A Writing Sabbatical

I have been unhappy with my writing for the last several months. Nothing seems to say quite what I want to say; I can’t seem to think of what I want write about; other things seem to get in the way too easily, and so on. That’s the writer’s block part. And then there’s the fact that so many things are happening these days that I can’t keep up with them. Just as I’m about to put down my thoughts about so-and-so, such-and-such happens, and rather than choosing one or writing about both, I end up writing about neither. But this is the easy part of it.

The harder part is that there is something going on inside of me. I am 72 years old. That means I am beginning the transition from middle age to old age. The world looks different from this perspective. It seems somehow less urgent, less demanding, less in need of anything I have to say to it. I’m finding myself becoming more and more taciturn, looking at the world and simply holding my silence. A year or so ago, I remarked to a few friends that I seem to be turning into the quintessential aging Medieval monk, holed up in his cell of silence.

I am reminded of the wisdom of the Hindu progression from householder to spiritual seeker. As one ages, so the insight goes, one finds oneself increasingly drawn from the phenomenal world of things to the spiritual world, less in need of reaching outward and more in need of sinking inward.

It’s a pretty good description of what I am feeling, though I’m not really about to retire to a monastery. There is too much beauty out there in the world, and too many people whom I love and who love me for me to be comfortable with that level of withdrawal. Yet I feel the need for a serious level of quiet seeking in my life. The issue is how to strike the right balance.

I recently remembered something I read in one of Elie Wiesel’s books: “I write more to understand than to be understood.” I think that may be the key. I think I need to take a sabbatical from writing for anyone but myself. To be sure, I’ll stay in touch with family and loved ones through Facebook and other means, but I’ll not worry about writing for any other kind of publication. For example, I won’t close this blog down, but I will not write for it for a while, maybe for the rest of the year. Maybe longer. Who knows? And I’ll put aside my two book length manuscripts that no one seems to want to publish anyhow.

For the next while, I’ll write entirely for myself. My own reflections on whatever moves me. Meditations for myself alone. Wrestling with those books, like The Tao Te Ching, that are my scriptures. That sort of thing. And I won’t care whether anyone ever sees any of this.

And so, enjoy your lives, and I’ll see y’all on the other side!

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But What Should We Call You?

I am 72 years old. Now, that is not exactly old (though I suspect my young grandchildren would say otherwise), but I am certainly among the aging. Lately I have been following several conversations about how to address my segment of the population, the aging segment. (When you get there, you tend to notice things like that.)

What is a graceful, non-offensive way to address us, we who are aging? There are a lot of cutesy things people say, all of which are somewhere between patronizing and offensive. Support groups (and what segment of the population cannot benefit from a support group?) get called things like Raging and Aging (I’m aging but I’m not raging—and least not about aging), Gracefully Aging (some of us are aging rather less than gracefully), The Wisdom Set (some of us have a deal of wisdom, others not so much), The Elders (“Elder” seems to me an honorific that needs to be earned…and some of us haven’t), and so on.

It seems to me that all of these are nothing but euphemisms designed to help us forget the truth that we are all aging and moving inexorably toward our deaths. It’s as if death is something we can all avoid if we just don’t talk about it, think about it, and, especially, mention it (shudder!). It’s a form of name magic that doesn’t work. The reality is that each of us who lives long enough will become one of the aging, and even one of the aged. And as far as I can tell, that certainly beats the hell out of the alternative. Nope. It’s time to leave all that nonsense behind and come out into the open: We who are more or less my age are who we are, and we are aging.

We actually do have names for the various stages of adult life. We leave our Youth, which is a transformational age, at about the age of 18 to become Young Adults. And by the time Young Adults reach about 35 or 40 we become Middle Aged Adults. We stay in Middle Age for rather a while until somewhere around 65 more or less we transform into Aging Adults, which another transformational age. And what do we Aging Adults transform into at about the age of 80 or there abouts? Aged (or Elderly) Adults.

How do you know when you’ve moved from Middle Aged Adulthood to Aging Adulthood? Each of us has to figure that out for ourselves, of course, but there are a few signs that many to most of us exhibit. Here are a few:

  • Decreasing strength and/or stamina
  • Increase in time needed to heal from injury or disease
  • BPH (men only!)
  • Decreasing night vision acuity
  • Decreasing hearing acuity
  • Decreasing libido
  • Sagging skin and connective tissue
  • Osteoarthritis
  • And that will do for a start.

