Friday, August 31, 2012

The Known

...You knew I was going to follow up the last post with this one, didn't you?

There is a general belief that I know things. I know this, I know that. I know what I am doing today, I know how people ought to behave, I know what ought to be done to fix the mess this country is in, and so on.

The difficulty with the known is that it all relies on associations. Knowing is a subjective assignment of relativity. Given the  astronomically high number of associations even a single human being can generate (after all, our neural network creates trillions of electrical signals in relationship to one another every second) I have to confess that things in me could be quite different. I can know things one way, or I can know them another way. Knowing changes. It changes, in fact, according to the moment that is known.

When one states this in such a way, it seems so obvious as to eclipse the fact that I more or less insist that my knowing is a static thing. Like everyone else I know, I believe that my knowing is fixed, intelligent, and applicable under a wide range of circumstances. It isn't. No matter how much knowing I do, it applies to a very narrow range of experience within a very brief lifetime. Every human being is stuck in the middle of this dilemma, believing that their own knowing is somehow universal; that it applies to everything, when in fact the opposite is true. We are all, in the end, idiots, in the sense of the original Greek root idios, meaning, private—that is, something belonging only to that particular individual, and no one else...  ahem... you suspected that already anyway, didn't you?

Knowing, in other words, as I know it, is the collapse of an infinite number of probabilities and actualities into a tiny black hole (me) where they circle around, trying to draw more material into their gravity pool. The ego is what forms this black hole—light goes in, but it doesn't come out, and the ego is constantly spinning at a very rapid rate, attempting to suck everything of the world it can into itself so that it can grow.

The analogy may be colorful, but our hunger for knowledge is legion. Yesterday, while perusing material in preparation for the upcoming issue of Parabola on Science and Spirit, I (inevitably) came across Christopher Marlowe's Faustus, a classic story where a man's (idiot's) lust for knowledge leads to perdition.

The story seems to be about someone else, but in a certain sense, it's about all of us. It may well be that the story's excessive reliance on images of hell and heaven, consequent to the fact that it is firmly placed in a Christian universe, are wholly inadequate to the present day, but the message is universal.  I want to know everything; and primarily, I want this because I want power—I want to feed my ego. It's a matter of wanting to be superior not only to others, but to the world itself... ah, yes,  and then comes the noble wish for repentance. Cilices don't necessarily rid people of this impulse, although I hear they certainly create a lot of itching.

 There are any number of religious practices and cosmologies which see man as a miniature model of the cosmos. Assuming we sign on to this idea, it's not surprising to find that there is a black hole at the center of us driving the galaxy we live in...  it's absolutely consistent. And perhaps it's not surprising to see that it feeds on what we think we know— on information. (That, in point of fact, is exactly what black holes subsist on—information, in the form of organized matter.) Earth's surface, poor thing, is covered with 6 or more billion tiny little human vortexes, each one of which is sucking in all of the impressions it can of life, all of whom believe they know what is best.  If one wrote up a plan on how to produce chaos, this one would work exceedingly well. And it does.

Nature has produced some societies that don't work in this way. Beehives are a great example. I'm a beekeeper, and I'm always amazed at the dedication of every individual bee to cooperation and the health of the community. How unlike us they are! No wonder they have been admired by philosophers, friars, and farmers alike for so many generations. (Funny how we never hear politicians mention them, isn't it?)

Bees know few things, but they put them to exceedingly intelligent use.

It's fair to say that human beings, with our much more complicated brains, are doomed, whether we  like it or not, to know far more than bees. It suggests that I ought to put what I know to even better use than bees do, but I'm nowhere near as cooperative or a social as they are.

Why? If I know so much, how come mere insects do so much a better job of this than I do?

 I wish I knew.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Unknown

I was born in an age when calculations had to be done laboriously, with slide rules (which I enthusiastically hated); telephones had cords connected to them, and television was something special.

I will die in an age where calculations are almost all done by computers, and telephones and televisions fit into a wristwatch. Television is no longer special; now, it's utterly banal.

Yet everything in nature is essentially the same, except that there is less of it; more and more of the earth is paved over with cement and asphalt, and more and more species are disappearing. Nature does not know or care that this is happening; to nature, mankind's activity is the unknown, since the birds, plants, animals, and so on have little or no comprehension of what is being done to them, short of knowing that there are less meals, less mates, and less offspring.  What is known to one side is unknown to another; and even unknowable, because we are the only species on the planet capable of understanding what we do.

This has not ever prevented us, so far as I can see, from doing anything, when mankind is taken as a whole. If the definition of vanity is doing whatsoever one wishes, without regard for the consequences, then we are certainly vain.

 In an outward lust for conquest—of nature and each other—the inward search gets left behind; yet this is where the deepest unknown lies. Know thyself, the adage says, and yet one pays no heed. The art of dropping off assumptions and arrogance is, to the worldly, a conceit. Don't worry about such things, they say; simply acquire power, and exercise it.

