July 25, 2008

Phobos and Thanatos

The Roman philosopher Plotinus (204 - 270) had an inherent distrust of materiality, holding to the view that phenomena were a poor image or mimicry of something "higher and intelligible" which was the "truer part of genuine Being." --wikipedia
..................What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused...

...............-- Hamlet in Hamlet

As readers of this blog know secondhand and people in similar circumstance as me know firsthand, a man made homeless in central Sacramento can become mired in a world that centers on his shelter and the community of Loaves & Fishes. Getting anything achieved is difficult with all the lines and queues and waiting at places meant to serve us, (particularly so at the Dept of Human Assistance, but I won't make remarks re that wacky place, today).

I continue to sleep at and receive morning and evening nourishment at Union Gospel Mission, a place I am grateful for and where there are residents and guests who are outstanding and amazing people. I am grateful that UGM saved a wretch like me from the corpse wagon, yet I doubt that the nightly sermons will "get through" to me and transform me into a Christian. I believe, instead, in Mahayana Buddhism, and the nondual mystical vision first described by Plotinus and which Aldrous Huxley used, in part, in describing The Perennial Philosophy in his 1945 book by that name. My beliefs have chosen me, and not me them, and I'm not expecting for there to be any change.

At about noon most days I eat lunch at Loaves & Fishes. Too, I take advantage of others of their services, including counselling, a shower-and-shave facility, free phone calls, playing chess in Friendship Park, and doing the newpaper puzzles in the park library. Also, I have gotten a much-needed pair of glasses through a co-operative charitable venture of L&F and Kaiser.

I'm no philosophy student; my knowledge is thin, not deep, and my beliefs aren't well grounded. But some things I read recently strike me as good explanations of what I find disappointing in many of the surmons given at UGM and in the way L&F operates.

To begin, Ken Wilber writes in SES, his opus of ten years ago:
... wherever the Nondual traditions would appear -- traditions uniting and integrating the Ascending and Descending paths, in the East and in the West -- we find a similar set of themes expressed so constantly as to border on mathematical precision. From Tantra to Zen, from the Neoplatonists to Sufism, from Shaivism to Kegon, stated in a thousand different ways and in a hundred different contexts, nonetheless the same essential word would ring out from the Nondual Heart: the Many returning to and embracing the One is Good, and is known as wisdom; the One returning to and embracing the Many is Goodness, and is known as compassion.

Wisdom knows that behind the Many is the One. Wisdom sees through the confusion of shifting shapes and passing forms to the groundless Ground of all being. Wisdom sees beyond the shadows to the timeless and formless Light (in Tantra, the self-luminosity of Being). Wisdom, in short, sees that the Many is One. Or, as in Zen, wisdom or prajna sees that Form is Emptiness (the "solid" and "substantial" world of phenomena is really fleeting, impermanent, insubstantial -- "like a bubble, a dream, a shadow," as The Diamond Sutra puts it). Wisdom sees that "this world is illusory; Brahman alone is real."

But if wisdom sees that the Many is One, compassion knows that One is the Many; that the One is expressed equally in each and every being and so each is to be treated with compassion and care, not in any condescending fashion, but rather because each being, exactly as it is, is a perfect manifestation of Spirit. Thus, compassion sees that the One is the Many. Or, as in Zen, compassion or karuna sees that Emptiness is Form (the ultimate empty Dharmakaya is not other to the entire world of Form, so that prajna or wisdom is the birth of the Bodhisattva). Compassion sees that "Brahman is the world," and that, as Plato put it, the entire world is a "visible, sensible God."