You may be surprised at some of the things that I have left out, like thinning of hair density and the whitening of our hair. That’s because these things seem to me to be highly idiosyncratic and occur at vastly different ages, if they occur at all. (My hair started turning white and dropping out in my mid-30s.) But however it may happen to you, you will know it. Even if you deny its reality, you will know it. And you know what? I truly do hope each person reading this manages to live long enough to join the aging crowd.

Back the title question, then. “What should we call you?” Well, if “you” means this individual who is writing this blog, “Ken” will do nicely. But if “you” is this group of whom I am now a part, how about calling us by our true name: Aging Adults.

Zen? What’s the Point?

My good friend and colleague, James Ford, recently posted an interesting entry on his blog, “Monkey Mind: Easily Distracted”, that set me to thinking. Now, I need a disclaimer at the outset: Though I am deeply influenced by Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, I do not think of myself as a Buddhist. James is the expert on Zen, not me. But there is one thing I am an expert on, and that is my own experience and thoughts. So, here is what I think, how Zen has informed my own spiritual life and how that inspires my work for racial reconciliation.

Let’s start with a Greek concept, since that’s where James started: Teleology. The word comes from two Greek words, Telos + Logos. It is the telos part that interests me. Now, telos does not translate nicely into English. It is usually rendered as end, in the sense of goal. For example, a teleological explanation in biology would look like “in order to do so and so the organism exhibits ­­­such and such behavior.”

And that is accurate enough, but there is a deeper meaning, too. A telos is not simply the goal to be achieved but rather that which beckons onward, always just out of reach but inspiring us to continue, to reach farther, to go deeper. For example, some medieval theologians spoke of reunion with God as the telos of creation. And Aristotle included telos as one of the four causes of observable phenomena. In order to understand a phenomenon, you have to understand that to which the actor is reaching. Think of it as the answer to the questions, “What’s the point? Why bother?”

With this idea in mind, let us now turn to Zen. What’s the point of Zen? Why bother? What is its telos? Well, Zen is a branch on the Mahayana tree within the forest of Buddhism. And that would certainly suggest that, like all of Buddhism, it must aim somehow or other at Enlightenment.

And to what end is Enlightenment? Why bother? The usual answer is that one seeks Enlightenment in order to overcome dukkha, the existential despair that arises from the realization of our aloneness. And yet. There is also the Second Noble Truth that tells us that dukkha arises from attachment. Shouldn’t that also apply to an attachment to Enlightenment? And doesn’t that invalidate the entire enterprise? Paradox! What’s a practitioner to do? Why bother?

Like all religion, Zen is no stranger to paradox. In fact, Zen seems to me to embrace paradox much more forthrightly and intentionally than most religions. But. This embrace of paradox is not just for the fun of it or to dazzle or to hide behind. It is rather to point the way to a deeper experience of a deeper truth. The paradoxes are teaching paradoxes, not hiding paradoxes. They are nothing but rafts to carry us across the river of illusion. Who would carry the raft around after arriving safely on the other side?

The raft is not the goal. The goal is…? That is the question, isn’t it? What is the goal, what is the telos, of Zen? Is it not that very awakening that we just noticed the Second Noble truth tells us we must not be attached to? But how can we let go of attachment to awakening, even while reaching for it, even while being inspired by it and continuing on toward it?

What I am beginning to understand is that the letting go of attachment is the recognition that there is nothing to let go of. As Dogen said, “Form is emptiness.” But what is there then? There is only this. And this. And this. As Dogen also said, “Emptiness is form.” The paradox is that this world, with all of its multifarious beauty, is both two and not two. Simultaneously. The solution to the paradox is the realization that these are not two separate truths, but a single reality, no more paradoxical than an electron’s being both a particle and a wave. Simultaneously.

When I’ve spoken about this to people who know me well, I am sometimes asked how this surrender is compatible with my dedication to racial reconciliation. Doesn’t that dedication imply a rejection of “the way things are”? Doesn’t surrender imply capitulation, and thus despair? Well, oddly enough, it doesn’t. On the contrary, it inspires me to go on, to continue the struggle. But how could that be?

