If Naked is the Best Disguise, is Disguise the Best Kind of Nakedness?

I was talking with a friend the other day who experiences an internal struggle, as many of us do, between the desire to be seen and loved for who he is on the one hand, and on the other hand a fear that if he does not manage his image he will not be loved.  He both abhors pretence and fears it is the only way to get what he wants.  When he looks out at the world he sees a gigantic game of poker — some cards are visible but many are not.  He worries if people are weaker than he is and are bluffing or conversely that people are stronger than he is and are biding their time.

I explained to him that I approach life differently — that I am what I am consequences be darned.  I have no strategy because it takes too many mental resources.  I move through life and throw aside concepts of success and failure, winning or losing, and this throwing aside allows me to be myself.

Aha, he said, — that is your strategy.  Your nakedness is the ultimate disguise.  By pretending not to play the game you hope to win it.

Not really sez I, I don’t see any game, and if I did I would not be interested in playing it.  But I do believe that your disguise is the ultimate nakedness.  You are losing the game on purpose so some day you will be revealed to all.   You are playing the game so as to achieve your heart’s desire, which is to have all your cards face-up, and to be found out.

Maybe so, sez he, but nobody knows it.

No I said — everybody knows it.

And I was right!



Faith vs. Faithism

Some important things in life cannot be proven, or, what amounts to the same thing, cannot be proven right now.  Recognizing that we need to push on into the unknown and commit ourselves without proof, is faith.  At the right time and in the right context, faith is great — it provides the path out of a conceptual or emotional or existential tangle, for a person, or a group.  The importance of faith is just a corollary of the importance of new stages of growth; sometimes we don’t need to get more information, we actually need new concepts or ways of being in the world.

However it is wrong to say “faith is important therefore it is correct to follow my guru” or “faith is important therefore the Bible is correct in all things” or “faith is important therefore the voice I just heard in my head was God telling me what to do and I should listen to it.”   It is wrong because these are all examples of proofs, and therefore not examples of faith.

The second we try to think too hard about the importance of faith in our lives and use it to justify ourselves — we need faith therefore I will have faith in this book, or person, or feeling — we are evading the principle insight of faith, which is the need to move on without any way of justifying ourselves.  I would call this move “faithism.”

Here is a comparison.    Sometimes we are judged wrongly and we need to explain why a mistake was made.  Sometimes we are judged correctly — we actually did something bad — and in those cases we can make a humble plea for forgiveness.  Humble pleas for forgiveness are sometimes the only way forward.  If a humble plea for forgiveness comes with a proof that what I did was actually not so bad, it is not a plea for forgiveness at all: it is an argument that I was judged wrongly.  However, it is also wrong to say “Sometimes humble pleas for forgiveness are necessary.  Sometimes I need to be forgiven for no reason at all.  This is one of those times.  Therefore you must forgive me.”

Because that wouldn’t be a plea for forgiveness at all.  Would it?



Spring Poem

The moldy soul is alone and rumbling on Saturday.

One is riding before him: the saint who has a seedling.

Im ik sam sab

Jiv duf huk

Zem um rit kol

Efa weli Yub

Translated from the Czech, Italian,Hindi, Dutch, Polish, Latvian, Portuegese, Lithuanian, Malagasy, Swahili, and Hmong.

freedom, philosophy, religion, Uncategorized

Four Sons: Four Responses to Problems

Tonight Jews celebrate the Passover holiday by having an ancient Greek drinking party.  The ancient Greek drinking party, as we know from Plato’s “Symposium” (from the ancient Greek word “symposium” which means drinking party from drink plus together)  required a topic of conversation that each participant would address in turn.  In Plato’s symposium the topic was “What is love?” which is an excellent topic if you are drinking with your friends and some of you are in love with others of you.  For the seder the topic is “What is freedom?” which is an excellent topic for a party with parents and children, since children are unfree in relation to their parents but we are all hoping are on a journey to freedom.

The children are more-or-less unfree and their parents are asking them to discuss freedom.  This will naturally result in a mixed range of reactions — ambivalence and sarcasm (are you kidding me?) spring to mind.  The Haggadah (the guidebook to the seder) singles out four, assigning each one to a “son” — although today it would include daughters (pictured above).

The four responses enumerated in the hagadah are:

1)Asking for an explanation

2)Asking “What does this have to do with you?”

3)Asking “What is this?”


The author of the haggadah has (or claims to have in order to be provoking) strong feelings about these responses, labeling the first “wise” and the second “wicked” and saying the older generation should be happy about response (1) and hurt and angry about response (2).  But if we think a little more deeply we can think about situations in which each of the four responses is appropriate.

A water crisis in Syria leads to a civil war and we are having a feast while the refugees from the crisis starve.


Why did this happen?  A water crisis.  Why are there water crises?  How can they be prevented?


