminder device for staying focused on the things that matter . . . which is exactly what they are supposed to be, the reason they were invented in the first place.

But . . . I'm on the wagon. I talked with Harry last night about giving me whatever breathing room he could in our schedule. I went to bed at eleven, which is about as early as I could go to bed without exploding from the tension. I woke up at quarter past 4 am, and decided the extra time was a gift from my subconscious. I will go to my meeting less prepared than I wanted to be, but also less full of big promises to cover up my perceived shortcomings.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Top Ten Short Spiritual Books

At the SKS meeting last night one of the students asked me for a reading list. "I'm looking for something that's not too long, something I have a chance of finishing," she said. It's a sentiment I run into a lot -- people just starting out on the spiritual path want to engage the work, but they don't have the fortitude just yet to tackle a 500-page tome. The bookstores are full of light-and-airy spiritual books you could read on the can . . . but what's actually worth reading?

So here's my from-the-hip top-ten list of short, accessible books with spiritual themes. (This is not the same as my top-ten list of greatest spiritual books of all time. Alas, the best is not always for the beginning.) :
  • On Having No Head, by Douglas Harding. Douglas Harding is the all-time master of "start where you are." His spiritual path begins and ends with one's one direct experience, and he writes about it with simplicity and directness.
  • Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal. An allegory of the spiritual life, this story tells of a team of mountain climbers who seek out to find and climb a mythical mountain that joins the earth to heaven.
  • Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu. There's a reason this one gets on nearly everyone's list. Both simple and profound, it expresses how eternal truths manifest in the world.
  • The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. A series of letters written by a senior devil to a junior devil, teaching him in the art of temptation. Practically no other book illustrates the psychological aspects of spiritual life better than this slim volume.
  • The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. If you liked Screwtape, you'll love The Great Divorce. A group of souls in hell are given the opportunity to take a bus ride to Heaven. There they meet souls who try to persuade them to stay . . . but most don't.
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy. If you want to know what it's like to die, and undergo the transformations that come from facing death, this is as close as you will come without going their yourself.
  • Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger. Salinger is only surpassed by Tolstoy in his ability to use the story as a means of spiritual transmission.
  • The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi is a Persian poet and mystic, whose world influence is on a par with Shakespeare. He is one of the greatest spiritual poets; only T.S. Eliot can compare.
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. A nice introduction to writing as meditation, this is both inspiring and practical. I got a lot of mileage out of her exercises.
  • The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. This is longer than the others, but it makes the list for its accessibility. Tolle is a contemporary enlightened man, with a knack for saying profound things without the usual murkiness of transcendence. If possible, get the audio version so you can hear him read it -- for some reason, his voice conveys the truth as much as his words.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kosher . . . ?

Every now and then, you want to cheat. (No, not cheat-cheat, honey . . . now put down that frying pan.) My schedule has worked quite well for me, and I've kept to my routine of sleep, writing, and exercise, and work with very few lapses. But the hard part about such resolutions is knowing when it break it. Having a set bed-time is a wonderful thing . . . except when your in-laws call in the middle of the night because they're in labor. Well, obviously, you think, that's an exception. But then there's the SKS meeting that runs late . . . well, that's something really worthwhile, so it's easy enough to bend the rules. Then there's the time you stay up late watching La Femme Nikita because, well, it's Friday and you have company and you never have any fun anyway so why not? If you keep making "reasonable" exceptions to the resolution, you may wind up right back where you started -- reactively justifying everything you do, and having no discernable order at all. That was always my problem before: what was right in front of me always seemed more important than anything else I ought to be doing, and my ability to correctly discern priorities in the moment of action really sucks.

I have more sympathy for the Orthodox Jews now. I used to mock the ways they embraced the demanding disciplines of rabbinic law, and then set about defining the law as minutely as possible so they can find loopholes and exceptions. Can't turn on the stove on the Shabat? Hey, let's put it on a timer! Sometimes it's a lot easier to keep the letter of the law than the spirit, especially when there's debate on what the spirit of the law really is.

So . . . what's the principle on following principles? When is the exception better than the rule? Some thoughts:
  • Obviously, it helps to have some flexibility built into the rules. Instead of hard-and-fast limits, it's better to have an ideal target with some stretch in it. My schedule can bend about half an hour in either direction without suffering too terribly. I can feel the difference between going to bed at 11:00 pm instead of 10:30 pm, but not enough to jeopardize everything else. By defining how much something can bend, it's easier to know when it will outright break.
  • Define hierarchies of value (i.e. priorities) as well as rules. It's a lot easier to know how to break the rules if you know which are the most important rules. That means that some rules will be sacred and inviolable, with no exceptions allowed, while others will be more flexible. For me, writing every day is probably the most sacred, followed by bedtime and exercise.
  • Define the intent and purpose of your rules. Any rule can be transcended if you can demonstrate a different path to the goal. This is the Budget principle -- you can rearrange all kinds of revenue and spending, so long as the bottom line remains the same. In my case, I can sometimes stay up late . . . but not without consciously planning on when the sleep will actually happen within the same day.
  • Make exceptions exceptional. The more faithfully you follow a regime, the easier it is to make sensible exceptions when circumstances merit. If you find yourself breaking the rules more often than keeping them, you're in trouble. How often is too often? I'm going to hazard a guess of 5%. If you do the right thing nineteen times out of twenty, you've probably got a strong habit that can bear a few exceptions. More often than that, and you're in slippery-slope land. And you need to especially watch out for consecutive exceptions; break the same rule twice in a row, and you're in deep doo, because now you've started a trend in the wrong direction.
  • When in doubt, ask someone else. Other people are much better at seeing through your blatent rationalizations. That, after all, is why we have rabbis.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Decisions, decisions

