Friday, December 12, 2014

Superego and Morality

A few days ago, I had a stimulating discussion with a friend about finding and adhering to one's core values.  We wondered about the modern predicament of having no strong values to guide one's actions.

This predicament naturally leads itself to pleasure-seeking, short-term, impulsive behavior.  With no long-term goals, the pleasures of stimulation, attention and validation (the infantile pleasures) become prominent drivers of one's life.

Humans are unique in some ways.  The most important obviously being the role our frontal cortex, the conscious mind, plays in our survival and genetic success.  The training of a human mind takes twenty to thirty years.  This training imparts linguistic, social and vocational skills important for becoming a stable, synergistic and useful part of the human society.  This education is, at its core, utilizing the present for the future.  It is an investment of time.  "Delayed gratification", "planning" and working toward a better future are some of the hallmarks of being human.

This essentially human perspective about time and that the future is in many ways more important than the present requires a moral, frictional apparatus that prevents one from just going after immediate enjoyments and addictions.  This apparatus propels us to do the right thing even if that is difficult, rather than what just seems pleasant and comforting.

This apparatus, colloquially termed as the "conscience" prevents us from becoming self-serving, hedonistic, sociopathic individuals who live for nothing more than the next "fix".  Society, culture, religion, family all instil in us that certain behaviors, even though pleasant, are not "good", and that harm will come to both oneself and others in the longer term if one just follows the path of pleasure.

Freud divided the human intentional apparatus into three parts: the id, the ego and the superego.  Even though Freud's theories are not scientific in the strict sense, they are useful and illustrative to analyze and understand human behavior.

In simple terms, the id is the "animal" in us which seeks gratification, the ego is the "individual" what gets trained to become a social individual with feelings of pride, guilt and suchlike, and, and the superego is the "influence" which keeps the ego from collaborating with the id.

The ego has to be prevented from becoming the id's partner, because then the individual can become a cunning animal who seeks gratification via manipulation and dishonesty, for example.  The superego ensures that the ego suffers pangs of guilt and shame if it tries to go that way, and that it feels pride and the pleasure of righteousness if it refrains and resists temptation.

The superego is the conscience.  The superego, to be effective, has to have a basis which is larger than the individual.  It can be based in loyalty to one's family, in devotion to one's religious tradition, in one's sense of honor of being part of a group of people, and in an imprinted belief that the universe is not just random, but that it is fair and that righteousness carries a reward.

From the Wikipedia description of the Superego:
The super-ego aims for perfection.  It forms the organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual's ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called "conscience") that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions...
The super-ego works in contradiction to the id...
The super-ego's demands often oppose the id’s, so the ego sometimes has a hard time in reconciling the two.
Modernity, for all the good it does, demolishes wholesale the bases of a healthy superego.  Family gives way to individuation, religion gives way to atheism, community gives way to atomization, and metaphysical beliefs are realized as truthy but false.

Modernism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Atheism are all related in the sense that their guns are all pointed in the same direction: at a derived conscience and morality.  All proclaim, in various ways, the absence of a meaning higher than oneself.  Atheism claims that there can be nothing but "individual morality", existentialism claims that there can be nothing but "individual meaning", and Nihilism claims nothing really matters.

Some individuals are alarmed at this lack of conscience in themselves, and wonder if there is a way to nurture a conscience in them as an adult.  In other words, whether an adult can undergo "moral education".

I believe the answer is in the negative.  The ship has sailed by the time it is seen from the harbor and when its ugliness makes you want to repaint it.

Values and meaning cannot be consciously created because the ego cannot sustain itself.  In the ego's battle with the id, it needs something that it considers higher, sacred or sacrosanct in its battle.  The ego can convince itself and train itself to be opposed to the id, but it's not designed to work that way.  It is too much work for the ego to be moral on its own.  If it has created some rules, it knows that those rules are self-created and it can also therefore break those rules.  The ego can be trained to fear legal consequences, but that is legal education, not moral education.

The conscience cannot be conscious.

Many consider the modern age to be a "moral vacuum".  They are not wrong.  The response to them that one can create one's own morality ignores difference in emotional force between the ego-based-morality and the superego-based-morality.  Ego-based-morality is much, much weaker than a morality based on a deep, subconscious sense of right and wrong.

The "hero" is absent in the modern world because the basis of heroism is the superego, and that is weaker than ever.

The destruction of the superego is partly due to the advances in human knowledge.  We know a lot about the hollowness of culture, the hokey bases of religion and spirituality, and the fraud that is patriotism and nationality.

But what is behind the destruction of the family?  I believe that the reasons for the breakdown of family in the modern world are economic.  This is a far more complex topic than I wish to cover in this essay, but in short: technology, globalization, industrialization, and urbanization has made it financially untenable for a family of many generations to live together.  From a default of grandparents+parents+children+grandchildren living in one house, we have now "progressed" to a single individual earning, cooking and sleeping by himself/herself.  Pets are not the answer.

While one is still young and under the supervision of one's parents, the parents (hopefully) act as tangible enforcers of the superego.  They act as moral guardians to the id of the child.  They act as the custodians of its future.  As soon as one is eighteen and anonymous and unaccountable, say in a large city or in college, what is to prevent the id from taking over?

In the absence of superego, morality will break down and it is breaking down.  Law will take the place of morality.  Increasingly draconian laws will become common.  Mass surveillance by large institutions will take the place of community supervision.  Addictions and mental disorders born of loneliness and boredom will reach epidemic proportions and will be controlled by media, chemicals, threats of financial ruin, and prisons.

It is not possible to go back to a past in which God and Country still rule our hearts and minds.  The battle between the ego and the superego has been won.  The battle between the ego and the id is going to be a stressful, uphill struggle for the modern individual.  The ego is now burdened not just with function, but with supervision.

Most will be defeated, a rare few will drop out and form alternate communities and bow to new gods, and the ones who manage to overcome will need to continually overcome, and thereby feel perennially exhausted.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A Sci-Fi Allegory about a Country

nvnasm,sllqllll1222llllll2kkdaddddd ...

In January of 2311 AD, XVAC, the greatest mainframe (or so it was believed) had started to print nonsense. Crucial tasks were being postponed, and the motherboard was getting overheated with the processing of random, meaningless data which was just flowing back and forth in the buses.

A crack team of engineers was called in to diagnose and fix the situation.

After more than twenty days of investigation, this was the summary of their lengthy technical report:


REPORT XXIV, Final Summary, by NCG Systems INC.
  • As we all know, XVAC is an approximation of a formal system and runs compiled programs written in XLANG
  • Unfortunately, XLANG has 23,000 logic errors in its specification.  A program written in XLANG will work after thousands of patches and non-formal fixes, and then too only occasionally.
  • We are amazed that the system has lasted so long.  It should have failed long ago, but since the system load was only 20% till last year, we understand why only now we are facing a crisis.
  • In fact, not only the language is badly specified, the compiler XCOMP is a vestige from a much older system (CVAC).  It was written to compile code with human support, and to compile only two programs in one year.
  • The printer has no accounting, hence it has been used to print private jobs of power users for so long.  Since there is a priority system, unprivileged print jobs never even start.  Even when the program wants to print something meaningful, the printer prints gibberish because its ribbons have become frayed and its heads worn out.
  • The memory of system is being taken over by the ADWORD program.
Here are our recommendations:
  1. Respecify XLANG so that programs written in it are coherent.
  2. XCOMP, the compiler, needs to be rewritten from scratch given the new conditions.  
  3. The time sharing environment in which the binaries run needs to have clear policies so that frivolous users cannot overload the system.
  4. The printer needs to be replaced and print accounting instituted.  The printer must not have any priority system.  It should print on a first-come-first-served basis.
  5. The ADWORD program should only be run at night when the usage is minimal.

