Monday, February 26, 2007

How One Becomes Lonely

I feel tired, but pleasantly so, despite tomorrow looming up ahead of me.

I think that it is important to value tension over happiness: because what I am most interested in is exploring the world and writing about it, not being comfortable or safe.

Anyone who thinks about being an artist should read Arnold Schoenberg's 'Style and Idea,' and specifically an essay in it called "How One Becomes Lonely:"

"....As long as an audience is not inclined to like a piece of music, it does not matter whether there happens to be, besides some more or less rough parts, also smooth or even sweet ones. And so the first performance of my Verklarte Nacht ended in a riot and actual fights. And not only did some persons in the audience utter their opinions with their fists, but critics also used their fists instead of their pens....

"But see: an artist treated in this way becomes not only suspicious, but even rebellious. Seeing that even parts of undoubted beauty could not protect him, knowing that those parts which were found ugly could not be wrong because he would not have written them if he himself had not liked them, and remembering the judgement of some very understanding friends and experts in musical knowledge who have paid tribute to his work, he becomes aware that he himself is not to blame.

"But then this happens: after having composed an extensive work, he visits a dear friend, his closest one and one whose judgement and musical knowledge seem to him perfectly indisputable. The friend looks over the whole score and his judgement is: 'This work shows a complete lack of inspiration; there is no melody, no expression; it seems to me dry, and the way you write for the voices is mere declamation, but no kind of song.'

".....Knowing I had written melodies and feeling that they were not poor, I had the choice either of being discouraged or of doubting my friend's authority.

"....I decided not to be discouraged. But I had to wait for more than thirteen years before, in 1913, at the first performance of Gurrelieder in Vienna, the audience affirmed my stubbornness by applauding at the end of the performance for about half an hour.

"As usual, after this tremendous success I was asked whether I was happy. But I was not. I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. I foresaw that this success would have no influence on the fate of my later works. I had, during these thirteen years, developed my style in such a manner that, to the ordinary concert-goer, it seemed to bear no relation to all preceding music. I had had to fight for every new work; I had been offended in the most outrageous manner by criticism; I had lost friends and I had completely lost any belief in the judgement of friends. And I stood alone against a world of enemies...."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

I feel good.

I feel frustrated. I feel chaotic. I feel good. I feel lovely.

Winged Pharaoh

I feel so frustrated tonight, in such a good, joyful way. I feel like driving to the next town with the windows down or running ten miles. I took a shower and it felt so good to be clean and feel the water coming down my skin. I just want to move, and write, and be in the world.

I found a passage in a book, Joan Grant's 'Winged Pharaoh,' that I think sets down everything squarely, regarding anything you could argue either way for religion. I originally read Winged Pharoah because it was recommended by 'Sri Harold Klemp,' the leader of the cult I grew up in. But Joan Grant is one of the few things I've had to carry over from my life in the cult. Her writing is beautiful and breathless in its simplicity and sincerity. Her stories are moving and unaffected. So here, in terms that an Eckist can understand, is the whole thing:

"Often I talked to this man, who I called Dio: for I wished to learn of the art of building, so that the temples and palaces, which I might cause to rise when I was Pharaoh, should be worthy landmarks of my journey.

"Sometimes I told him of the things that I had seen away from Earth, but I found he listened as though I were making a pretty story for a child. He believed that men perish when their bodies die and that their immortality is only through their children, or in men's memory. He would talk of children as though each generation increased the father's store of knowledge, just as a tree each harvest bears a heavier crop of fruit, flowering more freely on its lengthened boughs. In his philosopy the spirit of a child springs from the mind of its parents to think their burnished thoughts; and when its body leaves its mother's womb, then for the first time it sees the sun; and in the child its parents find their immortality. Though he saw no ordered pattern of life, he was content. He thought that what I told him were pleasant fancies, as when his servant put a crumb of food before her household goddess before she ate. And I told him that his beliefs were as if he had forgotten all yesterdays and denied all to-morrows.

"To Dio, time sped so quickly that he could almost hear the sweeping shadows hurry across the sand. to him, life and time were measured, and in the dark sea of eternal nothing his life was like a little lamp of oil, which for a small space let him see, and feel, and be alive; and when the oil was gone, his body cold, the greaet unruffled sea of nothingnesslay undisturbed.

"He said, "To have a building, conceived within the mind, and then born like a child through heavy labour, and to see it in its calm purity of line, that is the greatest man can hope for: that of their minds they should achieve something of beauty that endures, so that ahead in time others may see and say 'He knew, just as I know, that beauty is permanent, though bodies go back to dust.'"

"I had never met one who thought like this. Evil I knew, and good. Yet he was neither. Young ones I knew, too young to understand more than the simple rules of right and wrong. But this man had been well tempered in the fire of life. So this strange obscurity I could not understand; and I tried to remove it with my will, and with my wit, and with my heart and mind. Just as a blind musician brings sweeter music than does his brother who can see the stars, so perhaps do those on Earth see beauty in form more clearly when the eyes of the spirit are closed with leaden seals.

