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Friday, September 30, 2016

Meditating Contemplation

Still I work on my project on spiritual exercises.

Meditation and contemplation are exercises from ancient through modern times in the East and the West. For many they are the most important of the exercises to stretch the soul. For some these are two different exercises. For others one is the culmination of the other. For me they are two aspects or traits of one, unified human existence, i.e. corporeal being in the world through symbolic activity.

1. Meditation and contemplation as different exercises. Meditation is thoughtfulness and contemplation is spirtuality. Socrates describes thinking as that discourse with oneself before and after discourse with others in the public place or city. He describes his verbal battles with opponents in the city; and then he says that he meets his biggest opponent of all when he retires back home alone. Plato on the other hand discusses the transition from the shadows of forms on the wall of the cave to the direct view of the Good which like the sun is the source of all the pure forms. This is the philosopher released from the prison of opinion to the direct perception of the Truth in all its glory.

Thinking occurs through ideas or concepts, i.e. the use of words and other aural, visual, and tactile media that stand for and/or slice up experience of the environment into patterns that shape a world. Thinking is, therefore, symbolic behavior which the human species has mastered over all other known species. When somebody forms concepts and considers their utility in answering questions about the world, especially over a period of time, weighing the concepts in relation to other concepts, we call that meditation. When thinkers speak of meditations (e.g. the way Descartes, Spinoza, or Badiou do), they are talking about exercises in logical thinking on certain topics.

Contemplation has a religious connotation, as in the "contemplative life." It implies a more direct  or intuitive method of beholding essences without the use of media, analogies, or figures of speech or symbolic behavior. It goes beyond (or above or outside) words or other human artifacts to the essence of truth itself perhaps through what is called a vision or revelation from within or from outside nature. Contemplation leaves the realm of logic, science, and ordinary behavior. It is the provenance of the seer, the saint, the prophet, the ecstatic, the mystic.

2. Contemplation as the fulfillment of meditation. A life of meditation may lead to contemplation, the spiritual masters say. In mindfulness meditation, the sage permits words to run through consciousness while focusing on creating those words or maybe while reciting a mantra in order to leave the land of words and move to the pure land of illumination. The novice prepares through meditation in the world and then as sage is lifted to the heavens in contemplation. Thus, contemplation is a higher form of spirituality than meditation. It is a gift of the muses or other gods while meditation is the worldly labor of the corporeal mind. In Neoplatonism it is the difference between philosophic discourse and seeing the light coming from within or without. In Christian dogma, it is the difference between theology and beatific vision. It is vision unfiltered by matter. The purity of spirit.

3. Meditation and Contemplation as aspects of the same activity. The postmodern insight arising from both phenomenology and neuroscience overcomes the gap between thinking as mediated knowing and consciousness as direct knowing by giving evidence for an epistemology or theory of knowledge without the matter-spirit or body-soul dualism. This theory of knowledge is based in the understanding of the human organism adapting to its environment by the use of artifacts (thinking) while at the same time being present to itself in the act (consciousness). Its all part of the same package. One cannot be without the other.

And so with meditation and contemplation. Whether we meditate on death or our breathing or our belly buttons, we are in touch with our body so doing. When we discuss and focus on things in the world through discourse or art, we are in the same moment directly in contact with our selves and other selves acting symbolically in and to the world. Meditation that shifts the focus from things in the world to person, social, and world consciousness is contemplation.

Whether or not we are putting words to it, when we experience consciousness passing beyond our thoughts to further thoughts we experience the transcending feature of consciousness. When we do put words to it, we are shifting our focus from figure to ground, from my objective experience of the words being typed on the screen before me to my subjective experience of typing them and of my shoes filled with feet even before I thought about it.

We are intentional animals thrusting out, in, and up in the same moment. When we catch that moment, we feel that consciousness itself is revealing itself to us. We might even capitalize Consciousness or call it Spirit or God. It is sort of the pause in the meditative process that pulls us into and outside and beyond ourselves. It is the pause that refreshes. It occurs sometimes when we do not expect it perhaps while considering the vast panoply of stars, the patterns of an autumn forest, sexual intimacy, a triumph of artistic genius, or a resounding victory in battle or finishing a race. We call that experience ecstatic, mystic, and divine. It is there before we know it (focally).

