Saturday, May 27, 2017

Finding One’s Niche, Destiny, & Aiming for Good


Now that the Spring Term 2017 has closed, I’m drawn to reflect on the Good Stories course: purpose and possibilities, intentions, redirections, serendipities. In looking over open-ended notes from the final days, I’m taken back to the inception of Good Stories, back to re-read a mostly-forgotten blog composed when planning for the first session some six years, over eleven hundred students ago. In January 2011my deliberations about the purpose for Good Stories concluded:
Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté.  Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters.  Boyd [author of the primary textbook] states that our stories teach us how to do that.  My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity.  The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably.  Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters.  Discernment depends on purification.
     Over the fifteen times the course ran, we did engage stories featuring betrayal and deception. While we searched out applications to both the individual and the local level to discern lies from truth, the themes that resonated more frequently and strongly focused courage, perseverance, love, and on the pair found in the subtitle of the course: peace and justice. In concert with the textbook, Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, our course progressed through four levels of explanation, culminating in the Particular Level
     Boyd illustrates the particular level:
“even highly creative persons create in distinctively personal patterns. Shakespeare learned from the opportunities and examples of the drama of his day-blank verse, rhetorical exuberance, multiple plots, the genres of tragedy, comedy, and history-but from the first extended them in his own way, becoming, as his work matured, more idiosyncratic in vocabulary, phrasing, imagery, meter, speech construction, characterization, scenic structure, plot development, plot parallelism, emotional change and range, and sheer artistic confidence. By working at their own kinds of problems intently, geniuses can build on their expertise, their peculiar neural networks, their own mental materials and methods, rather than reinventing elements and methods each time from scratch. Even writers with a high inclination or a high determination to maximize novelty will reach positions and discover practices distinctly their own that they continue to recycle and recombine in their own way." (p. 356, Kindle 4039-4044)
     Boyd explicates this level and its application to moral sense most thoroughly in his focus on Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss, and specifically in Horton Hears a Who!
Part of what makes the story so satisfying, indeed, is the delicate balance between our admiration for Horton's having the courage to stand up for himself despite the pressure of his entire jungle community and young Jo-jo's having the decency to respond to the pressure of his community. Both nonconformity and conformity have their claims. This kind of symmetry may not be consciously noticed even by most adult readers, yet it contributes naturally to our sense of the rightness of the story. In his case, Horton has good reason to resist the other animals; in his, Jo-jo has good reason to join his fellow Whos. (page 374; 4244-4248 Kindle)
     In Good Stories, we applied the particular level to the production of the final Digital Media Project. The assignment was explained:
DMP3 shows movement toward the Particular Level where the previous three levels are best engaged, both now and in a future vision, for “truth” in answering the big questions of peace and justice, in a specific response to the individual’s destiny, gift, opportunity, and responsibility. DMP3 shows the transformation necessary to move toward destiny (including humans' progression toward cooperation) and the transformation develops through challenges.
     Evident in a note written on May 12, the day after the last class, I see one of those words emphasized—gift. Perhaps emerging over the fifteen terms as most important to me was a wish and intention that the course serve as a gift to the lovely students, in ways like grandchildren—especially shown in the tears of the one staying as all others left the room to say, “I don’t want it to end.” If our time together led to the gift of stories, our course doesn’t end. As the May 12 note put it:

“Gift” closes up inaccurately, like a flower that reverses into a bud instead of opening into the fullness of the bloom. Yes, it moves toward the petal-dropping moment, a direction threatening, calling to the edges of our misguided mind the specter of death. But, “No problem,” as the now-phrasing gives it. The gift from God, the distinctive mark to each being, is a giving, continuous flowing, not owned by us. That unique fingerprint of now, the DNA of one’s true identity, dare not be mine but only known to be the longing, pulling toward and uniting with the source.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Love Inseparable from Justice, Mercy, Compassion


