Monday, November 28, 2011

Stories We Tell Ourselves

One widely known, brief Hasidic tale ends with a catechetical savor as told by Elie Wiesel: "God made man because he loves stories." But who loves stories? Man? If so, why is that a sufficient reason for God to make him? Or is it God who loves stories? If so, did He create man in order to have someone to tell Him stories, or is man himself God's story?
                   ~Theodore M. Hesburg, from the introduction to Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy

The invention of the steam engine produced a revolution, not merely in industrial techniques, but also and much more significantly in philosophy.  Because machines could be made progressively more and more efficient, western man came to believe that men and societies would automatically register a corresponding moral and spiritual improvement.   Attention and allegiance came to be paid, not to Eternity, but to the Utopian future.  External circumstances came to be regarded as more important than states of mind about external circumstances, and the end of human life was held to be action, with contemplation as a means to that end.  These false and, historically, aberrant and heretical doctrines are now systematically taught in our schools and repeated, day in, day out, by those anonymous writers of advertising copy who, more than any other teachers, provide European and American adults with their current philosophy of life.   And so effective has been the propaganda that even professing Christians accept the heresy unquestioningly and are quite unconscious of its complete incompatibility with their own or anybody else's religion.
          ~Aldous Huxley, from the introduction to The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood

Stories are important. Whether we realize it or not, we all tell ourselves stories. We tell ourselves stories about the world and how it works, about our lives and what we are doing with them. We tell ourselves stories in order to explain to ourselves and to make intelligible the seemingly random and chaotic nature of the cosmos in which we exist. We tell ourselves stories to give ourselves the strength to go on when all our strength is gone. Without stories we are lost, adrift.

There was a time in human history when most of us received the stories around which we built our lives from religion. We told ourselves stories of Gods and Goddesses and their relations with humanity. We told ourselves stories of Heaven and Hell, of Karma and Rebirth and of final escape from the wheel of becoming. We told ourselves stories of a benevolent Deity watching over us, noting down our triumphs and our failures of spirit.

But at some point these stories began to lose their power over us. The old stories began to seem irrelevant at best, detrimental at worst. We began to reject the stories of our forebears; but stories are important. We could not live without them and so, without even realizing it, we began to create new stories, though we were unaware that stories were what we were creating.

We gave to these new stories the name of Science. We found that these stories had power, that we could use them to remake our world, to explain it to us in ways that seemed true in a manner that the old stories did not. For a time they existed together, the old stories and the new (as they still do, to some extent), but eventually the new stories of the scientists gained the upper hand, and more and more they came to replace the old stories of the priests and the saints. The intelligent among us, it came to be believed, placed no credence in the old stories and subscribed only to the new, to the scientific story of our world.

This overthrowing of the old stories of religion by the new stories of science created a spiritual crisis in the heart of humanity, a crisis from which we have not yet emerged. What we failed to recognize was that the stories were not describing the same things, that they were descriptions of different territories, of different worlds, and that in rejecting the stories of religion and replacing them with the stories of science we had lost a truth that could find no means of expression in the new narrative. At first, this loss was not apparent. In the beginning the new stories concerned only the operation of the natural world, and while there was a de-sacrelizing of the material universe, "God's Law" being replaced by "Natural Law," the miraculous by the mechanical, it seemed but a small matter and more than compensated for by the new-found control over our existence that resulted from this usurpation. But soon the enthusiasm for new stories sought other environments, other landscapes in which to find expression.

Perhaps the most harmful were the new stories that emerged concerning the organization of human societies and the goal and purpose of individual human lives. The story-tellers who called themselves economists rejected the stories of religion that told us to be charitable and forgiving and replaced them with stories that urged each person to care only for themselves, to think only of their own benefit. The story-tellers who were called advertisers rejected the stories of human fulfillment through self-abnegation and universal good-will and replaced them with stories of fulfillment through the purchase and consumption of many unnecessary products. These stories, we were told, were superior to the old religious ones, in the same way that the scientific stories were superior to the religious in describing the operation of the natural world. Enthralled by the novelty, many of us paid heed.

However, it should be clear to us now that the stories about society and about human life provided us by our new "scientific" story-tellers have not lived up to their promises. We have built our lives and our communities around them, have had them endlessly recited to us, and have recited them to ourselves and to our children. We have given our lives over to them and we have found them wanting. These stories of economics and of consumerism, unlike the old stories of religion which they have replaced, have no end to them; they are stories empty of meaning and import; they have created entire generations of spiritual paupers.

The new story goes like this: try to obtain as much money as you can for as little work as possible; use this money to buy many things for yourself; repeat this process until you die. The story is simply, "he who dies with the most toys wins." But this story does not ennoble us, does not open to us our higher potentialities. This story tells us that we are nothing but empty stomachs, no more than hungry ghosts. But humanity does not live by bread alone and cannot find fulfillment in a new car or television set, or in second house or a dress or a dishwasher. We require more, but the stories we now live by have no more to offer.

The story of religion, that we need desperately to remember, to incorporate into our lives, is this: do whatever work comes to hand, for all work is necessary; use the money you get from this work to care for as many of your fellow creatures as you can, for all are children of one family; do your best to turn yourself into a being of pure Love, for that is the highest that a human being can attain. This is a story with meaning, an ennobling story, and a story that needs to be told over and over again.

Stories are important; we know ourselves and our world only through the stories that we tell. The tales that modern society has provided us have shown themselves empty. Let us remember now the older tales, let us dress them in the garb of modernity, but let us reclaim their truth and once again make it our own; for our sake and for that of the world.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Paradox of Profit-Pt. 2

We have already seen how from the individual perspective the absolute profits of the capitalist (i.e. profits beyond those necessary to repay the capitalist's investment plus some necessary return to stimulate the investment in the first place) represent unearned returns from the productive process which is maintained solely by the input of labor power. Now let us turn and consider the paradox of profit from the perspective of the firm; from the institutional side.

Here we are viewing the productive enterprise, the business firm, as an autonomous entity whose goal is to maximize revenue and ensure continued operation into the future. Let us say that we have a firm that needs to raise money to update its facilities or expand its operations. There are two ways that the firm can raise this money: either it can take a loan from a bank, or it can sell shares of stock to private investors. In the first case the firm takes the money from the loan, invests it in increasing productivity, and then repays the loan plus interest from the returns of that investment. Once the loan has been repaid, the firm itself retains the continuing benefits of its increased revenue.

In the second case, that of selling stock, what the firm is doing is creating a continuing ownership right for the sake of gaining access to a fixed amount of capital input. In this case, the firm sells shares of stock in the company (either newly created shares or old shares held by the company), uses the additional capital to invest in increased productivity, then over time repays the stockholders for their investment. This repayment takes the form of dividends, which, from the firm's perspective, differ from loan payments to a bank in that shares of stock can never be "payed off." That is, after the stockholders have received back, in the form of dividends, the full amount of their initial stock purchase, plus the amount that a bank would have charged for a loan of the same size, the stockholders continue to demand and receive dividends.

Herein lies the paradox. In exchange for a fixed amount of capital, the firm consigns itself to a conceivably never-ending stream of resource expenditure in the form of dividends. And what is more, these expenditures by the firm are totally unproductive, since they drain the company's balance sheet while adding nothing to production. If a firm sells one million dollars worth of stock and pays dividends on that stock such that the buyer receives his full purchase price back in ten years time, after twenty years time the stockholder will have received two million dollars in return for his initial investment of one million (other things being equal, of course). It is obvious that no firm would ever consider taking a twenty year loan from a bank at one hundred percent interest, but this is just what happens in the case of stocks. Also quite apparent is the fact that the actual cost to the firm of the capital gained by selling stock continues to increase over time.

