Saturday, September 23, 2017

Silence, Experience, & the “Book” of Knowledge

The foundation of Paradise is knowledge and action—that’s the line from last night’s reading in Rumi’s Mathnawi that captured my attention (Book IV, line 478, Nicholson translation).  And five lines later: “The life of the everlasting Abode (Paradise) exists in the heart: since it comes not on to my tongue, what is the use (of my attempting to describe it)?” 
     Of course, Heaven described as “streets of gold” (Rev 21:21) must be metaphoric, but of what? The lines from Rumi lead to musing about Paradise and the way.
1. Heaven’s structure is not of this world’s building materials (not of “dead water and earth,” line 476); instead of bricks of any color, paradise is founded on “knowledge and action.” But with so many books and even quite diverse notions of what counts as knowledge, where is the kind that builds Heaven? It must be that which “exists in the heart.” Then what action is also needed for the foundation? Recent pondering points to experience that is fashioned by reflecting out “the microcosmic form of the Divine Being” (from Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone, p. 222; see previous blog). 
2. Words are risky. Paradise “comes not on to my tongue.” When we have the same word (i.e., “knowledge” as well as “action”) being applied to different worlds, we risk overimposing false meanings. When Alan Williams articulates seven forms of discourse (“voices”) interwoven in the syntax of Rumi’s Mathnawi, he includes “hiatus.”
“The ‘voice’ of hiatus signals the limit of spiritual discourse and the return to silence. Hiatus questions the wisdom of continuing to speak, having reached the brink of incoherence because of the unattainability, or inexpressability of what the poet is trying to evoke." (Rumi: Spiritual Verses, p. xxv)
3. Advanced understanding and heightened consciousness depend on “getting it” through a form of knowing that differs from the usual rational process.

     So much of this world’s enactment of “knowledge” is irrelevant to the spiritual world; head-stuff easily turns arrogant, dismissive of any other kind of knowing. For example, academics often label the knowledge found through storytelling as imaginary, childish, and of little to no value. If a person is dominated by the view of knowledge learned in most schools, chances shrink for entering the Imaginal World (c.f. Alone with the Alone), and that’s possibly disastrous as far as building a dwelling place into the divine. We need to teach and learn the difference between imaginary and imaginal. We’re stuck in elementary school if we haven’t progressed beyond the false dichotomy that facts are true and fiction false.
     Facts and scientific proofs have their purposes, but “knowledge” has many constructions. Wikipedia surveys some possibilities, starting with epistemology and then moving through situated knowledge and on to religious knowledge.
     Of course, when a person enters a religious institution, the shift from head to heart does not automatically happen. On the contrary, terms that spiritual leaders use for the heart level easily turn upside down when manipulated by the head and for power trips. Look at all the managed confusion related to “jihad” mixing up 1) the intense struggle for inner cleansing with 2) terrorism. Or, again, consider the head vs. heart on “immigrants.” Who is the “neighbor” Jesus talks about and how are persons of God to care for the stranger?
This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.(Jeremiah 22:3, NIV)
     Preparation for Paradise depends on a kind of knowing other than that of the head. Heart-knowledge is approached as a mirror. We move into the unknown through likeness. The Imaginal World forms out of continuing to interpret. Knowing comes by seeking and realizing the truth, often found in a leap from one experience into awe. . . “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing…
     My favorite and most generative experience for making these leaps comes in horsemanship (and they come without leaving the saddle as well as without physically jumping fences). My aim in this horse/human experience is health, relationship, and exuberance. Leg’cy today looks more fit than before we began working together. Her history of lameness has been replaced with happy cantering. Catching her in the paddock used to be a frustrating challenge; now she runs to the gate and willingly accepts the halter. My vitality gets a boost from our time together and I believe she’s humming also.
     Through these experiences with rider and horse, I’m beginning to realize glints of insight about the meaning of the teaching: He who knows himself (his soul) knows his Lord (cf., Me and Rumi, quoted in previous blog; Alone with the Alone, e.g. p. 266; He Who Knows Himself Knows His Lord). For example, I have a feeling of joy when my intention takes powerful form in Leg’cy. It’s as if she claims our “action” as her own idea. I’m happy with her empowerment even as I also credit the many hours I’ve spent preparing for and signaling the “leap” she takes. Looking at this dynamic, I gain appreciation for the “set up” provided for me by my Lord, including experiences that, at the time, I felt were harsh and frustrating. Perhaps when I feel I’m acting with integrity to my self/soul, my Lord has led me there and feels joy. 
     Of course, any speculation I have about the divine is a leap and must be held with humility and with the hiatus that goes with “the brink of incoherence because of the unattainability, or inexpressability” in approaching the Divine Presence. Yet these wonderings are precious because they allow the growth of certainty that I find described in the writings of and about Rumi and Ibn ’Arabi (c.f., Corbin and Chittick). 

