Sunday, April 20, 2014

Are You Reflective?

My friend, a traveller and a poet, wrote me this:  "We just got back from Savannah and the Okefenokee Swamp (three alligators).

I replied, "Did the swamp make you thoughtful?  Do alligators inspire poetry?"

Or did you enjoy the face-to-face encounter with wilderness - without having to transform it into something else?

Direct unmediated experience is valuable in and of itself.  Direct unmediated experience is life itself.

By unmediated, I mean without an intermediary -- no computer, no Twitter, no camera, no interpreter or guide, no priest or minister to stand between ourselves and the infinite. No words.

Many experiences are thrilling without reflection.  For me, these include fireworks, baseball games, everyday bicycling, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, shooting stars, eclipses, earthquakes, and vistas beyond description.  The experience itself can be entirely consuming and requires no reflection to be enjoyed.
Note:  All these experiences can also be sources of reflection. For example, how much did the fireworks display cost?  Is the cost from taxpayer money?  Could that money be better spent training people or feeding people?  How do the fireworks affect the environment?
The questions themselves can be interrogated.  What is their point of view?  How does the availability of certain words in a language make only some modes of asking available?  As Paulo Freire says, "Language is never neutral." 
I imagine, though, most people watch fireworks with gratitude, without questions.
Other experiences are enriched by the thoughtfulness that flows from them.  Best of all there would be several people sharing their thoughtfulness.

For me, unless an art experience is itself transcendent (filling me with joy or cathartic grief), I prefer a post-experience discussion.

So I asked, "What did the alligators inspire in you?"

My step-father, Berko Devor (of blessed memory) used to say, "Our lives should be 70% experience and 30% reflection.  If those percentages are reversed, you would be a very boring person."

I suspect my life is 70% reflection and 30% experience.  I argued that reflection itself is experience, but he disagreed.

What is your experience/reflection ratio?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

When Have You Felt the Most Free?

On the eve of Passover, I turn my thoughts to questions of freedom.

This year we will discuss this:  "What does it mean to be free?  Given the influence of family, culture, and society, are we free to make our own decisions?"

I'm beginning to see freedom as more of a spectrum.  It is not difficult to imagine slavery and oppression at one end of the spectrum.  But the other end?  What would it mean to be the most free?

We still live in bodies.  We are always a slave to oxygen and food and the many needs of the body.

Since we are social animals, we prefer to live in the company of other humans.  In order to keep them around, we must be pleasant and attentive - we lose our freedom to be unaccommodating.  (If you want to keep people around you without being pleasant and attentive, you either have to pay them, enslave them, or in some places, marry them.)

Asking "What is freedom?" or "What does it mean to be free?" leaves me swirling in definitions and interpretations from philosophy, psychology, and politics.  It seems more concrete to look at some moments when I have felt free:

Every day in July 2012, my back hurt.  I treated myself with hot showers and yoga, but the pain continued.   During a visit to Dale Alexander, a massage therapist, he readjusted something quite dramatically, and in an instant, the chronic pain was gone.  I felt free of pain.  I am always aware and appreciative of the times I am free of pain.

In 2003, I moved to Toronto.  I was busy with work and family, but I was a stranger in a strange land and felt out of place and unsettled; however, I had a bicycle.  When little kids get their first bikes, the entire neighbourhood and beyond opens up to them.  Perhaps they have their first taste of freedom.  Maybe I was re-experiencing my childhood joy, or maybe it was the connection to the wind, sun, and street that a bicycle provides.  I only know that whenever I was on my bike, I felt free and happy.

I bought Co-Dependent No More on a whim one day in the 1980s, but never read it.  However, during one period when I left a violent and substance-using spouse, I picked up the book again.  Every word I read spoke to me.  My situation was not unique.  The slavery I felt, the inability to break free, was not unique.  Ultimately, the book said, staying in the situation was not even helpful to the abusive spouse.  To be really helpful to him, he needed to face the consequences of his unpleasantness.  The heavy weight of my own beliefs lifted.  I felt light and free and able to make changes in my life.

Perhaps the Israelites of Exodus felt something like that after crossing the Red Sea.  Standing on the far shore, they looked back and saw the sea close behind them, crashing down on their oppressors.

There were many problems ahead, but maybe for that moment, they felt the most free.

When have you felt the most free?