Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dutch Gurus, Yogic Powers, and Mad Titans

Once in a while my interests intersect in fascinating ways. This post is going to be about one of times and consequently we're going to go on a bit of stream of consciousness, so bear with me. Recently, during one of my frequent jaunts to the Jasper County Public Library, I came across not one but two books about a Dutch man named Wim Hof. Often described as a "daredevil," Hof claims to have created a training method which, through breathing techniques and exposure to the cold, allows a person to unlock control of his/her autonomic functions. This would mean conscious influence on things like immune response, heart rate, blood flow, and so on. (If you're curious, read about his method here and visit his website here.) Select acolytes of Hof credit his technique for allowing them to control or reverse the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and Parkinson's. Hof himself became famous for feats such as meditating for hours in freezing temperatures, wearing only shorts:

Running a marathon (again, only in shorts) above the Arctic circle:

Sitting in freezing water:

Setting the record for ice immersion at 112 minutes:

He's also been the star of many different videos and promotional stunts. You can listen to him give an overview of his ideas in this video:

Basically, Hof argues that humans have coddled themselves through temperature-controlled houses and warm clothing and over the millennia lost the ability to harness the vital properties of cold. As we became more reliant on warming ourselves through technology, our bodies degenerated into being unable to heal themselves. Through controlled breathing and meditative exercises, Hof says he can open and ramp up his cardiovascular system to generate more than enough heat to stay warm. He claims this renders his body, and those who follow his training regimen, less susceptible to bacteria, viruses, cancers, and other causes of deteriorating health. It all starts with concentration on breathing, as he emphasizes to readers in the foreword to Scott Carney's book on the Wim Hof method: "It's time to bring Mother Nature's power back into our awareness. We are warriors seeking strength and happiness for everyone. Together we can regain what we've lost. In other words, there's nothing else to say other than 'Breathe, motherfuckers.'"

As interesting as Hof's method sounds, there are some deal-breakers that would keep me from practicing it. For instance, the earliest part of the training involves using only cold water during every shower as practice for your breathing. There are certain parameters I've established for my life and taking ice cold showers falls rather definitively outside those bounds. Yet, humans have been struggling to transcend the boundaries of nature and physiology throughout time. What is intriguing to me about Hof's method are the parallels between it and the techniques and supposed abilities of Indian yoga practitioners called siddhas ("perfected" ones). In contrast to popular perception, yoga is not about physical fitness or muscle tone; rather, it is an ancient meditative practice for attaining spiritual insight into the nature of ultimate reality. One of the treatises on yoga considered most authoritative, at least in the Hindu tradition, is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. According to that text, control of one's breath creates control of the body, which in turn garners control of the mind, and with control of the mind, one can begin to experience the true nature of one's soul and reality itself. Along the way, Patanjali says, one develops certain powers over the material world. For instance, quoting from Stoler-Miller's 1995 translation of the Yoga Sutra, the yogin "has knowledge of the thoughts of others" (64), "can become invisible," and by concentrating on the celestial spheres, has complete awareness of the movement of the moon and the disposition of all the stars (66). Yogins are also famed for displays of incredible stamina and strength, referred to in the texts as tapas ("heat") and sometimes ojas (which my Sanskrit teacher suggested was best translated as "supreme awesomeness").

Given our discussion of Hof's techniques above, it is interesting to note the presence of stamina and, especially, heat in the description of the powers of the yogin. Hof has described reading Eliade's Yoga: Immortality and Freedom and incorporating Tibetan tummo meditation into his method, so the similarity between his practice and the power of the yogin are not altogether surprising. It is worthwhile to point out, though, that Patanjali has a cautionary perspective on such abilities: "If they become a distraction these powers of perfection are impediments to pure contemplation" (68). One wonders if Patanjali would thus take issue with Hof's use of yoga-inspired practices.

While Hof's writings were driving me to look through the Yoga Sutra again and reacquaint myself with yogic powers, serendipity created another bend in this stream of thought. As I reread Patanjali, the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War came out:

With the Yoga Sutra in front of me, a hitherto unappreciated connection occurred. The six Infinity Stones in Marvel lore allow their owner to control (respectively) Space, Time, Power, Mind, Soul, and Reality. The articulation of yogic powers reads eerily like a recitation of the same areas: the yogin can master knowledge of the moon and stars (Space), ceases the turnings of thought and reads the thoughts of others (Mind), can see the future and access past lives (Time), gains insight into the indestructible Self (Soul), performs feats of strength (Power), and grasps the ultimate nature of the universe (Reality). Thanos, the character in the comics and the film who attempts to collect all of the stones and thus achieve supremacy over the universe, is often called the "mad titan." Does the connection to yoga lore make him more of a "mad yogin?"

