About Death, II

My last blog ended by comparing our lives to a song, and with the reflection: But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

I’ve been asked to expand on this thought. What are these ‘forces’? How are they larger and more creative and enduring?

We can start small. Walking my dog this morning through narrow, hilly neighborhood streets, I heard the brilliant “pyou pyou” of a cardinal standing on a tree limb about twenty feet over my head. The bird was only about seven inches long, probably weighed less than two ounces, with a small pointed beak surrounded by quarter inch of black, a tuft of feathers for a pointed crown, and a shockingly red breast and wings. “How does it do that,” I thought, “this tiny thing making a noise that can be heard for blocks? A call louder than the loudest whistle you ever heard from that friend in high school who could put two fingers in his mouth and bring forth a shriek that made people cover their ears and would stop cabs in the street.”

After wishing the bird good luck in making a nest and finding a mate, I kept turning it over in my mind: “How does he do that?” I really didn’t want the evolutionary history of bird sounds, or a structural account of his beak, throat and lungs. I was way beyond science here, and into the sheer wonder of it.

By analogy: Sometimes we look at the world’s horrors (the Holocaust, slavery, sexual trafficking, Hiroshima, Dresden, current levels of starvation) and, despite all our sophisticated political explanations, still feel that we cannot understand how such things can be. Similarly, in moments of grace, we can feel the same lack of understanding, only this time with joy and boundless gratitude rather than despair.

How does the cardinal make that sound? Because the universe has been working for fourteen billion years to create just that bird at that time on that branch on that street. And it has also been working to create me—the person who can delight in the sound and marvel at the universe that made it possible.

Neither the bird nor I will be here—cosmically speaking—for very long. Death is just around the corner (how big the corner is I cannot say) for both of us. Is this a great tragedy? A loss to be hated and feared?

Not for me, at least not today. Today I realize that condemning any reality always presupposes an alternative. “Death is horrible?” “Compared to what?”

Rather, I take comfort in having been here at all. That the universe came into existence, and that the combined forces of particles, atoms, gravity, the strong force and the weak force, molecules, cells, DNA, evolution, weather patterns and the like have enabled me to exist.

These are the forces so much more powerful, creative and long-lived than my own little self. These are the forces to which I feel compelled and privileged to bow in gratitude.

That it ever was, and that I got to be a part of it. And that along with the natural/physical forces there have been millions of human beings in their own quiet or noisy ways inventing language, science, culture, art, religion, human rights, equality, poetry, chocolate cake and peanut butter.  

Could my life have been easier? You bet, but it also could have been much harder. Have I suffered? Give me a few hours and I’ll tell you some details that would make your hair stand on end. But at least I got to be here, to love and be loved, listen to Beethoven and Bach, see Mount Everest, caress my wife’s face, and hold my daughter when she was born. Did I make all that happen? Maybe one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth of one-tenth… (you get the idea) of it. The rest was the product of all those other forces: impersonal laws of nature, wonderful chance evolutionary developments, the creative capacity of humans and animals and plants, and the support of air, earth, water, and fire.  

And they all brought me to the cardinal this morning. Scared of death? Sure I am, I’m no hero and I’ll probably fight against the dying of the light like anyone else.

But ultimately, if I have an ultimately, I’m just damn glad I got to be here. And damn grateful to everyone (and I mean that in absolutely the widest sense) who made it possible. 


Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.


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Amour, Death, Song


That was the day of the white chrysanthemums, so magnificent I was almost fearful…And then, then you came to take my soul…



For someone way beyond middle age Amour is, as we used to say, quite a trip.   To those unfamiliar with this Oscar winning French film, it chronicles the illness, degeneration and death of an aging French piano teacher, who is cared for by her loving, stoic husband. The acting is superb, the writing spare and focused, the pacing almost in ‘real time’ as the camera lingers on the woman’s first stroke, being bathes by an attendant, the husband’s excruciating attempts to get her to eat some oatmeal. In the end the husband, overwhelmed with grief for his wife’s guttural cries of pain, her loss of even a shred of autonomy or dignity, and perhaps also his own exhaustion, frustration, and anger, takes matters into his own hands.

This is the kind of last weeks, months, or years many of us may well expect. The very great majority of those who read these words will not die of war, starvation or lack of medical care.  Although some, sadly, may be taken early by cancer, auto accidents or murder, most will die from age: with dementia or Alzheimer’s, after strokes or heart attacks or some other slow, debilitating condition reduces us to pale, burdened, endlessly needy shadows of our former selves.

