Archive for the 'intellect' Category

“I empathize with you”

September 8, 2014

I was trying to get someone I know to understand the difficulty of something I had gone through, and her response was, “I empathize with you.”

Only I was pretty sure she didn’t.  I didn’t challenge her assertion until she repeated it later in the conversation, at which point I said, “Do you really put yourself in my shoes and feel the feelings that I have gone through, feel what it was like to go through what I went through, like an actor putting themselves into a role, or do you just feel bad in reaction to hearing about what I went through?”

She agreed it was the latter, that she felt bad on my behalf.  But she volunteered a step further in her admission.  She said, “I don’t allow myself to go there, to try to feel what another person may be feeling, either I won’t let myself or I can’t actually do it.  I only appraise the situation through my intellect, I don’t feel it in my [gut].”

I thanked her for saying that, it helped me stop trying to get bread at the hardware store, as they say.  (I think the “bread” I was looking for was acknowledgement of a certain kind.)

But it is too bad that it is the case, both for me and, I think, for her, that she doesn’t put herself in another’s shoes emotionally.  For me, because it means she’s like the person who doesn’t feel pain and burns herself without realizing it, only she does it with respect to others, such as me.  For her, because I think it helps to experience somebody else’s pain or joy, for example, not just to understand what they are going through, but also to learn that all states of emotion, even “our own,” are transient.  It helps with learning detachment, I think.



Harmony and distinction

July 27, 2014

In law school students are trained “to think like a lawyer.”  It involves the ability to make distinctions and it also involves a skill in finding a way to “harmonize” prior precedents seemingly at odds with each other.

It’s, to my way of thinking, a language.  And its relationship to spiritual insight is that it gives a person a way of putting into rational linear thought an insight perceived as a concept without words.  It is not itself, I don’t think, a path to non-dual thinking, but nor does it inhibit non-dual thinking — I think it supports it.  And it doesn’t just deal with splitting things from each other, it provides patterns for seeing compatibility among things that might superficially seem not to fit together.

Now, as for getting to the point of seeing things non-linearly, I am not sure intellectual training is relevant (except insofar, as I said, for providing a language for communicating to others about it), any kind of intellectual training — philosophical, theological, mathematical, etc.  Training in any of them may well provide a fluidity of thought that helps in translating, but how to break out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz, well, that, I think, takes something else and involves a different part of our mental processes.

Awakening compassion, developing a shell, or becoming overwrought

October 4, 2013

I apologize for trying to stuff the whole point of this post into its title — it’s my version of writing  notes to myself.

My point of departure is actually my witnessing the hawk yesterday morning capturing its food.

I have a thing for hawks, I don’t know why.  I love them in a way I can’t explain, love their feathers, love their body shape, love their coloring, really love the way they fly, especially when I catch sight of one gliding overhead.  Cue the song lyric:  “A single hawk in God’s great sky looking down with God’s own eyes.”  That’s from Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill.”

Watching one do what it does in order to eat and sustain itself I found upsetting.  My cognitive apparatus explained why it must be accepted, my emotions felt protective of the critter in its vulnerability.

When we humans encounter the scene of humans preying on other humans, or a system developed by humans preying on other, more vulnerable humans, what do we do?  Strengthen our shell?  Collapse in hysteria?  Take the step of feeling compassion, regardless of how we can help, and also going through a process of discerning if and how we can help and following through if that’s what we are being called on to do?

I’ve had people in my life decline to take up their social roles for reasons I have never truly fathomed.  They would say, “There’s nothing I can do” when there actually was and when it was something society actually expected them to do under the circumstances.   (To me, it’s a version of the “empty promise” theme I find running through my life, which I’ve written about before.)  Some of them had taken a fall earlier in life, perhaps too early for it to awaken compassion.  Instead they seem to have been so overwhelmed by their emotions that they found ways to shut them down and wall them off subsequently.

