Monday, December 11, 2017

Myths, Motifs, and Meaninglessness

*This post was inspired by my recent reading of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which overlapped with my college mentor Rabbi Neil Gillman’s death and memorial.

These are three different types of structure (or lack thereof) of the connection between person and world.

In myth, person fits into world as character in narrative, with a beginning provided and end assured.

In motif, person is of a kind within the world-- many narratives are available but no master-narrative. The person is simultaneously unique and connected, insofar as they are a (shifting) bundle of attributes shared (in part) by others in existence. The person’s origin and destiny are lost among the play of motifs; no long-term survival of self or stable context of meaning is assured.

In meaninglessness, person exists in world for a time. “Sound and fury,” etc. That’s about it.

My current self/world-view is motif. I see individual/collective life as the playing out of various existential-biological themes, such that each situation is simultaneously unique and yet resonates in the general play of life.

Myth and meaningless make claims as to the ultimate structure of meaning, while motif makes no such claim. The thing with motif, however, is that it could exist within the context of either myth or meaninglessness. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Motif within myth - there is a master-narrative that’s hidden, but if you pay close enough attention to patterns, it can be discovered. Gillman compares the ability to find myth to the ability to discern a basketball team’s “passing game.” The motifs find ultimate meaning by being placed within the larger myth.

  • Motif within meaninglessness - yes, there are lots of echoes in the world, lots of themes, great. Cool. But, ultimately, there’s no order to it, no point, it all adds up to nothing. The motifs fail to achieve ultimate meaning because there just isn’t any.

I don’t feel assured enough to make a claim that myth or meaninglessness are the actual state of things. Is that ok? Is it ok to just focus on the motifs, despite their relativity to some ultimate yet undetermined state of things? Can relative meaning be enough to get by, enough to avoid the despair of meaninglessness as well as the *problematic structures of myth?

*I recognize that this last phrase, critiquing of myth, needs elaboration.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dual “Divine” Options in Atheism

Skip this paragraph unless you need me to defend my use of the word “divine”

As I’ve established a few times in this blog, I’m not so much an atheist as I am someone who finds the word “Godsuper-problematic, mostly because it function grammatically as a Proper Name, leading people to speak about the divine as if it was some kind of being. This is why I really prefer the phrase “the divine,” because it’s easier to use to speak about a property of (our experience of) reality-- “the divine” being a way to point towards the mystery, the transcendent, the surplus, and occasionally the blessing we encounter in reality. “We encounter the divine” sounds like it’s describing a quality of a special experience; “We encounter God” sounds like it’s describing a meeting of beings, one of which is a God.

Dual Identities: Negative Theology and Humanism
This post is inspired by a talk given at Shabbat services yesterday by Rabbi Ari Saks, in which he invited the congregation to consider different ways to handle bowing during the Torah processional before the Torah reading. Should the person holding the Torah:
  • Bow (along with the rest of the congregation) towards the empty ark?
  • Bow towards the congregation as the congregation bows towards them?
  • Standing straight up while everyone else bows towards the Torah?

The idea behind this fantastic question was to illuminate how choreography expresses different theological positions/preferences. Given my position (see links in first paragraph), I felt torn between the first and second options, and this called attention to my split priorities when it comes to the divine. As a negative theologian, I like how the first option locates divinity in the empty space. As a humanist, I like how the second option locates divinity as something that resides/appears within/among the congregation.
I want to explore briefly how these two locations of divinity play out and interact.

The Abyss as the Divine (or demonic)
This is a position promoted by Lurianic Kabbalah and Rubenstein’s post-Holocaust theology, reflecting the fecundity of space, the absoluteness of the abyss, the sacred in the silence.
At the same time, the abyss is very often not a blessing, especially given that it ultimately will swallow us all, leaving no trace.

Between-ness as the Divine (or demonic)
This is a position promoted by Buber, Levinas, and Raphael’s post-Holocaust theology, and certainly accessible through Reconstructionism and Humanism, all of which call attention to the ‘divine’ power of human love, care, attention, labor, etc.
And at the same time, so much of what occurs between us humans is not divine, but rather mean, messy, and/or misled.

