Friday, July 6, 2012

Did someone say spiritual?

Be here now.
The subtitle of this blog makes a promise that I haven't yet delivered on. Lots of intellectual adventure, very little direct reference so far to spiritual practice. (Scattered intimations at best.) I feel much less sure there, and so more vulnerable. But I think about the spiritual side of this enterprise a lot, and I must have intended it to become part of the blog eventually, or I would never have floated that particular balloon.

Just to get the obvious question out of the way, I'm not in any formal way religious, despite a strong, lifelong impulse toward wonder and reverence. I don't believe in any God/god/spaghetti monster/sentient guiding power. I revere life in all its mess and mystery as a holy accident. I'm grateful to be here, as long as that lasts, and I do sometimes wish I had a ready basket where I could gather the fruits of my gratitude. But none of the baskets on offer seems big enough, and humans usually figure much too prominently in the weaving for my taste. I don't think my individual life has any absolute or ultimate meaning, but I'm determined to make it meaningful by my own limited terms. After the late philosopher Richard Rorty, I believe that morality has only one more or less solid foundation: it rests on our intimate recognition that other beings suffer like we do and on our corresponding desire to lessen their suffering with our own. That is to say that my moral touchstone is compassion (which literally means "suffering with").

Rorty goes beyond the more literal forms of suffering to include humiliation, and I agree with him that compassion encompasses a tender concern for others' dignity and integrity. In the human case, Rorty strongly associates dignity with the ability to tell (and retell and revise) one's own story; I'm very interested in how other creatures might experience a sense of narrative, how they might perceive themselves as the heroes of their own lives. While the mirror test demonstrates a highly explicit (and rare) form of self-consciousness, there's abundant evidence that many animals (like dogs) who "fail" the mirror test nevertheless maintain and protect a sense of self (who I am, who I am not, the things I do, the things I don't).

As a teacher and trainer -- by definition someone who aims to alter other creatures' behavior -- I'm especially interested in and alert to self-consciousness as a force of resistance. The more precious we hold our ideas of ourselves, the more brittle they tend to be, and the more difficult learning becomes. (Dr. Carol Dweck gives a revelatory description of this phenomenon in her book Mindset.) So teaching becomes a balancing act between breaking down barriers to growth and honoring the self-protective impulse that established those barriers in the first place. And I try always to remember how incredibly fucking presumptuous the whole enterprise is, whether I'm working with people, dogs, or both. Who appointed me the Mistress of Change? My students did, I'd best not forget, and they can rescind that promotion anytime they choose.

So I've got to be present. I've got to attend to what's here, focus on what someone needs from me rather than on what I've got to prove. And that takes some serious discipline - more than will ever come naturally to me. Thus the need for practice. Lots and lots of practice.