Category Archives: Philosophy

In Praise of Ego

The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
Thomas Moore

I have heard it said that the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead would awaken every morning, and exuberantly exclaim, “Thank God I am Margaret Mead!” That is certainly an eye-opener, and at first blush sounds unpleasantly self-centered. It is also an incredibly difficult thing to say. Try it yourself: “Thank God I am …” I’ll bet your name stuck in your throat. I know mine did. Although it appears as though Ms. Mead is egotistically crowing at the dawn, I think that there is a wonderful sense in which her affirmation can be seen as a grateful recognition that she has been given existence as a unique individual who has the potential to be a blessing to herself and to the world.

In the Prologue to Demian, Herman Hesse writes a moving tribute to the precious reality of each and every individual:

“Each human being represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature … the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as he [or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”

I find two ideas in this quote inspiring. The first is that each of us is an experiment on the part of nature in the creation of the human. Each of us is a variation on the theme of humanity, a variation that has never existed before and will never show up again. It is as though nature says, “Ok, John or Sally or Peter, here is your particular slice of humanity. Now let’s see what you can do with it.” We do not make our choices and create a self with impunity, however. The world will either be better off or worse off, if only by a trifle, simply because you and I have passed through it. Will we leave a few small ripples of kindness behind us, or more distrust and fear? This is a question, I think, that is worth asking every day, as a step toward being the man I want to be.

The second idea that inspires me is the notion that my perception of the world here and now is actually creating a world that exists only in this moment, and only through me. This is reminiscent of the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Have you ever looked at a sunset, say, and realized that this particular sunset is for you alone and no one else? No one is seeing it from your place in the world, from your angle, with your thoughts and feelings. Think of it: everything you see right here and right now–and in every moment of your life– is the creation of your perceptions. An irreducible world comes into being with your birth, flowers with your every step, and vanishes at your death. We truly are co-creators with the Divine, and I imagine with Alice Walker that our Divine Collaborator must get exasperated with us when we don’t treasure our creative power. We have the opportunity to revel in the beauty that it is our privilege and perhaps responsibility to create and enjoy. In the Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And when we piss God off this way, She just plunks another field of purple flowers in our path, just to see if this time we will co-create it with Her, or remain wrapped in our complacent slumber.

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Two Dreamers: Martin and Willy

Martin

Willie

Plato clearly saw that the material realm is a sluggish and recalcitrant collaborator with Soul in the creation of a world–personal and social–that is truly good and beautiful.  Even though we live in a messy, confusing, inconsistent world, however, we are blessed with the power to dream, and to shape the world, partially at least, into the image of our dreams.  The dreams we dream spring from, and express, the depth of our humanity and our vitality..  So I wonder: do my dreams approximate those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or those of Willy Loman?   I know what I like to say, but I must ask myself how I live, for it is only in the living of life that my true values manifest themselves.  Joseph Campbell once said that we live in one world and babble about another.

Further, it seems that the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity, the dream of aiding the human family to align with each other and with the transcendental source, however it is understood.  For our dreams–those we imagine and those we live–are the stuff of which our social systems are made. The need for structure and order in those systems molds them into powerful institutions that quickly become rigid bureaucracies.

Perhaps our inner values and outer behavior are strange amalgams of King’s dreams of love, and Loman’s dreams of social prestige and material success.  It seems that our major institutions share this central dissonance in that they offer the great promise of lofty dreams, but deliver the tawdry disillusionment of the salesman’s silk stockings.  Education promises learning, but many teachers deliver dry, rote memorization; medicine promises health, while doctors often deliver cold technique; the justice system promises equal justice for all, yet the courts deliver racial and economic discrimination; religion promises God’s love and forgiveness, while ministers with patriarchal authority deliver sin and Hellfire, building funds and empty ritual.   Martin dreams, and Willy delivers.

These observations are tragic in the classical Aristotelian sense: greatness brought to ruin by a tragic flaw.  The magnificent dream of America–liberty and justice for all–is corrupted by “The American Dream” which becomes more materialistic with each passing year.  American institutions and America herself embody incredible promise and disillusioning heartbreak.  The great voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, puts it this way: “Who am I? You know me, Dream of my dreams. I am America.  I am America seeking the stars.  America—Hoping, praying, fighting, dreaming, knowing there are stains on the beauty of my democracy. I want to be clean.”

