Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Learning From the Existentialists

I've been listening to a lecture series on existentialism. The focus is on philosophers Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. These are some heavy dudes. The lecturer points out all the many ways they disagree and also the common philosophical thread that runs through their work:  the way to find true freedom in this life is by taking total responsibility for one's choices and one's responses to the events of life. This is called living an authentic life. An authentic life has passion and commitment. Most people live much of their lives in a reactionary mode. Almost everyone has brief moments of clarity, but the life of the ordinary person is generally unreflective in nature. The existentialists encourage us to live our lives in the present and make our decisions through reflective choice.
In conformity, one does the right thing because that is what's expected by others. Non- conformity is the other side of the coin. The rebellion of youth is an example of this. Both are reactionary ways of existing. Following the existential philosophy one may conform or rebel, but the choices are made reflectively and in this way one’s life becomes more “authentic”. Sartre found authenticity in the French underground. Rebelling against the Nazis gave him meaning and purpose that transcended his individual needs and wants. Viktor Frankl found it when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp. Helping the other prisoners gave him the meaning he needed to survive. The existentialists tell us that finding meaning in life leads to true freedom.
When I first attended college at Florissant Valley Community College in North St. Louis County, it was1965 and I guess I wasn't ready. I flunked out. My concerned parents sent me to a counselor, who advised me to go into the military. He told me “Not everyone is cut out for college.” But at some point during my Army experience, I decided I wanted an education. My heroes were writers. Not just writers, but writers and adventurers like Hemingway, Jack London and Jack Kerouac. Both Jacks were in the Merchant Marines for a while. When I was a soldier on my way to Vietnam aboard a Merchant Marine troopship, I enviously watched the sailors as they went about their daily chores. They worked hard and had purpose throughout their day, unlike us soldiers, the cargo, who had absolutely nothing to do. We sat or wandered around the ship with too much time to think about where we were headed. I imagined myself as one of those seaman, after a hard day's work, lying on my bunk in the evening, making entries in my journal for a novel I would someday write.
In Kerouac's novel On The Road, he describes living and working with migrant workers. He describes this as a deeply satisfying time in his life, doing exhausting work in the fields all day and then falling into bed at night tired but happy. The long tedious hours of back breaking work forced him to engage fully in life. For Hemingway it was imminent death that forced his characters into this open, honest and vital way of living.
Some of the existentialists spend too much time raging against normalcy. Reacting in a negative way to the bland, unaware, mundane, un-passionate existence of others is just another reactionary mode. Without compassion for the human condition, we miss the mark. When we truly face our own inevitable death, when we truly face our ultimate aloneness in the world, when we become quiet and genuinely reflective, we discover a deep connection with and compassion for all life. The peace and security people yearn for can only be found by letting go of striving for it. Totally accepting oneself in whatever situation one is in is the way to true freedom. The Buddhists' call it non-attachment or the middle way. Let go of all clinging and be totally present.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pick of the Litter

I got first pick of the litter. Cheska was Suzanne's dog, the mother, and the father was a dog named Red. Both dogs were Springer Spaniels, although Red was so big we suspected he might not be pure-bred. Cheska was medium to small size, had reddish brown(liver) on her back with a white underbelly and white on her legs and muzzle. She could be dependent and whiny, whereas Red was strong, independent and had a regal appearance. Red's body was white with a smattering of reddish spots. Most of the color was on his head. He was owned by Suzanne's former boyfriend.
Suzanne and I lived together for a time in the early '70s, when one could easily drift in and out of relationships. Ours wasn't meant to last, but we shared a deep love of dogs as well as love and respect for each other. She was still living in Eugene in the house we bought together, but I had moved to Seattle and was eking out a living as a fry cook during the day and cab driver at night. I had been dog-less since my beagle, Blossom, was run over by a car driven by a young man going way too fast on a country road. I wasn't sure I wanted another one.