Only poetry, not science, seems to capture intending, transcending consciousness in its glory. Yet the latest neuroscience is attempting to account for and explain consciousness without resort to multiplying entities unnecessarily (i.e. Occam's razor). The postmodern has no need to appeal ex machina (or in this case ex corpore) for an explanation. Nevertheless the postmodern person, unlike the modern one, realizes that the explanation for intentional, transcending consciousness can never be totally explained objectively. Yes, neuroscience might demonstrate the chemicals, the neutrons, and the synapses involved, that is, the wirings of the brain. The evolutionary psychologist might demonstrate how the brain developed in its cosmic and evolutionary journey to produce consciousness.

But the subjective experience of consciousness will never be explained objectively. (Again this does not mean that the subjective can be divorced from the objective or consciousness from the body, or spirit from matter. In fact just the opposite!) And so poetry, drama, philosophy, even religion, the kind that pulls us into the act of the poet, dramatist, philosopher, and visionary will always have their place in our life, action, and pursuit of greater wisdom.

Meditation and contemplation enhance that pause that refreshes. It is getting over the seriousness of the already formed objective world, by returning into the personal and communal consciousness that is creating the world while, in the same moment, pushing back into that world to re-create it. All the other exercises I have mentioned, breath control, remembering death, cognitive therapy, myth and ritual, reverence, discourse, humor, questing, and action, especially contemplation in action, are tools and manifestations of the soul-growing exercise of becoming more conscious as a person, a community, a nation, and a world.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Man With the Gun

The Man With the Gun
(See WP Sept 17, 2016)

Stolid he stands on his hilltop
Cradling AR15 in tattooed arms,
Surveying the scene of his household,
Walled by cameras, lights, and alarms.

Sighting a stray dog on the plains,
Knows he could kill with one squeeze.
Control and feel of cold metal
Puts ever sense of disquiet at ease.

Tomorrow he'll carry open to Walmart,
Drive his truck NRA sticker select,
Cops even to check a drivers license,
Would approach with care and respect.

Parking to traverse the great mall,
Where shadowed unknown terror lurks,
Watching perps from sides of his eyes,
Mostly robed women and brown Turks.

Shoppers will stare out in silence;
Armed he strides aisles of the store,
Some slip hands in purse pocket or holster,
Making room for the stone faced warrior.

Most he has they will get if he lets them.
Much they have now stealthily taken.
Wages, fruits, and the pride of the nation
All liberal enablers have left forsaken.

Back to moated fortress he carries
AR open for everyone to see,
Fearing none who want to slay him,
Ready to fight on the side of the free.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Apology for Political Correctness

PC is taking lots of hits lately, especially in the political campaign. 

Here's Ted Cruz after the Orlando shootings: "Enough is enough. What we need is for every American—Democrat and Republican—to come together, abandon political correctness, and unite in defeating radical Islamic terrorism." He condemns Obama for not using the words "" radical Islamic terrorism" and says that instead we must speak the truth. And here's Trump: "With Hillary and Obama, the terrorist attacks will only get worse. Politically correct fools, won't even call it what it is - RADICAL ISLAM!" 

What his followers say they like about Trump is that he tells it like it is. He is not afraid to call Mexican immigrants "rapists and murderers." And he clearly confronts the language of feminism in line with Rush Limbaugh's attack on the femiNazis. He counters anyone opposing his positions as falling into political correctness which he equates with covering up the truth.

When he was rebuked for saying that President Obama started ISIS, he responded that he was just being sarcastic. He dismissed his critics as being too politically correct. Which I guess for him means taking him too literally or maybe for telling the truth. 

"I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either." The irony is that Cruz and Trump are making political incorrectness political correct. 

Now I suppose there is a PC to oppose. It is the PC that avoids speaking the truth as you see it for fear of being criticized or that misleads and misstates the truth for some personal advantage. However, those who oppose PC are often those who want to go back to the good old days when you can call a spade (i.e. or speaking in PC "a person of African American descent") a spade. Or Protestant Christianity the true national religion, the religion of the founders. Or when boys could be boys, i.e. whistle at girls, pat them on the butt, or identify them by their body parts, i.e. "cunts," "boobs,"  and "asses" which they want a piece of. 

