Saturday, November 6, 2004

The Lesson of Loss

This past Wednesday, many of us learned that tears of rage burn the most. I was among these: I cried, fumed, spat, and despaired--even as I was preparing myself for another day's commute, another day at the office.

Across this nation, there were some 50 million of us in that predicament, and who knows how many more around the world.

As I walked into the building where I work, the need for restraint became clear: some would understand a passing case of the blues, but overt emotionalism would be suspect amid the corporate realm. So I took a deep breath and tightened my inner belt, my soul groaning beneath the tension.

What I found when I came into the office was astonishing: it was like strolling through a funeral parlor at one of its peak periods. But there were no professional mourners here: the anguish was real; there were no crocodile tears amidst this lot. A young man who sits two cubicles off was darkly staring into his blank computer screen, clearly lost in a painful inner struggle. My manager, a forceful Hispanic woman, slowly shook her head, her face streaked with tears. No work was being done. Even the fellows from India--here on temporary "onshore" assignment--were visibly downcast or even distraught. It occurred to me that these guys had the least stake of all in the fate of John Kerry's campaign--indeed, they would seem to benefit more from a Bush victory and the assurance of continued outsourcing of American jobs. Yet they were not thinking about economic issues or any superficial self-interest--they were only aware in that moment of an enormous error, a distortion of judgment on the part of a nation and its government.

At that moment, it began to become clear to me that this is where transformation begins--that indeed, this is what "valueshock" is all about. This victorious administration has lived according to the principle of "shock and awe." What they failed to account for is that shock and awe are usually followed inexorably--after a moment of confusion and despair--by fear, which quickly breeds rage. A cornered cat has the sharpest claws; and there is no better way of assuring noise and even violence among a people than to enforce silence and subjection upon them. This is the lesson of Iraq, which Bush and his entourage continue to ignore at their own peril.

So I began to practice what I teach others to do: I began to ask questions--specifically, about what this loss, this seemingly overwhelming defeat, had to teach me. Here is what I learned.

I discovered, first and perhaps foremost, that dependence upon a group or party, however hopeful its message or promising its potential, cannot lead us out of difficulty. I want to be very clear about what I mean here: this is no diminishment or criticism of John Kerry or his cause. I feel just as strongly now as I did on Tuesday that Kerry would make a fine leader, and perhaps a great president. But maybe there was too much pressure of belief and expectation placed on him--more, indeed, than any man could shoulder. This has nothing to do with Kerry's mettle, but rather with our own error in looking to a party-based or group-oriented solution to problems that we must first address within ourselves, as individuals.

This, of course, runs directly counter to the judgment of the pundits and Wednesday-morning quarterbacks in the press, who declared that the Democratic party was not organized enough, that it did not have that same rigidly-defined self-image that the Republican party has fostered.

I was reminded of Will Rogers' statement, "I am not a member of an organized party--I am a Democrat." For Rogers, this was a point of honor: to be a Democrat, for him, was to be an individual. I think that, in order to survive the next four years, we must follow the import of Rogers' words. We are now under the yoke of a tight-fisted, lockstep cult that violently enforces obedience, that equates dissent with treason, that knows only two shades of human value--"with us" or "against us". This is not a time for a more rigid organization, but for loose and spontaneous social structures; it is not a time for enforced order, but for playfulness, diversity, and a good measure of mayhem. What brought the Democrats to the verge of victory (and according to some, an actual, but stolen victory) was a grassroots-style exuberance and rabble-rousing, marked by persistent acts of ironic questioning and the often hilarious skewering of those stone-grey old white men in Washington. Now, and for the next few years, we simply need to turn it all up a notch or two.

The next lesson I learned as I asked myself about what this defeat had to teach us has to do with fear and cynicism. We're headed into some very dark water, amid which we will meet many challenges and tragedies. But if we approach this darkness in fear and cynicism, we will have simply concretized the attitudes that brought us to this point in the first place. The Neocons sold America a bill of goods that consisted solely of fear: fear of terror, fear of death, fear of being turned into a smoking pool of goo during your next commute to work. Much of the American public, it seems, bought these goods and cast a vote of cynicism, captured in the phrase, "better the devil you know..." This is why I say that so far, the real winner in this election has been none other than Osama. The more we give in to fear and cynicism, and the more of us that do it, the more will OBL's victory become manifest. He, and everything he stands for, took Ohio and Florida--not Bush. Note that the states that still bear the physical and emotional scars of 9/11--NY, NJ, PA, DC--all came down on Kerry's side. So this will be a time of a return to that individualism which gave this nation its first and most vital energy, long before there was a Florida or a Mason-Dixon line (see my earlier piece, "The Declaration of Independents"). We cannot change a government of empire through the formation of an opposing cult or other group ideology--that would be like trying to put out a fire with a bottle of whisky. Our only hope lies in a determined focus on true freedom--not the freedom to make a profit on the death of children or the Donald Rumsfeld idea of freedom (which is more like anarchy)--but the freedom that arises uniquely in each individual who chases out the demons of fear, hatred, and complacency and allows what lies beneath the crust of cultural falsehood to express itself.

The contemporary philosopher Ken Wilbur reminds us that "it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness." In a situation like the one we're facing now, the question that each of us may need to ask ourselves is, "what is my candle, and where do I point its light?" It will be different--unique--for every one of us; but the light will be the same, and if enough of us continue to cast our light on the demons that have stolen our nation from us, there will, inevitably, be transformation.

So this morning, I ask that we rediscover the Democratic party of which Will Rogers was so justly fond; that each one of us who feels the injustice of what has occurred in this election be inspired to look within, find the candle, and strike a match.

Monday, November 1, 2004

At the End, Remembering How it All Started

Tomorrow morning, November 2, 2004, I'll join many other Americans in getting up as early as possible and heading to the local polling place with a small book and a large coffee. I'll wait in line and see if there's anyone who feels like talking; then I'll wait my turn to make a tiny contribution toward increasing the unemployment rate in Crawford and bringing some early breath of reason and balance to the world order.

Tonight, I am remembering how all this began: how what may have been seen as a dream only a few months ago--that a marginal political figure from Massachusetts could be on the brink of the greatest upset in political history--came to this threshold of realization. It is a reminder of the true substance of a democracy, and the potential that lies, largely untapped still, for the emergence of a truly natural social order.

It began a number of years ago, with an obscure, grassroots organization called, which was formed as an effort to draw America out of the moralistic morass in which it had been trapped after the Monica Lewinsky revelations and the bizarre impeachment hearings against President Clinton. Quietly, this organization attracted interest and followers for its balanced call toward a renewed focus upon the things that matter in political life: advancing the cause of social (and especially racial) equality, making government truly responsive to the needs of the citizens to whom it purportedly belongs, pursuing goals of peace and stability in our nation's international affairs, and building a broad and inclusive foundation of economic prosperity to leave the next generation after us. Moveon, of course, pioneered the use of email and the Internet to advocate for its causes and objectives, and its success spawned a movement that has taken us to this transformative moment in American political history.

Howard Dean appeared, nearly two years ago, to adapt Moveon's methods, approaches, and experience in creating popular and financial backing for his own candidacy. The grassroots movement that his town-hall and online meetings gave rise to, along with his ability to see the vast potential of the Internet in that vein, brought him to the brink of winning the Democratic party's nomination. To all the Dean supporters out there, I offer the following reminder: Howard Dean did not fail. In fact, he succeeded in a way and a degree that few before him have ever succeeded: he completely re-energized the way a political campaign is practiced, and in the process left the smug, hidebound neocons in his progressive dust. History will not care that Dean lost a few primaries or had a meltdown during a press conference in Iowa--it will only note that he transformed the way political candidates connect with voters, and that he attracted millions of once-apathetic citizens into an active sense of involvement and responsibility in the democratic political process.

