Saturday, December 23, 2006

Finding Oneself Musically

Yesterday was the last day of final exam week. So I've been really busy. It is hard when the end of the semester comes this close to Christmas! Tomorrow I depart for Christmas travels to visit family. It will be really nice to see everyone again. I am very excited about this trip!

My concerts went pretty well last weekend. In addition to playing the Charpentier Midnight Mass, I also played a Telemann flute duet with the other flute player in the impromptu baroque orchestra that had been assembled for the Charpentier Mass. We had two performances: one on campus, and another at a local historical venue. I really like performing in historical spaces. Not only do I appreciate their historical charm, but such places tend to be smaller spaces whose acoustics are more suitable for early instruments. Playing baroque flute with modern instruments is always a challenge. While the other players do a nice job of playing in baroque style, their modern instruments can so easily overpower the baroque flute. But I think we did a pretty good job at these concerts. And I really enjoyed this experience.

Leading up to the concerts, though, I was not so sure. The concerts came at a time of the semester that is really busy for me. Besides all that, we had just received news that our wonderful Dean is leaving at the end of this year. This hit me particularly hard, because our Dean is a member of the philosophy department, and was chair when I first started teaching here. He has been a very important mentor for me.

So, I was reeling from this news, and was overly busy, and tired. Our dress rehearsal got cancelled -- instead we were to meet early for the concert and have a quick run-through then. That run-through went reasonably well. Then in the span of time between that and the concert itself, I became aware of how unusually nervous I was. I have always had problems with performance anxiety, but thought I had been getting better.

So I took a good look at this spell of anxiety (so bad that I wondered whether I shouldn't just stop performing altogether), and realized that it wasn't lack of confidence about my preparation, but was simply an effect of how unsettled the rest of my life was feeling. "Still, was it a mistake to agree to do this?" I wondered. "Is it going to be a disaster?"

But then I reminded myself that I knew better than to spiral into negative thinking.

"The music is beautiful!" I reminded myself, "and that's what this audience is here to hear!" So, how was I to focus my attention just on the present: this music, here, now? Why, by praying, of course!

So I asked for God's help. "I feel rattled and tired, and I'm worried that I even feel like I've slipped onto a self-destructive path, but you know that that's not really what I want. What I really want is to be a medium for the expression of this beautiful music. So, how do I get to the frame of mind that will allow this to happen?"

Suddenly there popped into my mind the realization that I really had quite a negative image of myself as a performer: someone with a fatal weakness in my soul that is likely to cave in under pressure, causing the music to collapse all around me. And along with this realization was again the sense that I knew better than this! Key to success in any endeavor is the ability to conceptualize a positive image of that success. Didn't I realize before my last performance that a good way to conquer performance anxiety is to pretend to be one of the flute players I most admired?

But now I realized that even that wasn't quite the right technique. What I needed to do, I realized, was create an image of myself as a good performer! Imitating others' styles can be helpful along the way, as one is learning and cultivating one's range of expression, but everyone knows that mastery culminates in the development of one's own distinctive style. I realized with some astonishment that I have not given this the attention it deserved. I keep "humbly" thinking of myself still as learning. And, in that, I've let myself internalize a rather awkward self-image of a beginning learner -- and this is the image that tends to come forward under stress! In my "learning" mentality, I tend not to trust my own musical judgments, but keep thinking in terms of what various of my musical mentors would think. I play a passage a certain way and think, "so and so would find that too sappy!" and then make the adjustments I think that person would want me to make. But I have been playing music just about all my life! Can I not start trusting my own musical instincts?

This realization seemed big. Too big for the time I had before I was "on"? "I can't just conjure up a positive, distinctive vision of myself as a performer in the next ten minutes, can I?" I asked myself, or God, in a new rise of panic.

Then I relaxed. "I don't have to do this all now. But I have performed well in the past, and there's simply no reason whatsoever that I should not be able to do so today. I don't have to be all the way to who I want to be. All I have to do is remember how much I love this music, and try to communicate its beauty to an audience already eager to hear it."

And this worked.

Since these concerts, my practicing has now taken on an entirely new spirit. I am starting to listen to myself in new ways -- directly, and no longer filtered through the imagined critiques of my mentors. (Well, those critiques still whisper in the background, but I am not paying as much attention to them.) I am acknowledging the fact that my having played for all of these years has built up something of a positive image that I just haven't consciously put together or let myself trust.

As I listen in new ways, it is my listening that now knits this image together into a consciously realized coherence that now I can start to trust.

It is astonishing to me to realize that I actually am a good musician, who has overlaid upon my good playing an awkward beginner-stance, and then tries on top of that to fake being pretty good when I am called upon to perform!

What a liberation to let go of pretending to be good, and then to let go of pretending to be awkward and uncertain, and finally get down to what is actually there musically at my core!

What is there is a deep and abiding love. I can lean into this. I can trust it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge III: An Alternative Epistemology

Before I describe the two important ways that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, I need to give a bit of philosophical background.

One of the most important words philosophically during the 17th and 18th centuries was "experience." The empiricist philosophers, such as Locke and Hume, used this word when describing how all knowledge comes from "experience." Those who teach early modern philosophy now explain that the empiricist philosophers meant "sense experience," so that students do not mistake the word "experience" for our contemporary notion of "personal experience," or "life experience." Yet even Locke and Hume had a broader conception of experience than our contemporary "sense perception" version of empiricism (and science). Locke and Hume both allowed for "internal senses" as well as the "external" ones of sight, hearing, touch, etc. By "internal senses" they were simply referring to our ability to be aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, moods, etc. Through the development of empirical science, "experience" became narrowed to just "external" sense perception, gradually expanded technologically, but still "external."

So I argued in my presentation that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of the richer, broader, original notion of "experience." While mainstream philosophy and science dropped the notion of "internal senses," the Quakers developed this idea in their notion of the "inner light." While they respected science, and participated in it, its experience-based investigations into the natural world were not sufficient. The findings of science needed to be illuminated by the inner light in order to gain a proper understanding of its significance. (Isaac Penington wrote about this in a letter to the Royal Society of London, a scientific society, in 1668.)

Describing more fully how the early Quakers understood the "inner light" could turn into a separate essay unto itself (in fact, others have written on this topic, and I am working on this too in my academic writing at the moment), but for now I just want to note that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light is an approach to knowledge very different from the scientific approach. Over time in scientific thinking, the "internal senses" became characterized as "subjective," and science was allied with "objectivity," and anything with "subjective" connotations got pushed out.

(But even this story is more complicated than it looks at first. The concept of objectivity has changed over time and only gradually did it get linked to scientific knowledge. There are excellent essays by Lorraine Daston, one co-authored with Peter Galison, that tell some of this history. While we now associate science with "objectivity," the concept is still in dispute. Some contemporary philosophers argue that the concept needs revision and clarification. Others, such as Lorraine Code, advocate "taking subjectivity into account" in science (I quote this phrase because it is the title of one of Code's essays, which can be found in an anthology entitled Feminist Epistemologies).)

In my presentation, I argued that the Quakers' taking seriously the inner light did not make them rationalists instead of empiricists, because some, such as Penington, were specifically suspicious of human rationality, in part because it could be used for devious and deceptive purposes. So he took great pains to distinguish the notion of the inner light from human rationality itself. Instead, I interpret the Quaker use of the notion of the inner light as showing that it was the Quakers who were the true inheritors of a richer empiricism, one that develops a notion of inner sense (even if that's not what the Quakers called it) even while following the development in science of our understanding and use of the external senses.

This point is disputable, of course, and was disputed quite eloquently and convincingly by one of my students during the question and answer period following my talk. (I was so pleased!) Another student chimed into this part of the discussion as well. The point that emerged was that this question hinges on whether the inner light is regarded as a source of knowledge, or a kind of sensory mode. If the former, then it is better to think of the Quakers as being rationalists of a sort; if the latter, then the "expanded empiricism" interpretation works better. Answering this question requires going back to the early writings and looking more closely at exactly how the writers characterized the inner light -- but from what I recall, I rather suspect that "both sides" would be able to find convincing quotations to support their positions.

In addition to carrying forth this richer interpretation of "experience" into the present day (see Eddington's Science and the Unseen World, 1929. Look at how he describes "experience"), Quakers also never separated epistemology from ethics, fact from value. The "inner light" can be regarded as a methodological principle underlying both the discernment of truth (epistemology; fact), and decisions about actions (ethics; value). Quakers stayed in touch with the relationship between knowledge and human interests, needs, and action in the world, never pretending that it was possible or desirable to establish a clear division between the two. And so this is the second major way that "Quaker epistemology" differs from contemporary scientific epistemology, which takes great pains to keep knowledge separated from ethics.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

And Now for a Non-Musical Interlude!

After I received tenure, my office was a mess.

It had been a massive effort to assemble my tenure file -- which ended up filling 5 thick 3-ring looseleaf binders. As a testimony to my feeling frozen in fear while awaiting the verdict, my office just froze at that point. I couldn't bring myself to throw away the papers-not-included, out of a combination of an irrational worry that I may have left something important out that remained in those piles (irrational because I was not allowed to change the submitted files anyway), and a superstitious fear that any further disruption of all that had gone into this massive effort would somehow jinx the results. It was a holding of breath.

