Tuesday, January 27, 2009

what it is and was to be a writer.

John Updike has died.

Trying to make up meatier sentences about writing than Updike has already provided being presumptuous for most and stupid for me, I'll just pass along a few from his obituary:

"It's always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work,” he told Time magazine in 1982. “You'd rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you'd rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you've enjoyed."

That Updike can calmly bare the mortal weaknesses many might have in common with him only accentuates the very uncommon talent that he flourished:

There's a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has,” Mr. Updike said in his 1990 Globe interview. “A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that, more than talent, is what separates those who do it from those who think they'd like to do it. That your witness to the universe can't be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it's worth providing.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A tenuous and fickle grip

I think of our "conscience", our tendency to feel bad about trespassing our personal boundaries between good and evil as an evolved characteristic. It is a great shame that those boundaries are more learned artifacts than universal and derivable limits. The schooling that would enable us to derive the limits is formal and exacting while the schooling by which we commonly absorb our notions of ethics, from taboo to altruism, are the informal, unquestioned ever-present daily lives from infancy onward. That means that new learning or even forgetting can cause us to cease the self-censoring which keeps us from harming our neighbors in gross or subtle ways. The notion of the neighbors or of the community in which we live is a key element in understanding the purpose or benefit that would have selected for the trait of conscientious self-control behavior. It is our undeniable dependence on our tribe or city or fellow workers or whatever community we live within that makes a reflex for fairness, as that community defines it, such a valuable and stabilizing social force. Like any other trait or strength that evolution has given us, its general and necessary effect is, to phrase sustainability and survival as Deuteronomy 6:18 puts it:
Do what is right and good in the Lord 's sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers,
That particular phrasing has been used with a parochial vengeance to divide the world into waring communities but that is not its best use. The community we live in is the whole world and all other lines we draw are drawn to our own detriment in the long run.

I like to think the most progressive among us have the most inclusive sense of who is a member of their community. Conversely, my perception of the social outlook of those who label themselves "conservative" is that they live in a world of "others", competitors, moochers, enemies, strangers presumed hostile until they prove allegiance. Given what I believe about the nature of our facility for conscience, I have to conclude that there is some difference in the learning and generally in the influences present in our upbringing that leave us each at some point along the spectrum of inclusiveness and set the scope and strength of our conscience. I admit these differences must be quite subtle and may interact with individual variations of innate personality because even siblings will arrive at different states of tolerance and political belief.

So a conscience is a weaker and more slippery thing than it flatters us to believe. That is the nature of the beast. Deal with it if you are serious about the longevity of our species on this planet. Conscience was meant to be a guide but it is not fully evolved or else we simply have too tenuous and fickle a grip upon its compass.

Today marks our nation's exit from an eight year period in which we acquiesced to a gang of "leaders" who seemed largely devoid of conscience. Even in their humiliated departing interviews, no apologies, not one admission that their mistakes were moral failings or involved selfishly dividing us and acting to harm others without reasonable cause. I should be grateful that our voting has cast these losers aside but I think we voted our pocket books more than our sense of decency toward other humans. Impeaching them would have been beneficial and prosecution for their actions should be kept as an instructive option for the American conscience. The stirring hopes arising with Obama's inauguration are not just the emotions of an economically scarred and scared nation. I hear from many and I feel within me that we have finally lived up to our claims to have the most inclusive boundary that history has ever seen drawn around those who may be given the reins of power. The tendency to hope too much and to blame too much should not be so focused on our leaders. Obama is already pointing to you and me. He will say to us today that it is we who will make the difference. And so it is. And so may it always be.

I suppose I seem to write my little essays with an air brush rather than a fine point pen. I actually share some of the reservations about evolutionary psychology that Amanda Marcotte describes. It is a fuzzy "science" at best and it is easily appropriated as a form into which to pour one's biases and thus free oneself from questioning a belief that is in fact highly questionable. But a conscience is so inconvenient personally that I have a hard time understanding mine as a bias.

"All sentient beings". Try that for a sense of community that your conscience should encompas.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The joke is on us

In intimate conversations, the more heated or discordant the discussion, the harder to be certain in any of the sentences who is the subject and who is the object...loves joke on us.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Riding the Dharma Waves

A hopeful author and professional journalist, Jaimal Yogis, asked me if I would review his forthcoming book: Saltwater Buddha. I have to qualify any such reviewing. If you have read many of my posts, you may know better than I the quirks of my writing and ideas about religion. It turns out I am the one being done the favor because I thoroughly enjoyed the book and devoured it in one sitting.

