Category Archives: Peace

On Stereotypes: Are you in there?

A few years go, Carolyn and I spent a special weekend at a small conference hosted by Ram Dass. We enjoyed his combination of Eastern Wisdom and his clear-eyed acceptance of his own human foibles. One memorable “take-away” was his insight that human beings tended to wrap themselves in their bodies, retreat to the mind, and trudge through the world with little presence. Many of us are too often not where we are or when we are. It can be a problem.

Ram Dass said that he liked to say to people, in effect, “Are you in there? I’m in here. Want to come out and play?” Once in a while this insight takes a hold of my boyish enthusiasm, and on this morning’s walk I opened to the game. It transformed the day from wonderful to magical.

As we walked along this beach,
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I watched a German couple approach. They seemed to me to be hidden deep inside, and fearful of encounter. I saw that they had their shoes in their hands, so looking into their eyes, I asked “Is the water cold?” Whoosh! The doors flew open and their souls came rushing out to see and be seen. Before very long, they were regaling us with their recent trip to Grenada and the four hours they spent in the Alhambra. We parted with smiles and handshakes.

The morning’s gifts continued to unfold: a conversation in Spanish with a lovely young woman from Colombia; a woman from Finland who spends half the year here in Spain; two German women, retired economists, who will soon be studying energy healing in an Ashram in India; a Spanish woman with two remarkable children. As we stopped for coffee at a seaside cafe, I asked a man if he were enjoying his carrot cake, and again, all the lights came on. It turns out they were a delightful couple from Wales who were astounded that a philistine American would be a fan of Dylan Thomas.

This last point, is important, I think.  We Americans have earned the stereotype of being greedy to the point of selfishness, loud, lacking empathy, and being generally self-centered.  We, of course, are not alone in being stereotyped–or stereotyping.  I can easily ferret out many lingering prejudices lurking in the shadows of my own consciousness: stodgy Germans, drunken Irishmen, volatile Italians, snotty French, and damp, provincial Brits.  The beautiful thing is that when I actually meet people from these places, the stereotypes evaporate in the warmth of the human heart.  Even when the stereotypes seem to hold, they are quickly seen as incredibly superficial–my own projections, really–and the soulful depths of each unique individual emerge.

I also find that many people I meet are visibly bemused, and very surprised, to meet Americans who are quiet and gentle, interested in other cultures and languages, and doing their best to live respectful and loving lives.   So Carolyn and I have never visited the Eiffel tower, or the Empire State Building, or the Coliseum.  We certainly travel to enjoy nature’s lavish gifts, and the beauty that flows from human hands in art, architecture and–perhaps especially–food.  But the essence of the experience for us is the meeting of the human spirit.  I believe if we all could touch and be touched at the level of the heart, fearful stereotypes would indeed dissolve, and this would be a step toward easing the hostilities that are fed by those stereotypical abstractions.  “You have to be taught to hate,” sings a song in South Pacific.  So, too, we can learn to love.

Aunt Alice

Alice

My father’s sister was born in a small town in New Hampshire to recent Irish immigrants. The year was 1896. With no more than an 8th grade education, barely able to read and write, this remarkable woman lived a life of clarity, integrity, and grit–all laced with a large dose of humor. Decades before the feminist movement, she embodied the ideal of a strong, intelligent, and independent  woman. I want to share a couple of her outstanding traits with you, traits that I am still trying to emulate.

Alice was 9 when my Father was born, in 1905, and shortly after that their father disappeared from the picture. I never did get that complete story, but Alice became a surrogate parent, quitting school at age 14 to begin work in the local shoe factory, and ultimately sending my Father to university.  In her early and middle years she found solace in the formulas of the Catholic church, and this, combined with her direct and unadorned communication, put her at odds with my Mother, who was a proper midwestern Protestant.   Neither woman was “wrong,” but boy, were they different.  Out of loyalty to my Mother, this tension led me to pull away from Alice for many years, but the graceful turnings of life reunited us in bonds of love during her later years.  She worked at the local high school on the lunch counter until she was 91, and died in 1991, just shy of her 95th birthday.  She lived independently almost until the end.

