I love writing a blog because it reminds me that I live in community. I love communing with you, friends. And today until next Sunday, the 26th, I am going on a silent retreat. I look forward to sharing what I might happen to find on my return. Until then, all communication will be by heart.
The seraphim angels that ring God’s throne are “the ones who burn.’” This came by text from a friend who spotted the “Burning World” issue of Parabola in a Whole Foods in Pittsburgh. “Why do those closest to God have to burn?” I texted back (my friend has spent the last several years studying Christian theology). Do people think of this when they pray to be close to God? My friend sent a text quoting C.S. Lewis, “Why should heaven be boring?”
Yet we do make heaven boring, at least I do. In my midnight projections, I am not just free from anxiety and stress about work and money, I am standing still and serene on a heavenly higher ground above all struggle and uncertainty. I have been around Parabola long enough to know that in Christianity, in Judaism, in Greek mythology, in many religions and ways, to behold God (or the gods, in the case of Greek mythology) is to be incinerated in one way or another. To be close to Truth is to burn. Instead of glossing over this detail which is embedded in many cultures and in the ages, can I accept it investigate it, maybe even embrace it?
Take this down, many notches from God to our own particular human situations. Notice that seeing the truth does sometimes burn. What burns and exactly when? The false “I” burns, and at those moments when we see that we are not what we dream we are, not what we want to project to the world that we are, when we catch ourselves being small. Sometimes life shows us how bound we are by our conditioning–not even integrated creatures but a collection of disparate pieces. And in those moments, we burn, not with the usual egocentric fire the Buddhists label as “greed, hatred, and delusion” but with a purifying internal fire, a fire that sheds light. We can burn with embarrassment or a kind of being shame—or even with a kind of quiet and holy remorse of conscience, which the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff called the most sacred kind of intelligence. Conscience is an intelligence that relates us to the whole.
More and more, I am growing to appreciate how great fiction can capture the inner drama of such moments. One cold night last week, I watched Martin Scorsese’s film version of “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s great novel of high society in Old New York in the 1870′s. The film sweeps us through opulent scenes–evenings at the opera, archery contests on Newport lawns, lavish dances and dinners—yet its tale of love experienced and lost is very wrenching and timeless. Viewing it, I understand why Henry James and is friends gave Wharton nicknames like the Eagle and the Angel of Devastation. She shows the truths that burn.
The great Scorsese was lauded for being exquisitely faithful to the novel. (Mr. Scorsese happens to be a Parabola reader and I like to think that his exquisite sensitivity is reflected in his reading Parabola). The hero of “The Age of Innocence,” Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the innocent and shallow girl his society wants him to marry. But Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman who is never really accepted by Newland’s tribe – and that tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart.
At the time of the film’s release, Francine Prose wrote about the thrill of watching “Newland discover, Columbus-like, the existence of female intelligence. We see a man schooled to value May Welland’s goodness, docility and malleability slowly realize that he prefers Countess Olenska, a woman with experience, wit, even her own opinions.” Watching it a decade later, I was startled by how well it captures the way we are all trapped by conditions—not by class and social custom but by human nature itself. We are conditioned. “The Age of Innocence”—the book and the film–is art and not life. Yet it conveys those moments in life when we see what is yet also see that we are inextricably bound by our conditioning, that as we cannot change.
Near the end of the film and the book, Newland learns that the Countess Olenska is moving back to Europe. At a farewell party organized by May, now his wife, we watch Newland’s ordinary “I” drown in a flurry of unexpected impressions. Newland suddenly sees that in the eyes of his world he is not the self-sacrificing man he dreams he is. In the words of the novel, “to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers. . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything . . . ”
Nothing has ever happened between the two and nothing ever will. The heart burns, watching the scene because life is like this. It slips away while we yearn and dream we have control. Yet, thankfully, in real life in the midst of such a searing kind of seeing, a new energy can appear, a new willingness to open to what is. These are “clearings” when real change is possible. We notice that we were living in a world of thought, of illusion, and see beyond. There is a flash of direct perception—a seeing through “truths” we have become attached to—that can lead to an opening of the heart. Sometimes, at such a moment it can feel like a new influence is flowing in. There can be forgiveness, a letting go and transcending of all that was previously held to be true in order to take our place in a greater wholeness. We can love and accept ourselves and others as we are, not caring about the judgments of others.
A moment like this, accepting what is without illusion, greed, or aversion, can be wildly freeing and creative. As J.K. Rowling said in a speech at Harvard, in June 2008: “An so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” In such a moment we begin to know who we really are and what we can trust. As Goethe said (at least according to Google): “All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.
In the past few years, as Parabola has searched for ways to survive and be useful in the world, the question of how to live as if we are all interconnected has moved to the center of my life. We mutually belong to one another and to a greater whole—this ancient idea resonates with me on the deepest level. Yet, on a less deep, more worldly level it also feels dangerous, something to be practiced by special beings like Jesus and Buddha, or at least in very special and safe conditions with like-minded individuals.