5 AM-ish is the perfect time for coffee, especially on May 25, 2017, when the world turns sepia-toned, the tin roof echoes the gently falling rain, the robin joins in, not exactly singing but offering unabashedly itself. And the Amish-made rocking chair on the back porch, along with the man in it, creak just a bit. 
     Most Thursdays for the past decade would likely have found me at Starbucks when the door opens, 5AM, often the one on the corner of the Beltway and Route 1, pondering matters academic, like everybody else, wondering. Whatever: how we got here, how to get out without completely betraying the soul. 
     I don’t think humans are born nice and we’re not born mean either, but it sure looks like it. There’s a book within reach of my desk called Just Babies, mostly not-yet-read, but the point is that we’re born, at least most everybody is, with a capacity to prefer goodness and even with discernment of good guys. Just—as in born-with justice. Even before speaking or walking infants can choose the person who was nice, looking away from the actor who meanly stole the toy from another child, preferring the one showing love.
     What happens? How can so many people fail to see corrupt wanna-be leaders who are going to betray them without batting an eye? How can folks choose to watch a network spewing lies and hate? And then go to church, even send missionaries! The good book, just about any of them, warns of this. Freedom, this gift given humans, means suffering and most would rather not. The textbook we used in Good Stories preaches reciprocal altruism and asserts the necessity of imposing disincentives even to persons who collaborate with and who do not resist the evil-doers.
     Other good books teach purification. The person who wants to stone the one caught in adultery is not to be hated or vilified. The resistance needs to come from a clean heart because harboring hate destroys. So the person who committed the horrific hate crime on campus, the persons who support a power-crazed politiican, those who maim horses to win competitions—all these should be stopped but best not by those calling them nasty names. 

     Somehow love is still the answer. And it must be a love greater than we have grown, one inseparable from justice, mercy, compassion.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Human Choice


If we accept the wisdom of “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), we might be liberated from the shut-down of saying/doing what’s already been said/done. Freedom and change, renewed and evolving, are also truths alongside the nothing-new. And words, although in print they appear unchangeable, they, too, are ever moving, even if at glacial speed. 
     Then, if I don’t have to wait for the perfect, or even the right, beginning and if I escape from the fear of being redundant and looking ignorant of a previous tome, then what guides the choice of word and act? Yes, I am familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy, and I’m often drawn to the fitting of the niche, the resolution by the hidden treasure, the parable of talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-28). More compelling as a model for living in freedom glimmers the “path of attraction.” 
     But “attraction” invites the amusement park or, more darkly, Dante’s circles of Hell littered with tortured bodies laid waste by lust, hate, greed, and other evil turns of power. As evident across history and certainly flagrant on the pages of today, human choice runs to waste and to harm. That the holy books overflow with commands and with hell-fire consequences makes sense as a force to hold against the dark side of our nature, waiting for maturation, for developed capacity to know better and to choose more wisely, more generously, more compassionately. 
     Sufis tell of the “animal soul.” My favorite storybook, Rumi’s Mathnawi, like the recurrent seaside waves, each still unique, sends the current that offers insight and inspiration for living on the path of attraction. There’s no attempt to hide from satanic allure, even if it looks like small pleasures, like “no-harm” fouls. To be hooked by the animal soul is so easy. The true path demands recognition and dealing with human tendency to choose wrongly, even to stay stupid, to doze or drug.
     But, by grace, we taste the divine. By discipline, by obedience, by following a guide, by seeking after knowledge and by surrender of selfish power, a person recognizes the true, the eternal, joy, peace, love. . . 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"The Eternal Now"





How to start when “there is no beginning; there is no end—all my life’s a circle.” Into this living moment, now, eddies the past, the ones who have passed over, also the unspoken and the wished-unsaid. Across the mirror dances foresight, prophecy, dream images not yet enfleshed. And all this already writ: the Paradise poems, the book of Job, the Four Quartets, “the horse who scents the living grass…will ever after run.”

The sole justification for tapping out again what has already been given is because. The moving finger has its own revealer. The Prophet’s recorded message says over and over again that the words had been delivered before and before that. And still the spring graciously bubbles forth with drops recovered from the ocean. The only reason praises, slips aside one more veil. One glimpse of the Beloved, a whisper, even in a dream, if that, drives the caravan oasis to oasis to paradise. Or it is. It is enough. 

Like this






        Like this

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Finding or even Making the Glint


        While the “path of attraction” might sound, well, attractive, deep commitment gets more difficult when the sweets don’t show up in the daily in-box. The day-to-day dealing has more to do with tending the garden and making the fertile soil instead of expecting raindrops and roses. The moisture for the sweet-smelling, the eye-appealing, the tasty attractions comes from tears as well as from the beneficent source of blessings. Or perhaps, more likely, the tears are gifts that bring growth, that make the heart sensitive to glints otherwise invisible in life’s pathway.

        Surely one of these developments in tending the garden has to do with the nature of longing. Blessed are those that thirst, not those who are drunk, not those whose treasuries are stuffed. I recently enjoyed reading an interview that Krista Tippett did with Sylvia Boorstein especially in the featured line: “Where is it written that you’re supposed to be happy all the time?” Boorstein credits her grandmother for instilling this “Talmudic turn of phrase” as a turning point from her childhood petulance guiding her toward “the beginning of my spiritual practice that life is difficult.” 