For the perplexed:

XVAC: The government of India
XLANG: The constitution and the IPC
XCOMP: The judiciary
CVAC: Colonial times
The printer: The Police
ADWORD: The media

Monday, December 08, 2014

The American Trucker

I developed an appreciation of the North American trucker's life while I did my 3000 mile road trip from California to Virginia in October this year.

I saw them up close, ate meals with them and talked to them about their lives.  Since I was driving a truck myself, had a first-hand understanding that while their life looks romantic to an outsider, it is literally a backbreaking one for the trucker himself. (On the third day of my road trip I had to work out the physiology of my lumbar region, and engineer special cushions and postures to make the pain go away!)

It's a hard, harsh life. Bad food, rest while in motion, homelessness, cheap motels, gas station showers, caffeine shots, pride in one's shiny truck, the distractions of Indian (native American) casinos and roadside "spas", a strange relationship with highway patrol, a condescending but caring view of cars on the road, ...

Eighteen wheelers are a quintessential part of Americana. Long distances, the interstate highway system and the American consumer culture is the paradigm which pushes these hundreds of thousands of behemoths on the country's freeways. They fascinate young boys (in the same way trains, planes and other big engines do), they impress fresh immigrants with their carrying of eight or more large cars in a weirdly angled manner, and with a reputation of blind spots, wide turns, and their sheer momentum, they scare regular commuters and tourists on the road.

I saw so many trucks and truck stops during my trip that the names "Wabash National", "Freightliner", "Peterbilt", "Knight, "Love's", "Pilot Travel Center", "TA", became as familiar as those of friends or siblings.

The truckers lead lonely lives. Some travel with their spouses but most travel alone, driving all day and sometimes even through the night. They commune with other truckers via their CB radios and use calling cards to keep in touch with their families which in many cases are still in their home countries.

Such a life requires extraordinary stamina and willpower and many can only do it for so long before they become zombie-like and hardened. From one rest stop to the next, from one member gas station to the next, from one "trucks welcome" travel center to the next, it is just an unending, monotonous journey of metal.

Truckers in poor countries are well known to numb their exhaustion with cheap liquor but in USA, the drug of choice is caffeine. Heavy doses of black coffee, extra shots, caffeine pills, large volume containers of coke and sprite are provided by gas stations as a norm.

Truckers can't go inside the cities for healthy food because there isn't any place on city roads to park their big rigs. Parking only in travel centers, they subsist on a diet of fried, cheap fast food, and chemically-flavored juices and sodas. The juicing film 'Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead' presents the hopeful journey of a trucker suffering from years of dietary abuse, toward fitness and normalcy.

Truckers are doing a job on the road and the road is their workplace.  They view road-trippers and others who are driving for pleasure with barely concealed amusement. "This is fun for them? Being on the road, minding the speed limits, the deer warnings, the bad drivers, the cops?". But people genuinely enjoy being on the road, as an escape from their suburban lives.  It is the truckers who have become desensitized to exploration. The journey has become a chore for them, and the well-known destination is the relief they long for. And that too, not for long.

Driving a truck pays well, considering that no expensive education is required. Many are trained on the job. They can "easily" (heh) earn $60k a year. For many, the promise of this kind of money is enough to tear them away from their families, and from their homes and native countries. And once addicted to this flow of dollars, to move away from the road seems comforting but a difficult choice.  They are addicts to this pain which pays.

Many retire only when their bodies give up.

I love their spirit. But I also feel sad about them. They are sacrificing themselves for their children, for their old parents, and in some way, for the hedonistic consumers of the first world.

They are the Atlases of today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Social Disapproval and Freedom

For many, social disapproval is a paralyzing force.

My experience has been quite different.  In my interactions with other people, they have generally kept their opinions (about me) to themselves.  Sometimes there is a whimper of a protest at the way I am choosing to live my life, but I have rarely had to counter any such disapproval.

It might have something to do with my personality, given that I have always been a heretic and a philosophical enfant terrible. My persona might be intimidating to feeble and consensus-minded people who would therefore rather not engage me in a debate.  But I have, after long observation, concluded that people, society, family, peer groups, etc. can influence and coerce you only insofar as you are bothered about what they think of you.

When I see someone bothered by or complaining  against the entrapment of society, I look a little deeper and see someone who seeks everybody's approval.

It might be said that disapproval is costly.  Hence, it is important to have some financial freedom if you wish to embark on a path which may not meet with society's approval.  In my case, my education and my first job in the US gave me the confidence as well as the cushion to embark on a life of exploration.

I understand others may not be that fortunate.  But I have also seen people much more financially comfortable than me feeling trapped under the weight of others' expectations.  And I have friends who may not have a big bank balance, but there is freedom in their hearts and they follow their own beat.  They and I have the confidence that no matter what happens, we will find a way to survive.  They and I have not gotten used to luxury, even as we can enjoy fine wines and fluffy beds and hot foamy jacuzzis.

What is the origin of that confidence?  I do not know.  Even when I was a young boy, I remember myself being rebellious and heretical.  Not always in a good way, but I did not simply care about what the respectable or good people thought of me.  I considered them unqualified to judge me.

Perhaps it was an early exposure to world literature and philosophy.  Who knows.

We all have, to varying degrees, a desire to live true to ourselves, and without the weight of others' expectations.  Whenever therefore we see someone actually living that way, we feel a bond and an admiration for that person.  It is as if the other person is channeling the collective heart of humanity, which seeks joy and exploration.

After I had returned from the US and decided to take many years off to study philosophy and meditation, almost without exception everybody that I met admired my decision.  And when later I re-entered the job market and explained my sabbatical, without exception my hiring manager(s) admired my conviction and spirit.

It is a real pleasure to meet an authentic person.  And I would like to believe that my authenticity, to whatever extent it exists, is also similarly a pleasure to others.  When others detect the free spirit in me, my experience has mostly been that they are friendly, helpful, loving and kind.  I have occasionally found souls which were hateful and resentful toward me, but it has been easy to ignore them or to even pity them for whatever twists exist in them.  I could see that they were suffering, and I was just the current object of their inner resentment.

There have been no "undue" influences in my life.

I meet many people who complain against their circumstances.  But when offered a way out, they feel hesitant and scared of the uncertainty.  Stagnation, resentment and certainty usually exist together.  Fear of the unknown is real, but it must be embraced.  Exploration and freedom cannot by its nature be predictable or comforting, but the reward is that it won't lead to a life of regret.

If social disapproval bothers you, try this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself thirty or fifty years into the future and only a few years away from your death.  All the people who disapprove of you at present are dead and gone.  What would your old self advise your present self?  What would you regret less at that age?  Follow that path.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is Sex-Selective Abortion Wrong?

Families in many regions in India, especially in the North, are loath to have a girl-child.

