Archive for the ‘authority’ Category

Bad Girls and Goddesses, Censorship, Good Press and the Dream World   Leave a comment

donigerWendy Doniger’s gotten some extensive press lately. Not on the scale of Kim Kardashian, but still … Whether or not Doniger or anyone accepts the half-truth that “all press is good press,” recent books by this University of Chicago professor of Hinduism have aroused the ire of vocal Hindus variously called fundamentalists, conservatives and Hindutva-vadis, supporters of Hindutva or “Hindu-ness.”

Penguin Books in India recently recalled Doniger’s 2009 study, The Hindus: An Alternative History, because the Delhi-based group SBAS — Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (“Save Education Movement”) — characterized the book as “malicious,” “derogatory and offending to Hinduism” and containing “faulty representation of Indian history and historical figures.”  SBAS advanced its case with a successful push for the withdrawal of a second book of Doniger’s as well, On Hinduism, published in 2013.

hindubkprotest1The legal footing that SBAS stands on appears in the Indian Penal Code.  SBAS spokeperson Dinanath Batra benefits from the code which states that “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs shall be punished with imprisonment or fine, or both.”*  We’ll sidestep for now the apparent dangers of granting such strong legal recourse to anyone whose sensibilities might be offended.  After all, outrage is the stance du jour of much of the political conversation in the States.

Of course, censors and free-speechers have been waging these and similar battles for a long time, with no likely end in sight.  When Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still the fourth most frequently banned book in the U.S., as well as a “Great American Novel,” such controversy comes as no surprise. (A 2011 edition of the Twain classic removes the 200+ instances of the word “nigger” and replaces them with “slave.”)**

opmythsDoniger, now 73, is a respected scholar, having taught at Chicago for 36 years, and published dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles.  Even before publication in India, she worked with editors to soften potentially inflammatory wording.  But as Doniger remarks in a February ’14 New York Times article, her focus is on popular Hinduism.  She wanted “to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks … It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”  The Times article continues:  “Asked if she could sympathize at all with those offended by her work, Ms. Doniger said: ‘In general, I don’t like people saying nasty things about other people’s religion, but this is something else. This is fundamentalism, which says that parts of its own religion are bad. In a sense, I’m defending their religion, and they’re attacking it.’”

As Slate notes, “The Hindus, which is still available internationally, is currently the number 11 bestselling book on Amazon, which is not too shabby for a four-year old religious history book by a University of Chicago divinity professor. The worst enemy of censorship is always curiosity.”

Columnist Swati Sharma in the 20 Feb. ’14 Washington Post concludes,

There are some concerns when it comes to Doniger and Western media articles about the backlash against her work. While you can disagree with the book and still want it published, Doniger repeatedly blames any criticism of her work on the right wing, sweeping aside any real concerns about it. It’s almost too easy to frame those who are religious as religious fundamentalists — when some on the far right try to ban “On the Origin of Species” in the United States, it doesn’t mean all Christians support such drastic measures. In the same sense, there are many Hindus, scholars and academics who disagree with her writings but believe the book should be published. Those voices get trampled by an easily digestible battle between religious fundamentalists and secular liberals. But that’s what happens when a book is basically banned; the debate on the actual content is lost and is focused instead on free speech. That’s where Doniger is in the right.

That doesn’t mean the right-wing party isn’t pushing this debate — after all, elections are coming in May. That said, Penguin’s decision to not wait for a judgment and to settle is disappointing. It’s easy to publish books that are safe. It’s for the ones that challenge us that the concept of free speech exists.

Doniger doesn’t shy away from the provocative remark.  She gets off a few zingers, for instance, in her article in yesterday’s 5 March ’14) NY Times, “Banned in Bangalore“:

I must apologize for what may amount to false advertising on my behalf by Mr. Batra, who pronounced my book “filthy and dirty.” Readers who bought a copy in hope of finding such passages will be, I fear, disappointed. “The Hindus” isn’t about sex at all. It’s about religion, which is much hotter than sex.

“Hotter than Sex” would make a great book or blog title.  Yes, you’re welcome.

And in her  blog post “Respect For Women Yes, Worship of Goddesses No” Doniger observes:

But the goddess feminists are whistling in the dark when they argue, first, that everyone used to worship goddesses (some people did, but many did not) and, second, that this was a Good Thing for women, indeed for everyone, their assumption being that women are more compassionate than men.

