An Exercise in Becoming

For the last three posts I have been exploring the process of becoming. An outgrowth of that, as far as the site goes, has been a rather radical transformation. Rather than being hosted at Small’s Clone Industries, where The Row Boat has lived since it began in 2005, it now lives at www.therowboat.com, a home of its own. I began SCI a long time ago in an effort to play around with the internet, developing art projects and hobbies. Of the several sites hosted there, The Row Boat has come to dominate my attention, as well as web traffic (though still it is a rather quiet corner).

On this domain, The Row Boat can come into itself, it can self-actualize. No longer one among several hobby projects, it can claim to be decidedly public, leaving something private behind to wander and wonder, probably to fester.

Everything in the systemic public must serve a function, so I have also begun developing a “Readings” section (for now, it is in the sidebar at left) where I will keep track of worthwhile bits and pieces I come across that may do some good for others. In the future, that section may develop, as well all do in this ever-changing cosmos, into something else.

Becoming a Professional

Charlie Chaplain in Modern TimesPreviously, in “Becoming a Person,” I wrote, with no great originality:

Incidentally, coherent personhood has been the assumption behind rational government (all but Louis XIV’s Le etat, c’est moi), especially republican democracy. Voting, opinion polls, representation, and constitutions all depend on the assumption that citizens are coherent persons.

The same goes, of course, for all rational organizations. Since Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, we know well enough that working in industrial systems means becoming at least somewhat cog-like. It demands a spiritual shift, so to speak, because one’s ultimate aims, or at least proximate aims, become reconfigured.

Because of my own difficulties at day jobs—seemingly part of the transition from academic life to the workaday—I have been polling friends and family about professionalism. My father wrote, among other generous things:

You must learn to enjoy being useful as a first step.

This is truly a shift of scale, a shift of orientation. My difficulties at work, I realize, stem from the fact of spending the work day looking out for my own interests, and being mainly interested in them. But doing things right means thinking differently. Sitting in the office, my interests have to become one with the office, one with the people I work with. It enables them to trust me and me to trust myself. Professionalism is a technology, in that it makes one useful to others; the person becomes technology.

With the discovery of any new technology there is something gained and something lost. My generation has grown up being acutely aware of this, to the point of cliche. When I first saw the movie Fight Club in high school, nothing could possibly feel more true and obvious than that a successful young professional life, decorated by Ikea and so forth, was empty at its root. Spontaneity gets systematically eliminated. Danger, too. The fundamental facts of existence, death and so forth, are put aside as less significant concerns than the minutiae of office life. The only difference between this and outright slavery is that slaves are  aware of their condition; professionals are under the delusion that they are, in fact, self-actualized and coherent persons.

Kurt\'s office spaceOver at Garzuela, Kurt has been tossing these concerns around as well (beware of obscenity):

Do you like my new office? I think that it’s good to get some professionalism out of my system, so I can start to live like a real human. Let’s talk about dehumanization of the human race, and how we are being pushed to act more like mindless drones in order to be financially stable in the world? Actually, I think that some people will find it refreshing, and I actually landed the most professional job I’ve ever had yet, as a result of this kind of behavior. Or maybe it was getting this behavior out of my system, that allowed for me to get into my niche. Maybe I should say moist professional job, put hand on top of her head, and slowly guide it toward my crotch. Careful not to let her know that I’m unzipping my pants with my other hand, and getting a sweet ding a ling ready for her.

The obscenity to beware of is a prerequisite of such resistance against professionalism. Just like the fistfights in Fight Club it shocks the system, or shocks the person out of the system.

Yet these things I grew up knowing don’t feel quite known anymore. I’m twenty three years old, seeking my fortune and so forth, and a little professionalism has become required. Without it, I definitely can’t do my job. Without it, I keep messing up in little tasks, letting my personal interests overshadow my functional purpose. Doing the job right demands a little … inauthenticity, though in my life so far, evading professions, I have always denied the possibility of that concept. How, I have thought, can one be other than oneself, or be more or less oneself?

Professionalism demands a line of separation between person and public face, an segregation of spheres so that each might be coherent—all in such a way that invents, for the first time, the dialectic of authenticity. It becomes a question possible to ask: Am I being authentic? Authentic to what?

