Sunday, May 31, 2015

Human rights on an aeroplane

Travelling back from Nicaragua yesterday, separated by fitful sleep, I watched two films that focused on the struggle for rights or, more simply, human dignity.

The first was Selma that tells the story of the march on Montgomery, the struggle over which finally persuaded LBJ to propose, and pass, the Voting Rights Act. Johnson is played by the brilliant (English) actor Tom Wilkinson as an all too human figure, a machine politician, hyper aware of the complexities of office and constrained by disparate forces who finally seizes the opportunity to do the right thing. The opportunity was constructed by the flawed moral crusader that was Martin Luther King. Flawed because equally all too human, though his weakness was for the opposite sex, and who, like LBJ, had to navigate the complexities of the possible.

In order to 'win' he needed a confrontation - and there is a great moment in the film when a prior failure to find confrontation had led to the abandonment of the struggle in a particular community. Its sheriff, unlike that of Selma, had handled the situation with kid gloves - no confrontation, no drama, no press. Selma's sheriff was different - nasty and brutal - egged on by George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, he repels the first march on the bridge, leading to Alabama's capital, brutally, enabling King to seize his moment and appeal for support from every sector of society, black and white. They come -most especially ministers of religion and habited nuns. In the next confrontation, the authorities give way - beating or tear gassing (white) nuns was a step too far. The march, with legal sanction, goes ahead. The drama has unfolded on national television (indeed the first violent confrontation interrupts normal programming and the brutal beating arrives in 70 million living rooms) and voting rights are won.

The second was Pride that tells the story of a group of lesbians and gays that supported a south Wales mining community during the prolonged, one year strike, in the 1980s where the miners confronted Margaret Thatcher's government and lost. It was a traumatic moment whose repercussions in bitterness (not everyone striked and the police were used to the boundaries, and beyond, of legality) and subsequent pit closures and economic decline. Unlike Selma, the story is told with comic edges - which the social incongruities give rise too, as metropolitan London gay culture encounters South Wales close knit mining community. However, they find solidarity in a shared sense of oppression and marginalisation. It was too, of course, a period that overlapped with my own life - the Gay's the Word bookshop, where much of the London centred action unfolds, was down the road from the very university residence I was living in at the time! If I had only known!

I found myself thinking would Luther King, had he lived (and he was murdered in the year 'gay rights' was born at Stonewell) have embraced the cause - good Southern baptist as he was? He would undoubtedly have sided with the miners - the oppressions of poverty (and Vietnam) were growing causes towards the end of his life - but with the gays? You would like to think so but our ability to draw boundaries around 'rights', even around a common participation in the human, are strong. Famously Bartolome de las Casas, the Dominican friar and founder of human rights theory, began by defending the native American by proposing their enslavement be replaced by that of black Africans (sic). A position he thankfully abandoned in horrified regret at his lapse. Meanwhile only last week the Vatican's Secretary of State responded to the recent marriage referendum in Ireland as a 'disaster for humanity' (which, apart from being ridiculously hyperbolic, shows a similar contextual inability to fully embrace the human).

But both films, optimistically, describe how far it is we can travel, and that as long as we live our character is not fixed (though that can be a double edged sword). In 'Selma', there is a cameo appearance by Malcolm X, himself a few weeks from assassination, who has surrendered his dichotomising racial speech for a new message, still in the making, rooted in his own pilgrimage to Mecca and his recognition that every person belongs to Allah, irrespective of race.

Meanwhile, the 1985 Gay Pride march in London was led by miners, reciprocating the support they had received, and at a future Labour Party conference ensuring that gay rights appeared for the first time in a major party's manifesto in the UK after which the rest (as they as they say) has been history.

Even as they are salutary reminders of the necessity and costliness of struggle that social change can require yet they are reminders that it can be achieved without violence and by increasing, not lessening, the circle of your empathy to very unlikely alliances - a Southern white politician and a black preacher, a gay activist and a South Wales miner

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Island of attention

'Attention' 'Attention' are the words that the mynahs of Pala are trained to call out, recalling the island's population to its core task: to being present to reality, just as it presents itself, right now, in all its dimensions.

They are the first words that Will Farnaby hears on his arrival on the island after being washed ashore after a storm. However, his arrival is not accidental though he is a journalist by profession, his employer, as well as being a newspaper tycoon, is in oil and Pala is presumed to have lots of it.

The Palanese, however, are uninterested in their putative wealth for their development has taken a different path. The fortuitous fusion of a Scottish doctor and the Buddhist raja have placed it on the path of pursuing 'gross national happiness' as its mission. Interestingly though Aldous Huxley was writing 'Island' his utopian counterpoint to 'Brave New World' in the late 1950s, this 'label' from the current Kingdom of Bhutan is an exceedingly apt one, as is both kingdoms, Mahayana Buddhist background.

