12.31.2017

In Search of Grace

Often, when I'm walking the 10 minutes from my house to the train, I find myself moving with a sense of urgency. It's not that I'm late; I'm not going faster in order to catch a train. No, the pace of my feet may or may not be accelerated. But my mind is reeling. Which makes me feel like I'm walking quickly, my frame leaning forward to keep abreast of my thoughts. I clench my teeth a bit; my heart races a little faster.

When I catch myself doing this, I take a deep breath, exhale excessively loud, look at the sky, and slump my body — as if suddenly breaking as I notice I'm going well over the speed limit. I'm slouched, my back hunched, my gaze too focused on the sky, searching for a respite. It's like I'm putting on a show for the karma police. See?! I'm not speeding. I'm, like, so chill. It's a grotesque charade.

Like the would-be highway cop, karma isn't fooled. In the span of mere moments, I've moved from leaning too far forward to leaning too far back. While the affect may differ, the effect does not: I am off balance. Despite the volume of my exhalation, the universe knows, just as I do, that I am not chill.

One summer in high school, I spent six weeks in the French Alps with a family, a long time friend of my mother's. Along with my Jew fro-ed, skinny as a pubic hair 15 year old self, there were the two parents and their two tween daughters (that's another story for another time). We'd climb high, snow encrusted mountains which we'd then descend. The ground was either loose gravel, chunky rocks, or ice. My instinct, like many people's, was to lean back in order to counter gravity's forward pull.

But le père, to whom I was often tethered with a rope, told me to do just the opposite: lean forward to be perpendicular with the ground. Sure, this put us in a near run. But it meant I was no longer fighting the event, fighting to stay on my feet, expending unnecessary energy just to get from point A to B. By leaning forward, I was moving with the mountain. And, just like that, my descent became more sure footed, more efficient, and dare I say, almost graceful — not to mention plain old more fun. Oh, man, running down those mountains, sliding down those glaciers, is an experience that still runs through my body, a memory of grace.

Too far forward, too far back, careening to one side or the other: I have a tendency to move around the event as it transpires. I expend all this energy avoiding, ducking, parrying the event right in front of me. Walking to the train, I think about whether I'll have to pee during my meeting or, worse, shit; or whether I'll get too hungry and feel faint; or if the train might be late. My body is tense, making me burn all kinds of energy simply walking to the train. I feel the furrow in my brow, the tightness in my shoulders, the anxiety in my blood. As I walk, I am teetering. It's not graceful.

But how to find this grace? Is there a center I can occupy as the world spins around me? Is there a wave I can ride, be swept up in its tumult, freed from having to occupy any position at all — a surrender to the torrent?

Like everyone I've ever met,  I have a drive to get lost in the event. I want to feel the centrifugal force of the cyclone, to be handled by the event, taken up in its swirls and eddies. This, I like to imagine, is a kind of going with the world. And how best to be swept up? Well, by imbibing this or that, of course! Pop a pill to feel life! Caffeine, tequila, kratom, all the different strains of pot, Ativan...the list goes on and on: all these ways to feel the event by, uh, not feeling the event. It's a powering through (caffeiene, tequila) or a lazy, hazy avoidance (Ativan, bourbon).

There are other ways of riding the wave other than drugs, of course. There is the mania of the samurai; there is the ecstasy of the sky and the way it can turn me inside out, stretching me unto the infinite. 

In any case, in popping pills, swigging cocktails, maniacally entering battle with sword drawn, there is not only a desire to take leave of this world, a desire to avoid: there is also a desire to embrace, to live fully and vitally with the world. And, yes, there is a concerted avoidance of the event, of life, as we ride the highs and lows of our swills and pills and local surges of energy.

How, then, to move with the event? How to move with grace? What does leaning forward as you hike down the mountain look like in everyday life? Is it a fixed position? Or, as I suppose, does this center move so as not to be a center per se but an ever moving, elusive sweet spot?