Then the verdict came in stages, over a series of months. There are several stages of decision-making. As each "yes" came, there was still the lingering anxiety that the next stage might bring a "no." So the piles remained untouched.

After the final decision, I was happy, but too exhausted now to tackle the massive spring-cleaning my office so desperately needed. Life remained busy, and I was just trying to hang on until sabbatical.

When sabbatical came, I thought, "If I try to reorganize my office now, I'll end up spending all of my sabbatical just doing that! And I won't get anything else done!" So I simply abandoned my office altogether. Every now and then I would go to campus to check my mail, and mostly I just piled it on my desk after weeding out the important things I needed to hand over to the interim chair of the department.

This semester I came back from sabbatical. As I got ready for the new semester, I looked at the towering piles of paper and said to myself: "This is ridiculous." But in a sudden flash of inspiration one day, I ordered filing cabinets! I knew that once I started going through the piles, I would end up throwing a lot of those papers away, but even so, having more filing cabinets would be a helpful way to jump-start the organization process.

Still early in the semester, one exciting day, the filing cabinets arrived. A man came wheeling them on a trolley. One was four drawers high; the other two. Both were encased in huge cardboard boxes. The delivery man was very keen to know exactly where they should go. I pointed out the corner I had cleared out for them. We moved a table out of the way, and then he carefully positioned them exactly where I had indicated -- still in their boxes -- while I marveled, waiting to see what technique he would have for removing the cardboard boxes after they were squeezed back in the corner like that.

Then he left.

I stood there looking at the filing cabinets in their boxes in the corner of my office in disbelief.

I went back out to the hallway to see if he was perhaps coming back with some fancy box cutter? But no, he was gone.

So, a bit embarrassed that I had just trustingly let this happen, I found myself dragging the heavy boxes back out into the middle of my office, carefully tipping them over, and struggling to pull the large and heavy filing cabinets out of their huge, tight boxes.

Eventually I succeeded and got the cabinets back into their corner in my office. Then I surveyed them happily as a sign of new hope for Organization in my life!

There they stood, empty, for weeks.

And weeks.

Yes, my friends, it wasn't until yesterday that finally, in a fit of feeling overwhelmed by all that I had to do, I suddenly decided that this was the time to, well, not exactly organize the piles, but, at long last, yes, hide them!

From bottom up, I just filled those drawers with the dusty piles of papers, until all of the most scary piles were hidden away. (This took three drawers.)

Now my working surfaces at last were clear of all but this semester's paperwork, which I then did sort. About half of this pile got thrown away (by which I mean recycled). The rest I did file, in an organized way.

There's still lots of organizing of the older stuff to do, but the pressure is off. I can do that in smaller doses, as I have time.

So, although I have a lot of far more important things to do, it did my soul good to clear the obvious (and oppressive) clutter from my office. And, surprisingly, it has made the end of the semester seem less daunting. I am no longer as overwhelmed by all that I still have to do. I feel like I have elbow room now, and fresh air, and light.

Monday, December 04, 2006

And Now for a Musical Interlude!

I just said in a comment that I'm now working feverishly on Installment III of my Quakers, Science, and Knowledge report, but while a half-finished version is happily taking a nap in the "unpublished drafts" chamber behind the scenes of this blog, the truth is that I probably won't be working on it further right now, as I am just back from a music rehearsal -- and yes, note how late it is!

I've been asked to play traverso (baroque flute) in Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Messe de Minuit pour Noel, and we instrumentalists had our first rehearsal tonight. It was so good to be playing music with others again! And it is such beautiful music!

So, I am happy!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge II: Some Intellectual History

It is very interesting to note that Quakerism arose at the same time as the rise of modern science. So, during this time and place (17th century England), there was a lot of enthusiasm about the new experimental science. The experimental method was being developed as an exciting new approach to gaining knowledge -- an approach that at least in theory was accessible to everyone and thus was beginning to break down the view that knowledge was the special domain of an elite few, and needed to be channeled through designated social networks of authority.

From this description of the rise of modern science, we can already see affinities with how Quakers were describing their approach to "seeking." The Quakers, too, articulated a process that was accessible to everyone and did not require being mediated through designated religious-knowledge authorities. And note the language George Fox himself used: "This I knew experimentally" (from his Journal).

Another important comparison between Quakerism and science is that both are non-creedal. Even today, what we most prize about science and what most gets emphasized in science education (and scrutinized in peer-review of scientific findings) is method. The findings of science change over time: it is important to let the findings change if new observations or data indicate that revision is needed. While current scientific knowledge is taught as a basis for future research, it is not taught as doctrine or as infallible truth. Again, it is research methods that are emphasized above all in science education.

Quakerism shares this kind of openness about belief. Quakers do not have to agree to a statement of beliefs before being accepted into membership. What is important is engaging in a continuing process of seeking after truth or spiritual insight.

Furthermore, like science, Quaker practice involves a dialectic between individuals and community. In science, the work of individual scientists or research groups is valued and respected, but their findings do not count as "knowledge" until they have been processed through a community discernment process called "peer-review." It is only after others have reviewed the scientist's or research group's work and found the methods and conclusions to be sound that the results get published in respected journals and the findings now count as knowledge.

In the Quaker world, the dialectic between individuals and community is somewhat different, but still involves a similar balance, for similar reasons: On the one hand, individual experience and individual discernment are valued. But, on the other hand, individuals hone their beliefs in community (e.g., discussion groups), and bring some of their most important decisions to the community for the community's assistance in discernment (e.g., clearness committees).

This shows some of the resonances between science and Quaker seeking. Next time, I will write about some of the important and striking differences between how science is currently understood in mainstream academic thought, and the interpretation of science that is embedded in the Quakers' implicit theory of knowledge.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge I: Some Social History

Rather than share my whole paper here (which is kind of long), I thought I would share some of the ideas -- and not try to do it all at once.

One of the central points of my presentation was to argue (using both historical and philosophical evidence) that while the trajectory in mainstream Western thought has been for science and religion to split apart over time, within Quakerism it is possible to trace an alternative historical story: a community that never constructed science and religion as being at odds with each other, but managed to keep them integrated until the present day.

On the historical side, I drew a lot from Geoffrey Cantor's work, outlining his analysis of why Quakers were open to science from the very beginning. Here are some of those reasons:

  • When William Penn established Pennsylvania, this opened up trade routes. Some of the Quaker merchants who traveled back and forth also collected botanical samples -- they were well-respected amateur botanists.
  • Science was seen as an acceptable occupation even during the Quietist period. Studying God's creation was regarded as spiritually valuable, and as having practical and moral value.
  • Science was given an important place in Quaker schools, because of its spiritual, practical, and moral value. The skills learned and the moral discipline cultivated by careful and systematic study were seen as useful for a variety of occupations.
  • While Quakers' opportunities for higher education were limited because of the religious requirements for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, scientific societies such as the Royal Society of London did not exclude anyone from participation on religious grounds. So the Quakers' scientific work was welcomed and appreciated in these settings.
So all of this meant that science was an acceptable intellectual engagement. One could participate in it in a way that maintained spiritual centeredness and a focus on its practical value, and without indulging in the frivolous system building, detached from real experience, that some other intellectual pursuits are guilty of doing!

Part of the story then is that there were these good reasons in the early days for Quakers to educate themselves in and participate in at least certain sciences. Because they cared about maintaining the proper attitude towards participating in science, they then did write about the nature of scientific knowledge in relation to their more general views about knowledge. This now leads to the philosophical side of the discussion, which I will write about in the next installment.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Report on my Presentation

I gave my presentation on Quakerism and Science yesterday. It went well.

Several people told me that they would not be able to come because of meetings scheduled during the time of my presentation. So I expected about three people.

But it turned out a good number of people came, including Friends from my Meeting, a lot of my students, a number of my faculty colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines, some other staff members, and some community members. Then the president of my university came in too! Only then did a wave of nervousness break over me. But it didn't undo me.

The organizer of the series introduced me.

I got up and read my paper that I had only really finished about an hour before the presentation.

We tell our students when they prepare for oral presentations that it is really better to speak from notes than to read. In my teaching, I do this all the time. Very often I don't even have to refer to the notes. For many other kinds of presentations as well I often speak from an outline.

But when I present more historical work, I do write it out, in part in order to ensure that the sequence of events lines up correctly, and in part because I include more quotations in historical writing and it is important to think carefully about the wording in setting up (and of course in presenting) the quotations.

Besides, in watching many presentations over time, I have come to see that while the common wisdom is true enough, there are also exceptions. When people do a good job of speaking from notes, that is certainly more effective than when people mumble through reading a paper. But some people do not do a terribly good job of speaking from notes, and those occasions can be painful to watch! And others are just fabulous at reading papers. If the papers are written to be spoken, and if the speaker knows how to read well out loud, those can be the very best talks of all.

I gave a fifteen-minute talk a few weeks ago as part of a Teach-In my university held, and I was last on the last panel, and for that occasion, I had simply three items on an outline. I listened to all the presentations before me, and took mental notes about how to make connections with what I planned to say. Everyone else read from written-out papers (and did a nice job, but oddly , almost everyone went over time!). When my turn came up, I took a deep breath, said to myself "gee, I hope I can pull this off!" looked out at the audience, and spoke. I never glanced down at my notes. And I ended exactly 15 minutes later. It was an amazing experience. I felt centered, focused, gathered. I felt connected to the audience, trying to end the series of presentations with tangible hope that everyone could participate in.

