Inquirers and Denyers -Two Attitudes of Mind

Mental flexibility and rigidity is a crucial matter. Either one is usually both an attitude and a habit. Yesterday as I was reading posts about the polar vortex’s possible contributions to the January 2014 extreme colds and storms in the Eastern U.S., (and much less publicized, climate scientists’ opinions that it may also be causing the blocking high pressure area off northern California that has given the usually rainy and foggy winters of the redwood country less rain in the last year than the desert cities of San Diego and Phoenix, which has caused my spring to stop running), I noticed something interesting. The intelligent and thoughtful comments tended to include a lot of detail and information about diverse phenomena related to climate change, whereas the boorish comments that insulted previous posters, primarily by people who denied that any changes in climate are actually occurring, were for the most part devoid of any knowledge or details about real phenomena. They just parroted opinions of others who thought similarly.

As I read, it occurred to me that those who posted almost all the comments could easily be labelled “INQUIRERS” or “DENYERS.” An Inquirer is somone who actively seeks out diverse best available information about something, usually from a variety of different kinds of sources and in considerable detail. A Denier is someone who forms opinions based on repeating what others have said and does not go looking for additional information in anything resembling an openminded way. They know what they believe and don’t want anyone to question it. Reminds me of a time many years ago when in the middle of a discussion a friend said, “Victor, you really don’t like to be contradicted, do you/” It hit me like a brick. I had viewed myself as SO OPENMINDED. But what she said was so true at that moment in that context that I had to admit it. It was the beginning of a long-term change in attitude. Now when I find myself stubbornly holding onto some belief or opinion despite what others say, my discipline is to NOTICE THAT I’M DOING SO and then say something like, “Of course, I may be mistaken.”

For all you denyers out there, please understand this: The main thing you are doing is defending your self-centered egos. You believe that you are not an OK person if your belief about something is wrong. The reality is that there is no dishonor in changing your mind, in acknowledging that you were mistaken about something. Dishonor lies in snotty, judgmental put-downs of others who disagree with you. THAT’s small minded. THAT closes down your ability to grow, to change, to discover. If that’s not the case with you, you can ask yourself: “What’s in it for you to hang on so tightly to you attitude, belief, opinion, or preconception?” What about it are you attached to? The approval of others who are parroting the same opinions? Or . . .? Doing the best you can to answer that question in an honest way could be an important step in your life.

Of course my classification of online commenters, and for that matter everybody else, into Inquirers and Denyers is urealistically dualistic. Actually people are not just one or the other, but hold attitudes along a continuum that runs from flexible openmindedness to rigid clinging to their preconceptions. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. It appears to me that fewer of those in the middle tend to make online comments than Inquirers and Denyers. And some Inquirers dig up a lot of information to support their views but are nonetheless rigid and judgmental. Little in the realm of the human psyche is totally cut-and-dried, either THIS or THAT. (Back to Venn Diagrams and mathematical set theory for the demonstration.) But in the clouds of bloggers, comment posters, and purveyors of editorial opinions (so labeled or disguised as so-called “news”), an great many of the aforementioned authors sound like either Inquirers or Denyers.

Note: I have used the spelling “denyers” instead of “deniers” because the dictionary defines the latter as “a unit of weight by which the fineness of silk, rayon, or nylon yarn is measured,” and “a French coin, equal to one twelfth of a sou, which was withdrawn from use in the 19th century.”

The Perils of Self-Righteousness

man with sword raised facing backward on horse at edge of cliff

We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is self-righteousness. “I am good and righteous and just and you are bad and maybe even wicked and evil.” Not that I never fall into it myself, but I try to notice it and pull out when I do. What are the earmarks? The self-righteous person fancies himself or herself better than others who think or act differently, or who look or sound different. If it’s one of your own tendencies, the chances are you don’t much notice it. You think you’re just in touch with reality. If it’s someone else and you agree with them, you may react that same way. But if you’re anything like me, you probably curl your lip with distaste and dislike (even if only internally and invisibliy) when someone else gets into a self-righteous schtick. It may be a raving rant like many of the venomous online “comments” sections or it may be snide and subtle, but either way it has several unfortunate effects.

First, it often involves projection, a common and often destructive psychological mistake that can easily torpedo our relationships. In projection I see you as the living incarnation of whatever qualities I dislike and refuse to recognize in myself. I deny my own inner reality and experience, project it onto you, and then either denigrate you or try to exterminate you, as if in doing so I could get rid of the disliked and unrecognized qualities in me. The projector does this over and over and over again. It is highly visible, and almost always present, in the phenomenon of self-righteousness.

Second, whether it appears in religion, politics, or in a marriage or other couples relationship, it often leaves whatever sense of shared community we might have had in tatters. After an incident or two, if you’re on the receiving end of the self-righteousness will always be at least a little on guard, at least somewhat reluctant to reveal your thoughts and feelings. This leads to a more distant relationship.

Third, you just might want to get the self-righteous SOB back, especially in contexts like politics and religion where in-group imperialism often runs rampant – WE are better than those other jerks and we’re going to run things our way and impose our ways on them. You end up with results like male committees and legislatures making decisions about women’s reproductive rights that take away women’s freedom (in some cases in direct violation of their own professions of a libertarian ideology). That can lead to a lot of bitterness and desire for revenge.

