Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful

A medieval Christmas song, a Bach chorale, and a folk rendition by Odetta

I do love Christmas music ’round this time of year, but sometimes it’s hard to find the good stuff. I’ve collected a ton of Christmas music over the years, and done some mixes for my friends. Please enjoy these three Nativity carols you won’t hear in elevators:

They are:

1. “Puer natus in Bethlehem in hoc anno” from In Natali Domini — Medieval Christmas Songs, the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, Konrad Ruhland, dir.

2. “Puer natus in Bethlehem” (J.S. Bach) from Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), Chorus of the Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling.

3. “Ain’t That A-Rockin” sung by Odetta, from Christmas Spirituals (1960 Vanguard LP)

— The medieval Christmas song is very lively! I’m a bit puzzled by the line “Fresh tomato far from Venus” as well as the reference to Pokemon, but then I don’t live in the 15th century…

— The Bach piece is really special to me. The chorale sung in Latin has a beautiful drawn-out ‘alleluia’ which seems to move and evolve though so many emotions (like a colour wheel). To me it conveys a sense of dying, or falling into an abyss of uncertainty and doubt, then (miraculously) emerging on a new plateau. (So I didn’t die after all… How about that!) It seems to get at that ineffable quality of joy which is so deep as to resemble sadness and carries with it the gravity of the journey taken. The recording is one which combines the organ preludes with the matching chorales, so you get a very churchlike experience. It took me a long time before I could hear the chorale melody embedded in long notes in the upper voice of the organ prelude. I first got that album when I was 15 or 16, lost it in a fire, and later replaced it. At the time I had no definite spiritual beliefs, but often surrounded myself with music and art that pointed to some deeper meaning in life.

— As for Odetta singing “Ain’t That A-Rockin’,” I absolutely love this short treat and have listened to it in times of intense grief as well as joy. Without sounding pretentiously zenlike (I hope), I would say it has a certain quality of suchness. Her album Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960 on Vanguard records. If seeking it out, try and get the original not the later re-recording.

M E R R Y   C H R I S T M A S ! ! !

Picasso and the Circus, Part 2

Connecting Picasso and the Circus with Sri Chinmoy, Elena Day, Jim Freund, Genevieve Valentine, and The Outer Limits

In Part 1, I embedded a video of Picasso and the Circus, where a little girl named Elena views Picassos in the museum, with cutaways to a modern-day Parisian circus. I closed by saying this makes me think of many things…

I sometimes listen to Hour of the Wolf, the sci-fi/fantasy radio programme started by the late Margot Adler, and hosted lo these many years by Jim Freund. I remember Jim saying that he loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis as a child, but when he reread them in adulthood the magic seemed to be gone.

Aha! I thought to myself. The books are the same, but what has changed? Consciousness has changed! This ties in very nicely with Picasso, who famously said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unless we consciously try to cultivate childlike qualities, those qualities become lost to us — and with them so much beauty and joy!

Students of Sri Chinmoy put on their own amateur circus which has all kinds of crazy and colourful acts meant to bring out childlike qualities:

Madal Circus 1

Madal Circus 2

Madal Circus 3

Madal Circus 4

It’s called the Madal Circus, based on Sri Chinmoy’s childhood nickname “Madal,” which means “kettledum” in Bengali. Of the Madal Circus, Sri Chinmoy said:

Dear ones, Madal Circus gives me the utmost joy, purer than the purest joy. Our philosophy is progress, progress, progress, progress. Let us not change our philosophy! I am begging you to remain young, young, young. Only the young in spirit will realise God.

— Sri Chinmoy, from His compassion is everything to us

Sri Chinmoy drew millions of birds, including this green one which graces the cover of one of his songbooks:

Green Bird c.k.gBlogging is learning, and TIL that Elena Day (the little girl in the film) grew up to create and perform The Green Bird character in Cirque du Soleil:

She has escaped her cage, and desperately wants to fly. But she can’t fly away and join the circus, because she is too awkward. She remains trapped in the urban world like a marionette with tangled strings.

— The Green Bird, Cirque du Soleil press kit

This could easily describe certain former seekers I know who lost their childlike qualities and became spiritually “bankrupt.” 😉

Moving on… Sri Chinmoy wrote this song about a green bird which he translated into English:

O green bird of the blue sky,
Tell me, will you go with me, brother?
I am afraid to go alone
To my Mother’s Home
Which is on the other shore.
No capacity have I
To swim across the river of destruction.
Will you follow me?
Will you help me fly like you
To the other shore
Where my Eternity’s Mother is?

— Sri Chinmoy, from Supreme, Teach Me How To Cry songbook

See also this discussion thread on “Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music.” (I like connecting different sources like this to see what may be discovered by shifting from one frame of reference to another.)

Jim Freund, if you’re out there, I wonder if your frequent guest Genevieve Valentine — author of Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti — would enjoy this post. Her character Elena is perhaps darker and more dystopic than Elena Day’s Green Bird character, but it’s always fun to compare circus motifs and see how they pan out among different artists and genres. Reviewer Abigail Nussbaum notes that Mechanique opens with these lines:

The tent is draped with strings of bare bulbs, with bits of mirror tied here and there to make it sparkle. (It doesn’t look shabby until you’ve already paid.)