        To live consistently on a path of attraction needs reassurance that longing, in its nuanced nature, is a good sign, often not an easy one, but still true. I find bittersweet comfort in David Wilcox’s song “The Break in the Cup” (from the album Big Horizon). Paradoxically, as Wilcox tells, it’s the break that “holds love” and more understandably that leads “to the waterfall,” to the source.

        Good stories, such as the "Visit," deserve to be told over and over because living in the paradox of “are you here because you want to be or because you have to be?” is continually resolving in the renewal of garden of a heart that longs for the source.

        When we tell a good story, when we touch upon the inarticulate edge, an incompleteness, nostalgic, seeps in. Most narratives skirt this feeling or dash past it with superfluous action, violence, sensationalism, laughter, and so on. But the well-tended garden builds soil that sustains thirst, perhaps even welcomes it because it’s the remembrance of the source. The heart that longs moves toward love, the depths of it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

To Tell the Truth


To telI the truth: that’s the essence of Good Stories. The phrase marvelously carries a double meaning [see Note 1 below] that swirls into one—but only by sincere seeking, by grace, and in the fleeting moment of translation. In addition to the obvious expressive act, telling can mean discernment; for example, “I can tell how a story is true.” And most magnificently, truth is told and discerned in the embodied life. Increasingly, when I really want to know whether to believe something or someone, the key comes through integrity. It’s the old acid test of walking the talk.
In addition to the goal of Good Stories, to-tell-the-truth focuses the mission of schooling, of religion, of home and office. And as writ across the face of America, we have a long path ahead because we’re finding ourselves far too much mired in “fake news,” intentional distortions, and downright lying. 
Of course, to tell the truth pushes us to the edge of capacity. It’s a wonder that a single word is spoken in court. If one is seriously attentive to the injunction to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” who can presume to such knowledge? Especially if the book of Job has been taken to heart, we must admit our inability to know at a deep level that plumbs into human suffering and into the nature of justice.
And yet there resides at the heart of human nature, sometimes in hiding, the need to know. The pathway toward truth is perilous, especially in the shadows from the tower of ego-inflated presumption; but equally, if not more, in the chasms of despair, fearful of reaching enough light to live by. Regarding the former, most anyone who has spent much time near the temples of religion or in the ivy halls of academia can testify to the arrogant and oppressive crusades by persons who act and proselytize as if they possess THE truth. Margaret Atwood and many others have long tried to caution us: "The true story is vicious / and multiple and untrue…”
How easy, then, to collapse into despair after colliding with persons unworthily holding positions of authority who manipulate, lie, and corrupt. The illusion of making and accepting fake-news must be dispelled in order to know that becoming great (again?) cannot be approached until persons live out the contrite confession that goodness comes before greatness and that goodness depends upon sacrificing the oppressive ego, the intolerant ambition, and the arrogance of imposing THE truth.  
It’s in good stories that the capacity to tell the truth is forged. As noted in recent postsMartin Buber and Karen Armstrong urge us to re-see the stories of the Bible in order to gain discernment, to receive continuing revelation, as well as life-affirming insight. Even the beginning of Genesis can be re-seen and understood in a liberating way. Perhaps the two contradictory creation stories invite humans to search for continuing revelation in addition to prescriptions to live by.
Given all the troubles, why do we strive for the truth? For many of us, a driving force is expressed in the line: “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” Sometimes a familiar phrase opens up through a newer translation as when Jesus was telling those who “had claimed to believe in him. ‘If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you’ ” (Jn 8:31-32, The Message, 1993, NavPres).
Should we then conclude that if we do not know the truth, we remain in captivity? The answer appears to be “Yes, but...” If we do not strive toward the light, we remain in darkness; and although freedom might look like the obvious choice, there’s a big reason why persons might not choose to move toward knowing. Remember the saying: Ignorance is bliss? Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to act. As phrased in James:
As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil. (The Message, 1993, NavPress). 
The consequences of failing to live into the light saturate the stories from the Bible, the message of the Qur’an, and perhaps define any sacred text.  For example, Muhammad Asad’s translation and commentary, The Message of the Qur’an, features a phrase “give the lie.” This wording and the referenced activity connects with “deny the truth.” Asad elaborates on this in his notes to Surah 74 (see especially Note 4 on p. 1229).

