Archive for 12 March 2018

Looking for a Title   3 comments

Now that I’ve chased away, as I usually manage to do every few weeks, a few incautious new readers who thought they’d follow my blog — until I said something indigestible to them — you and I remain to take stock. It’s part of my job description, in fact: blogger must intermittently provoke, offend or banish a portion of readership, if only to establish and maintain some semblance of integrity. That’s one route, anyway, to blogger bona fides.

Otherwise I’m just a spiritual politician, telling people mostly what they want to hear, scrambling for votes or likes. Please don’t merely “like” me. We’re not in primary school, right? Life isn’t, despite what the weak magic of  social media enchants us to believe, a popularity contest. We’re not even in secondary school any longer. Read and ponder what I’ve said, and test it — not just with your opinions, but with your life. As I try to do, in spite of that annoying and near-universal tug toward hypocrisy.

So there really aren’t any rules? my inner teenager asks. The previous post was a feel-good piece. Love is all you need. All paths lead to the same destination. We’re all in this together.

And we are. Except.

Anyone who practices an art or craft knows that rules, especially rules-of-thumb gained over long experience, can be really useful. Gardening? Plant marigolds with tomatoes. Tuning your guitar? Start with your sixth string, the Youtube video instructs, held down on the fifth fret. Guidelines for what to do, how to tackle challenges and complexities. Received wisdom. Even, if I can use the word, a tradition. We rarely need to start from scratch.

When we’re young, we’re told to color inside the lines. What happens if you color outside the lines? Nothing. You’ve colored outside the lines. What you do is what you get. Maybe a well-meaning adult scolds you, or not. A little later, perhaps a reward or penalty. We know how early such patterns and personality traits get set. Some kids without prompting will color up to the lines so neatly an adult couldn’t better it. And they’ll get praise for neatness and attention and whatever other labels get put on noticing boundaries and respecting what they have to teach.  Because they do have much to teach. Just not everything.

All right, teenaged self. What do you want rules for, anway? To push against, so you can declare yourself an original? To piss off a special adult, or adults in general? To run roughshod over, ’cause you’re such a rebel? Win the attention of possible partners, producers or profit-sharers? Welcome to inverse conformity: you’ve still let the rules define you. Can you make your own liveable set?

Robert Frost said writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. He meant it disparagingly, but it’s actually just another game. Handball. Without a single thing labeled “net”, nearly every surface becomes playable. Players don’t stand opposite each other, but — often — side by side. The rules: changed, but still present. Because that’s what a game is. It’s hard to make “whatever” into a game very many folks want to play.

Yesterday John Beckett posted “Get Over Your Fear of Religion!” tackling the frequent superficiality of much contemporary spirituality. On at least one online forum I visit, his post predictably sent some into a tailspin. Beckett notes, “Some of this [the “spiritual but not religious” movement]  is an understandable reaction against negative religion, but much is an avoidance of the work required to build any real spiritual or religious depth”.  Some scolding is good for me.

Of course, our reaction against stifling religiosity also has ancient roots in human experience. It will never go away as long as we face complacency and laziness in our cultural institutions and practices. As a certain rabbi once observed a score of centuries ago, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life”.

But beyond the pleasurable intoxication of a numinous moon or molten sunset or gold-drenched sunny afternoon, there’s more. “If you want a deep spiritual practice”, John continues, “that will help you handle life’s challenges, build deep and meaningful relationships, and change yourself and the world, you’re going to need religion”.

The first part sounds like what many people say they want. The last clause, though, tosses a dead mouse into the punch bowl.

Whatever else needs to happen as a consequence of mouse or punchbowl or tossing, reactions to the incident will reveal something to me in my own thinking and practice that I need to work on. Maybe you or I will take the bowl to the kitchen and bring out a fresh one. Maybe we’ll just cringe a little, and wait for somebody else to fix things. Maybe we’ll fish out the mouse, or shame the tosser, or ask for better punch-bowl covers, or mouse-traps. Or we’ll take to raising larger mice. Whatever our roles, the incident jolts us. Your outrage is yours. I do mine just fine, without help. But I don’t want to stop there, but start.

Over the decades, I’ve noticed life becomes custom-fitted to teach each of us what we need to learn. It gets to know us, scouts us right up to our weaknesses. I’m not always talking “fair” or “easy” or “blessed”, either. What I hold on to most tightly I’ll probably be compelled to relinquish. Rigid things tend to break. The gods prodding humans to grow. Or evolution fine-tuning a whole complex of eco-systems, sharpening the ability of each species to thrive by choosing the most adaptable individuals and going forward with them because — quite simply — they can change. A hundred thousand lemmings die, but one, slightly different, flourishes and becomes the progenitor of a new species. Ancestral lemming, I salute you.

If we’re changing, how could all the old rules possibly serve? Because rules can change, too, and most of the ones that trouble us and dog our heels are ones we’ve made for ourselves that haven’t changed with us. A few other parameters we encounter, like this pesky aging-and-mortality thing, and finite planetary resources, and cause and effect, we’re still learning to work with. It’s just that from time to time we confuse human rules with spiritual law. Confuse them so successfully we think they’re the same thing, until we find they’re not.

Imagine your ideal set of rules for how you’d play the game. Or laws, if you’re going for large-scale. Work to get down in writing at least three or four of them — you may uncover more — then try them out on your life, checking for fit, and then try them on the lives of a few other beings. Revise as needed.

Next post I’ll post mine.

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