Here are two stories that demonstrate her direct approach and stunning emotional honesty.  Since we lived 200 miles apart, Carolyn and I could only visit her about once a month.  We would sit for hours at the dining room table drinking tea, while Alice regaled us with stories about her girlhood and the history of our family.  One day, Carolyn nonchalantly reached into her bag and continued to knit a sweater she was working on.  Silence descended, as Alice fixed her eye on the clicking needles.  Then, in her heavy new England accent, she said “Deah, did you come heah to knit, or to visit me?”  The needles disappeared, and the conversation continued without a trace of ill feeling.

The absence of emotional residue is what I find inspiring and humbling.  Eckhart Tolle tells of the ducks who, when they “get into a fight, it never lasts long – they soon separate and fly off in opposite directions. Each duck then flaps its wings vigorously several times. This releases the surplus energy that built up in him during the fight. After they flap their wings, they fly on peacefully as if nothing had ever happened.”  Alice was so good at this, she didn’t even have to flap her wings!

Here is another example:

A lovely young couple lived next door to Alice and they took wonderful care of her in our absence.  They often did her shopping, and made sure she was feeling well.  One evening, they asked Carolyn and me to stop by their house to discuss Alice’s situation.  We had a lovely chat for about an hour, but on returning to Alice’s house, we found all the lights off, and Alice nowhere to be seen.  Concerned, we began a search, and finally found my aunt in her bed, lying quietly in the dark.  “Alice,” I asked, “are you OK?”  She lit into me with considerable heat:  “I know you have been down the street talking to my neighbors about me–Behind My Back! I won’t have it!  I am not a little girl, and I will not be treated so disrespectfully.”  I felt a gale of emotion whistling past my ears, that both scared me and filled me with tremendous admiration for her self-awareness, and for the honesty with which she was able to express her feelings.

Thankfully, grace allowed admiration to win over fear, and I responded, “I understand exactly what you are saying, and I think you are 100% correct.  It was wrong to talk about you behind your back, and I give you my solemn word it will never happen again.”  Without missing a beat, Alice gave me the warmest loving smile, hopped out of bed like a teenager, and said, “All right, then, let’s go downstairs and have some tea.”   And we did that.

To this day, telling this story warms my heart.  This lovely, stalwart human being, my Aunt Alice, was a living embodiment of the Zen teaching that the feelings we cling to are simply clouds floating past the moon.  I have no need to wish that she rest in peace.   In spite of, or perhaps because of, her occasional storms of emotion, she had the most peaceful center of anyone I have ever known.

 

 

Libra and the Equinox

libra 2

September 23, 2014.  What an auspicious day, when the Autumnal Equinox, with its perfect balance of night and day, opens to the balanced scales of Libra.   As we move into cooler weather, it seems a good time to practice cooling the mind a bit, and nurturing the evenness of soul that brings peace of mind. Balance, harmony, and inner peace are all summed up, I think, in the Buddhist virtue of equanimity (upeksha in Sanskrit).  I think of this as “making friends with life.”

Meditation and yoga are wonderful practices for stilling the turbulence of the mind, and evening out some of the more extreme reactive swings from high to low.  I also think that some wise perspective helps.  This morning,  I would like to reflect upon three interwoven facets of  living a balanced life.

The first is to remember that this dappled world of our’s is indeed a play of light and darkness.  The second verse of the Tao Te Ching states this clearly:

“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.  All can know good as good only because there is evil.  Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy compliment each other. Long and short contrast each other; high and low rest upon each other; voice and sound harmonize each other; front and back follow each other.”

The realization of our dappled world leads to a second aspect of equanimity: a reflection on the alternating rhythms of life itself, as outlined in the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

Recognizing this flow of life, then, leads to a third aspect of inner harmony: “taking it as it comes” as the TM folks used to say.  There is a story from Ancient China that illustrates this beautifully:

A poor farmer had all of his meager wealth in one magnificent stallion, but one stormy night the horse escaped from its corral.  The next day, all the neighbors came around to commiserate with the farmer’s terrible misfortune.   “Let’s wait and see,” is all he said.  Two days later, the stallion returned with four heathy mares in tow.  Now the neighbors were loud in their rejoicing.  “Let’s wait and see,” said the farmer.  The next day, the farmer’s adolescent son was trying to ride one of the new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  The neighbors were desolate, but again the farmer said, “Let’s wait and see.”    And the following day, the army came through the village to draft all the young men to fight in a vicious war, but the farmer’s son was spared because of his leg.