PC, they say, would have us treat girls, coloreds, and even unbelievers, illegal aliens, and unAmericans with respect even in our supposed free speech. That has us always walking on ice afraid of the word police. Feminists, Coloreds, Freaks have just gone too far, We watered down the nation with Catholics and Jews. Now we have to accept Muslims, atheists, and illegal immigrants. We appreciate those who say things the way they really are. Straight talkers bring back our exceptional nation in its original purity when it was really great. 

The PC that Cruz, Trump, Limbaugh and their disciples and ditto-heads are opposing seems to be civility, caution in judging, and understanding the effects of words especially in the public arena. (Really, can't you understand why it is important not to brand all Muslims as evil radicals?) They seem to be attacking those who are thoughtful and take into consideration how their words might hurt, disrespect, disdain, or dehumanize others and recognize how words influence behavior. And this is especially so in discussing religion, sexuality, race and ethnicity, immigration, disability, education, achievement, occupation, and status. It is PC as civility that I want to defend against those who oppose it. 

Civility is the mark of citizenship whether or not persons have the legal documents for citizenship. A citizen is a member of civil society. The first act of civility is recognizing one another. It is smiling and saying hello on the street to everyone you meet. Or even helping out another person in trouble. Respect for another is a more basic act of civility than voting. Participation in associations for mutual self-help is probably the strongest act of civility and the best mark of the citizen. Recognizing, respecting, and participating with others, including those of diverse beliefs, traditions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, creates the civil society.

Words and behaviors which divide, demean, and dehumanize others for whatever reason destroy civil society. I guess you could say they are "politically incorrect." But let's not.

I suggest dropping the phrase "political correctness" since it is so misunderstood and usually used as an excuse to be uncivil. Let's just talk about political truth and civility. These are concepts on which we can all agree. We can discuss our various opinions of how to achieve them in our nation. Most of the people who use the term "political correctness" are really using it as a way to attack someone's position. Let's just argue about our opinions and positions but do so civilly, with respect.

So I started out this essay hoping to defend PC and instead I say we should drop it because it is so misunderstood and misused. Civility and truth in politics, however, we need to defend if we would defend our democratic republic. 

I think it would be so PC to stop talking about PC.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Art and Science as Spiritual Exercise

Art is the act of making--artifacts. All that we make, including images, ideas, and words are artificial. The word for art in Greek is techne from which we derive "technology." Evolutionary psychologists have articulated and gathered evidence for the theory of the natural selection of our species' capacity to imagine, to fashion images, to extend them, and to present them orally and visually for communication and collaboration. Neuroscientists are demonstrating this capacity in the neuro-networks of the brain.

In so far as we, through our words and ideas, slice and organize the external experience of our environment into a patterned world, the world itself is artificial. Making a house, a weapon, or a meal is an art. So is writing an article or paper. So is designing a neighborhood or city. Language, paintings, sculptures, icons, architecture, forms and formulas, plans, and models are the tools we construct and use to make and exist in our world.

We usually reserve "fine arts," as distinguished from "useful arts," for the making of things that are beautiful, i.e. that discern and put patterns in nature that are pleasing and which satisfy our desire for knowing. Knowing the patterns of nature, e.g. how the climate works, how animals behave, and especially how humans act gives us the advantage of conjecturing and planning for the future and weathering change. So the distinction between fine and useful arts is itself artificial and arbitrary.

Science is the developing body of knowledge which art produces and which in turn produces more art, i.e. technology. Science consists of the words, formulas, and models that explain the world and ourselves. Science is the answers to our wonder, our questions of what, why, and how in order to satisfy our desire to know, our desire for patterns in existence. Knowing these patterns not only help us survive, they help us plan and decide what kind of a world we want and who we want to be in that world.

I suggest that art and science, the act of expressing and the collecting and communication of expressions is also a means of spiritual growth. The artist driven by the songs of the Muses and the scientist driven by the light of Truth are themselves expressions of the human spirit yearning for integration and transcendence.

Language, religion, art, science, education, and philosophy are elements that constitute our culture. These elements provide the artifacts that can be handed down (tradition) to future generations who can add to and modify their artifacts and thus their world. What science adds to culture (including religion, education, morality, and philosophy) is verification, that is, evidence and proof that the patterns of meaning in nature and in ourselves are more than beautiful constructs, but useful predictors accessible to all human persons. In science truth and beauty coincide.