John Kerry and the Democratic leadership were quick to perceive the value of what organizations like Moveon and candidates like Dean had accomplished; and they were equally quick to build upon that momentum. Kerry's candidacy (especially if it is victorious tomorrow) will be remembered as the first digital Presidential campaign in history. While the Bush propaganda machine focused on inflammatory TV ads, and only relied on cyberspace to give voice to fringe slander groups which spread the kind of lies that wouldn't even make it past the National Enquirer's editorial desk, the Democrats adapted the vision and experience of online groups like Moveon, ACT, and Howard Dean's meetup networks to diffuse a positive, forthright image of themselves and their candidates. This was not the work of a political machine or a closed oligarchy of wonks or advertising executives: this was the creation of an interactive community led by creative people of every stripe and orientation--from Hollywood (led, of course, by Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11, which is appearing on the DISH satellite network online at this very moment) to the arena of popular entertainment (Eminem pre-released his "Mosh" music video online a week before the election) to the world of high finance (while Moore campaigned with college-age "slackers", George Soros spent a month speaking to press clubs and business leaders). But throughout all of this, and informing the spirit and energy of these more famous and well-heeled supporters, were the Moveon bake sales, the telephone parties, and the grassroots gatherings of students, mothers, minorities, and all the anonymous activists whose energy turned a double-digit defeat into a dead heat. All of these people, the luminaries and the anonymous among them, communicated and shared their sense of a transformative opportunity in this nation through the primary medium of the Internet.

John Kerry has shown enough character, principle, intellect, feeling, and pure energy during this campaign to convince me that he is much more than a mere alternative to Bush, Cheney, and Ashcroft: John Kerry represents an opportunity for this nation to begin to right itself in the eyes of the world. He has shown me that he has the potential to be a very good president--perhaps even a great one. As long as he remembers that his success arose from the fact that tens of millions of creative and caring people came together for him in a synergistic groundswell, at a time when he'd been declared soundly beaten by many of the TV pundits and pollsters, he will do well by us. And we will be able to look back gratefully upon the first true President of the 21st century, who was given his mandate to lead by the voice of the people, spoken through the synchronistic energy of the World Wide Web.

So thank you, John Kerry, for listening and for following that voice. Good luck, and may the teaching and helping energies of the Universe be always active within you.

Friday, October 22, 2004

My Team Can Beat Your Team

There was much made of the recent contest between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and I suppose it cannot be ignored. What I will remember of this confrontation is that it ended with the death of a young woman who got in the way of a supposedly non-fatal rubber bullet shot by a police officer in Boston; that no problems of human enmity or the war against Nature were solved; and that the forces of Greed and Excess once again prevailed among us. The following is a "prediction" I had written on the evening of the final game.

I am examining the fall of the cards, the glow of the orb, the incandescent light of the coins, and I foresee the following: one set of trim, muscular multi-millionaires will score more runs than another similar set tonight, and one fat, bloated, egocentric owner will swim in champagne while the other angrily orders the building of an additional wing to the yacht. One mayor will have to order a lobster or a pizza to send to the other. Tim McCarver will make another obscenely obvious error in analysis, which he will embellish and aggrandize in a self-serving voice-over of a slow motion replay that visually exposes his distortion; meanwhile, Joe "Mega" Buck, a disgrace to his old man's memory, will sing a J. Geils tune while the camera pans around on fans in attitudes of prayer or contempt. Corporate America will celebrate the event with a fresh, game 7 set of Madison Ave. jingles (except of course for AIG, which will feature the same stupid letters dancing around with only the added message: "ignore those executives being led away in handcuffs...look at the cute letters doing flips for your money").

The game will be briefly interrupted by an appearance of Michael Moore's Slacker Uprising Tour, until the home plate ump reminds Moore that NY is already in the bag for the Dems. Then he will leave and go to New Jersey, where the GOP is making gains. If the Yankees lose, Steinbrenner will be possessed with self-flagellatory guilt and issue free season tickets for 2005 to all fans in attendance. Little will they know that by next April the entire team will have been sold, traded, or executed, depending on the level of blame assigned to each player for the debacle. The ball boy on the third base line will be ritually sacrificed in a post-game ceremony, and the prisoners in the nearby Bronx Correctional Facility will choke on the fumes of his burning flesh. Once the game is over and the parking lot has been cleared of the Jaguars and BMW's, the South Bronx will return to its normal life as a place where anonymous people, most of them people of color, struggle to survive amid crime, drugs, and poverty.

In the locker room and beyond, for days to come, players on both sides will talk, like imperial generals to embedded reporters, to fawning pressmen about their courage, determination, character, heart, and religious zeal, even as they sheepishly defer questions about next year's free agent contract to their agents. Jeter will shrug his shoulders and say, "didn't you see the ghosts? Bring a Polaroid next year--it always catches their aura better than those fancy digital cameras." Tom Brady will appear and mutter, "4 in a row? Big deal...come talk to me after you've won 16 more." The money will be eagerly, lasciviously counted on both sides, with no thought of the difference between wealth and excess, between abundance and depravity, between prosperity and corruption.

Mariano Rivera will skip his shower and hurry to the airport, to get back home to the people who still need him there.

Monday, October 11, 2004

An Elegy for a Man Who Lived Well

Our news media seem to love dealing in tales of opposites: stories of life and death, wealth and loss, healing and sickness, abundance and depravity, good and evil, are showered upon us in every morning's front page, in every television newscast, and on every Internet news site or RSS feed. Unfortunately, the news media tend to miss the meaning of the events they report, in their obsession with the appearance, the image, of the stories and the characters. They missed the meaning of the build-up to the war in Iraq, when they eagerly traded their journalistic mission for a spot in the elite caravan of embeddedment; they missed the meaning of the "Mission Accomplished" turning point (which was the beginning of loss, rather than the completion of victory), because once again they accepted the veneer that was painted over their eyes. Finally, they have missed the meaning of the current election, in their morbid obsession with the furors raised by fringe rumor-mongers and third-rate historians, over what one candidate or another might have (or not) done a generation and two or three wars ago.

"Image is Everything" comes the cry from the television voice that funds the news we receive from the mass media. The truth is, of course, that image is nothing--it is an illusion. Granted, a baleful, dangerous, restrictive illusion--but a fable nonetheless, a "tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing," to quote Shakespeare.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the collective media have completely missed the significance of the life and death of Christopher Reeve, a man who lived an entire life beyond the pale of image and appearance. Reeve lived a life of abundance, boundless energy, and an unabated love of learning and of humanity: he would no sooner have accepted the institutional bromide that life is a march of suffering toward a relentless night of unremitting death, than he would have bought into the ideology of privilege and human supremacy. He knew better than to reside in the realm of opposition and image; he knew that life truly lived constantly pierces the hand-wringing, fearful conservatism of guilt, insular violence, and group-centered prejudice. He lived with abandon, but also with the boundless energy of humility and devotion to family. He was living that way on a day in 1995, when a near-fatal accident involving the sport he loved most changed everything.

But he was ready.