     I’m just working and playing my way in the building of Paradise with the advance of knowledge and experience. Words cannot clearly voice the knowing of heart, but we venture closer with story, and increased knowing forms through authentic action/experience, often rather inarticulate yet warm.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Pathway Home

Hummingbirds are missing and leaves tumble bronzed. The beautiful woodland sunflowers soon will depart, petal by swirling petal. Signs of the soul’s journey. How do we find our way home?
   Yearning has been noted as a highway marker and Sufis have a somewhat similar term, himma. While wonderfully, fascinatingly, helpful, these signposts blur in ways that demand new readings, redirections, perhaps like a treasure map that has a hidden cipher. This pathway home has never been traveled before because it’s unique for each soul. The lore of stories, scriptures, and guides point the way – thanks for these. And yet no one navigates his or her way home except the one listening to the heart throbbing. Amid the multitude of meanings given to yearning and to himma, the straight path follows the purifying heart.
   My heart overflows with gratitude today for this space called retirement. Opportunities to travel, to sightsee, to take up a new hobby, for more writing, reading, photography, and riding, of course: all these sound interesting, but the heart wants stillness, quiet standing, and moving with more perfect integrity. Intimacy with the soul.
the heart is the organ which produces true knowledge, comprehensive intuition, the gnosis of God and the divine mysteries. . . It is a notion to which the utmost importance has been attached by the mystics of all times and countries. . . In its unveiled state, the heart of the gnostic is like a mirror in which the microcosmic form of the Divine Being is reflected. [Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone, pp. 221-222.]
   In the conversation between Rumi and Shams, a wonderful account of this is told:
Whoever is more learned is further from the goal. The more abstruse is his thinking, the further he is. This is the work of the heart, not the forehead.   That’s the story of the one who found directions to a treasure. “Go out to such-and-such a gate. There’s a dome. Put your back to the dome, your face toward the kiblah, and let an arrow go. Wherever the arrow falls, there is the treasure.”   He went and let fly. No matter how much he tried, he didn’t find it. Then the news reached the king. The master archers let fly and of course no trace appeared.   When he referred back to God, he received an inspiration: “We did not say that you should pull the bow.” He came, placed the arrow in the bow, and it fell in front of him. When solicitude comes, Two strides and he arrived. . .   Which is that stride? He who knows his soul knows his Lord  

William C. Chittick, Me and Rumi, pp. 46-47.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The "Cipher" of a Mystery