Interestingly, the plot of the original Infinity Gauntlet series is quite similar to many Hindu myths: a demon uses yogic practice to acquire seemingly insurmountable power and overthrows the gods, who must resort to often unconventional stratagems to defeat him and restore cosmic balance. (See, for instance, the stories of Ravana, Hiranyakshipu, and Taraka.) In the Infinity story, the Avengers and other Marvel heroes would take the place of the deposed gods who must overcome the demon. Jim Starlin, the original author of the Infinity comics, was known for introducing religious themes into his work, so I wonder if he might have come across Hindu and yogic lore somewhere and adapted it into his own comic narratives. You can be certain I'm waiting anxiously for the film to see how this and other comparative religion elements are treated.

So, that's this time's stream of consciousness post - from Dutch yogins to mad Marvel titans. Until the next time, take care.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Magnificent Turkey!

Thanksgiving approaches, and for many people that means turkeys. Since March my wife Jeanette has worked for Laird Farms in Rensselaer growing greens and also helping with their animals, including goats and chickens, but most extensively turkeys. From time to time, I've enjoyed getting in on the act and helping Jeanette with her chores. Here we are helping guide the turkeys into the coops.

Here a turkey has gotten into the chicken area.

It's quite a magnificent sight to see them gathered all in one area.

I knew so little about turkeys when Jeanette started her job that the experience prompted me to learn more about these fascinating creatures. Given the time of the year, I thought it might be fun to talk about all the lesser known and lesser appreciated aspects of the animal that will be the centerpiece of many people's meals this Thursday.

One of the first aspects that struck me, and that Xander and Luka have said is their favorite part of turkey behavior, is their trilling and chortling. While sometimes turkeys do make sounds that are kind of like "gobble," the ululations are far more varied than I expected. Jeanette's favorite aspect of the birds is their highly social nature: they love to be in groups and congregate with each other. When going into the coops at night, they will move from one side to another to be next to certain other birds and in one case, a particular turkey hangs close to another bird who is blind, helping her find her way to and from the coop. They also gather close to humans, following us around on the farm with a very endearing expectancy. It's quite a sight to see a large herd of these animals gathering before you on a sunset evening in front of the fields. Though it could certainly just be me, I've come to enjoy the waddling and loping way they move and the kind of bouncy gracefulness of their stride and head-bobbing.

More broadly, as I've investigated the animal, I've found it was indigenous to North America, though the name "turkey" comes from European colonists. They had never seen such an animal and resorted to the convention of calling exotic animals "turkeys" after the country "Turkey," which was the gateway for unusual animals to enter Europe. According to archaeological records, Southwestern Native Americans raised and domesticated the birds, while woodland tribes did not. (An investigation of that discrepancy might be interesting.) The animal figures prominently in many Native Southwestern myths. In one such story, the turkey brings the sun down to warm the earth, but singes his head in the process, explaining why turkeys have bald heads. 

In an Apache legend, turkeys are the ones responsible for bringing grain and corn to humans. One exception to the Southwest-East divide on turkeys is the Cherokee, who held the animal in great cultural prominence.

European colonists found the turkey easy prey and killed them by the millions, much as they did with the passenger pigeon and bison. The turkeys' relative slowness and tendency to gather in groups in the face of danger led hunters of the time to widely deride the animal. (Even one Cherokee myth seems to paint the animal as unintelligent.) This is often seen as the derivation for the use of "turkey" as an insult - if I call a book, movie, or person a "real turkey," this is not meant as a compliment. At the same time, the bird has become identified with a day of national Thanksgiving. How do we explain this tension?

In her book, More than a Meal: the Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, Karen Davis has a complex hypothesis that attempts to answer that question. Using the theorist Rene Girard, she argues the following. Humans, of course, are animals, but wish to see themselves as above animality. We thus project our discomfort and self-loathing about our animal nature onto other animals and punish and abuse them in order to exorcise the animal in ourselves. The Turkey Thanksgiving ritual is thus a massive example of the "scapegoat" complex, acted out year after year. Whether you believe Davis (reviews of her book can be found here), it is incontestable that we "culturally encode" animals all the time and use them as symbols of our own thoughts and desires. For example, why are virile males called "stallions" or "studs" and in recent years older, sexual women are called "cougars"? It's all relative, too: while dogs are coddled and clothed in sweaters in the United States, they are considered filthy harbingers of disease in India.

Otherwise, there are many facts about turkeys that I never knew. They can actually fly quite well, and up into trees. They can live for about ten years and some have wingspans of up to six feet. You can tell a turkey's gender by the shape and color of its poop. And though Ben Franklin praised turkeys and disparaged eagles, he didn't actually lobby for the turkey to be the national emblem. (For more great turkey tidbits, read here.)

There's a burgeoning field of turkey jokes, which I can't help but include.

Q: What costume did the turkey wear every Halloween?
A: He was always a-gobblin'.

Q: What's the difference between a turkey and an owl?
A: Turkeys don't give a hoot.

