Thursday, June 22, 2017

Truth: Sacred-Text/Lived-Experience


Especially primed for change now, right now—as if our world may explode if we don’t—is truth, the way we “get it.” Any high hopes that we can trust news media, political leaders, even preachers to tell the truth have disintegrated beyond the point at which the center holds. While this sounds awful, potentially the breakdown offers good news.
       We would like to trust persons in positions of authority to be truthful. The alternative of asserting my individual position can be dangerous as well as arrogant and stupid. Also, trust is a beautiful thing, but it leads to devastating betrayal unless we refine our moral sense. This continued refinement includes holding authorities accountable for telling the truth or saying “I don’t know.” Acts of deception have to be named and punished.
        Somewhat on the positive side, being lied to spurs us into hard learning of telling truth, even in uncertainty, in paradox, and in story language that intertwines with experiential data. Contemporary schooling has limited our development of moral sense with an overemphasis on fact as truth, in no small part because that version of true is easier to score “reliably” as right/wrong in grading and testing. Leonard Lewisohn tells the fuller nature of truth: 
This Truth/Reality (haqiqat) professed by the Sufis is best expressed by indirect symbolic allusions and more effectively captured by poetic metaphor than described by logical statements of didactic prose. Paradox, symbolic allusion, and apophatic expression are more the tools… (p. xiv in The Wisdom of Sufism)
       For adults today to bequeath any quality of life to the next generation, we must commit to advancing our moral sense so that we can tell the truth beyond the fact-level and beyond selfish interests. We make this commitment so that we can live into truth about peace in a world community, about “justice for all.” 
        While sacred text guides our best effort to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), each person’s engagement with truth also depends on living it out, with courage and persistence through inevitable mistakes. Refining and advancing our moral sense depends on a concerted willingness to live in the moment.  “The friend of God is the child of the present instant” (Lewisohn translating Junayd in Hujwiri’s Kashf al-mahjub; p. 45 in The Wisdom of Sufism).
        We need courage to turn down the volume of external proclamations blaring across the dial from eyewitness newscasts to expert scientists/academicians to scripture-quoting preachers/theologians. I’m not throwing out the volumes on wisdom, but I’m searching for truthful voices that resonate with experience. Models for interrogating our lived experience include the studies of key figures such as King David. I have about fifty passages marked in Walter Brueggemann’s David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory
         Richly arrayed on my desktop are also Abraham Heschel’s A Passion for Truth; David Tracy’s Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope; Gadamer’s Truth and Method; Richard Niebuhr’s The Meaning of Revelation; Nasr’s The Garden of Truth; and God’s Light: The Prophets of the World’s Great Religions. I don’t want to go into the jungle of personal experience unarmed. From this array of rich texts, great ideas swirl with and against each other threatening to pull me under the spell of word-world, the enchantment of thought and philosophy. But the love of wisdom risks separation from the fragile truth of personal experience. 
        As noted in previous blogs, my personal favorite for bringing together my body’s knowing with the word world happens in natural horsemanship. For example, I reflect back on the most recent ride with Leg’cy. Shortly before I’d dismounted, my body vibrated in the way I’ve come to realize signals something meaningful, as an offering to be composed—or abandoned in unreflected dust. 
        But when I hold the moment in consideration, I see that our rides continue to simplify. While we both thrill in the fast-paced canter, we want it to be held in lightness with very subtle cueing. Midway in the ride, I’d asked for the trot-to-canter transition. Leg’cy refused. Instead of demanding, as some texts and coaches assert, I accepted: “O.K. My timing wasn’t right.” So we returned to working on flexion with more leg yields at the trot. Then, before long, Leg’cy herself sent a very subtle canter cue. I followed, and together we smoothly transitioned. The moral: Let go of an unmet desire and accept a higher power in the given—this allows a sweeter union.
        This is the lived-experience complement to the quotation by Lewisohn: the divine found in surrender to the present instant. So while it’s not new, the confirmation by body with the wisdom text combines into a vibrant truth that's strong in conviction and begging for commitment. Living in the moment is hard but with body-mind-soul it’s done.
        As we live into the integrity of our own being our capacity to tell the truth perfects because we are purifying the self-deceptions, releasing the illusions implanted by consumer culture, false belief, by power mongers, by fear, disappointment, harbored hate, anger, and so much more. How can we begin to expect to discern and to oppose the lies all around unless and until we live into the powerful truth within, moment by living moment in full consciousness and committed conscience! 