This story, of course, could go on and on, but the point is clear.  Embracing the “time to mourn” not only balances, but engenders the “time to dance.”  As I look back on the passages of my life, I see them as just that: passages leading to more ample and brighter vistas.   As a young man, however, there was no way I could “just wait and see.”  A horrible loss or a shameful failing–the thin line between success and failure in life–seemed all consuming and all-encompassing.  Even now, on the far side of middle age, distrustful anxiety is sometimes a temptation.  It seems so easy to talk about love and trust, but then to live distrustfully, as though life were dangerous and vicious.  Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”  What is it we truly believe?

We are, however, not alone in this human schoolroom. We are continually given lessons.  We come to see the suffering that our fearful actions bring to ourselves and others, by experiencing the pain of our own mistakes,  And with time, we come to learn, not through pain and suffering, but through light and love and wisdom. We follow the tracks left by wise women and men over the centuries.  We are warmed and supported by the love of family and friends, and we are surrounded by the lessons of Nature’s recurrent equanimity–as long as we pay attention.  In this lovely poem dedicated to the sun, Mary Oliver celebrates the play of light and darkness, while warning of the danger of turning away from life’s graceful balance:

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

 

 

Lao Tzu on War

yinyang

Given the perfect imperfection of this dewdrop world, it seems that we have a long way to go before the human family absorbs the faith and the hope expressed so long ago by Albert Camus: that words might some day have a power greater than bullets. That day is clearly not here, and if it is inevitable during this turbulent era that war and violence continue to well up from the pain in the human heart, it would be a significant step toward sisterhood and brotherhood if these ancient words of Lao Tzu from verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching could be inscribed on the heart of everyone, warrior and non-warrior alike:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

Hiroshima and Wounded Knee

The southern coastline of Honshu sped past the window of the Bullet Train. This trip to Hiroshima was near the end of my first stay in Japan. A deep, albeit vague, sense of atonement had finally outweighed my apprehension, but I still felt a quiver as the train glided smoothly into the station. I had a compelling urge to announce to everyone within earshot that I, too, hated war.

I stepped onto the platform, descended the stairs to the main level, and emerged at once into the heart of the city. To my left was a row of buses. A sign in English read “Peace Park, Bus No.5,” and I joined the line of Japanese passengers. A fifteen minute ride through the rebuilt city brought us to the Atom Bomb Dome, the only original building which remains at the sight of the blast. Although it was a commercial building during the war, it now resembles the charred remains of a celestial observatory that stands as a sentinel at the entrance to the beautiful acres of grass and trees which memorialize the dead of Hiroshima.
the-dome-at-peace-park
As I entered the park, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Kamloops, British Columbia. The husband taught grade school there. He carried a suitcase filled with hundreds of paper cranes folded, origami style, by his students. He had carried them thousands of miles to add to those already draped over every tree and statue. Schoolchildren from all over the world were creating a peace memorial that most of them would never see. At his invitation, I slipped a white crane into my shirt pocket as we joined the people streaming into the park.We paused first at the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, commemorating the 200,000 people killed by the Atomic Bomb. The cenotaph is plain and dignified. An eternal flame burns in front of a reflecting pool. On the face of the cenotaph the motto of the park is carved in stone in Japanese and English: “Repose ye in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.”

The largest building in the park is the Peace Memorial Museum. It houses displays which evoke the devastation in somber tones. In the corner of one case rests a wrist watch with its hands forever frozen at 8:15. In another room, the marble stairs from the Sumitomo Bank are discolored by the shadow of a man who had been sitting on them. He had been disintegrated by the blast. Pictures of horribly burned men, women, and children are everywhere.

Back outside in the sunshine, I watched laughing schoolchildren feeding flocks of doves. Their carefree abandon washed away some of the horror I had just witnessed. I sat quietly for a while. Then I walked slowly away, still stunned by the enormity of the event, but comforted by the awareness on the part of so many people that the tragedy visited upon this city was indeed an error never to be repeated. Finally, on the way out of the park, I visited the gift shop where I picked up some postcards and a lovely bronze plaque inscribed with the motto of the cenotaph.