But yesterday's talk was a very different kind of setting. It was just me, to speak for an hour and then field questions for another half-hour. I teach all the time in hour-and-a-half blocks. This shouldn't be so hard then, should it? But it felt very different: much more formal; much more pressure.

So I got up there, and looked at the audience, and thanked them for coming, and started reading. Really, my task was simple: trust in this paper I so loved writing, and just focus on reading it to communicate. Emphasize what needed emphasizing. Slow down for the more important parts -- maybe even repeat them. Pause just before dramatic moments. Pause just after the funny bits to give people a moment to "get it" and laugh. (And they did laugh!)

It was fun.

Everyone seemed tuned in throughout.

A lot of people asked questions, excellent questions. They kept going for the full half-hour, and when the person who introduced me closed things, lots of people came up afterwards to continue the conversation. Clearly I had succeeded in getting people to think about things in new and exciting ways.

To be honest, I was amazed.

But best of all was how many people commented to me how impressed they were that (a) so many of my students came (and brought friends), (b) how tuned in they were throughout, and (c) what excellent questions they asked.

And the president, who also asked excellent questions during the question and answer period, wrote me a wonderful follow-up e-mail saying that he really appreciates how I zero in on the really important questions and problems and propose striking and bold solutions. He invited me to have a follow-up discussion with him about these ideas.

I feel very fortunate to be at such a wonderful university. To be supported in coming out with bold ideas is really wonderful.

For so much of my life, I have felt alone and misunderstood. Then I found the Quakers, and felt I had found a community that was supportive, but my work "in the world" was still meeting with a lot of resistance.

This talk was a turning point for me, because I was bringing Quaker ideas more explicitly to a non-Quaker school, expecting to be regarded with some suspicion -- but was met instead with enthusiasm and support!

So, I think I am finally finding my way to language that works, language that connects. (This too was why I had to write out this paper -- I knew that how I put things mattered very much.) I think I am succeeding in thinking my way past the patterned uses of language that reinforce problematic dichotomies, and speaking a new language that catches people by surprise, holds their attention, and gets them thinking. Speaking in new ways runs the risk of losing people -- and I used to lose people all the time -- but my years of teaching have taught me how to connect just well enough with how most people think and speak that I've gotten better at not losing people so much any more.

Yet I've been struggling mightily in my personal life, still going through something like the dark night of the soul I wrote about last summer. So I've picked up Thomas Moore's book, Dark Nights of the Soul, again, especially this afternoon when the glow of happiness wore off and I lapsed into the fatigue of post-high let-down. Picking up that book was exactly the right thing to do. I found his reassuring advice: the dark night of the soul is a time of transformation. I used to be shy and fearful; now I'm coming out as an effective speaker. Moments like yesterday show me glimpses of the transformation that is underway.

I must continue to have faith.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Caught in the Undertow

Hello to my faithful readers!

I'm still caught in the undertow of the impossibly busy time of the semester. I have been working hard throughout this Thanksgiving break: working on my Quakerism and Science paper (that I'm presenting on Wednesday), and trying to catch up on grading. Unbelievably, classes resume tomorrow. I cannot believe that the time flew by this quickly! I thought I would have a moment to catch my breath, but not really.

Maybe I have assigned too much this semester. It looked reasonable back in August. But I've been having trouble keeping up with all the grading.

And it doesn't help that other things happen as well. Some are routine: for example, I still have classes to prepare for; meetings to attend; music to prepare for a concert (even though my group is no longer in existence, I've been asked to perform as part of another concert); etc. But in addition to the expected busyness, there are the unexpected things that happen too. I'm actually making good progress in dealing with the "normal" and expected complexity of my life more calmly and confidently than ever before, and I am happy to see this. But the unexpected can really throw off the precise (and, it turns out, precarious) balance of my complicated life.

So, maybe I haven't assigned too many assignments. Maybe that's not really what the problem has been. Or, maybe we need to "expect the unexpected," in which case, lightening up on assignments is a good way to hold space for the unexpected?

At any rate, it's not just me. Everyone at my college is stressed this time of year.

Someone recently told me that the word at the root of school, schola, means "leisure."

I laughed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Last year, I posted a listing of some of what I am thankful for. I still agree with all of that.

I will add to that list more explicitly (even though it is already present implicitly):

  • I am thankful for God's love.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Living against One's Nature

One of the dilemmas of my life is the question of whether I am more of a contemplative or more of an activist. My actual personality and temperament indicate that I am really more of a contemplative. But my consciously adopted ethic, rooted in my sincere concern for the world, emphasizes actively trying to make a positive difference in the world. So I have tended to try to push myself more in the "activist" direction (loosely defined).

I can say a lot of things about why I have developed this strong habit of pushing against my nature, but I will refrain. I am guessing that the story of systematically pushing against one's own nature is very common; the reasons for doing so diverse and personal.

What's interesting in my case is that it is not that I haven't known that I'm really more of a contemplative at heart. Why, look at the name I give myself here, for example! Nor is it that I do not value the contemplative role. I regard it as crucially important.

Despite my long time of knowing this about myself, and my regarding it as crucially important, yet I have systematically pushed against this core quality of my nature and only now am I finally saying to myself, "Enough! This isn't working!" Only now am I finally and truly resolving to change this in my life.

The thought of what my life could be like once I fully institute this change fills me with a dramatic ray of hope like I've not seen in a very long time when I look at my life and ponder my future. That ray of hope, shining like a sunbeam through the branches of trees on my path ahead in the woods, keeps me going.

But the distance between here and there seems enormous. This is not the kind of change one can make in an instant. The attitude change is not enough. There are projects I have committed to that I must bring to completion. It will take me a while to get where I want to be. My attitude change, in a way, makes this even harder, because I now find myself a bit impatient about the distance between me and that ray of hope ahead. This challenging hiking that I'm doing used to be what I counted as the meaning and purpose of my life; now it presents itself as an obstacle to endure and survive until I can get to where I really want to be.

But my metaphors are not really fully accurate. The contrast between my "activism" and "contemplation" is overdrawn. I'm not wholly unhappy with following through on prior commitments. And I certainly do not resent my attitude change: it helps me make new decisions with a lot more clarity.

But some dimensions of the change are really really hard.

It's hard to be who you really are, unapologetically, in the world -- especially when a core part of yourself (like being contemplative) is largely underappreciated and misunderstood.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sabbath Reclaimed!

I reclaimed my sabbath: yesterday, rather than today. There has been a lot going on lately, and so I was feeling exhausted and greatly in need of pure rest, and so I took a day yesterday to simply not have an agenda. I did what I felt like doing from moment to moment.

In some ways it is easier to take Saturdays than Sundays. Saturday comes at the end of the work week, and so I am usually especially tired and in need of a break. I also feel I have time, because Monday still seems reasonably far away. By Sunday, I'm worrying about the week ahead and feel ready to attend to my work again (especially if I've taken a break on Saturday).

I've been looking a little into why (some) Christians changed the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. It's a complex story. I was wondering too whether that change brought with it a change in attitude towards sabbath (e.g., from "rest" to "spiritual work"). I learned that some traditions distinguish between sabbath (for rest) and "The Lord's Day" (for worship).

As I've talked with others about the notion of sabbath, and as I've read others' comments on my previous postings about sabbath, I have become aware of the many different attitudes that people have about what sabbath is "supposed" to mean. Now I see that different traditions define it very differently. No wonder there is so much dispute about its meaning.

Since my decision to try to honor the sabbath, I have not been holding strictly to it. But my reclaiming it for myself this week reminded me of how powerful it really can be.

I was falling into a trance again. I was beginning to feel run by my life and by forces out of my control. This weekend, I catch a glimpse of my essential freedom again.

We know when specific spiritual disciplines are helpful to us if we find that they help us to stay Awake.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ignoring (or Changing?) the Sabbath

Until today, I have continued to honor the sabbath. It helped that the last two weeks I was traveling on Sundays. Yet, those were not exactly restful and restorative days. They were reflective days, however. Traveling always makes me re-consider my life from a wide perspective.

This past Thursday turned out to be more of a real sabbath for me. We had a brief mid-semester break starting on Thursday (and ending today). I resolved to catch up on grading, but instead began writing my Quakerism and science piece. Since I allow writing on my sabbath (because it is good for my soul and makes me happy), it was Thursday that felt more like a sabbath for me than today.

Today, I have felt under pressure to catch up with the grading (which I have been working on on Friday and Saturday, but didn't finish). My students, coming back from break, will really hope to have some comprehensive assessment of how they are doing now that we are officially halfway through the semester. And grading definitely blows the sabbath. It is gruelling hard work, and it raises my anxiety levels considerably.

I find grading very very difficult for a number of reasons.

First, however, I should put it in a positive context: I do like seeing how students work with the material. I like giving them feedback. It's a chance to engage in one-on-one dialogue with them. It's a very important part of their learning process.

Regarding the giving of grades, while this may seem difficult in philosophy, I actually don't have too much trouble assigning grades. There are actually some pretty clear measures: Does the student have a good understanding of the philosphical ideas he or she is discussing? Does the student have a well-formulated philosophical response? Are there inconsistencies in the student's reasoning? Etc.