Relation and Tension between the Abyss and the Between-ness
I’ve already gone over this once-- the abyss appears to be the source/place of all that goes on between us, but it’s also the destroyer of all of that too. To focus on humanity is, most often, to forget/ignore the abyss. To focus on the abyss-- you get the idea.

But! I believe both are very important! And both have clearly captured my imagination in terms of what seems special about existence, despite the lack of a more classical God. So, is there some way to honor both together, to represent and relate to both together?

At the very least, it seems like I’m working myself into some kind of dualistic theology-- one faced (the human face, face of the other, etc) and the other faceless. I wonder, then, if the next step is to look into the ways that Dualistic theologies (even though mine is an atheology) function.

So, here’s where I’ve arrived for the moment: a Dualistic Atheology, which aims to identify the understandings and best practices towards engaging with the abyss, and with between-ness.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ten Variations on Void

There are all kinds of voids to encounter. But, it's important to know what kind one is encountering so that one may know what to expect and how to comport oneself appropriately.

A Void that Echoes
When one shouts into it, something bounces back. Despite the apparent emptiness of this void, it must be surrounded by walls or something. This kind of void can be useful, then, as sounding board (or echo chamber?).

A Void that does not Echo
When one shouts into it, no sound comes back. There is eyn sof, no end to this void, and so no way to produce an echo. Despite the infinitude of this void, the encounter brings no feeling of expansiveness. Without an echo, the infinitude is actually quite murky, and so the sound of one's voice sounds very small and very local. This void is effective for remembering humility.

A Void that can Contain
A void, because it's an empty space, can be really useful for storage. Sometimes the void stores what cannot be stored elsewhere. Sometimes the void is used for storage just so the void itself will be decreased.

A Void that does not Contain
This is very similar to the Void that does not Echo. One might try to place things in this void, but those things cannot be managed in this way. They do not even disappear into the void, because that would still be a kind of containment. No, what happens is that you put the thing in the void, and then turn around and it's right where you initially found it. So, what to do when encountering a void that does not contain? Don't try to dump anything in it.

A Void that is Transparent
One might not even notice a void like this, since its transparency simply reveals whatever is on the other side of it. This kind of void is important to note, however, since in this manner one becomes more sensitive to distance/space as the relationship between things.

A Void that is Opaque
Look into it all one wants, there ain't nothing to find in a void that is opaque. One only sees not-seeing. Not unlike staring into a fog, except a fog is not a void. Is there any use for a void that is opaque? Maybe if one needs a break from seeing.

A Void that Appears Within
I've already written on this topic at length. But to riff a little here, the void that is within can be so many things, from hunger and desire to hope and curiosity, and very often ignorance and possibility.

A Void that Appears Without
This category and the previous feel like uber-categories in that any of the preceding voids could be encountered within or without. And, of course, one that appears without could still be a reflection/reminder of one within.

A Void that makes Room for Possibility
Hooray, a space! The frontier continues.

A Void that Crushes the Infinite/Possibility
Nothing comes from nothing. The silence deafens. The sheer scale of nothingness makes a mockery of somethingness.

Further Variations
I hope it is clear that many of the above kinds of void can be coterminous with one another.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Developing Civic Habits

Discomfort as Motivation for Healthy Habits
I floss every single night. I’ve done so for years now. If I try to go to bed without flossing, I get uncomfortable and then have to get up again and floss.

My exercise routine is much more sporadic. When I have more time (weekend, vacations), I exercise well and regularly, with appropriate stretching and sufficient time and energy to constitute some solid aerobic fitness. But there are long stretches in the year when exercise means taking a walk at some point in the day-- not as good, but not nothing either. At some points in the year, I’ll stop doing even this, but within a few days or a week, my body and mind get sufficiently agitated and I know that only some good body movement will get me right again.

These are habits that I’ve been able to develop because of the way I’ve learned to better identify with my body as part of my larger organism. I tend towards being mostly “heady,” and it’s taken time and experience to value and remember to take care of parts of me that are not immediately my mind. And the key to developing these habits seems to be about developing sensitivity to my own discomfort when I let them lapse.