However, Huxley's utopia is significantly more radical as it explores how you might marry a scientific with a spiritual empiricism to conduct a root and branch transformation of a society.

It is a deeply appealing vision, argued with Huxley's traditional clarity and humour (with a countervailing dash of Victorian high mindedness). It is a society that anticipates Schumacher - where technology is appropriate and small is beautiful (by which both meant fitting to relevant scale and human need). It is a society grounded in a practiced metaphysics to which everyone is initiated from childhood. It is a metaphysics that is as practical, as it is practiced, taking account of people's diversity of psychological and biological needs.

For example, it spends much time exploring the needs of children - for the sustained attention of attached caregivers, for the ability to be brought up by a village rather than a nuclear family, to learn the importance of naming and expressing feeling; and, of an education that unfolds with a living, embodied world requiring compassion as the foundation for any subsequent manipulation.

Like any utopia, it is used as a foil to judge the 'real world'  - of the follies of uninhibited population growth (and the failure to access contraception), of the dark arts of suggestion and advertising to foster unnecessary wants, of violence because we do not explore and address the roots of violence; and, the follies of religion not grounded in a reverence for individual experience.

As usual, Huxley can be penetratingly funny - he has a visiting cigar chewing psychiatrist seek to explain Freud to the incredulity of the native population - as if the unconscious were only a repository of the repressed (and why should sex, in any case, be the subject of repression) rather than a complex space that can be illuminated through psychological and contemplative means. Why too should one seek to be adjusted to 'reality' if that reality, always shaped by human imagination, is so dysfunctional? Change your imagination!

This too, being Huxley, we are not allowed to dwell easily in this paradise, partly because he consistently acknowledges that it is a work in progress and humanity is everywhere and always frail but also because in the underlying plot (such as it is) the island is threatened and in the closing moments is invaded by its neighbour, bringing 'progress' and 'exploitation'.

Be this as it may, you do not read the text for its 'drama' but for the surfeit of ideas that are given legs and allowed to seep into consciousness as well as wrestle in mind.

At the end, Will, our deus ex machina as enquiring journalist, replete with the necessary cynicism, is converted and given moksha medicine and goes on a guided 'trip' where he has both an experience of the Clear Light and confronts his demons. It occupies most of the last chapter and is a beautiful description of how one might begin to see 'under the light of eternity'; and, too how any illumination that is truly valuable must come back to here and now, in renewed compassion and service. The stone of insight, to use a Zen phrase, must be polished.

Once again I am in awe of Huxley's intelligence, prescience and skill - and his compassion, hard won, brittle, but real.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Valley Spirit

Lindsey Wei is a young woman of mixed race who embarks, at eighteen, on a traditional Daoist training with her master, Li Shi Fu, at Wudung Mountain in China.

What unfolds is a moving account of graced honesty as she seeks to balance the draw of becoming a renunciant, wholly dedicated to the practices of the Way and a woman balanced (and often imbalanced) between this and the life of the householder - filled with desire - for a man, for children, for a validating career.

What does a path of Daoist cultivation look like for a contemporary woman and does it differ, in any essential, from that which faces a man? What does a path of Daoist cultivation look like when poised between two worlds - a China in which Daoist tradition is slowly emerging from under the approbation and assault of the Cultural Revolution into a modernising maelstrom that may prove differently indifferent and the America of your birthplace - a place of equal, if different, restlessness?

All of this is navigated through the lens of Lindsey's enquiry and practice, the all important presence of the all too human, but fiercely and compassionately real Li Shu Fu and the other key people, she meets on the way, other seekers, her lover, Hosea, visitors to the temple at which she lives and the ambiguous and corrupt authorities with which the temple must deal.

Running through the book is the thread of desire - what is it, in truth, this powerful animator of our existence and is it a question of seeking its renunciation or of purifying and navigating it? And the beauty of the book is in her probing questioning and the provisional nature of her answering. Each answer may be a station on the way to discovery - we are tested, over and over, in the hoped for refinement of life. She tells the story of a old woman grinding a big piece of metal with a stone. "What are you doing, mother?" she is asked. "Making a needle," she replies and carries on grinding.

This might be dispiriting, rather like the monk who was asked what he did in his monastery all day, replying that he fell down and got up again, fell down and got up again, but the book is shot through with glimpses of what such transforming practice leads to, not 'happiness' but wisdom serving compassion, seen not so much in 'teachings' but in tone, the book sings with grace.