So what is hard for me, then?

One thing that is very hard for me is dealing with the students' psychological responses to their grades and my feedback. I have developed good pep talks that do help them to interpret my responses in ways that help them to learn and grow, but even so, I know that it can be hard on them to face up to how exacting philosophy really is. I'm a nice person, in person, and I think it is a bit of a shock for the students to see how high my standards are when I grade. Even though they respect me for it, I keep worrying that they'll give up on themselves too easily.

So much in our culture encourages young people to make premature judgments about what they should do based on whether others think they are good at it or not. If their grades in a particular subject are not as high as they would like, they too quickly assume that they are not good at that subject and shy away from it. They say things about themselves like, "I'm not a math person," or "I'm not good at writing," as if these are permanent statements about who they are, instead of being simply skills that require hard work to master.

No matter how eloquently I may try to counter these assumptions in my classes, mine is just one small voice in a culture that overwhelmingly keeps emphasizing the opposite. The students' disappointment in their grades burns more brightly in their minds than any consoling or encouraging words I can offer, which seem hollow and insincere in comparison. "If you really meant it, you'd give me a higher grade for 'effort' or 'potential,'" I imagine them thinking as I see their formerly open and trusting faces now turn guarded.

And my words are further rendered powerless by the exaggerated power we have given grades in our culture. Grades are not just private communication between teachers and students. They are a quasi-public testimony to what the world interprets as students' ability (not just peformance, but ability). Grades count in ways that really matter. They can open or close very important doors to opportunity: from continuing to receive financial aid to athletic participation to study-abroad to graduate and professional studies beyond college.

Professors are caught in an endlessly difficult dilemma about grading: we are under pressure on the one hand to resist "grade inflation" and set high standards and pretend that grades are just an educational tool. On the other hand, we realize that grades are interpreted in ways we do not intend if we do regard them just as educational, and we get contrasting pressure from students and their parents to be more generous and forgiving in our grading.

What's also hard for me in grading is that when I read student papers, I see how little that I am trying to teach is really getting through to the students. I realize that it is because learning is a developmental process. They need time to grapple on their own with ideas before they are capable of understanding those ideas in deeper and more nuanced ways. But I am haunted by that expression, "A little learning is a dangerous thing," because I cannot shake the sense that the "little learning" most students obtain about philosophy after one semester is highly dangerous indeed. Most simply become convinced relativists. While relativism may be better than an unreflective dogmatism, it's still highly problematic! I understand why Plato thought that people shouldn't begin philosophical study until they are 30!

But I try to console myself: I survived my own relativistic phase, and came through to a different place...but only after years of additional philosophical study. That's not the path most students take. Still, should I not just let go and trust? We who teach are mostly planting seeds. If we do our best in the moment, can't we trust that things will unfold as they should in the long run?

Then, today, as I was working away on the grading, a surprise e-mail came in. Someone saw a reference to my dissertation and has taken an interest in my work. He sees how much I have "in progress" but have not yet published, and says, "I hope you will be able to make good on your plans to publish some of the projects mentioned in your current CV." I am touched and moved. I look again at the student paper I am grading, sigh, close it, and realize that I need my sabbath.

What is it that the world needs most from me? My feedback on students' papers, or my research and writing?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Blogger Beta

I've switched to Blogger Beta. The changes my readers notice will probably be subtle.

One change is that there are tags or labels at the end of each posting. I had already thought up a way to organize by topic, by using to bookmark each posting and then importing its list of tags to my sidebar, under "Postings by Topic" (clever, eh?). I have not yet coordinated all of those tags with the Blogger Beta labels, but I've gotten a good start.

Does having labels at the end of each posting now make my "Postings by Topic" sidebar redundant? They do function a little differently: clicking on the topic sidebar takes you to a listing of links to all related postings; clicking on a label at the end of the posting shows you a page that contains the full text of all of the postings that fall under that label. For now, I think I'll keep both, because the sidebar shows all tags or labels in use at once. I'll at least keep both in use until I've fully caught up on labeling all of the posts within Blogger Beta.

Another change is that I now have a Gmail account associated with my blogging, making it possible for people to e-mail me. (Previously, the only way to communicate with me was to leave a comment.) You can e-mail me by viewing my profile and clicking on the "e-mail" link.

The third change is unfortunate: a problem indicated in the release notes that still has not been resolved, I believe: that people who have Blogger accounts (rather than Blogger Beta) who leave comments cannot delete their own comments. Not many of my commentators have tried to delete their comments (I can tell...), so this may not be too much of a problem. But if you do find yourself in this predicament (maybe you are a perfectionist and want to re-post a comment to correct a spelling error!), it may be the case that I still can delete the comment for you. So just e-mail me (see above) should you ever want to delete a comment you've made but find yourself unable to do so.

If you notice other changes, good or bad, please let me know!

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, certain things function much more smoothly and straightforwardly now, and so I myself am pleased with the change.

By the way, can you tell that I must be on mid-semester break? Otherwise, I never would have had time for this sort of thing right now. In fact, I don't really have time even now! But I must confess that, for me, this counts as a fun relaxing break from the usual routine. Sad, isn't it? :-)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Quakerism and Science

I submitted a proposal to give a talk at my college about some of the research I did on sabbatical, and my proposal was accepted. What this means is that I will be giving a talk that will have a lot to do with Quakerism at my non-Quaker college! This is very exciting.

Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy of science, my dissertation advisors knew that I was Quaker and that I took religion seriously. They were a bit dubious about this, but since I was low-key about it all (as Quakers are often wont to be) and it didn't seem to be infecting my work in any problematic ways, they didn't seem all that troubled by it.

The philosophers of science and the historians of science at my university had a weekly "History and Philosophy of Science" colloquium that we (faculty and graduate students) attended. One day, the speaker was Geoffrey Cantor, from the University of Leeds, to give a lecture on Quakers in the Royal Society and why Quakers were sympathetic to science.

As the faculty and graduate students gathered, two of the faculty members on my dissertation committee gathered around me and then even sat on either side of me, excited at this opportunity to gain new insight into this graduate student of theirs who was Quaker and interested in philosophy of science.

Predictably, I was feeling pretty uncomfortable, but also intrigued. Would this speaker, who was not himself Quaker, do a nice job?

He did a superb job. All of those historians of science and philosophers of science were actually quite impressed with Quakerism by the end.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief as my dissertation advisors turned to me at the end and said, "well, that explains a lot!" They seemed relieved themselves to have learned that Quakerism is non-credal and experiential, and that Quakers always incorporated and often even emphasized science education in the schools and colleges they set up.

When I was in England in March, I had a chance to meet Geoffrey Cantor, and to thank him for how helpful his talk was back then when I was a graduate student. We had a nice long conversation about Quakers and their understanding of science and knowledge more generally.

So now I get to follow in his footsteps and present a talk at my current college about Quakerism and science. Will it be as well-received as his was? We shall see.

In the meantime, as I prepare, I plan to post some of my thinking here so that other Friends can correct me if I get some of the history wrong. So, stay tuned...!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Report from Recent Travels

My second trip went pretty well, I think. Both of my recent weekend trips were Quaker-related, and closely tied in to the leading I've been processing in the past few months. Both of these trips have required travel all day Friday, intense meetings on Saturday and part of Sunday, and long travel back to my busy life here. So I haven't had a real restorative kind of break in a long time. Yet, having these trips behind me is itself kind of restorative. I learned important things. I need time to process what I've learned and factor it into my continued discernment of this leading.

One of the general issues that emerges for me from these meetings is related to issues for me back at home as well: everyone is so busy. Part of what I've been trying to do in many dimensions of my life is to see if Concerned Academics and Concerned Quakers (two distinct groups but with some overlap) can work effectively together in mutually supportive and mutually inspiring ways to really try to address the world's problems. I am surrounded by friends and Friends who keep saying they want to do something, but when it comes right down to it, no one really has time to follow through with anything concrete.

So, how does everyone spend their time? Is their work already constructive and important? Are their days already spent in the work that quietly knits our broken world back together? To some extent, yes. I really want to trust the Concerned people I know to be doing their best. I want to trust that their normal lives are already doing much good in the world. It seems to be the case.

And yet, and yet ... they are stressed; they feel overworked and exhausted; they feel ineffective; they feel restless with the thought that they should be doing something that more directly addresses whatever it is about the world's problems that most distresses them. They long for community, support, and inspiration themselves.

I appear in their midst and try to facilitate the kinds of discussions that can help people connect and inspire, and give people hope. But despite my best efforts, the gravity of the problems depresses everyone and they start quibbling with each other, and vying with me, because I'm discussion facilitator. I become a kind of lightning rod for projection. Anxieties get draped over me and then vied with. I try to stay strong. I sort of succeed. Something shifts. A not unhealthy resignation settles. Everyone seems humbled. A sense of new and deeper faith starts to crystallize.

On my long journeys home, I cry, feeling spent. It has been hard work. Spiritual struggling. I sense that something important is happening. I think that this is a real leading, because it won't let me go, even though I keep trying to let it go.

I cannot tell what exactly is happening, or where it will go. I cannot tell if other people have been as profoundly affected as I have been, or if this is just part of my own story: a story of how a shaking soul finds strength.