I think it takes a certain combination, or combinations, of scenario, emotions, and access to resources with which to process the scene for such an experience to awaken compassion.  Too much intellectualizing and it supports callousness, too much emotion and there’s hysteria.  What I think it needs, in addition to some amount of intellect and some amount of emotion, in order to awaken compassion, is access to the “mountain lakes” the widow in “Reunion Hill” refers to as her source for the water in her streams that feeds her deep well.

This has been said before — Shindell inhabits his narrators in his songs seemlessly, whether they share his personal attributes or not.  (If I could remember where I read that, I would cite it or them.)  He does this when he sings “Reunion Hill,” and I think there’s a lesson in there, too.  Who we are may not be apparent from our surface attributes, some of us are pretty well-disguised.  But ultimately, I think, we are all some combination of “divine spark” and human.

So when we encounter pain and suffering, either initially or for the umpteenth time, where do we go in our mental processes, how do we respond?  Build the walls higher?  Rationalize?  Explode or implode?  I think it’s most helpful to mix together emotion, reason, and that third strand, the water from the mountain lakes that allows us to perceive the world (and universe) as it is.

And how we learn to do this is not going to be just a matter of reading the dots “in the book.”

God, the imagination, and books

September 4, 2013

Some people are open and some people aren’t.  Some people even make an art of not being open.  They always hold something back, behind fear, behind, vanity, behind pride.

Being open allows us to see ourselves from multiple perspectives, not just the way we would like to think we are.  We allow ourselves to see the secondary consequences of our attitudes and behaviors on others and we adjust our attitudes and behavior  accordingly.  If we refuse to look at the negative impacts we have on others, we close ourselves off from not only them but from ourselves.

I suspect meditation helps get around that by being a way to put aside the carapace, albeit only temporarily.  Some people do, in contrast, make their entire life a living prayer — they are always open.

When we are open, we can perceive through other than our monkey minds.  What we perceive includes what some people label “God.”  It is not perceived through our imaginations, which are part of our monkey minds.

Willy was a very open person, whether or not he believed in God.  He was kind and generous.  He also had that quality I associate with men of being ready, willing, and able to defend his turf, however.  But he knew that sometimes the most helpful technique is to allow the other person’s energy to become their own undoing, that deflecting that energy can be key.  To me he demonstrated that a person can be a conduit (for the forces of the universe) without being conscious of it.

A close friend of his shared with me that he considered Willy a mystic.  I liked hearing that.  It gave me a way of understanding his sitting cross-legged at the kitchen table to eat, for example.  Or drinking directly from sink faucets.  He was so fastidious about other manners that these behaviors called out for interpretation.

We can teach intellectual ideas through others.  We can disseminate them in books.  These may provide touchstones for others as they try to gain a sense of themselves and of life, analogous to consulting with a village elder, but they also present a hazard, namely encouraging people to believe that the development of the person is, or can be, had through the intellect.  The intellect is a helpful interface between experience and communication, but the significant things a person needs to go through in order to develop into the person they have the potential to be will not be experienced through reading or through learning in a classroom.

Willy had that sense, too, I think.  He was continually frustrated by new hires who thought of life as a problem set and he had little patience for academia.  He fled college (with his degree) in three years and went into the Peace Corps.  He finished his dissertation while working full time, in large part because he much preferred working and solving real problems;  even with the added demands of working, working at a job gave him more energy for his dissertation than remaining a full-time graduate student would have.  In primary school he had experimented with focusing on the niceties necessary to gain complete approval in academia, and he reported to me that he had found the rewards hollow.

I think this blog is my compromise.  I’ve got people in my life who want me to write, and I what I really want to do is to walk.  I think writing is in some way inherently misleading, but the snippets that are blog posts perhaps come closest to those momentary understandings we become privy to through interfacing with the universe through prayer and meditation.

