Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

The Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947), Russian painter and philosopher, mesmerized me when I first laid eyes on the collection. I stared at them for hours. I feel a bit as though these paintings knew me better than anyone. It’s like I understood them, and in turn, they understood me. I became interested in why. 

It could be that as a child my imagination was captured by the breathtaking views of mountains. I was inspired as much by the physical grandeur of their peaks as by the spiritual mysteries harbored within them. Indeed, for me the towering peaks represented the very summit of beauty and spirituality. The tallest mountains I ever climbed were in Zermatt, Switzerland.  I had a truly a remarkable time discovering certain wonders in nature such as glaciers and rich vegetation along with snow-capped points. I would take a rest at several spots which were beautiful and magnificent. There were always more heights to scale, another plateau or peak above, views of the Matterhorn.

Was it this experience that caused me to have a connection with Roerich’s art or something else? Are we drawn to art that mirrors a part of our inner self? What was it specifically about Roerich’s art?

Mount of Five TreasuresIt is virtually impossible to separate the artist’s art from his philosophy. Many contemporaries were skeptical of Roerich’s spiritual mission and tended to dismiss his work as being repetitive and unoriginal. However, those who embraced his philosophy experienced something transformative in those same canvases – never ending spiritual realizations.  A brief survey of his life reveals that Roerich was not an adherent of any one established religion or philosophical movement. His name is universally known not only as Master of the brush but also as a thinker and a builder of life.  His art and writings are an evocation to Beauty, to Knowledge, and to Culture. Art education would pave the way to universal beauty and open the gates to spiritual enlightenment. This vision is nicely captured in his philosophical statement of the Master Institute of United Arts which he formed in New York in 1921:

“Art will unify all humanity.  Art is one – indivisible. Art has its many branches, yet all are one.  Art is the manifestation of the coming synthesis. Art is for all.”

Regardless of whether his lofty ideals will ever be realized, or if you agree with the artist’s art philosophy, his paintings are replete with rich symbolic jewels that are a pure delight for anyone to reflect upon.

19284963678_72350b9c8f_oFor example, Roerich refers often to the great treasures stored deep within the Himalayas. The very name Kanchenjunga, he tells us, means, “the Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” because it contains the five most precious things in the world.  He alludes to them in the painting, Treasure of the Mountain. The setting is deep inside a mountain cave.  Roerich causes us to question what treasures he is referring to? Are they rubies, gold, and diamonds?  Or, upon deeper reflection, is he talking about other more inner treasures?

The gurus hold a lamp. Does it suggest that the Light of Wisdom is the treasure of the mountain?   Roerich reminds us that we must think about what we hold valuable. And – taking this to the deeper level of reflection – we should think very clearly about how we find these symbolic jewels.  What does it take?

Pearl of Searching Flickr mediumIn the Pearl of Searching, another journey is pictured. The teacher-student relationship is a theme in many of Roerich’s paintings. Our eye is drawn to the figures and we identify with them, experiencing the panorama that unfolds behind from their perspective. They have reached a plateau and are celebrating the view and a treasure they have found. What is it? What symbolic meaning do we see?

Perhaps the “Pearl of Great Price” is what gives purpose to life.   The mountains themselves symbolize a spiritual world separate from earth but accessible to those who are attuned to the higher realities. The necklace – a symbol of eternity – signifies that this daily seeking is destined to go on forever, an emblem of immortality. This all causes us to consider, “Why are we here?”

Unquestionably Roerich is one of the most interesting 20th century figures. It seems to me that his life was a symbolic journey documented in his massive body of works, each canvas a masterpiece of daring composition, glowing with color. Himalayan is the word not only for his art, but also a metaphor for his thoughts on the process of transformation.

The path to enlightenment, spiritual ascent, the sacred signs of Satyum, Shivam, Sundaram (Peace, Beauty, Truth) – these are the symbolic themes at the heart of Roerich’s paintings and writings, also at the heart of Freemasonry.  They continually cast a spell on me.  Once we begin on this infinite and exponential journey of discovery, we might stop for a moment to enjoy the view or a treasure found, but there is no turning back. Ultimately, we choose the next plateau we want to rise to.

From Roerich’s “Realm of Light”:

“Let us abandon the past for the future. Let us impel our entire consciousness into the future and let us suffuse it with radiance, for this is within the access of humanity.”

Note: To read further on Nicholas Roerich, check out the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

Trivium: Rhetoric

Trivium: Rhetoric

We’re back with the third part of the Trivium: Rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion through communications, either written or spoken. There are always two components to rhetoric – the rhetoric and the audience. Rhetoric’s aim is to make comparisons, evoke emotions, censure rivals, and convince their audience to switch a point of view. Rhetoric takes the form of speech, debate, music, story, play, movie, poem; nearly anything that can be written or spoken may be a piece of rhetoric. In fact, it may be the rhetoric that makes the art.

In the poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, the author provides a brief insight into life’s travels:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 

The rhetorical line of this poem is: “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” Frost has set a scene for us of decision, or indecision, and given us a glimpse into his thoughts, which may be our thoughts at any given moment. His work is convincing us that in order to perhaps make a difference in our lives, we should tread whether others have infrequently traveled.

When we talk about skilled negotiators, people with “charisma” and “charm,” we are really talking about the art of rhetoric. We use rhetoric in our everyday lives when we create a job resume, negotiate to buy a car, when we debate politics, or even when we are convincing a teenager to clean their room. We may do it every day, but do we really understand the finer points of rhetoric? It seems to be the pinnacle of the Trivium and the highest goal we can work toward in order to communicate our ideas with one another effectively.


A nod to this blog for providing the Cornelis Cort images.