There is an easy way out of the fear and grief this reality generates: to believe that pretty much the way we are now we go “somewhere else.”  For me, like the idea of a personal, omnipotent creator God who cares how I live, notions of heaven or reincarnation were never what William James called a “live option.” The thought that I could be “myself” without a body or starting another life from scratch, knowing nothing, never connected. For me comfort must take another form.

An alternative suggestion is that people “live on in the memories of those whose lives they have touched.” While in Amour the couple had a daughter and one of the women’s students was a successful pianist, it was clear that after their death both of them would fade from people’s consciousness pretty quickly. And in any case, outside of the extremely few who are Very Great or at least Very Famous (Plato, George Washington, Shakespeare, Buddha) none of us are thought of very much after a few years, or at most a few decades: when the people who knew us for who we were—as opposed to our books or political acts, say—themselves pass away.

Which leaves us—or at least me—with the unshakable realization that what I face now is a future of continually becoming less than I am now: less intelligent, active, and industrious, with worse hearing, eyesight and ability to concentrate.  There will be a gradual turning down of the volume until the player, one way or another, just shuts off.

I can still remember lying in bed, perhaps 7 years old, crying about all this, terrified at the thought of the annihilation of my just budding self-consciousness. My mother was reassuring, “Don’t worry, this won’t happen for such a very, very long time.” For some reason that was good enough then, but today Mom’s words carry, shall we say, a bit less weight.

What makes aging and death tolerable? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we must all, as Dylan Thomas put it, “rage against the dying of the light.” And really there is nothing wrong with such a response. Surely it is just because the juice of the cherry, spilling out of your mouth on onto your shirt and you don’t care because it is so sweet, is so wondrous that it must be bitter to know one day all you’ll have in your mouth is dust you can’t even taste.

But besides anger (and its cousins grief, fear, and regret) there are other (non-heaven, non-reincarnation) ways to face death.

The first is simple and seems almost unarguable. Think of life—and I mean not just our own allotted time but the whole system which makes it possible: planets and seasons, microbes in our gut and nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, the hydrological cycle and the truly magical way DNA gets a part of each of your parents into you. If we truly love life then we must love death as well. Without death there would be no system at all. Things would be unbearably crowded, all sorts of folks (in the broad sense) would have nobody to eat, and there would be little room for innovation, growth, and evolution. We would all be fixated in some vastly earlier stage of existence. And 99.99999% of what we get to taste and see in this life, including our own alternately glorious, dopey, confused and insightful selves, could never have come into being. 

Hold onto that thought and join it with another: if I stop thinking of myself like a mountain, or a stone cathedral, or some other item which seems built to last and instead think of myself, my self, as something radically different, maybe death would seem less threatening.

Does a song regret ending? As the last notes of the symphony crash into the air and slowly fade, is there some regret from the melody and harmonies whose echoes will soon turn to silence?

Perhaps that is all we are: just a song sung by the universe. Does a song—does my ego—really want to last forever? Thankfully I’ve grown a bit since I was seven, and now I think not. We—I—will end, and if the song is as sweet as ripe cherries there might be a faint wish from us or others that there be a little more. But if we live with awareness and gratitude, compassion and love, we will face the end of the song with grace, knowing that the composer and performer is not us, but forces vastly larger, more creative, and (almost) infinitely more enduring.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.




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What difference does it make if torture works?…and a few other questions…