Q: What's Superturkey's real name?
A: Cluck Kent

Q: How did Tom Turkey do at bat?
A: He hit a fowl ball.

Q: What does a Turkey drink from on New Year's Eve?
A: A gobblette.

You get the idea, though I have a whole book of these. Let me know if you crave more! I'm not hard to find.

In all, I've really come to appreciate the turkey. Going as a family to help put turkeys away or bring them food and water have been great bonding experiences. Watching the sunsets while helping the animals into their coops can be sublimely serene. Recently, we all arrived to find a large group of turkeys had gone down the road, over a bridge, and down by the river. It took all four of us to guide them back up, and when we did, they took off in their stilt-legged waddle, accompanied by their exuberant chortles. We all laughed and cheered. Just as we'd brought the turkeys back together, they brought us together too.

Happy Thanksgiving! Until the next post, take care.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gaining Perspective

Though at the end of my last post I promised to talk about turkeys, I'm still waiting on an especially promising book on that topic to arrive via interlibrary loan, so that subject will have to wait until next time. (Fear not! I promise an abundance of turkey-related facts, lore, and musings very, very soon.)

For this outing, I wanted to talk about the topic of perspective. How do we look at ourselves in the grand scheme of things, relative to the vastness of space? I started ruminating on this topic lately due to the time of year: around this time of year there was a Core 9 lecture I'd give (since 2011) about Comparative Religions and I never could seem to find space to include an example about potential common ground between religious and non-religious worldviews. I thought one of the more promising avenues was by exploring how both a theistic worldview and a more dominantly scientific worldview can both tend to portray humans as quite minuscule in relation to the cosmos all around. There are three examples that I think demonstrate this tendency the best.

The first is from the Hindu Bhagavata Purana, an enormous collection of stories reinforcing devotion to the many forms of the god Vishnu, including one of his more playful forms, Krishna. (If you are interested in getting a translation of these stories, you can find one here and also here). In the most famous series of stories involving Krishna, the god incarnates among humans in order to destroy a demon. He is born miraculously to a human mother (Yashoda) and from the time of his birth carries a number of miraculous (not to mention mischievous) activities. In one example, as a toddler he places a clump of dirt in his mouth and Yashoda quickly steps in to dig it out. When she pries open his mouth, she instead sees the entire span of the universe and beyond, the creation and destruction of galaxies, swirls of constellations, and so on.

Here is an image from a series of Indian comics:

Here is an artist's depiction of mother and child together, with her vision in the background behind them:

Scholar of Indian religions Wendy Doniger has written about how this and other narrative in Hinduism accomplish the blending of the "microscopic and telescopic" views of human existence. On the one hand, what could be more mundane than a parent stooping to pick something of a child's mouth? At the other end, what could be more grand than the swirl of stars? To blend these views, the microscope and the telescope, is the special province of myth and it leaves poor Yashoda's mind blown. Krishna, even as a baby, sees her distress and removes the vision from her eyes.

Out of the Jewish theistic tradition, we have Job's encounter with Yahweh. For those very few of you who do not know poor Job's plight, he has lost his livelihood, his home, his family, and his health as the result of a wager between God and Satan (who in the original text is not the figure of ultimate evil he becomes in Christian tradition, but rather an agent of testing who works for God). Job has the opportunity to question God, who appears (as is often the case in the Hebrew texts) as a raging storm. Here is William Blake's interpretation of that encounter:

God's reply to Job puts the poor beseeching human in his place: "Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38: 4-7). [As an aside, the reference to "sons of God" is probably a sign of the influence of the cultural context of the Hebrew narratives. Mesopotamian religions as a whole conceived of councils of gods with one lead god. This is also visible in God's relationship with Satan in this same text.] Like Yashoda, Job's mind reels as God goes on for chapter after chapter, reiterating again and again how big the universe is and how little Job is. Put in his place, Job meekly slinks away.

Moving out of the realm of religious writings, forty years ago last month, NASA launched the space probe Voyager 1, which has become the first human-made spacecraft to reach interstellar space. (You can still check its mission status, if you're interested, along with its successor, Voyager 2.) In popular culture, the later consequences of the probe's journey were fodder for the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As the probe was leaving the solar system in early 1990, its cameras were turned around to look back towards earth and take one last image of what our planet looks like from four billion -- that's billion -- miles away. This is what that looks like:

Can you see us? We're that tiny bluish-white speck toward the lower right corner. The image has become known as the "Pale Blue Dot" photo and was the inspiration for Carl Sagan's book of the same name. In that book, Sagan reflects on the image in this way: 

                    Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone
                    you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human
                    being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and                     
                    suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic
                    doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator
                    and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple
                    in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer,
                    every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every
                    "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived
                    there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Besides demonstrating how a single human -- along with his/her thoughts, dreams, aspirations, joys, pains, etc., etc. -- is swallowed up next to the expanse of everything that is, the three examples also employ similar imagery. It's dirt in Krishna's mouth that reveals the cosmic wonder to Yashoda. Job, as he grovels before God, says that he "repents in dust and ashes." For Sagan, our entire species is a "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." On this point, we could add the observation of Kurt Vonnegut (another Secular Humanist) in Cat's Cradle humans are "mud that got to sit up and look
around." No doubt this goes to show that humans are but specks in the scope of all time and space, and would do well to remember that when tempted towards thoughts of grandeur. If you think that you're tiny and small compared to all that exists, you're right. We should all gain a healthy dose of humility from the perspective each example offers.