        Said again, in order to live ethically and to advance moral sense for doing it, we need our own embodied authority, refined through intention and reflection, and buttressed with universal source often re-told in good stories.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Move-On Invitation


A poignant capture of “back in the day” stands out from the classic mid-sixties “What’s it all about, Alfie?” The film and song push the recognition, as much needed today as any day, that all experience, even sex, loses significance when cut off from meaning. Our existence, including the world of possibility, has layers of potential meaningfulness. When a person is “done with” a level and another is poised for engaging, life suspends. Often it's frustrating and the person feels “nothin' matters” or put more emotionally “WTF!” This pregnant moment needs to be handled with care, not trashed, not indulged as cause for giving up, zoning out, medicating away.
       Such a state does make for a dangerous junction; it’s a set up for violence to self and/or others. One form of violence to the opportunity is to numb the pain, commonly found in alcohol or other substances, over or under the counter. TV’s another possible semi-conscious substitute for vibrant engagement in life. Sometimes escape from the soul’s demand for meaning comes, at least for a time, by overworking or compulsive working out. Sometimes we lie to ourselves about the excitement of something new (e.g., travel, an affair) or something old (e.g. spirit-less religion, a false memory of “greatness”). Perhaps the escape becomes permanent, but the question remains and along with the accountability, waits or lurks, looking for the opening, maybe held until life’s closing confrontation or the next one’s judgment.
        Why would a loving God let a life go unlived? Perhaps the persistent interrogation for meaningfulness comes from a freedom-loving, destiny-driving divinity; this offers a magnificent opportunity to move into a deeper level. Although it may appear too harsh to come from the god-we-wish-for, the impetus to force movement often requires leaving or re-making a relationship. The relationship to be broken might be with alcohol, with a partner, a workplace, a religion, a way of thinking, or some other engagement that seems to be just FINE. Louise Penny, my favorite contemporary mystery writer, has a star character, an old embittered poet authoring a book titled “F.I.N.E.” an acronym for fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, egotistical. Perhaps from a more divine perspective when a person persists in a finished state that’s lost meaningfulness, it’s time to realize this alternative judgment on “fine.”
        The shift to a deeper level, to one that matters, is often traumatic, and it may come a-sudden or glacially slow. Sometimes a dramatic change is required, but other times a person can best do it within an existing relationship. The proof of moving to a deeper level comes in new vitality, in a different capacity for knowing and feeling, and in a stronger connection with destiny.
        I’ve experienced significant movements in meaningfulness by staying within the same structure (e.g., teaching in the same university, horsemanship) and in leaving (e.g., divorce, place of residence, religion). Perhaps what has most stayed the course has been a conviction that meaningfulness is. The eternal. God. 
        Because my understanding is partial as well as changing, my perception of God moves. Old, deadened definitions and forms lose sense and leave, whether one likes it or not. In my limited understanding, the major religions (particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all confirm the need to continue to re-experience and move into deeper levels of the Source of Meaning.
        My journey has been held and pushed by special containment: lovers, Jungian psychoanalysts, horses, guides. The attempt to run from God, like Jonah did, needs to be restrained by someone who can cleanly name a run-away and who can also discern when a person is “suffering” a “done situation” from when the person is faithfully enduring an alchemical process. The chosen guide needs devotion to the Self; a true guide always looks to empower the authentic inner voice rather than to impose control. Discernment also often finds confirmation and purification in sacred text, in good story, and perhaps most of all in love, another ever-changing, perfecting form. 
        To accept disenchantment with life as a move-on invitation offers the space for story, for good stories that participate in the continuous recreation of meaningfulness.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The First Day