It’s about the paradox of two yet not two. To surrender to this paradox is, among other things, to realize that I cannot be truly free of dukkha while others languish in the pain and slavery of oppression. Thus it is that I am inspired to reach further, to go deeper, even as I surrender to this very moment.

And so I sit. Simply sit. And count my breaths. In those moments of sitting, of being present to myself, I find myself present to far more than myself. For if there is only this, and this, and this, then surely there is only thee and thee and thee in this very moment as well. And then I rise. And it is enough. How can that be enough? Because in this surrender, I am renewed in the struggle, I am refreshed and able to carry on.

What’s That Sound?

In my last blog, I promised further reflections on Platonic justice. That can wait. I have something more urgent to say. Yesterday I was reminded of a song from my youth:

Stop children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.
~Steven Stills

So what’s goin’ down? A lot, surely, but as I see it there are two things that demand attention at the moment: the increasingly stringent rules controlling the White House Press Room, and Trumpcare (which I prefer to think of as Trump-Doesn’t-Care).

First the White House Press Room. Tyrants cannot abide a free press. A free press will expose them for what they are: lying, cheating, selfish, and cruel leaders who care nothing for the people and everything for their own power, position, and prestige. And so among the first things a tyrant does is to control the press, labeling a free press “enemies of the people”. Control the press and you control the people. These onerous regulations are nothing but a step toward the destruction of our free press, with all that implies.

Second, Trumpcare. The plutocrats in power would have us believe that governments are not in the business of distributing and re-distributing wealth. Do not believe it. They are lying to us. The questions we should be asking is to whom and from whom is the wealth being distributed and for what reason. Equally, no one should make the mistake of thinking that Trumpcare is a health care bill. It is not. It is a tax bill, and taxing is on of the prime avenues governments use to distribute and re-distribute wealth.

So to whom does this bill re-distribute wealth? The already wealthy. From whom is it being re-distributed? The poor and the middle class. And for what purpose is it being re-distributed? They would have us believe that it is to stimulate the economy. Again, that is another a bald-faced lie. Do not fall for it!

Economies are not stimulated by a few people and corporations accumulating wealth. That is not even capitalism. It is the long-discredited theory of mercantilism. Economies are stimulated by sustainable consumption of goods and services. This understanding actually grounds both capitalism and socialism. They have differences, to be sure, but both understand that consumption, not wealth, is at the heart of an economy.

Wealth is about money, and money is about power. And so the real reason for this attempt to redistribute wealth upward is that it will increase the power of a few people to control the nation. They will leak it out, slowly and carefully, in ways that make them appear to be benevolent benefactors of the rest of us. But in fact they will be controlling every aspect of our lives, from our bedrooms to what we can read, from what medical care we can expect to receive to how and when we die. And woe be unto any of us who has the audacity to expose or even criticize them. The wealthy will become the tyrants of America, be it via oligarchy or dictatorship.

So what’s goin’ down? We are. America is goin’ down an increasingly slippery slope into tyranny. We have but two choices open to us: Resist or Weep for the nation that once was ours.

Plato? Who Cares?

We all should care. Here’s the deal. One fine day Plato sat himself down and wondered about justice. “What does it mean,” he pondered, “to say that something is just? Is it a simply a matter of strength, evenhandedness, or law, or is there something deeper going on here?” And the more he thought about it, the more complex he realized the question actually is. And so, eventually, he invoked his alter ego, Socrates, and together, the philosopher and his alter ego, wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of European philosophy ever written, The Republic.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, he had to work out his entire philosophical system, from aesthetics through metaphysics and on to politics and psychology. It was a bumpy ride, indeed. Quite clearly no mere blog can possibly do justice (snicker!) to such a monumental book. But his final definition of justice is, I think, well worth thinking about.

First, he dismissed such ideas as justice is what is in the interest of the strongest, or justice is punishment for wrong-doing. That’s not too difficult. But then he tells us that justice is not primarily a legal concept after all. Legal justice is derivative from something much more profound. Just laws are those that produce just people. Therefore, before we can think about what makes laws just, we must understand what makes a person just. Justice, Plato tells us, is first and foremost a quality, not of law, but of people.

