Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turning Points: All In

To make sense of this, you need to first read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Everything fell apart.

My prayer for humility may have been impromptu, undignified, and not internally consistent, but it was plenty efficacious. Within weeks, I lost my apartment and job. By the end of the summer, having nothing left to keep me in Denver, I pointed my van/home at San Francisco, where I busked for my dinner. Just as I landed a day job selling computer business systems and connected with someone about to record an album, my musical instruments were stolen. The next day, parked in an entirely different location after being repaired, my van was broken into and vandalized by frustrated thieves (there being nothing of value left to steal). Out of options I started the long drive back to my parents home, whereupon my van caught on fire. I arrived at my parents home with not much other than the shirt on my back.

That's the general chronology, anyway. But it isn't the story. It is, however, easier to put into words than the story. The real events happened quietly, mostly alone in the back of an old van. That's where I performed a moral vivisection on the monster in the mirror, digging out and staring down every twisted motive I might find. That's where I practiced what felt at the time like two disparate paths: one the deity-independent discipline of the mind exercises, the other quasi-Christian practices minus the mythology and a deity best described as "to whom it may concern (no one, I suspect)". At times it was deeply contradictory, but that no longer mattered. I was on a mission. The monster must be destroyed, by any means necessary -- or available. Even when, as it often did, it meant running into Dark Thing, with all the consequences that implied.

Then, one rainy night in the back of a van, as I prayed, the thought entered my mind that what I needed to do was call up Dark Thing (yes, I could bring it to me at will, though until that moment of that night it certainly was not what I willed) and send it away. And so I did. It came, but for the first time was not terrifying or disruptive to my thought. I ordered it away. And it left.

It never came back.

It had been standing in front of something. It was light, and sparkled, and in a continuation of my seven year old's nomenclature, I called it "Light Thing". Light Thing was not threatening. In fact, it had a peaceful presence. Given its association with Dark Thing, though, I intended to keep it at a respectful distance. In that direction had been something worse than death, and there was no evidence it wasn't still there.

With Dark Thing gone, vivisecting the monster was no longer agony. It was exhilarating, even as the externals of my life filled up with hunger, cold, and increasing danger. When I think of the year and a half which followed, I don't think first of the times I fainted from hunger. I think of the times I spent quietly unwinding the threads of the monster, and watching a new pattern come into focus, the outlines of a pattern spiraling towards somewhere, something, unknown.

Virtually everywhere I looked I saw this pattern taking shape and converging at some distant point. I found it materializing in my ponderings on ethics, but I also found it in mathematics and music theory. I even found it in a place I hardly expected I'd look: astrology.

Someone who had it with the monthly astrology column in the city feminist paper asked if I would submit an article debunking astrology to the paper. Since I needed to know something about astrology to debunk it, I took out a stack of library books and started reading.

What I found was (unsurprisingly) astrology wasn't a science, but neither was it gibberish. It was a language, rooted in mythological symbolism, that sought to describe something of the transcendent. It was a closer cousin to Church Slavonic, or Sanskrit, or the lingua ignota of Hildegard, than it was to astronomy.

Because my assessment of astrology might be seen (incorrectly) as a blanket endorsement, I'm going to stop the narration here and try to explain a little more about what I think of astrology. If astrology were a medicine it would be classified as an adjunctive-- unhelpful for most people, and generally unnecessary, but for a few patients, something that will make their other treatments more effective.

Astrology is nearly useless, and often counterproductive, when consumed as a product one purchases or otherwise obtains from astrologers. It is most valuable when studied as a discipline, it being one of many tools used from ancient times to help focus the mind upon the patterns of life. It will not tell you your future, but its misuse can get you tangled up in the mental knot of fortune telling. Fortune telling fails because the future is actively created by the entity whose future is being "predicted". It's like staring at the image in a mirror and trying to discern from it when the "image" is going to move. One may occasionally get something that can pass for a successful prediction, but mostly, one sits waiting, in futility, for something to "happen", all the while missing every opportunity to actually do something.

I did a few chart readings for people when I first studied astrology, but I have not done any in a very long time, because self-passivity is not the direction I should be encouraging, even slightly, anyone to go in. Most people, most of the time, would be better off if they stayed away from astrology. It's worth noting that the natal chart reading is a modern innovation, and not a part of traditional astrology.

My "endorsement" of astrology is therefore a highly qualified one, if it is any endorsement at all.

Astrology appealed to the same pattern recognition skills I had used as a young teenager to win chess tournaments. And so I studied, with some conscious irony, in the basement, next to the "This Is What We Think Of You" monument -- a giant glass trophy case, which would not have been out of place outside a coach's office at a major university, which contained every Pee Wee League baseball participation trophy and other barely-award ephemera from my two largely unathletic brothers. It was surrounded by the unprotected fragments, scattered across the basement, of what was left of the chess set and table I had won at the Illinois State Women's Chess Championship when I tied for first place while being the only teen, playing against adults. When I left for college my parents gave it and my other trophies to the youngest kids as toys. That is, except for the team appreciation award I got from the high school, where I lettered twice in chess. That board was taken and used by my father as a surface for cutting and soldering stained glass.

Too many people are alive who don't deserve to he hurt in a public rehashing of events for me to describe my relationship with my family in depth. It's enough to say that it wasn't good. I kept a surreptitious tally that confirmed that they were doing their level best to keep me unemployed while berating me, multiple times a day, for not having a job. I couldn't get a job and get out of their house; I had to get out of their house to get a job.

Helping my winter houseguests

It's early winter, climatologically speaking, in Vermont, which means I've been dealing with the stragglers from the autumn ladybug invasion. It's too cold for them to be safely relocated outside (they don't, after all, really want to be inside our dry, nearly foodless, excessively warm homes. They're just not very bright, and don't get it that burrowing deeper in some cases will get you worse, not better, winter digs). So, it's been the usual ladybug death watch here, watching them grow weaker and more desperate, and sweeping up the carcasses....

Until I realized it didn't have to be this way. Ladybugs are sold by the thousands to gardeners every year. That meant that someone, somewhere, was breeding these things. Which meant that somewhere out there, in the great body of information called the Internet, was information on how to care for ladybugs. And so I Googled.

What I learned was this: the species most often found in homes is the Asian lady beetle. Some find it a nuisance and consider it an invasive species. But since both I and my parrot are "invasive species" (this doesn't look like the horn of Africa, now does it?), we don't hold that against our mostly benign visitors. They are a very long lived species of ladybug, and can live for 2-3 years, occasionally reaching the ripe old age of 6.

Our homes kill them because they dry out -- they need a moist environment, and as everyone knows our homes in the winter are brutally dry. They prefer a good aphid, but they are omnivores and, in captivity, will thrive on a diet of raisins soaked in water till they are plump, then drained and chopped. Water should be provided in the form of a damp paper towel or cotton ball or a similar damp object, never as an open container of water, because our bug guests are not rocket scientists, and will drown.

Right now I have gathered 11 survivors in an old Lafeber's Nutriberry bird treat container. Peri had graciously agreed to empty the last of it for our guests, difficult a sacrifice as that was for my little glutton and food tosser ;) I ventilated the container with the sharp end of a compass, added a wet paper towel, and then added a helping of apparently delicious damp raisin (they were all over the raisin the moment I added it).

Most of my guests arrived in bad shape. For one, it was too late. The rest perked up after getting moisture and a bite to eat. I've noticed a pattern as I've added newcomers to my beetle bed and breakfast: after the initial shock, they go to the wet paper towel and bury their faces in it for a long, hydrating drink. Then, they head for the raisins, and replenish what must be an almost depleted fat reserve. And finally, the smaller males, now full of energy, chase the larger females around the container a few times before successfully mounting them and doing what comes naturally. Maslow would be proud.

I've also noticed that once I amassed a critical mass of bugs, the others still loose and lost in the house started seeking them out. One of my most recent additions I found running around the outside edge of the lid, apparently trying to figure out how all those members of her own species got in there. I of course opened the lid and demonstrated how it happens to my new guest.

I have not added, or even seen, a live ladybug wandering about the house for the last two days. In all probability I've gotten the last of them. Once they're all looking fit, I have a decision to make: refrigerate, or not? Normally, these bugs would go dormant during the winter, and successful dormancy would prolong their lives. But refrigerating these bugs is a tricky thing, given their tendency to dry out and that our refrigerators are designed to keep things stored in them dry. I've seen intelligent arguments both in favor of refrigeration and for leaving well enough alone.