Civic Habits and the Luxury of Individuality
After the recent inauguration, like others I felt a high degree of motivation to stay politically active. I started making donations, and making several phone calls a week to political representatives, as well as encouraging friends (on social media) to do the same. It lasted about a month before work and life became busier (at the time I was looking for a new job, planning a move to a new city, and planning a wedding), and my personal sense of crisis and urgency began to abate.

One of the major dimensions of Privilege is being sheltered from experiencing the negative effects of societal issues. As a first-world economically-secure educated employed neurotypical non-disabled cis het white male (did I miss any?), societal/global health can plummet while my personal experience of society remains stable and strong. Others are affected; others are worrying; I don’t have to worry right now.

Individuality is a luxury, a benefit of privilege(s). So when my civic habits lapse and wither away, I don’t suffer. I just return to normal. I return to comfort and lose touch with motivation for urgent activism.

Loosening the Bonds of Individuality
There are truths about my life to which privilege blinds or desensitizes me. I’m part of a social network of life. My daily stability and comfort is established by unjust systems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and so on. I need to develop more social consciousness, in which I experience “my” well-being in alignment with the larger organism.

Individuality is losing sleep because I’m hungry. Social consciousness is losing sleep because others are hungry. (And just to be less noble for a second: Social consciousness is wayyy harder. My life has less stress when I let myself assert that many, many societal problems are simply not my problem. And, within the framework of individuality, I can’t solve all the problems of society, so why stress myself out, right?)

The goal is not to give up individuality but to temper it, and to develop an embodied social consciousness. In fact, a major part of developing that social consciousness is about sensitizing myself to the impacts (even if subtle) of others’ oppression on myself, and then developing effective ways to process that sensitivity and turn it into action.

What comes next is basic but essential.
  • Cultivate discomfort by identifying beyond this limited sense of self.
  • Make habits of consciousness-raising and activism.
    • Attend civic events.
    • Make calls.
    • Maybe, someday, join a civic-minded group and focus my energy there.
    • Allow this habit to fluctuate (like exercise) but don’t let it lapse.
  • Set up personal systems of accountability. After all, I didn’t really change my flossing habits until I had a partner who flossed with me. Never underestimate the power of the “buddy system.”

Monday, July 31, 2017

How does one improve at self-improvement?

Self-improvement can be an act of self-love, but it often involves actions that border on self-rejection. In order to improve myself in some aspect, I need to use self-critical analysis-- to assess what I’m currently doing, to judge that against some standard, and then to apply effort to do better. A lot of negativity can come out during that process-- the assessment can descend into nitpicking and negativity, the judging into inadequacy, and the efforts into perpetual dissatisfaction. The toxicity of self-critical analysis can lead to: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor self-care habits, self-injury, poor relationships, etc. (There’s toxicity in lack of self-critical analysis, too-- just off the top of my head, narcissism and being an asshole).

Which is to says that one can be bad at self-improvement, and thus the question: How does one improve at self-improvement?

I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts, so I’m going to just provide some bullet points, grouped chronologically (in terms of my thought process);

Set I
  • Let yourself be bad at some things.
  • Let yourself be mediocre at some things.
  • Never judge yourself as a whole because of some aspect of yourself.
Set II
  • If you’re not getting satisfaction from the effort itself, you’re not going to find satisfaction at the end of the effort either.
  • As much as possible, set your own standard for excellence, and set it based on the intuition I’m calling “just feels right.” In this regard, one can choose freely among the standards that appear to be set by others.
  • Related to this internal standard, establish an intuition called “enoughness,” one which signals satisfaction (and thus the end of striving after success) or asserts acceptance (and thus the end of striving because effort has turned into punishment).
  • What’s needed is the development of a safe ‘place’ of self-love and acceptance. Without this anchor, efforts at (and attitudes regarding) self-improvement can veer towards the toxic. Just as I need to practice the thing I’m trying to improve, I have to balance it with practices of self-love and acceptance.
Set IV
  • As always, discernment and rhythm are the keys here. Discernment to tell the difference between contentedness and complacency, and between self-criticism and self-abuse. Rhythm to alternate between the striving and sitting needed to make changes while practicing self-acceptance.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist.”

