Go to a public place either in the morning or afternoon, and spend a half hour there with the mindset that your thoughts and feelings are as significant to the world as your actions. Imagine that your true, good, and beautiful thoughts and feelings are deeds that can by themselves invisibly promote healthy world evolution. For this half hour, actively cultivate these sorts of thoughts and feelings. To help you achieve this difficult mission, you might spend your time focusing on what is positive in everything and everyone you see. As with any top secret, ninja-style, anonymous solo act of expert novice beneficence, tell no one it was you who created the subtly amazing mood in the coffee shop or outdoor space just by being there and awake. Don’t ever tell anyone it was you, not even your future great, great grandchildren. Take the knowledge of your absolutely covert intervention happily to your grave.
Are you holding out hope? Damn right you are! If you’re a human being, and you’re honest with yourself, I can almost guarantee it, at least for something, say for your own improbable success or perhaps for humanity’s continued survival. As much as this may sound strange, holding out hope or being hopeful, is a bit of a problem if you’re goal is to grow as a human being. I say this because hope, as it most often manifests, is really a very sneaky sort of defense mechanism of your own limited worldview, of the this-is-how-it-has-to-be reality of your little ego-logical self, a self that, to be frank, wants what is hoped for without having to change very much, if at all. Hope is therefore not progressive or metamorphic, but rather projective, in that it projects what your little ego wants onto a future “what will be,” without regard for a more inclusive, diverse, transpersonal, and therefore, healthier “what could be,” which is to say that in hope’s conversation with the future, it does all of the talking and none of the listening. Of course, despair doesn’t help either because it is more or less the nihilistic twin of hope stuck in the same narrative, or what I moments earlier called worldview. In the language of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” our hope and despair never take us outside the world of shadows; it takes hopelessness to do that.
So if your looking for a future of reiterations of your own narrow image that satisfy like selfies, hope is for you; however, if you want moral and ethical breakthroughs and imaginative apocalypses that lead to beautiful, painful, and necessary realities that you never would have expected, hopelessness is where it’s at. Often we hold on to hope because we are afraid to suffer the dissolution of our dreams, but I say, let the dreams dissolve. At these moments, have the courage to admit to yourself that you don’t know what to do and the old way doesn’t work. Let yourself be humbled. What you will discover is that you are bigger than your hopes and dreams, so big that you can include all that your hopes and dreams have excluded, mostly because of their blindness and unconscious prejudice. More than ever, the world demands, invites, yearns for, such a moral awakening.
A very good morning to everyone gathered here on this auspicious day, but especially to this distinguished and idiosyncratic group of graduating seniors, a group of soon-to-be golden diploma-wielding novice geniuses, a group who has honored me well above my merit pay-grade with this opportunity to speak today. Thank you. Though I am a great fan of perennial wisdom and mighty archetypal Platonic truths with a capital “T,” my aim this morning is, by necessity, more modest, yet not so modest that I’m resigning myself to achieving merely very local, time specific truths with a lower case “t,” or what the laymen call opinions. No, my way will not be “the” way or “a” way, not seek “the” truth or “a” truth, but some genuine article in between. That’s my intention, anyway, to steer this commencement address ship between mighty archetypes and middling opinions. I may check in with you graduates periodically during this address to see how I’m doing.
Okay, let’s begin. I’ll start with dreams, the fifth most popular theme for commencement addresses according to one website I looked at earlier this week. I’m sure each one of you has dreams, even big important dreams! Indeed, for you up here on the stage, this is a time of life for dreams. My dear graduates, I hope your dreams don’t come true. Already you can see I’m steering the ship well: very nearly my first statement was not really archetype on the one hand or opinion on the other, it was more just right down the middle of tone-deaf, tactless, and a wee bit snarky. But please remember, that’s just the content. My intent, my intention, is something else entirely. When I say I hope your dreams don’t come true, my intention is to compliment you, because I think in most cases our dreams sell ourselves short, and when I say “ourselves” here, I’m talking about what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls our aboriginal selves. What do I mean by this, by our dreams selling ourselves short? Here’s an example: at this very moment, I’m dreaming that this commencement address is being video recorded and will go viral as soon as it’s uploaded onto Youtube. By next year it will have been viewed by so many people, and will have inspired so many people, that I will be invited to give the commencement address at both Harvard and Yale on the same day, and I’ll have to make a difficult choice. And then, of course, they’ll be a TED Talk in Silicon Valley, etc., etc. You get the picture. What we do in these sorts of dreams is project ourselves unchanged into the future with just more prestige and bling, more ego-stroking; these are dreams that just fulfill our egotism; they are a sort of ego-defense mechanism in the language of Sigmund Freud; they pander not to our Self-Reliance, but to our Selfie-reliance, our ego’s narcissism. And these are most of our dreams: the prestigious school, the partnership in the law firm, the cool job in the film industry, even the humanities position at a Waldorf school.