I feel kind of good about all that has happened, but troubled too. It is not a troubledness of doubting that I have been as faithful as I am capable of being -- I think it is the troubledness of realizing that intending to make a positive difference in a broken world is a very serious matter, full of risk and danger. But I don't feel afraid. I feel grimly aware. I feel open-eyed.

I feel held in a prayer that is not of my making.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My Whirlwind Life

Lots has been happening.

I went away last weekend on one trip (Friday through Sunday). I go away this weekend on another trip (Friday through Sunday again). Both trips are important events. I think I've been handling my new challenges well, but just barely. Meanwhile, I'm holding my life back at home together, but also just barely. Fortunately, my students this semester are really terrific, and so teaching my classes always recharges my positive energy.

What does it take to try to make a positive difference in the world? It takes a lot of strength, because the world fiercely resists change, even positive change.

Where does one find strength? Through discernment and lots of prayer. Good friends help enormously.

I'll write more specifically about all of this soon. Right now, I'm spent. But I know that teaching about Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics tomorrow will renew me! It always does.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Another Sabbath Report

Yesterday I woke up all in a panic about all that I had to do. I had been out of sorts for several days and hadn’t been working very efficiently on things, and now it was all catching up to me. Grimly I took heart from what several people had said in comments to my recent postings and said, “ok, I’m not going to let this ritual of Sabbath dominate me – I have to work today!”

I leaped out of bed and did some of the not-really-work-as-such household chores that I allow myself to do, and by then had … well, I’d like to say “had come to my senses,” but it’s not a noble story I have to tell. By then the energy briefly inspired by anxiety had degenerated back to a kind of depressive apathy.

But I realized I was seriously in a bad way and needed somehow to face what was really going on. Was it just that after all the excitement of doing the fun things one does to start off the school year (planning courses and such), now I was facing all the scary tasks all at once? Or was there something else going on?

So I took all of this with me to Meeting. And slowly then and afterwards, new realizations began to crystallize.

At the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year, I had carefully set up several projects that I thought represented what I felt called to do, and I took my first steps with these cheerfully enough. But what is getting hard is that I am entering a phase where the success of these projects depends upon my ability to mobilize and inspire others to help out. I don’t have a lot of experience with this. In Meeting, memories floated forth of times when I was totally ineffective at this (i.e., most times I’ve tried!) Everyone is so busy and overwhelmed with their own lives that it is really hard to persuade people to do much of anything beyond their usual routines.

So, have I bitten off more than I can chew? Am I scared because this is new? Or am I resistant because this really isn’t my calling—I should be dedicating my time and effort to my book projects?! That was what I had to discern!

I wanted all the more to run away rather than face that question.

Then I noticed that God was sitting right beside me.

So, I wondered, “what does God think? What a hopeless mess I am! Probably God is all sad about how much I’ve caged myself in with fears again and how much I’m tying myself into a tight knot and pulling far away.”

I glanced over. God didn’t seem sad. Instead, there was a look of calm patience. Not unhappy with me at all.

But how can God not be unhappy with me! What a state I’m in! I glanced over again.

No. No trace of unhappiness.

So I wondered: how can God be so confident when I’m not?! What does God know that I don’t know? Maybe God realizes that something spectacular is going to happen to help me on my way!

Um, no, that didn’t seem right.

What then?

Maybe the course of my days and the coming events (and deadlines) that I dread will themselves lift me back out of my angst and carry me into a better state of being, and God knows that, even if I can’t believe it at the moment.

So, I began to think of a coming important meeting, and realized that I just needed to use that opportunity to ask my friends for help. I need to tell them, “Look, I’m not sure that I can do this on my own. I have something of a vision, but it’s not all up to me! I need for others to help out!” They probably will respond well to that! Can’t I trust them? They are my friends, and they care too about the success of what we are trying to do.

I spent the rest of the day continuing to gently encourage myself to keep facing my fears and working through them. I haven’t yet reached clarity about whether I’ve taken on something I shouldn’t have taken on, but I did become resigned (in a good way) to continuing to try my best since I have said I’d do this.

And so this morning I got up and set straight to work on a number of scary things, and made real progress, and had class, and did more scary things, and am just astounded.

So I am re-committed to the value of honoring the Sabbath. If I had just worked yesterday, I would have worked from anxiety instead of from the more positive hopefulness I experienced today.

It was not through my own virtue that I kept to my resolve, though. I have to admit that.

It was grace.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Life and Death

Being a philosopher, I think a lot about death. But I don’t think about death in a grim, morbid sort of way. I marvel at its unique place in our conceptual scheme: it stands there both as a hard, undeniable truth, and as totally inconceivable. We cannot really imagine death, because imagination is itself alive. It’s hard to really believe in death, and yet every bit of the fear and anxiety that so permeate our lives betrays our constant awareness of the reality of death. Thinking about death can be a way of heightening our awareness of life.

I mention this today because my last posting ended cryptically but intentionally with the pair of sentences, “I don’t want to strive anymore. … I want to live.”

The last sentence in particular haunted me: why pair living with striving, when usually we pair living with dying?

The answer is that lately I feel like I am finally starting to come alive. A life of striving can be a life narrowly-focused and driven by some kind of anxiety. An image came to me as I was writing, of tunneling along a narrow but winding path until one day it just ends with death. This is not how I want my life to be.

It is not that I think that all striving is bad. My own striving has always been well-intentioned. I admire others who strive in well-intentioned ways.

But I am coming to see how much my own striving has been linked to difficulties I have had in trusting: myself, others, the world, and maybe even God.

I’m in the midst of establishing a profound new relationship with anxiety. Anxiety has always been my constant companion. After a time of life in which I was in fierce battle with anxiety, I finally accepted him (yes, for me, anxiety is a “him”) at first grudgingly, and then even cheerfully, as a constant companion. I realized that he only wanted to protect me, and that if I let him rule me too much, that was my mistake: never a role Anxiety himself particularly liked to play.

But something new is happening in my relationship with anxiety. Anxiety does leave me altogether sometimes. It is a disconcerting feeling, at first, because even something troublesome, like anxiety, can be comforting for being familiar. The loss of anxiety can, oddly enough, be anxiety-provoking. Anxiety likes to be needed, and happily comes trotting back when we call.

But it is the times I have let Anxiety stay away for a while that have had me experiencing life in a dramatically new way. (I’m not in such a state at the moment, right now, so I’m straining to remember, like trying to remember a powerful dream.) During these times, I truly don’t fear death; and yet I treasure life like never before. In fact, the line between life and death seems to blur. During these times, I know that death is not the end. I know this for a fact. But instead of this awareness making me indifferent to life, I treasure it all the more for what it is, for all its magic and beauty, for the vast and complex interwoven story that is underway. All death is, I think during these times, is stepping out of this story. It is better to stay in as long as we can, because only in the here and now of this life are conditions ripe for our taking the next steps we need to take to further us along our way to …

To what?

Everything in our soul’s history to this point has prepared us to be where we are now, experiencing what we experience now. We are free – so much more free than we realize. We can play our lives creatively, learning what we need to learn, growing in the ways we need to grow, connecting with others in ways we and they can benefit from.

There will be a time for each of us to leave this story: that moment does not have to be either feared or forced. But until then, while we are here, this is where we are meant to be. We each have something to learn and do, regardless of how we may happen to feel about our life in any given moment. Whether we feel expansively happy and free and clear, or frustrated and hemmed in and anxious, life quietly holds gifts and opportunities before us at every moment.

Despite my noble words, I have regressed in recent days to anxiety-clouded vision. This makes it hard for me to write, but I don’t feel insincere, because I still do believe all that I have said.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

More on My Experiment with Sabbath

I forgot to try to start my Sabbath at sunset last night. I remembered that I had forgotten this morning, when I woke up. For me, it may be better to stick with the pattern I have already been honoring: start when I wake up; end when I wake up the next day.

In addition to the elaborations that have come forth in my replies to others’ comments on my last posting about Sabbath, this experiment is related to what I wrote not too long ago about time. I’m trying to not let time gain control of me.

I finally officially got stressed on Friday. Up until then, the marvelous state of being I had described in that posting about time endured. It was Friday that it finally caved in. I still haven’t quite recovered. Even today, as I try to honor the Sabbath, I struggle mightily with anxiety.

But at least I haven’t wholly lost sight of the state of being I want to regain. It is a state of being in which I welcome the flow of tasks that greets me, because each is an opportunity to further and strengthen the good in the world. The times of meeting with others (in classes, in committee meetings, over meals, in passing) are sacred opportunities for meaningful connection. The times I attend to various tasks are times for getting important work done in the world: maintaining or reworking the best of the systems and institutions that structure our lives and our world; creating new spaces for growth and connection.

If I’ve set things up well in my life, then I can trust that the flow of my work will unfold in a beneficial way, for me and for those whose lives are affected by my work.

Does my attitude or state of being at every moment matter? If at times I am stressed, anxious, tired, or hurried as I do my work, is my accomplishment therefore diminished? Or is it okay that my state of being isn’t always calm, collected, and centered?

Quakers are rightfully dubious about ritual, worried that when certain patterns of behavior become habitual, our participating in them can become rote and mechanical. Over time, such rituals can lose their meaning. Or at least our sense of their meaning can fade.

But what about the rituals that structure our working lives? Sometimes these rituals are even intended to be merely mechanical. They are put into place not for our sense of fulfillment, but to get work done. Our emotional states are not supposed to matter. What is supposed to matter is “productivity.”