In fact, when men as well as women do worship goddesses, as they have done for centuries in many parts of India, the religious texts and rituals clearly express the male fear of female powers, and the male authors of those texts therefore make even greater efforts to control women, as if to say, “god help us all if these naturally powerful women get political power as well.”

There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally a pretty bloodthirsty lot.

Goddesses are not, therefore, the solution. Equal respect for human men and women is the solution.

But if our deities mirror ourselves, as they seem to do, we can be grateful for changes in both.  We can be grateful that slavery is now illegal, that racism no longer gets such an easy pass, that women’s rights are a live issue, that the beginnings and ends of life are being examined critically, despite our weariness with the wars of political correctness and with conservative-liberal polarization.  Does morality evolve?  Just what absolutes are you looking for?

I like to let my subjects have the last words (even if I chose them to illustrate my own post rather than letting them make only their own points).  So here’s an excerpt from another of Doniger’s blog-posts, “The Mutual Dream,” which offers a polytheist perspective worth examining for its explanatory power:

A better idea, I think, is captured by several of India’s many philosophies of reality and illusion, which suggest that we do indeed create god (and therefore religion) in our imaginations, as we create all of our reality, but that at the same time god creates us in god’s imagination, that god is, like us, constantly dreaming into existence a reality that includes us imagining god. We are mutually dreaming, mutually existing.

A modified, slightly rationalized, version of this belief would be the assertion that, although we do not make god ex nihilo, nor does god make us ex nihilo, we are the ones who bring god fully to life, while god in turn is what brings us truly to life, makes us fully alive to the phenomenal world, dream world though it may be.

This is not an idea that is easy for people trained in Western philosophical ideas to swallow, and it all depends upon how you define god, but for me it is rich in meaning.

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*Times of India 2 March ’14 article and 11 Feb. ’14 article.

**Daily Mail, 5 Jan. ’11.

Image: Doniger; book protest; Other People’s Myths.

Updated 8 March 2014

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About Initiation, Part 5   2 comments

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Much of what we can do with initiation consists of bringing the inner experience outward, establishing it in consciousness, so that we can begin to live in and from the new awareness.  That can often mean we find ourselves expressing it through light, sound, color, form, in painting, drawing, photography, dance, music, writing, embroidery, etc. — some way to bring that inside stuff into this realm of touch and smell and contact and physical sensation.  The correlation doesn’t need to be, won’t be, exact.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s a bridge to somewhere over the rainbow, where the sidewalk ends, where the path disappears into a pool of still water.  Pick(le) your metaphor.

Believing, as the (transformed) saying goes, is seeing.  We see it through, we manifest it, because we’ve seen it before, maybe via an inner sense that doesn’t always feel like sight but may come as some other way of knowing.  Do we need to be told “what to look for and when” as the cartoon suggests?  Only if we’re focused on proof rather than transformation.  Only if we’re trying to see somebody else’s vision.  Ours, however, is ours — it doesn’t require tricks.  (True, it may sneak up on us, or we may be the ones doing the sneaking.)  Others may well “believe” it when they see it in our lives, when they have something they can contact that reassures them we’re still grounded here. Even if — or especially when — we’re not, anymore.  Or not like we were, exclusively.  We’re not freaks (at least usually not obvious ones).  But the life that flows through us when we complete the circuit and connect to both poles comes across to everyone.  Each person is charged at least a little, whenever any one of us is.  The democracy of spirit.  The changes come, and with a measure of luck and grace and good weather, we survive this life again, and enough of our loved ones are still with us to carry on.

If it’s a difficult initiation — unwanted or unsought — we may resist the awareness.  The divorce, the scary diagnosis, the death of a friend, the chronic pain.  But even if it’s the events and timing of the outward initiation that seem to be the launch-pad, the dividing line between our old and new selves, almost always, in my experience, sign-posts and markers of the inner preparation and change have shown up beforehand.  We just may not recognize them till later, if at all.  Scant consolation when your life falls apart all around.  And even less welcome are the well-meaning Others in your life who may let slip that they “saw that one coming a mile away.”  (But could we listen, could we hear the warning?  Nope.  Absolutely not.  Don’t want to, don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear it!)  Sometimes deafness is protection, the only shield we have at the moment.  Compassion for ourselves, for others in that moment, and after.

