The Maryknoll Nun – Playboy Centerfold Paradox, Part 1

Does the spiritual life prepare people for worldly life? In what ways is this true or not true?

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood.jpgIn recent posts I was tempted to go off on more tangents than I did, but there’s a certain flow which needs to be respected. So I’ve saved up some topics for further exploration here.

In “A Question of Forgiveness,” I found myself referring shorthand to “worldly people” and “spiritual people.” Those quick to complain about any trace of Manichaean dualism might say that there really is no such thing, that everyone has a mix of spiritual and worldly elements inside them. By the same token, some people subscribe to a wishy-washy, Upper West Side, John Lennon definition of spirituality in which “everything is spiritual.”

Yet, spiritual seekers tend to have a more definite sense that some things are intrinsically spiritual, while others lead us farther away from spirituality. Not all roads lead to Rome (or Vrindavan):

If you go to a place where there are flowers, incense, spiritual music, and people are praying and meditating, you will get one kind of vibration. If you go to a place where people are taking drugs and listening to satanic metal, you will get a completely different vibration. As a practical matter, it’s helpful to recognize the difference.

If you try to stand an egg on its head, it will always fall in one direction or another. The same is true of human nature. It’s almost impossible for a person to remain evenly balanced between spiritual and worldly drives and ambitions. Either spiritual or worldly qualities will predominate during any given period of their lives. Some people may lurch from side to side, but they do not remain perfectly balanced in the middle.

So, to speak in general terms about worldly people and spiritual people is not wrong, provided we accept that each person is potentially divine, that each person has some freedom of choice, and that people often change over time. Sometimes worldly people become spiritual; sometimes spiritual people become worldly.

In Christian theology, the impossibility of serving two masters is often stressed:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

— The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Without exploring all the mystical implications in this passage, we can note how it comports with the psychological reality of human nature, and of apostasy. Those individuals who are divided in their nature may become like two persons: When their worldly qualities come to overpower their spiritual qualities, they may hate the spiritual part of themselves, hate their spiritual past, and hate the teacher who initiated them into spiritual practice. The aspiring soul is still present, but it cannot express itself because the human being has made friends with worldliness.

The soul is like the charioteer, but the other parts of our being may be dark and unruly, always looking for an opportunity to rebel, to gallop off in some other direction. What the soul loves, our own mind and vital may hate. But by practising spirituality, we aim to gradually bring the mind and vital under control, so that they cooperate in the soul’s mission.

When we are conscious of God and of the soul, we feel that the spiritual life is something good and beneficial. This is not merely a mental attitude, but something we feel deeply as a life-experience. We try to please God and please our soul, and we find that we receive many inner blessings for our efforts. These inner blessings help to convince us that we are doing the right thing in our lives by taking the spiritual approach.

But if we fall victim to doubt — if we doubt God, doubt the soul, and doubt the spiritual master who gave us initiation — then those very things which we took for many years to be good will suddenly seem bad. This is sometimes known as a hostile attack, where a person who was once very spiritual becomes a stark atheist and actively tries to take away the faith of others, or negate other’s spiritual efforts.

Faith can only be known by means of faith; love of God can only be known by love of God; light can only by seen by means of light. If we lose access to these things, then if we are spiritual seekers we will not be able to make sense of our lives, because for spiritual seekers, faith, love of God, and love of light are the essence of life.

When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

— The author, from “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”

These conflicts within the individual are also mirrored in society. During a spiritual phase, a person may join a spiritual group where people pray and meditate, read spiritual books, play spiritual music, and cultivate the life of the soul. But if their worldly nature rebels, then the same person may do a complete volte-face and join some sort of anti-cult group. There, people may claim that those who believe in God and the life of the soul are “brainwashed,” or under “mind control,” or otherwise deluded or exploited.

They supposedly need to be “rescued,” “deprogrammed,” “exit counselled,” or exposed to “testimonials” vilifying their spiritual group or teacher. This is euphemistically referred to as a process of “cult education” deemed necessary to return them to a condition of presumed psychological health — i.e. secular materialism and conformity to mainstream values. But as I’ve noted elsewhere, to equate psychological health with “reversion to the mean” (wink!) is a mistake that would never be made by a trailblazer in psychology like Carl Jung.

Nevertheless, if the de-conversion therapy, re-education, or re-socialization is successful (according to the objectives of its proponents), then those targeted will be turned back into average citizens who subscribe to production, consumption, and procreation as the end-all and be-all of life, and who can be relied upon to act with familiar motives of ego and ambition. Then their old friends and relatives (who always hated their spiritual phase) can pronounce them “cured,” welcoming them back into the fold of those who place self-interest above self-giving, and who are far too clever and sophisticated to be “taken in” by any faith-based philosophy requiring an integral commitment. The dwarves are for themselves!