So what does Plato think a just person is? He begins by noting that there are three aspects to the soul: a rational aspect, an emotional aspect, and an appetitive aspect. The rational aspect is that part of us that deals in argument, evaluating evidence, drawing conclusions, and the like. The emotional aspect is that part of us that deals with our feelings. The appetitive aspect is that part of ourselves that deals with our basic drives, like sex, hunger, safety, and the like. A person is just when these three are in balance and each carries out its proper function without encroaching on the others.

This is easy to misunderstand. Over the centuries, the idea of a soul has taken on a religious meaning that it did not have for Plato. As a result, those who may reject that religious meaning can be tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But suppose we think of this rather differently. Suppose we think of Plato to be talking of our human minds in their entirety. Then what?

Then what we are looking at is Plato’s psychology. Now, psychology has gotten a lot more sophisticated since Plato’s time, and we have many different ways of thinking about the mind. But pick your favorite psychology and grant for a moment Plato’s notion of the primacy of the just mind. What would a just human mind be?

However many aspects there are to the mind, Plato would say that in a just mind they all function well together, in balance, none usurping the proper functioning of another. For example, think about our emotions. We have evolved to have our various emotions for very good reasons, even those emotions that are sometimes unpleasant.

To be concrete, consider anger. It is not hard to understand how our ancient ancestors needed the occasional fit of anger. If you could not get angry when someone tried to steal your stuff, you would starve to death. And we still need anger to motivate us to correct social ills and oppose oppression. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, there are things about which we ought to be angry. But. Anger can take over our consciousness and become paranoid, dangerous, destructive, even murderous.

Similar observations apply to all of our emotions. We need to be able to be afraid, but fear, like anger, when it takes over the mind, becomes paranoia. Even the so-called positive emotions can get out of hand. Love, when it takes over the mind, becomes obsession, the will to possess rather than the will to nurture. And so it goes. When our emotions cloud our rationality and try to take over our minds, the result is injustice.

 

Not a bad idea, eh? To be just is to live a life in proper balance. Platonic justice begins to look rather like what we have come to call self-actualization. And just as self-actualization is an ideal that is never quite within our grasp even while it calls us onward, toward it, Platonic justice leads out into deeper and deeper levels of our humanity.

 

This has a lot of implications. It carries us to law, to education, to proper relations among each other, even to environmental action. In my next installment, I want to explore some of these implications. But just to whet your appetite, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Under this understanding, what would a just penal system look like? When we call for justice for the victim of a crime, what are we asking for? What would Plato say we are asking for? Could he be right? Hmmmm.

The Legacy of Slavery Is Alive and Well

I am caught up in two difficult and painful struggles. Our nation is facing the most serious political crisis since the 1960s Vietnam War crisis, and my religious organization, The Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA), is struggling once again with its own internal racial isolation.

Our national turmoil is the result of a profound division within us, the division between those who believe that the core of life involves power and property and those who believe that the core of life involves compassion and connection. This division can be creative and constructive when each side has respect for the other. However, this mutual respect has been evaporating since the 1980s and has now all but disappeared.

Our current President is the embodiment of the power and property view. He, his administration, and much of his political base have nothing but contempt for compassion and see connection and relationship as weakness. And since contempt on one side births contempt in the other, we are now in a downward spiral of division, suspicion, anger, and cynicism. (The word “contempt” comes from a Latin word that means “to despise.”)

The turmoil within the UUA is the result of increasingly powerful calls for us to understand how it is that our organization embodies structures, processes, policies, and procedures that incarnate the idea that Euro-American culture is superior to non-Euro-American culture. This consistent and unrecognized favoring of Euro-American culture is the essence of systemic white supremacism.

Unfortunately there is no bright line that divides structures, processes, policies, and procedures on the one hand from specific actions taken by specific people on the other. As a result, when someone points to, say, a procedure that embodies white supremacism, others assume that they are being called white supremacists, thus missing the point entirely. The result is that, rather than moving toward resolution and reconciliation, more often we move toward anger and even deeper division.

This confusion is what stands behind the defensiveness that one often encounters when procedures and policies are called into question. It may be that all of this is both inevitable and necessary, but in the meantime, hearts are breaking. It remains true, though, that the work of deepening racial reconciliation is difficult, painful work that cannot be engaged without hearts breaking.

These two conflicts that seem, at first blush, very different, share a common ancestor. Both are aspects of the legacy of slavery within the United States. Writers such as Douglas Blackmon and Edward Baptist have documented how slavery in one form or another was at the heart of American industrialization. It is a moot question whether or not our industrialization required slavery. The fact is that it actually was based on cotton, and that cotton was grown by enslaved labor.

