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, March 17, 2007

Attachment, detachment, equanimity, and meaning

Kenny and I just keep digging into the whole detachment thing. He writes:
Suppose you live your whole life with the attitude "This, too, shall pass."
Something bad happens--a mosquito bite, a broken arm, a divorce--"This, too,
shall pass." Something good happens--a yummy bowl of ice cream, a great
vacation, a wonderful child--"This, too, shall pass." What would be the effect?
Would you become emotionally distant from it all, removed, detached? If so, I
would say that you are doing it wrong, or it was a bad idea in the first place.
But suppose the opposite happened: in abandoning all thought of this incident as
a stepping stone toward something long-term, you simply accepted it as the
reality right now. Accepting that the current reality has no permanent future
enables you to focus on it as the present. And the two apparently opposite
viewpoints are one.

So the recognition of impermanence is not the same as cold aloofness. We don't stop caring about things just because they are impermanent. We are, in fact, more free to engage things in the present moment if we are not preoccupied with whatever implications it as for past or future. What we strive for is equanimity, which is neither blind attachment nor cold detachment, but the absolute settleness that comes from recognition and acceptance of the truth.

However, that raises another (apparent) contradiction: how can you have meaning if there is no real past or future? When most people talk about "meaning" or "purpose", they usually have some kind of teleology in mind: this happens in order for that to happen, in order for that to happen, in order for everything to wind up there. What happens in the present moment is not seen merely as an isolated incident, but as part of a sensible progression to a desired end. In fact, the very people who are preaching the timeless reality of the present -- Eckhart Tolle, Andrew Cohen, etc. -- are also the ones who are heralding the dawn of a new age of enlightened consciousness, an inevitable evolution of the universe to greater consciousness. So, just when it seems like we've surrendered to the present moment, some overarching teleology has crept in the back door. Once again, we are trying to invest the present moment with future significance: "I'm going to be present now, in order to ultimately become enlightened, or allow the meaning of the universe to unfold" . . . or whatever.

Can you have your future and eat it, too?


Friday, March 16, 2007

Brave New

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's futuristic novel about a society that had simultaneously eliminated all suffering and all meaning, has always been high on my recommended reading list. But there were parts of it that I always thought were a little far-fetched. The people of the future had such super-attenuated attention spans that they couldn't begin to tackle a full story; their entertainment consisted of hyper-abridgements, Hamlet in 60 seconds and such. "Ok, he's exaggerating for effect," I thought. "Surely people wouldn't really subsist on minute-long entertainment."

And yet the future is here, and about 500 years ahead of Huxley's timeline. The cover of this month's Wired blares: "Snack Culture: Tasty Bits o' Fun!" They chronicle the inevitable progression of cultural condensation: the rise of abridgements, Cliff's Notes, and most recently, the emergence of YouTube and other one-minute-media. People don't have the patience to sit through a whole hour of TV anymore; they watch one-minute clips on their iPods. Even a ten-minute piece of music is deemed too long, and services now rip them down to about two minutes. Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube is seen as the death-rattle of old media, full-length content vainly struggling against a sea of snippets.

And who am I to scoff? This blog is representative of the same trend. I don't have time to write a novel, so I content myself with 500-word essays instead. Nor is anyone interested in reading more than 500 words at a go. . . mine or anyone else's. I was seduced by the power of instant entertainment last year by Scrabble on a cell phone . . . it's amazing how many hours you can kill five minutes at a time.

The only bright spot that I see, the one place where our society is not following Huxley's script, is the realm of user-generated content. We are not merely soma-doped cows consuming government-mandated entertainment. More people than ever before are creating the content. A five-minute blog reading can take an hour to write, and a five minute video can take days to create. So there's the sliver of hope that the interactive, participatory nature of the new media will engage more brain cells than it kills.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Paradox revisited

After I set up the apparent paradox between "living in the moment" (complete focus on the Now) and "this too shall pass" (complete detachment from present circumstances), Kenny had these comments:

I think about this stuff a whole lot when I'm on the elliptical machine in the
morning. I really, really hate the elliptical machine. My legs get sore and my
whole body gets covered with sweat--neither of which I mind too much--and I feel
like I can't breathe, which is the part I really despise. And yes, sometimes my
coping strategy is to tell myself "I only have five minutes left" or even to
actively picture the five minutes being up and getting off the damn thing. And
sometimes my coping strategy is to distract myself, composing an email or
solving a math problem in my head to make the time go.
But the better strategy goes like this. Suppose I suddenly realized that there were only five seconds left. How would I feel then? I would feel fine. Because the truth is,
the way I feel right now is fine, legs and sweat and breath and all. The thing
that makes it so very very awful is the "Ohmigod-I-don't-think-I-can-do-this-for-30-more-seconds-and-I-have-to-do-it-for-five-more-whole-minutes" thing. Right now, here in this moment, it's fine. It's the projected future that is terrifying.
The solution is, of course, to simply observe . . . What "this too shall pass" and "living in the moment" have in common is that neither of them is about "Ohmigod-I-don't-think-I-can-do-this-for-30-more-seconds-and-I-have-to-do-it-for-five-more-whole-minutes."