If he hadn't been prepared for that crisis, for that moment of seemingly bottomless disaster, he wouldn't have survived, let alone have become a living embodiment of courage and transformation. He would instead have retreated into despair and self-pity; he would have gone down to death in the manner that millions do in our culture--in a resentful, life-denying rage of mortification and blame. He would have faded amid that demented, nursing-home cry of benighted hatred--blaming himself, blaming humanity, blaming Fate, blaming God.

But he had not lived that way before, and he was not about to start because he had been thrown into a pit of disability and physical dependence. He spent the remainder of his life drawing upon the teaching energy of his seeming misfortune, listening to the voice of the Cosmic Teacher that spoke through his suffering. He lived his life in a wheelchair exactly as he had lived on horses, or performing his own stunts in Hollywood: he reached beyond the pale limitations which his "image is everything" culture had defined for him. He decided, or learned, to carve his own unique path through Suffering, since it had thus met him; he strode into and around his personal tragedy and wrenched from it all the light it contained, and then he shared that light with the rest of us. His path thus inspired his family, his friends and colleagues, his doctors and caretakers, and millions upon millions of people he never knew nor met. How far into his darkness must he have traveled, to have emerged with such a vast store of healing energy!

Reeve's life and death tell us two fundamental things about life and Nature: first, that we have not been made to live in suffering, to trudge on a treadmill of anger, tears, and guilt. Reeve lived with a seemingly boundless energy and abundance, both before and after adversity found him. The second lesson of Reeve's life is that when suffering does come our way, we are not meant to deny it or bewail it or run away from it or repress it--we are meant to look deeply into the being of suffering, to explore it to the marrow, to ask it endless questions, until we feel that we have soaked it for all the teaching potential it contains. From that point, we will be able to freely share what we've learned--with those we know and love, and with those we do not know but love still. For when we learn this way, we become teachers; when we love this way, we become leaders. Christopher Reeve was both. And so he remains.

Sunday, October 3, 2004

A Call For a World Led By Reason

It is commonly heard by most of us in the ordinary course of our lives: at the grocery store, in offices and elevators, at work sites and churches, and in this venue, amid discussion groups and chat rooms all over the world. As with most of our most common threads of communication, it is an expression that needs to be examined carefully.

"Everything happens for a reason."

We'll begin by accepting it, by allowing that it contains at least a seed of truth or resonance, and then ask questions of it. What kinds of situations or problems does this phrase speak to? Why do we say it--what benefit of insight or consolation is arrived at through this phrase? What do we really mean when we say it? What does it signify about our guiding, underlying beliefs and assumptions? What alternatives might be discovered to this assurance? These questions will serve as our starting point, and will no doubt lead us to more pointed and illuminating questions, for this is the process by which all understanding is advanced.

We seem to be affirming something when we say that "everything happens for a reason." We seem to be reminding ourselves that there are greater or broader purposes operating in the universe than we humans can perceive. That's why the phrase is so often heard in response to news of events that seem to make no sense: a murder, bad news from the war front, a terrorist attack, a personal reversal such as job loss, death in the family, divorce, a financial disaster or a material loss.

So far, it would appear, so good. But (speaking of good), do we mean that everything happens for a beneficial reason--that God or the Universe intends that we suffer, that we struggle, that we muddle over the treadmill of group expectations while precious years dwindle away before us? In other words, is the phrase implicitly assuring us that "everything happens for a good reason?" If that's what people mean when they trot out this phrase, then we'd better keep asking questions.

Is the course of events currently being perpetuated in Iraq actually providential on some Cosmic plane? I think you'd have a difficult time making that case to many of the parents of those being brought home in bodybags. Sure, the reversals and the inertia of the war are leading people to question what their government is doing there, and whether a change in our leadership might liberate us from the train of pointless tragedy that has ravaged the lives of families in both Iraq and America. Yet to say that we can learn and transform ourselves through adversity is not the same as saying that it's happening out of a benign Cosmic intent. The fact is, not everything happens for a good reason: some things happen because people--especially people in positions of power--are too short-sighted, corrupt, greedy, or just plain mistaken to think and feel their way clearly through an issue or problem before taking impulsive action. Kerry's assessment, spoken during the recent debate, is correct: there was a "colossal error of judgment," for which innocent individuals are being forced to pay a horrible price.

Obtaining inner clarity before one acts is about much more than kneeling piously in the Oval Office and asking God to help one's cause. There are other steps involved--both on the plane of feeling-consciousness and in the realm of intellectual understanding. For the former, there is perhaps no better personal strategy than to simply ask questions of one's own beliefs, and discard the ones that cannot stand up to a simple, visceral process of self-examination. One such belief, for example, is captured in the impulsive dogma, "Force is the only influence that people understand or respond to positively." The fact is that force is what people least understand, and are most unwilling to accept. The use of force creates a forceful reaction, which breeds more frequent and more violent force, in a maelstrom of strike and counter-strike that soon adopts its own uncontrollable momentum. If the President had taken a cursory glance at history, or if he had read his father's book, he might have perceived this truth for himself and been able to discard the obstructive delusion before it had led him in the wrong direction. And in the way of seeking a balanced intellectual perspective, if he had been more careful to choose advisors and staff members that represented a more diverse range of perception, then he may have learned something from his cabinet that could have prevented the egregious errors that seem to have defined his administration.

Obviously, these things didn't happen "for a reason," except the reason that the self-aggrandizing beliefs of a privileged few were allowed to dominate the prevailing feeling-wisdom of the many who knew in their bones that this war was based on an egotistical delusion. The Universe has no "reason" for causing people to die and mourn while justice is undermined and the planet further degraded.

So, perhaps a more appropriate statement to make in the face of such events is, "Everything can teach us something, if we listen carefully." Can we learn to listen within ourselves for the noise of fear, the impulsive thrust of violence--can we learn to identify, isolate, and destroy the inner distortions of malignant belief that have crept into us during the process of societal conditioning? Can we learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh said in the wake of 9/11, to "kill the Osama bin Laden within us"? And might not such an effort on our part help us to act responsibly, maturely, and in proper measure, on the outer plane?

I do not know the answers to these questions; I can only point out that the alternative that has been offered by the Bush administration is the same option that feudal autocrats have obsessively pursued for thousands of years--it is the ideology of enmity and division: "kill them all and let God sort them out." As John Kerry has repeatedly said during his campaign, we can do better than that. And we must. Perhaps it is time now to cease our search for a "reason" for our struggles, and instead discover their lesson.

A Message to President Bush, From an Ally

The British have fought beside your soldiers, President Bush: they have almost single-handedly in substance led the "coalition of the willing". Therefore, it would seem meet that their brightest literary and cultural light of all their long history--and perhaps the greatest of all poets who have sung in war and peace upon our planet--be allowed voice as you, President Bush, face your own decline, and that of your imperial ambitions.

Our selection is from King Henry V, Act IV, Scene i. Amid the English campsite on the night before the battle of Agincourt, the King appears, disguised, to mingle with his warriors and measure their mettle. He enters a spontaneous debate with a soldier who, most interestingly, is named "Williams"--perhaps a self-reference on the part of our worthy author. Let us hear what Shakespeare has to tell our President, through the mouth of "Williams":

Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.
Williams: But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that had them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Wars of Occupation: A Brief History, with Scorecard

What does the future hold for America in Iraq? Well, no matter your preference regarding candidates, you would no doubt like to see a relatively peaceful outcome in as near a future as can be arranged, and in which there is the absolute minimum loss of innocent life (that includes American soldiers). I think that's a fair assessment of everyone's aspiration at this point, in spite of the fact that the Bush administration and its followers would like to tag those who speak out against the war as ignorant (at best) and treasonous (most frequently).