This forms a contrast with The Truman Show, which I recently wrote about. If we think of the faked city of Seahaven as a media big top, its illusions are rather high tech compared to those of Circus Tresaulti. In Truman there’s hope that one might escape from conformism and find a world more real, while the dystopic nature of Mechanique suggests that travellers in a dingy, post-apocalyptic world find little ultimate solace in the steampunkish illusions of Circus Tresaulti.

A memorable line from Mechanique reads: “You do strange things out in the world before you join the Circus.” Circus performers tend to live on the outskirts of the city, the outskirts of society, the outskirts of morality. Colourful characters who feel marked by difference may take refuge in a circus subculture where difference becomes a livelihood, a way of life, and ultimately the new norm. It was natural for a bohemian like Picasso to take an interest in the circus.


The young Picasso with his bohemian friends

I’ve written before about Chinese bohemian San Mao, and about the album Echo, which was a collaboration between San Mao, Chyi Yu, and Pan Ywe Yun. That album actually opens with a song which has a circus motif:

Of course, once one begins to tally up all the film, TV, music, and literature which dallies with some variation on the circus theme, the possibilities are endless. Only yesterday I happened on an old Outer Limits episode where a birdlike alien takes charge of a space ride and sends the ticketholders on a longer journey than they’d planned.

BirdmanThis campy trailer for “Second Chance” (The Outer Limits, s01e23) is highly evocative of the genre:

The no-star cast and noirish photography are refreshing in an age of overproduced technicolor extravaganzas.

Potent Outer Limits quote: “Maybe young people are the only ones who listen and understand. You can’t reach a closed mind.”


Picasso and the Circus, Part 1

A child’s introduction to Picasso

Have you ever wanted a way to show children that art can be interesting and fun? Today just might be your lucky (Elena) day!

Picasso and the Circus is a short film produced in 1981 by the National Gallery of Art. A little girl named Elena with an intelligent, artistic face is exploring the museum, spinning ’round and staring up at the rare and gigantic:

She begins eyeing early Picasso paintings and drawings depicting circus performers. Her museum explorations are intercut with footage of a modern day Parisian troupe (the Cirque Gruss) — replete with trapeze artists, equine riders, harlequins, and costumery that’s often little changed from eighty years earlier.

Even though I’m rumoured to be an adult, I love this film because it makes me feel like I’m wandering through a museum, seeing things through a child’s eyes of curiosity and wonder. It makes me think of many things — but more on that in Part 2. For now, Shut up and eat your Picasso… 😉

The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources


Have you ever felt a spiritual longing, but felt like you didn’t know how to proceed and everyone you asked seemed to be misdirecting you? This post tackles the problem of how to locate reliable spiritual sources, and how to get beyond sources which are unreliable. Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show is used as a metaphor, and art critic Rosalind Krauss helps us delve into the postmodern dilemma in which we seem to be confronted by a wall of illusory images. To find reliable spiritual sources may entail questioning the nature of reality itself! Not everything which is popular is true, and some types of information can be discounted because they’re the product of excessive populism, vested interests, or incompetent operators.

Sometimes propagandists use “altruistic fear” to justify harsh social control measures, beating people back and discouraging them from asking deep questions about what is right and true. Examples are drawn from the George W. Bush administration, the persecution of Socrates, and the anti-cult movement.

I also contrast the idol worship practised by the ancient Greeks with the new doctrine of the soul advocated by Socrates. What Socrates and some modern spiritual movements have in common is an emphasis on self-cultivation and self-discovery.

If you’re a spiritual seeker trying to make sense of all the different flavours of information coming at you, maybe you would find some insight here, or at least a map that helps you sort things out. I close with some quotes from sociologist Dr. Bryan R. Wilson on the unreliability of apostate accounts.

I originally titled this post “Developing a Spiritual Nose For News,” which made sense to me but did not compute for some readers. I’ve reposted this under a new title, but kept the original graphic.

Extra! Extra! People’s Daily reports: Dalai Lama not really Tibetan. Is actually housewife from Minnesota!

No, the Chinese government’s official organ didn’t really print that, but it’s the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from them.

In writing about “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics,” I closed by saying that self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and some of it is junk info with no truth value. But then, not everyone is looking for truth value!

It’s helpful to picture a music outlet which caters to many different kinds of people. Most people are looking for dance music which is very loud and physical; but a few may seek out some little corner of the shop where they still have Gregorian chant or Ravi Shankar fighting the cobwebs. Loud dance music may sound like noise pollution to some people, while to others Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar are boring and impenetrable.

The whole of civilization is like this. It contains innumerable elements, each of which is valued by some people according to their nature, culture, and level of development, but is considered of little value by others.

When we extend this metaphor to information, it becomes slightly problematic. True, different segments of the population may be consumers of different flavours of information, but are not some things simply true in an ultimate sense, and others simply false? (The Dalai Lama is not a housewife from Minnesota!)

It’s often possible to isolate certain facts and laws about the universe which are true no matter what people think about them or whose interests they serve. But many of the ideas in common currency are more fluid, and resemble the different types of music found in our imaginary shop.

