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Archive for February, 2011

I was coming out of Shivasana the other night, at my regular friday evening yoga class, and the instructor brought us up to a seated position with our hands at our chest in prayer, and explained that when we say “Namaste” it means “The Light In Me Recognizes the Light in You.” I thought it was a pretty clear and cogent explanation for this Indian idea that defies translation and invites misinterpretation. We bowed our heads, muttered Namaste, and wrapped up the class.

Then the guy next to me asked, “What do you mean by ‘the light’?”

“Alright!” I thought, “Forget the downward dogs. Let’s talk about that for the next hour.” If I’d been my ordinary surly self and not freshly rebalanced by an hour and a half of yoga, I probably would have spoken up to point out that the “light” was a simplification of the Indian notion of Atman.

Atman, I would have liked to explain, refers to something like the true Self or the universal spirit, depending on which school of Indian philosophy you subscribe to. I might have added, incidentally, that Atmen is also German for ‘breathe’, as in einatmen (to inhale) and ausatmen (to exhale).

In non-dualistic sects of Hinduism (such as Advaita), the Atman is considered identical with the Brahman, which is to say that there is no distinction between the individual essence and the universal essence. Dualistic schools (Dvaita), however, distinguish the supreme spirit (Brahman) from the individual, but still accept a wide area of overlap. Either way, they hold a general consensus on the idea that we are all imbued with some spiritual essence that stirs within us and flows between us.

The breath offers a very useful analogy, particularly considering its significance in yoga, but also remembering its linguistic correlation to the Atman. Each breath we take is unique, containing a certain combination of oxygen molecules that will never be duplicated. And yet each breath is drawn from a single pool of oxygen, from what we call our atmosphere, which is just a derivative from the greek atmos (vapor) and sphaira (sphere) — a ball of vapor that satisfies our most fundamental need, more important even than food or water.

So each breath we take is drawn from this single, common source, the one and only atmosphere, which cannot possibly be divided. You might even say, “The vital breath in me recognizes the vital breath in you, and no one can tell them part.” Similarly, every trace of matter that comprises our physical bodies comes from a single repository of atoms, what we call the universe, from the Latin uni (one) and verse (song). Finally, if you like, you can extrapolate that same line of thought to the spiritual level and conclude that we are all spiritual products sprung from a single divine source, like waves in a single sea, or sparks from a single fire .

Like a plate full of veggie patties made from the same batch of burger mix, we are all unique, but virtually indistinguishable. Essentially, we’re all comprised of the same ingredients, in minutely varying proportions, producing slightly different appearances. And the more we acknowledge and understand that fact, the more respect, tolerance and compassion we will have for one another and for ourselves.

But instead of offering that explanation, which may have led to a fascinating discussion of cosmology, metaphysics and nature vs. nurture, I let our instructor offer a handful of synonyms, which seemed to satisfy, while I sunk into a deep and silent meditation on the universal mind, and prayed for my classmate’s newly aroused consciousness to blossom by its own fruitful course.

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Relativity

Few things can be as interesting – or should I say frustrating? – as watching a debate between the Richard Dawkins self-righteous atheists and the Religious Right, right, infallibly right. Anyone with an open mind and a safe distance of objectivity will quickly see what these contentious adversaries would never admit themselves, that they resemble each other far more than they differ.

The inability to get along between people with too much in common is a story as ancient as the first sibling rivalry. The old adage says that you are your own worst critic, but that uncanny acquaintance who resembles you in so many ways is more likely your thorniest fault-finder of all. We could deconstruct our fragile psyches and reflect on the difficulty of introspection ad infinitum, and certainly we should, but first I’d like to consider another source of infinite irony, one that binds our religious fundamentalists and concrete materialists as tightly as a pair of interdependent binary stars.

On the surface, these two unwavering camps appear to disagree on every point. It’s as if they are running full-speed ahead in opposite directions, while the real answers remain somewhere on the middle ground between them. So with their backs to the truth, they run faster and further, like brothers in arms, gazing only at the shadows on the cave walls.

Onward they go, plunging ever deeper into the mysteries and closer to the boundaries of the cosmos. And as they do so, their conclusions grow increasingly riddled with the paradoxes of infinity, contradictions of eternity, and oxymorons of omnipotence. Skeptics will ridicule believers for accepting a Creator who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-forgiving, in the face of a real world that crawls with vice, injustice and malevolence. “Didn’t He know that Adam would sin?” they ask. And why on Earth would He create a race of sinners and then oblige them to spend their lives in supplication, lest they be punished with eternal damnation for being sinners?