So what does any of the above have to do with Hard Core Spirituality? We're obligated to care for each other -- even the lost little ones that others call "pests". This obligation is not theoretical, nor abstract, nor merely symbolic, and it is nontransferable (though efficiencies from division of labor still apply, and being honestly unable to help grants dispensation).

My houseguests are a reminder that a bite of wet raisin is often very much better than an uplifting lecture about how Spirit provides or a condescending lecture on how to responsibly overwinter in Vermont (trite sayings about teaching others to fish notwithstanding). If my "pests" survive, they will be a welcome gift to the community garden here in the spring. If they don't, they will at least have had a few more days of moisture and sweetness and running about mounting each other, and thus will have contributed a bug's worth of joy to a dessicated world thirsty for happiness.

What about 11 bugs in a bird treat tub isn't about Hard Core Spirituality?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Turning Points: Running

To understand this you'll probably want to read the first installment and the second installment before you read this one.

I started running with a baby step, by moving to Denver.

I had thought  the move from a college town to a large city would give me some anonymity. I was wrong. How tiny those 30 miles were became clear when I went to a bookstore the day after I moved in. I found on the store bulletin board the hideous Rocky Mountain News article, plus two different notes, from two different bands looking for a bassist, asking if anyone knew how to contact me. The clerk recognized me and was excited that I had moved to the city. If anonymity was what I wanted, I was going to have to try a lot harder.

What Denver did give me in the months I was there was nothing I expected to get, and that was a very different kind of circle of friends. I fell in with a group of women who were, largely, Christians.

It wasn't the first time I found myself in a circle that was largely composed of Christians. In fact, I played bass and occasionally percussion in a Christian folk band in high school. I could play bass, and they tolerated my professed atheism. They had regular paying gigs, and I more than tolerated the regular income. Later, I had a number of anomalous friendships with Christians, and sometimes spent time around their Christian friends. Their Christianity looked like a Greco-Roman mystery cult with a Jewish twist, and I wasn't interested in fairy tales.

Maybe it was simply that I had become romantically involved with one of the women (I'm a lesbian, and yes, these were lesbian Christians. They exist, you know.) But what I saw impressed me. Not enough to become Christian. The story of Christianity, the stuff Christians are required to believe as true, still looks to me like a Greco-Roman mystery cult, no matter how much easier it would be for me to find a way to believe the unbelievable. What impressed me was that they sincerely sought to know their God which, when stripped of the fairy tales, amounted to seeking with their whole hearts the same sort of transcendent Truth that I knew was there to be sought.

I had spent a decade trying to bury the nature of what happened that night at the window under fervent declarations of atheism. But I knew. I couldn't not know. I wasn't exactly a believer in God. God as an individual personality made as little sense to me as Mediterranean mythology with a Jew attached. But neither was I an atheist in any meaningful sense of the word.

In fact my own profession of atheism more closely resembled the stories I saw Christians tell themselves to tame, rationalize, and ultimately, diminish, transcendent, ineffable Truth, the presence of which was so undeniable, so intimate, that one could almost taste it if only one were to  pause for a moment to do so. Atheism was my own not quite credible personal mythology that I used to tame and manage and diminish the present Presence. And so I ceased professing to be an atheist and, in emulation of my friends, became a seeker.

My friends had known "who I was" when they met me. Perhaps it was some illusion surrounding that, or perhaps it was the beginnings of the effect which they were having in me. But they had (very much mistakenly) begun to attribute to me virtues like "wisdom".

I of course took an immediate, outsized, pride in my putative wisdom. And it was that pride that set me up for the turning point I described some time ago in another post, More About Being Hard Core. At that time I obscured some things about myself and glossed over some of the details. So, here is what I wrote then, with added details:

At the time I was a middlish fish in a mediumish pond, famous in the region I lived in and showing some potential in a field where, if successful, I would gain significantly more fame. And in the circles I moved in, I had a reputation for being “wise". I was excruciatingly in love with my fame, and very impressed with my “wisdom”. I believed, somewhat correctly, that my fame and my wisdom came from my spirituality.
I wasn't oblivious to the connection between a drastic turnaround in my life and the moment at the window. I couldn't be. Neither was anyone else unaware of something happening who knew me at that time, though I told very few people what that mysterious event was that had made the difference. Of course, now that I was openly spiritual, even that could be reason for a little more ego.
I was so impressed with myself that when a friend of a friend approached me, I spent the afternoon more or less talking about myself (not always overtly, but there are many indirect ways to insure a conversation revolves around oneself).
My romantic involvement with one of the women from this circle of friends had just ended when one of the women at the periphery of my circle approached me (I still feel some obligation for vagueness here as the woman who approached me was at the time also a good sized fish in a different pond, and for all I know she still is as I don't keep up with the goings-on in that pond).

If it were possible to break up more often than one actually had romantic involvements, that would have been me at the time. I didn't like rejection, but it wasn't a new thing for me. Still, it seemed, in my twisted take on things, that "wise" people were "humble" people, and "humble" people had to put up a big show around their failings, just so everyone knew they were "humble". And so I did. I talked about the breakup at every opportunity, so that the world might know how very "wise" I was. When this woman approached me, I just kept on rolling with my Proof of Wisdom train wrec Show.
Finally, when the individual had to leave, they mentioned that they were in the midst of a serious crisis, and I realized that that had been the reason this person had approached me.
 She was depressed. She was talking about self destructive acts. And I, with my Proof Of Wisdom Show, was an ass.

I certainly could have excused my behavior with “the person should have spoken up sooner”. A few years before, probably I would have. But over time, what would once have been tolerable ceases to be tolerable, if one takes spirituality seriously.

What i had done was so obviously awful in fact I couldn't make up excuses for it. I couldn't even wrap my mind around it at first. I was stunned.

A few hours later, though, the shock wore off, and I could see what now lie exposed, like gangrene uncovered when a bandage had been removed.

And later that day, as I was brushing my teeth, I got a look at myself in the mirror. I saw the puffed up ego, full of pride, that had just made itself useless to a suffering human being that had been looking for a little hope. If I had had the capacity to listen, the individual would have been able to speak, but my head was so full of praise for myself I was incapable of listening. I was an asshole....
Had it been possible for me to instantly plummet to the building’s basement and bury myself there, face down in the dirt below the foundation, I would still not have been as low as I felt in that moment. As it was I knelt down on the spot, in an almost equally appropriate position, next to the toilet (I generally do not kneel, but sit at a desk, when I do spiritual things, but given that I felt like a sinner, I think my Catholic education kicked in).
That, and "prostrating myself in front of a toilet" was much more expressive of how I felt at that moment than was standing upright.
I prayed to the Ultimate to do whatever it took, that I wanted to be free of the horrible person in the mirror, and I prayed as hard as I ever had. I meant every word of it. I wanted to change, and I wanted whatever it took to do it.
Prayer was always awkward for me, as I didn't (and still don't) believe in a being with individuality that, though omniscient, needed to be told what to do. In that moment, though, it just didn't matter. I had seen a monster in the mirror, and I cried out.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Turning Points: Failure

To understand this you'll probably want to read the first installment

When I began to write this section of the series, I wrote it as a simple chronology of events. But to tell what happened doesn't say what actually happened.

What actually happened was desperation, and fear. What happened was frustration and frenzy. What happened was loss disguised as a little bit of public attention and a small bite of power. I spent the next few years feeling as if I were fake, and I concluded this period by becoming an outright fraud.

I was desperate to feed the attention and power machine that I had become. What started as a shocking turnaround in my social fortunes at 14 became a full-on need for as much personal attention as I could muster. It wasn't enough that I was charismatic (one acquaintance half-seriously suggested an experiment: put me in a large box, wheel me around on a dolly, and see if people still stopped, turned around, and stared. He guessed that they would). No: I had to spend hours in front of the mirror every morning, fashioning ever more outlandish attire, so that no stare might ever be averted. I had to spend every waking hour mulling over the next publicity stunt-- all in a good cause, you see-- except I knew inside that my bottomless pit of loneliness was the real cause in question.

I really did believe in the ideas and values I espoused. I really did hope that I might do some good even as I substituted quantity of people and degree of influence over them for quality of relationships. But I knew how very far my persona, both in public and in private, deviated from who I was and why I did things. And I felt fake.

Fueling the drive for attention also was that it seemed I could no longer succeed at anything else (and I was obsessively ambitious even while pretending not to be). After two years of hiatus, during which it had seemed I could accomplish anything I wished, my waking nightmare and nemesis was back.