Heady stuff, but the idea is simple. There are two aspects: "Good and Goodness," or "Ascent and Descent" or, from Zen, "wisdom and compassion," aka "prajna and karuna." Together, these two aspects make for a powerful combo that give us the path to our higher, better selves. BOTH aspects must be present. They have "complementarity" -- to use Nils Bohr's word describing light, which acts both like a wave and like a particle.
A pithy statement of Plotinus's insight is provided by Wilber, thus [red is Good/Ascent/wisdom/prajna; blue is Goodness/Descent/compassion/karuna]: Flee the Many, find the One; having found the One, embrace the Many as the One.
Absent one aspect, and the path fails; the message or the person is unintegrated.
While "the Many" are all of us how ever you inclusively find it--all people, all sentient beings, everything--what the One is is more problematic. The One is God taken literally, ethically or allegorically.
If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. -- I Corinthians 13:3
"Most significantly," writes Wilber, "at each stage of Ascent, according to Plotinus, the lower has to be 'embraced' and 'permeated,' so that Descent and embrace should, if all goes well, occur with each stage of Ascent and development (up to one's present level). In Christian terms, Eros, or transcedental wisdom (the lower reaching up to the higher) has to be balanced with compassion or Agape (the higher reaching down and embracing the lower) -- at each and every stage."
"[Eros, unintegrated with Agape,] does not reach up to the higher levels and transcend the lower; it alienates the lower, represses the lower -- and does so out of fear (Phobos), fear that the lower will ... 'contaminate it,' 'dirty it,' 'pull it down.' Phobos is Eros in flight from the lower instead of embracing the lower. Phobos is Ascent divorced from Descent[, and] is the ultimate force of all repression (a rancid transcendence)."
While there are many excellent wise and loving sermons at Union Gospel Mission, others are Phobos, that bring hellfire, meant to evoke fear with claims that our death can occur at any time and that End Times are near. The congregation at the rescue mission is castigated and vigorously urged to repent. The Phobos preachers often tell us that they are direct conduits of the Word of God and that opposition to what they say is the work of Satan. [These preachers would be more convincing if they didn't frequently say things about history and current events that are not factual. Thus, they lay blame for sloppy sermon-writing work on the shoulders of God.] The Phobos preachers are, all, older white men who often give confused, meandering sermons often tinged with a bit of pure hate -- mocking homosexuals or science or bringing up that Ham thing. Yesterday [on 8/5/08], one of the Phobos preachers told us "Jesus died for America" after making the case that Jesus needed us to win in Iraq to stop terrorism.
The July 24 issue of Sacramento News and Review includes three articles that point the way toward wise-and-compassionate sermonizing. The cover story is "The New Evangelical" about the transformation of Sacramento megachurch Capital Christian Center -- a process that began when the stern, aging pastor, Glen Cole, began to step aside to be replaced by his compassionate son, Pastor Rick.
Writes article author Nancy Brands Ward, "The changes taking place at Capital Christian are reflective of broader transformations taking place in evangelicalism across the country. The scathing judgments, activist tactics and vitriolic right-wing politics of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons are giving way to the kinder, gentler centrist leadership of pastors like Rick Warren -- author of The Purpose Driven Life -- and Bill Hybels -- who leads the 'seeker-sensitive' Willow Creak Community Church in Illinois that incorporates services designed to attract the 'unchurched.' They're [Rick] Cole's contemporaries, and he credits them with influencing his thinking."
The preaching at the Baptist mission should always be infused with compassion or love. Writes Dr. Kenneth Chafin, professor of evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in his book The Communicator's Commentary: 1, 2 Corinthians:
I have seen the absence of love negate the other gifts. Many years ago at a large meeting of ministers I shared the platform with a most outstanding speaker. He had an excellent education, and it was reflected in his understanding of the Bible and in his grasp of theology and church history. He had a perceptive understanding of today's world with its pressures, its values, its goals. He was a skilled communicator who knew how to work an audience, and his insights into human nature were keen. It seemed to me that he had every gift necessary for doing the job.

