Can Knowledge Bring About a Mystical Experience?

It is a truth near universally recognized that you cannot become a superb mechanic unless — as a minimum requirement — you have a girlie calendar in your garage first acquire a great deal of knowledge.  Moreover, that knowledge needs to be of two sorts.

In no particular order, you must both learn the sort of stuff you can learn from instructors and books, and you must also learn the sort of stuff you can only learn hands-on, by doing something — sometimes over and over again.  The ancient Greeks called the first kind of knowledge logos, and the second kind, gnosis.  We tend to call them “knowledge” and “know-how”.

The question arises, however, whether you need one, the other, or both kinds of knowledge in order to become a superb mystic?

Put differently, must you be of any particular religious tradition or school in order to attain to a mystical experience, the sine qua non of which is a perception of all things being in some sense or way one?  Must you follow any specific teachings or practices?  And do teachings and practices even help?  Or are they really mere ways of idling away the hours before your boy or girl calendar arrives in the mail you attain to a mystical experience?

I suspect many good folks would say “yes” to most of those questions.  Perhaps it is even a cultural assumption — at least in the West — that knowledge is key here.  Especially, book or scriptural knowledge, because we in the West are so accustomed to seeing the bible as key to our spiritual development.  So if we start pursuing a mystical path, we naturally think in terms of how learning all the right things will help us.

But is that assumption borne out by the evidence?  I actually think not.  At least, not nearly so much as we might assume.

For the past forty years, I’ve been an amateur collector of mystical experiences.  When I guess someone might have had one, I prompt them a bit to tell me about it, and they sometimes do.   And something I’ve noticed: A fair number of people have been stumped what caused the experience, for they can recall having done nothing to bring it about.

Again, awhile back, a group of researchers solicited over 2000 accounts of mystical experiences and found that about 20% of them came from nontheists — atheists and agnostics.  Presumably, many of those fine folks had done nothing intentionally to bring about their experiences, although some might have.

It seems to me likely then that any kind of knowledge might not be as key to having a mystical experience as we might at first suppose.  But if that’s true, then it raises a fascinating question.

What, if anything, does the fact knowledge has relatively little to do with mystical experiences tell us about the experiences themselves?

I think it underscores or emphasizes how fundamentally mystical experiences are shifts in perception, rather than gestalt-like experiences.  By “gestalt”  I mean an event in which what you know “comes together at once” to create a new understanding of something.

Of course, that is sometimes called “a new perception” of something, but that’s not what I mean by perception here.  “Perception” in this context is the frame of our sensory fields.  For instance, we see, taste, touch, and feel thirst.  Each of those is a sensory field.  Perception frames them in the sense that it provides or adds to them certain characteristics that are not the things we see, taste, etc.

An example would be our sense that what we are seeing at the moment is real.  That perception of realness is not a property of the thing itself, but rather a property or characteristic of our sensory field of sight.  Again, we perceive things as being us or not us.  That once more is a characteristic of our perceptual frames.

A mystical experience can be seen as an abrupt shift from how we normally perceive things to a different way of perceiving things.   One of the frames that is lost during that shift is our perception of the world as divided between us and not us.

So now we might ask: Do we need to know much for such a shift to come about?

I think not.  For one thing, the neural sciences have now revealed that mystical experiences involve at least a reduction in activity in the parietal brain lobe, most likely an increase in activity in the thalamus, and perhaps a change in dopamine levels, among other things.  Those are things that could be influenced by some kind of conscious or subconscious knowledge, but they don’t necessarily need to be.

Again, there are no techniques of bringing about a mystical experience that guarantee you will have one, but Eastern meditative techniques have been relatively successful.  These, however, do not generally depend on more than the knowledge of how to practice them.

Last, some traditions, such as Zen, are full of stories of people who attain to mystical experiences without need of scriptures, or much need of instruction.  So I think it’s pretty clear that, for those and other reasons, knowledge is not much use in bringing about a mystical experience.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, by the way, was adamant on that point.  He routinely went even further to state that too much knowledge hindered or prevented mystical experiences.  One of his key points was that, if you set off in pursuit of a specific experience, you were likely to find it soon or later, but it would turn out to be a construct of your knowledge.

So there might be a way in which knowledge is not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental.  But where does that leave us?

In a word, calendars!  Krishnamurti had a beautiful metaphor.  Imagine you are inside your house (i.e your mind) and wish for a breeze to come in (i.e. a mystical experience). What can you do to make that breeze happen?  Nothing, of course.

You simply can’t force a breeze to rise.  However,  you can open your windows and doors.  That is, you can remove the obstacles to a breeze coming in, should one arise.

Rumi also said much the same thing: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

Late Night Thoughts: Intellectual Honesty, Social Engineering, Meditation, and Sex Lives (July 1, 2018)

A couple weeks ago, I looked out my door to see a doe trailed by two spotted fawns passing through my yard in broad daylight — quite an unusual time of day to spot deer moving about so near to the center of the city.

