Late March Musing

I sent out a newsletter this morning. Being the socially clumsy and poorly-organized man that I am, I don’t know the precise overlap between who reads what I post here and who reads there. If you’re not signed up and you’d like to be, please feel free. And if not, no worries.

I have been happy lately, in the natural way that sometimes visits, especially when I am not working overtime to force my point-of-view on the world. Chrisoula and I have been half-assed homesteaders for years; Covid-19 reminds us that a more committed practice not only helps our family but expands our ability to be helpful to others.

In dialogue and action, we are deepening our commitment to self-reliance and local relationship in terms of food production. And we are thinking, too, of how to work differently, and otherwise make our living more creative, sustainable, and service-oriented.

This is not for everyone! I hope you will forgive me if I sound preachy. Healing takes the form that is most helpful to us, that most readily reminds us that our identity is not yoked to a body, and that the world of perception is illusory (e.g., T-2.IV.5:2). For me, in part, that has always taken the form of rigorous study and writing.

But it also includes a relationship with the world premised on actively working to balance the scales of justice so that all people enjoy the modest material abundance (and comfort and safety) that characterizes our living here on our homestead. I don’t always know what that means, so I have to be in relationship with others in order to learn. Together, we think out loud about how to help each other and how our helping can naturally extend to others.

This latter work – as opposed to study and writing – is harder for me, because it evokes the body and the body always evokes relationship. I am happiest in the forest or pasture, alone with my thoughts. With others – since childhood – I can be impatient, insecure, haughty, overly-sensitive . . .

I am, as Chrisoula often gently points out, a high-maintenance guy.

So learning proceeds apace, in the company of those with whom learning and healing are presently most effective and, as I consent to the posture of learning, which begins in humility, it is given me to be happy.

Healing is never only of the world (its pandemics, wars, famines or tsunamis et cetera) nor only of the self (its fear, guilt, pride, greed, et cetera) but is rather about discovering – and then gently living in – the nexus that self, world and other is.

We give attention to the life that is given to us, in all its beauty and confusion and pain, and we learn that beyond the flux and chaos is a stillness and peace and that the means to that joyful state is service unto one another, in whatever form appears.

To that end, I hope you are well, and that your families and communities are well, and I thank you for reading and sometime sharing with me here. Truly, without you, it would not mean a thing.


Spirituality as Equality

This observation underlies a lot of my thinking and practice, half-assed as it is: “Spiritual” is in some important sense the equivalent of perceiving all being as “equal” or even “same.”

This is the miracle of creation; that it is one forever . . . Though every aspect is the whole, you cannot know this until you see that every aspect is the same, perceived in the same light and therefore one (T-13.VIII.5:1, 3).

Physical proximity matters to our species. We tend to care most for those who are near and dear. My kids are more important than the kids in the next town and I don’t even think about kids in China or Guatemala. Of course that’s not true – all kids matter. But my behavior certainly implies that it’s not true.

So “spirituality” opens up the idea that whatever love I offer my kids is the love to which all kids are entitled. I may not personally be able to love all kids that way, but I am going to look for ways to make it easier for all kids to know that love. Maybe I utilize resources differently (e.g., kids in Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo mine the metals for our phones), or vote for candidates with platforms that are more kid-friendly.

Spirituality asks me to look at the experience of love that I have locally – in this body, this family, this community – and then broaden it. It asks me to consider a collective in which all beings are worthy of love and then to act accordingly.

The other thing this leveling does is that it de-specializes folks. What I mean by that is that it undoes the emphasis on gurus or enlightened teachers as somehow not human. To call someone a “saint” or “master” is to subtly dismiss them, to place them beyond the periphery of self and world. It “others” them in unhelpful ways.

But if I don’t “other” Jesus or Saint Francis or Thich Nhat Hanh, if I insist that they are like me and what they experience I can experience, and what they extend, I can extend, then my responsibility changes. My relationships change.

If I can be radically loving, then I will be radically loving (which begins with undoing that which impedes the natural expression of radical love). And if I am not ready to be that loving, then I can at least see that clearly and be responsible for the gap.

That is the other way that spirituality matters – it undoes the hierarchy of achievement, of specialness.

