Saturday, April 03, 2010

Cogito, bitches

re. Last Week: That's what I'm talking about. Interesting observations. Provoked thoughts. Amusing anecdotes. That is why we do this, no? And it brings yet another issue to mind...

It seems, on a regular basis, some kind-hearted soul smiles at me while I chase one misbehaving child or another and says, "Well, isn't that their job? To test limits?" And, while I grit my teeth and try not to offer them an afternoon testing their own limits with said child, I have to admit, they're right. That's child (teenager) hood, isn't it, to figure out the rules and then try to transgress them. And sometimes this is problematic--crayon-meets-wall/bike-meets-concrete/alcohol-meets-underage-lips; other times it is something beautiful. That something beautiful is thinking for yourself.

I have a healthy respect for rules. I'm not a fan of chaos or anarchy. But some rules are meant to be challenged, whether with a well-crafted argument or science experiment or clever demonstration. That's what I hope to teach my own little tormentors--using your mind is probably the most transgressive act of all. Cogito Ergo Sum, baby. I Think Therefore I Am.

And so it ties in with my feelings about all the yelling over and the shutting down. The citing of Sutras and taking of the US Constitution's name in vain (you don't really have to read it, you know, to know it's against health reform). The Purists/Constitutionalists/Fundamentalists would have you believe that the guys who wrote the texts that we live by, had no imagination, couldn't conceive of a world other than their own and, therefore, expect us to follow the rules they set down without question or exception.

Yeah, right. A good writer is a good thinker. One who considers words carefully, who crafts meaning with intention, who looks at many sides of an issue. We know T. Jefferson and the Apostle Paul and, probably, Pantanjali, did a lot of thinking before putting pen (quill? charcoal stick?) to paper. I doubt they thought they had all the answers.
How could Pantanjali be against chocolate--I doubt he ever tasted it?!?

And yet, people want to take refuge in unchanging verities. To take a text at face value. Instead of thinking reasonably about their beliefs, they want to shut the book and cross their arms and ignore all challenges. That is a trap I hope the boys never fall into--to stop thinking and just accept.

It's a trap I hope we all avoid. It's hard to be a thinking person, it can be lonely, but it is what makes being human such a beautiful thing. We have a very complex and subtle brain; we can abstract, empathize, and use language. Growing up doesn't mean you stop testing limits or questioning rules. Maybe you don't try to write on walls or stuff dirty clothes under the bed anymore, but you should never stop thinking.

I mean, where's the fun in that...

(Thanks, Leonardo, now how about a Vitruvian Woman?)


13 comments:

YogaforCynics said...

Personally, I don't particularly care if Jefferson, Patanjali, or Paul (presuming they actually existed, or that the words we have are actually theirs, which are big questions regarding the latter two) thought they had all the answers or expected me to follow everything they said to the letter. In fact, I feel strongly that all three wrote some very wise things but were also quite wrong on a number of counts, and, if they thought they had it all figured out, that would simply be another thing, along with the sexist, racist, and abstaining from sex crap, I'd disagree with. But it wouldn't make the good stuff any less good. These were men who, apparently, had some really good ideas, but that's it. Their shit stank just like mine. Thus, if there's some incredibly ugly line somewhere in the "sacred dharma" supposedly transmitted in an unbroken path from the Buddha, I really don't need some explanation for how he didn't really say it or didn't mean it that way. I'll just say, "guess old Gautama was rather clueless on that point." No big deal.

While, on the one hand, it seems certainly innocuous to have people choosing to turn off their critical faculties and blindly follow ancient authorities that tell them to be loving and kind, there's a fine line between that and blindly following ancient authorities that tell us to smite unbelievers and homosexuals and disobedient women (particularly since they're often the same ancient authorities). As such, I have no interest in taking "the Buddha/Patanjali/Jesus said ________" as the end to an argument. Ultimately, people don't want to have to trust their own judgement, so want some great right-about-everything authority to call upon. The trouble is, you still have to use your own judgement to choose which of the world's many celebrated right-about-everything authorities to blindly follow (and, if the person's not alive, which tradition or lineage to follow in terms of which celebrated words/translations/interpretations are authentic and which aren't) and which to question or reject.

So, really, unless we're (un)fortunate enough to be born into some traditional society or cult walled off from the rest of the world, where we'll only ever be presented with one consistent set of beliefs, the idea that they can be questioned never once raised within our earshot, or we're going to have to decide who we're going to listen to, who we're going to believe. So why not just keep that questioning spirit alive, instead of flattening it in the pages of some ancient tome?