Also embedded in such dreams is the unspoken judgment that where I am now is not good enough. If I were really smart, important, great, successful, you fill in the adjective, I would be teaching at Harvard or Yale, not Waldorf; I’d be a doctor or engineer, not a carpenter or greeter at Walmart. Behind our dreams is a whole worldview the rightness of which we rarely question. But to my mind, if you’re convinced you’re right and hard-wired into that rightness’s very DNA is the exclusion of anyone, the dismissal of anyone, the marginalization and devaluing of anyone, it, the rightness, to my mind, is not right. Of course we can substitute many things for “anyone” in this equation. And what’s interesting, my dear graduates, is that just as our worldview marginalizes, subtly and not so subtly, whole populations, our dreams marginalize and even ignore or are blind to those parts of ourselves capable of growth and accessing new realms of experience. Just as our dreams take one particular part of the self and develop it, leaving the rest of the human being mostly untouched, our worldview privileges certain classes of people and professions at the expense of others.
Time for a check-in. My dear graduates – that’s my warm check-in voice – you might have been thinking just now that these things I’m saying, these ramblings one might call them, are merely the opinions of some middle-aged man who’s bitter because he didn’t fulfill any of his dreams or he let his dreams die because he’s weak, fearful, lazy, stupid, undiscerning, or whatever. If that’s what you’re thinking, you got me. But you got only a part of me, the selfie-reliant part. The part reliant on the aboriginal self, the true self, that true self with not the capital “t” or lower case “t” but with the genuine article “t,” remains un-got though not unmoved. It remains un-got because the true self doesn’t try to get. A similar logic applies to the following statement by the philosopher Georg Kühlewind: “she who does not wish to conquer is unconquerable.” The true self doesn’t get or conquer or control or judge or need to be right, or accumulate “likes.” Nor does it obsessively chew gum, eat chocolate, watch TV, or desire Oompa Loompas or pet squirrels; the true self understands and loves; it’s able to transform and is open to other possibilities; it can see, in hindsight, the wisdom of a dream not having come true because it understands that it’s fulfillment and the dream’s fulfillment were not the same thing, that the dream would have kept it from experiencing the growth it needed. In this picture I’m painting of our selves and the world, the selfie-reliant self is a small figure whereas the true self is the ground, all that sacrifices itself to let the figure stand out. When the figure falls because the dream dies or remains unfulfilled, the ground is there, by the very laws of our being, to catch it. And we can catch each other by the very same laws. It’s when we too often identify with the small figure and not the ground, that we sell ourselves, and the world, short.
Most everyone here is likely aware that superheroes and superpowers are everywhere in popular culture – they’re an essential part of the zeitgeist, yet in my experience, few of these superheroes have the superpowers of the true self, the ground in the picture I just painted. As kids we dream of having superpowers, of doing battle on the side of, say, Team Captain America or Team Iron Man. I’m no expert in contemporary superheroes or superpowers, but they and their powers seem mostly projections of the selfie-reliant self. Where is the superhero whose superpower is vulnerability, humility, compassion, and understanding? How about a first-person shooter game that involves hugging instead of shooting. I can see the tagline now: “whoever lives by the hug will someday die in a circle of hugs.” I can also see a long line of people in “free hugs” t-shirts outside GameStop in Citrus Heights waiting for Hugstorm 4, or Hug Apocalypse 6, or whatever the game would be called. A middle-aged guy can dream, but of course, we hope his dream doesn’t come true because that would be selling himself short!