A lot of this can be subsumed under the notion of “undoing self-interest.” Or expanding it infinitely. How shall I think about my being, such that sunflowers and ex-lovers and fireflies and kids in Africa are implicated in the love that is brought forth in my living?

We tend to measure ourselves against standards, right? Be this good, this generous, this activist. We have ideals of Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. But “spiritual” as I am using the word, the idea, means not changing the standards but rather rethinking the value of standards altogether.

A big part of my thinking in the past two years – under the influence of Humberto Maturana, Ernst von Glasersfeld and Heinz von Foerster – has been coming to see the way that we are naturally structurally given to love and peace and that the work, so to speak, is clarifying this and facilitating its expression.

On that view, I don’t need to denigrate myself because I’m not the Dalai Lama nor praise myself because I’m not Donald Trump. I need to let go of reliance on standards – I need to see that the spectrum those opposites introduce is not natural and not helpful. I need to garden more, and bake bread more, and play more music – activities that naturally arise in my living as expressions of love, community, inclusiveness, nurture . . .

But I don’t garden because somebody said to and I don’t bake bread because of how it makes others think of me: those practices are just simple expressions of how I understand myself and my responsibilities to my family, my town, my planet and so forth. Other activities will arise for other folks.

In a sense, the point is not what we do but rather its source. How does it arise in us? What calls it forth?

I want to let love come forth in me the way it naturally comes forth. This requires attention, study and practice but it’s more like learning to ride a bike than becoming “a good person.” Riding a bike is mechanical. Yes there are psychological elements, but they are met in satisfaction of the mechanics. I get more confident as I get more effective at riding. This is true of love as well.

In the end, love does the work. This is the helpful insight. We don’t have to do much other than be present; love does the work. Love directs us, guides us, moves us, instructs us. Our job is to be gently attentive, to be open and willing. To be – as I wrote in this context – partners in our own healing.

Life goes on! The neighbors run their chain saw after dark and it’s frustrating. Chickens die and my daughter’s heart breaks. Teaching gets mired in bureaucratic mud. In life the bread sometimes doesn’t rise.

Beyond all of that is the gentle ongoing living that is not bound by form nor limited in expression. It bears us along and the work is to be okay with that, to see it clearly and be okay with it. To “perceive it in the same light” and know on that basis that what appears as many is in fact one.

On Love, Semantic Preference, Insight and Violets

Hilary Putnam suggests that “What is wrong is that Nature, or ‘physical reality’ in the post-Newtonian understanding of the physical, has no semantic preferences.” That is, there is no one way or right way or best way to speak/write. There are only more or less helpful ways and they are all contingent on context.

This represents, for me, a fairly grueling hill to climb, yet it makes a point dear to my heart (if difficult to embody in a lived way), and so it is worth the ascent.

this past summer’s violets

We are haunted by separation – self/other, self/world, sign/signified, soul/body, here/there et cetera. Duality pervades our experience – appears to be our experience – and with it comes a longing to unify or transcend or undo or bypass the various dichotomies through which dualism asserts itself. We want falling in love to complete us, want to be “one” with God, et cetera.

Yet all our attempts at unifying, transcending, undoing and bypassing – insert your verb of choice here – end up confirming (conforming to) the very divide they aim to go beyond.

Part of the problem is that the world and the other all arise by virtue of distinctions that are descriptive and are thus contingent on language. Words sever and curtail. Perception is a cut, and language is a cut (and good luck trying to figure out which comes first). Looking for the bottom or the edge – or the beginning or the end – is like wandering through a hall of mirrors after a few hits of acid.

God – the Whole, the Beginning-and-End, the Source, Brahmin, Void, et cetera – is not partial to any language or ritual or cultural expression. Nor does God embrace each and every one of them, as if in a show of cosmic unity. The Whole, as such, is sufficiently beyond our ken, in a way that makes all our languaging, ritualizing and expressing divinely irrelevant.

Thus, we are welcome to play our spiritual games, but they are games. They are play. And – critically – they are non-zero-sum games. There are no winners or losers. It’s more like we’re just dancing, from dusk to dawn, partner to partner, song to song. It’s messy, glorious, exhausting, fun, social, tedious, lonely, prayerful et cetera. And it has no point beyond its own play, beyond its own expression. You stagger out of the dance hall only to learn that it’s dance halls all the way down. Allamande left!