A day or so later, presumably the same doe and fawns — but I’m not sure about that, since I didn’t get their names the first time around.

Since then, just the usual three or four raccoons, and those at night — nearly every night.

♦♦♦

The truth isn’t neutral, is it?  I don’t mean “neutral” in the most important sense — in the sense of being objective.  But rather how we so often feel emotionally about it as being either for or against what we believe or are willing to accept.  As everyone from Plato to the present has known, emotional attachments or aversions can distort rational thinking.

On a perhaps more abstract level, we are subject to cognitive biases — Those are genetically inherited, systematic ways our brains function that cause us to deviate from rational thinking.  The most famous of them seems to “confirmation bias” — a tendency to  “search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information” in a way that confirms our existing notions and expectations.

So far as I can see, there are only two practical remedies.  First, a good education in critical thinking skills,  beginning early in life, and very much including the effects of cognitive biases on us, but also including logic and semantics.  Still, I don’t think that would be enough.

To me, the key is to recognize how much  easier it is for us to notice that someone else is gone off the rails in their reasoning, than it for us to notice we ourselves have.

And then build on that.  Teach the kids to seek out and find people through-out their lives who they can reliably trust to give them honest and accurate feed-back or reality-checks on their reasoning.

I suspect a likely side-effect of that kind of an education would be a general awareness of the importance of intellectually honesty.

Yet, I have little hope any such education will become generally available — at least not anytime soon.  We don’t have the best tradition in America of funding schools well, for one thing.

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July Fourth.  I do not know how far we have departed from the concept of “citizenship” that folks like Alexis deTocqueville noticed we embraced back in the early days of the Republic, but I suspect it’s a great deal further than most of us would be comfortable with — assuming we were to fully grasp what we have lost.

Volumes can and have been written about that, but I would like to focus on Edward Bernays and what he called, “The Engineering of Consent”.

As Bernays believed back in the 1920s, when he founded the public relations industry in America, that the social and psychological sciences had advanced to the point they could be used to engineer consent — or systematically get folks to “support ideas and programs”,  as he sometimes put it.

Not just through normal, more or less amateurish, means of persuasion, but through greatly more effective and reliable “scientific” means.

Now, despite his goals, Bernays was not the evil villain of Hollywood melodramas.  For one thing, he urged professionals in his newly created field to guard against any temptation that might involve them in such nefarious things as undermining the Constitution — especially, the “freedoms of press, speech, petition and assembly”.   Moreover,  his motives seem decent enough in some ways.

Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, a Jew, and quite aware of how mobs could quickly turn into pogroms against innocent people. Like many people, he thought democracies were especially susceptible to mob rule and violence.  So, it seems that one of his goals was to find ways to defuse those mobs before they even happened.

Yet, regardless of his motives, Bernays made what I regard as more or less a pact with the devil, for his strategy to make democracy safe for everyone has now had a hundred years to bear fruit — and what fruit!

In a nutshell, this was his strategy: Persuade people to seek self-fulfillment through consumerism so that they would be so satisfied with the acquisition of ever more and more material goods and services, they would not feel any need or desire to “take on” or change the status quo.  In short, they would be content with their lot.

Put differently, he sought to change the American culture and mindset from a people intimately concerned with politics as a means to at least create the best possible conditions under which people could seek self-fulfillment, to a people intimately concerned with consumption as the best possible means.

I think if deToqueville can be at all relied on for a glimpse of the political activism of the early Republic, then a comparison of that activism with today’s relatively insipid and dispirited activism is instructive.  We have, to some large extent, realized Bernays’ dream of turning us from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers.

Should you be interested to learn some of the details, I recommend the award winning documentary, The Century of the Self.

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I read a startling statistic awhile back.  About 40% of married, middle-age women in America report no longer being interested in their sex lives, and that their husbands no longer satisfy them.

Perhaps it’s selfish of me to have immediately thought of myself, but it’s just a fact that I do take pride in how satisfied my two ex-wives were during our marriages.  A whole lot was wrong in both marriages, but not so much the sex.

I often heard them say the sex was “extraordinary”, “mind-blowing”, or even once or twice, “Had never been better”.   At least, those are the sorts of things they would tell me on the nights they came home very late.

♦♦♦

There are so many hard things in life, and I think most of us are all too aware of at least the big ones.  Raising kids, saving up enough money for the rainy days that come too soon and too often, being laid off,  looking for work, struggling for a promotion, and so forth.  The list just goes on.

One of those things, though, is especially curious to me.  As fully as possible appreciating people we are profoundly familiar with.  Most of  the time, I think I do.

But sometimes I meet a new person, and after I’ve gotten to know them a bit, I have the strangest moment of discovery when I realize that I quite likely appreciate them more than most anyone greatly familiar to me.