But first: why seek this grace? From the perspective of energy expenditure — which is not to evoke efficiency in the capitalist sense — grace is optimal. After all, life is a continuous flow of energy, a giving and taking. Give too much without receiving — say, running marathons without eating, drinking, or sleeping — and you'll feel pretty shitty. Spend all your time with a selfish friend who loves drama and you'll feel like our deprived marathoner. Grace is an optimal energy exchange that fuels health and vitality while contributing energy, like a beautiful swing in baseball. This affords an aesthetic appeal for both the watcher and the doer. We see it in dancers, in writers, in flirts, in baseball swings.



So how does one learn to live gracefully? How does one learn to move with the world rather than ducking, parrying, or finding home in the edge of the cyclone? How does one find this sweet spot that moves as you move, that moves as the world moves?

For me, if not for all, the movement into grace involves an attentiveness. As I've gotten older, a luxury I have is the ability to assess how I'm heading into an event. So this is my practice: as I begin doing this or that  — waking up, walking to the train, eating lunch, meeting a friend at the bar, talking to my parents, doing dishes, watching TV — I notice how I'm standing towards the event. Am I leaning too far forward as if trying to plow my way headfirst through it all, afraid that if I don't that I'll just collapse in a puddle of nothingness on the floor? Am I leaning back, feeling for the sleep of my childhood, for the sleep of the dead, for the sleep of a me that's never been? Am I overeager, drooling like a puppy who hears the jangle of the leash and comes barrelling into the room only to slam into the wall?

Mind you, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of these ways of going. Sometimes, I am actually excited to do something and so jump around like a puppy in heat. Other times, I'm kind of tired and just want to lay back. So it goes. It can be beautiful to be at the edge of the cyclone, taken up in the waves. It's ecstatic, Dionysian, liberating.

Then there is Osho's method of maintaining a non-moving center as the cyclone swirls. For me, this demands a steep learning curve. When I talk to someone, I tend to lean into their energy, into the conversation, as I seek the wave, the tug and pull of that centrifugal force. But Osho asks us to not do that but to remain unto ourselves, observing the conversation without becoming the conversation. He suggests beginning this practice as a sitting meditation: do nothing, he suggests, but sit there and remain unto yourself. And then, slowly, you begin doing more and more complex things — running errands, entering the social, making love. Throughout any and all experiences, Osho tells us we can learn to be still observers.

The problem with this is the problem with any practice — yoga, chanting, silent retreats, meditation: they become a way to judge the event. Oh, damn, I'm such a loser! I wasn't unto myself!

After all, the event is whatever transpires. I make it just as it makes me (more or less: there are aparallel becomings such as a tornado which moves me more than I move it.) The event is beyond good and evil; it is mercilessly neutral. It is that which happens. Moving in it without grace is not a fundamental flaw. Grace is a nice state but when you try bending all experiences to a notion of grace you are, alas, no longer graceful.

Here, then, is the catch: grace is not moral. It is not a should. We go as we go. But as we don't like or trust the way we go — due to self-loathing, due to the pervasive hegemony of the various "shoulds" we impose on ourselves — we expend all kinds of energy and resources to go differently in the event. We get loaded; we double guess what we say; we get bored and make a scene. The thing is: none of these are inherently not graceful. None of these are wrong in and of themselves.

Grace is a way not a law. It's the perpetual movement of acceptance — acceptance of the mountain's incline, acceptance of my taste for the wave, acceptance of the fastball hurtling my way at 96 miles an hour.  It's about feeling not as much for a center as for a sweet spot of the event, a way of operating within the multiple swirls and flows of experience. You can't know it beforehand. Grace, I think, is always to be found, again and again, from within the cyclone of the event.

12.20.2017

The Word Made Flesh: On Language, Rhetoric, Performativity, & Jesus






"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us..."

12.19.2017

On Practice (with Constant Reference to Nietzsche)



"My formula for human greatness," writes Nietzsche, "is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — , but to love it." This is at once the tallest order and the simplest thing in the world.