On the other hand, each story uses the seemingly lowliest of the low -- the very soil and ground beneath our feet -- to transport us to contemplation of the highest of the high. Doniger would refer to this as the flip of lenses between microscope/telescope and this metaphor may provide us with an affirming interpretation of the message behind these tales. Let us remember what we learned in my last post from Wendell Berry: every particle of dirt, as the source of life, is sacred. If we are but specks of "dirt," even metaphorically, can't the same be said of each and every one of us? Being small does not mean being insignificant.

When Yashoda looked in Krishna's mouth, she did not choose to see the cosmos in a speck of dirt, but by taking to heart that story's lesson, along with the lessons of Job and the Pale Blue Dot, whenever we look at even the tiniest grain of dirt, dust, or mud, we can use our newly-gained insight to view it as just as majestic and grand as the burgeoning of galaxies, the death-throes of stars, the trembling of the universe itself. Each of us is nothing. Each of us is everything. We are specks of dust. We are giants.

Next time (unless something else intervenes), there will be turkeys! Until then, take care.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Big Picture

Over the last several weeks, my wife and I have had something of an ongoing book club. It all started with my discovery of a list of classics in environmental writing and has expanded since then. Recently there were two books we read that, though they come from very different fields, struck me as having amazing parallels in their commentaries on modern life.

The first book was Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America (1977). Berry argues that the increased mechanization of agriculture and the "get big or get out" mentality have caused a shift in American farming. No longer about the generational commitment to the land and connections to a larger community, farming has instead become a highly specialized business. The shift has had profound consequences for our food system and cultural perception of the earth. With the advent of efficiency and technology as the standard, Berry suggests that agriculture has absorbed and adopted the values of soulless production and consumption. Instead, Berry wants us to return to the notion of farming as an art, as practically a religious profession that threads together "cult" (as in devotion), "culture," and "cultivation." This would mean smaller farms, less technology, and more localized, family agricultural endeavors. In his words, "a healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safe-guards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace" (47).

The second book was John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (1992). This text is a classic of alternative education that attacks our system of compulsory schooling (K-12, 8am - 3pm, distinct subjects separated by Pavlovian-bells, desks in assembly-line rows, etc.). Gatto argues that our school system, though ostensibly intended to teach reading, writing, math, and so forth, actually has a "hidden curriculum" of instilling obedience to authority, conformity to social class, and reflexive consumerism for the next generation in the market economy. As a thirty year veteran of public school teaching, Gatto maintains that these factors are an open secret and that we have learned to shrug even as we realize that compulsory schooling doesn't work: students are bored and teachers complain about teaching, but we have convinced ourselves that this way (even though it only dates to about 1850) is the only way. The solution? Get rid of school. Here's what he suggests: "It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy...when children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in cell-blocks, they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease, if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around them" (23).

So what do these two books have in common? (First, by way of full disclosure, they lean into my area of bias, as my family homeschools and my wife works at a small-scale, organic, family farm.) Both authors are pointing to how entrenched systems of thought come to hold sway over our behaviors and outlooks. I know that, at least for myself, growing up I thought we had to go to school to learn and that to get food you had to go to the grocery store where it came in neat cellophane packages. These "have tos" are what post-modern philosophers like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault called doxa, the unquestioned assumptions that undergird the architecture of society. No one questions these assumptions because they are buried so deeply that everyone takes them for granted. Bourdieu and Foucault both argue that social institutions have the most control not when they are big and powerful, but when they are invisible. People do not question what they do not see. Does "school" really equal "education"? Does "agriculture" really equal "farming"? Or does the second term in each pair potentially point to something greater and more expansive? If nothing else, Berry and Gatto pull back the veil to reveal the assumptions behind our agricultural and educational institutions and suggest they ought to be interrogated like everything else. It is always good to ask the questions, "Does it have to be this way? Is another life possible?"

