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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Hurricane Sandy: Time to stop digging?

“You don’t hit bottom,” says an old 12-step adage, “until you stop digging.” In other words: no bad experience, painful consequence, or downright awful time in and of itself will lead people to change. When we are thoughtless, reckless, destructively selfish, or blind to the effects of our actions on ourselves and others—and when all this leads in a Very Bad Direction, we can still hold on to the negative habits and damaging behavior. We can always close our eyes, turn our backs, and deny, deny, deny.

Hurricane Sandy—a mega, super, Franken storm—is a case in point. I would very much like it to be a cliché that such storms, predictable aspects of global climate change, are what our current use of fossil fuels is getting us; and that therefore our political, economic, technological, educational, and spiritual leaders are doing everything in their power to help us change our ways.

But the sad truth is that outside of the still comparatively limited environmental community, and the occasional policy nod towards “maybe doing something serious at some point,” our leaders are pretty much ignoring reality. Yes Bill McKibben and 350.org, the Sierra Club and the odd religious leader, are beating the band. A few minor politicians here and there are doing their best. The odd editorial in the Times or upset piece in a progressive magazine appears.

But where is the outcry, the demand, the absolute shriek of assertion that now, and not sometime after the fabled future economic recovery, is the time to change. Where are the non-stoop headlines in the press about the relation between human action and the size of these new storms? Or the headlines proclaiming “Presidential debates completely ignore most important issue of our time!!!!”? Where are heads of cabinet departments, speakers of the House and leaders of the Senate, presidents, would-be presidents, vice-presidents and joint chiefs of staff and all the others sworn to protect our country? Where is the deafening din of condemnation when a politician dares, as Romney has, to distinguish the health of the planet from the wellbeing of “your family”?

Where are they? If you follow such things you know that for the most part they are Someplace Else.

As I asked last week about presidential politics, I’ll ask again: is there a spiritual response to all this?

First of all, I suggest that it’s not “wrong” or “unspiritual” to be angry, to be critical, to be willing to say—in public and as loudly as you can to anyone who will listen—“this is just not o.k., this is hurtful, and it is not some abstraction called “global warming” or “an environmental problem.” This is people killed, lives shattered, precious homes and property lost, beloved landscapes scarred, and our economy subject to a dreadful blow.” And if there is some anger, frustration, or even a little desperation in your tone, that’s all right.

There is nothing particularly spiritual about always being pleasant. Even the Dalai Lama admitted that “impatience in the cause of world peace” could be a positive emotion. Speaking truth to power is certainly part of the spiritual style—the authentic spiritual style, in any case. For more details consult the writing—or, even better, the lives—of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joan Chittister, Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, Ang Sang Suu Kyi, or the prophet Isaiah.

Alongside the anger, however, there is the need to take it all in—and recognize that this is simply the way things are. It makes little difference how correct those of us who talk about environmental problems are, how much truth is on our side, and how far worse things than Sandy are in store for all us. Reality, unfortunately, rarely goes away because we get angry, even if we have good reasons for the way we feel.

For comparison, we might think of the feminist thinkers of the 1600s. There were a few– women inspired by the Reformation’s emphasis on individual choice and conscience, visionaries who realized that women could be as godly as men, and have insights that deserved recognition and respect. History has confirmed the essential truth of these women—but it sure took a long time for that to happen.

Environmentalists of today may face a comparable wait. It could be decades, even centuries, before it becomes commonly accepted that reckless development, wasteful consumption, and the poisons that flow from nuclear plants and military hardware are all to be shunned; that oil is a precious gift from our ancestors, and not to be so causally, cavalierly and carelessly consumed; or that animals are conscious beings, centers of experience and enjoyment even as people are. Ultimately, as humans have (for the most part!) learned that murder is wrong, slavery has no part in civilized life, and people have rights, so we may learn the commonplaces of environmentalism: love of life, respect for ecosystems, modesty in consumption, great care in the implementation of technology, and that community and personal virtue are the sources of true well-being and consumerism is not.