So I get amor fati, I get that life is necessarily perfect, that everything that happens is the best possible thing. I get this from more than Nietzsche — from  Epictetus, Leibniz, Whitman, Deleuze, and Ginsberg; from Bob, Osho, Lao Tzu, Alan Watts; I get it from teachers close to me, from my friends and lovers, from the people I respect. The question I have is this: What do I have to do to achieve such greatness? If I try to do something different in order to believe the world is perfect, then don't I believe the world isn't perfect? Hmn.

Well, amor fati  — love of fate — doesn't ask you to do anything different. There's no elaborate regime to follow; no chanting; no self mutilation; no 20 years of living in silence; no head stands required. Whatever happens happens; whatever you do, you do. That's the whole point! Everything is perfect so whatever I do is perfect. Right?

Yet when I go about my business as usual, I remain embroiled in my well heeled anxieties, guilt about my parenting, fear of my death, fear that my lover will stop loving me, fear that I'll shit my pants in a meeting. The list goes on.

So while I "understand" that everything is perfect, I don't live as though everything is perfect. I want to love life even when it's kicking me in the teeth, even when my lover doesn't love me, even when I'm sick, even when my sister dies. And, hardest of all, I want to find perfection in the humdrum banality and hassles of the everyday — in traffic and dishes, in dust and rent, in yapping dogs and confused clients.

But this seems to demand that I do something other than what I am doing because whatever I'm doing has me often wishing things were other than they are. When my sister died, I screamed as loud as I could scream for hours every day for months. This was more than just pain. Pain may be, uh, painful but it is beautiful and perfect in its way. No, my scream was a scream of despair, a scream unto the void: How could this have happened?

It's true: amor fati doesn't ask for me to do anything different. But it does ask for me to do things differently. Which is to say, the demand is not in the what but in the how.

In the third book of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche compares two ascetics, a priest and an athlete. From the outside, they look alike as both refrain from excessive food and sex. And yet an abyss separates them. One says No to the things of this world, preferring the abstraction (and, to Nietzsche, the nihilism) of God. The other looks like he's saying No but, in fact, he's saying Yes — to himself, to his strength, his health, his vitality.

How do I become the athletic ascetic? If amor fati doesn't ask me to do different things, how do I come to love my life rather than regretting the past and fretting the future? Is it just an understanding I reach and, voilà, I love fate?  Or is there some relationship between my what and my how? Is there something I can do? Something I should be doing?

And there, alas, is the tension. If there's something I should be doing then aren't I not accepting fate, not accepting things as they are? What is the relationship between what I do and how I do?

For Nietzsche, life is always a practice, always a doing. We are metabolic systems. Which is to say, we have a will with appetites. This leads us to take in certain things — these foods, drinks, ideas, words, images, people, and not those. We then process these things according to our metabolic propensities and play it all back in our bodies, words, ideas, interactions, moods. To be alive, for Nietzsche, is to always already be inside out, already entwined with the world. There is no living that is not a practice.

And so he constantly urges us to tend to these practices. In Ecce Homo, he says the great questions of philosophy are: What do you eat? Where do you live? How do you recreate? The philosophic question is not what is true. Living is not a matter of knowing; it is a matter of doing.

Not all doing is equal. While everything is perfect in its way, Nietzsche nevertheless proffers criteria to assess life: What fuels the health and vitality of the system you are? This is a protean standard as what's vital for me may very well not be vital for you. How could it be otherwise? After all, we are such different systems. And, to make it more complex, the system that I am is always changing. What fueled me when I was 17 may not fuel me at 48 (which is why Nietzsche says we are becoming, not being; and why Nietzsche is a rhetorician rather than a philosopher, always reading the world rather than making truth claims).

So in the place of Judeo-Christian morality which posits absolute rules from on high, Nietzsche offers a revaluation of those values, a moving sui generis standard: "A few more hints from my morality. A hearty meal is easier to digest than one that is too small. That the stomach as a whole becomes active is the first presupposition of a good digestion. One has to know the size of one’s stomach… Everyone has his own measure, often between the narrowest and most delicate limits.”