Although the early Quakers may have been worried that rituals such as honoring the Sabbath were at risk of becoming empty and meaningless, I find myself reaching for a new kind ritual to counter the plethora of intentionally-mechanical rituals that structure, even control, my life. Some rituals dislodge us from our humanness, our spirituality. Are there others that can reconnect us? Or are all rituals dangerously dehumanizing?

I try to establish a ritual for staying awake and alert. I try to establish a ritual for staying in touch, staying connected. I have caught glimpses of a life free of the subtle, almost invisible, low-level anxiety that has quietly pressed me to strive all my life. I don’t want to strive anymore, however noble were my ambitions. I want to live.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Religious Disillusionment of My Students (and Colleagues)

This semester I'm boldly starting off my Philosophy of Science course with an examination of some of the issues concerning science and religion. We are reading Ian Barbour's book When Science Meets Religion, because he does a wonderfully clear job of (a) providing four possible ways of relating science and religion, (b) describing some important results from science that I know will be helpful to refer to when we move on to more standard philosophy of science (in the past I've seen how little science students know), (c) laying out really important philosophical vocabulary relevant to philosophy of science.

Besides all that, starting the course this way is a way of putting science into a larger context. And I give students a chance to take stock of their own beliefs in relation to both science and religion early on in the course, before we get a bit lost in the details of a close-up look at philosophical issues arising from science.

So, I would like to share a couple of observations about what I have learned from my students:

  • Regardless of their attitudes about science or religion, they are loving this. No one at all thinks this is an odd way to start this course. They are thrilled at the opportunity to examine these questions.
  • No one is the least bit shy about sharing their honest thoughts and questions about both science and religion. If they find science incomprehensible, they say so. If they find belief in God dubious, they say so. If they find belief in God meaningful, they say so. Not too long ago, everyone seemed very guarded about (a) confessing that science made no sense to them or (b) sharing anything at all about their religious beliefs in a class! What accounts for this change I've been seeing crystallizing just in the past couple of years?
  • Even more: the students are hungry to share their thoughts. In an online discussion forum, they share their whole life histories of involvement or non-involvement with religion.
  • Sadly, most who grew up going to church found it frustrating and incomprehensible and couldn't wait until they didn't have to go anymore.
  • Sadly, most tend to be very suspicious of churches or "organized religion." They don't feel welcomed in. They profoundly misunderstand the terminology. They seem to regard "organized religion" as basically trying to control their behavior by wielding frightening images of a harsh, judgmental God.
  • Yet I would say most of my students seem to take spirituality very seriously. Almost no one is an atheist. A few are agnostics. But they regard their spirituality as something very personal. They don't want anyone to mess with it. They honor everyone else's "right" to hold their spirituality close too.
Net result: I find this all very interesting, but at the same time, I must confess to feeling a bit distressed that a whole rich language of powerful concepts is completely unavailable to help us move into depth in our conversations about all of this. All of the really important words are so contested that we really cannot use them at all.

I translate and translate and translate. Slowly, we build a new common language, but it takes time, and it is a cumbersome process. I console myself: this is the power of teaching philosophy -- to help students develop the skills of learning to use language more flexibly. But still, it is slow and difficult and we never really get very far before the semester ends.

But, maybe I just have to adjust my expectations. After all, they are students. They are just starting.

But the same is true in my conversations with my colleagues. So many of the really important powerful words are so contested that even we cannot speak very clearly or easily about what really matters...

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Last March, when I was in England working on some research at a Quaker study center, I met a Baptist minister who was staying at this same study center, also working on research. At meals, we would share about how our research was going. And then I learned as the first weekend approached that he always took a real sabbath on Sundays.

He was torn that first weekend because his research was going really well and he felt sorely tempted to go to the library on Sunday to continue work. In the end, he refrained and took his sabbath. He asked if I had worked, and I was surprised at how sheepish I felt to confess that I had. I made some feeble excuse about how my time there was limited (so was his), and maybe then also talked about how Quakers don't have rigid rules about this sort of thing, but finally I confessed that I was really impressed with his practice of truly honoring the sabbath, and so I asked more about it. How did he spend the day?

He told me he does spiritual reading and reflecting. He prays. He writes to his parishioners back at home. When he is home, he visits them.

As he talked, I became more and more impressed. The image I got was that he was being intentional about staying in touch: with God and with the people in his church.

So, I started honoring the sabbath while I was there. I would engage in spiritual reading not directly related to my research. I would write in my journal and reflect. I would be in touch with the friends I needed to be in touch with, not for any "work-related" reasons, but because they were my friends. It can be too easy to lose sight of these ways of staying connected, to God and to each other, in the press of our busy lives.

Since I have returned, I have noticed that I continue to honor the sabbath. The only "work" I allow myself is following through on tasks I've promised for my Meeting, plus certain modest household chores that I engage in with an attitude of their being spiritual practices, opportunities for another kind of prayer.

Now that the academic year has started, I have wondered how my own resolve would hold up. The problem with Sunday is that it happens just before Monday. Some traditions hold Saturday as the sabbath day, and this would work better for me, except for the fact that Meeting happens on Sunday.

But also, I have come to appreciate the challenge of trying to honor it on Sundays precisely because Monday follows. The discipline of holding Sunday as sabbath feels more real as a discipline because it is hard. Monday's anxiety threatens to seep into the day, and resisting this feels very good for my soul. To stare that anxiety in the face and say, "You don't scare me!" and to dare to affirm the Transcendent boldly on this day can feel very empowering.

So far, it is working. I haven't lost my grip on my work. It hasn't all come crashing down. I step into my Monday feeling stronger and clearer when I enter work as just one state of my being, not my entire identity.

But I must confess that I write about this not only to share its power, but because these past couple of weeks I have come very close to breaking my sabbath. By writing about it and sharing it with my readers, I make my resolve more public, and so it feels more real. I have a feeling that if I stay disciplined about this as the busyness intensifies, I will gain more insight about the power of this spiritual practice.

So, I encourage my readers to try this, especially if your lives feel way too busy! Or, if you already do this, or have tried it, I encourage you to share your experiences!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Time Settles around Me in New Form

After the sense of time-spaciousness I described in a recent posting, now I find time settling around me with new definition, its edges slowly hardening and tightening, as the new academic year begins and my schedule becomes busy again.

It is an interesting experience watching this happen, being aware of exactly how it feels. It's not as traumatic as I had feared. It's not happening as suddenly as I expected. It settles around me gently at first, bringing my life and my work gradually into sharper and clearer focus, offering me foot-holds and hand-holds of effectiveness. I step into a system structured to allow my engagement with others. As I grab hold and climb into it and push levers and pull handles, things happen around me that others respond to.

At least in this early stage of this entrance from contemplation back to action, I am acutely aware of my freedom. This mechanistic image of time our culture has constructed is a construction of ours. It is something we made: a powerful machine that coordinates our efforts and creates the potential for action much greater than any one person could accomplish alone. Right now I am still keenly aware of my essential position of freedom in relation to this machine. And I am aware that this is true of all of us.

But how long will it take before my experience of this changes? How long will it take before I am so far inside again that I feel more run by it than it is run by me (and you)?

I hope I can stay alert and watch exactly how this transformation happens.

Then and only then will I really have something meaningful to say to all who feel trapped within the exacting demands of this system of time and work.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Rest of the Story

Continuing from yesterday:

So, in a fluster about the short-notice possibility of a radio interview, I wondered whether I was up for it in my busy-again life. I consulted with trusted friends, got myself updated on the issues the radio program people wanted to interview me about, and slept on it. I woke up surprised to be greeted by a steady stream of eloquent thoughts, and said, "that's it! I'm doing it!" I rushed early to my office, rearranged my schedule, left e-mail and phone messages saying I could do it, and resumed my preparations and the gathering of my thoughts.


My class (the one non-negotiable in today's schedule) inched closer and closer. No word yet.

I turned my attention to getting ready for class, hoping that the shift of attention wouldn't break the fragile thread of my newly gathered thoughts.

Still no word.

Now I was hungry. Normally I like to get an early lunch because my class is at noon. What do I do? Time is running out!

Finally an e-mail arrived. They had someone else lined up. But they did want to be sure to try again to interview me the next time the topic comes up!

I sighed and went for lunch.

Surprisingly after all that, class went quite well.

While this was disappointing at the time, in a way it's just as well. My work on it this morning actually contributes towards something I'm writing. And I wasn't really sure I was ready to come "out" with these particular ideas until this piece of writing is finished and published, anyway.

And I'm glad I didn't let fear stop me. And I showed myself that I can move quickly on something new and unexpected without throwing the rest of my life into total chaos: my class went well! I can trust myself more than I usually do.

And I appreciate the affirmation that they still want to keep me on their radar for possible future interviews -- that must mean they liked that first one I did a couple of years ago!

So, it's okay. After all, I count this a good day.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Pace is Picking Up Fast

Yep, things are suddenly piling up thickly.

The latest: a request to interview me on a program that airs on public radio, kind of a follow-up/update from an interview I did a few years ago. I should do this, but I don't have much time to decide, and I feel caught by surprise, and I'm not sure I'll be ready. If I decide yes, the interview happens tomorrow (recorded -- not sure when it would air).