The last act before closing the office door after 41 years of employment in the institution was to leave the room key on the desk. I kept the dual purpose keycard (used both for ID and building access) mostly for reminders: beardless, aging...
Honesty must rank at or near the top of the most named virtues. On campus, academic integrity is insured by requiring students to add the Honor Pledge certifying ownership of work and by similarly requiring faculty to sign CVs in the annual reporting. And yet something vitally important is missing. Something about integrity.
Perhaps that’s what my threshold dream last night was trying to convey as I cross into the land of retirement. My accountability on this side of the life-stream more clearly owes to God. It always does, of course, but the evaluation systems imposed on students and faculty, to some degree like those in any obligated, enslaved, or employed status, impose obstacles against claiming personal authenticity. When does a person know clearly and show openly the direct line to and from the Source? That depends on a clean heart line, one that is not compromised by the impurities of human “merit” systems and peer comparisons.
In the dream, a former student appears and is agitated because the academic program had not made explicit the name of God. He’d just figured out that was the one-thing-most-important. He seemed upset because he should have been told sooner and more clearly that this was the key. And what if he hadn’t figured it out on his own! 
Continuing in the dream, I share with him my experience of coming to a realization of the significance of spirituality. I try to tell him that to reach this kind of understanding might depend on a person’s development of a maturity that’s ready to “get it.” And I suggest that reaching such an insight by oneself is probably essential. It cannot be given by someone else.
Today, in my predawn acting into this side of the river, I’m drawn to weed out a couple of plants that have grown up around the base of the oak. My vision now perceives how the little garden needs pruning. It’s our view from the back porch where we coffee-drinkers ask the morning what the day brings. 
The discernment of “weeds” and the adjustment that balances and reflects harmony provide an affirmation of beauty. It’s a very simple gesture and yet the space fills with a sense of rightness. I’m reminded of Keats’ next to last line in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
                               Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
  Dishonesty glares blatantly across our political landscape these days. Perhaps we’re pushed to be more honest about the ways “greatness” has been aligned with greed, with status, with selfishness. Not with truth. Not with beauty. 
Looking back across the river, the mighty Potomac, perhaps more free now in post-employment, I wonder what persons who care can do. Will academic institutions find radical leadership? Or, like my dream figure, do we have to make our way individually?  Persons who care can clean enough heart-space to sense a true path and then follow it, often within but going against a value system that favors economic disparity, professional jealousy, and blind defense of hegemonic turf.
Parker Palmer (e.g., Let Your Life Speak) tells of moving from his doctorate at Berkeley to Pendle Hill where quality was enacted in a radically different structure, where as dean he washed dishes because everyone shared in the levels of work. Their pay scale was not outrageously disproportionate. Palmer lived truth of his degree in sociology. But Berkeley still seems proud of proclaiming economic inequity: “Male professors at University of California-Berkeley make on average $240,235 USD per year. This is $165,765 more than the average male university professor's annual salary ($74,470 USD).” 
        And Berkeley is our aspirational peer. Best we beware casting stones.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Truth-Telling

Maybe fifteen years ago, the Thoroughbred that was teaching me to ride better was called the Truth-Teller. He kept leaning in; and while I fussed that my cues were saying to stay out on that imaginary perfect circle, the coach insisted the horse was doing exactly what I was telling him to do. Many times later, around and over again through a decade of riding, my inner horsepower now makes a clearer, more accurate reading on our balance, more aware of degrees of pressure, stillness, softness, and tilt, as well as clearing our mental and emotional states. All this makes for telling the truth.
Sometimes with just a glimpse of a person in a position of leadership, an extremely unbalanced, hypocritical condition jumps out, glaringly obvious. I wonder how others fail to notice it. How can so many persons support someone who repeatedly imperils the future of their children? Recognizing the vital role played by compassion, I’m trying to remember my experience when I just didn’t get what the Truth-Teller was making abundantly clear. 
The gift of discerning truth and the continued development of moral sense depend on dedicated commitment to peace, justice, and love. Also, the path includes some difficult aspects. Suffering, tolerance of uncertainty, and trust in a higher power must play a crucial role in becoming truth-tellers. Our world shows so much failure to face the truth: denial of addiction, cheating, false labeling, staying on the surface of skin color instead of moving deeper to know love, listening to praise instead of heeding the inner divine, on and on. What will it take to make a commitment to truth?
Sometimes, “white” lies are called “telling stories,” meaning the person is fibbing or making something up for deceptive purposes or for fun. Yes, it’s wise to recognize that all stories are not good stories. And we should know that not just any person can tell a good story, in both senses: 1) discerning truth from lies and 2) composing an embodied truth-narrative, telling a moral tale. 
But we are “wired” for story. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (p. 216). The moral dimension of the history we compose can be best understood, many of us believe, as a Narrative Covenant (e.g., David Damrosch; also see the volumes on hermeneutic phenomenology as well as archetypal psychology).
Genesis 1 says we are made in God’s own image. I believe in the divine gift; some call it genius. A gift needs to be nurtured. Moral sense can be tended by good stories.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Good-Stories-Experience