What does this mean for spiritual seekers? Let me tell you a story… My father sired me late in life, so when I was in my twenties he was in his seventies. As a young man, I began speaking to him about my spiritual experiences and aspirations. He was extremely cynical and dismissive. I’ll never forget his exact words to me: “No one has ever seen God!” It was a poignant moment. I looked into his eyes and into his heart, and I knew that in all his seventy-odd years he had never seen God. What’s more, the idea that someone else had perhaps seen God angered him and offended his pride. He instinctively felt that if there was a God, he surely he would have discovered this fact. Never mind that he had never really looked.

My experience mirrors that of many people whose spiritual search begins close to home, by asking parents, friends, and teachers what they think, or by reading popular periodicals. The problem is that in a society which is largely pleasure-loving and secular rationalist, what’s kept in stock is mostly popular music and popular opinions. Most people don’t know much about spirituality and aren’t that interested. This is a fact which has to be reckoned with. We need a personal strategy for dealing with it.

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media.

Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

Then again, even people that you love and trust, and who love you, may not be good sources of spiritual information. This can be heartbreaking, but it’s true. You may ask parents, friends, and teachers at your school, but you may find that they only repeat what they have heard and do not offer any true insight. Looking in their eyes, you don’t see the light of genuine wisdom or experience. They are not seeking, so of course they have not found. Just as you might navigate your way through our imaginary music store to find something rare and precious which others have overlooked, you need to cultivate spiritual resources in order to unearth spiritual treasures.

Some of the misdirection is an innocent outgrowth of the variety of human experience. If you ask the well-meaning music clerk to recommend something, he may point you to a popular dance tune, not knowing you’re the type who likes Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar. You’re in the minority, so perhaps he doesn’t even stock your kind of music. Here a commercial element enters in. The music industry can make more money selling one hit recording to a million people than it can selling a thousand different recordings to a thousand different people. (Less overhead.) In an industrial economy, there’s a tendency for everything to become commodified, standardized, dumbed down. Sales value replaces artistic value or truth value. Yet, sales value is only a measure of popularity, not a measure of truth.

This is an important concept which dovetails with our earlier discussions of Socrates, who cared for truth more than he cared for popularity. He tried to offer new light to Athenian society by preaching the doctrine of the soul. Professor John Burnet, in his lecture on “The Socratic Doctrine of the Soul” calls our attention to this statement:

I will not cease from philosophy and from exhorting you, and declaring the truth to every one of you I meet, saying in the words I am accustomed to use: ‘My good friend, . . . are you not ashamed of caring for money and how to get as much of it as you can, and for honour and reputation, and not caring or taking thought for wisdom and truth and for your soul, and how to make it as good as possible?’

— Socrates

If you will forgive this tangent: I am not a conspiracy theorist and have no idea who killed President Kennedy. But one thing seems clear: he represented hope — hope for a more peaceful world in which people could settle their differences without resorting to open warfare; hope also that the poor and downtrodden might be lifted up, that there might be greater sharing of resources. But there was a confluence of political, economic, and military interests opposed to such progressive changes; and those interests certainly got their way when he was assassinated. Had he lived, many sad chapters in American history might have been averted.

We cannot always know (or spend our whole lives investigating) why some information we receive is inaccurate, or what interests are served by extinguishing the new light that some political and spiritual leaders bring — light on the human condition and how we can improve it. The important thing is to develop a “spiritual nose for news.” If we are seekers of truth, then our spiritual intuition can gradually guide us toward the truths we need to hear, the truths that will help us in our spiritual quest.

The Truman Show as metaphor

Locating reliable spiritual sources may entail getting past sources which are unreliable. It’s a little like The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s fascinating, entertaining, and highly metaphorical film starring Jim Carrey:

When you start asking deep questions about the nature of reality and try to go beyond the limitations that most people tacitly accept, the men in HazMat suits may appear, warning you of grave danger ahead: fire, flood, raccoons with big, scary teeth…

You have to persevere in your spiritual quest in order to penetrate the mysteries of the universe — make it past the screaming banshees and make it home to God. According to media critic Ken Sanes:

The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.

— Ken Sanes, “The Meaning of The Truman Show”

Art critic Rosalind E. Krauss describes the postmodern dilemma in similar terms:

She says:

What we’re really dealing with in the period in which we live is an extraordinary conformity that despite the seeming pluralism, the seeming diversity, in fact we are seeing many, many different reflections of the same underlying reality. And it is that underlying reality which seems to me to be at the root of what’s happening in the art of our time. It’s as though the world has become a kind of huge billboard or an opaque wall of images that separates us as individuals from a Nature that might exist behind that wall, but which we cannot penetrate to.

Somehow, reality has been swallowed up by a television tube. So this sort of nightmare possibility accounts for absolutely everything that’s going on now. Certain artists have dedicated their work to the problem of how to break through this wall — how to put a kind of little crowbar underneath it, and try to get some sort of leverage on it, try to make a kind of space between the imitation of the real and the real, or try to comment on the ways in which we are trapped in this (what you could call) Plato’s Cave, in which what we are looking at is a world of shadows, a world of simulations, rather than a world of real things.

— Rosalind E. Krauss, Art of the Western World: In Our Own Time

The “HazMat” sequence (45:28-51:19) ends with Truman’s wife saying: “Let me get you some help, Truman. You’re not well.” His alienation and longing to escape from the mundane and pre-programmed are treated as pathological symptoms.

