Spiritual Teachers, Spiritual Parents

The human observer has a specific neural architecture (brain) which is instantiated in a specific perceptual system (body). Allowing for neural a-typicality, which happens, all human observers are having an approximately similar experience – language-based, tribal, biased, et cetera.

we are rebuilding an old flower garden, long-abandoned . . . here is a step on a stone path we are slowly restoring for wandering feet.

Thus, the world that you see and think about is not vastly different than the world that I see and think about – nor is it different from the world that Jesus saw and thought about, or Nisargadatta, or Helen Schucman or Eckhart Tolle.

Please note that I did not say those worlds are precisely identical. Obviously there are differences. Rather, my point is that those differences are closer to trivial than not, at least in the sense that allowing for cultural differences, you could readily be in dialogue with Jesus, Nisargadatta, Tolle, Helen Schucman or me.

This because it goes to the essence of our longing for masters, gurus, teachers, et cetera. We are parented beings. We are followers, going where the tribe does, and doing what helps the tribe get along. We are built that way. So when we ask “what do I do with this interior emptiness/loneliness/confusion/pain” we naturally look for parent figures – priests, ministers, gurus, therapists, teachers – to help us figure it out.

And, just as naturally, because there is so much seeking for these types of figures, there are folks who step into those roles, with varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness.

Who is your teacher? Who are you following?

Personally, I am moving away from overt spiritual language – satsang, miracle, enlightenment, soul. I am also moving away from folks who purport to have what others do not (I’ve personally had experience X and will now sell or otherwise convey it to you).

The language piece arises from a desire to maximize communication, to enlarge the dialogic circle. The steering clear of the professionally enlightened piece arises out of a recognition of our utter mutual dependence on one another. Our equality has clarified to a point where it is no longer feasible to elevate individuals to exalted status, even temporarily. We all belong; we all bring something important to the table. Without the other, we are not. Period.

So what is the alternative to specialized spiritual practice overseen by some master figure?

last year I cleared an area given mostly to deadfall, the abandoned corner of our little orchard . . . this year wild violets are growing, their lucid purple like touching the hem of God’s Mother’s gown. . .

One possibility – one being slowly brought forth in my own living – is dialogue premised on equality, where “dialogue” is understood in a Bohmian way – i.e., without agenda or other constraints, and with an intentional focus on honesty and open-mindedness. I also understand “dialogue” to be less formal than Bohm typically imagined it. That is, the dialogue is not only when we purposefully sit down in a circle to share, but also when we are just chatting en route to the grocery store, cooking dinner, scrubbing windows, waving hello in passing, et cetera.

In a slightly dramatic sense, I am suggesting that our lives be given wholly over to simple attentiveness and openness. What happens, happens, and we will notice it, and respond to it, and share about it honestly and directly, and then other stuff will happen, and the cycle of our living will go on like this until our bodies encounter some block or hurdle which cannot be overcome and so they lay down a final time.

This practice moves me in the direction of love, and moving in the direction of love begets a natural inclination to serve others, which happily enough speeds one’s passage to love.

What does this look like in practice?

For me, it means being careful with language. When I find myself leaning on complicated spiritual ideas or windy poetic abstractions, I ask if there is a way to explain this that a child would understand. Since there always is – else why else share at all – the question arises: what am I really doing by using language in ways that minimize or otherwise impair communication?

It is a good question for one inclined to hide behind wordiness.

Another thing is being sensitive to the fact that I don’t know everything. A lot of what I do know surprised me when I learned it. Why should tomorrow be any different? So I have to go slowly and humbly, trying always to keep in mind that more will be revealed. Who I condemn today I may need to turn to for guidance tomorrow. The shelter I destroy today I may discover a need for next week or the week after.

For me, there is also an increasing emphasis on finding what works and working it. Three simple examples: exercise (in addition to chores) is very helpful to me; certain dietary restrictions are too. Drinking way less coffee is also helpful. Those things are challenging in their way but their positive impact in terms of physical energy and mental clarity and optimism are undeniable. So work them.

the flower garden from a distance, with driftwood culled from Bronson Brook set just so . . .