Let us suppose that our imaginary investor decides to sell his stock in the company after twenty years. Unless the investor sells his stock back to the company, the obligation to pay dividends to the new owner of the stock remains, despite the fact that this time the firm has received no additional capital input and despite the fact that the initial investment represented by the stock has already been re-payed, and that at a large premium. The only way for the firm to finally extinguish the debt of continual dividend obligations is to buy back the stock itself. But in this case the scenario is no better for the firm. Assuming the stock price has remained the same, they must now pay one million dollars to recover the ownership interest which has already cost the firm one million dollars (dividends during the second ten year period during which the stock was privately held). Here the paradox becomes explicit; the firm has, in essence, paid three million dollars for the use of one million: a net loss of two million dollars.

The unresolved question now is, given this situation, why would any firm opt raise money through the sale of stock rather than through a bank loan? The simple answer is that, in reality, a firm's purpose is not to produce useful goods and services, or to provide jobs for its employees, or to improve and develop its local community; but rather to create a continual stream of unearned revenue that can be captured by those with the wherewithal to purchase the ownership rights. The solution to this mystery lies in the internal make up of the firm itself and the ways in which relations between the different participants are structured. For, despite what we have assumed here, firms are not autonomous entities trying to maximize their own revenue and ensure their own continued existence. They are an amalgam of different groups of individuals, with different, and often opposing, interests. The havoc and irrationality created by this system will be the topic of a future post.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Paradox of Profit-Pt. 1

From time to time I take up my old vice of economics (U.M. '04) and dork out on it for awhile.  Here's the first installment of what's been going through my head recently is this regards.  

 We start off broadly, by asking what exactly we mean when we use the word “economy?” We might define an economy as a system of producing and distributing goods and services within and between groups of people. There are, of course, many ways in which such a system might be designed, as we can see from studies of history and anthropology. From an ethical, normative standpoint, we might distinguish between just and unjust economic systems. We could define a just economic system as one in which there is a high positive correlation between effort expended in the production process and the ability to consume the fruits of that process. An unjust system, then, would be one in which there is no correlation, or a negative correlation, between effort expended and the consumption potential realized by any given individual.

To demonstrate this we can consider the economic system of slavery as practiced in the United States prior to 1865. Using our simple guidelines above, we conclude that the slavery system is unjust, since those expending the greatest amount of effort in the productive process (the slaves) receive the least amount of remuneration and vice versa; those whose exertions in the productive process are minimal (the plantation owners) receive the greatest reward from the process. There is an obvious negative correlation between effort and gain within the system and we are therefore justified in criticizing such a system as economically unjust1.

In discussing contemporary “capitalist” economics, the standard explanation breaks down the production process into three major areas of input along with the individuals who provide each of the inputs. These inputs are typically listed as land, labor, and capital; owned, respectively, by the landlord, the worker, and the capitalist. For allowing his/her land to be used in production the landlord receives rent, for contributing his/her labor the worker receives a wage, and for supplying the necessary real and financial capital (i.e. tools, factories, money) the capitalist receives profit. Thus each contributor to the process of production receives their repayment. Without considering any deeper than this we might conclude that the modern capitalist economy is, in fact, a just one.

That would, however, be a premature conclusion, for in examining this system we see that there is something different, something special and unique about the capitalist's profits. This unique aspect of capitalist profit-making, different from either the rent of the landlord or the wages of the worker, is that in exchange for a temporally-limited contribution to production the capitalist is able to realize temporally unlimited returns. Whereas for the landlord and the laborer their incomes cease the moment they remove their factors of production from the economic process, the capitalist is able to make a one-time contribution to the process in exchange for a (conceivably) never-ending income.

To clarify this point, we can consider a simplified case involving only labor and capital. Let us suppose we have a capitalist who puts up the money to build a factory and purchase initial inputs and pay wages during the first production-cycle. The revenue realized from sale of the product must, necessarily, be enough to cover the cost of the material and labor inputs (variable costs) as well as some amount to off-set the capitalist's initial investment in the factory (fixed costs). As the production-cycle continues the revenue generated by the factory must continue to cover the variable costs of production as well as pay down the capitalist's fixed cost in the factory2. After some period of time the capitalist will have been fully repaid for his/her initial financial investment in the productive enterprise, i.e. all fixed costs will have been fully covered by returns to the enterprise. From this point on any gains realized by the capitalist are what we can consider actual profits.

Since the revenues created by the factory must continue to cover all variable costs, and since the fixed costs have been fully repaid, the returns to the capitalist from this point on represent not remuneration for contributing to the process of production, but rather returns to the legally-defined right of ownership. While the laborers must continue to supply their labor-power to the production process in order to continue receiving their returns in the form of wages, the capitalist need now contribute nothing further to the production process to continue receiving his/her returns in the form of profits. While it is true that without some actual profit, above and beyond simple repayment of the initial financial outlays, the capitalist could not be convinced to contribute his/her resources to the production process, it should be apparent that the potential gains to ownership of a productive enterprise far outstrip the minimum return on investment that would be sufficient incentive for the capitalist to engage their resources.

Given our above minimal definition of just and unjust economic systems, we now see that capitalism must be placed, at least on the prima facie evidence, into the latter category. For the workers3 in the system, a fixed amount of time and effort engaged in production yields a fixed amount of return, i.e. consumption potential. Whereas, for the capitalist, a fixed amount invested in production can yield, at least theoretically, unlimited returns. For certain actors in the economic process a one-time effort leads to a one-time reward, while for other actors a one-time effort can lead to endless rewards; thus effort expended does not positively correlate with consumption potential realized; thus the system is open to criticism on grounds of basic injustice.

1Besides considerations of simple “fairness,” unjust economic systems, as we have defined them here, also create divergent and conflicting incentives between different actors in the production process which lead inevitably to decreased efficiency in production. This aspect will be discussed in greater detail later.

2In this simplified treatment I am not taking additional costs of production (namely capital depreciation) into account, however the analysis can be easily expanded to cover these, as it is apparent that any firm whose revenue does not cover all costs, from whatever source, can not long remain a going concern.

3For simplicity we will continue with a basic labor/capital dichotomy. How the question of land ownership fits in will be examined later.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Best Description of God I Can Come Up With (with thanks to a noted Athiest)

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Dead Eye Dick, the main character describes his birth in terms of the place and time when his “peephole opened.” When we are born, our peephole on the world opens and when we die it closes. All over the Planet and all over the Cosmos there are peepholes being opened up and there are peepholes closing. Some peepholes are shaped like people, some like grasshoppers, some like dogs, some like marmosets, some like bacteria, some like rhododendrons, and on and on. Gazillions of them and probably more: opening, looking around for a time, and then closing. But behind all the peepholes, looking through each one of them, is but one, gigantic eye. The eye that lies behind all peepholes: this is the best I can do to explain my understanding of what is meant by the word God (not that anyone is asking...)

And, of course, the "fabric" through which this universal eye peers is Nature, the material world. It is within the material world that these apertures of vision open, and it is the material world which these apertures observe while they remain. This material world, of course, is also what obscures the truth that all peepholes are, in reality, looking with one eye; it is the material world which creates the illusion of multiplicity. Veryily, we are peepholes of the Divine, looking out on the world and all the other Divine peepholes and wondering, where is God in all this? This is why, in Vedantic thought, Nature is also Illusion, Maya, the obscuring veil of matter.

As a further side note, I would add that, at least for Earth-life, keeping one's peephole open usually involves the forcible closing of other peepholes in one form or another. Many a baby rabbit has met its demise at the blade of a plow to provide the vegetarian with cauliflower and spinach, not to mention the tarsands that are pumping right now to bring us bananas and kiwis and tomatoes out of season (food for thought, certainly...)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies have an interesting quality. Repeated often enough, lies become accepted as truth, and it must be said that our lives and our minds are filled with them. Filled with half-truths that are also half-lies, credulously accepted though unfounded rumors, filled with the lies of advertisers sowing insecurity and selling false satisfaction. But not all lies are created equal, some lies are useful, even necessary .

