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Archive for January, 2018

Gentle reader, I concluded PART I with: …what gives rise to these non-empirical questions – questions that continue to baffle us even after thousands of years of attempting to answer them?  And, ‘What’s the point’ in our taking the time to engage them? 

In two words: Self, Reflection.  Self-reflection.  We human beings are not only capable of reflecting upon ourselves, we are self-reflecting almost continuously (even in our dreams – night and day dreams).  Even when we do something out of habit we frequently stop and reflect on the habit.  And there is more, we can, and do, reflect upon our reflection.

We can ask ourselves, ‘Do you really know what you are talking about?’  For many of us, this question is also offered us by the other(s).  Sometimes this question is rooted in curiosity and sometimes it is rooted in irony.  If the question is rooted in curiosity it will take some reflection in order to respond to it.  I might, for example, need to reflect upon my own understanding of what I am actually talking about.  I might also need to be clear as to my sources – think: the authorities I might be following.

I cannot begin to recall the number of times I became aware that I was not really sure of what I meant.  This can be anxiety producing and it can also provide me an invitation and opportunity for further reflection.  I might also ask myself: Is what I am saying ‘objectively’ true or is it rooted in subjectivism (think: assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices, etc.).

When I reflect upon these types of questions I might well find myself thinking about certain categories/concepts: knowledge, objectivity, truth, beauty, goodness, virtue, vice, etc. My reflection might well motivate me to reflect more deeply about one or more of these.

For me, reflection – thinking about – often emerges during the course of a deep conversation.  In this case, the person(s) I am engaging will also engage in the process.  We search together.  I relish and savor these experiences.

Then, of course, there are those who by the very nature of their vocation/calling are charged to hone their reflective capacities.  I love history and a historian, for example, is bound to engage in a reflective process.  He/she must ask, at some point, what is meant by ‘objectivity’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘truth.’

When the historian engages in this reflective process he or she becomes a philosopher (a seeker and lover of wisdom).  The historian can engage in this reflective process in a way that is deemed to be a ‘bad process’ (history is not short of ‘bad historians’) or in a way that is deemed to be a ‘good process’ (we have also been blessed with many ‘good historians’).  The point, of course, is to do ‘it’ (the process) well.

Given this, I, once again, leave us with a question: How can one acquire these thinking-reflective skills?

Stay tuned…

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Early this morning I was watching my favorite ‘wake up’ show.  The hosts represent the moderates in both major parties.  Their guests include conservatives and progressives.  They strive to avoid the ‘extremes’ although they will have members of both parties that are ‘far right’ and ‘far left.’  The ‘regulars’ are thought-full.  This morning, one of the hosts asked – in response to a position taken by someone in congress – ‘What is he thinking about?’  It was uttered rooted in exasperation.

I began to think about and reflect upon Thinking-Reflection and I found myself asking: What’s the point?  I began to put some flesh on these bones.  I am not sure how many ‘Parts’ I will post but I think it will be at least two, probably three.  We will see.

My guiding question: What are we to think and reflect about?

Here are some questions that people have thought about – and, I assume are thinking about today; questions about ourselves: What am I? Who am I? What is consciousness?  Could I, might I, survive my bodily death?  Can I be sure that other people’s experiences and sensations are like – even similar – to mine?  Does my ability to communicate with another require that I share their same experiences?  Do I-You-We always act, primarily, out of self-interest?  Might I actually be a type of puppet, programmed and controlled by a transient being – do I truly have free will?

Now my mind was churning.  Here are some questions about the world: Why is there something and not nothing?  What, exactly, is the difference between the past and the future?  Why do events always run from the past to the future OR does it might sense that the future might influence, if not directly, affect the past?  Why does Mother Nature keep to a set of ‘laws’ – why doesn’t She have choice – or does She?  Does the Universe presuppose a Creator – if so, can we understand why he/she created this Universe? 

I became aware of another set of questions; questions about ourselves and about the world: How can we be sure the world is really like we take it to be – or assume it to be?  What is knowledge – how much do we have; how much can we gain?  What makes a science, a science (is psychoanalysis science; is economics)?  How do we come to know about abstract objects (think: numbers)?  How do we know about virtue and vice, good and evil, values and duty?  How am I to really know whether my opinion is rooted in objectivity or is rooted in subjectivity – why might this be important to know?