But this is a time for facing reality, and reality, as we all know from our personal lives, is not always comfortable or amenable even to our most ardent wishes and purest intentions. Santayana told us that those who choose to ignore history are condemned to repeat it, so perhaps we are well served to cast a glance at the history of wars of occupation. The perspective obtained might tell us more in a few moments than an entire evening of probing websites or channel-surfing the news shows. Here, then, is a sampling of wars of occupation from the history of mankind, with a brief recount of the final score.

Combatants Outcome for Occupying Force

Trojan War
Athens vs. Troy Not good: after at least ten years of war (maybe more) and innumerable losses of men and money; Athens prevailed, sacked the city of Troy, and went home, depleted and exhausted

Persian War
Persia vs. Greece Not good: the Persians, who had the dominant empire of the time in size, economic strength, and military power, were routed at Marathon. As one historian points out: The final victory [for the Greeks] must have seemed a miracle. A handful of independent cities, who were not prepared at all, and who hastily formed an alliance with enormous aversion, had humiliated the mighty Persian empire. Persia would never again be even a modest power in the world--at least not until OPEC was formed.

Peloponnesian Wars Athens vs. Sparta (et al) Not good: decades of war, internal strife, and economic decline resulted from the Athenians' arrogant attempt at occupation and imperialism. Their attempt to spread their version of "democracy" throughout Greece ended in tragic defeat and humiliation (to witness how closely the past evokes the present, see the account of this war here: The Peloponessian Wars

The Roman Occupation Rome vs. Palestine Not good: the struggle for Jerusalem took the Romans 7 years and untold loss of life and resources. If that weren't bad enough what followed was one of the early blows in the fall of the Empire: the bloody and maddening fight for the fortress that has come to be known as Masada.

The Napoleonic Wars France vs. Europe Not good: the "scorched earth policy" of Napoleon naturally bred hatred from enemies (which comprised nearly every nation in the world at that time) and hypervigilance from the little demon himself (he has become a cultural symbol of paranoia). After Waterloo, France would never again be a power in the world, and would soon enough see itself forced under the yoke of others' tyranny and finally relegated to the status of "Old Europe."

WWI and WWII Germany vs. the World Not good (in fact, disastrous): the Kaiser and the Fuhrer, in their turns, each discovered the consequences of relying on power and dominion to further wealth and territorial possession. They were each forced into insupportable alliances, overstretched economies at home and ravaged supply lines abroad, until Germany met the final defeat that would push it into a mendicant's corner of "Old Europe."

The Cold War USSR vs. Eastern Europe and the U.S. Not good at all: The Russians, like other occupying forces before them, overextended themselves beyond the limits of their economic and military capacity, and finally were undone by the inertia of their own lumbering tyranny. The same lesson was repeated for them in Afghanistan.

Korean War U.S. vs. Korea Ambiguous, but ominous: the U.S. took on what it perceived to be the spread of Communism, less than ten years after the nation was still recovering from the losses and strain of WWII. The war was fought to a bitter, bloody stalemate, which persists to this day as the Koreans amass (for real, it would appear) WMDs.

Vietnam War U.S. vs. Vietnam Disastrous in the extreme: the U.S. again grappled with the spread of Communism, apparently somehow buoyed by their tie in Korea. The result is well known to most Americans alive today: 50,000 dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, traumatized, and impoverished--and that's just for the losers. "Never again" cried the politicians of every party affiliation and allegiance at the time. Never again, indeed.

Invasion of Kuwait Saddam vs. Kuwait About as ugly as it can get: Saddam had his eye on Kuwait and the UAE for a long time, and, supported by American military and financial might given to him some ten years before, he made his move, sure of his standing in the eyes of the CIA as a "benevolent dictator." He discovered that, as Cervantes said, "greed always bursts the bag," and that even the CIA will lose patience with a man who doesn't understand his limitations.

So, what have we learned? It seems as if wars of occupation do bring some short-term benefit for the aggressor--as they did for the Romans, Napoleon, and even Hitler. But war creates a dynamic of diminishing returns, and history proves this: war tends to quickly deplete the society whose government makes it the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

So, does occupation, for whatever professedly noble, altruistic, or even religious reason, ever work? Has it ever worked before? You be the judge: if this history makes sense to you, and supports the continuance of the current war of occupation, then god bless you and your Halliburton stock options. But if history tells you a different story, then let that inform the kind of ballot you cast on November 2.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Declaration of Independence, Reaffirmed

We live amidst the dominant political paradigm of a two party system: every November, no matter who happens to be running for what--dogcatcher or world leader--we must go to the polls and choose between a Democrat and a Republican. In our recent history, a few notable figures--John Anderson, Ross Perot, and now Ralph Nader--have attempted to restore the Independent party in the esteem of the American public. Yet they have failed, even where (in Perot's case) there was an abundance of financial wealth supporting them and their message. Why?

Perhaps the reason is that independence is not, and cannot be, a party. It is a state of being that is aligned to no group, no particular agenda, no fixed ideology, no concretized, immovable position. Independence is an innately personal and fluid attitude--you might say a quantum mode of being human. It is unceasing motion with no defined position; yet it possesses a pervading stability of orientation. Independence is not, of course, a complete absence of dependence, but only of group-defined, societal dependence. Independence is self-dependence, the awareness of one's unique individuality and its connection to an encompassing, formative, and nurturing Universal--to Nature. Nature has rhythms and harmonic patterns of theme-and-variation, but it has no rigid Laws except for those that are projected onto it by human consciousness. How can we apply this understanding to our own lives, and particularly (at this moment in history) to the decisions which we are called to make about our leadership?

As we approach the moment in which we will have to cast a vote to help determine how we will be governed over the next four years, it is perhaps time to ask ourselves the most fundamental questions--questions that seem to have nothing at all to do with politics, with the economy or the international situation. Try this one, and see where it leads you: over the coming days, ask yourself, "What am I living for?" Then review the possibilities and the alternatives.

Am I living to survive, to keep my house, my job, my standard of living, intact? Am I living toward a hoped-for point of "retirement" when I will be able to finish out my life in peace, contentment, and material abundance? Am I living solely for my children--that they may grow into the same or greater wealth or possessions than I have been able to accumulate? Am I living so that they will come of age in a safer, more prosperous world than I knew? Am I living for some combination of these goals (including many that will only occur to you)--or for something even more than any of these, something that embraces them all?

Let each answer that arises prompt you to a new question (this is always a sign that you're making progress with such an exercise, when questions lead not to definitive answers but to more clearly stated, pointed questions). The first thing you'll probably discover is that your needs are not confined to one area or another of life or the future, but that they encompass an ever-broadening range of possibility and aspiration. As more questions arise, as they become more focused in their direction and wider in perspective, answers may form and coalesce--fluidly, lightly, like wind or light on the surface of a lake. The perspective you thus achieve is what you must bring to the next set of questions--those that you ask of the people who would serve your interests in government.