Our physical perception of the world is a kind of lie. Where science tells us there are swarms of swirling electrons, protons and neutrons we see a table or a dog. Our eyes lie to us by omission, registering only a narrow spectrum of all the light streaming into them. These are what we might call necessary and useful lies, simplifications of the truth that allow us to make sense of and interact with the world around us.

But many lies are not so benign. Consider the lies that most of us accept about personal success and happiness. We could sum these up with a catch-phrase from 1980's pop culture: “Greed is good.”
This is a succinct summation of economic thought in its current, mainstream variety. Economists assume that the world would work best if everyone tried to maximize their individual utility, where “utility” means, essentially, money and stuff. If everyone tries to accumulate as much wealth as they can, competing with everyone else for scarce resources, then everything will automatically work out for the best, as if guided by “an invisible hand.”

In reality, greed leads to unnatural shortages, as some people capture and hoard vast amounts of wealth, while many more are left to scratch out an existence from the ever-dwindling remains. Greed leads to ill will among people: callousness in those who are successful in their hoarding and resentment in those left out. Greed is not good, as pretty much every religion has been telling us for millennia. It's a little embarrassing that they have to tell us at all, and even more so that we so often refuse to listen.

Some lies are more subtle, like the lies we tell ourselves about our own powerlessness. We see the news filled with natural disasters and human suffering, wars, corruption, and social and environmental devastation, and we think we can do nothing, or at least not very much. We give a little bit to the Red Cross or United Way and think that we've done all we can. But this is a lie.

We live in a rich country where many of us have much more than we need, but rather than use our personal resources to improve the world, we buy an iPad and have discussions about what the government should do or what some corporation should do. We rely on those “in power” to fix things, denying that we ourselves have power. We undermine our power by squandering it on mindless indulgences and we deny having it because we are frightened of the responsibility that having it implies. We all remember what Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

We have the power, much more than we like to admit, to make the world a profoundly better place. But if we are to exercise this power we will need to re-evaluate our lives, reconsider what it is that truly leads to happiness, recognize the oft-repeated lies of our culture for what they are: lies. The truth is inevitably more complex than the lie, and this can be frightening, but we must be courageous if we are indeed concerned for the fate of our fellow humans, for our brother and sister creatures and for the planet that we all share. If we are concerned with freedom, with recognizing and reclaiming our own power, we must be relentless in exposing and rejecting lies wherever they may be, whether plastered across a billboard or hidden in the recesses of our own hearts.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Right Tool

This first appeared in OutWords magazine, March, 2011.

A parable:
Once there was a man who wanted to build a house. Being a novice, he
decided to inquire with his friends what sort of tools he would need
for the job. The first friend he asked said to him, “Surely you will
need a hammer.” This seemed reasonable, and so the man bought a hammer
and set out to build his house.

But he quickly discovered that the hammer was useless for many of the
required tasks. Tossing it aside and muttering and cursing under his
breathe that his friend was no-good liar, he proceeded to the home of
a second friend. Again he asked what sort of tools he needed to build
a house. The second friend replied, “Surely you will need a saw.” The
man thought that sounded reasonable and so he purchased a saw and set
out once more to build his house.

The saw seemed a better idea, as the man could now cut his logs to
size with ease, a task that had proved impossible with the hammer.
Soon, however, the man was once again muttering and cursing as he
tried in vain to drive home a nail with the handle of the saw.
It was once widely accepted that the Church held a monopoly on
legitimate knowledge. The pursuers of science felt the constraints and
pushed against them, finally bursting them asunder. The Church was
overthrown as the possessor and distributor of knowledge, its place
taken by the Academy. But the Academy tossed out more than it could
replace. Gone was the faulty astronomy, gone the inscrutable god of
Abraham, but gone too was the wisdom, gone was the comfort.

Now we feel the constraints of the Academy, of the modern outlook. We
push up against them. We consume ever more and newer products, yet
remain unsatisfied. We accept the big-bang theory and evolution, yet
fail to find comfort in them. We find that the material sciences,
which were so useful in freeing us from the bonds of the Church, have
now fashioned for us a materialist cage. There is food and water
aplenty in the cage, but of meaning we find none. And so the human
soul revolts, it looks for an exit from this prison of cold, dead,
uncaring matter.

Having rejected the Church of our forebears along with its wisdom and
comfort, we seek these things in other churches, far away; churches we
did not grow up in, churches that never shamed us or forced us to
conform or to do violence to our intellect. We find what we look for.
We look at Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, and take from them the
wisdom and comfort that we need. We don't look to the rest, to their
faulty astronomy, their inscrutable deities. For some reason, for some
of us, it seems easier to distinguish the baby from the bath-water at
a distance.

Some in the Church will still cry "heresy!" and some in the Academy
will cry "superstition!" but the soul of humanity will go on building
itself a home. It must and it will, using whatever tools it can find.

Reflections on Discontentment

This article first appeared in OutWords magazine, February, 2011.

I cannot remember a time when I felt totally at peace with myself, totally whole, complete. If there has been one constant throughout my life it would seem to be this, the constant feeling of discontentment.
Initially, this feeling revolved almost entirely around myself. It had not yet occurred to me to blame my feelings on a disturbed and disturbing world. The only explanation I could find was that there was something wrong with me, something missing.

I'm not sure where this feeling came from. Whether it is the residue of psychological belittlement by my parents and peers, or whether it stems from something deeper I cannot say. In truth, I had to endure relatively little of the first, and though I did get my share of teasing as a child, I was not subject to the emotional and psychological abuse that many of my friends have undergone. No, it seems to be something deeper than just negative conditioning, some more fundamental emotion.

Part of this seems to stem from an acute awareness of sin, of knowingly doing wrong. I remember distinctly the first time I told a lie, and the majority of my early memories seem to be of my various trespasses as a child. I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an overly disobedient or willful child, and my hours of conformity in youth greatly outweighed my hours of revolt. And yet it is the sin that sticks. Even now, those violations of my earlier years come back to haunt me. “That,” they whisper to me,that too you are capable of.”

I have allowed myself to be persuaded, by both myself and others, to engage in things which now, with a better understanding of the world and the human psyche, I know may well have led to lasting psychological damage. Should I track these people down, apologize for my trespasses, beg their forgiveness? Probably. But even if I did and received full pardon from each, the knowledge of my sins and past actions would still hang heavy over my heart.

And they continue, of course, the sins. Mostly small, now, and unlikely to lead to any lasting damage, other than to my own psyche. Sins mostly of resentment and hostility towards others and of laziness leading to resentment and hostility toward myself. But the feeling is the same, and just as intense now as when I was a child. I have leavened it a little by turning some of my feelings of inadequacy outwards, by placing them on the world. For some of my discontentment I blame others, though the attribution may well be specious, but a good deal of it is still about me, no matter how much I try to project it onto externals.
I wonder, does everyone feel this way? Does everyone feel like there is something continually awry in their soul, something missing whose absence leaves a void that constantly sucks at their mind, drawing their thoughts again and again to that which is lacking? Wherefore this discontentment? Why do I feel this way? Why does Anybody?

Surely, the world is not ideal as humanity conceives the ideal. But it is ideal in it's imperfection, ideal in it's readiness to nurture life and growth, to provide the necessary materials for a quest for the ideal. And just as surely, we are imperfect beings, who have failed many times to live up to our highest potentials, who have slipped many times from the path of perfection that each of us, I think, feels that we should be following. But we are perfect in our ability to grow, to change. Our perfection lies not in our perfection, so to speak, but in our perpetual perfectibility.

It is always possible to change and to grow. To deny this to another is a sign of encroaching bigotry, to deny this to oneself is the grossest of self-slanders. To deny the ability to change is to deny free-will, to claim that oneself and everyone else are nothing but robots, enslaved by the whip of nature, chained by instinct and destiny.

