Sunday, January 15, 2017

Good Stories, Moral Sense, & Wonder

   The following has two parts: one is more abstract/conceptual and the other is more concrete/personal. The place to engage or begin or skip depends on the individual. I recommend going where it feels right. To journey by the path of attraction takes refining and grace. Good stories are guides.

Truth and Integrity of Story: A Rationale for Investing in a “Nonsense Tale”
   Some of us believe that stories carry and nurture us close to the essential nature of humans, closer than usually happens through factual data, scientific investigation, and academic theory. For example, if we are made in the image of God, the reach toward the deity pulls us beyond the known and into mystery. In order to lean into the Unknown of our divine inheritance, the movement is by likeness instead of by description. Narrative provides the body around likeness through image and metaphor by enfleshing the fable, parable, myth, and all the relational forms of story. Stories thereby shape our moral sense. 
   While I was probably attracted to teaching-stories in early days, the real jolt into increased awareness and articulation came in midlife when Gioia Timpanelli modeled the way a story comes uniquely true in each telling. She explained and moreso demonstrated the paradoxical double: telling true to the source and simultaneously true to the self. On a smaller scale than Rumi’s seven forms of discourse interwoven in the Mathnawi [See Alan Williams’ Introduction to Rumi: Spiritual Verses, pages xx-xxix.], Timpanelli’s stories incorporated explanatory moments into the narrative as she sensed it helpful to navigate this double in a particular telling. For example, when telling “Hans My Hedgehog,” she perceived that some of us were not getting the potential from the archetypal image of the hedge; so she shifted into a brief commentary on the hedge as the boundary between the civilized and the wild. 
   While some persons object to an interruption to the flow of a narrative, Gioia’s commentary on the hedge opened a whole world of meaning for me that greatly enriched the Grimms’ tale. In this model, storytelling mediates the universal origin and the personal/social truth of the moment. The study and experience of varied versions of a story provide illustration of this mediation as will be shown in the following section.
   In holding the two poles, universal and personal, stories move in search of the authentic; that is, teaching-stories guide the discovery and development of character that has integrity to the individual and thus provide authority and command toward the person’s destiny. Trying to find authentic source material may lead toward specific texts, but more importantly the searching informs about the genius of mind, soul, spirit, and body. The search takes one forward and back to the garden. In other words, the making and remaking of a story happens under the branches of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good stories, as stated above, are about moral sense.

An Exploration of Variations of a “Nonsense” Tale
   I’ve been looking again (and again many times) at a series of versions of a very special story.  I don’t remember when Mom began telling me the story about the story. It might not have been until I’d become a dad myself and was thus drawn to storytelling as it edges into the numinous threshold where the two worlds touch. Becoming a parent blew me away with the wonder of life, way past textbooks and scholarly journals. Also, in more simple logistical terms, storytelling increased the chances of getting an active child to sleep sooner; in deeper levels, story intertwined the spiritual with the material, the divine into the human. 
   In her later years, Mom told me several times that I was the only one of her five children who remembered the story of Epaminondas, but I don’t remember remembering it.  She said she’d first told it to me three decades before I became Dad, when at age six I’d been unconscious in the hospital for three days after falling out of the family car. She said the doctors told her there was nothing else they could do and so she told me the story of Epaminondas. And soon enough I woke up. 
   Perhaps the compelling return to this story wonders about her choice. It just didn’t make sense that she’d come up with “Epaminondas.” The story often gets labeled “a nonsense tale,” including in its earliest print publication in 1907 by Sara Cone Bryant (Stories to Tell to Children, p. 63). But no one in the family admits to seeing that book or any other of the print publications available in 1953. How strange that she’d pick a nonsense tale! But as I try to explain to my college students when I tell “Epaminondas,” sometimes nonsense leans toward not-yet-sense, and thus we’re provoked to wonder in our drive to make meaning. Stories are the playground of wonder, well told making the invitation for children of all ages.
   My wondering about the story might easily have been put to rest immediately if Mom had chosen a Bible story. Jonah from the great fish, Joseph from the well, and Jesus with Lazarus would all fit with the unconscious/hospital situation; abundant Bible stories were within the repertoire in her memory. Yes, her little sermons were to be expected; but where in the world did she come up with Epaminondas? Why would she come up with a story about a boy going to and from grandmother’s house, repeatedly failing to adapt, and ending up stepping in pies? 
   The puzzle has taken me not toward historical truth but into the wonder of story, into shadows of the unconscious, and the mists of gnosis. The early print version of Epaminondas featured a phrase each time Epaminondas messed up: “You don’t have the sense you were born with!” His mother announces this in dialect and with some variation six times. 
   When the story was picked up in primers for second and third graders, explicit statement of not having sense was removed, but the main character’s failure to adapt stayed as the primary feature. Depending on the speaker’s telling and the listener’s imagination, consequences for messing up ranged from silly (butter melting on his head) to tragic. In the 1907 first edition (the earliest print version I’ve found), “the puppy-dog was dead” (p. 65); but when the story came out as a separate booklet in 1935, the result of Epaminondas’ failure to adapt was a puppy “almost dead.” The primers left the fate undetermined as the puppy was cooled in the water three times and brought home. When the condition of the puppy is left open, I believe the listener is not so focused on the puppy and his/her moral sense might be nurtured, even if it's inarticulate and semi-conscious. The moral sense has opportunity to grasp the importance of adapting to situational changes rather than following directions in an overly literal manner.
   Nobody’s been able to figure out where Mom picked up that tale, but almost 30 years after she’d told it to me in the hospital, Mom was telling it to my three-year-old daughter on October 9, 1982 when I audio recorded it. My daughter’s participation in the telling showed that she’d already heard the story enough times that she anticipated events. Then about ten months after recording Mom telling it, I taped my daughter telling it. Of course, I’ve been telling versions of the story for a long time also. By looking at the variations across three generations and by making comparisons with print versions across a hundred years, we are offered insight about the nature and transmission of oral narrative.
   As already noted above, the stuff of “wonder” wants elaboration. Where has it come from and where has it gone? Have smart phones swallowed it? Are we still, as parents, grandparents, and teachers, able to nurture the space that crosses the two worlds? 
   What about the nature of “moral sense,” especially as it relates to a sense-born-with? In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom discusses contemporary research on the moral sense that researchers detect already shown by children in their earliest years. Sara Cone Bryant’s introduction in the 1907 book shows her commitment to supporting children’s moral sense and the way she features “Epaminondas” in doing so:

“It is safe to assume that the child [who applies Epaminondas] will make fewer needless mistakes for a long time because of the wholesome reminder of his likeness with one who [lacks] “the sense he was born with.” And what occurred so visibly in his case goes on quietly in the hidden recesses of the mind in many cases. One “Epaminondas” is worth three lectures” (xxii-xxiii).

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Good Stories: A Treatment for Addiction to False Certainty

Layers of meaning circle and deepen into the heart, the essence, of the divine.

   The finest model of and manual on teaching-story that I’ve found has to be Mevlana Rumi’s Mathnawi. As perhaps befitting a gateway and excursion into the Unseen, the structure of the work sometimes seems mystifying. Seyyed Nasr in the Foreword to Rumi’s Mystical Design says:
“Over the centuries Persian speakers, as well as those reading the Mathnawi in other languages from Turkish to English, have benefited immensely from the content of the work on these levels. But for nearly all of them the work as a whole has appeared as a rambling collection of narratives like a vast ocean into which one must dive deeply in order to discover the precious pearls contained therein” (p. viii).
One of the greatest blessings bestowed through Rumi’s work (which includes the poets, translators, and interpreters of it) comes in the courageous engagement with the shape-shifting force we often give the name “Meaning.” How can a person make sense of a life that at any moment may thrill with unspeakable love and at the next drive home paralyzing tragedy?

   At times, to lay oneself bare before the experience of life becomes too much. Why do innocent children suffer? How can there be an all-powerful God given this as well as the torture of animals and earth? In the next to last page of The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, Harold Kushner, says:
“I find God in the miracle of human resilience in the face of the world’s imperfections, even the world’s cruelty. How are people able to survive tragedy (and that is what you do with tragedy: you don’t understand or explain it, you survive it)?” 
Although he says “you don’t understand or explain it,” as demonstrated in his two books on the problem of suffering, Kushner doesn’t mean that humans throw away the search for meaning. Forging our way amid the treacherous making of good versus evil defines us, even in the image of God, as Kushner asserts, “God is moral” (p. 197). The human journey distills in developing and living our moral sense.

   I’ve come to believe that the gift of story, especially teaching-story, allows me to approach the nature of meaning, including moral sense, in this world that stretches between love and loss. For several months, at about five pages a day, I’ve been absorbing as much of Rumi’s Mathnawi as can soak in from the wonderful book, Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi by Kenan Rifai and translated by Victoria Holbrook. A few days ago, my reading was shocked still with a three-word passage: “Meaning is God.”
“The Meaning is God…/ The sea of meanings of the Lord of all realms/ All of the tiers of the earth and of the sky/ Are chaff on that sea of spirit flowing by/ The jumping dance of chaff upon the water/ Comes of the agitation of the water…” (p. 429, ~couplet 3378-)
It’s a line from Book 1 of Rumi’s Mathnawi that I’d read several times in different translations, but they’d translated the Persian word as “Reality” instead of “Meaning.” 

   My breath stopped at “Meaning is God,” perhaps because it offered relief, if I stopped to take it. The pursuit of meaning, especially in an educational context that believes in right answers and a world defined by scientific certainty, pushes for a certain kind of knowing as if 100% is possible. But if God is the answer and accepting God as greater than human comprehension, then when meaning is God it’s okay, even necessary, to pursue truth and meaning with grace in not getting it.  Of course, we all know this; and still, the reassurance feels good. 