And, to complete the ancient transcendentals (Unum, Verum, Bonum, Pulchrum), so does unity and goodness concide with truth and beauty, should we so decide. And this is the duty of philosophy. We know that science and technology can be used badly, that is towards disintegration and reaction. The secondary reflection of philosophy can discern the directions and highlight the options by critiquing culture including its art and science, its religion and morality to ascertain whether the human spirit is growing or dissipating in our personal and social behavior and institutions. Deciding what kind of a world we want and who we want to be in that world is the work of ethics and politics from which no human behavior, including science and technology, is immune.

The One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as capacities and desires are discovered in structure of human existence as an imagining and expressing embrained body. They are expressed in culture and passed on for further refinements as physical and social environments change partially as a result of human expressive activity. Therefore both natural and cultural selection contributes to the evolution of humanity and the world.

As Teilhard de Chardin and others have noted, in humanity evolution becomes conscious and begins to direct itself. Human existence is not only given but chosen. In our ability to imagine and express, we have the ability to choose to continue our given projectory by deciding to follow the road map that evolution has given us. Or not. And this is where we turn to philosophy.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Religion as spiritual exercise

For many, religion including its rules, rituals, and readings is the spiritual exercise. Par excellence!

Notions and functions of religion, however, are quite diverse, changing from time to time and place to place. We can distinguish at least four phases of religious development. There is evidence that in prehistoric times, religion was integrated completely in a society even though there was a sense of the difference between the secular and the sacred sphere's of life. The sacred with its stories of preternatural forces was celebrated at special moments to give meaning to the everyday life of birth, nourishment, sexual joining, and death.

In the development of agricultural and the great civilizations, religion became a guarantor of order, the ruler, law, and the state but also a devotion for households attempting to carry out the functions of making a living. We have the great Gods of state which often competed with Gods of other states towards the union of the One or chief God over all. And there were the household gods that held families together under the authority of masters some of which were able to enter the public realm of the state.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason led to the modern age in which religions are organized separate from the state. Some say this is the beginning of contemporary religions organized as voluntary associations supporting institutions run by professionals. Each of these religions has its own traditions, readings or scriptures, rituals and rules, and unique organizational structure. Some religions called conservative are more hierarchical and authoritarian, more exclusive in membership, more strict in rule keeping, and literal in scriptural interpretation. Or often within each religion there is a range between conservative and liberal members and communities.

These religions are tolerated by the modern secular state in so far as they do not threaten or undermine the common order, laws, and culture of the state which some consider the "civic religion" subject to the consensus of the governed. And this gives rise to the tensions we are now experiencing as we try to hold onto freedom of religion and speech while negotiating their inclusion in the developing culture of our social order.

It is this modern notion of the religions of which I speak here in terms of spiritual exercises which include spiritual reading, theological study, sermons, dialogues, music, dance, and other celebratory rituals especially in communities of meaning-seeking participants.

But we should note that we humans are in some places and times entering a nonreligious postmodern era where the institutions of private religion founder. More persons are adopting stances of skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism and identify themselves as without religion. This is promising when it increases inclusivity, search, tolerance, globalism. But it is also dangerous when it foregoes community through excessive individualism and neglects the operations of civic religion through excessive privatization. Religions then denigrate into cults that further true belief and domination.

While I personally do not accept supernatural entities, places, revelations, or ascribe to any doctrine of faith, I believe that the transition to a society without religions threatens to create soulless persons in a soulless social order. My own journey from Catholic Christianity, through Protestant Christianity, into Unitarian-Universalism is in no way a rejection of my Catholicism or Christianity. I still consider myself Catholic and Christian. But in my universalism, I also consider myself Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and all other religions that will have me. And in my unitarianism, I consider them all one in so far as they transcend themselves.

For the postmodern man like myself, religion is not to be dismissed or even diminished. Its language, its readings, its teachings, its rituals, and especially its community should be defended, celebrated, and nourished. But it must be integrated and transcended. Their spiritual exercises are soul building in so far as they foster in their participants progressive integration of personal, communal, and even cosmic spirit and ongoing transcendence of mind even beyond our religions and spiritual exercises.


Note: it is hard for many of us postmoderns to answer a poll in which we describe whether or not we have a religion, believe in God, or regularly attend religious services, unless of course I have room to explain myself--which polls don't allow.