Both authors reveal another problem in society: the lack of holistic thinking and an inability to appreciate the "big picture." In agriculture, Berry thinks this is the extraction of farming from the cultural web of human relations and knowledge to the point that it becomes a specialized profession. For Gatto, this is the isolation in school of different fields into supposedly separate areas - science from literature, politics from philosophy, demarcated by arbitrary bells and placed in distinct rooms. These phenomena are not unrelated, as Berry points out:

              That the discipline of agriculture should have been so divorced from other
              disciplines has its immediate cause in the compartmental structure of the
              universities, in which complementary, mutually sustaining and enriching
              disciplines are divided, according to "professions," into fragmented, one-
              eyed specialties. It is suggested...that farming shall be the responsibility
              of the college of agriculture, that shall be the sole charge of the professors
              of law, that morality, shall be taken care of by the philosophy department,
              reading by the English department, and so on (47).

Now, look at what Gatto says:

               The first lesson school teaches is the un-relating of everything. Everything
               (history, reading, language, dance, math, economics, etc.) is out of context
               and order. Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek.
               Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession
               with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well
               concealed (2-3).

Both point out the tendency toward fragmentation in our societal attention-spans: focus on the part, not the whole. In contrast, life is a single cloth with each segment interdependent with the others; Berry and Gatto show that when we extract single aspects and reduce them to isolated realms, it costs us, both in terms of understanding those single aspects as well as the larger world around us.

Both even invoke the power of soil or dirt as a way to talk about the issues they say we face as a people. Berry writes, "The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life" (90). Though speaking metaphorically, Gatto says this, "After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven't figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves" (105). In both statements, I detect a stirring call for far-reaching humility and respect for the inherent abilities and strengths we -- humans and the rest of the natural -- all possess together, and the beauty that can result if we acknowledge one another in this way.

Besides writing books, Berry and Gatto have both engaged in a number of projects to bring their views into wider application. Berry and his farming program in Kentucky have recently created an agreement with Sterling College to promote sustainable agriculture. Gatto has a series of lectures and videos on the problems with compulsory schooling as well as alternative methods of education.

I realize that many will greet these ideas as quite radical. Having friends in both agriculture and education, I'm sensitive to that fact and think there are ways we can all work together to reconsider the ways we have all done things over the decades. For me and my family, I'm grateful that the realms of nature, farming, and education so often overlap. For us, education often looks like this:

And this:

And our classroom often looks like this:

And this:

We are very fortunate. But I also wonder, if we would all think about nature and education as not being discrete, segregated entities, but an atmosphere that permeates us all, how different life would be. When next I write, as a related piece, perhaps I will reflect on my time volunteering at the farm that employs my wife. Specifically, that farm has a lot of turkeys. A lot of turkeys. And I have come to see the turkey as a very interesting animal, indeed. So, until next time, which may very well be turkey-time (at least as far as this blog is concerned), take care, and remember, the ways things are is not necessarily the way they have to be.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Problem of Ignorance

One of the nice aspects of a forum like this is the ability to think through scholarly ideas in a looser, more playful manner than would be permitted in a journal or other venue. One I have had on my list for a while is an issue not so much addressed in Western philosophical traditions: the Problem of Ignorance.

Western philosophy has plenty of problems, of course: the problem of existence, the problem of identity, the problem of god, and, perhaps most famously, the problem of evil. That last problem tries to sort out the existence of a divinity with the existence of suffering in the world, where suffering is seen as the quintessential vexation for existence. While this is a problem for a cultural setting that posits an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing deity, civilizations that have a different concept of divinity might see the essential problem of existence as something else. This is where the Problem of Ignorance comes in: for many non-Western traditions, the problem is not that we don't understand God, it's that we don't understand the world and ourselves. We're not immersed in evil; we're immersed in ignorance.

Let's take Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist traditions as some examples. In Buddhism, the "facts of life" (old age, sickness, death, impermanence, and so forth) do not chance, but our perceptions of them can. If one remains stuck in the mindset that happiness, health, and love are forever -- that is, remains ignorant of the changing dynamics of the universe -- then life is one long train of pain. In Hinduism, broadly speaking, one's difficulty is ignorance of the larger connection of one's individual soul with the greater absolute. We ignorantly perceive ourselves as independent and separate, when in fact we are one entity in the ultimate. In Daoism, ugly and beautiful, good and evil exist only in an ignorant mind, and by reflexively separating life into those categories, we create discordance and pain. Knowledge occurs only when one simply experiences and does not label.

Having studied these various religions for some years now, it hit me one day: in many ways, the ultimate goal of each is simply crafting the proper outlook based on knowledge, as opposed to ignorance. While other traditions pose disobedience or evil as the problem to be overcome, these ways of thought consider ignorance to be the greatest obstacle to a fulfilling life. The key obstacle we must overcome thus lies not without, but within us.

These basic principles of the Problem of Ignorance remind me of a theme that I noticed some time ago in a few of my favorite popular culture mythologies. If you'll allow me to turn the discussion on its head a little bit, I think these stories give us some good examples of this same theme of ignorance as the enemy and knowledge as power. Take the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader dyad of the original Star Wars films, particularly The Empire Strikes Back.