The reasons are complex.  There have been many in-depth studies about this phenomenon.  In essence, it is widely held that to be parents of a girl imposes certain heavy responsibilities and burdens with not enough compensation.  For example:
  • India is largely a patrilocal society.  In non-nuclear families, the wife becomes a part of the husband's family.  Parents invest in bringing up a marriageable woman only to see her leave and become a primary member of another family.
  • The tradition of dowry in which parents of the bride give gifts and money to the groom's family.
  • The daughters now have property rights over their parents' property, but since patrilocality still continues, this means that the illiquid property of a household gets partly owned by the daughter's new family (the in-laws) and thereby gets diluted.  (The tradition of dowry, by many accounts, was a liquid (in cash or gold) compensation to the bride from her family when she did not have property rights.  According to certain other naratives, it was a financial disincentive for the bride in case she ever thought of abandoning her new family.  If she abandoned her husband or her in-laws, the dowry was forfeited.)
  • An environment in which families have to worry about protecting the virginity, modesty and reputation of unmarried women in their homes.
  • Since property inheritance is patrilineal in most of India, to not have a son meant that there was no natural heir and there was a risk of losing control of the ancestral property.
  • The bride's parents are generally in a socially submissive posture relative to the groom's family.  The bride's parents and the bride are expected to be docile, pleasant and generous.  They are afraid of annoying their in-laws and go to great lengths to be amicable.  The fear being that if the groom's family was annoyed for any reason, the bride was going to be subject to taunts, harassment, perhaps even violence, or in extreme cases, she could even be turned out of her conjugal home.  The bride's status in her new home was considered tenuous and fragile, at least till she begot a son of her own (and thereby an eventual heir to her husband's family).
Short of abandonment or murder, there was till recently no solution to the "problem" of the burden of a daughter.  Not till medical advances made prenatal sex-determination possible, and the procedure of abortion become relatively safe.

These advances tempted many families with their promise of delivering a baby boy with 100% confidence.  Yes, there were risks to the pregnant mother's health.  But it is sobering that those risks were generally considered more acceptable than the risk of a daughter being born.

Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.  When abortions were illegal, they were still performed, albeit by possibly untrained hands in unsafe conditions.

It is hard to crack down against sex-selective abortions, since people will just specify other reasons for the abortion.  Therefore the Indian state criminzalized the prenatal sex-determination diagnostic procedures.  Even that proved notoriously hard to enforce.  The diagnostic center staff came up with code words or sign language to tell the expecting parents whether it was a male or a female fetus.  There is also, supposedly, now a simple blood test which can determine the gender of the fetus.  In my opinion, it is impossible in today's world to forcibly prohibit parents from knowing the gender of their unborn child.

Having failed there, now again the focus is on abortion clinics, with the widespread assumption that one is guilty of sex-selective abortion until proven innocent. Hence, we are again seeing a spate of illegal abortions, incidents of abandonment, cases of infanticide, etc.

Many who worry about this issue try to induce guilt about the murderous violence done on the "innocent" fetus. But that is an argument against abortion. So, unless we are against abortion per se, let us disregard that argument. If we accept that parents have a right to abort their unborn child because they do not want it to be born, then that right overrides a compassion for the fetus.

So, once abortion has been concluded to be a right of the would-be parents, does the state have a right to restrict that right by listing the only "proper" reasons for such a decision? If the parents only want a daughter (rare, I know), or only a son, or one son and one daughter, or only two sons, or whatever combination they might fancy, does someone else have the right to (and at the point of a gun, no less) tell them to wish otherwise?

It is perhaps better to offer them some counseling before their go in for the abortion, educating them about the health risks, risks to future pregnancies, etc. But in the end, the decision is their own.

What kind of affection and future is a daughter going to have from her parents who were forced against their will to have her? They may develop affection and a bond with her, but it is also likely that every time there is a challenge in bringing her up, they are going to look back at their forced decision and seethe with resentment.

If the argument is made that the mother usually is against abortion, but that she is coerced against her will by her in-laws, then it is a sorry state of affairs and points at the intimidation inherent in family structures in India. But unless she is capable and willing to be on her own and renounce her in-laws, interference by the state can only introduce further suffering into her life. The mother will probably be subjected to an illegal abortion, her girl-child may be murdered, or she herself might abandon it to again be in the good books of her in-laws, or the girl will grow up only to feel an unwanted burden.

The environment in which the girl-child is a huge cost and burden is a reality.  The desire to only have a boy is a symptom of this environment.  To legislate against this desire is not only futile, it might even be considered morally wrong by libertarians, and a way for conservatives to again make abortion difficult.  For example, in the US, the blurb of a book about these laws (such laws exist in the US too, though only in a few states) makes the remark that:
Rather than to combat gender discrimination, the report shows that sex-selective abortion bans are intended to limit access to abortion generally.
The long-term effect of this gender discrimination is to skew the gender ratio in a region, which can lead to social stresses leading to kidnappings and violence and rapes.  Such a situation can lead to either the demise of the society, or a draconian legislation which bans abortions altogether which will again (hopefully) reestablish the gender ratio.

I believe that a wide preference for a particular gender at birth is the symptom of a sick and crippled society.  But this crippling condition cannot be cured by forcing people to walk straight or be sent to jail.

Rich educated parents do not seem to have much of a preference.  For them, bringing up a boy or a girl is more about the boy or the girl than about the ramifications of their gender and property rights.  But that is not a luxury that poorer or more socially dependent people can exercise.

There are no easy responses to this phenomenon.  Affluent and educated cultures do not have this problem, so perhaps education and social security will solve it.  But those cultures have "other" problems: of emotional vacuums, of not wanting children at all, of loneliness and breakdown of family structures.  To want kids to fulfill your expectations introduces one kind of problems, to want them to live their own lives introduces others.

Perhaps it is the wider structures of capital and culture which puts these stresses on families, and given this modern environment of economic insecurity and emotional neuroses, there is no real solution but to just live with this suffering.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Public decency

The KissOfLove protests in India are all over the media. Liberals want to protest against "moral policing". Conservatives talk about cultural corruption.

How would an ethicist or a philosopher respond to this phenomenon?

Let's follow the propositional method. If you disagree with a particular proposition, we can dig deeper into it.

1.  There are always limits on acceptable behavior in public. Defecation, vulgar cursing, shouting, smoking, nakedness, drinking alcohol, gambling are regulated by law.  In private spaces, all these are legal.

2.  There are also limits on what may be purchased or seen or done by non-adults. The reasoning being that they are impressionable, need guidance, and that they lack a developed sense of discrimination and impulse control. Voting, marriage, sexual activity, consumption of intoxicants, exposure to violent imagery or pornography, and so on.

3.  Degrees of public display of skin and affection is culturally dependent.  Bikinis and deep blouses and shirtless city joggers are common in the west but not, for example, in India.  Mouth-to-mouth kissing on the street is uncommon but acceptable, with amused attention, in the west but not so in the east.

4.  Public display of (lustful) affection exposes the sexual side of humans and can cause confusion in the uninitiated (kids) and prurient interest in the criminally inclined. Especially in a conservative society, it expresses the rebellious attitude that the couple does not care what others think about them. The social bullies can then feel justified to teach them a lesson and make them compliant.

5.  Law and order is problematic in conservative and poor countries. Mobs can overwhelm the police machinery and dispense street "justice".  In such environments, it is prudent to act defensively and not annoy the social bullies.

6.  Sexual acts are immersive and therefore generally require privacy. To be on guard against danger and unwanted attention while in the throes of love decreases the enjoyment.

7.  Privacy is expensive in India. And due to the thuggish culture and prevalence of crime, it is dangerous to assume anonymity, safety and privacy in a cheap hotel in India.  Parks are crowded, cinema halls have people on all sides and these days there is a dearth of art movies where the hall may be empty.  The homes have grandparents. The cities have no fields. Where should poor lovebirds go to make out?

