The Great Risk of Truly Being

The Great Risk of Truly Being

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about my Buddhist spiritual path and also I’ve been rereading Children of Dune by Frank Herbert. This is because the Dune movie comes out in October 2021 and I wanted to be reminded of why I love that universe. This quote in particular stuck with me today in thinking about my own spiritual path and the way I live my life.

“You, Priest in your mufti, you are a chaplain to the self-satisfied. I come not to challenge Muad’Dib but to challenge you! Is your religion real when it costs you nothing and carries no risk? Is your religion real when you fatten upon it? Is your religion real when you commit atrocities in its name? Whence comes your downward degeneration from the original revelation? Answer me, Priest!” – Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune by Frank Herbert: 9780593201749 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Now understand, if you haven’t read the Dune series, it is fundamentally about the nature and dangers of power and of messiahs/heroes. Paul Atreides, the main character in the first book, knows because of his ability to see the future, that a holy war will be waged in his name and there is little he can do about it. The book, and the series as a whole, asks us to consider what we believe, who we have mythologized, and what that says about humanity, power, love, compassion and asks what it means to be human. There is a reason that the book is considered a masterpiece by both the literary community and many sci-fi lovers. Dune is also the best-selling Sci-fi Novel of all time. Even if it’s not for you (because every great work has people who don’t like or understand it and there is nothing wrong with that), it has lots of powerful things to say about the way humans do things.

Stop right now, and think about your life path. Is your path about self-satisfaction? It is about serving your interests? Is it about the arrogance of being right above all others? Or, is your way of knowing the world about self-reflection? Is there a space for growth and change, the transformation into the best version of yourself? Are you taking the risk to truly be or are you buried in a series of identity markers and worried about defining who you are to everyone you meet? Do you focus on comparison? We all fall into these traps, I know I do sometimes and have to catch myself.

So many religious and non-religious people seek a philosophy not out of transformation and growth, but for comfort and safety. They like things that make their life feel cozy and warm. And while the benefits of community (notice the word unity at the end of the word) are important and worthwhile, I want you to sincerely ask yourself, what have you done to grow lately? Have you acknowledged the ways in which you are wrong or at least entertained the idea that you might be wrong? It can be powerful to look at your ideas and consider that you might be wrong about everything (even if you end up being correct) once in a while. Are you doing the work to be a better version of yourself or are you feeding the beast of arrogance and certainty?

You might be thinking, well isn’t a better version of myself a self-serving principle? It is not. Why? Because a better version of yourself will have better daily interactions. It will be less angry, less selfish/greedy. A better version of yourself will listen with patience to others rather than jumping to conclusions and is much more likely to help those in need. A better version will not only suffer less, but cause others to suffer less. A better version of yourself means that your part of the world, and potentially the whole world, is a little better. It might not add up to much, but imagine if everyone was doing this kind of work on at least a semi-regular basis.

So if your religion or ideology or philosophy (secular or non) is about what you can gain personally from others no matter the cost, then you might need to stop and reflect. What do you serve? Some of you might simply say God or Country, but if your service is exclusive only to those who believe what you do, or conditional on whether or not they will act and behave in the way you want them to, then you only serve an idol of the self and arrogance.

Another quote to consider from verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching:

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”

If you are Christian, you can see a similar attitude in The Sermon on the Mount and a number of other places in the bible. If you’re Muslim, there are words like this in the Koran, or the Hindu Vedas, in many Buddhist Sutras, and so on. The teachings of many religious philosophies overlap in the idea of personal growth is vital, and yet, somehow the worship of the myth structure becomes far more important than the actual practice of working toward being a better person. We often view these ideas as a panacea for the poisons of living in a difficult world and forget that nothing comes without work.

Instead, we see so many religions (and secular ideologies) restrict people’s actions out of a false sense of morality or limited black and white thinking. But the world is full of shades of grey. Even really good people do terrible things. Really bad people sometimes show amazing acts of kindness and compassion. It is so easy to pin a group of people or a culture to a certain standard or ideology, rather than accepting the fact, that no matter where you go, people are just people and all are equally complex.

So ask yourself sincerely, what purpose does your religion or ideology serve? Is it about the betterment of yourself and humanity? If not, it’s just another object to be possessed, a kind of materialism, a limit to the way you think and approach the world. If your heart is closed because of what you subscribe to, then you very likely have missed the entire point.

The work is not comfortable. The work is not easy. The work isn’t about serving the self. The work is risky and sometimes dangerous to your identity. If you have summed up your identity in a few key terms (be it a religious identity, a political affiliation, a gender, a mental state, really anything), then you have forgotten that we are an ever-changing, ever-moving entity. You are not the same person you were when you started reading this short essay, even if you reject all of my ideas.