I love these types of questions for they defy simple responses; they certainly defy simple solutions (if one interprets them to be ‘problems to be solved’).  If this is not clear consider this.  I know less than a thimble full of knowledge when it comes to responding to this question: When is it high tide?  On the other hand, given all that is available to me, with a bit of research I can obtain the ‘correct answer.’

The type of question that we can answer in this manner is formally called an empirical question.  This type of question can be answered and agreed upon by means of agreed procedures, involving looking and seeing, making measurements, or apply agreed upon rules that have been tested and have been verified (over and over again).  To me, it is obvious that the questions in the three paragraphs are not empirical questions.  They seem to require more thinking-reflection.  In addition, we don’t always (if ever) know where to look.  This is partly due to the fact that many of these questions are not interpreted the same way by the other(s).  What do we mean when we ask them?  What would actually ‘count’ as a ‘solution’?

What would demonstrate to me, for instance, that I am not a puppet; that I am not programmed?  How do I know that I am not programmed to believe I have free will – and I actually don’t (there have been many folks throughout history who believed that all is determined)?  Who do we turn to, neuroscientists?  Imagine this headline: ‘Neuroscientists have proven that we are not puppets!’

SO, what gives rise to these non-empirical questions – questions that continue to baffle us even after thousands of years of attempting to answer them?  And, ‘What’s the point’ in our taking the time to engage them?

Stay tuned…

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I awoke this morning with tears in my eyes.  I quickly became aware of a searing pain in my gut, heart and soul.  I also became aware of a scene that was playing on my mind’s screen.  I was watching the 39 year old man in Detroit hugging his wife and two children; I could feel their pain as he was, literally being torn from their lives.  I also felt great shame because this scene was occurring because of ‘WE THE PEOPLE’ and I am one of ‘WE.’

I also became aware of another pain.  My mother was Polish.  My great grandfather, age 8, and six of his relatives (brothers and cousins, ages 7-12) had, five years prior to Ellis Island opening, come to the United States as immigrants (no adults came with them).  They had come from a poor village in Poland (a certain person would probably refer to this village as a ‘s…hole’ village).  ALL OF US, everyone one of us, are immigrants (even our Native Americans came from somewhere else).  Many of our ancestors came from what this person might well call a ‘s…hole’ village or country.

How have ‘WE’ moved from compassion to fear?  How have we moved from inviting and accepting to shunning and rejecting?  How have we moved from seeing the ‘other’ as a fully human being to seeing the ‘other’ as less than human?  How can ‘WE’ condemn people who were brought here or sent here as children (just as my mother’s grandfather was sent here at age 8) and now, years later say to them – ‘THIS IS NOT YOUR HOME!’

As I sat with all of this – and other feelings, images – I began to recall the last lines of a poem.  I opened my file of poems and found the poem.  I read it.  I read it again.  The poet, William Stafford, provides us some insight as to ‘WHY’ we are, today, where we are and ‘WHY’ we are, today, who we are.

Gentle reader, I invite you to read and reflect upon Stafford’s gift to us.  Here is his poem.

 A Ritual To Read To Each Other

 If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

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For more than fifty years there have been and continue to be three Stoics who offer me ‘words to consider.’  This morning I will offer us two quotations from two of these three Stoics [the three Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius].

Marcus Aurelius: All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way. (Meditations, 9.6)

As I have noted in previous posts, I am moved, and challenged, by Marcus because (1) when he was writing in his journal (which, after his death, was published as his Meditations) he was writing to himself.  He was striving to remind himself of what he, as a Stoic, was being called to live into and out of and (2) at the time, he was considered, as the Emperor of Rome, to be the most powerful man in the world and (3) because his words continue to speak to and challenge me and hundreds of thousands of others to live a life of awareness, commitment and compassion.

Marcus’ repetition of ‘in the present moment’ reminds me that I must choose to be awake, aware, intentional, and purpose-full NOW, ‘in the present moment.’

To the extent I am able to live in the NOW, I am more able to attend to my perceptions, and hence my judgments.  I am also more able to choose actions/behaviors that promote the ‘common good.’  My tendency – and I believe I am not alone when it comes to this – is to choose for ‘my good’ or ‘my tribe’s good’ rather than seek to discern the ‘common good’ and then choose for it.

