Baldwin!

Damn!

Don’t know how I went so long without reading Baldwin’s fiction.

My recent look into his essays, sparked by reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful Between the World and Me, led me to read Go Tell it on the Mountain.

What a mind-blowing novel! His characters and the intricately woven, powerful story are so captivating, and the whole impact of it just so devastating, that I don’t know why he’s not more popular. Wait. He’s a gay black guy who wrote in the 50’s. Maybe that explains it.

With such a sympathetic telling of the story of these “sanctified” (and otherwise) black people in early 20th century America that you’d swear he was one of them, rather than a lapsed saint who left the church after a spectacular beginning as a young preacher, Baldwin manages to reveal more of the psychology and sociology behind that world than could be explained in a raft of doctoral thesis papers.

Like much great literature, it manages to capture in its art many of our hard-won understandings from the patient study and analysis in the social sciences.

I’m sure he must be prominent in literature classes, as his mastery of prose is so magnificent and his finely crafted language carries multiple levels of sub-text.

He has an impeccable ear for the dialect, and I find myself carried back to my days in the Southern Baptist environment in which I grew up. Many of the phrases and the cadence of the language reflect what I heard in my youth here in the South.

But it’s the fascinating insight into the psychological and sociological realities underlying the practice of this ecstatic version of Christianity that make this book so truly astounding. With some of the most imaginative writing I’ve ever read, Baldwin carries us deep inside the psycho-sexual fantasies with which conversion experiences, “slain in the spirit” swoons, sermons and other church goings-on are richly imbued.

Though there are a few characters who stand back looking askance at all this tom-foolery, for the most part, Baldwin tells the story lovingly and uncritically – though below the surface, the implications are clear.

Of course, though also done with a light touch absent any bitterness, there is a strong social story showing the effects on the characters of the black diaspora, of the racism that pervades their lives both south and north, and the desperate lives to which so many were driven.

In addition, you see clearly the role of the church and the Christian teachings in supporting these people caught in truly abysmal social and economic circumstances – as well as their exploitation by those in seats of power.

It is a truly astounding little novel, and I highly recommend it as holiday reading! I plan to continue through his early novels and short stories in the Library of America collection I have, so I’ll share reactions to others as I feel led by the Lord… wait, as I feel motivated!

We are (also) terrorists

Who are the terrorists?

If you ask most people this question, it seems that the near-universal response is “Islamic jihadists” or some variation of this. This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to summarize it. But let me try.

First, the facts show that jihadists are responsible for a tiny percentage of terrorism in the world. In fact, most terrorism – somewhere in the range of 90%+ – is carried out by by ethnic separatists rather than religiously motivated folks of any stripe. Think Progress details some of the data on this here. I have read other accounts of this with the same clear message: we have been duped into thinking of terrorism as an Islamic extremist thing since 9-11.

Second, even the jihadists are likely motivated more by the economic and social conditions of their lives than by Islam, even in its extreme versions. Chris Hedges expresses the radical notion that terrorism is:

…a harbinger of an emerging dystopia where the wretched of the earth, deprived of resources to survive, devoid of hope, brutally controlled, belittled and mocked by the privileged who live in the splendor and indolence of the industrial West, lash out in nihilistic fury.

We have engineered the rage of the dispossessed. The evil of predatory global capitalism and empire has spawned the evil of terrorism. And rather than understand the roots of that rage and attempt to ameliorate it, we have built sophisticated mechanisms of security and surveillance, passed laws that permit the targeted assassinations and torture of the weak, and amassed modern armies and the machines of industrial warfare to dominate the world by force. This is not about justice. It is not about the war on terror. It is not about liberty or democracy. It is not about the freedom of expression. It is about the mad scramble by the privileged to survive at the expense of the poor. And the poor know it.

Third, nearly everything the US and other wealthy developed nations are doing is making terrorism worse: more desperate, thus more likely and more extreme in nature. This is complex, but essentially our imperialism and our media sensationalism work together to create the conditions in which terrorism thrives.

