Friday, September 28, 2007
My wife's uncle George was born and raised in Burma. He left there as a young man to spend time in a Thai relocation camp before eventually emigrating with his Thai wife to the U.S. in the early 80's. His father still lives in Burma, and George visits him when he can.
George is one of the sweetest, most decent, and genuine human beings I've ever had the privilege of knowing. He is a wonderful man who works his tail off to provide for his family, treats everyone with tremendous kindness and respect, and seldom has a bad word to say about anybody or anything. Anybody except the leaders of his beloved home country that is, and anything except what Burma's government had done to oppress its people and keep the country mired in the modern equivalent of the Stone Age for the past half century or more. He loves his father dearly, but every time he visits him, he feels depressed by the poverty, restriction of freedom, and primitive living conditions he sees all around him. Burma could be so much more, so much better, he says.
I haven't spoken with him since the recent protests began there, but I'm sure he feels profoundly distressed by the events unfolding in parts of the country. So do I, even though I've only spent approximately one hour there in a town bordering Thailand, and the only person I know from there is George. I feel distressed when I see wonderful people oppressed by a corrupt government that clings ruthlessly to power while its people suffer and a country with so much promise falls further and further behind much of the rest of the world. My heart feels alternating anger and deep, deep sadness when I read about peaceful Buddhist monks being shot, savagely beaten, and whisked away in trucks to God knows what horrors in some "interrogation" room.
I wish the world could do something to change things there for the better. But I don't know what that could, should, or would be. There are no great oil reserves there, no nuclear weapons programs to worry about, no perceived threat or geopolitical importance to the world powers that be. Burma's just a small Asian nation filled with beautiful, peaceful people yearning to be free of the chronic scourge of political and economic oppression and to know the joy of pursuing their dreams.
I pray for them because I don't know what more I can do.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The problem is, I'm so shockingly ignorant of the "dismal science" of economics and of Greenspan's history as chairman of the Fed that I don't know how accurate the comic strip in question happens to be, although I suspect that it's quite accurate. And I'm not sure I'd be able to reach a definitive opinion on the matter even if I had a Ph.D in economics, since I suspect that there are acclaimed economists who think Greenspan did a helluva good job and those who think he was a miserable failure.
This leads me to the issue of how one confidently reaches an opinion on any even moderately controversial issue much less on REALLY controversial ones such as global warming when there are so many "experts" on both sides. I often find this so frustrating that I don't even bother to study the issue in more depth and detail. I figure I'm going to end up just as uncertain at the end of it all as I was when I started. So, why bother?
Why do YOU bother?
Sunday, September 23, 2007
There are those who maintain that Alan Watts' self-destructive alcoholism, marital infidelities and failures, and other personal shortcomings or, at least, questionable behaviors completely undermine any glowing claims that might be made for his greatness as a philosopher-sage, spiritual authority, or just plain self-described "philosophical entertainer." These idealistic critics would argue that Watts' numerous books and innumerable audio lectures--charming and eloquent though they may be--should be blithely ignored because they are the empty words of a man who knew not of what he spoke or wrote, or were verbal potions peddled by a charlatan or spiritual pretender.
But I watch this video, and I say that not only was Alan Watts no charlatan (for no charlatan could walk and talk like the man in that video), but that he also expressed certain profound truths with such extraordinary eloquence and brilliance that it overrides his faults or, in Wilberian-integral terms, the unevenness of his lines of development. Alan Watts was a flat-out genius of a philosophical entertainer, and this video segment, along with the other segments comprising the entire video, are more impressive and inspiring to me than all of the words I've ever heard uttered by Ken Wilber, Thich Nhat Hanh, Krishnamurti and all of the other spiritual sages I've ever heard in person or on "record" put together, with all due and genuine respect to these remarkable persons in their own right.
Alan Watts was one of a kind whose likes will probably never come our way again. But THANK GOD we have videos like this to remember him by and benefit from. Moreover, if he was a fake, he was probably the most, in his own words, "genuine fake" one could ever hope to be, and that may have more to do with genuine "spirituality" than Watts' critics will ever realize as they pretend to be what they aren't and labor, like Sisyphus, to accomplish what they can't.
But what if I'm wrong? What if they DO offer me the job and I'm thrown into the maelstrom with no ability to stay afloat? "They won't do that!" the voice of optimism within me proclaims. "They'll train you and give you time to acclimate," it cheerily explains.
"Yes, but people like me train as slowly as molasses and take forever to acclimate, and a bustling medical records department of a local under-funded and under-staffed clinic can't afford to be THAT patient, and, believe me, they WON'T be!" the voice of realism counters.