One week later upon my return to the States, I met my wife, Carolyn, in San Francisco, and we began a drive across America to our home in New England. Three days later, we found ourselves in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. We stood on top of a knoll under scudding grey clouds, etched against the vastness of the surrounding prairie. My trouser legs snapped in the relentless wind which rolled off the Black Hills thirty miles to the west. Carolyn stood on the other side of the mass grave into which troops of the United States Government had tossed over 150 men, women and children on the evening of December 30, 1890. My heart felt numb, as bleak as the sere landscape of Wounded Knee.

We had spent the morning searching for this place. At the Pine Ridge reservation heavy men sat on broken porches. Their opaque eyes formed a wall we were afraid to breach. We drove through without stopping, and thirty miles east swung north on a narrow road to a large decrepit sign announcing the Massacre. Nothing pointed to a grave. A small hill half a mile west seemed a logical place for a cemetery, however, and this is where we found all that remained of Big Foot and his followers. The only marker on the grave was one erected by a son of one of the slain Indians.
OfficialWoundedKneeMemorial
The sighing wind and aching loneliness contrasted sharply in my imagination with the flash of devastating violence which erupted here just over a hundred years ago. Alarmed by the death of Sitting Bull and afraid for his people, Big Foot had led his band of 350 ill and undernourished people toward the Pine Ridge Reservation seeking the protection of the great Chief Red Cloud. They were met by soldiers under the command of Major Samuel Whitside, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Whitside forced the Indians to camp in a circular enclosure at Wounded Knee. He mounted four Hotchkiss guns on the surrounding hills. Throughout the night Big Foot’s people suffered terribly in the bitter cold. In the morning, as Whitside’s men attempted to disarm the Indians a shot rang out. The men on the hills panicked. As the Hotchkiss guns raked the enclosure, Indians fell by the score.

The slaughter ended as quickly as it had begun. The deep mud, now crimson with the blood of the murdered Sioux, muffled the cries of the wounded. A blizzard loomed on the horizon, so the soldiers gathered those who were still alive into wagons and hurried off to Pine Ridge. In their haste they left the dead where they lay.

A burial party returned the next day to find countless bodies frozen into grotesque postures. Quickly, almost furtively, the soldiers dug a huge hole into which they threw the bodies of the fallen Indians. Then, like a cat covering an obscenity, they closed the grave and turned away. A picture of Big Foot’s corpse can be seen today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; the mass grave, however, lies forlornly in the desolate, forgotten emptiness of Wounded Knee.
dream catcher

The Sioux Shaman Black Elk was present at the burial. Many years later, he delivered this prophetic epitaph:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… ”

Carolyn and I were shrouded in silence. We had no words for each other, for the Indians, or for God. She returned to the car, leaving me alone with the wind. After some time, Carolyn climbed slowly back up the hill to where I stood. She knelt down for a moment, then straightened and took my hand. I looked down. There on the grave at our feet rested a white paper crane. Next to it lay the bronze plaque from Hiroshima. “Repose ye in peace,” it said, “for the error shall not be repeated.”
white crane

SAINTLINESS

In a recent post, I offered this quote from Pierre Hadot: ““the figure of the sage thus plays a decisive role in the philosophical choice of life, yet it is offered to the philosopher as an ideal described by philosophical discourse more than as a model incarnate in a living human being.” Religions, on the other hand, do tend to incarnate the lofty model of human perfection in the figure of the Saint. Throughout history, men and women from Paul of Tarsus to Mother Teresa, have been revered as exemplars of extraordinary moral and spiritual accomplishment.