What to do about that?

New Years resolutions and other self-admonishments just don’t work for me here.   They’re ok up to a point, maybe.  So long as I keep reminding myself of them, I seem to make some progress, but then within a few short weeks, I fall off the bandwagon.

Trying to make a habit of appreciating someone also doesn’t work.  When I get into a genuine habit of “appreciating” someone, it soon becomes artificial.  “It’s Tuesday — time again to tell my brother how much he means to me.”

About the best thing I’ve found has been meditation.  Meditation seems to sharpen my senses a bit, making me more aware for at least a little while of what’s going on inside (e.g. hunger) and outside of me (e.g. the raccoon crossing my yard, a shadow in the night).   In an analogous manner it seems to sharpen my awareness or appreciation of people on the days I mediate.

Moreover, if I meditate frequently enough, then appreciation seems to become, if not permanent, at least somewhat more lasting than the other methods I’ve tried.

Last, it can have the peculiar effect of my seeing someone, not just in terms of what he or she means to me, but somewhat more objectively.  Perhaps.

♦♦♦

Colorado Springs is a conservative town.  It also has quite a few “city deer”, and they are so numerous now that they are viewed by many of us as a problem.

A while back, there was a serious proposal put before the City Council to solve the deer problem by legalizing hunting the animals within city limits.  With rifles and shotguns.

Not all my conservative friends are just as bonkers as I am, but it’s sometimes reassuring that at least some of them are.  So long as they don’t make the rules.

There are no Weeds

(About a 10 minute read)

Long ago, the Coffee Shop was a hang out for many mildly disaffected youths.  They were the kids who didn’t fit in too well, who weren’t always doing what was expected of them, who often had talents no one had noticed or encouraged, or who were simply marching to the beat of their own drummer.

Kyle, for instance, was the son of a wealthy father, but he wanted to make his own way in the world.  So he had enlisted in the Army to earn money for college rather than allow his father to pay for his education.  He was passionate about poetry and wanted to teach English.

Melanie was from a much poorer family than Kyle, and her only academic interests were mathematics.  She paid for the community college by working as an erotic dancer.

Catherine was another mathematician, and she worried about her social skills.  She graduated early from high school then stayed in town to mature for a year, rather than head straight to college.

Erin was 15 when she left her parent’s house to sleep on friend’s couches.  She did her homework by streetlight for a while.  Then she met Jim, a year or two older, who convinced her school was for losers, and life lay in studying the Kabbalah.

Jody was a bit older than most, and a prostitute fascinated with the Third Reich and Phoenician glassware.  She’d scored high on the aptitude tests, but drugs, along with being raised in an abusive home, were too much for her, and she left unpursued her dream of becoming an historian.

Luke was raised in North Africa and in British boarding schools before his executive father transferred to Colorado.  He planned to leave town soon to study psychology, for he wanted to heal minds.  In the meantime, he was both too well educated and too brilliant for his high school classes.  So, like many other eccentrics, he found his way to the Coffee Shop.

In the mornings, the Shop was full of business people; by midday it held all ages and walks of life; and by evening it was the kids.  One slow Tuesday night I spent a half hour or 45 minutes carefully counting the crowd.  My count was nearly 200, most of them people I’d met, most of them kids, most of them misfits.

If anyone loved them all, it was Joe. He seemed to have a knack for it.

A month or so after we met, Joe invited me to go with him and a couple to Valley View Hot Springs.  It was the way he phrased the invitation that surprised me.  “We need a chaperon”, he said, “There might be trouble.  You’ve got to say, ‘Yes’.”

I couldn’t tell at first how serious he was about trouble.  Joe was 18 that year, strong, and could handle himself. Besides, he knew Valley View was more peaceful than most any other place in Colorado.  He’d been going there with his family since he was five or six.  What kind of trouble did he anticipate?

The trouble was jealousy, Joe explained.  He’d only recently befriended the couple, and he had not caught on to the guy’s jealousy of him.  Thinking everything was cool, he decided to share with them the most spiritual place he knew of.   The girl was so enthusiastic to go to Valley View that the guy feigned agreement, and so Joe and the couple had made plans.  But in the week between making plans and their realization, Joe was shocked when the girl pointed out to him her boyfriend’s jealousy.  That’s when Joe got the notion my presence might somehow defuse the situation.

In the years I knew him, Joe almost never allowed himself to act on any jealously he himself might feel, and I think that might have been because jealousy excludes folks rather than includes them.  Joe was all about including people.  Looking back, it seems almost inevitable Joe would fail to see the boyfriend’s jealousy until it was pointed out to him.

So, the four of us took a day trip to Valley View.  The couple had brought swimsuits, but the guy strangely refused to join his girlfriend, Joe and I in the hot springs.  Instead, he said he wanted to look for elk among the pines and scrub oak, and wandered off.  I left Joe and the girl talking at one end of the pool, and spent most of the time watching dust devils swirl across the valley below.