 What difference does it make if torture works? Is that all we need to know about it? Is it possible that we shouldn’t torture people even if it does work? By analogy: We could probably eliminate a good deal of the Taliban—at least for a while–if we carpet bombed regions they control. Once we were clear that it ‘works’—why not do it? So what if we kill some innocent people. After all—the point is to accomplish what we set out to do. Therefore, if torturing a few people, or many people, gets us the information ‘we’ want, that’s all we need to know, right?
Disliking my admittedly extreme example, a person might object: “What if a suspect knows where a bomb is placed that might kill 100 people, wouldn’t it be o.k. to torture him?” To which I reply: “Since we are dealing in ‘what if’—try this one: what if there is a terrorist bomb set to kill, let’s be bold, 5000 people. And suppose you know that the person who controlled the bomb is in a particular room. The only problem is that there are 10 other people in the room and you don’t know which is the terrorist. Well, do the math: why not torture them all until you find the right one? And suppose it’s not 10 people in the room, but a 100. You’ve still got a 50 to 1 ratio—so torture away, right? Even better: what if torturing an innocent person—say, the terrorist’s 6 year old daughter—would compel the terrorist to talk. Do the math again, surely we’d be justified in torturing the girl. And what if, as Dostoevsky asked, we could end all human misery and bring about a perfect utopia by torturing one innocent child—would we have the right not to do it?
 Isn’t it a little late to worry about gun control? Well, perhaps not. Even if one mass killing is stopped by making it a tad harder to get an AK-15, I’m all for it. Yet since we spend untold billions on “defense,” since various kinds of media glorify violence, since the typical male socialization process privileges physical prowess and the willingness to stand up for yourself, since God knows how many guns are in circulation already, since our response to threats from Afghanistan was to kill (in a ‘mass shooting’ if ever there was one) tens of thousands in Iraq…. Given all this and a good deal more that could be mentioned, what do we expect?
If two people are fighting, and in their struggle they end falling off a cliff, and then they shriek “But what do we do now?!?!” –isn’t it a little late? Could it be that until we give up the army and the football and the toy soldiers and Grand Theft Auto and Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we will produce men (for some reason advances in women’s rights haven’t resulted in equality when it comes to mass shootings) who kill when they can’t stand their lives anymore; or for money or power or God or politics.
 I live in Massachusetts, where today, January 31, it’s 57 degrees and we’ve had near hurricane force winds. There is zero snow on the ground between Boston and Worcester (forty miles away) and already in January we’ve had several days of temperature way above the “old normal” for this time of year. Why is it that some people revel in the warm weather—good day for jogging, you barely need a jacket, hats and gloves can stay in the closet–while others, like me, run an emotional gamut between lurking fear, mild depression, and suppressed panic? Despite years of writing, teaching, and moderate activism I know that whatever I do global warming is on the way, in fact already here. I know that the paltry efforts of well-intentioned people worldwide don’t stack up against the power of the oil and gas and coal companies, the desire for a ‘better lifestyle” in China and India and Latin America and Massachusetts, governments’ voracious appetite for military and the military’s voracious appetite for energy. So why not just enjoy a warm day in the middle of winter? What do fear and grief gain me or anyone else?
Probably nothing, but then again—when someone I love is dying or has died, I am first fearful and then sad. Even though my fear and sadness can’t change a thing.
 Isn’t it remarkable, even wonderful, that despite everything we are here at all? That there is something rather than nothing? That parents love their children? That at least some people are trying to make the world more peaceful, sane, sustainable, and caring? That birds fly, dogs chase sticks, and lovers hold hands? Isn’t life a miracle?

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.

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Zero Dark 30 made me cry, but it wasn’t the torture scenes…

It’s not that the torture scenes weren’t pretty bad. They were: the bruised face, haunted eyes, scarred skin, and gradual deterioration from arrogant jihadist to a helpless, broken body pleading for mercy. But that didn’t make me cry, for when such torture is not an instrument of sadism, as the process unfolding in the film clearly was not, it is simply an instrument of war. And war is hell. That’s just what it is. This I knew.

The torture victim suffered, greatly. So did the victims of the terrorist attacks portrayed in the film: at the Marriott hotel in Pakistan, on buses in London, at a military base in Afghanistan.

There are of course other suffering groups that the film did not portray. For instance, the victims of the American led coalition’s air strikes against Iraq—estimated by the British medical journal Lancet to be over 60,000; the Iraqi civilians who suffered—perhaps died—when ‘shock and awe’ destroyed electric power, transportation, health supplies, and hospitals.

If we are to have a war on terrorism, if Al-Qaida and its ilk are going to have a war on us, if all of us, together, are going to make war, the suffering will go on and on. From torture, from bombs; of soldiers, of civilians; of men, of women, of children; of other species, of the earth.

So it is not the suffering that made me cry, but four simple words spoken by one of the Navy Seal team who took Bin Laden out. With confirmation of the kill, following the only mildly celebratory word “Geronimo,” came the soul-chilling phrase:

For God and country.

And that’s when, in comfortably appointed stadium style seating in a large urban multiplex, I had to muffle the helpless sobs that shook my body.