We have a candidate who assures us that, if re-elected, he will make us safe. Look beneath the appearance of this claim and ask more questions of it: does "being made safe" mean having one's son or daughter drafted into a military and sent to suffer and die in a foreign desert? Does it mean accepting economic hardship and unemployment on behalf of a greater good that only a man in Washington with a golden telephone connected to the office of an external God can determine for us? Does it mean giving up your Social Security earnings to corporate interests, so that the stock market will be robust while millions of people wallow in the "retirement" known as poverty? If this is your idea of independence, then you are doubtlessly already free of such concerns--you are in that exclusive domain of the top 1 per cent of wage-earners that President Clinton talked about in his speech at the DNC. But be careful: you can buy your place in the collective, you can purchase a false sense of security and position, and you can insure your belongings and your life. But you cannot insure your soul.

But if this does not answer your questions, if it does not accord with your burgeoning, personal vision of independence, then continue asking questions. And if you feel the slightest twinge of guilt or remorse at asking such questions, remind yourself that you are fulfilling the mission expressed by the founders of this nation, with every question that you ask. The people who wrote the document upon which our nation was formed did not call it the "Declaration of the Republic" or the "Declaration of the Democratic". They called it what they did because they understood that "we the people" is comprised and energized by the "I the person": it is the individuality of each human being in the community, the nation, the world, that together and synergistically creates the whole, the Union. So, do not be afraid of listening to and following your deep, individual voice in discovering the truth that harmonizes with your being and your moment: this is what our founding fathers wished for us.

Indeed, it is the message that every independent teacher of personal wisdom and social progress has expressed. When the Buddha lay on his deathbed and was asked urgently by his students for a final, summary teaching that they could take forward, he said to them, "You are the Light itself. Rely on yourself. Do not rely on others." He had achieved the same understanding that the authors of the Declaration of Independence later discovered: that when we rely on our own light, as individuals, we are spontaneously affirming and completing "a more perfect Union". Another teacher, from about the same time as the Buddha lived, also arrived at this perspective. His name was Lao Tzu, and he lived an entire professional career as a government official. Upon his retirement (or perhaps exile), he wrote a document that stands as one of the treasures of both personal and political philosophy, to this very day. In Chapter 54 of this document, called the Tao Te Ching, he condenses the message of the Buddha, of Jefferson and Washington, and of every other teacher who deeply perceived the inherent harmony of humankind and Nature, of work and home, of individual truth and social organization. It is a message that each of us can learn from, both autonomously and universally, as we open the curtain and face the names before us in the voting booth this November:

With a firm inner foundation,
You cannot be toppled.
An embrace is all the grasp you need
To be safe within.

An offering of simple honor,
From the children of the past
To the children of the present
Supports the children of the future.

Why do you cultivate your image
When your natural being is already full?
Why aggrandize your family pride
When the perfection of family is complete?
Why meddle with your community
When its natural form is imperishable?
Why do you fight to enrich your nation
When its simple order is abundance?
Why divide and oppose earth and heaven
When the purity of their union is unalterable?

Therefore, examine yourself
To become your Self.
Examine your home
To become a family.
Examine your village
To become a community.
Examine the state
To become a nation.
Examine the world
To become one with Being.

How do I know
That this is the way of Nature?
Because I asked It,
From within my deepest self.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Valueshock Explained

Why the term "valueshock"? Well, it is meant to indicate a time in which transformative potential rises, like the synergy between the ground of the earth and the dynamic thermal currents of the sky, which forms the cleansing and cathartic energy known as lightning. It is a natural force that has been wondered at by humans since the dawn of recorded history: consider the poem from Hexagram 51 of the I Ching, written somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago:

51 Shock
Shock brings success.
Shock comes--oh, oh!
Laughing words--ha, ha!
The shock terrifies for a hundred miles,
And he does not let fall
The sacrificial spoon and chalice.
(from the Richard Wilhelm / Carey Baynes translation, 1923 / 1950)

The structure of the hexagram is said to represent the dynamic force described above: the rumble of thunder doubled in its force as it roars through the vault of heaven. It is a metaphor on times such as those we live in, where the dread notes of fear resound throughout the world, joined by the sound of transformative potential that is latent in the most terrifying moments of history. The commentary written to this hexagram by Carol Anthony and Hanna Moog may help us to perceive this synergy between the rumble of conflict and the possibility of liberation:

A person may receive this hexagram when he has experienced an unsettling event, which has shaken his confidence in the ordinary ways he has been relating to his life. The shock is to make him aware that these ordinary ways, which he has been taking for granted as correct, have failed to help him in the given situation. It also shows him that the values he has been following are questionable, and that his path has now led him to a dead-end.
(from I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way, ichingbooks / Anthony Publishing Co., 2000; p. 547)

The "unsettling event" referred to is the cycle of violence and destruction that began with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and which continued with the war of occupation currently being waged in Iraq. We have also seen the re-emergence of the cult of genocide around the world over the past 20 years--in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and now in Chad. Meanwhile, the seemingly endless round of attack and counter-attack between the Israelis and Palestinians goes on to this very moment; while mushroom clouds of nuclear capacity appear in Korea and Iran. Finally, there is no longer any question (even in the President's mind, during his rare moments of lucidity) whether the "war on terror" can ever be won--but only as to how bad it might get.

These are the shocks of our time. In our world of today, the shock indeed "terrifies for a hundred miles"--and for a hundred thousand. But how can "shock bring success"? What did these people of ancient times know that we seem to have missed, consumed as we are by our fear and horror? Perhaps they perceived that the way through shock is to remain open to what it has to teach us. These people were guided by the natural world and their place within it, which was not one of lordship and dominion, but rather of an active and humble participation in the natural rhythms and movements of the Earth and its creatures. They saw that, as terrifying as a thunderstorm could be--as threatening to life and property--it nevertheless brought nourishing rain to the fields, while its ionic force cleansed the air, relieved the humidity, and balanced the pressure of the atmosphere. The clarity and stillness that follow a storm are palpably regenerative--thus the movement in the poem from alarm (oh oh!) to relief (ha ha!).

But note the absence in the verse of any intervening human destruction to counter the shock received. Instead, it tells of one who remains so inwardly quiet and steady that he can continue with the ritual of nourishment, so that "he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice."

Well, that's fine for sitting out a thunderstorm, but what about when people start flying airplanes into the buildings of your most important and populous city? Let us remember that the folks who wrote these quaint-sounding poems lived in a time of warfare and strife such as would make life in modern Baghdad seem a bargain by comparison. I'm not kidding, and a glance at the historical records of the time proves it: this was a time, spanning several centuries, in which a hundred Osama bin Ladens wrought terror, death, and destruction over a part of the world roughly in scale to today's Middle East. Tyrants and their armies fought, conquered, looted, and burned in an unceasing whirl of mayhem and murder. Life was very cheap, and never assured from one day to the next, no matter where in China you happened to live. It was known as "the warring states period." And they meant it.

So the insight that these people offer us into shock is worth paying some attention, because it was insight earned through lived experience. There were no "think tanks" or "wonkers" in that era (plenty of bureaucrats, though)--these would arise in the Confucian era, soon to follow this. In the warring states period, there were just people desperately trying to survive and still live decent human lives.

The answer they arrived at, which they expressed in the philosophy of Taoism and its formative documents--the I Ching, the Chuang Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching--involved teaching a personal sense of humility: the ability to learn from shock, to grow from it, rather than react impulsively or violently to its appearance. To do this, they turned the shock inward, upon themselves, and let its rumble be felt within, where it could shake loose the crust and corruption of ideological acculturation. In other words, they allowed the shock inside themselves, where it could clear away the clutter of conditioned values. Thus, the expression in the address bar to this site: valueshock.