It was by no means a bad trip, but I think it was the worse Joe and I ever managed to take to Valley View. It seemed none of us got into the spirit of the place.   We left just as divided as we’d arrived.  A few days later, Joe and I discussed it.  After noting how argumentative the guy became on the trip home, Joe said he felt the girl had spent the afternoon at the pool in some kind of bubble; unresponsive to the beauty all around her; unable to connect with nature; indifferent even to the wind through the ponderosa.  “We might as well have gone to the mall”, he grinned.

Joe had been raised a Christian, but a year or two after the trip he committed himself to it.   His inspiration was the New Testament, rather than the Old; the life of Jesus, rather than the Ten Commandments.  Consequently, his first step was to simplify his life.  He gave away his inessential possessions and moved from his parent’s house to a shack.  Mostly, though, he emulated Jesus and the Disciples in his heart and mind.  It became clear the appeal of Christianity to him was its doctrine of universal love — he was, he told me, indifferent to heaven and hell.  Instead, salvation, for Joe, was to learn how to love the world as Christ had.

His experiment with Christianity lasted a couple of years.  When I asked him why he was no longer a Christian, he told me he still believed in God, and perhaps even that Jesus was Christ, but he could not have faith in them so long as people were sent to hell.

Joe worked at a greenhouse.  One day, Joe spoke of his growing distaste for weeding.  “They may be weeds, Paul, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.  It feels terrible to kill them.”  Some part of me agreed with Joe — at least with his notion that all living things have value — but I still felt weeding in a greenhouse was justified by its necessity.  I thought to myself he’d soon enough see that necessity and reconcile himself to killing weeds.

A day later, however, Joe found a partial solution.  He began transplanting the weeds.  At least he began transplanting the larger ones.  He did it on his own time, after work, because he didn’t think it was fair to charge his boss for the extra time it took.  There was a large, bare mound of soil out back of the greenhouse and he was transplanting the weeds to the far side of it, where — he hoped — they would thrive.

I was a bit taken aback.  On the one hand, it ranked among the craziest things I’d heard of a friend doing in some time.  But on the other hand, looked at a little more rationally, it wasn’t self-destructive, it was harmless to others, and it preserved life.  I didn’t think Joe’s project would last — I thought he’d grow tired of it — but I rather admired him for asserting his good convictions in a world where there sometimes seemed to be too few good convictions.

Two months passed before Joe brought the subject up again.  My first reaction was surprise he was still transplanting weeds.  But then he explained his boss had found him out.  Of course, he expected to be fired.  Yet, after he’d told her everything, she’d only laughed and smiled, and told him he was a good worker, that she loved him, and that she would find other work than weeding for him to do.

Something happened one day to make me see symbolic meaning in Joe’s actions.  It began when Laura called to ask if she could come over and take a shower.  She was a homeless kid who kept a few items of clothing at my place and sometimes dropped by for a shower or a meal.  She was heavily into drugs, and I never invited her to stay too long, because I didn’t want my things to start disappearing.

That evening, I got her fed and her feet massaged, and then sent her off to the shower.  She told me she’d been partying, and that after my place, she wanted to go back and party some more.  It wasn’t long, though, before she’d fallen asleep on the couch.   I thought about her while she slept.

Laura was nineteen, and she hadn’t a regular home since she was thirteen.  She’d never met her father, a man who left before she was born.  At thirteen, she’d gotten into a fight with her mother’s boyfriend.  He swung a chair at her.  A leg caught her in the belly and ripped a seven inch wound.  She ran from the house and never returned.

The wound didn’t get sewn up, and the scar was huge.  I’d run my fingers along it once, and somehow the memory of that furrowed, lumpy scar tissue was still stuck in my fingertips.  When I thought of Laura, I always thought of that scar.  And that’s what I was thinking of when Joe’s words came back to me: “They may be weeds, but they didn’t ask to be born where they’re not wanted.”  It was somewhat like a minor epiphany: Joe would understand the tragedy of Laura better than anyone — if for no other reason than Joe had a knack for a certain kind of love.

There is more than one kind of love in this world.  The kind Joe was most interested in is inclusive.   That kind of love does not seek to jealously wall off a little private garden for itself.  It is neither possessive nor jealous, as was the guy at Valley View.  Nor does it demand to be loved in return — for a love that wants love in return must exclude some from being loved. It was the promise of that inclusive kind of love that attracted Joe to Christianity.  It was the realization that some are excluded from God’s love that caused Joe to lose his faith.

I believe it’s rare for most of us — especially when we are young — to think of love as an excellence.  That is, as a thing one might learn how to do to the best of his or her ability.  Instead, we think of love as something requiring little or no talent, practice, or skill.  We suppose it comes natural to us, and so we spend our time waiting for it without doing much to help it come about.