One of many ways to approach the dance is to adopt a spiritual language and practice that is helpful, where helpfulness is measured by its capacity to make us consistently happy, where “happy” is more or less synonymous with “coherent” and where “coherent” means “I know it’s a dance, and I’m okay it’s a dance, and my knowing and okayness are a form amongst other forms of me dancing.”

{I know that previous paragraph is a mouthful but it works}

Another way to frame this is to ask what allows us to go slowly and cheerfully through our living, without wishing it were some other living, while simultaneously doing what we can to make this living more happy, viable, open, just, sustainable for all beings with whom this living is shared.

This is an invitation to a spirituality that does not insist on its own primacy but only on its relative viability (i.e., it is open, not closed) and – critically, fundamentally – it accepts the complexity and uncertainty and responsibility posed by this openness.

In essence, I am decrying any easy unities or pluralisms, e.g., “we’re all human” or “all religions share the same goals.” We aren’t and they don’t. Since it is impossible to separate context from observer-of-context, agent from world-in-which-agent-acts, glib statements which effectively flatten out all difference in the interest of some pure objectivity or absolute are not viable. In fact, they are a form of violence. Beware the preacher extolling them.

For example, my experience and practice and espousal of A Course in Miracles is not consonant with lots of other serious students. At some point me and ACIM together passed a rubicon that most ACIM students either don’t want or don’t need to cross. Fair enough! Yet the passing – and what occurred on its far side – remains generative in my living. Thus, what nurtures me leaves another hungry. Any move to avoid or ignore this difference functions as an injustice to both poles.

Yet at the same time we are not allowed to simply enshrine any and all differences under the rubric of casual relativism. “Hey if it works for you . . . ” If what works for me is doing violence unto others, in any form, then it has to be ended, healed, repaired, and otherwise brought to love. When “hey if it works for you” tacitly allows violence to go on unimpeded, then it, too, becomes a form of violence. It’s nice to pretend that we aren’t the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse but . . . we are the ones strangling whales with plastic refuse.

{Yes that did escalate quickly}

So a kind of vigilance is called for and a kind of intelligence, because we are simultaneously judging and not judging others. It’s complicated. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to get called out. And we’re going to have to deal with all that.

It’s so much easier to just go on picnics with self-help Jesus and like-minded folks who share our sense of order – hikes, bluets and brook trout, New Testament over Old Testament, Emily Dickinson over Walt Whitman, “over” instead of “and” et cetera . . .

{note the last critical distinction – “over” instead of “and” – *and imagine a spiritual practice predicated on noticing when we use one rather than the other – and on evaluating the use – and on being both capable of shifting and willing to shift accordingly}

I am thinking here of something Donna Haraway wrote in “A Cyborg Manifesto.”

Some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.

“Knowing the difference” is a learning process, including trial and error, study and dialogue, periods of silent reflection, abiding in confusion, relationship with teachers and fellow students and ex-teachers and ex-students and wanna-be students and teachers and . . .

Along lines implied by Haraway, I suggest that functional spirituality is in the nature of a learning process, one that we did not begin and should not expect to see the end of because it is fundamentally Protean, reflexive, circular, ever spiraling hither and yon. A lot of our unhappiness and acting out arises from insisting – sometimes consciously, often unconsciously – on linearity and absolutism. But linearity is a description of experience, not a law, and certainly not the law. There is – for there is always – another way.

For example, I prefer the blooming violet to the blank white snows of winter, yet beneath that cold flat surface of January, the violet, in its way, lives and enacts – in what to me is darkness, mystery, void – its return. On that view, why hate winter? It’s just violets another way, sort of like looking at your dog or child the side. Same person, different view, but your love doesn’t change.

Yet it is also possible to mow over the violets again and again, a sort of murder, so that they cannot reseed themselves, cannot return, and their absence is no longer “violets another way” but rather “not violets.” Their absence is deliberately constructed and intentionally enacted and – for me anyway – it hurts. For me, it constitutes an act of violence I cannot – will not – countenance.

