The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

A fresh take on the subject of crossword puzzles, spirituality, and death (with some talking animals thrown in for good measure)

This is a short play I wrote in 2004, based on Sri Chinmoy’s telling of a traditional story about Ramdas Kathiya Baba. The story, called “I am going Home,” may be read online at Sri Chinmoy Library:

The play was performed in Bali in early 2004, with Devashishu Torpy playing Ramdas Kathiya Baba, and Sahadeva Torpy his crossword-loving disciple Rakhal (a very moving performance!).

Look for Kanan as the cow, Sanjay as the tiger, with special guest appearance by Ketan Tamm as the roving reporter — a character not in the original story, but being more in the nature of a gratuitous anachronism.

The play was performed outdoors, and according to one apocryphal story, when Sanjay made his exit by leaping over a wall (souple et féroce comme un tigre), he thoroughly startled a casual observer! Thank you to everyone who made the play possible, including the videographers.

I re-dedicate this play to Sri Chinmoy on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his Mahasamadhi.

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Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

I find myself running out of words to react to all the tragedies which seem to be hitting us nonstop. The ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico is not only one of physical devastation; it also highlights the deficit in empathy which I feared was coming when I wrote in early January:

A president, aside from his many practical duties, is also like a guardian angel for the nation. If he is kind and just, we feel protected. If he moves gracefully through the world, our nation feels at ease with the world. … At the same time that I feel tremendous gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

When it is a question of character, intelligence, scholarship, humanity, and empathy, Barack Obama is a rare example of the best in American political leadership. We were lucky and blessed to get him for eight years, and I fear that we shall soon miss him more than we can ever imagine.

While empathy is no substitute for food, water, and medicine, empathy can heal the hearts of those who suffer, and a leader who shows empathy can also inspire a wider empathic response throughout the nation. So it’s part of the greater tragedy that President Trump shows so little true empathy at times of crisis, and instead uses disaster as a means to inflame differences.

When it comes to shootings and bombings, I always feel there are certain universal values which don’t belong exclusively to this religion or that, or this nation or that, or to a particular race or culture. Some truths have been universally arrived at. So I quoted President Obama as saying:

My mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

Somehow these universal values are being lost or eclipsed in our society, in the unbridled pursuit of money, sex, and power. Electing a leader whose reputation was built on money, sex, and power was a step backward for this nation, and I hope we will learn from it and seek out leaders who are richer in empathy, spiritual insight, and proximity to the Universal Good. As I wrote last February:

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

How sad that we now have a boorish leader who conned millions of voters into thinking he would protect their interests, when his real world policies entail throwing millions of people off health care, and shoveling yet more money to the richest in society, including his own family.

Do you know the Sam Cooke song “Twistin’ The Night Away”?

Hearing it made me want to post a parody on YouTube contrasting a bunch of rich folks in tuxedos shaking their fannies on the dance floor, while elderly residents of Puerto Rico are dropping dead in rural areas because no planes were sent to drop food, water, and medicine. Maybe all the planes were busy shuttling cabinet members to vacation destinations where they could inspect the gold in Fort Knox, or stock up on designer brands.

Naked injustice sends its own perilous message to the rank and file of America: a message that there is no God and one might just as well take a gun and start shooting random strangers. The mentally ill fall victim to this blackest of visions of an America gone valueless; but even the nominally sane are affected. The era of Trump is an era of every man for himself; an era where compassion is seen as a weakness, and pressing maxumium personal advantage a strength; an era of metaphorically grabbing them by the whatever. This is an America not habitable by decent people. We need to recoil from it, and resist allowing it to spread ad infinitum.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on values, and somewhere between the extremes lie sensible policies, including revising educational curricula to deal more effectively with the values vacuum. In writing about the congressional baseball shooting last June, I elaborated on some of the problems, and discussed the utility of Peace Studies in forging solutions:

Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

There will always be economic injustices, natural disasters, and crazed shooters (at least for the forseeable future). But we will be better prepared to deal with these problems if we give future generations a grounding in Peace Studies, which can lead to insight, empathy, and self-control of violent impulses.

Even in times of strife, there are always voices of peace in our midst and in the world at large — but we need to listen to them. Their message is not commercial and is not geared to our greed, so it’s harder to hear over loudspeakers which, after 2,000 years, are still blaring the message of Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici.

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

No one else can solve the world’s problems. We need to play some role ourselves, however modest. Sri Chinmoy writes:

There will come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who will bring about this radical change? It will be you – you and your sisters and brothers. You and your oneness-heart will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

The connection between greed and violence is stressed in this interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet:

So, if we look carefully we can see that there are broad connections between a society which abandons itself to greed, politicians who are for sale to the gun lobby, and a record number of casualties in the latest shooting spree in Las Vegas.

The values we need to combat these problems are, again, universal. They’re found at the core of the world’s religions, and also in many humanistic philosophies. We need to find practical ways of imparting these values to the next generation, as a farmer plants a seed knowing that he may not live to see it fully germinate, but that it will one day be of great benefit. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Of Further Interest

People Are Good Everywhere
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Art and Hermeneutics Part 2
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z”

Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

(Alpha version. Please check back for updates.)

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual).

Performance artists are interpreters of culture who perform a kind of intense personal magic which may possess transformative power, provided the audience enters into dialogue (or identifies) with them. Not surprisingly, the performance art community stresses the connection between performer and audience far more than one would find at, say, an exhibition of Victorian upholstery. In some performance art, the distinction between performer and audience arguably disappears. The art is not delivered over a transom by the artist, but is created to a considerable extent by participants. In both performance art and shamanism there may be an element of spectacle. So does all this mean that

performance artist = shaman [???]

Not necessarily. Think of it more as conceptual mapping between two different traditions. Perhaps in a largely secular period and region (such as Western Europe at the start of the twenty-first century), performance art acts as a substitute for certain types of shamanic rituals, without genuinely approximating them, and without necessarily understanding what the original rituals entailed or signified.

As I see it, the shamanic tradition involves performing rituals which have some definite supernatural effect, such as putting the shaman or participants in contact with a supernatural force or entity, an altered state of consciousness, or a healing power (whether conceived of as internal or external). Most modern performance artists, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in a type of secular theatre which may imitate (or perhaps ape) the outer trappings of shamanism, but which neither intends to have (nor succeeeds in having) a supernatural effect. Rather, the effect is social, political, aesthetic, or psychological.

Of course, performance art has its critics and skeptics. A “cutting” satire on the genre is found in The West Wing episode “Gone Quiet”:

Writing in The Guardian on “How performance art took over,” Adrian Searle provides a more serious and balanced perspective, and will get you up-to-speed faster than some wholly credulous authors writing from within the performance art community. Searle opines:

The proliferation of performance in museums has a lot to do with both art itself and the changing role of these institutions, as well as the demands of an audience that wants to feel empowered, engaged and participatory. Today’s spectators demand a role, whether they are inventing their own performances in the gallery … or clamouring to take part in artist-led workshops such as the Hayward Gallery’s ongoing Wide Open School. We want to be active, rather than passive spectators. Perhaps this is merely fashion, but I suspect not. … Private rituals and public acts, catharsis and confrontation are the central strands of art as performance. The work is the beginning of a dialogue, not an end. It is something shared. We are all performers, even when we are playing at being spectators.

Ritual plays an important part in human civilization, human psychology. With the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in faith-based communal rituals, people are looking to artists to provide them with rituals they can join in, but not believe in — or at least, where no particular beliefs are prerequisites for participation.

I’ve had lively discussions with Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is not a religion and requires no beliefs. I won’t recapitulate that argument in full, but some American Buddhists are refugees from strict Christian (or other) upbringings. Their particular style of Buddhism has a lot to do with rebellion, and rejection of beliefs they were force-fed. This is less true of Buddhism as practiced historically in India, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. A distinct feature of some American Buddhism is its connection to American counterculture and rejection of formal requirements, its nonconformist, roll-your-own quality.

So, if there are differences between traditional Buddhism and modern American variants, can there also be differences between the shamanic tradition and the type of shamanism which Western performance art is said to emulate or ape?

Perhaps bad performance art = faux shamanism. There’s a saying in science fiction circles that alien tech is indistinguishable from magic (a variation on Clarke’s Third Law). Likewise, for people who don’t believe in the existence of God, gods, avatars, angels, spirits, or higher consciousness, performance art may be indistinguishable from shamanism, despite their seeming differences.

I think the underyling fallacy is that by imitating the outer form of something, the artist has captured its essence. In the 1986 film Saving Grace, British actor Tom Conti does a superb job of portraying the Pope, but that doesn’t mean he embodies all that the Pope is (or can be) in real life. For that he would probably need years of spiritual training, as well as a sense of calling or vocation.

There’s a darker side to some performance art involving self-harm, cutting, and so forth. This sub-genre creates a public spectacle of blood and pain, and is justified by theories concerning primitive cultures, endorphin production, and whatnot. The mere fact that an act is performed as ritual does not sanctify it. I think this type of performance art tends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the demonic, and does not have a truly healing spirit.

The extreme nature of some performance art may produce a forced increase in endorphin levels, but this need not indicate that anything spiritual (or even supernatural) is taking place. Also, those performance artists who do try to invoke some form of spirit being strike me as unconcerned with the nature of what they are invoking. With no clear grounding in tradition and no clear moral sense, they may easily become channels for dark and violent spirits. It’s like someone who built their own radio out of spare parts. They’re so eager to tune in anything at all that they may fail to consider the meaning, quality, or purpose of what’s “coming out of the speaker.”


A Saturday Night Live spoof of The Exorcist, with Richard Pryor as Father Karras

This is not to condemn all performance art or minimize its value, but simply to ask tough questions about what it is or claims to be. Those who have rejected (or never studied) rituals of light may be drawn to rituals of darkness. Any intense communal experience, even one involving violence and pain, may be mistaken for the spiritual. Indeed, one of the challenges of our postmodern world is that the meaning tends to slip off words like “spiritual,” so that almost anything might be defined as spiritual according to the experience and predilections of the individual.

Anecdotally, I recall from the mid-1970s a story being circulated about a friend who had once trained as a Christian brother, but had since embraced everything from Eastern philosophy to glam rock. Referring to a formal spiritual event where everyone sat in silence and meditated, another friend telling the story related: “He said that was the highest meditation he’s ever had — but then he also said that about the latest David Bowie concert…”

I’m an arts person, certainly not a political conservative, so my point here is not to rant about peculiar notions found in postmodernity. I’m trying to slowly lay the predicate for understanding how a particular scholar, Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, connects performance art as it exists today with the poet-seer or “kavi” of ancient India, who may be viewed as an authentic shaman within the Vedic tradition.

If performance art sometimes consists of artists imitating shamanic rituals, how would this differ from shamans practicing performance art?

Some time in the late twentieth century, high quality digital recordings of Tibetan Buddhist music began to be available to Western audiences, many of whom knew nothing about Buddhism. Some devotees of the avant-garde listened to Tibetan Buddhist music purely for its aesthetic qualities, largely divorced from any beliefs about Buddhism. Others, such as Phillip Glass, helped popularize interest in Tibetan Buddhist music out of a deeper understanding arising from Buddhist practice. Tibetan Buddhist ensembles began to tour Western nations,

and anyone from New York’s downtown arts scene was surely familiar with them.

One aspect of the New York School, broadly conceived, is the influence of Japan, China, India, and Tibet — not just in art, but in spiritual philosophy and practice. While the performance art scene includes some artists doing their impressions of shamanic rituals, it also includes some shamans whose authentic rituals converge with performance art — in the sense that their art is live, communal, participatory, and transformational.

The Peace Concerts given by Sri Chinmoy fall into this category. They did not include only musical performance, but could also include live painting, poetry recitation, multimedia, and chanting of AUM in which the public was invited to participate. Even within the purely musical portion of the programme, the styles might vary widely from moment to moment — from the traditional to the unmistakably avant-garde, from a Bengali song sung a cappella in a style evoking the depths of India’s hoary past, to a peaceful melody played on Western flute, to an avant-garde piano improvisation with no foothold in melody or harmony, but only a dynamic flow of energy and consciousness.

Can authentic shamans exist today, perhaps in parallel to secular performance artists? This question seems connected to hermeneutics, since it might be resolved by developing a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer. Jeff Clark writes:

The works of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) explain that ‘the modern concepts of science are not adequate to understand people and our experience of art and even communication.’ He developed a philosophical perspective in his work ‘Truth and Method’ and explained a process of philosophical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a process which helps interpretation and understanding things from someone else’s perspective. It can be applied to situations where we encounter meanings that are not easily understood but require some effort to interpret. He originally applied this to an interpreter and a religious text but in a later essay he describes ‘its (hermeneutics) fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from inter-human communication to manipulation of society.’

When applying hermeneutics to the human process of interpretation Gadamer talks of a ‘horizon’ as a way to conceptualise understanding. Your horizon is as far as you can see or understand. Both patient and doctor go into a consultation with a horizon and out of this encounter both will leave with their own new horizon. Gadamer describes a horizon as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’

Gadamer states that: ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.’

Understanding happens when our present understanding or horizon is moved to a new understanding or horizon by an encounter. Thus the process of understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons.’

— Jeff Clark from “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons” in The British Journal of General Practice [footnotes omitted]

Since he’s a medical diagnostician, Clark tends to focus on the encounter between doctor and patient from which each ideally emerges with a fusion of horizons. But this concept can also be applied to the encounter between a shaman and those participating in the shamanic ritual; and to the encounter between a performance artist and audience-participants.

The encounter seems to be a shared factor in precipitating the fusion of horizons, whether in the realm of medicine, shamanism, or the arts. As opposed to merely being mildly influenced by something in a controlled way, the Gadamerian concept of an encounter suggests a collision with the other from which one emerges changed, with a genuinely new synthesis of views.

This encounter need not be a literal encounter with a person. In art appreciation, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment we may actively seek out texts or media which will lead us to a profound encounter with an ancient civilization or a contemporary culture foreign to our own. We, in turn, may respond to that civilization or culture by adding something of our own, so that the mutuality implied in the concept of a fusion of horizons is fulfilled. We join the “hermeneutic circle.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the term “fusion” came to be applied to the encounter between Western musicians studying Indian classical music, and Indian musicians interested in jazz. Take for example the piece “Vrindavan”:

It’s primarily an encounter between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Both are listening intently to each other and communicating across a cultural divide, so that genuine fusion takes place. Within that fusion, each is expanding and contributing to the possibilities inherent in the other’s mode of expression. The result is something both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, both acoustic and electric; and in this fusion of horizons there’s a tremendous sense of liberation. Such fusion can be deeply moving and inspiring.

According to Cynthia R. Nielsen of the Villanova University Ethics Program, “Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together.” I think that’s what the musicians are doing in “Vrindavan.” Nielsen is fond of using musical analogies to explain Close Encounters of the Gadamerian Kind. Elsewhere she writes:

When a small jazz group — for example, a trio or a quartet — performs, each musician has an assigned part that contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole. The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a spectrum of chordal textures and colorings as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what ‘connects’ most readily with the audience. When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results. Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group. If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to the pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies and thus adjusts her solo accordingly. That is, as a skilled improviser listening empathetically she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original harmonic progression as if the former harmonies were the only proper way to play the tune; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, ‘way of understanding’ the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. Given her broadened horizon, the pianist’s altered harmonies are not heard as mistakes — if they were, this would be analogous to forcing the other into one’s preconceived grid and thus distorting the other. Rather, a genuine understanding has been achieved through the communal creation of a new harmony analogous to a newly fused-horizon.

— Cythia R. Nielsen, “Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open-ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question” (PDF)

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding the fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires the cooperative skills described by Dr. Nielsen. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

A horizon is not a fixed point, and neither is an expanded “fusion of horizons.” The implication is that there is always more we can discover through encounters with other points of view (and the people who hold them). Thus, while Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics might initially seem dry, he actually helps advance the argument for openness, inclusiveness, and a progressive view of life in which change becomes possible. Nielsen writes that Gadamer’s horizons “are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of reharmonization — that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed and enriched by the other.”