Every kid at the Coffee Shop had his or her own mix of talents and skills, and many of the kids had an excellence.  Kyle, for instance, was a gifted poet.  Melanie and Catherine excelled at mathematics.  And Luke was a born psychologist.  But I think Joe’s excellence was his ability to love.

Sometime ago, Joe moved up into the mountains, where he met a woman and settled in with her.  He lives up there now, in a small mountain town.


Originally posted November 27, 2008

Cultivating Realism

(About a 5 minute read)

Human diversity being what it is, I take it as evident that some folks are more realistic than other folks — just like some folks are more athletic than other folks.   But the fact some folks are more realistic than other folks does not mean that anyone is completely realistic.  For better or worse, we humans have not evolved a completely realistic brain.

If we had evolved a completely realistic brain, we would not need science.  That’s because science is basically a group of methods or procedures that have been developed over the ages to compensate for the human tendency towards a lack of realism in thought and belief.  In short, science is a crutch.   It’s a tool for a non-realistic brain (or at least a partly non-realistic brain) to use so that it can function as a realistic brain.  At least that’s one way to look at science.

It’s a great puzzle to me why the human brain is not entirely realistic — given that it’s had several million years to evolve into a purely realistic brain.  It must be that during the entire multi-million year history of brain growth and expansion, selective mechanisms for a realistic brain were never sufficient to produce a wholly realistic brain — despite that there would seem to be great advantages to being wholly realistic.

Either that, or the mutations necessary for pure realism never came about.

On the surface, given millions of years, it seems almost impossible that it has turned out the way it has turned out.  But perhaps it  seems impossible to me largely because I simply don’t understand the odds.

Some days, I think most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to realism.   We just don’t like being realistic — we don’t enjoy it — and so, there must be great incentives for us to practice realistic thought, or great disincentives not to practice it.   Hence, I usually think we limit our realistic thinking to only those areas of our lives in which it matters the most to us to think realistically.

I know an automobile mechanic, for instance, who is almost wholly realistic in his role as a mechanic.  But get him in his fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning and he will swallow with childlike trust any and all sorts of quackery from his pastor’s mouth.  Life has face-slapped my friend the mechanic into being realistic in his work.  That is, automobile mechanics has served as a discipline that’s punished him whenever he has departed from realism while engaged in it.  But life has not done him the same favor in his religion.  Hence, he’s a realistic man in his work and a quite fantastic man in his religion.

Some days, as I’ve said, I think we as a species are only as realistic as it is absolutely necessary for us to be.  Wherever life cuts us a little slack, we depart from realism into fantasy.

Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pointed out that very few, if any, of us had a strong will to truth.   For most of us, our other wills, interests, passions, etc were much stronger than any will to truth we might possess.  It was a revolutionary thought for its time.  Today, we might not use precisely his language when speaking of the issue, but regardless of whatever words we use to express the idea, the notion that humans are quite often less than realistic is established by modern psychology beyond any serious doubt.

That fact — the fact we are not a realistic species — presents all sorts of problems.  For instance, I do not believe you can understand human politics if you think of humans as an essentially realistic species.  (Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?)

I think it is important — crucially important — to one’s health and happiness for a person to practice a discipline.  When it comes to practicing a discipline, the exact nature of the discipline — the kind of discipline — almost does not matter.  What matters is that one practices a discipline.  Any discipline.

A “discipline”, as I’m using the term here, is an art, science, or craft that to be successfully practiced requires one to be realistic.   It can be nearly anything so long as it requires substantial realism to succeed in it.   The absolute need for realism is what makes it a discipline.

Why should we practice a discipline?  Well, realism is not a side of human nature that comes all that easy to us.  I think we must cultivate it.  Hence, the need for a discipline.  Beyond that, realism seems to be like a crucial nutrient.  Without it, we grow sick, malnourished, or unbalanced.  We might not enjoy its taste, but on some level we need it.

We have all heard over and over again this or that person admonish us to “cultivate our imaginations” or to “dream big, dream often”.   Well, those things are important, but so is realism.  And, so far as I can see, realism does not come easily to our species.  It comes with effort.  So it must be cultivated.  Yet, I believe its cultivation is usually neglected.

T.S. Eliot somewhere said the average person can stand reality for no more than ten minutes at a time.   That might sound extreme until you really start thinking about it.


Originally posted October 9,  2010.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

Late Night Thoughts: Magic, Leadership, Feminism, Poetry, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

There are places you can visit at night in the San Luis Valley and not see an artificial light for miles.  If you stand in one of those places when the moon is down and tilt your head back until you are gazing nearly straight up, you risk falling into infinity.

I have never know a daytime sky to appear as deep, as vast, as infinite as a nighttime sky, though some of the crisp autumn blue skies of Colorado do seem to have a touch of the infinite.  Nothing, however, quite compares to stars by the thousands set in the black ocean.