The biblical book of Kohelet (aka Ecclesiastes) opens with the line “Hevel Hevelim, Kol Hevel,” or “Hevel of Hevels, All is Hevel.” Right-- so what’s Hevel? The most direct translation is “vapor”-- think of breathing into the air on a cold morning. “Vapor of vapors, everything is vapor!” is the best translation, and never one that you’ll see in a English Bible. Based on how Kohelet then talks about life and the world, it seems like the “vaporousness” of things is a reflection of their transience.

But in most translations hevel is read as: vanity, futility, emptiness, meaningless, pointless. There’s an additional interpretation happening in these translations, based on this implicit principle:

Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist.

So: I think this principle is very problematic. I also agree with it. Herein lies the struggle.

Doesn’t Last = Less Valuable
Toys that break. Food that isn’t filling. Games that are only fun once or twice. Friends who flake or bore. Odd jobs. An insight that was moving last night but now feels cliche.

At the risk of being redundant and laying out the opposites: Lifelong hobbies. Nourishing food. Lifelong friends. Careers. Lasting realizations. Missions. Home.

Value and stability/longevity go together! Dependability, to me, is a major factor in a person/thing’s value.

Time and Suffering
With all things being subject to time, this conflation of persistence and value is ultimately damning to life. No, wait, let’s flip it-- life mocks our conflation of persistence and value, with time (and ultimately death) seeming to rob anything of lasting value.

I’ve been thinking about it this summer, in regards to both mundane and large-scale matters. I’ve been having a lot of summer fun while waiting for my job to start, and every so often in a moment of joy I’ll think “This is great! But what will it mean once it’s a memory?” What will be the value of previous carefree fun once I’m too old to enjoy anything? Or I’ll think (catastrophize, really) about future political and environmental upheavals, and wonder about the meaning of present peace in the face of future loss and devastation.

Kohelet expresses his skepticism about lasting value with the question: “What profit?” meaning, you get the value of the moment, but no lasting value. My own bleak way of expressing this idea is the phrase “No redemption.” I mean this in the sense you see on soda bottles, as in “CA Redemption Value.” “No redemption” means there’s no trade-in value. A moment cannot be traded for another. What nourishes me today cannot nourish me tomorrow because it’s been eaten already. Nothing can be regained. Loss is loss is loss.

If “Things that end are less meaningful/valuable than things that persist”
Then being subject to time involves a lifelong battle with meaninglessness and despair.

I’ll briefly map out five (somewhat overlapping) solutions to overcoming this existential issue.

Overcoming Time through Eternity
I see this as the most (western) Religious response. If the world of passing things is full of despair, seek out eternal things! All things must pass, but not God, or the soul, or any other being/item from the spiritual realm. On a secular level, the closest I can get to this is meditation, at least those meditations in which I try to identify with those things (air, earth, time) that will, at the very least, outlast me.

Overcoming Time through Savoring
This is the response of Positive Psychology. Yes, things do not last, but our power to appreciate, our power to look back and then carry forward can be cultivated. As I learn from David Abrams, the past need not disappear entirely-- in trees, the past is always contained inside the organism (as rings). With intentionality, I can re-member the past into my present experience, and wring further meaning and value.

Overcoming Suffering through Rebellion
This is the response of Existentialism (and particularly Camus). The world won’t satisfy our built-in desire for lasting meaning? Fine! We’ll find meaning/value in the absurdity. We won’t depend on stability. We’ll manifest meaning through acts of defiance/courage in the face of a tragic world.

Overcoming Suffering through Acceptance
Despite my lack of extensive learning on the subject, I still call this the Buddhist response (probably influenced by Alan Watts). Transience is only a problem for people who grasp, so stop grasping! Let time be time.

My personal journey out
Personally, I think the way out (and something that is touched upon in several of the above solutions is the task of Overcoming the Conflation of Value and Stability. As I just said, transience is only a problem for people who grasp at value, who think that value is lost if it can’t be held firmly in hand.

The tasks, then, are to: Find value despite/within that insecurity. Find value without assurance that it will continue. Find value in small things, and in brief encounters. Not just in the dependable but also in the random and sporadic. Have faith that loss is not total loss of value, but a clearing away for the value that follows upon loss.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hello readers:

Today I have a special guest blogger: Yotam Schachter. He is also doing personal/professional work on spiritual practices without using the name/concept God. As in previous posts of mine, you'll note that he's also exploring which words generally associated with God (such as soul, prayer, and divine) could still be useful outside of an explicitly Godly context. Enjoy!