Indeed, in “C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison,” Henry Karlson explains how the author of The Chronicles of Narnia presented Platonist beliefs in a manner which also resonates with Hindu/Buddhist beliefs about the way that our own actions come to condition our minds, so that we are trapped in a hermeneutic of interpretation (or misinterpretation) which we ourselves create. These are deep concepts, and quoting only a portion of Karlson’s article would not do it justice. I suggest you check it out yourself:

“C.S. Lewis and the Mind Only Prison”

Psychological health in the true Jungian sense entails finding the means to remove that distorted hermeneutic by which we misapprehend the nature of the universe. Or as I say in “Paint It Black!”:

Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which is aware of the existence of God or of higher spiritual Truth. This higher awareness brings insight and understanding (or gnosis), so that we begin to see the universe as it truly is, not according to our limited mental constructs. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which has received some illumination from higher light and wisdom, so that it no longer lives alone in a dark room, seeing only its own self-produced shadows. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence from which the “ink of the mind” has been dispelled in whole or in part, so that the universe may be seen in all its true, glowing colours.

But this understanding is rare. If we begin to achieve it, then statistically it will make us different from the majority, which embraces some variation on secular materialism or scientific rationalism as their guide for living. Spiritual insight will take us down a different road — one less traveled by.

Among apostates, anti-cultists, and participants in so-called “ex-cult support groups,” the complaint is often voiced that spiritual training does not prepare one for worldly life. If you begin to see reality as it is, will this necessarily make you rich and well-loved by your peers? Plato says no, based in part on his living experience of The Death of Socrates.

In the above lesson on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Alex Gendler closes by asking:

As we go about our lives, can we be confident in what we think we know? Perhaps one day, a glimmer of light may punch a hole in your most basic assumptions. Will you break free to struggle towards the light, even if it costs you your friends and family, or stick with comfortable and familiar illusions? Truth or habit? Light or shadow? Hard choices, but if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. There are lots of us down here.

In the modern world (as in the ancient one), most nation states are ruled by political leaders of one stripe or another. There is often a huge amount of hoopla attendant to choosing the next political leader, and this takes on the nature of a sporting event (if not a war).

In our inner, spiritual lives, we are ideally free to worship as we please, to choose our own philosopher-kings. Yet, the inner life may be ignored to such an extent that it is made to look utterly irrelevant, like terra incognita.

Alex Gendler voices the concern that our friends and family may be satisfied with surface appearances, with comfortable and familiar illusions. Among one hundred persons, perhaps only one will care to break free to struggle towards the light. Yet, spiritual master Sri Chinmoy says: “No life should remain an unexplored reality.”

Here in Part 1, we’ve begun to grapple with the the seeming conflict between developing spiritual insight, and recognizing that spiritual insight is often not much valued in the world. Faced with opposing choices — like becoming a Maryknoll nun or a Playboy centerfold — we may (like Robert Frost) feel sorry that we could not travel both roads and be one traveler.

dorothy-faces-two-roadsMore next time.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy on The Greek Philosophers

Question: Could you speak a little about the Greek philosophers?

Sri Chinmoy: Socrates lived philosophy. Plato expressed philosophy. Aristotle combined the two.

Socrates tried to express the Truth in a very simple way. Sometimes he would speak for an hour to hammer home one idea. At other times, he could express the Truth in very few words. In Plato’s case, he went on and on. He brought his mind, his scholarship and everything to support his statements. If Plato had not come, then nobody would have known who Socrates was.

Aristotle was Plato’s disciple, but in some ways he surpassed his Guru. He was able to discover a few things directly. Where Plato’s mind was roaming and roaming, Aristotle expanded the mind and was able to perceive a higher Truth. That is why he got such unparalleled appreciation from Plato. Plato once said that if he placed his whole academy on one side and Aristotle on the other, Aristotle would win in terms of wisdom.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Philosophy: Wisdom-Chariot of the Mind, Agni Press, 1999


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A Question of Forgiveness

The question of how to deal with unjust attacks is an age-old one. Some people advocate a philosophy of total forgiveness. Others say that forgiveness should be tempered by an understanding of the real world and the nature of the individuals with whom one has to deal.

Some say that forgiveness should come after wrong actions have ended, but not while they are still occurring. A remorseful person should certainly be forgiven, but those who show no remorse and continue to do wrong actions may require justice rather than compassion, for their own progress. (See also “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life.”)