After elaborating the tragic consequences of the patriarchs in Genesis, Karen Armstrong concludes with the poignant truth about knowing:
But the inescapable message of Genesis is that blessing and enlightenment are not achieved by acquiring facts and believing doctrines. Genesis gives us, as we have seen, no coherent theology but seems to frustrate our desire for clarity at every turn. Instead, knowledge means self-knowledge and an understanding of the mystery of our own being. We also have to recognize the sacred mystery of our fellow men and women. . .Other human beings remain as opaque and mysterious as God—indeed, they can reveal to us the essential mystery and otherness of the sacred (pp. 118-119, In the Beginning).
To tell the truth depends on knowing truth [duh], especially in the engagement with its mysterious sacred side. Our susceptibility to fake-news comes, I believe, in the limited range of knowing. How much of love can be known by only reading romances? As the varied tales of beauty and beast invite us to see, it’s so easy to skim along on a surface level as if that’s all there is. The treasure of knowing, the revelation of and transformation into real beauty, comes through the crucible of personal experience. Book learning, like news reports, has much value but the refined gold gets tempered in the risky spaces of life, especially where passion leads.
Every seeker of truth needs a practice of truth-telling. My path, very surprisingly, opened up into natural horsemanship, into story telling, and in the strange interconnection of these two. Those of us who attempt “True Unity” [see Note 2 below] in horsemanship embody approximation. Only in fleeting immediacy is the gift of balance experienced with the thrill and grace of presence. Truth continually realigns from being ahead or behind, tilting left or right, lifting too much up or down, as well as holding between the arrogance of presumption and the diminishment of selfhood joined in relationship. To tell the truth brings exhilaration linked inextricably with humility.
        It is humanly impossible to sustain perfect alignment with the dynamic acrobatics of a spirited horse in dressage; but by grace and by devoted discipline, the presence of true unity is tasted, giving a breath-stopping glimpse. For me, this encounter links to the magic of good stories, the “once-upon-a-time” dimension, where “the two worlds touch.” As Mircea Eliade articulated the gift of myth [see Note 3 below], this experience redeems the profane world through contact with the eternal, the sacred. And that’s how we tell the truth.

==================================
Note 1Merriam-Webster gives a baker’s dozen, including:
1 :  to let a person know something :  to give information to * I’ll tell them when they get here.
3 :  to find out by observing * My little brother has learned to tell time.
11 :  to see or understand the differences between two people or things * Can you tell right from wrong?
12 :  to see or know (something) with certainty * It’s hard to tell if he's serious.
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:
http://dochorsetales.blogspot.com/2016/03/good-stories-move-us-from-literal.html. 
Note 3. From http://www.bytrentsacred.co.uk/index.php/eliade-sacred-and-profane/2-sacred-time :
“Eliade introduces his phrase illud tempus, to refer to the time of origins, the sacred time when the world was first created.
Religious man accessed illud tempus whenever he ritually recited his cosmogonic myth, thereby reactuating the creation of his world. In various cultures, this gave an approach to the healing of the sick, for by being taken ritually to the time of origins, the sick could be reborn without their sickness.
More generally, religious man needed to enter sacred time periodically because sacred time was what made ordinary, historical time possible.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Where Teaching's Only What's Already Known

Daffodil in decaying leaves and snow.
Why does the good book begin not with one account of creation but with two? Why open with apparently contrasting, even contradictory, stories of our beginning and our nature? Karen Armstrong says that the stories in Genesis “seem to be warning us against any simplistic conception of the divine, which must always elude our limited comprehension…[God] frequently appears to be as ambiguous, contradictory, and dubious as they [humans] themselves” (p. 13, In the Beginning). 
In E.A. Speiser’s examination of Genesis, “the point here is not whether this account of creation conforms to the scientific data of today, but what it meant,” “not whether the statement is true or false, but what it means” (p. 9, The Anchor Bible Genesis). In his introduction, Speiser focuses the point: “The history of the biblical process is ultimately the story of the monotheistic ideal in its gradual evolution” (p. xlix).
Might it be that we are given the two accounts because the dissonance offers us the engagement with our distinctive human inheritance: the capacity for wonder. We are meant to search out our meaning, “my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Martin Buber on Genesis: “The perception of revelation is the basis of perceiving creation and redemption” (p. 10, On the Bible).   And it is in story that we build the capacity for the work of wonder in the play of making meaning out of likeness, of parabolic instead of literal, out of that which acclimates to our evolving consciousness.
Why tell good stories? 
Among the varied reasons, a favorite of mine muddles around the paradox of powerful teaching: “You can’t teach persons something they don’t already know.” Paradox might be the proper container for our genetic complexity because it contains opposites. Since teaching, at first glance, is directed at what isn’t known, how does it also depend on what is already known? 
The function of analysis, with breaking into opposites as a prime example, drives toward deeper understanding. If we wish to further our knowledge of teaching, then, exploring this mystery of the paradoxical known/unknown promises tracking of the secret. And, after the analysis, if we believe that the whole is greater than the parts, we’ll need story to restore our broken Humpty Dumpty because all the king’s men and horses in the academy’s hegemony of scientific analysis can’t put the world of genesis together. But story can. On story’s terms. And that includes the holding of paradox and the love of parable.
  Idries Shah plays with all this. In Seeker After Truth, Shah blends several sources in order to discuss “How to Learn What is Already Known” (pp. 92-94).
  • Referencing al-Ghazzaii: “The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is really known only to those who have it.” So the paradox has to do with a very special kind of knowing.
  • Bahaudin’s eighth counsel: “Be prepared to find that certain beliefs are correct, but that their meaning and interpretation may vary in accordance with your stage of journey, making them seem contradictory to those who are not on the Path.”  Capacity for paradoxical thinking includes tolerance for changing meanings and for apparent contradiction.
  • It also requires going alone and being rejected. Shah takes the tolerance for ambiguity on into dealing with invisibility and being devalued: “true mystical teachers may be ‘invisible’ to some people in the sense that such people cannot realize their worth. .  . What they are teaching, and its methods, may be imagined to be some mundane activity, even” (p. 93). Remember the teaching, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
We could simply say that the answer is that there is no answer. As T.S. Eliot eloquently and perhaps frustratingly put it: “Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance” (Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”). Paradox, for one who chooses to engage it, means searching without full closure. It affirms the process, the longing, and therein builds understanding, that and tolerance.

