The Truth that can be described, is not.

27 03 2015


The Devil and a couple of his chief demons were walking on a rural road, and spied a holy man from a local village walking towards them. They made themselves invisible in order to spy on him. The holy man appeared to be in deep contemplation as he made his way along the dusty road. Suddenly a smile broke out on his face. He raised his head and laughed aloud, then continued on his way, his step light, his expression beatific.

“What was that all about?” one of the demons asked.

“He has seen a piece of the Truth,” the Devil replied.

“Oh, this is not good!” the other demon said.

The Devil shrugged. “It is of little consequence.”

“Aren’t you worried he will tell others?”

“I’m sure he will. He has many students.”

“And this doesn’t concern you?” the demons cried.

“Not at all,” the Devil said. “They will probably just turn it into a religion.”

This brief parable is a retelling of one from the Great Courses lecture I’m listening to at the moment, one given by an excellent teacher named Mark Muesse entitled “Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.” He talks about each of these great sages, as he calls them, giving the historical context in which they lived, what they taught, and how it affected the world. I find it absolutely fascinating.

And why would an atheist be so fascinated by a talk on religion? Because it isn’t about religion. It’s about wisdom. It’s about the holy men who see pieces of the Truth on the road, before others have taken that Truth and turned it into a religion.

When a human being has a great insight, the impulse is to share it, to communicate it to others, that they may benefit from it. But invariably it seems that Truth is lost in translation. In every case, within a few years of his passing, the sage’s followers try to codify the teachings and begin to disagree, splintering off into separate schools. There are power struggles, and attempts to “purify” the cannon. Authorities seize control of the discussion and mark some opinions as heresy and approve others as correct. And what becomes of the Truth?

One of the core disagreements between East and West when it comes to spirituality is how one comes to know the Truth. For most theists, the Truth has been revealed by God, and one must have faith, often ignoring personal experience or reflection. Faith trumps logic. The Buddha taught just the opposite: don’t take it on authority, don’t accept on faith. Experience it for yourself. That is the only way to truly understand.

One thing they did seem to agree on was that Ultimately Reality cannot be communicated in mere language. Call it God or call it Nirvana, it is too mysterious for ordinary comprehension.

My only interest in religion is how it shows how humans think and act. The story of the evolution of every religious institution is a lesson in politics, history, and power. If a person explains to me what he or she believes, it tells me a great deal about them. It tells me nothing about the Truth they are trying to describe. No human artifact, no book, no authority, can be free from the prejudices and agendas that surrounded its creation. That is why there are so many sects, so many denominations, so much disagreement, contradiction and debate.

So, how to decide what to believe? What constitutes a good life and moral behavior? What is the nature of ultimate reality, the purpose of life, the meaning of our suffering and struggle? Well, you can just party hearty, grab for the gusto, and not bother with deep questions (although that in itself is an answer of sorts). But if you apply yourself to answering these philosophical issues, if wisdom really matters to you, there’s a problem. Who do you trust? Of all these myriad truths, where lies the Truth?

That’s where I think the Buddha had it right. You’ve got to DIY. Study, ask questions, listen and learn, then sit yourself down and pray or meditate, or fast and go out on a vision quest, climb a mountain, meet the Devil in the desert. And what is revealed to you after sincere effort is the closest you’re going to come to the Truth.

With luck, you’ll find others who have come to similar conclusions, whatever they are. If asked, you can share your insights with others who are seeking. In time, if we are sincere, diligent and work in earnest, we might all start stumbling in the same direction as we grope our way towards the indescribable and incomprehensible Truth.

But don’t try to codify it, regulate it, ritualize it or impose it on others. If you do, it just becomes another religion.

A Bit of Good News

20 03 2015

mudskipper-fishOccasionally the Universe strokes its metaphorical chin and murmurs, “I’ve dumped an awful lot on this person lately,” and decides to blow a pinch of gold dust instead.

As some of you know, the new and improved version of Awake Chimera is to be published by Double Dragon, the outfit that put out Archimedes Nesselrode. Release date is June, so I was scouting around for cover blurbs. A good friend of mine reminded me that we had done a panel with Robert Sawyer, who was the Guest of Honor at 5 Pi-Con a few years back. The panel was “Atheism and Skepticism in SciFi”, and the discussion was excellent. I wound up buying Sawyer’s book Hominids, the first book in his Neanderthal Parallax series, and was very impressed. Strong science, great characters, engaging story with an optimistic ending. I could see why this guy won a Hugo. And a Nebula, and a bagful of other awards.

So I decided to follow my friend’s advice and pitch Awake Chimera to Sawyer with hope of him writing the blurb. I mentioned the panel. Seems he remembered the panel and he remembered me. Son of a gun if he didn’t agree to try to fit a read of the book into his busy schedule. No promises. Sure, I understood that. I was just thrilled he was willing to make an effort.