What we are able to accomplish as individuals will contribute, more than any group belief system or mass movement, to the enrichment and growth of the whole, of our nation. To the extent that each of us can feel the shock of our times and turn it inward in a calm but rigorous process of self-examination ("he does not let fall the sacrificial spoon and chalice")--to this extent, I say, we will all benefit. In order to fully accomplish this transformation of society out of the deep cleansing of received belief within each individual, certain seeming sacrifices must be made. We will have to rely on our own natural discernment, and not on the dictates and insinuations of a mass media that is no longer in touch with reality (is there anything more unnatural, more unreal, than "reality TV"?). Therefore, we will have to follow Barack Obama's advice from his keynote address at the DNC, and turn off the television, and ignore the shrill print-noise of those mindlessly addictive newspapers which are appropriately termed "tabloids" (or "dogma-pills", as I call them). There is a surfeit of information to be had in this culture: you will not lack. But wherever you feel you're being hawked to or sold an inner bill of goods or a system of belief, turn away and turn within.

The times are indeed desperate--perhaps more so than in any period of this nation's history since our Civil War. For those of us with young children, there is an almost implosive density to this moment in history, as if their future and the quality of the lives they will grow into will depend on how we meet the current crisis. But it is more than a crisis of conflict or of leadership--any candidate who tells you that he or she will instantly restore order and peace to life and resolve humanity's most pressing problems must be rejected (and to be fair to Senator Kerry, I have not heard him once make such a claim). For what we need now are leaders capable of facing reality; we do not need Bible-beating fantasy-dwellers preaching security to us at the point of a gun (or worse still, a draft notice). Our leaders cannot work in a vacuum, nor should they be allowed to pretend that they can. We must demand of them that they, like us, deeply question the values that the shocks of our time have exposed and shaken from their brittle pedestals of authority and sanctity.

Shock brings success--or at least it can, if we can listen to it within ourselves. This is a time when we can be sucked further into the vortex of fear, denial, and despair--never to emerge, nor our children to know what it is to live freely or in peace with mankind and Nature. It is also a moment of wondrous transformative potential, when the shock and horror that has eclipsed our world at the dawn of a new millennium can lead us to a point of balance and mutually supportive harmony that will effect such changes as have not been seen in living memory. The choice is up to us, each of us, in this very moment.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Like Sports? Well, Use What You've Learned From Them Now!

Many a wag has observed that sports has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in America today. Whatever the truth may be about that, we do need to learn to listen to our interests as individuals, and apply them to other arenas of life. We weren't designed by Nature to break our lives into a few big boxes or pigeonhole coops carrying such labels as "work", "home", "hobbies", "family", or "relationships". First of all, it takes too much energy to keep the divisions in places, because the walls tend to collapse whenever we're not paying attention. Second, it's not natural, and therefore not very practical: we short-change ourselves through compartmentalizing things. On the other hand, you'll find that whenever you allow one area of your life--what you've learned in it and the talent or insight that you bring to it--to inform and enrich another area, everything benefits and there's a lot less conflict in general. Just try it and see where your experience leads you.

So, what does this have to do about sports? Well, let's say you're a sports fan to some extent or another: what have you learned or observed from watching American team sports--baseball, football, basketball, that sort of thing? Have you noticed, perhaps, that the successful teams are not always the ones with the most money, the most talented individual players, or the coach with the "genius" label attached to him? Maybe you've also wondered why power and violence don't seem to ensure victory for professional teams: even in football (where you'd think that violence and domination would be the recipe for success), the Raiders lose every year while teams with more speed, grace, and smarts win. Have you ever asked yourself what kind of synergy or chemistry goes into the formula for victory? It does seem that, in sports, there is more to success than mere appearance--the team that seems dominant "on paper" rarely manages to win the day on the field.

Now let your mind wander from the playing field over to the political landscape--it's right there, just outside the stadium (indeed, sometimes the politicians themselves step into the playing field for a little TV time). Is the current political contest a boxing match--a battle of two isolated individuals with competing agendas and contrasting backgrounds--or is it a matchup of two teams? Ask either major candidate, and he will tell you that it's more the latter, and that his team is more rounded, more experienced, more capable than his opponent's. As much as we are conditioned by experience to question any politician's blustering claim, this one's worth exploring further.

President Bush has a team, comprised of expert businessmen who are very good at entering a situation with a well-defined profit motive and executing a plan designed to maximize their profits. Their resourcefulness, ambition, and energy in this kind of endeavor are truly impressive: Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and the corporate entities that support and benefit from their efforts are extraordinarily effective at generating insular financial wealth and power in the most unlikely and seemingly adverse circumstances. However, the profit goes to themselves and their supporters rather than to the government or the people; and it's kind of one dimensional, like having a baseball team with a lineup that averages five or six runs a game but a pitching staff that gives up seven. None of these leaders has any military experience that would qualify him for directing a war--let alone a war of occupation with its concomitant dangers and inevitable reversals (a glance at Roman history or the Napoleonic era would be enough to convince anyone as to these realities). And so, lots of people die--horribly and needlessly, and the American economy is stretched to the breaking point while the leaders of this enterprise build gargantuan nest eggs for themselves and their funding supporters.

Perhaps it is necessary to allow a team with somewhat more internal diversity and chemistry a chance at managing this situation. Of course, we don't know who will be filling John Kerry's cabinet, if he is elected. Perhaps it is time for Kerry to give us an idea of how he would put his team together, and what kind of players he will be calling upon to start a late-inning rally come January for the American nation. If he truly believes in the team concept of government, then he will see the advantage in publicly announcing his intentions regarding key members of his would-be cabinet. Would Wes Clarke, an experienced military leader, make a more effective Secretary of Defense than Don Rumsfeld, who has proven his business skills in abundance but shown us nothing but a tragic inconsistency in military knowledge and leadership? Might not anyone offer more stability and vision than John "Let The Eagle Soar" Ashcroft as Atty. General (the contenders at this point would be Joe Liebermann, Jamie Gorelick, and Eric Holder)? And how about a real physician for Health and Human Services (Howard Dean)? Or an acknowledged diplomatic leader in building consensus with foreign nations, such as George Mitchell (who helped to foster a peace agreement in Northern Ireland) for State, rather than another four years of the ineffectual Colin Powell?

The details are, of course, open to debate and speculation, but the general point is stimulating: if successful politics is about team-building, then Kerry has got to start showing us the major elements of his team soon, while the American public still has time to weigh the options. If we begin to see that there are some attractive alternatives to the monotonic administrative treadmill that we've been walking for the last four years, then perhaps we will become more open to the possibilities of change. In any event, such a broadening of perspective would help to take the public debate out of the realm of what two individuals were doing or not doing in their military service over 30 years ago, and bring us back toward a consideration of current and future issues affecting our nation's likely course in world and domestic affairs. It would also show us that Kerry believes in leadership by cooperation and consensus. That may draw more Americans toward a position of openness toward his potential as the manager of a new team in Washington. After all, many of us are, to some degree, sports fans.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Urgency of Optimism

Tonight, I went to cast a ballot in the local primary. There was perhaps less objective justification for doing this than in any election year in recent memory: the only race worth the name is the 11th district's runoff between a veteran congressman named Major Owens and two female Democratic challengers--whoever wins this primary will most likely win the seat, given that our district is about 70% Democratic. Otherwise, there were not even any city council seats up for grabs here.