"How do they live, these people? How can they laugh, and sing, and praise the stars, thinking each day the sun that rises brings them yet nearer to a timeless dark? Why do they try to steer their lives, when they think the endless river a stagnant pool? Why, when they do not see the ordered pattern of life, do they not rail against the blind injustice which for them ousts the Gods? For they think themselves a grain in a great sandstorm of blinded forces seeking disordered doom."

When it comes down to leaving a cult, either you continue to believe, or you stop believing. When you stop believing, this is simply a new belief: the belief that your beliefs were wrong. There is no such thing as unassailable fact. Between "I think," and "Therefore I am" there is an endless chasm of doubt which only belief can bridge. But failure to make this bridge leads only to madness, and I've rejected that possibility for myself. I would rather enjoy the world I see, which I have decided to accept as reality.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Obliteration of the Self"--a rough draft

I feel alive and content in the small world that surrounds my desk with the night all around it.

When I first read Orwell's 1984, about six months ago, a small detail hit me with great force. I've only just now understood why it resonated so for me.

"In Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death- Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self."

I was raised in a cult, one that found its sources in Hindu mysticisms, as most late 50's early 60's cults did, and I've always assumed that it was the fact that my home religion was a cult that made it so destructive for me, but now I think that I realize that the fundamental thing I feel so grateful to have escaped is not the cult, but the idea of the importance of 'overcoming' the mind. 'Spiritual Exercises,' as we called them growing up, or simply meditation, involves a concentrated blanking out of the mind. What is ideal is a state of mind in which you are able to force yourself to completely cease to have thoughts enter your head. In this state, it is thought, will the holy spirit be able to enter you.

As I grew up, I internalized this idea, and in my everyday life, in every moment I could remember to, I strove to exercise this principle of blanking my mind and I sought to live my life in what I thought of as a state-of-mind receptive to spiritual awakening. It was a beautiful idea. But it also made me weak, and vulnerable, and helpless, and also incapable of passion. To tell you the truth, growing up, I hated it when people would ask me what a book was about, because I had a lot of trouble explaining plot. I was reading the book, I was enjoying it, I could answer any test question concerning any detail on any page, but I couldn’t analyze it on my own in any way, not even for such a small thing as putting together a succinct plot summary.

When I was in high school me and my boyfriend stumbled upon a small cache of prescription painkillers in my dad’s cabinet. I was stunned by the discovery, and kept a close tab on the stash for a long time after that. The number of pills never changed, and after a while I figured the pills were just my dad refusing to throw out extra medications left over from wisdom teeth surgeries and the like. But my boyfriend of the time told me that my dad’s whole character supports an addiction to painkillers, that when we found those pills everything clicked for him about my dad. He’s a big, lumbering kind of guy who always pauses a little longer than normal before answering, who moves slowly and really seems to have hardly any interests (outside the cult, of course). He refuses to make any decisions, deferring to my mom in everything, and hardly ever talks. When you say hello to him, and ask him how he is, he answers you briefly as if forcing the words out is a heavy task. But despite all the behavioral evidence, I don’t agree with that boyfriend, that my dad has a secret painkiller addiction. I think it’s just proof of the power of meditation. My dad’s mind is a blank. He’s worked hard for that bliss, and it is patently obvious.

When you don’t have to think, you don’t have to hurt, or feel lonely, or afraid. You don’t have to think about death, or whether you’ve wasted your life. It’s comforting. It really is. I had a good childhood. In the cult I was loved, so loved, and I was so safe. Everything was so easy, and I was very happy. I cannot fault my parents, or any of the friends I grew up with in the cult, for seeking such all-enveloping all-defining solace in this way. A blank mind is a warm blanket and a strong house against a fearsome world. But now, in the fullness of my mind’s capacities, I reject the emptiness of the mind which is brought on by earnest meditation. The rejection of the mind is a rejection of the unique human capacity to take in and analyze the world. In the attempt to overcome the mind in the search for a higher consciousness, this world, the only world we know for sure we’ve got, is scorned. In this life, the only life we know for sure we have, we can only find fulfillment through our interactions with this tangible universe. A life spent in meditation, in seeking to deny the world, is I think one of the most perfect ways to completely waste a limited span of sentient existence which we cannot understand the meaning of and which will someday cease.

What am I but the thoughts I think and the feelings that rush over me and the sensations I take in? Right now my face feels uncomfortably oily and my glasses are smudged and the wicker seat of my chair is pressing awkwardly into the heel of my right foot and the air in the room is a little chilly, but comfortable, because the humidifier is buzzing behind my desk, and the low light beside me gives a warm feel to the smooth green walls and my little mutt is sleeping with her tail tucked to her nose at the base of my chair, her feet twitching a little and her eyebrows too, and a military helicopter is roaring now as it passes over the house, and the hardwood floor stretches away from me in every direction, and it feels good to me, to feel that I am alive, and to be able to type this. I have no regrets. I am thankful most, not to left a cult, but to have discovered a fierce pride in developing my mind’s capabilities.