   And more importantly, humans need an ever-present reminder of the danger of satanic pride that veils our knowing that we don't know and that cloaks us in an aggressive arrogance of acting as if we carry the whole truth.  Rumi compares our knowing to a child riding a stick-horse:
"Your thoughts and fancy, feelings and perception   are like the hobby-horse of children's play."      Translation by Alan Williams, Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 316.
   Holbrook’s translation “Meaning is God” offered a special gift to me because it gave a clean, sharp thrust into the quick edge where the desire to know risks running into the presumption of knowing. The search for meaning can be devouring. Rumi’s layered development in this section on Reality included a story about a lion who deserved all that was found, not just the biggest portion. Another layer was about Balaam and Satan who were/are worshipped by people and who had “pride in perfection.” Rumi says there are “hundreds of thousands” like those two in arrogance, “coming to believe in their own lies.” Rumi advises us “You are God’s favorite, but within your bounds” (pp. 425-6 in Rifai). 

Meaning is God.

   Imagine the permeating reduction in hatred and war, the easing of self-inflicted personal damage, and no telling how much more if only we understood and accepted that Truth. The presumptions of dogmatic religious, political, and scientific agendas could be tempered with humility and thus reduce the probability of future crusades, witch hunts, and terrorist attacks. Since the danger of hubris has been long acknowledged as has the blessing for the meek, what keeps us from advancing into compassion?

   Rifai’s commentary on this includes:
   “The obstacles set up on the paths of such people [who cannot see the divine oneness and beauty, the light of God] are as wide as deserts. They think this broadness is wealth, plenty and ease.   They cannot tell that such deserts of position, fortune, wealth and lust are actually insurmountable walls of steel, and that all these obstacles have been set up according to the requirements of the measuring-out and destiny.   The human bodily eye cannot see these obstacles and imperfections pertaining to the soul, each of which is a trap…    As long as you fall in love with the beauty that is beloved of your [animal] soul and stay in love, you cannot see the light of the spiritual beloved.” 

   A significant value of accepting God, the great mystery, as Meaning as well as Truth and Reality, is reassurance. The human condition, when met with searching honesty, carries the born-with-sense of wonder, not certainty, and wander in search of the true original home or source. When our recognition that even given our best effort we come up short of complete meaning, we can feel reassured that, yes, that’s true. Our essence is to journey. Rumi puts it so piercingly, “I’m a slave to him who does not think he’s arrived” (p. 417). Each oasis in a layer of meaning is meant but for a short stay.
Each flower offers an oasis of wonder but for a short stay.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Truth in the New Year

Sunrise, Jan 1, 2017

“… truth comes relentlessly packaged in ambiguity, inscrutability, polyvalence. The revealed truth is always continually hidden, and we are left to be amazed and chagrined.”     Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary; David’s Truth: In Israel’s Imagination and Memory, 2nd ed. Augsburg Fortress, 2000, p. 4.  
Of course, most all of us seldom meet truth on those grounds. As educated children of the 20th Century, we’ve been schooled for facts, indoctrinated with behaviorism and the scientific method. And so we’re programmed to see half-truth as whole in a semi-drugged dullness where knowledge is (fake) news headlines, the scores, the entertainment buzz. It’s much easier to sleepwalk as if we’re not missing and much less in search for the truth that sets us free. How much of our lives remain as if chained “before the law” of Kafka’s parable, as if unaware of the admission by quantum physicists about a hundred years ago that even the best of science yields uncertainty and indeterminacy. To live in that spectrum of light demands growing into a different knowing, one that extends to a further dimension of love.

The year 2016 delivered a wake-up call, and yet already the dawn of the new year shows how easy to remain half-asleep. For living wide-awake in polyvalent truth is just too damn hard. We hear our voices pledging “one nation… justice for all”; and it hurts, if we are honest and awake, with a sharpened feeling of our failure to make this true.
But let’s not start off yet more cynical and disillusioned, let’s not seek yet more distraction from truth, and especially let’s not take out our anger, fear, and sadness on ourselves and others. Although the potential is much underdeveloped, we are wired for truth, for truth that contains “ambiguity, inscrutability, polyvalence.” We just have to accept our own incompleteness, tell true stories, live passionately and compassionately, love and walk on. 

My favorite story has a refrain about “the sense you are born with.” The narrative enacts meaning for this sense along the lines of evolutionary adaptation but more with the difficulties produced by prescriptive directions because such substitute-truth cannot adequately guide in a world that's constantly changing both at the inner and outer levels. Instead of asking for and giving information that presumes predictability of recipes, we need models of goodness that also release each individual toward his and her unique authenticity. I’m increasingly convinced that our “born-with” comes in moral sense and that this kind of knowing is cultivated through good stories.

Higher on the same page as the earlier quotation from Brueggemann, he develops the meaning and purpose of a good story:
“Currently we say the truth is polyvalent. That is, it moves in a variety of directions and cannot be reduced to a single formulation. That rich, varied discernment is obvious as we consider the various pieces of literature that come from different hands in different contexts for different purposes. Each of them touches a dimension of this ‘larger-than-life’ person who is surely not larger than truth. But this same polyvalent tendency is also evident in each particular narrative, because the person of David is inscrutable. And therefore the narrative must always be a bit unsure. But that is what makes a good story.”
In other words, we are just hard wired for faith, not for facts. But being wired or wireless doesn’t guarantee 24/7 access. High-level functioning on faith takes hard work. We forget. We can easily recite “one nation… justice for all” and forget that the forefathers framed the nation in a context troubled by terrible presumptions of unequal rights and oppression (e.g., “The Founding Fathers and Slavery”; “The Women’s Crusade").