Becoming a Person

William JamesThe New York Times Week in Review, blessedly (and following the fabulous journal The New Atlantis), quotes William James on attention. The point, naturally, is yet another condemnation of our relentlessly multitasking, over-busy mental society. But there is much more at work in this pregnant piece:

To James, steady attention was thus the default condition of a mature mind, an ordinary state undone only by perturbation. To readers a century later, that placid portrayal may seem alien—as though depicting a bygone world. Instead, today’s multitasking adult may find something more familiar in James’s description of the youthful mind: an “extreme mobility of the attention” that “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.” For some people, James noted, this challenge is never overcome; such people only get their work done “in the interstices of their mind-wandering.”

While perhaps on the one hand he is making the wizened philosopher’s usual gripes against the young, there is something bolder going on as well. James is talking about the constituent things of personhood, the requisites. As a person matures—that is, comes into being himself—he becomes a person by making clear the line between self and world. No longer does the world utterly dictate the person; now the person begins to be, with focused attention, nothing but himself.

This is a common idea, of course, and not James’s invention, only his little implication. We expect—ideally—a coherence in people that mirrors the coherence we expect in ideas. And coming into that personhood is a process. It develops and “comes into its own.” Half a century after James, the popularizing psychologist Carl Rodgers could write a book called On Becoming a Person. Like the whole swath of 20th century popular psychology, Rodgers’s goal is control, or in his terms, “self-actualization.” Being a person means being an agent, a dominion, a soul, which rules over personhood and its extensions. Becoming so coherent as to be actual.

Incidentally, coherent personhood has been the assumption behind rational government (all but Louis XIV’s Le etat, c’est moi), especially republican democracy. Voting, opinion polls, representation, and constitutions all depend on the assumption that citizens are coherent persons.

Attention, of course, has had religious value across traditions for all time—the capacity of centering prayer and meditation to alter consciousness is well attested to. And so, meanwhile, is this sense of personal coherence that goes with it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” Mobility of belonging therefore, to mix up James’s terms, is not only childish but demonic. The proper religious subject, the one who belongs to God, is a coherent one, a trustworthy one, a unitary one.

But what of the rights of non-persons?—what if one refused to accept these terms? Say I will let myself be determined by the objects I encounter. Or, as Heidegger and Foucault might lead us to say, accept that in fact I am determined by the objects I encounter. With all due respect to James’s well-wrought assumptions, I find that, in its place, this personless existence may be philosophically defensible, fun, necessary, inevitable, and possibly even coherent. Especially, oddly enough, in religious terms. Some have insisted that one cannot learn about the beliefs of others without trying to enter bits of their personhood. (Ever since the nineteenth-century white Spiritualists who believed that dead Native Americans and slaves were entering their bodies, the politics of such endeavors has been questionable.) And then of course the necessary and uninformed references to Taoism, Buddhism, and apophatic mysticism.

But, as the wordless mystics know, the problems of non-personhood in a world of persons are endless.

Becoming a Generation

My generation continues to … flounder. Our biggest news lately was the Iowa caucus, when Barack Obama made a surprising showing, which the exit polls attributed to the youth vote—students had come back early to their campuses to caucus. The next day, as the whole show moved to New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton started making her speeches with fresh youngsters behind her. At least before everyone started talking about white, working class men, this seemed like it might be an era for the young. It turned out to be only fifteen minutes.

I recently noticed a new blog out of CampusProgress.org, Pushback, filled with youthful commentary mixing culture and politics. Perfectly legitimate, right? Reminds me of an ill-fated project I was involved in, Voting Is the New Apathy, except well-funded and determined to succeed.

We (I) were (was) raised and educated in the shadow of those who were young in the 60s and 70s, for whom generation represented an identity. They told us stories of activism, idealism, and world-changing, then ask over and over why we aren’t the same way. The litany goes: Iraq is just as insane as Vietnam—why don’t you care like we did? Yet my generation has resolutely decided not to define its identity as such. Except for the Iowa caucus, age has not dictated politics; we have embraced, politically at least, the categories set by our parents. Content with that, we spend hours and hours on the internet.

Maybe it is time to put the “millenialism” back in “millenials”?

The Theory of Double Truth

Have you ever had the desire, the urge, the dangerous little need to contradict yourself for its own sake? Or for the sake of something quite unspeakable? The words “paradox” and “contradiction” come eerily close to being synonyms—they mean the same encounter of irreconcilables—yet they connote different moods. A contradiction is the dumbest, most obvious falsehood, while we treat paradoxes as exalted mysteries. The two words themselves, meaning the same thing but different, are a contradiction, or a paradox. For complicated reasons, we make decisions about when something looks like one and when it looks like the other. Contradictions can be dismissed; paradoxes cannot. Paradoxes thrust themselves into our desire.