I love the earlier scene where he walks into a travel agent’s office, and instead of the usual posters of beautiful people relaxing on sunlit Mediterranean beaches, he’s greeted by posters warning of terrorists, disease, and air disasters:

Cosmic traveller Jim Carrey is determined to go on his journey.

Cosmic traveller Truman is determined to go on his journey.

This reminds me of the alarmist tactics used by the anti-cult movement, which portrays spiritual teachers as fiends and charlatans so that people will ignore them and be afraid to heed their spiritual counsel. Such marketing campaigns play on so-called “altruistic fear” — fear which appeals to values like keeping your family safe from harm, but is used to drum up support for harsh social control measures.

Only yesterday I saw a 2006 interview with George W. Bush in which he kept repeating that people are coming to kill your family, and that’s why we have to use these enhanced interrogation techniques:

This video has been getting a lot of play because the Senate Intelligence Committee just released its report on the use of torture by the C.I.A., including so-called “rectal hydration” of prisoners — just one of many lovely euphemisms gaining common currency in A.D. 2014. (See this New York Times article .)

The persecution of Socrates was likewise justified using altruistic fear. Athenian society essentially said: “We are a good and moral people who sacrifice to the gods and have fine political leaders. But by preaching the doctrine of the soul, Socrates is bringing unwelcome change and causing our young people to question existing values. Some of them are not sacrificing to the gods as our tradition demands, and we fear the gods may be offended. We therefore accuse Socrates of impiety and of corrupting our youth.” He was thus tried, and forced to drink hemlock.

But of course, Socrates was a very pious man who always entreated fellow Athenians to devote themselves to truth and wisdom. The effect of his preaching was to reveal hypocrisy in the practice of idol worship, which at its worst could descend into a system of corrupt patronage. According to Thomas R. Martin in An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, the Greek gods were viewed as having no love for human beings. “Rather, gods supported humans who paid them honor and avoided offending them. Gods whom humans offended sent calamities in response, such as famines, earthquakes, epidemic diseases, or defeat in war.”

Self-examination leads to self-empowerment

It’s easy to see how an ossified system of idol worship could lead to a moral disconnect in which little self-examination was expected of the average Athenian as long as he or she “paid the rent” by killing a cockerel now and then. By contrast, the teachings of Socrates implied that self-examination leads to self-empowerment — perhaps even to greater constancy than evinced by the fickle Greek gods. Moreover, the Socratic emphasis on self-cultivation necessarily implies de-emphasis on temple priests as intervenors.

There are parallels with the modern dilemma in that many of the new (or transplanted) religious movements which have arisen in Western nations would tend to agree with Socrates that insight gained through self-cultivation is an essential element of spiritual practice. Outer ritual without inner understanding is of limited benefit.

The full spectrum of beliefs and practices of the new religions is quite broad, and many scholars would rightly hesitate to generalize; but at least among those spiritual groups strongly influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Yoga, there is a tendency to reject both scientism and fundamentalism as totalist doctrines, and to emphasize the need for self-discovery. Swami Vivekananda, who along with Sri Ramakrishna is credited with founding modern Neo-Vedanta philosophy, famously said: “See Christ, then you will be a Christian. All else is talk; the less talking the better.” Within that same tradition, the parable is told of a donkey carrying a sack of sugar on its back. The sugar is sweet, but the donkey cannot taste it. For him it is just a heavy load.

Developing a “spiritual nose for news” often entails gauging the qualifications of the speaker. If someone is giving a car review, do they even know how to drive? I’ve worked in product support, and my old boss used to joke about people who thought the computer’s CD tray was a drink-holder (because it slid open and had a round slot). Of the many fallacies to beware of, this is the fallacy of the incompetent operator — the person who posts on a review site that “Linux is no good because as soon as I installed it on my computer, all the food in my refrigerator went bad.”

HeadHit_FinalGif_v3b_320x240Or imagine a product review of sugar written by the donkey in the parable: “I carried sugar on my back for 20 years, and believe me it does NOT taste sweet!” (Alright, but pardon me if I defer to the opinion of someone who put the sugar on their tongue.) So many people who rail against spirituality on the Internet are what Bridget Jones would charitably call “f-ckwits.” Unfortunately, one of the ways that media bias operates is by interviewing the least competent operators — those who flunked out of whatever spiritual school they formerly attended. Why not interview a successful student rather than a failed one? Or is the purpose to rig the outcome?

Leaving aside incompetent operators, I see two other types of untrustworthy sources that one has to get beyond. The first type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by vested interests of a political, economic, or personally selfish nature. One example is the propaganda put out by the Chinese government criticising the Dalai Lama of Tibet in order to justify the continued annexation of that formerly independent nation. See these People’s Daily articles, which are pure bunkum:

“Carrying forward Buddhism or fueling evil cults?”
Last visited Dec-04-2014

“A Doomed Failure – Beijing Review article on the Dalai Lama”:
Last visited Dec-04-2014

The second type is untrustworthy because it has been compromised by excessive populism, that is, by pandering to popular appetites and prejudices. In this latter type, there may also be an underlying economic motive, but it is not so clear-cut. For example, in a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests which want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. But remember: Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it true.

