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.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Connecting the Dots

Ok, let me back up and see if I can make my posts on meaning and purpose string together in a coherent pattern. (There's a chance they may not.)

I started by saying, essentially, that I didn't know my life's purpose -- or, at least I didn't know it's final goal, a satisfactory end-point.

I then went on to consider that, "Well, maybe that doesn't matter, because meaning may come from the present moment instead of some final outcome."

Either way, the frustration (for me) comes from the not knowing how to answer the question . . . but that ambiguity is built into the process . . . and tolerating that ambiguity is the only way to arrive at a true answer.

I anticipate that some people will find "I don't know" to be a wholly unsatisfactory answer. The only way that "I don't know" can be satisfactory is if you invoke process: "I don't know, but I'm going to find out, because the process will take me there." We use processes all the time to move from the unknown to the known. Science is a process that leads to objective truth. The legal system is process that leadds to justice. The democratic process leads to good governance. And spirituality is exactly the same way: we shouldn't be asking for the answers, so much as asking for the correct process to arrive at the answers.

So, as an exercise for the reader (to be explored in future posts):
  • What is best process for arriving at spiritual truth?
  • What process will you use to evaluate that process of truth seeking? (ooh, recursion, wince . . . )

Faith in the process

In contemplating the nature of teleology (evaluating everything in terms of an end goal) and finding meaning in the present moment, I've been thinking a lot about process. Process may do a lot to bring the two together.

You'll hear a lot of talk about process these days -- the artistic process, the legal process, the democratic process, the diplomatic process, the therapeutic process . . . and let's not forget the spiritual process. In all these different processes, people begin with a specific end in mind, and at the same time don't know how things are going to turn out. They believe that things will work to their best conclusion by application of the process . . . and yet it is not a deterministic process. When the artist makes his first brush stroke, he doesn't necessarily know what the whole picture will be like. The novelist may start typing with the story only half-formed (if that) in his mind. And yet they still dive into the process. They have faith in the process; they believe it will work, even though they don't know how or even why it works.

Faith in the process is the closest I can come to describing what feels like the most appropriate way to consider meaning and purpose. We can apply certain principles to our life and work, and faithfully apply ourselves to the process, trusting that the process will produce a good outcome without necessarily knowing what the outcome will be. It might even be counter-productive to insist on a clear vision of the outcome before beginning to act. We should have a notion of where we might want to go -- otherwise we are just aimlessly drifting -- but we can hold that vision of the future very lightly, allowing it to evolve and unfold in a dialog with our own experience. Process is not necessarily squishy, just because it is non-deterministic. A writer may not know what he's going to write every day, but the process of "sit in the chair and keep writing until you've produced 2000 words" is very demanding and not squishy at all.

Finding that process -- consciously understanding what to do, even without knowing it's final outcome -- is the goal of all philosophy. I don't think most people want to know how their lives will turn out -- otherwise, why live at all? -- but they do want to have principles to guide their moment-by-moment action, inevitably but unpredictably leading them towards the good, the right, and the true. In process, being faithful to the moment can ultimately mean being faithful to the final end.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Biography of the Future

Most biographies are factual examinations of the past: what someone actually did in their lifetime. But if you want to know what someone's experience of life was like, it would be just the opposite: what they thought their future life would be like, and how that vision changed over time.