I'm certainly not the only one to see mythic and religious significance in this film series. There is a particular set of sequences is these films, though, that demonstrate the theme of ignorance as the enemy.When Luke rushes off to face Vader, he is not yet properly trained and, even more important, Vader has him at a complete disadvantage: the Sith Lord knows the young Jedi-to-be's history and parentage better than Luke does himself. Luke is beaten, and very badly. It is only when he returns to Dagobah and consults with his masters, thereby learning the truth of his father's past, that Luke redresses the imbalance of knowledge and, when he meets Vader again, ultimately triumphs.

One could say that Luke should have been forewarned, if only he'd absorbed the lessons Yoda tried to teach him about the Dark Side when he was on Dagobah the first time. When he fights the apparition of Vader, what he sees in the shattered helmet, is not a grotesque monster, but himself.

This alone should have given the Jedi-in-training pause about what he knew versus what he didn't know about his own inner impulses and murky past. Yet, like so many of us, Luke had to learn the hard way.

Now for a second example:

For most of the Harry Potter saga, Harry is similarly at a disadvantage to Voldemort, who lived through events that Harry cannot remember and which most of his mentors are reluctant to discuss. This situation reaches a crescendo in (I would say at least) the most chilling scene in either the novels or the films: Harry is trapped, seemingly with no escape, at the hands of a vastly more experienced wizard who has greater knowledge of the past events entangling them. (It also turns out there's quite a backstory on this particular graveyard in the Potter-verse.) Yet, Harry does escape, because Voldemort proves to be ignorant himself of a great many things: the incantations between their respective wands, the true nature of friendship and love, and Harry's resourcefulness to learn the lore and whereabouts of the horcruxes. Once Harry closes this knowledge gap and fills in the missing pieces of his own past, he is in a position to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

A third example comes from the final Christopher Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.

Though I have not tended to rank the movie very highly, there are still some stunning thematic elements to the film and the confrontations between Batman and Bane are quite good. In the first, located in Bane's sewer headquarters, the audience realizes the Dark Knight is in trouble even before a punch is thrown when the villain quips, "Let's not stand on ceremony here, Mr. Wayne." Given what we saw in the two previous examples, if I had been Batman (and, God willing, some day perhaps I shall be) I would have beat a hasty retreat: no good outcome can be expected when the villain knows more about the situation than you. Sure enough, Batman is beaten and beaten horrifically, to be deposited in a pit to think on his failures. In that pit, the inmates instruct Batman on Bane's past and, most importantly, the significance of his mask, meaning that when they fight again, the Dark Knight knows precisely where to strike him.

Wayne's character arc throughout this process is actually quite compelling, at least to me. When he returns as Batman, it appears to me that he has a thinly veiled death wish. Life has become purposeless without the thrill of being Batman and he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Alfred picks up on this subconscious motivation in this exchange.

Wayne: You think if I go out there, I'll fail.
Alfred: No, I'm afraid that you want to.

In the pit, he asks Bane, almost regretfully, "Why didn't you just kill me?" But this changes as he learns not just about Bane but about himself. It hasn't been anger motivating him all his life. It's been fear. And when he makes a friend of his fear, learns to channel it into an energy, he escapes from the pit, going from the subterranean to the light in an obvious metaphor for rebirth. When next he faces Bane, the circumstances are different.

Bane: So, you came back to die with your city?
Batman: No, I came back to stop you.

At first glance, this is not the most inspiring action hero come back. When I first heard it, I thought, "what a dud of a reply." Yet, upon repeated viewing, there is much more going on in the exchange. Previously, he had comeback to the role of Batman in order to die. Now, he has learned not only about Bane's weakness, but also his true motivation, which his reply communicates. He realizes he's not in it for himself anymore, and that knowledge about himself provides the strength to overcome.

Besides the villains they face, in each of these examples I think we can make a strong case that the hero also must overcome the Problem of Ignorance and that only by solving the gaps in their knowledge are they able to succeed. Certainly someone who understands his surrounding circumstances stands a good chance of being successful. But, more importantly, the one who knows himself is virtually unstoppable. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us: our greatest enemies are not other people, but our own ignorance.

Next time, I may talk about some little known but very compelling epic literature from around the world. Or, I might talk about some recently acquired hobbies. All in good time. Until next we talk, let's all shoot for good luck with that sticky Problem of Ignorance, and please take care.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Ghosts - The View from Drexel Hall

Well, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? My apologies for not posting more often in recent time, but this past month has been difficult. Just this last week, at Saint Joseph’s College, my employer, the class of 2018 would have started their last year, and the class of 2021 would have stepped onto the grounds to begin their journey. Due to the College’s suspension of operations in May, though, none of that has happened.

