by: Roger S. Gottlieb on June 20th, 2011 | Comments Off
As you may have noticed, superstar academic Cornel West has been in some public hot water for a recent web interview in which he made some, well, not very nice comments about president Obama. West, who writes on culture, politics, religion, and race, and who tends to shuttle between Princeton and Harvard, accused the nation’s first African-American president of being the puppet of Wall Street interests, uncomfortable in his own black identity, and more likely to be hanging out with “white and Jewish men,” then the brothers and the sisters. West was bitter about not getting an invitation to the inauguration, and that Obama was no longer returning his phone calls. And this despite his own hard work in getting Obama elected.
Comments on West were predictable. Most of them were wholesale attacks on his intelligence, character, or even sanity (A Boston Globe article credited some observers with suggesting that he was both a blowhard and “unhinged.”) Of West’s few defenders, the most striking was radical journalist Chris Hedges, who believes that West is a major social prophet and that West’s critics can’t even carry West’s computer paper.
Look around the web and you’re sure to find lots more about this encounter, and here are my few cents.
One regret, dear world, that I am determined not to have when I am lying on my deathbed is that I did not kiss you enough. –Hafiz
I am currently writing a book tentatively titled, Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters. The book’s central idea is that the common theme of the enormous variety of traditional and contemporary spirituality is a set of virtues–habits of mind, emotion, and action–which provide long-lasting personal contentment and lead us to compassionate and generous action towards others. Here is a tiny excerpt from the working draft of Spirituality, on one of the most important of those virtues:
Gratitude plays a powerful role in spiritual life–as much in the contexts of traditional religion as in the more eclectic, less traditionally oriented spirituality of the present. Contemporary Catholic spiritual teacher David Stiendl-Rast tells us that “Gratitude is the heart of prayer.” And the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart suggested “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” In gratitude we find an experience, a day-by-day practice, and a way of life. It is a feeling that arises spontaneously within us, something we can consciously cultivate, and a habitual response that shapes our experiences and actions.
For a traditional example, consider how the Jewish prayer book is filled with long and complicated verbal formulas to organize the adult Jewish man’s relation to God, yet the day’s prayers begin with a simple appreciation for being alive: “Thank you God, for returning my soul to my body.” Whatever else the day holds–a mid-term we haven’t prepared for, a medical procedure, seeing our parked car slammed into by a drunk driver–at least for these few moments we will have cultivated appreciation for what we have.
As we cut the budgets and let the social programs wither, as global warming and invasive species threaten the integrity of ecosystems and human health, as endless and endlessly faster technological change leads everything that is solid to “melt into air,” it is reasonable to ask: what should we try to preserve? What is worth holding onto?
Here’s one answer: The Peace Abbey and the Life Experience School of Sherborn, Massachusetts.
The Abbey is an interfaith spiritual center dedicated to the peace and justice teachings of all the world’s faiths. The centerpiece of its grounds is a life sized statue of Gandhi, flanked by a series of plaques with quotations about peace and justice from Quakers, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Indigenous peoples, and secular champions of social goodness. It houses a remarkable library of resources on pacifism, socialism, peace, veganism, women’s and gay rights, liberation for ethnic and national minorities, and interfaith respect and cooperation.
Forget Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or Godiva chocolate, there’s no sinful pleasure like that delightful sense that “we” are so much “better” (more developed, more moral, more spiritually advanced) than “them.”
At least two recent items in the news gave me that seductive pleasure, big time.
First, there is the report that a new biography of Gandhi has been interpreted by some people as suggesting that the Mahatma had a homosexual relationship with a long-time German follower. Even though the author denied that he was claiming this, the Indian state of Maharashtra banned the book, and many have called on the Indian government to make the banning national.
Could anything be more ironic? Gandhi’s whole life was dedicated to the idea of truth. He used the word “satyagraha” — literally “truth force” — to define his non-violent approach to politics. He subtitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. So to honor this man we ban a book because we don’t like what it says. We don’t seek to disprove it, we just try to wipe it out our minds.
The second example is much more serious, one to be greeted with horror rather than irony. In Afghanistan, enraged by the burning of a Qur’an by a Florida pastor, whipped up into a frenzy by local clerics, people went on a murderous rampage that left (at this count) around twenty dead.
Do the horrific images from Japan – not to mention reports that safety records at the nuclear plant have been faked for years – make you a little frightened when you drive past your absolutely, completely, technologically guaranteed neighborhood nuclear reactor? Perhaps you are certain such a thing could never happen in the U.S. – where corporations and government inspection teams are known for their professionalism and moral responsibility. Then again, you might remember the BP oil spill, just last year, where a good deal of the problem was that BP had cut corners on some safety costs and the government inspection teams were both figuratively and literally in bed with BP staff.
Alongside nuclear leaks and oil spills there’s the looming deficit, terrorism, and the rise in chronic childhood diseases (twenty-two out of 70 million U.S. children have chronic illnesses tied to some degree to environmental pollution). If the current state of the world doesn’t scare you, it’s probably just that you haven’t been paying attention. And you’re not alone. An awful lot of us are scared as well.