Gadamer can help us understand the fusion of horizons which took place between two major figures in twentieth century art: Picasso and Matisse. They were friends, yet rivals; and while this might initially seem contradictory or imply that no such fusion took place, the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that a fusion of horizons need not entail complete agreement or the abandonment of those aspects of the self which result in uniqueness and dynamic engagement with others.

Some of the best evidence that Picasso experienced a fusion of horizons with Matisse is found in the former’s picture “Claude in the Arms of His Mother”:

While the two faces are clearly stamped with the style of Picasso, the mixture of decorative patterns surrounding them loudly exclaims “Matisse!” Picasso has not lost his Picasso-ness; his encounter with Matisse has simply allowed him to express his own identity more richly.

Picasso is a particularly Gadamerian artist in the sense that great swatches of his career were spent in reflective dialogue with other artists, including the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. (See “Was Picasso Spiritual?” Part 1 and Part 2.)

A Gadamerian analysis might also be applied to Sri Ramakrishna, the Indian avatar who passed away in 1886, but whose life and teachings formed the harbinger for the coming century in the West, in which the oneness of all religions became an idea seriously propounded, and by some, ernestly lived. Sri Ramakrishna was a natural inheritor of Hindu spiritual practices, but in his quest for truth he also spent time practicing Christianity and Islam, concluding that these too were valid pathways.

Like the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

In this sense, Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Of course, a fusion of horizons is not embraced by everyone. In the field of religion, fundamentalism still afflicts some sects and causes them to violently reject the doctrine that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all worshipping the same God, and should therefore live in peace and harmony. Less violently expressed is chauvinism in the arts, but it can still be a divisive factor.

Gadamer’s approach is surprisingly congruent with those spiritual philosophies which accept the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. As described in such philosophies, the purpose of rebirth is not to acquire scientifically objective knowledge, but to gather experience of life in all its contraries. We are (as Sri Chinmoy puts it) writing God’s autobiography, with the infinitude of possibilities that would imply.

Nielsen says: “Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from ‘nearly inexhaustible viewpoints’ (Wachterhauser 1999, 87). This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings…” If so, it may take many rebirths to assimilate such multiple perspectives.

Gadamer can help us make sense of a figure like Sri Chinmoy (if indeed any are like him), who may seem incomprehensible at first because he’s a spiritual teacher, but also an artist, poet, musician, and athlete. We understand such an astonishing polymath in part through openness and dialogue with his surviving works, and with the organizations he founded. We stop clutching our fixed point of view, and try to “disappear” into the music or the artworks, which possess the necessary magic (or yogic science) to teach us how to listen, view, and appreciate.

In his article “The Transformative Art of Sri Chinmoy,” Dr. Shrinivas Tilak tells the story of his own Gadamerian encounter with Sri Chinmoy’s art. He explores the relationship between the traditional poet-seer or “kavi,” and the modern performance artist. What’s especially fascinating is his suggestion that Sri Chinmoy straddles both categories.

Here in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I’ve been laying the groundwork for “Put a Bird on It! Part 3,” where I hope to explore Sri Chinmoy’s art in relation to hermeneutics, shamanism, and performance art, with the help of Dr. Tilak’s article. I know I needed to write these preliminary articles in order to clarify my own thinking. I hope the reader will also find them useful.


Sidebar: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar

Earlier, I cited the piece “Vrindavan” as an example of a fusion of horizons between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. A fitting corollary is this 1978 episode of The South Bank Show featuring British guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and South Indian violinist L. Shankar (the brother of L. Subramaniam):

At around 15:09, McLaughlin discusses how he began to discover spirituality. He describes listening to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, but not quite being able to grasp it. Still, he entered into a kind of Gadamerian dialogue with it. Having encountered music he didn’t understand, he looked for a text and found a poem on the back cover which gradually helped him zone in on what Coltrane was doing with his new style, which was deeply influenced by spirituality and meditation.

As the spiritual dimension opened up for McLaughlin, this led him to ask a core question shared by both religion and philosophy: “Who am I?” He began studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy, and soon enrolled in Wesleyan University’s Karnatic (South Indian) music program, where he studied with Dr. S. Ramanathan and met violinist L. Shankar. This eventually led to the formation of the group Shakti, whose original name (given by Sri Chinmoy) was Turiyananda Sangit. Some portions of this history are recounted in greater detail by Peter Lavezzoli in his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. But getting back to the South Bank Show

As with Goldberg and Subramaniam, this collaboration between McLaughlin and Shankar shows how listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy can foster a fusion of horizons. Underscored too is the concept of “play” in Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetics. For Gadamer, play is not restricted to the creators of an art work. The viewers, listeners, spectators, or audience-participants are drawn into the play like attendees at a festival or participants in a ritual.

Indian classical music is a far more participatory medium than Western classical music. In Indian classical music, the audience must count along with the musicians in order to understand what they are doing and appreciate the subtleties. After an extended passage of improvisation which plays with musical lines of different lengths, when the musicians and audience finally arrive together on the Sum, this is a deeply shared communal experience.

In “Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer” (PDF), Jean Grondin writes:

The play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic. When we hear a musical work, we are at the same time inextricably invited to sing along and to dance. We cannot avoid an inner humming along, a tapping of fingers or foot, a following along, almost an accompanying “directing.” In any case, we play along when we hear music. The most authentic mode of execution for music is, therefore, to dance along. In just the same manner we recognize ourselves in a poem or painting; we are captivated by a novel or tragedy. It concerns us; it speaks to us. Gadamer’s thesis concerning the concept of play is that this going along with is not external to the work, but belongs to its statement: it is “art” only if there is this addressing. Every experience of art is one of answering to the address of the work.

— Jean Grondin as translated by Lawrence K. Schmidt

One exceptional feature of the duets played by McLaughlin and Shankar is found in the final piece which begins at 22:05 of the video. At 23:35, they break into konnakol, a form of vocal percussion which every student of Karnatic music learns as an aid to timing and rhythm. Because McLaughlin (raised on blues and jazz) has studied Indian music, and Shankar (raised on Indian music) has studied jazz, their play together reaches the level of genuine fusion of horizons.

Dedication: I offer this post as a birthday tribute to Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). A very happy 86th birthday to the master!


Michael Howard

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

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Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.

By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).

The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.

In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”

Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”)

The art we seek to understand may be from another time or have different cultural roots, so in entering into friendly dialogue with it, we may discover the limits of our own knowledge. Hermeneutics is concerned with how we know what we think we know and what cultural assumptions we bring to the table. The dialogue between a spectator and a work of art may occur over a great historical and cultural distance. We can try to see a cave painting through the eyes of its creator, or we can view it through the lens of modernity; or we can look at it both ways — moving backwards and forwards in time to have a more fulfilling and illumining experience (no TARDIS required).

These different views from different cultural and historical perspectives are sometimes called “horizons.” When we delve deep into a work of art, seeing it from different perspectives (both ours and other people’s), the net resulting view is sometimes called a “fusion of horizons.”

Another step in developing a fusion of horizons entails moving between different levels. We might understand some things about a painting by examining the brush strokes in detail, and other things by taking in the canvas as a whole. (Reductionism vs. holism, if you will.)

Brush strokes from an acrylic painting by Sri Chinmoy. Video by Kedar Misani.

The same painting blown up and used as a stage backdrop for a concert in Switzerland. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

One might say that hermeneutics has two different but complementary functions: One is to help ensure that people’s interpretations of art are not merely whimsical, anecdotal, or based on personal or cultural bias. This a limiting function. The other is to foster a depthful connection with art based on dialogue, ideally leading to a fusion of horizons which comprises understanding. This is an expansive function. Still, hermeneutics is not a science; Gadamer said in a 1978 lecture that it’s a gift, like rhetoric, and that one of its components is empathy.

Another feature of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is the idea that both artist and spectator are involved in a form of play which brings people together in the manner of a festival. To understand a work of art is not to come away with a crib sheet summarizing its salient points, but rather to lose oneself in it (along with other spectators, perhaps from different times) and to be transformed by it. But this doesn’t signify an end to the game, since further revelations are always possible.

We may encounter references to the “hermeneutic circle.” In hermeneutics, we try to understand one thing by means of other things, much as Plato and Aristotle did. Even a simple English sentence can contain a number of symbols which need to be interpreted in relation to each other, and in relation to the world of physical things and abstract concepts. That’s why it’s so hard to teach computers to understand natural language. Take the following sentence:

Time flew by, and John felt sad that the beautiful butterfly disappeared into the sunset.

An infant computer might ask: *Is time a butterfly? What is sadness? Why did John feel sad? What makes a butterfly beautiful? How could it disappear?* In Star Trek lore, when Commander Data creates an offspring named “Lal” (which can mean “beloved” in Hindi), the child Lal asks similar questions:

These questions cannot be answered all in a day. When we immerse ourselves in a major work of art rich in symbolism, personal expression, cultural significance, and historical allusion, we are drawn into a hermeneutic circle which may be unique to that work of art, or to works of that genre. As we enter into dialogue with it, we ourselves may become part of the hermeneutic circle.

From a spiritual point of view, we might say that hermeneutics is related to our limitations as human beings. Most of us lack use of our third eye or ajna which sees things at a glance, and most of us do not have our heart centre or anahata open so that we can instantly identify with a thing. Therefore, like a blind man (or infant computer) we have to begin by building up a picture of the thing piece by piece. We don’t initially know what an ankle bone is, but as in the song “Dry Bones” (embedded earlier), we gradually figure out that “ankle bone connected to the shin bone” and “shin bone connected to the knee bone,” etc. (Perhaps Ezekiel was the first physical anthropologist!)

Comparing the piece-by-piece operation of the mind with the identification power of the spiritual heart (anahata), Sri Chinmoy writes:

When we say that the mind is not good, that the heart is better, we are speaking of the physical mind which does not allow us to expand ourselves. It always says, “One at a time, little by little, piece by piece.” The mind seems to go very fast, but you have to know that the mind thinks of only one thing at a time. It does not want to embrace existence as a whole.

The mind sees things part by part. If Infinity appears before the mind, the mind will take a part out of the whole and say, “This is the truth.” It will take a portion of the Vast rather than accept the Vast in its own way. It will try to scrutinise Infinity itself to see if there is any imperfection in it. But the heart will not do that. As soon as the heart sees the Vast, it will run to it like a child runs to embrace his mother or father.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.

As a spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy taught the “path of the heart,” so it follows that his art would be heart-centred rather than mind-centred. This can pose a stumbling block for viewers and critics unwilling or unable to shift gears to a heart-centred mode of art appreciation.

Some art presents a kind of historical or stylistic puzzle which we have to carefully piece together. Such art appeals to critics who are inured to what can sometimes be a dry intellectual exercise — a rattling of bones. Other art (especially Asian art and spiritual art) may be more simple and direct, and appeals to our sense of intuition and identification. To quote the master:

This kind of art may get short shrift from Western critics due to underlying bias in the art world.

Hermeneutics actually helps us understand why such bias can occur. If a work of art tends to draw us into its own hermeneutic circle — its symbols, time period, cultural influences, and charismatic proponents (e.g. Andy Warhol) — then certain styles of art may give rise to particular communities or social cliques — some more glamorous than others. Critics who specialize in medieval and Renaissance art may be of quite different temperament and lifestyle than those who specialize in Pop art. Even in the same city, there can be an “uptown” and “downtown” arts scene.

People can be passionate about art and culture to the point of open warfare, as with the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960s Britain:

When asked whether he was a Mod or Rocker, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr replied that he was a Mocker.

Painters and sculptors rarely come to blows, though Alec Guinness and Michael Gough nearly do so in a famous scene from The Horse’s Mouth:

(My kitchen sometimes says “Mother earth and her dead.”) Anyway, let’s have fun by entering into dialogue with this short “Suzuki Beane” TV pilot made in 1962:

Since it was produced about fifty-five years ago, depending on our age and cultural experience, we may have a hard time making sense of it. We get that it’s cute and satirical, but we may not be quite sure which elements are satire and which are direct reportage. Did some people (the Beats or “beatniks”) really talk and act that way? Still, without catching every reference we probably sense the struggle between a free spirit who values expressiveness, and ossified structures which tend to penalize it.

When invited to visit her friend’s dancing class on East 64th Street, little Suzuki explains that her parents Hugh and Marcia don’t believe in anything above 14th Street. Even in 1962, some folks living in Montana or Taipei might not grok that below 14th Street signifies Greenwich Village, an area homesteaded by Beat poets, artists, and musicians; while East 64th Street is part of the Upper East Side, an area with a quite different socio-economic feel. So what would people make of this charming cultural artifact, stumbling on it a thousand years hence? Would its essential spirit still shine through?

If we go back another fifteen years, we can unearth Song of the Thin Man, which, like most good detective yarns, treats the viewer to a tour of different strata of society. (See also this post about the Costa-Gavras film Z.) Nick Charles is a private detective and regular guy who’s married to a society dame named Nora. Along with their fox terrier Asta, they solve murder mysteries together. In Song of the Thin Man they find themselves immersed in the subculture of jazz musicians from the period. Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn, perhaps best remembered for shooting a Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove, gives Nick and Nora a virtuoso earful of the musician’s slang known as “rebop”:

The farther away we get in time and cultural distance, the harder it is for us to know whether jazz musicians in the forties really spoke that way, or what percentage of this lingo is being served up as satire. There may even be a racial (or racist) component. Are some of these white actors poking fun at black musicians, who are notably absent from the film? The piano player seems to be riffing on Fats Waller.

When we first hear a Shakespeare play performed, we may not grasp the subtleties of language, and may miss the jokes (some of which turn out to be rather ribald). For the latter reason, Shakespeare texts used in primary schools are often expurgated.

British humour — from Carry On films to Monty Python — often depends on the collision between high culture and low culture, or in this scene from Carry On Teacher, between Shakespeare and inner city youth:

Whether or not he ever saw it, I think Gadamer would have enjoyed this clip, because it is dialogical in nature and underscores a point he made in a 1978 lecture:

[A] work is something that is detached from its maker; even the craftsman is not sovereign over against his fabrications. The consumer of it: he can use it and abuse it; he can treat it correctly; he can destroy it quickly.

Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it, entered into its hermeneutic circle, and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Gadamer says:

If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.

This doesn’t mean we have to like every work, agree with the artist’s intentions, or how he or she realized them. But hermeneutics does stress such concepts as listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy. Gadamer also says something very striking which he does not, perhaps, fully explain:

[T]he ideal of real, natural and not deformed hermeneutics is to disappear.

Though he does not use such mystical language, I would guess he means that to become one with a work of art is to experience it directly, its essential nature, not filtered through one’s own conceptions or collection of experiences, but as it naturally exists. The inspiration behind a work of art struck the original artist, and it can strike us too. At that moment, we are egoless and have no opinions. We simply experience the essence of the thing. This is the ideal way to experience Sri Chinmoy’s art.

These are just some random musings which would hopefully get you thinking about the process by which we understand art, and concepts like cultural distance and developing a “fusion of horizons” constituting unified understanding or gnosis. At least, if you later read Part 3 of Put a Bird on It! and encounter the word “hermeneutics,” it won’t come as a total shock to you. Who said hermeneutics can’t be fun? I can easily picture housewives across America holding hermeneutics-themed Tupperware parties, and dancing to the music of Herman’s Hermits:

(Well, at least now you know something about the Big H.)

In Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I hope to tackle the connection between hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism, and how this relates to the art, music, and poetry of Sri Chinmoy. Stay tuned.

Michael Howard

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


List of Videos

Should you have any trouble viewing the short clips embedded in this post, you can view them individually on the sites (DailyMotion, YouTube, Vimeo) where they reside:

Delta Rhythm Boys – Dry Bones
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtfh7

Objet D’Art (Doctor Who)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxlxt

Star Trek TNG – Lal
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZRgNWPnX1o&rel=0

Mods, Rockers and Moral Panics
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r61ks18Bd7I&rel=0

Painters and Sculptors (The Horse’s Mouth)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxniz

Suzuki Beane
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P909e3DznY8&rel=0

Rebop! (Song of the Thin Man)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxpod

Shakespeare in the Classroom (Carry On Teacher)
https://vimeo.com/230925223

Herman’s Hermits – What a Wonderful World
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNwE02gBBXI&rel=0

Some links may go bad over time, but I’ll try and keep them current.