Later, when I read the evaluations that were done on all the program personalities, I was quite surprised to discover that there were few posititve comments about his being on the program. In the light of that response, I decided to talk to some of the participants to find some clue. It came in the first conversation when a young minister said, "Quite frankly, everything he said was true. He said it well, but he spoke with a kind of anger. I didn't get the feeling that he loved any of us." This was just another way of saying that a speakier can proclaim God's word with great eloquence, but without love for the person being spoken to, the proclamation becomes an empty gesture.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. --
Macbeth in Macbeth

Thanatos (death) is much the reverse of Phobos: It is Descent divorced from Ascent, Goodness without Good, compassion unaccompanied by wisdom.
Wilber writes, "It is the lower in flight from the higher, compassion gone mad: not just embracing the lower but regressing to the lower, not just caressing but remaining stuck in it (fixation, arrest) -- cosmic reductionism run amok. And the end game of that reductionistic drive is death and matter, with no connection to Source. Thanatos is Agape in flight from the higher instead of expressing the higher. It preserves the lower but refuses to negate it (and thus remains stuck in it). And as Phobos is the source of repression and dissociation, Thanatos is the source of regression and reduction, fixation and arrest. It attempts to save the lower by killing the higher."
At Loaves and Fishes there are side programs that are meant to address people's misery and unmet needs, but the facility, in the main, is a reservation where homeless culture, with its queues, dirtiness, childishness and craziness is preserved. The administration of L&F takes on a parential role where they address their wards as children they choose to protect.
L&F's Friendship Park was surely conceived as an oasis for the homeless where they might comfortably rest and socialize and 'just be' without being harrassed by police or snorted at by society. But in its operation today, the Park is more like a neglected zoo where the homeless denizens wallow in a pit of meaninglessness, their time isn't valued and there is no real expectation for them to act responsibly.
L&F staffers open Friendship Park at 7am -- or, usually, minutes after -- on weekdays. In a cul-de-sac on North C Street, perhaps 150 people -- with some on bicycles and others pushing grocery carts of their belongings -- wait to be let in the Park's gate.
There are reasons why very many of the folks will be in a big hurry once let in: Lines will immediately form -- for men's shower times, for lunch tickets, for coffee, for pastries, for day jobs -- and how quickly one can get in lines can make all the difference in how much a person gets done in a day.
Those that open the gate warn people not to run, but occassionally the rush is severe such that the staff has the denizens leave the Park, the gates are shut, the homeless are left outside -- for ten minutes as a punative measure, much like a "time out" some parents impose on their toddlers -- and the Park is reopenned.
After a successful opening, the long lines quickly form, blocking foot-traffic paths, impeding others from getting to where they want to or need to get to in the small Park.
The toilets in the Park are clean and TP is readily available, but the bathrooms are otherwise dank and dirty. A sponge hasn't touched the interior walls in years. Rubber mats elevate users above a wet, dirty floor. There is a lot of dirtiness everywhere in the Park. Tables and benches are dirty and have coffee rings on them; structures in the Park have coffee rings on their flat surfaces and dirt on their sides. The small park would be dreary were it not for the livliness and jocularity of many in the homeless community who spirits are irrepressible.
It is ironic that Friendship Park is so dirty since within the homeless community there are so very many with the time and eagerness to work. But services for the poor in L&F are provided almost entirely by staff and outside volunteers.
Potential volunteers can be seen touring Friendship Park in groups, led by a staff member. The well-dressed groups huddle closely together, the women clutching their handbags, tightly. They look out at the homeless population in the Park as if they are seeing coyotes behind a too-short fence.
The pastries line is a particularly curious thing. The line will begin to form immediately after the park opens and will quickly stretch the width of the park, but service to the denizens will not start until 8am, even though the pastries (and cakes and other sugary snackers) are there and can quickly be made ready to be served. The people manning the food-service kiosk wait and the homeless in line wait and wait and wait -- all for the minutehand of a clock to spin around 360 degrees.