Still, I went over to the local high school and parted the curtains of the ballot chamber. The gymnasium where the voting was being done was virtually deserted: I was the only voter there at about 8:00 PM. A dozen or so officials and organizers sat at tables, and a cop sat near the voting booths, apparently struggling to remain awake. The question might have occurred to me, "what am I doing here?" If it had, the answer was ready for me in the most fleeting act of reflection.

I do not think it an exaggeration to point out that these are desperate times. We are living under the yoke of an administration in Washington that has alienated our nation in the eyes of the world, even as it arrogantly claims the support of a marginal "coalition of the willing" (note the language--it's not a "coalition of the equal" or of "the eager"; but just, rather ambivalently, of "the willing"). This same administration is incurring and accumulating a deficit of such massive proportions as will handicap the people of our nation unto the next generation; it is the first administration since Hoover's to govern over negative job growth--a trend that shows no sign of reversing. It is an administration that is relentlessly destroying and endangering the Earth, and depleting its resources; it is a government guided by fear, hypervigilance, paranoia, and violence. And unlike the Reagan and Bush-1 White Houses, there is no calming, moderate influence in its cabinet or its supporting voices on Capitol Hill to restrain the careening juggernaut of oppression, occupation, suspicion, and profiteering.

I have a child, a 10-year old daughter, who will soon be old enough to suffer from the effects of another four years of this depredation in our leadership. She may someday turn and ask me, "did you not vote back then, when these threats to our national principles were so clearly manifest? and did you not speak out and act to let others know what was happening to us--to our nation, our human civilization, our planet?"

I do not want to have to tell her that I didn't think it was important, or (worse still) that I thought that anything I said or did wouldn't make a difference. I want to be able to tell her, no matter how these elections turn out, that I spoke and acted on behalf of her and her generation; that I tried with what ability and influence I had at the time to help people to see the transformative potential in a moment such as this; to teach them that no matter how horrible the world and its people may seem, no matter how ridden with failure and strife we may be in the moment where we find ourselves--there is always opportunity. In fact, the deeper the seeming distress, the greater the potential for a transformative movement.

Failure is not the result of futile effort guided by an open awareness; failure is the denial of our errors. Wherever we are freely conscious of our error, and ready to learn from it, then there can be no failure. It has, indeed, been my experience that we are more truly led forward by our errors than by our successes. Therefore, I continue to talk to others, to write, and yes, to vote--not because I have anything to say or teach, or because I possess any influence that others cannot say, impart, or bring to bear. No: it is because I know that what we give each other are the gifts that are common and universal to us all, which no one person holds in isolation or exclusion from others. These are lessons that I think President Bush and his supporters in Washington have yet to fully learn--that it is in those moments where we are most imperiously tempted to act from power, to dominate, and to shout down or otherwise oppress dissent--this is when we are the most urgently called upon to open ourselves to the teaching potential of our own error. This is to enter onto the path of Modesty. It is not to efface, demean, or debase oneself, but instead to find one's own individual uniqueness in the transformative moment of human unity.

Voting is a uniquely democratic act, perhaps the defining democratic act, because it reinforces within each of us the natural stirring of humility, which is the very breath of Democracy. As the men who are commonly referred to as our founding fathers recognized, America can only be safe and prosperous when it is accepted and welcomed in the community of the world and its nations. Yet now we are governed by other men, men who believe that America can only be made safe and prosperous when it holds the rest of the world at the point of a gun. This consciousness must be dismissed and reversed; we must return to what the formative leaders of our nation taught us, to what we have learned from all who came after them--from Lincoln to Thoreau to Mark Twain to Susan Anthony to Martin Luther King--that a nation born of the public act of dissent on the part of a free people can only be secure and whole to the extent that it protects the individual's right to say No to power. This is what I'd like my daughter to recall, years from now, about what we did here, in this moment of our nation's history.

This is why I voted tonight, in an empty schoolroom on a cool evening in September.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Life in the Parallel Reality

News of the possibility of a "parallel Earth" to our own, along with further research findings that reveal further effects of the environmental depredations of humankind, have combined to spur fresh reflections on our place within the Cosmic Whole.

What if it were true, in whatever sense of degree--that this planet of ours is a parallel form to another Earth, in another galaxy? The Hubble telescope appears to have detected a parallel galaxy to the Milky Way, a kind of mirror image of our solar system, some 50 million light years from here. In the meantime, new research being published in the journal Science is showing us further evidence of the depredations we are inflicting upon our world. These scientists predict a future of increasingly drastic and deadly heat waves in Mediterranean Europe (especially France, which lost 15,000 people in last year's summer heat) and the American Midwest--all of it the result of arrogant government and corporate money-lust.

Could it be that this parallel Earth upon which we suffer amid our species' malignant madness is a kind of distortion of another, more natural meeting of mankind and Earth, where our Cosmic doubles are even at this moment living in accord with Nature and the commonsense laws of the Cosmic Whole? What would such a revelation, if it were demonstrably possible, say about us and our collective ruling ideologies of anthropocentrism, self-aggrandizement, and the deification of humankind? What would it say about the religious beliefs of our ancestors and our prevailing belief systems, that the collective is supreme, but the individual is flawed, stained with Original Sin (whatever that is)?

When you pick up a newspaper, turn on a television set, or sit in a corporate boardroom for a few minutes, you may find this an impossible conclusion to avoid--viz., that our species is a parallel construction born of decadence, corruption, and the seemingly boundless delusion of arrogance. As tempting and even compelling as such a conclusion may appear, it would seem to imply a projection upon our nature, and by extension upon the universe, to the effect that it is a malevolent or indifferent realm, hostile to life and careless of love. Look into the sky tonight, or down at the earth, and try to find the mildest evidence of striving, competition, hatred, guilt, violence, or arrogance in the stars, the moonlight, or the trees that reach toward the heavens as they draw life from the earth.

There is, of course, no such malignancy in Nature: instead, it calls us back, whenever we stop to really listen, to our own place within its vast and simple Presence. It shows us itself, open, welcoming, and somehow inscrutable to intellect; it is always ready to teach us, to show us who we truly are; it is always prepared to reflect our inner light and to reveal its own, reflected within ourselves; and to help us to see that in fulfilling the destiny of our individual life through the same Modesty of action and presence that it teaches us in every moment that we attend carefully to its messages, we will be made whole and united, in Nature, with all who share our planet.

And the next time you are near water--whether it's the ocean, a lake or pond, even a swimming pool, a full bathtub, or a mudpuddle in the driveway--stop to take a look at the reflection of your own face. Do you see parallel lines, opposing or mutually retreating images? Or do you see merely the unique consciousness of your living Presence, reflected in the fundamental nurturing substance of life as we know it? Then touch the water, if you can; watch and feel the reflection change, coalescing with your receptive spirit; and recall to yourself that you--your body--is 75% water. The nourishing reflection of natural beauty; the life-sustaining fluid of Earth; the fundamental element of the baptismal ritual--it is all here, within you. No improvement, addition, cultivation, or self-aggrandizing ideology of an external deity is needed: all you need is the aqueous, self-reflecting reality that you already are, in this moment.