One of the reasons I maintain this blog is the opportunity it gives me to test and measure some part of my inner worlds against this outer one.  After all, this is the world I live in with a physical body, and if I want to use here what I’ve experienced elsewhere and inwardly, it needs to be adapted to the dynamics of this world.  This physical life is one pole of the circuit that is our existence.  The other pole lies in our inner worlds, but that’s no reason either to discount it or to grant it a superiority over everything else that it doesn’t deserve.  Who has explored “everything life has to offer”?  I’ve been around for several decades, and I still feel like a rank beginner, like I’m only just starting to do more than scratch the surface.  And yet at the same time as doors open, a strange-familiar welcome lies on the other side, like I’m returning to something I’ve always known but haven’t yet walked.  Now (first time?  second time?) I’m setting foot there.

In the first branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll prince of Dyfed encounters Arawn, Lord of the Otherworld, and the exchanges that develop between the two realms profit both of them.  It’s a circuit both literal and figurative, as most things are:  accessible to the metaphorical part of our minds, but also to our inner senses, if not our physical ones.  And sometimes the division falls away and no longer separates the worlds. In the Western Tradition, Samhain or Hallowe’en celebrates just such a thinning of the veil.  The Otherworld enters this one, or we journey there in dream or vision, and we become walkers in both worlds.  Sometimes this world can then go transparent, and we see both worlds simultaneously, that old double vision that dissolves time and distance and the game of mortality.  Then the veil falls again, easy concourse between the worlds slips away, and we resume to our regularly scheduled lives.  Except not quite.  We’ve changed.

As the old U.S. Emergency Broadcast System (now the EAS) used to say, more or less, “Had this been an actual emergency, you would have received instructions about what to do next,” except that instructions are already hard-wired in our hearts.  Listen without listening, and all we get is static.  The station has nothing more to say to us.  No instructions.  It seems like no one’s at the controls.  No directions.  If we can’t easily access them any longer, out of neglect or fear or ignorance, sometimes there’s a gap between learning about the “emergency” and “receiving instructions ” — a gap of hours, months, years, lives even.  Where to go, what to do, how to go on, all become unknowable, impossible, lost to us.  And so the ferment works in us, till we’re driven to find out, to quest for wisdom, to cry for vision.  And what we ask for, we receive — eventually — as the Great Triad records:  Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and it will open to you.  Eventually.  Patience, old teacher, maybe the earliest and longest lesson of all.  Another face of that strange love that sometimes seems (dare we admit it?) built into things, that will not ever let us go.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Updated 15 March 2013

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Images:  mystical dancer initiation; proof; b&w figures

Of Headlines and Images: “Purely Cultural” or “Very Pagan”?   Leave a comment

It’s worth resurrecting a decade-old headline — and the accompanying picture! — to reflect on the power of headlines and images.   In 2002, when then incoming Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards during the Eisteddfod, an annual festival of Welsh culture, it kicked up some predictable controversy (or kun-TRAH-ver-see, as the Brits say it).  It also produced a fine picture that says at least as much — though what it does say is also debatable.  Here’s the whole article:

Incoming Archbishop of Canterbury becomes a druid
Monday 5 August 2002

An ancient early morning ceremony yesterday saw the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury stepping into a circle of Pembrokeshire stones and into a controversy.  Rowan Williams donned a long white robe, stood inside the sacred circle in a mist shrouded field in Wales, and became a druid.

The Archbishop of Wales was one of 50 people to be inducted into the Gorsedd of Bards during the service at the National Eisteddfod, a celebration of Welsh culture this week at St David’s, Pembrokeshire.

The Gorsedd comprises Welsh-speaking poets, writers, musicians, artists and others who have made a distinguished contribution to Welsh language and culture. But the ceremony was seen by some as too close to paganism for comfort.

The Rev Angus Macleay, of the evangelical group Reform, said: “Even if to Welsh speakers it is recognised as purely a cultural thing, the appearance of it looks very pagan. You have folks calling themselves druids, dressed in white and going into a stone circle, reciting prayers which don’t mention Jesus Christ.”