Perhaps the discontent I feel is not about the world and not about who or what I actually am at any given moment of discontentment, but rather about a feeling that I am not growing fast enough. For life, as for all pursuits, there is a learning curve and the making of mistakes, both large and small, is not only a part of that curve, but indeed what it is composed of. Personal sin and an imperfect world are not reasons for discontentment in and of themselves: it is stasis and regression that we grind ourselves against.

Perhaps it's something like the sapling, knowing that it is a tree and is meant to be a tree, but grinding up against the reality of its sapling self. Growing so slowly, day after day, in the constant knowledge of its own inherent tree-ness. Perhaps this discontentment is merely the impatience of saplings.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Bottomless Vessel

First appeared in the Missoulian, Christmas 2010.

There is a Jewish saying that, “in a man who is full of himself there is no room for God.”  Surely, this is true, but it is not just oneself that a person may become full of. One may become full with learning, with scholarship, or with some political ideology or other, or even with religious dogma and teaching. Countless are the things with which a person may become full, which may crowd out all inner space for compassion and patience, for forbearance and understanding; in short, for those qualities of spirit which are the flowering of the divine in humanity.

A person is akin to a vessel, a jug or perhaps a wineskin. In our natural state we are as bottomless vessels, which take in all and yet always have room for more. There is no problem with learning, ideology or dogma per se, but the problem arises when we take our personal understanding of one of these things as the end-all and be-all of existence. That which has been called God, Brahman, Wakan Tanka, Allah, Tao, among other things, is the mysterious, the inconceivable, the spirit of all life and consciousness in the cosmos.

It is said that, “with God all things are possible,” but with one who is full of herself, only that which she already contains is possible; she will admit nothing else. She turns away from new aspects of existence and so seals her vessel, as it were, at the mouth. How can God add to one who has thus sealed themselves up? How can God teach one who is so convinced of their own learning, their own understanding?

There is a Zen Buddhist saying, “in the expert's mind there are few possibilities, in the beginner's mind there are many.” The expert has sealed himself up, has turned away from the infinite possibilities of reality in favor of the finite possibilities of his own understanding. For the expert, for the one full of themselves and their own understanding, there can be no compromise, and thus no dialogue or community, with another whose understanding is different, or even just differently phrased.

The expert says that our enemy must be hated and destroyed, but Jesus says that our enemy must be loved and prayed for, befriended if possible, and the Buddhist sage Shantideva agrees with him, along with many others down the ages. They are all calling us to the remembrance and realization of our higher possibilities, possibilities denied by the experts.

The requirement, then, is simply to remain open. Open to others and their understandings, open to all possibilities, especially the possibility (nay, certainty) that our own current understanding is incomplete and relative. Let us not seal off our vessels, but rather let us be vigilant in making room for the higher here in the lower.

Many are they today who claim that the possibilities are few, that the enemy must be despised and vanquished, not loved or befriended. May we not pay heed to those voices, but rather to the small, quiet voice of the divine that still whispers in every soul where there is room, calling us to love and to compassion and to all the wondrous possibilities of our highest, divinely-human nature

Remember Unity

First appeared in the Missoulian, Fall 2010 sometime.

We live in a culture of debate. “Either-or”, “all-or-nothing”, “us versus them”, seem to be the major sentiments of our cultural discourse. Watching the nightly news or reading the daily paper, every issue is shown bi-chromatically as the struggle between two possible solutions, two diametrically opposed viewpoints. As if there were only two sides to any story, only two perspectives on any issue! We have a politics of encampment, of red states and blue states, democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals.

Whether through the nature of our two party political system, or because of some perverse blindness in our collective psyches, all of life in modern American society seems characterized by this dualism. On the individual level, this type of crude “either-or” thinking is typical of small children and schizophrenics. Unsurprisingly, the level of social discourse that emerges from such thinking often resembles that of [mentally un-hinged] children, with name calling and threats of violence predominating.

This is important (and troubling) because our social discourse is the way in which our society, as a whole, thinks. The political processes of social decision-making are our communal thought processes. If we take it as a given that “we are all in this together,” the dysfunction of our current collective thought process becomes abundantly clear. How is it possible to live together in peace and harmony when we are constantly demonizing the other, whoever that other may be? We seem to have contracted a social variant of multiple-personality disorder, with different personalities vying for full control of the communal body. But if we seek any sort of social unity, cooperation, not control, must be our highest ideal.

A more sane method of social discourse would take discussion, not debate, as its guiding metaphor. We might imagine a different world in which the job of the politician is not to be the human incarnation of some particular ideology, but rather someone who solicits ideas from the populace-at-large and puts together the most interesting for popular appraisal. We might imagine a media that tries to present as many viewpoints as possible and seeks out those with innovative, outside-the-box solutions to our social ills, rather than frame every issue as a struggle between two absolute and opposing camps. We are one nation, one people, whether we willingly admit it or not, and a house divided against itself cannot stand, as has been known for at least two millennia.

Social discourse worthy of adults demands that everyone respect, and show respect for, everyone else. This requires an understanding and a reverence for the various viewpoints and perspectives on reality, that do not contradict but rather compliment one another, each illuminating a particular piece of the divine milieu. Creation is not black and white nor, thankfully, is it endless shades of gray. It is teeming with colors or every shade and hue. “Either-or”, black-and-white thinking denies the truth of reality and fails to do justice to the splendor of sacred creation. May we all recover this truth some day; may we remember our unity and put away this divisiveness.

Rabbi and Materialist

First appeared in Outwords, Dec. 2010

I read somewhere in Martin Buber, though I search now in vain for the quote, of an Hasidic rabbi who said, “in my old age I have reached such a state that when I pass a bundle of straw laying crosswise on the road, I take it as a sign that it does not lay there lengthwise.” What we have here is a personal expression of a conviction that shows up in many spiritual traditions. Native American medicine people and Hindu sages agree with the Rabbi, there is no such thing as coincidence; everything is synchronicity.

For the Rabbi, every aspect of being is meaningful. Every object, every thought, every sound, every occurrence, is, as it were, a sign pointing to his heart. Perhaps when he sees the bundle of straw he thinks “what is it in me that is crossed up?” or, “what is it that tries to block my way?” And as he considers thus, his heart will reveal to him that which is disordered, that which bars his advancement, and he may then set about putting it right. To such a person, the highest levels of personality development surely lie open and life is indeed meaningful for him. He has filled life with meaning, as one fills a goblet with wine.

But now let us consider the opposite scenario, that of, shall we say, the Scientific Materialist. For the Materialist, there is nothing deeper to life than what can be seen under the electron microscope or glimpsed through Hubble’s lens. To him the universe is made of dead matter and blind chance. To assume that God or the Universe at Large communicates on a personal level, or any level for that matter, is sheer foolishness; his reason rejects it. To the Materialist, these notions are nothing more than the imaginings of a childish mind. When he passes a bundle straw laying crosswise in the street, he takes it as a sign of nothing, merely the outcome of the laws of gravity, inertia, friction and the like. It’s position has nothing to do with him personally, his reason assures him, it has no special meaning. And thus his life is made meaningless.

What need has the Scientific Materialist of inner searching or of deep questioning, and what catalyst? To him everything is a weight, a measure and a velocity, to be grasped with his intellect and understood. His eyes are ever focused outwardly; he does not look inward to his own becoming, and so he misses it. Indeed, it fails to happen.

Post-modern philosophers tell us that, technically speaking, there is no such thing as perception, that what we take as perceptions are actually, at least in part, conceptions. That is, how we perceive the world around us, and therefore what we perceive of the world around us, is necessarily colored by the social and cultural milieu in which we exist. Biologically, it has been shown that what our brains, and therefore our minds, can perceive is determined in large part by the stimuli received during early development. Kittens raised in a room with only vertical stripes lose the ability to perceive horizontal stripes once they have grown.