It seems dreadfully clear that much suffering will unfold before these lessons become truisms. Is that a cause for anger and grief? Surely. But perhaps we should keep in mind that life has a common tendency to proceed through suffering. More than niinrty percent of all the species that ever existed are now extinct. Every living being lives only because it can consume the body of some other living being. We are all born, in the end, to die. Once we accept that birth and death, existence and non-existence, pleasure and pain, are inextricably intertwined, we can be a little less heartbroken over all the suffering our country, culture, and civilization are creating.

But there is a long distance between not being paralyzed by the spectacle of death and devastation and calmly accepting it. If life has created Redwood trees, trout, and spectacular sunsets, it has also created people. If the eagles fly and the dolphins leap playfully through the waves, human beings can think—and care. And reason. And work together to make things better.

It may be that too many years from now people will look back at the environmentalists of today as we look back at the feminists of the seventeenth century. “How brave and far-sighted they were,” such people might say. “How ahead of their time. And how lonely and despairing they must have felt. Isn’t it wonderful they did anything at all? They really are an inspiration.”

Such may be our fate now, in 2012, in the aftermath of one of the early superstorms that climate change is sure to bring.

Let’s make the most of it. Keep the faith, and let everyone within the sound of your voice, pen, or twitter account know that there is a better way to live.

We don’t, we really don’t, have to keep digging.

Roger S. Gottlieb (gottlieb@wpi.edu) is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic institute. His new book—Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters—will be out in a month from Oxford University Press.

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Can there be a spiritual response to the presidential campaign?

A tough question, this one. Certainly there are a number of responses which are not particularly spiritual, as tempting as they might be. For if we think of spirituality as the simple but extraordinarily difficult attempt to respond to life’s difficulties with mindfulness, equanimity, gratitude, compassion, and love, then the natural tendency towards revulsion at the lies, panic at the thought of the “other guy” winning, or contempt for the stupidity of the confused citizens who might vote against our candidate—well, such responses don’t really fit the bill.
Nor, sad to say, does the religious understanding of one candidate being absolutely closer to God’s commands than the other. And this is equally as true for conservatives as it is for liberals: for those who are sure that Romney will keep the faith for religious freedom, heterosexuality, fetus rights, and a strong military; as for voters who believe Obama serves the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount far better than any Republican could ever do.
What I’m looking for is a spiritual response that can coexist with very different political views; providing, of course, that the different political views don’t depend on outright group hatred, violent aggression, or brute selfishness. Given that condition, I believe it is possible for people of spiritual good will to disagree about (for example) tax policy, responses to conflicts in the Middle East, energy policy, and even abortion rights. (And I say this as someone with highly defined politics, views so far to the left I fall off the planet occasionally.) Such spirituality is compatible with organized religion, with no religion, with reverence for God, goddesses, spirits, nature, or simply life.
How can spiritual virtues guide us in the real world of political conflict? Consider mindfulness, the attempt to be aware of the contents of one’s own mind, and to be able to detach from and critically assess those contents. In the face of the powerful emotions which politics arouses—fear for the country and the planet, frustration with those who hold radically alien beliefs, anger at the knowing deception—mindfulness asks us to step back from those responses, examine how they arise in us, and see how they interact with each other.
When I look at the Republican refusal to take the environmental crisis seriously, for example, I am deeply afraid for the future of our own (and a lot of other) species. And how easy it is to cover over that fear with a hatred of the Romney-Ryan team, not to mention ignoring the way I—even I!—have been at times environmentally sloppy, thoughtless, and selfish. The spiritual response is then to recognize what I have in common with the Republicans whom I’d rather despise as totally Other than myself. Mindfulness does not mean that I vote to the Right, or that I abandon my environmentalism. It does mean that I do not have to live with suppressed rage at the enemy; that I can see them as at least partly weak and misguided, just like myself all too often; and that when I encounter people who are blind to environmental dangers, I can talk to them with openness and humility, surely a better strategy for convincing others or finding common ground than tedious moral superiority.
Consider the natural disgust you might be feeling for the whole process: the endless distortions, the special interest money, the breathless pundits exaggerating the smallest verbal slip, the never-ending phony smiles of the candidates. Asked what she thought of the nominees a few elections ago, my late mother-in-law replied in her heavily accented English (she was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor), “Acchh…dey all seem like clowns to me.”
Clearly, she had a point. But spiritually, despair over human weakness really doesn’t get us very far. Is it possible to find some gratitude in our hearts, even in the face of such clownishness? Perhaps we could remember that bad as our system is—overpowered by money, shaped by an electorate half of which does not vote, keyed to satisfaction of beliefs and values which are so often opposed to our common good—it has some great goods in it. At times we have been able to make moral progress through political means—as in the civil rights and feminist movements. At times dissidents could make their voices heard to check an abhorrent foreign policy—as in mass popular demonstrations against the Vietnam War. At times corrupt politicians suffer for their corruption—as Nixon did. If there are lots of problems, there have been, at times, some real moves in the right direction. Despair over what is going wrong is perfectly understandable and appropriate, but so is a deep appreciation for what we have accomplished.
The last spiritual virtue I’ll mention is loving connection. Every religious tradition celebrates it, as do countless spiritual teachers who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” What does love mean in politics? Rooted in awareness of our own moral frailties, keyed to gratitude for the gifts that we have created, spiritual love in politics is a sort of activist kindness, a wish that all beings be happy and free of pain, a cheerful willingness to roll up our sleeves and make our communities and nation a little better, and a sense of wonder that human beings—with all our short-sightedness, selfishness, tendency to violence and moral narrowness—can ever live together with any care and justice.
If only for a few moments a day, perhaps we can treasure the fact that we have been blessed to be here alive and kicking in this mysterious and magical life. That might bring a little joy to hearts laden with grief for all our losses and fear for all our futures.