This is how the world functions today. Not that we have any monopoly on it, mind you; a reading of Plato's Apology, for example, will underscore the fact that it's been this way for a very long time.

 But what is inside us? Our scientists want to re-create life in a laboratory, but life is not just a machine. Life is a process, a richness of experience, not just cellular mechanisms that can be reproduced by gluing strands of DNA together. The unknown emerges not within the context of the mechanical, but within the context of Being. And Being cannot be explained just by knowing how the machine works, or which switch to flip in order to turn it on or off.

 So, to me, Being is the unknown. Every philosophy and religion since ancient times has struggled with the effort to understand Being, because the existence of Being—the ability of consciousness to exist and comprehend anything—is the fundamental question of the universe. Why a universe should produce such a quality, a quality which seems, on the face of it, not only entirely unnecessary, but quite simply impossible—is unknown.

 Those deft with words can wrap us up in conundrums about the nature of Being—it's a bit of a sport for a certain class of inquisitive intellectuals, and I engage in it myself from time to time—but what really interests us, I think, is how to be. That is, how to be in this moment, how to be real. And that always involves an understanding about how to meet the unknown—because not only is our Being unknown, the moment itself, which encompasses Being and flows into it, is also unknown. As Stuart Kauffman pointed out in his excellent book, Reinventing the Sacred, it doesn't matter whether we call ourselves scientists, Christians, Muslims, or philosophers—we all live our lives forward into mystery. And the point of intersection between all of these concepts, lifestyles, and disciplines lies at this unknown point of Being.

 To begin to investigate what it means to Be, to enter the unknown which Being emerges from, I have to be willing to surrender what I have. It sounds pretty easy; maybe I can shrug my shoulders, throw it away in a carefree manner, and just move forward joyfully into the present moment without any baggage. Heigh ho, heigh ho.

But, hey, this baggage is very comforting... no one wants to trade a suitcase with warm slippers and an overcoat in it for the uncertainty of the elements! The bottom line is that I don't trust this idea of Being. The unknown is frightening; and to become intimate with it, which is what is necessary—that's even more frightening.

 It's odd, because the unknown embraces us as a lover in every moment, even if we reject its advances. We don't have a choice, really; we may not know the unknown, but it knows us intimately, and holds all of us—all of creation—in its hands.

 This isn't something to be figured out.

It's a question to be experienced.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Great Unraveling

Meditating on the political landscape, I can't help but feel that we are witnessing a great unraveling of American society.

 Reason has gone by the wayside. There is no moderation; every lie is attacked with a greater lie, and every liar adamantly refuses to admit they are lying. There is no middle ground; those who wish to occupy it are reviled by both the left and the right.

My own life is an example. Raised by staunchly Republican parents, I grew up with the understanding that you don't spend money you don't have; that you don't poke your noses into other people's private lives; and that you compassionately support others as best you are able. My parents—let me stress it again, firmly Republican and conservative—have insisted lifelong on the utmost respect and compassion for women, homosexuals, and minorities. Generally speaking, their conception of life is to see other people as human beings—not enemies.

 Does that sound anything like the Republicans we know today? Probably not. Essentially, I still espouse these values. I'm not in favor of big government—I work in two industries (importation and medical products) which are consistently hampered by onerous regulations our Federal bureaucracy forces on them.

 On the other hand, I'm a child of the 60s and 70s. (cue the Elvis Costello song, What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?)   I think we should help poor people.  I think very rich people should pay, on all their income, at least as much in taxes, percentage-wise, as I do—not less than half my payroll tax rate. I think government-sponsored entitlement programs are reasonable, as long as they are competently managed. (Our political class seems pathologically incapable of competent management of anything, although all of them are elected to do just that.)

 In essence, it turns out I am a moderate. I have a blended set of views that espouse both conservative and liberal principles. Yet when I point inconsistencies in their positions out to my conservative friends, they angrily accuse me of being a liberal—usually accompanying these accusations with personally denigrating remarks, indicating that I am some lower form of life. They routinely send me crude e-mails—which they think are funny—arrogantly asserting blatant untruths, announcing patently absurd conspiracy theories, and aggressively advocating non-Christian thinking and non-Christian principles. They claim that global warming is a scam, but not one of them has ever read any actual articles by scientists about the subject. (The fact that most Americans appear to think they can understand science without actually studying science is a bizarre, yet objective, fact. If we did the same thing with electricity, most of us would die while doing routine household repairs.)

 My liberal friends are a little better, but not much. They, too, look at me sadly as though I was some kind of dirt-sucking slug when I point out that not every liberal position makes sense. They are universally opposed, for example, to every kind of practical energy production, even though all of them drive cars, use computers, and have air conditioning. When I try to explain to them how incredibly complex and expensive it is to put in and manage energy infrastructure, they insist on pretending that an imaginary world of solar and wind power is just around the corner for all of us—and, of course, that there is a conspiracy afoot in the energy industry to prevent this (yes, Liberals have their very own lunatic conspiracy theories, just like Conservatives.)  They all want to eat boutique foods grown organically on local farms, as though everyone in the world had such luxuries available to them if they only wanted to do it that way. They oppose every genetically modified organism that comes along, even if, as in the case of cotton, the modification allows a drastic reduction in the use of pesticides—obviously a significant benefit.