Academic lives have a rhythm where the feel of late July and early August conjures the premonitions of the year to come: creating syllabi, freshman moving in, imagining the first lectures, and overall feeling the energy build for the coming Fall, winter, and spring. Though the cicadas and katydids sang in the evening and the humid mists of dusk and morning came as they should this year, their advent heralded only the changing of the seasons. There were no crowds of students, no lectures, no meetings between colleagues in the halls. It’s like the melody to which my life was tuned suddenly stopped. It’s like a part of me is missing.

As many might know, not long after the May graduation, I was asked to join a small team called the “Phoenix Group” charged with rebuilding and reviving the school. We’re located in Drexel Hall, a building across the street from the main campus.

Besides a very early blog post, I haven’t really spoken about what it’s been like emotionally this summer, much less what it's like to be part of the Phoenix team, and, to be very, very clear, nothing I say here should be construed as reflecting anyone’s perspective save my own. But, to me at least, the physical and psychic location has been eerie: we are close enough to see the buildings and hear the chapel bells, but besides exceptional circumstances, we can’t go over there. This is the institution where I visited my father as a child, attended concerts and plays and games as a teenager, learned my calling in life as a student, met a beautiful, intelligent woman as the Student Association President, and then married her in the College chapel as a young man. Earning a PhD after a herculean academic struggle, it seemed like a “happy-ever-after” moment when the SJC hiring committee chose me to join the faculty in 2011. I still remember hanging up the phone, walking into the living room of our apartment, telling my wife that I’d gotten the job, and feeling her jump into my arms and cry. 

Little did we know what lay ahead.

Now, these memories sometimes drift across the road like restless ghosts, haunting me all the while as I try to help find paths ahead. On a ninety-degree day, I shiver, surrounded by the specters of what was lost. On February third, after the announcement, I went home and cried with my wife, this time for a different reason. On February sixth, ten minutes before my Core 8 lecture, I broke down again in my office. It’s been like that, even after I was invited to be part of the Phoenix Group, even after the initial rush of excitement for having the chance to forge and salvage something out of the College. Saint Joe changed my life and I want to give future generations of students the same opportunity.

What about my friends and colleagues? Survivor guilt is a real thing. Why me and not someone else? Why was I chosen to fight this battle and not someone else? And make no mistake, it has been a battle. There have been absurd rumors and conspiracy theories that would make even students of the JFK assassination blush: the College was closed to make way for a high school, Indiana University is buying the campus for five million dollars, every building will be bulldozed, dorms were refitted so that Chinese investors could buy the campus, and on and on. There have been scattershot social media posts about how evil our group is from people who would never have the courage to come see us face to face. The comments are all over the map, so it’s hard to keep them straight: we’re moving too slow, we’re moving too fast. Which is it? (Remember, it took decades for the College to decline into its ruinous financial state, so maybe it would be a good idea for us to take more than three months to carefully develop some plans to move forward?) We’ve either had secret plans all along, or we have no plans. Which is it? Then there’s been the hate mail (of all kinds) in my inbox. I won’t delve into all of it, but the most puzzling one is that, by joining this team, I am not a “true Puma.” As an academic, when someone says you are not a “true [whatever],” I can recognize this for what it is: a political/rhetorical strategy to dehumanize the one you are attacking as not really “one of us” and thereby deserving of the abuse that will follow. It is a tactic born of pain, of which there has been an abundance. And I know how it feels, because I was there. They're angry and they want someone to pay and to bleed, even if it's the very people who are doing everything they can to try to bring the school back.

That's how I can see it as an academic. How I see it as a flesh and blood person is another matter. It stings and it hurts. I wish it didn’t, but it does. When messages go unreturned or colleagues I have known since I was a student turn away or pretend not to recognize me in public, it isn’t easy.
Strangely, at those moments, the lowest moments, when it feels as though I am in a pit all alone, I know why I was picked for this task: I love the College. I know and love Core. I’m creative. I’m smart as hell. And I’m also a stubborn son of a bitch who won’t give up, even when there are people not just refusing to help, but actively rooting for our failure. They needn’t expend the energy. We won’t fail. We won’t let that happen.

Not when all these ghosts are watching us.

Since there’s so much to do, I can’t guarantee regular blog posts for a while. But I will try to be more consistent, and also return the tone to lighter fare. Until then, good luck with all the trials all of you are undoubtedly dealing with, whatever they may be, and please take care.

“Tell the Devil he can go back from where he came.
His fiery arrows drew their bead in vain.
When the hardest part is over, we’ll still be here,
And our dreams will break the boundaries of our fear.”

                                                --Brandon Flowers, “Crossfire”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Religion of Mothman

This week is an extra special post! My brother Jon and I have joined forces to blog about different angles of the classic paranormal creature known as "Mothman." Check out his post on the topic here.