"Well, look at it this way," replies the voice of optimism. "It may feel like you're being thrown into the water and told to sink or swim, but the fact-of-the-matter is that you'll be given swimming lessons, and even if you sink anyway, you won't drown. You won't die. You'll be hauled out of the pool to live another day and REALLY learn to swim or to take up some other activity for which you're better suited. And, in the meantime, you've gained the priceless experience of interviewing for and of trying your hand at a new job within the general field you're interested in, and you can take the knowledge and wisdom you gain from that experience and do something positive with it."
And the voice of realism, although still harboring its share of legitimate doubts, is pretty much forced to agree and stfu.
But, still, I wonder how many people go into a job interview not only believing but also KNOWING that they're in over their heads. They may not have known it driving in to the office, but after they've arrived and read a more detailed description of the position's duties than they did in the Craigslist ad, they know they aren't ready for such a job when they sit down before the interviewer and start answering questions such as: "Now that you've read the list of duties for this position, do you believe you can perform them?"
How often do other people face this situation, and, when they do, how do they carry on? When asked if they believe they can do the job, do they do what I did and look the interviewer straight in the eye and say "Yes" when their mind and heart scream, "NO WAY, Jose!"?
And what SHOULD we do when we find ourselves in this situation? Should we lie and tell the interviewer the answer he expects and the answer we need to tell him if we're to have any chance of getting the job we have no business getting, or should we tell him the truth?
Most adults even decades younger than me have probably had the opportunity and experience to find their answers already, but I'm more or less just beginning to seek them. I could ask those who have already found their answers to share them with me, and, in a sense, that's part of what I'm doing here. Yet, I suspect that I can't rely on other people's answers but must discover my own. Go with the flow, play it by ear, try it and see what happens and take it from there.
Yes, these are old cliches. But they're cliches for a good reason.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
(Thank you, Tom.)
I don't know my friend's friend, and I have no idea whether he's telling the truth. Virtually everyone accused of a crime like this is going to deny his guilt as long as there isn't overwhelming evidence against him, and, even if there is, he's likely to deny it anyway. It's awfully difficult for me to believe that the police would arrest someone and throw him in jail for something like this unless they had some pretty strong corroborating evidence to the wife's accusation.
But suppose, just suppose he's telling the truth. My friend knows him pretty well and seems to believe him, and he had this man and his young daughter over for dinner just the night before the man was arrested. What can this poor guy do, if formal charges are filed against him, except have some overworked and underpaid public defender assigned to his case? And suppose he is charged and can only be released on bail that he can't afford to pay? What can he do except languish in jail where accused child molesters are reviled by all and live in constant mortal fear, and lose his job when he can't go to work next week? Even if he's released before or after charges are brought, isn't he in danger of losing his job anyway? And then what?
If what he says is true and his wife has done these terrible things to him, I don't know how he could keep from exacting swift and terrible revenge, unless it were out of selfless love for the very person he's accused of having selfishly abused. In the absence of such motivation, I don't know how I could refrain from it.
– Sri Ramakrishna
A simple, childlike story in India’s ancient scriptures tells how multiplicity emerged from unity. The Lord, the One without a second, felt very lonesome one morning. After all, he was the only thing that existed in the entire universe, so when he looked around him, he could see no one but himself. This did not satisfy him at all. He wanted to play.
So he made playmates. Out of himself he created the myriads of creatures, the two-footed and the four-footed. He started playing with them, playing hide-and-seek, which is what life is all about. We are all playing this game with the Lord. We are all seeking him, and he is hiding playfully from us.It is easy to talk about this, sing about this, paint this, but it is an entirely different matter to experience it. Yet in deepest meditation, the veil separating you and me can drop. Then, beneath the varied costumes, we will be able to perceive the same supreme Reality whom we call God, who is playing his game in the world.
I like Easwaran's wonderfully clear and simple telling of this ancient Hindu story better than I do almost any other version I've come across. But the thing is, Hindus and Wilberians alike seem to take this story as fact. They may call it "myth" and explain that it "points at" rather than embodies Reality, but it seems to me that, when all is said and done, they take the story quite literally. The "Ultimate Reality" is consciousness that has intentionally "involuted" Itself into the world that subsequently struggles and evolves to regain its original unity.