Good Stories, like this iris, illuminate a doorway—one otherwise easily missed; 
they transport us over the threshold of destiny.
       The purpose of Good Stories is to engage the power of the word. 
       Well, that’s one way to say it. Any web of words invites trouble, like “a murder of crows.” In this case, we’re invoking several potent 4-5 lettered ones: “power,” “word,” “story,” “good.” Such word-combos risk entangling us in confusion, making us frustrated in not securing the single right answer, and thereby cutting us off from the strength to act with conviction. We’re moved further instead of closer to the integrity of being and doing. 
        Because of these dangers, we need stories we can play with; but we have to make it serious play, like Vivian Paley tells so wonderfully, for example in Wally’s Stories and in A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Good Stories requires not just any tale but ones that carry deep truth and moral relevance. 
       And by “story” we have to go way beyond dead words on a page; we have to compose a dynamic flow of images that allow the participants, each individually, to meet up with, even to be confronted by, a chance to be touched by his and her destiny. It’s when we make that kind of live-story-experience that we’re in position to change worlds. Perhaps it’s better to say that we’re readied to have our world changed. 
       Good Stories draw us into a space, cognitive and affective, that transcends classroom walls. If we prematurely explain the power of narrative with terms like “hermeneutic phenomenology” (which happens to be one of my favorite phrases), we’re likely to push persons further from the needed encounter. The value of technical terms comes after having tasted the divine nectar where insight breaks open like the total mind/body lift-off when a horse responds to the rider’s thought, like when an imprisoning false belief disintegrates in the presence of deeper truth about the nature of love or inner peace or the compassion that dissolves a wall of separation. 
       This taste experience is birthed not in the technical term nor in the analysis of literature but in the personal encounter in story. For example, the narrative participant resonates with a character almost magically transforming, as in the namesake Hermes’ shape-shifting. The person feels that the story models in a beyond-words way a significant world-making turn. This experience with story is, of course, hermeneutic phenomenology; but the cognitive work needs to be scaffolded upon a powerful embodied experience such as that offered in Good Stories.
       All this has been explained long ago. The theory (e.g., hermeneutic phenomenology) is not new but it’s going wasted unless and until we reinvigorate the experience. For example, I could have been reading Richard Palmer’s Hermeneutics, publication date of 1969, way back in grad school. Almost fifty years ago, Palmer stated the problem quite clearly: 
Literary interpretation, by and large, is still generally seen as an exercise in the conceptual “dissection”... Students in literature classes are sometimes even told that their personal experience of a work is some kind of fallacy irrelevant to the analysis of the work. And professors, gathered in huge conventions, ritually bewail the fact that their students find literature “irrelevant”; but their technological conception of interpretation, with its undergirding metaphysics of realism, actually promotes the very irrelevance they ineffectually lament.“Science manipulates things and gives up living in them,” the late French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty tells us. (pp. 6-7)
      But if I had been assigned Palmer’s text in grad school without the hermeneutic experience involving a good-story engagement, the words likely would have spun around in my head without animating my being. In other words, they would have remained an academic exercise, possibly extending thought but almost certainly ending up disembodied. Explanation, fine as it is, isn’t enough.
      My initial impactful Good Stories experience came a decade or so after grad school through the hermetic fire spun by a masterful storyteller. The storytelling event, crucially, was also given in a context significantly infused with artistic interpretation and with translation into the tapestry of meaningful life. Proper incarnation of any important term (such as “power,” “word,” “story,” and “good”) depends crucially on articulating meaningful experience into nuanced explication through passionate storytelling.
       I believe the experience of Good Stories is much needed today because I see not only students but also their teachers still doing the conceptual dissection that Palmer names and it is still devoid of “living-in.” I believe the Good-Stories-experience builds an embodied consciousness and the awakened conscience that produce capacity, urgently needed today, to discern truth-tellers from lying manipulators. 
       Through Good Stories, we can make schooling so that words and stories transport us from "stupid" across the threshold into the affirmation of life’s purpose and destiny. One participant wrote at the end of the course:
Good Stories helped me grow as a person and develop more goals that I have set for myself in the future. I thought that these stories were stupid, but then came soon to realize that by connecting them to moments in my life, they are actually told to teach me life lessons that I will carry along with me forever.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Finding One’s Niche, Destiny, & Aiming for Good