The difference between violets in spring and violets in winter is – deploying Haraway’s construction – a playful difference, for it is not devoid of living. You see that? While the difference implied by repeated mowing is not playful because it ends the violets.

Let me say diverge for a moment on the subject of violets, for they are vital to my understanding of what I am trying to say here with respect to spirituality, God, self and so forth.

When we moved to this place, the remnants of an apple orchard dotted the northwest corner of the property – six trees, two of which were dead, a third of which was all-but-dead. Other trees appeared to have been cut down in previous decades but nobody really knew. The ghost of an old farm haunts the landscape but it’s been severed and sold and zoned so often, even the ghost has a hard time finding its bearings.

The little orchard, as such, was overgrown. It was dense and tangled. Maple saplings had taken hold; thimbleberry and goldenrod crowded the trees. A previous owner had tossed empties there: countless Bud Light cans shined in the underbrush like big blue sequins.

We cut down the two dead trees and all the maple saplings (I say saplings – a couple were more than seventy feet tall). Over the next year or so, I cleared the space – hacking and raking, collecting trash. The year after that, it was clear enough to mow, so I did.

By the end of that year, we had a decent apple harvest, and the space was green and open. We put lawn chairs there so we could watch the horses.

Next Spring, the violets came.

Purple is the union of red and blue and generally when I encounter it, a quiet sense of holiness abides. Plus, I like pretty things, especially flowers, and watching anything grow – a chicken, a tomato plant, an apple tree – quiets some interior discord. So it was easy to mow around those violets. It was therapeutic in a religious sense. It mattered.

But a funny thing happened. Next year there were more violets – like a small community of them. It was like somebody had seeded a little church. And so the space that went unmowed enlarged. And the year after that – which is this year – the space enlarged yet again and – to my delight and amazement – another patch of violets emerged about twenty yards east of the original patch. The violets are traveling, propogating, and their travel is amplified in my joy and wonder which, in turn, nurtures their expansion.

The suggestion I make here is that attention to the violets, as outlined above, and attention to attention to the violets, is a form of life-giving playfulness that gets at what I suggest is “helpful spirituality.”

The violets appear as other to me. They are alive and possessed of agency. In making space for them, I am also in nontrivial ways making space for my own self, my own living, my own agency. Else why would I be so happy?

But of course, nurturing the violets is a decision. By entering into relationship with the violets, other relationships are curtailed. For example, if I mowed more rigorously in that space, then dandelions might proliferate. Or we could plant another apple tree, or some blueberry bushes.

In attending the violets in and with love, the intention is to attend as well the space in which all-that-violets-are-not also dwells. The absent blueberry bushes, the absent dandelions . . . My play necessarily excludes them but if I recall them, then my play is mature because it is not ignorant. It accepts responsibility for itself. Since I cannot have everything – the Whole – then I must choose the part – the partner for the dance – and accept responsibility for my choice, and then love / dance accordingly.

If I put the violets at the center – a choice I make – then mowing them becomes an unacceptable form of violence. Yet if dandelions were central, then another approach would be viable.

We choose our living – and by our choosing construct our living – and a field of ethics emerges. Context brings forth responsibility. Knowing and living and loving are all situated, embodied, consequential. There is no one right way, and yet the movement is forever towards love and happiness and coherence, and so there are more and/or less helpful ways, and our living must attend to them in responsive and responsible ways.

Of course, the dialogue is relatively simple when we are talking about violets rather than blueberry bushes, but when we are choosing economic policies that oppress women, or military policies that make whole swathes of the planet unsafe for children . . .

Then it becomes messy. And complex. And recourse to simple utterances – “God is One” or “I am not a body I am free” and so forth – tend to function as blindfolds. They tend to promote the illusion of a knowable God, whose privileged vantage point can be ours if we only believe/act/profess rightly. Thus, they become lacunae in which seeds of confusion and pain take root.

They become utterances behind which we avoid responsibility for our choices, by which our spirituality becomes a bland patina of “I’m okay” rather than a deep dive with open arms and open hearts into uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, difference that constitutes living . . .

The self-improvement or self-help project – which neatly swallowed A Course in Miracles – and was itself neatly swallowed by Patriarchal Capitalism – always promotes the abstraction of a perfect completed subject, which we translate as our own self raised to glorious perfection in both body and thought.