And then, a few weeks later, I got this:

“Justine Graykin is a terrific writer, and Awake, Chimera is a wonderful read. Gender politics, philosophy, and slam-bang action make for a heady brew in this first-rate story.”
— Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues

Need I say my feet have not touched the ground since?

Go ahead, Universe, bring it on, I can handle it. I have been praised by Caesar.

Money Changes Everything

15 03 2015

War on Poverty

I had an epiphany this morning. Or at least an eye-widening insight. There’s a very good reason why so many spiritual leaders of past and present advise their followers to cast aside their worldly goods. Having an excess, or even a comfortable abundance, of wealth fundamentally affects your world view. And it separates us, one from another, in subtle, insidious ways.

I have a good friend who is far more affluent than I am. Very kind, very compassionate. Most of her other friends, at least those I’ve met, are similar. Intelligent, good-hearted, but live lives far beyond what I could ever hope to afford. I must emphasize that this does not affect our friendship. Or my opinion of them as good people. But it has given me a glimpse into a different world. A world made different solely by income.

The house is a mess, can’t keep up with the housework. Me: live with it, feeling ashamed when company comes over. Them: hire someone to clean for them.

The kitchen/bathroom/etc. is looking shabby from wear, or just seems due for a change. Me: move around the furniture, see if paint is on sale, or look for bargains at a yard sale or Dollar Store. Them: Buy whatever they need to redo the room; hire someone to do it if they are unable/unwilling to do the redecorating themselves.

Son graduates from high school. Them: Off to University, with perhaps a semester in Europe. Me: Get a job to help support the household, putting aside what he can to take the occasional class at the community college.

Vacation time. Them: Let’s see, Puerto Rico? Hawaii? Skiing in the Alps? Safari in Africa? Me: My younger son can housesit for them and their pets.

You get the point. And it isn’t that they are showing off their lifestyle. It seems normal for them. It’s what people do. And they think, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford a fancier car, a bigger (second, nicer) house, our own jet, throw more extravagant parties, buy our kids better things, quit work and travel around the world, and so forth. Imagine how utterly out of touch the 1% must be? How completely alien the lives of those making minimum wage are to those who have never had to worry about affording anything except perhaps the next multinational corporation or presidential candidate they want to acquire?

I did live on minimum wage for awhile, did at one time have much less than I have now. I did not believe I would ever be able to afford a house, or a new car. Compared to where I once was, I am living in luxury. It’s as different as my life now is from the lives of my friends. And now, even though I am so much better off than I once was, I look at them wistfully and think, “I wish I could send my son to college. I wish I could go to Europe. I wish I could afford to buy some nice item of clothing just because I like it, not because it’s what was available at Goodwill.” Forgetting there are folks out there who wish they could have a house to live in, a good car to drive, and no worries about paying for their groceries.

Money changes everything. A bit more of it and you notch a level up, and that becomes your norm. Your eyes tend to drift upwards to the next level, not back down to where you were, or if they do, only with a shudder. It’s easy to forget what it is like being down there. Think how much harder it would be to relate if you’ve never had to stand in line for a meal at a soup kitchen, never been on food stamps, never had to just suck it up and live with something because you couldn’t afford to do any better?

The apocryphal “Let them eat cake,” could well have been said by a truly clueless member of a privileged class who honestly had no idea what it was like not to have that option. I wonder how many of those who say “Why don’t the poor just (fill in the blank)?” honestly don’t realize that the options that seem obvious to them simply aren’t available to those who have little or no money.

Why is it that people tend to hang out with those at their own level? Perhaps because it feels normal. These are people you can relate to, who have similar concerns (investments, retirement plans, tax shelters, what school to send their children to or where to take their next vacation; or, balancing childcare and job, keeping credit card debt manageable while still keeping up the payments on the car and making the rent, how to use leftovers to stretch grocery money). With a wide disparity of income, you aren’t going to the same restaurants, shopping at the same stores, buying the same gadgets and devices. A person whose income is very different can’t entertain you at their house the way you did them at yours. The person the next notch down can’t afford to buy the gifts you can afford. They can’t join you in your favorite recreations because they can’t manage the expense.

No matter how one strives for equanimity, the differences are real, pervasive, and have an unavoidable effect.

And we think we’re so clever and classless and free.

Crime and Punishment

4 03 2015

The Offender

I’m done smacking myself down; now the justice system gets to smack me down some more. I get to see first hand how it doesn’t work. Crime and punishment is largely based on a faulty presumption that stiff penalties provide a deterrent. Sometimes that’s true. But the prisons are packed with people for whom it was only motivation to try harder not to get caught.

Apart from the deterrent fallacy, there’s the Old Testament idea of justice, that when someone violates the law they need to be punished for it. Even if there were extraneous circumstances (the classic case of the man who stole the loaf of bread because he or his family was starving) we hear that justice must be served. You do the crime, you do the time. Because no matter how sorry you are, no matter how determined never to do it again, you must be made to suffer for what you did. I wonder what good that suffering really does?