So, for instance, my biography-of-the-future might read like this:
  • 1970. I am born into a world American middle-class possibility. Everything is wide open, although it is already considered a certainty I will go to graduate school and do something science-y.
  • 1977. Based on two books about sharks and whales, a recorded version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and some encouraging comments from my mother, I decide I will be a marine biologist.
  • 1981. I move from Philadelphia to Brevard, NC. Disappointed with my current persona (geeky, non-social, high-strung), I dream of recreating myself in a model of Walden-esque self-sufficiency in our new 24-acre farm. I buy into my mother's vision of a self-sufficient homestead, where we do everything for ourselves and rarely venture into town.
  • 1982. Crushed to find that a change of place did absolutely nothing to change me (although my mom is successfully recreating herself as a farmer.) Anticipating a life of an awkward outsider. Experience a profound questioning of religious faith, condemning me to either live in a world without God, or to be damned to Hell -- either way, I'm screwed.
  • 1986. Accepted to the NC School of Science & Math, I look forward to a new life with real peers. Based on my work with our farm animals, I think I will be a veterinarian. I dream of being both smart and wise, a James Herriot with both education and rustic approachability.
  • 1988. Heart-broken after a high-school romance, I look forward to a life as The Guy Who Blew It. The vet thing isn't panning out either: all the vets think I would be bored with it.
  • 1989. Start the Self Knowledge Symposium under the teaching of Augie Turak. My life will now be that of a spiritual seeker, a "brahmacharya" single-mindedly focused on enlightenment. I expect to become enlightened before the age of 30, and spend the rest of my days as a spiritual teacher. My science career will just be my day-job until I "make the Trip."
  • 1996. Get married to another spiritual seeker. Still seeking, but now with altered expectations. Hoping to become a writer.
  • 2002. Still hoping to be a writer, despite spending six years becoming a techno-geek instead. Really, it's just a job. No serious expectations of attaining enlightenment, though I hope to do some good in the world with the spiritual movement I helped to start.
  • 2007. Renewed hopes of some sort spiritual attainment, mostly because life doesn't make sense otherwise. Expecting a career change at some point, maybe go back to school, maybe write for a living (in some nebulous world where people get paid to write thoughtful essays).

What can we conclude from such a biography?

  1. What we hope and expect to happen has only a slight bearing on what actually happens.
  2. A whole lot of incredible stuff happens that never figures into our hopes and plans. (In my outline above, where are my kids? Where are all the miraculous transformations that happened in my spiritual community?)
  3. In short, our dreams and plans for the future occupy huge amounts of brain-space . . . but they aren't Life. And the more we can pay attention to what's really going on, instead of weaving stories to keep our egos warm at night, the better off we will be.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Club Monk: I'm here for the live silence

This weekend the Self Knowledge Symposium will be going as a group to see Into Great Silence, a documentary of Carthusian monks. I would say, "a documentary about Carthusian monks," except that this is not a film about anything -- the objective knowledge is not the point. Instead the movie invites the viewer to directly experience the stillness of the cloistered. This is, as one reviewer put it, "film as meditation," so come come prepared for a meditative experience.

Popular spiritual publications like Yoga Journal or BeliefNet.com pump out a cliched headline, as regularly as women's magazines put out diet tips: "Slow Down". A truism among spiritual-minded maintains that our modern lifestyle is too fast, too frenzied, too distracted to allow for a deep, contemplative state of mind to emerge and have any staying power. And yet . . . I'm lookin' around, and I don't see very many people slowing down, or even really trying that hard to slow down. Even me. Why is that?

Being busy is an ego trip. Everyone I know, even the slackest of the slackers, insists that, "Man, am I busy. I'm just slammed right now." It's a way of demonstrating one's importance. "I've got a lot going on right now." Having a multitude of roles and activities competing for one's attention makes life seem full . . . the temporal equivalent of materialism. We might complain that we don't like being so busy, but we continue to set ourselves up for it . . . perhaps because we're afraid of what life would be like without it.

Not only do we not dislike our busy pace as much as we claim, we also don't relish simplicity as much as we might claim. With all distractions removed, the mind rebels, desperate to wrap itself around something. Spiritual retreats, rather than being placid floats through paradise, are excruciatingly intense encounters with one's one mind. Augie Turak's greatest success in his writing about Mepkin Abbey is clearly communicating that spiritual life is not merely quietude, but an intensity born of single-minded focus.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

High tolerance for ambiguity

My wife commented the other day, "Gee, I read your blog [about not knowing the purpose of my life] . . . it must be depressing to spend so much time in spiritual work and still not have an answer."

Actually . . . not really.

The goal of spiritual life is to see things as they really are . . . and sometimes the truth is, "I don't know." Zen teacher Albert Low, in his book The Butterfly's Dream, went so far as to say that the essential truth of the human condition is "I don't know," and that awakening to that "I don't know" was the door to a perfect unconditioned state beyond all form. Augie Turak's teacher Richard Rose once said, "Your task is to remain undefined, except to define yourself as the person seeking definition." In the sense of "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao," if I knew for certain the full purpose of my life, I would almost certainly be wrong.

It takes some very alive and subtle thinking to be able to tolerate ambiguity. When I was a scientist, I once worked for a professor who was always in a hurry to get the meaning of things. Every time I showed her the results of an experiment, she would say, "So what does it mean?" And she literally would not walk away from the conversation without declaring what the results meant. And, as a result, everyone in the lab learned an important lesson: hide your results from the boss, at least until you had enough data to form a conclusion you could live with. Otherwise, there was a high likelihood of getting sidetracked by a premature (and incorrect) conclusion.