But attention – which is the light of Christ, in the semantics I adopt as most viable for me presently – reveals not only what is lovely in us (and others) but also reveals our inadequacy, despondence, infidelity, greed, selfishness . . .

Perfection, as such, is the vague grail that keeps us forking over our living – materially and otherwise – to a system bent only on depriving us of the only thing that matters, which is our living, our messy beautiful frustrating gorgeous ecstatically mutual living.

The suggestion is that we let go of those abstract ideals – the idealized self, the God taking a personal interest in us, the sanitized Jesus and Buddha, the easy spiritual outs, and take the hand of our kin – who are not family but with whom we share affinity, who are our kind – and together, in ways that resonate and cohere for us in our shared hand-holding, bring forth love.

This will be clumsy and inefficient and will almost certainly appear irrelevant but so be it. In our togetherness, we will remember how to be happy by making others happy, and perhaps recall some other ways of being that will be useful going forward.

So I wonder if in the end we are not like the violets?

They appeared out of nowhere. Yes, there is a handy story that explains their appearance (but note biology is a discourse about life not life itself), but it doesn’t comply with experience, which is that I cleared some land thinking “apple orchard” and was unexpectedly met with “violets.”

By all accounts the violets do not know me even though it is literally my indulgence and attention that allows them to live and thrive. And lest I become too self-righteous – Sean the God and Savior of Violets – I must remember that I cannot say who or what countenances my own existence. Who or what indulges me? Attends me? Takes pleasure in me?

I have thoughts and opinions about answers to those questions, but any answer I offer is necessarily partial and thus does not fully settle the question.

In these ways, for these reasons, the gap between me and the violets shrinks, becomes almost unnoticeable, and certainly less dispositive than it once seemed. We are all lovely, we are all processual, we are all giving – and being given – attention.

Did I bring the violets forth? Did the violets bring me forth? Are we together brought forth by God – the deliberate God of Christianity? The blind functionary of evolution? Or some other Holiness/Wholeness altogether? Or not?

And does it matter? For when I finish writing, I will wander out back to check on the garden, throw hay to the horses. I’ll visit the violets. I’ll come back in and tend to the sourdough starter and make a pot of tea to see Chrisoula and me through the afternoon. Is this not love? Is this not service? Is this not enough?

Drifting through August . . .

I sent out a newsletter this morning, ruminating on the garden and how it symbolizes – in an active and useful way – the love and inner peace into which we are all slowly spiraling. Sign up if you like!

I am doing some ACIM-specific writing in the form of Facebook Notes, and welcome you to read them and help me refine my thinking and its expression. Writing and reading are a shared dance and I am never not in need of partners, new steps, reminders not to step on toes, et cetera.

Finally, I want to share something personal.

eggplantThis summer, I had the unusual (for me) experience of being physically unwell. I had to take some powerful medication, an experience to which I am generally averse. For the first time ever I underwent anesthesia. I was laid up in ways that are unfamiliar and debilitating.

A lot of time was given to a sort of hazy reflecting, remembering, re-cognizing.

Also simply to resting.

A couple of years ago I had a powerful experience in the Cambridge Library. The gist of it was that while it was okay to keep reading and studying, it was no longer precisely necessary. A door opened and I was invited to walk through it.

So naturally I stayed in the library and kept right on reading and studying.

unripe tomatoesThis summer, that intense – some might say frenetic – study finally collapsed on itself. Sickness and medication combined to make me largely incapable of sustaining it. Intellectual busy-ness slowed to a crawl. In its place was a gentle float, not unlike that described by Bob Dylan in “Man in the Long Black Coat.”

There are no mistakes in life
some people say
and it’s true sometimes
you can see it that way
but people don’t live or die
people just float
she went with the man in the long back coat

The whole song is worth listening to, really.

Anyway, in time, that floating softened into a gentle peace towards which I was resistant, even hostile. It was if I were leaning on a slight fence, gazing into an enormous lovely field. All I had to do was lean the tinest bit and I would live in that lush bounty forever.