There’s a certain pitiless element of righteousness in the way our laws work. They call it “personal accountability”, and when someone makes a mistake they are told, “You should have thought of that before you committed the act.” This is not terribly helpful. We all share human failings, misunderstandings, muddle our way through a Sargasso Sea of circumstances that cloud our thinking and muddy our motives. An awful lot of people who wind up in the system would benefit far more from counseling and education. How often does poverty, ignorance, suffering and desperation drive people to make bad choices? The money we spend to incarcerate people could be so much better and productively spent getting those same people back on their feet and providing them options that don’t involve breaking laws and breaking up families. But a large element of our society gets all bent about “coddling criminals”. They’d rather spend tax dollars on prisons and militarizing the police, than on welfare, food stamps, or child care.

I was horrified by what I did, and have already taken constructive steps to make sure it never happens again. That, of course, is not enough in the eyes of the law. I need to bleed money my family can’t really afford and lose my license for six months, creating havoc and hassle for everyone around me. They are being punished for something they had nothing to do with. Some justice. And what good will it do? Keep me from doing it again? I was already determined never to repeat the mistake. All this does is screw things up more. I was so upset when they yanked my driver’s license that I wanted desperately to get drunk. I didn’t. I’m sticking to my resolution in spite of the penalty being levied on me, not because of it.

I’m fortunate in that I have a family and friends who are understanding, forgiving and supportive. What about the people who have to face their lives getting skewered without support like that? Do they lose their jobs because they can’t drive and can’t find a ride? Do they lose their homes because they can’t pay their bills? If they get sent to prison, how do they rebuild their lives afterwards? Especially if they come out worse off than when they went in. Unemployable. Stigmatized. No wonder so many people end up on the street. Or back in prison.

I will recover and move on. It’s been a trauma because I have never experienced anything like this before. I’ve always been on the “right” side of the law. But it has been an incredible learning experience. I now know how easy it is to end up on the “wrong” side. And I can see how people in much more difficult situations could slide into a nightmare. So many of our institutions are badly broken, and I’m not seeing much progress in trying to fix them. We keep cutting money from social programs that could catch people from falling into the desperation that leads to bad choices. We are destroying our public schools instead of using them to reach and help children in need. We criminalize homelessness, blame the poor for their poverty, legislate stiffer sentences. We punish instead of help.

The most effective way to fight crime is with wisdom. With compassion. With understanding. With research and science. Not with punishment. Are there criminals out there that need to be imprisoned? I expect so. But how did they come to be that way? Can their lives be turned around? Can we keep others from making those choices by giving them better options?

Until we begin to answer these questions, until we make society as accountable and responsible as we expect individuals to be, we will continue to have plenty of crime and not much justice.

Lake House Reflections: Of Fish and Trees

23 02 2015

Fish and Trees

As I said to a friend in a recent email, when I feel overwhelmed, I have the impulse to hit the delete key. As I was recovering from the trauma of realizing what had happened to me, my first thought was to shut down and pull back. Quit blogging, resign from everything, crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me. Upon reflection, there are indeed be some things I need to pull back from. But writing isn’t one of them. It’s the one thing that works. The written word is what I feel most comfortable with. It’s how I communicate best. It’s how I connect. Connection is vital.

That is why I post this stuff on the web for all to see. I could just journal the way most people do, privately. Leave instructions for it all to be burned after I’m gone, or at least, revealed posthumously, when I’m beyond caring about public scrutiny and criticism. After all, aren’t I ashamed of what I did? Wouldn’t I be embarrassed having the world know about it and my weaknesses? People usually want to show only their best face to the world.

And that’s the point. This desire to only show your best face, to hide your weaknesses, to pretend everything is fine all of the time and keep the dirty laundry well-hidden, is a proud tradition in our society. But it gives us all the wrong impression of what it means to be human. When things go wrong, when we screw up or fall on that best face, we feel isolated and humiliated. We hang our heads in shame as if we are the only dog in the world who ever soiled a carpet. We end up in counseling wondering what’s wrong with us.

Fact is, we all screw up. We make bad choices, have bad luck, suffer a moment’s inattention or indulge an impulse that leads to disaster. If anyone claims they haven’t, they are either lying or not telling the truth. If a few of us have the courage to point out the Emperor’s lack of clothes, then the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief and get about the business of talking openly and sorting it out. This is how we face our problems and deal with them, supporting one another instead of pointing fingers in hypocritical righteousness while praying nobody notices the stains on our own backsides.

Connection is vital.