The theory of double truth, to speak historically, was a heresy in medieval Christian Europe. Often synonymous with “Latin Averroism” (after Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, the Arab philosopher), it grew out of the thirteenth century’s encounter with Islamic philosophy, and through it, ancient Greek thought. After several centuries of possessing only the barest scraps of Plato and Aristotle, Christiandom had gone its own way, ceasing to address questions the ancients’ ideas raised. So when Aristotle’s Metaphysics suddenly appeared, and “the interpreter” Averroes insists that his system means that the universe is eternal and souls are not, some valiant thinkers decided they had little choice but to agree. Among these were Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia. They did so knowing, however, that Catholic dogma forbids such conclusions, and in those days there was no arguing with Catholic dogma. The only choice was to accept both truths, the dogmatic and the philosophical, at once.

In 1277, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, condemned those who “hold that something is
true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there are two contrary truths, and as if in contradiction to the truth of Sacred Scripture there is a truth in the doctrines of the accursed pagans.” Both Siger and Boethius lost their teaching posts. The following decade, Siger was supposedly murdered by a secretary with a pen. Neither admitted to practicing the theory of double truth, and constantly sought to reconcile or explain the inconsistencies between philosophy and sacred doctrine. But the condemnation stuck. Still, for reasons we don’t quite understand, Dante depicts Siger in heaven with Thomas Aquinas (who opposed him in life) singing his praises.

Nobody quite admits to believing the theory, even those who are perpetually drawn to it. Somewhere, there has to be a resolution to the apparent contradiction—a single truth beneath the appearance of two. Trusting in that, what seems like a contradiction is really a paradox.

The theory is no stranger to Jewish thought. The Talmud tells of Elisha ben Abuyah, a brilliant scholar who was seduced by the Hellenic culture and ideas that surrounded him. There are stories of Elisha as both a great sage and a rather insane heretic. Apparently, he was both. Attested to in the books carried by Jews everywhere the diaspora took them, he became an icon of the problem of identity or assimilation. Rabbis argued about whether he ever made it to heaven. Just as Dante did with Siger, some thought he deserved a special place there. Others declared him an outcast, or, as the twentieth century rabbi Milton Steinberg would depict him, as a leaf driven to fall from his tree. For short, the rabbis in the Talmud call Elisha אחר—the “other.”

It was another Jew who truly carried the theory of double truth into the twentieth century, and in doing made it politically aware. Leo Strauss, a German-born philosopher, re-read double truths in great thinkers of history like Plato and Maimonides. Such men, in order to accomplish their political goals and avoid the persecution of power, had to tell two truths. They taught an exoteric one, safe and acceptable to the world, believable enough, and good for ordinary society. But within it they hid an esoteric teaching, one that paid no homage to the gods of the world. Both teachings were true, and needed to be said. Ordinary folks needed the exoteric to live by, and philosophers needed the esoteric to understand.

It reminds me of an altar in a Catholic church I once visited in Guatemala. The first time I went, I sat in the pews in silence. Nobody was there. It was an ordinary, Spanish-style church. The second time, it was morning, and people were coming in for their prayers. I saw them, one by one, go behind the altar. Finally I went back myself and saw that it was covered in feathers and candle wax and symbols of a different religion entirely.

At the University of Chicago, Strauss built himself a following, and some of his students went on to become prominent neoconservatives—notably Bush’s deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. Adam Curtis’s gripping documentary, The Power of Nightmares, argues that neoconservatives used evangelical Christianity as the exoteric guise behind their esoteric greedy nihilism.

George Orwell famously associated double truth—”doublethink”—with the dystopic world of his 1984. Promulgating double truth—indeed, filling the world with righteous paradoxes—becomes the policy of totalitarianism. Blur people’s ability to see contradiction, and they will believe anything. They will become utterly subservient to power.

Then again, another anti-totalitarian novelist celebrates the theory. Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which closed the deal on his Nobel Prize, tells of a man named Ka caught in the bloody, black-or-white mix of Turkish political culture. As a poet from Istanbul, he cannot escape being a member of the secular bourgeoisie, which controls the army and the revolutionary legacy of Ataturk. Nevertheless, he becomes intrigued by the world of provincial Islamists, who carry hopes for a revolution of their own under the banner of ancient religion. What distinguishes Ka in the novel’s world is his desire for both, for the double truth. He falls in love with each, separate and together. And it does him in. Turkey has become a place where the theory of double truth is especially and undoubtedly dangerous.