For a more detailed, and nuanced, discussion of this, read my friend Gareth’s insightful new post, We’re Fueling Terrorism. Gareth also makes the important point that Muslim leaders are speaking out against Islamic terrorism, and includes a great essay from Rabbi Josh Lesser illustrating that much-ignored truth.

In addition to these ways in which we are creating terrorism on the mundane level, it is also true at the deeper level – what might be thought of as the quantum spiritual level – that we are the terrorists.

As Buddhist teachers (especially Thich Nhat Hanh) have been saying for many years, we are one with all that exists. We are the victim, we are the perpetrator. It is only our ignorance – born of the dualistic conditioning to which we are all subjected – that leads us to see ourselves as separate from the other.

We are the victims, we are the bombers; we are the imperialists, we are the dispossessed. The deeper we are able to sink into that realization, the greater our understanding of reality.

Barbara’s kensho

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, is being wonderful! Not far into it, but I am finding it fascinating, funny, and astounding all at once.

The heart of the story is her early adolescent quest for Truth, and the “mystical experiences” that seemed to attend that search. Growing up in an entirely skeptical, atheist family, she was disinclined to accept anything remotely religious in nature, so discounted these experiences at the time, and only recently – the last few years – has come to reconsider what they mean. The book is her coming to terms with those experiences, and the general quest which she recorded in a diary of sorts.

This description of her first “experience” is so near to my own that I felt I must include it here:

And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word “tree” was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language. Was it a place that was suddenly revealed to me? Or was it a substance— the indivisible, elemental material out of which the entire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fantastic elaboration? I don’t know, because this substance, this residue, was stolidly, imperturbably mute. The interesting thing, some might say alarming, was that when you take away all human attributions— the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action— that when you take all this away, there is still something left.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2014-04-08). Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything (pp. 47-48). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

My own similar experience, as a considerably older seeker, is recorded in the earlier entry here as “Kensho, Krishnamurti and New Mexico“.

Mindfullness deconstructed

In a recent article posted on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship/Turning Wheel Media site, Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a vipassana teacher of the Mahasi lineage, deconstructs mindfulness practice, comparing the inner practice with the external practice of Marxism.

Vega-Frey says that most modern mindfulness practice is like the reformist version of socialism, whereas true Buddhist practice is comparable to the revolutionary approach favored by Karl Marx.

Essentially, the problem is – according to this author – that current fascination with meditation and mindfulness practices is aimed at using these to assist one along the path toward worldly success, rather than as a tool to transcend greed, anger and delusion – the three poisons. (Which are sometimes rendered as: ignorance, attachment, and aversion – perhaps a more accurate set of terms.)

The aspiration to attain worldly success through devotion is not at all new to Asian Buddhism but mindfulness-based meditation as an expression of it is new and seems to have parallel life throughout contemporary Asia as well. Thus, it is appears that this new phenomenon is not simply a cultural desalination program in the West that has turned the ocean of the Buddha’s teaching into vast warehouses of bottled water: It’s also a historical process of political economy, specifically, what Karl Marx termed the bourgeois relations of production.

….

But just as Marx did not call for harmony between classes as a response to the antagonisms at the root of bourgeois society, the Buddha did not call for a smoothing out of the rough edges of suffering or a negotiated peace with greed, hatred, and ignorance. He called for their complete usurpation, abolition, and annihilation by the forces of love and wisdom. He posited mindfulness as one essential tool for a process of disenchantment that illuminates the profoundly unstable, undependable, and disappointing nature of everything in existence: a revolutionary rather than reformist approach.

In the Satipatthana, Buddha explains the practice of the Four Foundations (or Establshiments) or Mindfulness as leading to a state where one finds oneself “…having gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this world.” This is the classic statement of the liberated mind. Certainly seems to me that the author is right in asserting that much of what goes on in the name of meditation these days has lost sight of that basic goal.

Vega-Frey continues:

… the inner revolution is not simply a matter of will-power but of committed ethical integrity, rigorous mind training, and deepening sensitivity to reality. Indeed, they often commit over many, many lifetimes, to cultivating wholesome mental qualities that will support them in the eventual overthrow of greed, hatred, and delusion. … Essential to this view is the understanding that the humility, kindness, and wisdom that come from this path are rewards of the practice in and of themselves and to look beyond them for our motivation, to external markers that satisfy our unexamined personal and social delusions, is folly. Keeping the north star of complete liberation always ahead of us is a fundamental part of staying on the path with integrity.