Dr Williams, who takes up his post in November, hit back at suggestions that the honour was linked to paganism. It was “one of the greatest honours which Wales can bestow on her citizens”, he said. “Some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony. If people had actually looked at the words of the hymns and text used they would have seen a very Christian service.”

The Archbishop is stepping down this year, having presided over a  decade’s worth of theological contentiousness about marrying and ordaining homosexuals that is splitting his church.  Other kerfluffles (I use the word advisedly:  in a century historians will no doubt smile and shake their heads at what is controversial now) include his positions on Sharia law, the hijab, Freemasonry, and creationism.  He is taking on what should be (almost anything would be!) a less dramatic and public role: Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.  Think Professor Minerva McGonagall as head of house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts, though Gryffindor was one of four dorms or “houses,” rather than an entire college.  Still …

I suspect Williams enjoyed his secular Druid experience more than some of his official duties as Archbishop.  I hope he reflects on it from time to time, as Druidry grows richer and more widely known.

[Updated 7/19/12]

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Secrets, Part Two   Leave a comment

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

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*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.

Secrets, Part One   Leave a comment

If you believe that everything should be “out in the open,” you’ll probably admit to a certain impatience with concealment and secrecy. We’ve heard the old saw: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” and up to a point we believe it.  Particularly in the U.S., we equate openness with being “aboveboard” and honest.  “Don’t beat around the bush.”  “Say what you mean.”  “Be upfront about it.”  We admire “straight talk.”

The Freedom of Information Act helped make at least some government activities more transparent, and we often welcome “full disclosure” in a variety of situations.  We still think of ours as an “Open Society,” and the current practice of large and anonymous campaign contributions from corporate sponsors has some American citizens up in arms. We’re wary of the con, and we tend to suspect anyone who doesn’t “tell it like it is.”  We’ve got talk shows where people “spill it all,” and public figures starting at least with Jimmy Carter who began a confessional politics by admitting he had “lust in his heart.”  But not all secrets are sinister.  They do not automatically concern information anyone else needs to know.  Each of us has some things that are innocently private.  And in fact, well beyond this concession, secrecy can serve remarkable purposes that conspiracy theorists and even regular citizens rarely acknowledge.

Some secrets, of course, appear to be built into the stuff of the Cosmos.  Robert Frost captures this in a brief two-line poem, “The Secret Sits”:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

We circle the thing we’re after, all the while convinced it’s there, that something will answer to our seeking, but somehow we still persist in missing it.  In spite of a couple of hundred years of scientific exploration, and prior to that, millennia of religious and spiritual investigation, existence and meaning and purpose often remain mysterious and not easily accessible.  What matters most to us springs from sources and energies we can’t simply subject to laboratory scrutiny and then write up in learned journals and magazines.  As some of the Wise have put it, “the eye sees, but cannot see itself” (at least not without a mirror).  Something about the nature of consciousness blocks us from easily comprehending it.

In our search, we reduce matter to atoms (literally, “unsplittables”) and think we’ve arrived at the true building blocks of the universe, only to learn that atoms can indeed split, and that they’re composed of subatomic particles.  Quantum physics further reveals that these particles are probabilities and exist only with the help of an observer.  Space-time itself is generated by consciousness.  We live in a “nesting doll” universe, worlds inside other worlds, an onion-like cosmos of endless layers.  True secrets, it appears, can’t be told.  They’re simply not part of the world of words.  As the Tao Te Ching wryly has it, “The Way that can be talked about isn’t the real Way.”  If that doesn’t have you pulling your hair out, it can at least cast you down into a terminal funk.  Where can a person get a clear answer?

Serious seekers in every generation come to experiment with some form of solitude, and if they persist, they may discover some very good reasons that underlie the practice of removing themselves even briefly from consensus reality and the web of communication we’re all born into.  This web helps us live with each other by building enough common ground that we can understand each other and cooperate in achieving common goals.  But it also builds our entire world of consciousness in ways we may not always want to assent to.  However, solitude by itself isn’t reasonable for most people as a lifestyle.  As my mother liked to remind me, “You have to live in the real world.”