Poetic intensity of the prologue is a promise mostly kept. It is the knack of the surfers, teetering on a plank in a constant state of falling down a slope of water, to gracefully make it look easy. Jaimal Yogis also makes vivid his struggles and emerging with sure and effortless sounding prose. It would be a disservice if the work were cataloged as merely an autobiography.

The reason, to resort to my own limited understanding, why zen eludes the typical American is that saying things like "it is so much less than you think" confuse a western mind, and confront the analytical habit, grown out of Greek philosophy, of penetrating reality by taking it into pieces. Jaimal manages to depict in the anecdotes that comprise his adolescence and young adulthood, how we westerners put our own minds in our way so thoroughly that we miss what is there. Jaimal's formal study and practice of Buddhism show up as a respectful knowledge of the sages of Zen traditions coloring many of the passages. But the merit of the book is very much how life outside the temple can be connected to and illuminated by practice.

Jaimal explores his hunch that the affinity for water is a primal human impulse with enough conviction to bring Elaine Morgan's works to mind. His rhapsodic exploration of water as metaphor for life affects me. I pick up the vibes easily as I read and his mode echoes in me as if these were my own thoughts: If it were not for the ripples, water would become a mirror and we would see exactly what it reflects. Instead we see only our own turbulence at the surface, image distorted, and the water itself lent a character it does not own but can transmit. But zen is knowing there is water.... Well, you would have to read yourself to see what you pick up.

A gentle protest against the trite co-opting of zen as a motif in media and marketing, runs through the book. The "Inner Tennis " for surfers this book most definitely is not. I would hope readers would not stop at the title just because such unfortunate and uninformed associations are so common.

The siren song of the surf seeps into his dreams. Jaimal's impulses to shed his conflicts by dropping out to go surfing, as if maya could be run away from, reminded me of Karen Armstrong's descriptions of the ascetic option in the early Hindu religion. This going off to the woods or begging has deep roots older than Buddhist tradition.

Jaimal does not say his life is more significant than any other. Rather, in an unassuming self awareness, he laughs at himself throughout the book:
"I figured I was destined, like Siddhartha, for spiritual greatness."
But it is the soul of good writing to transform the personal into the universal...why else read? The mundane, carefully observed, mounts into a praise of existing.

Chapter six gives a good example of how the quiet of the zen mind is not the quiet of a cloister or of the orderly life...it is on another, handier plane.

On page 76 he is bemused at himself trying to pass for a Buddhist monk at an age when his peers had gone off to college. But of all the things fanciful and unattainable on his wannabe list, there is one he has managed to do after a fashion in this book: "Write poems with wandering Taoists."

Surfing gets the upper hand. He sets us up to appreciate his own fall by observing others warped to hostility by confusing well being with possession of waves. He reaches page 156 with surfing morphed into an attachment more than the Zen practice he had earlier envisioned. But by page 229 the lust for wisdom with which Jaimal began his journey has ripened into a freedom from lust. The thrill of wisdom settles down into well adjusted living words:
"But it seems like the idea of paradise is just on the horizon, always, while life is here, under my feet, now."
As a worked example of how one can grow through Buddhist insights, this little book is bound to help at least a few sentient beings. Each person would have their own particular pathway into Zen Buddhism so anyone else's path must seem like an abstraction. But in that sense, abstractions from others are all we can exchange and so this sharing of Jaimal's path is for the rest of us an amble in the vicinity, an inviting introduction to its effects and appeal. The author has a mind born with spiritual habits and a brain able to write prose pictorially vivid and spiritually telling. I found it a pleasure to go along on this man's adventure.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Not reputation but ...

Excellence is the greatest rebellion.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"Religion evolved"

I like the sound of it. PZ is gonna love the title of this report in Science Daily:

Religion May Have Evolved Because Of Its Ability To Help People Exercise Self-control
The article is not quite as emphatic that religion is just another kind of behavior as the title would lead you to expect. But still, it definitely puts religion back in the box where science would have it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A dangerous new years resolution

I have come, seeing parts of my life where it has slipped away and mysteriously taken joy with it, to fiercely prize honesty.