 I’m remembering yesterday’s ride. The gift was so light it could have evaporated as if it never visited. We were circling the arena in an everyday rising trot, when I sensed a readiness for the canter transition, almost dreamlike softly settled in the saddle, and with scarcely any disruption of flow, almost seamlessly, we were cantering, as if an image took wing. Through an almost-everyday experience arises the opportunity to enter the intermediate world. I wonder about this phenomena as an embodied symbol in the sense articulated by Henry Corbin:
The symbol announces a plane of consciousness distinct from that of rational evidence; it is the “cipher” of a mystery, the only means of saying something that cannot be apprehended in any other way; a symbol is never “explained” once and for all, but must be deciphered over and over again, just as a musical score is never deciphered once for all, but calls for ever new execution. [p. 14, Alone with the Alone]
The mystery in the heart of our riding has been called “true unity” (e.g., Tom Dorrance, True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Man,1987). As Corbin notes above and elaborates extensively in Alone with the Alone, such an experience defies rational explanation; it’s in the breathtaking awe of boundary crossing. In that whispered instant in the arena yesterday, what had been the two of us flowed through a simple trot-canter transition as if we were one, a sensation/thought/imagination lived into being. That particular moment involving the horse/human is special, but the significance runs deeper when taken into the symbolic translation. 
Weaving the image, in my application of Cobin, I’m given the realization, the tasting into “a new plane of being or to a new depth of consciousness.” This play in the imaginal world adds capacity to live by faith, to believe enough in matters of spirit that allows one to hold integrity in going alone, voyaging outside the security of dogma, giving up status markers, foregoing praise, in the hope of deciphering anew and living out joyfully. While dedication to the imaginal world gets demanding, even frightening—like riding a spirited horse, courage rises from acknowledging the alternative.   
Corbin articulates the “metaphysical tragedy” (e.g., pp. 13-14) when the individual loses the “transcendent dimension” (e.g., p. 17). Entering the divine is both a burden “easy and light” (cf. Matt. 11:30) and terrifyingly next to impossible. But the denial of the authentic “water of life” results in a desperate thirst for more than the materialism of conventional life. As we witness everyday, when the thirst for spirit goes unattended or gets substituted for with “crazy water,” the result is abuse of persons (as in delusional claims of supremacy), use of fake “highs” (e.g., speed, sex, drugs, money, fame), and reliance on false saviors.

The living water springs still in the world between worlds and directions to there are yet to be mined from spiritual guides, through teaching stories, in translating resonant images, and especially by tasting transcendent experience.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Brimming Over with Wild

Last night from somewhere out there during the liminal time between midnight and dawn came the coyotes’ song, brimming over with wild. Lonely and still tantalizing. Reminding me of the haunting call of loons across Sebago Lake, echoing from almost thirty years ago. These callings harmonized then and still do with the resonant voice of Coleman Barks, reciting Rumi in the lodge, accompanied by sitar and tabla. Which lines? I can almost hear him answer, “It doesn’t matter.” "Try these," and I read from the ones he chose for September 16: 
“… Too often we put saddlebags on Jesus,
and let the donkey run loose in the pasture.

Do not make the body do what the spirit does best,
and don’t put a big load on the spirit
that the body could carry easily.
A Year with Rumi, p. 294.

A few lines later in Book V of Rumi’s Mathnawi, (R.A. Nicholson, The Mathnawi of Jalalu'ddin Rumi, Vol V & VI, p. 68) we’re told to discern between body and spirit “with the eye of the heart.” From there comes the voice of God, in the song of the wild and in the spiritual verse.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Imagining a Better World

     The last day of August. Sensing a liminal space, feeling this seasonal threshold, I was lured from the luxury of the back porch, camera in hand, in search of the image that invited and scaffolded the glimpse beyond. The bold flowers, richly colored and so soon to fade and fall, captured the shutter. Often, the image recovered on my computer screen invites further meditation, a doorway opening imagination.
     The phenomena of images widens enormously, amazingly, in the writings of Henry Corbin. 
 “when a thing manifested to the senses or the intellect calls for a hermeneutics (ta’wil) because it carries a meaning which transcends the simple datum and makes that thing a symbol, this symbolic truth implies a perception on the plane of the active Imagination. The wisdom which is concerned with such meanings, which makes things over as symbols and has as its field the intermediate world of subsisting Images, is a wisdom of light (hikmat nuriya), typified in the person of Joseph, the exemplary interpreter of visions” (p. 190, Alone with the Alone).
     In addition to the ending of August, this week marks the beginning of another school year. It’s the first time in over sixty years that my vision is not focused in a school room. Not preoccupied with planning and presenting lessons, my mind finds space and time for reflection. It’s like looking into the photographic image to see beyond. My teaching career culminated in the Good Stories course.
     Reflected in eye of my mind and imagination, Good Stories served as a playground in the symbolic world. The importance of this kind of activity, taken seriously, goes mostly unrecognized in our age characterized by scientific proof and material values. The extinction of spirituality traces to many trends such as the triumph of rationalism (at least back to Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum , ~1637) and more than a century of nihilistic ponderings about the “death of God.”
     In Good Stories, we imagined the land of fairies, the flight on the firebird, the possibilities of the “water of Life,” the beast to beauty transformations, and other happenings beyond the surface level. Was Martin Luther King, Jr. crazy to dream of a world able to see past skin color on into a world with love for all God’s children? Was the academy right to treat dismissively any course dedicated to developing the human lens for seeing through story? Is the truth only found through the microscope, through behaviorism, the world as it is? The events and implications of hurricane Harvey and the monsoon in south Asia push us to wonder how policy makers and voters might expand vision beyond immediate and personal gratification, further than literal dogma, the denial of God. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Meadow Musings

