What Remembrances of Kobe Miss: Aristotle

Many Americans are currently mourning the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, a basketball legend and 18-time NBA all-star. He was 41-years-old and less than four years into his retirement.

At this point, we know that the commercial helicopter was flown by an expert pilot, someone with whom Bryant had flown numerous times before, and we also know that the conditions were good when the helicopter took off but quickly worsened as the fog rolled in. Visibility was severely impaired, and in all likelihood the lack of visibility was the main cause of the helicopter crashing into the Calabasas hills.

The right word to use here is shocked: people are shocked. One man wrote to me to say: “I’ve genuinely experienced a variety of stages of grieving, with sometimes uncontrollable overpowering emotions such as sadness. I have been moved to tears more frequently in the past few days than I can even remember.” This sentiment, well-expressed, is also widely shared.

Missing, however, in the online remembrances of Kobe are Aristotle’s words from The Poetics. When a highborn person falls, in this tragic drama the viewer feels compassion and fear, even terror. Why compassion or pity (pathos)? Because someone great, one who shined so brightly, is gone and, in this case, gone so quickly. After all, we know that Kobe went to a Catholic church on Sunday (presumably the one he frequents): the Catholic priest spoke with him, if only briefly–and then he was airborne.

But why fear? Because it becomes palpably clear to us that such too is our fate. Scared shitless might be a modern rendering of this feeling. It may cause us to shiver; may give us nightmares; may simply make us petrified of the unknown.

Honestly, words are trite, however true they may be: You and I are going to die. Life is short. Life is a stage we occupy but for an instant, we merely players. Yea, too, and ubi sunt? And, pray, note this well: if a hero like Bryant can, notwithstanding his power, wealth, and larger-than-life status, vanish in an instant, what does this say about us who are neither gods nor heroes nor villains?

If we are not afraid of our own death or of those we love, we had better go back to the mirror and take a closer, harder look at ourselves. This time let’s be honest. For now is precisely the time to contemplate our own deaths as well as the masks we wear to hide this fear from us.

For we won’t be helped by secularism. We secularists lack an openness to many metaphysical possibilities–that there may be a soul; that I may never have been born in the first place; that this is but one life among many; and so on. Consider these and others now yet not with dried-out reason but with the unified reasoning of the heart.

Then also we lack the rites and rituals surrounding death and dying. Because of this, people just seem to vanish while Total Work soldiers on. Hence, we write or read something on Twitter or Instagram in an attempt, not without sincerity, to throw dirt on the departed and to wail and moan. But they don’t signify, and we, in our loss, are left alone and unsatisfied.

We need to contemplate our own deaths, we cannot do with the sacred, and we need rites and rituals that can bear us up in liminal space. Period.

Secular Spirituality, Cont’d: Soft Porn As Spiritual Quest

This is a continuation of an earlier post on secular spirituality. That first one was called “Secular Spirituality is, in the End, Spiritual Materialism.”


Something perverse has happened. Where once the boundaries between soft porn and self-care were rigid, now they’re very porous indeed. (*) And then some. Let me explain.

Consider the kinds of Instagram posts that show a very revealing picture of a yogini or of someone in the midst, she says, of some kind of “transformation.”

Time was that such would have been alluring magazine ads for Calvin Klein perfume, for the first point is clear. (**) It is to capture the gaze and to seduce the viewer. Are we not voyeurs who, in this case, are welcome to look but not to touch? And if we’re women, are we not supposed to feel envy? Painful yet delicious envy?

You might think, “OK, sure, though nothing is new under the sun”–but hang on. There is something new here. Very new.

The key, here, is ekphrasis. Ek-who-sis? Ekphrasis–by which in this case I simply mean that we need to pay close attention to the relationship between image and text. Indeed, given my literary background, might I suggest that while the image is revealing the text is more telling (more exposing)?

For in the cases I have in mind (and I think you know what I mean), the Instagram influencer has embraced the genre of the confession. She–and it is often a she–is confessing something. But what is she confessing?

That she is on a spiritual journey, of course. Make no mistake, she assures us: this is about “growth,” “transparency,” “radical honesty,” and “self-care.” She speaks partly in the vein of “vulnerability” and partly in that of “tough love.” And people just eat this shit up. How brave she is, for she bares all!

(Reality TV, once confined to MTV, has splintered while proliferating.)

Even, or especially, the soul (if such, loosely, is what it is) must be just as bare as the body. Both are naked.

But here’s the further thing I haven’t yet said: it’s really bullshit or, to be more exact, unconscious bullshit. The Instagrammer is bullshitting herself about what she’s really up to at the same time that she’s bullshitting her followers, who are seduced as much by the text as by the image. The image, which draws them in, is vindicated by the message, which holds them there and which leads, in turn, to endless fawning.

But what’s bullshit about it, you ask. Well, she’s not on a spiritual quest even though she pretends that she is and even when she keeps telling herself–and millions of others–that she is. She accepts, while perpetuating, the I-am-the-body thought and feeling, which in these cases amounts to (a) vanity (baldly so–duh!) and to (b) a mollification of her deepest fears (“I am alone,” “I am invisible,” “I am worthless,” “I am lost,” “I don’t exist,” “I am loveless,” etc.).

It’s disturbing what is happening to all involved.

You might think to yourself–so what? Well, look at the thousands–nay, hundreds of thousands–of copycats, and soon you’ll see that secular spirituality of the soft porn as spiritual quest variety has spread from the older to the younger.

What now?



(*) I was tempted to include pictures in this post so that you know what I have in mind, but, upon further thought, that felt, rather disingenuously, like a clear case of spreading dis-ease and disquiet. Ergo, use your imagination please.