Roger S. Gottlieb (gottlieb@wpi.edu) has written A Greener Faith and Engaging Voices. His newest work, which embodies the perspective presented here, is Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press).

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Newsflash: Santorum out of touch with Catholic Theology

 

Does it make it better or worse that Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum—who seems to want to impose his own religious view on the rest of us (or at least on women)—is actually is out of touch with some central Catholic doctrines?  I am not talking about his seemingly complete inability to honor Jesus’ radical idea that we love our enemies or spend at least as much time thinking about our own sins as condemning others. From where I sit these simple, undoubtedly traditional, and enormously difficult Christian values don’t enter into his thinking very much, if at all.

No, I’m talking about his recent attack on the values of environmentalism. After saying that President Obama was operating with a “phony, non-biblical theology” he explained what he meant by claiming that the Obama administration followed a “radical” theology in which “man” was meant to serve nature. The true, the biblical, view, Santorum tells us, is that “the earth is here to serve man.”

The big glaring problem with these assertions for a self—proclaimed highly religious person is that for at least three decades countless religious leaders, theologians, and ordinary people of faith have been talking, and acting, as serious environmentalists. (For details, and references to what follows, see my book A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future.)

To begin with, religious environmentalists reject Santorum’s (culturally male?) assumption that either we have to rule the earth or it has to rule us. Instead of thinking that in any relationship one party or the other has to be in charge, on top, or more important, religious environmentalists have talked of “partnership,” “cooperation,” “recognition,” “reciprocity,” “interdependence,” and even “love.” They have stressed that whatever is done to nature will ultimately rebound onto humans; and integrated issues of class and race into a concept of “eco-justice” which seeks, in the words of the World Council of Churches, to join a society of peace and justice with a human respect for and support of the “integrity of creation.”

Let’s be clear: the advent of religious environmentalism is not simply the province of the “usual suspects” of often politically progressive liberal Protestants, Reform Jews, or Engaged Buddhists. Generally conservative Evangelical Christians in the U.S. have some vibrant and active environmental groups and environmentalism is now, as the saying goes, as Catholic as the Pope.