8.  Due to class and power structures, public display of affection is a rich person's luxury in India. To not care about reputation is generally possible only when such lack of care does not lead to unaffordable economic or social consequences.  In a way therefore, PDA is a flaunting of one's wealth and power.  It can invite the vengeful ire of socially oppressed.

So what's the conclusion?

Its tough being in love in India. But its more important to be safe than to be smoochy.  I'm with the lovers that they need their space, but that space is not the street.  They need to be more creative than that. Try a cafe restroom or a museum alley.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Let Go, but Keep Going

Yesterday I went to a group meditation event. Toward the end of the event, the facilitator gave a talk on "letting go". The starting point of the talk was the virtue of Nekkhamma (renunciation) in Buddhism.

The speaker softly suggested to the audience to let go of their desires, stresses, identifications, and thereby, their suffering. Though the talk was meant for lay-people who did not have a strong foundation in philosophy or psychology, the speaker did slip in a couple of abstruse concepts: of regarding the body as "not me", of dis-identifying from physical pain, etc.

At the end of the talk, I raised the following question:

"Life in its myriad forms can be considered as directed energy. Lifeless objects do not accumulate and expend energy. They are passive. A definition of life is to be active, to extract something from the environment for one's own benefit. Letting go is essentially relinquishing a personal investment in something. But each directed activity is born of an investment, whether conscious or unconscious. If letting go is taken to its extreme - and there is nothing in Buddhist literature to suggest that one should not - then the end result has to be lifelessness.

If (as the speaker attributed to Ajahn Cha) '... if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace', then that peace is that of lifelessness. Then what directs energy in oneself? Why eat, if one has dis-identified with the pangs of hunger? Why take care of one's ailing child, if one has let go of the desire to see it survive and grow? In the absence of desire and fear, there is an absence of aims to move toward and of situations to move away from.

Buddhists regard life as painful, full of suffering, and their final goal is to escape from what they consider a cycle of birth, aging and death. For them, life, and hence directed energy, is not a state to wish for. If you want to escape this plane of "becoming", they would say: "By all means!""

The speaker responded by saying that one should not worry about what would happen when one would let go completely, but only try to let go of little stresses.

I found her response to be unsatisfactory: "If you are suggesting that wanting is bad, then why only stop at letting go of little wants? Go all the way, be free of all wants. On the other hand, if wanting is not all bad, and if Buddha was fundamentally wrong, then why even let go of little wants? Maybe many of those little wants are normal and healthy."

The speaker also, on a tangent, talked of "one's reputation", and one's attachment to it and that one should let go of that attachment. I did not question her, as it was not after all a philosophical gathering.  It was a group of trusting, impressionable people trying to find some balance in their life.

But, even though it is a well-known cliche in new-age circles, it is extremely bad advice to stop worrying about how one is perceived. The neurosis is when one is overly concerned about one's image. But to develop that discrimination by which one can determine if one's worries, stresses, concerns, attachments are healthy or harmful, within reason or unreasonable, measured or reckless, won't happen in such a meditative group setting.

In such settings, the teaching is: all stresses, all desires, all attachments are to be let go of.

And that absence of discrimination is what makes these gatherings a place for mouthing platitudes, and absolutely useless for a person seeking understanding.

Of course, it might be a tactic. As the joke goes, Johnny applied for the license of a tank so that he might get approved for the license of a handgun. In such settings, nirvana is talked about and monks are held as ideals, so people can at least sleep well at night and not worry about tomorrow's traffic.

I continue to maintain that spirituality is primarily stress-relief. To expect anything more from it is to commit a grave fault of judgment. But like in religion, the power of the message lies in one's trust and surrender to the "sacredness" of the beliefs or ideas.

To tell people to take spiritual teachings with a grain of salt will take away the "power" of the teachings completely.

So what's the lesson from all this? Simply this: leave spiritualists alone, as long as they are using their meditation and prayers as a means to an end. Therefore, it is not only sensible, but the only right approach to pray to God for some material benefit or to ask for his Love, and to meditate in the morning so one can make more money in the stock market with a balanced mind. And if one realizes that a particular path is too stressful, well by all means choose a way of life which is more in tune with one's capacities and values.

But if you see somebody starting to believe in the theology or the spiritual world-view and have only spiritual goals, intervene.

It is a good idea to use the Buddha, but to want to become the Buddha is a really bad idea.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Road

He had been on the road for many decades now.
It was a great highway, but there was no rest on it.  
He kept going because he was afraid that, if he exited from it, he wouldn't be able to return to his wayfaring ways.

He did stop a few times, but his eyes were always on the road.  He would only go far from it that the road did not completely disappear from his vision.  He often camped and slept in a tent, but it was always on a light and uncomfortable bed that could be quickly packed .  So that he could be on his way again with ease.
The comfort of a good sleep seemed to him less important than the time and effort it would take him to start his next day on the road.

There wasn't any destination.  The road was it.  To stop and put down roots was fearsome to him.

People warned him of the dangers of the road, of the vagaries of the weather, of never knowing the next bed in which he would sleep, of exhaustion and loneliness, but for him the danger of not being on the road overshadowed all these.

He was afraid not of danger, but of a lack of danger.  While others were busy in arranging their lives to be more predictable, he felt fully alive only when there was unpredictability.

At times he hated this compulsion in himself to seek, but perhaps it was his nature.  Each distinct nature includes, but also precludes, certain immersions.

To accept one's nature might be uncomfortable.  There would be struggles.  But to relinquish it and surrender to comfort was soul-crushing.  

Because while one can, at times even cheerfully, accept the struggles which align with one's heart, the struggles in following a path which is not in keeping with one's nature are always accompanied with despondency and sadness.

And oftentimes he would repeat to himself this passage from Walden Pond:
A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Levels of Conversation

Infant: To talk about oneself. Ranting. Attention seeking.

Child: To talk about people. Stimulant. Speculative.

Adolescent: To talk about events. Emotional. Informative.

Adult: To talk and convince about ideas. Intellectual. Abstract.

Edifying: To uncover hidden biases and assumptions. Open. Exploratory.

Holistic: To observe with understanding and wisdom. Peaceful. Joyous.

Silent: To observe without labeling and evaluation. Transcendent. Expansive.

We converse at all levels. Less so at higher ones.

To deepen a conversation, we move from a lower level to a higher one.

If we remain stuck at a level, then there are certain knots which need to be undone. And some capacities need to be kindled. And the environment needs to be nourishing.

That is not always possible.

But we must try.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Non-violent" protests

Recently, Jadavpur University has been in the news. Details (which may be biased) are here.

I will refrain from commenting upon the incident or the inquiry committee's actions or findings.

The interesting part, for the purpose of this article is this:
On the evening of September 16, after the meeting of Executive Councils was finished, students gheraoed some university officials, including Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti, in their offices. Following several attempts to communicate and reach an understanding between the officials and the students, the situation reached an impasse, and the students continued their demonstration into the night. The Vice-Chancellor summoned police for protection. (emphasis mine)
The police broke up the gherao, which obviously necessitated some force and entailed dragging the students away:
Criticisms of the police brutality included that police used baton charge on a peaceful demonstration... (emphasis mine)

In India, "non-violent" protests usually include the following:
  • Dharna (a sit-down), which usually means blocking traffic on the road or on the railway tracks.
  • Gherao (an engulfing of a person with a chain of people so that he/she cannot leave).
  • Bandh (shut down of business establishments, and taxis etc.)
  • A fast unto death.
It is my contention that the above are all violent acts, and if there is a response involving force, the initiators are being disingenuous and hypocritical in considering themselves peaceful and the response violent.