Although you cannot possess the vastness of the night, you can long to possess it.  Long just as intensely as ever someone longed to requite an unrequitable love.  Long because its beauty makes you feel alive, and you want that feeling to stay with you forever.

It is wiser, though, to set aside any feelings of possessiveness.  Let them pass by you like winds without trying to cling to them or nurture them anymore than you would try to cling to or nurture those winds.  For possessiveness clung to kills the heart, kills love, even in human relationships, let alone in our relationships to nature.

To love the night so intensely that you might be in some sense renewed, reborn by it, you must be willing to let it go.

◊◊◊

Some years ago I took Becky’s children, Leah and Aaron, to a public Easter egg hunt.  Watching them and the other children dash about unsystematically exploring one possible hiding place after the next, and often the same hiding place they’d explored only moments before, I suddenly realized there was a sort of logic to their apparent randomness.  The logic of magic.

They were, it seemed to me, selectively picking “good” spots to explore, while ignoring “bad” spots, spots that perhaps did not seem to them magical enough to hold an egg.   And they would return to those good spots time and again, because, of course, magic.

The little legs of Easter
All hunt the same bushes
Each pair runs to check
And recheck the same spots

It’s the logic of magic
It’s found in good places
And appears where it wasn’t
Just a moment ago

◊◊◊

On a blog I recently came across a post by a young woman in which she expressed pride in being a leader.  She so reminded me of myself many years ago.  Had you asked me back then if I was proud of so often being the leader, I would have told you that I was, and I probably would have recited the choicest passages of my résumé, whether you wanted to hear them or not.

Then, in my 30s I finally got enough experience of people to have two or three modest, but still significant, insights into — not leaders — but followers.  It seemed to me then that there were two main (but not only) reasons people follow other people, and that neither reason was all that good of a reason for me to be proud they were following me.

Perhaps the best reason people follow is because they think their leader is going where they want to go.  People who harbor that reason won’t allow you to lead them down just any old path you want to take them.  They only go down the path they themselves want, and they stick you out front largely so you, and not them, must take the risk of being pounced on by a tiger waiting for its next meal to come loping along, full of pride at being allowed to play leader.

The second reason people follow seems to be that they themselves feel too insecure or threatened to lead themselves.  Such people would follow a chimpanzee if it promised them security.  And they are often so frightened of something that they would follow the chimp down any path the chimp chose to take, even the path to hell — just so long as the chimp kept reassuring them it was the safest route.

In either case, being a leader has less to do with special you, and much more to do with them, than your pride constantly tells you it has.  But add to all that the fact that about one-quarter to one-third of all people are such poor judges of character that they are incapable of distinguishing a wise leader from a damnable fool, and you end up with a pretty poor foundation for taking much pride in the fact people will follow you.

◊◊◊

On my second night in Colorado, I left my motel room to drive to a high place in the mountains where I got out of my car and witnessed a moon so seemingly huge that I had the absurd, yet remarkably visceral desire to see if I could touch it.  And I actually did stretch out an arm to it.   It appeared, then, to be just beyond my reach.

At the time I felt I was a refugee.  Earlier in the year, I’d gone out of business, lost my wife, my house, my friends, and most of my possessions.  It seemed to me that night that all my accomplishments in life were behind me, and that I’d been a fool to have for decades valued all those things more than I valued simply loving life.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And there’s nothing that I know
Do I ever understand?

I just wonder how it is
That all the things we ever did
Could mean so much more to us
Than the love we freely give.

For I am but a passing thing
From one moment to the next,
And with each moment’s passing
There is nothing left.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And for all the things I know
Do I ever understand?

◊◊◊

Few movements are as misunderstood these days as feminism.  Which is a bit strange because the movement is by and large based on a simple, easy to understand, ideology at its core.  That is, it’s a form of egalitarianism.  Specifically, the form of egalitarianism that asserts women ought everywhere to have the same rights, freedoms, and liberties as men.

Unfortunately for feminists, decades of anti-feminist propaganda have convinced vast numbers of people that the true core of feminism is misandry, the hatred of all things male.  And even more unfortunately, there are a few self-described “feminists” who feed and inflame that image of all feminists by themselves being actual misandrists.

What’s true of feminism, though, is true of all large movements, for every such movement has its lunatic fringe.

I wonder why.  Indeed, I quite often wonder why every movement has its lunatic fringe.  But I have yet to arrive at an answer that satisfies me.

◊◊◊

Have you ever reached the cardboard backing of a paper tablet only to find yourself torn between throwing it away and saving it for some use only god knows what?

◊◊◊

I had an uncle who grew up in the Great Depression when frugality so often meant the difference between eating three meals a day or merely two or one.  He taught me around the age of six or so never to throw away a bent nail.  “It’s a perfectly good nail.  Just hammer it out so it’s straight enough to use again.”