For God and country.

For isn’t that, more or less, what the jihadists also say? Bin Laden, whatever else one may say of him, believed that he was serving God, and the cause of creating a morally and spiritually purified Islamic state. Doubtless he and his followers—at least the ones not in it for the thrill of violence (of which we surely have plenty on our side as well)—knew that their acts were good and ours evil, that any reasonably moral person could tell who was in the right. Surely the terrorists on both sides know that they are defending the innocent and slaughtering people who deserve to die.

And if in that righteous, even holy, struggle some innocents have to be hurt, if some collateral damage occurs, well—that’s unfortunate. But we are sure that it is worth it. Perhaps some of our smart bombs misfire and hit a civilian home, a marriage procession, a school. Perhaps a jihadist bomb hits a London bus on which devout Muslims are traveling. Perhaps this or that torture victim really didn’t’ know anything, wasn’t hiding anyone, and just had nothing to say—all that anguish you caused him was for nothing.

That’s just the price we pay for war. Don’t want to pay that price? Horrified by what you see? Don’t moan about innocent deaths, as if we could ever just bomb the guilty. Don’t object when the strong overpower the weak—that’s what strength is for. Don’t complain about torture, as if you might advise a prizefighter to keep hitting, but try not to hurt anyone. If you truly want the horror to stop:

Stop the wars.

And that’s why I sobbed in the dark, because right now that’s simply not possible. We would rather kill and be killed, taking our chances in unending battle, then find another way to live.

I realize that some people are evil and “must” be stopped. I know the endless critiques of American imperialism, soulless, repressive dictators, lunatic religious fundamentalists who marry carnage and prayer books. And I know there are lots of reasons for the killing: class privilege, exploitation, the joys of patriarchal power, the lust for oil, the fear fear fear that our way of life, our homes, our culture are under attack.

And so the question is not “Does this film justify torture?” (It doesn’t ) But—“Is there any hope that human beings can stop the madness?” For thousands of years humanity has lived with war and dreamed of peace, died violently and prayed for non-violence, worshiped saints and prophets who preached love and then shed endless blood on battlefields.

Justice, care, compassion, willingness to live with less and to give more to others. Empathy for the suffering we cause to match (at least) rage over our own pain—these might help a little. But to really make an end to our species’ attachment to death–who knows?
The only certainty is, for the indefinite future, the continued torment. On the faces of the victims of torture, and of suicide bombs, and of smart bombs, and of justified revolutions and government repression and world empire and resistance to world empire.

What can we do?

As often as we have courage, try to be examples of peace. And weep.

That’s about it.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author/editor of seventeen books on ethics, political philosophy, environmentalism, and spirituality. His newest book is: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters. Here is an excerpt.

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Holiday spirit getting you down? Try Holiday spirituality instead…

This means to make the simple but often incredibly difficult decision to meet life’s difficulties with self-awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love. (This is the position developed in my new book: Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters—a book which not only answers all of life’s important questions, but has a really nice cover!).

So if inescapable  Christmas music, endless JUST FOR TODAY GET IT NOW!  sales, and long lists of gifts for everyone from your brother-in-law to your daughter’s day-care provider are getting you down, let’s see what these simple, quite traditional, but challenging spiritual virtues have to offer.

To start, let’s ask ourselves what is going on. Through meditation, reflection, self-examination, or just plain free associating at the keyboard, what might we find? Perhaps… Disappointment that your family doesn’t match the quirky-but-happy, deeply-caring  but non-intrusive, rooted in tradition but open to difference ones on the greeting cards or the TV specials. Resentment that as a non-Christian you have to listen endlessly to all this holiday stuff? Bitterness that everyone else has (fill in the blank…a job, a lover, children, healthy children, a nice house…)? The religious revulsion that any serious Christian might feel at seeing the birth of the savior turned into consumerism and family get togethers shaped by an awful lot of drinking?

Realizing the source of your irritability, frustration, or even downright depression, the next spiritual move is acceptance. This is what God, or fate, or your genes, or a crummy economy, or your bad choices or other people’s bad choices, or the current state of American culture/economy/politics have given you. It might be far from what you want or deserve. But it’s what you have. Perhaps we can settle in with it, examine it with as much detachment as possible, and repeat that simplest of old time mantras: “Yes” –a yes not of approval or endorsement, but one that allows us to relinquish the exquisite torment of believing that it is up to us to change something which in all probability can’t be changed very much right now. We have and we are what we have and we are, and all the negative feelings won’t help.