Similarly, in the classroom where I spend a great deal of my professional life, it helps me help others if I am more forgiving and flexible and less stern. There is in me a tendency to run a tight ship on a tight schedule to a non-negotiated end chosen by me. But my students learn better and write better when I am less dictatorial and more in the nature of a cheerful coach.

So those are some personal examples. That is what it looks like for me; of course it will look different for other folks. What makes sense to me as a practice – attentiveness, emptying out of attachment and investment, dialogic relationship – may not make sense to others, not even a little. We are where we are.

I speak from a sense of quiet joy. Having discovered something that works there is a desire to share it, hopefully with minimal drama and egoism. The little light I have is yours; all I want is to share it with you.

Observation and Description of Phenomena

In a way, the so-called spiritual process is akin to noticing – and then sustaining in awareness – the distinction between what is happening and an observer’s description of what is happening. The description is not the thing.

observing rocks and glass culled from an earl morning walk on the river

Say that I am sad. You say, “Sean is sad. I can tell by the tears flowing down his face and the way his body sags as if burdened by a great weight.”

Your description of my sorrow is not my experience of sorrow. It is not even close to the feel of wet tears on my cheeks, the salt as they reach my lips, the sagging of my skeletal frame, the mental struggle to put words to emotion, the desperate longing for relief . . .

Moreover, your description of sorrow is relatively simplistic relative to the sorrow that is actually occurring. The occurrence is complex to the point of ineffability. To truly accurately describe sorrow you’d need to evoke biology, chemistry, physics, human history, linguistics – literally the whole cosmos.

This is a simple point but we overlook it constantly: descriptions are not the processes they describe. And since the world is made of processes – everything is changing, shifting, moving, even if at scales that are imperceptible to human observers (plants growing, say, or the sun burning out) – our descriptions are at best pale imitations with limited utility. At worst, they actively confound and misdirection our living, making us unhappy, unhelpful and unproductive.

In a sense, there is no way out of this. Human observers describe what they observe. Everything is given a name and categorized accordingly. Everything is ascribed motivation, rationale, history, goals. Everything is placed in relationship with everything that it is not it. Human observers build a world this way. Their living constructs their living.

Description is also a process, albeit one that implies a stable central describer – a self who faithfully report what she perceives, whose perceptions can be trusted. But as we all know, upon investigation and inquiry, that “self” cannot be found in an objective sense. The concrete narrative center it implies is an illusion.

And yet life goes on. The world goes on.

But “goes on” is a description according to an observer.

But the observer is a process that is being observed “going on.”

It is as if no matter what path you take, you end up at the same place, which is neither a beginning nor an end but merely a realization of circularity and recursivity.

This is maddening at first – as if we are trapped in a maze. One temptation is to spiritualize it – call the recursivity “infinity” and “eternity” (which are descriptions 🙂 ). Another is drain it of joy through reduction by saying it’s just atoms and quarks and what not (but see how “just” is a description 🙂 ).

The important thing is to see that we are not excluded or separate from the process. It inheres in us, the way blue inheres in blueberries. We are one with it. And seeing this – the simple natural fact of it – then it becomes a source of peace and joy and service.

So the point is not to cease describing, which is not possible anyway, nor to undo or end or amend observation which is also not possible.

keeping a place to sit with one another . . . under the apple trees, watching the horses

Rather, the point – or practice, if you will – is simply to give attention to the descriptive process while not conflating it with what is being described. It is a bit of tightrope walking; a delicate balancing act.

But it is helpful because it loosens our sense that there is something at stake here – a life, a self, other selves with whom we are in relationship. Relieved of this ontological burden of defense, we are free to be happy and serve others, which extends our happiness.

Or that is one way to say it. There are others.

On Being Wrong (And What Comes Next)

A lot of my thinking over the past year rests on an assumption about observers, namely, that cognition and perception are observer-dependent, and thus cannot provide access to any absolute Reality or Truth.

Yet notice that for this assumption to justify the conclusion, it has to be interpreted as being actually real – that is, that the observer is a real object with real capabilities that can be known and measured.

But my conclusion states the precise opposite of that!

sean reagan
in the dark . . .

