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.