Good stories give the playground, the stuff for exploring. Not THE answer. For a human who gives answers denies the authentic source and displaces the inner direction of the secret. Good stories help us laugh in the human condition. Good stories model the character of loving, of losing, of redemption.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

From Garden Dark to Beautiful Beasts


Karen Armstrong opens her consideration of Genesis not with the Garden but with an exploration of Jacob’s wrestling because that’s the model for our engagement with divine revelation. We have to yield to the struggle of imagination and surrender our craving for arrogant certainty. The window into that which surpasses, that which includes love and hope, opens of necessity by parable, by likeness; how else can we see into that which is greater than immature sight? And it’s in narrative, in good stories, that we practice the work/play of parable. Armstrong says:
“The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of final certitude and experiencing, at best only transient, elusive blessing” (In the Beginning, p. 6).   
As noted in the previous blogMartin Buber urges us to re-see the biblical narratives so that we experience continuing revelation. It’s like learning to see in the dark, in what has become dark due to repeated looking without seeing further. Without the active searching advocated by Armstrong and Buber, the light goes out; or perhaps our doorway, our capacity to see, closes when we fail to exercise the gift. 
Christian teachings call for maturity: “put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13); and the teacher demands that we advance in understanding of parable (e.g., Matthew 15). Maturity in understanding shows up in “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness” (Jeremiah 9:24). If sacred text such as the Qur’an contains multiple layers of meaning, and it does, how do we learn to see further? 

I believe that our work/play with good stories builds capacity. For example, our literary inheritance offers many fabulous tales on the beauty-and-beast theme. A first level of experiencing these stories usually has a magical transformation in which the beast changes form, as when a kiss breaks an enchantment and the frog turns into a prince charming. In the “Marriage of Gawaine and Dame Ragnell,” upon the knight’s kiss the hideous woman is then seen as the most beautiful maiden.
But if we learn to penetrate to a deeper understanding, we might begin to glean from the texture of relationship shown in the tale. When might realize that in true allegiance between knight and ruler as well as between beloveds, only when persons incarnate sovereignty is the vision gained to perceive the higher level of beauty. We recite easily the bromide about “only skin deep,” but do our footsteps follow the divine when they beckon beyond our comfortable materialism? Can we attract leaders with vision of compassion? We might begin to see as ugly  instead of attractive our own desires as well as other persuaders who value appearance, riches, and worldly fame. 
Our spiritual and literary inheritance tries to guide us. After Nasrudin is shunned at the banquet when wearing shabby clothing and then honored when he returns fashionably attired, he puts the food in his jacket pockets while saying, “Eat, coat, eat!” In response to his shocked host, the teacher replies, “It’s my coat you welcomed to the feast, not me.”
Since Adam and Eve left the Garden, we’ve been destined to journey in the shadows of the tree of knowing good from bad. When Psyche left the castle garden to go in search of Love, she had to develop capacity to see in the dark. Her naïveté prevented her from seeing the treachery of those she presumed to love her. Her footsteps led her over and again past her failures to see. She had to learn to look with the vision of belief and to trust the resources coming from the divine source. That’s the stuff of sovereignty. It’s developed step by step, task by bigger task. And often enough, we’ll feel defeated, especially as Rilke translates Jacob’s wrestling into our choosing to engage “constantly greater beings."
Back to the “Marriage” story, Gawaine also models the progression. He proved the nature of service, trusting the leadership of the authentic rule, looking beyond the superficial that was labeled “ugly” by material, habitual, conventional sight. He leaned into the divine relationship, and on into the kiss that is made when one acts not for worldly praise but for the Word. Then the eyes open to see further into truth and beauty.