That is the thing about double truth. It is dangerous. On a number of fronts, I am deeply drawn to it, inhabiting contradictions, playing many roles, and trusting each as real. And for the moment I can write about these sensations here and there, a few people read them, and not much happens. But times can change quickly. When they do, in one way or another, the rules concerning double truth change too. What makes a paradox and what makes a contradiction gets mixed up. Pamuk’s Ka gets trouble for double truth among Turks, but in Europe Pamuk gets the Nobel. To Christians the Trinity is a paradox, while for Muslims it is a foolish contradiction. The difference can be deadly.

The appeal of double truth, however, has persisted throughout history in whatever forms it can safely find. It must. Within it probably lies, in fact, a single truth, a cohesive reason why people are drawn to opposing things. In simplest terms: We people are complex, and we do not fit into our own logics. Our worlds are not satisfied with single truths, though they might hold one’s attention for a little while. Now, a cycle. The single truth that explains double truth will fail to satisfy. It is the illusion, and double truth the truth.
The Theory of Double Truth

The Local Neighborhood Conspiracy

The Family by Jeff SharletReligion Dispatches has just put up my review of Jeff Sharlet’s book, The Family, about a secret Christian political organization headquartered in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia.

Like the emperor’s new clothes, power is invisible to those who don’t happen to know about it. One could, as I did, spend eighteen years growing up less than a mile away from one of the great centers of theocratic power in the United States without knowing it was there. Tucked away in a quiet suburban neighborhood (as begin so many horror stories), its global influence can’t be seen from the street. I’ve been there and looked.

More at Religion Dispatches (link | pdf).

Don’t You Love It When Your Day Is in a Play?

I don’t know how many of you all out there have been spending your days like me, combing through proofs for and against the existence of God and trying to write clever things about them. But if you are, have I got a play for you: The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist, now playing at Under St. Mark’s in the East Village. Even if you’re not like me, I bet you’d like it. It is really funny. The story of a charming Viagra salesman and an existentially-troubled white couple wrapped around the story of an internet-celebrity atheist guy who steals a statue of the baby Jesus from a Nativity scene to prove that God doesn’t exist (things go wrong). As the trio begins to tell the story of the atheist, they talk about how obnoxious atheists always are. “But they’re right, obviously.” Yeah, obviously. And acting out a bit of internet urban legend, playwright Dan Trujillo manages to throw in a pretty good rendition of Augustine’s answer to the problem of evil. Everybody is funny, and everybody, bizarrely, is right.

The cast is fantastic, and the harmonies they sing warm one’s eternal soul. The only problem is, they way they’re dressed, you’d never believe it was around Christmas time, when a nativity scene might be out. At least while seeing it in New York.

Early Morning Raid

I’ve got a new video up now to join the rest of them, a music video of the previously unheard-by-anyone-except-me song “Afghanistan.” The song is set to some video I got of a wild thunderstorm in New York the other night, which looked so much like a bombing raid that I had to juxtapose it with footage of one, the one that continues to haunt us so much.

“Afghanistan” was originally written and recorded in 2004 for the first Novice CD, Elementary Forms, but at the time I decided not to include it. Finally I have found a use for it that I like.

New York State of Mind

In a new way I was struck today with what six months in New York (pretty much to the day) can do to a person. I came here originally, to be sure, with a mission. Not quite “to make my fortune” but close. For love and friends, of course, but also to try my hand at being a Writer, to publish, to make some money, and gain a reputation somewhere of some kind. And along that way there has been some success: a few interesting jobs, some articles published, a book in the works, and, of course, friends new and old. But those things, like all things, don’t leave one unscathed.

Take this very blog, for instance. The redesign last week was, in some respects, a departure from what The Row Boat has always been about. It (secretly) shares a motto with Small’s Clone Press, the wonderful phrase of Jorge Luis Borges: “I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.” Yet the purpose of the redesign was, in many respects, an effort to open The Row Boat to a world beyond, equipping it with the latest blog software rather than the homespun Little Logger program that I wrote myself and that worked perfectly well for me and those friends of mine who care to read. In New York, the instinct has been so much to hand out business cards, to self-promote, that I began turning The Row Boat into a business card without even knowing it. I even caught myself (and only half stopped myself) trying to use the site to boost the Google PageRank of my name, Nathan Schneider. Red-handed if I ever saw it!