Meanwhile, the sensible rationalists build bigger telescopes and stronger microscopes, clawing their way ever closer to the concrete foundation that underlies our reality. And as they draw closer and closer to the immeasurably vast, the incomprehensibly small, and the speed of light, they too become entangled in contradictions. The elegant logic of their superior reasoning simply collapses.

In the absence of a timeless, limitless, all-powerful cosmic architect, they posit a finite universe that has no boundaries, or maybe an infinite universe that is ultimately knowable. Today in the field of cosmology, m-string theory represents the pinnacle of rational thinking, but m-strings, black holes, big bangs and quantum mechanics have hardly accomplished the goal of replacing irrationality with air-tight Aristotelian logic. Their cup of inconsistencies runneth over, and it all starts to sound a lot like theoretical mumbo jumbo, requiring more than a few quarks of blind faith to accept.

Hard-headed skeptics love to invoke the words of Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Conversely, one can just easily claim that Evolution would not have granted us such vivid imagination, powers of intuition and other means of irrational thinking, were we not meant to employ them as well. Indeed, the tools at our disposal are diverse and all worthy of consideration.

Infinity is a peculiar idea, especially intriguing in that scientific and theological reasoning are both confronted — and confounded — by it. It seems essential to our understanding the truth about our cosmos, and yet it hovers over us, just beyond our rational understanding, seducing us with its sense of unbounded freedom. But the reality of the infinite is simply too fantastic: the center cannot hold, because infinity has no center.

The more I contemplate this conundrum, the less it looks like an infinitely expanding cosmos, and the more it feels like standing between two parallel mirrors, where the reflections seem to go on forever; and no matter how hard I try to see the back of my head, my face keeps getting in the way. It looks like infinity wrapped in an enigma, but it’s just a simple trick. Yet we are drawn to it in the same way we are drawn to an Agatha Christie mystery. We’ll never solve the murder, because she’s withholding some vital information until the big climax, and we know it. But we love the ride.

Of course, this puzzle of infinity is but one mask worn but the enchanting cast of eternal mysteries. At their core, every great tradition of Truth rests on a foundation of paradox. Buddhists are driven by the burning desire to live free from desire. The Vedas teach that everything is God, with the Orwellian corollary that some things are more God than others. And Taoists insist that the Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao.

Maybe it’s just that the cosmos, in all its intelligence — divine or otherwise — has provided us with just the right degree of consciousness to be amazed by the cosmic order, but not quite enough wisdom to grasp and define it. And with that slight deficiency, we remain trapped in a cul de sac of perpetual paradox, spinning our wheels always faster, but getting nowhere, and forgetting to admire the flower beds blooming on the median.

This week’s exercise: The Mobius Bagel, whose surface knows no bounds.

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Shift happens. It can be exciting, it can be scary. For civilization it spells progress; for traditional culture it spells danger; for the history teacher it spells job security. Ultimately change means stress, but we depend on it, for without it we would stagnate like a vermin-breeding cesspool.

We enjoy a rare privilege in being alive today, as our planet undergoes a phenomenal shift, as significant as the move from foraging to horticultural, from agrarian to industrial. The informational revolution is even more significant, for the wireless web encompasses the entire globe, even reaching tribal people who’ve barely seen signs of industrialization and indigenous people who now speak their nearly-extinct languages on late-generation smart phones.

Sophocles observed that “nothing vast ever enters the lives of mortals without a curse.” A wireless information network that connects every home, office and cave on the planet to every library, encyclopedia and soapbox known to the human race brings a curse to make Pandora’s Box look about as threatening as Rainman’s carton of toothpicks.

We have vocational schools where the new students’ top jobs are turning obsolete faster than the students can graduate. We worry about cavemen with nuclear weapons, and this is no longer a matter of exaggeration. We see age-old regimes overthrown with day-old technology. We see technology rejected in the name of god and god rejected in the name of science.

We are a generation with the universe at our finger tips and nothing at our command. The social and technological phenomena of today were science fiction only a decade or less ago. We have no foothold, no stability, and nothing to depend on. A Sophoclean curse is descending, but it remains to be seen where the winners and losers will fall.