Of course, the response has to be a measured one, just enough to dismantle the protest, and excessive force is obviously a grave crime.

A Dharna on the road or on the railway tracks aims at disrupting traffic and thereby gaining the attention of the authorities. There may be ambulances in the traffic, there may be someone who is rushing to an important meeting or a court hearing, and so on. But the protesters involved in the dharna consider their grievance to supersede all other concerns. They will not allow others to reach their destinations, howsoever important they might be.

Gheraos aim at the physical restriction of another's movement. I consider it indubitably as an act of force. The person who wants to leave is thereby prevented, by force. The power to detain an adult is only granted to the state in modern times. One hopes the state uses this power extremely judiciously. But if it does not, to allow a mob to hold anyone hostage is an invitation to the law of the jungle. Gherao is similar to detaining somebody, and is therefore a crime in most civil societies.

The argument that police in a corrupt state responds to crimes selectively is a valid one, and requires serious consideration and intervention, but that does not therefore mean that the mobs should start dispensing street justice.

A Bandh is usually "called" by a group or a political party. A business which wants to remain open is forcibly shut down by the goons of that group. By no stretch of imagination is it a non-violent form of protest.

A "fast unto death" is fine ... in the privacy of one's home. Gandhi famously called his fasts as acts of "penance". But even he did not just indulge in those penances silently or in private.

Because that defeats the purpose, so to speak. The aim of a hunger-strike is to make a spectacle of it. All such fasts are announced with much fanfare, happen at fairgrounds or other prominent places, and are extensively covered by media. The intention is to, bluntly speaking, threaten suicide with each passing day carrying a heightened risk.

In all civilized societies, to threaten somebody else is a crime. To threaten others, who care about oneself, of self-harm is a way of putting emotional pressure. Everybody understands that. It (the expression of such a threat) may be an act of desperation, or an act of depression, but the aim is to provoke a response of cave-in or of sympathy.

To threaten the state, or a public authority, of self-harm, is only slightly different. One threatens the state with violence in case the state allows the fast unto death to reach its logical conclusion. The fast itself is just a means to the threat-point. The real threat is the public response to the death of the fasting person.

A fast by an oppressed person (say the father of a murdered son, or a raped woman) can be a desperate measure when all appeals to reason or to due process have failed, and when one sees no other way of getting the public attention. But there should be no confusion that this is an act of violence.

I consider that most so-called non-violent protests violate others' well-being, liberty and peace.

When I was in college, I witnessed a "non-violent" protest in the parking lot of a government building during which the protesters pasted small black stickers on the windshields of all parked vehicles. It was merely an annoyance to the owner of the automobile, but I refused to consider that protest non-violent. It was a violation, even if in a small measure, of another person's property.

There are indeed forms of non-violent protests. But they might be less effective than a gherao.

Some examples:
  • Holding a placard with a message in front of a building.  
  • Distributing flyers.
  • Wearing black bands.
  • Passive civil disobedience to a law (refusing to pay taxes or to honor a summons from a court, for example).  And then to peacefully accept the consequences.
  • Expressing oneself in an "opt-in" manner, i.e. where you do not force others to participate: writing or speaking in media, writing a book, making a film, etc.  (Causing a commotion by using a loudspeaker in an otherwise silent area denies others the option to not be part of the protest.  What if there are ill people or little children in an area?)
Since these genuinely non-violent protests might not be very effective, it is possible that the protesters might eventually decide to use force. And perhaps they should. And they should then call themselves fighters. There is no shame in using force. On the contrary, a warrior who is willing to fight and die for justice is a hero.

A protest against injustice must have integrity. A "non-violent" protest which is actually violent fails that test.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

True Love

It was wintertime again, and he was achingly lonely.  Beautiful women were all around him, but their beauty was to him like that of decorated, ornately dressed carcasses.  They smelled nice, having bathed in French perfumes.  Their skin was like the moon reflected in a still lake at night.  Their dresses were made of the finest silk and gold.

But he did not want to touch them.  He was repelled by their laborious glamour.  He wanted to experience something which was not crafted.

He had stayed on that island for many years now.  Slowly but surely he had concluded that true love was not to be found there.  That he was going to have to travel far if he wanted to have a glimpse of it.

After a night of revelry and drunkenness, when all were in oblivion, he packed a few garments and some food, walked to the ocean, silently released the sailboat from the harbor, and set sail.

Many days went by till he saw another soul.  He was now on an island hundreds of miles away from his home.  And it was here that he met the hermit.

The hermit patiently listened to his quest for true love, and asked him to contemplate on what he meant by "love", and how would he know when he had found it.

The man told the hermit that "love" could not be explained, that he would know when he found it.  But the hermit was stubborn and insisted on an answer.

The seeker was perplexed.  Love for him was a matter of the heart, and how could he capture it in words?

A few things became clear to him as he wondered about his quest.  Why, if he was seeking "true love", was he seeking it from a woman?  Why was the womanhood so important?  And why the desire for physical closeness?  And what was the nature of the love emanating from his beloved?

He concluded that "true love" was love without any involvement of the mind.  When two people just reveled in each other's closeness without knowing or understanding why.

And he realized that "true love" directed at someone specific was possible only for a man who was ignorant about the evolution and the machinery of life.

Crestfallen, he went back to the hermit and told him "Love is no more a mystery to me.  I no longer wish to live."

The hermit pointed at a fire in the forest in the far distance.  Nobody understood how it had come about.  It had been raging for many years now.  Some speculated it was lightning.  Some thought it came from the bowels of the earth.

The hermit then gathered some dry wood and twigs, and tried to light them by rubbing together two small sticks.  There were sparks, and quickly there was a small fire.  Heat, light, the sound of wood crackling.  It was fascinating.  There were endless variations to the flame.

The man from the island was getting almost transfixed by the blaze.  The hermit looked at his eyes, and amused, suddenly stood up and urinated over the burning wood.  There was a hissing sound and the fire was extinguished.  Some embers still remained.

The man was angry at the hermit and wanted an explanation.

The hermit said: "It is only when you look at your knowledge with disdain that you are distressed by it.  I know how that fire was lit.  But I did not have to therefore put it out."

The man stayed awake the whole night pondering over what the hermit had said.

The next morning, he touched the hermit's feet and said, "I have but one last question.  What is beauty if it is all shallow?"

The hermit looked at him somberly and said, "Those little sticks that started the fire, are they not to be treasured?"

The man bade the hermit farewell and went back to his island.  And on the way he bought a resplendent robe for himself.

The Well-Oiled Cogs

It is widely understood that politeness, manners and gestures of courtesy help in social cohesion and safety.

Today morning in the gym, I witnessed something strange.  A woman "smiled" at me out of recognition.  We work out at the same time early morning.  But the smile was so blatantly artificial and momentary that instead of generating well-being, it generated distrust and woe.

It used to be that when a person greeted me with "Hey Good morning.  How are you doing?" I used to contemplate, considering it an expression of genuine interest, and think of an authentic response.  Not that I was going to really talk about a mid-life crisis, but "Great" seemed to be an exaggeration most of the time.  It felt fake.  It would have been more precise for me to say "I'm doing fine, thanks."  Now-a-days, I just respond mechanically: "Great, how are you?" And the answer is always: "Good, thanks!"  And I heave a sigh of relief at the successful end of this three-way-handshake.