Shortly after my eight birthday, he taught me to shoot a rifle.  “Here’s your one bullet.  There will be no more bullets today.  Now aim well and carefully, Paul, so you hit the can with it.”

I took forever to aim, but I hit the beer can.

◊◊◊

As a rule, the more convinced we are that we are right, or have got hold of the truth, the less likely we are to have seen deeply into the matter.  So often, to look deeply is to become aware of how uncertain the truth is.

◊◊◊

The notion that our minds at birth are Tabula rasa, blank slates devoid of any innate knowledge, biases, instincts, etc., is an ancient one, dating back to at least the ancient Stoics.  It basically asserts that almost the whole of what we are as persons will be ultimately derived from our experiences in life, or from what we learn from them.   It is also a perennial idea in the social sciences.  And, last, is almost certainly nonsense.

For instance, humans have just too many ubiquitous behaviors for us not to be, at least in large part, an instinct driven species.  Moreover, we seem to be born with talents — that is, with aptitudes or predispositions — for various things.    We also seem to be born with inherent cognitive biases.  And there is at least some evidence that we even have in us at birth the rudiments of arithmetic.

All of which suggests the notion that we humans are connected to our past in much more profound ways than merely through the continuum of time.  Our DNA is ancient, and we are in so many ways, the manifestation of our DNA.

Throw Your Rockets Far

I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
Somewhere we walk in the yellow grass;
The sky huge, but our feet owning each step.
Somewhere we hear the shorebird’s cry
From a beach in Africa we never left.
Somewhere we are shaman, warrior, gatherer,
Women and men intimate with our past.

No, I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
What at eight you simply feel
On your lawn at dusk when you throw a bottle rocket
With a warrior’s grace — and hard at the moon.

Late Night Thoughts: Scam-Sharks, Poetry, Blogging, Rebirth, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Grey skies, greyer rain.
We shelter our hearts
Together you and I
Beneath our bright
Yellow umbrella.

◊◊◊

Where are the best blogs?  I’ve come across several in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to slake my depraved thirst for other folk’s  pleasantly twisted, often unique, vibrantly creative, or revealingly truthful perspectives on all things life.

If you know of any great blogs that fit any of those descriptions — or for that matter, are great and snerklesome in any other way — please link me to them!  I’d love to check them out!

 ◊◊◊

A young man, about 20 I would guess, recently told me that we know we are right when “the voice within” confirms we are right.  He was responding to another person’s question, “How do we know when something is true?”

I think, from what I’ve heard and read, that the notion we can discern the truth or falsity of an idea merely according to whether or not some “inward voice” tells us that it sits well with us, or feels right or true to us, is a popular one these days.

Frankly, I also suspect it is evidence of a disturbing lack of a competent education.  If that young man honestly didn’t graduate from high school knowing how — at least in principle — to sort what is true or from what isn’t true, he should consider suing his school board for negligent injury and malpractice, and name his teachers as co-defendants.

He should go for blood, too!  Settle for nothing less than hundreds of thousands.  It’s arguable that part of the foundation of any decent education is to learn what makes something true or not.

Whether the law will actually allow him to file such a suit is almost irrelevant to the fact that he does honestly deserve compensation — if he was not himself somehow to blame for being left ignorant of how to judge whether or not something is true.

He deserves it because he’s almost certainly going to pay for it again and again in the currency of messed up life decisions until he does learn.

Every politician and scam-shark out there can already smell his blood.

◊◊◊

I confess.  As you probably suspected, I just now cheerfully made up the newborn word, “snerklesome”.  I have no idea what it should mean.  Do you?  Suggestions, please!

◊◊◊

Without You

If I had this day to own
I think I could sit here for an hour
With nothing more important
Than coffee and this pen
And how much better living’s been
Without you.

I don’t do a lot these days —
It’s so crazy, but it’s fun
Just recalling what I’m missing
Without you.

It ain’t about good or bad
Or anything so grim —
I remember well your beauty —
But the mornings still have been
Lighter now without you.

◊◊◊

Is the desire for rebirth, renewal a human universal?  It seems ubiquitous enough: It’s found in every culture and society that I myself know of.  Perhaps it really is a universal, or nearly universal, trait of humans.

◊◊◊

I really do need more blogs to read.   “Please, sir, I want some more.”

(Silence)

“What? More?  The boy wants more?” Said the master bloggers in unison and disbelief.

“That boy will be hung”, said the author of a science blog. “I know that boy will be hung.”

◊◊◊

The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  — Kenko, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

Sometime around the age of 50, I began to notice how predictable, repetitious, and boring life was becoming for me.  The weariness took hold gradually, but steadily grew over the next several years until it reached something of a crisis in that I was becoming lethargic and dissatisfied under the weight of it.