It is the word “extraordinary” that I found problematic in my younger days. I saw myself as far too ordinary, as too much of a sinner, to even dream of being a saint. If being a saint meant giving up my sincere enjoyment of good food and drink, the intimate company of intelligent and beautiful women, and the vibrant energy of the nightclubs in which I played piano several nights a week, then the austere life of the saint was distinctly unattractive.
saint
Moreover, while saints appeared admirable, they also seemed to give up an essential part of the joyful vitality of being human. They were martyrs, celibates, and people so unusual that they sometimes bordered on the weird. One afternoon, my wife and I were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and we wandered into a room whose walls were covered with portraits of saints. Both of us were quickly overwhelmed by the ponderous, joyless energy flowing from those pictures, and we immediately left the room. We felt that the Saints were looking down on us with a dour righteousness tinged with a profound sadness. Saints, in their high achievement, seemed suspended in a lonely realm. Even saintly couples like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or Francis and Claire, seemed to love in the rarified atmosphere of a Platonic heaven.
francis
Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most beloved saint of all time and all cultures. His peace prayer is an exquisite expression of love. Most scholars agree, however, that this famous prayer was written by an anonymous author in the early 20th century, and widely attributed to St Francis during the second world war. This is an important fact, I think, because the magnificent sentiments of that prayer give color and depth to the modern image of St. Francis. But consider: if some strange man should knock on your door this afternoon, clad in shabby and dirty garments, full of holy zeal, and begging for money, what would be your reaction? It might be tempting, at least, to turn away in fear and dismay. In fact, his own followers, while continuing to revere him on the one hand, managed with the help of Rome to eviscerate his original vision. Francis was a living conundrum: a stern taskmaster, an extreme ascetic who ruined the body he called Brother Ass, sometimes intolerant toward backsliding followers, and unbending in his devotion to absolute poverty. Yet he was also absolutely devoted to the poor and ill people of his day, a magnificently tolerant emissary to the leaders of Islam during the fifth crusade, humble to point of refusing to be ordained a priest, and an unabashed lover of nature who preached to birds and tamed a savage wolf. It is said that he had attracted 5000 followers in the first two years of his ministry.

The book that tempered my idea of the saint as extraordinary was The Power and the Glory, written by Graham Greene in 1940. The story takes places in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the time of a vicious purging of the Catholic Church. Every priest has been driven out, killed, or forced to renounce his vows. Every priest except one: a drunkard who had an affair and sired an illegitimate daughter. The only name he is given is the “whisky priest.” Yet this broken human being is driven by compassion for suffering campesinos. At great peril, he hears confessions and says Mass with the army two steps behind. After reaching a safe haven, he returns to Tabasco to tend a dying man, knowing it is a trap and that he will be executed. In the end that is exactly what happens, but as he grew into integrity, love, and self-abandon, the whisky priest “acquires a real holiness.”

I find “holiness” a beautiful word. It is, of course, the literal meaning of the Latin “sanctus,” or saint. We might say that it refers to the divine quality in a place, or a human encounter, or a human being like the whisky priest, who manages ultimately to stop worshiping his own egoistic self, and to revere and celebrate that which he sees as holy in others.

I would like to draw two corollaries from the above reflections. First, holiness does not entail a hyper-ascetic rejection of the delicious flavors of this world. The Buddha was a forest ascetic for 6 years, and he finally realized it was leading him nowhere. He adopted the Middle Way of moderation. In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes a lovely essay entitled Everything That Is, Is Holy. He says, in part, “A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket. “

St. Francis seems to be have followed the path of harsh asceticism regarding his body, but he was madly in love with creation. We might even see his asceticism as an expression of ego that simply served as a counterpoint to the brilliance of his magnificent soul. This leads me to my second corollary: I would like to suggest that holiness is not at all “extraordinary.” To use the Buddhist analogy, we are all lotus flowers growing in the mud. I find the teaching of the Chandogya Upanishad, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That; You and Divinity are one), to be a belief that brightens the world and each day I spend in it. Within the framework of that belief, we can see holiness shining all around us. Clearly, the light within is dimmed by fear and egocentricity, but each of us, I think, is longing to shine that light.

I am working with an image created by Zora Neale Hurston. She tells us that Janie “had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. … When God made the [human being], he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

Teachers of all ages and all cultures have urged us to make the journey from the darkness of a mind trapped within the prison of its own ego to the emancipation of the light always shining in our heart’s center. It is the holy light of kindness and love. In a recent graduation speech, George Saunders put this point persuasively:

“Your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving. … There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. … Do all the other things, the ambitious things, … but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality–your soul, if you will–is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

Finally, I think there are many more people who are well along the road to holiness, to saintliness, than is commonly believed. Once you start looking, you can see acts of grace and kindness in the most ordinary places performed by the most ordinary people. Perhaps the Starbuck’s down road or the grocery store at the corner are full of saints-in-the-making who will never make the evening news. The cacophony of heart-rending violence assaults us every day, but I just can’t shake the belief in a human family that has come into this world to flower into the most ordinary and the most exquisite saintliness.