On some of my more reflective days, when I am not feeling very communicative, I have to gather my energies for an outward expression, and then effort-fully mutter something positive.   And it can't be just a monotonic "gud" or the other person might feel insulted.  It has to be a stretched out waveform: "Goood!"

When I enter the gym, I have to hear "Have a good workout."  I have to say: "Thanks", even though I really like to stay silent for a few hours every morning.  Then when I leave the gym, I cannot escape being told: "Have a great day!"  And I have to again muster a smile and say: "Thanks, you too!"

It's not that I am a depressed person.  I am not even an introvert.  I am interested in other people.  I wish nobody any ill.  In fact, I genuinely wish these buggers well.  They keep the gym so clean and organized.  But please don't ask me to express it in trite phrases.  That's just not me.  I would much rather, as I once did, express my appreciation for a particularly helpful gym worker to the gym's manager.  The manager was quite surprised at my gratitude.

One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, writes about this fake bonhomie in his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again":
You know this smile, the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee….Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? ...
And yet, the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody who’s ever bought a pack of gum in a Mahattan cigar store, or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows full well the soul-crushing effect of a service workers’ scowl, i.e. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl. I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the countermans’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.
After the gym "incident" today morning, I wondered why that woman had to smile that fake smile at me.  Why couldn't she just nod or say "hi" with an upward flick of her eyebrows?

I concluded that she was entirely unaware of her smile.  It was an almost autonomic gesture.  Realizing the extent of her zombieness, I felt sorry for her.  She wasn't in the service industry.  She didn't have to smile.  But she did, and it was an excruciatingly fake smile.

In the office, on every Monday, there is another interesting question: "Hey, how was your weekend?"  I have learnt to not proffer details and make others envious about my off-beat pursuits, and have learnt that the polite answer is: "It was nice.  I/We went to random-but-not-out-of-the-way-place-x for a random-but-regular-act-y.  (e.g. "I went to Dana Point and spent a few hours oceanside.")  How about you?"

One of my friends once ranted that he wanted to shout at his co-workers when asked about his weekend: "None of your effing business mate.  I have given you folks fifty waking hours of my week which will never come back.  Please don't intrude on the ones left.  For the love of God, let me have a life which I don't have to tell you about."

I think he was overreacting, but I could also empathize.  Being a "professional" can at times demand in-authenticity, an appearance of being institutionalized, and a fake enthusiasm and cheerfulness.  It can get to people.  Some people would just like to do their work and go home.  This added obligation of yoo-hoo cheerfulness and of feigned curiosity about others at one's workplace feels like a malignant form of overtime.  Fake interest requires effort.  We get exhausted after entertaining guests with whom we cannot be ourselves, or who we are afraid of offending.

Social lubrication can be taken too far.  When there is too much oil, the cogs don't really mesh.  They just slide over each other, and never really interact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To travel in stillness

I consider that life rich which is not lazy, but which is also not bound by the logistics of life.  Which has some wealth but also leisure, and space, and silence within.  Which has a ticking watch on its wrist but is also aware of the stillness of time, of the changing colors of the sky, of others' voices.  Which can commune with nature.

By that measure, a sleepless diplomat in Brussels, a caffeinated day trader on Wall Street, and an impoverished laborer in Dubai are equally poor.  They are all trapped by the need to sustain themselves.

That man is to be admired who, while lacking in means, ventures into the subtler dimensions of life.  That man is to be pitied who, while rich, doesn't.

When a man realizes he is wasting his years in the mere pursuit of means, the solution is not to suddenly start reading travel guides.  The remedy is not to start consuming experiences.  The cure is not to substitute one kind of noise for the other... but to be silent.  In that silence, when the destination is in the here and now, there can be simultaneously full awareness and a total contentment.

There is, in life, both the joy of achievement, and the peace of contentment.  Neither is the full expression of living.  A life lived bound by ceaseless achievement is as unbalanced as a life bound by endless complacence.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tattoos, sports cars and other symbols

Ratcheted down by law, the atomized modern man seeks symbolic victories.

Tattoos were historically symbols of gang membership, of belonging to a certain group, of one's identity as being part of something larger.

In the absence of a meaningful community, self-expression becomes perverted: it gets directed at strangers.

A tattoo on an otherwise sane person says a number of things:
  • "Please look at me."
  • "I am not just another, anonymous, person."
  • "I may not be able to verbalize what I am, but here's something cool that may interest you."
  • "I make my own rules.  I am an individual.  But I need acknowledgment for being me."
  • "I am not part of the herd.  I am esoteric." (people like to choose a foreign, sometimes ancient, script for their tattoos, e.g. David Beckham has his girlfriend's name etched on his arm in Devanagari).

Mutilating one's body to a further extent, by piercings and studs, is an attempt to rebel by violating one's own body. Since one cannot meaningfully rebel against socioeconomic oppression, one chooses to violate the "rules" about one's own body. That, at least, is under one's dominion.

These rebellions are symbolic. But symbols can be pacifying. In the absence of freedom, an illusion of being an outlaw might soothe.

Sports cars are likewise attempts to be find adventure where there is none: to get a rush from something mundane. Since urban life is full of anomie and dullness, sports cars offer the childlike thrill of getting to the speed limit (again, the law) with an unholy acceleration. It is to want to be in a roller-coaster as an adult.

Understand: "Sports" cars are mostly driven to "work". Sport, adventure, the "power process" (cf the Unabomber manifesto) is absent in life today. So, a symbolic, temporary, meaningless alternative is purchased, at a premium of thousands of dollars.


People who do not have tattoos, and who do not drive sports cars, do they have less of an instinctual drive to rebel, even if symbolically? Or maybe some of them realize the vise-grip they are in. And realize that mutilating their own bodies, and paying large (automobile) corporations more money to feel alive, is not the way to go.

Are they more institutionalized? Or is a tattooed person more deluded than someone who realizes their own oppression and refuses to be placated by symbols?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Subjective Response to Music

An earlier essay on music.

In my experience, individual response to music can be highly varied.  As an example, I enjoy the works of the guitarist Joe Satriani, but many consider his music to be too cerebral, and they enjoy the works of Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix with far more feeling and gusto.  I might try to argue with them that Rubina's Blue Sky Happiness or The Forgotten (part 2) are both intensely emotional experiences, but in the final analysis, their subjective response cannot be denied.  It just is, and emotions cannot be argued with.

We appreciate music for many reasons.  We may be in a certain mood and a song just captures our feelings in a beautifully poetic way.  A song or composition might bring about a feeling of nostalgia and rekindle long-lost memories because of how and when we listened to it for the first time.

Some songs that I listened to while I was a little child (on a gifted radio-cassette player) continue to be favorites because they evoke in me memories of the first home that I lived in, of the room that had that player, and of the very bed that I sat on while listening to that. Sometimes they bring about memories of the people who were with me when I listened to them.  Their musical excellence can be doubted, their production values can be critiqued, but the subjective experience that results from them is indubitable.

Music is also perceived to have therapeutic effects.  A melody may soothe our nerves, or it may invigorate and uplift us.  It may make us dance, or it might be an aid to contemplation.

To add to the complexity, there are genres of music that appeal to us, while we are immune to others.  Each genre of music can contain a whole spectrum of moods, and I speculate that after a certain age, we are resistant to develop an appreciation of unfamiliar genres.