Apostate accounts are often highly problematic due to selfish motives and the many pressures brought to bear upon apostates to portray their former faith group negatively, ratifying existing discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. In this regard, it may be helpful to close with a few quotes from the late Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.

*  *  *

The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an “atrocity story” to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns.

*  *  *

Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard a defector as a credible or reliable source of evidence. He must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias against both his previous religious commitment and his former associates. If he is anxious to testify against his former allegiances and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to re-gain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been a victim who has subsequently become a redeemed crusader.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson


You would observe that I haven’t given this post a clickbait title like “Top 10 Reliable Spiritual Sources,” nor have I made a list of specific sources. The focus has been on how to proceed, how to get beyond sources which are unreliable, how to close your ears to all that’s nonsensical and illusory. If you’re a spiritual seeker, then look for authentic spiritual voices which radiate wisdom and inspire you to continue on your spiritual journey. These voices are hard to hear, because (metaphorically speaking) society’s loudspeakers are blasting secular and materialist messages twenty-four hours a day. To hear spiritual messages, seek out the sacred space.

I hope to continue this series by asking: Is greed good? Is self-giving an ego disorder? Is meditation dangerous? Whose opinions should we trust? This will be explored within the broader framework of finding reliable spiritual sources, a.k.a. “developing a spiritual nose for news.”

Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

What is the relationship between self-interest, self-giving, low ethics, and high ethics? To better understand these concepts, we’ll take the help of an interview with Mother Teresa, a video of the Dalai Lama, and an animation by R.O Blechman. Also a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Sri Chinmoy.

I previously quoted Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni, who writes:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

I find this passage helpful in understanding the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. This is not merely unethical, but often reflects an underlying cruelty, arrogance, and self-will.

Not all attacks on bona fide spiritual teachers come from avowed secularists. In some cases, the attacks are structured as “spirituality lite” vs. “spirituality proper.” Sometimes the attackers correspond to Hua-Ching Ni’s description above — people who just want to use some limited technique to achieve a temporary “high” without actually living the spiritual life; or people whose sense of spirituality is a sort of airheaded social butterfly concept. They like to gossip on Facebook about spiritual topics, but resent any implication that the spiritual quest might entail commitment, self-sacrifice, and loyalty — at least if one hopes to achieve anything meaningful and lasting.

It often takes a discerning eye to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. It’s natural for beginners in spirituality to say What can spirituality do for me? What can I get out of it? As people become more advanced, if they are fortunate then a sea-change occurs and they ask What can I give back? How can I make my whole life a reflection of the truths I have begun to glimpse? It is at this juncture or cusp that some people turn back from their spiritual journey, realizing that they don’t want to lead a life of self-giving. They’re content merely to have glimpsed the truth, and then to return to largely secular preoccupations with career and worldly relationships. In some cases, they may even become hostile to their former spiritual teacher or spiritual community. This is a sort of negative ego reaction to the implicit requirement for self-giving that every spiritual seeker sooner or later recognizes.

If you recognize that spirituality is about self-giving, yet you end your spiritual journey in response to something selfish and limited in your nature, you may easily come to resent and even hate people who “man up” or “woman up” to the challenge and proceed to make their lives all about self-giving. So, one often stumbles upon people who have returned to worldly life, and who mercilessly ridicule those who try to remain faithful to essential spiritual principles and to lead their lives by them. This is an example of low ethics attacking high ethics.

Low ethics does not mean no ethics. Low ethics means the lowest common denominator of ethics from which egoism and base self-interest have not yet been rooted out and still exercise a corrupting influence. Society is struggling to progress and does have some ethics, but these ethics are often muddied by greed and ambition, so they are not reliable. Society as a whole sends extremely mixed messages about what is ethical, and merely by doing everything that society asks one cannot progress very far. So, if one is a spiritual seeker, one tries to please society and live by its rules and laws according to what is required and reasonable; but one also looks to some spiritual teaching and practice in order to gain insight into higher ethics. The highest ethics is to see the truth, and to act in perfect harmony with the truth.

The persecution of Socrates and of Christ was not done by people with no ethics, but by people with low ethics. This is worth pondering for what it can tell us about present day conflicts.

Low ethics are rules-based, rigid, inflexible, and judgemental. High ethics are flexible, compassionate, based on seeing the truth of life and understanding the struggles of each individual soul.

Low ethics says: “Let us maintain the status quo at any cost, for surely we are good people, our political leaders are good, and what we have achieved makes this the best of possible worlds.” High ethics says: “Let us not be afraid to change, for we are not as good as we hope to be, our political leaders are flawed, and what we have achieved is only a beginning, not an ending. We have not truly understood or addressed the problem of suffering, and for this we need more insight and higher ethics.”

Higher ethics brings with it insight and an imperative for change. Low ethics wants to sweep society’s problems under the rug, and to ensure that today’s flawed leaders are still in power tomorrow. Low ethics sees change based on insight and higher ethics as threatening to the status quo, and to the interests and ambitions of people who have staked their claim on low ethics.

Although low ethics frequently tries to destroy high ethics, high ethics only wants to transform low ethics. High ethics says to low ethics: “Alright, I admit that you have a little light. But please try to become better and to embody more light.”