Is this clear? It is like I am saying “only the perceiving cognizing human observer is real – everything else is conditional, relative, uncertain, et cetera.” If one looks at it this way, it’s incoherent. It presupposes the reality of the body – of the observer – in order to argue that nothing is real (or certain or true . . . ). The premise undermines the conclusion.

So perhaps I am wrong, or at least deeply confused. Then what?

I might conclude that bodies are actually real and that the world they construct (via perception and cognition) enjoys an actual non-trivial correspondence to Reality. The dead really are dead and the living really do need to eat and sleep.

On that view, a path like A Course in Miracles – and other contemporary approaches to nonduality – are wrong. Embodied duality subject to time and space is the only God there is, and it doesn’t give a damn about our feelings. Kneel before the microscopes and telescopes! Pledge thy fealty to Feynmann!

On that view, religion and spirituality are only useful to the extent they modify our behavior in the direction of helpfulness, kindness, gentleness, et cetera. They ought to be evaluated the same way we evaluate pharmaceuticals – run tests under strictly monitored conditions, gather up data, and then go where the data says go.

A lot of us don’t like that but . . . what if it’s where logic and experience take us? Would that be okay?

Another possible conclusion is to realize that presumptions notwithstanding, we are still left with the observer. There is still this experience. If one explanation for it falls shy of accuracy, and another one doesn’t feel sufficiently magical or otherwise appealing, why not look for others?

Is it possible that a pure approach to nonduality is coherent? That is, to argue that there is only awareness with its unbelievably rich tapestry of experiences, including the one of being a human observer with her intimately dualistic worldview? That everything – from gravity to cancer cells to bullets to pansies – are all merely appearances in, to, and as awareness?

That even this self is an appearance? Even this precious apparent center alternately calling itself “Me” and “I?”

Often, faced with knotty dilemmas such as these, I fall back to shrugging. I can’t prove Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi and Rupert Spira wrong. Feynmann and Maturana and Nagel can’t quite totally convince me they’re right . . . So maybe the best thing is to adopt whatever posture works best. What’s right is what works!

What’s handy about that is it lets me skip the hard questions and instead focuses on defining “works” and how to go about accurate measuring.

Say I want “works” to mean “most efficient at securing a natural and serious happiness throughout the collective,” and I am going to measure it through happiness indexes, food security, statistics on global death by famine, war, disease et cetera.

From a nondual perpsective I can say, well, yes, all that are appearances in consciousness but . . . it makes me happy. And being happy seems to help me make you happy, so . . . yes. We’ll do that. Even if it’s merely appearance.

Is that enough? To just say “hey – nondualism works for me. YMMV. It’s all good!”

What about my neighbor who believes a patriarchal Christian worldview is what makes people happiest? And his standard for measurement is how many women are only able to do what their fathers/husbands/brothers allow them to do?

Must I do battle – epistemological or otherwise – with my neighbor? What if he tries to convert me? What if he tries to convert my daughter?

Or what if my neighbor is a physicist and she mounts a well-sourced, well-articulated rational argument in favor of simply accepting bodies as objects in a universe subject to physical laws. I can’t refute it. And it’s at least moderately predictable (in a Bayesian sense). Adopting it makes me more productive and efficient, and productivity and efficiency help promote this “natural and serious happiness . . . ”

Must I accept her argument? Must I put my crucifixes and tarot cards and A Course in Miracles away?

I don’t think these are trivial questions! Which is not to say they are all equally valid or even answerable. But they do seem to follow from my premise: which is that the premise I adopt viz. human observers may, in fact, be bullshit.

When faced with a seam in the foundation, it’s a good idea to take it seriously.

How do we know anything? How does knowing matter? Is there some degree of unknowing that is acceptable? What degree? Who decides? Who will help us? And how will we know?

Where do we go from here?

Dialogue as Love

Recently I wrote this sentence:

There is no other way because we are already what we seek: are already the very home in which we long to rest.

It was in the same paragraph as this little gem:

We are love.


Deadfall past the horse pasture . . .

I try to be careful when writing that way. It’s not that the given statements are wrong per se, but that they are poetic in a way that allows for – perhaps even instigates – confusion. And the goal now is to be less confused. Better things happen when confusion abates.