It reminded this fitful practitioner of a contemplative Christianity of the neglected importance of the body in upholding prayer and that, when seen aright, the world is full of an answering activity, of signs upholding your hoped for discernment in what to do next, how to act. It reminded me of a saying of one of my own teachers in prayer, that God is in the facts and the facts are kind, even if it requires a certain detachment to recognise this, amongst their hurly burly!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Perennial Philosophy

If it was not already obvious that Aldous Huxley had taken a spiritual turn, it became thumpingly so with the publication of his 'anthology' - The Perennial Philosophy in 1945. Here is an account of what Huxley saw as the spiritual core of religion - an unitive experience with the ground of Reality that was transformative, where one's selfness was dissolved and 'you' became 'at one' with all that is, and revealed the heart of compassion. The true core of any religion is it mystics or realised saints and though all are called, few choose the arduous path of self-surrender. However, their testimonies of the path are, in Huxley's view, strikingly similar - each one a point of entry into the being that was fully truthful.

It might be argued that the study of mysticism has 'moved on' - and in the academic context this is certainly true. Up popped Stephen Katz to argue that all experience is conditioned by language (and culture) and, therefore, the cross comparison of the kind Huxley attempted was 'naive'. Robert Forman wanted to refute Katz by arguing for 'pure consciousness events' that were phenomenologically stable and transcended linguistic or cultural determination. Denys Turner waded in to tell us that the whole category of 'experience' was suspect. Christian medieval mystics (Turner's specialism) would not have recognised the notion of a religious experience, as an exceptional event (after the pattern of William James) for they were describing the possibility or ground of any kind of experience, all experience properly considered was of the mystical. It was not a separate category. And so and so forth...

All of which rather serves to remind me of Huxley's continuous refrain to remind us that knowledge follows being that what you see is a reflection of who you are. The pickpocket when confronted with a saint sees only his pockets.

In truth, I realized on re-reading Huxley not only how sophisticated he was but how humble (which must be a rare combination)! He marshals his quotations, and accompanying commentary, with masterly ability and indeed anticipates a number of the subsequent academic debates. For example, he clearly distinguishes between levels of experience imagining that you can distinguish between an intuition of the ground of reality (or God) that is 'pure consciousness' and an experience that is a complex emergence of psychological and cultural factors. In fact, he argues that such a distinction (pace Katz) is intrinsic to the traditions he is exploring.

But most of all he listens carefully to what is being said by his assembled mystics and allows them to speak together for a radical vision of the possibility of what it means to be human (and what a society might look like that upholds that possibility). Equally he allows that assembled view to critique religion's own failure to build that society and to collude with those parts of ourselves that would rather cling to isolating selfness than surrender to embracing truthfulness.

There are certain aspects of the book that are dated and the tone of (as one person described it) a Victorian pamphleteer does occasionally surface but as an account of what is best in religion and as an account of the most embracing and noble perspective of what it means to be human, it would be difficult to better it.

" The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so,  God and I, we are one in knowledge." Eckhart

"When the Ten Thousand things are viewed in their oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been." Sen T'sen

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Razor's Edge

It is perhaps only Somerset Maugham who would manage to write a novel with sharp satire on the ultimately sad life of a classic expatriate snob and a young man's search for enlightenment, telling both with remarkable empathy. Like the doctor, he trained to be, he enters the lives of others with detached caring and an observant eye.

Yet the novel was a departure because of its underlying theme of spiritual quest and discovery and ultimately it is Larry, the young American seeker, who holds your attention. Twenty years before a 'journey to the East' became popular in the Anglo-American world, here is Maugham charting its course with great delicacy and real insight.

Not least because Larry is not a dewy eyed hippy, enamoured of a rebellious counter-culture, who, the revolt over, settles down, for good or ill, into baby boomer suburban normality, but an agnostic seeker, testing every encountered view against the reality of his experience, not least that of an airman in the First World War, where his life has been saved resulting in the death of his friend.

Every viewpoint is scrutinised against the reality of that evil experienced and held only ever as a provisional truth, requiring deeper exploration in both thought and in the everyday realities of life.

The novel ends with him renouncing his modest fortune and finding the life of a taxi driver in the United States. A car offering the freedom of earning just enough to live on in a way that sustains his quest.

The original success of the novel was predicated on its being published in 1944 when, once again, the apparent sustaining values of the world had collapsed into disorder and conflict and people were seeking a different narrative. I was reminded of the success of Thomas Merton's 'The Seven Storey Mountain' published shortly after the Second World War when a 'healthy' young American male did the equally apparently unthinkable act of becoming a monk, rather than a taxi driver, and sold a million copies and sparked a minor flood of entrants into monastic life!