In the light of the above, it is tempting to give up on our society and her institutions.  To say “To Hell with it; be dirty if you want.” How simple it would be to heed Voltaire’s advice, and with Candide, to cultivate our own gardens.  But to relinquish the dream of a better tomorrow and to sink into complacency might be the truest tragedy.  It would mean that we had stopped reaching for the stars.  No, with Langston Hughes, I want to be clean.  I want America to be clean.  I want our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms, prisons and churches to be clean.

The truth that transformation starts with me is so obvious and so often stated that it borders on cliche.  Be that as it may,  It seems clear that if I value my integrity, I can only ask the world to be as compassionate as i am, as non-punishing as I am, as non-judgmental as I am.  To ask more of others than I ask of myself seems self-indulgent and hypocritical.   What good does it do to rail against the Willy Lomans of the world and to ignore the Willy Loman in myself?  Willy will fight me, will sabotage me, just as he does the institutions of the world.  I must ultimately see Willy for what he is: a self-created  and powerful part of myself.

The quality of my character contributes to the character of the whole.  Just as a beach is composed of countless grains of sand, so every act of every individual contributes to the spirit of all. While most of us will not be called to the center stage of the human drama, we each alter the world, infinitesimally but truly, by each kind or harsh word, each creative or destructive gesture as they unfold in small and seemingly insignificant moments.  It has been said that the world will be a shade kinder or a shade more harsh simply because you and I have passed through it.  That, to me, is an awesome responsibility.  And if we are called to a wider social arena, let us hope that we can remember our belief in the power of love as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.

As Plato says at the beginning of this post, we live in a world that is inherently and perhaps eternally imperfect.  Dr. King was not perfect, and neither is any human being.  I like to think that the current population of the world is simply at a relatively early stage in the evolution of humanity.  Wonders await us–if we can survive our childhood. But for now, Willy is with us, in our hearts and in the world, and he must be dealt with.  I believe, however, that it is not helpful to see Willy–the materialistic imperfections of self and world–as an enemy in a war. The Buddha’s teaching that only love turns away anger is an ancient truth that Dr. King not only believed, but lived.  Attack engenders defense and retaliation.  Judgment is by its very nature divisive.  So I must bring the Philistine in me, the materialist in me, the coward in me, and yes, the racist in me, to light, and once there, to acknowledge him with compassion and understanding.  For if the Buddha is correct, it is from the ground of love that transformation can begin. Plato suggests that the most powerful teaching is not through words but through actions.  The teacher simply points to, and lives, the light. The Martin in me (and I believe he is in all of us, dormant in some, quickened in others) needs to reassure and guide the darker parts of myself toward the light.  Like everyone, Willy needs reassurance and guidance, and only then might he quiet down, might he entertain the possibility of more humane dreams, and discover the resources to live with kindness and grace.

And so, like Sisyphus, we trudge up the hill of personal and social transformation.  Each day of our lives offers us new challenges that invite further growth.  Life is a wonderful friend, for it never leaves us alone, always ready to throw another curve ball to disrupt our complacency. We often encounter Willy Loman along the way.  Our personal lives as well as our social institutions can be profoundly disheartening, but the challenges and imperfections we encounter give energy and direction to the unfolding of beauty, much as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon.  Martin invites us on a journey toward a more just and loving world, a world that shines like a pearl. Willy supplies the sand, the grist to soften our hard edges.

A New Friend

image

Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968) is a new discovery for me, but he is one of Italy’s most famous poets.  His most popular poem is especially significant today as we witness a solar eclipse here in Europe.  It is also a poignant evocation for me of the passing of life in a wondrous blink of the eye:

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor del terra

trafitto da un raggio di sole

ed e subito sera

Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth

pierced by a ray of sun

and suddenly it is evening

Pilgrimage to Assisi

francis

Today Carolyn and I leave for Rome and then Assisi.  We will continue to study Italian, and I will be sharing some insights into the religious and political milieu of the 13th century with a lovely group of pilgrims.  My intention is simply to keep my mind as alert as possible, and my heart as open as possible.  I want to remember an insight of Dawna Markova: “What you love reveals its loveliness.”

