Photos

Brahmacharya, Civic Responsibility, and Enlightened Self-Interest

I saw this water main break while I was walking to work this morning. Several people walked past it without a glance–could they really not have noticed? It looked relatively recent because the puddle was still modest and had not started freezing. I paused, took out my mobile device and telephoned the mayor’s city-wide call center (in DC “311”–whoever answers will transfer you to the right place; in this instance, “water emergencies”). A couple of people who saw me calling looked at me as if it must have been my fault or else why would I be calling,

I thought about what it was that moved me to call. I saw harm to the environment (colossal waste of water while we are in a drought if the leak was allowed to continue without the earliest possible intervention) and potential danger to people from spreading icy water that will turn into ice late this afternoon. What is it, though, that leads one to take action to change or fix something that is technically not one’s business. What makes it part of one’s duty or responsibility when it is not directly related to one’s individual property or person? At some levels, it is just social contract. By choosing to live together in closely proximate society, it is in all of our self-interest to take care of shared areas, though the ubiquitously unshoveled sidewalks leads me to believe that most people haven’t been taught or grasped the principle that if we all contribute “our share” the whole place and our own lives would be far more enjoyable.

These thoughts led me to think of the application of the yamas and niyams in Patajali’s Yoga Sutras and in particular, the principle of brahmacharya, which is one of the five yamas on the first level of the eight-fold path of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Brahmacharya literally means being like Brahma, but it is often translated as celibacy. Brahmacharya, from a less socio-morally result-driven interpretation, could also be thought of as aligning with the divine. Before we are enlightened, though, how do we know what will help us align with the divine? I once heard Professor Douglas Brooks say, in a lecture I attended a number of years ago, that the yamas and niyamas, the ethical precepts that lay a foundation for the practice of yoga are for the goal of the individual reaching enlightenment. I was a bit taken aback by the statement at the time. It sounded as though the yoga precept was that the purpose of ethical behavior was self-interest, and was not because ethics was summum bonum. I am less troubled by the idea after much contemplation. What is the harm of the goal enlightenment serving to motivate and shape our behavior? The methodology that includes the yamas and niyamas would have us engage in certain ways of living and practices in order that we can change our karma by shifting the patterns (samskaras) that take us away from spirit rather than lead us toward spirit.

To me, this means acting in away that not only does not harm (ahimsa–the first of the yamas), but seeks to expand the possibility of fostering the collective good, including the good of the earth. In this sense, to the extent that brahmacharya is a precursor to enlightenment–the merging of the individual self with the greater “Self” or spirit, acting from a placed of enlightened self-interest can be seen as helping us to find the true Self (as long as we are not attached to a particular good or outcome, but that is a whole other topic).

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Pink Heart (Bubblegum on Concrete, Approx. 12″X12″)

I am not sure how much longer it would have taken me to notice this little bit of street art if we had not been sent out of the building for a fire alarm. We knew it was not a drill because the Secretary was to be offering cookies and photo opps next to the “holiday” tree — the one that looks just like the trees the Christians coopted from the pagans — and having everyone exit the building would interfere with those plans. Me, I am not particularly interested in desserts before lunch, and I already have a photo of me with the Secretary. I had time to grab my hat and coat, so I am enjoying the enforced break. The theory–since the fire department sent only one truck, and they let us start returning almost as soon as we evacuated, is that they burned a batch of the cookies for the party. Maybe this is an appropriate moment for the phrase “it’s all good.”

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Airport Delay (and “Unreasonable Happiness”)

I am sitting in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport waiting for the plane that should already be carrying me home to finish being repaired. After having done a full hour of practice this morning in my room, having a last delicious breakfast at the retreat center, and enjoyed the two-hour ride with friends to the airport, I find myself perfectly happy to sit in the airport. I am warm and well-fed. I have bought a novel to read on the plane — Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” — and put aside a philosophy handout to write. The handout, a translation of the beginning of Abhinavagupta’s “Tantrasara” that was given to us by Paul Muller-Ortega to support our meditation practices, teaches us to seek the power of bliss through the practices, this bliss being true knowledge and true freedom. The more we practice, the more we can draw on this power and abide in a state of true happiness. Paul Muller-Ortega sometimes says that we want to be “unreasonably happy.” As I sit here feeling perfectly content after my weekend of practice and community and watching others in the airport get progressively grumpier with the delay, I feel unreasonably happy. I also feel fully motivated to practice and study ever more deeply so that I can abide ever more steadily and this glorious unreason.

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Found Sculpture

I saw this beautiful roll of chicken wire in the Enid Haupt garden when I was walking back to the office after a quick visit to see the Gods of Angkor exhibit at the Sackler Gallery (sorry about the absence of links; blogging from the BB).

I was first introduced to the idea of “found poetry” in junior high school and have developed a life-long habit of photographing words to change, enhance, and/or question their meaning and hidden beauty by the act of extracting them from their original place and presenting them as a photograph. Marcel Duchamp and others did what poets and photographers were doing with words with ordinary objects by presenting them as sculpture.

Here, where I have photographed the chicken wire roll, is the art a sculpture (because I could treat it as such) of which I have taken a photograph–the photograph being mere documentation? Is the art the photograph of what I have seen to the extent I am offering it as a vision and a dialogue generated by what I saw? Or is the photograph merely a snapshot taken with a hand-held computer device documenting an object that happened to be sitting there–not art at all? If it were not for artists such as Duchamp, could I or would I even be able to ask this question?

I think that analogous types of questions have been and can be asked about the variety of religious and mystical experience. Is there a particular way they must be experienced? Do such experiences have to fit within a prescribed framework to be valid? When are such experiences madness or delusion and when are they the voice of the spirit? Who gets to decide? Does it depend on the era and the culture in which the experiencer lives? Does the answer to any of these questions matter if the experiences lead one to a more loving, compassionate, and beauty-filled life?

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The Sky Is Just As Big Wherever You Are

The sky was luminous and beautiful early this morning when I headed out to teach. The air was scrubbed clear by the cold front that passed through in the night, leaving behind fluffy clouds to highlight the luminousity of the sun rising.

As I enjoyed looking at the clouds and light in the sky on my walk to Union Station to catch the metro to go teach, I thought about seeing the sky in Arizona next week. When I am there, I always feel a keen delight when I look at the sky. Then I thought that the sky is just as lovely here. It is that things on the land are bigger and farther apart out west that make the sky seem bigger.

When life is easeful and we are feeling spacious, then the inner place of meditation can feel more luminous than when we are struggling through the day. But just as the sky is just as big wherever we are on the planet, the inner space of meditation is just as vast and luminous no matter what is going on in our lives. The more we remember that and the more we look, the more we will have the opportunity to be lit up from the inside.

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