Consider how John Paul II virtually began his Papacy by naming St. Francis as the patron saint of those would seek to protect the environment; and soon after challenged the validity of an unquestioned faith in technology as something that increased the “threat of pollution of the natural environment.” In this caution the Pope was not simply recognizing the negative impacts of pollution on people. He was also warning against a human alienation from nature, and asserting that God wanted people to be “guardians” as well as “masters” of the earth. That is why, he argued, our relations with nature are not simply a matter of human convenience, but are subject to moral laws–just as our relations with other people. Morally our current treatment of the earth suffers from a “lack of respect”—not just reckless and imprudent exploitation. “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God.” Finally, in a statement which seems to border on a mix of deep ecology or paganism—remarkable for the leader of a religion which for centuries had violently persecuted indigenous spiritual traditions—John Paul offered the hope that “If nature is not violated and humiliated, it returns to being the sister of humanity.”

Comparable statements, with a variety of emphases and language, can be found in “Renewing the Earth,” a U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops statement from 1991. Not content to simply rest with well-intentioned proclamations, the Council created resource kits for local parishes with names like  “God’s creation and our responsibility” and “Renewing the Face of the Earth,” and included of material to enable theology to become part of the daily life of a local church: source material for sermons, precise and accessible summaries of the church’s teachings, suggestions for prayer and worship, opportunities for environmental action, and examples of such action taken by other parishes. The kits, mailed three times to each of the nineteen thousand U.S. parishes, strongly emphasize that, as the Pope had stated clearly, justice for humans and justice for nature are intertwined.

Thus Santorum’s virtual ignoring of environmental issues—check his website for statements of environmental concern and if you find even one, let me know—may be correct or incorrect, depending on your point of view. But it is not orthodox Catholicism—at least not the morally, politically, and spiritually serious Catholicism of 2012, one that has been reshaped by the reality of a global environmental crisis. It is as if Santorum might support kings over democracy because the Church did so in 1750—failing to notice that the Church had changed its thinking about the role of common people in political life.

If the devil, as it is said, can quote scripture to his own purpose, so can political candidates. Is it that hard to see what those purposes are? And which social forces (corporations) and destructive cultural forms (consumerism) are really the Master such candidates serve?

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Are any Christians running for President?

I hate to belabor the obvious, but in this time of crazy politics it might serve some purpose.

Are any of the Republican candidates for President Christian?

I know that all of them except Ron Paul have repeatedly said that they are. But is saying that one is Christian all it takes to be one?

By analogy, I can say (for example) that I am brave, that I believe in marital fidelity, or that I love animals. The test of whether or not those statements are true, however, is not just that I say them over and over. To see whether or not they reflect my personal reality, we would have to look at my behavior. Am I able to function despite great danger? Remain faithful to my wife even in the face of temptation? Refrain from eating even the juiciest steak—or at least make some contributions to animal shelters and be patient when my cat scratches the couch?  To the extent that I can do those things, then my self-professed courage, fidelity and love for animals are real—and to the extent that I can’t, no matter how often I proclaim them, they just aren’t there.

I myself am not a Christian, but even a passing examination of New Testament teachings reveals that Christianity is an extremely demanding faith, one that requires virtues that are both rare and quite difficult. (And unless I missed it, I am pretty sure Jesus never said anything to the effect of: “All it takes to follow me is to say “I am a follower.”)

For example, Jesus taught that people should not only be fair to others (echoing the traditional Jewish commandment to treat others as one would like to be treated) but actually love people they considered their enemies. Have we seen Rick Perry or Rick Santorum expressing love for each other? Or for their arch-nemesis Barack Obama? No. Instead we see antagonism, competition, and condemnation. Over and over again. But if these men can’t find love even for people whose politics they disdain or against whom they are competing, just to that extent they are not Christians.

For another example, we might remember that Jesus quite clearly said that in order to follow him a person needed to be unattached to money, and that in at least one example he required a rich man to donate all his wealth to the poor before he became an active follower.

Has Newt Gingrich (who prides himself on defending Christianity against the “anti-religious bigots”) ever eschewed personal wealth—or has he used his position to make tens of millions in consulting fees? Have any of the Republicans ever suggested to the American people that the Christians among them should have something on their mind other than improving our moribund economy? Or that there might be any incompatibility between the ideals of Christianity and those of capitalism?