St. Francis was clearly a remarkable human being.  Remarkable in his absolute commitment to live his beliefs, his wholehearted embrace of suffering humanity, and in his unstinting love of Nature.  He was a human being in that his path was not one of unremitting sweetness and light. His relationship with his father was turbulent, his experience in war was traumatic, he felt the burden of leadership as onerous, and finally a vast number of his followers could not be faithful to his vision.    Karen Armstrong says that the magnificent basilica that houses his body in Assisi was actually the final and perhaps greatest betrayal of his life.  Even the famous Peace Prayer attributed to him was not written until the 19th century by an anonymous author.

I plan to write a series of essays while in Italy to unpack these varying eddies in the the life of Francis, and to reflect on their relevance to life in the 21st century.  I am sure Francis would echo the sentiment expressed in “his” famous prayer:  May we all be instruments of Divine Peace.

a presto

A Lived Life

Lotus

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”   This is perhaps the most famous statement Socrates ever made.  One day many years ago, as I was teaching this section of Plato’s dialogues, it occurred to me in a flash that the opposite was also true: The unlived life is not worth examining.  I went on to share this thought with my students: so many people spend their time on earth worrying about life after death and adjusting their beliefs and behaviors to accommodate this worry.  But the far more important and relevant question, it seems to me, is “is there life before death?”

For our morning reading this month, Carolyn and I are enjoying a lovely book by Dawna Markova entitled “I will not die an unlived life.”  This woman expresses her hard won wisdom with a beauty that flows deeply into the soul.  She shares an inspiring vision of living an undivided life with love and passion and grace.

In our reading this morning, Dawna told a story I found fascinating.  She and her husband had been invited to India to visit with the Dalai Lama.  Upon arriving, she was told to ignore the beggars and this she did, closing her heart as she made her way to Dharamsala.  As she entered her guest house, she realized her body had become tight and protected and her heart felt small.  She was then told that the Dalai Lama was ill and could not see her, and that she would have to settle with an audience with a Rinpoche.  Disappointed and depressed, she walked out into a grey world,  and immediately met a small beggar girl who had clearly suffered from leprosy.  Dawna’s heart melted as she scooped the girl into her arms and sang to her a song of love.  Dawna continues:

“This little brown child, whose name I will never know, broke my heart so wide open that it could have contained the whole world.  From her I learned that passion is a river. … It creates the desire to reach, to pass on to the world what you love.  And through that opening, the world passes into you.”  That little girl became one of Dawna’s inner advisors: “and each reminds me that even in the moments when I feel the most helpless to ’do’ or fix or help, I can still, always, love in simple and ultimate ways.  I can let in, let be, or be with, opening and experiencing what life brings to me.”

Her words alone shine a light on what it means to live life.  A further thought occurs to me, however.  Dawna had traveled halfway around the world to meet with a justly famous spiritual teacher who became unavailable. Then on a dusty road she met a small brown angel who became one of her  greatest teachers.  We never know where, or in what form, grace is waiting for us.  I want to remember to pay attention, and to trust that every door that closes is moving me toward another unexpected blessing-in-disguise.

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

Judge not…?

Yesterday I wrote an essay on Schadenfreude that was occasioned by the front page of a grocery line newspaper trumpeting the difficulties in the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin.  I was shocked by what I judged as a cynical intrusion into the pain of other human beings, and I excoriated the paper and those who fed on its patent sensationalism. I went so far as to condemn the paper for exploiting “pain to titillate ungenerous hearts” and that this seemed “unkind to the point of viciousness.”  After unloading my own pain at what I had judged as the uncaring and selfish behavior of other people, I did my best to turn toward compassion, quoting a wonderful talk given by George Saunders in a graduation talk at Syracuse University. His theme was kindness, and the fact that the beauty in every heart can become covered over by self-centeredness and a lack of empathy.

My post prompted this caring and insightful comment by Michael who writes a lovely blog called Embracing Forever.   Michael managed to dolly back to a point of broad perspective that tempered my negativity far more effectively than I had.  Here are his words:

“Great post, John. Reading this, I realize I need to watch Saunders’ speech all over again…! In reflecting on this concept of schadenfreude, and your thoughts on reading the tabloids in the supermarket aisle, it struck me that perhaps not everyone who buys that magazine is doing so out of schadenfreude. Perhaps there are others whose “life dial” is turned down to pretty low volume, and that through reading about and vicariously connecting with these “larger than life” idols and pop stars, they experience or touch something that may be felt to be missing in their own lives.