The influence of industrialization was so pervasive that every institution in the new nation benefited from it and therefore also benefitted from slavery. As a result every institution, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, was organized in ways that reflected that benefit. This was true of our government, and it was true of our religious institutions.

At the national level, consider. It is a small step from thinking that power generates worth to the idea that those without power are worth nothing except as property and as generators of wealth. And this is the essence of slavery. The enslaved, having no power, are but property and properly so. Thus was slavery justified. On the other hand, compassion and respect for relationship and human connection are what motivated the Abolitionists, even though they rarely grasped the true breadth and power of this idea. Some say there was no reconciliation of this divide until the Civil War. I would argue that in fact it has never been reconciled. Not even the election of an African American President illustrated reconciliation. Quite the contrary.

At the religious level, consider. Unitarianism and Universalism arose in the United States when the Industrial Revolution was either nascent or exploding across the land. Fortunes were made by the Industrial Revolution, and some of the scions of industry and the economic endeavors it required were attracted to Unitarianism or Universalism. Thus it was that fortunes generated either directly or indirectly by enslaved labor fueled the rise both religious movements.

Our parent organizations, The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, were not exceptions. They too benefitted from slavery. And therein lies our turmoil. There is a conflict lying at the heart of the UUA. On the one hand two of our most cherished ideals are the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependence of all beings. And yet the UUA is descended from older structures that embodied slavery and the Association has inherited, albeit unwittingly, a considerable amount of that embodiment. And we are loath to acknowledge that fact. Thus the conflict.

So here we have it, two very different power struggles, one governmental and one religious. At least on the surface they may appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both have roots in the same soil, the soil of American slavery. The lesson I take from this is that the legacy of slavery, though very well hidden, lives and breaths its poison into the soul of America at nearly every level. If we have any hope at all of solving these problems, we must address these roots, honestly, humbly, and compassionately. For, as William Faulkner told us, the past is not over; it is not even past.

A Hard Rain

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching and contemplating a revival of the Civil Rights Movement. And while I have not been silent, I have also wanted to be sure I knew my song well before I started singing, because the hard rains are gonna fall. We are entering a hard, painful, trying time in our history, religiously, nationally and culturally. We are trying to heal a divide that has existed for millennia, and the hard truth is that none of us will live to see it fully healed.

I am 72 years old. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Crow had to die. The struggle was long and hard. People bled and died in the struggle. Friendships and families were broken. Hearts were broken. And people were called upon to see their worlds differently. Not everyone could do that, though more could than couldn’t.

By about 1970, many of us, mostly Euro-American, thought that the work was essentially finished. We thought that all that remained was working out the details and correcting the oversights. We thought the world had changed. We were, of course, wrong. What was changed was the law, not the souls of the Euro-American people. And that is the task we face today: changing the soul of white America. What we are being called to do is to let go of a consciousness that we do not even know we have.

Before it will be possible for white privilege/white supremacy to evaporate into no privilege at all, the world that we Euro-Americans build out of our deep and unknowing racial consciousness, must die that a new world can be built. This cannot happen without struggle. It cannot happen without people being offended, hurt, and angered. It cannot happen without good and well-intentioned people saying things that are wrong, misunderstood, offensive.

Some will insist that things are moving far too slowly, that they cannot wait because people are dying. Some will insist that things are moving far to fast, that they cannot change their consciousness that quickly. Both will be right.

This is a time when compassion and strength will often be in conflict, because all of us will be called to do what we cannot do. Our compassion will sometimes fail, and our strength will sometimes fail.

There will be times when we want to throw up our hands n despair and give in to the violence that lurks with the hearts and souls of all of us, kept in check only by our commitment to a greater love and a cleansed world. And sometimes we will question that very commitment.

Each of us will falter and stumble sometimes. When that happens, may we have the humility to reach out to those strong hands and hearts walking beside us. And each of us will sometimes be the strong and the faithful. In those times, may we reach back to those who falter and stumble.

The newer, cleaner, just world call us, though it is over the horizon. The journey to that world is long and hard and filled with stumbling blocks. And the hard rain is falling. It stings our eyes and threatens to blind us. But that world is there. Its song calls us onward.