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

As a classically trained musician, I often frame the way I think about the mysteries of the universe in terms of music. I love the quote of Einstein where he says, “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” A world without music would be lifeless, silent, and depressing. Almost every moment in a person’s life is continually underscored by music — from birth to death, at weddings and other celebrations. The ancients were convinced that music could become internalized by the individual; the music influencing, as it were, the manner of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.  

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy 

The “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed on May 7, 1824, is one of those musical treasures that invites me to dream, to turn within and to contemplate my mortal coil. The chorus was the finale in the “last work” that Beethoven ever composed.

The idea for “Ode to Joy,” and the words for the chorus, came to Beethoven in his early 20’s.  The famous poet Friedrich Schiller had written in 1785 an excessively cheerful drinking song, and Beethoven was creatively impressed to set the poem to music. He was the first major composer to include a chorus and vocal soloists in the last movement of a symphony. In the chorus, we hear the joy of a man who, through suffering and compassion, embraced all.  

It is such a glorious moment. So shocking. So hopeful: even though we know the violence and burdens of the world are out there surrounding us, waiting for us. The joyful lyrics ring true the message of uniting all people in universal brotherhood. Beethoven’s little introduction to the poem also mentions not dwelling on sad things but being happy instead.

The last words direct themselves to heaven, and in some amazing m34481589172_8d767a068a_o 1usical craftsmanship, the movement ends with a sublime message:

Be embraced, ye millions!
For the universe, this kiss!
Brothers – above the canopy of stars
A loving Father surely dwells.

Millions, do you fall upon our knees?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the canopy of stars!
Surely he dwells above the stars!

Just imagine that Beethoven was fully deaf and writing about being happy!  He was acquainted with a deep compassion that swept through him for others in a destitute situation. He dearly loved mankind and his skill as a master musician provided the means to reveal to us the hidden nature of the world within us, touching our souls.  Could this message possibly be a metaphor in itself? Who is really hard of hearing — him or us?

Beethoven’s music has been said to awaken compassion and the desire for universal brotherhood.  Because of the feelings contained in Beethoven’s music, his works can stir crowds to higher levels of realization. One wonders what power graced Beethoven that he could write such music. His joyful message still has the ability to lift the souls of all who hear it. How does this piece or any music tend to shape and mold us?  I have wondered that so many times and questioned myself. I have tried to touch the heart of the composer; Tried to turn my life into an “Ode to Joy.”352228023_28f8dd197a_o

Ancient Philosophers and the Mysteries of Music

David Tame, in his excellent book on The Secret Power of Music describes how a select group of composers have been able to show us what the ancient philosophers knew about the mysteries of music:

Pythagoras’ understanding of music was far more than a merely materialistic, academic one, and such an understanding is lamentably rare today. Yet we discover something of this timeless flame of ageless wisdom preserved in that small minority of musicians who still today have combined academic knowledge and the practical experience of music with a genuine and earnest inner spiritual development.

A Modern Take on Immortal Beloved

I consider Beethoven to be among this elite group.  In the 90’s, there was a film that came out about Beethoven’s life called “Immortal Beloved.”  Critics disagree with much of the movie’s historical contents, but there is one scene that took my breath away. I have pondered the meaning of it ever since. 

It begins by showing Beethoven standing before the orchestra while he is conducting the finale of the Ninth Symphony. He finds himself thinking back to a childhood memory of running away from his abusive father. The film draws us in as this young boy runs through the woods to escape the awful beatings that have plagued him all his life. His journey leads him to a lake where he wades in to float on his back to look up at the stars. The whole scene is illumined by a radiant full moon. 

Suddenly, we are transported to a change of perspective as the camera pans back.  The lake becomes a reflection of the sky, making Beethoven look as if he is suspended amid the stars until eventually his young body has merged with the heavens. He finds himself in his own universe, yet above the pain and uncertainty of his troubled adolescence. From this, we are left to wonder if Beethoven was truly alone and if his immortal beloved was music: his music. 

An Ode to Joy and Freemasonry 

There are many times that I have given myself over to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” masterpiece.  I bathe in the sounds, leave the troubles of my world behind and allow the joy to slowly purify me.  Freemasonry is much like any beautiful well-crafted piece of music in that the ceremonies and rituals give inspiration and perspective.  While the millions of stars in the sky may make us feel small in comparison, Freemasonry teaches that we are capable of so much.  We are truly a significant part of this very same Universe, and we have within us capacity to behold a sacred moment of transcendent power.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Footnote:  Some say that Beethoven was a Freemason, although there is a lack of absolute evidence to that fact. Further exploration of this theory can be found in the article: http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/beethoven_l/beethoven_l.html
 

Trivium: Logic or Dialectica

Trivium: Logic or Dialectica

Today’s theme is Logic, or as seen the picture here, Dialectica. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Logic is the science and art which so directs the mind in the process of reasoning and subsidiary processes as to enable it to attain clearness, consistency, and validity in those processes. The aim of logic is to secure clearness in the definition and arrangement of our ideas and other mental images, consistency in our judgments, and validity in our processes of inference.”

trivio7

Aristotle is generally considered the “Founder of Logic,” although many others before him put themselves to the task of thinking about how we think. One of these, Zeno of Elea, was considered to have developed reductio ad absurdum, or the method of indirect proof. If something cannot be both true and false, then an argument can be made from reducing the statement to the absurd.

For example, “The earth is round. The earth is not flat. If it were flat, people would fall off the edge.” Since the earth cannot be both round and flat, the statement is true.