When I was in a math class at the NC School of Science and Mathematics, one of the students, obviously frustrated, threw down her pencil on her desk and slumped in her chair. "What's the matter, Lake George?" asked Dr. Davis. (He had nicknames for everyone, and he called Laurie "Lake George" because she often wore a gray sweatshirt with "Lake George" embroidered on the front.) "I just don't get it. I'm just confused," she said. "So?" he answered. "Stay in the confusion. Don't stop working just because you don't know what's going on. All new understanding emerges from confusion. You've got to learn how to operate while confused, to work when you don't know."

Augie's role as a spiritual teacher is exactly like that. Many times you're just slumped in the chair, and he's saying, "Stay with the confusion. Keep going, keep working, keep looking. The Answer is there, but you have to stay with it."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Greater love hath no man . . .

Secular humanists are continually tempted to see virtue and civilization as a manifestation of enlightened self-interest. As the Avenue Q song goes: "When you help others, you can't help helping yourself." In this pro-social, non-violent view of the Cosmos, we give freely to help others, feeling good about it and reaping the rewards of reciprocity. Modern environmentalism is founded on this attitude: "Don't destroy the earth, because you're destroying your own home."

Memorial Day calls us to a very different moral view of the universe. This is a world where all is not sweetness and light, and not all conflicts are resolved by dialog and diplomacy. Conflicts are real, and real people are called upon to struggle and fight. And there is more than mere sharing . . . there is sacrifice.

Try, just for a moment, to release all your filters for overblown nationalistic rhetoric, and just try to grok the notion that someone, a real person, actually died so that you can live your life as you do now. Someone actually voluntarily gave up their future happiness, deprived their children of a parent, deprived their spouse of a mate, in order to make this cultural experiment possible. Pick anyone at random in your life: a coworker, a friend. Kenny Felder. Now imagine that person gone, blasted off the face of the planet, because they wanted you to have a life worth living. Just let the reality of that sacrifice sink in for a moment. Don't even bother trying to multiply it by a thousand, a million . . . your mind will not contain it. Just think about that one person who gave up everything for you.

Since the beginning of time, martyrdom has been recognized as a miraculous event. The cynical will see it as madness. Many will see it as misguided or stupid . . . which, oftentime, I suppose it is. (Suicide bombers provide a continual reminder that not everyone who dies willingly necessarily died for a good reason.) But sometimes it is a manifestation of genuine transcendence. Somebody literally loved something more than life itself. May we all love so much, to live, and perhaps to die, for something beyond ourselves.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

No Union Left Behind

Time Magazine gave a "report card" to the "No Child Left Behind" education reform. Parts of the story they got perfectly right: states have continually dropped their standards to create the illusion of progress, and an enormous emphasis on basic reading and math skills is deforming the educational process, squeezing out other subjects and ignoring students at either end of the Bell curve.

And yet . . . how did Time manage to get through an entire seven page article without ever talking about what was causing the schools to fail in the first place? Not once in seven pages could they screw up the courage to talk about suspected (but still hotly debated) causes of low performance in inner-city schools: black culture that undervalued education, low involvement of parents, diminished expectations due to continuous poverty (perhaps caused in part by racial discrimination), more single-parent homes, less unstructured play, more television watching, and (God forbid we should say it) poor quality of teachers. At least the New York Review of Books could talk about these issues, addressing important factors without rushing to find single causes or single solutions to the problem.

I suspect, more than anything, that discussing such factors would make their recommendations less compelling. Every single recommendation that Time makes -- remove punitive measures, create national standards, don't do drastic overhauls of schools, provide more funding for teachers -- are practically identical to the talking points from the teachers unions. Hmmm . . . is this really an unbiased evaluation?

I should hope that it's clear that more money is not the answer . . . at least, not pouring more money into the current system. While those defending the education status-quo have sliced and diced assertions that we spend more money than any other industrialized nation on education, there are numerous internal examples of how some schools get vastly improved performance without spending more money. (See the NYRB article for descriptions of the KIPP Academies.) Some complain that the strategies of such schools "cannot be widely reproduced." That may be true . . . in the current culture and the current system. But who said we have to keep the current system? Oh . . . yeah . . . the unions.

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