So here’s the thing: what do people do when they are scared? Well, some just hide in the corner. Sadly, however, many become aggressive, rigid and very dogmatic.
Could there be a connection between our pervasive fear and the way we talk – or rather don’t talk but scream, hurl insults, and express dismissive contempt at each other? After the shooting of U.S. Representative Giffords in Tucson many called for civility, but I suspect that civility is the opposite of an overwhelming and unacknowledged fear.
Let’s look at this in a little more detail.
Rebels in Bengazi, Libya, unfurl a banner declaring their opposition to foreign intervention. This photo was taken on March 1, 2011. Photo by Al Jazeera with a Creative Commons Licence
How could any right minded person be against the use of force to stop the Libyan government’s repression of dissent? Incredibly brave demonstrators take to the streets, demanding freedom, democracy, and a more equitable share of Libya’s enormous oil/natural gas wealth – and they are met savage brutality. Foreign mercenaries from far away, using the power of tanks and airplanes, assault a poorly armed but politically aroused citizenry.
For God’s sake, let’s give them hand. Enforce the no-fly zone, bomb their anti-aircraft installations, make sure the good guys at least have a fighting chance. If there is some inadvertent damage or death because a few smart bombs land in the wrong place – well, it can’t be helped. This is justified. This is the time.
I must admit that even as an almost complete pacifist I am very tempted by this line of thought. And if it were up to me – and it’s a good thing it isn’t – I would probably go along with this move.
But I also think it’s important to keep a few other things in mind. In no particular order:
1. Who are the mercenaries? We talk about stopping Gaddafi as if this crazed and vicious man were out there on the battlefield with a machine gun. No, the people doing his killing for him, who will die from our bombs, are human beings just like us. Many have taken on a terrible job, in all probability because this was a way out of the terrible social and economic conditions that plague much of Africa. Conditions into which they were born and over which they have practically no control (as we, similarly, have little control over our government’s frequently violent foreign policy, or the effects of our energy use on the world climate). When we attack Gaddafi’s forces these people will die. Do they “deserve” to die, I wonder? Let’s keep in mind that to get to him we have to go through them.
Explosions cloud the air at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Creative Commons/daveeza.
There is no doubt that nuclear power has some real advantages over coal and oil. In the short run it probably has fewer toxic emissions (mercury from coal fired plants is a significant health problem, for example). Mining uranium, while implicated in toxic waste, probably has less damaging effects than the large-scale land and ocean pollution from oil (oil tankers routinely take more cargo than they can handle and if the weather acts up, they simply jettison it). Though a Native American, with cancer rates eighteen times the national average from uranium mining on Indian land, might disagree.
As well, in the long run, nuclear power produces far less in the way of Greenhouse gases. It is cooler than oil and much cooler than coal.
There is of course this little problem of storing nuclear wastes, poisonous for tens of thousands of years. Storage facilities in the U.S. are all “temporary,” because the federal government has yet to convince any state to accept the wastes. All the promises of “state of the art” and “guaranteed safety” just don’t seem to carry much weight. And the nuclear wastes won’t just take themselves to the storage facility either. They have to be transported. Any time you transport, you face the possibility of accident. And the chance of that simply goes up the more of the stuff there is.
After a long, cold, and icy winter, it’s spring here in Boston. The light has changed, making the sky somehow lighter and further away; if you find a spot out of the wind you might actually feel some real warmth from the sun; and in my neighbor’s miniscule front garden a band of hardy crocuses (croci?) have adorned themselves with purple buds. The birds didn’t have to be told twice, and they are singing, tweeting, cawing, and flying around with new home building and speed dating on their minds.
Spring is change, new life, excitement. Taking off the heavy leather, the bulky down, searching the ads for some new running shoes.
And spring also makes me think of death. But in a good way.
Dear reader – as you look this over keep in mind that politically I’m so far to the left I fall off the planet every once in a while. Socialist, feminist, rabid environmentalist – all that sort of thing. But in thinking about the recent flap at NPR, I’m really hoping we can do better than the usual knee-jerks on all sides.
In case you missed it, some right-wing activists posing as potential donors got NPR’s leading fundraiser into a conversation about the Tea Party movement. With a hidden camera rolling along, the fundraiser said all sort of nasty things about them: gun carrying racists, xenophobes, and so forth. With NPR’s federal support under attack from Republicans, the footage has proved to be just the fodder they want to push first the House, and now the Senate, to end funding.
What is spiritual fulfillment? What is reaching the heights of spiritual development? Or, to use the classic term — what is enlightenment?
Classical Buddhist sources describe it as a state of mind in which we no longer think: “I am this, this is mine, this is my self.” Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra defines it as the ability to control, and cease, the modifications of the mind. More emotionally oriented traditions offer images of total oneness with the universe, complete submission to God, or a limitless capacity for love and compassion.
Usually enlightenment is understood as a total state of being — something so completely present that the nagging demands of ego (greed, jealousy, envy, ambition, fear, resentment — that sort of thing) simply evaporate in the face of the Ultimate Truth. We are, at last, at peace, at one with the One, freed from sin, ignorance, and Really Bad Habits.
Here is another way, a very different way, to understand it.