Ironically, those years were still the happiest of my life up until that time.  Yet the boredom rose and began to threaten that happiness.  What to do?

I would prefer to tell you now that I found the perfect solution, but I didn’t, and I still haven’t.  I have, however, managed to greatly reduce the problem through more than one means, most of them commonsense (“Try new things”, “Break at least some of your routines”,  “Turn to the arts and sciences for fresh ideas and ways of seeing”,  “Start a guerilla war with the kids on your lawn”, etc.).  Some of them, however, are perhaps a little bit more than commonsense.

When I came across Kenko several years ago, I was struck by two things.  First, the novelty of his view of uncertainty.  Most of us, I think, are annoyed by uncertainty.  We even seem to run from it.  For instance, how often do we embrace all too tightly beliefs about the world that we cannot possibly — if we were honest with ourselves — be that certain of?  And how often do we cling to old, outdated, now worthless habits and routines for no better reason than they make our days more predictable?  We are usually inclined, I believe, to view uncertainty as anything but “precious”.

So Kenko’s view of uncertainty first struck me for a view I’d never come across before.  And in the second place, it struck me for a view I didn’t understand.  Why did he think uncertainty was so precious?  Was he really seeing something?  Something I myself had never seen before?   If so, then what could it be?

Something I’ve become acutely aware of is how we tend to turn to stone over the years: To ossify in our beliefs, daily activities, relationships, and self-identities and images.  Indeed, I’ve written about how and why our self-image can become our greatest tyrant and oppressor here.  The problem is that it does very little good to merely say to ourselves, “Don’t do it!”  That’s about as effective in practice as “Just abstain until marriage” sex-ed.

What has worked best for me to solve the ossification problem is to look for uncertainties in my self-images or self-identities.  Seeing how uncertain my notions of myself are has significantly helped me to hold at least many of those notions tentatively, lightly.  It even seems to me now that a lightness of heart or spirit begins with a lightness of self-image.

Thank you, Kenko.  You got me to barking up the right trees, sniffing the right crotches, for an at least partial solution to my problem.

◊◊◊

Is there an absolute reality?

That’s a bit different from asking if there’s an absolute truth.   Ideas are like maps, reality is like the terrains the maps refer to, and truth is a quality of the relationships between the maps and their terrain.  So when we ask, “Is there an absolute reality”, we are not really asking if there is an absolute truth.

Without an absolute reality, the notion of ever knowing all there is to know about the universe becomes impossible, even in theory.
Yet, would that be a good or a bad thing?
◊◊◊

Artists of all kinds so often think they must seek out new truths.  Perhaps their most vital service to us, however, is to make old, solid, and well-known truths once again visible to us.

For such old truths have become clichés, and few of us see much beyond the surface of a cliché, see it fresh, and as if for the first time.  Consequently, old truths so frequently have less impact than they should (for our own sake) have on our views, actions, and attitudes.

◊◊◊

Recently, I saw a man in anger destroy nearly at once several friendships that only moments before were important to him.  He did it because he felt slighted by two or three individuals, and to retaliate, he entirely broke off relations with a whole small group of people, and not just the two or three members of the group who he felt had slighted him.

“A man can only take so much”, he said.

But it was not the man who suffered the slights, it was the ego in the man who suffered the slights.  A more rational thing to have done might have been to look more deeply into the matter, for when someone slights you, they either do so accidentally, or with just cause, or with injustice.

If accidentally, forgive them.  If just, apologize and forgive them.  If with injustice, dump them and forgive them (Forgiveness is not for their sake, but for yours.  It’s unhealthy to carry around a grudge).  But whatever you do, don’t lose friendships valuable to you over such slights.  The poor fool was a puppet of his pride.

◊◊◊

We make too much of beliefs.

We are taught to make too much of them by our cultures, and then we never seem to get around to de-programming ourselves of such an insidious notion.  We are even taught that we are our beliefs.  That they are the very substance of our selves.  But a self made out of beliefs — no matter how profound those beliefs are — is a shallow, superficial self.

For beliefs — even when true — are no more than the maps we use to negotiate reality, and just like paper maps, they are not at all the reality they refer to.  A person who thinks his or her beliefs are their selves is like a hiker who thinks the trail map they hold in their hands is the trail itself.  You can’t lose your virginity by reading a textbook in biology, and you can’t really know yourself if all you know are your beliefs about yourself.

Beliefs should be worn lightly, tentatively, hesitantly.  They should never become balls and chains on our ankles.  How, then, can we dance light-heartedly through life?

◊◊◊

I Remember

I remember
Laughing under summer skies —
Would have thought we could fly —
And the winds pass on by.

I remember
Holding hands while the river flowed —
Came a time to let you go —
And the waters pass on by.

Now for all that I know
You have a good life
Filled with the stars,
The sun, and the trees.

But all that I do know —
It’s the life you should have,
So beautiful
You were to me.