Emptiness

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Emptiness (And Ice Cream)

 

She eats ice cream

Because of an emptiness

Deeper than stomach or bowels.

She is hunger in human form:

For loneliness,

For attention,

For love,

Expressed in pain medicine and ice cream.

Buying things might ease it:

A beautiful home,

Ferocious car, clothes,

Furniture, widescreen TV,

Computer, smartphone

Books, music,

But the emptiness remains unfilled.

“He’s not nice, he’s empty,”

My teacher said about the Dalai Lama.

That’s an emptiness I don’t understand.

What emptiness manifests as kindness

Instead of selfish sorrow?

What emptiness forgives his country”s enslavement,

While striving nonviolently

For that wound to heal?

It’s not the same emptiness

That destroys and fouls

Air, land and water

To power a civilization

Believing only in possessions and power.

It’s the emptiness of a man who freed slaves,

Of a man who labored

To free descendents of slaves,

And all the other oppressed at once.

Was that emptiness?

Or was that a man acquainted with grief,

Full to overflowing with tears

At the suffering humans impose on each other?

Was he empty, full,

Or both at once?

Whatever it was,

He acted out of it

To win a war,

To heal his country,

And possibly a whole world.

It was an unselfish hunger,

At least in that

His own suffering was not his concern.

And so I turn to look

At people I know to suffer,

Uncertain what to do to help.

I am empty from not acting.

Maybe they’re empty from acting on impulse.

Two different kinds of emptiness

Amounting to the same thing.

The question is what and how to build.

Even the wise don’t always know,

Must have faith

Their work will not be wasted

In torrents of emotion sweeping the world.

The sky will keep on crying

Until heaven too is empty.

And mortal emptiness is filled

With something more substantial than ice cream.

 

I wrote this at the beginning of the month. The woman in the poem was also a portrait of myself. Little difference between her and me, except circumstance.

But the whole idea of emptiness recalled to me that long-ago conversation with my meditation teacher, which I didn’t understand. Every three months or so we would have Sesshin, a period of intensive meditation, and each morning we would chant a piece of writing in Kanji; Japanese in Chinese script. It was a Buddhist text, I think a pretty early one, and part of it said, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” (there was a translation beneath the phonetic way to pronounce the Japanese). I never understood what that meant.

Now, perhaps, a memoir by William Patrick Patterson, Eating the I, explains that in terms I can understand.

Patterson entered the Gurdjieff work in New York City more than 40 years ago. His teacher had been a student of George Gurdjieff, and had been given responsibility for the work in the USA. While Patterson talks about what was being taught, and gives examples of how his teacher, Lord John Pentland, behaved, he balances some of the more important teachings with what was happening in his personal life. At the beginning he’s living with the woman who will become his wife, waiting to find a job. There are unavoidable tensions, since he’s extremely depressed, and she’s paying his way. They fight, and in parallel with that life, he begins to learn that he has different selves, with which he identifies at one moment, but which are gone the next.

He repeats PD Ouspensky’s experience of trying to “remember himself”, which he more or less explains as being aware of both body and mind, while he does errands. He sees someone on the street who looks Indian, and goes into a reverie about India, fantasizing about finding enlightenment there, and after his errands, realizes he’s forgotten to remember himself.

He denies in the group that he’s interested in black magic, then another group member finds a book about that in his bookcase, which he’d bought, read part of and completely forgotten. What else, he asks his teacher, has he forgotten?

Another clue is given in a group meeting. During a conversation, the teacher remarks that to really listen, one must be empty. That seems obvious enough. How often, when we talk to others, DO we really listen? I often catch myself waiting my turn and preparing what I’m going to say, instead of REALLY listening. The parts of one who do this are disparate selves, of which we’re usually not conscious. To know one’s self (ves), one must observe, which means splitting one’s attention: not only to what one’s doing, but which self is doing what, what’s happening in one’s body, in one’s emotions. Which part of me is doing what? What do I do that’s genuine, and what that’s merely habit?

When Patterson asks another group member what emptiness is, the man replies that we’re all constructs: little selves built around little pieces of our lives.

Patterson finds a job, and becomes successful at it. He marries the woman he’s been living with, perhaps a measure of the positive impact of his spiritual work. He becomes interested in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama come to the West, and flirts with the idea of pursuing that way. It’s a pretty serious flirtation: When Trungpa asks him why he’s come (to Trungpa’s center in Barnet, Vermont), Patterson answers he wants to learn to meditate, though he thinks he’s come for a seminar. Trungpa tells him to do sitting meditation, alone, for ten hours a day for two weeks. Parts of Patterson don’t want to, but he does it anyway, which is more than most would do.

He sits for 45 minutes, rests for 15, then continues, from 7am to 5pm every day.The practice is boring, but he follows Trungpa’s cursory instructions on how to sit and breathe, and after more than a week finds that his mind has been breathing, that he can relax, let his body breathe, and observe that. Things slow down. He begins to enjoy the meditation.

On the last day he’s enjoying it so much that, rather than take his last 15 minute break, he continues sitting. Trungpa and other leaders of the center come to the room at the end of the day to meditate too, and Patterson meditates with them. He begins to get tired, though, his body begins to complain: back and legs especially, but when he hears Trungpa’s chair creak (usually signal of the end of meditation), the pain magically goes away. But the meditation doesn’t end. Once more comes the signal, as his body protests, once more the pain goes away, and returns when meditation doesn’t end. Then it’s over.

He considers joining Trungpa at a planned center in Colorado, but at the last moment reconsiders, and stays where he is. Still, he’s learned some of the correspondences between Gurdjieff’s teaching and Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation has given him opportunity to observe himself at a sort of leisure.

At his job Patterson is successful, though he has conflict with one of his superiors, something sort of archetypal, as with irreconcilable opposites. If he were to portray himself as purely heroic, he’d probably say he beat the man in some way. As it is, the man tells him, when he leaves the company, that he’s played for a stalemate, and that’s what he’s gotten.

At the suggestion of another group member, he meets an art teacher, and begins to learn to draw and paint, practicing to allow (after a good deal of practice) the painting to come out of him with little thought. Things begin to express themselves through him that have meaning.