So, moving on to gratitude, let’s try something else. Despite the hypnotic attraction of negativity (I mean, what’s sweeter than a pure blue, nasty funk, after all???), can we find something, anything  which not only makes us feel good but for which we are thankful? That we have ears to hear the interminable carols and eyes to see all the decorations? That we have food and drink, and the ability to take it in? that even if we are stuck in a hospital with a desperately ill child, or in a 12-step group fighting the demons of alcohol or heroin, that we are alive, that some people are trying to help us (a doctor or nurse, a sponsor or the guy who tells you to “hang in there, you can make it.”) That despite everything we’ve done to it, the world still turns, at least some birds still fly and sing, and that we ourselves, no matter how much we’ve lost, still have the chance to make tomorrow a little better than today.

And how will we do that? First, we will extend a little, and then a little more, compassion: to the people who seek to show love through buying stuff, for we remember first that they are trying to show love, and second that many times we ourselves have been loving in ways that were clumsy, foolish, even destructive. And if we are not Christian, we can be happy that our neighbors are celebrating a holiday that, at least for some folks, is about peace and good will. There’s little enough celebration of such things and every little bit helps. And in our own family situation, we also try a little compassion: for the intrusive, judgmental mother; the overbearing, foot-stomping father; the alcoholic uncle; even our own spouse who has—just like we ourselves—failed us over and over again. We remember the good times, rare though they might have been, our own less than perfect behavior, and the pain that these men and women have suffered in their own lives.

And don’t forget to try a little compassion on ourselves: for our frailties, addictions, casual cruelties, and refusals to change what we know we should. It’s not easy being human, truly human, and that’s a reason we all deserve compassion for the times we miss the mark.

Finally—and this, by the way, is something that has a basis in physiology—we feel a lot better when we show other people some love. Give some money away to people who need it more than we do—whether that’s 50 cents, 5 dollars, or a thousand—and see how rich that makes you feel. Offer a kind word to someone who is down, and you might be a little more up yourself.  Give a little time to a positive campaign—about global warming, human rights, or to raise funds for a local hospital. Listen to your grandfather tell the same old story and pretend you’ve never heard it before. Let your sister brag about her boyfriend or her job. Smile and realize that we’re all in this together. In these and countless other ways, the world is just waiting for what you, in particular, can do.

The greatest gift of the season—more precious than a 67 inch flat screen or a new IPhone—would be your own practice of these spiritual virtues. They would bring you some honest, long-lasting and genuine pleasure, and make you a lot more fun to be around for everyone else.

And what could more in the spirit of the holidays than that?

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Gratitude and (of all things) Politics

America’s annual consumerism orgasm is just passed. And if a little bit of post-sex let-down is to be expected, it may also be that some of us view the whole thing with negative feelings ranging from mild distaste to horror. People camping out on the sidewalk for days to buy a 54 inch flat screen, Wal-Mart customers coming to blows over a pair of shoes, families devoting hours to military style strategizing for the best way to hit the mall, a holiday defined by “thanks” and “giving” followed straightway by a veritable festival of desire, grasping, and I-me-mine. Endless environment damaging heavy metals, transportation, packaging and fossil fuels.

Even if the shopping is keyed around Christmas presents for others, what we have then are human relationships defined by things—and things, we should be clear, which are a long way from necessity. Virtually none of this is about food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the chronically ill. Actually, it is generally about toys for those who already have several dozen, phones with a few more features, or somebody’s thirty-seventh sweater or forty-fifth pair of jeans. In my own case it is likely to be about yet another classical cd or mp3 player for a man who has far more than he needs already.

Spiritually, the counter to all this, or at least one such counter, is gratitude: delighting in what we have, appreciating all the forces in the universe (from the sun and water and the process of evolution to the species that make food possible and all the people who labor so that we have housing, clothes, medicine and everything else). Gratitude is the very opposite of the endless search for more and better, the short attention span which finds pleasure in the new toy for only a few days or hours, the restless pursuit of the faster, sleeker, and more fully featured. Gratitude offers satisfaction in place of restlessness, simple joy instead of anxiety that someone else might Get the Last One.