In a lecture at UCSB last year (moderated by my graduate advisor, Ann Taves), Rabbi Michael Lerner asserted that American culture is permeated by the religion of capitalism, which other religions like Christianity and Judaism tend to be subservient to. They mold their anthropologies to frame capitalism as the only realistic practice. And this religion, in turn, molds us. According to Lerner, it makes it harder for us to love and care for each other by insisting always on fame, wealth, self-interest, and the bottom line. Now we could go on forever about whether capitalism could be called a religion, but it seems a much more straightforward claim to say that working in certain ways does adjust our values and habits. One need not even point the finger at capitalism as such, for there are all kinds of capitalisms. I might even call it, simply, the New York state of mind.

These things, however, are for the beholder. Anyone who has spent time in New York knows that what it is most of all is multiplicity; it is many things. The nicest people in the world, who will go forever out of their way to make sure you get on the right subway line, and the meanest. What this place is full of is choices—even, in Lerner’s terms, religions—to choose from. The gospel of wealth or the gospel of poverty. The gospel of non-profit or the gospel of for-profit (both come in all kinds, in turn). The gospel of Brooklyn or the gospel of Queens, even.

Remembering those words from Borges reminded me that there are different ways to go. We are not creatures of the plainest rational choice theory, simply maximizing money and reputation wherever possible. At worst, we participate in much broader kinds of economies, and recognize a whole range of capital. In some economies, kindness, charity, creativity, courage, reflection, and so forth are ends in themselves.

While I used to be content writing for friends and family alone (possibly more out of necessity than choice), I now economize and write almost exclusively when there is money or reputation to be gained in it. The redesign notwithstanding, though, The Row Boat is still an exception to this. I still write here with little expectation of readers, with only the desire to write, my little act of memory, my substitute for immortality in the very doing of it. I’ve tried Google ads, I’ve tried sharing links, I’ve tried everything you’re supposed to do to get traffic on the web, but still no money or reputation has come out of The Row Boat. Hardly anyone reads it. Maybe that is its greatest gift.

An Exchange on Adi Da

Adi Da SamrajFor the last several days, I’ve been in email contact with someone named John Forth, a devotee of the new religious movement leader Adi Da. It began when I received an email from him, possibly related to an earlier Row Boat post, that was clearly an anonymous form letter. It was filled with links to Adi Da sites that might be of interest, especially those related to his recent “monumental” photographic art. For instance, this and that.

I first encountered Adi Da a few years ago in the library at Brown University when, during the course of my research on creationism, my eye was caught by a book titled Scientific Proof for the Existence of God Soon to Be Announced by the White House! Its author was Da Free John, one of Adi Da’s several previous names. It had an enthusiastic introduction by the New Age philosopher Ken Wilber (who has since distanced himself from Adi Da) followed by a number of peculiar, fascinating essays. With amazing lucidity, they pronounced on spiritual subjects with loads of Capitalized Terms. A little like Mike Meyers’s new character Guru Pitka, Adi Da is an American (from Queens, educated at Columbia and Stanford) who got his spiritual education in India and became a Hindu-style guru. Now he lives in quasi-exile in Fiji.

John Forth, it seems, has a history of his own. A Google search actually turned up an essay by one Mark Fischer in a book about the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner that started with a similar mass-email encounter with Forth. Since the essay made it sound like Forth was willing to talk, I decided to write back to him, and doing so started a bit of an exchange. He asked that I not publish what he wrote in full, so I will try to summarize the gist of the conversation.

In my first email, I made a remark that caught his eye:

From an anthropological rather than theological point of view, I agree with Fischer that people like Adi Da tell us a lot about Jesus.

Forth answered with some links to writings by Adi Da about “Saint Jesus of Galilee.” He then went on to suggest that my remark was “typically Christian of course, with the usual prejudices,” and that Western religious traditions had left people like me in a “perceptual strait-jacket” to which Adi Da offers an hope for the “Divinization of Humankind.”

With a certain arrogance, I went a bit on the offensive in my next message. I tried to be polite, but I also tried to be honest about how my encounters with Adi Da and his movement have struck me.

Forgive me for thinking I know your story before really knowing it, but you sound like you’ve given yourself to a teaching that limits you as much as any other orthodoxy, including Christian ones. I’m sure you’ve had some tremendous experiences with Adi Da, undoubtedly genuinely transformational ones. I would love to learn about them. But so have many people, thinking in many different ways.