If you read those sentences – now or back when they were first posted – did you like them? Was there a little shiver of yes? A little mental click like finding just the right puzzle piece? Certainly there was for me. Else why would I have written them?

“We are love” and “we are already the home in which we long to rest” are resonant because they link the self (“we”) to a couple of powerful words: “love” and “home.” And it’s a favorable association.

Language has power. Certain words and phrases resonate for us, often intimately. There is no way around this – it inheres in the human experience – and so all we can do is give attention to the experience of resonance and see what, if anything, reveals itself.

Often, we conflate interior congruence – that little shiver of yes, the joyful mental click – with the actual truth of the proposition. That is, we read “We are love” and it feels good and so therefore it must be true. But we don’t actually inquire into it: we don’t test it, we don’t tease its many strands into the open, we don’t look for alternatives, we don’t examine our biases.

And there are plenty of true facts that don’t instantiate any interior frisson in the first place. “Groundhogs have four legs.” Yawn. I mean true, but . . . yawn.

So there is something special about some words and it’s worth digging into this to figure out what exactly appeals to us and whether in our happiness we are accepting a level of confusion we should really be opposing.

Take a word like “love.”

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as love. When someone says “love,” they intend for the word to cover their personal felt understanding of ideal human behaviors, social obligations, historical patterns, et cetera.

“Love” is just a symbol that points to a welter that no single syllable in the universe could possibly reliably contain. It’s like saying that reading the word “wet” feels the same as swimming at night in the sea.

You have two choices when I use the word “love.” First, you could enter into dialogue with me. You could start by asking: “what do you mean when you use this word?” And then work with me for however long it takes to understand what I mean with what I say.

To be in dialogue this way requires time and patience and care. It is demanding. It is form of service, perhaps. To give attention to another human being in the deep way of truly aiming to understand what they mean when they say “love” . . . is itself – as I understand and use the word – an act of love.

The other option – the default option and so the easier option – is to correlate my use of the word to your own interior welter. That is, you implicitly  assume that I must mean what you would mean if you had used the same word. A lot of our human communication is predicated on just that kind of assumption.

The problem arises when my use of the word and your use of the word are so apart they could almost be different languages. Then, every subsequent move in our communication only widens the initial divide. We fall further and further apart even as we think we are moving in sync. A lot of our human problems arise from  just this kind of ongoing error.

Why do we accept accept this division? Why do we refuse to see it is an error? Why do we deny its ruinous effects?

These are important questions.

What matters is not the word that we use but rather the person who uses it. When we are in dialogue, what works is to see the whole person before us, and to be aware of what it is in us that prohibits us from seeing who is before us. Words are helpful in that meeting – that mutuality – that bringing forth of love – but they are just words. They are not that to which they purport to point.

Our practice is to live lightly with language, ever aware of that to which it points, and unafraid to do the hard work of bringing clarity to confusion.

The work is to go slowly and be careful – to be filled with care – with respect both to our wordiness and the wordiness of others. What do we mean when we say “home” or “love?” What do others mean? How shall we know?

How shall we be in dialogue, you and I?

Meaning and Now

In a way, then, what we are saying is that coherence is a natural condition towards which we naturally move – in thought, in action, and so forth. And then something obstructs that – usually our proclivity for identifying self and thought – and so we become incoherent. The problem is, incoherence is very good at masking itself, at seeming to cohere. Often we feel that we are the only sane person in a welter of insanity and irrationality. In this way, incoherence continues unabated because we never actually see it.

So if we can have a dialogue with one another – or even unto ourselves, if the conditions are right and we have some facility in that direction – then we can begin to identify what is distracting or blocking us from our natural condition of coherence. We can begin to see where we get stuck, and this is extraordinarily valuable. If we are jealous of somebody’s intellect, or the way they express their ideas, and we can get very close to that jealousy without actually indulging it – treating it as a movie almost – then we can begin to undo our connection to it. We can begin to see it as an idea, a sort of facet of a shared mind, a part of a larger stream. We can choose to let it simply drift away. Why not?