In all seriousness, my dear graduates, it’s time to wake up from the dream! The tragedy in Orlando, an actual first-person shooter event, is the latest wake-up call. And to wake up, our world doesn’t need more soldiers, police officers, doctors, or prosecutors, or therapists, or even Waldorf teachers, it needs more individual human beings, no matter the vocation, who are awake, available, interested, humble, growing as best they can, human beings who can admit they’re wrong, apologize, change their minds, hold their tongue, listen, act responsibly, and realize, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [their] philosophy.” We must learn to see beyond what’s dreamt of. We must face reality, the given, the world.
This is no easy task, because, as the Irish writer and philosopher, Iris Murdoch says, “our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied veil which partially conceals the world.” Which is no wonder, because the world is not all soft-focus puppies and unicorns. In fact, it’s more like a fecal implant, which disgusts the selfie-reliant self because it wants the dream without all the crap, so to speak. Our aboriginal self, our true self, however, realizes that a healthy dose of the microflora of reality is exactly what is needed. I’m now about to do something that has never before been done in the history of Waldorf education, and I may lose my Waldorf teacher certification because of it, and I’m only half-joking; I’m going to equate these graduates’ experience of Waldorf education with a fecal implant. Both are revolutionary, outside-of-the-box, sometimes misunderstood or even snickered at interventions that bring good health. Now that the damage is done, I sincerely apologize to all of you here and Rudolf Steiner!
Interestingly enough, however, I think Steiner would have laughed at the aptness and ridiculousness of the comparison. And it is with him and one of his meditative exercises, that I would like to end my address. This exercise is one of my favorites, and I think practicing it is an effective way to get beyond the dream of selfie-reliant self to an experience of the true self, an experience that is so much needed today. The exercise also establishes an appropriate graduation mood, which is more than necessary after my previous remarks. I have made a few changes and editions to tailor it to you, my dear graduates. I’ll present it as something of a guided imagination. Here it is:
“From various points of view and with various aims, we can cast a backward glance over our lives. We can ask ourselves: how has this life of mine unfolded since childhood? But we can do this also in a special way. Instead of bringing before our gaze what we ourselves have enjoyed and experienced, we can turn our attention to the persons who have figured in our lives as parents, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, and so on, even people who have influenced us through books, institutions, and the like. And we can summon before our soul the inner nature of each of these persons in place of our own. After a time we shall find ourselves reflecting how little we really owe to ourselves, and how much to all that has flowed into us from others. If we honestly build up this kind of self-scrutiny into an inner picture, we shall arrive at quite a new relationship to the outer world. From such a backward survey we retain certain feelings and impressions. And these are like fertile seeds planted in us – seeds for the growth of a true knowledge of the human being. Whoever undertakes again and again this inward contemplation, so that she recognizes the contribution which other persons, perhaps long dead or far distant, have made to her own life, then when she meets another human being, and establishes a personal relationship with her, an imagination of the other person’s true being will rise before her.”
My dearest graduates, we, your teachers, have done our very best over the years to see your true being in this way. We so appreciate the contributions you’ve made to our lives. We love you and send you forth with all our best wishes!
Free means open (vulnerable, even), not in control nor out-of-control, for out-of-control is really evidence of remote control. What stars are to a crown of starthistles no cause-and-effect mechanism can ever answer, but the free person can. From three parts suffering and one part grace you can spell “free,” and with the remainder, make up the word “cragusnif,” which you can then decide, by fiat, means “free” in your made up language.
All of what we do takes place, has a place, and creates place as much as it merely happens in a place. Our freehoodship approach sees, experiences, and establishes place as temple, jungle-gym, lab, studio, and wilderness, each of these place types with its attendant human way of being: reverence in the temple, play on the jungle gym, precision and experimentation in the lab, creativity in the studio, and freedom in the wilderness. All of these possibilities are potentially actualizable in every place — even a strip mall — inwardly and outwardly and betweenwardly. And place in the freehoodship approach is also a place of dialogue, a putting oneself into dialogue not only with other human beings but with the whole of reality. We agree with Thomas Berry when he says that “the universe is a community of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Synchronicities, in the Jungian sense — a sense which make sense to me — are examples of dialogue in this universe as “community of subjects.” But, as the philosopher Robert McDermott says, “it makes all the difference whether someone is convinced that the universe does in fact communicate insights and meaningful hints, or whether the universe is cold, exclusively material, silent, and disinterested, in which case a synchronicity will not happen, or will happen to no avail.” We at the freehoodship have suffered long enough under the tyranny of the latter view of the universe, and are therefore making a place in our minds, hearts, and actions for the former.