Now that the Spring Term 2017 has closed, I’m drawn to reflect on the Good Stories course: purpose and possibilities, intentions, redirections, serendipities. In looking over open-ended notes from the final days, I’m taken back to the inception of Good Stories, back to re-read a mostly-forgotten blog composed when planning for the first session some six years, over eleven hundred students ago. In January 2011my deliberations about the purpose for Good Stories concluded:
Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté.  Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters.  Boyd [author of the primary textbook] states that our stories teach us how to do that.  My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity.  The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably.  Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters.  Discernment depends on purification.
     Over the fifteen times the course ran, we did engage stories featuring betrayal and deception. While we searched out applications to both the individual and the local level to discern lies from truth, the themes that resonated more frequently and strongly focused courage, perseverance, love, and on the pair found in the subtitle of the course: peace and justice. In concert with the textbook, Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, our course progressed through four levels of explanation, culminating in the Particular Level
     Boyd illustrates the particular level:
“even highly creative persons create in distinctively personal patterns. Shakespeare learned from the opportunities and examples of the drama of his day-blank verse, rhetorical exuberance, multiple plots, the genres of tragedy, comedy, and history-but from the first extended them in his own way, becoming, as his work matured, more idiosyncratic in vocabulary, phrasing, imagery, meter, speech construction, characterization, scenic structure, plot development, plot parallelism, emotional change and range, and sheer artistic confidence. By working at their own kinds of problems intently, geniuses can build on their expertise, their peculiar neural networks, their own mental materials and methods, rather than reinventing elements and methods each time from scratch. Even writers with a high inclination or a high determination to maximize novelty will reach positions and discover practices distinctly their own that they continue to recycle and recombine in their own way." (p. 356, Kindle 4039-4044)
     Boyd explicates this level and its application to moral sense most thoroughly in his focus on Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, and specifically in Horton Hears a Who!
Part of what makes the story so satisfying, indeed, is the delicate balance between our admiration for Horton's having the courage to stand up for himself despite the pressure of his entire jungle community and young Jo-jo's having the decency to respond to the pressure of his community. Both nonconformity and conformity have their claims. This kind of symmetry may not be consciously noticed even by most adult readers, yet it contributes naturally to our sense of the rightness of the story. In his case, Horton has good reason to resist the other animals; in his, Jo-jo has good reason to join his fellow Whos. (page 374; 4244-4248 Kindle)
     In Good Stories, we applied the particular level to the production of the final Digital Media Project. The assignment was explained:
DMP3 shows movement toward the Particular Level where the previous three levels are best engaged, both now and in a future vision, for “truth” in answering the big questions of peace and justice, in a specific response to the individual’s destiny, gift, opportunity, and responsibility. DMP3 shows the transformation necessary to move toward destiny (including humans' progression toward cooperation) and the transformation develops through challenges.
     Evident in a note written on May 12, the day after the last class, I see one of those words emphasized—gift. Perhaps emerging over the fifteen terms as most important to me was a wish and intention that the course serve as a gift to the lovely students, in ways like grandchildren—especially shown in the tears of the one staying as all others left the room to say, “I don’t want it to end.” If our time together led to the gift of stories, our course doesn’t end. As the May 12 note put it:

“Gift” closes up inaccurately, like a flower that reverses into a bud instead of opening into the fullness of the bloom. Yes, it moves toward the petal-dropping moment, a direction threatening, calling to the edges of our misguided mind the specter of death. But, “No problem,” as the now-phrasing gives it. The gift from God, the distinctive mark to each being, is a giving, continuous flowing, not owned by us. That unique fingerprint of now, the DNA of one’s true identity, dare not be mine but only known to be the longing, pulling toward and uniting with the source.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Love Inseparable from Justice, Mercy, Compassion


5 AM-ish is the perfect time for coffee, especially on May 25, 2017, when the world turns sepia-toned, the tin roof echoes the gently falling rain, the robin joins in, not exactly singing but offering unabashedly itself. And the Amish-made rocking chair on the back porch, along with the man in it, creak just a bit. 
     Most Thursdays for the past decade would likely have found me at Starbucks when the door opens, 5AM, often the one on the corner of the Beltway and Route 1, pondering matters academic, like everybody else, wondering. Whatever: how we got here, how to get out without completely betraying the soul. 
     I don’t think humans are born nice and we’re not born mean either, but it sure looks like it. There’s a book within reach of my desk called Just Babies, mostly not-yet-read, but the point is that we’re born, at least most everybody is, with a capacity to prefer goodness and even with discernment of good guys. Just—as in born-with justice. Even before speaking or walking infants can choose the person who was nice, looking away from the actor who meanly stole the toy from another child, preferring the one showing love.
     What happens? How can so many people fail to see corrupt wanna-be leaders who are going to betray them without batting an eye? How can folks choose to watch a network spewing lies and hate? And then go to church, even send missionaries! The good book, just about any of them, warns of this. Freedom, this gift given humans, means suffering and most would rather not. The textbook we used in Good Stories preaches reciprocal altruism and asserts the necessity of imposing disincentives even to persons who collaborate with and who do not resist the evil-doers.
     Other good books teach purification. The person who wants to stone the one caught in adultery is not to be hated or vilified. The resistance needs to come from a clean heart because harboring hate destroys. So the person who committed the horrific hate crime on campus, the persons who support a power-crazed politiican, those who maim horses to win competitions—all these should be stopped but best not by those calling them nasty names. 

     Somehow love is still the answer. And it must be a love greater than we have grown, one inseparable from justice, mercy, compassion.