We often assume that the quality of our thoughts is such that they ought to be enshrined. They appear to us like cathedrals, like the altars inside the cathedrals, and the icons on the altars in the cathedrals. They have such gravity! And while thought is very powerful indeed and we oughtn’t disdain it on those grounds, we can also see – this is very important – that there is something, some self or ground perhaps, which can reflect those ideas or not as it wills. So the thought itself is not really very important. It’s like milkweed dander.

We begin to see that the problem with thought then is the importance we give it – we are doing this! It is like A Course in Miracles says,

The secret of salvation is but this: that you are doing this unto yourself. . . Whatever seems to be the cause of any pain and suffering you feel, this is still true” (T.27.VIII.10:1,4).

And so we slowly relinquish that. We loosen our stranglehold. We learn perhaps that we are not especially interested in loosening it! Or that we want to cling to some types of ideas and not others. Or that we can let it go only to grab it back a few hours later. But just cracking the veneer a little, seeing how there is something independent of thought . . . it is very healing, very relieving.

Keeping in mind that this something is natural can be helpful. We are not inventing it or calling it into being. We are simply paying attention to what is going on – in ourselves, first, and then by extension in the dialogue itself. There is a sort of energy and our attention is in that. It is like we thought we were looking at a painting of a river when suddenly we discover that we are actually standing beside it in truth. Nothing changes really except the quality of what we’re seeing. There is a clarity. There is a kind of electric feeling, as if somebody just turned all of life on for us. There is this movement and we – without worrying it – are part of it.

And yes, it comes and goes. Or it seems to. In truth, we step in and out of it. But the more accustomed we become to it, the more we will offer our “selves” to it. That is the beginning of creativity and peace.

Creating Meaning, Undoing Blocks

If we say that coherence is meaning that flows through us – and by extension – through society without blocks, then we should be clear on what those blocks are. If we compare meaning to a river, what blocks a river are dams (deliberate constructions) and fallen trees or eroded banks and so forth (which evolve naturally). Obviously, the blocks that impede the free flow of meaning – that cause incoherence, say – are not fallen trees and dams. They are thoughts. Or, better, they are habits of thought.

So what we are suggesting then is that meaning flows until it encounters some thought or pattern of successive thoughts that gums it up. These blocks are pernicious, even dangerous. At best they breed confusion, a sort of continuing daze, but at worst they render us murderous and destructive. So getting to them and undoing them is important. But how?

Obviously if they blocks were easy to find or dissemble then we wouldn’t have come to grief. So there is work involved in this – real work. But still. What does it mean?

I have suggested in previous posts that we are moving in the direction of coherence when we are aware – that is, when we are attentive in a sustained and energetic way. This attention is not active in the traditional sense. It isn’t trying to find problems in order to solve them. Rather, it simply wants to observe – to take not without judgment – of what is going on. Its objective is seeing – a clear and sober seeing.

When we watch our thoughts – the movement of our minds – we will begin to see that certain things will cause blockage. We might compare thought to a stream, right? And everything is just passing by, slow and steady, and then suddenly the image of a parent, say, shows up and suddenly we are feeling all sorts of things – anger, sadness, confusion. And other images fly up as well – of our childhood, of certain arguments, family holidays and all that.

What is called for is not to follow all of that – not to leap into the river, clutch at the flotsam and go flailing along with it. Instead, we just calmly observe the movement. We see the intensity, its effect, what flows from it.

What we might also see – or catch a glimpse of – are the lenses through which we perceive this stream. We might see how we actually judge the thoughts. I shouldn’t feel this way about my father. I am being disloyal or subhuman even. And we begin to see how those lenses affect what we are seeing – indeed, in essence, they become what we are seeing. Mothers should do this, children should do that. Family means this. All of that shapes what we are seeing. It is actively shaping it.

A moment of insight can flow from this – we might begin to intuitively appreciate that we are doing this to ourselves. That the thoughts are not separate from the thinker. The one is moving in the other. Indeed, the one is the other. So we see that the block is not some external fact or truth or reality but simply a habit of seeing, of judging really, that stymies the capacity of meaning to simply continue moving.