When we grow stronger in translating good stories and parables, when the Word lives in our politics, our work, and our inner being, then we gain capacity to see further in the dark, step by step into the light.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Hearts Grow Strong


A resonant moment in the “Water of Life” (Grimms’ version) happens early on when the youngest brother differs sharply from the older two especially when he gets down off his horse showing respect to the small voice. Although it’s more subtle, we were given advance notice with their contrasting hearts: his is filled with tender love for the father and theirs are dark in self-centered greed. The story happily rewards the good-hearted with the prize but only after he suffers and grows a heart strong enough to deal with the dark side. Humans are not meant to remain in the Garden but like Eve are destined to know of good and evil.
From that third son we’re offered some sense of the heart’s journey, but the Arabian Nights’ version of this tale gives an enriched account. The character who embodies the heart-journey continues to be figured as the third child but shifts to the feminine. Early in the story, it’s the third sister who playfully makes the big-hearted wish to marry the ruler. Such a lofty wish does come true, but her naiveté (along with that of her husband) prompts harsh consequences extending even into her own daughter who has to live the rough trek out into the knowledge of dark voices, growing strong enough to foresee the necessity of developing a protective strategy.  
When we seek to further amplify this theme of the good heart that develops into a strong heart, we’re fortunate to happen into a tale from Sierra Leone, Africa. The figure of the good but still innocent heart comes in “the daughter of the village” who is much loved by the ruler. The daughter gets separated from the village and is believed to have been taken by the ruler-above. In order to bring her back, the village has to absorb four or five (depending on the version of the story) unfamiliar and even unwanted characters. The nature of these characters includes: 
  • appearing to be lazy—while actually creating webs that are artistic but almost invisible connections, and by doing this work without being seen and thus without getting any credit, 
  • appearing to steal material objects—while redistributing wealth and thus incurring the wrath of the rich, 
  • appearing to inflict harm—while digging into the groundwork and too-familiar pathways, 
  • appearing to be unreliable, confusing, and inconsistent—while providing safe proximity to power, and 
  • appearing to inflict pain—while providing warnings of toxic materials and disclosures of high value.


Messages from these stories related to our real-world village here in 2017 seem almost too painfully clear. Where is the water of life that carries cleansing and renewal for our land, for all people of the world, including the rich folks who desperately, even if unknowingly, need renewal, inner and outer? Is the water/daughter still waiting, still captive, because we have not yet developed strong-enough hearts and generous-enough vision?  We must see into the secret spaces, share resources, open to hard truths, and expand into Emerson’s darkened knowledge that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And we must grow strong enough to endure the pain of dealing with poison within and without. Love that survives is not just altruistic; it also demands the discernment of giving with care so that resources are not turned to evil.
Martin Buber points our way to our divine resources and to the necessity of facing the old stories anew. It’s like admitting the stranger. 
“…face the Book with a new attitude as something new…its sayings and images will overpower…mold…ferment…enter in…to incorporate itself anew…To endure revelation is to endure this moment full of possible decisions, to respond to and to be responsible for every moment” (On the Bible, pp. 5-7).

For our world village to adapt and survive, we need to work and play as if the spiritual text is unfamiliar, not frozen but alive, so that we can receive the needed revelation. One friend from across the ocean who is in our Good Stories class brought in a perfect passage from Pushkin to help us open to the revelations from Books and tales:


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Amplifying the Water-of-Life Theme


Photo taken from my home office window this morning, Feb 9, 2017. Perhaps today’s “water of life” says to stay in and appreciate a less active form of beauty…
        One theme that we’re following in Good Stories is represented by the image of the “water of life.” Without water, we die; so the archetypal image pushes us to consider the essentials of living. For example, what do we do and what do we take into our beings that brings refreshment, cleansing, and renewal?
        Although water was not the dominant image in our first story, we did wonder if there was more to Luis in “Buried Treasure” than laziness. A sense of wonder signals a place to focus, a point of resonance. The primary evidence that Luis has mysterious power comes in his ability to stop the runaway horse. But we might need to backtrack if we want to explore this amazing gift. When we reflect back into the story, we notice an easy-to-skip-over detail about his initiative. In order to get on the path of the horse, he had to set out in search of a spring—that’s an image of the water of life. This action, the willingness to go after the water of life, although subtle it’s an opposite to laziness, and it leads to the connection with horsepower, with the spirit being, and with the “tatema” treasure.
       The focus on this moment in a story is what we’re calling resonance, and our backtracking and circling around the “hotspot” shows the beginning of “amplification.” To amplify is to increase understanding. Often it involves zooming in like we just did to get a fine focus on Luis’ action. Amplification also works by circling around a theme through finding different translations of a story, variations on the theme, and similar stories. Often we need multiple perspectives on an archetypal image if we are to gain enough texture so that applications to our individual lives can be appropriated.
        We amplify the moment where Luis goes in search of a spring by looking at other stories where a character looks for the water of life. One comes from the Grimms tales and another is from the Arabian Nights collection. A version of the Grimms’ “Water of Life” is included in Shah’s World Tales, and the hardback version has powerful illustrations by Melvyn Grant.