I’ll readily confess, my first impulse when I woke up the next day and realized what had happened was not Holy shit, I could have died, but Holy shit, what are people going to think when they find out? Knee-jerk reaction was shame. I live in a small town, and that’s what people do. They gossip and shake their heads and pass judgement. I know, because I’ve been down this road before. And I’ve seen others crucified the same way. And yes, I’m ashamed to confess, I’ve been in the mob with the torches and pitchforks. It’s what humans do. It takes constant effort and vigilance not to let yourself do the ugly thing.

Compassion is vital.

So this is me, having screwed up, trying to figure out how to deal with it. Fortunately, I’ve done some of the work before. This is Colebrook Journal stuff. Beware the ruination chorus and that vicious, opportunistic demon, Depression. Individuals prone to clinical depression are far more likely to succumb with each successive episode. You’ve got to know your triggers. If you can’t disarm them, avoid them.

Compassion for oneself is vital.

I am a fish. I keep trying to climb trees. I get suckered by social pressure, the desire for approval and praise that success and fame bring. I keep falling for the Great Lie that Anyone can succeed if they try hard enough (Corollary: If you didn’t succeed, it is because you didn’t try hard enough. Conclusion: Your failure is your own fault.).

Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Doctor replies, So stop doing that.

Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says it, “If we ignore our stress, and just think that if we only work more we can take care of everything, then every day we add stress to stress and store it up in our body. If we continue like this, we make ourselves sick.” I made myself sick.

And, succinctly, “Running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair.” No kidding.

I’ll keep on writing (fish gotta swim) but my tree-climbing days are over.

Lake House Reflections

22 02 2015

Lake HouseStop posting? Silly of me. This is my passion, my therapy, my mission, my compulsion. I wrote that last entry in shut down mode, panicked by the fact that I could have been killed.

So here I am, once again, looking myself in the I. This time I am comfortably ensconced at “Clair de Loon”, my friend Laura’s house on Balch Lake. The lake is frozen, snowmobiles zipping back and forth past the bob houses. For those of you unfamiliar with this New England tradition, a bob house is headquarters for the serious ice fisherman, a portable shanty for storing gear and providing shelter out on the frozen waste. Good luck drilling through all the snow we’ve had this winter, plus the thick ice these cold temperatures have generated. The fish are down there, but you’d have to be some kind of dedicated to be dropping lines in this weather.

I’ve got a different kind of fishing to do, staring down through the dark ice, plumbing the depths of my own psyche.

#1, there’s the stark reality of the accident I had on the way home from Boskone, my car up on a snow bank with a tree shoved half-way up the engine block.  If I had lost control of the car at a different point, in traffic, on the highway instead of a rural back road, I could have died or been horribly injured, and taken who knows how many other people with me. As it was, the only casualty was my car, which was totaled, but I walked away from it. So they tell me. I can’t remember a thing.

#2: That I don’t remember scares me even more.  I don’t know why or when I started drinking on the drive home.  This was the second big convention in a month. I hadn’t really recovered from the first and here I was once again in the chaotic thick of it, dealing with the multiple pressures of running a book table, being on panels, taking advantage of promotional opportunities and constant social interaction. I started in with the anxiety meds to try to keep functional. And somewhere along the line, my conscious self checked out. I switched to autopilot.  It wasn’t just my car I lost control of.  I lost control of me.

So, here I am trying to figure it out, what went wrong, what I need to do to make sure it never happens again.  First, I shoved the Lorazepam into the back of the medicine cabinet with a shudder.  Also, I have not touched alcohol since.  I may never drink again. Friends have been very supportive, although they must be getting weary of my emotional crashes. They ask if they can help. Truth is, I’m the one who has to do the helping. It’s like the old joke about the Buddha telling the hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.” When the vendor tries to give him his change, the Buddha refuses, saying with a smile, “The change must come from within.”

Or the one about how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb: only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.

I am back to the process I began a couple years ago, got serious about at the cabin in Colebrook, and am now revisiting in a house on Balch Lake. Only this time it’s a matter of life and death.

When the bough breaks

18 02 2015

Chimera Smyth

This will be my last post for a while. One discovers one’s limits by testing them. In doing so, one runs the risk of exceeding them.

Ours is a culture where failure is a character flaw and we only admire winners. If you don’t succeed it’s your own fault. You didn’t try hard enough. You’re lazy or incompetent. Losers deserve to be losers. So we push ourselves hard to succeed, terrified of being one of those poor sods that others look down upon in pity and contempt.

We struggle to climb that tree, clinging to the branches, pushing ourselves higher and higher while the branches get thinner, the wind howls, our fingers ache with fatigue, fear chokes us, but we see others around us climbing past us, yelling encouragement, “Come on, you can do it!” So we keep going.

And in the inspirational story of the winner, we applaud the heartwarming triumph of the hero achieving the top, with the attendant platitudes about struggling to overcome weakness, never giving up, believing in oneself.

This is not my story. In my story, the bough breaks.


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