Even beyond this, Vega-Frey says that what’s like to happen is:

…the absolute bourgeoisification of mindfulness where the owning class and the bourgeois state try to use it as a tool for the reification of class dominance and imperialism.

If this sounds over-dramatic, consider another recent essay, “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which highlighted a $4.3 million grant the U.S. Army and Department of Defense has provided University of Miami researchers for a so-called “Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training” for pre-deployment soldiers as well as $31 million for a “positive psychology” program that will include mindfulness education for 1.1 million soldiers.

He concludes with this thought:

Part of me longs for the day when a study proves, once and for all, that mindfulness is entirely useless for anything beside the development of wisdom and kindness.

It’s a long but very thought-provoking article. I welcome responses.

A spiritual connection

In his new book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, Charles Eisenstein makes a wonderful case for what the Engaged Buddhists have been saying for a while – activism that doesn’t begin at a spiritual level has little chance of real, long term success.

This passage lays it out pretty clearly:

Let us ask, “What kind of human being is politically passive, votes from fear and hate, pursues endless material acquisition, and is afraid to contemplate change?” We have all those behaviors written into our dominant worldview and, therefore, into the institutions arising from it. Cut off from nature, cut off from community, financially insecure, alienated from our own bodies, immersed in scarcity, trapped in a tiny, separate self that hungers constantly for its lost beingness, we can do no other than to perpetuate the behavior and systems that cause climate change. Our response to the problem must touch on this fundamental level that we might call spirituality.

It is here where the root of our collective illness lies, of which global warming is but a symptomatic fever. Let us be wary of measures that address only the most proximate cause of that symptom and leave the deeper causes untouched….

He cautions against making any one cause the primary, all-important cause, because it leads to the very control-based thinking – the same ‘war mindset’ – that is part of all our society’s problems. He says that such thinking

…subordinates all the small, local things we need to do to create a more beautiful world to a single cause for which all else must be sacrificed. This is the mentality of war, in which an all-important end trumps any compunctions about the means and justifies any sacrifice. We as a society are addicted to this mindset; thus the War on Terror replaced the Cold War, and if climate change loses popularity as a casus belli, we will surely find something else to replace it— …

[Eisenstein, Charles (2013-11-05). The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (Sacred Activism) (p. 47). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.]

He describes this dominant worldview as the Story of Separation, the idea that the universe is comprised of a multitude of separate, independently existing entities – that we as humans are separate from each other, separate from all other phenomena, and that we can effect change in any given realm without affecting anything else. As long as we are working within this mindset, within this narrative, everything we do just continues to support things as they are and really will never bring about significant change.

Drawing primarily on the wisdom of ancient cultures allied with the work of modern science – quantum mechanics specifically – Eisenstein comes to the same conclusions as we Buddhists – that we are all and everything intimately and inextricably connected. That nothing we do on any level is without consequence on every level.

On the positive side, this means that everything we are doing to help bring about understanding of the truth of our interconnectedness with all that exists is helping to deal with even the most daunting and dangerous problems in our world. Bringing up our children to understand – truly and deeply understand – that we are all one is helping to end war, poverty and environmental destruction.

Demonstrating that truth in our everyday lives, by being a good neighbor, a kind person, a responsible parent, a fearless defender of truth is true spirituality and our true calling, our true activism.

Buddhist Christians…

Interesting article on the Buddhist Broadcasting Network – I didn’t even know Buddhists broadcasted! – about Christians finding support for living authentic lives, and support for their Christianity, in Buddhist teachings and practice.

I found this sentence especially interesting:

Sandra turns to Buddhism because she believes that its teaching of no-ego or no-self, when understood experientially and not just intellectually, is itself an essential dimension of the journey to God.