But this “real world” runs surpassingly deep and wide in its influence.  Author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes,

The small talk that fills up time at social gatherings is an obvious example. There might seem to be little point in chatting about the weather, say, or the less controversial aspects of politics, business, and daily life, but this sort of talk communicates something crucial.  It says, in essence, “I live in the same world you do,” and the world in question is one defined by a particular map of reality, a particular way of looking at the universe of human experience.*

We need maps – there’s a reason we developed them.  But they limit as much as they guide.  We could even say that this is their genius and power – they guide by limiting, by reducing the “blooming buzzing confusion” of life to something more manageable.  Advertizing does this by simplifying our desire for meaning and connection and significance into a desire for an object that will grant us these things.  Trade one symbol – money or credit cards, paper or plastic – for another symbol, a status symbol, an object sold to us with a money-back promise to grant wishes like a genie’s lamp or the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling” gem of the East. (If that’s not magic, and a questionable kind at best, I don’t know what is.  How much more wonderful it would be – how much closer it would come to “true magic” — if it actually succeeded in quenching that original desire, which is merely sidetracked for a time, and will re-emerge, only to be distracted again, by another “new and improved”** model, spouse, diet, house, product or lifestyle.  We need a remarkably small minimum of things to flourish and be happy.  In a territory far beyond the blessed realm of that minimum, the market survives, yes, while the heart slowly dies.***)

Greer continues,

We thus live in an extraordinarily complex web of communication, one that expresses and reinforces specific ways of thinking about the world.  This is not necessarily a problem, but it can easily become one whenever the presence and effects of the web are unnoticed.  To absorb the web’s promptings without noticing them, after all, is also to absorb the web’s implied world-view without being aware of the process – and what we do not notice we usually cannot counteract.

The very common habit of passivity toward our own inner lives, a habit that is responsible for a very large portion of human misery, shows itself clearly here.  It’s one thing to accept a map of the world as a useful convenience, one that can be replaced when it’s no longer useful, and quite another to accept it unthinkingly as the only map there is—or worse, to mistake the map for the world itself.*

A secret breaks the web.  It remains something apart, the fragment that doesn’t fit.  It’s the puzzle piece left over that doesn’t match the gap in the nearly-finished picture staring up at you, that one annoying bolt or washer or other component remaining after you’ve put together the “easy to assemble” appliance or device.  It’s the hangnail, the sore thumb, the mosquito bite of awareness that something’s off-kilter, out of whack, out of step, no longer in synch.  We have words for these things — we can name them, at least — because they happen to us frequently enough to break into the web.  And we struggle to fix them as soon as we can, or barring that, ignore them as much as possible, that uncomfortable fact, that inconvenient discovery. As Churchill quipped, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

I’ll continue this topic in Part Two.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, pp. 114-115.  I reread this book about once a year, and its lucid style makes this pleasurable apart from its subject matter. In addition to being a “guided tour” of the workings of lodge dynamics (fraternal, magical and social) and group magical practice (with an example magical lodge that Greer examines in considerable detail), the book is a clear, demystifying meditation on group consciousness, secrecy, and the magical egregore or “group mind” at work in all human organizations, institutions and collectives, including families, churches, political parties, companies, clubs, sports teams — the scope is immense.

**As comedian Chris Rock says, “Which is it, new or improved?!”

***As a teacher at an expensive private school for students whose parents expect them to gain admission to the top colleges and universities in the country, I here acknowledge that I myself participate in another kind of wish-fulfilling enterprise marketed to a considerable degree to that now widely suspect 1%.  In defense of the school, however, if not of myself, every year scholarship students are admitted solely on merit.  They succeed out of all proportion to their numbers in earning top class rankings and coveted admission letters to the best schools.

Answering Molly   Leave a comment

I teach at a boarding school, and a few years ago, one of my freshman advisees asked a seemingly innocent question during one of our first meetings.  I was still learning the scores of new names teachers must match with faces each fall, but Molly’s inquiry made her stand out from the other students:  “What question should I ask, and what’s the answer?”

I vaguely remember replying that I’d have to give  her question some thought, but I’d be sure to get back to her.  As a bit of playfulness, the matter might have ended there.  But Molly brought up the question again, almost every time we saw each other in fact, and it soon became a kind of inside joke.  She graduated before I wrote this, but she’s on Facebook, so I’ll be sending this along to her, only half a decade late.