He also becomes unfaithful to his wife with one of his coworkers, cares a good deal for her, but realizes that wife and family are more important to him.. They have two sons together. He travels, partly on business, partly on intuition. Eventually he feels it’s time to leave New York and go to San Francisco, for no obvious reason, but does so. There, after waiting a long time to find a job, he eventually meets a man called Sunyata.

This was a 90 year old man born in Denmark who had been a gardener in England when he met the poet Tagore, who invited him to India “to teach Silence.” It seems that Sunyata, a name he took in India, was a natural mystic, without much “headucation’, as he put it, who was born enlightened. He never had to struggle, as most do, to attain anything. The name he took means full solid emptiness, and he said, after he’d built himself a hut, that there he could “do nothing, be nothing, and enjoy nothing.”

He became known by mystics in the area, as well as some visitors, and much later was persuaded to visit the United States. He found that he enjoyed California, which is where Patterson met him.

He spoke, but not a lot, and with no particular authority, or even as if he knew what he would say next. But concisely. In most ways different from Lord Pentland, but similar in one : he felt to Patterson as if no one was there. “There was no “I” or ego, there seemed to be an absence and a presence, the ambiguity of which I had no words.”

Patterson was attracted to him, began spending time with him, and marveled at him. He says, “For Sunya was empty. There were so very few “I”s there. And what there were, as Sunya would say,”was never any problem.””

Gurdjieff speaks about having to fuse our “I’s, and there is little doubt that he did, and that virtually everything he did after that was intentional. Patterson never claims to have done this. He speaks of “breathing through” things, working to stay open, not to identify, and not to express negative emotions. Remembering one’s self seems largely a practice of avoiding identification, either with one’s states (“I”s), which come and go, or with influences from the outside. Gurdjieff said that we’re subject to more outside influences than we know, that the impulse for war comes from these, and that war could be avoided if we had the strength to resist these influences. But history is largely the story of war. For as long as we know about, we have been influenced, and continue to be.

Sunya, it seems, was a walking definition of emptiness, as his name states. But emptiness on a higher level than the emptiness we usually see in ourselves and others, which is essentially hunger, and which we usually try to fill in foolish ways.

I’m no different from the lady I wrote about. My addictions are slightly, but only slightly, different. The same hunger drives them. The same wish to be filled without having to do anything about it, other than consume.

That’s the influence of the world, the babyishness that still exists in me, wishing to be filled by others instead of filling myself by my own efforts. Or is that emptying myself of a lot of immature and foolish “I”s that I allow to run my life?

In either case, I’m not much different from anyone else. I look for satisfaction in the outside world instead of trying to create it.

Patterson eventually leaves the Gurdjieff group. At one point, a little while before doing so, he expresses to Lord Pentland that he doesn’t trust him or others who run the organization. At this point Patterson has been in the group a decade or so, and STILL doesn’t trust the leader? “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” might be the appropriate quote here.

So Patterson eventually does leave the group, but does so gratefully. The distrust he had expressed was his, whether or not there was any basis for it, but he also recognized that he had benefited greatly from what he had learned.

Since that time he has written a number of books, and made a film about Gurdjieff, his ideas and activities. The phenomenal contribution that Gurdjieff made to Western thought and practice (though it has little obvious influence) is something worth thinking and writing about. It’s quite clear to me that there is nothing dated about his ideas: they are as discomforting and applicable today as they were a hundred years ago.

Patterson has his own view of them, which no one else need agree with. He does have the advantage of having experienced the work from inside, which I have not. He also has the advantage of having persisted in his path, which I also have not. For me it’s theoretical, though it’s a theory that FEELS right. Patterson’s teacher, Lord Pentland, observes that we can’t rely on feelings, that we must observe them a long time while doing parallel work before they can become trustworthy.

And despite the feelings one of my “I”s has about Gurdjieff, his views and practices,  those feelings have so far not been enough to get me to try putting any of it into practice.

 

 

In Search of the Miraculous

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I am rereading PD Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, which I first read some 40 years ago, and am experiencing the same response: I find the book now, as I found it then, thrilling and fascinating, and am convinced that its picture of the universe is true.

Probably not everyone would agree. The worldview depicted (including cosmology) is very different from what is found elsewhere. It contradicts the scientific explanation for how the solar system was formed, for instance, but if one accepts its postulates, if only hypothetically, the description is very detailed and convincing.

Ouspensky was a prominent journalist in St. Petersburgh, who had published at least one book, gave lectures fairly often, and had a formidable intellect. A relatively recent book describes him as a “magician”: someone who had the ability to convince people to follow him. Early in 1915, when World War I was a few months old, and only about two years before the Russian revolution began, he met George Gurdjieff, an even more formidable “magician”. The book is about what he learned from Gurdjieff, and their relationship.

One of the beginnings of Gurdjieff’s  teachings is that people in general are “asleep”. This means, more or less, that people behave mechanically, without any real will or freedom,  their consciousness is much more limited than it could be, and distorted besides.

Part of the reason for this has to do with cosmology: he describes a “Ray of Creation” extending from the Creator through a series of seven universes until it reaches this planet and then the moon. This ray only concerns our world, though there are innumerable other rays. At each step away from the creator, each universe (or world) acquires laws, which operate mechanically rather than creatively. The world we know is relatively far from the Creator, and has 48 basic laws, so it’s much less free, and much more mechanical than the worlds higher than ours. These worlds, however, interpenetrate ours, but are made of material much finer than the matter science has been able to perceive.

This is something of a key to another subject: the soul. Gurdjieff is almost alone in saying that humans are not born with souls, and are able to live without them. He says there’s a “certain something” in humanity that survives after death–for awhile–but having a soul, which is something like the popular conception of the “astral body”, is something we have the potential to acquire, but must make great efforts to do so: “conscious labor and intentional suffering”, as he puts it. This is the key to another part of his teaching.