To many — very many — the dark uncertainty of this anomic future is an inferior alternative to the reliability of looking backwards toward traditional customs and ideologies. Look only to the widespread revival of religious fundamentalism for evidence. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, we see the kind of backward thinking that exalts pre-industrial tribal living, denouncing tricknology and moving to the woods to hunt boar and forage berries.

Resistance to change is everywhere, but what and whom can we look to for counsel and reassurance? What besides the warm glow of your inbox will hold us together the way the campfires, scriptures and oral histories once did? Jesus, if you’re listening, please press *like*.

Outside of reactionary circles, and private meditations, our faith in supernatural intelligence is waning, while the greatest intelligence reigns from behind an LCD screen that fits in your pocket. Seldom do we see someone in awe over the grandeur of the lord almighty, but we regularly hear people uttering their dumbfoundedness at the revelation that their phone is so much smarter than anything they’re ever seen, met or touched.

Indeed, not unlike the Great Spirit or Heavenly Father, it can perform the unthinkable, attain the unnamable, render the ineffable. It evokes paradox and defies hyperbole. It is an intelligence that need not be called intelligent, but simply smart. The G4 has become a network whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. And what offerings does it demand, but that we sacrifice the time and attention we once gave to friends and loved ones who were sitting in the same room, to stare instead into a screen as it anticipates our very next thought?

This possibilities for consciousness expansion, in this new era, genuinely boggle the mind. What could possibly make you feel more at one with the planet, or the universe? The Web of Life verified at last.

The era of totems and false idols has ended. The true spirit of cosmic order rests now in the palm of your hand. The supreme intelligence is at your disposal, and you at its mercy. It is a power to be both feared and loved. In the beginning god created man, but now comes the apotheosis of the species, for man has at last created god, an all-knowing, all-seeing ever-present life force whose existence can never be doubted.

We may never see this infinite series of tubes, but its footprints are omnipresent, its manifestations inescapable, its followers ubiquitous. Join them today or perish in eternal darkness. The light of this new divinity burns brighter, but unlike the pages of those ancient texts, it will never turn to ash. So peruse your online resources for “Eight great ways to quell your fear of futureshock,” and rest your faith in the warm embrace of technological certitude and unequivocal salvation. It’s as simple as clicking a small box that says you’ve agreed to the terms and conditions.

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As the Arab world descends into turmoil, it’s easy to point fingers, raise eyebrows and shake our heads, lamenting the inherent flaws of “islamo-fascism” and the backwards nature of their strict religious ideologies. But, as is almost always the case when the faults and foibles of others come to the surface, the most valuable lessons are those we can draw on and apply to ourselves.

Or, in the parlance of the day, “Let him who is without sin tweet the first diatwibe.”

The late twentieth century’s leaps of technology and crises of faith cannot possibly be torn asunder. In so many ways, the history of religion is the history of its convulsive reactions to changes elsewhere in society, in fields of art, science, economics, communication, education, etc. Any anthropologist can tell you that the most conservative — most reactionary, and most opposed to change — element of any society resides in its religion, where the oldest traditions and deepest beliefs are codified, written in stone as it were.

The clumsy dance between science and theology can be traced through the ages, from the discovery of fire, through the banishing of the Goddess, to the triumph of monotheism, through the Age of Enlightenment, through the Scopes monkey trial, right smack into the World Trade Center.

As simultaneous explosions in population, communication and transportation make our planet ever smaller, the personal crises become geo-political crises. But at their genesis, every crisis has a personal origin. Do what you can to support and relieve the struggling masses in Cairo, Tunis and Amman, but if you really want to see a difference, heal thyself.

For many of us in the West, Galileo, Charles Darwin and the Apollo Missions rendered our religious traditions obsolete. But for others, those strides in science serve as a call to shore up the defenses against the forces of infidels and philistines, to cling ever more tightly to their scriptures — their Truth — which is now being subjected to the same persecution that once hounded their Savior (whether he be called Jesus, Mohammed, or Brian). And with the “recollection of the blood of the Lamb,” they stand firm against a tsunami of change.