In the summer and fall of 2011, I wrote a poem, which I ultimately ended up calling “A Little Reality Music.” The poem is noteworthy for two reasons: first, almost every word in it has the word “it” or the sound “it” embedded in it. Second, it seems to be the last output of a youthful imagination and way of being that had carried me in my twenties and thirties but had grown progressively more sclerotic in the two or three years leading up to 2012. Perhaps because it was the last output, the poem’s language both reflects and describes clearly this process of sclerotization; here is the poem’s first line: “Bit by bit by plummet and summit I admit/ I’ve literally audited the units of awe out of it.” The pronoun “it” here refers to “reality” in the title. Of course, as “I audited the units of awe out of it” this reality shrank enough over time to more than merit the modifier “little.” This auditing, however, was not intentional in the usual sense, in that my everyday, conscious self consciously did it, rather, as I look at the process in hindsight, there was definitely a higher, wiser, less everyday sort of consciousness driving the process and at the same time urging me to wake up to the lesson of the audit. On a more tangible or somatic level, this auditing led to a health crisis that manifested as an inability to normally digest and eliminate food, which led to my losing weight and for a while appearing jaundiced, not to mention feeling like shit. The crisis kicked off with a migraine — the only one I’ve ever had — at the beginning of August, 2012, when I was forty-four, and was followed by a feeling, which lasted about six months, that can best be described as having one’s head encased in a helmet of dense fog. Around this time I also stopped writing poetry, my inspiration having run dry.
Avoidance, which had been the preferred option until the migraine, quickly lost its luster, and obviously, its efficacy. I went to see a variety of healthcare providers, both traditional and non-traditional, tested an assortment of diets, and began, through a more honest approach to self-reflection, to try to get at the root of my issue, an issue I was certain had a psychological/spiritual origin. I discarded my meditative practice, not so much because it had been ineffective, but because I realized, to my chagrin, that I had been meditating for years in a way that had actually helped lead me into the crisis. Indeed, one of the central motivations and mantras of my practice was to meet and transform my shadow so that I could better serve my fellow human beings – for years I actually invoked this desire every night before sleep. I clearly got what I was looking for – a meeting with my shadow – but not the know-how nor the immediately accessible courage to transform it, rather, I seemed to be swallowed by it more and more. From a certain perspective, this practice that led to my deepening encounter with my shadow seemed necessary because my crisis felt necessary, but once in it, I realized I needed a different approach to get me through it, a different sort of meditative practice, a different way of relating to the world. This approach has involved learning how to breathe and relax, learning how to fully feel my feelings (no small achievement, really) and access and un-stick knots of old feelings lodged in my body, as well as learning how to cultivate a “gentle will,” to us the philosopher Georg Kuhlewind’s term. A breakthrough came about a year ago when I started to weep almost daily, being overcome by feelings that seemed to have their origins in very early childhood. At about this same time I started to experiment with releasing knots of energy in my body, mostly in my descending colon, which had been irritated almost continually for two years. I would access a place of pain and blockage with my attention and then, in my mind, scroll through my collection of recurring memory complexes and belief structures that had, for years, caused negative emotions. I did this until I hit on one that seemed to be responsible for the knot. I say it seemed responsible for the knot because at that moment the knot would begin to unravel and release emotions of an intensity that felt old, original, and new all at the same time. I would then most often weep as though I were a small child overwhelmed by an emotion. But it also was a different form of weeping, a form I had never experienced before: it often felt as though I was vomiting knots of energy out of my abdomen, solar plexus, heart, throat, and jaw, even my teeth. These sessions of this peculiar vomiting – they have something of the quality of a self-administered non-sectarian exorcism – still occur a few times weekly even now. The collection of reoccurring memory complexes and belief structures that I mentioned earlier is lately much less subliminal than it used to be. I’m sure that this breakthrough that happened nine months ago was connected to the yearlong work, on a biweekly basis, that I had done with a Rhythmical Message therapist. