Monday, February 28, 2005

Blessed Are the Peacemakers?

If people try to put peace ahead of evolution, they won't get either. If they put evolution ahead of peace, they'll get both. (Michael Nagler)

I’ve just read an article by Carter Phipps in What Is Enlightenment? that has me rethinking my long-cherished assumptions about peace. Many of us who are preoccupied with becoming more ‘enlightened’ or ‘spiritual’ believe that we should be cultivating extreme equanimity or serenity within ourselves and spreading peace throughout the rest of the world. And we can point to great sages and sacred texts that reinforce this view and inspire us to act accordingly. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called the children of God.” “Be peace,” urges Thich Nhat Hanh. “One day,” said Martin Luther King, “we must come to see that peace is not only a distant good but a means by which we arrive at that good.”

Yet, many of the same sacred texts and wisdom traditions that exhort us to make peace also defend violence and war under certain conditions. The Jewish Talmud says, If a man comes to kill you, forestall it by killing him.” Saint Thomas Aquinas writes: [In order] “for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. . . . Secondly, a just cause. . . . Thirdly . . . a rightful intention.” The Hindu Bhagavad Gita has the divine Krishna admonishing the great warrior Arjuna, anguished over the prospect of shedding blood in the cataclysmic battle shaping up before them, to “Arise with a brave heart and destroy the enemy.” And when we look at the real world where nations invade and plunder other nations for wealth and power; of rape, torture, and forced labor camps; and of genocidal holocausts, it seems pitifully naive to think that we could end this horrendous violence, suffering, and death with a peaceful response. It’s true that Gandhi eventually gained India’s independence with nonviolent resistance to British colonial rule, but does anyone seriously believe that he would have had the same success with the Nazis or Khmer Rouge?

No, it seems that even the most steadfastly moral or loftily spiritual person or nation must have might behind their being right and be willing to exercise it when there is no other recourse for defending against immoral or unspiritual violence. As Robert Cooper, former advisor to Tony Blair, once said: “Force without legitimacy brings chaos: legitimacy without force will be overthrown.”

Yet, Phipps argues that the desirability of peace is an even broader issue than one of just defending against aggression. Carl Sagan wrote that “We are star stuff, contemplating the stars.” And when we look at the unfathomably vast universe from which we arose as well as the natural world around us, we see the apocalyptic violence of the Big Bang, colliding galaxies, and exploding suns in the cosmos and the redness of tooth and claw on Earth. It seems that we are born out of cosmic and natural violence and sustained by it, and, furthermore, many physical and biological scientists contend that the physical universe, the biological world, and we human beings are dynamic processes whose “Evolution proceeds by the greatest amount of conflict or tension that the organism or living system can creatively bear,” says former environmental activist turned Christian minister Michael Dowd. In other words, without the peace-defying stresses of tension, conflict, and even violence, there is physical and biological stagnation. And if this is true, is it any great stretch to think that utter peace throughout the world and serenity within the individual might stifle psychological, cultural, and spiritual growth within people and nations?

I’m not sure what to think, except that I need to reflect and learn more about the nature, strengths, and limitations of peace even as I continue striving to engender it in myself and the world. Perhaps I should begin by understanding and pursuing genuine peace not in the simplistic terms of a complete absence of psychological, social, or military conflict but as Spinoza sagely defined it: “Peace is not an absence of war. It is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, trust, and justice.”

Saturday, February 26, 2005

An iPod Defense

My cousin wrote to me the other day about my iPod post. Here is some of what she said:

I find it funny that you'll "wait until these devices come down in
price or improve in features"--is that your real objection then, despite
what you say in your post about technology disconnecting us from
each other? . . . I heartily agree with Andrew Sullivan and his thoughts about where
this new, individualized technology is leading us. At a time in our
history when we need to reach out to others more than ever with
understanding and openness, it is unnerving to see the direction we
are heading. Unless the "improved features" include a mute button, I'd
wait a long while before taking the iPod plunge.

This is how I replied:

I believe that I ended my column against the evils of iPods the incongruous way I did largely as an expression of subtle if not silly humor—i.e., it’s such a harmful device that I’m going to wait until the price drops to buy one and become a zombie. But I also believe that an iPod, like most inventions, is neither good nor bad in itself, but only in relation to how it’s used. How would I use one?

I would put most of my CD collection on it and, more importantly, my growing library of recorded lectures and discussions about philosophy, spirituality, science, art, politics, and so forth. I could then easily access any of this wonderful wealth of material anytime and anywhere I wished. Sometimes I might do it at home by plugging my iPod into my home hi-fi system. Other times, I could take it to my business technology class and use it during the first hour while I’m practicing my touch typing skills, or listen in the car for the forty minutes before my medical terminology class, or while taking a morning walk, or while I’m browsing books and magazines in the library or the bookstore. Or I could play a selected lecture or musical piece for my mother or friends when I go to visit them. Would I take my iPod with me and use it everywhere I went and constantly isolate myself from the world of birdsong and children’s laughter and social interaction? Hardly. But there are times and places where I think I could put an iPod to excellent use not only as a way to enjoy and enrich myself, but also as a means of sharing and connecting with others.

Yet, right now these devices are still too expensive and, from what I understand, flawed for me to buy one. I might never buy one no matter what. But I think a case can be made that they aren’t all bad, and I suspect that even Andrew Sullivan would agree. After all, I believe that he still has and uses his. Maybe he just uses it a little more judiciously.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Why Cultivate Chi?

An old friend of mine teaches Tai Chi Chuan. He wrote to me the other day about how his teacher first demonstrated the power of chi to him by sending him flying across the room with a very short and effortless punch to his well-padded chest, reminiscent of Bruce Lee's famous "one inch punch." My friend then went on to describe how he proceeded to cultivate his own chi over years of dedicated practice. The following is my reply to him:
I'm very intrigued by your stories of chi in action, and I'm sure I'd
be even more intrigued by experiencing it directly the way you have.
I confess that I'm skeptical that chi exists as anything beyond
skillful application of physical leverage or biomechanics, although
I'd like to believe that it's more than this. At the risk of asking
the impossible, could you tell me how you define "chi" or what you
understand it to be?

When you write of Dim-Mak, you quite clearly imply that you think chi
is more than grossly physical motion or energy but is, instead or in
addition, a subtler kind of energy that can be harnessed to foster
life and health or to destroy them. But if there truly is such a
thing as a death blow, might it be more simply the skillful
application of sufficient physical force to precisely the right place
in the body to kill someone in a manner that a good forensic
pathologist could explain in strictly physiological or otherwise
conventionally scientific terms? Or is it something more than this?

Furthermore, could you tell me how you or anyone you know (e.g., your
Xi) benefit from cultivating or harnessing chi? Do you use it merely
in defensive or martial applications of tai chi chuan, or to impress
yourselves and others with its power and with the human capacity to
manifest this power, or does it have other uses? Many sages warn
against cultivating so-called siddhis or miraculous powers because
they say that this can divert people from more important spiritual or
overall development. That is, one can become so preoccupied with
figuratively moving mountains that one fails to do what's necessary to
grow wiser, more loving, and more integrated, complete, and fulfilled
as a human being. I guess what I'm asking is how your progressively
learning to harness chi benefits you and others overall. I don't mean
to suggest that I don't believe that it does this for you, for I
suspect that it does. I'm just curious about how you think it does

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

iPod Solipsism

I read a brilliant article this morning by Andrew Sullivan about “iPod people.” He says that we are becoming so encased in our own personal bubbles of self-selected music, TV and radio programming, Internet feeds, and so forth that we increasingly tune out, isolate ourselves from, and miss so much of the world outside that makes life worthwhile. Says Sullivan, Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.” We miss “That hilarious shard of an overheard conversation that stays with you all day; the child whose chatter on the pavement takes you back to your early memories; birdsong; weather; accents; the laughter of others. And those thoughts that come not by filling your head with selected diversion, but by allowing your mind to wander aimlessly through the regular background noise of human and mechanical life.” Yet, he admits to having an iPod of his very own and to having a very difficult time giving it up. But he remembers a day when he forgot to take his iPod with him to the airport and how his initial “panic” gave way to something else. I noticed the rhythms of others again, the sound of the airplane, the opinions of the taxi driver, the small social cues that had been obscured before. I noticed how others related to each other. And I felt just a little bit connected again and a little more aware.”

I confess that I have thought many times about purchasing my own iPod or comparable variant and taking John McLaughlin, Bach, Alan Watts, and Ken Wilber with me wherever I go. But then I think of the iPod zombies I saw all day when I worked at the airport; that great episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise crew are mind-controlled by a seemingly harmless video game given to them by aliens bent on taking over their ship; Thich Nhat Hanh’s and Eknath Easwaran’s gentle but firm calls to mindfulness; and now Sullivan’s thoughtful article, and I think I’ll at least wait until these devices come down in price or improve in features and reliability before I join the ranks of the living dead.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Letter to a Friend

I'm sorry to hear about [your wife's] car and purse being stolen. I can well
imagine how unsettling it was to [your wife and son] to feel "violated,"
and how annoying it was to deal with the aftermath of the theft. I
once lost my wallet down in LA, and it was a hassle calling the credit
card companies and doing the other things that one must do to take
care of business. However, it's nice to know that the custodians
cared enough to look for the car and that they saw and reported it to
police. I'm also glad that no one was injured in the ensuing chase.
At least part of me is. Another part of me wishes that the people who
stole your car and then endangered the police and public in the chase
had gotten their "just desserts." As it is, they'll probably plea
bargain their way down to a misdemeanor. [My wife] and I often watch
World's Wildest Police Videos. I confess that I enjoy the exciting
chases. But your story reminds me that the cars I see chased and
sometimes crashed are stolen from families like yours and that
innocent people suffer from this.

Speaking earlier of "just desserts" has me wondering what "justice" is
in a case such as this. What should happen to the guys who stole your
car? On the one hand, I believe that people who do such things
deserve to be punished in some way. On the other hand, I still
believe that what they did was, in a sense, the inevitable expression
of the state of the universe at the time that they did it. As I wrote
in an old poem: "Whichever way you go, Tao is sure to flow." Or as one
of the characters in the recent movie Before Sunset says, "If you
put two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen together, you'll get water
every time." I guess I still look at this pretty much the same way I
have for a long time. The people who stole your car may not have been
able to act otherwise under the existing conditions of that moment in
time, but the right legal and social response to their act, along with
broader individual, social, and cultural changes, may sufficiently
change future conditions to prevent these and other people from
stealing cars and running away from the police. Ken Wilber has
founded an Integral University that brings together leading experts
in many fields including psychology, law, and criminology to look for
integral ways to do precisely this.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Present Moment...Wonderful Moment

When I was in Thailand between mid and late December, I kept a journal. Here is one of my entries:

I’m sitting here at 1:30 in the afternoon on a bench in a small park by the Chao Praya River in old Bangkok. [My wife and her sister] have left me to myself while they go shopping. It’s nice to be by myself for a while in this grand city. It lets me feel like a grown-up, even if the feeling is more of an illusion than a fact. The truth is, I don’t know how I’d manage in this or any other part of Thailand by myself for any length of time. How would I get around or take care of virtually any of my basic needs by myself?

Of course, I don’t need to. I’ve married a sweet, loving, and extremely attentive Thai woman who grew up in Bangkok and has been to just about everywhere else in Thailand that I’d ever want to go. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to take care of myself here and to know that I could do it if I needed to?

I doubt that this is a conviction I’ll ever have, or at least not one grounded in reality. For this entire trip has made it ever more clear that I am not functioning with a full deck, as they say, or even with half a one. I don’t know precisely what’s wrong with me or why, but I do know that I am broadly and deeply defective, incapable of doing a huge number of things that most human beings can do easily and well.

Yet, for a few hours here on a beautiful Bangkok afternoon by myself, I can almost feel capable and confident, like an adult, instead of a perpetual child.

This vacation in Thailand has been an adventure. It hasn’t always if ever been joyful, but I don’t regret coming here or a moment of the time I’ve spent here. In fact, I wish I could stay longer. But [my cat] waits for me back home, as do a whole new set of life’s duties and responsibilities. I may never be able to mature into a fully-fledged adult, but I need to act as much like one as I can. Not like just any adult, but like an adult who consistently walks his own integral path centered on mindfulness. It’s a tall order for someone like me. Perhaps an impossibly tall one. But what decent alternative do I have to trying, to giving it all that I have for as long as I have left?

However, let me begin not by contemplating my future, but by rooting myself in the here- and-now of this lovely December afternoon, sitting on a shaded bench in a little park by the Chao Praya River in Bangkok as the sounds of traffic and music and chirping birds and people’s voices speaking mellifluous Thai and other languages fill the air, and young Thai women more heart-wrenchingly beautiful than human beings have any right to be, with faces and bodies like angels from heaven, stroll by. I am nothing to them, but each and every one of them is more beautiful and precious to me than all the grand palaces and temples and jewels and natural landscapes in Thailand put together. Perhaps someday I can feel that way not only about my wife and supernaturally gorgeous Thai girls, but also about every person and every living thing in existence. That is one of my loftiest goals, and I believe that the path to it is one of mindfulness. Breathing in…breathing out. Calming…smiling. Present moment…wonderful moment…I am alive…I am home…In the here and in the now…

A middle-aged monk in saffron robes approaches. He sits down by me and begins to make conversation. He teaches Buddhist meditation at a nearby temple. Thai Buddhist meditation is grounded in mindfulness. Breathing in…breathing out…Calming…smiling…Present moment…Wonderful moment…

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A True or False Dilemma?

I’ve just finished reading a story about Justin Hall, a 30-year-old man who some consider to be the “father of web diarists” because he kept a weblog that extensively and intimately documented his daily life with text, pictures, and video for eleven years until he quit early this year. Just before he quit, he made a riveting short video called “Dark Night” in which he pours out his anguish at feeling so alone and lonely. How ironic, he laments, that his efforts to connect with people on the web through his blogging art, and in his hands it really IS an art, seems to have made him more lonely than ever in that his sometimes startlingly intimate self-disclosures have not only pushed people away from him, but have also taken up so much of his time that there’s too little left to cultivate close relationships with people in the flesh.

I began this blog with the notion that I would use it to reveal my “naked” soul to myself and the world. But I’ve not really done this, at least not with anything approaching Justin’s level. And even if I were to do it, what would be the result? Would it draw me closer to other people and them to me, or, if I became really candid about my experiences and my deepest thoughts and feelings, would I scare people off? And what is it that I really want to accomplish with this blog?

In his video, Justin anguishes that one of the huge dilemmas he faces is between his art and human relationships. One gets the sense that he loves his art, yet it’s also painfully clear that he feels terribly, terribly lonely and that he believes his art bears large responsibility for this. My “art,” modest as it is, is to clarify mostly my thoughts and some of my feelings in written form to myself and share them with the world, now in my blog and later in a book about credible religion. But I also have a wife and should have a life away from my art, and I wonder if I have the resources to serve both masters at the same time, or if I really must do as Justin, at least for the time being, has done and choose between them. The problem is, I don’t think I can be truly happy without both, or truly happy with both if I can’t give them both my all.

So, what do I do?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Unchanging Spirit and the Wisdom of Insecurity

Yesterday, I questioned the power, nature, and even existence of Spirit. In his thought for today, Easwaran writes that we all hunger to connect with the unchanging and divinely perfect spirit of “infinite wisdom, infinite joy, infinite love” that comprises the core and essential nature of our being. But, as I have written before, if our essence is this Spirit, why don’t all of us know it and show it, and why do even the most enlightened people on the planet not seem infinitely wise, joyful, and loving?

Some sages have said that the greatest obstacle to enlightenment and happiness is our clinging to the notion that there is a perfect, unchanging realm within or without that we must find, unite with, or otherwise accord with or obey. Alan Watts wrote a wonderful book entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity in which he argued that enlightenment comes from realizing in the deepest possible way and completely accepting and relaxing to the fact that the unified Reality with which we’re inseparably linked is ever-changing. In other words, there’s no solid foundation to rest on, no unchanging Spirit to cling to, and only when we realize this in the “marrow of our bones” will we be enlightened.

Yet, I have this crazy notion that both Easwaran and Watts are correct and that my task is to understand how.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Does Spirit Exist?

Many people who pursue a contemplative path believe that we are essentially divine Spirit entrapped in a mind, body, and universe that make us forget who and what we truly are and block our inner light from illuminating our consciousness and the world outside with its infinitely loving and peaceful wisdom. Thus, they use meditation and other spiritual disciplines to remove misguided thoughts and emotions from a position of being able to prevent Spirit from shining brightly within and without.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that senile dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease progressively strip away the obstructing mind so that all that is left is radiant Spirit. I wish this were true. I wish there were a bright side to the senility that afflicts so many people in this world. But I have been around quite a number of senile people, including spending several years as full-time caregiver to my grandmother, and it certainly never appeared to me that, as their mental deterioration became progressively pronounced, they were becoming more and more actualized spiritually. On the contrary, they seemed to be regressing away from mature Spirit into a world of infantile preoccupation with themselves and with basic, physical subsistence.

Yet, if losing one’s mind doesn’t liberate Spirit to shine brilliantly, what keeps Spirit imprisoned? For that matter, how could even the strongest mind obscure awareness of divine Spirit? Or does Spirit, divine or otherwise, even exist?