The Rabbi knows the secret of this, without recourse to psychology or post-modernism. He knows the secret of conceptual reality, and uses this knowledge to shape his reality by shaping his conception of it. He conceives of a universe that communicates, and lo, it communicates. He conceives of connections of meaning linking every atom of the universe and behold, they appear. He conceives of a perfect Self, of a Soul, and look, it arises. For the Rabbi, the whole of Creation has become an endless Tarot. In it he sees the reflection of ever deeper levels of himself, constantly unlocked and revealed to his consciousness.

The paradox is that one must first be convinced that life is meaningful before life becomes meaningful. Actually, life becomes meaningful the very moment that we become convinced of it’s meaning. The bundle of straw in the road remains what it is, but we may decide to fill it with meaning or not. The judgment we pass on the universe is also a judgment on ourselves. If the universe be nothing but meaningless coincidence, then so too are we; but if we fill the cosmos we meaning, we too shall be filled.

On Healing

First appeared in Outwords, Nov. 2010

We all need healing and need it constantly. From womb to tomb this life, this world, is injurious and harsh. Constantly we are being wounded, if not by one thing, then by two others. Wounding and healing, wounding and healing, thus do the wheels of existance go upon their eternal way.

Of the wounding, what can we say? It is there, it is real, it is not going away anytime soon. The phsyical wounding begins with the severing of our infant selves from t.he cord of life that had bound us to our mothers. Our body's first act in this world is to heal the umbilical wound; our lives begin with repairing this initial act of violent separation.

From then on life is much the same, both physically and in other, more subtle ways; injuries accruing, wounds being delivered not so much out of any malice or ill-will, but rather as a matter of course, a part of the normal functioning of the world machinery. The wounds come early and often: from the taunts of other children, from the aloof or absent parent, from the dead pet, the failed test, the internalized sex-shame of an entire society. Later we are wounded by the grim drudgery of the day-to-day, by constant anxieties over money, by the casual insensitivity of others, not to mention the betrayals of trust, the worsening health, the eroding foundation. To live is to be injured, to exist is to bleed in a thousand ways, some obvious to the eyes of others, some hidden in the deepest recesses of the heart.

And so healing is the continual occupation of the living. Healing and the search for healing drives us to all manner of things, some appropriate, some not. Where we turn for healing and whether or not we find it there, whether we find it at all, dictates much of our individual lives and our subjective experiences of them.
As the child turns to its mother for healing and comfort, we turn to drink, to entertainment, to religion, to romantic partners; nearly all of us turn to consumerism. We look for healing in a million and one places, ease our aches and salve our wounds with a thousand supposed remedies. Our problems arise when we put a band-aid where stitches are called for, “fix” the toothache with a shot of novacaine instead of a root canal.

The injuries of life are not a problem if one knows where and how to become healed, but if we only numb the pain instead of dealing with the wounds, the injuries begin to mount. The novacaine wears off, the band-aid peels away to reveal yesterday's (or last year's) laceration still raw and sore. The wounds accumulate until our entire being is nothing but cuts on top of bruises, all red and aching. If we cannot find healing, eventually we must succumb; but we can go on for a long time like this, wounded and bleeding, covered in band-aids and hopped-up on painkillers, yet still unhealed. Our world is full of these walking wounded. I imagine, gentle reader, that we are both among them; that we are all among them to one extent or another.

What is it that provides true healing and what is it that only blinds us to our problems? Are we seeking to be healed, or only to cover our wounds from the eyes of the world and from our own eyes? Where has our need for healing led us and is it where we truly wish to be? Questions, it seems, worthy of our attention, and yet questions we too seldom consider. Advertisers, politicos, and priests as well as everyone else, it seems, are hawking a healing ointment of one variety or another; if we do not consider these questions we risk ending up with the snake-oil instead of the healing balm.

There are many who trumpet their knowledge of how to get healed, get saved, get enlightened, and some may be right, but without an awareness of our own wounds and need for healing, we will never be able to know for sure which one is the healer and which the huckster.


First appeared in Outwords, October 2010.

I was browsing through the January, 2010 issue of the New Yorker the other day to see what I'd forgotten about. Our modern news media cycles through stories so quickly, that even truly major events are sucked down the memory-hole within a week or two, so occaisonally I read “out-dated” news, just to combat the collective amnesia a little. I noted the artwork on the cover (a couple of skeletons standing in the doorway of a building, drawn in a cartoony style that reminded me of Day of the Dead), but it didn't register until I opened the magazine: oh yeah, Haiti. What, with the oil in the gulf and the floods in Pakistan and Lindsey Lohan going to jail and all, I'd forgotten about Haiti. I wonder how they're doing?

It's hardly an original thought, but it occurrs to me that one positive side-effect of natural disasters and other forms of social and physical upheaval and hardship is that they bring people together in a way that the normal course of daily affairs doesn't seem to. When the excrement really hits the oscillator, so to speak, we are forced to rely on one another, to turn to one another for aid. We are compelled by circumstances into the existential understanding that we must all work together to survive; no one is an island.

Musician Greg Brown once said, “This whole idea of intentional community is baloney...You have to need each other.” In the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes, amidst the wreckage of tornadoes and forest fires, we are brought to need each other. It's a radical way to get community, perhaps, but in the current age of unadulterated individualism would anything less radical really be effective? Perhaps without these kinds of massive human tragedy we would become totally calloused, egoistic individuals. Our contemporary culture, sadly, seems to bear out this conclusion.

I remember hearing a piece on KUFM about the little community of Alberton. The story focused on the tight-knit character of the town, created at least in part, it seems, by the general economic hardship faced in the area. One resident was quoted as saying something to the effect of, “People talk about recession, we've been having a recession here for the last twenty-five years.” But when a new family arrives in town there's sure to be home-made baked goods delivered by at least one neighbor, and the residents of Alberton, unlike those of our own fair hamlet, are garaunteed to know their neighbor's names and probably a lot more besides. In Alberton they have community, which so many of us in the city claim to desire, but they also have hardship, which none desire. But what if hardship is necessary to build and maintain community?

It's almost a sad thought, isn't it, that we need difficulty and struggle, hardship and pain to bring us together; that during prolonged periods of peace and prosperity we all too often sink into egotistical selfishness? But it seems to be the case, so far as I can tell, that strong community bonds are best forged in the fires of crisis and general hardship.

It being the case that humans, like small children, may require a stern hand to compel them to do what is in their own best interest, namely help one another, we might actually be thankful that natural disasters continue to occur. Without them, it seems, we might well devolve into a society of totally narcissistic, self-centered consumers. Without some chaos and economic hardship we might get lost in the myth of the self-sufficient individual, forgetting that we are social creatures by our very nature, and that no one can survive unaided, at least not for long.

Skeptics have often pointed to “natural evils” like the Haitian earthquake to make the claim that an omni-Benevolent diety cannot possibly exist. While I wouldn't claim that natural disasters prove the existance of some diety or other, it would appear that what have been labeled “evils” are, perhaps, not entirely evil in their outcomes. Perhaps they are necessary; perhaps, dare I say it, even beneficial