September 8, 2004

Living From the Center: A Guide to Balance in Life and Politics

Over the six-week course of the convention season, we must have all heard it a thousand times: moderation. Each party and its candidates attempted to portray themselves as the party of moderation, the party of the center, the stakeholders of a point of median stability and balance. The Democrats did it by refraining from "Bush-bashing" in their rhetoric, and by keeping particularly incendiary left-wingers (such as filmmaker Michael Moore--the man who could do more than anyone else to deliver victory for Kerry in November) offstage as far as possible. The Republicans called on the presence of popular figures with moderate reputations, such as George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, and Arnold Schwarzenegger; while they also hid from view their more extremist representatives (most notably the designers and champions of the current war in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz). These efforts symbolized an effort by both parties to create the image of a group holding a middle ground, around a fixed and relatively well-marked point of political center. No one (certainly no one in the mass media) bothered to ask what this point was, how it was defined, and whether its validity as a true reference for moderation had been objectively established or generally agreed to. That task, it seems, must fall to us--freethinking individuals who seek to look beyond appearances and into the realities of life, truth, and belief: the time is past (if it ever was) where we could rely on the press, mass media, or political independents to reveal to us what was being assumed or hidden in the staged discourse of party politics.

Imagine a ruler lying before us: it has two endpoints, one to our left and another to our right. Somewhere in between these points, a territory of centrality lies--for example, between the 5 1/2 inch mark and the 6 1/2 inch mark on a one foot ruler. And along the vertical line beside the "6" on our ruler lies the point of the perfect center: the arithmetic median, to be technical about it. To either side of this line we may measure exactly six inches to either end of the ruler.

This is the metaphor of linear centrality that underlies most political thought and ambition these days. Now we may ask: "what are the defining marks of the extremes in this symbol (is the left-endpoint Fidel Castro or Ted Kennedy? is the right-endpoint Jerry Falwell or Donald Rumsfeld?)?" "And doesn't our definition of the political center-point depend on how we define the extremes?"But we might also ask an even more penetrating question: "is a linear model of centrism the only, or best, possible model? Is the yardstick-metaphor the most accurate way to conceive of people and politicians? Or is there an alternative that draws us closer to the issues and toward a more correct and balanced perception of what it means to be a citizen of a political democracy?"

A good question, I have found, tends to evoke the most natural answer. Perhaps this is true of the inquiry now before us: are we attempting, with the linear model of centrism, to force our candidates and their parties into the two-dimensional flatness of their cardboard cutouts? Could we, by adopting a more rounded and fluid metaphor, perhaps discover (and even invoke) the depth of these political contestants as human beings? Is it possible that the way we think about and respond to the opponents in a political race helps to predict and determine their very behavior? If that's even a remote potential, it is something we'd be well advised to pursue further. So let's give it a try.

We will therefore cast aside our ruler and save it for a day when drapes must be measured or a child's problem in plane geometry solved. But for assessing the competing claims and promises of human individuals and the groups they represent, we will reach for a symbol with a little more depth. For the scientifically-minded among you, perhaps the image of a spherical hologram presents itself, along with thoughts of fractal weavings over and through an unfixed meandering of positions in infinite space. That's a valid metaphor, and I would discourage no one from following it through in navigating the shoals of political discourse. For the rest of us, with no claim to an understanding of "chaos theory" or nonlinear dynamics, I would suggest an aqueous symbolic reference. This, perhaps, might be a good place for many of us to start.

The ocean, even from the casual perspective of a boardwalk stroller, is in constant, shifting motion. There is no discernible left, right, or center: the tide ebbs and flows, the energy of the incoming waves varies with the currents of wind and the relative heat of the ambient air. There seems to be no fixed reference points for orienting oneself amid water, but we find with a little study that there are. They are the stars, the horizon, and the various metrical devices created by humans on the basis of their observations of Nature. The sextant, compass, and other instruments of navigation were invented by people who had put themselves out into the water and then fashioned an understanding of what they saw and felt. The folks who did this discovered that finding one's center in the sea involved considerations that rarely arise in the seemingly flat linearity of land--namely, depth and magnetic orientation.

So let us place President Bush and Senator Kerry out at sea, and discover what more we may learn about them and ourselves. After all, the most triumphant moment of Bush's presidency came at sea, on an aircraft carrier where he arrogantly declared "Mission Accomplished" and his second term seemed already won. He should be quite comfortable there, and so, of course, should Senator Kerry, perhaps surrounded by his Swift Boat comrades (that is, the ones who were really on the boat with him in the Mekong Delta--not those other fellows who were in a mess hall in Saigon, hearing or jealously inventing third-hand accounts of the future Senator's "self-inflicted wounds"). Let the stars in the night sky above them represent each of us, the people of the nation which they each desire to lead. See if you can imagine how each of the contestants--the massive, weapon-laden aircraft carrier of the President and his party; and the small, quick, light-bottomed vessel of Senator Kerry and his party--might be able to identify and navigate the shoals and depths of this dynamic sea that our world has become. Then visualize how each may be able to respond to your position and visibility in the firmament. On this point, simply consult your own experience: are you clear and satisfied with what has come to, and befallen, you in the past four years? Has the dark, storm-laden cloudbank of September 11 begun to pass, while your own life's light has been freed to glow in serenity and prosperity? Or do you find yourself caught behind a pale cast of doubt, fear, poverty, or stagnation? Then look at the sky around you and see how the condition of your neighboring stars appears: are you encouraged with what you find, or does it seem as if there would be nothing by which to navigate the further course of that behemoth with cruise missiles floating beneath you? Which of these vessels that are striving to lead seems best able to discover and react to your presence and the direction of both your light and your needs? Consider every corner of your life's experience in deciding, and do it with the television turned off and the newspaper cast aside.

The principle point of this exercise is the discovery that the center is not a territorial line of arithmetic centrality, which one party, group, or candidate may claim and hold against the other. The center is a place within each individual, and by extension, within the heart of a nation and its citizenry. This draws us to our final nautical reference--the magnetic medium of orienting ourselves amid shifting tides, changing depths, and a moving horizon; all in the additional dimension of time, within whose present moment we must self-create a future in which our children will be able to navigate their lives as adults. If the center is a desirable place to work from (as we all, even the politicians among us, seem to agree), then we had better be sure of the way to our own center--as a nation, as a community, as a family, and most critically, as individuals. Are we in a moment that calls for more carriers, more cruise missiles, more deaths at home and abroad, more deficits, more unemployment, more social vigilance--all in the name of homeland security? Or does the magnetic arc of the compass needle suggest that we need a "swift-boat" orientation, which accounts for the shallows of our domestic plight, since they may be equally dangerous as the threatening depths abroad?

It must be taken for granted that neither of these candidates has the total vision to encompass the needs and potential of every light in the sky above him. Whoever takes the oath of office next January must understand that the earth is alive and organically responsive to our every movement, our every action, our every impulse of policy. He must also recognize that the human place within the earth's depth and expanse is unique but not supreme. He must finally perceive that his own leadership is dependent on people, influences, and forces that he cannot always control or direct, but simply trust. The captain of a ship at sea cannot alone maintain the vessel's balance; he must rely upon the stability of his crew in keeping to the center of a constantly shifting environment. So we must ask of each candidate, "what is the general orientation of your cabinet members (or, in the case of Kerry, your likely cabinet members)?" An extremist in any position serves only an extreme purpose, and follows the light of a fixed and often illusory point of vision. The center is most truly defined by its ability to move--with the tide below it, the temperature around it, and the ceaselessly moving light of the stars above. Whichever candidate may be deemed most able to move and to resist the easy temptation to settle into a fixed position, is the man who deserves the vote of each individual who will cast a ballot from the center of his or her being.