Truth pulls us ahead. Our cognitive, ethical, emotional, and even physical development comes through a continuous pursuit of truth, not the possession of it, and definitely not the presumption of having it, not using it to dominate other humans and not desecrating our non-human relations. We won’t advance toward truth by testing for facts. The unknown is approached not by exact knowledge alone but needs the extra help that comes in the courage of “as if.”

Good stories nurture the realm of likeness. Perhaps this dimension is entered and experienced best through parable, the narratives of all types that carry an along-side. Recall or find a favorite parable-type story, like the “Good Samaritan,” or King David’s confrontation by Nathan (II Samuel 12), or a compelling selection from Coleman Barks’ on Rumi’s teaching stories. Notice the way this kind of discourse prompts a second track, an “along-side” that promises to release a person from literal, exact-reproduction expectation or recipe-matching of the external authority. Polyvalence of the multiple tracks of truth holds the possibility of finding one’s own camel, the means of transport across the desert toward the water of life. 

The multivalent, even revolutionary (see especially Crossan’s work, e.g., On Parable) and certainly ethical, dimensionality of parable supports our way into the truth of the unknown. God the Truth extends into the unseen, not limited to that known by human senses of normal eyesight, hearing, taste and touch. In order to believe beyond the material world, good stories reach into metaphysical knowing where by faith we imagine the taste of the divine water of life, we feel the cool everflowing rivers of justice, and we experience union with the beloved.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Turn at Seventy: Particular Level and Style

Sunset December 2016
Perhaps the time to reflect lengthens, at least deepens, with age, as the past surely stretches back further than the sundial shadow falls ahead. Perhaps moments measure not by the ticking clock but more so in the degree to which “now,” this fleeting instant, saturates with beyond and before. As this school semester, Fall 2016, draws to its close, my mind muses across this cycle, the fourteenth term with a favorite course Good Stories, my next to last before retirement, colored by forty years of college teaching. 

Perhaps the best surprise this semester came first in recognizing a distinctive dimension in an essential quality. 
The course culminates in a concept called “the particular level.” This term resolves the constellation of the other three levels: Universal, Local, and Individual.  The particular level gives a snapshot of the individual’s uniqueness and significance. At its best, it’s a glimpse of destiny. A video made for Good Stories asserts that the specific value of the Particular Level comes in the individual’s movement from Multiplicity to Commitment.
Given this far-reaching scope and aim, unsurprisingly, the particular level has proven rather difficult to teach. I’ve found it hard to get students to locate it in texts when doing literary criticism; and when unable to discern the particular level in models, students have also been limited in the design of their own productions. Even with dedicated work throughout the semester, for a student to project personal destiny in their digital media productions that features one’s own unique fingerprint is no mean task.
When preparing to teach particular level once again in the Fall 2016 semester, however, I happily realized that the particular level could be detected through the rhetorical construct of style. This wasn’t a sharp lightbulb discovery. I’d long quoted the maxim remembered from my grad school days: “style is the man.” (See Note 1.)  But like most aphorisms, the permutations continue to radiate from an abstract distilled truth, and this semester allowed a renewed, more intense ray. I realized that an analysis of the style in a text could point to the place where it is most effectively displayed and felt. That point could then be examined in terms of the particular level.
The difficulty with teaching students to pick out a particular level in a text might be solved!—such was my optimistic feeling. Because, at least on a surface level, style is not a difficult thing to detect and label, especially when in addition to printed words digital media provides a voice track and a visual track. Even persons unfamiliar with the elaborate rhetorical schemes recognize and talk about vocal dynamics of pitch and rate, visual design such as color and pattern, and language features such as figurative language. 
This is not to say that effective judgment of style is easy. As evident in the 2016 presidential campaign, most persons lack capacity to judge authentic style with insight and precision, especially as style discloses ethical character and integrity or lack thereof. But perhaps I digress—the surprise involved in Good Stories Fall 2016 focused a way to teach students about the particular level by using the dimension of style to locate it.
The textbook that I’d been using for thirteen previous semesters was clearly modeling the connection between particular level and style. Why had I not appropriated this for my students? If it took me six-plus years to get it, what might I learn from my process that could help students do it in six-plus weeks?
One factor that deserves attention involves potential resistances to finding any value in style. Our social and story cultures have succeeded in giving us the proverb “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” I often hear it from students when we in Good Stories explore tales with the beast-to-beauty theme including negative versions where the beast does not transform. Perhaps before directing ourselves to study style, we need to work with our attitude toward it, especially any semi-conscious aversions.  
A significant part of my process of becoming able to work with style has involved bringing my attitude about it to consciousness. This included realizing and accepting that I have been suspicious of trusting style for a long time, at least since teenage disillusionment with preachers, politicians, and teachers who were exposed for their feet of clay or even stinkier muck. Perhaps that’s why I’d been resistant to making a close connection between the gold standard of “particular level” with the contaminated rhetorical canon of style. 
My rehabilitation of style as a valuable commodity has slowly progressed. Accepting its worth intellectually wasn’t too difficult. While Aristotle and others criticized the Sophists, Cicero and Quintilian extolled “the good man speaking well.” Rhetorical critics argued that resistance to Hitler failed in part because his rhetoric was more powerful in style; therefore, the good guys need to dress up—plain style with unadorned facts are just not enough. 
But the mind alone also is not enough. To be compelling, truth needs passionate embodiment. Effective style is inextricably tied to knowing-by-body. It might also be more attuned to that favorite of mine, sense-born-with. And I wonder how much embodied good style overlaps with moral sense. Exploration of these questions is deferred for later consideration.
The point here is to identify another part of my process that might inform preparing students to engage style in a positive way. In order for me to consolidate the gold of the unique (particular level) with the good dimension of style, I needed sufficient lived experience with authentic style so that the superficial, the faking dimension of style does not overly dominate the construct. Put another way, my intellectual understanding needed to be complemented with the body’s thrill of integrity. Hasn’t it been said so many times that the human journey is about recovering the unity of mind/body/spirit?
To “get” style, therefore, has to depend on a liberation into knowing-by-body where style and vital substance are one. Those of us nurtured as well as indoctrinated in fundamentalist religion often have a piece of work to do if the body/mind split is to be mended. Negativity linked to style also comes from our culture that is so permeated with advertising and other rhetoric designed to trick us that we develop a protective layer of cynicism toward style. This then makes it quite difficult to extract the good from it.
  My personal path of reconciliation with style still rides on the back of natural horsemanship. The discipline of dressage, perhaps like any art form, displays classical style. And again like most fields a person can take short cuts that result in a “look-like” quality, even enough to impress judges and win ribbons. But spirited horses and good coaches drive a caring person beyond that level of style. The classical appearance remains a vital sign, but it’s only as valuable as it reflects an inner dynamic that is called “true unity” in natural horsemanship. (See Note 2.) A spirited horse cuts through head-talk and acts on embodied authenticity. Even with a spirited horse, movement toward true unity depends on enough dedication and honesty to learn knowing-by-body and, more so, to develop a sense of feel.
So for any of us to become able to find the place where style reveals the particular level probably depends more on the ability to know by feel than it depends on our cognitive-analytical skill. Schooling, in general, fails to honor this. (See Note 3.)
In summary, as a first step in reflecting on Good Stories, Fall 2016, I’ve noted the surprise when I recognized a more vital connection between particular level and style. In exploring the background that clarified why I hadn’t made this connection sooner, I began to understand better why my students might be blocked from articulating style as a means of pinpointing the particular level in digital media productions, including their own work. 
I wonder how much progress we can make in decoding our destinies, much less in enacting them in powerful ways when and if our educational design remains mostly disembodied. Our campus has given terrific attention to Do Good—not just talk but embodied action.