An Application Essay

For the sake of the brevity of this work, let me not speak of the humanities as such, but specifically of the part of the humanities which first influenced the force of my character: literature. Books. When I was young I did not read every book in the children’s section of the library, but only because I was so anxious to move on into the ‘adult’ section. And there I did go systematically through the shelves, alphabetically, and voraciously. I read a lot of crap. But through the sheer volume of the books I read, I also stumbled across real works of literature that stayed with me and presented my mind with challenges and ambiguities that eventually forced me to confront myself and make an absolute schism between the years I lived as a child, firm in the shape of the world, and the rest of the years of my life now which I can face only starkly, in honest unknowing at what the world is or what it will bring me.

My mother was a little too young to be a child of the sixties. She watched her older brother rebel in fantastic ways and he flaunted his nonchalance and independence. Their parents, like many parents of that generation, were a bit too cold, a bit too uncertain of how to raise up their children in a quickly changing world. They tried not to be too strict, they tried to loosen up with the spirit of the times—but they hadn’t been raised in a way that allowed them to be affectionate. Obviously they loved their children, they were raising them, weren’t they? My mother felt lost and half-abandoned. At fifteen she went with a boy who made her feel loved, and then he raped her, and she had an abortion, alone. So she smoked a lot of pot, and that didn’t comfort her, so she did a lot of acid, and that was great but she still drifted from boyfriend to boyfriend, and marriage to marriage, alone, and afraid, and increasingly desperate, so she joined a cult, and they have loved her and loved her and loved her and she has been blissfully happy.

I cannot fault my mother for seeking solace. I understand now the depths of the fear which presents itself to a person alone in the world, without family, or religion, and the bizzarity of death for which humans instinctively seek a comfortable answer. I understand why my mother joined a mid-sized cult, harmless really, money-grubbing but not financially ruinous, with strict rules to help distract you from your empty moments, a charismatic leader who visits every night in your dreams, and pre-written answers to all life’s questions. The mind was the greatest enemy of the soul, and she was taught, firmly, and daily, to suppress its workings, and she taught it all to me from the day I was born. I had a safe and comfortable childhood in that cult. It was exciting and mysterious to have been born into the only group of people in the whole world who knew what God really was and how to get there at death. I was very proud of this, and arrogant, even. But I also read.

My reading was, in some ways, my only activity not defined and delimited by the cult. All of my perceptions, yes, they had been firmly shaped by my upbringing. I certainly judged everything and everyone harshly, and in terms of what I knew. But I was presented lucidly with the world in a way that I could not understand when I began to read certain books. Lowry’s The Giver may have began it all, in the fifth grade. Night, by Elie Wiesel, and Fahrenheit 451 in middle school. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn which first navigated the complexities and ambiguities of poverty and drunks and grime and the struggle to survive it. Dylan Thomas—Do not go gentle into that good night, rage rage against the dying of the light. Louise Gluck’s then completely unintelligible, terror-laced and beautiful The Seven Ages. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, The Left-Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea books, all harshly philosophical works set in a forbidding alien landscape which I could not understand yet left me with a need to search. And moving outward I remember the first time I ever heard a composition by Schoenberg, and the paintings of Egon Schiele. The works of all of these people confronted my small person and placed in my hands new worldviews.

As I integrated these works into my own collection of experiences, I was eventually forced into a position of strange, wavering vulnerability. And when I moved out of my mother’s house and left for college, I loosed from my foundations. I was afraid, and on my own. Without any conscious awareness of what was happening to me, I began to challenge the cult. Then I got mono, and I lost twenty pounds, and I couldn’t climb stairs, and I shook when I walked. And then I got a little better and I realized that I was losing all my beliefs, and I got so scared I went crazy, and I even started cutting myself, and I failed a bunch of classes, and all the while I tried to pretend to myself that I was still in my religion. And then I took time out from school, and I worked at Joseph-Beth for a while, and I started reading books like they were steak, and I was starving.
I read strange haunting stories by Bruno Shulz, a Polish Jew who was killed by Nazis, and a book called Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz, and I read ancient Arabic desert poems and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy and Kafka. And despite my disdain for the mind’s capabilities, my readings forced my thoughts to broaden, and my brain strengthened, and then one night I got online and I typed ‘Eckankar’ into Google and I went not to the first page that came up—my cult’s official website—but to the second link, which I had actually been instructed to never click on for fear of halting my spiritual progress. I discovered that my bible, ‘The Shariyat ki-Sugmad’ was plagiarized, and that the founder of my religion died a multi-millionaire, and the wife he left had admitted in print that they made it all up after witnessing the masses of money made by L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. And so the shameful facts went on as I stayed up all night following links and sorting through nineteen years worth of memories and experiences, all of which I finally understood with my whole mind that I had already renounced. I cried for a long time on the crappy carpet in the living room of my apartment and as the sun came up that morning, I went outside onto the porch and I looked at the sky for a long time more, and then I went to sleep. From then on I have been trying to live in the world that I can see actually exists, and I have tried to analyze its real workings with every day I have. I am trying now to grow comfortable not by seeking glib answers, but by embracing the real fear I have in not understanding what is to be alive, and what it will be to die.

I do not know why I was able to slough off my cult while my mother and all the friends I grew up with were not able to do so. All I know is that I have always read insatiably and that somehow, the ideas and experiences I was confronted with in my reading of the world’s literature prepared my character for revolt.