Living the Love of Wisdom #1

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It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS

Words of Peace are everywhere. Yet their bright promise seems eclipsed in a vale of shadows that rob them of traction. Perhaps it would be helpful to look directly at the shadows in an attempt to discern what obstructions are blocking the light. On reflection, I can think of three shadows that dim the brightness of peaceful words.

The Shadow of idealism
The first is this: The devastation and human suffering visited upon so many innocent people make sweet and inspiring words seem nothing more than the sentimental idealism of a “bleeding heart liberal.” I am indeed a liberal, and my heart bleeds at the sight of the blind aggression and social injustice that inflicts pain on ordinary men, women and children. Too often, however, the words of Peace are in fact merely sentimental, serving to ameliorate the guilt of the privileged class or of the intellectual left, while having little impact upon the course of one’s life or the betterment of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most disappointed in white liberals who consoled themselves with the right words, but had little follow through. How sad it is that words of love are so often anemic, while words drenched in hatred fairly burst upon the world in violent action.

It should be noted that idealism is not restricted to liberals. A few years ago, in a New York Times op-ed column, Bill Keller worried about the idealism of the Right, the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz variety, which led us charging into Iraq to annihilate the evildoers. Idealism on either extreme tends to espouse beliefs that are global, righteous, and sure. Both tend to be rigid, clinging to a worldview that hovers in some sort of Platonic heaven. The Left, however, often speaks moving yet impotent words, often dithering under the circumspection of a watered-down version of post-modern epistemology. The Extreme Right plows ahead, applying its visions to the real world like a carpenter with his ruler.

I find myself on the Left, wanting to use words like “grace” and “transformation” and “Love,” but sometimes feeling effete and ineffective. Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “words sometimes get sick, and we have to heal them…we have to use language more carefully.” Those of us who are dedicated to peace need to find a way to add vigor to our words and grit to our dreams, so that our beliefs do not evaporate in the mists of self-justifying Idealism.

The Shadow of Verbal Inundation
This leads to the second shadow that seems to be leaching the brightness from inspiring words: we seem to be drowning in them. The academic field of conflict resolution has performed impressively over the past fifty years in analyzing the causes of conflict, the various points of intervention, and the techniques of mediation and negotiation most likely to de-escalate tensions before violence erupts. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been examined. The dynamics of intercultural communication, the varieties of conflict of interest, and the depth of identity needs have all been schematized. I am sure that all who hear or read these words are quite familiar with this literature. But for all the ink that has flowed into our books, the flow of blood continues at flood tide.

Albert Camus called the 20th century the “century of fear.” So far, the 21st century seems equally mired in the destructive loop of fear that engenders hatred that engenders violence that engenders fear, ad infinitum. War has one end, and only one end: and that is to kill people. Since World War II over 130 million people have died in over 150 wars. Violence seeks to end conflict by breaking the bodies and spirits of those on the other side. It is always a failure of imagination, a failure of intelligence, a failure of love. Camus longs for the day when words will be found more powerful than munitions. I believe in Camus’ dream, and to serve it, I believe we must do our very best to find the words today which will empower the actions of tomorrow.

The Shadow of the Known
The third shadow is this: everybody already knows all the important stuff. Teachers from Moses to Plato, from Jesus to Rumi—hundreds of enlightened women and men—all have taught love and wisdom as opposed to hatred and violence. Lord knows this is nothing new, and I wonder what I can possibly add. Lao Tzu says in verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching: “My teachings are very easy to understand, and very easy to practice, yet so few in this world understand, and so few are able to practice.”

I have always thought that the Ten Commandments were not all that astounding a revelation: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t kill each other: all common sense behaviors for a viable society, and all incredibly rare, even today. Pope John Paul II uttered clear words against the war between the US and Iraq, yet a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that a full 66% of American Catholics supported the war, only 14% of US Catholic priests spoke out against the war, and that support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in church attendance. These are the some of the same folks who nod approvingly at the inspiring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hurt you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies,” but of course these words would sound ludicrous delivered from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Or would they? Would it not be wonderful to hear a President read these words of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
Except in the direst necessity.
And, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.

Let me give one further example of clear words of perennial Wisdom: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “in this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”

Tomorrow I will reflect upon these ancient laws, and humbly add more words in an attempt to understand the elusive enigma of Peace.

