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, May 12, 2007

The real Symposium

When people hear "Self Knowledge Symposium," they usually think of symposium in its academic usage: a conference at which several speakers present on a given subject. But, from the beginning, we always intended it in its original Greek usage: a really good party with impassioned intellectual discussion. We had one of those last night: people from all three local student groups got together just to hang out . . . which is the best way to have the best conversations about things that really matter.

"I think Eckhart Tolle entirely misses the point," proclaimed Augie, beer in hand. "Five pages into his book, he says, 'I reached a point of utter despair that led to a catclysmic experience' . . . and then he spends the rest of the book talking about his meditation techniques! It was the despair that gave him the experience, not the mediation! Nothing wrong with his techniques, they're probably better than most, but that's not the essential part. That's the problem these days: nobody's talking about passion."

Well, not entirely true . . . there are some teachers and traditions that talk about passion. Andrew Cohen put "singleness of intention" at the very top of his teaching: "You have to want enlightenment more than anything else." And Nisargadatta was pretty explicit about it as well: "Earnestness is all." But his point is still valid, when you consider the spiritual landscape in general, especially in America. Everyone keeps acting like spiritual insight is the product of the correct techniques and practices, instead of the motivation and drive that brings the person to the practices in the first place.

But that was only just the opening argument for the evening. I talked with people about the dynamic tension of exclusivity versus inclusivity in spiritual communities . . . the virtues of different media for spiritual communication . . . the value of public communication for routing out egos . . . the creeping conservatism of age. I got enough to blog about for a week, from just a few hours with the right people. I only wish I could do it every night.


Friday, May 11, 2007

The Once and Future Blog

The Self Knowledge Symposium really needs a blog. For most of this past year I've been thinking about it, and I think the time has finally come to start making it happen.

Why does SKS need a blog?
  • The website needs content. We've got some cool stuff on the site, but cool stuff is usually only enough for one or two visits. If you want people to keep coming, and remain engaged in what you're doing, you need to give them a reason to come. Nothing wrong with having a cyber-brochure, but that was never our vision. We really wanted something that reflected the nature of our community: dynamic, participatory, something with a spine and an organizing principle but still open-ended and continually emerging.
  • Alumni need a way to engage. We've had many, many students come through our student communties, and then go on to remarkable lives . . . usually somewhere else. We try to keep tabs on our alumni, send them mailings and announcements, make them feel like a part of what we're doing, but when all your contact is one-way and group-initiated, it's extremely time-intensive and inefficient. We need to give the alumni a way they can really participate in what's going on. As both readers and guest writers, a blog gives them that avenue for active participation. We've had some remarkable email threads in the past that accomplished the same end, but they were sporadic and ephemeral.
  • Student groups need visible center to look towards. The campus groups tend to become isolated from one another unless something pulls them together. Sometimes it's easy to forget that there's a larger world of fellow-seekers out there. A blog could keep students engaged on a daily basis, too, which helps supplement weekly meetings to keep students constantly engaged.
  • Bite-sized content. The virtue of blogs (good ones, anyway) is that they provide "snack" content. It's small and easily consumed. Our current content is usually much longer: essays and white papers of several thousand words. As good as that content may be, it doesn't lend itself to online consumption, especially by newcomers. Blogs give a glimpse of style and content, enough to intrigue and engage, without overwhelming the reader.
  • Bite-sized contributions. Big content takes a big time investment. When we published The Symposium magazine, we discovered that getting people to write 3000-word articles required extreme forms of torture and duress. The end product was good, but it was always hard-won. We burned out a lot of good, creative souls bringing that magazine to press. Blogs, however, can (and should) be written in a single sitting. It's something small enough that even a busy person can contribute to it. And publication is instant, automated, and entirely non-centralized . . . so we can both produce content and get it out the door without meetings, budgets, and other pain-in-the-butt logistics. Low-threshhold contibution might seem like a (literally) small thing, but the vast wealth of content in the Wikipedia was built the same way: small, incremental additions by a distributed network of interested parties.
  • Leveraged effort. Of course, the usual reasons for putting stuff on the web still apply: the world gets to see it. If people are talking about good books, sharing experiences, planning their lives, arguing about weighty issues, and doing all that SKS stuff, I'd like to can it and get it out to whomever might find it.
  • Very cool. I'm excited about it. When I started blogging I didn't know where it would take me; I just knew I needed to start writing. But I did expect it to take me somewhere, and ultimately tie back into the spiritual work. This feels like the next step. Stay tuned.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Five Commencement Speech Ideas