I called this nightmare Dark Thing. I had named it as a child when I had no more creative language. It had a sound: a deep, bone shaking sound in one's mind as chilling as any Siren's call. It had a size -- large, usually several feet taller than myself, reaching to whatever the height of the ceiling. It had a color (if things not seen with eyes can be said to have a color) -- not mere optical black, but the very color of annihilation. It had an effect: to shut down cold whatever l I had been thinking at the time of its arrival, not just at that moment but for days and weeks afterwards, as if it were a giant Novocaine shot to the brain. And it was Terror, as near to the absolute quality of terror as anything could be.

It had a modus operandi, too. From a very young age I liked to play with ideas, to follow the threads of reasoning as deep to their roots as I could, push out the limits of an idea as far as I might, and follow the tangly web, the grand patterns, of thought as it linked and merged and wove among other thoughts and ideas. That's why I loved the sciences: there were so many broad, deep, and interconnected patterns to play with. It wasn't just science though. The act of writing generated a mental playground within which I could romp. So did painting. So did reading, on nearly any topic.

Dark Thing always struck when I was at play with ideas. Moreover, it always struck at the point when ideas were flowing the easiest and patterns of connections were tumbling out. One moment, I was as happy as I could be, surrounded by connections, and the next, I was blindsided by Terror.

It was impossible for me to apply myself to thought after Dark Thing returned. My mind was too numb even to think about things, like chess, that had never generated the cascade of ideas from which Dark Thing emerged. If I wasn't directly impacted by Dark Thing, I was terrified that I would be impacted by Dark Thing. I had mapped out over the years a kind of mental minefield, where to stray would certainly bring about Terror (I called such thoughts "Forbidden Thoughts"), but there was much I hadn't mapped, and, I suspected, new mines were being planted every day. It isn't possible to be a physics and mathematics major -- at least not a very good one -- when vast swaths of one's chosen field were flagged and cordoned off as unsafe.

There was never a question of defying Dark Thing and pushing onward. It could not be done. My mind shut down tight. Even if someday it didn't, I was certain that beyond Dark Thing lie death itself, or maybe even something worse than death, some kind of utter annihilation.

But I could apply myself with little difficulty to winning a little bit of fame, and using what influence I had to wield a small amount of power. I rationalized my new interest, in promoting me, as an interest in furthering assorted noble political goals. The catch is that accreting a following and wielding those followers to noble political ends was not especially good at producing noble results. Mostly it produced complicated situations where no side was the side of right, and where I was as apt as anything to find myself, after a few convolutions, fighting for the exact opposite of what I believed in.

But I persisted with the tumult for lack of any other functional plan, until I couldn't. Then, upon diagnosing my problem as that which happens when needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks try to accrete and wield political power (and since I had no prospects that did not involve me being the needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck that I was), I decided to take my act to the one industry where needy ambitious egomaniacal fucks were the norm: music. I could, I thought, be as charismatic and attention seeking as I could bear, and the worst that I could do with a following would be to boost sales.

This scheme failed as well, when I came to realize that the violence that seemed to follow our band around (it was an early punk band) had everything to do with the violent imagery we drew upon and that I wrote into our music. Evidently I could be plenty destructive as a needy egomaniacal ambitious fuck atop a stage. People were getting hurt. And I was at fault.

Maybe the destructive effect came about through my personal charisma, I reasoned. Maybe I needed to take up an activity where people wouldn't actually see me very often. So, one morning, I put a sheet of paper between the rollers of my typewriter, and began my career as a writer of political theory.

My writing career lasted about a dozen keystrokes.

My first book, I had imagined, would be on the intimate relationship between hierarchy, freedom, and the very words we have to describe relationships among people. It had long been obvious to me from my trace-the-ideas sessions that to a great extent what was politically "possible" was merely that which was linguistically easy (by way of simple illustration I believed Russia's willingness to experiment (badly) with state socialism was in part the consequence of how possession is expressed in the language. The construction for possession, У меня, is, literally, "by me". Only context can tell you if the man standing next to a factory is discussing his proximity to the building, or claiming ownership of it). Furthermore the politically possible was, I thought, wound up even in our popular choices regarding logic itself (logic, or more generally how we know what we know, is a much more complex question than the average person understands it to be).

I had to think these ideas through, of course, before putting them on paper. And as I started to do so I began to see a horrible pattern. My failures as a leader were not merely the product of my glaring personality flaws. They weren't even the consequences of flaws in my political theories (though flawed they were). Those attributes that I least liked in the political world, that I least liked in myself, and more, were an inevitable consequence of the the very stuff of language and logic. The problem lie at a stratum of thought just below language. And so long as it remained, unchallenged and unchallengeable, in the stuff from which symbolic thought emerges, ideas would fail. Make a theory of freedom and follow it, and eventually it would tell you that you needed to advance its cause through dictatorship. Make a theory of peace among people, and it would guide you to bomb in its name. Make a theory of kindness towards animals, and surely someday those ideas would instruct you how many puppies and kittens to dropkick, and when.

I could see the glimmer of a solution to this fundamental failure of the intellect. It involved peering below the substratum of symbolic thought, at a still deeper level (one notch over is generally speaking where such resolutions, if extant, lie). And so I started again to trace things, this time deeper into the silent world beyond words, the world of the high pitched whine of one's brain, the whoosh of one's breathing... and then, a sound. I recoiled and put as much distance as I could between my previous line of thought.

The answer to how not to be so damned destructive was a Forbidden Thought. I was well and truly trapped.

I had no idea what to do with myself. I worked at a computer job or two, joined a none-too-dedicated folk band for a while, and otherwise drifted aimlessly for a few months until the interview.

It must have been a slow news day at the Rocky Mountain News. I got a phone call from a reporter who wanted to do a story on me. If I had any degree of self-restraint, I would have admitted that I was lost and had nothing of value to say to him or his readership. But while I was undoubtedly lost, I remained a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck, and so I consented to the interview. I recited my usual lines to him, even as I thought to myself "this is all garbage and I know it". And he published it.

I was no longer a needy ambitious egomaniacal fuck. I was a lying needy ambitious egomaniacal, knowingly fake and knowingly destructive, fuck. I couldn't keep myself from perpetrating this flagrant fraud as far as opportunity allowed.

I had to physically remove myself from the opportunity. It was time to run.

Part 3 is now available, and you can read it here

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rainbows and Unicorns in Jail

Readers of this blog already know I don't like much of what goes on under the rubric of New Age because it lacks seriousness and discipline. I also don't like the bulk of it because, even as it grants the most fantastical and unreal ideas a place of honor and credibility, it suffocates the human spirit in jails built of its own lack of imagination.

I'm thinking in particular of the "Mayan elders" and the "13 crystal skulls" my New Age friends are excited about. Aside from the easily proven facts that the people involved are not Mayan elders, the crystal skulls were carved with modern jewelry tools, and authentic Mayans would have no use for Western numerology (yes, that's a big aside, but I'm willing for the sake of argument to suspend my judgement)--- aside from everything about this that just isn't true, the event and the stories told of it are so very confining.

The most spiritual time is now -- regardless of whether "now" for you is a few minutes after I post this article on 11/11/11, or five years from now, or whether you're examining this blog as part of the archaeological record 20,000 years from when I've written this. It's any now that you have, with or without any putative elders of any sort doing anything at all. It's now,  no matter what numbers or letters have been assigned to this now by calendar makers and timekeepers (as someone whose desk once sat exactly one floor above NBS-6, I can assure doubters that the world's timekeepers are largely atheists and agnostics, not prophets).

The purest, most powerful "crystal" is the structure of reality itself. The only skull that need be involved in its perception is the one housing one's own mind. To attribute to age, status, ethnicity, time, number, object, or any other externality any attribute of necessity or importance is to turn away from the extraordinary freedom of right here, right now -- anywhere, anynow -- in one's own awareness. It is to imprison oneself in status and stuff, none of which has any good claim to spirituality.

There is sometimes a usefulness for spiritual tools and rituals. The usefulness of tools is as a treatment for spiritual ADD -- the tendency for humanity to go stare at the latest spectacle or wander off in search of a trinket, or to become wrapped up in the pains and limitations of human flesh. As I type this I have been fingering a miniature string of prayer beads, counting off prayers in lieu of, say, going off on a wikiwalk or getting lost in You Tube. Good tools properly used point to the crystal of Truth one can discover with one's own skull. They point emphatically to Now! They point to Divinity! Right here! Nearer than your occipital plate! Closer than your sinus cavities! They never, ever, point to themselves.