A beautiful aspect of this this Nietzschean metabolic system is that it has no master term, no one thing dictating all the others. While our wills are our wills, they are not fixed once and for all; they don't determine everything.  Our wills change. We can discipline our bodies to want differently. The very birth of civilization, he argues, came from a pack of roaming humans who hunted and fed in the moment but got bored so trained their bodies to be continuous through time, trained their bodies to be able to make promises rather than live for immediate desire, trained their bodies by using their flesh as a canvas and beating themselves into submission.

There is, then, something to be done, a practice to heed. But just as simply understanding amor fati doesn't make you live an affirmative life, simply changing your diet, moving to the country, or beating yourself daily will not make you suddenly say Yes to life. We all know plenty of fit, flexible, well-housed depressives. The greatest yogi, alas, is not the one who can do all the super cool poses. In fact, there is no correlation between the will to affirmation and the ability to do Vrschikasana aka Scorpion.


While practice matters, there is still no correlation between Vrschikasana and the ability to say Yes to life while lying in the gutter, your teeth kicked in, and shit running down your pant leg.

If only it were so easy! If only all I had to do was study yoga for hours every day for decades! If only all I had to do was meditate for 10 hours every day for 40 years! Or beat myself with a stick every time I felt self-loathing! If only that's all it took to be blissful and love my fate! But while will and practice are intimately intertwined neither dictates the other. Stubbornly, they maintain their independence. Just shifting one aspect of the system — say, the inputs — rarely shifts the system as a whole.

Too much of my life has been driven by anxiety — guilt and regret about the past, fear and anxiety about the future. This comes from 48 years of existence as much as from my will and metabolism. We live in a culture that celebrates anxiety. We are systematically taught to be judgemental and self-loathing — you're not smart enough, pretty enough, cool enough, man enough, rich enough, cool enough. We're taught that death is scary and to be avoided at all costs. We exercise — not to affirm life but to avoid death. We change what we eat — not to affirm life but to avoid death. So when death comes, we're actually surprised! How weird is that? The only thing we know to be inevitable surprises us.

And so we develop habits, a scaffolding of behavior to organize and maintain our anxieties. Such is the way of systems; they develop grooves, modes of operating that seem easier even though they're terribly inefficient. We continue to eat Cheez Doodles despite the intestinal mayhem because, well, that's what we do when we're hungry. We become possessive because we are so self-loathing that we assume ownership over another human being is the only way to secure love. Systems perpetuate themselves, even unto their own demise. Just listen to the sounds in a movie theater of empty minded, determined hands reaching over and over for popcorn smothered in fake butter. It's as telling as it is repulsive. Or look at America and see capitalism selling itself to the undertaker.

So there I am living this life of anxiety and I come across Nietzsche telling me about amor fati. And it speaks to me. I truly come to believe that life is perfect, that there is no alternative to life and hence everything that happens is as it should be: the is and the ought are one and the same. All there is is this life! And rather than that becoming nihilism — there's no heaven! oh no! — it becomes the greatest affirmation imaginable: All there is is this! Which means it's perfect! All is holy! Yes! Yes! Yes!

My understanding, then, is out of sync with the effects of my system — my moods and reactions, my words and thoughts. I need to re-engineer my metabolic system. This may involve changing the inputs — drinking less booze, eating more vegetables, drinking coffee at different times of the day. We should neither over- nor underestimate the power such inputs hold.

But my metabolic system is more than what I put in. It's also how I make sense of things. And these well worn ruts of sense making will tend towards the same sense whether I'm drinking tequila or kombucha. Sure, certain inputs can short circuit a system — LSD, DMT, psilocybin are all very powerful inputs that can radically alter the flow of a system. But those effects are often relatively short lived compared to metabolic momentum, even if an integral part of an affirmative practice. No, the trick is to shift the metabolic processes themselves.