But getting pick of the litter was quite an honor and I was secretly pleased that Red's master was getting second choice. I can't remember how many puppies were in the litter, but a lot, maybe 8 to 10. Suzanne called me when they were old enough to adopt. There is absolutely nothing cuter than a bunch of Springer puppies. I couldn't resist and took my time watching them before making my decision.
Suzanne let me know which puppy the ex-boyfriend wanted. It was the biggest male with the droopiest face. He was lethargic, spending most of his time sitting and watching the other puppies play. There was something appealing about his mellow nature and for a while I thought he was the one I wanted. It may have also had something to do with taking the dog that Suzanne's irresponsible, cavalier yet ruggedly handsome ex wanted. But as I continued watching the puppies, I kept noticing one medium sized male, always on the move. Some of the puppies fought a lot, some slept most of the time and some whined until mom returned to feed them. But this little male went around bumping the other dogs with his nose until he got one of them to play with him. He didn't get angry or give up. He would bump a puppy, back up and then furiously wag his cropped tail. After two or three times of this, without response, he would move on to the next one.
When I touched his back, he looked up at me and for a brief moment I could tell he thought maybe I'd play with him. But when he realized I was just sitting there watching like that fat puppy in the corner, he again turned his attention to the other dogs.
I named him Murray after the Jason Robards character in the movie A Thousand Clowns. Murray was a writer for a children's television show. But he grows to hate the shows host and the conformity of it, so he quits. Murray realized that most people go through their lives reacting and conforming to others and to the “system” and lose the basic childlike joy of living. His nephew Nick lives with him and Murray wants him to live life with gusto and to stand up to the hypocrisy and phoniness of others. Throughout the movie Murray tries to act as an example for his nephew. In one scene he goes out into the street very early in the morning, looks up at the New York apartment buildings and begins yelling at them as if he were a camp counselor. “Campers, volleyball will be held out on the main lawn at 10 am sharp”.
I lived with Murray the Springer for over 15 years. We ran together, hiked together, lived in a variety of houses and towns. He endured my ups and downs with girlfriends and marriages. He loved and played with my son and two stepsons. He tolerated our other pets as they came and went. Throughout it all, I could count on him to bump me on the leg each morning wag his stump of a tail, back off and look at me straight in the eye as if to say, Isn't it great to be alive. What fun activities are we going to do today? Murray 001
Murray had a stroke in 1990. His left side stopped working. When I took him to the Vet to be put down, we took a few minutes to sit outside the office by the side of a small stream. He knew something was wrong, but when he heard the birds chirping in the trees, his floppy ears perked up and he looked at me. Again I saw that little puppy. What do you say we go chase after those birds? I'm reminded of the Jerry Jeff Walker song Mr. Bogangles. “His dog up and died... after 20 years he still grieves.” It's been over 20 years since Murray died and I haven't gotten another dog and probably won't.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Thoughts on Christian Science

I was raised in Christian Science. It was a good religion for a kid. The message was very positive. In fact in Sunday School we were taught that God is only positive. There are 7 specific synonyms for God; Life, Truth, Love, Mind, Soul, Spirit and Principle. I learned that we are all part of God or more precisely, individual expressions or reflections of God. We learned that the material world is an illusion and that we are really spiritual beings. Sin was defined as our belief in the material world. The degree to which we believe in and are attached to matter, is the degree to which we suffer. Everything in the material world passes away, so the task of a Christian Scientist is to develop a Spiritual sense, which can be defined as a deeper understanding of our true relationship with the Divine.
I preferred the Christian Science message over the one at my previous Sunday School, which was Presbyterian. There was a scary side to their message. I felt I had to watch what I did or else I would be punished. Once I asked the Sunday school teacher if animals went to Heaven, he told me, no they didn't, only people. He probably didn't speak for all Presbyterians, but at the time I decided I didn't want to go to heaven, I wanted to go where ever my dog went. When I asked the same question of the Christian Science lady, she told me that all living things are part of God and that includes my dog. Also that Heaven was not a far off place, but was always present and could be experienced in this life. We didn't need to wait until we died. The way to experience heaven, I was told, was to quiet down, “be still and know that I am God”.