How might we integrate Do Good more extensively within our academic classrooms? Our world faces a crisis as we have significantly isolated our intellectual activity from lived experience, especially from powerful socially-relevant actions exemplified in Do Good. When meaningful work gets integrated into our cognitive life, we should then have the embodiment of style, more capacity to articulate felt sense, and the ground for serious attention to moral sense.
Note 1. The source of “style is the man” has been difficult to trace. I’ve been unable to find it explicitly in Aristotle, Cicero, or Quintilian. It can be traced at least to the mid-1700s in Buffon: “Only those works which are well-written will pass to posterity: the amount of knowledge, the uniqueness of the facts, even the novelty of the discoveries are no guarantees of immortality ... These things are exterior to a man but style is the man himself. 
— Comte Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. 'Discours prononcé dans l'Académie française, Le Samedi 25 Aout 1753', Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, Avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi (1753), Vol. 7, xvi-xvii
Note 2. “True unity” is one of the key terms associated with “natural horsemanship” and other approaches to the human-horse connection that aim at increasing a respectful relationship. Ray Hunt is often referenced (Think Harmony with Horses: An In-Depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship. Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1978), and the term is used in Tom Dorrance’s title (True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Man.  Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1987). More extensive background on “natural horsemanship” can be found in: Miller, Robert and Rick Lamb. The Revolution in Horsemanship and What it Means to Mankind. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2005; and Miller, Robert.  Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2007. An example of my application of natural horsemanship to teaching-story can be seen in:
Note 3. Eugene Gendlin (e.g., Focusing) and Sondra Perl (Felt Sense: Writing with the Body) elaborate on “felt sense.” I also suspect that this dimension called “feel” has something to do with what the gnostics call the “path of attraction.” 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Lost Camel--and Humanity

In Book II of Rumi’s Mathnawi, the desert traveler goes in search of his or her lost camel, frantically calling out, “Has anyone seen my camel? The caravan is leaving me behind.”  And persons lie to the traveler, claiming to have seen the camel, pointing the wrong way! The traveler goes almost manic because a camel carries all one’s treasures; without the camel it’s impossible to traverse the desert. Making the journey of life looks hopeless. How does one tell the true clue from the false ones? How do we track destiny?