I sent out an email to the UNC SKS listserv last night, which borrowed heavily from my posts about "living up" to our beliefs and experiencing the urgency of true spiritual work. It was essentially a call to arms for people who want to live their lives with genuine urgency and passion. And Lauren, who can be immanently practical about such things, replied, "So . . . how are we going to deliver on that?" Which is to say: what the hell can we do in a meeting which can convey that seriousness?

Very good question. I had already told Lauren that the essential spiritual urgency was something people "picked up" on from others, not something that can be canned inside a safe meeting topic. So the only way that you can communicate what is most true about the spiritual life it to manifest it yourself. And if you can't manifest it yourself . . . well, your SOL.

So I asked myself: "What about the times when you did feel that urgency and that drive? When did you feel that intensity?" And the answer I arrived at was: when I made a decision that had real consequences for my life, in favor of the spiritual life. The only way you ever know you're serious is when you are paying the price. Until then it's all talk, all smoke and mirrors.

I think the first time I felt it was when I had to tell my family and my scientific advisor that I was going to spend the summer on a farm in West Virginia, instead of doing lab research to forward my career. I had been a good little boy in the academic world my entire life, so at the time it felt like the end of the world. In retrospect it seems so small . . . but I remember the strain of sitting there, listening to the lab manager tell me that I was wasting the chance of a lifetime, and not really being able to argue with him. And also the tremendous relief when my parents were completely cool with it.

I felt it again when I threw away my grad school applications and decided to stay in the area to work the Self Knowledge Symposium.

I felt it most of all when I broke up with my girlfriend because I wasn't willing to get married, because I thought she deserved a committment from me, and I wasn't willing to make it because I thought it would jeopardize my spiritual life.

Ironically, I felt it again when, a year later, I married that same girl . . . because I knew that I needed someone else to support me in my spiritual life.

So the question for the meeting, if there ever could be a single question that would manifest urgency, would be: when did you make a decision, a committment, to living a more real life, that had real consequences? And, what commitment could you make now that would lead to a more real life?


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Kaiser sues Los Angeles for patient dumping

Videotape catches city police leaving indigent patients in hospital waiting rooms and driving off

Los Angeles - February 11, 2007

A Kaiser Permanente hospital made headlines recently when a video camera at a skid row mission recorded a patient wearing only a hospital robe being left by a taxi. The city's attorney general sued the hospital for 'patient dumping', expressing shock and outrage at this "inhumane and illegal practice."

Meanwhile, Kaiser has filed a suit accusing the city of similar tactics of patient dumping. The suit claims that hospital security cameras show 256 separate instances last year of the L.A. police bringing injured homeless people to the hospital emergency room . . . and then leaving.

"The city believes that it can solve its problems of urban blight and homelessness with a simple strategy: make it someone else's problem," said Ray Czusindignation, media spokesperson for hospital. "Night after night, the city's police bring these people to our hospital emergency rooms, and just leave. No arranging for payment; no attempt to assess their situation and find a permanent solution. They just leave. And they expect that, because we took a Hippocratic oath, we've got to take care of these people, at our expense, and do everything necessary to insure they are safe when they leave."

"I've got news for Los Angeles," he continued. "That's not our job. We didn't sign on for that. If you want us to take care of everyone, get off your butts and establish a system of universal health coverage, so we can actually get paid to take care of these people. Or better yet, spend the money to make sure these hard-luck cases never get to the hospital to begin with."

When asked about the unlikely prospect of the government actually establishing a universal health care plan, Czusindignation replied, "The truth is we already have a universal health care plan. It's called, 'go to the emergency room, get treated for preventable health problems, and not pay your bill.' Then the hospitals pass the costs on to the insurance companies with ludicrously high charges, who in turn pass them on to the consumer with yearly double-digit premium rate hikes. It's a ludicrously inefficient way to take care of people."

"[City Attorney Rocky] Delgadillo can get on his high horse and act all outraged if we discharge someone with no clothes and no place to go. But, hey . . . that's pretty much how they were when they got here. You think we got we some magic fairy dust to solve homelessness? You think this is our problem? Who's really doing the dumping here?"

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