Once upon a time, some spiritual devotees were meditating in a church. Suddenly, they were distracted by the sound of breaking glass. Upon investigation, they found that someone was throwing rocks at the church windows, smashing them to bits. Others were calling for the church to be burned to the ground! The wrongdoers were worldly people whose minds had become agitated, and who had embraced an aggressive, destructive consciousness.

Some of the disciples said: “Let us pray for protection and meditate on compassion.” This was all well and good. But after awhile, either their prayer and meditation was not powerful enough, or else the situation required different handling. As the rocks kept coming and windows continued to be broken, another disciple said: “Let us call the police, since they also represent protection and it is their job to protect us.”

When the police arrived, they arrested one or two rock throwers, and others scattered into the night.

What can we learn from this story? In an imperfect world, there is no perfect solution to problems of harassment. Undoubtedly, compassion is a powerful force; but sometimes justice is required to deal with aggressive, destructive people, or else they may destroy spiritual things which are most precious and cannot easily be replaced.

This does not apply only to physical objects, but to abstract things as well. A person such as a spiritual teacher has only one reputation, which he or she has built up over many decades through innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. If crude people wrongly attack the reputation of a spiritual master and will not stop, the situation may eventually require justice.

The problem is aggravated when those who have become aggressive and destructive feel they can get away with anything precisely because they are attacking gentle spiritual people. While I definitely don’t advocate zapping anyone with a ray gun, this short clip from Doctor Who dramatizes the outcome when a destructive person mistakenly assumes that the only possible response to their destructive behaviour is one of mercy:

English majors please note: River Song’s use of the passive voice (“It died”) is not generally recommended, though used here to good effect. 😉

According to the varying mythologies of many cultures and religions, there are different kinds of beings assigned to perform different celestial duties. Their qualities and appearance are suited to the tasks which they perform, or they may take on a different appearance according to the circumstances.

The compassionate nature of the universe is reflected in that people usually have numerous opportunities to change their ways before they reach a final reckoning with justice. They see the face of compassion many times before they finally see the face of justice. It is up to them to choose how they want to progress. In the case of spiritual people around the world, they often make the same essential prayer to their chosen deity: “Protect us with Thy compassionate face.”

When we think of a snake, often we think of its destructive qualities: it may hiss or bite. Usually the hiss is a warning, and if we ignore the hiss then we get the bite. But what of a snake who has become a vegetarian, recited holy mantras, and adopted principles of ahimsa (non-violence)? If such a creature existed, how would it defend itself from predators? This question is addressed in a parable from the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition:

“How To Deal with the Wicked”

For those with little patience for spiritual parables, I will give away the punchline: I told you not to bite. I never told you not to hiss!

Some people demonstrate an impulsive nature lacking in wisdom and restraint. Perhaps they once knew wisdom and restraint, but have lost these qualities due to whimsicality, or because they abandoned their spiritual practice. In any event, they now do much harm. When we see the harm that they do, and their utter imperviousness to compassion, it is clear they need to be hissed at.

When compassion fails, some people may need a harsh word or Internet takedown or they will just go on attacking. This restores their sense of balance or understanding of cause and effect. “Oh, if I go on the Internet and attack someone, I too may be attacked.” Duh! Some people do learn from this, and others who have suffered feel vindicated when they see that justice is operating, and people who act cruelly and callously do get their comeuppance.

Worldly people are often obsessed with protecting their reputations, which are allied to their moneymaking activities; yet they think nothing of trying to destroy the reputations of spiritual people through libel. This points to a serious ethical imbalance, which occurs because worldly people (particularly apostates) tend to otherize spiritual people. They imagine that spiritual people do not enjoy the same rights to dignity, privacy, and protection of reputation.

In “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good,” John Leo addresses “the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?” But see also: “Tawana Brawley Rape Hoax Leads To Defamation Damage Payout 26 Years Later.” One consequence of false confessions of victimhood is that they may do collateral damage to third parties. Contrary to the social trend, some people do value their privacy and resent being used as mere objects in someone else’s spurious public confession.

In “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father,” Meredith Maran discusses how a “perfect storm” of influences including recovered memory therapy, feminist political theory, and social pressure caused her to claim that her father molested her. Years later, she realized it wasn’t true, and was surprised at how strong a role external factors like therapy, politics, and social pressure played in making her commit to a story which she knew in retrospect was a lie. Her father suffered greatly because of that lie, whose genesis was bad therapy and social/political faddism. Yet, she herself was not an automaton or passive agent. Looking back, she knew she had done wrong.