       "Golden Water" comes from Arabian Nights and contributes to our amplification by emphasizing female characters. It even features a younger sister who becomes a mother and has a third child who is female. This double presentation lets us see a continued development of the character that is needed to search out the water of life.
        Our resonance and amplification of the water-of-life theme can be portrayed like this:
1. We are struck by the advanced embodiment of a quality in Luis. He has been labeled as “lazy” but we see he has amazing capacity and wonder how a person might develop this ability. We might also note that sometimes a wonderful gift is not seen by others and even can be desecrated by them.
2. When we amplify this point of resonance with the Grimms’ “Water of Life,” we see the development of the younger son (who also is incorrectly perceived as weak). His character includes love and humility, instead of arrogance. We watch how his rather naive love progresses through suffering into a love that can face evil and that can design necessary strategy for dealing with betrayal.
3. When we amplify further with the Arabian Nights’ “Golden Water,” the person who has capacity to bring back the water of life is shown to have an advanced capacity for strategy related to self-defense.
4. The amplification of the water-of-life theme suggests next steps that might involve exploration of a related theme such as the nature of guidance. Concerning guides, our sequence of stories included 1) a spirit-being who just suddenly appears, 2) a small but powerful voice that has to be respected, 3) a semi-hidden dervish, and 4) a talking bird!
        Because exploration of the water-of-life theme offers to guide us in relation to the essential dimensions of life, it’s a good one for amplification. When we look for comparison stories that feature the water-of-life theme, we find it’s been labeled as tale-type 551 in the system devised by Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU). It’s classified within the category 550 “Supernatural Helpers.” Wikipedia shows links to 13 stories associated with “Water of Life” from around the world; sometimes the healing comes through something other than water.
       The guidance we find in amplification does not provide a roadmap, of course; but it does give us clues about the development of character that contribute to an enriched life. For example, in the Grimms’ version, the youngest son is motivated through love of his father in sharp contrast with his brothers’ desire for status and wealth. While his good heart helps him get the advice, directions, and resources he needs to get to the water of life, we find that love as he initially knows it won’t be enough. He is too trusting and has to suffer the development of a more mature love that includes discernment of traitors. His older brothers may be related by blood but they’re not related by heart, and he has to learn that love can include being strategic.
        In our primary textbook, On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd develops the meaning of reciprocal altruism: “I help you in the expectation that you may help me later” (p. 57). Boyd features this concept in his chapter “The Evolution of Cooperation” and continues throughout the book to show how reciprocal altruism has played a vital role in the survival of species and how it continues to be very significant in human’s cognitive development. Our ability to enact reciprocal altruism could be a significant development connected with the archetypal image of the water of life. Stories provide us with models of effective incorporation of reciprocal altruism in our lives.
        Passages from Boyd that elaborate reciprocal altruism include these:
"Cheaters will thrive in exchanges with altruists unless altruists discriminate against—refuse further exchange with, or actively punish—cheaters" (p. 57.
"For altruism to work robustly a whole suite of motivations has to be in place: sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to incline me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame, to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating. We can reverse-engineer the social and moral emotions so central to our engagement with others in life and in story. (note 21) Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection's way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species" pp. 57-58.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Inspiration & Revolution