While the traveler is indeed an interesting figure, right now it’s the person following the searcher that’s caught my attention.  Several accounts of this story don’t even include the follower. This second person acts the fool, a comic figure mimicing the words and actions of the traveler. “Have you seen my camel running loose?” the traveler asks an old fellow. The follower, having no notion of even having a camel much less a lost one, still says the same: “Have you seen my camel running loose?”

I’m very drawn to the moment when the traveler recognizes those directions that tell the true way. The follower sees this, and I think it’s seeing with a hungry vision, a longing for the transcendent. Coleman Barks includes this story in his book titled: This Longing.*  At the moment when the traveler discerns the right clue, the follower sees the traveler’s eyes light up, sees the dance in the traveler’s feet, and sees that the “screams of joy are not delirious.”**

In recent years when I’ve listened over and over to Coleman’s resonant voice reciting his version of “The Lost Camel,” I knew there was a pearl in the story, waiting for illumination. Maybe I needed to make sense of this second person who doesn’t even know he/she has a camel until this trial of imitation is done. 

Just as the archetypal fool or trickster fills a complex role in the ecology of mythology, just as it does in the complete life of a person, this follower offers something vital to the story Rumi gives us. What is this that chases after the sincere searcher? How can it be that this charlatan discovers a camel? And how can this strange turn ring true? Maybe this “non-rational” behavior fits in Timothy Wilson’s discussion of the “adaptive unconscious” that knows in the gut even when not in the mind (Strangers to Ourselves, for example, page 172)

When the “Lost Camel” found its way into our Good Stories this past week, an answer fell into place for me. The rightness relates to a long-standing conversation, often an argument, I’ve had with myself about the rhetorical canon of Style. In the many times that I get disillusioned with preachers and politicians and glitzy advertising, it’s often about matters of stye: emotional, seductive, waxed-over. Even if there isn’t “etymological justification for the common story that the word sincere means ‘without wax,’” sincerity  ought to go with pure motive, free of artificial covering, no excessive style. Right?

When I get worked up like this, there’s usually a wake-up call coming. And I think that’s what the Lost Camel has been trying to bring, especially with the part about the second person who appears to lack sincerity. The mercy of the story includes the good news that style has a redeeming quality, especially when the definition in classical rhetoric is met: style is the (hu)man. The passionate style of the traveler might be the key to waking up the “lost human.” 

The second person might be the most important figure in the story. It pushes us to care for all those, including oneself, who don’t even realize their own camel is missing. Look into the faces in a sports stadium and see the desperation, the mask of hunger, of longing for meaningfulness. See the empty eyes filling shopping malls. Listen to all the voices full of words without depth. The emptiness is not only in depression or misplaced enthusiasm or obsession; it’s also in despair and rage because there’s not even awareness of a lost camel that could provide the means to cross the desert.

But the story “Lost Camel” offers hope. The lost human might yet see someone’s passion and follow it. Even when the motives are not pure, the person can get attracted to a stranger’s eyes that light up. And why can’t that light come off a friend, a co-worker, a teacher? 
** Materials can be found on: Coleman Barks’ website. “Lost Camel” is on the CD, Just Being Here. A terrific interview with Coleman shows his passionate style related to following Rumi’s work: “Different Ways of Laughing,” Gibson Fay-LeBlanc interviews Coleman Barks, February 27, 2007.

*Quoted line is from Jawid Mojaddedi’s translation, Rumi: The Masnavi, Book Two, p. 175, about line 3000.  In Nicholson’s classic translation of the Mathnawi, the Lost Camel comes in around line 2980, Book II. Whinfield’s translation of the Masnavi includes the story but not the follower. Arberry’s Tales from the Masnavi also has the story but omits the follower.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Parables Guard Wonder

When photographing the red maple and frosty grasses (shown above), the slow shutter signaled a probable blur. So I adjusted the f-stop to get a sharper image; but after uploading the digital images, my attraction was drawn to the blurred, less clear representation. Or perhaps a surreal view moves through the superficial and into the light that had first driven me upstairs and back with camera in hand. Clarity has value but not absolute.

  The unknown approaches through likeness, by parable. Humans, at our best, it seems, are meant to be ever leaning. The apprehension of truth falls too easily into arrogance; for the essential, the most meaningful, pulls beyond knowing and most certainly beyond commanding. 

How strange (and yet not all all) that my early academic work focused on clarity. In the late seventies and eighties when “research on teaching” depended on conducting low-inference studies on process-product variables, using quasi-experimental designs, teacher clarity was marked in the top ten for research and publication. Gaining tenure depended on pursuit of such a target.

And now, easing into retirement, relatively uncaged by publication’s jailer, it’s parable that’s so compelling. Not strange also because the path toward knowing leads so often amid the experience of opposites. How else is unity approached? C.G. Jung’s exploration of individuation abounds in the “marriage of opposites.” For example, look at “opposites” in the index of Mysterium Coniunctionis (p. 679).
Dominic Crossan, writing extensively about the parables of Jesus, elaborates on the multiplicity of meanings around parables in his preface to In Parables.  The truth seems far from clarity when he asserts “reality is parabolic” (p. xiv). And paradoxical: knowing is non-knowing. Perhaps the greatest peril to knowing comes in satanic certainty. Parable holds center stage, or perhaps dances just outside the spotlight, for all religion that I’ve seen. 