  According to Hindu cosmology, we are now living in the last age of the current creation cycle, known as Kali Yug, or the Age of Kali.  This current age is, in Hindu thinking, characterized by the progressive loss of the foundations of morality, wisdom and dharma.  I have noticed lately that one thing that has been lost in our contemporary American culture in this age of Kali is the concept of “enough.”
            In a society governed by a capitalist and consumerist mindset, the idea of “enough” is not only out of place, it is anathema.  For the capitalist enterprise, constant growth is an imperative.  A corporation whose balance sheet is not showing a steady increase is viewed skeptically, no matter how profitable it may be.  A company that is not continually growing will eventually be consumed by one that is, whether through competitive means or by outright acquisition.  In a capitalist economy, to speak the word “enough” is tantamount to pronouncing one’s own death sentence. 
            Likewise, there can never be “enough” for the modern consumer.  One may own a house, a car, a television, a hot tub, and a million other things, but they are never “enough.”  The consumer desires (and is ceaselessly told to desire) a bigger house, a newer car, a better television.  There is always the re-model, the up-grade, the next best thing, always just slightly out of reach.  As the goal of capitalist enterprise is to produce ever-greater quantities of wealth, the goal of the consumer is to acquire ever-more and ever-better products.  For the capitalist, to say “enough” means economic death, for the consumer it means social death: stigmatization.  One must have nice things, and many of them, but they are never “enough.”
            It is unsurprising, perhaps, that this should be the case in the economic sphere, and it has, perhaps, always been thus: people and organizations seeking ever more and more, never saying, “enough.”  But in this age of Kali, “enough” has been lost from religion as well, all but forsaken by spirituality of all kinds.  In this age of Kali one may become a great spiritual teacher and need never say, “enough”…but it has not always been thus.
            In Practice in Christianity, Soren Kierkegaard says that everyone desires to come to Christ in his loftiness, but none desire him in his lowliness, and surely the same may be said for the Buddha, for Rumi, for the saintly tzaddiks of Jewish Hasidism.  We desire to identify ourselves with them in their loftiness, seated on a lotus, resplendent, but we forget that each one said, “enough.”  We prefer our monks to come in fine robes with leather sandals and gold watches, perhaps carrying a briefcase; we forget that Siddhartha Guatama’s garment was sewn from rags, that he carried a begging bowl and rejected worldly wealth, we forget that he said, “enough.”  We love the pretty language, the profound insights and dizzying metaphysics, but when we come to the word “enough” we pale, the mind goes defensively blank and…we move on.  “Enough” is a difficult teaching, even in the best of times and for the best of minds, for “enough” is never what you think it is, never what you’re hoping for, but always infinitely less and yet, somehow, infinitely more.
            When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to spread the new teaching, the good news (i.e. God loves everyone and so should you), he instructed them to “…take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts…” (Mark 6:8).  He sent his disciples out into the world with nothing…and it was enough.  In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that, “pious men eat what the gods leave over, after the offering…the unrighteous cook good food for the greed of their stomachs.” (BG ch. 3, sl. 12)  You just take what is freely given…and it is enough.  Like Rabbi Pinhas, who would not keep the financial offerings of his disciples, but promptly distributed them to the poor; “I only desire what I already possess,” he remarked.  And another time, “Ever since I began giving true service to my Maker, I have not tried to get anything, but only taken what God gave me.”  He looked upon all that he had, all that he had been given…and it was enough.
            But for us, it is never enough.  We have become like the rakshasas of Hindu myth, the demons who, having obtained boons from the gods, proceed to conquer the three worlds and attempt to overthrow the very gods who gave them their power in the first place.  “More…more,” is ever our mantra, never “enough.”  But endless growth and ever-increasing consumption is the modus operandi of cancer, and we are humans.  Thus, our highest wisdom ever recalls us to our human-ness; reminds us through demonstration that we already have enough, if we could but see rightly.  But in the Age of Kali, “enough” is left out of the discourse.  The begging bowl has become a prop, if it is present at all, and not a way of life, not a call to radical action.
            David Hume and others have pointed out that wealth creates poverty, that those resources that go to satisfy the whims of the rich could easily provide bread for the many.  The masses are deprived of life so that the few may placate their boredom.  This is the way of things in a culture, in a world, that has forgotten how to say, “enough.”  Who in this, the richest of all countries, or anywhere else, will look at themselves, at their own life and ask about “enough?”  That way lies social and economic suicide, says the wisdom of the crowd, best to leave it be.  Yes, “enough” is a hard teaching, even in the best of times, even for the best of minds.

Visions of a Healthy World

First appeared in Outwords, July 2010.

Visions of a Healthy World
It's easy, these days, to bemoan the state of the world. Regardless of your political persuasion or metaphysical belief system, everywhere you turn it seems there is someone telling you how bad things are. Every headline, every top story seems to trumpet doom and gloom. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness and the ever-present predictions of immenent collapse, easy to sink into despair or a protective apathy. But if one is determined to not be overwhelmed, to rise and to float on this “sea of troubles,” then one may eventually ask oneself, 'what can we do to heal this world?'.

Now, I wish I had an answer to that question, I really do. Unfortunately, I don't. I have, however, had the good fortune to spend the last month (and a number of months over the last five years) with a very unique sort of healer, and I have learned from him one important aspect to answering the above question.
Kalinath Aghori Baba came to Nepal about 45 years ago from India. A renunciate monk, he stayed first at Pashupati temple in Kathmandu, before moving on to the temple of Jotilingeshwar in a village on the outskirts of the Kathmandu valley and then, 13 years ago, to the hilltop of Mahankhal where he resides today. He apprenticed under Dr. Ram Nath Aghori, from whom he learned Ayurvedic medicine, but the type of healing he is presently engaged in is of a somewhat different variety.

In his book, Coyote Medicine, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Medrona says that the essential act of the medicine person or traditional healer is to maintain a vision of the healthy patient, especially when no one else, not even the patient, can or will. According to Mehl-Medrona, the healer must first create this vision of health and wholeness and then impart it to the patient. Once the patient believes in the possibility of a healthy future the healing process can begin; but vision and belief are the necessary prerequisites.

In the village of Challing, Nepal, on the hilltop of Mahankhal, Kali Baba (as he is commonly referred to) is performing the work of a medicine man not for one single patient, but for the community as a whole. Kali Baba is firstly a man of vision. He sees possibilities for betterment where others see none, he believes in those possibilities when others scoff, and he actualizes those possibilities, against what seem to be daunting odds. The story behind how Kali Baba came to Mahankhal is instructive in this regard.

As mentioned above, Kali Baba lived for some time at the temple of Jotilingeshwar as the resident holy man. Then one day Kali Baba had a vision that the villagers should erect a 27 foot tall iron trident at the temple (the trident being a symbol of Lord Shiva). The temple committee scoffed at the idea. The temple is in a rural area where a large monument was unlikely to attract many tourists or devotees and besides, the villagers from the surrounding communities were too poor to contemplate such a large project.

Unfazed, Baba simply decided to fulfill his vision somewhere else. He left Jotilingeshwar and walked to the top of a nearby hill where there was nothing but a 500 year old banyan tree. Here, on a barren hilltop, in an even more impoverished area than the one he had just left, Kali Baba determined to actualize his vision. Four years later I was lucky enough to be in the parade that escorted that massive trident from Patan in Kathmandu up to the hilltop of Mahankhal where it stands today. Nine years later, that barren hilltop sports a lovely little temple ground and has become a favorite picnic spot for people from all over the valley.

More recently, Kali Baba decided that the village was in need of an ambulance to take emergency patients to the hospital in Kathmandu. Once again, the goal seemed unlikely, given the poverty of the local populace, but Baba organized a seven-day festival at the temple which drew hundreds of devotees from around the valley and raised enough money to not only purchase the ambulance from India, but to run it for several years. As an added bonus, the ambulance was delivered without any import tax, in deference to Baba's stature as a holy man.

For the last few years I have been assisting Kali Baba in realizing his latest vision: a school for the nearby village of Challing. At times the obstacles have seemed daunting, but once again Baba's vision of a better world has proven more powerful than any obstacle. A three-room school building now sits on a hilltop that was once used only for military training. Teachers and students have been selected, and by the end of August we plan to open the first free school in Challing. There will of course be more obstacles to overcome, unforeseen difficulties in the road, but with vision and faith we will be successful. With devotion and belief we will help to heal our hurting world, even if only this one small part.

The Seventh Principle

This originally appeared in Outwords, June 2010.

The seventh of the seven principles that we UUs espouse is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Generally, this is taken to mean that we are expected to practice some kind of ecological ethic, that we must respect and care for the environment which sustains us.  The seventh principle is the UU answer to the traditional Judeo-Christian concept that humanity has been given dominion over the rest of creation.  It is a recognition that the world is not a hierarchy with humanity at the top and the rest of the cosmos and nature at the bottom, but rather a net of interconnections which support our individual beings and to which all beings owe their existence. 