If they did, I sure missed it.

Actually, what these candidates assure their followers is that one can be a devout Christian (which seems for them to center on eliminating abortion and saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays) without manifesting any of the paradigm Christian virtues like humility and peacefulness. As long as we reject pornography and eliminate women’s rights to control their own bodies, it is perfectly Christian to avoid any critique of vast inequalities in power and wealth, be verbally aggressive and militaristic, and celebrate “American exceptionalism” while being openly contemptuous of other nations and cultures.

If someone argues that it is just not possible to combine Christianity and modern society, that Christianity is a matter of private faith and personal devotion, I would offer two thoughts.

First, if Christianity is a matter of private faith, then perhaps candidates for president should keep it private. We don’t need to know any essentially personal facts about them, only about those beliefs and actions which would shape them as political leaders. If Christianity is really too demanding, extreme, or idealistic to shape public life, let these men stop pretending it shapes theirs.

Second, however, while it is no doubt very difficult to combine Christianity and modern political life, some people—some Christians—offer us pretty good examples of trying to do so. Martin Luther King is one case. Any cursory examination of his statements and actions reveals devotion to ideals of freedom, democracy, equal rights, care for the poor, humility, respect for enemies, and peacemaking. Dorothy Day, who went from being a communist to being a devout Catholic, is another example. Her passionate concern for the destitute and relentless opposition to American militarism was joined with a gentle spirit and an open mind.

   The upshot of all this is that perhaps it is time for Republican candidates to stop using Christianity as a club to beat up democratic opponents, or latte-sipping , environmentalist and feminist college professors like me, and start using it as a rigorous task master of their own behavior. And that it is also time for serious Christians to ask themselves if the public displays of their religion by politicians actually further its public presence—or make Christianity’s spiritual demands seem trivial to non-existent.

What, indeed, would Jesus say about that?

Posted in Christianity and politics, Democracy, Faith, Religion and politics, Republican presidential candidates, Spiritual life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bru Ha Ha: Cornel West, Obama, feminism, Wall Street, etc.

 

As you may have noticed, African-American 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.

First, there is no question that West was out of line in the way he talked about Obama. Especially for a man who calls himself a Christian, as West does, why stoop to all this nastiness? The psychological explanation is not hard to find: West was hurt that Obama was no longer treating him like a buddy. And even more, that Obama is not the agent of social change that West imagined he might be.

Is it too much to ask that West simply admit all this? Especially, after forty years of modern feminism, which has made this point in countless ways and which West claims to have learned from, can’t an angry man—even a really smart angry man—say something like: “I feel very hurt by the way Obama is treating me. I thought we had a better relationship, and I just feel used.” And could not West admit that he, the very, very, very smart Cornel West, had been wrong: “And I have to admit, I really misjudged Obama, I thought he was a lot more than he is. Here’s why I made that mistake [or] I’m really going to have to ask myself some serious questions about how I could have been so wrong.”

Ahh…for Cornel West, or any other big time big shot male intellectual or spiritual voice, to talk to us like that. What a different model of how to talk and think that would be!

On the other hand…what did West say that was true? Certainly not his silly dissing of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign and his advice to her to visit some prisons (where I’m sure he spends a great deal of his time). Besides being rude and emotionally out of touch with himself, did he tell us anything we needed to hear?

And the sad answer is, I believe, yes, he did. Many of Obama’s fiscal and foreign policies aren’t very different than the ones Republicans endorsed. His staff of economic advisors are in the main politically conservative, cut from the same Wall Street cloth that Bush used. He has made no serious move to cut back on the U.S’s 150 or so military bases throughout the world; he gave up on climate change legislation with barely a whimper. There are some exceptions (for instance his attempt to nominate a major environmentalist to the head of the Commerce Department), but they are far from the rule.

So if West needed to spend some quality time with his therapist before he gave his angry interview, he was still on to something important.

But let’s push this all a little further, in two ways.