They have no intrinsic value (aside from aesthetic and financial considerations), and no special properties (unlike the magical qualities attributed to "Mayan" crystal skulls), because the magic of Truth is expressed in all being, even, as Chuang Tzu put it, "in the piss and dung". They need not be dug out of the wreckage of a civilization superior to our own (as it is alleged was the case of the crystal skulls) because Truth is not bound by the doings of any civilization. Carrying them across the country or even across the galaxy would not create any greater effect than, say, tossing them in the trash, because while tools may be carried about and thrown away, Truth is unmovable and impossible to get rid of.

The New Age movement is looking to superior beings, powerful objects, special locations, and magical dates and times, any or all of which are expected to usher in a future sacred time (i.e., not the time of now, but some other time). It's easy to document and criticize the sheer fraud behind much of that status and stuff, and that's where most of the criticism of New Age thinking begins and ends. But the real tragedy is not the money lost to fake gurus and overpriced rocks. It isn't even the deaths that have been caused by gurus who promise miracles and rainbows and unicorns for a fee. It's the spiritual opportunity lost when people imagine a spirituality so brutally confined by externalities of every sort. It's all those rainbows and unicorns in jail.

If there is any message I wish to give to my New Age friends, it's a message of freedom. I'd invite them to breathe in this liberty and know they need neither the dispensation of a superior race, nor the advantage of a sufficiently aged soul, to know -- not know about, not feel emotions about, but know -- Spirit.  I'd invite them to know that now, not some future age, is sacred time, and right here, is sacred ground and sacred space; that even the spit of their mouth and the content of their bladder has power equal or greater than all the power they've ever imputed to the crystals of Atlantis and Lemuria.  I'd invite them to unburden themselves, of the clutter of belief in special spiritual stuff, and of the clutter of supposed spiritualities, like "The Secret", which revolve around stuff. I'd invite them to free themselves from the mental clutter of having to find credible the incredulous simply because someone claiming special status said the incredulous was credible.

I'd invite them to throw away everything, in fact, as is their birthright as a free being.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Turning Points: The Decision

I've, since the beginning of this blog, sought to keep as much of me out of my blog posts as I could, lest I, and not the subject matter, become the topic. I'd say I am about to go out on a limb with this next series of posts on the stages of mysticism, but that would exaggerate the size of the twig I find myself standing on :)

Every mystic's journey begins with a decision, though it isn't always seen as one at the time. Sometimes its something they read in a book. Sometimes it's something they hear at their place of worship. Sometimes  it is even something they experience during drug use that makes them want the real thing. Often it is at the turning point of a personal crisis. That's what happened to me.

I was fourteen. And my life was hell.

I wonder about the adults who insist no child's life can be hellish. Have they forgotten what it was like to have a child's inability to escape or significantly alter one's circumstances? Have they forgotten a child's presumed lack of credibility? Or how a child's underdeveloped brain and limited experience impact's one's ability to solve problems which adults themselves find difficult to handle?  Or maybe those adults who insist childhood is a never-ending stream of ice cream, rainbows, and unicorns are the very adults who think so little of the young that they can't even imagine that the victims of their thoughtlessness experience harm.

My world at fourteen was a friendless one of bullying and abuse. Recent events had only escalated the helplessness and brutality. I was without hope. I had come to a decision a week or two before: I was going to steal a gun from where I knew one was hidden, and I was going to bring it to school, and I was going to kill everyone I could before I turned the gun on myself. This was decades before Columbine, or even before Columbine's immediate predecessors. I would have been the pioneer of this species of killing, if it were not for what happened that night.

I was standing at my bedroom window, looking at the stars and working out the fine details in my head of how to smuggle the gun into the building undetected. It was at that moment that the deep blackness that filled and surrounded me broke, and in an instant I saw... information. A lot of information.

The information could be divided into three broad categories. The first category might be described as "how to think." The object was to empty out the crud in my head so that I could think clearly, and the immediate task was to stop daydreaming. The primary method was to continuously observe my own thoughts and throw out the unwanted ones. When solving problems, the approach was to clear out the crud -- in essence, to stop grinding away at a problem -- and then take a clean, clear look at the situation. There were tricks for breaking mental ruts so that one could think more clearly. I dubbed all this the "mind exercises".

This first category of information had immediate appeal. I likened it to the idealized form of the scientific method, where the object of the researcher is to clear away biases so as to arrive at conclusions supported by fact. To see clearly was an irresistible goal.

The second category might be described as behavioral. I could see, in that instant of information, how this second category functioned to support the first category, but that did not make this second category any more appealing. I was to avoid anything that addled the mind, whether it was drugs and drink (as someone who was at that age already drinking, this had precisely zero appeal to me), or whether it involved other techniques, such as the hypnosis games some girls had been playing around with in eighth grade. I was to maintain simplicity in all things-- for example, in my attire. I was a teenager, and I loved flamboyancy, and it was the early '70's: this was not what I wanted, either. The third point, which straddled the behavioral category and the third category, was that I needed to maintain my fitness and my survival skills, because there would come a time when I needed both. All in all I accepted the logic of this category: I simply wasn't going to do much of it.

The third broad category was the category I categorically rejected. It contained a promise of what would happen if I followed the previous directions. As an atheist I had no use for the supernatural (never mind that the moment, in its entirety, had a decidedly supernatural quality). This part just reeked of Too Much Imagination. I put it out of my mind, or at least as far out of my mind as any component of a moment of this magnitude can be put (it had the quality of being the Monolith in the living room, to mix metaphors about elephants and images from science fiction).

I was still a mess the moment after the moment. But I was a mess with a spark of hope. People who have hope do not commit murder-suicide. I dropped my plans after that, and I started to play with the mind exercises.

When I got back to school (I had been on one of my many school suspensions when the moment by the window happened), some very odd things occurred. I was suddenly befriended by a popular girl in my school, and soon afterwards found myself firmly ensconced in the theater, music, and creative writing clique. I was suddenly popular for the first time in my life-- in fact, I seemed to attract people to me (the bullies were still out there, too, but their bullying became far less effective-- almost pathetic, really). For the next two years I experienced a string of inexplicable successes, personal accomplishments (some in the "adult" world that won me a mild fame), and extraordinary connections. Two years and some change later, despite the year I spent largely on suspension, I stood, at sixteen, with a high school diploma in my hands and a ticket out of my circumstances to a major university to study physics.

I also stood on the verge of several years worth of learning why treating portions of the directions as if they were optional wasn't going to work. And why all that apparent success was a double edged sword, one that would drive me inexorably to listen and to do what I had not wanted to do. But that's another post.

Part 2 is now available, and you can read it here

Saturday, October 1, 2011

5 million dollars buys you a lot of First Amendment violations

As I type, the NYPD has trapped a large group of peaceful #occupywallstreet demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge, and is arresting them. Apparently one man was beaten by two "white shirt" supervisory police. You can see for yourself at

"Coincidentally",  J.P. Morgan Chase "donated" 5 million dollars to the NYPD recently. I guess 5 million buys you a big city police force and a lot of First Amendment violations.

Contact the NYPD and let them know the world is watching. And that we who have no future under kleptocracy will not stop until we topple our "Mubarak".

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Every thoughtful, moral, individual right now belongs in the streets

Across the world right now, and across the United States, occupations and protests against corporate domination and political corruption have broken out. The corporate media is not where to learn of this global revolution: your best bet right now is twitter and the hashtags #occupywallst, #occupytogether, and #globalrevolution. 

I could certainly write something about why every thoughtful spiritual individual needs to get his or her duff off the meditation cushion, or knees off the kneeler, and if at all possible head promptly to their nearest available #occupation (by whatever name it may use). But Chris Hedges has put it as eloquently as it can be stated:

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave.

The only word these corporations know is more. They are disemboweling every last social service program funded by the taxpayers, from education to Social Security, because they want that money themselves. Let the sick die. Let the poor go hungry. Let families be tossed in the street. Let the unemployed rot. Let children in the inner city or rural wastelands learn nothing and live in misery and fear. Let the students finish school with no jobs and no prospects of jobs. Let the prison system, the largest in the industrial world, expand to swallow up all potential dissenters. Let torture continue. Let teachers, police, firefighters, postal employees and social workers join the ranks of the unemployed. Let the roads, bridges, dams, levees, power grids, rail lines, subways, bus services, schools and libraries crumble or close. Let the rising temperatures of the planet, the freak weather patterns, the hurricanes, the droughts, the flooding, the tornadoes, the melting polar ice caps, the poisoned water systems, the polluted air increase until the species dies. 