Much later than the time Ouspensky is describing, Gurdjieff writes that from an early age he questioned what the point of organic life in general and human life in particular was. This is an unusual question, something it never occurs to most people to ask. We know we’re alive, are brought up more or less well, and pursue our interests and desires, but mostly take the world as we see it pretty much for granted. Scientists have more curiosity than most, but western science has many of the same blindspots and other failings as the rest of us.

The answer Gurdjieff found was that organic and human life are transformers of energies. We’re familiar with transformations of energy on the material level: soil transforms seeds into plants, herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat herbivores. One of the implications of evolutionary theory is that the world we see began accidentally, from the strictly materialist point of view. This Gurdjieff denies, though he also says that all the universe is material, composed of vibrations of higher or lower frequency. His view is that nothing in nature is superfluous, that each level of life and each species has a purpose. That purpose is to support the universe, with each level of life supporting at least one other. That’s the purpose of human life too: the energies we transform support the evolution of our planet’s moon, according to Gurdjieff. The moon, if everything goes well, will eventually become a planet like ours, and our planet will be its sun.

This sounds improbable, especially from the viewpoint of modern science about the formation of the solar system, but one need not literally believe that the moon is the place where our energies go to find the concept fascinating. This is ecology on the energetic level, rather than the material level, of which we’re more or less aware. It also says we’re an integral part of our world and the universe, though it’s popular to believe that we’re somehow “apart” from the natural world.

The idea that we’re the highest species in the world or universe leads to the idea that we have the right to use the world and its resources in any way we care to. The idea that there are beings or species superior to us put limits on how we can behave.

A key point about this concept is that humans have the choice (or responsibility) to transform energy consciously by seeking self-perfection, which will also provide the person with a soul. The process is difficult and complicated, but offers the possibility of reaching one’s potential for anyone willing to pursue it. According to Gurdjieff, few of us reach anything close to our potential.

One reason is that we in the civilized world particularly have lives that are too easy. The system Gurdjieff taught requires great efforts that cut very deeply. One reason we see things inaccurately is because we lie to ourselves and each other constantly. It’s very difficult to stop lying, and many will not care to try. Doing so would mean seeing ourselves clearly, and many would be horrified at what they see: that we fail miserably to live up to our ideals, and for stupid reasons. People ordinarily erect what Gurdjieff calls “buffers”, which distract us from reality. Thoughts and fantasies we enjoy, roles we play with different people, and other methods of escape. If we were to decide to try to wake up our buffers would put us back to sleep again.

There are other factors that contribute to sleep. According to Gurdjieff, we have three body centers (an oversimplification): the moving/instinctive center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center. The moving/instinctual center does things like take care of driving the car once we’ve learned. It does this much better than our intellectual center could, because it works faster.

The three centers ought to be equally developed, but in our time and culture usually are not. Perceiving something with any one of the centers (which in some contexts Gurdjieff calls brains, referring to humans as “three-brained beings”) gives us knowledge, but only by perceiving with all three centers can we have understanding, which is better than knowledge. Knowledge may be forgotten. Almost everyone any of us can know lives primarily in one center or the other, which produces three different character types: those in the moving/instinctive center care mostly for the fulfillment of physical needs and desires. Emotional people value emotional satisfaction more than anything, while intellectual people live mainly in abstraction. These are ways of only seeing partially.

Another important distinction is between essence and personality. Essence is what a person has of his or her own; personality is what is learned from others. A person who lives close to nature and has to struggle to survive may have a very developed essence, but undeveloped personality, without which he or she is unlikely to be able to develop further. A person living in a city is likely to have a very developed personality, but undeveloped essence. These qualities need also to be balanced.

Gurdjieff also introduces to the group of which Ouspensky is a part,  a “Table of Hydrogens”, which shows important elements and how they function in different worlds. These elements don’t correspond with the periodic table of western science, as it calls atoms the smallest division of any substance that still retains the properties of that substance, so that some “atoms” may be big enough to see. This turns out to be important because it connects with the material basis for the cultivation of a soul.

That, in turn, is connected with the Law of Seven, which Gurdjieff calls one of the basic cosmic laws. It refers to how processes develop in seven different steps before beginning over. But the important thing about this concept is that at two different points the process needs shocks from the outside to continue in the correct direction. Gurdjieff cites three different “foods” that humans need. The first is what we usually think of as food, the second is air, and the third is impressions. Creating a soul requires separation of fine material from less fine material, and this is possible because of the fine elements of air and impressions.

There are two practices (at least) that facilitate this. One is self-remembering, not easy to understand. It has to do with observing one’s self and trying to be conscious of everything one does, and opens the way for finer elements to reach a place in the body where they can coalesce and begin to construct a separate body. Without this practice, the finer elements never reach the correct place. The other practice has to do with learning to control and transform negative emotions, and has a similar function.

The Law of Seven has much bigger implications than that, though, as it controls all processes in the universe. One example Gurdjieff gives of a process gone wrong because of lack of shocks at key points is Christianity, which went from being a religion of love to being the religion of the Inquisition.

All the valid religions, Gurdjieff says, have three levels: the exoteric, which is what most people believe, often erroneously; the mesoteric, which are students who have begun to learn something, but more on the theoretical than practical level; and the esoteric, which are those who experience directly what the religion is about, and are able to undertake practical tasks using that experience. Things that people who inspire religions say are true on an objective level, but since most people live on a subjective level, what they say is misunderstood or disregarded. Their ideas come from outside of ordinary life, and once within that life become distortions of what was actually meant.

Gurdjieff himself was a Christian, though he also respected the other major religions, and learned what he could from anyone with something to teach him. Though he’d been brought up in Orthodox Christianity, and liked some of their spiritual exercises, he had little good to say about conventional organized religion, which he said had been mostly dead for the last two or three hundred years. He was not interested in belief in dogma, but in teaching the means to real spiritual experience, and the ability to see reality.

The latter, he said, is very difficult, and usually when people reach that level of perception they pass out, or their minds blank out. This corresponds with what is reported of a very deep stage of meditation, called samadhi. 

To be able to reach such a stage one must learn how to avoid wasting energy through unnecessary tension, etc, and learn how to make our bodies, which can be compared to factories, make more energy. This also has its difficulties, of course, but anyone who can learn to do it then has access to energies which make the different centers work well, as well as constructing the soul.