Poetry in an early-morning, late-summer, meadow muse:
The rainbow seeds from last evening’s slanted sun, just 
before setting, spilled by thunder raindrops. 
Then overnight their eggs hatched and in the dawn-fog climbed up 
the laddered webs onto vines some lawn-lovers call weeds
disparagingly, but secret sharers see sky-blue stars,
Queen Anne’s Lace, common grass making Jacob’s ladder.

[And thanks to Mr W for the fine music--he recently played this track here nearby the meadow but prefers to go unnamed...]

Friday, August 18, 2017

Knowing Education

Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Can there be any better occupation for the gift of retirement than contemplation in such as this book! 
“the form in which each of us receives the master’s thought conforms to his ‘inner heaven’; that is the very principle of the theophanism of Ibn ‘Arabi, who for that reason can only guide each  man individually to what he alone is capable of seeing, and not bring him to any collective pre-established dogma. The truth of the individual’s vision is proportional to his fidelity to himself, his fidelity to the one man who is able to bear witness to his individual vision and do homage to the guide who leads him to it. This is no nominalism or realism, but a decisive contemplation, far anterior to any such philosophical choice, a distant point to which we must also return if we wish to account for the deformations and rejections which the spirituality of Ibn ‘Arabi has so often incurred, sometimes for diametrically opposed reasons, but always  because men have sidestepped the self-knowledge and self-judgment that this spirituality implies.” pp. 75-76
     Imagine an education, a lifework, aimed at making “philosophy and mystical experience inseparable: a philosophy that does not culminate in a metaphysics of ecstasy is vain speculation; a mystical experience that is not grounded on a sound philosophical education is in danger of degenerating and going astray” (p. 20).
     True learning manifests in “symbolic exegesis which ‘carries back’ the literal statements to that which they symbolize and of which they are the ‘cipher,’—taught, in other words, how to interpret the external rites in their mystic, esoteric sense” (p. 50).

     Notions such as these push me back to the horse where spirit and matter merge, in our better moments almost indistinguishable, a moving meditation, always short of the perfections of harmony-beauty-unity, and yet animated and inspired in the flow.

     Postscript. It's interesting that when I opened Facebook to share this post, I was reminded:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Truth: Sacred-Text/Lived-Experience