The value and authority of parable flow all through the first book of Rumi’s Mathnawi.  For example, Victoria Holbrook’s translation of Kenan Rifai’s commentary, Listen: “O heart, tell a parable that you may discern compulsion from free will” (line 1519, p. 181). Nicholson’s classic translation has the line and selected others this way:
O son, (only) they know (the real meaning of) compulsion in whose hearts God has opened the sight (of the spiritual eye)./To them the unseen things of the future became manifest; to them recollection of the past became naught./Their freewill and compulsion is different (from that of ordinary men): in oyster-shells drops (of rain) are pearls…O heart, bring (forward) a parable for the sake of (illustrating) a difference, that thou mayst know (what distinguishes) compulsion from freewill.  . .  (about lines 1466-; 1496-). 
And from Book III, lines 2114 & 2786: God hath set down these tales and parables for the purpose of concealing (the true nature of) the praise from the unworthy.  [My note: Some will not understand and will criticize the one who knows the mysteries]. 
That use of similitude belongs to the Lord, for He is the (sole) authority for the knowledge of the hidden and the manifest.
      A bit more of Holbrook’s translation of Rifai:
"So, let the light of spirit shine. Once the light of the spirt has shown, all the proofs and terms of knowledge and intellect are left in the shade. This means the shining of the sun of love within the heart. When that happens, the stars of knowledge and intellect fall into invisibility" (p. 184).

Parables are not vestiges from olden times. Howard Schwartz, considered “the preeminent Jewish folklorist in America,” compiles one hundred modern parables in Imperial Messages. The second parable in this collection is the one we focused in Good Stories, Kafka’s “Before the Law.” Here, parable in its most compelling, even Kafkaesque, drives us up against the final judgment: how do we each find ourselves purely accountable?

Such a question, almost maddening, serves to disrobe the emperor, to push us to acknowledge the arrogance behind persecution and proselytizing, the intolerance of fundamentalism. Not in dualistic conviction but in holding opposites do we approach the great mysteries. Parables help us own the limitation of words, the treasury of secrets, the authority of mystery. Parables guard wonder, enter transformation and the world of art, full of blurs, the open-ended story, as Crossan tells “to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life” (p. 52, see below). 

*Crossan, In Parables, p. 52:  “It is one thing to communicate to others conclusions and admonitions based on one’s own profound spiritual experience. . . It is quite another thing to try and communicate that experience itself, or, better, to assist people to find their own ultimate encounter. This is what Jesus’ parables seek to do: to help others into their own experience of the Kingdom and to draw from that experience their own way of life.”

**Much commentary has been given to “Before the Law”; for example, Chapter 5 of Acts of Literature focuses Derrida’s exploration. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Teaching-Story: Working with Opposites in Multiplicity