Wow...I'm practically writing my own sacred text here--every word of which should be followed exactly, because it is true wisdom...

Bob Weisenberg said...

Great blog.

I was fortunate to go to college where the entire freshman curriculum was exactly what you say--learning to think for yourself and expressing your thoughts to others.

Bob Weisenberg
YogaDemystified.com

Brenda P. said...

@YforC-I didn't even touch on the translation aspect, but, more than anything, that feels like a big sticking point for me with the ancient texts.

Ever since a Renaissance Art History class where I learned Michelangelo (and others) often depicted Moses with an impressive set of horns due to a massive mistranslation of the Aramaic/Greek to Latin, I've often wondered what else got lost in the, uh, translation. Way to go, St. Jerome!

So, yeah, rarely does unquestioning adherence end well...

@Bob-You're lucky. I don't think it was really until late in undergrad/the beginning of grad school that I really started to trust my own analysis. At least as far as "experts" were concerned...

Bob Weisenberg said...

One additional thought--the ancient texts frequently contradict themselves, even within a few pages.

One easy example is the the Bhagavad Gita has been used as a pro-war tract (that's the easiest because the metaphorical God urges the hero to go ahead and fight the war against his relatives) and a passionately anti-war tract (The Gita was literally Ghandi's bible.) I myself could justify either conclusion.

As I've written elsewhere, the ancient sages themselves disagreed about everything, even the existence of God. It's not like there was any consensus back then.

The Yoga Sutra is a masterpiece of cleverly writing a document that any side could embrace as its own. Among other things, Patanjali was a master diplomat, giving credence to the religious side, the paranormal powers side, the hallucinogenic side, the instant-flash-of=insight side, the enlightened-at-birth side, in addition to his own highly rational systematic practice bent. One would presume that each of these mentions represents a different school of Yoga that Patanjali wanted to make feel included.

As another example, some suspect the Bhagavad Gita was written by at least two different authors, based on the radically different points of view expressed in different parts of the text.

Bob Weisenberg
YogaDemystified.com

MS said...

Brenda, thank you for this post. As of late, I have been feeling very lonely trying to be "a thinking person." I choose to be thoughtful about how I live my life (in part why I am a yogi!), and I sometimes find it hard to find like-minded folks. It seems so many just want their piece of the pie, or they're too lazy to bother with the thinking, or they just don't give a sh**. It can be disheartening, so it was comforting to see your words in print. Don't mean to be a downer! Just wanted to say thanks...

It's A Yoga Thang said...

I believe thinking for yourself allows you to become more aware of the many directions a single point can take, making more room for understanding and acceptance of other's point of view.

La Gitane said...

Hi Brenda - interesting post. Funny, over the long weekend I had a lot of conversations that revolved around this very theme!

One of the things that came up was,[to paraphrase the words of Rob Bell, author of the fascinating book "The Velvet Elvis", which is about placing the writing of the Bible in its historical and Jewish context], that people tend to approach religious scriptures with an "all or nothing approach". That is to say that if you disbelieve one part of a text, you disbelieve it all. Or, from the other side, that if you wish to believe in one part, you HAVE to believe it all.

Certainly there are some institutions and individuals that take this approach - a way of maintaining power perhaps.

But what Bell is trying to say, and I agree, is that it's OK to try to put things in context. It's OK for us to believe that the teachings of the Buddha have a lot to offer, without necessarily having to believe that in a past life he really was once a rabbit so generous as to offer up his own flesh to a hungry traveler. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

As you say, a thinking approach is a good one, and, I believe, especially one that looks into the CONTEXT in which scriptures were written. What were the social factors of the day that might make people write what they did? What popular myths were they trying to appeal to? There are analyses of the Bible which equate the miracles ascribed to Jesus to much more ancient myths about various Greek gods. Written to convert those who were still influenced by the cults of Dionysus (a god who could turn water into wine...), for example.

We somehow have come to live in a world where doubt is feared and looked down upon. I think of doubt as a challenge, a lesson to be learned. If I doubt myself, I hope that I will come through it and at the end, find faith and self-belief again. And so it will be for many who follow a path of religious faith - they may doubt and then find their way back to their beliefs. And that is something I respect - the journey.