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Me, my wife, and our nephew on Jontien Beach in Pattaya, Thailand at sunset. Posted by Hello

Friday, February 04, 2005

Using the Mantram to Sleep and Feel Better

One of the interlocking elements of Easwaran’s spiritual path is to silently repeat a well-chosen mantram as often as one can, and especially when one is feeling agitated or stressed. He also suggests doing it when you go to bed. This can have two beneficial effects. First, it can help clear your mind of thoughts and attendant emotions that might otherwise keep you awake. Second, he says that there’s a fleeting moment between wakefulness and sleep when the trapdoor to the deepest recesses of consciousness swings open and you can send the mantram through that door to echo in your consciousness and work its transformative magic even while you sleep.

I often have trouble getting enough sleep. I tend to wake up very early in the morning and can’t go back to sleep, except when I’m able to use my mantram to crowd out distracting thoughts. I suppose I could count sheep instead, but saying my mantram seems more satisfying.

I recently read about how scientists have discovered a link between obesity and sleep deprivation. It seems that not getting enough sleep causes the body to release too much of a hormone that stimulates hunger and too little of its counterpart hormone that produces a feeling of fullness. At 6’4” and 200 lbs, I probably don’t qualify as obese. But I have other problems such as poor short-term memory that have also been linked to sleep deprivation. My sleep deprivation is chronic. But it has also been less severe since I’ve taken to reciting my mantram when I go to bed and when I wake up early in the morning.

This illustrates how a practice aimed at one’s spiritual being can also help one’s physical being which, in turn, can help one’s spiritual being in the sense that a well-rested and healthy body (and mind) is likely to benefit more from spiritual practices than is a tired and sleepy one. Just try meditating or contemplating when you’re struggling to stay awake.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Is Christianity Hopeless?

I'm currrently engaged in a discussion in the 'Integral Naked' forum on the future of Christianity. More specifically, we're discussing whether institutional Christianity can ever develop the kind of theology of evolutionary panentheism that is embraced by the likes of Br. Steindl-Rast and that many of us find far more plausible than the seemingly primitive biblical monotheism to which institutional Christianity clings.

Today, someone wrote that he's been "dialoguing" with Christian fundamentalists about this, and that they've unanimously voiced their disdain for such "heresy" and for those who endorse it. This is what I posted in reply.

And I don't believe that it's only Christians with a blue center who think this way. I suspect that even most Christians at orange, green, or even higher levels would consider evolutionary panentheism and those who endorse it to be heretical, although they might be less harshly condemnatory about it than were the blue meme Christians with whom you 'dialogued.'

I know that I must sound very pessimistic about Christianity's potential to evolve, and, in fact, I am. I believe that Christianity, as an institution, is so inherently resistant to growth beyond literally bibliolatrous monotheism that the likes of Steindl-Rast will probably always sit at the radical fringe of the faith and that the cause of transforming Christianity from within is probably doomed to fail.

However, I hope I'm wrong.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Training Our Senses to Serve Us

Like many people, I don’t eat the way I should. I eat too much fat and way too much sugar. Easwaran’s thought for today addresses this and countless other situations where we indulge in sensory pleasures that undermine our health and well-being. He advises us to see and handle our senses as though they were small children in need of gentle but firm discipline to overcome their understandable unruliness after years of being encouraged by the media and allowed to run roughshod over us. If we make a concerted effort to do this, backed by the strength and wisdom we stand to gain from committed practice of meditation and the other elements of Easwaran’s spiritual path, our senses will come to readily obey and serve us as we endeavor to live wholesome lives of selfless service to the world. It will be far from easy, Easwaran cautions, but it will unquestionably be worth every iota of effort we pour into it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Robert Redford's Integrity

Robert Redford appeared in the latest installment of the delightful program "Inside the Actor's Studio." This was after the host, James Lipton, had been pursuing him for ten years. Redford has acted in and directed so many good and popular films! And it came across very clearly in the interview that he takes acting and filmmaking very seriously and is a thoughtful, serious man. This might not sit well with a lot of people who like their actors as well as their friends to laugh and smile and joke a lot. I suspect that many people feel uncomfortable around the likes of Redford. But I doubt that he cares a whole lot. For he seems very intent on being the best film artist he can be and on being straightforward and honest in everything he says and does. In short, he strikes me as a man of unusual integrity. Of course, it's surely possible to combine honesty and integrity with a warm and pleasing personality that draws people to it rather than pushes them away, but that is so very difficult for some of us to do. And if we have to try too hard to do it, then we are almost certainly not being honest and acting with integrity.

One theme that kept sufacing during the interview was how important it was to Redford for actors to truly listen to each other in front of the camera and for people to truly listen to each other in everyday life. He even said that what turned him off the most was when people are so caught up in their own thoughts and agendas that they don't really listen to others. How I agree with this, even though my own listening skills often leave a lot to be desired.