Those on the streets around Wall Street are the physical embodiment of hope. They know that hope has a cost, that it is not easy or comfortable, that it requires self-sacrifice and discomfort and finally faith. They sleep on concrete every night. Their clothes are soiled. They have eaten more bagels and peanut butter than they ever thought possible. They have tasted fear, been beaten, gone to jail, been blinded by pepper spray, cried, hugged each other, laughed, sung, talked too long in general assemblies, seen their chants drift upward to the office towers above them, wondered if it is worth it, if anyone cares, if they will win. But as long as they remain steadfast they point the way out of the corporate labyrinth. This is what it means to be alive. They are the best among us.

Go. Go now, or at least as near to now as is possible. If you cannot stay overnight, it is important to go for as long as you can. If you cannot go, collect supplies and donations for the occupiers, and if you cannot even do that, spread the word to those who don't know, or who have absorbed some of the lies they've heard about the occupiers. If there is nothing around you, organize your own #occupation. Age is no excuse-- the young have provided the energy and the joints that can tolerate a night sleeping on the sidewalk, but people of all ages are participating to the best of their ability. Do what you are capable of, now.

Yes, the outcome is uncertain, and no one knows how long it will take to expunge corporate power and reclaim democracy. Those are reasons to put one's shoulder more urgently to the task, not reasons to flee from it. You have a moral duty to participate. You have no excuse.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Individual salvation and the sorrow of the world

We live in an Age of Death, though it is, for most of those able to read this blog, just making the turn into their driveway. It will take a little longer to get to their doors. But it will be knocking, soon enough.

The current best estimate, one that may well prove too conservative, is that temperatures by the end of this century will rise ten degrees. Ten degrees is far worse than what was feared just a few years ago. The tundra is thawing, releasing vast amounts of methane, in a vicious positive feedback loop. Vegetation, rather than growing more lush in the presence of additional carbon dioxide, is dying, further accelerating warming. And the powers that be, like a thousand petty Strangeloves overseeing their own lucrative slow motion  Gotterdammerung, throw ever more fuel-- literally and metaphorically-- onto the fire.

What ten degrees means is that this is no longer a matter of changing lightbulbs. This is no longer a matter of Transition Towns. This cannot be survived in a well stocked mountain retreat with a sizable arsenal.  This might not be survivable, at all.

If it is not our extinction that is palpable, if in fact we put survival ahead of sociopathic greed, denial, and delusion, and muster the will to make it through, than the very best case is that we are just a few years away from a time of serious thinning of the herd. It's called "population overshoot", and it is not a pretty thing. It will not leave us stronger-- animal populations that have made it through overshoot are sickly and stunted for generations. And survival will not be for the most deserving-- survival will come, as in all great disasters, to those who are lucky (that's not to say that preparation is useless, but to say that given a severe enough disaster, it is insufficient).

That's the good scenario.

I sometimes feel as if I am living the nightmares of my childhood. The missiles have launched, and there is no pulling them back. The sirens have sounded. The world around me looks as it always has-- so ordinary, so peaceful. On a different day, in a different hour, I might sit under a tree and read a book, or curl up in a sunbeam and take a nap. But at a predestined moment, on this day, in this hour, this ordinary world before me will be horribly transformed, and there will be no more tree and no more sunbeam, only death. What now do I do?

The difference between then, and now, was that as a Cold War child I did not imagine I would have so much time to contemplate the horror of  what is to come, at this, the end of the world as we know it.

It's enough to make a mystic want to escape into navel gazing. You know, the ol' personal liberation routine. The eternal now (so much better than the here and now), infinite light (beats unending heat), find your own bliss (soon to be easier than find your own water) thing. Which brings me to the 144 dying Jesuses (Jesii?) on my workbench.

(Really. It does.)

I don't care how much one believes in respect for the world's religious symbols. When one's job involves nailing 144 tiny Jesuses to 144 tiny crosses, it is impossible to avoid twisted humor. Eventually, though, I had to get a handle on myself (clients do not pay for the knowledge that I had a really good laugh over the component parts of their missing crucifixes). Which brought me to Julian of Norwich.

I sometimes have difficulty wrapping my head around the mysticism of western Christianity. Some aspects of it, like  the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, seem to be cousin to some of my own practices. Others are alien to me, in particular the seeking out of pain and suffering, and experiencing the mystical experience in terms of the suffering of the Crucifixion.

The visions of Julian of Norwich are in many ways typical of the genre. She puts to paper quite a bit of gore, at least in my opinion. But she and I are  in complete concurrence when it comes to (some of) the essence of the mystical experience. As Julian put it, she saw God holding in his hand a tiny, delicate, nut, one that she thought might crumble before her eyes. And then she understood that the nut was the whole of creation, and was told "God made it. God loves it. God keeps it". And so the message of Julian of Norwich is of God's limitless love for His creation. "that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Woo hoo! End of the world solved. It's party time at Hardcore's. Bring your SUV! Right???

Not exactly. In fact, not at all.

Julian saw an infinity of love in God. Julian did not observe the absence of sin among humanity. And while I don' t phrase the confusion of humanity in terms of sin, I have little doubt my understanding corresponds to Julian's understanding of sin. Julian said sin itself was the worst possible hell. I think that Julian would concur with me that a direct assault on the safety of that small brown nut God loves so much is among the worst possible sins.

(in Julian's day, the whole of creation meant this planet and its immediate environs and not some distant galaxy somewhere -- which in any case would too would be destroyed by our sociopaths, if only they could make a buck off it)

A more reasonable analysis is that we are due hell on Earth.

But there is a more important understanding nestled in among this discussion. That is, that there is no private liberation, no spiritual escape hatch to wiggle through. For if liberation is to become wholly transparent to the Divine, and the Divine is wholly loving and wholly love, then to be liberated is to confront suffering, not to run from it, to be wholly present in the Age of Death, for as long as we survive, acting as Love present in the world.

And if liberation, or realization or salvation, or whatever we choose to call it, is, as I believe, our human duty to approach, then it remains our duty, and our destiny, to love this fragile brown nut with all of our hearts. It is our duty to do everything in our power to mitigate harm and to comfort the harmed, even though to do so requires that we face, and bear, almost overwhelming sorrow.

The missiles of the Age of Death have been fired. There is no pulling them back (though it is still possible to prevent the missile from firing which will bring about our extinction). The warning sirens have sounded for all who are listening. Everything looks normal, as it will for a time, but in a matter of years it will not be. Already death has rung doorbells in places like Joplin. Mo.

I have no suggestions, at all, for how to avoid the sorrow of this age. But the question of "what now" is resolved. As a voice from the depths of the last great human die off would no doubt concur (the Plague killed 30-60% of the people of Europe, and over 20% worldwide), what now, is love.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Well, I'm not officially anonymous anymore

In the course of transferring domains around to get to properly point at Blogspot, I had to remove anonymous domain registration. I'm not going to put it back.

Instead I'll throw in the promised discreet advertisement for stuff I make ( --- buy stuff and help me dig out of my parrot master and overlord's vet bills. End of plug, at least for this round of bills).

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why drug-induced spirituality is inadequate

I came across a rare sight the other day-- a harmonious and constructive Internet discussion between a skeptic and a very mixed group of religious and spiritual-but-not-religious individuals.

At one point two of the spiritual-but-not religious persons spoke of how drugs, many years before, had brought them to an understanding of the oneness of existence, an understanding which has stayed with them throughout the years. It would be impossible, reading their words, to doubt the power of what they had experienced.

Yet, their experiences were as a peck on the cheek, compared with the profundity of true consummation brought about through disciplined, drug-free, practice. Let's see how this is so.

You can't forget truth. Whether it's the truth of how to ride a bicycle or the Truth of a glimpse into the Ultimate, one is changed forever by one's experience of the truth, and forever it will be with you, sometimes in an attenuated firm, but it will be there. The two persons who discussed their drug-related experiences spoke of this transformation.

But yet, that was what they spoke of. They spoke of an experience,  of a singular event which came about largely by happenstance, an experience which they could not further expand upon because, while a drug may impart an experience, it cannot impart tools, discipline, continuity, or development. And in their voices, even as they spoke of the profundity of the change they both experienced, was sadness. What they had was a memory, a powerful memory of a place they longed to return to but could not, and did not believe they ever could. And so they comforted themselves with their memories.