In my humble opinion, Loaves and Fishes needs to stop accommodating the Culture of Homelessness and needs, instead, to elevate it and to do so not by addressing the homeless in the "Parent to Child" manner that now occurs, but as adults speaking with and dealing with adults.
Now, when a person goes to the dining room to eat lunch, he drops off those things he carries in a room where he is called "sweety" by the woman there and has a numbered clothespin snapped onto his shirt, as a receipt. Then, on a hot day, he is subjected to a heavy misting of water while waiting in line to enter the eating area. IMO, the woman who runs the room should knock off calling people by the childish appellation "sweety" and must stop supposing that it is all right or appropriate to attach anything to anyone's clothes. Certainly it is also not appropriate for L&F to be wetting people with water. C'mon! Loaves and Fishes's staff should treat the homeless respectfully, in a manner much the same as the way they would treat businesspeople. While doing so may feel to the staff like a dimishment of compassion, treating people respectfully will act as a curative to the immaturities in homeless culture.
Another curious practice in the Park has to do with porceline coffee cups. Happily, as an ecological matter, the Park uses these cups almost fully to the exclusion of foam or paper cups. But while L&F supplies clean cups and coffee to the denizens at 7am, there is no designated place for the empty cups to be returned. Thus, by mid-morning there are abandoned cups all over the Park and elsewhere at the Loaves and Fishes complex. Should not the homeless denizens be encouraged to return their cups somewhere specific and not be slobs, leaving their cups just anywhere!?
There is also a practice where some staff and volunteers hustle homeless denizens off the cul-de-sac and into the Park. "Guests are supposed to be in the Park and not out on the street," they'll say, shooing people in the direction of the Park. It is my understanding that keeping people in the Park when they're in the greater Loaves and Fishes complex comes at the direction of "Batman and Robin," the policemen who patrol L&F. My objection to this practice rests on several principles: (1) Ours is not a police state; Batman and Robin should not be calling the shots with regard to anything not directly in their purview. They certainly shouldn't be involved in identifying and restricting the rights of any supposed class of people. (2) The street in front of the Park probably is not the property of Loaves and Fishes. L&F administration should be careful about who and how they identify people as "guests" and what restrictions they choose to impose on them beyond the rights of any other visitors/guests to the complex. Homeless people are not an under-caste.
It is certainly the case that "putting people in lines" should be minimalized instead of maximized. There are many things that can be done in this area: (1) The pastries counter should be opened when the Park opens. (2) Two large thermos/containers of coffee should be made available when the park opens rather than just one to speed up the line. (3) Rather than having people get in three lines before getting their lunch, two lines should be sufficient. Currently, people get in line (a) to get a ticket; (b) to get their ticket stamped (or "punched," as it's called); and (c) to actually get their lunch. I think it would be best to combine (a) and (b) and just give people tickets that are date-and-time stamped.
I think that putting large digital clocks in many areas in the Park and throughout the L&F complex would be a great idea. Making people better aware of time makes us more aware of our obligations and better enabled to take on obligations. Not only would the homeless and poor be more time-aware, the L&F staff might be more time aware and necessarily more alert and professional. It would help to alleviate lax attitudes.
I know any conception that might seem to kick the homeless in their butts is anathema to many who see Loaves as a haven, an escape from the pressures the homeless experience. But I see Loaves as too much an additional stressor that should, instead, be an aid in giving many in the homeless community the discipline they seek for themselves. To quote Zen Master Ma-tsu, a little out of context:
'In the Tao there is nothing to discipline oneself in. If there is any discipline in it, the completion of such discipline means the destruction of the Tao ... But if there is no discipline whatever in the Tao, one remains an ignoramus.'
In the essay “The Felt Politics of Charity: Serving ‘the Ambassadors of God’ and Saving ‘the Sinking Classes,’” published in the 2001 book Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements, conflict between the Salvation Army and nearby Loaves and Fishes was exposed. Tensions between the two charities seem much the same now as what they were then.