Younger contributors to Parabola disagree. Nipun Mehta, offers a profile of his friend. Pancho Ramos Stierle in the current Burning World issue, that includes images of Pancho meditating while getting hauled away by police in Occupy Oakland, picking up broken glass in the street. The son of an economics scholar and author, Pancho came from Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, only to leave school to become an uncompromising activist of compassionate and nonviolent social change, much influenced by Gandhi: “For Pancho, the whole world, every moment, is his field of practice. When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. “
Reading about Pancho, a reader can’t help but feel uplifted but also full of wondermet, that such purity of heart and action can exist in this world. What about the rest of worldlings? Well, it turns out that Pancho and Nipun have many like-minded (they might prefer “like-hearted”) friends. Last winter, Nipun and his wife Guri were invited to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to speak at a conference with youth leaders from 193 countries. Mehta used a word that isn’t yet in the dictionary: “giftivism,” which he defined as the practice of radical acts of generosity to change the world. Admitting that youth are best equipped to do the impossible, Nipun proceeded to describe how he and friends started a volunteer-run, internet-based charity organization called ServiceSpace that today has 350,000 members.
“Gandhi, Teresa, MLK, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela all have one remarkable trait in common: generosity,” Nipun said in his speech in Paris. “And in our era of the Internet, everything has been dis-intermediated, and our heroes are no exception. Era of celebrity is over as we usher in the era of everyday Gandhis.” He went on to describe a gift economy from the inside, as inner shifts in attitude from consumption to contribution, from mistrust to trust, from isolation to community, from scarcity to abundance—in which you begin to notice and value non-material resources, like connection or “social connection.”
What does it really take to change? Most of us have had moments when our attention shifted from figure to ground, from narrow egocentric centered way of looking at the world to feeling as if we are participating in something much larger. Often this shift involves a shock of some kind. In my last post, I described being young and trapped in a narrative of being small, only to have Meryl Streep walk in my little office and show me that kindness and responsiveness are actually more interesting and alive than a concept called celebrity (in that instance of simple kindness, a celebrity was actually choosing to be an “everyday Gandhi.”) Yet those moments pass and my old conditioning takes over.
Learning to spend more time in the gift economy will be a long journey for me. But I know that times have changed, and ideas and ways that used to seem idealistic and for younger people are beginning to seem incredibly sane and sensible. Indeed, the nonmaterial wealth that we can draw on in these hard times may be closer than we think. What do you think? Do you know people who are shifting the way they live and what they count as wealth?
Here, as food for thought, is an exchange I had with Jonathan F.B. Rose, also in the Burning World issue.
Parabola: How are we to change?
JR: The first thing we have to change is the way we see things, moving from a linear view to a holistic view. It is hard to understand one’s effect on the whole system. To reduce environmental impacts, many more people are paying more attention to turning off lights when they leave a room, for example. This is a very good thing but many Americans are far more polluting in their auto use and other transportation habits. One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and for the world is to walk. Yet we don’t live in a world that is organized for walking. Many Americans live in suburban areas that are designed to require auto use and make walking very impractical for most activities so there is an inherent pattern in the land use system that deeply shapes our environmental behaviors.
If we want to shift our environmental behaviors, we will not get there by proposing changes that lead to increased suffering. Environmental solutions will be mostly accepted if they lead to increased pleasure and increased quality of life. What we are seeing is that when cities and communities create bike lanes and great safe sidewalks planted with trees, when the train stations have winterized parking for bikes, when the system is designed to encourage people to have healthy behaviors, they eagerly do it. Somebody told me today that the biggest problem with the bike lanes in New York is that they are crowded, and that’s because they were made safe and convenient.
P: Consciousness seems to change when it has to. In northern Westchester where I live, during this power outage the Salvation Army has set up a warming center in the local middle school. It was like the village green. People of all ages and income levels were mingling there to get warm, to charge our phones and computers, and to talk about how the weather is changing and what we can do about it. This willingness to change and to pull together just seemed to appear. Of course it may be very temporary.
JR: From an evolutionary point, human beings have the patterns of a “we map” and a “me map.” These are cultural but also cognitive and neurological patterns. The “me map” is the self-preservation model, single issue, single response, very linear. If a bear jumps out of the woods, you fight or flee. The “me” issues, the ego issues, are all either based on fear or desire based issues. We have a world that has increasingly has been designed around stimulating that. Advertising tries to get you to want something and since 9/11, the language of politics has been based on fear and encouraging consumption. It’s very difficult to deal with complex issues from this “me” way of thinking. But we are also highly evolved for altruism. We survived much more in groups than as individuals, and you need a different set of skills to live in a group. You need to collaborate, to concede, to compromise, and to lead, and you need to balance those all the time. Altruism is a positive evolutionary trait. It comes with a neurological system—mirror neurons. It comes with a cultural system—every culture has a system of collective decision making and a way of appreciating the common good. This system is very good at dealing with complexity.
We learn that the way we frame messages can stimulate an altruistic mind or an egocentric mind. Just by reading the word “money” right now shifts you more into the “me” part of the mind. We know that we can also trigger pro social behavior through the messages and commitments of our society. As individuals, we can put our fingers on the scale of the collective good—which is really not the opposite of the individual good because everything we use or rely upon comes from so many sources that the collective good is our individual good.