Another good example, from Wikipedia (Yes, I know. Don’t judge.), reads:

xenophanes1The ‘reduction to the absurd’ technique is used throughout Greek philosophy, beginning with Presocratic philosophers. The earliest Greek example of a reductio argument is supposedly in fragments of a satirical poem attributed to Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570 – c.475 BC). Criticizing Homer’s attribution of human faults to the gods, he says that humans also believe that the gods’ bodies have human form. But if horses and oxen could draw, they would draw the gods with horse and oxen bodies. The gods can’t have both forms, so this is a contradiction. Therefore, the attribution of other human characteristics to the gods, such as human faults, is also false.

logic2Logic is mental training: once the words and language have been developed, we can think through situations, problems, and reason our way to clear conclusions that work in conjunction with the natural world. For example, if we seekers of Truth are to grow and understand how a symbol might be applied to our everyday lives, we need to understand not only what the symbol is, but how it works in the world around us, how nature employs it.

Logic utilizes the senses but the connection must be made in the mind to form usable conclusions. Logic is, to me, a fundamental aspect of any human being’s career, if one expects to progress through life and learn. We can learn Logic in the modern age via University, but this really teaches us about Logic, not how to employ our logical mind. It seems that only through discourse, or dialectica, are we able to truly develop logical thought processes and reasoning at a higher level. Masonic Philosophical Society, anyone?

 


As a side note, the Catholic Encyclopedia on newadvent.org has a very good article on Logic and its history. It’s concise and certainly doesn’t include manuscripts; I would encourage anyone with a keen interest in Logic or Dialectica to read Aristotle but also some of the pre-Socractic philosophers, whence a great deal of our modern ideas of logic come.

Grammar and the Trivium

Grammar and the Trivium

Previously, I posted about the Seven Liberal Arts in general and the Trivium in particular. Recently, a challenge was given to me about providing examples of how the liberal arts are part of our everyday life, and why the human seeking to enlighten their mind might care about them. The challenge was to provide short essays on each. Three-hundred word essays are always a challenge but the gauntlet has been picked up. We’ll call these Liberal Arts: petit fours.

Therefore, for today, I give you Grammar.grammar


Grammar is the skill of knowing language. In order to form sound reasoning, one must be able to learn the words, sentence structure, and forms that make up their language and thereby, communicate clearly and with confidence. In classical training, Grammar is the “who, what, why, when, and how” of understanding and knowledge. Grammar is taught more mechanically in the modern age, which does a disservice:  humans need more than nuts and bolts to create clear ideas and communicate them. Much of what we need to learn goes beyond the adverb or adjective.

An example of this is figures of speech.Cornelis Cort 1565 Grammar Figures of speech are the use of any of a variety of techniques to give an auxiliary meaning, idea, or feeling. An example of this is dysphemism. This is the use of a harsh, more offensive word instead of one considered less harsh. Dysphemism is often contrasted with Euphemism. Dysphemisms are generally used to shock or offend.

Examples of dysphemism are “cancer stick” for cigarette,  “belly bomb” for doughnut, and “treeware” for books. Examples of Euphemisms are lighter, such as “between jobs” for unemployed, or “passed away” for death. Knowing the difference of these two figures of speech allows the audience to be placed in a certain frame of mind and creates a scene for the next stages of what is to be communicated.grandpa

As our use of grammar grows, we need tounderstand how figures of speech like this work and use them effectively when we will eventually make our case (rhetoric) via the tool of language organized into thought (logic). Thus, the well-rounded thinking man should understand not only the technical grammar of his own language, but also how the tools of grammar may be applied to the body of human knowledge for further study.

In order to communicate his own interpretation of the symbolism of any topic of organized learning, as well as what he learns from the natSocratic Methodural world around him, the study of grammar, regardless of the age of the individual, is pivotal.  Grammar is foundational to all problem-solving methods.

What would the Socratic Method be without proper grammar by which to understand and debate the ethical questions of nature?

As Socrates knew: to be able to instruct, to learn deference, and to be able to speak with authority, the enlightened human must concern himself with the very basic study of communication. That is, the study of the grammar of one’s language.

 

 

The Seven Liberal Arts – The Trivium

The Seven Liberal Arts – The Trivium

There is a real affinity for the goals of Freemasonry and the Seven Liberal Arts. From earliest teachings, we see that they are the foundation of many degree rites, the first of which is the FellowCraft Degree. To understand why this is, I think we must first understand the structure of the Seven Liberal Arts and what their history is.

The Liberal Arts have been, from antiquity, been the foundation stone upon which knowledge of the natural world rests. The seven liberal arts have been utilized since ancient Greece. Plato and Pythagoras were first in codifying their importance; the flowering of our western understanding of the liberal arts took place in medieval education systems, where they were categorized into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric are the Trivium, and Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy are the Quadrivium. The Trivium combines the use of the senses with knowledge to lay the foundation for further study. The Quadrivium was considered to be the higher level education for the philosopher, and employed the use of the Trivium to be able to compose higher ideas and thereby, expand the knowledge of the human condition.

Freemasons the world over have expounded on the Seven Liberal Arts ad infinitum. All you need to do is search Freemasonry and Seven Liberal Arts, and you get a great deal of regurgitated drivel. That is not what I am striving to do in this next series. Here, my goal is to simply explain why the Seven Liberal Arts seem to have a kinship with Freemasonry, and perhaps provide small examples of each – withsevenliberalarts and without a Freemasonic connection. It’s up to you, the reader, to decide what you’d like to do with the information.

Plato’s Dialogues explain the curriculum outlined in detail and for any serious student of liberal arts, Plato is required reading. I, therefore, will not relate these concepts here. Suffice to say that the study of the Liberal Arts is more of a study of knowledge than it is of any specific actual data and information. As we may have learned by now, knowledge without application is dead and useless. Knowledge in the pursuit of higher ideals and higher ideas is more valuable than… than… well, you get the idea. Remember, one of the goals of Freemasonry is to better the human condition while standing up in defiance of falsehood, ignorance, and hatred. How do we do that if we are not searching to better our communication and knowledge, and the ways to bring both to life?