Above all gratitude gives a terrific feeling which comes when we realize that so much of our life is an unexpected, undeserved gift. Who, after all, “deserves” the colors of the sunset, the sound of a Robin in spring, the feel of the skin of a newborn, the smile of a spouse who has put up with you for 40 years, the taste of clean water, the genius of Beethoven or Coltrane?

While gratitude is not always easy to come by, surely it is a more reliable source of human happiness than what we’ve just been through.

And yet…here it gets tricky, and complicated, and (of all things!) political. For how are we to know what is a proper object of gratitude and what, indeed, is something from which we should divest? Consider an enormously wealthy man offering a prayer of gratitude before God—for his possessions, his social status, his many gratifying luxuries—and then we learn that his wealth comes from human trafficking. Imagine a slave-owner thanking the universe for making him a master rather than a slave; the triumphant general praising God for the victory which allowed him to slaughter his enemies; an offering of thanks that I am white rather than black, a man rather than a woman, a colonialist rather than colonized, in power rather than downtrodden.

For what can we legitimately be grateful?

The beginning of the very long answer to this question is that we can only respond to this crucial spiritual dilemma by a deep and serious consultation with political ideas and movements. We will need to critically examine and challenge the social arrangements which have given us what we call our own. And perhaps realize that authentic spiritual gratitude cannot coexist with injustice, domination, and oppression.

Many will find this move from spirituality to politics a strange idea. From a spiritual perspective, after all, isn’t politics about struggle, power, violence, war, control, and one big ego after another? How could politics help us develop the spiritual virtues of gratitude and mindfulness, compassion and acceptance? The answer is that politics, which has certainly gotten (and often deserved) a bad name, is also a profoundly important source of insight which the pursuit of spiritual wisdom desperately needs.

How is that possible?

Political movements may be the scene of ego-bound competition and violence, yes, but they have also given us democracy and the rule of law, women’s rights and civil rights for ethnic/racial minorities. It is political movements and theories which have challenged the conventional status quo which said there was nothing wrong with a slaveholder thanking god for the wealth his slaves brought him, or a man’s gratitude for his morning relaxation while his wife does all the childcare and housework. If compassion is a central spiritual value, it is political life that helps us understand what compassion means in the context of the broad contours of social reality. If spirituality requires gratitude, gratitude requires a long hard look at the balance of power and the distribution of wealth.

This is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. If we have learned anything from the lives of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, it is that activist politics have a good deal to learn from spiritual traditions as well. In the end, when we look at justice and wisdom, compassion and revolution, non-violent civil disobedience and mindfulness we see that each requires the other to be informed and effective—or at least a little less likely to betray its own best intentions.

So let’s move on from consumerist grasping, but also from a too restricted or self-concerned spirituality. Wisdom and kindness have only their credit cards to lose, and a whole world to win.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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Is there a Yoga for the Heart?


Is there a yoga for the heart?

Yes, and it’s called prayer. And its power does not depend on faith in God or sacred texts, but on the passionate commitment of the person who prays.  As Kierkegaard cautions: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

Prayers may be voiced in anguish or wrapped in silence, mumbled dutifully or constructed with care, put to melody or tears. They can be wordless, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched for justice with Martin Luther King “my feet were praying.”  Or as the Hasidic Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz reportedly counsels, “When things are so bad you cannot even recite psalms just sit and hold whatever it is up to God in silence.”

The spiritual meaning of prayer is that it is yoga of the heart. In less poetic terms: it is a way to express and shape our emotional lives to a spiritual form.

Think for a moment of all the occasions for prayer: devotion and gratitude, hope for well-being and peace for ourselves and others, to celebrate the joys of life, for help in facing illness, war, or tragedy; that we ourselves become more honest, kind, and grateful.

In these times what we want or feel or hope for are paramount. And at these times prayer helps harness the unruly energies of desire and emotion into a direction that can serve us spiritually; that is, can help channel our heart’s longings toward acceptance and gratitude, compassion and love.

This is possible because spirituality asks us to walk a complex and often difficult path between two contrasting dangers. First, we need to accept and value our feelings. Unless we are fully enlightened (and so few people are these days) we will naturally have our share of petty resentments, self-centered desires, and nagging fears. Spiritual progress will be impeded if we deny these parts of ourselves.