When I got older and started attended Christian Science church services, I had a lot of trouble “being still” and paying attention. The church service was excruciatingly boring to me. There are no preachers in Christian Science, just two readers. One reads passages from the Bible and one from Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health. There is absolutely nothing extemporaneous about the service, robots could do it.
When Katie and I lived in Rochester, New York we attended a Christian Science church a few times. It was a huge beautiful Cathedral, but there were only 7-10 people attending the services. We found that to be true in other areas as well. In Port Angeles, Washington, during the 5 years we lived there, the local Christian Science Church first downgraded to a Society and then went out of business altogether. Christian Science seems to be a rapidly declining religion. I Speculate that there are two main reasons for the decline. One is the rigidity of the way the religion was set up by Mrs. Eddy and the other is their stand on not receiving medical help for physical problems.
The First Reader at one of the CS churches we attended had a huge goiter on his neck. I'm sure he was praying like crazy for it to go away, and probably felt guilty that it wasn't. I know that guilt all to well. I wanted to tell the guy, just have a doctor take that thing off your neck and get on with your life. I suffered from migraine headaches for years. I called a Christian Science practitioner to pray for me. She asked me a lot of questions and one of them was, Are you receiving any medical help for them? I told her I took a migraine pill when I felt one coming on. This allowed me to go to work and function, as opposed to lying in a dark room all day. This particular woman was a renowned Christian Science teacher and writer and she told me she couldn't help me as long as I continued to take the medication. Her response turned me off and I started to argue with her over the phone until she told me she had to go. I kept taking the medication and stopped reading Christian Science.
Mrs Eddy was not the first person to use the term Christian Science and it wasn't a brand new philosophy that she discovered. She learned the basics from a spiritual healer named Phineas P. Quimby. After being healed by him, she hung on to his manuscripts and for a time considered herself his “disciple”. On her own she worked out the details of this new theology and spiritual healing in conjunction with Biblical Scriptures and much of it I'm sure came to her through revelation. It is fair to say she greatly advanced this theology. But it always bothered me that she took all the credit for everything she wrote and taught even though there are passages lifted directly from Quimby's manuscripts. And many other spiritual writers of the day had published works developing the same ideas. But it's hard to find mention of Mr. Quimby or any of the other spiritual writers and healers of the time in any of the official Christian Science literature. It's like they never existed. In fact it's taught in the church that any other person's interpretation of Christian Science or spiritual healing is tainted by “carnal” or “mortal mind”. So Christian Scientists give her all the credit for all the teachings. To be a loyal Christian Scientist you need to accept that all other systems of spiritual healing are wrong and only her system is the “Truth”. So like so many religions, you either buy into it entirely or you don't.
In the late 1800's, Emma Curtis Hopkins was at one time Mrs. Eddy's star student. She rose to the top of the organization and became editor of the Christian Science Journal. She then suddenly disappears from the Christian Science literature and is never to be found again. Ms. Hopkins saw similarities in Christian Science philosophy and Eastern Philosophy, particularly Hinduism. Also she realized that the evolution of the Christian Science philosophy cannot be contained within one organization. Revelation and Truth do not belong to any one individual. She began to talk about this publicly and Mrs. Eddy booted her out of Christian Science. Ms. Hopkins went on to teach classes which spawned the New Thought movement including Unity, Religious Science and Divine Science.
It's obvious that Ms. Hopkins learned much from Mrs. Eddy. The teachings are almost identical. Emma Hopkins sited the basic difference between her beliefs and Mrs. Eddy's with the following distinction; Mrs. Eddy states, there is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter. Ms. Hopkins makes the subtle, but profound distinction that, there is no absence of life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter.
Since childhood I've had a “love/hate” relationship with Christian Science. I suppose it's not unlike the feelings of Catholics, Jews and other Protestants concerning the religion they were raised in. Sometimes I am fiercely attracted to the religion and want to join up and believe everything it has to teach and at other times I reject it vehemently and see inconsistencies and hypocrisies within it. In the end I strive to remain true to an honesty of Being.