Different centers work on different energies, and work at different speeds. Intellect works the slowest of the three. Both the moving/instinctive center and the emotional center work much faster, and there are things to be learned through the emotional center in particular that aren’t available to the intellect.

The emotional center is the driving force of humans, but must be harnessed to produce anything of importance. This also means harnessing the body, which can fall into lazy habits. When Gurdjieff later set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man in France he attracted mostly intellectuals, whom he put to work at jobs very physically demanding. Those who were willing to persist found their minds and general perceptions much clearer. This kind of work, he said, required a teacher, because no individual could push him or herself sufficiently.

In fact, he said that schools were necessary, because these could provide the kind of conditions for development that individuals, at least at first, could not (or would not) provide for themselves. Such conditions include living with people one wouldn’t choose to live with, and living in uncomfortable circumstances, as well as doing hard physical labor. In addition, Gurdjieff taught sacred dances, many of which dated back well before Christianity. And one of the exercises practiced was the Stop.

This was used to combat physical habits. Each of us has a limited repertoire of physical stances, and when we move, we move from one to another. In the Stop exercise the teacher may call, “Stop!” at any time, and the students have to freeze in whatever position they are in, not moving anything, and feel the unusual posture. This gives them a more realistic view of their bodies and selves in general  than the postures they’re used to.

The emotional center is what can comprehend what Gurdjieff calls “objective art”; that is, art that expresses to everyone (depending on their ability to receive it) the same effect. The art we know is almost entirely subjective, so that our response to it depends on associations. A sad song may remind us of a happy time, and vice versa. The emotional center can comprehend more because it’s faster and more subtle than the intellect. Of course many who live primarily in the emotional center may be sentimental, but they may also have deeper insight into people than others less comfortable with emotion.

Living in one center or another determines what sort of religion a person may have. Man Number One, who lives in the moving/instinctive center, may like showy dramatic religious ceremonies, or may go to church mainly for social reasons.

Man Number Two, living in the emotional center, is attracted to a devotional religion, but is also most prone to becoming a religious fanatic, persecuting heretics and starting religious wars.

Man Number Three, living in the intellectual center, will be attracted to more abstract religions, or may be repulsed by religion altogether.

The centers are also the means of developing unusual powers. One may work primarily on the body, developing great control over it, and undergoing a certain transformation, but may have little idea what to do with this power.

Another may work primarily on the emotions, and also undergo a transformation of sorts, but again not know what to do with the power attained.

Working on the intellect can give a person knowledge of what to do, but not the power to do it.

What Gurdjieff taught was what he called the Fourth Way, which aims to develop all the centers more or less at once with exercises suitable for each stage. He said that this preceded all the ways still being practiced (but that there used to be other ways in the distant past) and stands alone. According to one fairly recent account, he discovered the basics of this system in Ethiopia in the 1890s and spent another 20 years or so at least partly in tracking the diffusion of this system into Asia.

Working with all the centers at once is a way to develop human beings, those willing to work, into types on a higher level than almost all. Besides the ordinary types are Man Number Four who is balanced, has a philosophy he or she lives by, knows where he or she is going, and is willing to do whatever necessary to get there. But this is a transitional type. There are three types above this which we who are ordinary can’t see because their internal organization and perception have no analogy to what we perceive on lower levels. This very vague description is what self-perfection means, and is not something that interests everyone, and not something everyone interested can attain.

Ultimately, the Fourth Way turns out to be a religious practice, but is different from conventional religion. Most religions, Gurdjieff said, were begun by people around highly developed individuals and groups who observed what these groups did from the outside, and copied them. They may have derived some benefit from this, but didn’t have the inner experience that enabled those practicing to continue growing. Thus we have religious groups of outer forms which eventually become outmoded. What they believe may have some valid basis, but may as easily be distorted, and no longer alive in either case. Another difference from organized religion is that the Fourth Way appears at a particular time and place to accomplish some aim, and after a certain time disappears again. People belonging to the group may continue it to greater or lesser effect, but it may also simply disappear.

The descriptions I’ve written here are necessarily incomplete (In Search of the Miraculous is packed full of information that can’t be easily summarized) and misleading because I’m perceiving it imperfectly, never having had contact with it, except through books, let alone having tried to practice it. So all this is what Gurdjieff termed, “Pouring from the empty into the void,” so I’m probably just wasting my time and yours, though I feel compelled to write this.

There is a great deal more that could be said, which would also be misleading to anyone on my level. The development of Gurdjieff’s work in Europe did not run smoothly. He had some outstanding students who were also flawed and didn’t manage to contribute what he had hoped, but he also had students less publicly visible who carried the work on. I suspect that what he brought to the western world is still making a contribution, though not a very visible one.

Ouspensky left Gurdjieff after several years because of conflicts with him, setting himself up as a teacher on the basis of what he’d learned from Gurdjieff. He seems to have been fairly effective, at least outwardly, generating interest among many English people, including several famous ones. But he hadn’t learned enough to be ultimately effective, began having health problems, and near the end of his life reevaluated, and used what he’d learned to his benefit.

After less than two years in France, Gurdjieff suffered a nearly fatal auto accident, and decided he couldn’t proceed as he’d been doing. His health wouldn’t allow him to put sufficient energy into his Institute,  he decided he had to convey his ideas and knowledge in some other way, so he took up writing, producing four books to publicize he knowledge he had gathered. These books are purposely not too easy to read. He wanted anyone interested to make an effort to understand, and also not make any knowledge with the potential to be misused too clear. Ouspensky’s account is very different.

Ouspensky, I think, also tries to be discreet, and not irresponsibly reveal anything that ought not to be revealed, but he writes with tremendous clarity. His greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: he is the consummate intellectual, both seeing and articulating with great insight, but staying within his comfort zone as an intellectual.