Especially primed for change now, right now—as if our world may explode if we don’t—is truth, the way we “get it.” Any high hopes that we can trust news media, political leaders, even preachers to tell the truth have disintegrated beyond the point at which the center holds. While this sounds awful, potentially the breakdown offers good news.
       We would like to trust persons in positions of authority to be truthful. The alternative of asserting my individual position can be dangerous as well as arrogant and stupid. Also, trust is a beautiful thing, but it leads to devastating betrayal unless we refine our moral sense. This continued refinement includes holding authorities accountable for telling the truth or saying “I don’t know.” Acts of deception have to be named and punished.
        Somewhat on the positive side, being lied to spurs us into hard learning of telling truth, even in uncertainty, in paradox, and in story language that intertwines with experiential data. Contemporary schooling has limited our development of moral sense with an overemphasis on fact as truth, in no small part because that version of true is easier to score “reliably” as right/wrong in grading and testing. Leonard Lewisohn tells the fuller nature of truth: 
This Truth/Reality (haqiqat) professed by the Sufis is best expressed by indirect symbolic allusions and more effectively captured by poetic metaphor than described by logical statements of didactic prose. Paradox, symbolic allusion, and apophatic expression are more the tools… (p. xiv in The Wisdom of Sufism)
       For adults today to bequeath any quality of life to the next generation, we must commit to advancing our moral sense so that we can tell the truth beyond the fact-level and beyond selfish interests. We make this commitment so that we can live into truth about peace in a world community, about “justice for all.” 
        While sacred text guides our best effort to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), each person’s engagement with truth also depends on living it out, with courage and persistence through inevitable mistakes. Refining and advancing our moral sense depends on a concerted willingness to live in the moment.  “The friend of God is the child of the present instant” (Lewisohn translating Junayd in Hujwiri’s Kashf al-mahjub; p. 45 in The Wisdom of Sufism).
        We need courage to turn down the volume of external proclamations blaring across the dial from eyewitness newscasts to expert scientists/academicians to scripture-quoting preachers/theologians. I’m not throwing out the volumes on wisdom, but I’m searching for truthful voices that resonate with experience. Models for interrogating our lived experience include the studies of key figures such as King David. I have about fifty passages marked in Walter Brueggemann’s David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination and Memory
         Richly arrayed on my desktop are also Abraham Heschel’s A Passion for Truth; David Tracy’s Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope; Gadamer’s Truth and Method; Richard Niebuhr’s The Meaning of Revelation; Nasr’s The Garden of Truth; and God’s Light: The Prophets of the World’s Great Religions. I don’t want to go into the jungle of personal experience unarmed. From this array of rich texts, great ideas swirl with and against each other threatening to pull me under the spell of word-world, the enchantment of thought and philosophy. But the love of wisdom risks separation from the fragile truth of personal experience. 
        As noted in previous blogs, my personal favorite for bringing together my body’s knowing with the word world happens in natural horsemanship. For example, I reflect back on the most recent ride with Leg’cy. Shortly before I’d dismounted, my body vibrated in the way I’ve come to realize signals something meaningful, as an offering to be composed—or abandoned in unreflected dust. 
        But when I hold the moment in consideration, I see that our rides continue to simplify. While we both thrill in the fast-paced canter, we want it to be held in lightness with very subtle cueing. Midway in the ride, I’d asked for the trot-to-canter transition. Leg’cy refused. Instead of demanding, as some texts and coaches assert, I accepted: “O.K. My timing wasn’t right.” So we returned to working on flexion with more leg yields at the trot. Then, before long, Leg’cy herself sent a very subtle canter cue. I followed, and together we smoothly transitioned. The moral: Let go of an unmet desire and accept a higher power in the given—this allows a sweeter union.
        This is the lived-experience complement to the quotation by Lewisohn: the divine found in surrender to the present instant. So while it’s not new, the confirmation by body with the wisdom text combines into a vibrant truth that's strong in conviction and begging for commitment. Living in the moment is hard but with body-mind-soul it’s done.
        As we live into the integrity of our own being our capacity to tell the truth perfects because we are purifying the self-deceptions, releasing the illusions implanted by consumer culture, false belief, by power mongers, by fear, disappointment, harbored hate, anger, and so much more. How can we begin to expect to discern and to oppose the lies all around unless and until we live into the powerful truth within, moment by living moment in full consciousness and committed conscience! 

        Said again, in order to live ethically and to advance moral sense for doing it, we need our own embodied authority, refined through intention and reflection, and buttressed with universal source often re-told in good stories.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Move-On Invitation

