Silence: A Way to Wisdom

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

What happens in silence? Many argue that silence can invite reflection, contemplation, and discipline. In other words, silence  — along with inquiry — engages learning. It makes you wise. The significance of silence has been highlighted in practically all mystery traditions. Secrecy and silence play a big part in the masonic teaching. Pythagoras, one of the best known champions of silence, is thought to have said:

Silence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silence.

Silence is generally considered to mean quietness or not making any sound. And while this is indeed silence, I do not think it is everything silence is. It can also mean to preserve a secret, calm the emotions, or still the mind. There is no real silence when emotional tides are raging within us and when we find our monkey mind chattering to itself. 

Is cultivating silence a way to becoming wise?

I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the quest for wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy. Basically, many of us want to be wise. To know the truth. To know thyself. To know others. To know our beliefs. To know answers Silence 2to questions. To know, know, know.

However, I am not sure we all want to know silence. Why?

The practice of silence invites us to not-know. Is there room in our seeking for not-knowing? Is there space in our pursuit for un-knowing? Listening? Unlearning? For dumping how we have come to cherish our beliefs? To dismiss the knowledge that we carry in our small boxes of understanding? To be open to a magnificent, wondrous world of undiscovered realities? To hold a mystery?

Can we embrace a secret? Can we live in the question?

The Pythagoreans were huge advocates of secrecy and silence. A wonderful little book called Divine Harmony describes the Pythagorean way of life as it is thought to have existed, although we know little for sure. To become a member, an Initiate took an oath of silence for two to five years. Novices were called “listeners” and were not permitted to partake in class discussions. The ancient brothers were quite serious about silence, believing it develops powers of attention and memory.

The school curriculum consisted of developing a host of virtues in the students. Silence 3Knowledge was transmitted symbolically, through cryptic statements and riddles.

The Pythagorean Y

One of the symbols studied was called the “Pythagorean Y.” Manly P. Hall explains:

The famous Pythagorean Y signified the power of choice and was used in the Mysteries as emblematic of the Forking of the Ways. The central step separated into two parts, one branching to the right and the other to the left. The branch to the right was called Divine Wisdom and the one to the left Earthly Wisdom.

This symbol reminds me of the fork in the road that Robert Frost talks about in his poem,  “The Road Not Taken.” Earthly wisdom or Divine Wisdom? Each path corresponds to a different direction his life may take. He must choose carefully. Left turn or right turn? Mundane or spiritual?

I look back on my own life, wondering how many times I have faced that fork (and still do). I do not always take the road “less traveled.” Sometimes it is just easier to be busy with the mindless daily grind. Wise people are people who make the hard choices, who know things – things that matter. They put that knowledge to good use in practice. I saw a saying the other day on someone’s T shirt that said:

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

Confucius, another wise person, once said that there were three ways to learn Wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and

Third by experience, which is the bitterest.

As we can see the ancient philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom and silence. But what relevance does it have for our modern times?

Silence in a Modern World

First, it seems to me that silence is a very good thing. The powers of observation can lead to truth and wisdom. Moreover, seeking truth and finding wisdom both have Silence 4instrumental value to the modern world.

On the other hand, not all silences are created equal. Some silences don’t lead to truth. We could, I suppose, spend all our time in silence seeking to know every possible truth, but that does not seem like the path of wisdom. What we want to know are silences that matter, that lead to those truths that are relevant to our practical projects and society. Some truths are clearly more actionable than others.

I find encouragement in the exemplary lives of those who have practiced silence, people like Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader. He is one of the wisest people I know that did great things while being dedicated to spending one day a week in silence. For him, it was a choice to continue to redeem the world and to save the world from our own selves. He knew that a person cannot be wise if he arrogantly over-estimates the power of his own beliefs and judgments. There needs to be humility: to listen and learn, and to give other voices their due.

Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and writer, speaks of a Ghandi type of silence in Sartor Resartus:

Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.