On that note, (slightly another topic, I'm not suggesting that you were implying this Brenda!) I also think we need not be too quick to judge those who do stick to the book, as it were. It is short-sighted to just assume that everyone who upholds scripture does so blindly or without thinking. Who knows what path people have been on and how they came to their conclusions? Who knows what life experiences, epiphanies or tragedies brought them to the place where they are?

There is a trend in the West towards a kind of radical predjudice against all spiritual beliefs or religous paths that scares me very deeply. A type of atheism that is just as blind and intolerant as the stereotypical religious institutions it tries to demonise. I think it's only when we really take the time to understand people's journeys that we know whether they have a 'thinking' approach or not.

PS - my keyword is 'holess'. Do you think that is a female hole, or someone lacking in holes altogether? ;)

Bob Weisenberg said...

Well done, lagitane. Right on. Thanks for taking the time to think this all through for us.

Bob Weisenberg
YogaDemystified.com

yogayoga said...

Wow, there is so much here I want to comment on...and there are so many thoughts that are not organizing themselves at this late hour swirling through my head.

As always, GREAT post and great discussion...

Just a note on the translation thing: As a religious studies major, one of the most fortunate experiences I had was to meet a mentor who encouraged us to challenge the way we saw the world. (One of my favorite classes started with her going, "So you think you're a democrat huh? Well, to the rest of the world, there really is no difference between the two political parties.) As a religious studies major who emphasized an eastern religion, well, let me just tell you that most of my time was spent deconstructing the scholarship and normative assumptions that have permeated the field (nay, our culture) since its beginning.

I was amazed at how much truly got lost in translation. (There are papers worth of things I could say on this topic...years actually.)

We all see things through the lens that we have been conditioned to see the world. As USAmericans, or even Europeans, North and South Americans, those lenses really are seeped in Christian norms and have a BIG influence on how we approach, well, anything really. I don't want to make a value judgment here, rather, if anything, learning this opened my eyes even further to "my" conditioning. By understanding where some of these assumptions come from, I've been able to re-evaluate my gut reaction to things (yes, here I am talking about the rejection of anything spiritual/religious...that train of thought can actually be traced back to the Lutheran movement within the church, ironically and among other events...) and learn how to further step out of this box that I call "myself."

I think you hit the nail on the head though, Brenda. Thinking for yourself is scary. It brings you to that open space moment where there is no prescribed way of being or reacting and that is frightening. While it's not a life I want to have for myself, I do understand the appeal of shutting down and "going with the norm." Part of being open, is being open to ALL forms of expression. (I'm reminded of the day I realized that the white picket fence is one of the infinite possibilities too.)

Now that I feel like I'm preaching to the choir (hahahaha) I think I'll just end with yet another thank you. This time though it goes beyond your post, but to being a mother who is encouraging her kids to think for themselves and grow up in a world of endless possibility. In my opinion, it was the greatest gift my parents and teachers (yes, I'm thinking of one beautiful high school teacher in particular, as well as my mentor, and countless others I've encountered along the way) could have ever given me.

Once again, you continue to inspire.

Lisa
Yoga Thailand

Emma said...

just out of curiosity... why the title of the post???

maybe i don't get a reference?

Brenda P. said...

Wow. Thank you all for such thoughtful, wonderful responses. I love getting the pre-yoga back stories from everyone. Funny how it all joins in the mix, isn't it?

So much religious studies amongst the yoga conoscenti. Hmmm, interesting.

@Emma-I debated a bit, with the title. A bit too cheeky, but I decided to keep it. I've come across the phrase "Namaste, Bitches" a number of times in the past few weeks and found it slightly amusing, slightly annoying. It was sort of in response to that...I still feel a bit mixed--too provocative? a bit dated?--but figure, I'm almost due for a new post, so will let it lie.

La Gitane said...

@yogayoga - "I'm reminded of the day I realized that the white picket fence is one of the infinite possibilities too."

Oh that is SO beautifully put!! It's that moment when you realise that outright rejecting a concept is just as narrow-thinking as accepting it completely, right? Whether you support black or white, you are still seeing the world in black and white! :)

Bob Weisenberg said...

yogayoga.

Thanks for your long, well thought-out comment. I really enjoyed it.

I never majored in religious studies, but let me just say my idea of a good vacation book a couple of years ago was "The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religions."

Bob Weisenberg
YogaDemystified.com