The Trivium is, as I said above, the foundation stone of the Seven Liberal Arts and really provides us the method and ability to communicate. It is composed of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

  • Grammar: Knowledge and Learning of Language
  • Logic: Reasoning, Questioning, and Thinking with Language
  • Rhetoric: Directing, moving, and Persuading using Language

While these all seem to be in relation to language, they are much more than language. They are the skills involved in achieving these ends. Therefore, the study of Grammar is also the study of history, geography, reading, and writing. It is basic, absolutely, but more encompassing than simply learning one’s ABCs and how to put pen on paper and write. Logic is about how we learn – we use our senses to experience, put our minds to thought, question, and experiment. We learn to ask the correct questions to achieve the answers we seek. They are not provided to us – we must seek them out and test for ourselves. Finally, rhetoric is the ability to take what we have learned with grammar and dialectic and put them firmly into the hands of an audience we are attempting to persuade. Rhetoric uses emotional discourse, thoughtfully created and properly applied, to communicate new ideas.

If it is not clear to the Freemason now why at least the Trivium is not important, one might want to question what they have actually learned while being a Freemason. Many may think that Freemasonry is all about enlightenment, walking in squares, or religious meanings. It might be those things to some but I think the true goals of Freemasonry are to provide a framework of how to be in the world, to make that world better for those that follow us but more importantly, for our own betterment. We cannot communicate lofty ideals via ritual alone – we need to be able to express what we have learned to a wider audience, to bring new thoughts to a wider world. To me, when we talk about service to the world, there is no greater service than being a hand-up to the betterment of the human condition and we do that by “teaching a man how to fish.” Study of the Liberal Arts is by one means to catch that “fish.”

Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_Künsten

Trust and Where to Find It

Trust and Where to Find It

Having just come off an ugly few weeks at work, the issue of trust has raised its ugly head. Bosses not trusting the people they hire; employees not trusting managers to look out for them; gossipers and those who malign out of jealousy or fear. The workplace seems to be the last place trust is formed. The specter of what passes for trust in the modern world of North America, well, it leaves something to be desired. Many books have been written about the subject, by various authors, from Dale Carnegie to Malcolm Gladwell.  We could talk about being a leader and being an employee ad nauseum, as most of us have performed one of those tasks in some way shape or form. We’ve talked in the last several articles about work, industry, and the idea of being a contributing member of society. We’ve also talked about the value of Social Capital. I find that many of these topics come to a very core value of trust. Where do we find it?

A friend once said that “trust can never be earned. It must be granted and only when you are ready to grant it. It’s yours to give, yours to take away. It’s not something that is a wage to be paid.” Wise words, although at the time, it didn’t seem so. It seemed judgemental and hollow. Of course we can earn someone’s trust. Can’t we? Work hard; be upright; and show our integrity. Right?

Confidence, belief, faith, and rely upon – all synonyms for trust. Yet, who creates trust? In short…we do. In our heads, in our minds, and in our hearts. Trust is a construct of our own internal making, built on ideas, expectations, and beliefs that have been gathered over the course of creating our relationships. The building of trust is a wall, brick by brick, that is made from repeated incidents that end up the way we believe they should or would end up. We’ve played out a scenario in our mind and the members of the play have participated correctly and created a lasting impression on us. The integrity and trust of these impressions is built on not  who the individuals are but to what we believe. That is, trust is in our own minds and our own reality.

In trust, both risk and reward are built in. The trust we create in our own mind, oddly enough, is the both the judge and the distributor of the decision. We need trust to be able to form relationships with people; long lasting relationships where both parties are mutually benefited by trust. Marriages, life-long friendships, even employer-employee relationships are trust built brick by brick. We might even consider that when we engage in commerce – it is an act of trust. We call AAA, and they say they will come to our aid. When that request is granted, trust has been gained. Never show up and well, trust has eroded or is gone completely. We decide in our own minds what constitutes the willful crowning of trust on a person or company; the decision lies solely within us. Trust seems to be the glue that maintains a civil and coherent society. Let’s face it – locks only keep out the honest people, yes?

0721_trustThat trust involves risk means that we place a value on trust that is above much of our common interaction with people. Having trust in something or someone can create a dependency that may be “warranted” or not. We need to see value in something in order to actually grant trust. Ergo, that value can be lost if trust is broken. We gain much when we trust – opportunities for cooperative activity, meaningful relationships, knowledge, autonomy, self-respect, and overall moral maturity. Perhaps trust itself has no value – that is, we grant trust not because we will obtain something for ourselves (and the trustee) but “just because” we find the person to be upright. Should we trust them solely out of respect for their person? If trustworthiness is a virtue, and we seek to grow it in ourselves, then doesn’t it behoove us to show respect for another simply because we see they are trustworthy? Shouldn’t others afford us the same quarter? “Trust would be a sign of respect for others if it were an attitude of optimism about the trustee’s character: that is, if it assumed that virtue resided within this person’s character. Moreover, trust that has intrinsic value of this sort presumably must be justified. If optimism about the person’s character was inappropriate, then the respect would be misplaced and the intrinsic value would be lost.” *Article on plato.stanford.edu here*

The author of the article noted above continues on from the quote above to drop the idea of the virtue of trust as simply respect for another person. However, I think it does merit talking about. The term “authenticity” sprang to mind while thinking about this and I think that is where the core of trust begins. Authenticity is not being false or an imitation of something else; it is “worth of acceptance or belief; true to one’s own personality, spirit, and nature.” Being authentic is first knowing about yourself – who are you and how do you show up in the world. Once you know that, being authentic is about letting no one sway you from that way of being. It’s not about conforming – it’s about being who you are regardless of the situation. There was an explosion of authenticity articles and movements between 2010 and 2014; what’s interesting to note is that we’re not, as a culture, talking about authenticity now. Is it because we have new leadership that, in their authenticity, are cultivating chaos? Or is it because the ability to be authentic is too hard or scary, and the movement is gone? Culturally and sociologically, it would be interesting to reflect on why there was that surge in “being authentic” and whence that movement has gone. However, not right now, another time… If you want to read more on authenticity, check out the plato.stanford.edu site which houses many articles both on trust (referenced above) and on authenticity.