I think Kenny's in the ballpark on this one. The problem with life experience is not the experience itself, but our relationship with the experience. Something happens, and then our minds generate all kinds of illusory attachments or aversions in response to the experience. Recognizing the illusoriness of past and future, as well as recognizing the transience of the present moment, are both ways of saying, "Don't identify with things that aren't real."

It's easy to see the "experience" vs. "relationship with experience" distinction in a three year old child. Young kids see the world much differently than we do, and have extreme reactions to seemingly benign things. You give the boy his milk in a blue cup, and he has a screaming meltdown. "NOOOOOOOoooooooOOOOOOOooooooOOOOOO! I want the RED cup! AAAAAHHHH!" Sigh. It's hard to be patient, because it's so freaking obvious to you that the child's suffering is self-inflicted. Were he not so attached to the damn cup, this would not be a problem.

Now, the parenting pundits will have all kinds of things to say about "developing autonomy" and "testing limits" and all kinds of other psychological subtlties, but I think that's probably making it more complicated than it needs to be. The fact is, the kid is attached to something relatively insubstantial, and you see that, and he doesn't. But his reaction, and the suffering he endures, is identical to what we suffer when we have similar attachments to impermanent circumstances. "NOOOOOOO! I want the corner office! The CORNER office!"

Once you catch on to the fact that suffering is the creation of the mind, you might start to get smug and think you've got this game licked. "Ahh, now I just control the mind, and suffering goes away." But I've known that intellectually and experientially for about twenty years, and I'm not sure it's made much difference to my level of suffering. Why is it so hard?


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Over the Hedge

Things have been so stressful lately that I started filling the Netflix queue with lighter fare; I thought Over the Hedge, a Dreamworks animated feature with animal characters, would fit the bill. But it turned about to be about a raccoon who cons a clan of forest creatures into gathering food to help him pay a debt to an angry bear. Lies, deceit, looming deadlines . . . ah, yes, very relaxing.

Janet and I had a hard time engaging the movie at first. RJ the Raccoon, the anti-hero turned hero of the movie, was just too self-serving to inspire much love. Normally, when you have a main character on the lower echelons of life, you have to have some scenes to establish their likeableness and virtue. Disney's Aladdin might be a street rat and a thief, but he winds up giving his bread to some other poor urchin; he’s low but he’s noble, and oppressed by an evil order to boot. We don’t get that with RJ; we just see a greedy, theiving creature, who’s compulsion to have everything lands him on the bear’s bad side. And his predicament was peculiarly dire for a kid’s movie; it’s not often that a villain is so blunt to say, “I will find you and I will kill you.”

Admittedly, we needed to have such a despicable character in such extreme duress to have a personal transformation to build a story on. From a narrative standpoint, I liked RJ’s arch. He continues to follow his self-serving trajectory, even as he begins to feel greater and greater guilt for his con. He still leads the Family into great danger, and (once again) risks everything to get the very last can of Spuddies. It’s only when he hits absolute bottom – realizing that he has become the moral equivalent of the Bear – that he has his conversion. I have a soft spot for redemption stories, especially ones that follow a character waaaay back into the dark and bring them back out again. (That’s the only reason Angel held my interest for so long.) But this is a kids’ movie, for God’s sake.

Thematically, the film was a few shades too dark, as well. It was quite acidic in its critique of suburban life, in the Fun with Dick and Jane genre. Are we supposed to feel smug and superior, that we see the vacuousness of our own lifestyles and can laugh at it? Maybe we think we’re better than the Evil HOA President because we don’t drive an SUV and wish vicious deaths on woodland creatures, but really, how different are we? And if “civilization” is just one broad swathe of air-conditioned shallowness fed on junk food, blotting out the natural order, where does that leave our heroes? The story may austensibly praise the virtue of families, but it leaves them living in a very insecure world, surrounded by corruption. It’s not a world I would wish on my young kids, even in a story.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Eternal present vs. impermanence

When I wrote about students dreaming of a stress-free time that would never come, I suggested that there might be some healthy value in recognizing that the current stress would not last forever. Kenny disagreed:
"But Eckhart Tolle would, of course, completely dis- agree with your suggestion
that "It's probably a healthy way to deal with stress" and right now I'm
inclined to agree with him. Believing it will end soon is precisely what enables
you to sustain it indefinitely--right up to retirement or beyond--without really
confronting what it's telling you, and changing something."