Ideally, teaching and learning invite questions.  Good questions distinguish students who are thinking well, and they can move classes in rich and unforeseen directions. Good students and teachers distinguish themselves by the mileage they can get out of each other’s questions.  How often I’ve shut students down by dismissing a question out of lack of time, answering it poorly, not hearing it as it was intended, or deferring it in the face of “more important things” and ultimately forgetting it.  A class often comes alive with student questions.  They break up a teacher monolog, and — better, often, than teacher questions — reveal student thinking, which may well be superior to anything the teacher has planned for the day.  For me, following wherever such questions lead at least once a week has proven worth the time again and again.

For questions imply answers.  Insofar as it can be put into language, a desire to know carries the seeds of its own response.  Often we already “know” much of what an answer should “look like” – which some might say is a problem, because it conditions the kinds of answers we can receive, or those we will devote the most energy looking for.  When the man searching for his lost key is asked why he’s looking under a streetlight, he replies, “Because that’s where the light is.”

If we ask simple informational questions, such as “What time is it?” we already know a great deal about the form of the answer.  “Half a cup” or “Poughkeepsie” or “grayish green” won’t do for answers in this case.  “Not yet” edges somewhat closer, since it has at least something to do with time.  “4:18 pm” serves very well, whether or not it’s accurate, because it has the form of the kind of answer we seek.  So it satisfies the formal requirement without necessarily satisfying the content requirement.

In the case of “large” questions, though, it can be more difficult to recognize whether an answer even satisfies the formal requirement.  But as The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy insinuates, though we may have an answer,  even one as specific as 42, without its “inciting” question to steady and direct it like a rudder on a boat, an answer by itself may not help us very much.

Mary Oliver notes in one of her poems, “there are so many questions more beautiful than answers.” Living in our questions is one way to keep a spiritual search alive. Resist the craving for an answer too soon. In her poem “Spring,” she asserts, “‘There is only one question:/how to love this world.”  The biggest questions may not have an “answer” in any  sense we expect or demand, but they may nonetheless propel us in necessary or powerful directions, ones we need to travel.

Molly’s inquiry is a meta-question – a question about questions.  It asks about quality.  It also assumes the listener might know more than the speaker, at least about questions and their answers.  It implies that another can recognize – and provide – good or worthwhile questions worth asking, can anticipate the kinds of questions you may have, and has good answers.

Now all of this is unfair to load onto a probably offhand and casually teasing question.  But by continuing to ask it, Molly slowly transformed it into a kind of riddle or meditation object, deepening its significance.  What a lesson there!

One kind of answer to that question is also a general one, and sounds like advice for someone setting out on a journey:  ask the best kinds of questions you can, and trust that you also need to seek out your own answers.  Those anyone else can supply, except for day-to-day matters, aren’t really worth your time, except as provisional responses, first approximations to the answers you can best provide for yourself.  Question authority, because some sacred cows stopped giving milk a long time ago.  Question authority to find out if that authority deserves the name — does it feed you stock answers, or does it actually possess the power to lead you toward your own answers?  And better, authorize questions — encourage yourself, and others, to keep asking.

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Image:  cartoon

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 3: Questions and Authorities   Leave a comment

So if you found my previous post about fear and death (and nerds — yay!) a bit too off-putting, here’s a reprieve.  What else might a new “religious operating system” have on offer? In a Huffington Post article from some time ago (Sept. 2010) titled “The God Project:  Hinduism as Open Source Faith,” author Josh Schrei asserts that the principal distinction between Hinduism and other more familiar Western faiths is not that the former is polytheistic and the latter are monotheistic, but that “Hinduism is Open Source and most other faiths are Closed Source.”  (We’re already increasingly familiar with the open-source approach from computer systems like Linux and community-edited resources like wikis.) In this series on what a more responsive and contemporary religious design might look like (here are previous parts one and two), this perspective can offer useful insight.