Something I must add here: memory, of such an experience, is more nearly like motor memory than the recollection of your aunt's telephone number. It is a much more powerful and intimate state, this soul memory, than is ordinary mental memory. Nonetheless, it is not presence itself.

Spiritual discipline lacks any of the ease and charisma of drugs. It lacks even the sex appeal of isolated techniques like meditation (chiefly because meditation, these days, is used as an artificially induced drug substitute, rather than as something that arises naturally in its own due time). There's zero glamor accrued to the art of digging the crap out of one's head and refusing idle thoughts their play. But while the purpose of the effort and the risk and the disruption is often out of mind, that one has tools and is self-propelled somewhere is never in doubt for the practitioner of spiritual discipline. And hidden in its debris field of its austere recklessness, is the development of presence, that which cannot be longed for, and which is not even oneness.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The urgency of making distinctions

I was in a minor spat with another poster on a discussion board the other day. The poster said that he intended to revolutionize mysticism by putting words to the ineffable; I called him an idiot or a fool or some such fungible word (folly, it seems, is highly "effable" in English), and ended the conversation.

I have not gotten back there recently due to illness, and so I can't say I saw all of the aftermath, but there seemed to be some shock and a few words to the effect that "everyone in your path is put there to learn from" and other well-how-can-anyone-know-what-is-foolish kind of statements. I'm not here to rehash the incident away from the board (I'll do that, if at all, at the board); I'm here to address the importance of making clear distinctions.

The world's wisdom literature is full of accomplished mystics calling other people fools, and worse. Were one not attuned to the reasons why, it would seem, say, that the patient, kindly, wise one on page 19, who sat up all night with a distraught parent, and who on page 24 gave away his robe in a snowstorm, on page 35 suddenly, inexplicably, thunders "fool" at a visitor who said no more than a word or two, and throws him out on his ear.

Those wise ones sure are inexplicable, right? Surely that  last anecdote wasn't intended to be an example for us, like all the other anecdotes were, right???

Making such distinctions to the best of one's ability is an imperative, not an option and not a special prerogative of a handful of great masters from great books.  A mystic pursues Truth and nothing else. Admitting ego nonsense and delusion, and setting it it up as an equal to Wisdom with a shrug of ones shoulders and a sigh of "how could anyone hope to tell which is which?" is cowardice at best. If one is mystic enough to know what mysticism is, one has tools to begin to make distinctions between wisdom and foolishness.

What tools? An earlier post of mine that unfortunately lost its title in the move points to them:
If one is steeped in the Western tradition of prayer, sooner or later in among all the words has to enter the thought “why am I praising That which needs no praise? Why am I asking things of That which already knows everything I would ask about? What function does all the noise I make serve, except to display my insolence?” Then, the most natural prayer in the world is silent contemplation of the Divine.

Such prayer is absolutely indistinguishable from most forms of Eastern meditation. There is a trend, in fact, to call it “meditation”, so that the general public knows what is being talked about. Or, worse, to label it “centering prayer” and then to teach it as a technique, much as yoga is taught. But it’s not a technique. It’s a state of mind that simply sprouts after one has tilled the soil long enough.
Somewhere after the point where practices converge, so too does theology, which is to say that it disappears. Whether one calls it emptying or repentance or yielding or surrendering, one cannot cling to dogma with a deeply silent mind, not even to the dogma that brought one to silence.

Any sound path will converge at that same point.

Where does something point? Does it point towards that point of convergence, at least for the individual who believes it? If they are promoting it as truth, might it lead their listeners closer to that point of convergence, or are they inadvertently misleading others? Is it a suffering individual looking for answers (looking for answers is not the mark of a fool). Or is it just another example of something that aimlessly meanders the fields of ignorance?  Sometimes the answer may not be obvious. But it  is important to try to recognize the differences.

So does that mean that every time one spots foolishness, one shouts "fool!"? Of course not. Aside from the obvious risk to one's vocal cords from shouting "fool" all day and night (often at the mirror ;-) ), one has to exercise some judgment. There are times to suffer foolishness in order to get something else constructive accomplished. There are times to suffer foolishness because sometimes by stringing a fool out one can reveal the foolishness to the fool and/or observers.  Sometimes shouting "fool" will bring about harm to oneself and accomplish nothing constructive. Sometimes it is best that someone else point out the foolishness. But, as a rule, it is a kind deed to let a fool know they are a fool (or more accurately, are thinking and spreading foolish -- i.e., false -- ideas). Whether, when, and how this is done is situational.

A kind deed? Is Hardcore nuts?

My best moments have come about, by and large, as a result of being told accurately, either by myself or by others, that I was a fool. Sometimes it was said gently. Sometimes (often by myself to the mirror) it was not. The more appropriately delivered under the circumstances, the sooner I have understood it, and the more quickly I have benefited. But no one -- no one -- benefits from having their foolishness tolerated.

Those who fail to discern between foolishness and truth are neither wise, nor courageous, nor kind.

Friday, April 8, 2011

As is obvious, this blog has moved to Blogger

My annual web hosting bill was coming due at the same time I was hit by a number of other annual bills and a large vet bill. Given a choice between web hosting and a parrot, I decided to keep the parrot :) So, for the foreseeable future, it is.

I'm weighing whether to abandon my anonymity here, so that I can do some flagrant hawking of merchandise (I make stuff) to offset vet bills (both recent and past bills I'm still paying off, and for that matter future vet bills, as my sweetheart needs an expensive procedure I can't yet afford).  If I do this, I promise to keep the hawking to a minimum.

How spiritual teachers do a disservice (sometimes)

(This entry was first posted on the old blog on Saturday, February 19th, 2011 at 12:51 am)

No, I’m not talking about the flagrant frauds (oh so many to link to, oh so few words here to link). I’m talking about what happens when some people get a little whiff of truth (but only a little).

Words are a pathetic vehicle for conveying ultimate truth. The best description possible would still contain within itself aspects which, taken together, render the description an inadvertent fraud. The first is that, being evocative of the truth, it would inspire many listeners and stir in them positive feelings. The second is that, being a mere approximation, it would fall far short of describing truth. When words of this sort fall on the ears of the spiritually lazy, what such people carry away is not understanding, but a bunch of feel good words. Because they “know” the words, and the words stir in them a pleasant feeling, they think they understand. They repeat the words to each other without real understanding. And, like a demoniacal inoculation, the words immunize them against hearing anything deeper and clearer and truer.

You can’t speak of love to someone who has memorized platitudes about love. You can’t talk of the truth in the silence to those whose minds are filled with noisy words about silence. Even the less popular, if sometimes more apt for the audience, words like surrender and sacrifice become blotters which absorb stray truth before it hits home.

How can one speak to such persons, when they’re looking for help, wanting insight, but have become immune to the meaning of words? These are not abstractions for me. I count among my friends people who are inoculated against verbal teaching in this way. Some of them are plainly stuck at being spiritual dilettantes, and there’s nothing to be done for that — I mean, if you really think you can buy enlightenment through pricy weekend workshops, what can anyone do but let you have at it till you tire of such nonsense (or go broke)?– but some are not. Some want more depth, and the words they’ve memorized have become their shackles. They would be better off if they “knew” nothing at all.

As a freelance mystic I obviously have my issues with notions like “initiation” and “inner” and “outer” teachings. Formal religious hierarchies built on those concepts fossilize quickly into all ritual, no substance. But there is something genuine in watching one’s words so as not to dispense descriptions where they can’t be understood except as a cliche. Of course there’s nothing that can be “hidden” anymore, with the world awash in spiritual triteness, but at least one can try not to add to it.

A primer on reason

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Sunday, January 2nd, 2011 at 9:41 am)

This ought not be a blog post. This ought to be a book outline. Perhaps someday I’ll find the initiative to write such a book, but for the moment, here’s a quick and dirty, almost flow chart like, look at reason as appropriately applied in mysticism.

Step zero in reasoning is humility. One must be brave enough to know what one does not know, and ready to submit oneself to the truth one may find at the end of one’s quest, whether or not the answer one found was expected or desired. If this sounds, well, mystical. it’s because all truth seeking converges at the same point, even rationalism.

Step one is to look at the question and make your best guess at the answer.  What is it that you think might be true?

What if you haven’t a clue what might be going on? Most likely you either lack sufficient good information for a guess, or you are being indecisive (sometimes as a result of an overwhelming amount of information). Try seeking out more information,. Or carefully outline what you do know on paper. Or get the opinion of others. Then just make yourself make a best guess.