To better understand this concept, we might start somewhere a little closer to our everyday experience than the “web of all existence.”  Let us begin with our own bodies.  First, we note that our bodies, while having a definite unity, are composed of various organs and tissues which are themselves composed of various types of cells.  Within the body we find blood cells and cells for creating new blood, we find nerve cells and lung cells, kidney cells and colon cells.  Each type of cell is distinct in its composition and action within the body and all cells are needed for the proper functioning of the body. 

It is not the case that some cells are superior to other cells.  It is not correct to say that brain cells are superior to colon cells, or lung cells to heart cells.  Each is but one aspect of the larger organism and none could exist without the others.  Each is necessary to maintain the life of the organism, just as the existence of the organism is necessary for the maintenance of the different types of cell.  If it happened that one type of cell tried to co-opt the place or nutriment of the others, declaring itself greater than the rest, the body along with all of its cells would soon perish.

Looking outside the body, in the milieu of society, we see that things are similarly arranged.  Many tasks are necessary for the functioning of a society and we see that different people take on these tasks, becoming, as it were, different cells in the body of society.   And just as it is incorrect to say that one type of cell in the body is superior to another, so too is it incorrect to say that one occupation or task in the life of a society is superior to any other.  The doctor and the construction worker, the teacher and the garbage man (or woman); all are necessary to the functioning of society.  And as it is the body that gives life to its cells, so too does the larger society provide sustenance to each of its members.  And as the body is dependent upon the functioning of its cells for the maintenance of its own life, so too is the life of society dependent on the life of its members. 

And this pattern is repeated as well in nature, in the world around us.  Humanity is but one type of cell in the body of the Earth; a body composed of billions of organisms, all interacting and each fulfilling its own particular task.  Humanity, one might say, is simply the thinking portion of the Earth.  And just as it would be disastrous for the brain cells of the body to attempt to co-opt the place of the lung or liver cells, so too does disaster ensue when humanity attempts to remold all of nature into its own countenance. 

Recognition of and respect for the “interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part,” represents at once a diminishment of egotism and an enlargement of being.  At first this recognition is humbling, since it requires us to admit that we are not privileged entities, that we are dependent beings, incapable of independently upholding our own existence.  But at the same time we are enlarged, for when we realize that we are not independent, but connected to everything else in the cosmos, we also realize that all things are connected to us.  We therefore share in the larger being of the cosmos, expanding beyond our own limited egoistic consciousness. The cosmos is in us just as we are in the cosmos.  We are but one current in the cosmic tide, one expression of cosmic being which expresses itself in an infinite variety of ways.  When we think ourselves separate, independent of others, of nature, of the cosmos, we deny our very being, our inmost nature.  When we realize and respect our interconnected nature, we affirm at one and the same time both ourselves and nature, the cosmos and humanity.

The Sixth Principle

Originally published in Outwords, May 2010.

My topic for this month is the Sixth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”  Appropriately, I am writing this from Pokhara, Nepal, almost exactly half way around the globe from Missoula.  I’m in Nepal to continue work on a community school project that I became involved with some years ago, and the experience has made me think quite a bit about what “world community” might mean, and what we might do to bring such a thing about.

 The sixth principle speaks of “peace, liberty, and justice for all,” and I think that if we are truly concerned with the goal of world community, these three conditions (at least) must be met.  

To begin with peace; it should be apparent that there can be no world community, no global human family, until such time as we have stopped killing each other en masse.  Our country in now engaged in wars of occupation in two countries.  The stated goal of these massive and long term wars is to bring peace, stability and democracy to the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.  That one might bring about peace through slaughter would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.  And military action has never, to my knowledge, brought about any real stability in any country involved.  As for democracy, one might ask if we shouldn’t then allow the Afghani and Iraqi people a vote as to whether or not we should continue our wars there.

There can be no world community until there is an end to war, at least on the international scale.  Violence may well be a part of the human constitution, but the impersonal, mechanistic destruction of entire countries is not.  Trying to build world community while engaged in campaigns of violence is like trying to improve neighborhood relations while setting your neighbor’s house on fire and punching his daughter in the face.  This is true regardless of who the President is: black or white, Democrat or Republican.  Until our country has stopped its violent ways, all talk of community is only so much hypocrisy.  And the real irony is that while most of us don’t support these wars ideologically, most of us continue to support them financially, through our tax dollars; half of which go to pay for military expenditures.

So much for peace.  As for liberty, this too in necessary before one can speak of community.  To me, liberty comes down to the old Pagan maxim: “and it harm none, do what thou will.”  This maxim implies not just an individual freedom of action, but a tolerance of the actions of others, providing that it “harm none.”  Again, our society and culture seem all to far from this ideal.  I need only point out, like Mos Def, that “the national pastime is victimless crime.”  By definition a victimless crime harms no one, except perhaps the “criminal,” but in a society of true liberty, there could be no crime without a victim.  If we cannot even tolerate our own differences, criminalizing actions we do not approve of or understand, how then can we hope to build community with others whose whole culture may seem strange to us?  Toleration for the idiosyncrasies of others is a necessary part of liberty.

And finally, justice.  Justice, to me, means a totally detached rendering of judgment.  Our government’s actions overseas and at places like Guantanamo Bay are the obvious inverse of justice.  But then, our military and our government have never much been concerned with justice.  Our policy towards the rest of the world now is the same as our policy towards the Native Americans: we take what we want and find a way to rationalize its justice after the fact.  I remember talk during my high school days of the U.S. being “the world’s policeman,” but it would be more appropriate to speak of the U.S. as being “the world’s thug.”  Our style of “justice” is anything but detached. 

All this being the case, probably the best we can hope for is practicing peace, justice and liberty on a personal level.  Our government (any government) has never and will never provide any of these things.  But if in our personal interactions with all people, regardless of what part of our world they come, we can practice peace, liberty and justice, the perhaps we can speed the day when it won’t seem quite so unreasonable to talk of “world community.”