And this demands breaking habits over and over, a steady practice. This is why meditation and yoga are great go-to practices: they demand a different flow of attention, a different way of taking in perceptions, processing them, and playing them back. For instance, in meditation, rather than looking for something interesting to watch, you perceive everything that happens. And rather than judging, categorizing, or reacting, you just let it all happen. This is quite different than a conversation with a friend or watching TV or your Facebook feed in which you're thinking and looking for the next thing to say or whether to like something or not. When you meditate, you are training yourself to be free of judgement: you are rebuilding the paths of perception, processing, and playback.

Of course, meditation and yoga are only ways of breaking habit. As they become habit, they become the new system: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. If you become anxious that you're missing your yoga class, then yoga is your new habit. (A discussion of the difference between a practice and a habit is for another time.)

 

As Osho suggests, meditation need not be a distinct practice of sitting. After all, you don't want to just be aware during your 30 minute meditation. A goal is to use sitting as a way to re-engineer the flow of sense making until it becomes a way of going everywhere you go, until you're embracing everything you experience — even your guilt, fear, and anxiety!

And so despite all these shifts in practice — your inputs and your metabolic process — you will still experience anxiety, guilt, regret, fear. So it goes. Such is life. Amor fati is not about eliminating these things; it's about standing towards them differently. All is holy.

12.12.2017

The Beautiful, Hilarious Way of Discussions



"Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, 'Let’s discuss this.'"— Gilles Deleuze

So I'm at a dinner party the other night, a small affair of three couples. I am rarely invited anywhere. I assume this is a for a variety of reasons but I believe this story will be the best explanation. But I was invited by people I love and have known a long time and whose company I always enjoy.

There are six of us, everyone smart and articulate. Somehow, probably my fault, we get on the subject of addiction. I suggest that addiction is a needy attachment to something — yoga, cigarettes, work, alcohol, admiration.

Over the years, I've heard people say: you have a drinking problem if and when said drinking begins to interfere with the rest of your life — if you're hungover, moody, sick and such from the booze. I think I can accept this criteria, in which case, I'd say most people really suffer from an addiction to work. It's an addiction far more prevalent than, say, Oxycontin. I mean, jeez, talk about interfering with your life! Junkies actually often write about scoring junk as their job.

So, yes, I casually throw something out there about addiction being excessive or desperate attachment — a clinging — and someone says But what about genes? Some people have a gene for addiction. 

Well, maybe, I say. But what's a gene? And why and how did the gene — this thing I can't see and only very few people know how to even read — become the master term dictating behavior and trumping all other takes within a discourse? It's really weird to me. And then, perhaps to be a bit provocative, I say: Reading one's genetic make up is akin to having someone read your tea leaves or tarot cards. Which, in my book, is not to denigrate tea leaf or Tarot reading at all. They are all ways of reading a person, "knowing" a person. There are in fact lots of ways to read someone. Smelling, for instance: I think you can tell all kinds of things about a person by smelling her.  Or talking to her. Or smelling her and talking with her. (I appreciate the critique of "he" as a default for "one." But I find it difficult to use "they/them" when I'm moving between singular and plural — not due to any clinging to grammatical etiquette but simply because I find it difficult (an addiction?). So, in the meantime, I change up my third person pronouns, moving between he and she, him and her, when I can.)

Well, this set off one participant at the shindig (the guy in the couple I didn't previously know). He says something to me about having a methodology to reproduce the same results over and over as a good and necessary thing. I find this odd as he's a wine writer — that's a great qualifier of a writer! What qualifier would I use? Could I use? — and I loved hearing him talk about all these differences in wines and their making and his disdain for insipid wines — his word and an inspired choice, methinks — that seek to reproduce the same taste over and over. In retrospect, I should have brought that up as a way to suggest that the prevailing scientific method of aiming to reproduce the same result over and over is fascistic (invoking fascism in such a context is 15 year old me trying to rile shit up by going to the extreme, a poor rhetorical move for so many reasons, first of which being the ensuing turmoil that demands an ill-spent energy expenditure on my part. Oy!). After all, isn't fascism, among other things, the insistence on sameness?