Personal growth, in my view, is the most important thing we can do. After all, using this life, this precious moment (no matter if you believe in one life or countless lives) seems to me, to be the reason why humans are on this planet. Let your spirituality or philosophy open you up to the wonders of the universe. After all, there is endless beauty and joy to be discovered both out there, and within. You need only take off the veils or masks that we all wear and look honestly.

A Wistful Winter

A long cold walk on a nature trail on a snowy day sometimes leads to self reflection and sometimes creative fire. Here’s something I wrote on a long walk this afternoon.

A Wistful Winter

The cold strips us bare as it works its way through our layers with terse touches

Its winding work penetrates below where our heartbeats, and spreads its cold kiss

But there is stillness here in the cold and long nights.

All the dead leaves are waiting, resting, in soft snowy stillness.

Peaking above the white dusting, leaves show their faded colors,

But only for a moment, before they retire to rest.

As should you.

And perhaps when we retire we will remember the silence by the hearth as we rub our hands diligently in gratitude toward a flickering flame

And the fire will teach us light and warmth in a period of long darkness

It is how we measure things that matters.

Our self-measurement is much like the falling snow,

Frail and wispy.

But in great number it can pack weight and depth,

Hanging heavy on our heart.

In stillness, we can watch it cascade from the sky and let it be.

How will you measure now that you took your first peak above the layer of cold and dark?

And as we walk on white paths lined with skeletal memories like some undiscovered country,

Will you feel a snowflake give its life as it casts itself onto the warmth of your face and flesh?

And when you return to home and safety,

Will you stoke the fires of your emotions as you stoke a log with your intention and iron?

Can you cast sparks like stars into the long dark?

Mind those sparks,

For those little pinpricks of light are a map to your soul.

If you trace the path, you will find the warm fertilizer of being

There is no better moment than now to look and see

Why the hell did they do that? or How to Understand People and Your Fictional Characters

Inside

Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!

This entry applies to writers and general audiences. For writers, you can use this blog to think about how your characters make choices. For the general populous, you can consider how conflict and misunderstanding arises and perhaps consider some of this to help in your daily life.

When I teach anthropology I have a saying that I drill into students heads.

You don’t have to like it, but you do need to try and understand it.

This is the essence of what we call cultural relativity. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this topic. For example, if someone tells me that cultural relativity is postmodernism, or that it’s ‘poison’ or that it means anything goes, I know they have absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

I wrote an answer on cultural relativism on Quora on this question a while back so I am not going to go into detail here but in short, if you want to understand someone’s choices (especially if they are in another culture) then there are three things you need to consider to begin that understanding, context, conditions, and choice.

I am going to tell you something that is really really hard for many us raised in the Western part of the world to understand. You are not an individual. This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for your choices, but if you want to understand how the world works, put that idea aside for a moment and consider the following.

1. Context

You are contextual. What do I mean? Well, you live in a particular culture at a particular moment in history and you speak a particular language. In some cases even being born a few years earlier or later can radically alter the course of your life. Think of people who were born just in time for the Vietnam War and were then selected in the draft versus someone who missed the war by a year or so.

This body of knowledge (as some of us social scientists call it) is so vast that we spend years growing up and learning all about it. This process is called Enculturation and is largely what institutions like elementary school is all about. Primary school is far less about learning facts, and more about learning how to behave in your given society. Every culture has their version of passing on their culture, though it varies.

Every culture is holistic. Each facet of your context is an integrated whole. Technology, economics, religion, etc. All these things can impact the entire culture. For more on this read my past blog on Worldbuilding Part 2 Anthropology and Key Elements of Culture

Of course, history is a big part of this. What has been happening for the past few decades or even centuries before your birth directly impact your experience. You, as an individual are not free of a cultural and historical context. Change that context, and you also change. Remember, no matter what you do, your culture and history is constantly changing all around you. Life is a dance of constant change and movement. No matter how tightly you clamp down on something, it still changes.

2. Conditions

Embedded within context is your particular experience. Let’s get specific. Let’s assume that two people grew up in or around Denver, Colorado. One grew up in a wealthy area that is heavily Protestant and the other grew up on a poor neighborhood that is heavily Catholic. Their cultural context is pretty much the same. They grew up at a particular time period in a particular culture but the conditions of their lives are different and thus their experience will be different. Their gender, the color of their skin, the religion they subscribe too, even the block they grew up on, changes the conditions of their lives and their experiences within the cultural context.

This is why you get an extraordinary amount of variation within a particular culture in a particular part of history (have I said particular enough for you yet?). Even something as simple as catching the last bus versus missing the last bus to make it on time to work can radically change your conditions. Maybe you got fired from your job as a result or perhaps you got a promotion as a result. Perhaps you are diagnosed with a chronic disease or maybe you won the lottery. Your conditions are constantly changing within the context of your culture. Change really is constant.