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS #2

Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace! But there is no Peace.
Patrick Henry, 1775

More Words??
In yesterday’s post, I quoted some peaceful words of Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu. All were written over two thousand years ago. Almost everyone would agree with them. Yet they are too often honored in the breach. And so I wonder what further words could possibly be said in order to staunch the flow of blood, hatred, indifference, and self-righteousness that threatens to engulf our world? Yet I feel an imperative to have my say in favor of love, tolerance, and non-violence. Otherwise, as Albert Camus has pointed out, in my silence I would be choosing to align myself with the segment of humanity that sees murder as a reasonable avenue to conflict resolution. The only other option would be to fade into the grey tones of apathy.

So what can I say? Perhaps the three shadows I isolated in the previous post might serve as hints or tracks I can follow in order to glean some understanding. All three shadows deal with the enigma of ineffective words: the first with those of liberal idealism; the second with the dry utterances of academia; the third with the gap that lies between the highest teachings of religion and the lives of many religious practitioners. These shadows, these stumbling blocks, have revealed the dimensions of some seemingly universal tensions: idealism vs. realism; rigidity vs. circumspection; righteousness vs. tolerance; words vs. deeds. These incompatible dyads lie at the heart of conflict. They are sources from which spring the unholy coalition of loving words and fearful actions. As long as they obtain, they will inevitably spawn the violence that crushes the body, and the acid of righteousness that corrodes the spirit. As a result, the people of the world groan under a myopic intolerance that mistakes moralism for morality, rigidity for fidelity, and blindness for patriotism.

I wonder where to insert the scalpel of analysis in order to relieve the pressure of these tensions. In this essay, let us focus on the mental rigidity and emotional righteousness that can be found throughout the political and religious spectrum, and which seems to characterize all conflict. In verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes these telling words:

People are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken,
The soft and supple will prevail.

Rigidity, or clinging attachment is a foundational concept in the teachings of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Human suffering (dukkha), said the Buddha, is caused by clinging attachment (trishna). Reflecting on the nature of attachment, therefore, might shed some light on the Psychology of Self-Righteousness.

Attachment
As Fritz Perls said so many years ago, the first job of every baby is to create a world. We are bombarded by the buzzing booming cacophony of our surroundings, and we struggle to make sense of it by forming ideas or beliefs that give form and meaning to it all. We fashion a matrix of ideas, that frame and craft a world. This construct is further enhanced by our acculturation in the home, in school, and in the churches, and it is this construct to which we cling with all our might. Now, the ignorance (avidya) that gives rise to illusion (maya) is not simply that we are unaware of the “real world.” Rather, we cling to the world that is created by our construct as though it were absolutely real. Here lies the destructive illusion: I become addicted to MY world, thinking it is THE world.

Moreover, as I build a world, so I build a self. My I, my ego, is actually a complex of ideas about who I am, what I think and believe, and how I act. I again attach to this self-image (asmita), and will not let go for dear life. Any thoughts, values, or feelings that are incompatible with this constructed self-image are quickly denied as I cling to the self I think and need to be real. Cognitive dissonance tends to produce anxiety if it is recognized. As a result, we often relegate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the periphery of awareness. Have you noticed that there is an active ingredient to ignorance? In ignorance I choose “to ignore,” “to look away from” that which I do not want to see.

This clinging to my constructed world and constructed self is understandable, for it creates a sense of sanity, a hedge against the uncertainties of life. It also acts as a bond of loyalty and fellowship with our parents and teachers and with the broader culture. I would also agree with the American Pragmatists that in the early stages of human development, this clinging is necessary. To become a fine jazz musician, for example, one needs the mastery of technique, harmony, rhythm, and structure in order to ground one’s flights of creative improvisation. It is the same in life. We need a structure, we need a history, and we need facts, in order to function in the world.

But we must not stay too long at the fair. If the jazz musician remains dependent upon the tune as written, she will be unable to discover the true miracle of music. What she plays may be very right, but it will never be very good. Her playing will lack “soul.” Likewise, it is this clinging to our received world-view as we mature that causes the greatest human pain, a pain that often escalates conflict into violence. This is so because our constructs are usually not ample enough to include the breadth and depth of life as it unfolds. When we are confronted with the demands of a complex and fluid world, and with the frameworks of other people and other cultures, we are sometimes too terrified to let go of our own secure mental constructs. This fear leads to a defensiveness that breeds stereotyping, anger, and violence.