Two prime truths of Eastern thought seem to be in conflict. On the one hand, if you pay attention to the moment, you are released from the tyrrany of past and future. On the other hand, if you recognize the impermanence of the current situation, you are liberated from the compulsions and reactions to the present moment, and are capable of detachment: "This, too, shall pass" was one of S.N. Goenka's favorite teaching phrases.

I have been meditation on this seeming contradiction, and ran out of time (ironically) to say any more about it now. I am guessing that it is only an apparent contradiction, but it's going to take a little longer for me to find the right way to express it.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Who's winning?

On the plane home from Birmingham I saw the woman sitting next to me was reading The God Delusion: What's Wrong with Religion by Richard Dawkins. I was tempted to strike up a conversation, but I have such contempt for Dawkins' point of view on this subject that I wasn't sure I would be able to remain polite. I was also tempted to take out my rosary, just to provoke her, but that seemed counterproductive, too. Anyone who was reading Dawkins with so much interest would probably be someone either newly liberated from some tyrranous childhood faith, or someone so thoroughly atheistic that they could match Dawkins shrillness. Neither felt like much fun to talk to. So I just sat back and slept, and occasionally snuck a peak at what she was reading.

What surprises me is how often Dawkins uses words like "emergency" and "crisis" to describe the state of religious culture in the country today. If half the country was goose-stepping and saying "Sieg heil!" he could not have used stronger language to denounce it. As he tells it, we are on the verge of slipping into utter chaos and darkness because of these unenlightened idiots.

The funny thing is, the religious fundamentalists are saying exactly the same things. They do not see a world getting increasingly religious; they see a world becoming increasingly secular, and fear a downward slide into moral relativism and social anarchy. When I mentioned the article in USA Today about Americans' religious ignorance to my client (who was a church-going man), he had the typical response: "Is it any wonder the world is going to hell in a handbasket these days?"

So . . . who's winning? Is religion gaining ground, as so many articles in Time and the Wall Street Journal attest? Or is secular humanism carrying the day? My guess is that both sides must be dead-even in influence, because neither side is feeling particularly secure. The volume of the rhetoric is turned up across the board, because everyone senses that the country is teetering on a tipping point, and could go either way. And there may yet be a niche for a Third Way, if someone can articulate a vision of spirituality that transcends both literal-minded mythology and soulless rationality.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Measure of a College Education

U.S. News & World Report addressed the question of the quality of college education in their latest issue ("The Measure of Learning," March 12, 2007). Evidently the feds are finally starting to scrutinize higher education with the same intensity they have been putting on public primary education for the last ten years, and (surprise, surprise) they find U.S. colleges to be performing poorly. The feds want an objective standard to measure whether the colleges are really educating people, and of course the colleges are aghast to think of somone trying to apply a universal standard to the college experience.

I've written before about how little our education system does to prepare people with essential real-world skills. But I thought some more about how I would gauge whether a college was doing its job, and I came up with a simple, albeit subjective test:

A college graduate should be able to carry on an intelligent conversation.

Every aspect of a good college education is engaged in spoken discourse:
  • The person must be generally well-informed and well-read to be able to hold up their end of a conversation on any given subject. That means that they read newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals with critical understanding. It means they have read enough philosophy and literature and history to be able to draw connections between current issues and broader principles.
  • The person has to be able to listen, learn, and critically assess information, all at the same time. A good discussion requires you to hear the other person's point, pick out the substantive points, and spot weaknesses in reasoning or information.
  • The person must be able to communicate effectively. They have to assess their audience, compose their thoughts, pick their points, and package it with a certain degree of artistic sense.
  • The person ideally has a sense for the people they are talking to, as well as the content of their discussion. They should be asking themselves, "Why does he care about this? What's his angle? What's really going on here? Does he really believe that, or is he trying to impress that girl?" That requires some practical psychology, sociology, and politics.
  • The person needs to be able to ask good questions. You don't even necessarily need to have lots of specific knowledge to have a conversation, as long you can ask good questions. Most forms of human endeavor -- science and business, especially -- rely more on asking the good questions than having the good answers.
  • They have to be the kind of people who enjoy having intelligent conversations . . . perhaps the best measure of all as to whether they have really become a cultured person.

The colleges can rest easy -- no one is likely to come up with a good standardized test to measure an intelligent conversation. But those of us who care most about the quality of college education -- the employers, and the parents -- will probably be able to make a good assessment of how the schools are doing. There, at least, the feds and I can agree: they aren't doing very well.