The first two are daunting challenges for me and the third ups the ante (for me and for many others): To freely accept what is not within my control.  Even as I type this sentence I can find my gut tightening up.

Epictetus: The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.  What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning?  Nothing but its own corrupt decisions. (Discourses, 4.11.6-7)

Choice.  To discern the moral ‘right’ and then to act upon one’s discernment.  To then reflect upon the outcomes/consequences/effects and seek to learn from them.

Refusal.  To openly refuse to choose and engage in thoughts, attitudes and actions/behaviors that one discerns to be immoral.  To openly declare: THIS is where I choose to stand!

 Yearning.  I yearn many things.  The Stoics invite me to yearn for the Truth, the Good, and the BeautyYearning also implies ‘striving to be…’ and ‘striving to do…’

Repulsion. I choose to be repulsed by all that undermines/threatens ‘Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.’  I choose to be repulsed by all that undermines compassion, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Preparation. I choose to intentionally and purpose-full prepare myself so that I am more able to appropriately respond and appropriately react.  Without ‘preparation’ I am unable to choose to be unconditionally response-able.

Purpose. I am called to discern my life’s purpose.  There are essential questions that help guide me: Who are you?  Who are you choosing to become?  Why are you here?  Where are you choosing to go?  Why are you choosing to go there?  Am I living a life rooted in ‘Purpose’?

Assent. What is it that I am called to assent to (think: agree with)?  I am called first to seek clarity, for if I am not ‘clear’ how am I able to freely choose to assent.  When I ‘assent’ am I willing to state clearly, ‘THIS is where I choose to stand’?  Am I willing to discern and then to choose to openly ‘dissent’?

I leave us this morning with William James’ reminder: ‘I am the message!’

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Another teaching story: Two people showed up for the final job interview.  Many had applied and after months of paper work, psychological testing, and interviews it had come down to two candidates.  The new hire would report directly to the President of the company.  The first candidate entered the room and there, behind the desk, sat the President.  The President was calm and seemed reassuring and was quite warm and welcoming.  He said to the candidate that this interview involved only one question.  The question is: How much is 2 plus 2?  The first candidate was a bit perplexed but quickly recovered and replied that the answer was ‘4.’  The President thanked the candidate and requested that the second candidate be shown in.  The same question was posed to the second candidate.  This candidate’s reply was also quickly given: ‘Whatever you say it is, sir.’  The second candidate got the job!

Another old teaching story: In the early 1900s a visitor came to Poland to meet the famous rabbi Hafez Hayyim.  The visitor was led into a small room that contained some books, a small table and two chairs.  The rabbi entered and the visitor asked him where his furniture was.  ‘Where is yours?’ asked the rabbi.  ‘I don’t have any, I am a visitor here,’ was the reply.  The rabbi said, ‘So am I.’

And, one more old teaching story – one of my favorites: There was a man who had come to believe that he knew all that there was to know.  One day he heard of a wise person who was supposed to be the most knowledgeable person in the world.  The ‘know it all’ man decided to go see this person.  One day, after years of searching, he found himself standing outside of a hut located in the heart of a dense forest.

He had been told by many that within this hut resided the world’s wisest and most knowledgeable person.  He was told that when he entered an attendant would invite him to sit down and then he would be offered some tea.  After the tea had been served the wise-knowledgeable person would enter; sit down and wait for a question.  The guest would only be able to ask one question; the wise person would then answer the question.  ONE QUESTION, only.

The man sat outside the hut for three days as he formed his ONE QUESITON.  Finally, he believed that he had the single best question that could ever be asked.  He wrote the question down, recited it several times and entered the hut.

Upon entering he was greeted by an attendant.  The attendant offered the man a cushion to sit upon and then offered him some tea.  The man accepted the attendant’s offer.  As the tea was being prepared the man read and re-read his question.  The attendant poured the tea and left the hut.

The man was looking at his question when he sensed another presence in the room; it was, he knew, the wise-knowledgeable person.  The man, one last time, read his question to himself.  He looked up.  There sitting before him was a child.

The man gasped.  He spilt his tea.  He dropped the paper that held his question.  He blurted out: How old are you?  The ONE QUESTION had been asked.