All of these concepts seem tied together: autonomy, self-realization, authenticity, and trust. While the core of creating trust is authenticity, there has to be a certain willingness for the trustee to put a personal stake in the relationship. You can be as authentic as a fresh baked apple pie but if someone else has inherent trust issues, you’re never going to trust1be invited to dinner. As the cliche goes, “It’s not about you. It’s about me.” I feel as if I am in constant discovery of myself so to be authentic for me is to be present. As long as I am thoughtful and searching my feelings with honesty, that is as authentic as I can be. Like everyone else, I change my feelings and mind, as I learn more about myself and knowledge about the world. Am I still worthy of trust if my authenticity is fluid? I hope so.

Two of the core values, in my mind, about Freemasonry, are “authenticity” and “trust.” Like any society of men and women where people to come together for a common cause, Freemasons have a structure and codified ways of acting and being together. We are separate from the outside world because of the Fraternity. We don’t treat our fellow members with the same casual demeanor that we would the people we work with or classmates or even some of our family members. From the onset, we must consider the people that are bringing us into the fraternity with some measure of trust. This makes the vetting process not only important but critical; not for the Lodge or Order but for ourselves and for the aspirant. Freemasons themselves are under the microscope of the aspirant’s eye – will we meet their expectations?

Tolerance and Debate

Tolerance and Debate

Debate is described, by Merriam Webster, as “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.” Tolerance, by the same arbiter, is “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Why do we examine these things here? As an interested party of the Masonic Philosophical Society, it is our position to debate, with tolerance, the yes or no questions put forward to us. We are directed to keep an open mind and examine the nuances and subtleties that make us different and thereby enlarge the scope of our own understanding. In the mission statement of the M.P.S., we read, “The Masonic Philosophical Society is an institution which aims to provide an environment of exploration within the framework of Masonic principles and to inspire individuals to self-awareness.”  M.P.S. meetings, for those who have been to them, are respectful interactions between differently-minded people, each make a case for or against a specific subject. The Meetups are, for all intents and purposes, a mini-debate.

The art of classical debate has slowly been dissipating in our modern society. In Ancient Greece, the “Socratic Debate” was a form “of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.” At the height of 18th Century “Enlightenment” culture, debating societies were the norm in London. It is thought that out of those debating societies, school debating societies emerged. There are a few debating societies in assorted countries today, but they are difficult to find. What debate there is appears to have morphed. If one listens to school competitive debating teams in recent years, it look as if to be less about the idea of sharing thought and more about speed, points of rhetoric, and form. One must study for weeks to prepare and be ready for the speed and style with which points are addressed an answered; words spoken are almost unintelligible to bystanders. Likewise, a political debate is little more than a series of standard rhetoric, backbiting, and false facts set under the title of “debate.” Luckily, such organizations such as “The Commonwealth Club” [https://www.commonwealthclub.org/] exist to be able to listen to informed debate between two very differing points of view, whether it be on climate change or mental illness. It is a true exchange of differing ideas. 

In a recent conversation on media, it was pointed out that the average individual in the USConstitutionUnited States, prior to the advent of Yellow Journalism about 1895, received their “news” from varied opinions. Newspapers, the main form of information, were clear in their support of one political party or the other; with names like the Carolina Federal Republican, Democratic Press, or the Impartial Register, you knew clearly which way the articles and opinions would be written. You knew the “slant” of the news. From the printing of the “Federalist Papers” in the later part of the 18th Century until the end of 19th Century, people of the U.S. read partial and partisan newspapers willingly and enthusiastically. All indications are that people read more than one; it was not uncommon for people to read many papers espousing what they believed and what they did not in order to round out their opinions on the matter. The Jeffersonian way of thinking held sway:

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them. – Thomas Jefferson

It has only been since the squelching of Yellow Journalism and the adamant fight of objective reporting that we have really had mostly “impartial” news – the majority of the 20th Century. In modern journalism school, the writer learns there is no “I” except on the opinion page; facts are reported and only facts. Current generations have been told that their media should be impartial and driven by facts. Opinions do not have a place on the nightly news. However, we are rounding a new era of citizen reporting with the advent of the internet, where anyone can write a blog, a newspaper, form an opinion, and post it on Twitter. Opinions are being touted as fact, and it is up to the reader to discern what is true and what is not. We are no longer subjected to generally objective reporting, and we are learning how to deal with it as a culture. An excellent Freakonomics episode on this subjected is entitled “How Biased is Your Media.” [http://freakonomics.com/podcast/how-biased-is-your-media/]

TOLERANCEIn this new electronic media era, we are learning again how to debate and how to be tolerant. We are learning to see more than one side, and to perhaps give leeway to “the other guy;” being able to see the whole picture gives us a 360-degree view. If we didn’t have the other person’s outlook, we only get half of the story. As human beings, we need to remember that our perspective is limited by our senses. In addition to our physical perception only being able to see what is in front of us, we register different words and not others, we see different colors than are “true.”

In this book, “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right, Even When You’re Not” [https://www.amazon.com/Being-Certain-Believing-Right-Youre-ebook/dp/B003J5UJHW/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1492057108&sr=8-11&keywords=certainty], author Robert Burton states that “certainty is a mental sensation rather than the evidence of fact…” From the sciencebasedmedicine.org article noted below, “Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason. Your certainty that you are right has nothing to do with how right you are.” In other words, we need to be conscious of the physiological and mental needs of certainty overcome this “mental sensation.” We get that by listening and interacting with others of differing viewpoints and continually testing ourselves and our ability to be silent and listen. We can’t hear if our ears are jammed up with our own “certain” thoughts. The interesting article from sciencebasedmedicine.org on this book is located here. 

There are some who might say that politics has no place in the Masonic Philosophical Society blog, as it’s associated with Freemasonry, and Freemasons absolutely do not speak about politics and religion. Political or religion talk breeds strife and dissent; it divides where Masonry builds. Yet, the M.P.S. is not Freemasonry but a different entity where philosophical views may be debated with respect and tolerance. There are others who say, “bring it on!” They are willing to look at the arguments presented as more philosophical discussions and less about “Freemasonry.” This varying point of view about the blog posts is a debate as much as any two articles posted are a debate. In learning to debate, we breed tolerance and therefore become better people – the whole devoir of the Freemason.  It may even be that the idea of debate may be debated; is it not that all aspects of life may be open for free thinking? 

In debates, the same arguments holding-handsmight be presented for differing points of view and to stimulate the thought that there may be varying sides of a debate even outside of the presented topic. Those who have been on debate teams are aware of the need for a well-rounded view when it comes to debate; seeking beyond what we know and what we think we know is difficult. We need that jolt of a drastically different viewpoint to understand that wider view of the world, and to understand how others think and live.  In order for that to happen, we need to be able to listen well and with tolerance. 

We should be unafraid to approach sensitive topics and learn about them ahead of time. There may come a time when a drastic point of view is presented and tolerance is tested in an M.P.S. discussion; it’s at that moment when we can let go of the “self” and truly learn more. Like our 19th Century forefathers, we can then wade into it willingly and with an open mind, learning both sides of an argument and thereby create some tolerance within our own minds.

Complacency

Complacency

Are you comfortable? Are you warm, well-fed, and dry? Do you have enough to drink? Warm showers? Bathroom indoors? Excellent. This isn’t judgement. You, like me, are a benefactor of decades and centuries of prosperity, war, genocide, environmental support and ruin, negotiations, smart men and women, and incredibly ignorant men and women. Our life here in the United States is far more fortunate than most of the world. And for all this fortune and well-being, shouldn’t we be an example? A role model, if you will?

And we’ve moved into a time of just the opposite: officials and citizens of the U.S.A. who would have us cease to be citizens of the world. We citizens, in our Typical U.S.A. fashion, are dreadfully close to leaning back, away from the political and global world stage, and saying, “Yeah, not me. Not now. I’m okay right here.” There are those who think we’ve extended ourselves too far – being the military and financial might that we are. We’ve stuccomplacency-meaning-definitionk our noses into a lot of things – countries, business, trade, religion, and other government. It’s part arrogance, part global citizen, but do not believe it’s selfless. We are not by any stretch of imagination a selfless country.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many, many selfless people here in this country. Yet, we’ve not yet organized ourselves into a selfless mindset. We’re too fragmented, idealistic, narcissistic, egotistical, and fearful. With the new Republican administration sweeping our Nation’s capital, it seems we’re only going to continue down this road of fragmentation and insularity. We want to listen only to what we believe in. It’s too hard to stay in the game of change. We’re becoming immune and yes, I might say it, normalizing when it comes to the intense rhetoric. When a leading national policy maker, with the ear of the President says, that his personal agenda is the deconstruction of national administration, we should not be complacent. We should be attentive. These might be Fearful Words. I think that many of us who are idealists, moderate left to moderate right, hear this and think the sky is falling. A few might run protesting through the streets and ready to swing a heavy hammer back in another direction. Most wring their hands and hope that it will all go away. Maybe this IS the Twilight Zone.

But, hear me out… I think we need to stop and think. I mlkthink we need to understand the motivations behind the chaos and deconstruction and near-anarchy. I recently read an article on Politico regarding Bannon’s reading list. It’s fascinating. It’s really about the dissatisfaction with the status quo reaching a head. The country’s dissatisfaction has been waiting to burst for many people for sometime – else, the message would have fallen on deaf ears and Hillary would have been elected.  Many of us who would not and do not agree with Bannon’s ideology have felt this same way also for a long time but perhaps we were too locked-into a single mindset to think differently. Bannon’s is a mindset that says, “Rush the gates!” rather than “Tunnel under the wall.” It’s a system that’s advocating for intense chaos that instigates intense change. As I said in an earlier, non-related post about chaos, entropy is the death of life. And yet, it’s as necessary as the upset to our equilibrium.

I am not advocating for intense, hate-based change. I do not believe in hate, lies, bigotry, or ignorance. Quite the opposite. And I do believe these things that are being done are being done to shock and awe our consciousness. There are people on the Right who are, like some on the Left, taking the message too far. These are people who advocate for and commit acts of hate and ignorance. I am not advocating for that. What I am advocating for is that we all should listen closely to what is being said. I am hoping we can stop and listen. Listening is the only way that I have personally found to make change. We need to shift into our “thinking man’s” mindset and really listen. Can we sift through the chaos and hear the real message? Then, once heard, can we shift into non-complacency?