(**) Weirdly, what is honest about such ads is that their message is clear: “sex sells.” No equivocation. No obfuscation. You know what they’re doing. Not so with soft porno construed as a spiritual quest. The latter is perverse, alluring, and fascinating all. And it’s the combination of perversity, allurement, and fascination that keeps one transfixed, spellbound, entranced.

The Spell of Total Work: A Fairytale

View at Medium.com

Casting A Spell

Once upon a time, there lived a mischievous magician in a realm just above that of upright, ambulatory, hairless creatures who’d taken to calling themselves homo sapiens.

One day the magician, slapping his knee, said to himself, “Well, let me see how wise these top-heavy creatures really are!”

“But how?”

He thought and thought until the answer struck him: “I’ve got it! I shall cast a spell on them and, by this means, I shall test them to see how wise they really are.”

And so he did, and from that day onward homo sapiens believed and felt that they were Workers.


You can read the rest of the story here on Medium.

Wondering Aloud About Efforting

What, let’s gently think about this, do Daoists mean when they speak about wu wei, or “effortless action”?

I’d like to come to effort and set aside action.

We could begin by wondering about when effort arises. It seems to arise often (always?) in the context of action. I make an effort in order to complete an action that is, perhaps, in line with a goal I’ve set. Let’s make it even simpler: I (always?) make an effort whenever I want to get somewhere (or be someone or something) that I am not.

Effort, then, is about the force necessary for me to travel out there to meet or be it.

Sometimes we say that “thinking is hard” or that “one must make an effort to understand,” but today anyway I find this a bit confusing. Taking thinking to be hard seems to borrow its meaning from cases of action: thinking is said to be hard whenever one must travel somewhere else in or by means of thought to get to that place. I needn’t “make an effort to understand” except when I believe that I don’t currently understand what will require some force from me to reach the point at which I’m able to understand.

Effort is born of desire and, as such, is hitched to desire.

But now I wonder: is it really necessary to center my life on effort? Sure, sometimes effort will be required. Yet must I place effort at the center of thoughts, feelings, and actions?

After all, we don’t speak of “making an effort” when a sensation happens to arise. What if, in a similar vein, thoughts and actions also were to arise (as, frankly, they actually do)? Or what if we needn’t make an effort just in those cases where we’re not “going out” but rather “recognizing, right now, that we’re already home”?

It feels to me, just now, that efforting implies a kind of confusion. Without strain, things can, and often do, just happen: actions do unfold, thoughts do arise. I type without knowing what will happen, just now, perhaps my fingers pause without there being anything that needs to happen, and then the clacking of the keys resumes.

Wondering, I assure you, is not effortful. Can we drop the model of life which suggests that we must get somewhere or be something else? Could life be bathed in the waters of grace? If so, life would be all honey water: sweet like honey, flowing like water.

Secular Spirituality Is, In The End, Spiritual Materialism

We’re entering a particularly interesting moment in history when regular religious observance is, among large segments of the American population, waning while in some milieu spirituality is on the rise.

One version of spirituality I’ll be discussing today I call secular spirituality.

Secular Spirituality 

Someone becomes involved in secular spirituality when he or she comes to see that the therapeutic or psychological dispensation is not sufficient (why just heal myself or just sort out my traumas if the aim is merely to be functional in the secular world?), yet such a person remains skeptical of the possibility of there being a transcendent dimension.

Hence, this seeker defaults to one or more of these three options.

Option 1: Growth

The seeker may reject the idea that he or she is here to accumulate wealth, enjoy status, and be successful (all, in one sense of the term, materialist concerns), yet it soon becomes clear that this person operates according to a similar logic. Rather than growing the economy, I shall improve myself.

For this person, self-growth, self-improvement, and self-betterment–that is, essentially being better–become the foci of attention.

At some point, however, it may become clear to this seeker that what has gone unexamined is both (a) the fact that it’s the same formal structure he or she has already rejected on a lower level and (b) the very source of this growth–whether such a self actually exists. If the latter doesn’t exist, then this form of this-worldly spirituality is trying to hang its hat on air.

Option 2: States

The second option is to pursue altered states of consciousness. If ordinary life is unsatisfactory, as the seeker has come to see, then why not alter one’s states?

Because (a) all states, as states, are purely temporary (and cannot be otherwise) and because (b) the whole pursuit begins with desire and desire implies lack. Hence, one is chasing states that come and go–much like the person who is chasing wealth or growth (Option 1).

Option 3: Experiences

The most prominent, and deluded, option entails having, or trying to have or wanting to have, certain experiences that are said to be “mystical” or “spiritual.”

But any experience is just that: an experience. And every experience requires an experiencer. And no experience is such as to actually be the Truth at the heart of being.

Differently put, experiences, however varied and colorful, are not enlightenment, for the latter is neither about growth nor is it identical with a state nor, surely, is it an experience of any kind.

Spiritual Materialism

What then becomes clear is that growth, states, and experiences are just different versions of what Trungpa Rinpoche once called spiritual materialism. As I define it, the latter is basically a spiritual CV: a set of ambitions, desires, accomplishments, and experiences that are colorful, interesting, and ultimately irrelevant.

The good thing about secular spirituality is that it suggests that ordinary life, as it is, is unsatisfactory. Clearly, then, one is willing to go on a pilgrimage. However, the bad thing about secular spirituality is that, insofar as it’s hitched its wagon to spiritual materialism, it cannot go anywhere. For earnestly openhearted wayfarers, therefore, it is high time that we revisit transcendence, which I leave undefined here.