Listening and Looking
Clinging to one’s own ideas in this way traps one in the cave of the mind. Dialogue becomes impossible, since the fortress of the closed mind renders many people incapable of truly looking and listening. In the Buddhist tradition, listening is seen as the essence of compassion. In a similar vein, the Uruguayan thinker Eduardo Galeano points out that America had elected a deaf President: “a man incapable of hearing anything more than the echos of his own voice. Deaf before the incessant thunder of millions and millions of voices that in the streets of the world are declaring for peace against war.” (“un hombre incapaz de escuchar nada mas que los ecos de su voz. Sordo ante el trueno incesante de millones y millones de voces que en las calles del mundo están declarando la paz contra la guerra.”)

Annie Dillard powerfully underscores the importance of looking when she says: “We don’t know what’s going on here…we don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Healing words, that is, need to grow from the still ground of our looking and listening. Conflict, on the other hand, is always characterized by glare and noise. When people care more about being understood than understanding, they simply shout louder, thus making themselves impossible to hear.

Education
I am going to put the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi in bold letters because I think it is so central:

IF WE ARE TO ACHIEVE TRUE PEACE IN THE WORLD, WE MUST START WITH THE CHILDREN.

I am thinking of education here both in the Spanish sense of educación: upbringing, and in the thought of Plato as “e ducere:” to be led out of the cave of one’s own mind. As Teilhard de Chardin taught, we human beings might be terribly imperfect, but evolution is not finished with us yet. We are works in progress, as individuals, as societies, as a human family. Liberation from the illusions that underpin righteousness takes tremendous courage. In my experience I could never have found even a smidgen of this courage without the caring nurture and inspiring example of friends, teachers, and guides to help negotiate the uncharted–and unchartable–territory of life’s mysterious surprises. As Parents, Friends, Psychologists, Educators, and Peace Activists, we must find a way to help people (including ourselves) loosen their dependence upon their constructed worlds and constructed selves. Early acculturation need not be indoctrination. It can be taught gently, lovingly, with a gradual opening to the visions of other cultures and new ideas. As education progresses and as the student matures, there comes a time—-an exhilarating time—-when the kaleidoscope of the mind shifts, and new patterns of thinking emerge. This happens again and again, as simple clicks of the wheel reveal unimagined vistas of thought and attendant feelings that have the power to transform the world and the self forever.

I believe the world’s deepest need today is for great teaching and great learning. Teaching Peace, however, does not fall only on the shoulders of the Gandhi’s and the King’s of this world. We, too, are the gatekeepers, blessed with the awesome responsibility of inviting those we meet on the quotidian byways of life to the adventure of greater conceptual amplitude and emotional intelligence. We are all teachers who stand at the threshold between love and fear, kindness and violence. George Fox, the Founder of the Quaker movement, beautifully expressed this ideal in a statement of 1656:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may [teach] among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”

Finally, only the teacher who is herself engaged in the risky and exhilarating process of daily creation can effectively invite other people to this journey of discovery. If we are to stand before the world as teachers, we must be willing to wear the heavy mantle of self-confrontation and self-knowledge. As Gurdjieff said: “If you wish the best for your children, you should seek it for yourselves. In fact, if you change, they will also change. Thinking of their future, you should forget them for a while, and reflect upon yourselves …Only in knowing ourselves can we look to someone else.” Thus we are challenged to strip away all pretense of certainty and all the protection of rigidity. But it is only here, in this posture of naked vulnerability, that our words and actions might coalesce into a beneficent synergy. Then, to quote an ancient Zen poem: “without trying, our smiles will heal withered hearts.”

Murakami on Gaza

On February 19, 2009, Haruki Murakami accepted the Jerusalem Prize for Literature. His words of five years ago resonate today.

ALWAYS ON THE SIDE OF THE EGG by HARUKI MURAKAMI

I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies. Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies – which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true – the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies. Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. A fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came. The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens – children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me – and especially if they are warning me – “don’t go there,” “don’t do that,” I tend to want to “go there” and “do that.” It’s in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.
This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message. To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist’s most important duties, of course. It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer to transform them into stories – stories that tend toward the surreal. Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a direct political message.

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor. This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories – stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply-felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the war. He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him. My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong – and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.
Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

That is all I have to say to you. I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I am grateful that my books are being read by people in many parts of the world. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today.