William Patrick Patterson, a more recent student in Gurdjieff’s system, believes that the reason for Ouspensky’s break with Gurdjieff was because Gurdjieff tried to get him to open emotionally. Patterson notes that all Ouspensky’s family had died by the time he was 29, and suggests that his intellect was his defense against feeling. He was a great man in a number of ways, but was unable to meet the challenge Gurdjieff gave him.

At the same time, his book about Gurdjieff and the teachings is masterfully done. Like Ouspensky, its achievement is that it gives a sense of understanding that is ultimately incomplete without the complementary physical and emotional work. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of what he DID achieve.

Gurdjieff, speaking one hundred years ago, believed that our time is “an empty and abortive interlude”. He didn’t deny the possibility of a general human evolution, but saw few signs that it was happening. He saw human evolution as being a matter of individual choice. Most of us, even people of notable achievement we may particularly admire, don’t choose to evolve in the sense that he meant. The ordinary world is easy for most of us to live in, so we prefer not to make the efforts that would carry us higher and deeper. Our civilization demands automatons, and many if not most of us comply without realizing that there are alternatives.

Henry Miller, in his book about Arthur Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins, sees Rimbaud as yearning for evolutionary advance, and cites a number of other 19th century figures who felt much the same: Van  Gogh and  Nietzche were only two of many others. Most of them ruined their lives because they didn’t know how to proceed.

The twentieth century had its own gallery of outstanding figures whose efforts led to little, and some of whom also destroyed themselves. Gurdjieff is, to my mind, the most outstanding of these figures that included Freud, Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and a number of others. Despite all their best efforts, and in spite of some accomplishments that seem laudable, the underlying problems remain with us, and the consequences of our collective and individual behavior may be just beginning. Humans in general are notable for their reluctance to learn. It may well take catastrophe to make us generally more willing to seek a better way to live.

“Female Privilege”

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Just saw an article on Facebook about “Female Privilege” by Mark Saunders. The article is quite wrong-headed, as several other essays included point out, so maybe I’m overdoing it in reacting also.

The first “privilege” he lists is being able to walk down the street at night without people automatically crossing the street because they’re afraid of you. This one is pretty obviously inside-out: WOMEN are usually the ones crossing the street, and for a very practical reason. If they’re alone they risk getting assaulted. That happens to an AWFUL lot of women. One week last year I learned that three women I had known for a reasonably long time (but not extremely well) had been raped. It’s happened to altogether too many of my friends.

I’ve often noticed, when walking on a sidewalk or in a store, that when I look women in the face they usually smile, but it often doesn’t seem to be a very sincere smile. Since I’m a stranger, they have no particular reason to smile at me, except that they don’t want to make me mad. Experience has taught them that getting men mad at them can have bad results.

Almost 35 years ago I was staying at my sister’s in Cincinnati, and had gone outside for something. As I was walking down the sidewalk back towards the house, my mother called something out to me from a window, and I called back. A young woman was coming up the sidewalk towards me. I don’t know what she thought was going on, but she turned and started running as hard as she could. I had an impulse to run after her and tell her not to be afraid, but realized that would only scare her more. That’s a memory that has stuck with me, and I think it speaks to how frightened many women are, and even find it necessary to be. If Mark Saunders finds women avoiding him, there’s probably an unsavory reason for it.

He adds another privilege: the ability to ask someone out without being labeled “creepy”, which probably speaks to the vibe he gives off. As another writer commented, a lot of dating and marriage is constantly going on, so not everybody has that problem.

And that women claim to have been raped when they’ve been drunk. No doubt there are false claims of rape, but the consensus seems to be that such claims are more often true, and they’re often disbelieved by the authorities, many of whom blame rape on the way women dress or behave. That speaks to the sexual power women have over men (not always desired), but also to the inability of a lot of women to physically protect themselves. Men are often physically bigger and usually stronger. I once took a class in how to immobilize someone who might be attacking you. The instructor said that the techniques being taught were good, but didn’t repeal the laws of physics. In other words, if a man wants to assault a woman, he’s usually physically able to do it.

The same thing applies to the rule to save women and children first in a dangerous situation. As another writer comments, this is less true than it once was, since there are many nurses and doctors who are quite competent to save others, and adds that the rule often got broken anyway.

Another is that it will be taken as a gravely serious issue if a woman gets raped. It OUGHT to be, but that’s by no means a foregone conclusion–see the “she asked for it” defense. That men and boys also get raped (possibly less, though it’s difficult to know) is no less serious, but I’ll admit to finding it amusing when I read about Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. A contingent of soldiers was sent out on patrol, and were set upon by native warriors, subdued, and then raped. Horrible things happen in war, but I doubt the French soldiers had expected THAT. Of course I would be less amused if I were the victim.

“Female privilege is being able to choose not to have a child.” Not true for a lot of women, who have no access to birth control, and whose significant other refuses to use it.

“Female privilege is not having to support a child for 18 years when you didn’t want to have it in the first place.” What world is HE living in? There are an awful lot of single mothers, and I suspect a lot of them would prefer not to be single, but have little choice about it. I think it’s true that some girls think having a child will make them grown up, with little idea of the responsibilities having children means, but I think there are plenty who find their lives interrupted by pregnancy at very inconvenient moments, which are likely to last at least 18 years. This can be the result of simple naivete, but also of rape.

Another “privilege” is the ability to divorce when the marriage is no longer working, knowing that you’ll probably get custody of your children. I think courts are more inclined to give mothers custody than fathers, and one of the reasons, I suspect, is that fathers often don’t want custody, other than to get back at their exes. And, depending on the settlement, it may not be such a privilege to have to support children by yourself, since many men successfully avoid paying child support.

Another is not having to take a career seriously because a woman can always marry a man making more than she does. Nice theory, but less true in the current economy. Being a stay-at-home- mom IS more of a privilege under current conditions when many women don’t have that option. And considering the difficulties of raising children, it’s a shame that many women can’t stay home. One writer suggested that it would be nice if there weren’t a stigma to being a stay-at-home dad.

Another “privilege” is having an opinion without being told you’re stupid. A friend tells me she frequently has people attack her for being a woman when they can’t answer her arguments. I can’t claim to experience that often, if at all.