There may, for instance, be a whole segment of the market who purchases those tabloids who are crying with George and Amal, who are not happy at all, but feel as though they, too, have lost something. The fairy tale has ended. It’s just a bit of a projection on my part– a leap. But it does come back also to what you describe, nonetheless, to pain that we feel. To some fear or sense of inadequacy that suggests others are in better position to live and express the meaning of life than we are, others who have more to offer, more gifts or talents, more potency of what matters. And what could be farther from the truth?

It is sad, as you wrote: “The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.” It is sad that so many, whether in schadenfreude or lack of esteem or self-worth– for whatever reason– have come to rely on vicarious projection as the generator of life experience, as the generator of emotional fodder.

There is so much within that is missed in these projections, but also… perhaps it is merely kept safe until we are ready to truly go there…”

I find Michael’s words beautifully wise and kind, and although I am sure he did not intend this result, his thoughts encouraged me to reflect upon my own (hopefully brief) foray into the land of negative judgments.  I would like to share three ideas:

1.  There is a thin line between “judgment” and “discernment.”   Surely the world is not ideal.  Michael and I meet in the sadness we feel at the pain in the hearts of so many people that sometimes leads to unconscious and unkind words and deeds.  But it is not only wiser, but more effective, to greet the less-than-ideal with understanding and compassion.  Harsh negative judgments only drive the unconsciousness more deeply into the psyche.  “Only love turns away anger” says the Buddha, and the same is true of all pain, including that expressed as schadenfreude.

2.  I have always found St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:1  both enlightening and a shade poignant:  “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”  This is more than the beam of wood in your own eye while judging the mote of dust in another’s.  For I not only occasionally do the things that I judge, but it seems to me that in the very act of judging, I am doing what I condemn.  While I am railing at another’s unkindness, I am being unkind.  When I condemn another for lacking compassion, my words lack compassion.  And when I judge other people for seeming to enjoy the pain of another, I am finding relief in my own supposed “superiority.”   I am afraid St. Paul has a point: in judging others, I judge myself.  In fact, what do I really know about another person?  Whatever i say about another says far more about me: my degree of wisdom and compassion, my array of values.

3.  Finally, i want to remember to view my own negativity with compassion.  That tabloid cover really jolted me, and I felt great empathy for Mr. Clooney and Ms. Alamuddin.  Having gone through some of that pain myself, I felt a great investment in treating their travails with kindness and respect.  As I noted in another post, even Jesus had his moments of impatience and harsh  judgments.  I think we can use those moments when we miss the mark to increase our understanding and our self-knowledge.     As Rumi teaches, every movement of our minds and hearts–whether saintly or selfish– is a gift:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

SCHADENFREUDE

In the line at the grocery store yesterday, It was impossible to avoid the bold headlines of one of America’s more popular rags.  It trumpeted that after four months of marriage George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin are headed for a 200 million dollar divorce after countless screaming fights.  Seeing this “news” placed so unavoidably in the checkout line made me sick to my stomach.

First, it could well be sensationalistic speculation, a distorted spin that feeds people’s schadenfreude: the joy and pleasure felt at other people’s misfortunes.  But even if it is true, it means that two human beings are in a world of pain right now, and to exploit that pain to sell papers and to titillate ungenerous hearts seems unkind to the point of viciousness.

Schadenfreude is countered by the Buddhist virtue of joy, or “mudita” in Sanskrit.  This is not a Snoopy-at-supper-time giddy dance, but simply rejoicing in the happiness of other beings.  It seems obvious that a loving heart embodies compassion and empathy for the fact that we are all fighting a very hard battle, as the popular quote has it.  A great example of schadenfreude is the Grinch, whose “heart was two sizes too small.”  He was ticked off at the joy of Christmas, and did all he could to ruin it.  In the case of Clooney/Alamuddin, the vicarious hit of a glamorous marriage quickly gave way to envy in hearts too small.

I realize that tiny hearts are in pain themselves, and perhaps rejoicing in other’s misfortunes eases that pain a bit.  I know from experience that when I have acted with negativity or judgment or anger, it has always been from a place of pain in myself, and not from a place of open, confident love.  It simply strikes me as terribly sad that millions of people have Grinch-like hearts, at least enough of the time that papers can make so much money pandering to the need to feed on another’s pain.

I also find comfort in the knowledge that millions of people long to be kind, as George Saunders said at Syracuse University:  “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”   Saunders is encouraging, however, in his reassurance that kindness, while difficult, is a deeply natural part of human growth:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.  Again, Saunders put this powerfully:

“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.”