Perilous adolescence

September 1, 2013

I met a social worker at Dana Farber years ago who had adolescent sons.  And he shared that he thought parents’ task is, at least in part, sort of like damage control until the kids emerge from this period of development, so that the kids will have as many options as possible.

I am thinking about humanity in general this way, as we try to deal with issues like climate change and chemical weapons use.

I think it will be a while until there is a critical mass of people who look at life in a more helpful way than most of us currently do.  I think where religious leaders often go wrong is assuming there is a shortcut from here to there.  A lot of spiritual development is rooted in the experience of life with an open mind and an open heart.  Hiring a substitute or avoiding the experiences or trying to have them vicariously through learning about them as ideas just keeps us stuck in earlier stages.  I see (over-)intellectualizing as an excuse, something that masks a much more profound wound that needs healing.

Agenda, cont’d

October 5, 2012

This is a continuation of my previous post.

One of the interesting things about not having one’s own personal human agenda and rather trying to be an instrument for God’s will instead, to put it into familiar language, is that we only understand what we’ve done after the fact, we actually do the significant part unwittingly.

So if we have a plan, it’s probably not a divine agenda, unless thinking that we have a plan, and should implement it, itself somehow serves the greater good.


October 5, 2012

I posted sometime recently about working on my impatience, about trying to float in the moment itself instead of pressing down hard, of trying to match my pace to the flow.  These are not my strengths.

But I was thinking that what I’m pretty good at is not imposing my own agenda — I’m pretty good at the willingness and surrender part of spiritual work.

It’s hard to know what lies behind what other people are doing along those axes, and it’s really none of my business.  And what can look to me like following an agenda that has been directed by human intellect may actually not be that at all, or someone may be prospering materially in a way that seems untoward, and that may turn out to serve the greater good — how can I know?

I do admit to getting suspicious sometimes, though, when what other people are doing seems at odds with the principles of spiritual dynamics as I understand them.

Pundits, part II

January 3, 2012

What I actually think pundits are supposed to do is to offer their view of the world, through their perspective as enlightened people, to anyone who asks, including government leaders.  I think this enlightenment is the spiritual kind, not intellectual, and I think the task is performed without ambition, with only a willingness to serve the greater good.  I see the role of the pundit as analogous to an ox yoked with another animal for farm work, so, for example, the skills necessary to lead people in the material world can be tempered by spiritual understanding.  The tricky part is making sure that the ox is actually not another horse, that is, that the pundit is truly an enlightened being.  Or, to change the analogy and make reference to that phrase about how sometimes the circus really is in town and the hoofbeats are that of a zebra and not a horse, making sure that the pundit is actually a zebra and not a horse.

Telling stories

December 11, 2011

I have spent a lot of time working on unraveling somebody’s stories, including how they construct narratives in order to process the world.  That’s what we do, I think, in this world, take pieces of stuff and form larger pictures.  If we try to make them cohere in a certain way, including with cause and effect, it’s more like our every-day narratives of our lives.  If it’s more like juxtaposed pieces placed near one another, sometimes overlapping, etc., it’s more like what we call collage, a type of art, to our way of thinking.

There is a tendency to use the narrative and our models of narratives more generally to guide our (future) behavior:  where does this storyline seem to be going and how can I influence it? is what seems to be the process many people use.   That stopped working for me a long time ago, and at some point between being practical about it (this just isn’t working) and willingness (although perhaps that willingness was induced through coercion or deceit) to try something else instead, I think I stopped desiring it to.

Which, on the one hand, has led to some interesting experiences, but, on the other hand, is kind of difficult to explain to other people, especially when people say, “Well, now that you have developed these skills, why don’t you apply them in this, that, or the other particular way?”