Anti-cult operatives take advantage of the current fad by persuading gullible individuals that the need for public-confession-as-therapy and the need to embrace a new identity as a “cult survivor” outweigh any loyalties, privacy concerns, or traditional ethical and legal constraints against libel. So, drunk with the heady draft of fellow “support group” members egging them on, these people proceed to tell the most extravagant lies about their former spiritual teacher or group. The best “whoppers” are then leaked to the press by anti-cult operatives, or posted on a remote website, devoid of any clue about the support group pressures which led to their creation. (See elsewhere my criticism of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for orchestrating or participating in such fraudulent activities, thus giving them his legal seal of approval.)

As I discussed in Part 2, a typical problem with ex-cult support groups is that members otherize spiritual groups whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. They experience a pathological loss of empathy for former friends, colleagues and mentors, and a pathological escalation of hostility. They no longer honour the social contract and no longer treat others with basic human decency. This leads them to commit unethical or even illegal acts against their former colleagues.

What we’re really talking about is a socially constructed view of the religious other as archetypal bogeyman. This view inherently implies that the other has no rights, so who could possibly object to false accounts on the grounds of libel, harassment, or false light invasion of privacy? Therapy culture plus Internet culture equals an unlimited opportunity to publicly shame people with whom one has some disagreement. This is the new emotional etiquette championed by some ethically rudderless psychologists and attorneys engaged in anti-cult advocacy.

— The author, from “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence.”

Boiling things down to a usable form: Don’t blame the fabled snake for hissing when harassed. Just pray it doesn’t remember how to bite! Those seeking mercy should demonstrate genuine remorse. Otherwise they are more likely to receive justice. When it is a question of forgiveness, the answer depends on the sincerity of the individual.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Death of Sri Chinmoy

sri-chinmoy-smilingSri Chinmoy died on the morning of October 11, 2007, at his home in Briarwood, New York. He had but lately returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he performed a small concert, took part in the dedication of a children’s hospital, and met with Russian disciples. He was physically weak upon his return, and over a period of days his condition deteriorated, culminating in a fatal heart attack.

Upon his passing at age 76, his followers held a weeklong vigil of meditation, poetry, and song observed at many centres worldwide. The main gathering was at Aspiration-Ground — a former tennis court in Briarwood which had previously been converted to an outdoor temple or “meditation garden.” Those who could travelled to New York.

For six days, Sri Chinmoy’s body lay in wake. Thousands of followers and visiting dignitaries filed by the open casket, sometimes stopping to kneel and meditate for a few minutes. There was no pressure to move quickly. The line was long, and followers often rejoined it; new mourners were given faster access. The scent of flowers, candles, and incense pervaded the warm fall air. Most women wore white saris of mourning.

Female followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. New York Times photo.

Musicians flew in from around the world. Groups and individuals dedicated to performing Sri Chinmoy’s music played softly in the background as the walkby continued. These included Shindhu, Mountain-Silence, Japaka Orchestra, Premik Russell Tubbs, and many others. A large memorial service was held at Aspiration-Ground on Sunday, October 14, 2007. Countless words of tribute and affection were spoken. A barrow of long-stemmed roses was brought out; each person offered a rose at his casket; the stream of farewells lasted for eight hours. The vigil and walkby then continued on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

On the afternoon of Thursday, October 18, 2007 — one week after his passing — Sri Chinmoy was interred at Aspiration-Ground. The samadhi, or burial shrine, was built of white marble. Gongs were rung. His casket was lowered into the burial shrine. Each follower present took a handful of white sand, circled the burial shrine, and cast it in. This concluded the austere and dignified Hindu ceremony. At intervals, a recording of Sri Chinmoy singing the word “gratitude” a capella was played over the sound system, based on the belief that his emphasis on gratitude was one of the unique contributions of his teachings.

There were further events marking the thirteenth, thirtieth, and sixtieth days after his mahasamadhi or “great trance” — as it is called when a spiritual master leaves the body. On October 30, 2007, there was a large celebration at the United Nations commemorating his life and work. The predominant theme expressed in tributes from religious leaders, diplomats, athletes, musicians, and humanitarians was that Sri Chinmoy began a great work for humanity which those who love him will carry on in his spirit of self-giving. In the aftermath, his centres around the world have continued to meet regularly to meditate, sing his songs, read his writings, work selflessly, and share in the burden of losing a person so beloved.