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The Congressional Baseball Shooting, Big Murders, and Little Murders

There’s been no shortage of sad news lately. In “Terrorism Has No Religion,” I wrote about the tragic Manchester bombing. This was quickly followed by the London Bridge attack, and the (accidental) fire in a West London apartment tower yesterday — the same day as a shooting targeting members of Congress who were out for baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. Late in the same day, yet another deadly shooting at a San Francisco UPS facility.

I have in mind to talk mostly about the baseball shooting, making two main point: first, that some facts aren’t being faced which need to be faced; second, that some solutions exist which aren’t being discussed. Finally, since I’m a film buff, in contrast to all these Big Murders I want to talk about Little Murders, a film written by Jules Feiffer capturing that peculiar American proclivity for taking lethal potshots at one’s neighbors.

Regarding the baseball shooting, the most commonly expressed sentiments are:

  • Thoughts and prayers for the victims
  • The shooter was a lone nut.
  • If anything’s to blame, it’s overheated rhetoric.

What’s pointedly omitted is any discussion that however utterly wrong and misguided, the shooter may have been responding to actual policies, not just overheated rhetoric. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

Causation is not justification, so in investigating a phenomenon we shouldn’t be afraid to look for causation wherever it may lie. The difficulty is that immediately after the baseball shooting, the Washington beltway — including elected officials of both parties as well as the mainstream media — closed ranks and indulged in a collective Kumbaya moment. “Sure we argue about politics,” they said, “But who could possibly take politics so seriously that they would want to commit violence over it?”

Not I, to be sure. I’m an avowed peace-lover. But some people, yes. People who are subject to policies which can be like death sentences for them, and who lack the tools or insights which would help them diffuse their anger at such unjust policies.

Was the French Revolution nuts in its bloodthirstiness? Maybe so, but this was aggravated by wretched excess on the part of the French aristocracy, who evinced a shocking indifference to the travails of their subjects.

Now, to foreshadow my discussion of Little Murders: it’s a black comedy which includes quirky characters drawn from New York City life, like an ultra-liberal minister who claims that “Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful.” The reason this is comical to gritty New Yorkers is that a kick in the head is hurtful regardless of how you feel about it, even if there’s no social media or 24-hour cable news to orchestrate opinion (and there wasn’t in 1971 when the film was released). You feel a kick in the head — that’s how you know it’s hurtful.

Let’s look at two mostly Republican policies which might have felt like kicks in the head to James Hodgkinson, the unemployed, mentally ill senior who began taking potshots at members of Congress, lobbyists, staffers, and Capitol Police — or to people like him.

First, there’s the American Health Care Act, which (if eventually enacted) would result in about 24 million Americans losing their health care. The Republican House passed it, then attended a victory party in the White House Rose Garden, with plenty of back-slapping and guzzling of Bud Light. (A tad ostentatious, don’t you think?)

This policy would certainly be a death sentence (or a sentence to bankruptcy and homelessness) for many Americans who rely on government-assisted health care for their very survival. Some of these may be diabetics who require daily shots of insulin (as my father did). But the cry of Republican House members was (metaphorically speaking): Let them inject cake.

Second, there’s the overturning by Donald Trump of “an Obama administration gun regulation that prevented certain individuals with mental health conditions from buying firearms.” That regulation affected “individuals who are unable to work because of severe mental impairment and can’t manage their own Social Security financial benefits.” Overturning the regulation means putting more guns in the hands of mentally ill people — just what we need.

We’re talking policy, not politics here. Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

So, these are two examples of policies which strongly affect people’s lives, regardless of any accompanying rhetoric. Overheated rhetoric is, no doubt, an aggravating factor in senseless acts of violence, but what’s driving some Americans (literally) nuts is government policy on issues like health care and gun safety.

Why did mainstream media miss this in the wake of the baseball shooting? Because many mainstream media figures aren’t directly affected by the policies in question. They’re well-paid, have good quality health insurance through their employers, and tend to live in safe neighborhoods where gun violence is not an issue — often the same neighborhoods (e.g. Alexandria) as politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Media people may argue politics left and right, but they’re often above the fray because they’re economically shielded from bad government policies.

I repeat for emphasis that causation is not justification. Nothing justifies the baseball shooting or any of the other senseless shootings that have become a grim daily feature of American life. But when looking at causation, we need to honestly face the fact that some Americans are being driven over the edge of sanity by policies which are insane. Like the proverbial kick in the head, these policies are felt directly and not swathed in abstraction.

God bless USA Today‘s Heidi Przbyla (and may the Lord send her some vowels real soon), but one reason she can’t comprehend what pushes someone like James Hodgkinson over the edge is that she lives in safety amidst the politicians, generals, and lobbyists. Her salary and benefits effectively insulate her from cuts to Medicaid, and guns in the hands of the mentally ill.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on Ms. Przbyla. She’s a perfectly nice person who takes liberal positions which I generally support. She happens to be a good anecdotal example because she lives in Alexandria and evinces the typically “shocked” reaction of people who argue politics for a living, but don’t live or die according to what policies the government enacts.

Unlike Heidi Przbyla, the people with cancer who show up at town halls and are mad as hell about losing their health care are fighting for their lives — literally. In spite of that I encourage them to remain non-violent, because taking potshots at politicians solves nothing and is morally reprehensible.

The shock of some politicians and media figures in the wake of the baseball shooting is expressed in the form of incredulity that the shooter could no longer see the targets as fellow human beings. He so objectified and depersonalized them that their lives meant nothing to him. But compare this with the real world effects of Republican policies concerning health care and guns. Is there a similar objectification and depersonalization which permits lawmakers to act with no empathy for the chronically ill and impoverished, and no empathy for the victims of gun violence? Does the sound of lobbyist dollars rubbing together deafen them to the cries of those affected by their policies? I’m reminded of a quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The struggle to be a true human being is the struggle to overcome tendencies in our society toward objectification and depersonalization. This moral duty does not fall solely on individual citizens, but also government institutions. When such institutions fail to respect the humanity of citizens, we should not be shocked to find that some citizens lose the ability to see the humanity of government officials. This is the underlying psychological reality behind the social media response to the baseball shooting that “what goes around comes around.” When you take away people’s health care and put guns in the hands of the mentally ill as public policies, some people at the grassroots level are going to go apesh*t. This effect is wholly undesirable, but not wholly unexpected.

We need to work peacefully toward a more compassionate society where people are fully valued across the spectrum. We need to believe in human dignity, respect people’s basic needs for food and medicine, and shape our government institutions so that they no longer appear as impersonal bureaucracies run for the benefit of corporations, lobbyists, and an economic elite. We need to make them fully responsive to the needs of all the people.

My take on James Hodgkinson is that at some point he hit his head up against a phenomenon known as “repressive tolerance.” At its simplest, repressive tolerance means that you can protest, write letters, carry signs, and talk till you’re blue in the face — but there are times in history when the table is run by the big money boys, who’ll let you blow off steam but won’t let you make substantive changes. Now, in truth, change does happen, but so slowly that it often appears as if nothing is happening at all, or as if the clock is being turned back, not forward. In his farewell address, President Barack Obama said:

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

This might be augmented by a quote from Max Weber that:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes.

This begins to get at the weaknesses of our education in civics. We teach people to believe that they can make change happen, but we don’t equip them to deal with failure, or the ineffable slowness of change, or its herky-jerky motion.

From emerging accounts it appears that James Hodgkinson had many flaws (aside from being a homicidal maniac). One of them was the inability to accept failure with equanimity. This points to broader spiritual issues.

Often, political people believe only in politics; but politics is limited in what it can achieve. Peace of mind can only come from spiritual practice. If we have even an iota of peace of mind, then the problems of the world will not seem so heavy and unmanageable.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

If the NBC report is any indicator, it seems that meditation is a technique which fosters learning, or creates conditions which make learning possible in spite of stress factors in the broader environment.

Peace Studies teaches us the value of Peace Studies! It’s a resource or tool in our toolkit that we didn’t know we had. As we realize its value, some form of Peace Studies will ideally be incorporated into school curricula at every level, and used to help solve particular problems like school violence.

With each new generation we have the potential to increase knowledge and wisdom. Children who grow up in schools where meditation and Peace Studies are part of the learning experience may also turn out to be better at handling stress and conflict in adult life.

Would this have made a difference in the life of James Hodgkinson? Would he still have become a crazed shooter? No one knows. But with better anger management tools at his disposal, his anger might never have metastasized into full-blown psychosis. Had he possessed an iota of peace and insight, he might have been able to laugh at his own failure to produce any tangible change through his political activities. In silence or “quiet time,” he might have gotten the insight that we are all part of the same human family, even if we sometimes quarrel.

Such insights are rare and precious. If we know of methods to share them, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to do so, within reason. (I am not advocating aggressive proselytizing.)

The average cable TV service provides nearly 200 channels; but perhaps none of them offer any insight into living peaceably with one’s fellow human beings. Cable news channels run 24 hours a day, but do they have even 5 minutes of quiet time? We think of silence as awkward, something to be filled; but silence can be rich and fulfilling, a vehicle for growth.

The objections to this line of thought are built right into the NBC story. When interviewed, athletic director Barry O’Driscoll confessed his initial reaction:

I thought it was a joke. I thought this is hippie stuff that didn’t work in the 70s, so how’s it gonna work now?

But when the kids started meditating and stopped fighting, O’Driscoll become an ardent supporter of the program. Sharing quiet time became the new normal.

This lets me segue into a discussion of Little Murders. Although it’s a black comedy, one of its underlying themes is the normalization of inexplicable acts of random violence. That’s a perennial theme in areas of modern urban sprawl where no one really knows anyone else, and everyone double or triple-locks their doors:

***SPOILERS*** The film starts out as an offbeat New York romantic comedy, but after the female lead is killed by random gun violence, it turns into more of an exploration of the bizarre coping strategies adopted by surviving family members.

Though a commercial flop, Little Murders enjoys a dedicated fan base. It marked Alan Arkin’s directorial debut, and Arkin also plays the mercurial Lieutenant Practice, a police detective having a nervous breakdown due to 345 unsolved homicides with no motive, no clues, and nothing in common. It’s a bravura performance by Arkin at his wackiest. Donald Sutherland famously plays a counterculture minister with ultra-liberal views who manages to enrage everyone at the outlandish wedding ceremony he performs. Lou Jacobi also delivers an outstanding monologue as an eccentric judge haunted by his impoverished upbringing on the Lower East Side.

At the end of the film (SPOILER CLIP BELOW), the family is sitting around, depressed as usual, when widower Alfred (Elliott Gould) returns home with a newly purchased rifle. Slowly, the male members of the family gather round, becoming enthused about the rifle as an icon of power, liberation, and emotional catharsis. They no longer fight against the popular tide of random violence, but for the first time revel in it, throwing open the steel shutters, poking holes in the glass of the living room window, and egging each other on to take potshots at random passersby:

In the wake of this bonding ritual they become cheerful, giddy, and garrulous around the dinner table. In the film’s closing moments, the matriarch of the family exclaims: “Oh, you don’t know how good it is to hear my family laughing again! You know, for a while there I was really worried.”

Conclusion

It seems we’re faced with two very different possible futures: one which normalizes random acts of violence, and another which normalizes peace and insight. I would rather live in a world filled with peace and insight, where anger has less of a chance to metastasize into full-blown violence.

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Thought of the Day: People Are Good
World Harmony Curriculum


Sidebar: Jo Cox

As it happens, the day I’m posting this is the one-year anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox. She was a British MP who campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union. Before entering Parliament in 2015, she had previously worked for Oxfam.

She was shot and stabbed to death by Thomas Mair, a white supremacist with ties to far right organizations. Mair was pro-Brexit and apparently viewed Cox as a collaborator and a traitor to white people.

In the argot of social media, Mair (now sentenced to life in prison) is an RWNJ or right-wing nut job, just as James Hodgkinson (killed in the shootout) was an LWNJ or left-wing nut job.

On the day she was murdered, Jo’s husband Brendan issued this statement:

Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo. Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous. Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.

According to The Independent, “More than 100,000 events will be held around the country to celebrate the life of Jo Cox on the one year anniversary of her death.” That huge number could almost be a typo, but I hope and pray it’s accurate.

Jo Cox

See also “Jo Cox, the Brexit Vote, and the Politics of Murder” in the New Yorker.

* * *

Compassion: The Mother of all Balms (MOAB)

Here in the U.S., there’s been a lot of excitement about a new kind of bomb that was dropped in a remote region of Afghanistan. Though I cut the cord years ago, I still watch cable news on the Net, and it seems that each channel has its own retired general burbling exuberantly about this “Mother of all Bombs.” The bomb weighs 21,000 pounds, and the generals only slightly less. 😉

Maybe it’s just me, but in a wounded world I can’t get too excited about greater destructive power. I tend to space out and think up alternative meanings for the acronym. In one of those bread and cheese places, it could stand for “Muenster on a Baguette.” (Hold the thirty-weight!) Then it hit me that in a world filled with suffering, compassion is the “Mother of all Balms.”

Compassion runs deeply through the teachings of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). If the destructive power of a bomb can weigh in at 21,000 pounds, Sri Chinmoy’s creative power weighed in at 21,000 songs. Many of these he wrote in his native language of Bengali, but also translated them into English, where they stand on their own as striking poems. Here are some of Sri Chinmoy’s writings on compassion:

Ore Mor Kheya

O my Boat, O my Boatman,
O message of Transcendental Delight,
Carry me. My heart is thirsty and hungry,
And it is fast asleep at the same time.
Carry my heart to the other shore.
The dance of death I see all around.
The thunder of destruction indomitable I hear.
O my Inner Pilot, You are mine,
You are the Ocean of Compassion infinite.
In You I lose myself,
My all in You I lose.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Garden of Love-Light, Part 1, 1974

Nutaner Dake Aji Shubha Prate

My heart today has responded
To the new light.
This auspicious morn has blessed me
With a new light from the Unknown.
Above my head I see the Compassion-Flood
Of the Universal Mother,
The Compassion-Flood that illumines and fulfils
My entire existence.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Pole-Star Promise-Light, Part 1, 1977

Question: Is God’s compassion the same as His love?

Sri Chinmoy: God’s love is for everybody. It is like the sun. A person has only to keep open the window of his heart to receive Divine love. When God’s love takes an intimate form, it is called compassion. This compassion is the most powerful attribute, the most significant attribute of the Supreme. God’s compassion is for the selected few. God’s compassion is like a magnet that pulls the aspirant toward his goal. It is a mighty force that guides, pushes, and pulls the aspirant constantly and does not allow him to slip on the path to Self-realization. God’s love comforts and helps the aspirant, but if the aspirant falls asleep, the Divine love will not force him to awaken and compel him to resume his journey.

God’s compassion is not like human compassion. In a human way we can have compassion and pity for somebody, but this compassion does not have the strength to change the person and make him run from his ignorant condition toward the Light. In the case of God’s compassion, it is a force that changes and transforms the aspirant and keeps him from making major mistakes in his spiritual life.

Love will stay with ignorance, but compassion will not. Compassion has to be successful, otherwise it will be withdrawn. It will stay for a few seconds, or for a few minutes or for a few years, but it has to report to the Highest Authority and say whether or not it has been successful or not. A time may come when the Highest Authority says, “It is a barren desert. Come back.” Then compassion has to fly back to the Highest Authority, the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy, Blue Dove Press, 2000

Listen to Sri Chinmoy sing “Ore Mor Kheya” from the 1977 album Peace-Light-Delight:


Or listen directly on Radio Sri Chinmoy here.

Sri Chinmoy: Peace-Light-Delight, album cover

Of Further Interest

Sri Chinmoy – I Want Only One Student: Heart
Sri Chinmoy – In Search of a Perfect Disciple
Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower

* * *

Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

Making sense of the psychological split which some apostates appear to exhibit

As discussed previously, people often write detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group. These accounts tend to reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in a so-called “ex-cult support group.” The captivity narrative may seem contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

This phenomenon suggests a psychological split in someone who was once a spiritual seeker, but who later adopts a hard apostate stance. Comparing their written statements over a period of decades, we may find two mutually exclusive world views and contradictory sets of alleged facts, as if the accounts were written by two different people. Hence, “a tale of two psyches.” Such is the case with Bithika O’Dwyer, whose public apostatizing seems intended to provoke controversy and raise matters of public concern. I respond to those matters here and elsewhere, and with as much sympathy as I can muster (though not always as much as I should like).