Step two: ask yourself how can you test your idea(s) to be sure of their validity?  Can you set up some sort of experiment – say, by making coffee three different ways, then tasting all three to find out which one really tastes better? (scientific method).  Or can you look over published raw data – say, census bureau data, to confirm whether there really are an unusual number of single Polish biochemists living on your block (the scientific method as applied by observational astronomy and many social sciences). Maybe you can go back and read Aunt Millie’s letters to see what she was really saying about your father when your father and mother first met (the historical method). Or perhaps your idea is untestable – say, a thought that God loves people more when they wear Red Sox t-shirts (in which case you may need to evaluate the idea spiritually- see below).

Really important question: Is it worth your while to test your idea? Maybe you’re a tea drinker who doesn’t really care which method makes the best coffee, at least not enough to go out and buy or borrow three coffeepots. It’s okay, then, to simply keep your opinion that coffee is best made in a French press as an unvalidated personal opinion (but remember always that you don’t really know this to be a fact).

Or maybe your idea is testable but you don’t have the means to test it — perhaps, it turns out, census data is not fine-grained enough to determine if your block is chock-full of single Polish biochemists, and while in theory a survey could answer your question, you don’t have the time, skill set, or finances for such a survey. Then you can infer a likely result from census data for your neighborhood or city, decide to keep your opinion as an entirely unvalidated one, or defer to the opinion of experts who have performed the kind of research you  cannot, depending upon the importance of the question and the resources available. Maybe the question about chemists is a little important to you and there are no experts on the question, in which case you choose to infer an answer from the number of singles and of Poles in your neighborhood coupled with that you live across the street from a biochemistry research institute. Your opinion then has some evidence behind it, but remains untested.

Or maybe your question is very serious and while you haven’t the means to test it, there are experts — say, instead of pondering Poles, you’re trying to decide what treatment approach is best for your newly diagnosed cancer. Then absolutely look at what the experts who have studied the question have to say.  If someone says they are an expert, but they have not studied the question, then their opinion is at best inferred from a little data, at worst, sheer quackery. I once saw a surgeon who represented himself as trained to perform a very delicate, highly specialized form of joint surgery, but his curriculum vitae made it clear that he had not, and no, the argument that he had been trained at the Cleveland Clinic (where such surgeries are sometimes performed– but not, apparently, by him) was not sufficient to make him a genuine specialist. People don’t acquire expertise by eating in the same lunchroom as experts, though sometimes they try to acquire it by experimenting on a lot of unwitting patients till they get it right.

Step three: If you should test: test. If you will rely on others results: examine how they got their results. Did they test? How many others have gotten similar results? Is their opinion consistent with what you do know?

If the question appears to be a spiritual one: First, is it actually a testable (i.e., scientific) one? If someone claims to be channeling advanced aliens from Betelgeuse, it is possible to determine that Betelgeuse is a short-lived unstable supergiant that almost certainly never had sufficient time to evolve any life, let alone advanced life (when dinosaurs looked up at the sky, Betelgeuse hadn’t yet formed, and any day now Betelgeuse may go out of existence with a spectacular fireworks display, as it has begun it’s final stellar collapse). If the channeler quickly adjusts his or her story to fit the facts (“Oh, not that Betelgeuse, but the other star The Space Ancients call Betelgeuse”), you are right to suspect fraud or self-deception on the part of the channeler (it’s implausible that The Space Ancients would speak a derivative of medieval Arabic).

Important fact: it isn’t necessary that someone be asking payment for their wisdom for fraud to be a possibility. Maybe they’re quietly collecting “donations”, or secretly sleeping with cute female followers. Maybe they are in it for the ego boost. Or maybe they’re black magicians trolling for potential victims. Certain things, like purporting to sell divine wisdom, are inherently suspect, but evaluate the claims, not appearances. A good con artist knows how to fake appearances.
Of course, if you know someone is acting unethically, get away from them as fast as possible. They are almost certainly not dispensing anything like wisdom, and whatever wisdom they may by happenstance share is not worth your becoming their victim. The same applies when a spiritual group often  acts badly.

If it is a truly untestable spiritual question: What is the broad opinion of spiritual thought throughout the ages concerning the matter? Note there is not anything like universal agreement on the particulars, but certain principles and patterns have a way of appearing over and over again in spiritual thinking.Are your ideas consistent with, or at odds with, those themes?

Though particular attire has been used over the centuries by the world’s spiritual traditions, the attire prescribed has generally been worn for reasons of modesty or simplicity, or to visually set the group apart from others.  Rarely do spiritual traditions say that God favors wearers of particular attire (i.e., simply donning a head scarf or prayer cap will not automatically please Allah. Only the state of my heart towards Him will do that, though if my inmost desires are towards Him and He commands modesty, presumably if at all possible I will cover my head). Do Red Sox t-shirts fit the pattern of religious and spiritual attire?

If what you think is true is also  consistent with spiritual thinking throughout over the ages, it is more likely to be sound. If it is not consistent with the  repeating themes of human spirituality, or don’t seem to appear among them, then honest self-examination is called for.  Is it plausible that God hates New Yorkers who do not renounce their own baseball teams, or at minimum agree to wear the T-shirt of their rivals? Does God really care about baseball, or is God more concerned that His creation come to know him  and be filled by his truth and love? Is your idea an insight, or is it wishful thinking, or is it the result of outside influences you’d rather not be influenced by? Maybe you own a bar not far from Fenway, and you make a lot of money on game days, and that has influenced your thinking.

The final word on a spiritual thought is direct mystical knowledge. But be aware that most “mystical experiences” are nothing of the sort. The more mystically inclined one becomes the more aware one becomes of, for lack of a better description, “spiritual static”.  Some “static” is clutter and distraction, and some is outright hostile and deceptive (many religions call that stuff “demons”; I prefer to give the nasties the more diminutive moniker of “fleas”).

If one has not known true mystical insight it can be hard to discern signal from static. The best description I can muster is that a true mystical experience has the quality of imparting actual understanding and insight, rather than mere ideas and information. A mystical insight, for example, won’t tell you to find a job by blindly going to the corner of Main and Vine at precisely 2:30 on Thursday. Mystical insight instead opens ones eyes to how things really are, so that one sees more clearly. After a true mystical insight, one is a changed person. One may see that the patterns of things would lead one to find employment if at that street corner at that time, but if so then one would truly understand why it would be so.

If one “sees” something, tests it, and it does not turn out to be true, then your “mystical insight” had become testable, and it has failed. You have a genuine emergency on your hands. You’ve got a heaping helping of delusion to free yourself from. If at all possible find someone you trust to help you through the crisis. You need to determine whether it was wishful thinking and you are a poor judge of genuine mystical experiences (and fix that, pronto), or if you are awash in static or fleas (also something that needs to be fixed asap). It may be necessary to drop freelance mysticism for a more formal path at this time. Take this seriously– understand that this is the very  scenario where would-be mystics sometimes go insane.

Note there are psychic experiences that resemble the blind take-it-or-leave-it of the job search example, which, if carried through, do work (i.e., one would find a job in that manner). I don’t like psychic experiences, because not only is it difficult to discern “good” psychic experiences from flea-laden suggestions intended to cause harm, they offer no experience of Truth.  I would advise others to stay away from the merely psychic, though obviously ymmv.

How to “find” happiness this holiday season (and always)

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Saturday, January 1st, 2011 at 8:58 am)

It’s really quite simple. It’s what’s suggested by the world’s established wisdom. And it worked for me:

Forget about your own personal happiness.

Do that, and happiness will find you.

How I start the day

(This entry was first posted on the old blog on Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 at 11:13 am)

As someone without an existing religion to provide me with ready-made rituals, I’ve had to invent a few of my own. I don’t have very many, but one evolved into the way I start my day.

I keep a 4 oz drinking flask (the kind normally used for stronger stuff) filled with pure water at my bedside (the cleanest, purest water I have, which is generally the stuff from the Brita filter I have for my parrot). I usually wake a couple of hours before I get out of bed, when aside from a short while in the summer, it is still dark. When I wake, I say the following:

I pledge myself to the clarity that cannot be named and I pledge myself to love, and to its expression, justice, which pierces the darkness as starlight pierces the night and promises the dawn.I intend now that every obstacle to clarity and love be removed, internal and external

and I pour a bit of the water on myself, then drink the rest.