A friend of mine is giving a commencement speech this weekend. She's a fine writer, but "commencement speech" is a pretty broad canvas, and you don't get a lot of direction to channel your creativity. So here are some starting points, for her and all those commencement speakers sweating out a last-minute address:
  • "In my end is my beginning." (from T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets) The metaphor of education as a "journey" is so hackneyed it will have audiences asleep in no time. But you might be able to recover the metaphor if you approach it as T.S. Eliot did: "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." We aren't trying to get somewhere, so much as we're trying to find out who we really are.
  • "Summa Cum Laude." As I discussed in a previous post, many students have performed well in school, striving to get the grades and the praise of their parents and teachers, but have yet to come to terms with the inherent ambiguity in life. No one will be handing out grades any more . . . are you ready to deal with that?
  • "Don't Be Evil." The Google corporate motto captures a popular reaction to an increasingly ambitious, achievement-oriented society. School teaches us how to do things; it doesn't necessarily teach us what things are really worth doing. Graduates move into a world with an ethical dimension in everything; they have to figure out what's worth doing. If they don't, the run the risk of chasing more achievements for achievements' sake, possibly at the expense of real goodness.
  • "Things You're Not Supposed to Say at Commencement." If you're feeling really bold, you can try to tackle all the difficult topics that are usually taboo at commencement. Are you prepared to be a good parent? Will you sacrifice your family for the sake of your career? Are you prepared to start a completely different career within five years? If graduating from Duke is such a big accomplishment, why do I still feel confused, scared, and unfulfilled? (I don't think you want to pummel people with too many hard, unpleasant questions on a day of celebration, but it might build some credibility and interest if you actually ask questions the graduates are actually asking themselves.)
  • "Gratitude." Rather than slathering on advice that will most likely be forgotten after five minutes anyway, it might be better to lead the students into an experience. The most important emotion to feel at this moment is not pride, or excitement, or ambition, but gratitude. You could spend twenty minutes merely recounting everything that had to happen for you to be standing here at this minute, starting with the Big Bang and the origin of life, up to your own parents sacrifices and your own, and all the aspects of our free society that made it possible. Just stop and say, "(wow)."


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sizing up Obama

The New Yorker had a detailed profile of Barack Obama this past week ("The Conciliator," by Larissa MacFahquhar, May 7, 2007), which helped fill in my picture of the person and the candidate. Some impressions:
  • I was especially pleased that he was described as "freakishly comfortable with himself." Politicians tend to be Enneagram Threes (performers dying to please) or Eights (charismatic powerhouses), and Obama breaks the mold by being low-key, reflective, and really well integrated in his being. Some political observers wonder whether that is entirely a good thing for his campaign -- what sane, well-integrated person would ever embark on a national political campaign? -- but I'm sure it is the secret to his status as a political phenome.
  • I also was glad that he was confirmed to be a true "regular guy." Most politicians have larger-than-life notions of themselves and have to strain to pretend to be a regular guy; they seize upon the props, the hot dog and the coat over the shoulder, to look like a regular guy. Obama, amazingly, is a regular guy. Part of that stems from the fact that Obama struggled his entire life to become that regular Midwestern black man, securing an identity for himself outside of his turbulent upbringing.
  • The article correctly identified the source of his cross-party appeal: he talks about liberal causes with conservative language. Someone with a conservative philosophy will not have an allergic reaction to his rhetoric, and still have the feeling of moral uplift by being "the good guy" who is trying to help the poor and the downtrodden. He really is the "compassionate conservative" that Republicans have tried to become in the last few years.
  • Just because someone has great appeal as a person does not mean he is necessarily the right person to vote for. I could easily be seduced by Obama for his personal bearing, his personal story, and his conservative outlook, but not be entirely happy with his governance. Critics have said his voting record is about as liberal as they come.
  • Still, what comforts me the most is that his notion of progress is slow, careful, and incremental. His policy proposals are strikingly modest and realistic. And actually, I think that's what our federal policy needs right now -- a tiny nudge to the left, not a swing. At least that would be better than what we have now: Republicans who fail to deliver on a truly conservative platform of fiscal responsibility.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Darned smart people

"The State of Things" will be discussing the in-state tuition waiver for graduates of the North Carolina School of Science today at noon. Evidently, some legislators want to do away with the benefit. As an alumni of NCSSM (Class of '88), I feel obliged to listen in and defend it.

As I understand it, the waiver was enacted to do two things:
  • Increase competitive enrollment in the school. Many prospective students saw that going to NCSSM would give them a better education, but it would most likely hurt their college prospects. If you were at the top of your class at your old high school (as many NCSSM students were), you would be surrending a top class rank and GPA, and probably a lock on the school's nomination for the big in-state scholarships like the Caldwell and the Morehead. At NCSSM there is no class rank; you take a tougher course load, and your grades are inevitably less than what they would have been before. Many students (or their parents) decide that remaining the big fish in the small pond with have greater benefits for them. The tuition waiver helps remove some of that concern.
  • Keep graduates in-state. The graduates of NCSSM are much more likely to remain in the state if they go to school here. By enticing them to the state university, the state keeps more of its educational investment in the local economy.