About those interesting experiences: here’s an example from last week.  I kind of heard at the previous week’s Friday night services that there would be a potluck supper after services the following week.  Maybe because they said that bringing food was voluntary, I forgot all about it.  Thursday night Jordan and I went food shopping, and I happened to buy the makings for coleslaw, which I don’t usually do.  The next day, late in the morning I find myself putting it together, and, even more unusual, throwing in things like cut up apples, walnut pieces, and dried cranberries.  I think I am being a good hausfrau and using up stuff in the cupboard and fridge.  A little later I found myself looking at an email from the congregation, with a view to forwarding it to someone else, and behold, it mentions the potluck (to welcome the LGBTQ community) and I start thinking, “I really should bring something, what should I do?” And then I realize I can bring the coleslaw.

So, it’s kind of nice to have something other than my intellectually accessible memory keeping track of what I need to do, and I’ve gotten more of this support since I got caught up in spiritual pursuits.  But being plugged in doesn’t seem to be something that I can then decide to use for my own purposes, or anyone else’s, just because it looks like it would be neat to couple this sort of support with some particular human agenda or other.  It seems to allow me to see what goes on in my life as pieces of collage, as well as a story unfolding in a particular direction.  But that collage perspective is even less about pointing me towards a particular goal.  In the past, I have figured out what some chapter in my life seems to have been about, only after the fact, in retrospect.  Maybe here, too, I will need to have started doing before I will understand what it is and why.


December 1, 2011

I was reading what the NYTimes is calling “Pinkerisms,” and my reaction is to listen to Neil Diamond’s song “Men Are So Easy” to remind myself to locate my compassion before I finalize my reaction.

I can’t say I know for certain that it really has anything to do with gender, but I do associate it with gender; maybe it’s an issue overrepresented among men.  There’s more to us than our “monkey minds,” a “language” more basic than verbal language.

This morning I discovered in the shower, in the sea sponge I’ve been using for quite some time, a tiny little shell buried inside.  I worked it out, it’s quite sweet.  I felt moved to put it with my little piece of meteorite, in one of its crevices.  A harmless but maybe eccentric thing to do.  But it allows me to tell the ending to a story that needed telling, and it represents for me an example of things I could never have understood had I insisted on trying to understand them through verbal language.

Shell creatures don’t have verbal language, nor do geese nor rabbits nor the earth itself.  We talk about horse whisperers, joke about squirrel whisperers, probably as pet owners acknowledge non-verbal communication with them.

Why is non-verbal communication important?  Well, maybe it was the normal currency for millennia, maybe it’s still a lingua franca in this world.  Why is it important for humans to be conscious participants in non-verbal communication?  For me, it is the way I happen to understand, and it allows me to help others with whom there is no other means of communication.  This could be a severely distressed adult, a disabled baby, someone who speaks another verbal language, someone who has no verbal language.  By translating their communication from a more basic mode of communication, I can do kind of what I think a talk therapist does — help bring the issue into the light of day, where it can be seen for what it is, re-framed and re-interpreted as necessary, stripped of it emotional tyranny by stripping it of emotional baggage.  The intellectual stratum that’s left is the pure “information” of the situation that produced the emotional response.  At higher levels of understanding, that’s all there is.  But to begin the process, one must start at the level of communication of emotion.

So, why not, “de gustibus non disputandum est,” or rather, de gustibus linguarum non disputandum est?  Because we need to use that more basic mode of communication more than we do if we are to improve our world.  We keep going off in a particular direction of control it, fix it, change the material world to suit our fears and desires, and we all agree to go down that path, congratulate one another for accomplishments along those lines, but ultimately it’s a dead end.

My saying so is not going to change much if anything.  Nor would my gussying up this blog or acceding to other people’s sense, so far, of what would help me.  It’s like the way people say work for peace, don’t wage a war to try to produce peace; if I were to go back to same-old, same-old, for sure nothing would change and I would feel I had wasted my opportunity to serve and what I have accomplished so far.  If all I can do is maintain what ground I have gained for another to use further, then that will have been my contribution.  If I can figure out a further way to develop the ground I have recovered, I’m open to it.