Certain eras have a context to their music.  The 60s and 70s in India hadn't really seen an urban boom and late nights, so music was less inclined toward dance and was more melodious and hum-worthy.  That is not to say that today's music is in any way inferior.  In many ways, today's music is vastly more innovative.

Contrast these three songs, having a similar theme from different eras.  The pace increases, and a variety of technologies and instruments are introduced, as the compositions become more modern:

For another take on context, consider Jazz or Soul.  People who grew up in small towns and who have listened to live bands in small taverns or restaurants might naturally have a deeper appreciation for it.

Contrast that with Gangsta Rap.  Like Jazz, Gangsta Rap has strong elements of improvisation but is obviously more of an urban ghetto phenomenon: full of strong words, expletives, rebellion and violence.  Finer feelings are typically absent, and alienation and rage rule.

We continue to have fondness for the genres that we grew up with, or with those whose general rhythm and acoustics resonate with our personality type.

Extroverts will perhaps find the following composition "boring" and slow:

And contemplative minds might abhor techno or trance music, because it is typically associated with hedonism, parties, raves and intoxication:

Being a somewhat contemplative mind, I nevertheless find techno music, using nothing but digital instruments, supremely musical.  The imperfection or the human element might be missing, but then one remembers that no machine (at least for the foreseeable future) could create such music.

For example, the following composition, though short, shines through with a mood (subjective, again) of strength, of being re-born, of rising from the ashes:

Even if the composition be energetic, it need not deter soulful souls.  As examples, these two composition, though having a fast rhythm, can create a reflective, somber mood:

If the general perception of a particular genre does not appeal to me, I try to find out if there is something in it that creates a response.  Invariably it does.  It is not that difficult to flow with the artist and his experience during the creation.  The only requirement is that one put aside one's preconceived notions and prejudices.

This way, one can experience new vistas, while continuing to have a cherished musical home where one can again and again experience the familiar.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (Dylan Thomas, 1951)


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

While there be notions of reincarnation, it is doubtless that something ends at death.  The memories, the familiarity, the history of interactions, the face and its expressions, the nostalgia of the childhood and of the home one lived in, ... all that comes to an end.  To begin again in a different form and frame, perhaps, but to end as one too.

After a certain age, most of us become resigned to our ongoing momentum and inertia.  Inertia and momentum are, as physicists since the time of Newton have known, the same thing.  Steady motion in the same direction is not different from stillness.  To change direction is the nature of life.  To apply force is the nature of the will.  To fall and slide down requires no effort.  To get up and to again push back against the earth, does.

Like a candle that burns even more fiercely as it nears its end, let old age not be emblematic of embers, but of a fiery passion that knows the end is nigh.  And therefore let the old age be of days lived with a fullness that is absent in youth.  The youth has time on its side, and is full of hubris and a lazy postponement of one's dreams and passions.  In old age the dreams at night must be no more, for the clock is ticking, and the ticks of the clock must act as knocks on one's closed doors and windows.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Man, unlike other animals, seeks to change his environment.  To sculpt the earth and others' minds.  But the idealism of youth, the possibility of revolution and the fierceness of a fearless hope give way to resignation as we realize the limitations and hear cautionary tales about foolhardy men who thought they could change the world and suffered from their bravado.

But as death comes close, the fear of death must vanish.  What have the old got to lose?  A couple of years?  A young man can be frightened of a long suffering or of death, but an old man must be fearless and must, like a wise fool, rush in where the unknowing timid fear to tread.

If they were unable to ignite a spark back in the day, now is the time to firebomb and to light a fuse under the armchairs made of safe, wooden compassion occupied by bored, distant, comfortable slacktivists.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The end of dreaming must not mean an end to action.  It must mean a graver understanding of the impediments and therefore more insightful and effective action.  Because the acts could not flourish in an environment of harshness, old men might become bitter and cynical.  Is a different outcome possible?  Is it possible to have passionate hope tempered with wisdom?

There are examples.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Men who weren't afraid to fly and fall, who weren't afraid to marry danger and who didn't want to fight a small skirmish but who wished to go all out, guns blazing...  Who wanted to seek truth and meaning and enlightenment... And who thought their light and passion would ignite the world but who saw nothing change as the dawn turned into noon and then to dusk.  They grieved and cried because they thought their lives have had no effect, that there hadn't been any lasting change, justice hadn't won over injustice in their lifetimes.  How could they peacefully pass away?  They must rage, rebel against death, rebel against defeat.  For they, at the front-lines of humanity, are not yet defeated.  They are but passing the swords, sharper than ever, to the next line of soldiers, ready to fight.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,   
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

With their vision sharpened through a lifetime of discarding one illusion after another, it may be weak in the light it can capture, but it is piercingly sharp because of the light it can impart.  It is blind and blinding at the same time.  Like meteors, the blaze of the knowledge is soon to get extinguished, but their light is not thereby less spectacular.  They are hurtling toward nothingness, and in that final journey they might shine a light on something which was hitherto hidden.  The finality of that final journey need not be a source of sorrow, it can be a joy of the kind that only comes with knowing that one did not hold back, that one was not trying to be safe anymore.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Any sign of life in one's dying beloved, even if it be a curse, is a blessing.  At that height of aloneness, where another breath can blow away the wispy frame from all that one held dear, let there be no forgetting, let there be no inertness even if it means pain and heartbreak.  For these are the final moments of a setting sun, and the none can dare look at anything else but the strange beauty of it.

Death in the end ... but let there be no death till then, till the very end.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Ride

It was still dark when he woke up.  The stars were shimmering and there was only the very bare outline of the sky becoming lighter in the east.  It was, as the ancient sages declared, the time for meditation.

He got up from his bed, half alert and with a chaotic grogginess.  The house was quiet, except for the hum of the fan and the occasional sound of a car cruising on the nearby highway.  He switched on a light in his bathroom and slightly squinting, looked at himself in the mirror: his ashen face, his disheveled hair and the two day old stubble on his jaw.  As he turned on the faucet in the basin, the sound of water filled his ears.  Soon the water was warm, and he splashed his face and his eyes.  As he brushed his teeth, the invigorating fragrance of mint and cloves filled his nostrils.

The sun was still a few hours away from the horizon.  He came out of his nightclothes and put on a cold gray t-shirt, his black jeans, and the waterproof wrist watch.  The distance to the outside of his house was only twenty feet, but it was a journey not unlike that of a monk preparing to go inside his pagoda and to sink deep into timelessness.  He put on his cushioning socks, his ankle-high boots, and put on his rather heavy leather jacket.  In the left jacket pocket went his garage remote, and in the right pocket he carefully put in his wallet.  The jacket was almost too heavy, but his heart was slowly unburdening itself.  He inserted the foamy green plugs into his ears to protect them from the noise of the wind-stream and took in his left hand the helmet and his gloves  from the wooden table next to his door.

As he stepped outside and locked his door, he was a man composed.  The fragrance of the trees hit his nostrils, and the cool air stung his still moist face.  The hair on his arms stood up, and he instinctively closed his right palm as if to prepare for a vague battle.

Steadily, and with a silent poise, he descended delicately.  Everybody else must have been still asleep and he was careful to muffle the clank of his boots on the concrete stairs.  The parked cars were wet after a night of rain. In what seemed to be an automatic movement, he transferred the helmet to his right hand, took out the garage remote and pressed the button.  The garage door motor whirred into life, the garage light switched itself on, and there was his motorcycle on its side stand, inclined toward the left.