This post is really an addendum to the last post. It doesn’t matter how one does it, whether accompanied by a daily ritual, or simply an affair of the heart, but unless one’s spirituality includes a genuine commitment, not merely to oneself, but to one’s fellow beings (no “well, if I get all spiritual on myself everyone else will benefit” excuses accepted here), then one has set oneself well outside the mainstream of the world’s spiritual traditions, and well into the realm of escapist nonsense.

That category would even include my own morning pledge and ablution, should I not take it seriously.

The immorality of escapism disguised as spirituality

(First published on the old blog on Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 at 4:22 am. Republished with a minor revision for clarity)

Let’s face it. We’re in a bit of a pickle, us humans, what with imminent environmental catastrophe and a major extinction event of our making just revving itself up, and an exponentially increasing divide between the very few rich and the rest of us leading to the collapse of effective governance which can only culminate in a collapse of civilization.

If all those words are a few syllables too long, they can be summarized as: life sucks. It sucks for a lot of humans (and plenty of nonhumans) and no one not living in a bunker need look far to see the suffering. How many of us know someone who is unemployed or on the verge of unemployment? Who has lost their home, or is on the verge of losing their home? Who is living on the streets? Who can’t afford sufficient food or medical care? I suspect that most of us who haven’t isolated ourselves in caves (or in gated communities) can answer yes to most of these questions.

In the face of such suffering, what is the duty of a spiritual individual?

The Golden Rule is as universal a value as one can find, more universal than, say, the belief in Gods or angels, or the practices of prayer or meditation. If I were thrown out onto the streets by thieves who wanted my home, I would certainly act in my defense. In light of the Golden Rule, what then ought I to do about things like this? The world’s spiritual traditions are nearly unanimous: the duty of a spiritual individual is to act to alleviate suffering, based on the principle that the welfare of others is my welfare, the crises of others my crises, the suffering of others my suffering.

In light of this universal imperative, garbage of the sort I recently read at is simply obscene:

Stop trying to change others (people, systems, governments, organizations, policies, procedures, etc) and focus on the one person you can change. YOU! You have the ability to go inside your own self, your heart center, and change the program. The only thing you need to do is CHOOSE to do so. You can stop fighting yourself and choose to let go, let go of the fail safe belief pattern. We can promise you that it is SAFE to do so!

That’s not spirituality. That’s not profundity. That’s cowardice.

A genuine spiritual commitment is a commitment to what is spirit, to what is true, to what is right, to love writ large. It is not a commitment to private bliss — indeed, what private bliss actually exists can’t be gotten at without renunciation of the petty ego, and so can’t be found without paradoxically renouncing the pursuit of private bliss. Such a commitment, such a renunciation, far from creating a conflict-free la la world, compels deeply spiritual people to create conflict. The Reverend Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were two individuals of extraordinary spiritual depth. They did not retreat into themselves to find their own exclusive salvation, though it would certainly have been easier to do so. Instead, in the face of great injustice, they stirred up trouble with the aim of alleviating the suffering they had witnessed.

We need spiritual inspiration to get us through the crises of now and the coming years. We need a Gandhi, a King. I do not know where we will find our inspired spiritual leaders. But I know where we won’t find them, and that’s anywhere where the nonsense that we should not remedy injustice, but instead wrap ourselves up in an egotistical search for individual salvation, is prattled.


(First posted on the old blog on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 at 6:46 am)
For a brief while it seemed that talk of 2012 had died down in the new age community. Crappy movies that make notions look as absurd as they are have a way of doing that. Unfortunately, the blessed effect of the movie seems to have worn off, and again I’m seeing discussions of 2012, this time as a kind of super duper Harmonic Convergence (remember that one?), at which point we’ll all make some kind of leap in consciousness.

No, we won’t.

There is one and only one route to a leap in consciousness, and that is hard work.

There are no cosmic dispensations to be had. If the cosmos (or God, or whatever) could hand out magical Get Out Of Ignorance Free cards, would it not have done so earlier? Why would it wait for a particular calendar day? There aren’t any special astrological alignments that day (vigorous imaginations notwithstanding), and in any case all but the very worst of astrologers are adamant that stellar alignments do not cause anything to happen. Not even the starting point for the 2012 myth makes sense, as the Mayan calendar does nothing more significant that day than the modern calendar did in 2001.

2012 is just another way of saying “I’m too lazy to do real spiritual work, so I’m going to pretend I don’t need to” (and no, visualizing pretty light and “sending” it hither and yon is not real spiritual work).

Finger Choppers

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 8:56 pm)

When I was a teen I read the story where a zen master who put up one finger when asked to describe buddha nature chopped off the finger of a boy who had imitated him. Reading that at the time soured me on Zen.”What pointless cruelty!”, I thought.
I have a different take on the story today. The boy had imitated the form without grasping the essence. The master put an abrupt end to that, compelling the boy to look at the essence.

Of course, imitating the form while failing to grasp the essence goes on today, and a stroll through the Wild West will produce no end of finger choppin’ good examples. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the finger choppers goes: “There’s nothing for you to strive for. You’re already enlightened. You just need to realize this.”

Some portion of this statement is true,  more or less, when looked at from an enlightened perspective. The catch here is that this is not a piece of advice directed at an enlightened individual: this is a piece of advice generally directed at John and Jane Doe, beginning meditators, or to Mandabuddhi Kadali (known as J. Doe before the name change), spiritual cowboy who has been spinning his/her wheels in the pursuit of the easiest possible way to Truth– or better yet, the furthest possible location from truth– for years.  And, used thusly, it could not be more wrong.

No one has ever become enlightened without plenty of hard core, daily, difficult, sometimes painful, effort, effort not necessarily recognized as “spiritual” at the time, but most certainly recognized as effort. The right advice to John and Jane Doe is not “don’t try so hard, you are already there”,  but “you are embarking on the most difficult task anyone can do. If you are serious about it, it will consume  your life. It may take you to the brink of insanity. It may lead to your death. The only way forward, and the only way out once in, is to fearlessly seek truth with every molecule in your body and with your every breath, ruthlessly dispatching every obstacle in your way. ”

Of course, that is the kind of message spiritual cowboys aren’t interested in hearing (or aren’t interested in understanding when they hear it: finger choppers can be recursive). Cowboys prefer to imagine that everything comes easy to them, now that the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, and all.

Another common finger chopper is physics abuse, most commonly quantum theory abuse. Now, I happen to have actually studied quantum theory, sweaty pencil in hand, slide rule on belt (I’m old) , Ph.D. physicist who helped to develop the theory at the blackboard, and more PDQs swimming around in my head than I ever want to experience again. At no time do I remember my instructor announcing “you see, this means objective reality does not exist”.  Indeed, when I measured, in lab, the speed of an electron to be about five times the speed of light, they didn’t say “wow, what a great subjective reality you have: you can see another plane of existence where one is free of the  conventional limitations of time, energy, and matter”. No, they said “do it over”.

Quantum theory is a rigorous description of objective reality, not a rejection of it.  That physical reality at the particle level doesn’t look much like our macroscopic ordinary daily experience is of little concern, either to modern physicists or to physical reality.  That we can’t precisely measure both a particle’s location and its velocity is not the same statement as “everything is subjective” or “everything is controlled by the mind”.  This isn’t simply my interpretation, equal in value to your interpretation:  the assertion “everything is subjective” looks, mathematically, nothing at all like Heisenberg’s equation.

Again cowboys drag a truth, kicking and screaming, from the comfort of its context, and use their hostage to deliver a ransom note demanding that they be exempted from personal discipline (which is what “everything is subjective” really means).  Where’s a good Zen monk with a sharp knife when you need one?

Of  course quantum abuse is just the latest in a long line of physics abuse. Before quantum abuse, it was relativity (yep, studied that too, and no, everything isn’t relative, but field equation). Before that there was the magical healing properties of radiation (ooops) and electromagnetism proving all sorts of things it does not (yep, I know Maxwell’s equations, too, and no, none of that stuff is in them either), and before that there was the clockwork perfection of classical mechanics proving the existence of God (ooops again). Physics is a discipline which studies the physical world through the method of science. Physics, like any study of a facet of reality, can be inspiring, and conversely spiritual insights has sometimes helped move physics and mathematics forward. But it is not a vehicle for proving spiritual truths, especially made-up ones about not having to work at anything.

If inspiration from physics is needed, maybe it’s wise to find it in the First Law of Thermodynamics. Because, whether it’s work performed by an isolated system, or spiritual practice, you can’t get something from nothing.