Sandra is a Catholic nun who leads retreats. She says:

“Christianity and Buddhism agree that the spiritual pilgrimage involves an absolute letting go, or dropping away, of all that a person knows of self and God. Indeed, this is what happened in Jesus as he lay dying on the cross, and perhaps at many moments leading up to the cross. Only after the dying can new life emerge, in which there is in some sense ‘only God’ and no more ‘me.’ I see the cross as symbolizing this dying of self and resurrecting of new life that must occur within each of us. Buddhism helps me enter into that dying of self.”

I do think that there are some important theoretical and practical differences between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is interesting to read about these parallels and how non-dogmatic Christians are learning to access these helpful things from the old guy’s teachings!

The illusion of separation

[The Signal Blanket: Danger! By Paul Goble, The Coming of the Iron Horse]

How can we live authentically, fully human, fully divine, following a path of right living, in this world of seemingly insurmountable problems – violence, hatred, degradation, destruction?

The problems in our world today all begin with our mistaken idea that we humans are special, and special in a very special way, special because we are separate from the rest of the natural world, separate from each other. We even divide mind from body within ourselves.

This notion of the discrete, separate, independently existing self is deeply embedded in our culture, including our language, and thus embedded in all our ways of thinking – so much so that it’s difficult to talk about it clearly. It’s even more difficult to get people to think about it clearly.

Just the words “nature” and “environment” seem to imply that this separation is normal, that this is “just the way it is”. We don’t see that these words encode a dualistic world-view, a basic assumption that has grown stronger and stronger as our societies took step after step away from the connections with our intimate nature, beginning with language and symbolic culture and expanding with quantification, agriculture, science, and industry.

I have addressed the issue of separation and connection in an earlier blog post, but this is such a difficult issue to discuss that I think it’s worth a second, mostly new, approach.

Why is the idea of separation important and how is it related to our discussion of living authentically?

First, because we believe ourselves to be discrete, separate, independently existing entities, we see “nature” – all other beings and processes – as “resources” – things for our human use, to be controlled and subjugated for our purposes, and having no essential worth or meaning otherwise. Thus, as this idea has grown in strength and influence over human culture, our impact on the earth has been more and more harmful. Today we callously and arrogantly threaten the very biosphere that supports our life.

Second, because of this idea of separate-ness, we think we can behave in pretty much any way we like towards other humans and not really suffer any consequences. Competition – the whole “every man for himself” ethos – arose out this notion, as did the ideas of possession and property. Which leads pretty quickly to murder, war, torture, genocide, and all the other forms of violence that are endemic today. (Only because we are threatened by some outside power if we don’t do “right” is there reason to do otherwise, so when that belief in an outside power wanes, all kinds of horrors arise.)

Third, this conception of self causes us to misinterpret most of what has come down to us in the spiritual realm. We set ‘God’ outside of matter, outside the very universe, in some realm of ‘other’; earlier humans clearly saw God as in matter, in everything. We misunderstand the idea of animism as meaning that things have a spirit when it really means everything is spirit. We think, or believe, that we have a soul, and this soul is what’s important so we disregard the body. Or else we don’t believe that we have a soul, and thus we live only for the body. Either way, we’re equally lost, because we don’t understand that we are soul, we are spirit. This separation of the sacred from the everyday world again leads us to feel free to exploit that world of matter, that world of “other” to our own ends without regard for our impact; it allows us to set up one version of morality in the spiritual realm and another one for the material.

Fourth, we are unable to have true compassion for others within this dualistic conception of self/other. What passes for compassion in most of our religious or secular conceptions today is a weak notion of what we “should” do – either out of fear of punishment or desire for rewards – in this life or the next – or out of a wish to elevate ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of our brothers and sisters.

——

All of these various ideas blend and intertwine in our ways of thinking and in our actions individually and collectively, creating a human culture that wreaks untold havoc on itself, on all the other living beings on the planet, and on the very underpinnings of life itself, ruining and despoiling not only the world but each other and ultimately ourselves.

To live authentically in this world, in this human culture, we must find a way to transcend its influence, to slough off the conditioning that tells us we must claw our way to the top of the pile, gathering more and more of the world unto ourselves, insulating ourselves from others and from the world out there with yet more and more comfort, security, pleasure and excess.

The first, essential, step is to see through the illusion.