And I wouldn’t lean! I couldn’t. It was such an incredible to thing to witness! Imagine someone offering you a slice of blueberry pie and you just knock it to the ground, even though you’re starving and you love blueberry pie. Imagine doing that over and over . . .

forest pathYet I saw more than that, too. Namely, I saw that the peace that offered itself did not recognize my resistance. It wasn’t indifferent to my resistance. For this peace, my resistance didn’t exist.

That is, there was no relationship between “Sean” (my body, my learning, my feelings, my issues – the whole screwy welter) and this peace. One could be the biggest, most selfish idiot imaginable and this peace would neither depart nor retract its openness.

The pie was never not there. It only seemed like you were knocking it away.

Why do we say no to Love? Why do we refuse to let go of the sliver of identity that causes us so much grief and pain?

Those are nontrivial questions! And lately when I reflect on them, and seek to answer them in pragmatic ways – to bring the answers forth in my living – I find myself reflecting in turn on A Course in Miracles – that beautiful, maddening curriculum and its beautiful, maddening body of students, of which I am a – yes – a beautiful, maddening aspect.

As I have begun to physically heal, and to resume more natural levels of energy and attention, it is A Course in Miracles I find myself writing about and relying upon to remember how to navigate both life in the world and Life which is Love.

The way station and the trail and the summit merge . . .

Saying so is a bit more personal and biographical than is perhaps helpful, or even necessary, but honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Healing is in no small part our willingness to to fully own our need for healing and then – when the healing is offered, which it always is – to accept it, as best we are able, on the terms in which it appears.

It remains my conviction that by giving attention to our living in the world, and sharing that living with others, that living will – sometimes dramatically but perhaps more often in gentle ordinary ways – make clear a path to a peace that surpasses understanding, and a love that is impersonal and unconditional, and the happiness attending both.

On which path I remain a wordy and sometimes obtuse traveler, whose wordiness can never make clear my gratitude for your fellowship and care.

Thank you!


Being Happy in and with Uncertainty

There is a domain whose existence we are aware of but the contents of which – for now – remain beyond our ability to know. Hence my commitment to epistemic humility as a spiritual practice.

I say “for now” because I cannot rule out the possibility of advances – technological, psychological, et cetera – that will open up this domain to knowing.

But for now we can say that we don’t know what we don’t know and we are aware of this fact. Thus, there is a domain whose existence we are aware of but the contents of which are beyond our ability to know.

Therefore, uncertainty is inherent in this ongoing experience. We have no choice but to relate to it.

One suggestion with respect to relating is to recognize our apparently innate tendency to confuse this domain with eternity and/or infinity.

Eternity and infinity are qualities that unknowing can appear to have. And since we don’t like uncertainty, we readily assume that what we are dealing with is not uncertainty but rather infinity and eternity.

From there it’s an easy hop to rename uncertainty “God” and assume we are having a spiritual experience. “I am that.” “I am awareness itself.” “I am one with God.”

And so forth.

But what if we leave God out of it? What if we leave infinity and eternity out of it and just make friends with uncertainty?

That is, rather than see uncertainty as a problem to be solved, why not see it as a companion for a journey? Or a partner for a dance? Or even the music to which we dance, if that metaphor works better.

This doesn’t mean we can’t be in dialogue with uncertainty with a goal of being less uncertain or uncertain differently. By all means study. By all means explore the inner and outer landscapes.

But perhaps adopt a view of this study and exploration that is less linear and colonial in nature. That is, consider that our study and exploration is unlikely to have an end (linear) and is unlikely to ever bring uncertainty permanently under our control (colonial).

When we view the world and our living not as a problem to be solved but as a partner for a dance, then our living changes. It becomes happier in the sense of being less rigid, conditional and exclusive. We aren’t trying to control life or restrict life. We are just responding to life as it responds to us.

Paradoxically, when we no longer insist the world resolve into absolute divine answers or patterns, then hints of divinity suddenly appear. Life becomes vibrant and dynamic, a welcoming flow rather than an opposing force. We feel joy and peace. We feel free.

Thus, rather than attack unknowing or uncertainty, perhaps we ought to lean into it. Perhaps we ought to question the tendency to see uncertainty as problematic or somehow other.

Rather, can we see it as an invitation to play rather than work? And then go ahead and play? Will we not – at last – be happy?