A poignant capture of “back in the day” stands out from the classic mid-sixties “What’s it all about, Alfie?” The film and song push the recognition, as much needed today as any day, that all experience, even sex, loses significance when cut off from meaning. Our existence, including the world of possibility, has layers of potential meaningfulness. When a person is “done with” a level and another is poised for engaging, life suspends. Often it's frustrating and the person feels “nothin' matters” or put more emotionally “WTF!” This pregnant moment needs to be handled with care, not trashed, not indulged as cause for giving up, zoning out, medicating away.
       Such a state does make for a dangerous junction; it’s a set up for violence to self and/or others. One form of violence to the opportunity is to numb the pain, commonly found in alcohol or other substances, over or under the counter. TV’s another possible semi-conscious substitute for vibrant engagement in life. Sometimes escape from the soul’s demand for meaning comes, at least for a time, by overworking or compulsive working out. Sometimes we lie to ourselves about the excitement of something new (e.g., travel, an affair) or something old (e.g. spirit-less religion, a false memory of “greatness”). Perhaps the escape becomes permanent, but the question remains and along with the accountability, waits or lurks, looking for the opening, maybe held until life’s closing confrontation or the next one’s judgment.
        Why would a loving God let a life go unlived? Perhaps the persistent interrogation for meaningfulness comes from a freedom-loving, destiny-driving divinity; this offers a magnificent opportunity to move into a deeper level. Although it may appear too harsh to come from the god-we-wish-for, the impetus to force movement often requires leaving or re-making a relationship. The relationship to be broken might be with alcohol, with a partner, a workplace, a religion, a way of thinking, or some other engagement that seems to be just FINE. Louise Penny, my favorite contemporary mystery writer, has a star character, an old embittered poet authoring a book titled “F.I.N.E.” an acronym for fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, egotistical. Perhaps from a more divine perspective when a person persists in a finished state that’s lost meaningfulness, it’s time to realize this alternative judgment on “fine.”
        The shift to a deeper level, to one that matters, is often traumatic, and it may come a-sudden or glacially slow. Sometimes a dramatic change is required, but other times a person can best do it within an existing relationship. The proof of moving to a deeper level comes in new vitality, in a different capacity for knowing and feeling, and in a stronger connection with destiny.
        I’ve experienced significant movements in meaningfulness by staying within the same structure (e.g., teaching in the same university, horsemanship) and in leaving (e.g., divorce, place of residence, religion). Perhaps what has most stayed the course has been a conviction that meaningfulness is. The eternal. God. 
        Because my understanding is partial as well as changing, my perception of God moves. Old, deadened definitions and forms lose sense and leave, whether one likes it or not. In my limited understanding, the major religions (particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all confirm the need to continue to re-experience and move into deeper levels of the Source of Meaning.
        My journey has been held and pushed by special containment: lovers, Jungian psychoanalysts, horses, guides. The attempt to run from God, like Jonah did, needs to be restrained by someone who can cleanly name a run-away and who can also discern when a person is “suffering” a “done situation” from when the person is faithfully enduring an alchemical process. The chosen guide needs devotion to the Self; a true guide always looks to empower the authentic inner voice rather than to impose control. Discernment also often finds confirmation and purification in sacred text, in good story, and perhaps most of all in love, another ever-changing, perfecting form. 
        To accept disenchantment with life as a move-on invitation offers the space for story, for good stories that participate in the continuous recreation of meaningfulness.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The First Day