Thus, we can find our blocks by carefully watching what is going on inside of us. The idea of the parent as a block is an old one, even a stereotype, but perhaps makes clear the point. There are obvious blocks but the blocks can be quite subtle. Nor are they limited to the past. It really requires a great deal of sensitivity to perceive them and – having perceive them – allow them to be pass, keep drifting on.

It is a process. We are learning to give less importance to thought. By becoming more aware of thought – which functions both as river and block – we are becoming more sensitive to how meaning is made and how it moves. This sensitivity will move us away from grief and towards peace and healing. It is a very important undertaking for this reason.

Coherence is Natural

When we talk about coherence, we are talking about meaning that is not blocked in any way. It is not running up against various psychological or cultural blocks. Like water seeking lower ground, it simply flows where it will. This idea – and the image of the water – is helpful in that it can provide a model for how to approach our experience of coherence.

Most importantly, we cannot force coherence. That is a sort of violation, a fundamentally incoherent act that can neither nurture nor sustain the state of energetic clarity we are talking about. We have to allow meaning to find itself – to create itself, if you will. What is called for is not will power or vision so much as a sort of vigorous attention to the whole.

We want to see – to perceive – the blocks without actually doing anything about them. That is a big change in how we are used to thinking and in how we relate to our thinking. When hurt shows up, we are not going to try and make it better. When resentments show up, we are not going to say: well, I shouldn’t feel that way because so-and-so never did anything to me. It can seem right and natural to respond to unpleasant emotions by trying to heal them or avoid them or squash them down but what is called for is simply to allow them to be and then to observe them.

Water finds lower ground, doesn’t it? Rivers wind their way to the sea. Of course we can block them – with large man-made dams maybe. Fallen trees can block them. But water has a way of persisting in its direction. It has a sort of insistence to it. Read John McPhee’s wonderful book “The Control of Nature.” It is an early classic in the genre of coherence studies, though I doubt McPhee saw it that way. Human beings dam up the Atchafalaya and it just undoes all our efforts.

That is a way of saying, by analogy, that our psychological blocks can be quite sophisticated and quite deep-rooted but meaning persists. Coherence longs for itself. Perhaps we can say it that way. And we are really helpless in the face of that longing. If we allow water to simply flow where it will, what remains is a landscape in which we can reside with some degree of certainty and comfort. But if we look at the landscape and try to force the water into an accommodation, well, that is not going to be so successful.

So we have to see that. Seeing that means that we are going to be less invested in “defending” our blocks. We will begin to see that they are not so important, are actually quite insignificant. It is a sort of surrender to meaning, right? We are saying that the landscape – the interior landscape – has a form it will assume but we are not charged with building or shaping that form. And so we call back in a sort of passive way, allowing our intensity to manifest in our awareness rather than our activity.

To simply be with the movement of meaning – its shifts, its currents, its energies – without judging it or interacting with it is really a gift. It is a gift because it is healing and so we benefit from it. There is a lot of focus in traditional religions (probably no-so-traditional religions too) about inner peace but with their heavy emphasis on form, these institutions never really get us there. Everything is codified and reinforced and so forth. You have to sit on the zafu this way for this long. You have to say this prayer before eating that wafer. It all amounts to forcing meaning along a certain path. I know a lot of my friends – particularly Buddhist – will resist, if not resent, this characterization but I think there is something to it. I think there is some value. Coherence is new. What has passed is not going to be so helpful or fructive.

So again, we do not have to do anything other than pay attention. This is going to be challenging at first, but sooner than most people realize or expect, its benefits emerge. Some light enters and once there is light, the darkness is undone. So we begin to see that we can do this – we can pay attention – and we see that to which we pay attention if forever new, forever unfolding. And in a sort of penultimate sense, we see at last that even our attention is unfolding – is part of the whole enfoldment. Like water rushing down hill for the slow-streaming river, what we are doing is natural and even easy. We might even say, it is.

Damned Lies!

Romney Damages Our Already Hurting Political Dialogue

To be coherent is, in significant ways, to be honest. If it is raining, we are coherent when we say “better take an umbrella for our walk. We are incoherent when we say, “that’s not rain falling from the sky – it’s liquid sunlight.” The difference is important because incoherence tends to breed additional incoherence. In the instance case, it means that a lot of people might get wet, and then angry, and then take their anger out on someone.