Another is preference by elementary and middle school teachers. Maybe, and there are certainly concerns being voiced about what happens to boys in school. But boys still generally have the advantage of physical size and strength, though I’m uncertain how much that helps in the context of school. Saunders claims that women are more supported all through the educational process. If so, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, opposed to the once and maybe still common idea of keeping women barefoot and pregnant.

And lastly, that women are able to talk about sexism without seeming arrogant, and to say that it applies only to men. Women are certainly more vulnerable to sexism than men, but I think intelligent women, at least, see the phenomenon as more than one-sided, and deplore the effect it has on men as well as women.

Women are probably seen as sex objects more often than men (though that’s not exclusive–consider the sex lives of famous men, especially successful actors and musicians), and having to live as a powerful archetype certainly must be a challenge for many.

I doubt that many men really understand what being a woman is like: not only having to deal with laws and customs making them second-class citizens, but with a very different anatomy. The social position of women is a lot worse in many other countries, but is still bad enough here, particularly for poor and minority women (often the same category).

The female reproductive system is much more complicated than male sexual organs, and while some women seem able to give birth with little difficulty, that seems not to be the case for many, maybe most. Pregnancy can be very dangerous for a woman, as can giving birth. She’s much more vulnerable to many things, especially in advanced pregnancy. And while some women give birth relatively easily, there’s always the possibility that something major can go wrong, and that baby, mother, or both can be lost. The period after pregnancy can be dangerous too. The woman is likely to be worn out physically, and sometimes emotionally too. That’s when post-partum depression can hit, which probably most recover from, but some do not. In some ways it’s amazing the human race manages to reproduce so quickly, considering all the potential problems of pregnancy and birth.

Female human bodies seem to me a good example of what one scientist said is evolution finding a form that works well enough, but not truly elegantly. I wouldn’t know how to do it, but the menstrual cycle seems like something that could have been better designed, for instance. Not only is it often painful, but makes women’s emotions more volatile than usual, and the blood lost each month makes women generally more anemic than men, which is disadvantageous. Menopause is another disadvantage, stereotypically making women moody, emotional, and predisposing them to osteoporosis more often than men. Women’s shorter urinary tract also predisposes them to urinary tract infections more frequently.

I notice women friends whom I admire often seem to me not to have the self-confidence I think they deserve. These are often not rich women, but women who don’t have particularly easy lives, and manage to find a way to handle them admirably, in my opinion.

I think it’s safe to generalize that many men, if not most, both fear and resent women. It’s not totally one-sided, but it certainly seems that men usually want sex more often than women, and resent getting refused. Although it may not be totally one-sided, some men want to own women, and totally control them. I think this speaks to masculine insecurity, and insecure men sometimes do pretty horrible things. It’s not that women are innately more moral than men, but have generally less power in the social and physical realms. Certainly women can behave badly and get away with it, but so can men, and arguably, more often.

Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae, noted that women do have sexual power–what men want–and many are not particularly reticent about using it. That’s a part of the conflict between the genders, perhaps explaining the “she asked for it” defense of rape, but I think few would disagree that there can never be a real excuse for rape. Manipulation, sexual or other, can be very effective, but physical violence can trump it.

Mark Saunders’ essay makes it pretty clear that he fears and resents women. Not all men are considered “creepy” by women, are unable to get dates, or are mocked because of their gender, looks or behavior. It seems, though, that women meet that kind of mockery fairly often, when some men think they’re being “uppity”. What does “uppity” mean? That they’re claiming rights they don’t, or shouldn’t have. As many have noted, discrimination against women is analogous to discrimination against races or ethnicities. Someone thinks they can be superior by putting others down. A very human trait, but not an admirable one.

My Visit to Washington DC

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I recently visited Washington DC for only the fourth time in my life.

The first time was more than 50 years ago, when several of us went to a vigil outside the White House on the aniversary of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. We all were Quakers, and that’s the kind of issue our variety of Quakers cares about.

My memory of the event is a bit hazy. We were outside the fence on one side of the White House, and I think the area on the other side of the street was residential, not commercial. We had eaten breakfast in a restaurant (an unusual experience for me then) before making our way to the vigil site. I remember our driving past the Pentagon on the way out of town.

I didn’t visit again until the 1980s, when a friend was working at the Smithsonian Institution for awhile. We missed connections the night I got there, so I found a place outside of town to park, and spent the night in my car. Getting into town the next morning was difficult, as the freeways resembled parking lots. Eventually I got there, connected with my friend, and spent time talking and looking around the Smithsonian. I was also surprised, when I found where he was staying, to find iron bars on all the windows and doors. I hadn’t encountered that before, since I had lived in only a few big cities, and those some years before.

Just two or three years later I was there again, but didn’t spend much time in the city. We stayed at my companion’s sister’s place somewhere out in the suburbs.

This time the impression was more powerful than I remember from the first three. Lots and lots of traffic, for one thing. I came in from the south, exiting probably on 14th street, as I drove past the White House on my right and the Washington Monument on my left.

Just beyond that area is real city: all monumental architecture, cars and people all over, and apparently 2-3 parking garages each block. This crystallizes some of my worries for my country and the world: way too many cars, too much high tech, all powered by petrochemical fuel, which I think more and more to be a bad idea.

Most everyone I saw was busy, too. Not everyone looked important. There was a man playing a tiny version of a guitar on a street corner (and quite well too), but many people did look busy and very well dressed.

Washington has existed in my consciousness mainly as an abstraction, and it was intimidating to see it right in front of me, and imagine the many men (and some women) in expensive suits discussing just how things ought to go in the country. It’s a city where it must be difficult to avoid feelings of self-importance if you have any official position at all, and even more difficult as you ascend the ladder of success. I imagine people there talking about meeting challenges “realistically” in an environment that must distort consciousness simply by existing. As a center of power it draws many many people, and the kind of people attracted to power are often not very nice, or so I imagine.

That conclusion is drawn from the political news we all hear. Much of politics seems to be resistance to things that need to happen, like changing our way of life to live in harmony with ourselves, each other, and nature as well. The solution to those problems won’t come from politicians, most of whom are followers of their constituents, who seem to become a narrower and narrower group as money becomes ever more important, and the restrictions on political donations are repealed.