I graduated long before the tuition waiver was enacted, so I never had the benefit of free tuition to our state schools, although I did attend N.C. State. So I imagine that many will argue, "Hey, we didn't need to give them that benefit before, and we don't need to do it now." And, to be honest, there is some truth to it. I didn't need a guaranteed scholarship to want to go to NCSSM. I was in a backwoods high school where football reigned supreme and science geeks were at the bottom of the social ladder. I jumped at the chance to get out of there, and go to school with people who valued what I valued.

Still, I imagine the current attacks on the waive are similar in tone to the attacks on the whole concept of the school itself: "Those darned smart kids don't need no help. Give the money to the poorest, the lowest, not the best and brightest." Elitism is always a tough sell, politically.

Tough, but not impossible. I do happen to believe in a meritocracy. I think educational dollars should belong to those who will make the most of them. NCSSM was a demonstration of an educational free market: I had a choice of where I wanted to go to school, and I voted with my feet. Students access to superior education should not be limited by where they happen to live.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Not So Big Life

Today I heard Sarah Susanka, of The Not So Big House fame, on the local NPR station's talk show, "The State of Things." I had read her books before, and like many, many people I alternated between marveling at the profound simplicity of her advice ("why build a house with rooms you don't use") and the sheer beauty of her home designs.

While I resonated with her philosophy of making our surroundings conform to our real values, I had no idea she was as spiritually-minded as she had turned out to be. Her latest book, The Not So Big Life, looks like so much of the SKS work: hard-core contemplative philosophy, stripped of its cultural baggage and packaged for a mass audience. As I listened to her on the radio, I thought, "This is classic Vedanta. This is awareness meditation. She might as well be reading Eckhart Tolle on the air." I was surprised she was getting as much traction as she was, with such bona fide spiritual content. There was a small voice inside me griping about how she wasn't citing her sources; it seems untruthful to not acknowledge that these ideas have roots in other places, and didn't just emerge wholly formed from one's own head. But it was a small voice; she would not be the first person to take universal truths and present them as, well, universal.

I called into the show and asked her if she came upon these ideas in the context of a spiritual path. She said that she had, and that she considered herself a "spiritual mutt" because she had explored many spiritual traditions without identifying with any one. (At least, I think that's what she said -- they cut off my phone connnection the moment she started to answer the question, so I missed the first part of her answer.)

Mostly I was just deeply impressed with how well she articulated the ideas, and how she spoke with personal as well as theoretical understanding. I will be very interested to see how well this book does, and how it's received.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

If I grow old before I wake . . .

The New Yorker had a fascinating article on aging, and how we (fail to) cope with it. ("The Way We Age Now," Atul Gawande, April 30, 2007.) The delusion of the young is that they will live forever; the delusion of the middle-aged is that they will never grow old. It seems conceivable to us that life will someday end; we make estate plans, buy life insurance, arrange for succession in our roles. But very few seem able to accept simple diminishment -- the fact that we will inevitably lose more and more of our physical and mental powers.

I think, ultimately, the ego finds death less threatening than diminishment. Why else would a "live hard, die young, make a pretty corpse" philosophy ever arise? We will readily embrace a kamikaze death if it establishes our eternal meaning and purpose, an expression of our being at it's highest state. But to diminish . . . to have our abilities robbed slowly, until we spend our days either dozing or shuffling around in confusion -- that is intolerable. And so we pretend it will never happen to us.

And while the evidence of anyone cheating death is sketchy at best, there are at least a few examples of individuals cheating age. We love to read about 90-year-olds running marathons or amassing fortunes or still having some decent looks. It gives us hope that with the right medicine, the right vitamins, and a little bit of luck we could live pretty much as we do now, our entire lives.

Alas, the exceptions are indeed exceptional. The best most of us can hope for is to postpone, not evade, the ravages of age. And while that might be something very good, it's not as much as we were hoping for. When we exercise and eat low-fat and go to the doctor, we want to be supermen in our eighties, not merely mobile and self-sufficient. But that's what you're working for: just hang on to the basics for as long as you can, because life gets very difficult once you lose them.

And the secrets to aging well are not exactly secret, either. It's the same things the doctor tells you to do now, and which you routinely ignore: get more exercise, eat more fresh vegetables, work on your flexibility, floss your teeth. And maybe a few things he doesn't tell you: stay involved, work as long as you can, avoid isolation, have lots of friends. If you find yourself saying, "I don't really have time for those things right now," remember that the time will come when you have nothing but time. Really . . . nothing . . . but time. Are you ready for that?

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