All of the problems we have in front of us will take decades to correct, but we have equipped ourselves with a media—and a social attitude—that insists everything should be fixed right now, or, if not, in no more than five minutes. Five minutes or less, by my estimation, because that constitutes the attention span of the average American.

 The collapse of a civil dialogue about these issues, and the collapse of any real effort to educate ourselves to understand how complex our problems are, signal the collapse of American society in general. Extremists on both sides are leading us towards a schism that will result in violence. It won't be a little bit of violence—there will be a lot of violence. One can't ratchet tension up to the levels we are seeing now—thanks to a national media that specializes in inducing either coma or inflammation, but nothing in between—without something breaking.

Our society, which was founded on ideas of tolerance and reason (that, at least, was was what the founding fathers professed belief in, although few Americans—including some of the founding fathers themselves—actually embraced those ideas, beginning with slavery and the extermination of Native Americans) can't survive this wave of intolerance and unreason. It's a tsunami sweeping through our social systems, our government, and our economy, and it will ultimately destroy everything in its path if we don't bring both the dialogue and the system of government back to middle ground.

  Vast sums of money are being spent to elect government officials, but no one is spending money to elect people educated enough to understand the value of compromise.

One can be smart in every other area, and stupid in this one place, and cause all things to fail.

 Looking around us in this election year, one might easily be excused from concluding that, if this is the best we have, we will fail. We don't have leadership—we have chaos and accusation.

These are not desirable qualities in a nation whose population is armed to the teeth with guns, and breeding an underclass of radicals who are already convinced they will have to use them.

 When will we see a national movement to take back not the right, or the left, but the middle?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My father's shoes

The earliest memory I have, dating back to when I was 2 years old, is of my father taking me to the beach in the summer time.

 It was on the shores of Long Island sound in Connecticut. He pulled a horseshoe crab out of the water and showed it to me; I was astonished that water could hold such strange and miraculous creatures, it seemed almost impossible to me. I couldn't understand how the ordinary-looking water might produce such an amazing thing. He explained to me that they were common, and that they came in close to the shore in the summer time to lay their eggs.

Later that day, I wanted to show my parents what a big boy I was, and I carried my father's shoes back to the car. They were proud of me; none of us suspected that in doing so, I had forgotten my own shoes on the beach. My parents were very, very poor at that time, and losing my shoes represented a huge blow. There was a big uproar about it at home that night; I remember that too.

All of this came back to me this morning while I was meditating in my hotel room in Shanghai. I realized that my impulse to serve–perhaps all of our collective impulses to serve— something higher in our lives is a bit like this. We aspire to something greater than ourselves; we want to show this greater thing, whatever it is, that we are worthy, and that we are able to care for it. Somehow, in the process, we don't see that this greater force—we could call it God, or we could call it the Dharma—has given us our own shoes to wear, which we need to attend to. We forget our own shoes in our rush to carry the shoes of our Father.

It never occurs to us that our Father gave us our own shoes because we need them, and that He needs us to be responsible for those shoes; that, in fact, it may cost Him a great deal if we don't carry our own shoes, and attend to our own life. We are off trying to take care of Him—a task that is really much too great for us—and not taking care of ourselves, which is what we ought to have done in the first place.

 Of course none of this is obvious to us. That's because we are children; children have a limited understanding, and, although they have a grand idea of themselves, a rightful pride—after all, every life has a right to some self-respect—they lose sight of the task. In their eagerness to please the parent, they miss the mark.

It's very important for us to see that we need to serve our Fathers—and our Mothers. We can take that allegorically or literally, it is true in both cases. There are times, however, when this service consists of attending to ourselves, and understanding that setting our sights above us may be misleading. Being distracted by the nobility of our cause can lead to a downfall. We must begin with the basics.

It's a question of balance, to honor both this impulse to serve a higher force and the need to do a much more mundane and perhaps even uninteresting kind of service in our immediate lives. The fact that we can't balance these two impulses well probably has a great deal to do with the way men and women can go to church on Sunday and kneel down in apparently honest humility, and then later go off to break every vow they took while they were kneeling.

 Higher forces show us miracles. They are real miracles, not things in religious textbooks; extraordinary creatures that emerge from the water whole, unexpected, revealing aspects of life that seem impossible to understand. And they are; our Fathers and our Mothers, both on earth and in heaven, have this ability to reveal higher truth to us, whether we understand that as the children of men and women or the children of God. In respecting this, and remembering that we are children, perhaps able to do tasks bigger than ourselves, and yet not suited to them, we may gain a perspective of some kind.

There's no doubt that I want to carry my Father's shoes to the car, to honor Him. Yet this morning I see that it's important for me to remember that my Father has given me my own shoes, and by honoring those shoes, already, I honor my Father, before I even get to where His shoes are.