I think that is our clear danger here. We are on the brink of sitting back, as I said, and waiting for someone else to take the reins of the Four Horsemen’s steeds and slow the oncoming apocalypse – and yes, I mean that in a literal sense directed towards our “world” not THE world. Someone else can get bloodied. Someone else can be uncomfortable. Someone else can be at the center of the debate. I’m fine just where I am. This is what I think Dan Rather was saying when he first stepped out on the stage after the election last year. “To all of you I say, stay vigilant. The great Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that even as a minority, there was strength in numbers in fighting tyranny. Holding hands and marching forward, raising your voice above the din of complacency, can move mountains. And in this case, I believe there is a vast majority who wants to see this nation continue in tolerance and freedom. But it will require speaking. Engage in your civic government. Flood newsrooms or TV networks with your calls if you feel they are slipping into the normalization of extremism. Donate your time and money to causes that will fight to protect our liberties.”

complacency-quotes-7

I do not think Americans are generally a “fight” first people… generally, as individuals that is. These people who carry the message of antisemitism, bigotry, and racism are easy to hate and vilify and condemn. It’s easy to just fall into the same trap of name calling, topic deflection, and rhetoric. I think it’s a lot harder to stand up and understand them, and then fight back differently. I’m not talking about actual fighting or even some of the things that we “traditionally” do when government goes awry, like protests. I’m talking about seeking to understand and then counter their measures on their own terms. We’re already seeing some of it. We’re seeing people who would never have considered running for office doing so now – both locally and statewide. We’re seeing letter writing and phone calls and new manifestos. We’re hearing those who might have been silent in the past reaching out with a clear voice and measured, thoughtful ideas.  We’re hearing about corporations who are funding where government is dropping off. We’re hearing about rogue insiders in agencies posting the true comments and stories rather than hiding behind the media. These are all good – and we can do more. We need to get into the minds of these people and understand the source, so we can reverse the river’s course. We need weird solutions to whatever is put before us. We need, as Obama said, “smart ideas.”

Dan Rather recently posted an update to the original posting noted above. He said:

“The time for normalizing, dissembling, and explaining away Donald Trump has long since passed. The barring of respected journalistic outlets from the White House briefing is so far beyond the norms and traditions that have governed this republic for generations, that they must be seen as a real and present threat to our democracy. These are the dangers presidents are supposed to protect against, not create.

For all who excused Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign as just talk, the reckoning has come. I hope it isn’t true, but I fear Mr. Trump is nearing or perhaps already beyond any hope of redemption. And now the question is will enough pressure be turned to all those who enable his antics with their tacit encouragement. There has been a wall of unbending support from virtually every Republican in Congress, and even some Democrats. Among many people, this will be seen as anything approaching acceptable. And mind you, talk is cheap. No one needs to hear how you don’t agree with the President. What are you going to do about it? Do you maintain that an Administration that seeks to subvert the protections of our Constitution is fit to rule unchecked? Or fit to rule at all?

This is an emergency that can no longer be placed solely at the feet of President Trump, or even the Trump Administration. This is a moment of judgement for everyone who willingly remains silent. It is gut check time, for those in a position of power, and for the nation.”

This thoughtful, measured fight isn’t easy. Some people may think I’m crazy for listening to “the other side.” Truth is, I’m on the side of humanity. I’m on the side of human beings being better than they are. Sometimes, we need to go backward or sideways to actually move forward. Sometimes we need the shake up of thinking differently to get back on an upward trajectory. Look, most of us were unhappy with the government. Congress’ approval rating has been the lowest in history for years – YEARS! Did it change the way we hoped it would, with sweetness and roses? No. But, let’s admit, it wasn’t going to change itself. It needed a huge shock to shift. How many times have you or someone you know said “If only a bomb would drop on Washington?” People even made movies about it. Come on. It’s the metaphor for “I wish it would change but I don’t know what it will take to do it.” We’ve thought this for some time. The weird thing is, now it’s happening and we, most of the American public, didn’t actually instigate it.

We should not get over our revulsion of hate and ignorance, and the acts which are committed in their names. We should not ignore the lies and “alternative facts” which come out of our Nation’s capital now. As Dan said, “…these are not normal times. This is not about tax policy, health care, or education – even though all those and more are so important. This is about racism, bigotry, intimidation and the specter of corruption.” Do not ignore these. We must, though, look into the heart of what is really happening and learn their strategy. We rise above it by infiltrating it, understanding it, awalking-deadnd then, crushing it. We need to have the equilibrium unsettled, the boat tilted wildly, before we can learn how to right it again, and find a sea that we can sail swiftly.

The chaos doesn’t have a plan for what to put back in its place. Bannon doesn’t have a plan for rebuilding the Government in his image. Trump might, but it’s unlikely. Chaos seeks to break apart not put back together. We, the thinkers and the doers, are the ones who will put the fragmented ideals back together into a government that perhaps works better than a previous one did. Maybe it will be a Democratic Republic. Maybe not. Maybe it will be something new and better. If we choose to do nothing, nothing will change or happen. If we choose to ignore the rhetoric and take the path less traveled, we become the ones the current Government fears. We become the agents of the real new world.

That is who I want to be, and I’m guessing most of you, too. To that end, we cannot be complacent in these times. Two months in, do not sit back in your sofa and turn on The Walking Dead; else, you’re in danger of becoming so yourself.

The Importance of Social Capital

The Importance of Social Capital
A phrase came into my head, recently, about some of the things I would like to do with my life. Let me back up a bit…. About this time of year, I always sit down and write my goals for the coming year. I call them goals, but let’s call it… a theme, a direction, some things I’d like to see, do, and maybe achieve. They aren’t goals, per se – more like guidelines. This year, I am trying a different tack, one from a company called The Dragontree Apothecary. It’s a book to walk through your year, interactive – kinda of hipster, but it’s something different. I’ve been doing this exercise for thirty years; sometimes a girl has to find something new.
 

Anyway, I was thinking something I’d like to leave the world when I die, a legacy, memory, something that I’ve contributed in my time here. I’m not planning on exiting soon; this is simply an exercise in learning where to put my time. The thought struck me that people always talk about combating poverty or giving to charity. As Freemasons, Charity is a core value that many of us appreciate, value, and toward which we give time and money. I was thinking about Charity and about how I’d like to twist that, and combat more than Physical Poverty. I thought about Emotional Poverty. This seems to me to be a very private thing to combat – we all must learn to move away from apathy and disinterestedness but each of us has a different path to get there. No, Emotional Poverty is something each individual must combat on their own.