Fourth, self-righteousness often requires a person to lie to himself or herself. In something like eighty or ninety percent of situations there are at least two or three viable ways of looking at the situation, and sometimes half a dozen ways or more. The ability to consider such multiple perspectives increases internal communication within oneself and also increases a person’s creativity. A self-righteous attitude requires you to deny the possible validity of every view except your own. It commits you to your own monologue and makes it very difficult to engage in any potentially constructive dialogue. And who wants to listen to know-it-all blowhards besides people who already agree with them?

Finally, to anyone with the eyes and ears to see and hear, it boils down to ego. “I’m better than you are.” We’re better than they are.” And then it all to easily sildes into, “and so I’m justified in doing whatever I want to you,” or “we’re justified doing whatever we wish to them.” And of course often it turns into being the other way around. The organization, or our authorities, or some other influence requires me to do terrible things to you, and so I slide into the lie of self-righteousness to justify it.

But in the end, development as a person occurs when we work on shrinking our self-centered egocentrism, not when we inflate it. Self righteousness takes us in the wrong direction.

The Divine Mother Returns – Amma at San Ramon

Amma

THE DIVINE MOTHER RETURNS: A REPORT FROM AMMA’S ASHRAM

I went over to San Ramon to see Amma (the “hugging mother” a.k.a. Sri Mata Amritanandamayi) twice last week. The front wall behind the stage was done over since last year. Originally it had a style of Zen simplicity, with visible natural wood everywhere. Now it has been redone India style, with ornate decorations. I am guessing that her Indian disciples who live here in America made the changes.
Amma usually comes to her California ashram twice a year, once in summer and once in winter, as part of her U.S. Tour. We’ve also seen her in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris, and my wife and our daughter have seen her in Dallas. Yes, I got a wonderful hug.
Since the content of the talks and the meditations are minor variations on a few core themes (just as in every religious or spiritual tradition), it’s reasonable to wonder why I keep coming back year after year. A central reason is that my wife’s devotion is greater than my own, so that for her there is no question about going as often as possible during Amma’s brief visit. Personally, I am more logical and less devotional. I have seen and heard a great many preachers and gurus and swamis in my time, but none as overflowing with unconditional love as Amma. She is one of the great living Bhakti yogis. She is also a Great Goddess figure, a living incarnation of the Divine Mother. I am keenly aware that Yours Truly has a number of steps to go on the path to being filled with unconditional love, and am not at all confident that I will come close to that point in this lifetime, but I know of no better condition of spiritual evolution to aspire to. And the best way I know to move in that direction is to hang out with someone who manifests that in their everyday life. Amma’s joyful way of being, her loving embrace, her radiation of a loving presence toward everyone — these are what draw the countless masses to her appearances.
She is also a first rate intellect, a jnana yogi She shares with Brazil’s former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva the distinction of having reached just the fourth grade in school. Now she is chancellor of a university with five campuses and a medical school, and has a powerful commitment to encouraging education. She must surely have composed far more devotional chants than anyone else alive, and together with her bajan group (a remarkable company of Indian musicians), produced innumerable CD’s of them. In regard to books, I can only wish i were a fraction as productive. (But there’s my ego again!)
As for karma yoga, or selfless service, you can go online and witness the countless millions she has raised to feed and clothe people and provide medical care and even huge numbers of new houses after natural disasters like the great Southeast Asia and India tsunami, the Bihar floods, Hurricane Katrina, and the Fukushima tsunami and reactor meltdown. (If you’re interested, see http://www.embracingtheworld.org/amma/ )All around the world it is nothing less than miraculous. And she inspires countless others to extend her work. (For example, my wife collects extra food from a local supermarket and drops it off at homeless shelters in Amma’s name.) Amma’s entourage, with its very extensive portable infrastructure that accompanies her tours in (much of it trucked from place to place by 18-wheel semis), is also a remarkable example of a huge organization run by volunteers in a spirit of serving the divine spirit.
If all that were not enough, Amma is an accomplished Raja yogi. She has developed her own meditation procedure and now her disciples teach it in an all-day workshop at her retreats.
In all this, although her centering place is the Vedic, Upanishadic, Hindu, Yogic, and Vedantic tradition of the Sanatan Dharma, she acknowledges that Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and other great spiritual teachers and saints were also realized beings who were working toward the same end of helping their followers realize the divine spirit in their human lives. Like the great yogis stretching back to the Vedas, Amma aspires to help people connect with others and other living beings in that realm where we are all sparks of the same fire of divine life. If all that were not enough, it takes place within the context of a pervasive ecological consciousness. She is acutely aware that humanity is reducing our planetary ecosphere’s ability to support all kinds of life, human and nonhuman alike, year after year after year, and she is dedicated to stopping and reversing that process.
Those are the headlines. I sat writing most of this in the temple in her ashram on a Friday afternoon between the day program and the evening program. The electric company had a major outage in the nearest city due to too many air conditioners running on a very hot day, so all the electricity was out. The 5 PM chanting workshop was cancelled, and they were hoping to get the generators on by 6:30 for the meditation and talk that begins the evening session, so I had a chance to write this. I am a bit surprised that Amma does not have the power to intervene and magically get the regular power source working again–but I imagine she may be a bit tired after all this morning’s hugs, and taking a rest, so that restoring power is left to disciples whose divine power is rather less than her own. (It was “amateur electrician hour” as they struggled to get all the sound equipment working off the generator, but finally they succeeded.)
That’s all, folks. Day after day, week after week, it seems incredible that she is so relentlessly untiring, but as Amma says, “As long as these arms have the strength to keep reaching out and comforting people, I will be doing it.”
(Her main website is http://amma.org)