The Fifth Principle

This originally appeared in Outwords, April 2010

The fifth principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association calls us to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Democracy, of course, is one of our contemporary secular deities.  Much like the “God” of previous epochs, democracy is seen as universally positive and as having a right to dominion over all peoples.  In the past we would invade countries and murder and enslave their populace in order to “save their souls” and convert them to “the one true religion.”  Nowadays we are much more evolved and enlightened as a people, and we no longer wreak havoc among the poorer countries of the globe in the name of “God.”  Enlightened as we are, we now bomb, maim and kill people in far away countries in the name of Democracy and in order to convert them to the one true political system.  As the old man said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 
We seem to take it for granted in this country that we live in a democracy.  This proposition, however, I find rather dubious.  For most of us, it seems, the actual practice of democracy takes place on one day, every couple of years.  But outside of election-day the vast majority of our day-to-day lives seem to me to be carried on in anything but a democratic fashion.  At work, for instance, most of us are required to give up, at least while on the clock, the right of free speech (if you don’t believe this, try talking about your wages with a co-worker).  Unless we are at the top of the workplace pecking order, we are probably rarely asked to participate in the decision making processes of the place in which we spend a majority of our waking life.  If we are at the top of the pecking order the situation isn’t much better, as we’re asked to act, essentially, as a type of minor autocrat.  
In the larger economy too, outside individual workplaces, there is little that resembles any sort of democratic process.  While taking my economics degree, one particularly silly professor claimed that a capitalist economy was, in fact, a species of democracy: “dollar democracy,” where everyone gets to vote with their dollars.  As any thinking organism must soon realize, though, this set-up is a democracy only if you yourself happen to be an actual dollar bill.  Then, indeed, you have just as much say in the economy as everyone else (i.e. as all the other dollar bills).  However, if you have the misfortune to be a Human being, instead of a dollar bill, the capitalist system appears anything but democratic.  In short, our economic system is undemocratic because power is unequally distributed among the members of our society.  The economic system responds only to the demands of those with the dough, and those without any may as well not exist. 
Democracy relies on open communications between members of a group.  Open communication is only possible between equals.  In situations of power imbalance, those with less power end up lying to those above them; telling them what they want to hear and generally brown-nosing in order to gain a higher position and more power for themselves.  Because of this, hierarchical authoritarian systems always end up making quite poor decisions, as much the information received by the man at the top (it is still generally a man) is misinformation and flattery.  The pragmatic justification for democratic decision making is that by encouraging all members to participate in the process, decisions can be reached which take into account all the information available to the group, rather than just that information available to one member of the group.  
Truly democratic processes require equality between group members, which means that in order for any democracy to function, each member of the group must feel themselves equal with all other members; not better and not worse.  This is why the fifth principle first mentions the right of conscience and only then democracy.  The right of conscience means that we don’t have to agree with each other; that you and I can disagree without either of us trying to impose our opinions on the other.  If I feel secure in my value as a member of the group and affirm the value of the other members, even those with whom I may disagree on some issues, then and only then can dialogue take place.  Dialogue is the foundation of democracy.
We do not have a culture of dialogue in this country, only a culture of debate.  Rather than engaging in respectful conversation with one another, we are presented with two slightly different proposals over which we are expected to argue.  Whoever argues the best (or most vociferously) gets to implement their policies for awhile, until somebody else can out-debate and/or out-insult them.  No matter what side of the political spectrum they are on, most people seem to be of the opinion that those who do not share their views are either evil or stupid.  This attitude is at least a prevalent on the left as on the right.  This is a childish attitude, however, and not suited to adults (who seem to be a dying breed in this country) and can never lead to dialogue, only dissension.  So, if we are truly concerned with democracy, we must be willing to grant to all equality with ourselves.  The minute that we think that another person is evil or stupid or crazy we immediately cut ourselves off from the possibility of communication and dialogue with them and undermine any chance of real democracy. 

The Fourth Principle

This first appeared in Outwords March 2010.

The fourth principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association calls us to affirm and promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” There are a lot of heavy, ponderous words in that short phrase; truth and meaning, freedom and responsibility. We might spend endless ages debating and discussing what is meant by each, but to my mind the most important word in the fourth principle is one that we might easily overlook in the midst of such philosophical and ethical heavies as 'meaning' and 'responsibility'. It's that little word right in the middle.

Search. This is what makes us UUs. People often become involved in a church or religious community hoping to find something, often truth and meaning. UUs, however, are those people who have joined together in spiritual community not in order to find, but rather to better continue their searching. UUs are unique in that we have turned doubt and the questioning of received wisdom into a spiritual exercise. I would suggest to the Missoula Fellowship that we make our motto “Keep Searching!” if I wasn't afraid prospective members might get the wrong impression.

But while we may not claim to have found the final answers to anything, we do believe that in the process of searching some truths will come to light. Now, in my view, there is Truth and there is truth. Truth, with a big 't,' is reality, being, the cosmos as it actually is. Little 't' truths are approximations or rules-of-thumb that we use to negotiate and deal with this infinite reality. While no one will ever be privy to Truth, the many little 't' truths are nonetheless valuable and valid, though never universal. John Lennon summed up this rather pragmatic outlook when he sang, “whatever gets you through your life is alright.” What gets me through my life and what gets you through yours may be different, may be represented by different truths, but that doesn't mean one is right and the other wrong, only that our different searches have revealed different treasures to each of us. It is in the sharing of these treasures with our fellows that the joy of spiritual community resides.

Like truth, the meaning that we are called to search for is also one that is unique and individual; not universal meaning but personal meaning. To have meaning simply means to point to something beyond the self. We live in a culture of self-aggrandizement and narcissism, conspicuous consumption driven by relentless advertising and a collective weakness for shiny objects. Everywhere we turn we are encouraged to gratify our every whim, exert every fiber to glorify the self. But all this only serves as a constraint on our meaning. If I exert myself only on my own behalf, if with my actions I point to nothing but my own desires, my life has, by definition, no meaning. A perfectly self-centered person is like a sign that reads “sign.” In order for a sign to have a meaning it must point to something beyond itself, and in order for a life to have meaning it must be about something other than that individual life. To the extent, then, that we can focus our energies outward, we fill our lives with greater and greater meaning.

And just a few short words on freedom and responsibility. By freedom, I take it to mean that we are free to come to our own conclusions, that there is no dogma we are expected to accept. By a responsible search we mean to remind ourselves that while we conduct our searches individually we must not become egotists, placing our own fulfillment above all other aims. A responsible search for truth and meaning is one that maintains a respect for and commitment to the beloved community within which our personal searching goes on. We search for truth and meaning not only for our own benefit, but for the sake of all, and each benefits from the searching of others. So, for all of our sakes, keep searching!

The First Principle

This first appeared in Outwords for Dec. 2009

Unitarian-Universalism is a covenantal, not a creedal religion.  This means that rather than agreeing to give our intellectual assent to a series of non-testable metaphysical assertions, we UUs agree to certain ways of relating, of being together.  These ways of relating are codified in the Seven Principles of the Unitarian-Universalist Association.  I would like here to examine the first of these principles: respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. 

To me, this principle is at the core of what it means, or should mean, to be a UU.  Too often, it seems, we are encouraged to divide the world into boxes; one for “us” and one for “them.”  The majority of our social discourse is carried on in terms of  liberal vs. conservative, secularist vs. sectarian, gay vs. straight, red state vs. blue.  While this urge to divide and label may not be negative per se, it has led to an undercurrent of antagonism in contemporary society that largely precludes the possibility of any real dialogue between members of differing groups.  The reason for this antagonism, more or less visible in all sectors of our social life, is, I think, that we not only divide others into categories of “us” and “them,” but we reserve our respect for the members of the “us” group and have little to spare for “them.”  But as UUs we speak out, or at least should, against this trend in modern culture; we know that worth and dignity are inherent and exist in every individual, not only in those who share our lifestyles or political outlooks. 

It is easy enough, of course, to say that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, unlike, for instance, those “closed-minded fundamentalist Christians,” but it becomes another matter altogether when we are confronted with an actually existing closed-minded Christian whom we are called to respect.  In other words, it is much easier to respect the worth and dignity of a Barney Frank than of a Rick Santorum, much easier to respect the war protesters than the abortion protesters.  Yet, as UUs we commit ourselves to respecting every individual, even the protesters outside the abortion clinic, even Senators who equate same-sex marriage with bestiality, even Rush Limbaugh's ditto-headed followers, Goddess bless 'em.  This is hard spiritual work, and not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit.

This is hard work, but necessary if we would like to see the world look more like a community and less like a battle field.  Maintaining respect for the worth and dignity of others, especially others with whom we disagree, is essential to creating any type of dialogue between people.  This is why few people will brook the rhetoric of the evangelizing Christian: who wants to spend time  conversing with someone who thinks that you are unworthy until you become more like them?  Conversely, why would a conservative Christian want to spend time conversing with a secular liberal who thinks they're crazy until they start thinking more like them?  No dialogue can take place in the absence of respect, and in the absence of dialogue we end up with what we have today: a social sandwich heavy on the demagoguery, hold the civility. 

Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph (aka Jesus) taught that we should love our enemies.  Another rabbi once said that love is like a bridge between souls, and if our neighbor fails to meet our love half-way we must love all the more from our side, in order that the bridge may be completed.  These are not statements about the nature of the “afterlife,” or the “soul” or “God(dess),” they are guidelines for relationship, for being together that, when applied, lead to a healthier and happier society.  One way or another we are all members of one family and, at least for now, we're all stuck on this planet together.  To the extent that we are concerned with “making the world a better place,” we must commit ourselves to abandoning the mentality of “us and them” and replacing it with the mentality of “only us.”  Having respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every individual is both the precondition and the result of such a commitment.