My life is way too interesting.

All that stuff I've said lately about feeling centered and happy? Gone! (Actually, not really -- just submerged underneath a temporary wave of panic -- I hope temporary!)

I have all these great aspirations, but am absolutely terrified of actually being successful because I'm terrified of the attention that would bring (says me, the blogger hiding behind a pseudonym).

So, this new big test faces me...and I have to make a decision quickly...yet the rest of my life is now suddenly busy and complex again too...

Yes, sabbatical is definitely really over, now!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Classes have now begun. I have been amazed to see how happy I am to be back in the classroom! It's really, I think, a kind of evangelical excitement. I love sharing what I have been so amazed to learn.

My students have been happy, cheerful, and full of good energy. They all participated eagerly in discussion on the very first day of class. I'm looking forward to watching how the semester unfolds.

Some of my colleagues are very interested in the plan to try to start a Peace Studies program at our university. We will start by proposing a Peace Studies minor.

I'm still not feeling as on top of things as I would like: some sabbatical writing projects remain unfinished; my office desperately needs a major overhaul (but I ordered filing cabinets -- that should help!); etc. But even so, as the normal semester busyness begins to take hold, I'm reminded that, for the most part, I love each task that faces me. I don't mind being busy when I'm doing what I love. (I only mind it when it turns into the over-busyness that is simply hard to keep up with because there are not enough hours in the day. But that's not happening...yet.)

So, I am genuinely happy to be back fully in action here! And this is good.

Education is so important. I feel honored to be part of this noble endeavor.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unusual Spiritual Test

I'm back from my last trip of the summer.

The 5K went well. I did better than I expected. I ran a good portion of it, but walked up some of the hills. And I really enjoyed it. I felt I struck the right balance of pushing myself without ending up in utter misery. I needed to have some energy left over for more visiting and then travel home, arriving back at 1:00 am! So then I felt pretty wiped out yesterday.

The biggest adventure was on the flight out there. We landed in the midst of storms, and so the plane got tossed about a lot more than I've ever experienced. But I was just reading about body sensing, breathing and relaxation in an amazing book called Chi Running, by Danny and Katherine Dreyer. So the last half-hour of the flight put this learning to an unusual test. When the plane would suddenly drop, or shake from side to side, I would find that my whole body would go tense. Could I stay relaxed, go with the movement, slow my breathing? Could I trust the air, the strength of the plane, the judgment of the air traffic controllers, the skill of the pilots?

I must confess the thought did cross my mind that we could all die. The airplane was big and old and creaked a lot from the strain. In fact it was supposed to continue on to Alaska after this flight, but once we were safely on the ground there was an announcement that those continuing to Alaska had to change planes after all. I wondered then if they were worried about sending this plane back up through that weather.

But as we had descended for 30 minutes through the blank whiteness of the stormy clouds, I wasn't yet sure it would be all right. But inwardly, I felt amazingly calm. I didn't really think that this would be how my life would end, but what if it did? I found myself wondering about what people back at home would do if this happened. Would they cancel my courses, or quickly hire someone to take over? Would they break into my computer and my e-mail to check on what pending work I had, and who needed to be notified? Would my blog readers figure out what had happened? I calmly thought through all of my projects in process, and calmly realized that, even though there are ways I am still anxious about my life and future, I do still want to keep going with it all. Even though I'm particularly stressed about the likelihood of increased travel demands if I'm successful in some of my aspirations, I found myself realizing that I wanted the courage to meet that kind of change of life. It was as if God was responding, "ok, this is your test."

The plane suddenly dropped. Then it pulled up hard. Then a cross wind caught it and it shook from side to side while I watched the wings flap. (Yes, flap!) I closed my eyes again.

Then I noticed that even though inwardly I was quite calm, my body was responding with alarm: tenseness, short shallow breathing, heart pumping hard. So I focused again on relaxation, reminding myself that being tense would do no good, trying to dance with the churning air instead of fighting against it. Everyone was very quiet, and suddenly I felt I could sense focused, prayerful energy all around me. Everyone was praying! Everyone was lending energy to keep the plane strong and to help the pilots stay calm and focused. We were all consolidating our energy to bring the plane down safely.

After an eternity of tossing whiteness, we broke through the cloud layer. The air was still rough, but I was reassured to see the ground and watch the remainder of our descent. As we touched the wet ground and decelerated hard, I knew that much could still go wrong (we could still feel the wild wind), but we finally settled into the normal taxiing to the gate. There was a collective sigh of relief.

My return home was smooth and uneventful, and that reassured me (though I was sad then to learn of the plane crash in Kentucky that happened the same day I returned).

It still amazes me that this sort of thing is possible: that we can be lifted out of our normal lives, touch down in a place of our past, reconnect with old friends and memories, set in the same yet altered place, and then be transported back to our present home -- all in just a few days! It is unusual for me to make such a trip.

And it is dizzying. Yesterday the new students arrived for orientation. We had our matriculation ceremony. We got decked out in academic regalia, greeted each other with giddy enthusiasm, and then processed before the astonished looking parents and new students. We sat in the sun, heard the noble words of our administrators about the ideals of liberal education, and heard the characteristics of the incoming class (e.g., one of our new students ranks 15th in the world in sled dog racing). I felt dazed and exhausted afterwards. Am I really ready? Why does everyone else seem happy and excited? But I too had noticed that I never stopped smiling. The Dean had waved to me as I walked past the stage. I thought to myself that this was a better scenario than if I had just died in a plane crash.

The e-mail is quiet this morning. I think I am not the only one focused on finishing syllabi. Classes start Thursday. Ready or not, the new academic year reaches down and lifts us up and sets us on our way. It has begun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Modified Running Goals

The 5K I'm running in happens soon -- Sunday. I depart tomorrow for one final summer trip before the academic year starts. No, it is not that I am so devoted to running that I travel far and wide to race. It is that this trip back to a place where I once lived is what inspired signing up for this 5K I used to run every year, which in turn inspired my coming back to running now.

All of this is a convoluted way of explaining why I am not really ready for the 5K. I won't be able to run the whole thing. I took a good hard look at various training schedules, and concluded (somewhat to my relief at this stage) that 8 weeks is just not enough for anyone to progress from no-running to being able to run 3.1 miles. You really need about 12 weeks for that, at least.

So, I've modified my goals. I'm not aspiring to run the whole thing: I can only do about a mile and a half in one go at the moment. So I'll do a run-walk. My goal is to push myself just hard enough to feel a personal sense of accomplishment.

This trip is a return to where I lived when I was in graduate school. The run in fact goes through my old neighborhood, past the house where I used to live! It overlaps with my old regular running route from those days -- back when I did feel fit and strong. So another goal is not to feel demoralized by my loss of fitness. No, wait, that is too negative! Let me rephrase: this goal is to celebrate the return to my runner identity! I am going back to the exact place where that identity finally took root. That was when I got serious. That was when I started running 5Ks. I was never competitive towards others, but within myself in those days, I made steady progress. So this trip is a very physical attempt to re-integrate this part of myself back into my current identity.

It's kind of fun to dash off like this for a quick trip just before the new academic year begins. In the past, I've been too anxious to do a thing like that. This year I'm feeling more adventurous. But also, this trip fits in symbolically with my life in many ways: as I make a new start in my academic life after tenure and after sabbatical, it seems fitting somehow to make a trip that helps me to connect back directly with my graduate school days. Somehow I sense that this will help empower me to keep to the changes I want to institute in my life: not only the return to running but also my resolve to keep my life focused more clearly around what I know I am feeling called to do.

So, wish me well! And I'll report back upon my return!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Another Quaker Philosopher!

I am delighted that another Quaker philosopher is now blogging! Welcome Richard M., author of "A Place to Stand"! I'm sure that there are more Quaker philosophers out there too...!

We had been having a longish discussion at my earlier posting, Does God Exist? I am delighted that he has started a blog of his own where he is exploring important questions about philosophy and religion in further depth.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“Way Opening” vs. the Bad Luck Blues

Every time I open my refrigerator (or turn on my dryer, or unlock my front door, or turn my shower off, or drive in my car, or travel and actually find my luggage upon arrival), I think back over last year’s spell of bad luck, and find myself grateful that this year has been better. I’m still not entirely sure what last year’s spell of bad luck was really all about, but it did make me more aware of how much I was letting myself be pushed around by demands from the world outside of me, and how much I was letting self-determination recede.

Sabbatical has been good for me.

First I was inundated with lots of requests and felt “set upon” again; then I adopted the simple policy of saying “no” to everything. The world seemed to protest a bit (the requests shifted from “Can you do ___?” to “I know you are on sabbatical, but can you do ___? It won’t really take a lot of your time, and it’s really important!”) So I had to say “no,” and then I had to say “no” louder and more insistently. And this was hard on me, but finally it started taking effect. At last the requests tapered off, and finally vanished. After all, this world could survive perfectly well without me, thank you very much.

I moved to deeper and deeper levels of reflection: on the world, and on myself. Who am I really? What am I called to do? To what extent do the world’s requests tell me my calling, and to what extent are they temptations away from my calling? How do I discern?

Time opened up, and took on a new feel. I’ve lived in a new way: less driven by schedules and a chronic sense of urgency; more defined by my being than by my doing. Time was no longer passing. I lived in the eternal now, watching the world shift and change around me.