The last act before closing the office door after 41 years of employment in the institution was to leave the room key on the desk. I kept the dual purpose keycard (used both for ID and building access) mostly for reminders: beardless, aging...
Honesty must rank at or near the top of the most named virtues. On campus, academic integrity is insured by requiring students to add the Honor Pledge certifying ownership of work and by similarly requiring faculty to sign CVs in the annual reporting. And yet something vitally important is missing. Something about integrity.
Perhaps that’s what my threshold dream last night was trying to convey as I cross into the land of retirement. My accountability on this side of the life-stream more clearly owes to God. It always does, of course, but the evaluation systems imposed on students and faculty, to some degree like those in any obligated, enslaved, or employed status, impose obstacles against claiming personal authenticity. When does a person know clearly and show openly the direct line to and from the Source? That depends on a clean heart line, one that is not compromised by the impurities of human “merit” systems and peer comparisons.
In the dream, a former student appears and is agitated because the academic program had not made explicit the name of God. He’d just figured out that was the one-thing-most-important. He seemed upset because he should have been told sooner and more clearly that this was the key. And what if he hadn’t figured it out on his own! 
Continuing in the dream, I share with him my experience of coming to a realization of the significance of spirituality. I try to tell him that to reach this kind of understanding might depend on a person’s development of a maturity that’s ready to “get it.” And I suggest that reaching such an insight by oneself is probably essential. It cannot be given by someone else.
Today, in my predawn acting into this side of the river, I’m drawn to weed out a couple of plants that have grown up around the base of the oak. My vision now perceives how the little garden needs pruning. It’s our view from the back porch where we coffee-drinkers ask the morning what the day brings. 
The discernment of “weeds” and the adjustment that balances and reflects harmony provide an affirmation of beauty. It’s a very simple gesture and yet the space fills with a sense of rightness. I’m reminded of Keats’ next to last line in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
                               Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
  Dishonesty glares blatantly across our political landscape these days. Perhaps we’re pushed to be more honest about the ways “greatness” has been aligned with greed, with status, with selfishness. Not with truth. Not with beauty. 
Looking back across the river, the mighty Potomac, perhaps more free now in post-employment, I wonder what persons who care can do. Will academic institutions find radical leadership? Or, like my dream figure, do we have to make our way individually?  Persons who care can clean enough heart-space to sense a true path and then follow it, often within but going against a value system that favors economic disparity, professional jealousy, and blind defense of hegemonic turf.
Parker Palmer (e.g., Let Your Life Speak) tells of moving from his doctorate at Berkeley to Pendle Hill where quality was enacted in a radically different structure, where as dean he washed dishes because everyone shared in the levels of work. Their pay scale was not outrageously disproportionate. Palmer lived truth of his degree in sociology. But Berkeley still seems proud of proclaiming economic inequity: “Male professors at University of California-Berkeley make on average $240,235 USD per year. This is $165,765 more than the average male university professor's annual salary ($74,470 USD).” 
        And Berkeley is our aspirational peer. Best we beware casting stones.

Friday, June 2, 2017


Maybe fifteen years ago, the Thoroughbred that was teaching me to ride better was called the Truth-Teller. He kept leaning in; and while I fussed that my cues were saying to stay out on that imaginary perfect circle, the coach insisted the horse was doing exactly what I was telling him to do. Many times later, around and over again through a decade of riding, my inner horsepower now makes a clearer, more accurate reading on our balance, more aware of degrees of pressure, stillness, softness, and tilt, as well as clearing our mental and emotional states. All this makes for telling the truth.
Sometimes with just a glimpse of a person in a position of leadership, an extremely unbalanced, hypocritical condition jumps out, glaringly obvious. I wonder how others fail to notice it. How can so many persons support someone who repeatedly imperils the future of their children? Recognizing the vital role played by compassion, I’m trying to remember my experience when I just didn’t get what the Truth-Teller was making abundantly clear. 
The gift of discerning truth and the continued development of moral sense depend on dedicated commitment to peace, justice, and love. Also, the path includes some difficult aspects. Suffering, tolerance of uncertainty, and trust in a higher power must play a crucial role in becoming truth-tellers. Our world shows so much failure to face the truth: denial of addiction, cheating, false labeling, staying on the surface of skin color instead of moving deeper to know love, listening to praise instead of heeding the inner divine, on and on. What will it take to make a commitment to truth?
Sometimes, “white” lies are called “telling stories,” meaning the person is fibbing or making something up for deceptive purposes or for fun. Yes, it’s wise to recognize that all stories are not good stories. And we should know that not just any person can tell a good story, in both senses: 1) discerning truth from lies and 2) composing an embodied truth-narrative, telling a moral tale. 
But we are “wired” for story. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, “man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (p. 216). The moral dimension of the history we compose can be best understood, many of us believe, as a Narrative Covenant (e.g., David Damrosch; also see the volumes on hermeneutic phenomenology as well as archetypal psychology).
Genesis 1 says we are made in God’s own image. I believe in the divine gift; some call it genius. A gift needs to be nurtured. Moral sense can be tended by good stories.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Good-Stories-Experience