If we consider god, the concept of god, the practices that lead one to god, and the ideas, thoughts and philosophies around the nature of the human mind the source code, then India has been the place where the doors have been thrown wide open and the coders have been given free rein to craft, invent, reinvent, refine, imagine, and re-imagine to the point that literally every variety of the spiritual and cognitive experience has been explored, celebrated, and documented. Atheists and goddess worshipers, heretics who’ve sought god through booze, sex, and meat, ash-covered hermits, dualists and non-dualists, nihilists and hedonists, poets and singers, students and saints, children and outcasts … all have contributed their lines of code to the Hindu string. The results of India’s God Project — as I like to refer to Hinduism — have been absolutely staggering. The body of knowledge — scientific, faith-based, and experience-based — that has been accrued on the nature of mind, consciousness, and human behavior, and the number of practical methods that have been specifically identified to work with one’s own mind are without compare. The Sanskrit language itself contains a massive lexicon of words — far more than any other historic or modern language — that deal specifically with states of mental cognition, perception, awareness, and behavioral psychology.

It’s important to note that despite Schrei’s admiration for Hinduism (and its sacred language Sanskrit — more in a coming post), the West has all of these same resources — we just have developed them outside explicitly religious spheres.  Instead, psychology, so-called “secular” hard sciences, social experimentation, counter-cultural trends and other sources have contributed to an equally wide spread of understandings.  The difference is that far fewer of them would be something we would tag with the label “religion,” especially since the pursuit of things like ecstatic experience — apart from some Charismatic and Pentecostal varieties — generally lies outside what we in the West call or perceive as “religion.”

The underlying principle that drives such a range of activity perceived as “religious” also stands in sharp contrast with religion in the West.  (Of course there are exceptions. To name just one from “inside religion,” think of Brother Lawrence and his Practice of the Presence of God.) As Schrei remarks, “At the heart of the Indic source code are the Vedas, which immediately establish the primacy of inquiry in Indic thought.” To put it another way, India and Hinduism didn’t need their own version of the American 60s and its byword “question authority,” because implicit in open-source religion is “authorize questions.” Nor did they need debates over Creation or Evolution, because scientific inquiry could be seen as a religious undertaking. Schrei continues:

In the Rig Veda, the oldest of all Hindu texts (and possibly the oldest of all spiritual texts on the planet), God, or Prajapati, is summarized as one big mysterious question and we the people are basically invited to answer it. “Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?” While the god of the Old Testament was shouting command(ment)s, Prajapati was asking: “Who am I?”

This tendency to inquire restores authority to its rightful place.  In an era in the West when so many faux authorities have been revealed as spiritually hollow or actively deceitful, we’ve arrived at a widespread cynical distrust of any claims to authority.  But true authorities do still exist.  Their hallmark is an invitation to question and find out for ourselves.  Jesus says, “Ask and you will know, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.”  These aren’t the words of one who fears inquiry.  To paraphrase another of his sayings, when we can learn and know the truth about something, we will meet an increase of freedom regarding it.  It will not intimidate us, or lead us to false worship, or mislead us.  One identifier of truth is the freedom it conveys to us.

Authorities also benefit us because out of their experience they can guide us toward the most fruitful avenues of inquiry, and spare us much spinning in circles, pursuing wild geese, and squandering the resources of a particular lifetime.  Whether we choose to follow good advice is a wholly separate matter.  Authorities can point out pitfalls, and save us from reinventing the wheel.  At a time when so many look East for wisdom, only recently have we been rediscovering the wisdom of the West hidden on our doorsteps.

Examples abound. The Eastern Orthodox church has preserved a wealth of spiritual practices and living exemplars in places like Mount Athos in Greece.  The Pagan resurgence over the last decades has done much useful weeding and culling of overlooked and nearly forgotten traditions rich in valuable methods for addressing deeply the alienation, disruption, dis-ease, physical illness and spiritual starvation so many experience.  Individuals within Western monotheisms like Rob Bell and his book Love Wins have served as useful agents for reform and introspection.  While it may not be always true, as Dr. Wayne Dyer claims, that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” we’ve only just begun to regain perspectives we discounted and abandoned through the past several centuries, mostly through the seductions of our increasing mastery of a few select processes of the physical plane and their capacity to provide us with comforts, sensations, entertainments and objects unknown until about 75 years ago.  We’ve self-identified as “consumers” rather than spiritual beings.  Hamlet identified the problem centuries ago: “What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?”  Or as another of the Wise asked, “What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  Let us be soul-finders and soul-nourishers.  Otherwise, why bother?

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Images:  open-source cartoon; veda; Mount Athos

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