Most of the time, I don’t believe in a God who can be influenced by prayer, or who loves me any differently from anything else. I do believe in Hasidut as a spiritual path, and I am exploring the notion that I can walk that path by substituting for the term God something like “All of myself other than my immediate conscious ego.” Call it my Soul, perhaps: All of my awareness, past, present, and future, other than my ego at this moment.

The relationship I strive for with my Soul is one of love, humility, gratitude, and occasional influence – much like the Hasidic relationship with God. Practices like hitbodedut carry over seamlessly. The unification of divine aspects, the redemption of fallen sparks, and the pursuit of dvekut all translate. In prayer, I try to bring about alignment between my ego and my Soul – sometimes by easing the grip of my ego, and sometimes by reconciling divergent forces within my Soul. I choose to affirm that by calling upon my Soul to serve the principles and communities I value, I increase the odds that my future actions will have the best possible impact.

Encountering the non-egoic vastness within me as though it were the Hasidic divine in this way, I feel like I do when I believe in God: Loved, welcome, and of service to the world.

And perhaps this is the classical Hasidic divine after all. My Soul blends without clear boundary into my biology, my relationships, and my environment, part of a diffuse web of mutual influence. The question of theology becomes an appraisal of the strength and coherence of that web: if my prayers can influence the weather, and if some form of higher guidance can influence me, then my Soul is a foyer to the house of a living God. If not, then the foyer is enough.

Monday, July 24, 2017

I'm not an atheist...

I’m not an atheist, but it appears that I’ve talked myself into a damn corner on the topic of theology.
Without revelation, all theology is negative theology
Revelation, to me, is the only thing that can provide legitimacy to beliefs about God. Whether God is, what God is, what God wants (if God is indeed the kind of X that has the capacity for wants)-- without revelation, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about any of those things.

And, again, I’m not an atheist; I just don’t believe in revelation. Every provided example of revelation appears to me like a human act of interpretation, specifically one that is tainted by its humanness. The provided record of revelation reads like historical product, political propaganda, wish fulfillment and revenge fantasy, selection bias, ethnocentrism, etc.

I believe that any serious belief in God must be accompanied by a theory of idolatry. I believe that any approach to God must provide an account of what it means to be wrong about God. In this regard, I’m not so different from other monotheists (ripping off Dawkins here), in that any possessor of a ‘true’ revelation will usually be ready with arguments for the falsity of other alleged revelations. But without the possession of a ‘true’ revelation, I only have arguments against.

So I’m not saying I don’t believe in God; I just think that everyone (who attempts to provide positive content to the concept of God)  is wrong about God.

With revelation, our inadequacy is overcome through relationship

Thanks to Rabbi Aviva Richman for teaching me this passage. The summary beneath it is mine.
To what may the matter be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. The king said to him: “I want you to know that I shall dine with you. Go then and make preparations for me.” His friend went and prepared a common couch, a common candelabra and a common table. When the king arrived, there came with him ministers who encompassed him on this side and that, and a golden candlestick preceded him. His friend, seeing all this pomp, felt ashamed and put away all that he had prepared for him, as it was all common. Said the king to him: “Did I not tell you that I would dine with you? Why did you not prepare anything for me?” His friend answered him: “Seeing all the pomp that accompanied you, I felt ashamed, and put away all that I had prepared for you, because they were common utensils.” “By your life!” said the king to him, “I shall set aside all the utensils that I have brought, and for love of you I shall use none but yours!” So in our case. The Holy One, blessed be He, is all light; as it says, “The light dwells with Him” (Daniel 2:22). Yet He said to Israel: “Prepare for Me a candelabra and lamps.”
tl;dr - Human light literally cannot hold a candle to divine light. Human understanding cannot approach divine reality. And yet, with God’s revelation, human concepts and words are given dignity. God’s desire for relationship overcomes the overwhelming reality/power/status gap between God and human.