Good Stories, like this iris, illuminate a doorway—one otherwise easily missed; 
they transport us over the threshold of destiny.
       The purpose of Good Stories is to engage the power of the word. 
       Well, that’s one way to say it. Any web of words invites trouble, like “a murder of crows.” In this case, we’re invoking several potent 4-5 lettered ones: “power,” “word,” “story,” “good.” Such word-combos risk entangling us in confusion, making us frustrated in not securing the single right answer, and thereby cutting us off from the strength to act with conviction. We’re moved further instead of closer to the integrity of being and doing. 
        Because of these dangers, we need stories we can play with; but we have to make it serious play, like Vivian Paley tells so wonderfully, for example in Wally’s Stories and in A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Good Stories requires not just any tale but ones that carry deep truth and moral relevance. 
       And by “story” we have to go way beyond dead words on a page; we have to compose a dynamic flow of images that allow the participants, each individually, to meet up with, even to be confronted by, a chance to be touched by his and her destiny. It’s when we make that kind of live-story-experience that we’re in position to change worlds. Perhaps it’s better to say that we’re readied to have our world changed. 
       Good Stories draw us into a space, cognitive and affective, that transcends classroom walls. If we prematurely explain the power of narrative with terms like “hermeneutic phenomenology” (which happens to be one of my favorite phrases), we’re likely to push persons further from the needed encounter. The value of technical terms comes after having tasted the divine nectar where insight breaks open like the total mind/body lift-off when a horse responds to the rider’s thought, like when an imprisoning false belief disintegrates in the presence of deeper truth about the nature of love or inner peace or the compassion that dissolves a wall of separation. 
       This taste experience is birthed not in the technical term nor in the analysis of literature but in the personal encounter in story. For example, the narrative participant resonates with a character almost magically transforming, as in the namesake Hermes’ shape-shifting. The person feels that the story models in a beyond-words way a significant world-making turn. This experience with story is, of course, hermeneutic phenomenology; but the cognitive work needs to be scaffolded upon a powerful embodied experience such as that offered in Good Stories.
       All this has been explained long ago. The theory (e.g., hermeneutic phenomenology) is not new but it’s going wasted unless and until we reinvigorate the experience. For example, I could have been reading Richard Palmer’s Hermeneutics, publication date of 1969, way back in grad school. Almost fifty years ago, Palmer stated the problem quite clearly: 
Literary interpretation, by and large, is still generally seen as an exercise in the conceptual “dissection”... Students in literature classes are sometimes even told that their personal experience of a work is some kind of fallacy irrelevant to the analysis of the work. And professors, gathered in huge conventions, ritually bewail the fact that their students find literature “irrelevant”; but their technological conception of interpretation, with its undergirding metaphysics of realism, actually promotes the very irrelevance they ineffectually lament.“Science manipulates things and gives up living in them,” the late French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty tells us. (pp. 6-7)
      But if I had been assigned Palmer’s text in grad school without the hermeneutic experience involving a good-story engagement, the words likely would have spun around in my head without animating my being. In other words, they would have remained an academic exercise, possibly extending thought but almost certainly ending up disembodied. Explanation, fine as it is, isn’t enough.
      My initial impactful Good Stories experience came a decade or so after grad school through the hermetic fire spun by a masterful storyteller. The storytelling event, crucially, was also given in a context significantly infused with artistic interpretation and with translation into the tapestry of meaningful life. Proper incarnation of any important term (such as “power,” “word,” “story,” and “good”) depends crucially on articulating meaningful experience into nuanced explication through passionate storytelling.
       I believe the experience of Good Stories is much needed today because I see not only students but also their teachers still doing the conceptual dissection that Palmer names and it is still devoid of “living-in.” I believe the Good-Stories-experience builds an embodied consciousness and the awakened conscience that produce capacity, urgently needed today, to discern truth-tellers from lying manipulators. 
       Through Good Stories, we can make schooling so that words and stories transport us from "stupid" across the threshold into the affirmation of life’s purpose and destiny. One participant wrote at the end of the course:
Good Stories helped me grow as a person and develop more goals that I have set for myself in the future. I thought that these stories were stupid, but then came soon to realize that by connecting them to moments in my life, they are actually told to teach me life lessons that I will carry along with me forever.

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.