Yet acceptance (not indulgence!) of our emotions is not the same as uncontrollably acting them out. Anger can be experienced without verbal or physical violence. Despair need not drive us to depression. Instead of mindlessly reacting to our emotions, we can, as spiritual psychologist Miriam Greenspan’s teaches, “befriend” them rather than either exiling them as sinful and weak or mindlessly obeying them.

And here is where prayer comes in, for prayer is a way of focusing our emotional energy, giving verbal form to the rush of feelings that is coursing through our bodies and leading to compulsive patterns of thought. Those who believe in God can share their misery with the very source of Life and Goodness. They can feel that Someone is listening, even if She makes no reply—someone who cares about us but is so full of power and goodness that our suffering is no threat. Weeping and wailing, we can let it all hang out. 

In prayer joy can be shared not as an ego-centered experience of “I got mine,” but with a sense of deep appreciation for the wonder of life: grateful acknowledgement to the God of religion or to the miracle that life exists at all. 

If we want to be morally stronger, prayer can help mold the typically muddled, inconsistent wish to be a better person into a focused, disciplined intention to become one. Having prayed to God to be more accepting or less wasteful, we are more likely to take the next steps to accomplish the psychological or practical work we need to do.

Certainly the vast amount of suffering that has been inflicted on innumerable prayerful victims of war, neglect, and injustice indicates that whatever God is, He is not a vending machine where prayers go in and answered wishes come out. Prayer is spiritual only because it helps us become more accepting of our suffering, more loving to others, and more faithful to the tasks we have been given (incurable illness, a painful divorce, poverty) without succumbing to bitterness.

An example: The Hebrew “sh’ma”—”Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”—is a prayer I say every morning. As a person whose belief in the traditional concept of an all-powerful personal God is, to say the least, minimal, what am I doing when I say these words?

For me, religious or spiritual faith means faith that this life, with its pains and losses, its oppression and desecrations, is worth living. That despite everything the good outweighs the bad. Or, if such a measurement is impossible, that I choose to value what is beautiful even if there is so much that is vile and deadening. But to value existence in this way I need first to see it in its totality—as the “one” which is Sacred, and which may be called “God.” To see that I need be as aware of death camps as beautiful sunsets, of children starving in the Sudan as much as new babies on my block, as all the species humans have wiped out as much as all the wondrous life forms which remain. To affirm the holiness of life in the face of evil–that is the challenge of the Sh’ma. And so when I chant the prayer I try to bring into my mind at the same time both evil and the wonders of life: children dying in refugee camps, the song of the robin, my wife’s beautiful eyes, the latest statistics on pollution induced cancer. And as these contrary images, and the feelings to which they give rise, pulse through my soul, to affirm, to have faith in, the whole—the One.

This may be easily described, but I find it very difficult to do. How much easier to focus on one or the other—on the good to feel unmixed joy and gratitude; or on the bad to sink into anger or despair. But to separate them out is to deny the oneness of God—of this life that I have been given.

This kind of reflection can be extended to any serious prayer. If a devoted Catholic implores Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, she will have to feel the truth of what she has done wrong—without excuses, minimizing, or denial. If a devout Muslim repeats five times a day “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God,” he must make sure that he is not worshipping money, power, sexual pleasure, or the satisfaction of being “holy.” A Hindu may ask of the God-head: “From the unreal, lead us to the Real; from darkness, lead us unto Light; from death, lead us to Immortality.” And then in every situation her spiritual task will be to choose the Real and the Light, rather than the illusory goals or dark pleasures so available to us.

If this is what prayer requires, then learning how to pray is, as Kierkegaard counsels, “a task for a lifetime”: To mean the words as we say them, go through the mental activity the prayers call for, and then to choose honesty over self-deception, faith over despair, Spiritual Truth over pleasure or social status when are prayers are done. 

Prayer can be addressed to a supreme being, or to our better selves, the vast energies of Life, images of loved ones, or spirits of inspiring teachers. What makes the words into prayers is not to whom they are addressed, but the seriousness with which we take them. I can vow to stop drinking so that my rages against my family go away; promise myself I will be a kinder man; sing out my gratitude that trees grow, birds fly, and my eyes still work. If I attempt to put my whole soul into these utterances, they are prayers.

Roger S. Gottlieb (gottlieb@wpi.edu) has written A Greener Faith and Engaging Voices. His newest work, from which this essay is adapted, is Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press).


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