Just as light dispels darkness, high ethics reveals the limitations of low ethics. It cannot help but do so. In a human way, you can say that high ethics “shows up” low ethics. This is why people of low ethics often torture people with high ethics — because they fear being shown up.

In cartoonist R.O. Blechman’s animated retelling of the Nativity story, much wisdom is imparted through images alone:

We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out. He arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto.

If low ethics is synonymous with self-interest, and high ethics is synonymous with self-giving, then the existence of people who lead their lives based on self-giving is a real thorn in the side to people who have opted to follow the path of self-interest. Sometimes we see an obsession on the part of self-interested people with proving that they’re really more ethical than people who have mastered the art of self-giving. This topic dovetails with our earlier discussions of “invalidation ideologies” and “inverted narratives.” Sometimes, in order to feel better about their own lives, people of low ethics create myths about people with high ethics as a way of attacking, shaming, and slandering them, and as a means of invalidating the notion that a life of self-giving reflects higher ethics and greater wisdom.

Much of the modus operandi of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) involves scaring the living daylights out of the general public about minority spiritual groups. One way this is done is by pointing to people who’ve learned to get by with very little and portraying them as dupes or slaves who’ve been deprived of all the worldly pleasures they could otherwise enjoy. This is a type of “fear marketing” of anti-cult ideology in which the false claim is made that spiritual leaders will rob the common people of their material possessions and leave them with nothing. But of course, only a small percentage of people adopt a lifestyle based on self-giving, and they do so willingly because they find some wisdom in it. This poses no threat to the common people.

The high ethics of Mother Teresa and the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet show up the low ethics inherent in the materialist POV. In a December, 1989 interview, Mother Teresa answered these questions about poverty:

Q: Is materialism in the West [a] serious problem?

A: I don’t know. I have so many things to think about. Take our congregation: we have very little, so we have nothing to be preoccupied with. The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have, the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not a mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that. This is the only fan in the whole house. It doesn’t matter how hot it is, and it is for the guests. But we are perfectly happy.

Q: How do you find rich people then?

A: I find the rich much poorer. Sometimes they are more lonely inside. They are never satisfied. They always need something more. I don’t say all of them are like that. Everybody is not the same. I find that poverty hard to remove. The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

Q: There has been some criticism of the very severe regimen under which you and your sisters live.

A: We choose that. That is the difference between us and the poor. Because that will bring us closer to our poor people. How can we be truthful to them if we lead a different life? What language will I speak to them?

Q: What is the most joyful place that you have ever visited?

A: Kalighat. When the people die in peace, in the love of God, it is a wonderful thing. To see our poor people happy together with their families, these are beautiful things. The joy of the poor people is so clean, so clear. The real poor know what is joy.

Q: There are people who would say it is an illusion to think of the poor as joyous, that they must be given housing, raised up.

A: The material is not the only thing that gives joy. Something greater than that, the deep sense of peace in the heart. They are content. That is the great difference between the rich and the poor.

— Mother Teresa, Time magazine

In his 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama, documentary filmmaker Rick Ray reaches similar conclusions based on an interview with His Holiness, and on travelling around India:

It seems that both Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, who are Nobel Peace Laureates, agree that to be able to live with very little and still be content is the mark of someone who is inwardly rich. By living with less one is able to give more, and so realize more of one’s human potential.

Nobel Peace Laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Nobel Peace Laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Nobel Peace Laureate the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Nobel Peace Laureate the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

In contrasting high ethics with low ethics, I’m not suggesting some Manichean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Society is mixed, and human nature is mixed. The message of spiritual figures who exemplify high ethics is not that everyone else is bad and must give up all their material possessions. Rather, the message is that we can all be a little bit better, try not to live so selfishly, try to give a little more and take a little less. Many people in society are receptive to this message, and this is why spiritual figures are often praised even by secular leaders. Psychologists too recommend selfless service as an aid to personal development.

Spiritual figures are not saying that the material should be ignored, but rather that material prosperity alone cannot satisfy our innermost longings. We also need spiritual progress along with material progress.

Self-giving is not a binary concept — it’s a noble ideal which people can gradually make practical. It doesn’t demand that people live without TV or air conditioning as some nuns choose to do. It says, “Start from where you are, and try to get by with a little less, so that you can experience more joy and share more joy with others.”

If you act in a self-giving manner, this will help you develop the insight that we are all connected, all interdependent. In this way, self-giving is not just a solution to the personal problem of egoism, but can also help solve global problems like the destruction of the environment.

Trying to become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

I’m wandering a bit while moving toward my destination, but perhaps some of these stops along the way will make the journey more fruitful. If time and resources permit, I’ll continue this series. I’d like to discuss how self-interest colours the information we receive every day, and how some of it is junk info with no truth value. UPDATE: Please see “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”

I’ll end with a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Indian-American spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. I think this video shows that self-giving is not so scary after all! Self-giving is like a universal language which allows people from different spiritual traditions to converse together and understand one another. In their shared smiles and shared prayers is a growing recognition that they worship the same God, who is infinitely self-giving.