He's pretty worked up at this point. Me, I'm a little drunk. (Who's addicted to what in this situation? Is ideology an addiction? People who cling to "he" or heterosexual marriage are addicted to some belief that bolsters their identity, no? Hmn). But he starts talking about bridges, about how glad he is that we drive on bridges that use this scientific methodology (I use "scientific" here in the colloquial sense; I think science can be something else entirely but give me a moment here). People love to bring up bridges. To which I suggest two things: If we use the same methodology over and over, how will anyone come up with a new way of building bridges? And: sure, I'm glad bridges use this methodology. But do we have to apply it to human beings or, say, wine making? Sometimes, we want a methodology that seeks difference rather than sameness.

In any case, I made it clear that I am not against science (I have no idea what that would even mean. What is it to be "against"? What is "science"?). I just wanted to suggest that there are many different ways of making sense and while science, in some settings, serves us well it need not be the only way to make sense. (This kind of claim — not going against but just restructuring the assignation of privilege, is the hardest to convey. When I taught immanent reading, my students assumed I was against exemplary reading when, in fact, my point was and remains: it all depends. No term need be privileged other than the non-privileging of terms except when it makes sense to privilege terms. People who are adamant — who are, perhaps, addicted — to having a position look for a way to be for or against something. Rhetoric, I maintain, is going with — neither for or against, at least not in any universal sense.)

Oy. Such is the way of discussions: none of us are talking about the same thing. All there is, usually, is a fury of claims, postures, intensities. It's usually quite confusing to me. This is why I don't have "philosophic" conversations with anyone but two people I know well, whose terms and tone I understand and enjoy and can play with. Otherwise, every conversation I have is like this one above — there's no way to begin. We are in such difference places, with such different assumptions, how can we possibly discuss such things in any joyful way?

This has long been my problem with participating in the social: I don't understand the terms anyone is using. I don't read the news; they don't read Bataille. How are we to converse? It's why I find weather to be a great subject. It couldn't be more interesting, in a visceral sense, to both parties. It affects everything! And, according to the terms of discourse, we're allowed to have different readings, different modes of pleasure, of the weather. While people generally think a beautiful day is sunny and warm while I prefer still, overcast days, this doesn't anger anyone. We can see the other's point of view. But say that I believe genetic testing is akin to tarot reading (I see this as giving props to genetic testing!), and people don't know what to say or think.

And so I stay home alone, often (except for my poor kid who has to endure all kinds of weird shit).

I never enjoyed grad school seminars — as student or professor. Seminars are supposed to be these intimate venues in which all voices can participate as, together, we discuss a text, discuss ideas. All these damn discussions — as if discussions were inherently a good thing.

I just didn't, and don't, find that to be the case. I'd sit there as different people took turns talking to each other, assuming a tone of response (often aggressive or hurt — by what was always unclear), but to what end? Are we explaining an idea to each other? Isn't that the professor's job? What is the purpose of a discussion?

This is not to say that discussions can't be useful. On the contrary, discussions are a great way to reach consensus on a subject — which, I believe, is the point of a discussion. Such is their architecture. For instance, I lived in a communal house in Berkeley, very briefly, in the summer of 1992 (I never lived in Berkeley while in grad school there; at the time, I found it had the worst of all worlds — the humdrum of the suburbs, the potential for mugging of the city. The town of Berkeley was no place for a randy 22 year old). Anyway, we'd have weekly discussions about shopping, chores, repairs. After a few weeks, I made a suggestion: How about no more communal living? We'll shop for ourselves and clean up after ourselves. We had a brief discussion and, sure enough, we disbanded the communal aspect of the house. In this case, a discussion — a means to build social consensus — was useful to peacefully rid ourselves of the need for consensus.

But what's there to discuss in a classroom? I know, I know: that sounds absurd. People love classroom discussions! That's how we learn, right? Get everyone involved! All voices heard!

But I never learned that way. Discussions are architected to create and facilitate sameness which, in the proper setting, is great. But in my day to day living, in my learning, in my philosophy, I want the many-splendored wonders of difference.