Incoherence has a way of spiraling into itself.

In that light, it is discouraging when politicians “spin” the truth. That is itself a dishonest phrase. The truth is not up for a vote – it is what it is. We can try to gussy it up and we can ignore it altogether, but we can’t eliminate it. No matter how the stakes – winning or losing an election, say – when we break faith with the truth, we are behaving incoherently. And the consequences naturally follow – rancor and distrust, rigid partisan line-drawing, curtailed dialogue. And those, in turn, can lead to economic catastrophe and war.

Coherence matters. Telling the truth matters.

That is why it is so discouraging to see Mitt Romney dissembling in such a reckless way. His claim earlier this month that Jeep will be shipping jobs to China has been debunked on so many levels and by so many people – it’s just flat out wrong – and yet he continues to make it.

Obviously, the stakes are as high as they will ever be for Mr. Romney. He has been running for President for many years – and dreaming of it for even longer no doubt. If he loses this campaign, it will be his last. That’s a big deal. We can all appreciate the stress and anxiety that attends him right now. And, of course, he’s in the midst of a presidential campaign which is its own sort of crazy. All in all, the inclination to lie is understandable.

But it is not – repeat, not – forgivable. When we lie, whatever the scale, we obscure what is true. We render it incoherent. We have obligations – to ourselves, our families and friends, our broader communities and even – it’s true – the world – to tell the truth. If the truth is inconvenient, well, that’s part of coherence. What does the bumper sticker say? It is what it is.

It remains to be seen whether Romney’s dissembling will enable him to win Ohio and perhaps the national election. If he does, his victory will be at best an incoherent one. And there is little to suggest that he is interested in healing it. Indeed, the evidence suggests that when Mitt Romney’s back is against the political wall the first casualty is truth. He seems to regard it as infinitely malleable and forever at the surface of his ambition. We deserve better – we really do. Our political dialogue is already injured – all Romney has done is drive the stake a little closer to its heart.

Coherent Political Narratives

I have been following the math in this election a bit. It’s interesting. You have guys like Sam Wang – and to a slightly more compromised extent, Nate Silver – who are math nerds. Their algorithmic approach to polling creates a more neutral – I want to say “pure” but won’t – vision of what is happening on the campaign trail. Ideally, they are creating real-time snapshots of what is actually happening, as opposed to partisan interpretations of what is happening.

Those partisan interpretations are problematic in the sense that they are dishonest – or at least they are willing to be dishonest. Their objective is to drive the narrative in order to move the numbers. If your candidate is winning, you play that up in order to buttress their lead or even expand on it. If they are not, then you have to create a narrative – a story – in which they actually are, or are just about to because they have the momentum, and so forth.

Political journalism and punditry at all levels tends to treat campaigns as narratives that can be massaged and nurtured into preferred tales with defined endings. But there are consequences to that approach, not the least of which is it tends to deprive people of meaningful information that can help them formulate who to support and how.

Something has to give.

Math nerds are really my first experience with an approach to following politics that separate the math from the narrative. But it raises an interesting question. What is the proper relationship between narrative and math in politics?

Take, for example, Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium. That site’s math – I am being inelegant here – gives President Obama a well over 85% chance of winning the election with only ten days to go. Compare that to Dan McLaughlin’s analysis over at Redstate, a well-known conservative site. McLaughlin – also relying on math – concludes that “Obama is toast.”

Both men are using math. How can we reconcile the difference in their conclusions?

One way to do it is to consider the role of narrative. Wang is not an obviously partisan player. While his site attracts a lot of Obama supporters, there are a fair number of Republicans as well. And the comment streams often feature some fairly spirited debate between people who think Wang is out to lunch and Romney is cruising to an outsized victory and those who are comfortable that Obama is going to win an election that he has led narrowly (in terms of popular vote) but consistently for months.