The great things are not “over there” somewhere. They are all right here, where we are, waiting in silence, the element of not-knowing. Vast. Majestic. Subtle. No knowing them. No rushing them. No trapping them. Only accepting the silence for what it is. And what it will become.

 

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Is beauty important? Why does it even exist in the first place? Everyone has a definition of beauty, and they are all different: A beautiful body, a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset. It captivates and arrests the gaze. Beauty shines through the whole universe. When confronted by true beauty, one cannot turn away one’s eyes. We aspire to be beautiful so people will love us. It captivates all the senses, the soul and the spirit.

Maybe the question is not “what is beauty,” but “why is beauty?” Why is it any use to us at all? How do we know it? As Freemasons, we are taught that Beauty adorns all great and important undertakings. Beauty in the arts gives pleasure through inspiration. A gentle obsession with beauty is a source of much in our lives. Let us muse together on beauty.

How does one decide if something is beautiful or not? The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are said to have been the first who tried to define beauty. They thought that an object is inherently beautiful. Other philosophers argued that beauty is subjective. Beauty is not the quality of the object but it is an experience of our own, thus the popular phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For example, after seeing a starry sky, a gorgeous painting, or a mystical rainbow, a person may feel wonder and awe by the beauty in it. But not everyone may feel the same way about those same things.

Is beauty objective or subjective? Does our perception of beauty define us?

Plato’s Ladder

Plato uses the symbol of a ladder to show different levels of beauty in his dialogue in The Symposium. Each rung of the ladder gives a different perspective. On the first step or level, a person loves a body, and then all bodies. By the third step, he relates to the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of laws and institutions, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom. Upon reaching this, the person will see Beauty in its purest form or Beauty itself.8154643392_20cf304518_z

Step 1 – A beautiful Body
Step 2 – All beautiful Bodies
Step 3 – Beautiful Souls
Step 4 – Beautiful Laws, Institutions
Step 5 – Beautiful Knowledge
Step 6 – Beauty Itself

Looking at this it seems that beauty is not just about pretty things, but it’s something much deeper and vaster. It involves some sort of process of transformation. There is a saying In Italian, “bello da morire” which means “beautiful to die for.” The presence of beauty creates the possibility for a shift in us. If we change too much, we die of our old selves. According to philosopher David Hume, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

I think that beauty is like love in that it is one of those big realities in our life. Our relationships may be complex and at times contradictory and difficult. For example, we know that someone who looks traditionally very beautiful could be very dreadful indeed.

Ultimately, we face a paradox. Beauty may be important because it has strength and the power to transform us. But there are parts of us that resist that; we are attached to our old images of ourselves, old dogmas, and habits, and therefore, we prefer not to let in too much to beauty. It can be dismissed or ignored, and life goes on anyway in quiet desperation.

Do we even dare climb the ladder to this ineffable beauty? Plato said that beauty is truth. For example, if a statement is true it will also be beautiful. But there is even a problem 3913221135_a6918bf8cf_zwith this. We might see a statement that is beautiful to us, yet if we test it we find out it is not true. Beauty is a very complicated relationship.

Beauty in Freemasonry

In Freemasonry, we learn the concept of beauty cannot only be of a material beauty. If we go deep enough we will indeed find out that beauty is the splendor of truth. Inner beauty is goodness, and inner goodness is beauty. At some point, comes a decision to tread the way and be a better person. Embracing beauty helps with that.

Plotinus, one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world, talks about fostering an inner vision:

Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labor to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine.

By making “crooked things straight,” it seems that we can begin to experience a portion of those beautiful truths. Raise your consciousness and beauty will unfold before you. Attending a beautiful masonic ceremony or engaging in the creative arts can be enlightening and so can eating a box of chocolates. Divine!

I recently was listening to an interview by the late poet John O’Donahue. Something in his words and in his haunting deep Irish voice touched my soul ever so beautifully. I closed my eyes to as if to pay homage to the gods of poetry and philosophy. It was one of those rare encounters with beauty. We have all had them. In a moment of sublime Beauty, we are all rendered speechless. Beauty is ineffable. Why Beauty? It conveys something Divine that book knowledge doesn’t. Beauty gives way to contemplation. Admittedly, the very heart of Beauty cannot be captured in words.

Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm,
it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:
to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

– John O’Donahue     

 

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

The precipice of Winter. The hollow wind of Autumn. We humans are always on the edge of something. In this case, we are on the edge of seasonal change. As we slip from the warm days of Summer into the chillier nights of Autumn, we sense that change is imminent. We are on the edge, slipping from one day to the next, seasons rushing by in a flowing, ever changing stream. A stream, I must add, upon which we are always standing on the edge.

Nature teaches us a great deal of how to be in the world; most of the time, we just choose not to listen. Cement jungles are no place for the breath of the Green Man or the dance of a water nymph. Yet, Nature finds a way to express herself. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is expressed as Yin and Yang. A Taoist concept, everything contains Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are two opposite yet complementary energies. Although they are opposite in their individual qualities and nature, they are interdependent. They are never separate and cannot exist without one another. The hard Yang of the cement contains in it air and space, Yin, in which it yields to the grass growing in its cracks. The meadow is dotted with hard boulders, unyielding and yet grounding to the lush, loamy soil.

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The traditional translation of Yin-Yang is Dark-Bright, which in turn translate to the traditional Chinese icon we see for it – two tear drops, intertwined, with a dot of the other deep in their bellies. Saying they are opposites is a faint allusion to their true natures. They are complex and rich for as simple as they appear. Both are archetypes and ideals, where simple human words are inadequate modifiers. They may be translated as “the shady side of the mountain (yin)” and “the sunny side of the mountain (yang).” Yin may also indicate the feminine, the moon, softness, passivity, sinister, darkness, overcast, or even treacherous. Yang, the “opposite” indicates masculine, the sun, hardness, assertiveness, open, overt, relief, light, and positivity.” There is always a bit of one in the other, a taste which makes them less opposite and more like polarities. Neither is good or bad, they just exist; intertwined for eternity in a dance of possession.

Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching (about 500 B.C.E. by Lao Tzu) is where the duality and Yin-Yang are found:

“The Way gave birth to unity,
Unity gave birth to duality,
Duality gave birth to trinity,
Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.
The myriad creatures bear yin on their backs and embrace yang in their bosoms.

They neutralize these vapors
and thereby achieve harmony.”

This may be interpreted that while the Way (Tao) gave birth to all of material life, it is contained within that life in the form of this duality. Thus, all matter, of animal, plant, or mineral contains yin and yang. All of Nature contains within it opposing truths, a constant tug of each end of the living spectrum. Being of Nature, we should be intimately at ease with the duality of our natures, right?

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Relative and absolute. We see absolute as our eternal goal – absolute truth. Is this not what the philosopher strives to attain? Is this not what the Freemason seeks? Absolute is the Truth which we hold as dearest, that which give us “rightness” of whatever we are understanding. Yet, relativity is important to our personal lives. We make judgments and choices about the relative Truths we perceive with our senses every day. How does that green shirt go with those pink pants? Does the omelet need more salt? Are we thirsty? These are truths, however small, in which we are always seeking answers and using our senses, our knowledge of duality, to provide answers. We are always on the edge, wondering if we are being deceived, somehow, by falsehood and ignorance. Curiosity is a sword to slay our own ignorance. Curiosity is not sheathed in ego.

The philosopher sees the duality in the people and situations around him. We recognize that there may be two sides to a situation: yours and mine, his and hers, etc. Without this sharing, we cannot see more Truth. We have to stand on the edge of reality, with another human being, and accept that this truth might fill in our blanks. Once we let judgement of Truth go, there is vast chasm in front of us. It is in recognizing duality that the pieces start to come together. Unity. We realize that we cannot have the whole picture. We may not ever have the absolute truth; yet, we may have relative truth to share. In heaps and bounds.