Observe from a distance, and you can see the Rock of Ages shifting under their feet. It’s such a compelling sight that you don’t notice your own legs sinking in the sand. Perhaps you are soothed by the purring of Schroedinger’s cat, or you have found comfort in the theorems of Gödel, in which case you must realize that the Truth governing this physical world contains no less paradox than any ancient religion.

A few fleeting glimpses into the microcosm or the macrocosm have supplanted your need to see the face of God, but the psychological cravings for inner peace, deep connections and spiritual unity have not waned. Try as you might to suppress them, the feelings persist.

So you find yourself wandering through the “alternative lifestyles” aisle of your locally owned neighborhood bookstore, thumbing through the Tao Te Ching or a pamphlet of Buddhist aphorisms. You consider the serenity of Quan Yin, her sharp contrast to Ecce Homo, and you think, “Yeah, maybe I’m a Buddhist.”

Or maybe one time you were greeted with a “Namaste” and entranced by the protruding rear ends of a dozen downward dogs and thought, “Yeah, bro, I’m definitely down with the Hindus. I never realized how needlessly I’d been suffering until I showed up here and found myself surrounded by hyper-extended women in lycra.”

So the next time you are confronted by a proselytizing evangelist at the mall or at your front door, you can tell them, with all your smugness, “Oh, no, I take a little bit from every religion and put them all together. Because they all have something good to say somewhere or nother.”

Which is just another way of saying you’re a cherry picker, or the worst kind of dilettante, who really doesn’t have a long enough attention span to become intimately familiar with any tradition or school of thought, but prefers simply to skim the paragraphs and take what’s convenient without having to offer up any form of dedication or commitment.

And when you turn on the news and see people rioting for religious freedom, or against religious freedom, you can shrug your shoulders or shake your head, because you honestly don’t know the first thing about their religion. And even if you did, you still wouldn’t know the first thing about them as individuals.

But you might just stand in awe of the fact that they believe in something so strongly that they’re willing to die for it. And you can hope they’ve spent a long time questioning before arriving at such firm convictions. Because I’d hate to see them putting their life on the line in the name of something that someone else just convinced them was the One and only Truth.

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A samurai warrior makes his way home after a long and arduous campaign against the barbarian tribes of the hinterlands. His robes are stained with the blood of enemies and allies alike, and the specter of death weighs heavy on his mind.

Before heading back to his own village, the weary soldier takes a detour into the forbidden forest to seek counsel with the wise Hermit of the woods. Making his way into an enchanted grove, penetrated only by the thinnest splinters of sunlight, the samurai swordsman comes upon the simple cabin of a solitary, old monk.

The hermit, taciturn, looks the warrior over and raises his eyebrows in expectation. “I come in search of your fabled wisdom,” says the visitor. The sage shrugs his shoulders, then nods, inviting his guest to continue.

“I’ve travelled to every corner of the kingdom, and beyond,” the warrior explains. “And I think I’ve come to know the ways of this world. But I keep hearing people speak of Heaven and Hell. Every battle I fight, I see more and more death. And with each battle it grows more senseless and more meaningless.”

“But,” he says, “I keep thinking about this business of Heaven and Hell, and I don’t understand. I can’t help thinking that Heaven and Hell are merely an empty promise and a hollow threat. Tell me, Wise One, are there truly such things?”

The wise hermit scratches his chin. Then he clears his throat. Then he looks his visitor in the eye and asks, “What kind of soldier are you? You don’t look very brave, and you certainly don’t sound very bright.”

Startled by this language, the samurai jumps to his feet and furls his eyebrows. The sage continues: “I don’t see the strength of a warrior in you. Who would possibly want the likes of you in their army?”

With his heart pounding and his blood boiling, the insulted samurai now reaches for his sword, and gripping it fiercely, begins to draw it from its scabbard. Noticing this aggression, the old man asks calmly, “And what do you intend to do with that? I doubt you even know the first thing about how to use such a weapon. You don’t frighten anyone.”

At this, the warrior raises his mighty sword over his head and drives a piercing glance into the hermit’s eyes. The wise old sage now raises his boney finger and says softly, “There, you see, you have reached the gates of Hell.”

The flummoxed warrior pauses to make sense of this. Then, finding his poise, he returns his blade carefully into its sheath and nods silently.”

“And now,” the guru concludes, “you stand at the gates of Heaven.”

And so the soldier bows to the sage with gratitude and continues home.

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