The Salvation Army provides wisdom, but with perhaps more finger wagging [taking on as much or more of a parent-talking-to-child role (in transactional analysis terms)] than Loaves.

Said Dave – the residential manager of The Salvation Army shelter in Sacramento, then – about Loaves and Fishes:
They are more, they don’t, don’t seem to give the clients a whole lot of guidelines, you know, they just kind of let them do their own thing. And, we tend to give a little more structure, I think … there’s a fine line between helping somebody and enabling somebody. You know, and I think that’s the bottom line, we kind of see things a little bit differently on that issue. But we work with them a lot.
Chris Delany, whom, with her husband Dan, is a founder of Loaves & Fishes, is quoted, from a spiritual retreat, saying that rather than enabling the homeless, L&F is “…just trying to help people survive from day to day.” She criticized The Salvation Army severely, saying that “Our guests [i.e., clients, aka, the homeless that use L&F services] tell us that [the Salvation Army] reminds them of prison.”


Nagarjuna said...

Tom, a fascinating look at homelessness and religious efforts to help the homeless that, because these efforts are frequently so limited in efficiency and scope, do less than they might to help people out of homelessness. But then I wonder how many homeless people can be helped out of their homelessness, and what kind of religion could best help the widest spectrum. Certainly, the fire and brimstone sermons of "Phobos" seem ineffectual, but what kind of ministry, along with other forms of assistance, would be more helpful? Presumably some kind of integral ministry that is somehow able to resonate with persons from different backgrounds and developmental altitudes. But is such a thing even possible?

I need to read those AQAL Journal articles on "integral congregational ministry" to get some ideas. :-)

G said...

This is just a reflection and nothing more - certainly not a judgment, unlike those 'hellfire preachers' that seem to like judging others, despite what their savior said on the matter - but, it strikes me that perhaps those that supply charity to the homeless (& others) don't really want those that they help to improve their situation, because then they'd have no one to help.

I don't mean that they do this on a conscious level, of course; if they actually consciously thought this way, they'd be the kind of small-minded people that would never help others in the first place. Yet, on the subconscious level, maybe the helpers need those they help as much as the other way around; maybe more, because it is in their charity work that such people find their sense of identity and purpose in life. Take away the opportunity to help, and they lose meaning in their lives. Therefore, deep down they don't want the homeless to become the 'homed', because then they'd have nothing to do, and might have to actually spend some time looking at themselves and seeing themselves as they really are and not as they imagine.

In this sense, the homeless can be said to be doing charity work of their own, giving the opportunity to others to display the more giving sides to their personalities! On the other hand, these reflections may be complete nonsense, and are meant as ideas to ponder, nothing more.

Be well in the Dharma,

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Tom, an excellent article. Though I'd have to disagree with one point, your knowledge is indeed deep; or perhaps its your wisdom. In any case, what are the odds of this finding its way to the hands of the L and F management? You have great ideas and it would be sad if they never heard them.

As a teacher, I think love and compassion for my students must be at the very forefront of my motivation - yet part of that includes a constant nudging and pushing of them toward greater responsibility and autonomy (to use a much-loved Kantian term). If they do NOT grow beyond me, then I have failed. I think the same should be true of the philosophy at L & F and other org's working with the homeless. Do you think this is a fair analogy?

Tom said...

Steve, nagarjuna,

There are sermons at Union Gospel Mission that are wonderful, loving and wise and that resonate with the congregation far better than others. It is hard for me to say how much rather-concrete goodness comes from the sermons that better connect with people, but I am sure that those that are wonderful, loving and wise tend to do more to motivate people to address their circumstances.

Of course, I am a newby (and rather arrogant) homeless person and I may know a bit less than I suppose.

Tom said...

Gary, aka "G",

I think that everyone working for the homeless or preaching at UGM, L&F, the Salvation Army, and elsewhere, sincerely believe they are doing good for the people they serve.

I think that L&F gets a lot less "bang for the buck" than the others due to their 'enabling' philosophy and freaky Parent-to-Child manner. But they are VERY VERY committed to their philosophy of management.

I cannot dismiss some of your suspicions, but I do think that people working for the homeless know that there will always be an "underclass" to be served. Even if the homeless were all suddenly rescued, given jobs and homes and good lives, there would be others to come in and replace them. There will always be troubled people who fail in our difficult society.

Tom said...

Buddhist Philosopher, aka Justin,

I think Sister Libby, who runs Loaf, knows about my blog, which is one of several reasons she treated me rudely at the last two occassions I ran into her.

Sister Libby believes she is the Mother Superior of her organization and she is decidedly committed to her enabling philosophy. [Though, as I wrote, there are 'side' sub-organizations that are a part of Loaf that work toward mental health, sobriaty, legal aid, employment, etc., that are noble and wise, so far as I know.]

I VERY MUCH agree with the idea of motivating others to GROW. And I believe that wisdom and compassion should always be served together. They're mutualistic, like beans and rice OR Simon and Garfunkel!