At Aspiration-Ground, where Sri Chinmoy often sat far into the night listening to his disciples perform songs or plays, life goes on — if not quite as usual — yet not wholly changed. The songs and plays continue; and since the master’s burial shrine is there, his followers feel they are still offering him the fruits of their actions when they bow to him. In the apocrypha of letters, e-mails, and driveway conversations after his passing, the feeling most often expressed is that his spiritual presence is stronger than ever — but secondmost is “I miss him so much!”

Sri Chinmoy’s life was both a spiritual and musico-poetic event. The same may be said of his physical death. Since his passing, followers have been writings poems, songs and essays recalling their intense feelings of bhakti (divine love) towards him, describing the scene of his wake using far more descriptive language than is possible in a dry narrative. This link to an essay by Sumangali Morhall may provide more details to interested readers: Farewell, Sri Chinmoy.

On the last page of the last book of poems and prayers published during his lifetime, one finds this entry:




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Trials of Apartment Living

With help from The IT Crowd, Doctor Who, and the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre

I recently had no choice but to have some work done in my apartment. I was probably the last person to still have copper wiring for phone/Internet, and the company gently drove this point home by shutting off my service and telling me that if I didn’t upgrade to fiber optic I would be communicating using two Dixie cups and a string.

The Dixie cup phone (string sold separately, may require some assembly), used by an entire generation of children to share their hopes, dreams and fears with one another. Also used by the Nixon administration during secret negotiations with Hanoi.

The Dixie cup phone (string sold separately, may require some assembly), used by an entire generation of children to share their hopes, dreams and fears with each other. Also used by the Nixon administration during secret negotiations with Hanoi.

To indulge in a Basil Fawltyism, I had been waiting for fiber optic longer than Hadrian. (Hadrian. The Emperor Hadrian — look, it doesn’t matter!) So I was impressed when the company sent two crack technicians out to do the job. Unfortunately, they came packed in one set of chinos. So enormous was this fellow that in order to make it out onto my fire escape to drill the hole, he had to be coated with bear grease from head to toe; and even then he required that I place myself like a human shield between his combat boots and the floor.

While tacking the wiring to my living room ceiling, he began to teeter on his ladder, like a great teapot perched upon the tower of Big Ben during a thunderstorm. When he appeared in genuine danger of falling, I bravely bolted to his rescue. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn somewhere and was later found cowering under the bathroom sink.

A few days hence, when the backup battery unit arrived in the post, I found that it could not be connected because he had installed the power strip upside down and flush against the wall, thoroughly (and quite efficiently!) obscuring the battery jack.

My building is also undergoing maintenance by plumbers — at least that is the rumour, and I do occasionally hear plumberlike bangings, though these could be from sound effect recordings. The plumbers are never actually seen, and never actually show up, but we tenants do receive periodic admonishments to remove all personal belongings from areas the plumbers might wish to access. I have duly cleared the space around my refrigerator.

Due to the shortage of qualified plumbers in my neck of the woods, they are treated more like gods than workmen. “Show up any time you want! We will give you drugs and women!” Such seems to be the attitude of building management. “You can’t keep the appointment you made? You can’t finish the job you started? No problem! Come back next month, if you’re in the mood. You want to piddle in the sink? Be our guests!”

My building is under new management. The old management was supposedly fired for being personally abusive toward tenants. The new management is a vast improvement; they are merely inefficient. With regard to the plumbing fiasco, they literally could not organize a trip to the toilet. Some tenants have taken to putting pictures of plumbers on milk cartons. (“Have you seen me?”)

G. Gordon Liddy, one of the plumbers used by the Nixon administration to stop leaks, e.g. by breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Makeup courtesy House of Pancakes. Some rooster parts available for sale to interested parties.

G. Gordon Liddy, one of the plumbers used by the Nixon administration to stop leaks, e.g. by breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Makeup courtesy House of Pancakes. Some rooster parts available for sale to interested parties.

The trials of apartment living remind me of the trials of a Time Lord. Doctor Who was occasionally put on trial by his fellow Time Lords, notably during the Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker eras. This phenomenon was satirized by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre:

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on DailyMotion here.)

It may help the uninitiated to view the original clip from Part 10 of “The War Games”:

There’s an in-joke about Worzel Gummidge which also needs explaining. Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) regenerates into John Pertwee (the Third Doctor). Pertwee later went on to play Worzel Gummidge in a children’s TV show by the same name, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd:

The Scottish Falsettos owe some of their routines to an old bit by Abbott & Costello called “Who’s On First”:

So there you have it — everything you need to know about apartment living!

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