Thus, we are always on the edge of true understanding. Of knowledge. Of peace. Thus, perhaps we are always at an equinox within our natures. Halfway to Darkness. Halfway to Light. Eritque craticula usque ad lucem ac tenebras. A motto of change? A reminder of being on the edge? Perhaps we need not be so afraid of the darkness and the change, go out into nature, and learn what living really means. We can find Nature in everyone we meet, sharing in a brief bit of harmony by seeking to understand. Enjoy this Equinox, with balance and joy, understanding that the world will keep turning, seeking balance and yet, always on the edge. The Darkness is coming. So is the Light.

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Investigative Journalism and Democracy: The White House Correspondents’ Association

Investigative Journalism and Democracy: The White House Correspondents’ Association

How important is the role of robust and investigative journalism in a healthy democracy? Many political scientists argue journalists perform a crucial role in informing the public debate so that the electorate can make educated choices. Politicians are elected to make decisions and take action that reflects the wishes of the voters who elected them to office. In order to inform and educate the voters, journalists must scrutinize the politician’s decisions and report the implications to the public.  Thus, journalism could be viewed as crucial to the correct functioning of a Democracy.

The White House Correspondents’ Association

In 1913, President Wilson, concerned about remarks quoted by some newspapers, threatened to end the practice of Presidential Press Conferences. Pledging themselves to a professional code of conduct, a group of White House correspondents conviWhiteHouseCorrespondentsnced President Wilson to relent.

On February 25, 1914,  these journalists formally organized as the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) in response to a rumor that a Congressional committee was planning to select which journalists could attend Presidential press conferences. The organizations original mission was to keep Wilson from ending his press conferences. Since its founding, the group has expanded its mission to pushing for broader access to the White House and supporting vigorous reporting on the presidency.

Advocating for openness and transparency in every operation of the presidency, the WHCA fulfills its mission of oversight of the Oval Office and the federal agencies and supplies reporters to travel aboard Air Force One, the President’s official aircraft.

Filling the White House press room on a daily basis, the WHCA represents each sector of the media. According to the WHCA’s website, the organization traces its roots back to the newspaper reporters who, in the 1890s, stood outside the White House fence to question the President and visitors of the White House. Each generation of WHCA reporters has diligently worked to provide regular coverage of the President’s public activities through a rotating group of representatives the organization refers to as “the pool.”

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

On April 25, 2015, the Annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner was held in Washington D.C. Bringing together journalists, celebrities, and members of Congress, a diverse croPresidentObamaWhiteHouseCorrespondentswd gathered to hear President Obama speak in a candid fashion: reciting a collection of what his aides call the “State of the Union of Jokes.” While Journalism awards and scholarships were presented, the mainstream media’s focus remained lighthearted and jovial as President Obama and Saturday Night Live comedian Cecily Strong made humorous remarks about politics and the media. When the President took center stage, he provided the American public with these jokes:

– “Six years into my presidency, people still say I’m arrogant. Aloof. Condescending. People are so dumb. That’s why I don’t meet with them.”

– “On Saturday Night Live, Cecily impersonates CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin, which is surprising, because usually the only people impersonating journalists on CNN are journalists on CNN.”

Humorous anecdotes aside, the role of investigative journalism is not a laughing matter. President Obama highlighted America’s need for journalists that expose corruption and provide a voice to the marginalized in our society when he honored Journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, who in his words were “murdered for nothing more than trying to shine a light into some of the world’s darkest corners.” Telecast live by Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN and CNN, the dinner was hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association, an organization of journalists who cover the press related to the President and the White House.

Freemasonry’s Search for the Truththomasjeffersonfreemason

Former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, once remarked, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Like American journalism, Freemasonry’s purpose is founded in search for truth. Sharing in the journalist mission of shining light in darkness, Freemasons operate under a strong moral code of conduct. To think high, to do well, to be tolerant to others, and to search after Truth are some of the duties of a Mason. To protect our Nation’s Democracy, all Americans have a responsibility to support the search for truth and the eradication of ignorance. A robust and investigative system of journalism is provides key information needed to ensure a well-functioning democratic government.