 

 

 

 

 

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I remember being afraid of monsters as a child – my fear lasted many years.  I was especially fear-full of the monsters who would come out at night (I must confess my two older brothers were quite supportive of my beliefs/fears).  My mother gave me a cross to protect me.  Many years later, when my son and daughter came to me with similar fears I simply told them that monsters do not exist and I do not have to come and prove it to them; their night fears diminished and soon passed.  I believed that if I went looking for the monsters in their room and found none it would only confirm that monsters actually do exist!  How many of us, as adults, continue to feed our ‘fears of monsters’ by looking for them?

In PART I, I wrote a bit about the cat, Demeter.  Many hundreds of years ago, a cat resided in a church and would come out during the service and do what cats do; which became quite disturbing to those leading the service.  So it was decided that the cat should be tied to a pillar during the service; and so it was.  The cat died years later and another cat was brought in and was dutifully tied to the pillar during the service.  Then hundreds of years later a great number of treatises were written about the theological significance of a cat being tied to a pillar during the church service.

Love.  I am a depressive, by nature I think.  For years and years people said that I should change; I tried and failed.  Then, I re-committed myself and I tried again, and failed.  No matter what I tried, no matter how hard I worked I could not change.

One day, about 2 o’clock in the morning, I was so depressed and defeated that I was, literally, one step away from taking my own life.  I decided to go talk to someone.  The person I spoke with listened and told me that I did not have to change; that I was love-able just as I was.  I did not have to change; I was love-able as I was!  Paradoxically, during the next 54 years I found that I did change; I was able to begin to change because I experienced that I was love-able as I was; that I would remain love-able even if I chose not to change.  I continue to become depressed.

Here’s a story that also helped me – one that continues to help me.

One day the new disciple approached the enlightened master.  The new disciple told the master that he has been fighting with depression his whole life.  The new disciple told the master that he came to be a disciple because he thought that once he had achieved enlightenment that he would no longer be depressed.  The new disciple asked the master if this would be true.

The master smiled the smile of the enlightened (the master was both ‘in the know’ and ‘in the now’).  He said:  I too was depressed prior to becoming enlightened.  I went to the wilderness in order to seek enlightenment.  After many years as a result of my spiritual disciplines I did achieve enlightenment.  Today, I am enlightened.  I am also depressed.

 

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Gentle reader, if you have been following my postings these past six years you know that I love stories.   Frequently someone will say to me, ‘You tell us stories, but you seldom reveal their meaning to us.’  Sometimes I respond: ‘How would you like it if I offered you a piece of fruit and chewed on it before I gave it to you?’  The stories that I am attracted to are the ‘teaching stories’ – we call them ‘parables.’

The story-teller is the teacher in the sense that his or her charge is to offer up the story.  If the recipient of the story is a ‘student’ (think: searcher-seeker) then his or her charge is to be open to the lesson that the story might offer.  What might this mean?  Consider the following:

 Years ago I lived with two cats (and some human beings).  I remember one cat, her name was Demeter, would sit for a long time just looking at something.  It appeared that no thought distracted her, no worry about ‘what’s to come.’  Demeter was an example of pure contemplation.

You might have experienced some of this yourself when you were totally absorbed watching a child play, or when you were watching a sunset.  If you desire to experience contemplation you might try this: Be totally in the present.  Drop every thought of the past or the future, drop every image or abstraction and be in the present.  I have also found this to be helpful advice when it comes to contemplating teaching stories.

Here’s a twist on an old story: One day the teacher was walking along and saw two of her students on their knees frantically searching for something.  She joined them and asked what they were searching for.  She was told that one of them had dropped the keys to their house.  After some minutes of franticly searching the teacher asked if the student knew in what area the keys might have been dropped.  ‘Oh Yes,’ replied the student.  ‘I lost them over there, about 50 yards from where we are now looking’.  The teacher, paused, looked at the student and asked: ‘Then why are we looking here?’ ‘Because the light is much better over here!’ was the reply.

I cannot begin to count the number of times I have lived into and out of this story.

For thousands of years the great mystics went into the desert and upon returning their disciples inquired as to what the experience was like.  The mystics could not put into words, could not even begin to capture, the experience; but they tried.  The disciples then took the descriptions and wrote them down and passed them on to others and shared them across boundaries and years and finally the descriptions became the experience.

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