He circled the motorcycle once, as if examining his horse.  The tires were rounded in their fullness, there was not a speck of dust on the windshield, the chrome was brilliantly reflective.  With a deft and practiced movement, he unlocked the handle-bar and turned the key to ignition.  The battery in the intestines of the motorcycle awoke from its slumber and tiny LED lights glimmered on the instrument panel.

He put on his helmet.  It felt warm and snug.  The gloves were now on as well.  The inside of the gloves felt rough and cold and he rubbed his hands together to generate some much-needed warmth.  He got on his motorcycle from the left and slowly and silently wheeled it out of the garage.  He turned the bike to face away from the garage door and pressed on the remote one last time.  The garage door closed, as if signaling to himself that the only way now open to him was the open road.

He took a quick breath.  He looked down on his lifeless speedometer, and after what seemed like an inordinately long time, turned off the engine kill switch.  It was time.  The meditation was about to begin.

The needle gracefully swept the speedometer dial toward the extreme right, to 160 mph, and then back to zero.

His hands gripped the handle bars, and with his left fingers pulling on the clutch lever, his right thumb resolutely pressed the engine starter.  The motorcycle's 800cc V-twin rumbled to life.  It was the roar of a wild animal roused from its sleep by a sudden jerk.  The engine's sound was a steady thump.  The vibration made him sit up straight and stretch his back.  The monk would have closed his eyes after sitting on his cushion, but the rider's eyes were now intently focused ahead of him.

The motorcycle started to move.  It was still waking up and in the first gear, and it glided smoothly while overcoming the numerous bumps.  As he exited the private street and turned toward the empty county road, his trance was deepening.  The sound and the vibration of the motorcycle was entering his muscles.  First gear quickly gave way to neutral, the green light briefly flickering, and then it was on to the second gear, and then the third.  As he approached the red traffic light, he slowed down.  He was barely able to control his motorcycle which was almost sulking at being forced to stop.  The traffic signal magnets in the road surface didn't detect his ethereal presence, and the traffic light remained a glaring red.

He looked around.  There was not a soul in sight.  The motorcycled roared again and he acceded to its unreasonable demand.  The red lights stared angrily at him in his peripheral vision, but after the turn, his mirrors showed the orthogonal green lights, as if grudgingly confirming his rash decision.  He felt slightly amused.  But the monk knew that the first few minutes of meditation are the hardest, with strange thoughts and memories of unfinished dreams still flashing across the mindscape.

The sign ahead said: "Freeway Entrance.  Pedestrians, Bicycles, Motor-driven cycles prohibited."  He had once wondered at the distinction between a motorcycle and a motor-driven cycle, but now it didn't even cause a whiff of anxiety.  The sign was a warning to other wanderers who were just starting to venture into the unknown, not to him.  He belonged there.  Just as the monk felt at home on his cushion, so was the rider at peace with the empty, high-speed highway that lay ahead.

The wind was now strong on his face.  He brought down the helmet visor with his left hand.  His face was now shielded from the elements and from the occasional projectile.  He was going at fifty miles per hour, now in the fourth gear.  As the motorcycle leaned on the on-ramp, he smoothly accelerated.  He could feel his MSF training in his bloodstream.  The bike leaned to its limit but he leaned it still more.  The right foot-peg scraped against the hard pavement and golden sparks flew in the darkness.  These were the screeching fireworks, welcoming him home.

The motorcycle was giddily accelerating now.  50 miles per hour, 60, 70 and now 80 miles per hour.  It was finally in top gear.  There were no more gears to be changed.  The vibrations were smooth and stable, his hands were lightly resting on the handlebar, and his feet firmly on the pegs.  His jacket was tightly wrapped around his torso, and only his neck and a small part of his wrists were feeling the cool morning air.

His body was relaxed but straight.  His vision was acutely aware of the wide empty highway that stretched ahead for miles.  His mind was now quite alert.  His legs were tightly hugging the sides of the motorcycle and the hem of his jeans was fluttering in the wind.  There wasn't any traffic, not at that unearthly hour.  The roar of the V-twin and the intense whoosh of the wind were anything but silent, but the silence inside of him was deepening.

To ride, he had to be wholly mindful.  He had to mind the surface of the road, he had to frequently check his rear view mirrors, he had to look far ahead for any potential dangers, he had to intently listen to the engine's roar, and watch his speed.  All without moving his head.  Only his eyes could move.  His body had to keep the 600 pounds of metal under him in balance.

The road was smooth, but for an occasional crack in the pavement.  The motorcycle weaved slightly when it went over this occasional crack, only to regain its graceful movement again.

As he glanced down at the fuel gauge, he faintly smiled.  He could go on for another one hundred and fifty miles before needing to stop.

His mindfulness was now reaching its peak.  He was now fused with the machine.  The thump in his heart, the rhythm of his lungs, the movement of the pistons, the shuddering of the speed needle, the steady grip of his wrists, and the boom of the exhaust were all part of one organism now.

He felt like he had come a long way, but the road ahead was endless.  There was no GPS, no map and no destination.  The sun was now up in the east.  The wind thundered around his face and swirled around his body and around his motorcycle.  His arms had lost their stiffness and were fluid and the hot air from near the engine was warming his legs.  There were no more thoughts.  The silence within him was complete.

The wind was him, the smells and the fumes were him, the road was him, the buildings and the trees and the valleys and the hills and the lakes were him.

He was no more, and he was everywhere.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion, part V

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

The last stanza:

And death shall have no dominion.

And the ashes of death will cease to tyrannize and menace those consumed by the fires of their passions.

As I once heard:

अगर है शौक़ मरने का ,तो हर दम लौ लगाता जा,
जला कर खुदनुमाई को, भस्म तन पर लगाता जा.
(If you are passionate about death, let the blaze of that passion burnish every moment of your existence,
As that blaze turns your self-centeredness to ashes, let those ashes then adorn your body.)

No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
After the men are gone from the earth, perhaps there will come a time when other forms of life too slowly pass into oblivion. Birds and oceans may cease to exist. There was a time, billions of years ago, when life on earth was only in the future. But the wonder is that life sprang from that apparent lifelessness. Lifelessness did not endure eternally. There might be another ice age, another deluge, another apocalypse, but, so what?

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
"The strength and the beauty of a tender leaf is its vulnerability to destruction. Like a blade of grass that comes up through the pavement, it has the power that can withstand casual death." (Krishnamurti's Notebook)

What is that power? What is that brave facing of an ending but an implicit, intrinsic, inherent, intoxicated determination that life shall begin again. That this ending is but a hiatus.

The beauty of life - the birds, the waves, the flowers - may fall into lifelessness, but this passage is life itself. There will be further waves, further life forms, even stranger trees. Life is the arrow of time, as it moves forward from chaos to order to chaos again.

Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
And even though the soil and earth contain death and a seeming chaos and insanity, that insanity camouflages and hides the seed that gives rise to heartbreaking beauty when new life blossoms forth. Perhaps the myriad forms of death are what give shape to the myriad forms of life.

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,

And this dance of life and death and then life again will continue to witness and be witnessed, till the stars and the nebulae and the galaxies and the constellations scatter away, into dust, into vacuum, into darkness.

And from that apparent void and darkness and nothingness shall again come matter and light and life and little children and singing and the beauty of creation in all its forms.

And death shall have no dominion.
"To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible — and eternal, so that come what may to my 'Soul,' my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part — I shall still have some sort of a finger in the pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me — but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you." (W. N. P. Barbellion, in The Journal of a Disappointed Man)

And death shall have no dominion.