A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment, Part 2

Definitions can be limiting. A quick survey of the word “shibboleth” yields:

“a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.” (Google)

“a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.” (Wikipedia)

“Shibboleth is among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.” (

“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” (Judges 12:6)

Now let’s talk turkey…

As this Thanksgiving-themed clip from The West Wing (s02e08) shows, a shibboleth can have a richer meaning than cursory definitions would indicate:

A shibboleth can be a core belief or principle which is meaningful to some people but not to others — one worth defending and making sacrifices for. When quizzed by the President on the names of the Apostles, a Chinese refugee tells him that “Faith is the true shibboleth.”

Those refugees risk dying in a cramped, poorly-ventilated container ship, hoping to escape from Mainland China to the (relative) freedom of America. They’re persecuted Christians seeking asylum. In America they’ll probably create their own small community, since mainstream American culture is fairly white and secular. They may face hatred and discrimination — and have to stare down everything from White Aryans to condescending atheists — but they won’t be imprisoned and tortured just for being Christians. That’s what’s good about America.

In both Christian and Masonic texts (as well as Firesign Theatre songs), the word “shibboleth” often occurs in close proximity to the word “sword.” A sword is not only a type of blade used in modern fencing and ancient combat. The metaphorical sword of which Blake wrote (and British Anglicans sing) is a palpable willingness to stick up for a principle:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

(Are you humming along?) In this context, a shibboleth is a living, relevant principle of faith, and a sword is not a weapon of destruction, but represents dedication to the spreading of a principle, and the overcoming of obstacles to building an idealized world — one built on compassion, not naked power or self-interest.

Am I being long-winded, obtuse, pedantic? I apologize. It’s really because I’m trying to avoid unpleasant tasks… I’m a city boy, not a gardener; but even I know that before you sculpt a zen garden, you may have to pull up some weeds. And once when I was living away from home, I had a landlady who took a pair of gardening shears to an ugly green tomato hornworm that was fiendishly attacking her modest suburban yield of plump, red fruit (or vegetable).

It seems unavoidable, then, that to stick up for a principle sometimes means dispelling wrong views and correcting the record where it has been fudged. This might seem easy in the abstract, but can be rather difficult in the concrete (no Mafia jokes please!). I suppose I have some rather large (cement) shoes to fill.

Real as hell…

In recent posts I’ve talked about the problem of hate on the Net and how it affects minority spiritual groups. I’ve quoted cyber civil rights advocates and other scholars who analyze the problem of hate propaganda in a very cerebral way, which is helpful for understanding how it operates. I too am trying to connect the dots and shed some mental light. But it’s always possible that the analysis will fall short of illuminating the reality of the harm done to real people.

Just the other day I was watching Chris Matthews on MSNBC. He’s a bit of a populist, but a good communicator. He described the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson as “real as hell.” That’s the way I feel about the problem of hate on the Net which targets Eastern spiritual teachers and their students. It’s real as hell for those people subjected to hatred and harassment. This passage from Danielle Citron’s “Cyber Civil Rights” bears repeating:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

We live in times when every hare-brained idea has a plethora of hare-brained folk defending it, and false information is spread by those who gain some petty advantage from doing so. Yet, the stakes are not petty. We seem poised on the brink of creating a more peaceful, compassionate, and enlightened world; but a side effect of this would be a change in the balance of power. In such a world, we would come to value peacemakers more than warmongers, and value those who can enlighten us more than those who merely entertain or titillate us. We would find that our appetite for lies has been more than sated, while our hunger for truth springs forth as a noble instinct long starved.

Those who are inured to mere cleverness, sharklike ambition, social control, and world domination will be losers in such a world. While great intellects will still abound in science, what we will come to treasure most is the spiritual heart, whose ability to satisfy us has long been underestimated.

What we often see in history is that wherever a point of light springs up, there’s an effort to extinguish it, usually by foul means. The Crucifixion was not just an event, but a metaphor for what the crooked does to the straight and true. It is repeated a thousand times a day all around the world. This was well-known to admirers of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and was well-known to labor Catholics of the mid-twentieth century. It is epitomized in this scene from Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On The Waterfront:

Actor Karl Malden plays activist priest Father Barry in On The Waterfront

The famous “This is my church” scene shows Father Barry (based on real life waterfront Catholic priest Father John M. Corridan) taking a stand against corruption in the longshoreman’s union. With dramatic oratory, he drives home the point that Christ is not just a spiritual figure, but also an ethical figure, and ethics forms a connecting link between the high principles one hears in church sermons and the tribulations of daily life. Nor is this a uniquely Christian view; all the world’s great religions connect the ethical with the spiritual. For example, in Entering The Tao, Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni writes:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

This seems like a good place to stop for now. If it’s not yet clear where I’m going, let me add that one of the issues I plan to tackle is the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. Look for a post called “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics” coming soon!

In the meantime, I offer you this esoteric blessing via the Firesign Theatre: May your cornflakes rise.

Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targeted persons in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself.

For example, in the AutoAdmit scandal, cyber attacks on female law students focused on particular individuals, falsely portraying them as “stupid,” or “sluts,” or “lesbians.” In the minds of the male attackers, this then seemed to justify rape fantasies about the targets. More broadly, it seemed to feed into misogynist views that “all women are stupid, “no women can be lawyers,” “all women are sluts,” and “all women deserve to be raped.” In this way, targeting individuals for harassment can function as a gateway to invalidating and dehumanizing entire groups. We might use the term “travelling invalidation myths,” since once applied to the individual, such myths can then be hurled with equal venom at the group (via some twisted commutative logic on the part of the attackers).