But every time I hear and consider this, I wonder why the perfection of Ultimate Unity would EVER consciously--i.e., intentionally--become a messy and chaotic multiplicity wracked by suffering. Yes, I know that the Hindu and Wilberian mystics joyfully proclaim that this multiplicity and suffering is still, ultimately, a perfect Unity. But their perception and mine on this seem so far apart that I wonder if one of us isn't terribly deluded and whether I am necessarily the one so afflicted. This world seems anything BUT unified and perfect, and just because mystics and integral philosophers tell me it is doesn't mean I buy what they tell me.
Ken Wilber suggests that if I undergo the right "injunction" or spiritual discipline, I will discover for myself that the mystics are right and that my old way of seeing things was wrong. But I wonder if this is isn't all-too-analogous to saying that everyone who takes psilocybin will, at some point, see strange things happen to the objects in front of their eyes; therefore, those things are ACTUALLY happening. The floor is REALLY undulating like the ocean, and those plants in the vase before you are REALLY growing and shrinking, growing and shrinking before your very eyes.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Greenspan seems to argue that since the case for capitalism is so overwhelmingly rational, the opposition to it must surely stem from very deep-seated, immutable characteristics. "And that carries me to the general conclusion that if you're going to model an economy, you have to do far better in understanding how the unit of the economy functions—i.e., the human being"...
Looking to human nature also helped Greenspan solve a perplexing economic mystery. Over the last 150 years, it seems that the maximum productivity growth the economy could achieve over a long period of time was 3 percent annually—despite a series of productivity-enhancing innovations, from the steam engine to the Internet. His conclusion? "What ultimately looks to be the case is that's the pace at which human beings operate," he said. People simply can't process new ideas more quickly. "The answer is that the human race, no matter how one defines it, is not smart enough to do better."
The ultimate rationalist seems to have concluded that fear, resistance to change, exuberance, and human limitations play a bigger role than expected in economic development. And he recognized that economists have proven so human—i.e., fallible—in their forecasting because the force actually driving the economy is humans who are prone to act on emotion rather than reason. The inability to account for exuberance and fear—"huge unknown variables"—is one reason why economists do poorly forecasting recessions and other economic reversals. "I've been forecasting for 50 years and I have not seen any improvement in our capability of forecasting," he said.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
I just finished watching Leslie Stahl interview Alan Greenspan on 60 Minutes. It sounds as though he is and always has been the stereotypical geek. An economics geek, if you will. He spent his honeymoon with his wife, writer and TV journalist Andrea Mitchell, at an economics conference. His idea of a fun and relaxing read is poring over reams of economic data.
My first thought was how terribly boring that must be. But it obviously isn't boring to him. He loves that stuff. If I loved anything as much as he loves economics, I'd probably be much happier and more successful than I am.
Some of the interesting things Greenspan said were that Richard Nixon's language was laced with so much profanity that he thought there must have been something "extraordinarily wrong" with the man; that Gerald Ford was an extremely decent, good, and moral man; that Ronald Reagan had an unusual kind of intelligence that uplifted the country at a time when it sorely needed it; that George Bush Sr. and he got along poorly in large part because Bush overstepped his bounds by publicly telling Greenspan what he and the Fed should do, such as lower interest rates; that Bill Clinton was the smartest and most "effective" president he served under; that Hillary Clinton is extremely intelligent and eminently capable of running the country even though he would prefer a Republican as president; that he does not approve of George Bush Jr's economic policies of debt-swelling tax cuts and other forms of profligate spending; and that he did not foresee the mortgage crisis but thinks this and the housing crisis will pass even as he anticipates some pretty gloomy economic times ahead, especially with respect to recession.
It was also interesting to learn that Greenspan was a promising young jazz saxophonist as a teenager and even toured for a time with a professional jazz band playing bebop. He also confessed to crafting his "Fedspeak" testimony before Congress as Federal Reserve Chairman to be as obtuse as possible so that when two newspapers published diametrically opposed headlines summarizing the gist of his testimony, he had accomplished precisely what he set out to do.
I did not expect Greenspan to come across as a particularly warm and friendly man, and he surely didn't. But I found his geekiness and straighforward demeanor charming and even inspiring in its own way.
Friday, September 07, 2007
In a new video obtained somehow by the U.S. government prior to its official release by al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden says that we can avoid further terrorist attacks by embracing Islam.
Suppose that you were faced with a choice between embracing Islam or dying in a terrorist attack. Which would you choose if you HAD to choose one or the other? I'm inclined to say that I would choose the latter, unless I could somehow get away with pretending to do the former. But suppose you couldn't pretend. Which would you choose?
