My statistics instructor in graduate school cited this Emerson quote frequently, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds..." He stimulated me to look up the essay on Self-Reliance and read what comes next:
…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though you contradict every thing you said today.
Yesterday I ran into an old friend at the natural food store. He's a long-time initiate of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, like me. Both of us have traveled through a lot of "what's it all about?" mystico-spiritual twists and turns.
We seem to have emerged at pretty much the same place: cluelessness.
Whenever I run into Paul I hope that there isn't frozen food in my shopping cart, because we can chat for a long time about this and that. Friday's conversation centered on our mutual interest in Oregon land use policies, and how short-term greed is endangering the long-term health of some marvelous ecosystems—like the Metolius and Little North Santiam rivers.
At one point I found myself saying, "This sure is different from what I used to believe." I felt a bit—just slightly—apologetic. But I didn't know who I was apologizing to.
The Brian who once held the different belief? The old discarded belief? The guru who was instrumental in my once holding the belief that I no longer believe in?
I don't know. I just recognized the residual inertial power of believing. It's as if once strongly held beliefs have a last-gasp foothold in my psyche, where they resist being dumped completely in favor of a more attractive world view.
I told Paul that in some melodramatic moments, when I imagine myself at death's door, wondering what I've done with my life that has been meaningful or made a difference, I picture the Twin Hills in our neighborhood that are the centerpiece of a proposed 137 acre subdivision that my wife and I have been leading the fight against.
Trundled up to the property in my last hours, I look at the hillsides—which are covered with a beautiful vineyard instead of 43 homes. I think, "I've done something. Which was good. And real." I smile. (Maybe because the hills are shaped like breasts.) Then pass away.
This goes against the message that I used to promulgate in countless (well, not quite that many) talks to my spiritual group. Plus several books.
Back then I looked on this life as maya, illusion, shadows dancing on the cavern wall. Genuine existence lay beyond, in some metaphysical realm that I hadn't yet reached, but was confident that I would someday.
I still hope to get there, if there's any "there" to reach. However, now this world seems pretty damn real to me. And worth trying to protect, just like any other friend or loved one who I see is in danger.
A copy of Bruce Grierson's "U-Turn" arrived while we were on vacation. It was the first thing I opened when I picked up our mail at the post office. The initial chapters have hooked me. Heck, the very first page hooked me. It had a single line:
No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.
Grierson tells fascinating stories about people who made either religious or secular U-turns. Michael Allen Fox was a philosophy professor who argued that experimenting on animals was ethically defensible. He wrote a book, The Case for Animal Experimentation: An Evolutionary and Ethical Perspective.
But nine months after it was released came an event that must be every publisher's nightmare: The author decided that he disagreed with himself…Fox stopped eating meat, and encouraged others to do the same…He no longer condoned animal experimentation. He wrote another book, Deep Vegetarianism…He continues to teach moral philosophy, and to host workshops, tap-tap-tapping the beat of deep vegetarianism in his hemp shoes.
Beautiful. As is Julia Hill, who wandered into a Earth First! Rally in northern California and soon found herself becoming a "tree sitter" in a thousand year-old redwood that was marked to be cut down. She was told she'd have to stay on a platform eighteen stories off the ground for five days.
She ended up staying in the canopy of Luna, the redwood, for 738 days. Now, that's a life U-turn.
During one particularly terrible storm on the eightieth day, Hill, sleep-deprived and borderline delusional, heard Luna "speak." The tree dispensed a pithy bit of wisdom of exactly the sort my grandfather, in his own journals, told of receiving just when he needed it, when his faith was wavering.
What Hill heard was this: Let go. Trees that bend to the wind, live. Then and there she lost her fear of death. On a jerry-built platform not much bigger than a crib, she was, by her own description, reborn.
It's crazily egocentric, more delusional than Julia was up in Luna, to consider than you , or me, or anyone, knows how many turns—180 degrees or otherwise—are the proper amount to take on life's journey from first breath to last gasp.
A dramatic religious conversion leads to calls of "praise be!" from like-minded believers. An equally dramatic conversion from that conversion, "backslider!"
But who is to judge what constitutes forward movement? More basically, is there anything but forward movement between birth and death? Grierson writes:
By some definitions, having a moment of clarity and pulling a complete 180 in response is a spiritual event…Every day, in almost every field, individuals perceive themselves to be on the wrong side of a divide…The "second brain" in their gut – that ten-billion nerve knot – tells them their life must change.
…A certain amount of scorn and ridicule is almost guaranteed to pound down like purgatorial rain upon the reverser. You watch through your fingers the U-turner on a course of self-reinvention – which can, in the moment, look an awful lot like a course of self-destruction.
…But reversers themselves don't want our sympathy. For this is, at least subjectively, a generally positive phenomenon. The price paid is worth it, because the U-turner is now, at least, living an authentic life – perhaps even fulfilling, to some extent, Mahatma Ghandi's notion that "We must be the change we wish to see in the world."
The quote at the top of page 1 also is a gift to U-turners.
"I cannot say who I will be tomorrow. Each day is new, and each day I can be born again."
--Paul Auster, City of Glass