The relation between shaming of individuals and groups is also touched on by law professor Danielle Keats Citron:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, “Cyber Civil Rights”

According to Kallen, invalidation ideologies “are spurious theories which are designed to give credibility to invalidation myths by providing purported ‘evidence’ for them. The arguments are premised on scientifically unsupportable assumptions about differences in human attributes among various populations; prejudicial assumptions which serve to inferiorize, to invalidate, particular populations and thus to provide a platform for discriminatory action against them. … [The] ‘evidence’ of minority inferiority or dangerousness is manipulated in order to justify violations of minority rights.”

Kallen considers “[h]ate propaganda [to be] probably the most malignant expression of invalidation ideology, for it not only inferiorizes target populations, but it also singles them out as dangerous and threatening to society. Not surprisingly, it follows from this premise that hate propaganda urges its audience to take steps to eliminate the purported threat. What begins as prejudice is thus translated into discrimination through hate-mongering activities which incite hate and harm against the target group.”

Moving from the general to the particular: In anti-cult ideology there is no such thing as a benign, wise, and saintly guru who is well-qualified to teach sincere students about Eastern spirituality. All such gurus are depicted as charlatans and abusers, and their students as brainwashed dupes forced into a life of slavery. This particular genre of hate propaganda adds new worlds of meaning to Mary Anne Franks’ concept of “unwilling avatars.”

Anti-cultism is largely an invalidation ideology, built on the myth that people don’t participate in spiritual movements as a reasonable means to achieve worthy goals, but rather because they’ve been subjected to “pernicious mind control” by dangerous “cult leaders.” Within this ideological framework, breaking the faith of minority adherents by coercive or propagandistic means is redefined as “rescue” or “education” — highly Orwellian inversions of language!

Breaking someone’s faith by exposing them to hate material is considered “rescuing” them from a life “wasted in the cult.” But on careful inspection, this turns out to be just another aspect of invalidation ideology. The underlying assumption is that people who devote themselves to some spiritual mission or quest don’t lead meaningful lives. Their lives may be filled with travel and meetings, friendship and activities, reading and reflection; but if their activities aren’t primarily secular, scientific, consumeristic, egoistic or pleasure-oriented, then they fall off the radar screen of anti-cultists measuring “meaningfulness.” As per Kallen, note the scientifically unsupportable assumption about what is meaningful to whom.

Note also the strong undercurrent of conformism and interventionism. If adherents find meaning in activities like spiritual reading, reflection, prayer, meditation, chanting, etc., there must be something wrong with them that needs fixing, since most secular people don’t care for these things and don’t build their lives around them. An inherent logical fallacy in anti-cult ideology is to conflate the statistically unusual with the pathological.

A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people are in the minority. None of these groups require “deprogramming” or “exit counseling” to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents. It is, of course, unethical to take people who are peaceably pursuing their minority interests, and subject them to some sort of hatred, discrimination, or forced conversion to majoritarian values. As Danielle Citron helps us understand, real people suffer when anti-cult groups undertake such actions against minority adherents.

Anti-cult invalidation ideology frequently employs circular reasoning and a specialized vocabulary. Code words like “rescue,” “intervention,” and “education” really signify coercive deprogramming, unwanted psychological counselling, and publicity campaigns vilifying purported “cults.” A person who develops spiritual beliefs and affiliations which are disliked by another family member is to be treated as a “cult-affected loved one” whose every move must be recorded in a notebook and submitted to “cult experts” for evaluation and possible “treatment” options. The considerable profit to be made from such “treatment” then becomes an economic incentive for anti-cultists to tell atrocity stories about bona fide spiritual groups, as a type of “fear marketing” used to hawk psychological services or legal services.

The main conceit, then, of anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association) is to falsely equate strong spiritual faith with mental illness. This constitutes a type of pseudoscience in which faith-based phenomena are misclassified as psychological aberrations — in other words, a major category error. Such misclassification reflects not science, but rather scientism — a dogged insistence that science (where it is practised) is an authoritative worldview on all subjects, to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Again, it’s one thing to believe in and practice science, but quite another to beat persons of faith over the head with it. That’s what’s wrong.

The intuitively obvious answer is to prefer science in scientific matters, and to prefer faith in matters of faith. The implication for religious freedom is that members of minority faith groups should be able to live their lives free from vilification. This is turn implies enacting legislation which places legal limits on hate speech targeting minorities. Such legislation has already been enacted in a number of Commonwealth nations including Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

Evelyn Kallen frames the issue as “freedom of expression versus freedom from group vilification,” arguing that freedom from group vilification is a human right. According to her, “Freedom of speech, from [the egalitarian] view, does not mean the right to vilify.”

It may be argued that the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in enacting both compassionate gun legislation and compassionate speech legislation. What do you think?

For Further Reading

Rohit Bhargava on “Fear Marketing” (brief introduction to the concept)

Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (Special Presentation at the Harassment Law Update 1998 Conference)