Not that her case is unique. Apostates sometimes make a great show of breaking with their former faith group by posting lewd or hateful material on the Internet. Such “testimonials” are then collated and used as part of a degradation ceremony belittling spiritual groups and portraying them negatively to the general public. This technique is used by anti-cult groups to create a set of “alternative facts” about spiritual groups running counter to the facts established by bonafide scholars of religion and by spiritual practitioners themselves. The intent is to suppress, harass, limit the civil rights of, and discourage participation in minority faith groups.

In this vein, I have been critical of attorney Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

Where spiritual figures or groups are prosecuted in absentia by Internet demagogues, the so-called “evidence” often consists of an emotionally charged apostate testimonial which, though fictional, is designed to push people’s hot buttons and work them into a nativist lather. The evidence being suppressed or ignored is that same person’s prior written statements extolling the spiritual figure or group in question.

To a well-grounded legal mind, the fact that the same person tells two completely different stories is first and foremost an indicator that this person is not a reliable witness. But should one find it necessary to judge which of two conflicting stories is most accurate, only an idiot would assume that the most recent story must be the most accurate. When all the evidence is considered (rather than being suppressed or ignored), the story which is told most consistently over an extended period of time, and which also comports with generally known facts, tends to be the most accurate.

So one way to debunk false accounts which raise matters of public concern or threaten to infect the popular imagination is to produce the same person’s more voluminous and persuasive accounts written over an extended period, which dramatically contradict her (more recent) apostate testimonial. See, for example, “False Salon Story: What was said at the time,” which debunks the claims of Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecilia Corona) by referencing her prior statements.

I started the Digital Citizens project on Scribd.com to house such accurate source material debunking false claims. You can read the Digital Citizens Mission Statement here. Some key points are:

Digital Citizens helps bring to light and make available evidence which is being suppressed elsewhere. This material is relevant and necessary to resolving public controversies which have been artificially manufactured through the circulation of material containing false depictions of spiritual figures and groups. This leads to other adverse effects in society, such as making minority spiritual groups the object of hatred and harassment, or contaminating the prospective jury pool where such groups are targeted for civil litigation. The net effect is to curtail the civil rights of minority adherents, in contravention of the U.S. Constitution as amended by the Bill of Rights.

The corrective measure of uploading exculpatory evidence is a lawful purpose and protected form of speech. Where Person A purposefully manufactures a public controversy by attacking the character and reputation of Person B through the circulation of hateful or salacious material, the public has a right to view other material authored by Person A (or concerning Person A) which speaks to his or her credibility. In such cases, the public’s right to know trumps other interests. Uploading of such material deemed necessary to resolving matters of public concern constitutes fair use of existing source material.

In keeping with these principles, I am today uploading to Digital Citizens the document “Bithika O’Dwyer Testimonials” which contains a representative cross-section of material authored by or concerning Ms. O’Dwyer during the period when she was a member in good standing of Sri Chinmoy Centre — a period comprising roughly 1979-2014.

This makes compelling reading for anyone who was taken in by the type of hate material circulated by Joe Kracht. Obviously, the most compelling witness testifying against Bithika O’Dwyer is Bithika O’Dwyer! One half of her (apparently) split psyche is far more consistent and reliable than the other, and the accompanying photos underscore the truthfulness of her contemporaneous accounts describing a spiritual life with which she was abundantly happy. To quote Ms. O’Dwyer from “Beauty is my Light”:

As a woman, I have everything I need to progress — I believe that I live a truly modern life. I have many older sisters and a very beautiful and supportive spiritual family. I hope that I may grow into women half as beautiful as some of them. I treasure their joys and their sorrows, and the more generations that are included in our family the more special the bonds of love and friendship. I have projects to work on within my own community — a business to support myself independently (which means a lot to me), musical and artistic projects, fun projects like plays and games, and always colour, decorations, abundance. This path is a garden where you can find a representative of everything and everyone under the sun, thriving and living side-by-side with even diametrically opposed aspects in harmony. I am not given to “fluffy” gratitude — when you grow up with spiritual terms, I think you come to the point that you have to really redefine some of the terms again for yourself, or the language can become cliched; but I know that in my future births, I shall look back on this life as the turning point. Wherever I go from here, I know that I have been so deeply altered by these 26 years, that my destiny has been rewritten. I know that I now believe in the “impossible” dream — of a divine life on earth. I have as many incarnations as it will take to manifest that dream, but that belief is so priceless. I know I shall personally honour Sri Chinmoy’s sacrifices to bring this truth to me for all my days, for all eternity.

Bitihika O’Dwyer and Sarada Crowe, running in a Joy Weekend event, October 2004.

Ms. O’Dwyer wrote such positive accounts both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s passing (which occurred in 2007), and she remained an active member of Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2014.

Why does someone leave a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse? We cannot always know the reasons to a certitude, but we discussed many possible reasons in Part 1 and Part 2. Such reasons are augmented by They Came Only To Go: The Birthless and Deathless Chronicles of Himalayan Absurdity.

I would not publicly speculate about the motives of a private person by name; but apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively (even aggressively) seeks to persuade others to abandon their faith and attack their former faith group. Those who take an active public role by posting hate material on the Internet (thus provoking controversy) may lose some expectation of privacy in the bargain. The harms caused by circulation of such hate material are tangible harms for which one remedy is to shine the light of truth on false claims made by the apostate.

That said, I genuinely admire Bithika O’Dwyer for her spirituality, her creativity, her intellect, and for all the good she did during an extended period of her life when she defined herself primarily as a spiritual seeker. Pointing out the inaccuracy of her later claims is not a pleasant task; and in spite of feeling an ethical necessity to do so, I have put it off repeatedly.

What I would add to previous discussions is that in reading Ms. O’Dwyer’s spiritual chronicles, we can observe some unique aspects of her own nature and struggles. She is clearly a sincere spiritual aspirant, and her own way of relating to the spiritual quest is a highly dramatic one. She’s prone to ecstatic highs and despondent lows, and this creates for her a sense of the spiritual life as a series of dramatic encounters with the Guru and his teachings. This is not true of everyone. Some people have a more steady, easy-going nature, do not experience such dramatic highs and lows, and are able to progress in a more natural way, with less inner conflict and less of a sense of themselves as players in some Grand Drama.

One of the subjects we tackled in Part 1 was the many mundane or prosaic reasons why people leave a spiritual path, and why they sometimes disguise these mundane reasons with an over-the-top “atrocity story” which simply isn’t true.

In the case of Ms. O’Dwyer, my personal belief is that she left for fairly conventional reasons such as losing interest and intensity, no longer having her teacher present in the physical to inspire her, no longer wanting to fight the “inner battle” with herself, and because she still had desires and ambitions which took her back to worldly life, to career and romance. But because she’s a Dramatique by nature, she can’t accept such mundane reasons for leaving, and has to create a dramatic narrative which vindicates her rather than making her appear weak and foolish, or implying that she betrayed a high and noble goal which she had long cherished as her raison d’être.

Still, in fairness to her and others, I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of the spiritual quest. Some (by no means all) seekers experience ups and downs, highs and lows, struggles with faith and doubt and with the complexities of their own nature. These struggles can be painful.

Sushmitam Rouse is a psychologist by profession, but also a spiritual seeker. According to her, spiritual work is a lot like good therapy. Ms. Rouse writes:

Now for the issue you raise of women who claim to have experienced abuse. I’ve worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist for many years now, so have quite a bit of experience in this area. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment on the innocence and purity of Guru’s consciousness, which I think results in women feeling safe in the centre and with Guru. I know there are some women on the path who have had difficult or traumatic experiences with men when they were living in the world, who have taken refuge in the safety offered by the centre. It would be easy to conclude from this that the centre functions for such women as a way of repressing these experiences rather than working them through. This view of the spiritual life is quite commonly held by secular people, and arises from a fundamental lack of understanding about the inner work and process of transformation involved in leading a spiritual life. Whilst in the short term a person on our path can avoid dealing with difficult personal issues, in the longer term the profoundly transformative experience of meditating with Sri Chinmoy usually means that we cannot stay with our repression for too long.

In my experience, any psychological issues that need to be dealt with rear their heads once we are spiritually strong enough to deal with them. They can then be worked through under Sri Chinmoy’s loving inner guidance. Usually when this happens there is a period of struggle, which manifests outwardly, and we say to each other “Oh she’s just going through Stuff” (do the guys talk like this too?). It is actually quite similar to the process involved in good psychotherapy, but on a vastly different level. Mostly, the person eventually works the issue through and is able to move on to the next challenge. Just like in therapy and in life, some people get stuck on a certain issue for a long time, and others leave the path because it’s just too hard to deal with it, or some part of them actually likes the problem and doesn’t want to resolve it. Guru never forces us to resolve issues, he just provides us with the inner assistance, and the safe and loving environment to enable us to work them through.

By the way, for anyone interested in reading about this process at play in another spiritual path, read the book ‘Unveiled: Nuns Talking’ by Mary Loudon — a superb first person account of the lives of nuns in various Christian orders in the UK.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)

Her analysis is fascinating, not least because it comports with some of Bithika O’Dwyer’s own observations. In “Beauty is my Light,” Ms. O’Dwyer writes:

Because my spiritual training was primarily in silence, I was developing very naturally outwardly with every aspect of my developing mind, and meanwhile the love and kindness were seeping into my soul and I was pleasantly marinating in them, eventually to emerge as a completely transformed individual. Sri Chinmoy’s guidance was laid out as a benchmark, but I was given complete free will to discover my own truth. It was always a “given” that the pursuit of the spiritual heart was the key to divine experience — Guru did say this time and again. But his understanding of the unfoldment of a soul, the timing of illuminations and so forth were impeccable — telling us how things were was not his style — but helping us to truly discover for ourselves the truth. I think of him as a true friend — allowing the individual the joys and sorrows of existence and his/her free experience, while always being there to help at any moment. When I think of how many acts of kindness I experienced, inner and outer, tears come. I was not given to obeying my parents or even the best wishes of my Guru at times, and had many adventures while trying to discover who I was. I was always met with a loving and tender kindness. Forgiveness comes to Sri Chinmoy faster than it will ever come to any. And always oneness — a full understanding of where you as an individual are and what your needs are. He was a pure channel of divine light in my vision, but again and again I was struck by his humanity also — such impeccable nobility, endless giving to all around — of his time, money, affection, concern. My own wilfulness was no match for his quiet, silent, sweeter than the sweetest eye. Not for long, at least.

It was these honest reflections on the inner journey (along with her many other good qualities) which made Bithika O’Dwyer well-loved among her friends at Sri Chinmoy Centre.

Following up on the passage from Sushmitam Rouse: Maybe not all spiritual paths and types of therapy are equally compatible; but among those which are, perhaps the shared element is “inner truth.” In spiritual work, as in good therapy, one tries to get at the inner truth and to transform what needs to be transformed. As human beings most of us have broken places inside us which are tender to the touch, and things which seem too painful to deal with. Yet, in both spiritual work and good therapy, we are guided into those broken, painful places so that we might ultimately manage to transform them.

To transform our nature takes tremendous patience and dedication, and at times we may have to tough it out or slog through mud. As the popular children’s song by Michael Rosen goes:

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

Uh-oh! Mud!
Thick oozy mud.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!

We’ve got to go through it! Otherwise, the only other choice is to run all the way home, lock the door, throw the covers over our heads, and declare: “We’re not going on a bear hunt again!” (That’s how the children’s song ends.)

People sometimes leave a spiritual path for the same reasons they leave therapy: because the next steps involve dealing with those broken places and painful truths. Some therapists will candidly admit that while many come for therapy, this can be just another panic button to press; yet the person pressing the “therapy button” doesn’t always want to change beyond a certain point, and may become extremely hostile when the therapist gets too close to problem areas.

In the case of spiritual work with Sri Chinmoy, he shines a very powerful inner light which the student needs to prepare himself/herself to receive. That light penetrates to the core of one’s weaknesses in order to transform them. This does not happen all at once, but rather over the course of many years and many spiritual experiences. It is a cooperative process. The challenge for the student is to remain open, willing, and receptive to that light. Sometimes the way the light operates is that it is like removing a thorn from our foot: when the light touches the darkness in our nature, we may experience pain and then a feeling of freedom and release.

There needs to be a bond of love and trust between the Guru and disciple, because this relationship in which the Guru intervenes personally to dispel darkness in the disciple’s nature is an intimate relationship, though it is not at all sexual.

Just as we need to trust a surgeon who will be removing a malignant tumor, we also need to trust the Guru to use light to dispel darkness. In some cases, when the inner light enters into the darkness of our nature, we may experience some pain. This pain, if it occurs, is associated with the process of transformation. In the process of surrendering to light, darkness cries out and sheds tears. Then, afterwards, we feel so much lighter! (Here again, parallels with good therapy.) In “My Guru Sri Chinmoy,” Bithika O’Dwyer writes:

All this smiling business coincided with my pockets of depression. It’s one of those things that I understand only in hindsight. Forces from within me were playing out some dark history or drama such that I went through pockets of depression in my spiritual quest – I hear that this is not uncommon as we unravel previous behaviour patterns built up over centuries. When I would see him and he would make these comments I see now that he was applying an equal and opposite force to counteract this on so many levels. Those little acid comments fell into my heart and gradually grew into a few different trees of strength – not first without releasing floods of tears and pain that were deeply rooted in my heart and for which I had no explanation. Every visit to New York would be accompanied by hours of tears – deeply cleansing, cathartic experiences that left me so much lighter at the end.

According to Sri Chinmoy, people may shed tears for various reasons. Sometimes it is an emotional outburst coming from the untransformed vital. At other times, it is the soul’s joy expressing itself through the physical. In her spiritual memoir Auspicious Good Fortune, Sumangali Morhall writes of the first time she met her Guru:

Disciples from Britain, and some from Europe, clustered at the arrival hall in Heathrow’s Terminal Three. Their greetings buzzed around me, brimming with anticipation of the Master’s appearance, but most of them had seen him only weeks before in New York. I had never seen him at all. Aware of this fact, a few kindly made space for me at the front without me asking. I gazed out from the barrier into the strip of empty floor, amidst the canned announcements and artificial light, waiting for my Guru to appear in the world as he had done so many times in my heart.

Somewhere inside the bustle was a bubble of quietude, where for the first time I genuinely sought aloneness. There was the same familiar feeling in the centre of my chest as I had felt before, like the press of many tiny fingers. Inside it that time, I was aware of a flat disc rotating slowly. Tiny parts unfolded from its centre, as if each had always fitted neatly into the other, waiting only for that moment. It was like the intricate workings of some fantastical safe as it unlocked, one layer inside the other inside the other, the colours of each deeper level more vivid than the last. When I was sure the scene in my heart could not be more brilliant or beautiful, the outer doors slid open, and my Guru appeared: neither in the robes of a Thai monk, nor in a satin dhoti, but in a thick down jacket, track pants and running shoes. His head was bare, and a familiar hand peeped out from the end of a padded sleeve. He walked slowly with a full smile, gazing about from one side to another, but seeming to see another realm altogether. Barely six feet away, he looked right into me with eyes made of endless galaxies. Tears swelled in mine, and more tears and more tears again: they would not stop for twelve hours.

Equipped with an unglamorous wad of paper napkins from a restaurant, I took my red velvet seat at the Albert Hall that evening. Had I come for a theatrical performance, I would have been studying a printed programme, or the lighting, or the ornate mouldings. As it was, I had enough to do catching the tears that had been raining steadily all day from just one glimpse of my spiritual Master, and inwardly attempting to prepare myself for several hours in his presence.

So these appear to be tears of joy. Sri Chinmoy writes:

The smiles that arise
From tears
Are unimaginably beautiful.

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/st-41750

and also:

The beauty of tears
Changes human life sooner than at once.
The duty of smiles
Also changes human life sooner than at once.
The union of tears and smiles
Makes God and man embrace each other,
Fulfil each other
And satisfy each other.