But such conflicts are, in fact, only an exaggerated reminder that, in truth, we continuously fail to embody the values of the real; and, that only a concerted quest, conducted individually, for the true ground of our being will ever make the difference that makes a difference. It is only when you step into the most beautiful world that the heart knows is possible that you actually stand a hope of bringing that world into being. That is the life of the prospective saint that is Larry's, and each and every one of us, should we choose.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Aldous Huxley - the thinker

Dana Sawyer's "Aldous Huxley: A Biography' is fine accounting of Huxley seen through the lens of his developing thought (rather than either the everyday, unfolding of his life or his undoubted literary achievement). It is brisk and lucid and helpfully anchors Huxley in his dual inheritance of gifted ancestors - the scientific, probing scepticism of T.H. Huxley and the high minded belief in the morally transformative nature of serious culture of Matthew Arnold. Huxley combined both but added a third dimension - the anchoring of all reality in a unity that could be encountered experientially by the individual, transforming them into a loving, compassionate being, alert to their unfolding place in the world, able to relate to everything as a unique particular within the whole.

And that "...this sense that in spite of everything which of course is, I suppose, the ultimate mystical conviction, in spite of pain, in spite of death, in spite of horror, the universe in some mysterious sense is all right, capital A capital R..." (Aldous Huxley).

But this 'mystical sense' did not absolve one from seeking to build a world that reduces the amount of pain, deepens the possibility of flourishing for all. However, it did assume that you needed to begin with the individual as the 'unit' of transformation. Accessing reality was only possible one person at a time, all you could do collectively was to set out, make available, some of the tools of that transformation. Huxley diligently worked on all levels - figuring out the details of personal transcendence and working on what kind of society would promote that most deeply and embody it as it blossomed. 

He was never an optimist - the Huxley judgmental gene was too deeply entrenched - but he did hope and Sawyer quotes Vaclav Havel to good effect in explaining Huxley's position.

"Hope is an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. It is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out."

This, rather beautifully, I thought captures my own - a realistic idealism.

What was striking too, and I have picked this up in all Huxley's biographies, was that it appeared to work in him and through him. He did appear to be slowly transformed, becoming ever more compassionate, radiant, whilst never losing his acute intelligence or his humour. There is hope for me yet!

P.S. Sadly, Sawyer's biography does, however, illustrate one decline; namely in the quality of editing - both typographic and of fact. Father Joseph did indeed serve Cardinal Richelieu but both would have been surprised to find themselves in the eighteenth century (rather than the seventeenth) serving Louis XIV (rather than XIII) and fighting the Thirty Years War (that ended in 1648). 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Heart of the World

I remember seeing the documentary film when it was first released by the BBC. Made by the accomplished film maker, Alan Ereira, it allowed the Kogi, an indigenous people, living on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, to speak. They see themselves as the 'elder brother', custodians of the original tradition and of the task of world conservation, of maintaining ecological balance and harmony. They see 'us' as the 'younger brother' who is dangerously failing to understand the importance of that balance and is, through their actions, systematically dismantling the world, making it unviable for life. They represent one of the pre-Colombian civilizations that retreated to the remote Sierra in the face of the European invasion of Conquistadors and Christianity, resisting both.

They decided to speak now, having lived consciously separated lives, because the signs of dissolution were all around them (for example, the glaciers on their mountain tops were in retreat, the balance of their ecosystems upset). Not that it is only their excellence at ecological observation in the micro-climates of the Sierra, but in the disruption in the 'aluna' - that is the matrix from which all things are born and the harmony of which the 'Mamas' (the Kogi 'priesthood') have a critical role in preserving. 'Aluna' is a difficult notion to translate because it rests on different, non-material premises than those entertained by mainstream science. As far as the Kogi are concerned, so much the worse for 'science'. What is remarkable about them is far from falter in their sense of identity before the onrush of the West, they have retained it and regard us as the 'primitive' (without our accompanying aggression towards it).

Having finished Ereira's book accompanying the film, I was reminded both of the seriousness of their claims and the honesty of the film maker. The Kogi are decidedly different as a society, living by very different metaphysical assumptions to the one's that bind the 21st century West, but Ereira never once suggests that the Kogi are a perfect society. They are never romanticised. But they are shown to have a cogent, coherent perspective that deserves a voice (grounded in a highly effective society that has nurtured sustainable well-being for centuries).

At heart, you realises that what matters is meaning (and well-being) and that this has precious little to do with consumption (though interestingly ownership, and its complexities, does provide real grit to how the Kogi manage to live with one another, a grit not always harmoniously resolved) and that the Mother Earth that bears us can only do so if what we take from her is either given back or recycled. Time is seen here in long stretches and, therefore, robbing the future to enjoy the present is seen as wholly unacceptable.

Since we did not 'get it', sadly, the first time, the Kogi decided to speak again, making a second film ( and you can only pray that we, the cloth eared younger brother, will get it...eventually...and before it is too late.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...