this morning
Late winter

most leaves down 
yellowed grass
Light comes thru
plenty of room
     Through the past twelve or so semesters, this final seventh of a forty-plus-year career in teaching, it’s all crystallized in a course I designed and continuously revised called Good Stories. The heart of our engagement centers in the essence of the making of a good story. In the oral culture, story is alive, not frozen in print or on screen; and the vitality pulses in renewal, even in revolution.
     Life depends on change and adaptation, including social reorganization as well as advancing consciousness; this inner-outer dynamic pushes forward an enacted conscience as reflected in the subtitle of the course: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice. Looking out in the window of today’s world, we must wonder if we’ve been telling enough good stories. 
     Despite the prevailing overemphasis on entertainment, narratives can be shaped and enacted for the force of goodness; this potential is convincingly evident in the narratives enriching the major religions of the world. Consider, for example, Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative Kenan Rifai’s commentary on Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Crossan’s books on parable, especially those of Jesus.  Instead of renewing life, far too much discourse, particularly in our educational system, seems to have lost the revolutionary power to inspire us beyond hegemonic selfish interests that freeze and kill. 
      Change comes hard, particularly to persons who are fat and happy or drugged into distracted illusions that deny climate change, poisoned food and water, toxic dogma, soporific screens, and inane mind/heart numbing test-taking. Good stories happen not just in the telling but in the calling for them by persons who are searching. Rumi’s radical narratives were frequently paused by the command for the storyteller to stop talking; persons have to be ready to break open. 
     Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of this comes in the narrative around King David. Walter Brueggemann consolidates several incisive explorations with the synthesis that “this narrative is distinctively counterculture, subversive, against our presuppositions” and “against such a self-deceiving enlightenment” (p. 49, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory). The reformations of power and surrender shape in the heart rending parable of shepherd and lamb, love and death.
     That the essence of a good story rumbles in its revolutionary power is also modeled in Rumi’s “The Merchant & the Parrot.”** The caged bird (yes, remember Maya Angelou) provokes us to consider our spirit contained within the body. 

‘My parrot, O my most sagacious bird,
  interpreter of all my thoughts and secrets!
Whatever comes to me that’s just and unjust,
  she told me from the first so I’d remember.’
A parrot with a voice from revelation
  began her life before the first existence,
This parrot is concealed inside yourself;
  you’ve seen her image in phenomena.
Alan Williams, Trans. Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. 162.
** Several print versions of “The Merchant & the Parrot” can be seen through this page:  http://www.mythfolklore.net/3043mythfolklore/reading/rumi/pages/12.htm
 (Links to an external site.) . It includes translations by Whinfield (19th century) and Barks (20th century), who each translate Rumi according to the poetic expectations and liberty of their time. If you are interested in a more literal translation of Rumi (13th century), you can take a look at a version of "The Merchant and The Parrot" by Ibrahim Gamard. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Art of Repetition with Variation



Repetition has a trickster quality, at first take seeming almost inartistic; and then, if we can shake off a bit of presumption, of presumed superiority, if we recognize our kinship with the noodlehead, we just might be positioned for awakening to a deeper level of feeling or understanding. Godly qualities like peace, justice, and love contain layer after layer with access available only by patient walking, step by step, through experiences and reflections that develop ability to see the hand of God and hear further into the Voice. Robert Alter’s chapter on repetition in The Art of Biblical Narrative reminds us of the power of the word that anticipates the phenomena of creation. He quotes Martin Buber on the biblical convention off “Leitwort”:
"a word or root-word that recurs significantly in a text, in a continuum of texts or in a configuration of texts: by following these repetitions, one is able to decipher or grasp a meaning of the text, or at any rate, the meaning will be revealed more strikingly" (p. 93).
Alter illustrates with the transition from Saul to David as King involving variations on the words “listen,” “voice,” and “word.” Saul, perhaps as a model for most of us, was rather slow to hear the word that said “to listen is better than sacrifice” (I Sam. 15:22).
My experience in teaching Good Stories continually proves the gift of re-telling. For example, we circle around a theme or character type and call this “amplification.” The Lazy Jack story was added to Good Stories to amplify Epaminondas with the way each fails to adapt. And then the so-called Lazy Man in “Buried Treasure” (also called “Tatema”) came in more recently to amplify Lazy Jack. The Tatema character allows us to move deeper into the strange way humans devalue persons and miss the gift they hold because the so-called lazy person is the one who stops the runaway horse and gets the silver coins that the Working Man only sees as stinky mud. 
But it took this sixth or eighth repetition for me to feel a particular value, an affection, for the Working Man whom on earlier takes I’d dismissively seen simply as a rather crass materialist. This time, when applying the strategy of taking the whole story inside as well as making external applications, I appreciated the connection between the two characters. The working man delivers the treasure to the horse-stopping man’s house. Like Lazy Jack’s ethic of showing up at work day after day even when he’s devalued each time, the working man does the grunt work. The two figures in Tatema are called compadres (Wilson Hudson, Healer of Los Olmos, p. 128-) suggesting a connection even stronger than friendship. 

I’ve been so fascinated with the one who dramatically stops the horse, that I’ve missed listening to the message from the worker. This time I began to realize that I might want to feel more appreciation for the part of me that just shows up. To be on-time for over a hundred beginnings of a semester and almost every class session in those forty years—while not the breath-stopping moment—still has merit. If we’re going to advance peace and justice, both on the inner and the outer spaces, complementary roles need to be valued, even when they fuss and just “don’t get” each other.