What does this have to do with you?  How can you sit there and lecture me on freedom when people are not free?  Are you doing all that you can?  If you’re not doing all that you can, how can you expect me to do so?


What is this?  People are killing each other in a civil war.  What is a war?  What is a “civil war”?  What is a nation anyway?  What is this life of ours where this happens?



Maybe freedom means the freedom to ask the hard, intellectually challenging questions, to ask the questions that challenge the authority and integrity of those in charge, to ask questions which are so hard because they seem so easy, and to be silent — with shock or awe or joy, or wonder.








A Few Facts a Theory of Dreams Should Account For

  1. When we dream we dream of being awake
  2. Waking life bears the same relationship to dreaming as enlightened consciousness bears to wakefulness.
  3. Movies are a communal dream
  4. When we wake up we are struck by the power of dream images which we do not understand; much as post-enlightenment cultures are struck by the power of myths
  5. Descartes raised the question of whether life was a dream and Western culture has been troubled by this, seemingly nonsensical question, as if by a dream
  6. In India the Buddha announced that he had awoken.  The enlightened state relates to this statement as it does to yet another dream. It is a dream of being awake.

Things the Dog Can Do

  1. Love people
  2. Eat its food really quickly
  3. Enjoy life
  4. Be angry and defend its territory

The dog has been castrated so its favorite things are:

  1. Being with people and being paid attention to
  2. Eating
  3. Playing

The dog acts to protect and maintain its physical existence, but does not suffer from fear of death.

The dog’s skills — fast eating, giving and receiving love — have an obvious survival benefit.  It has a good packet of skills for its purposes.

Some people have wondered whether a being like this can be spiritually awakened — as expressed in the old question “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”  The correct response — MU — indicates that the question is in some sense idiotic, and also, to me, recalls the barking of a dog.


Stuttering Me

I started stuttering suddenly at the age of four.  My mother took me to speech therapy in Manhattan with Dr. Jacques Penn who engaged me in discussions about scientific method and atheism, made me say ta-tay-tee-toe-too and rewarded me with pens until I became too mature for them.  He taught me if I must stutter to stutter with dignity.  Perhaps from his therapy, perhaps from natural maturation my stuttering subsided considerably in the fifth grade, only to flare up again briefly when I went to a new school in the seventh grade.

Stuttering is an involuntary spasm of the vocal cords; it manifests as hesitations (he-e-e-esitations) repetitions (re-re-re-repitions) and blocks (SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE SILENCE




Even though I don’t stutter any more the experience has given me an intimate awareness of how the rhythms of so-called voluntary, conscious life are always vulnerable to interruption, from forces that whether they be imagined as deep resources of the self or outside demons, are unconscious.   Anything I try to say can be interrupted; fluency is an achievement or a lucky happenstance; and perceiving the importance of fluency and rhythm can just as easily take them further from reach, as searching for a floater in the visual field will make it merrily run away.

I also learned that my emotions, without my being aware of them, could paralyze my action, and I would have to do a post-mortem autopsy of the tiniest failure to realize the fear and anxiety that a micro-second ago drygulched it.

Stuttering has given me an appreciation of how the will, consciousness, and freedom are not instantaneous possessions but commitments over the long-haul; how the most intimate, precious possessions of the self are a star to guide our actions by, not a baby already in the crib of our every moment.    The simplest thing in the world — speaking — saying ‘I love you” or “Let’s be friends” –could be snatched from me without a why.

I still try to talk but I’m aware that an arhtyhmia lurks between my thoughts, and if they achieve a rhythm that’s by threading a needle’s eye against a background of hesitating, blocking, and repeating.

Or maybe the rhythm is just a pleasing combination of hesitating, blocking and repeating!

Whichever it is, I love you.  Let’s be friends.



Dodedorania and Lumber

Two realms of existence described most extensively in notes I passed to Arlene Schneier in 5th grade in Mrs. Rand’s class in P.S. 139.

The inhabitants of both realms had a blurred individuality, or better, their individuality was super-personal but in different ways.  The beings in Lumber were arranged in orderly ramified hierachies while the beings in Dodedorania — or “the Dodedorain” — were a chaotically seething mass.

In a drawing I made in a notebook a horrified man who has just come to Dodedorania from our universe is informed by a dancing monster with an arm coming out of the top of its head “In the Dododorane, no earth creature stays the same…You’ll Be INHUMAN BEFORE DAWN!”

The notes I passed were from creatures struggling to explain their perspective as beings not possessed of individual, unique personalities to Arlene.

Arlene compassionately sought to understand the struggles of her dialogue partners in Lumber as suffering from loneliness and emotional pain and to alleviate it.

Where she is now, I do not know.


Do I Need to Respectfully Engage with Another Person’s Beliefs to Understand Them?