To me, at least, depending on a person (even one so extraordinary as Adi Da certainly seems) feels like an unsatisfyingly narrow way to go about life. Certainly all of us depend on others and on our worlds. But in my experience I have found it far more satisfying to hear as many voices as I can, particularly those that I at first disagree with. No one voice speaks authoritatively on everything, but we can live in networks of perspectives quite happily. No divinization necessary.

He continued to be extremely gracious and forthcoming with links to Adi Da writings. In a way that is common in New Age circles, he spoke of the real Jesus, removed from the apparatus of church and tradition (“All the death and resurrection stuff is garbage”). He spoke, as Adi Da has, about the tendency in the West to marginalize and persecute saints and spiritual masters. Again, the “perceptual strait-jacket.” He warned me away from the “meat-body perspective” of Western thought, which would probably encompass all the perspectives I am learning from. It was the final sentence of this letter, though, that struck me the most: “There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.”

I replied:

I love how you say that “there is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.” I believe it. The “paradox” that you speak of—the simultaneous submission and liberation—is one of those odd mysteries of human experience. We are able to call what is clearly a contradiction a paradox because we don’t happen to be the logical creatures certain ways of thinking expect us to be. We find liberation in submission, oddly. I think there are pretty persuasive evolutionary psychological explanations for this tendency. Whatever the explanation, though, it makes for irreducibly rich experiences.

However, despite the beauty of your words, I am not terribly tempted to jump on the Adi Da train. The reason is that I feel like I could say the same thing in reverse: There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived outside of Adi Da’s company. Many possibilities exist. Many missions, submissions, meanings, and joys. Also sadnesses, addictions, fears, and the rest: things which I’m sure find their way into Adi Da’s company as well. The circumstances in which everything falls are neither fair nor otherwise well-suited to the best laid plans of people. I don’t think the fact of unusual people like Adi Da particularly changes that, though they might have an extraordinary meaning-giving power. Meaning is a wonderful gift, but I have lost my appetite for giving such people the title of God or avatar. But perhaps, so dependent are we on meaning and inspiration and compelling personalities, that we have no choice but to do so.

After that I went on to make some jabs about orientalism and how so often the desire to escape Western traditions for Eastern ones is really nothing other than an old habit of Western tradition itself.

I myself was brought up in this tradition, visiting Indian gurus in California, objecting to certain Christian doctrines (like the “garbage” you mention), while finding space in our hearts, here or there, for what is believed to be the real, original person of Jesus. This kind of “orientalism” is part of a cultural inheritance in North Atlantic lands—Christianity itself was an eastern religion. Now so many of us head to India for wisdom thinking that we are escaping the narrowness of our tradition, while in many respects we are bringing it with us. Take Theosophist Annie Besant, for instance, who got into the habit of telling Indian Buddhists what “real” Buddhism was: to her mind, evidently a combination of European esotericism with the ideas she encountered in India. The point is, it seems easier to think one is departing from “Western” traditions than to actually do so.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Dialog is better than departure.

The last letter I got from Forth dealt mainly with this final concern. Adi Da, he insisted, doesn’t claim to be an “Eastern Teacher,” though of course many of his own teachers were Indian. He also talked some more about “life in Adi Da’s company” and the need always to confront the “pit of snakes” that is life as an ego.

I took on the exchange as an experiment in communication. How much could we say to each other, how much could we understand? Both of us, I think, tried hard at two things: (1) to be polite, patient, and respectful; (2) to have no intention of being convinced by the other, but rather to convince. Of course conversations like this, rightfully, can take forever—years of long walks through the woods, perhaps (I think of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for instance). We both succeeded in our aims.

As I attempted to craft my messages, I kept running into this dilemma, which I’ve encountered before: the more patient and attentive one is, the more difficult it becomes to make a persuasive point, to prove one’s case. The more one listens to another human being, even one of a vastly different point of view, the more the hinges of one’s own point of few begin to corrode alongside theirs. It is not a final corrosion; in fact, it makes me feel even less capable of being convinced by the other. But one is forced to listen to the human truth at work in the other, and notice the strangeness of the tendrils that hold together all of our convictions, however strong they may seem. Even as I write these words, I can feel their meaning dissolving, quite beautifully in fact, into the ether of our limitations.

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