The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Monday, September 03, 2007
Many people believe that mystical experience--the wordless experience of "Ultimate Reality"--cannot be translated into words. That is, it is "ineffable." But Ken Wilber disagrees. Actually, he doesn't disagree completely. All experiences are ineffable. We can't perfectly describe our common experience of a sunset or an orgasm any more than we can describe mystical experience. But we CAN use words--i.e, "signifiers"--to represent sunsets and orgasms pretty well if we really try, and so we can also use them to represent mystical experience. Zen masters, says Wilber, talk about satori all the time among themselves, and they understand quite well what they're talking about. For instance, they know what the word Mu signifies from firsthand experience.
But so many people interested in religion and spirituality have bought the old bromide that mystical experience is ineffable that not enough effort has been made to translate this experience into clear and compelling language, and calling mystical experience ineffable has led many scientists, philosophers, and others to reject it as meaningless on the grounds that if you can't describe or explain it, it doesn't exist or mean anything significant.
Wilber proceeds to argue that signifiers don't mean a whole helluva lot to those who don't have the "altitude"--level of cognitive, spiritual, or other kind of development--to know firsthand what they mean. He says that it can be terribly frustrating to describe--use signifiers for--mystical experience or other spiritual realities to people who haven't developed enough spiritually to be intimately familiar with them, and it's even more frustrating to try to persuade someone to accept an opinion grounded on intimate knowledge of these realities. With those people, one may have to settle for nonverbal "transmissions" of these insights. But those who have the developmental altitude can work harder to create a rich language capable of signifying these spiritual realities as well as possible--just as mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers have created their own specialized languages--so that they can communicate more effectively with each other.
And I wonder if it might be possible to develop this spiritual language so well that it can help lift those of lower developmental altitudes to higher ones. For just as it might be possible to so vividly describe the ocean to someone who has never experienced it that she gains some inkling of what it's like, it seems to me that it might also be possible to describe mystical experience in ways that give those who have never experienced it some understanding of what IT'S like. And this, in turn, might help them develop to where they understand the experience better and better until, perhaps, they someday understand it vividly through direct experience. That is, instead of only being able to read about it and imagine it on the basis of what they've read, they finally make it to the ocean and see and hear the crashing waves with their own eyes and ears and feel their misty emanations on their own skin.
Wilber says that poets such as Rumi do this pretty well. But is it also possible to do it better and better with prose? Perhaps it has already been done better than most people realize. For instance, here is an excerpt from Alan Watts' masterfully evocative rendering of an LSD-induced mystical experience as reported in his wonderful book The Joyous Cosmology:
T0 BEGIN WITH, this world has a different kind of time. It is the time of biological rhythm, not of the clock and all that goes with the clock. There is no hurry. Our sense of time is notoriously subjective and thus dependent upon the quality of our attention, whether of interest or boredom, and upon the alignment of our behavior in terms of routines, goals, and deadlines. Here the present is self-sufficient, but it is not a static present. It is a dancing present—the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. It leaves and arrives simultaneously, and the seed is as much the goal as the flower. There is therefore time to perceive every detail of the movement with infinitely greater richness of articulation. Normally we do not so much look at things as overlook them. The eye sees types and classes—flower, leaf, rock, bird, fire—mental pictures of things rather than things, rough outlines filled with flat color, always a little dusty and dim.
But here the depth of light and structure in a bursting bud go on forever. There is time to see them, time for the whole intricacy of veins and capillaries to develop in consciousness, time to see down and down into the shape of greenness, which is not green at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as green—purple, gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence of the emerald. I cannot decide where shape ends and color begins. The bud has opened and the fresh leaves fan out and curve back with a gesture which is unmistakably communicative but does not say anything except, "Thus!" And somehow that is quite satisfactory, even startlingly clear. The meaning is transparent in the same way that the color and the texture are transparent, with light which does not seem to fall upon surfaces from above but to be right inside the structure and color. Which is of course where it is, for light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object, and eye, and the chemistry of the leaf is its color, its light.
But at the same time color and light are the gift of the eye to the leaf and the sun. Transparency is the property of the eyeball, projected outward as luminous space, interpreting quanta of energy in terms of the gelatinous fibers in the head. I begin to feel that the world is at once inside my head and outside it, and the two, inside and outside, begin to include or "cap" one another like an infinite series of concentric spheres. I am unusually aware that everything I am sensing is also my body—that light, color, shape, sound, and texture are terms and properties of the brain conferred upon the outside world. I am not looking at the world, not confronting it; I am knowing it by a continuous process of transforming it into myself, so that everything around me, the whole globe of space, no longer feels away from me but in the middle...