Mothman first entered my world in the spring of 1994. Rummaging through my high school library, I came across a copy of paranormal investigator John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies. (Why was this volume in the Rensselaer High School's library? That in itself is a mystery for the ages.) My friends and I had a good laugh at the chapter titles, which included "The Night of the Bleeding Ear" and "If This is Wednesday, it Must Be a Venusian." Interested in the paranormal and in need of a leisure read, I checked it out. (You also have to remember that this was the hey-day of The X-Files.)

The book chronicles the supposed appearances of a giant winged being around Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67. The most famous incidents involved a few couples who said they saw a large feathery creature with burning red eyes haunting an abandoned TNT factory. In another incident, a man said he lost his dog when it ran off to chase something gigantic with glowing red eyes. Some witnesses crafted the following drawing of what they claimed to see:

Keel's book recounts his investigation in Point Pleasant while the sightings were occurring. He  also covers the simultaneous spike in supposed UFO activity in the area, as well as appearances by "Men in Black," the odd and vaguely threatening apparitions who some say try to intimidate or frighten witnesses of the paranormal into remaining quiet about their experiences. The sightings of Mothman and other strange phenomena culminated (as Keel presents it) in the collapse of Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge into the Ohio River, killing dozens of people. Keel suggests that the sightings of the paranormal beings anticipated or warned of the tragedy, hence the title, The Mothman Prophecies. (There is a movie based on the book, starring Richard Gere no less, but it is, as you might imagine, only quite loosely connected to the premise of the text.)

All these years later, and especially after blogging earlier this summer about religion and the paranormal, I started to wonder about the possible religious themes of The Mothman Prophecies. Could Religious Studies theory find any connection to the events or themes of the book?

Besides merely chronicling the events in Point Pleasant, Keel creates his own hypothesis for all paranormal phenomena. Rather than being the work of extraterrestrials, Keel believes such occurrences actually come about from encounters with ultraterrestrials, which are entities existing on another dimension or plane of reality who bleed through into our psychic realm either of their own accord (to cause mischief or issue a warning, about a bridge collapse, for instance) or because human concentration or activity inadvertently summons them. These energy-beings from a parallel universe have existed throughout history, but humans experience and label them differently as our contexts and frames of reference change. In ancient times, they were deemed gods who flew about on divine power. Nowadays, they are UFOs and monstrous Mothmen. On this last point, Keel sounds remarkably similar to Carl Jung's thoughts on "flying saucers." He is also in something of the same ballpark as certain folklorists who consider the "Men in Black" tales as a reiteration of a very, very old mythic motif of visits from mysterious strangers.

In my eyes, Keel's thought is somewhat analogous to some of the ideas of one of the founding figures of my discipline: Mircea Eliade. Eliade, by all accounts, was a very interesting person. Besides studying Religion, he was a novelist, a Yoga practitioner, and, according to some, possessed rather dubious political affiliations and aspirations while a youth in his native Romania. (Read more about him here.) Eliade's central interpretation of religious phenomena is that the Sacred, whatever that happens to be, manifests in the world in occurrences known as hierophanies, literally, "appearance of the divine." Interpretations of the Sacred vary from culture to culture and time to time, but they can be understood as different versions of the universal Sacred that bursts through into human experience. To me, the concept of the otherworldly divine breaking through periodically sounds a great deal like Keel's notion of "ultraterrestrials."

There are also faint traces of Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the "Oversoul," which is the idea that all humans have immortal souls which are interconnected, and thus create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. People then consider this experience of a soul greater then theirs to be "God." Deja vu, psychic phenomenon, and so forth (including Keel's "ultraterrestrials") would thus be examples of human souls coming into contact with each other, transcending time and space. (Interested in learning more about the "Oversoul?" Check out this link.)

What is one to think of all this? For one, there have been plenty of hypotheses rationalizing and explaining away Mothman, not to mention UFOs and the like. Some of the most common (and, dare I say, likely) explanations for Mothman have been owls and/or cranes, both of which can appear larger than they really are and produce "eyeshine" in the presence of bright lights, making it look as though their eyes glow supernaturally. I do know that in the spring of 1994 I spent some wonderful evenings at dusk scanning the skies, wondering if I just might see some shadowy, feathery form on the horizon. Keel's book is also replete with numerous entertaining quotes (especially when removed from context). Case in point: "Bedroom phantoms in checkered shirts are old hat to investigators of psychic phenomena."

Perhaps most startling is how this entire blog post came about. As I re-read The Mothman Prophecies, out of the blue, Jon sent me a message asking if I wanted to co-blog about...Mothman. How did he know? He couldn't have. Is this evidence of Emerson's "Oversoul," the psychic interconnection of all human minds? You just never know....What do you think?

Next time, there are a number of topics I am considering: "Religion and Animals," "Lesser Known World Epics," and maybe something else. I may post ideas on my Facebook page. Until then, take care.

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