I cannot begin to describe how amazingly restorative such a state of being can be.

Still worried about the state of the world, alarmed about new developments, and eager to do something that would help, yet I felt detached from it all, but in a healthy way. I felt like I was observing from a distance, and needed to observe from a distance. I felt a deepening new understanding of the expression, “in the world but not of it.” I didn’t want to take on false blame and responsibility for all that is going on. That energy that lashes out with blind fury is not me. That energy that “produces” with frantic, environment-destroying and soul-destroying urgency is not me. I want to live a new way into being. I represent a different way of life, and I am outraged at a world that keeps trying to loop me into its destructive ways. I will no longer pretend to be guilty of what is not of my making. I hereby vow to stand solidly in a new way of life.

And I am not alone. My friends and Friends are with me.

Those who devote their lives to bringing forth beautiful music are with me.

Those who devote their lives to teaching peace are with me.

Those who develop new, earth-friendly economies are with me.

Those who are sensitive and gentle of spirit are with me.

Those who heal; those who cultivate; those who create; those who love are with me.

We all are living a new kind of life into being.

But will this sense of clarity and strength last as the academic year begins and my life gets intensely busy again? New requests will descend upon me (indeed, they’ve already started to appear). Do I trust myself not to get pulled back into the frantic energy of manufactured urgencies?

Saying “no” feels so negative. But is there a way of saying “no” by saying (a different kind of) “yes”? Before saying no, I need to remember what are the fundamental “yeses” that define my life and being. If a new request helps give those yeses more effective expression in my life, then I can say yes to it; if it takes energy away from my defining yeses, I must say no: but then saying no is to re-affirm the yeses that define my life. Such a “no” is therefore positive instead of negative.

As I’ve slowly learned to do this, way is starting to open up for me. I cannot yet give any concrete examples, because at the moment it is a subtle shift in my soul and in my attitude. I feel hopeful, though I cannot really say why.

After a long journey into and through distrust, learning that the world is not God and that human beings indeed can do great harm, I’m finally finding my way into a new and deeper kind of trust. I’ve always trusted God, but I’ve struggled to find the right ways to trust people. I’ve too easily been fooled into thinking that I can recognize what is God within them, and what is not. I’ve felt too hurt by people, when it is really my own discernment that has been at fault.

Very slowly, I start to perceive people differently. No longer do I implicitly demand that they be God in my life. They muddle along in their brokenness as best as they can – as do I. We need each other’s help and support: humans are interdependent creatures. But at the same time, it is wrong to expect too much of each other, or even of ourselves. Our fundamental grounding should not be in human society, human institutions, or human relationships (though all of these partially constitute our lives), but God.

What does it mean to live this way, from this kind of center? The answer is deeper than words. I cannot answer for another. I cannot even answer in words for myself. It is a quest. It is a journey of the soul. I feel the way with my feet in the dark. I take off my shoes.

Standing barefoot on the ground of God: my new way of being. Am I sure I’m really there yet? Can anyone ever claim such a thing without risking dangerous self-delusion?

But if God really is the ground of all being, all of us are already there. The question then is whether and how we recognize and trust and live from that ultimate ground that is God.

Each of our lives offers a unique answer to this question.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Jill Carroll Tells Her Story

The Christian Science Monitor is publishing Jill Carroll's story:

Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story -

See also the editorial introduction.

All I can say so far is: this promises to be very interesting and illuminating!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Running Update

On a more positive note...

My running continues to go well. My latest “record” is running 17 minutes without a break. I’m pushing the schedule, since I’m up to phase VIII but have only been seriously at it for 6 weeks. It is generally not a good idea to push things, but the reason I am doing so is that I (perhaps rashly) signed up for a 5K at the end of August. My goal is simply to be able to run the entire 5K by then (I don’t care how fast).

The dangers of pushing things are: (1) you increase the risk of injury; and (2) you increase the risk of burnout.

Regarding the former, I’m simply trying to monitor my physical sensations very carefully.

Regarding the latter: I think I’m starting to approach the danger of burnout, because it’s all starting to feel very hard, and I’m almost feeling discouraged. I try to put it in perspective (I’m doing great! It just feels hard because I’m pushing myself a bit much, but after the 5K I can taper back again!) But it’s still hard.

In fact, I have a new theory: if you generally hold yourself back just a little, you keep up your enthusiasm and drive. This requires discipline and restraint. And I think this applies not just to running, but to all major endeavors in life.

I do tend to push myself hard. And I get myself into situations that encourage me to push myself hard (like signing up for a 5K but giving myself a little less time than I really need to prepare for it).

But I should also point out how much our culture encourages us to push hard. And I have internalized this cultural message too well. I’m starting to suspect that the truly successful people know how to strike the right balance. The rest of us just assume that they worked agonizingly hard to get where they are. Seeing their success, we don’t look too carefully at the habits that led to this success. Such scrutiny seems unnecessary, because success speaks for itself. But maybe if we did look more closely, we'd see that the real secret to long-term success is keeping the spirit of joy alive.

So, after this 5K (if I survive it), I will be more intentional about cultivating discipline, restraint, and joy, and will take more care not to get myself into situations that demand too much from me, if I can help it. Ok, now that I think about it, I should start right now to get serious about cultivating the discipline of restraint!

Meanwhile, I still am thrilled to be making progress! Even if I’m not feeling particularly sleek or fast yet, it feels very right to have reclaimed my runner identity. I really do want to keep this permanently in my life now!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dark Night of the Soul

Being in a bit of a dark night of the soul, I wandered over to my office yesterday, more to see if a friend of mine was in her office down the hall than to actually do real work, as such. She wasn’t. So I checked my mail, my phone messages (none), and the latest e-mail, all the while totally forgetting about one important time-sensitive e-mail I had recently received about someone trying to schedule a telephone conference. (Later I found a phone message at home politely informing me that they had not heard from me, so at least I haven’t missed the phone conference, which is important and happens today. I’m lucky. This little incident alarms me, because it shows that this depressive slump I am currently struggling with is starting to affect my work. My normal state of being is that of having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.)

So I left my office and wandered over to the bookstore. There’s a café there, and I was hungry, and I thought food might perk me up, but there in the café was a trim and beautiful faculty member I once heard commenting that “Americans eat too much.” So my path shifted, and I found myself heading for the philosophy books. I looked at them blankly. They seemed vaguely threatening. I went around the corner and found psychology and self help books. My eyes fell on one in particular: Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore is also the author of Care of the Soul and other related books. I have very much appreciated his writing. So I pulled Dark Nights of the Soul off the shelf, found a chair, sat down, and had a look.

An hour later I was walking out of the store having now purchased the book (but still no food, and I was still hungry).

This book is not for the faint of heart. Part of the reason I bought it was that I was finding it seriously challenging. Moore doesn’t give easy, rational answers. But I find myself deeply comforted by his great respect for the mysterious movements of soul.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing in my blog as often as I would hope (or attending to my other writing projects very well, lately) is that I have entered some deep wordless state of being. In my concern about my depressive signs, I have started to see a counselor, but there too I find myself less articulate than I am used to being, and strangely reluctant to face the very issues that drove me to seek counseling. So, on top of my concerns about my problems has grown this meta-concern about my faltering ability to engage my problems. Even so, being in counseling feels very right. Just knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on me from week to week is itself enormously therapeutic.

In the face of my bewildering reluctance to face my own problems, Moore’s book reassures me. The movements of soul cannot always be easily explained. But that doesn’t make them irrational or malevolent. The sense I get (I’ve only just dipped into pieces of the book so far) is that Moore trusts that soul seeks balance and wholeness, and in this seeking, will sometimes move against the ways we try to rationalize and control our own lives.

I am fierce and stubborn. I lock strongly onto those paths I deem right and good. I push myself very hard.

And in this, I can exhaust myself.

It is not a surprise to consider that something deep in my soul is finally rebelling. It takes a peculiar kind of courage to relax my overdeveloped sense of responsibility and just let myself be totally frivolous in these few remaining days of my sabbatical, even though I haven’t accomplished all that I had hoped to accomplish.

My work is full of words: the spoken words of teaching; the written words of all of my writing projects. My work is full of rationalism as I explore questions about what knowledge is, about the role of science in society today, even as I critique our culture’s idolization of rationalism (with my oh-so-rational critiques: they have to be rational, if I’m not to preach just to the converted). And so it is no wonder that my soul moves me to wordless depths, and moves me to simply regard the patchwork of my dilemmas without trying to piece them together into pretty patterns or pictures. Instead, I keep them messily strewn about. I find their very incoherence strangely fascinating.

I will not be in this state forever. But Moore’s book has given me permission to admit out loud that I’m secretly having fun with this. No, I’m not feeling productive. No, I can’t say I’m exactly happy, as such. But it is a relief to let go of words, and to refuse to try to make sense of things or to solve all the problems. Just let them be. Just look at them. Or, better yet, avert my gaze from them. Glance aside. Move beyond even images. Listen to the deeps. Radically trust the world and God’s love to hold me even when I myself am feeling disoriented and ineffective. Trust that when there is something for me, uniquely, to do, I will know then and be ready. But, until then, just be.

All my life, I have lived apologetically. My soul perhaps is leading me to the more secure grounding of an unapologetic existence.