I got in an interesting discussion with a religious academic recently.  He argued that to understand another person’s religious beliefs, I need to treat those beliefs with respect — i.e. engage with their beliefs.  To assume that God does not exist when explaining the behavior of the worshiper is to impose my own agenda: it was to push a secular, rejectionist view of the world onto the phenomenon I was trying to understand.  Since science seeks to understand what’s there and not to push an agenda, it seemed to follow that the best science of religion would be in some sense open to, or respectful of, the possibility of religious truth.

He was adverting to Dilthey’s concept of verstehen, or understanding by empathetic identification.

It’s important to distinguish between two senses of engaging with a belief or taking it seriously.  In one sense if I am on an island where they worship the palm tree and kill everyone who touches the palm tree with their feet, to take their belief seriously, to engage with it, means not to touch the palm tree with my feet when they are around.  On this interpretation I had better take their belief seriously if I am to understand them — or they will throw me in a volcano!   If I want to understand the United States invasion of Iraq I need to understand the Christianity of the U.S. people and their leadership, and their sense that their country had a divine mission.  In another sense to engage with these beliefs means I should take it seriously as an existential possibility for my own life that palm trees are sacred — more sacred than oak trees for example – or that in some sense God has a plan for the United States in a way He does not have a plan for China.  These two senses of “engagement with belief” are quite different.

We obviously need the first.  If we want to understand human phenomena, religious or not, we need to understand the religious beliefs of the participants.  This can be quite involved.  So for example if I want to understand why the islanders will kill me if I mistreat the palm tree I may need to get deeply into the concept of tabu.  If I want to understand U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush I probably need to understand evangelical Christianity.

Do we need the second?  Do I need to consider the possibility of damaging my own life by mistreating a palm tree in order to understand?  Do I need to seriously think that God might actually be pro-American and a Republican to grok Bush’s foreign policy escapades?

Here is an argument that I do not.  There are simply too many conflicting religious beliefs.

For example, when I lived in NYC in the late years of the twentieth century it was a cosmopolitan city with a lively marketplace of beliefs, religious and political.  I encountered and talked with:

a)a devotee of transcendental meditation who claimed that if I paid for enough transcendental meditation courses I could learn to fly

b)a Christian who asked me to get down on my knees and pray to Jesus Christ  in order to be saved

c)A Hasid who, hinting heavily that his 18th century Ukrainian teacher was the mesiah, suggested if I ever had a nocturnal emission I should say 10 special psalms which God had revealed to his teacher.

Is it secular rejectionism, or an atheistic ideology, to say to (a), (b), and (c) that their claims are unproven and unlikely?  Call it what you will but in our day and age it is the only option.  The different claims are expensive in terms of time and money.  They conflict.  We need to make a choice and that requires some sort of evaluation.   If Jesus is the messiah then Rabbi Nachman is not, and if either is the messiah then it is idle to try to fly through studying the teachings of the Maharishi.  On the other hand if the Maharishi is correct then it may be foolish to invest in airplane stocks.

Is the tone I am taking insufficiently respectful?  That is, am I falling down on the job as a compassionate human being or objective social scientist if I consider the possibility that some of the above — the ne0-Hindu, the Christian, and the Hasid — may not have my best interests at heart?  That they may be con-men, or self-deceived, or plain crazy, or in the game of promulgating religion for the money or power?

Again call it what you will, but since some people out there promulgating their religions are one or more of the above (self-deceived, power-hungry, con-artists) it cannot be a methodological mistake to consider the possibility.  There is no scientific requirement for respecting everyone when we all know we live in a world where everyone is not worthy of respect.

That said — is there a kernel of truth to the fear about imposing a secular ideology on a religious phenomenon and thereby missing the boat?  I believe there is.  Every commitment is a risk, including foregoing a commitment.  We have limited minutes and we have limited dollars.  If we raise our children as Breslov Hasidism then they are not Christians and vice versa.  If we spend our hard-earned money on a plane ticket from New York to California, we are missing out on the possibility of getting to Los Angeles by means of yogic flight.

When we seek religious truth we are at the same time seeking an answer to the question “How should I live my life?”  It is a heavy question.  My interlocutor, the religious academic was correct that it should not be treated, lightly, with a condescending smirk, or a sense of superiority based in the misplaced confidence that science makes me invulnerable.

We are all vulnerable.  The Hindu, the Christian, the Hasid and the scientist without a creed.  We all have a life and it could, terrifyingly, end any second — and, perhaps more terrifyingly,  it could end many decades from now but be wasted.  However the only way to treat this fact with the seriousness it deserves though is to take a moment when the world runs at us with answers and think and wonder and reflect.  Not because we owe respect to anybody who knocks on the door with a pamphlet about how he and his cult know the one true way, but because we want to how to lead our life ourselves.