This is what separates me from my apophatic heroes-- Maimonides and Meister Eckhart. For all of their negative theology, they believed in revelation, and this allowed them to want to stay within their religious institutions and to find meaning and legitimacy in liturgy.

This damn corner
I miss my previous relationship with God. But I believe that that relationship cannot exist without revelation,  and I can no longer believe in revelation. Source criticism, naturalism, and psychology have ingrained in me an inescapable skepticism about any alleged revelation.

If there is such an X as God, I can only hope that Silence is, indeed, considered praise.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Maybe sacredness isn’t the right word; maybe it’s a little too strong. I’ll describe the sentiments involved, and then see if another umbrella term fits. Sentiments like: I want to be a force for good in the world. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and when I have a client come in for counseling, I want to make a positive difference in that individual’s life, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. Each person has a story and dignity, and I want to honor and help them cultivate those things. And I also want goodness for myself. I want to live a life with purpose, love, and pleasure, and hopefully have that kind of life for as long as possible. The human spirit is a wondrous thing, and it is a tragedy for that spirit (as it manifests in any individual or group) to be diminished, demeaned, corrupted, or destroyed.

So, what’s the concept I’m gesturing at? The “sacredness of life”? Or maybe more broadly and vaguely, that there’s such a thing as “importance,” that things can “matter.” Life has worth; it’s worth the effort; reverence and responsibility are appropriate reactions to living. We should take ourselves and each other seriously. Life can be a sacred task.

“Sacredness” then? In googling it, the fifth definition “sacrosanct” and its synonyms “protected, defended” felt appropriate. Life is worth protecting, defending, and I’ll say further: nurturing, fostering, etc.

I try to keep it to myself but I’m a pretty morbid person. I think about death when I think about career, money, children, or the climate crisis. Like other folks, I have morbid thoughts while coming up or down (or in turbulence) on a plane. When I consider my life as a whole, I often reflect on the (incessant, if you can imagine) inner monologue that is so much of my personality, and then am quickly struck by the vast ocean of silence that is the time before and after my little life. More recently, I’ve noticed a new pattern-- when I kill a bug in my home (usually as swiftly as possible), the thought comes “I wonder if that’s how I’m gonna go.”

In both the plane and bug situations, my thoughts are framed by a keen awareness that I am not in control of so many forces that determine the length or brevity of my life, and that whatever might kill me is likely to be something impersonal, like a disease, an accident, or an eco-socio-political event. Even if (hopefully not) I am killed by something personal, it would still reflect the smallness of my existence-- that my desire to live was just one thing, and the other person’s one thing (desire that I not live) was enough to trump mine.  

Even without getting morbid, the fact that I (or any individual) am basically nothing occurs to me often, although mostly that’s been happening more since I moved to New York City. I’m on the train, and we stop for 30 minutes because 10 stops away somebody got on the tracks. Thousands of individuals have their goals suspended because one person’s story is getting in the way. The train is often the site of these humbling thoughts-- it’s difficult to hold onto one’s sense of self-importance when in a crowd of people all tightly holding on to their own senses of self-importance.

Ok, so, individual nothingness established. What, then, do I see as an adaptive approach to this nothingness? I don’t want to call it complacency, resignation, or defeatism, so I’ll call it “letting go.” On the plane, I take a look at my life so far, and I think “well, that will just have to have been enough.” On the train, I think “Huh, I guess I am only one person.” I let go of the assumption that I’m in control or that I matter outside of a very small sphere of personal contact. It’s humbling, and I breathe into it, and in this manner facing my smallness does not evoke rage or despair.

Sacredness and Nothingness
The stance of sacredness engenders great care, striving, and fear of loss (of life or meaning). The stance of nothingness engenders letting go and allowing for loss.

Both stances feel authentic, are responses to very salient dimensions of living life as a human. And, it appears, both stances are in direct competition with one another.

The graceful approach to these stances, as far as I can tell, is holding both well in their own time, and vacillating between the two in a manner that doesn’t cause too much existential whiplash. I think I try to effect that gracefulness by seeing the two stances as a rhythm rather than a battle, a dichotomy seeking balance, no different than wake/sleep or work/play.

How do you make/find balance between your own sacredness and nothingness?