Redstate, on the other hand, is less about dialogue from a conservative standpoint than simply generating unqualified support for the Republican candidate. Commentators are often banned for “concern trolling” – expressing even the hint of an opinion that all is not proceeding apace for that outstanding Romney victory.j

Thus, one way to think about Redstate’s front page writers like McLaughlin is to realize that they are carefully generating pieces that push the favored narrative. In the immediate case, so far as I can tell, McLaughlin is cherry-picking polls – focusing almost exclusively on Rasmussen and Gallup – in order to say without blushing that “Obama is toast.”

His math is probably fine in the calculations, but one questions the premise. If there are dozens of polls out there and you only choose the ones whose conclusion best suits the narrative you want, then you are not really being honest. You are privileging story over math.

Of course, I can appreciat the impulse. Elections are essentially unfolding narratives – I suspect more voters are in tune with politics at that level than at the math level. Ideally you can point to sites like PEC or even 538 and use them to ground a convincing narrative about how voters are responding to this or that aspect of your candidate/campaign and so forth.

But if the aggregate numbers don’t work, then what happens?

On the one hand, you can be honest and say the math isn’t working so well for your candidate. But that’s hardly inspiring. If you’re in it to win, you can’t really dwell on how bad you’re doing. You’ve got to change the narrative.

And that happens in one of two ways. You take McLaughlin’s approach and restrict yourself to numbers that create the desired result. Then you tell a story based on those numbers that gets people fired up and excited.

Or you can simply ignore the math altogether, tell the story you want to tell, and hope nobody catches on.

If we are being coherent, then the narrative we construct is going to be consistent with the facts – whether they are mathematical or scientific or what have you. Indeed, “construct” may be too strong a word. We seek a narrative that naturally and honestly arises from what I am going to call the factual ground.

In politics, which is so often a bloodthirsty and zero sum game, that’s generally not acceptable. In fact, we take it as truth that politicians – and their stories – are not truthful. If a suitable narrative “arises,” then great. If not, who cares? We can always invent one – or switch the polls (or climate warming reports) or what have you around.

Stories are malleable; the truth is not. A coherent political system would recognize this and act accordingly. A coherent citizenry would demand nothing less.

We have a lot of work to do!

Innumeracy and Coherence

By and large, I am intellectually grounded in the humanities. My science and math background is more or less nonexistent. What little is there is there because I’ve cobbled it together in my thirties and forties, while practicing law, writing poetry and teaching English. My intentions are good but I remain – in the lexicon of John Allen Paulos – innumerate.

Innumeracy breeds a sort of incoherence that can be quite dangerous. Take, for example, this brouhaha. If you read John Dickerson’s article at Slate (and his response to Dr. Wang), you’ll see these words:

It’s a fool’s game to guess whose momentum is greater. But Romney is peaking at just the right moment.

Focus in particular on that qualifying phrase – “fool’s game.” I know exactly what Dickerson means by it – I could have written it myself.  In the world of the innumerate – at least those who are sophisticated literates – one’s intuition or gut feel is predominant and trustworthy. They have to be because math and science are of no use. Anecdotal evidence is hard data, from which whatever conclusion we draw that “feels” right is right.

But Dickerson is ignorant because the notion of momentum in politics can in fact be measured – and is in fact measured. It is neither a game nor an exercise in foolishness. If one is aware of it – and capable of interacting with it – then one can construct a narrative  grounded in numeracy that is both accurate and helpful. Instead, Dickerson has essentially misled his readers – not with malice but with ignorance. The result is journalism that is objectively untrue and – given the importance of literate and numerate journalism in a democracy – unhelpful.

This sort of incoherence is readily addressed. First, we have to see it – in others perhaps but most importantly in ourselves. It’s good to recognize that there is a gap in our thinking – a deficiency in the way in which we measure and respond to the world. It is like trying to write a letter to a friend in a language she doesn’t read. We can pretend it works – we can even assume it is working – but sooner or later we have to accept that we are simply hiding from a meaningful alternative.

The thing is, when we perceive the gap in our knowledge, then it becomes fixable. We can stop it through through formal or independent study. We can resolve that our actions going forward – as journalists, doctors, teachers, what have you – are guided by coherence. Dickerson’s article, for example, could have measured his perception of enthusiasm amongst Romney supporters against the mathematical realities of the election. That would have been interesting – and helpful.