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/tp-703

Sri Chinmoy smiling

Elaborating on a topic from Part 1, we can say that the spiritual quest entails an inner struggle between light and darkness. Some people are fortunate to develop simplicity and purity in their nature, and find it easy to remain in the spiritual heart so that the struggle does not seem so intense or extreme, and does not affect their mental balance.

Others may (in spite of their best intentions) have to struggle more with the mind, and therefore experience the spiritual life in a more dramatic and subjective fashion. All that personal drama (which they themselves bring as karmic baggage) can become wearing over time, causing them to lose freshness and enthusiasm.

The spiritual path can be a joy to the heart and a burden to the mind. If one is following Sri Chinmoy’s path of the heart, then the joy and sweetness found in the heart are needed for the journey. Due to their mental approach, some people may reach a point where it stops being fun due to too much self-created drama. For them, the spiritual life becomes something grandiose clutched by the ego, whereas it’s ideally something simple and natural, plain and unpretentious (like doing the laundry, to use a Buddhist simile courtesy Jack Kornfield).

A careful reading of Bithika O’Dwyer’s “My Guru Sri Chinmoy” suggests that she was struggling with such issues, and that she hoped to firmly commit to a heart-centered approach. She wrote:

And so a smile became my emblem for change, for growth. I saw it as my commitment to a higher consciousness – as my self-offering, as a way to express my gratitude for existence on this earth, for that capacity to value Light and hold it at the earth plane. It was unimaginably powerful when this started to finally burn through my life, illumining so many of the dark corners. Added into this was Guru’s ever present quest for his children to bring sweetness into human life – another pride-smasher for an independent feminist who wanted to find her way as a cool and powerful woman, in any way but via the stereotypically sweet, mild and bending traditional female values that I associated with centuries of neglect, abuse and servitude! I am not sure how I swallowed that one, but once the penny had started to drop with the smile issue, I realised this one had to go too. It all fell into place and I gradually learn that we cannot hold onto any preconceived ideas about who we are, or who we should or want to be. The divine Light is not any of it, but a pure electricity that we put the ridiculous shades onto, and can just as easily take them off if we have the courage.

I now see real strength as the simple qualities of the heart – a willingness to smile and offer of oneself, the sweet and childlike approach to life which is ever fresh, pure and innocent – and not as the rigid, brittle morality and integrity which so often fails to fulfil us emotionally and spiritually in the final analysis, and which is the source of so many of the detrimental conditions of this earth. I find Guru’s message one that I can build my entire existence upon: follow your heart, follow your heart, follow your heart … I hope that he can feel my tears of gratitude for the immense power he sent into my heart just by opening this small ridiculous topic.

About three years later she simply “lost it,” which is very sad for her, and also sad for those who loved her as a friend and sister. Unfortunately, her particular way of losing it was to become extremely hostile toward her former friends, teacher, and path. So as I’ve said before, it’s hard to love and forgive someone who’s throwing rocks at church windows — at least while the (metaphorical) glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises.

In Part 1, I mentioned one of the reasons for leaving a spiritual path is that someone encounters a rough patch in their own nature. I did not elaborate, but I think we’re all susceptible to running into something recalcitrant within ourselves such that we feel we can’t go over it, can’t go under it, and can’t go through it either. So (consistent with the quote from Sushmitam Rouse), this is one reason some people leave a spiritual path.

Recognizing this does not trivialize the very real pain some people go through doing spiritual work, and does not trivialize the pain of leaving a spiritual path if one finds one can no longer continue on. But it’s important not to blame such suffering — which is part and parcel of the human condition — on the path and teacher, since they’re not the root causes of such suffering (just as it’s not the therapist’s fault that the client has to confront stubborn problems). Buddhist author Jack Kornfield writes:

For almost everyone who practices, cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.

– Jack Kornfield, from After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path

Whether or not this is true of “almost everyone,” the point is that we need to maintain some constancy in our relationships with others despite these positive and negative cycles. During a negative cycle, we don’t try and burn down the church or temple where we once experienced ecstasy. On days when the sky is filled with clouds, we don’t curse the sun or claim that the sun never existed. Whether we’re feeling cheerful or depressed, we still try to be guided by ethics and common sense, and remain loyal to those who befriended and nurtured us.

As I discuss in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life,” some people have genuine spiritual needs. If they end their spiritual practice during a negative cycle, they may even become physically ill because they’re no longer meeting those needs — no longer getting the benefits of spiritual practice, which include subtle health benefits not noticed until they are absent.

For reasons spiritual, ethical, and karmic, it is not advisable to adopt a slash-and-burn mentality when leaving a spiritual path. For more on this, see “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy.”

Bithika O’Dwyer’s own writings bring to light similar reasons. In “My Guru Sri Chinmoy,” she writes:

I had unfortunate friends who were hungry and demanded experience beyond their capacity because they felt it would boost their social position and just out of general ignorance – they couldn’t deal with the result at all and before long they had denounced there ever having been Truth and given up spiritual pursuit on principle. Their hunger was mixed with a personal greed and I watched their journey with pain, as they were close friends, and with a sense that it could so easily be me. The goal is oneness with a vast universal consciousness beyond the personal ego, and on the way their personal greed was blown open and they did not have the strength to overcome it and jump to the wider consciousness. It is a very real danger when the timing of growth is not respected – the cake is pulled out of the oven yet to be fully cooked because of the impatience to eat it, and it flops and gives you a stomach pain. I said goodbye to those friends as their reality shrunk to the painful stump of their personal anger being brandished at the infinite – Guru often got the brunt of their anger, and I understood in one way because his messages for us were often infuriating and painful, but there was a choice and they chose to remain with a smaller part of their being for a while longer. He was not afraid to draw that response either, as growth always came first, and this was a territorial risk he made himself vulnerable to.

Every length of the road has tests that you need to pass in order to have the capacity to take the next curve. You have to respect the order of this or there is danger. The Guru helps you to get the best possible opportunities. He bargains for you and prepares the way for you and tells you of the dangers and helps you through the challenges. But most of all he believes in you and challenges you to grow where others would tell you to stop dreaming. When you are ready, he will not let you shirk the challenge. He has been there. He is master of Time and Space and knows the methods that will work. I saw him caution my friends in so many ways and for so many years before they bit off more than they could chew, but I also saw him finally allow them the choice to make their own destiny. And I know he will be with them through their suffering, be the source of renewed hope at some stage, and in due course lift them back up to continue on with increased wisdom. The road is very long. It began for me before my mind existed to try to make sense of things, and it will continue on long after my mental capacities dissolve away – only my soul will live to tell the tale. And my soul will always be guided by my beloved Guru Sri Chinmoy, for he lit the flames in my heart, has watched over them like a mother for so many years, and is inextricably linked to my existence.

The above passage, written by Ms. O’Dwyer in 2011 (four years after Sri Chinmoy’s passing), contains much wisdom (and also showcases her flair for the dramatic). That she ultimately seemed to make the same mistakes as friends she spoke of is a tragedy. In my view, she then compounded that tragedy by taking a slash-and-burn approach to her departure. This makes it harder to repair the damage, to allow her teacher to “be with her through her suffering, be the source of renewed hope at some stage, and in due course lift her back up to continue on with increased wisdom.”

Suppose you find yourself in a dark room. There is always hope that someone will come with a light and illumine it. But if you also lock the door from the inside and announce your intention to harm anyone who tries to help you, and are arrogantly proud of the darkness you have chosen, then the situation becomes less workable. Sri Chinmoy writes:

Light will illumine all our bad qualities. Our ‘bad qualities’ means our darkness. Darkness can only be conquered by light. A room may be full of darkness for years. Then an electrician comes and in a few minutes he brings light into the room. Similarly, we have to bring light into all our imperfections. When we get illumination, all our insecurity, jealousy, impurity, impatience — everything — will be illumined. Light is the answer. The sooner we bring light into our system from Above or bring light to the fore from within the better for us. Otherwise, at any moment we can make mistakes. Light does not make any mistake. It is because we do not have light in boundless measure that we make mistakes. Each mistake is nothing short of darkness. When darkness expresses itself, it becomes a mistake.

Light is the answer. Why should we compel God to use His iron rod? When He was using His Compassion-Eye, what was wrong with us? Why did we not change our nature? If we love God, then we have to feel that God’s Tears are infinitely more powerful than God’s Smiles. If we are weak, then when God smiles at us, either we feel that we did not make any mistake or that God has forgiven us. This is how we deceive ourselves. But God’s Tears offer us another way. If we see tears flowing in God’s Eyes because of our mistake, how can we bear to see His Heart bleeding? If we see that somebody’s heart is bleeding, will we not give our life to make that person happy? And do we not love God infinitely more than we love any human being? So God’s Tears are infinitely more powerful than God’s Smiles. If we want to transform our nature, God’s Tears will be of real help to us.

True, God’s Smiles encourage us, but at the same time, we may misinterpret God’s Smiles. We may go on and on making the same mistakes and still God may give us a Smile. Inside His Smile, God may be suffering, but we take it as encouragement. In one sense, God also takes it as encouragement because He hopes that if He gives us a broad Smile, we will not make the same mistake again. But unfortunately, it does not work.

If you really love God and if you see that He is shedding bitter tears, He is lamenting, He is suffering, then you will immediately transform your life.

If you are good people, then when you do something wrong, you will not hide from God. You will come and stand before Him and say, “I have done something wrong. Now please forgive me. Please illumine me.”

– Sri Chinmoy, from Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 27, Agni Press, 2000

Conclusions

Reality has a certain fabric to it. It is woven together in one particular way and not some other way. (Cats don’t play the tuba, and flowers grow up not down.) The authors quoted here present a consistent picture of reality. If someone wants to create their own reality, this self-created reality will not be consistent with reality proper, so why should we accept it? The problem with apostate testimonials is that they often fail to jibe with the fabric of reality.

These are my opinions on matters of public concern which I did not raise, but rather were raised by Bithika O’Dwyer in the course of her activities opposing her former faith group. I genuinely wish her every happiness. Where I’ve weighed in on personal issues, this has been done as a defensive measure or bulwark against hate. Once someone brings their case before the public, they are then at the mercy of the public. This is something lawyers like Joe Kracht don’t always adequately explain to clients or protégés before taking them public.

The issues raised are nevertheless not unique to Ms. O’Dwyer, but apply broadly to the apostate phenomenon. The word “phenomenon” is helpful here, because one definition of a phenomenon is something which you can’t necessarily explain, but which you simply learn to live with or work around.

For some wholly mysterious reason, your installation of Microsoft Windows always crashes on rainy Thursdays. You try and troubleshoot the problem, but can make no ultimate sense of it. So either you don’t turn on your computer on rainy Thursdays, or maybe you switch to Mac or Linux.

A famous entry in the collection of haiku error messages goes:

yesterday it worked
today it is not working
Windows is like that

We cannot know all the inner or outer reasons why someone who was yesterday a devoted seeker is today throwing rocks at church windows, nor do we have time to study the problem endlessly. Since our own spiritual quest is of paramount importance, we simply learn to work around the problems created by others, helping where we can, but accepting that some phenomena are beyond our ken. And hey, people are like that.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, mostly courtesy Sri Chinmoy Libary:

Of Further Interest

Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy
Making Sense of the Spiritual Life
A Question of Forgiveness

* * *

On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 2

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? Having discussed general concepts in Part 1, let us now turn to the case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

In wading into the thickets of the sordid Bithika O’Dwyer controversy, I thought it important to deal first with general concepts concerning apostasy, so-called ex-cult support groups, atrocity stories, and the like. (See Part 1.) This is consistent with the approach taken in understanding any complex phenomenon: First understand the nature of the thing, then see how general principles apply to specific cases.

In Part 1, we spent a long time going over the reasons why someone who leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse may nevertheless begin telling over-the-top atrocity stories upon leaving. That is the crux of the confusion faced by many people trying to make sense of the phenomenon, and I daresay we made progress in understanding it, both intellectually and emotionally. Buried within Part 1 is this gem of wisdom from psychologist Sushmitam Rouse which I would like to repeat at the outset of Part 2:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

I also want to repost this passage which I find helpful in navigating the spiritual, psychological, and ethical issues:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

These quotes help set the stage for Part 2.

Part 2: Bithika O’Dwyer

I would like to say at the outset that I wish Ms. O’Dwyer every happiness. That doesn’t prevent me from taking pains to correct the public record where she has acted purposefully to sully or confuse it by posting false and lurid depictions on the Internet.

Please recall from Part 1 that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups.

In the case of Bithika O’Dwyer, we have someone who followed a spiritual path for 35 years, wrote many detailed articles about her positive experiences, and was videoed and photographed participating in activities like singing, sports, fun excursions, etc. She’s an intelligent person and gifted writer who wrote clearly and unmistakably about the benefits of the spiritual life, its many challenges, and how she faced them with the help of her teacher, of whom she spoke glowingly. Her positive accounts during that 35-year period were viewed by her friends along the path as being accurate and commendable. Those positive accounts were written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.

Yet, upon leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre in 2014, she gravitated towards an Internet based ex-cult support group started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. I have been critical of Mr. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

When Bithika O’Dwyer became associated with Joe Kracht’s ex-cult support group, she soon began churning out boilerplate anti-cult material which can only be described charitably as absolute bollocks. It simply doesn’t jibe with her own extensive prior accounts, with the accounts of close friends who knew her over a period of decades, with the available evidence, and with scholarly research on the spiritual movement in question. This raises a number of factual, ethical and legal issues which I may deal with elsewhere; but see (for example) this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial.

One of the troubling features of the pop psychology movements of the 1990s (some of which survive today) is the belief that objective truth no longer matters. A person can create a new identity as a victim or survivor, and provided this is done in the context of counselling or a support group, the question of truthfulness is thought by some to be irrelevant. The ultimate indulgence of the Gen X’er is to claim: Whatever I feel emotionally is true. Don’t slow me down with the facts.

In the real world, however, to enjoy the luxury of painting oneself as a victim also requires that one fashion an abuser. The “memory wars” of the 1990s were fought over whether claims of abuse which seemed strange, farfetched, and at odds with reality should nonetheless be taken seriously enough to convict someone in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

The answer, in brief, is no, not without objective evidence. After a great many people were wrongfully accused (and eventually cleared), there emerged a recognition that people claiming to be victims — particularly in a polarized social, political, or legal context — often turn out to be victimizers. This includes former spiritual seekers who tell so-called “apostate atrocity stories” as part of their newfound anti-cult advocacy or return to secular society.

Not everyone who tells a false tale of abuse is an outright liar. The point about abuse-themed books, support groups, and counselling sessions is that they tend to wreak havoc with a person’s sense of identity. People begin to experience life so subjectively that what they feel emotionally becomes what they claim factually. In other words, they confabulate; and within the support group they’re emotionally rewarded for confabulating, because their claims ratify the underlying social and political beliefs being espoused, e.g. that all fathers are abusers, or all purported “cult leaders” are abusers, or all kindergarten teachers are secret Satanists.

In a Salon article and interview, Meredith Maran begins to get at the flavour of this gradual subjectivizing of experience until it becomes false:

“The lie that tore my family apart”
“Interview with Meredith Maran”

What she’s saying is that social cliques and feel-good psychological theories can make liars of us, especially if telling the truth that we were not abused would cause us to lose friends or loved ones who inhabit an abuse-centered universe.

A problem with reliance on emotional reality to the detriment of factual reality is that emotional reality can be extremely unreliable, especially when people are going through a whirlwind of changes in their lives. The causes of their unhappiness are complex, and may include having made poor choices reflecting ethical lapses — yet there can be a controlling figure (such as a counsellor with his or her own agenda) urging them to assign blame for their unhappiness to some external factor or person. This can lead to such stereotyped claims as: I joined a cult and me fanny fell off. Like me on Facebook!

It’s sad to see Ms. O’Dwyer join the ranks of such comic strip characters. Her motives are familiar to me in that I’ve often encountered apostates who feel a strong need for self-justification, and who hope to expunge any guilt associated with having left a respected spiritual movement by trying to make that movement appear outlandish and odious. Of course, many people leave spiritual movements, but most move on without the need to attach excessive blame, which can easily develop into a psychological complex.

My impression is that Joseph Kracht, on whose blog Bithika O’Dwyer’s bizarre “testimonial” appears, acts as a kind of Svengali figure for people (particularly women) with emotional problems who’ve somehow been persuaded that venting on the Internet is a valid form of therapy. It is not.

Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold: The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.

In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.

I doubt Mr. Kracht apprised Ms. O’Dwyer of the full ramifications of joining the “cult wars” — or what little remains of them in a world which is naturally evolving toward pluralism and religious tolerance. Acting wilfully to earn a reputation as someone who betrays former friends and colleagues and posts hate material on the Internet is really not so helpful to one’s C.V. Spiritual people are not the only ones who value loyalty. Secular people and business people also look for consistency and loyalty when considering whether to hire, befriend, or form a lasting relationship with someone who’s recently put themselves “on the market.” How one has treated one’s former friends and colleagues is likely to be an important consideration, and such consideration is reasonable.

By (possibly) following Mr. Kracht’s questionable counsel (whether personal or professional), Ms. O’Dwyer has burned her bridges not only behind her, but also in front of her, limiting rather than expanding her future options. Surely mature people preserve their options.

This is important, so forgive me if I should repeat it: As we move through life, if we are mature and ethical we act loyally toward those we have befriended and who befriended us. Our beliefs may change, but loyalty remains a constant. This is so because our beliefs — and the social groups to which we belong — may often change in the course of a lifetime. In maturity, we recognize that there exist a diversity of beliefs (especially in a spiritual context) about what is right and true, and what practices are beneficial. We move gracefully from social group to social group, from belief to belief, always trying to learn what we can and become better people. Others are doing the same, so there is no reason to demonize them for imagined wrongs.

Likewise, over a lifetime our goals may change. We can move from Goal A to Goal B without having to demolish or annihilate Goal A (and everyone associated with Goal A). To move between goals in a non-destructive manner is the mature, ethical, and psychologically healthy way to do so.

This approach also offers hope that we might one day integrate our spiritual experiences into our daily lives, even if we’re now living closer to the secular world. The anti-cult POV, which typically involves discrediting past spiritual experiences (and the teacher who engendered them), is not psychologically healthy, and doesn’t lead to a well-integrated personality.

When people join anti-cult groups (including Internet based ones like Joe Kracht’s deceptively-named “Abode of Yoga”), they’re inclined to forget these simple truths under the heady influence of social pressure. This includes pressure to unquestioningly accept and act on stereotypes which dehumanize minority faith groups, thus invalidating the ethical obligations that one would normally feel toward one’s fellow human beings.

Indeed, in hate groups a pathological lack of empathy develops towards the targets of the hatred, such that Joe Kracht claims his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.” However, to outside observers (such as potential employers) who have not steeped themselves in anti-cult ideology, the meanness and spitefulness of posting hate material on the Internet is thoroughly apparent — all the more so if the targets of the hatred have a reputation for volunteerism, healthy living, and doing good.

These questions concerning loyalty and ethics tend to be paramount in the minds of people making personnel decisions, because such people are keenly aware that most human relationships (including employment relationships) have a beginning, middle, and end. Trashing one’s former friends and colleagues on the Internet thus suggests a person who is immature and is unable to conclude a relationship in a civilized and responsible manner, without acting vindictively or destructively, and without intentionally causing embarrassment or harm. That’s certainly the impression one gets from Bithika O’Dwyer’s guest column on Joe Kracht’s blog (and the iterations appearing on other venues).

Now, why are anti-cult counsellors typically so obsessed with pushing people over the edge, getting them to publicly recant their faith in a dramatic and finalized manner that would tend to reflect poorly on their good judgement, and to limit their future options? Are such counsellors really acting in the best interests of their clients or protégés? These are questions I hope to tackle in future postings.

In the meantime, let us return to the theme of marriage and divorce introduced at the outset of Part 1. Why would one ex demonize the other? Sometimes to assuage strong guilt feelings, or to relocate blame for the failed relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:

[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

– Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

When one spends years following a spiritual path, it becomes like family. Then, if one chooses to leave or is asked to leave, it may feel like a ripping away. I am perhaps 1% spiritual, but one thing I know about seekers is that they are still human beings, with an emotional self and feelings that run deep. Our emotional selves also have defence mechanisms which kick in when the pain becomes too great. At the most hellish moment of a marital breakup, one partner says to the other: “You don’t love me. You never loved me. And I never loved you. I’ve hated every moment I ever spent with you. I hate you, and all your family and friends. What’s more, you abused our children.” Next comes the ritual burning of photographs, the running of the car off a cliff, and a neatly typed note to the spouse’s employer suggesting termination…

We are all too human, tragically human. And so when we leave a spiritual path, sometimes this slash-and-burn mentality kicks in as a defence. Then too, the world wants us to pay a tithe to be accepted back: “Many members of our church or temple were lured away by this Indian rogue. We all know that meditation is bad for you. We’ll accept you back if you just say you were abused or brainwashed. Then you can get on with the things that really matter, like career and dating…”

Someone who’s sincerely followed a spiritual path for a few years will often have sublime experiences locked in the depths of their heart — experiences they told themselves they would never forget as long as they lived. Then, when the same person leaves that path, you see them try to perform a radical guru-ectomy on themselves. The light they saw, the joy they felt, these things never happened. It’s a defence mechanism, like amnesia. However, amnesia is a purely involuntary ailment. It takes some conscious will to go on the Internet and malign someone.

Conclusions

These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)

When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media also act in fairly predictable ways. The end result can be a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)

In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere. Such reports are inherently prone to inaccuracy and bias.

These factors underscore the late Dr. Bryan Wilson’s imperative that “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.” However, the mass media usually don’t have the time, interest, or resources to conduct such a study, and often can’t even be bothered checking with bonafide religious scholars. Therefore, the view of minority spiritual groups we get from the mass media is often little more than a crude stereotype. This in turn creates problems in society, such as harassment of spiritual groups, or the inability of people with genuine spiritual needs to connect with a group which could benefit them.

When individual apostates publicly hurl false allegations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. As I discuss in “A Question of Forgiveness,” it’s easier to forgive people when their wrong actions have ceased and they show some signs of remorse. Hate the sin, not the sinner is good advice; but when compassion fails, justice-light is sometimes needed to solve a problem which endangers others.

Bhakti yoga is a very emotional path, and some people can easily be storm-tossed by their emotions of the moment — whether love or hate. Some problems may benefit from more steady reflection leading to insight, rather than simply choosing sides based on friendship or which in-group one hopes to join.

Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.

Unfortunately, this leads to a state of affairs in which some men will go to the wall defending a story which is absolute bollocks, and which contradicts their own knowledge and experience acquired over many years. Whether in a courtroom trial, or even the type of sleazy Internet show trials conducted by Joe Kracht, truth shouldn’t depend on who’s sleeping with whom.

People who are misled by false accounts often want to be misled for the same reasons that these accounts were formulated in the first place: because some people wrongly feel that they can only build up their own ego by tearing down their former spiritual path.

Those who have returned to worldly life may need a certain type of ego build-up, but this is achieved by doing good things, not by becoming obsessed with “proving” that one’s former path or teacher were “bad.” One doesn’t have to look far to see people who left a spiritual path over 35 years ago, but are still trying to discredit their former teacher in order to feel good about themselves. This type of false ego build-up has turned them into extremely troubled and unhappy individuals. Someone like Bithika O’Dwyer who’s only been at it for 2-3 years might learn from such old profligates that this is not the right way to proceed, and does not lead to either worldly happiness or spiritual happiness. Better to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, and get on with one’s life! Better also to leave all one’s bridges unburned and passable, so that one might freely choose any option in the future.

In the final analysis, to become embroiled in the controversies fomented by apostates is a losing proposition for sincere spiritual seekers. It is like quicksand which constantly draws people in until they’re in over their heads and cannot escape from all the concentrated negativity that apostates generate.

If you’re following the path of love and devotion, then it is your devotion, not somebody else’s devotion (or lack thereof) that will sustain you. You will gain strength by looking to those who are more devoted than you, not less so.

Suppose you have gone to a shop for many years. The shopkeeper has always been nice to you and has given you the things you need. He is very kind, though he does have a few rules about what goes on in his shop. Then you meet someone who tells you the shopkeeper is the very worst! He cheated them, he treated them unkindly, he is simply unbearable. Well, you do not know what transpired between the shopkeeper and that person. But he has always treated you fairly. So there is some sense in remaining loyal to that shopkeeper, based on your own experience.

No spiritual teacher, no matter how good and great, is immune to the proverbial “barking of the dogs” of which Swami Vivekananda spoke. Sri Chinmoy has said:

A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.

– Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1, Agni Press, 2000

Combating false views prevalent in society is like trying to straighten “a dog’s curly tail” (Vivekananda) — it just curls up again. There will always be people spreading hate material. Sometimes they’re good at demagoguing an issue, and may have more funding and resources than spiritual groups, so their message is easier to hear. They can temporarily drown out the true message offered by sincere spiritual teachers.

Yet, spiritual genius that he was, Sri Chinmoy continued to move forward confidently, offering his precious Darshan to those seekers who approached him with an aspiring consciousness. What is said by critics is largely, ahem… irrelephant.

By studying the writings of apostates or disgruntled former members, we don’t get any enlightenment. For that we need spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation and service.

The more we study doubt, the more we will experience confusion-mind. Doubt does not have the power to dispel itself. Only faith has the power to dispel doubt, just as Light dispels darkness.

There are many tracts criticizing people who study under the guidance of a spiritual master and join in the life of a spiritual community. The authors usually advocate secularism, individualism, rationalism, and a pragmatic view of life. To them God is just a mental hallucination, or a remote deity who deserves no more than Temple on Friday or Church on Sunday.

Yet, when one sincerely meditates with a teacher of Sri Chinmoy’s calibre, one has deep inner experiences which prove their own reality in the fertile field of the aspiring heart. One discovers a living God ever present in the temple of one’s heart, a God who is one’s own highest Self, and therefore one’s constant companion.

This is a discovery rooted in faith, not doubt. And so there comes a time when one closes one’s ears to doubt and criticism, and tries to proceed only through faith, finding this to be a higher teaching. (Perhaps doubt is the kindergarten of the spiritual life, and faith the advanced doctoral work?)

As spiritual seekers, we can learn to value Light more. When we become lovers of Light, this will lead to right views, and such views will eventually transform society, lessening the hatred and intolerance which arise from a wrong understanding.

Those who take the negative approach don’t travel far, and ultimately bring suffering on themselves, if not the entire world. Just look at Judas!

Bithika O’Dwyer (bottom row, left) with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre on a fun excursion to Thetford Forest, 2009

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.

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On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 1

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? What are some factors which can lead to inaccurate accounts, and what effect does this have on society? Wading into the thickets of the Bithika O’Dwyer controversy…

I do want to discuss Bithika O’Dwyer, but it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to reinvent the wheel every time a particular individual goes off the rails. Some people have already discussed the core issues at length here. There’s also a collection of essays and anecdotes called “Dealing With Negativity” which offers further insights.

I want to spend some time going over general concepts before turning to the individual case of Bithika O’Dwyer in Part 2.

Part 1: General Concepts

In a free and open society filled with people who possess inquisitive minds, and hearts seeking after truth, it’s fairly commonplace for people to join and leave spiritual groups. In fact, it happens every day, not unlike marriage and divorce. As in cases of divorce, the breakup can be amicable, respectful, and mature; or it can be acrimonious, spiteful, and marked by childish behaviour. We’ve all probably known a divorced couple each of whom is a decent enough person in themselves, but one of whom makes their former partner out to be the devil incarnate. Yet we know from personal experience (knowing the individuals) that it simply isn’t true.

Scholars of religion have studied this broad phenomenon as it applies to leave-takers from spiritual groups. The stories told by ex-members in this context are sometimes referred to as apostate accounts, atrocity stories, deconversion narratives, or testimonials.

The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.

However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.

As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we should call that foolish alarmism.

The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking thirty pieces of silver to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.

Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.

These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the site jehovahswitnessblog.com turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it’s a cult? In this section, we’ve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)

Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.

The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly at all (in fact it’s quite emotional!). It often entails making subjective value judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.

The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to

… 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?

— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”

Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.

Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as a therapist, anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:

Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.

The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]

The scholarly language might throw some readers. What does it mean that “biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones”? It means that a person changes their story to correspond to their new world view, new secular peer group, and newfound interest in (for example) a secular business career.

What do we make of the phrase “stigmatizing efforts by significant others”? After leaving a spiritual group, the leave-taker may be subjected to pressure from friends, relatives, or a romantic partner to “denounced the cult” in order to be accepted back into worldly life. The leave-taker may leave with good memories of the spiritual group left behind, but subsequently feels pressured to adopt a new identity as an “apostate, whistle-blower, [or] penitent ex-member.” (“Oh, I’m so sorry Mummy and Daddy that I stayed with that awful cult! Won’t you please put me back in your will now?”)

The leave-taker may fall in with other ex-members who have been strongly influenced by anti-cult ideology which portrays spiritual groups as abusive rather than beneficial. Some such ex-members may have received formal deprogramming or exit counselling. They then introduce this ultra-critical-cum-activist view into the ex-cult support group, where it becomes the dominant view reinforced through readings from a closed universe of anti-cult authors who see involvement in a spiritual community solely through the lens of trauma and abuse. This ignores thousands of years of history in which people have explored living in spiritual communities as a joyful way to grow, evolve, and put their cherished beliefs into practice in concert with others.

So, what does it mean that “The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions)”? It means that a typical initiation ritual for someone who joins an ex-cult support group is that they’ll be asked to read highly negative “testimonials” portraying the spiritual group as abusive, and to voice their agreement or even write their own testimonials based on existing models. For the lonely ex-member seeking “support,” this is the price of admission to a new social clique. The testimonial of abuse is a fashion accoutrement donned when visiting an ex-cult support group, and eventually becomes part of the apostate’s permanent wardrobe.

The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she’s no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.

The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counselled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

However, Occam’s razor slices thin here. When someone leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse, it’s usually for very conventional (even prosaic) reasons. Spiritual work is challenging but rewarding. There is always a pull to revert to the mean and to lead a life which is most ordinary, requiring relatively little effort, able to be coped with on brain base.

Someone leaves because they lost their spiritual aspiration, interest, or intensity, the figure who originally inspired them is no longer there in the physical to lift them up, they have grown tired, have run into a rough patch in their own nature, or they still have unfulfilled desires and ambitions which take them back to worldly life. (Or a combination of all these factors.)

Then too, a person may have started a spiritual business, but finds it quite challenging to keep it afloat. People can love each other dearly, but working together on a daily basis may bring out personality conflicts; and rather than resolve these conflicts, some people prefer to move on. (See Sri Chinmoy’s story “Why the Disciples Don’t Come” about those who leave due to personality conflicts.)

In one sense it’s reasonable to want to relax after working hard for a number of years. But in the spiritual life, when people relax, their own worst nature may ambush them, so that they lose all the progress they have made, and may for a time become unfit to lead the spiritual life. This is sometimes called a “hostile attack.” Sri Chinmoy writes:

It is not the spiritual life that increases your undivine qualities. On the contrary, the spiritual life wants you to conquer all the undivine forces once and for all so that they cannot come and disturb you. Otherwise, two or three undivine forces you will conquer today because of your intense spiritual aspiration; and then, after a few months, there will be again an attack by some other forces. So, if you know that all the forces are going to attack you either today or tomorrow, then you will be fully prepared. You thought that you had only one enemy. How is it that you now have ten enemies? But this should not make you discouraged. On the contrary, you should be happy that all your enemies, all your weaknesses, are coming forward. Only if they come forward can you conquer them.

How will you do it? It is through your constant inner cry. Do not be disturbed, do not be agitated, do not be depressed, do not surrender to these attacks. You simply should be happy that all your weaknesses are coming to the fore. Otherwise, each one will take its own time and bite you and pinch you. Then you will suffer like anything. So let them all attack you. Your faith in the Supreme — who is my Guru, your Guru, everybody’s Guru — has infinite power to conquer these undivine forces.

You want to go one step ahead and become totally divine. But the moment you enter the spiritual path, all the undivine, hostile forces attack you. Before, you never had doubt, you never had fear, you never thought that anything named jealousy existed on earth. But where did they come from? They did not come from above. No, they were all dormant inside you. The tiger within you had all these undivine qualities. But the tiger did not use all its power. It had only to use a little power, just a small quantity of its power, in order to frighten you. But now that the tiger knows that you are trying to leave its den, the tiger is ready to show you all its capacity. It will muster all its strength. But at that time, you have to be very devoted to your spiritual life, to the divine life within you, and say, “This is a great opportunity to conquer all my enemies all at once.” So you should be courageous and, at the same time, totally surrendered to the Will of the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Illumination-World, Agni Press, 1977 [emphasis added]

To stay afloat in the spiritual life, one has to do battle with ignorance. If one becomes lax, then all the old problems may resurface, or even new problems may come. So some people leave because they no longer wish to do battle with their own nature, or for many other conventional, unremarkable reasons.

Now, why do some people disguise these very conventional reasons for leaving by telling an outlandish story of abuse, a so-called “atrocity story”? We’ve already discussed this, but here’s another powerful reason given by psychologist Sushmitam Rouse:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

It could also be said that the lies some people tell about their former spiritual path are like a bandage which they apply to the wound of leaving — leaving something which they actually love, or which their soul loves.

Leaving a spiritual path can be painful, just as divorce can be painful. This leads to a temptation (or even unconscious reaction) to simply throw all the blame on the other person (in the case of divorce) or on the teacher or path (in the case of leaving a spiritual group). But there is great potential for misattribution of cause and effect here. People may become unhappy after leaving a spiritual path which they followed sincerely for decades of their lives. But this doesn’t mean the spiritual path is the cause of their unhappiness. As I write in “Making Sense of the Spiritual 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.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

I’ve also had occasion to quote from this TIME magazine article:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

This applies in spades to so-called ex-cult support groups, and I hope regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I once again quote this passage from “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult leader.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:

I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.

— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”

Those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.

We should keep in mind that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups (or in extreme cases, crucifixion).

As I discuss in Part 2, when apostates hurl false accusations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. If the hurlers will not stop, then it may be necessary to invoke lawful due process. See also this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial. The links at the end concern UK libel law as it applies to Facebook, Blogspot, and other social media sites.

This concludes Part 1 covering general concepts. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the particular case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

Michael Howard

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

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Temple-Song-Hearts 1991 Concert

Celebrating International Women’s Day with Music

The contributions made to daily life by women around the world can never be quantified. Some women contribute to their local communities, while others go a step further by spreading their peace and joy to other nations through music.

Such is the case with Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group which first formed in 1987 in the United Kingdom, and has since developed an increasingly international flavour.

As noted in People Are Good Everywhere, governments and political leaders may often fight, yet there is a countervailing force of good within each human heart. Some nations may be historical rivals, yet their people can still share good wishes and be moved by the same art and music, as these are universal constants.

In 1991, Temple-Song-Hearts toured the Soviet Union, which at that time was just dissolving into Russia. The Russian people, often starved for spirituality during the Soviet era, welcomed Temple-Song-Hearts in a spirit of oneness, and delighted in their soulful singing and performances on all-acoustic instruments. This video is part concert footage, part travelogue, with music always the uniting factor:

Temple-Song-Hearts is a group which combines the eternal with the ever-new. Their music radiates a deep sense of truth, while their arrangements are fresh and reflect our contemporary world.

Temple-Song-Hearts exclusively performs the music of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who wrote thousands of spiritual songs which are prayers to God for peace, harmony, progress, the liberation of the individual soul from suffering, and the liberation of the entire world from the tyranny of ignorance. What more fitting source material for a group which has performed concerts throughout Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the U.S.A.?

The meeting of hearts and minds commingled with love of God often occurs far from politics or the glare of the mass media. It occurs in small halls where people who share a common longing for truth sit quietly for an hour, and take in sounds which are gentle, yet carry a powerful message of world-transformation. Many things flow from this experience: the recognition that deep within we are one, and a time will come when our diversity is not a cause for warfare (hot or cold), but when we will recognize oneness in diversity as the principle which informs us as human beings and divine beings. To quote Sri Chinmoy:

Being a spiritual man, I must say that there is only one religion. You call it Christianity, I call it Hinduism, somebody calls it Judaism and somebody else calls it Islam. But there is only one religion. So when there is one religion, there cannot be nearness or distance. There are many branches of the religion-tree, but there is only one religion, and that religion is God-realisation. The ultimate Goal of all religion is God-realisation.

Religions may fight on the way to the goal, but at the end of the journey they become most intimate friends, and then they feel that they were all the time together on the same journey, only following different paths. True, sincere followers of any religion, either Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism, will never find fault in the truths of other religions. They know that the ultimate Truth exists in each religion. But in the field of practice or manifestation, human thoughts, human ideas, human vibrations can alter the truth. This is at the root of conflict between religions. The moment we go deep within, however, we see that there is no religion, only Truth. India’s greatest political leader, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “Where is religion? To me religion is just Truth.” The word “religion” can cause conflict and fighting. But when we use the word “Truth,” the conflicting parties remain silent.

– Sri Chinmoy, The Spiritual Journey: Oneness in Diversity, Agni Press, 1977

Writing about a Temple-Song-Hearts tour of the South of France in 2005, longtime member Shankara Smith says:

It’s been a fair few years since our group last performed for the public, and I had forgotten what a rewarding experience it is. Since the group gained a new pianist — the excellent Eshana from Serbia — plus a number of other musicians headed up by the multi-talented Utsava of Germany, we have been concentrating on improving the sound of the group.

Montpellier proved to be the ideal place to get together. It is a beautiful and mostly traffic-free old city. We had great fun checking out the local shops, particularly an exquisite chocolate shop (not great for the voice, but wonderful for the spirits!). But most of our time was dutifully spent practising.

On the second evening we performed in a lovely little theatre, to a full house of friends, meditation seekers and the general public. The concert went almost without a hitch, and I felt the spirit of Temple-Song-Hearts was well and truly back with us. I find there is nothing more satisfying than singing your heart out performing Sri Chinmoy’s music; the feeling of joy that comes from these pure, beautiful and prayerful songs. It was a joy we were able to share with our audience, who all seemed to enjoy the concert.

The following day we were off to Marseille. This time we were in a beautiful hall without the bright theatre lights, and it was nice being able to see our audience. The concert went very well, and afterwards some people stayed behind to chat. When a man approached me and said he was a professional pianist, part of me went “Oh no, he will have noticed all our little errors.” But instead of criticism, we received generous praise and I was very touched when he said how moved he had been by the music. This was followed up by a lovely lady saying that the concert had brought tears to her eyes and that “Today God has come as a woman.” I knew that once again Sri Chinmoy’s music had got right to the hearts of its listeners.

Read Shankara’s full report here, or view a gallery of photos from the French tour.

More About Sri Chinmoy’s Music

Sri Chinmoy was born in Bengal, India (now Bangladesh) in 1931, and moved to New York City in 1964, where he lived the better part of his life. Most songs performed by Temple-Song-Hearts are sung in Sri Chinmoy’s native language of Bengali (though it was also his custom to honour each country he visited with a song in that nation’s own language). His songs often include lines of different lengths, as in “Nil Akasher Alor Tari” from the 1991 video:

This can lead to arrangements which are very fresh and dynamic. Here are the lyrics in Bengali and English, courtesy SriChinmoyLibrary.com:

Nil Akasher Alor Tari

Nil akasher alor tari hridaye mor bhase
Kusum kalir mauna bhasha byatha amar nashe
Amai jara dake mago ami tader daki
Moder majhe tomai jena nitya mago rakhi

Translation:

O boat of light in the blue sky,
I see you floating in my heart-river.
I see the flowers that you are carrying.
The fragrance of these flowers
Has destroyed all my sufferings.
Like you, I call those who call me,
I see in you the bond of all-loving,
All-illumining and all-fulfilling unity.

No mortal words can add to this call to the infinite, this call to all-fulfilling unity. Needless to say, this unity of peoples, unity of spirits, can never be achieved by force. It dawns gradually as each person gains insight, develops spiritual vision, and longs in their heart to join in the festival of light which is carried on ceaselessly in the inner world.

Sri Chinmoy playing the Indian esraj, a bowed string instrument with a sound similar to the better-known sarangi. Photo by Abakash.

Personnel on the 1991 Tour

– Santoshi Hodgson
– Abi Timberlake
– Kate Hirons
– Dipika Smith
– Sudhira Hay
– Sangvad Keaney
– Udasina Hansford
– Shankara Smith
– Bithika O’Dwyer
– Rachel Merry
– Sahana Gero

Bithika O’Dwyer from the 1991 video

Bithika O’Dwyer with the World Harmony Run, 2009

Bithika O’Dwyer with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre, 2009 (bottom row, left)

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Temple-Song-Hearts Tour Europe
Temple-Song-Hearts web site (by the most excellent Sumangali Morhall)
Temple-Song-Hearts on CD Baby

* * *

The Spiritual Retreat

Over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation (and at other times as well), some people go on a spiritual retreat. What is the value of a spiritual retreat, and how can we make good use of our time? What are some things to be done and not done?

C.S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote in his science fiction novel Perelandra:

Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. There is a chattering part of the mind which continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest places.

Yet, a place which has been consecrated for the purpose of silence and contemplation may be of some help in quietening the mind.

This short video offers a few pointers on mastering the unique opportunities and challenges afforded by the spiritual retreat:

Returning again to C.S. Lewis and Perelandra, we are further instructed:

Be confident, small immortals. You are not the only voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come.

Perhaps the video is most useful for showing us what things not to bring on a spiritual retreat. Since a portable video player is probably one of them, maybe it’s best to write them down on a piece of paper, and leave that at home as well.

THINGS NOT TO BRING ON A SPIRITUAL RETREAT

– squeaky shoes
– The Killing DVD
– Wallander DVD
– Kit Kat bars
– potted goose meat
– vodka & tonic
– gin & tonic
– etc.
– etc.

No need to make the list too long, as that too might become a distraction.

We could read the list again, but here the wisdom of C.S. Lewis comes to our rescue:

Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity — like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

C.S. Lewis quotes from Perelandra on Goodreads.com
Rev. Season 2 on Amazon.com

Note: If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch directly on YouTube here.

People Are Good Everywhere

In Thought of the Day: People Are Good, I talked about the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart and often expresses itself in loving kindness. I included some folk music videos, and peace quotes from Sri Chinmoy.

I would like to add that people are good everywhere. Sometimes they get bad leaders. We should not hate entire nations simply because they are, during a certain period, in the grips of a regime which acts badly or contrary to our own ideals and interests. In each nation there are some good people. Their instinct is to join together with other good people around the world in a spirit of peace and oneness. This is the spirit which informs the Peace Run:

Democracy is an excellent system, but it is not a perfect system. It can be manipulated. Sometimes democracy results in the election of leaders who are essentially the lowest common denominator, and therefore not very fit to lead.

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

In spite of having survived for nearly two hundred and fifty years, American democracy is not impervious to all the harms that might conceivably be wrought upon it. We need to respect its fragility, for there is always the possibility that the next shock will be one too many.

America is great not because of its tremendous power, but because it is at root a good-hearted nation with a dynamic spirit, a nation that wants to help not only itself, but also other nations. Why do we still remember John F. Kennedy after fifty years? Not simply because of his tragic death, but because at a time when drifting into war was the easiest option, he navigated a careful path to peace; and also because he had a hero-heart — the kind of heart which is able to empathize with others’ sufferings and look for solutions which lift people up.

Strength is necessary to succeed, but strength must be tempered by compassion. In the realm of governance, this means that a strong capitalist economy must be tempered with programs of social welfare. This was the insight underlying the New Deal ushered in by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Today, we accept wholeheartedly the principle that old people should not be left to die in the gutter, but should receive Social Security payments to help them cope with the rigours of old age.

Several decades after FDR, President Barack Obama tried to make America more competitive with other Western nations by greatly increasing the number of people covered by health care. Like any bold step forward, his efforts met with some resistance, and there are still problems to be ironed out. But he had the vision and insight that this was a most significant way to improve the lives of millions of people. His vision was not wrong, for it was based on a deep goodness, and a quality of loving kindness which he learned from his mother, and from books on the world’s religions which she gave him to read.

People are good everywhere, but in times of trouble it’s not always enough to keep that goodness locked in our hearts like a secret. There are many ways we can express that goodness to the people around us, and send that goodness dynamically echoing through the universe. One simple way is to make choices rooted in loving kindness, and to support leaders who possess the kind of insight which is unselfish, and is tempered by concern for the poor and downtrodden.

There are three kinds of American leaders: those who want to lead the world through America’s military might, those who want to lead the world through America’s vision-height, and those who want merely to make America great with little concern for the rest of the world.

Those with the highest vision know that life on planet Earth is deeply interdependent. Therefore they do not eschew or belittle the United Nations, for they know that even if the United Nations is imperfect, it represents the first and best effort on a global scale to deal with global problems.

If we are good-hearted people, we need to seek out leaders who understand the global issues that will face us in this and coming centuries. We need leaders with vision-height who know that American leadership cannot be a Pax Americana, but must be based on high ideals and good examples set.

Each nation aspires to leadership, and each has something to contribute. Therefore, a spirit of braggadocio is a negative indicator in would-be leaders. It is right and proper that each nation should consider itself the best and greatest in its own way. Still, for world peace to dawn, each nation — even the mightiest — must be humble enough to bow to other nations. When each nation bows to others and all bow to God, then we will see the spirit of loving kindness fully ripen. In that ripening of loving kindness, which is a quality of the spiritual heart, there lies humanity’s greatest hope.

people-are-good-sri-chinmoy-peace-run-2

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

Of Further Interest

The United Nations as a Spiritual Institution by A. Walter Dorn
Spirituality at the United Nations by Donald F. Keys
peacerun.org

* * *

Thought of the Day: People Are Good

The Doomsday Clock may be advancing, but there is still infinite good in the human heart, and peace remains a strong countervailing force.

In such a polarized period of our nation’s history (if not world history), it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart. That goodness often expresses itself in loving kindness, and in this sense there is no disagreement between those who explicitly believe in God, and those who are secular humanists. Both camps can agree that there is something noble at the core of human existence. Some will call it a human quality, others will say it is a divine quality. But loving kindness is one of the things we most urgently need right now. We need not agree on its ultimate source.

As I approach the evening of my life, I find that I remember many things which others have forgotten. I remember them not by accident, but because they were things which helped me build a sense of meaning in my life, and so I treasured those things and kept them in my heart.

With the turning of the generations, and the nature of a market-driven economy, many valuable things are seemingly thrown out, or at least no longer publicized, so that they become for all intent and purposes invisible. They still have tremendous inherent power, but that power is untapped by a later generation which either does not know of them, or does not identify with them.

So it was when it came to me write on the topic of “People Are Good.” I immediately thought of this song by The Roches which had moved me to tears 25 years ago and still does so to this day:

Now, some might think of The Roches as the epitome of Eastern liberal folk-singing types. But in this song they seem to channel the same feeling that one might find in churches across America. “Everyone Is Good” is like a universal folk mass gently proselytizing on behalf of the religion of loving kindness.

This invitation to practice loving kindness applies equally to people of all political persuasions. Yet, at a time when many gentle people of conscience are concerned about the direction in which our nation is headed, I can’t help thinking that these lines apply especially to Donald Trump: “Wouldn’t it be something to be loving and kind/ Forgive yourself for everything having once been blind.”

Activists on the left are not always known for their gentleness, so those lines apply to them too. About two years ago, I commented on how the name “Madonna” has come to mean different things to different people. To some it signifies the mother of Jesus, to others the folk stylings of Joan Baez, while the Googlebot is convinced that anyone who types in “Madonna” must be looking for the brassy pop idol, who recently dropped the f-bomb in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington.

I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s version of words from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for righteous anger at injustice, and I am no stranger to that emotion — to feeling it and expressing it on my blog. But I also try to be informed by a healing spirit, and an awareness that the deepest truth about human nature is that people are good.

For me, that awareness has to struggle against the many sad things I’ve seen, beginning in childhood. For me, a powerful ally in the struggle to see the good in people has always been Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who writes:

When we open our heart to the entire world, we are not safe. The evil and destructive qualities of the world can enter into us and utilise us for their own purposes. They can do so precisely because our love, which is our strength, is very limited; our joy, which is our strength, is very limited; our peace, which is our strength, is very limited. All that we have, we have in very limited measure. But at the same time we have to have confidence in ourselves. Although we are not now measureless and infinite, a day will dawn when we will be measureless, infinite and transcendental. How? By going to the Source, to God.

Even though the ignorant world can destroy the lotus in us, that does not mean that we shall have no faith in humanity in general. India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

Since we are spiritual seekers, we have to have more faith than an ordinary human being has. We have to have faith even in unaspiring persons although we are not going to try right now to transform their nature. Why? Because we do not have the necessary capacity, or because it is not God’s Will. Even if we do not have the necessary capacity, God can give us the capacity. He can make us strong so that we can help humanity. But that is not God’s Will. God’s Will is for us to help those who are already awakened to some extent, those who are aspiring or who want to aspire, but not those who are fast asleep. God does not want to push them. To them God says, “Sleep, My child, sleep.” But to those who are already awakened and who want to run, God says, “Have faith in My creation which is humanity and have faith in yourself, for it is you who are ultimately going to represent Me on earth.” We have to have faith in ourselves in order to realise and fulfil God. We have to have faith in God because it is He who has inspired us and awakened us and who is going to fulfil us in His own Way.

If God wants you, open your eyes, close your ears and run. We have to be fully awakened and alert; we have to stop living in the world of sleep before we can find God. We must look all around, not to see the ugliness of the world, but to see the creation in its purest form with our purest eyes. Open your eyes. We must sleep no longer! We must look at the world with the purity that we have and see the purity in God’s creation.

Close your ears. Why have we to close our ears? Because there are things we may hear that will bother and disturb us, such as criticism, jealousy, flattery and praise. When somebody criticises us, how should we regard him? We should think of him as a dog barking right in front of us. If a dog barks right in front of us and we pay attention to it, the dog will not stop barking and annoying us. Then we will have difficulty in reaching our destined goal. We have to take criticism in the same way. People criticise us in every way. They say, “He is useless. He spends all his time meditating and he does not help society the way society needs help.” But what does society want? Society itself does not even know. Nobody can tell us what to do with our life. When we are ready for God, when we are awakened and have opened our eyes, God wants us. At that time we don’t have to pay attention to anybody’s criticism. We have to know that what we are doing is best. It is best even for those who are criticising us, because a day will come when they will give up their ignorance and be inspired to follow us.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

Pop culture is disposable culture, so if we view the world solely through the eyes of pop culture, it will be an ever-changing kaleidoscope with no clear vision. Spiritual wisdom is enduring, lasting. It gradually reveals a vast panorama of truth, the truth of how things really are and how everything fits together. This truth does not last for five minutes, or five hours, or five days, but is an eternal truth.

Let us meditate on these wise words: “What does society want? Society itself does not even know.” Society knows that it is dissatisfied, but it does not have a clear vision on how to proceed. Therefore, we need to go on the hero’s journey and bring back wisdom which will eventually help transform society.

The political struggle to build a more compassionate society will be far more successful if it is able to embody these deeper spiritual truths. To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself:

Interviewer: What is the purpose of your Peace Concert?

Sri Chinmoy: There is only one purpose: I try to be of service to mankind. When thousands of people gather together, I feel that we are working together. I am not the only one who serves. The people who come to listen to my music or to join me in praying are also doing something most significant. We are all trying to bring about world peace. It is teamwork.

Interviewer: So, everybody resonates peace together?

Sri Chinmoy: We are all working together. It is not that I am going to give peace to others — far from it! We shall work together. We are all in a boat sailing together towards the destination, which we call the Golden Shore.

Interviewer: What can somebody who comes to the concert expect to experience?

Sri Chinmoy: It is my prayer that they will get inspiration in abundant measure. Then, the following morning, they will be inspired to do something better in their life. My sole purpose in giving these Peace Concerts is to be of inspiration to others.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen in this lifetime to be a teacher and leader of peace?

Sri Chinmoy: I have not chosen to be a leader and I never declare myself a teacher of peace. I am a student of peace. I have been telling the whole world that I am a student of peace. I go everywhere to learn, and while I am learning, people feel that I am giving something. In the process of learning, we feel that the teacher and student give something to each other. While the student is learning, the teacher also learns something from the student.

Interviewer: What would you like everyone to know about himself or herself?

Sri Chinmoy: That they embody God, they embody Truth, they embody Light. Each individual should feel that he or she embodies God: God’s Divinity, God’s Eternity, God’s Immortality.

— from Edge Magazine, “The Joy of Inner Peace with Sri Chinmoy”

Some will say there is no bridge between the political and the spiritual, that they are at daggers drawn. But Sri Chinmoy clearly identifies that in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and the spiritual were united by a deeper vision. Gandhian principles of non-violence came to inform many successful political movements which achieved lasting change. Therefore, let us not doubt that spiritual wisdom can be a powerful force for guiding and inspiring political change. Spiritual wisdom can bring a certain gentleness and loving kindness without which political movements fail to reach the hearts of those whose help is needed in order to achieve change.

Lasting political change is founded on peace, proceeds through peace, and eventually manifests peace as a flower coming into bloom. This coming to fruition of peace requires not only dedication, but patience. We can cultivate such patience if we are secure in the knowledge that the general trend over time is toward peace. As Sri Chinmoy says in one of his peace songs:

No matter what the world thinks,
Our world, soon, very soon,
Will be flooded with peace.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of far-reaching vision. In this promise of a world flooded with peace, perhaps “soon” means soon in cosmic time — maybe not next week or next month. Still, many people following diverse paths share a sense that peace is definitely dawning, even if gradually, in fits and starts. We may observe many conflicts flaring up, yet Sri Chinmoy finds much hope in the fact that we have avoided a Third World War. In the aforementioned interview, he says:

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a growing peace on the planet?

Sri Chinmoy: Definitely, definitely! Over the years, I have observed that peace is growing. I have been here in the Western world for 36 years. Previously I saw dozens of times that peace was only talk. We were only talking and talking about peace. Now people are praying to have peace in the depths of their heart. Talking has now given way to experience. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing peace. So the world has made tremendous improvement! Of course, we cannot say that in today’s world there is no conflict, there is no fight, there is no confusion. There is conflict, but in comparison, it is less.

Previously we were afraid that there would be a Third World War. Now, we do not foresee that possibility. The First World War destroyed us and the Second World war destroyed us, but we do not see any possibility of a Third World War. There is mutual compromise, and this is a sign that people want peace. Otherwise there could have been a Third World War by this time.

Yet, even as I write word comes to me that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight:

The great scientists who administer the Doomsday Clock make serious points in their analysis which should not be discounted lightly. But I think their training does not incline them to factor in God’s Compassion. I do not believe God will allow this world to be utterly destroyed. I agree with Sri Chinmoy that the trend is toward peace, even if that fragile peace is often threatened by rambunctious leaders.

We can take comfort in his words at a time of fear and uncertainty, for he was truly a man of vision whose peace studies led him far beyond what most of us have seen or experienced. To learn from such a man of peace is well, good, and proper, for peace is not something we can always get from dry books, or from a crowd chanting noisy slogans. Peace is something which may be transmitted in silence from one who embodies peace to one who is crying for peace.

There are those who feel that change must always be extremely loud. According to them, silence has no power. Yet Sri Chinmoy writes:

Silence Speaks

Silence is not silent.

Silence speaks.

It speaks most eloquently.

Silence is not still.

Silence leads.

It leads most perfectly.

— Sri Chinmoy

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Silence Liberates!
Africa-Vision Songs

sri-chinmoy-a-hundred-years-from-now

 

Prayer for Peace and Peace Resources

It could just be me, but it seems as though the world is going through a particularly turbulent time. Without recounting all the sad and inhumane incidents from recent weeks (and an airport shooting just today), let me say that I feel it. I feel as though misunderstanding, hatred, killing, and warfare are running riot. It pains my heart to see such unrelenting human misery. To pray for peace is something we can all do.

I’m reminded of an incident concerning Abraham Lincoln. Forgive me if I’ve mangled the story in my memory, but it goes something like this:

Just before the commencement of a great battle in which many men might be destroyed, Lincoln stooped to pick up a small insect which had landed on the battlefield, and carried it to safety. “Will anyone really feel better just because you saved that small bug?” someone asked Lincoln. “No, but I feel better,” Lincoln replied.

If our prayer for peace is powerful enough it can change the world. But even if the world remains the same, our prayer for peace can help put us in tune with peace, and bring us a little peace in a world filled with big, bigger, biggest troubles.

Michael Howard

Peace Quote

Right now fear, doubt, anxiety, tension and disharmony are reigning supreme. But there shall come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who is going to bring about this radical change? It will be you — you and your sisters and brothers — who will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

— Sri Chinmoy, as quoted on StudentOfPeace.org

Peace Fact

Pope Francis’s traditional Christmas day message repeated the word ‘peace’ over 20 times. Some commentators seemed puzzled by this, but I found it quite natural for one who was invoking peace.

More Peace Resources

“The Joy of Inner Peace, with Sri Chinmoy” (Edge Magazine interview)

sri-chinmoy-peace-concert

The Peace Run
https://www.peacerun.org/us/

Time For Reflection, with Prof. Alan Spence
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QCx3n9c-XU

We live in hope!

* * *

An Indian In Japan

sri-chinmoy-100-metre-dash

Sri Chinmoy in Japan (right-click to enlarge)

The rich culture of Japan was explored by Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy during his numerous visits there. As a runner, in 1993 he participated in the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland*

I am a sentimentalist at heart, and so really cherish this home movie style footage of Sri Chinmoy at the 1993 World Veterans’ Championships held in Miyazaki, Japan. Sri Chinmoy was 62 at the time, and his running form is still wonderful to behold, as is his good nature and ability to immediately get along with a group of strangers of many nationalities.

Due to knee problems, Sri Chinmoy had shifted his athletic attention from running to weightlifting about a decade earlier. This allowed him to concentrate more on upper body strength, with less daily wear and tear on the knees. But in keeping with his philosophy of challenging impossibility, in 1993 he was inspired to attend the World Veterans’ Championships and give his all to the 100-metre dash.

Watching him compete is a joyful experience slightly tinged with sadness for me. It reminds me of how much he suffered in order to inspire others, bring them joy, and offer a living lesson in determination. You can see that after sprinting, when he returns to a walking gait, he’s limping slightly.

I’m also reminded of a still image I captured from a 2001 video. It shows a moment where Sri Chinmoy is rising from a seated position. The occasion as a whole is a joyful one, but you can see the sadness in one close disciple’s eyes as she identifies with Sri Chinmoy’s physical suffering.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

People sometimes wonder why I defend Sri Chinmoy so vigorously from those who, after his death, have tried to dismiss or discredit him. One reason is that I know how much he willingly suffered and took on the sufferings of others in order to bring joy to those who had known little true joy. He was many things to many people, including real hope for the hopeless. I would rather remember his smiling countenance:

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

A broad smile after finishing

A broad smile after finishing

The Miyazaki footage strikes me as wonderfully Japanese in that you see many different cross-sections of Japanese society represented. There’s an overarching spirit of good cheer, without any sense that the disparate cultural elements would clash — from taiko drummers to kimono dancers to a western-style marching band. The opening ceremonies were clearly modeled after the Olympics, with a sense of pageantry and ritual that’s also very Japanese.

Fireworks at the World Veterans' Championships in Miyazaki.

Fireworks at the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Some very young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren't supplied with sun hats.

Some young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren’t supplied with sun hats.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of diverse talents and capacities. While in Miyazaki, he gave a series of four of his legendary Peace Concerts on four consecutive days.

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

It boggles the mind to switch gears and take in the multifarious activities which he pursued as a reflection of an enlightened consciousness. Fortunately, the heart is much vaster than the mind. The heart of intuition, the heart of empathy can clasp him far more easily than the mind can grasp him.

Sri Chinmoy returned to Japan on a number of occasions. He was an accomplished visual artist, and as I note in “Put a Bird on It! Part Two,” he was in Kamakura in July 2006. Shortly before his 75th birthday, 75 of his acrylics on paper were exhibited at the Kōtoku-in Buddhist Temple.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Kamakura is the home of the Great Buddha, or Daibatsu. Nearly four decades earlier, on his first trip to Japan in 1969, Sri Chinmoy wrote:

To Kamakura

Kamakura! You in the Buddha
Are his Reality’s Face.
Kamakura! You with the Buddha
Are his Divinity’s Grace.
Kamakura! The Buddha’s Life for you
Is the limitless consolation
Of descending mankind.
Kamakura! Your life for the Buddha
Is the boundless promise
Of ascending mankind.

Sri Chinmoy emerged from the Hindu Yoga tradition, but had a universal outlook which allowed him to be of service to seekers of many different faiths. His book of plays Siddhartha Becomes The Buddha, as well as his focus on meditation, have endeared him to many a Buddhist seeker. Here Sri Chinmoy performs some of his songs honouring the Buddha, as well as the traditional “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” or “Three Vows”:

Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s soulful chanting, we are connected with an ancient tradition, still living and unbroken for thousands of years. The song “Nidra Bihin Buddha Debata” translates roughly as:

Borobudur, lap of the deep peace of the Buddha
Where divinity is present
Coming here, completely silent all the world’s waters.

Comparing Borobudur and Kamakura — two places of Buddhist pilgrimage — Sri Chinmoy writes:

Borobudur is the Buddha in the process of blossoming. Kamakura is the Buddha who has already blossomed. Borobudur has simplicity in purity and purity in simplicity. Kamakura has silence in power and power in silence. Both are totally different.

An unending thank you to Sri Chinmoy, and a big thank you to the videographers and webmasters who have worked tirelessly to chronicle his amazing life.

*Most images based on screenshots of the video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland.

Michael Howard

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

Other Items of Interest

Hiya Bhasha Group performs “E Shubha Pranate E Buddha”

Listen to the full album on Radio Sri Chinmoy.

hiya-bhasha-buddham-sharanam-gacchami-3

Challenging Impossibility: Challenging the Oscars
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-juddery/challenging-impossibility_b_1788390.html

Sri Chinmoy’s Sporting Career
http://www.srichinmoycentre.org/sri_chinmoy/sri_chinmoy_sports

Sri Chinmoy: 1998 Interview on Weightlifting
http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/mjw-2


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy — “My Japanese Companion”

In 1979, Sri Chinmoy was still an avid runner who delighted in running and would travel great distances to enter marathons. Later, when he could no longer run due to a right knee injury, he would often speed walk. He filled book after book with reminiscences about running. This is the Run and Become, Become and Run series. Part 2 includes anecdotes from his visit to Greece to run in the Pheidippides Marathon, which he completed with a time of 5:39:41 at age 48.

My Japanese Companion

My first evening in Greece I went out to run. It seems that taxi drivers and car owners there are insane, especially at night. How badly they drive!

At every moment you are at their mercy, even in the park. I don’t know how, but they manage to drive right into the park itself. There is no street or anything; far from it. But they drive right into the park, and so speedily. Then they leave their cars there while they go to a party or some place. And we are trying to run there!

Inside the park an old Japanese man — very short, very skinny — started following me as I was running. I thought I was shorter than the shortest, but he was practically at my shoulder. And he was very old.

With such affection, such affection, he started running with me. Then we started talking. He told me all about his running experiences. I was very happy.

He was about 70 years old and he said he had come all the way from Japan for the marathon.

He was staying at the same hotel that I was. There were quite a few Japanese staying there. They all had come to run.

The following day also we ran together. I always make complaints about my strides, but his strides were shorter than mine. I ran two miles with him, very slowly.

I saw him once more after the marathon. He took seven hours and fifteen or twenty minutes. He was so delighted that he had completed it. Who would not be proud of him!

–Sri Chinmoy, 7 October 1979


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, courtesy Sri Chinmoy Libary:

sri-chinmoy-my-salutation-to-japansri-chinmoy-siddhartha-becomes-the-buddhasri-chinmoy-the-world-experience-tree-climber-part-6sri-chinmoy-run-and-become-part-2

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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”
https://vox-nova.com/2009/09/20/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

sri-chinmoy-philosophy-wisdom-chariot

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