First, every president had better be a (phrased much more nicely) “puppet of Wall Street,” for if they are not, the ruling class in this country will do even more what it is doing now: go on strike. American corporations on sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, and not investing. Why? To discipline the politicians and the general population, to let them know what will happen if the “business climate” is not what Wall Street likes. Until we have socialism—collective, democratic control of investment—the owners of the means of production can always trump liberal movements simply by not investing, thereby creating high unemployment, and then letting the people demand that politicians give investors anything they want so that the jobs will come back. (Sound familiar?) Until there is a serious mass movement for socialism, Obama and all those who follow him will have their hands tied by this fundamental economic fact

Second, and even more frightening: many believe that there is in this country a shadow government of defense contractors, military, and national security types who would simply execute any political leader who threatened their interests. The Kennedys, King, other leaders who have had plane crashes, several Black Panthers—all died under mysterious circumstances. It may be that Obama knows that his own life is subject to similar threats. Stray too far off the reservation, and you won’t come home that night.

The lessons in all this? Conversations will be a lot more productive if we admit our emotional connection to the subject matter and get real about our own mistakes, if we try to be respectful even as we tell the truth, and if we focus on the kernel of truth even if a lot of what’s been said is you know what.

 

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On Gratitude

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.

 Gratitude attunes us to the immense value of what actually exists now. Simply being alive, that we have our senses, or a family, or a mind. Given how much there always is to be disappointed by, afraid of, or mad at, this focus requires a powerful act of mind. I will have to remember that I have a wife that has loved me for forty years, not her nasty comment at dinner last night or the way she forgot our anniversary. I will have to focus on my ability to walk, even though I’ve hurt my foot and can’t play in the weekly basketball game I enjoy so much. I appreciate the birch tree outside my window, rather than bitterly envying the folks that get to hike in Colorado. In these mental movements I grasp what The Talmud had in mind when it defined wealth not as a particular quantity of money, but as being satisfied with what one has.

The second element of gratitude is the sense that these precious things we have are a kind of gift. Did we earn the existence of music in the world? the flowers in spring? the mysterious intelligence of our eyes? Do we “deserve” them? In the realm of gratitude we do not. That is why theistic religions teach us that “everything is a gift from God.” Or why Zen Buddhist poetry often focuses on the sudden, magical loveliness of the moon on the water or birdsong at dawn.

Oddly, no matter how much more pleasant it is to focus on the good rather than the bad, we must make a repeated conscious desire to cultivate gratitude. And this is true whether we believe we are thanking our Creator or are simply enjoying the miracle that we are alive. The tendency to focus on the negative is every bit as “natural,” or at least as widespread, as any capacity for joyful appreciation. As Aldous Huxley suggests, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” Fear, regret, a burning resentment that we were cheated out of our just deserts, desperate longing for something that is out of reach–all these possess a powerful emotional magnetism that binds our thoughts to the painful.

That is why the spirituality of gratitude requires the hard, recurring choice to focus on this rather than that, to feel better rather than feel worse. Just because it requires shifting attention from one kind of thing to another, gratitude is as much an active act of will as a moment of grace. Really meaning even the simplest payer of gratitude is essential to developing a grateful life. (Better, the Talmud tells us, one prayer with real intention than hundreds of prayers without. And this from a religious tradition that is very strict in its prescription of enormous amounts of prayer!)

As a discipline gratitude is enormously difficult–yet it offers profound benefits. Internally, grateful people are contented, cheerful and able to find pleasure in the midst of difficulty. Externally, gratitude is likely to produce a person whose acts are marked by generosity and unselfishness. The grateful man does not need to steal, because he is “wealthy.” He is more likely to find his way to compassion for others and himself–which is pretty hard to feel when you are thinking about your own lacks; and to joy in the happiness of others, which is likely difficult to achieve when you are thinking that you haven’t got what you deserve.

Like all aspects of authentic spirituality, gratitude is a task for a lifetime. There will always be something for which we can express thanks, and in all likelihood always some pain or loss on which to dwell. Each day, each moment, gives us the opportunity to choose our response. Is it not one of the great gifts of spirituality that there is always something to do?

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