What I really want to do is combat Mental Poverty.

knowledge3Poverty is described as a deficiency of necessary or desirable ingredients or qualities. It is sparse, meager, insufficient. It is being destitute or indigent, a dearth of, well, something. So, what is mental poverty? I think it’s the state of needing more “mind.” Mind is intellect, the totality of conscious and unconscious mental activities – it is the part of each human being that has the capacity to reason, think, calculate, extrapolate, judge and perceive. So, to be mentally impoverished means that the sum total of our capacity to reason and think is sparse, meager, and insufficient.

Little did I know, but should have guessed, it was already a thing.

I don’t think of this as combating stupidity. I think of this as combating ignorance. Ignorance is simply lacking knowledge; I think mental poverty comes from ignorance and from the inability to lift oneself from ignorance. I want to combat the factors that go into that inability – I want to create a world where people who are ignorant and want to lift themselves from it can do so. They have the tools, means, and will to make it happen.

Luckily, Freemasonry tells us that it is our duty to be a guide and helper of the ignorant. Does some part of you bristle at that arrogance? It did me. Who am I to be a guide and helper of the ignorant? Who am I to judge who is ignorant and who isn’t? Well, I’m not. However, if it’s my duty to be that guide, and to help reverse mental poverty, how do I make it my duty? Well, to me, I first have to make myself less ignorant.

I do this often by reading, listening to podcasts, watching TED talks, listening to different points of views… actually engaging with those that are different from me. However, it doesn’t seem quite enough. While listening to one of those same podcasts, Freakonomics, I heard a term I hadn’t heard before: Social Capital. What captured my attention right off is what a lack of social capital mean to a culture, what its effects are, and how can it be reversed. Even more interesting is why we WANT to reverse it.

shutterstock_knowledgeThe episode was primarily about Trust, and why we want to have a more trusting country; countries that believe that most people can be trusted are generally healthier, wealthier, and have a more positive discourse than countries were trust is lacking. In distrustful societies, people tend to be poorer in emotional and physical ways, but also mentally – ergo, mental poverty. So why increase social capital? To increase Trust and bring people out of poverty and despair. I think that is an incredibly Masonic idea and ideal.

So, perhaps the way we get out of mental poverty and create a most trusting and vibrant society is to increase social capital. To quote David Halpern, from the British “Nudge Unit:” Social trust is an extraordinarily interesting variable and it doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves. But the basic idea is trying to understand what is the kind of fabric of society that makes economies and, indeed, just people get along in general. It’s clearly so critical for a whole range of outcomes.” The episode goes on to say, “Outcomes like economic growth, and individual health.” That includes better government and overall, a more civil society. Social capital, while hard to exactly quantify, does exist and is tangible. It’s like good art: we know it when we see its effects.

When people meet, gather, discuss, and “network,” they are creating social capital. It is in the discourse and interaction between competing ideas (humans) and cultures that creates a more vibrant, trustworthy culture. It creates goodwill and fellowship, above and beyond what we find in our own homes. However, they are not exempt either. When you invite someone over for dinner, join the PTA, host a book club, or go to a party at a friend’s house, you are engaging in building social capital. Meeting and talking with people of different backgrounds creates understanding and trust, which in turn builds a better democracy and more educated society. It’s difficult to grow in a vacuum.

To me, this is what Freemasons do as a matter of 7628F943-9E30-48AA-ADB7-60C05E09276Acourse. We encourage this kind of social and civic duty, with our fellow members and with our community. We are encouraged to be out in the world, be examples, and work hard at learning what other people think and do. It comes full circle. Our job as Freemasons is to be the guide and helper of “the ignorant,” which includes ourselves, and we increase our intellectual acuity by building our social capital, which in turn builds a better, more trustful society that continues to become emotionally, physically, and mentally wealthier. The cycle goes the other way.

In the United States of America, this is going to be a difficult task. We have so much distrust and hate because, I think, we have little social capital. Robert Putnam, in his book “Bowling Alone,” has stated that we’re currently around 35% “trustful” in the U.S.A. – compared to some place like Norway or Sweden, which is around 70%. There might be many counter arguments for this, but one thing is certain – there is more social capital in those countries, which leads to a better society overall. Putnam’s original article, published before the book, can be found here.  The article also includes information and follow ups from other sources.

In the end, what I believe I can do for my coming year’s “guidelines” is to engage more socially, in civic-minded ways. I know that I feel better when I get out, socialize, talk with people. I become alive, vibrant, thoughtful, and my mind is stimulated by new ideas and concepts. I test my emotional mettle against others and learn how to become more mindful and adept at conversation and rhetoric. When I meet people of different backgrounds, religions, races, creeds, and identities, I am enlightened and enriched. In other words, I have worked to bring myself into a better place, and in doing so, perhaps I have brought society a little higher, too. In fact, sociologists agree: “From the material marshaled by Robert Putnam, we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on society.”

Thus, simply being a Freemason is a first step in the right direction. A good group to seek out and engage in this kind of civic discourse is the Masonic Philosophical Society. Study centers meet to not only discuss Freemasonry but a wide range of topics important to our global culture. I’ve attended several of these meetings and hosted a few. I find them to be highly engaging and very insightful. Besides these, I’m looking into joining a few civic and non-partisan ethical organizations, as well. Heck, maybe starting my own book club is a way to start. Maybe I’ll start with Bowling Alone. No one should ever have to do such a lonely thing.

Book:

The Social Capital Wikipedia page is also a fairly well documented page, and up to date.

“Bowling Alone” does have its own website as well: http://bowlingalone.com/