I can argue for being an atheist, a nontheist, a theist, a pantheist, a panentheist. I can argue with Dewey for being religious without having a religion. I can argue that I am against religion which is a source of clanism and violence. I can argue in defense of religion which I respect in our communities. I can see churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples as places of bigotry and exclusion. And I can see them through personal experience as tremendous sources and means of social justice.

But like all institutions or habits of behavior, I judge them in relation to their integrating and transcending possibilities. Do they foster the progressive liberation of the human spirit even, or especially, if it means leaving the domination of the denomination?

Losing Soul

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Mark quotes Jesus saying.

The man without soul is concerned with himself. He judges success by how many things he owns or how much land he conquers. He is hooked on grandeur and greatness for himself without others.

A Zen teacher once told me to reduce my ego until it is nothing--or to expand my self until it embraces everything and everyone that is, the universe. "It is the same," he said. The ego is a construct and the self an illusion for great souled ones. And things? The same.

So this is spiritual exercise: It is ego-diminishing by integrating one's self to the point with no dimensions, to the center of space/time, past/future, inside/outside, individual/communal, real/ideal. And it is expanding the soul in all dimensions by transcending all dimensions. This point of all and no dimensions its the Singularity. The true singularity, not the big bang of the universe or of the infinite transhumance future. Or perhaps it is.

It is the point beyond history and prophecy, at the end of history, the end of science, the end of the world, where the one is the many. It is beyond culture, beyond religious belief and ritual. It is found apart from and yet within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism. It is neither orthodox nor heterodox, neither theistic nor atheistic. It is the before-all and the not-yet--because it is presence, the here and now and with and towards. The point between the expressing and the expressed, inexpressible Consciousness. The point over believing and hoping which is Love--of all, for all, by all.

(But this is all gibberish until embraced.)

The man who expands his ego by diminishing others, who is careful about himself and careless with the world, who retreats to the past or claims the future, is a man who has lost his soul. He makes something of himself by achieving wealth, property, and glory or trying to. And so he becomes some thing without center, without character, without soul.

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? The answer called for seems to be "nothing." But I think it is much worse. It is "things, only things, lots and lots of things."

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Chuang Tsu

When I think of philosophy as a spiritual exercise, what first comes to mind are the ancient Greek rational thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) moving then into the Roman era (Lucretius, Seneca) then to Christian (Augustine, Aquinas) and Islamic (Averroes, Avicenna) civilizations down to the European enlightenment (Spinoza, Descartes) into the modern (Kant, Hume) and postmodern eras (Foucault, Rorty). But I was recently reminded of that other great tradition begun in the Middle Kingdom of China. It is called Taoism and the greatest of philosophers was, according to Thomas Merton, Chuang Tsu whose tradition is carried on in Zen Buddhism.

The Tao is the Way. And Taoism is a way of living, thinking, and acting to achieve union with the Tao which (or who) operates, supports, and links everything and everyone everywhere. Taoism of Chuang Tsu is more than the high morality of Confucius which prescribes for the cultivated leader and citizen. It goes beyond the Golden Rule which is born of compassion though it founds and directs  both high morality and compassion. The Tao is not achieved even by spiritual or corporeal exercises. The Tao diminishes achievement and the markers of success. The true Taoist simply accepts and allows the Tao working through him or her. Simply, with utmost humility, avoiding any aspects or claims of grandeur or greatness.

In my Euro-traditional pragmatic phenomenology (Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger), as I reflect on consciousness and our existence in the world through speech and other symbolic expression, I see the Tao as the inexpressible in both the expressing and the expressed. It is the union of and reconciliation of opposites. Tao is found not by choosing one or the other or trying to walk the balance beam between them. I have noted the tensions of existence between past and future, interior and exterior, individual person and community, real and ideal. Chuang Tsu notes sadness and joy, action and contemplation, comfort and discomfort, yes and no, I and not-I, good and bad, nothing and something, happiness and misery. The way is not to grasp one or the other pole of the tensions but to grasp both and hold on for the ride of our lives. The ride of the Tao.

Or is it to allow the poles and the tensions themselves to work through us in our living, thinking, and action? Perhaps the ultimate spiritual exercise is foregoing spiritual exercise altogether.