3. Choices

Okay, now we can talk about choices and free will. Your ability to make choices (or your agency) is impacted by both your context and your conditions. Your choices are not limitless and you certainly can’t make a choice that you don’t know exists. There are also laws, taboos, and social pressures that influence how we choose and move through the world.

But we certainly aren’t passive actors either. Individuals can cause massive changes to both their own conditions and their cultural/historical context. Even minor figures in the historical records influenced small things in ways that may or may not have had a big effect on that particular cultural moment.

Why should you care?

Well if you are fiction writer, this may help you to flush out character profiles and understand the choices your characters make. I talked about this a lot in my third part of World Building.

If you are just someone trying to get through their day, and your boss is a total asshole, sometimes a little understanding can help to dissolve conflict.

But honestly, the real core of this is this is how we can solve big problems. 

If you can take Context, Conditions, and Choices and use these three to analyze someone or something, you can understand it’s source and how it persists. You can see where big and complex problems arise from and can in turn act to address them. Of course, it’s not always so clear or so simple, but without understanding, you can’t even really begin. Honestly, this is a huge reason why people who, have nothing but good intentions, go out into the world to solve an issue, and it backfires and makes things far worse.

Let’s go an intense route for one moment. What about suicide bombers? Anthroplogist Nasser Abufarha asked this question in his book “The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of the Palestinian Resistance” 

Now this guy has got some guts, he did his research with some pretty scary folks. But in his research what he did was examine context, conditions, and then the individuals (the agents) who carried out some of these attacks. He talked to leaders of these terrorists cells and tried to form a picture of why they do the things they do. Their answers? Well I will let you read for yourself if you want to dive in, but let’s just say quickly that violence begets violence.

You want to understand the rise of Hitler? Context (The history of the interwar period in Germany and of antisemitism) Conditions (The experiences of Hitler’s life that made him such an angry asshole) and Choices (The genocide of six million Jews).

If you can understand some of this stuff, you can solve all manner of problems. Of course, even if you have the answers you still have to contend with political bodies and economic interests who may or may not want things to change, but that is an entirely different topic.

Seeking understanding, and information of the experiences and context of your fellow human beings can change the way you think or behave forever. Sometimes understanding can illuminate our experience and in that light, perhaps you can see an easy way to dissolve conflict.

Look, I get it, you might be thinking right now (if you made it all the way through) that this seems like an awful lot of work. You’re right. It’s a lot of work to be an informed citizen, to know the history of our own country, let alone other’s. But consider this, maybe if you aren’t sure about something, consider withholding judgment. Instead, find an expert or pick up a book on the topic before you decide that one particular group of people is evil, or that a singular event is an anomaly. History and Culture are really messy things, and it’s rare that there are clear black and white answers.

The world really is an amazing place and a little patience can make it all the more beautiful. People are just so damn interesting if you let yourself see it.

I AM a Mistake

New poem I wrote this morning. The text is at the bottom after the video.

 

I AM a mistake

I am a mistake

Not in the sense that my birth was accidental,

Or that my parents weren’t overly sentimental

About me coming into this world all cranky and temperamental

 

I am a mistake

Rather I am a serious of flubs and fuck ups

A never ending calamity of false starts and blowups

A breakup, a checkup a buildup a burnup

A constant crisis of startup and windup

 

I’m the guy who has to learn shit the hard way

Hell, I’ll probably bring about my own personal doomsday

My luck is rotten and

I’ve already forgotten

the lessons I just learned

When I got seriously burned

But I know it’s really all my fault

You don’t have point that out or pour on the salt

 

I’m always thinking about the choices I’ve made

And the prices of paid

Or The ways I have strayed from my path

Ending up alone and afraid

I should have gone, I should have stayed

If only that message could have been better conveyed

Those are thoughts that never seem to fade

It’s as if with every passing decade, my mind seems parade all the mistakes I have made so that I feel like inside there is an endless tirade

 

You’d think I’d be ready to say enough is enough

But even though things have been pretty rough

I’m still standing, I’m still moving, though sometimes it’s tough

 

But you know what? I’m fine with it

You might think I’m stupid or full of shit

Or Maybe I’m just too foolish to quit?

Perhaps I’m too prideful and arrogant

But I think, I’m finally ready to admit

 

I like who I am, mistakes and all

Sometime I laugh when I recall

The fist fights and brawls

The late nights and close calls

The angry cougar who liked to maul me with her paw when she was under the influence of alcohol

It’s hard to recall it all with out feeling like I’m in free fall

 

I am a mistake

Until now, my life has felt like purgatory

So much felt routine and mandatory

A hoary momento mori

Signifying nothing but sound and fury

But you know what I realized?

That shit is only a made up story