One member of a discussion on the recent Supreme Court decision on political contributions said that the decision was based largely on reluctance of the Court to limit free speech. That sounds fine in abstract, but in practice it means that the speech of those with money gets heard, while the speech of those without does not. That view was ironically echoed on DC license plates I noticed while being frequently lost that weekend: “Taxation without representation”. I was surprised, and looked several times for a “No” preceding that sentence, but couldn’t find one.

I was in town to meet an internet friend who is a prominent poet from Iran, and is currently touring in this country. Since I managed to spend most of the day being lost, we didn’t meet until much later than intended, but she was very kind, giving me several gifts from her country, food, reading some of her work to me, and letting me read some of mine. Regrettably, I wasn’t at my sharpest that evening, and couldn’t intelligently comment on what she read, but am grateful that she was so willing to spend time with a writer much her inferior.

Her name is Rosa Jamali, and anyone interested can find some of her work at Poemhunter.com. I hope some reading this will take the time to do so.

From what she said, I don’t think she cared much for Washington either, saying that she had done previous tours in Europe, where people were more polite, and the tours much better organized. I hope her tour is going better now. The bigness of Washington may not have struck her as negatively as it did me, since she lives in Tehran, which is also a big city.

She told me that when she travels people like to ask her political questions, which she prefers not to answer. Of course our mutual governments dislike each other, but that doesn’t mean that individuals of both countries can’t be friends. So she prefers to talk about artistic matters, which are, after all, her area of expertise, not only as a writer herself, but also as a teacher.

She comes from a oountry with a very ancient history, particularly compared with the USA. She said she’d like to see more attention paid to that history, but wasn’t too specific about in just what way. Iran, as most of the Middle East, had a much higher culture than did our European ancestors in the Middle Ages, and most in this country fail to realize just how much her country and the rest of that region influenced our own history.

Idries Shah, an Afghan writer, traced a number of these connections in The Sufis, pointing out how Muslim thinkers influenced Medieval Christian thinkers partly through the Crusades, when Christians and Muslims came into contact on a fairly large scale (and Christians in general didn’t behave very well), and partly through Spain, much of which was under Muslim control for almost 800 years. Shah cited the Troubadours as a phenomenon originating in Muslim countries, and pointed to Saint Francis as having been directly influenced by Sufis.

But she and I didn’t discuss that in any depth the night we met. I’d enjoy the possibility of meeting her again when I could better hold up my end of the conversation, but I doubt her schedule would allow that, even if she wanted to.

I was fortunate enough to stay with friends in the area–the trip would have been difficult if I’d had to stay in a motel. He and I were friends in high school, though never particularly close, so it was fun to find out more about his life, and to meet his wife for the first time. I greatly appreciated their hospitality and the discussions we had.

Impressions carried away? Washington is a city that seems to live by the idea that bigger is better, which I find dubious. It’s a very American concept, but one that doesn’t necessarily serve us well. One of my concerns is the powering of our civilization by petrochemicals, which are not only a finite quantity, but cause environmental damage both in their mining and in their use. Washington is probably little different from other big cities in their use, but add in its being a political power center, and there’s an electricity in the air that I suspect to be intoxicating and a frequent cause of bad behavior. At one point during the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, Vladimir Lenin remarked, “Es schwindelt,” meaning more or less, “It makes one dizzy.” I suspect many powerful occupants of Washington experience that frequently.

Technology builds on technology, as bureaucracy builds on bureaucracy, and our means of powering technology narrows the foundation on which on our lives depend: the ecology without which we could not live, but recklessly damage for short-term gain. A large majority of scientists agree that climate change, if not directly caused by human activity, at least severely exacerbates it. It’s not hard to extrapolate that it will take catastrophe for us to rethink our way of life, and begin to find a better way to live. The threat, though, is that millions, if not billions, will have to die to make the point clearly enough for people to agree, and try to find that better way.

The Hindu concept of Maya suggests that the world is real, but we do not perceive it accurately. When we base our politics and lives on power and possessions we are not following our best ideals, and that in itself distorts our perceptions. That’s not an easy habit to give up, though, having been the pattern of all human history that we know.

So my trip to Washington was  unusual for me, and interesting both as an experience and philosophically. It is, of course, a city in which power is on display, though much of the behavior associated with power is probably located in the shadows, where few are able to observe. As such, it probably isn’t a lot different from many major American cities, except in being the center of government in this country (not just A center of government).The experience may prompt further thoughts, so thanks to everyone who made my trip possible.

The NCAA Basketball Tournament

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I got the chance to watch the first weekend in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in several years a few  weekends ago. I can’t say it was totally riveting, but it was enjoyable, especially because the competition seems to be wide-open. There’s no overwhelming favorite this year, from what ESPN tells me, and there seem to be a lot of good teams. Maybe not great , but good ones. There were some one-sided games, but a lot of very competitive ones (which is what you want as a viewer), and a number of upsets, which I usually like.

It’s been just about 50 years since I began paying attention to big-time sports. That began with the 1963 World Series, and continued with football, basketball and baseball. Those have been the main sports I’ve followed, plus occasionally hockey and tennis. Golf and racing have never interested me, to say nothing of wrestling and other more recent sports. I haven’t even watched the Olympics that much.

After the Dodgers beat the Yankees in four straight in 1963, to my delight, the Cleveland Browns won their last championship against the Baltimore Colts (this was a LONG time ago). Then John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins beat Michigan in the NCAA title game, with Gail Goodrich getting 42 points. After that came baseball season, and I was hooked.

The last few years I’ve been less hooked. I decided I was paying a lot each month for TV that I didn’t get to watch, so stopped getting it. Since I work nights and weekends I couldn’t watch the sports I was interested in, so this past weekend was the first time in quite awhile that I’ve actually watched sports. I still enjoy it, but don’t find it as absorbing as I once did. I don’t just watch the game. I switch channels, do things on the computer, or read.

But I have some great memories of various games. One was in 1974 when North Carolina State stopped UCLA’s streak of championships, which I loved. I tend not to like sports dynasties, though I’ve made some exceptions–like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers. North Carolina State was kind of a superstar team, with three players that made the NBA, but only one who had a career of any length.

One of my main memories of the NC State-UCLA game was the contest between Bill Walton and Tom Burleson, the two centers. Walton was the more talented and skilled, but Burleson had about a 5 inch height advantage. When Burleson got the ball he would back Walton down towards the basket. If Walton overplayed him to his right, he would turn into the lane for a layup. If to his left, he would turn baseline for a hookshot. The game was close, 80-77, as NC State repaid a regular season loss by 15 or so points.

The next year Indiana went unbeaten–untill the NCAA semifinals. All played poorly in that game, except center Kent Benson, who scored 33, and Kentucky only beat them by two points, only to be beaten by UCLA in the final for Wooden’s final national championship. UCLA wouldn’t win another for 20 years.

Indiana repeated as an undefeated team the next year. The tournament had expanded, so they found themselves playing their conference rival Michigan, with their outstanding player, Phil Hubbard, in the final. I was watching with a friend, and we were busy getting drunk, so I don’t remember too many details, except that I’d thought Indiana would have to slow the game down, but didn’t. The game was competitive, but Indiana was clearly better, and won. I was delighted.

Not quite a decade later Georgetown was a dominant team, on the order of the earlier UCLA, but not quite as successful. Their star was center Patrick Ewing, who went on to a very successful NBA career. In their first title game, against Dean Smith’s North Carolina, Ewing dominated the early minutes of the game, blocking almost every shot North Carolina put up, uncaring if he was called for goaltending. Years later one player denied that North Carolina had been intimidated. My impression at the time was that they WERE intimidated, except for James Worthy, who went on to a successful NBA career of his own.

Worthy kept them in the game with his quick drives, dunks, and contested jumpers. After those first few mintues North Carolina settled down, and the game became a tough, grind-it-out struggle. The game ended when a Georgetown player made a bad pass with seconds to go, and North Carolina won by a point.

Georgetown played in two more finals during Ewing’s time, one in which they beat Houston (including future NBA stars Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Dexter). The final score was close, but I never felt Houston had a real chance to win.

Their last final was against Villanova, an unlikely opponent that year. Villanova was a talented and experienced team too, but Georgetown was arguably more talented. Villanova won, though, by playing as close to a perfect game as you can imagine. Particularly in the second half, when they took only 10 shots, but hit nine of them. They ended having shot almost 80% from the floor, as well as the line. Teams occasionally shoot that well, but usually only when the other team is far inferior. This was not the case for Georgetown, who only lost by 2 points. My teacher commented that they’d played well enough to win all three championships: only bad luck had prevented them.

That game was one of the most startling upsets in title game history. Another came only a year or two later. North Carolina State had begun the year with mediocre play, and at one point was only 10-10. But after that they simply refused to lose, scratching and clawing to stay close in each game, then finding a way to win at the end. In this game they played Houston, still with Olajuwon and Dexter, which was certainly the more talented team.

Houston’s coach, Guy Lewis, was a great recruiter, but not in my opinion, a great bench coach. In the waning minutes of the second half, with perhaps 5-7 minutes to go, he tried to protect a small lead by going to the four-corners offense, in which the team with the ball is essentially playing keep-away until such time as it sees a quick and easy opening for a basket. The catch is that this offense requires an outstanding point guard, and Lewis didn’t have one. Had he continued attacking NC State he might arguably have won going away; as it was, he allowed them to creep back into the game. In the last seconds one of NC State’s guards took a very long shot that came up short. But one of their forwards was under the basket, caught the ball, and dunked it in one motion. I had been expecting overtime; suddenly the game was over.

Another memorable game in the tournament were the game between Duke and Kentucky, who matched each other basket for basket in the last minutes, until, in the final seconds, Duke took the ball out of bounds, threw a length-of-the course pass to Christian Laettner, who had just enough time to fake, take the shot and make it before the game ended. I had been rooting for Duke to roll over Kentucky, but got an extremely exciting game instead.

Kentucky had become a power again in the mid-1990s, winning two championships in a row, and reaching the finals a third straight year. I went to work early that night to watch, then had to clock in early in the second half. Arizona went on to win in overtime, and I was disgusted because I couldn’t watch.

I haven’t had the opportunity to watch a lot of the tournament since. I do remember one season when Connecticut was able to beat a heavily-favored Duke team, a year when mid-major and unlikely George Mason reached the Final Four, and mid-major Butler got to the title game twice in a row, only to lose both games.

I think there’s been more drama than usual in this year’s tournament. Lots of close competitive games, a number of upsets. The Final Four are mostly traditional powers, but even they have done the unexpected. Kentucky, talented but low-achieving much of the year seemed to find itself in this tournament and take out talented and more experienced teams. Connecticut, whose head coach is only in his second year there, beating a more established Florida team. Wisconsin, a solid team in the Final Four for the first time, taking on Kentucky. I think I’m going to be watching Monday night.

I’ve always gravitated toward team sports more than individual ones. They can be boring, playing in an uninspired or selfish way, but when they play at a high level, they can be electrifying.

Perhaps this is particularly true of basketball, a generally faster-paced game than either baseball or football, and one in which an individual player can have a disproportionate effect on the game. Michael Jordan could always go out and score 30-50 points a game, and great as he was, I preferred the teams without transcendent stars who worked together to help each other succeed. Jordan, of course, did learn that without his team he could do little but pile up statistics. That’s when they began winning titles.

Most basketball teams have at least one star, but the best ones, I think, are those whose members can ALL score, all play defense, all pass, and all rebound. The game then turns on how well they execute and play together. When a team is really in sync, it doesn’t matter who scores, everybody plays defense, looks for the open man as well as the open shot.

The NCAA tournament brings a variety of teams together with a variety of styles, and the contest in part is a competition as to who can play least selfishly. I think that’s at least part of its appeal. I probably won’t even know who I’m rooting for in the final, at least until after tonight’s game.