Multiplicity of images

I keep going back to Epaminondas, not because it’s a good story for everyone, but because it has high resonance for me individually. That’s the primary touchstone: continue to check the vibration. The best value in good stories comes through making personal connection with the numinous, by going to the edge of consciousness where the water of life can be found, where the source of vitality flows. 
For over sixty years, the little story of E has offered such a wellspring for me. I’ll elaborate briefly, again not to send anyone else to E or any specific story, instead to assert the importance of searching for the inner spark. I believe Good Stories offer a guidance for one’s destiny, certainly not the only guide but a good one, and only if the personal connection is affirmed. That’s resonance. There’s no cheating fate. A person cannot copy another’s story or point of resonance.  Each must trace his or her own fingerprint into a story that fits.
When a story fits the individual, it’s generative. When I return to E over and over, the effort is more than worth it because it yields wonder, insight, even inspiration. The story, with the gift of simplicity, revealed the death-dealing power of literalism and suggested the pathway of liberation. Of course, it took me decades to articulate those supernovas, but the illumination along the way gave sufficient light and warmth to keep trekking on. 
Strangely enough, wondering enough about the fate of the puppy probably led toward the need for powerful interpretation instead of literal meaning. Finding my way to psychoanalytic theory both 1) resuscitated instinct (often indicated by the dog image), 2) saving it from being drowned by authoritative voices (like E’s mother), and 3) the process of getting to that insight brought along redefining of career toward more narrative and hermeneutic directions 4) instead of being dominated by the behavioral and cognitive hegemony in academia.  Although I won’t elaborate here, it also probably played a significant part in 5) leading me to a very surprising and lasting love affair with horsemanship (where book learning moves backseat).
Putting the brakes on what could become a very long testimonial, let’s skip ahead to the second step. Resonance gives the foundation of affirming the right place, but the particular story that has high resonance usually needs outside help if the wellspring is to be accessed. That’s where step two comes in. Because amplification has already been described in other posts and videos, I’ll only hit high points here. When I stayed with just the E tale, it remained for me in the category to which it’s often assigned: nonsense. Only when I explored source materials and related tales did meaningfulness replace nonsense. E probably derived from the Lazy Jack tale and from there I explored other Lazy stories with the special treat of finding Buried Treasure
In Lazy Jack, I began to see the importance of persistence, of simply “showing up.” But then Buried Treasure went further into the limitation of persistence because the Worker, exemplifying the virtue of being industrious in contrast with the apparent laziness of Luis. I knew that Lazy Jack’s reward lacked verisimilitude; a person can’t depend on getting rich by just showing up. So the Buried Treasure took wonder further by giving the reward to the “lazy”—but was he really? Something very true showed through the false labeling. Cultural values (in this case, hard work) sometimes miss a higher value (in Buried Treasure, the higher value is Luis’ faith statement).
The amplification with other stories shines new light on the old story. For example, I’d missed seeing into the final part where E steps in the pies. Although some suspicion kept pushing, only after long detour was I able to recognize that act as one of defiance instead of continued stupidity. E might be acting out: “If you aren’t going to teach me how to be independent enough to adapt to change, I’ll just do the opposite of what you tell me to do!” While this is troubling also, it does have verisimilitude. 1) Dominance is real. 2) Developing independence often makes trouble. The little story of E, like any other tale, doesn’t show the entire path of destiny. It stops not with the happy ending but at least with a glimpse of an important next step. This redemptive step, however, will only be seen by persons with readiness to incorporate it. And that’s probably a good thing. 
Because the steps in Good Stories are overlapping, we’ve already moved nicely into a third area, Multiplicity. Amplification proceeds into multiplicity in order to 1) identify centering terms and 2) to array a variety of descriptors around a central term. Multiplicity works with this array in order 3) to discern, and even to force, oppositions. The intention is not to produce inauthentic terms but 4) to reveal the hidden force field. 
The nature of opposites is powerfully articulated in the work of C.G. Jung. A few quotations reinforce the purpose for Good Stories as it emphasizes the development of opposites within the multiplicity step. Key features include these:
1. Essential for consciousness.“There is no consciousness without discrimination of opposites. . . Nothing can exist without its opposite; the two were one in the beginning and will be one again in the end.” From “Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype," The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p. 96, para. 178. 
2. Life energy.“The repressed content must be made conscious so as to produce a tension of opposites, without which no forward movement is possible. The conscious mind is on top, the shadow underneath, and just as high always longs for low and hot for cold, so all consciousness, perhaps without being aware of it, seeks its unconscious opposite, lacking which it is doomed to stagnation, congestion, and ossification. Life is born only of the spark of opposites.” From "The Problem of the Attitude-Type, "Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, pp. 53-54, para. 78. 
3. Process includes tension, production of energy, and attempt for reconciliation.“For just as there is no energy without the tension of opposites, so there can be no consciousness without the perception of differences. But any stronger emphasis of differences leads to polarity and finally to a conflict which maintains the necessary tension of opposites. This tension is needed on the one hand for increased energy production and on the other for the further differentiation of differences, both of which are indispensable requisites for the development of consciousness . . . Then a counter-movement sets in, in the attempt to reconcile the conflicting parties.” From Mysterium Coniunctionis, pp. 418-19. 
4. Attention to feeling as well as thinking.a content can only be integrated when its double aspect has become conscious and when it is grasped not merely intellectually but understood according to its feeling-value. . .”  From Aion, p. 30-31, para 58. 
5. Connection with destiny and peace.“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.”  From Aion, p. 71, para. 126.

Often a preliminary draft of opposites results in an imbalance of value with one side very positive and the other appearing strongly negative. For example, I could have a central term in the amplification of the E story as Adaptation. I might pose as opposites: 1) sense/nonsense, 2) awake/asleep, or 3) lazy/industrious. 
The sense/nonsense pair doesn’t work for me due to the imbalance.  “Sense” is very positive while “nonsense” leaves me cold, and thus the potential for transformation is limited. As I’ve shown in other posts, if I change nonsense to not-yet-sense, I’m more open to a transcendent awareness such as a realization that some mysteries or puzzling circumstances are not to be avoided. For some troubles, when I can’t figure it out, I don’t have to give in to frustration, to calling myself stupid or to feeling depressed. For example, the problem of pain (why do the good suffer?) may lead beyond human comprehension.
In order to be generative, the pairing needs to carry energy in each term. If I cannot see it in each side of the pair, I’ll either work to find it or move to other terms. Although “asleep” might look lifeless, what about the power of dreams that come in sleep? With “lazy,” at least in the Buried Treasure story, the label might point to a cultural perspective that could be challenged. The pairing might be revised to “industrious” and “devalued” or even “oppressed.” The recognition that “lazy” has been used as a stigmatizing term to justify oppression fires up the opportunity for insight and even action. 
The fourth step in Good Stories is Transformation. It’s a big concept that will only be sketched here and developed further later. Coming from the resonant E story, the work with amplification and multiplicity generates a set of oppositional terms: a) being bound by tradition versus b) breaking free toward authentic being. The central term might be framed as Liberation. The transformation concerns significant change in thinking, feeling, and/or acting. Insights about liberation include: 
1) Breaking free is likely to be messy.  For example, ruined pies may be a necessary loss. 
2) Negative labeling should be interrogated. 
3) Approval from outside may be sacrificed—so get ready for it before proceeding. 
4) A higher value can (and probably must) focus and take precedence. For example, Luis’ faith statement was more powerful than the culturally-approved norm.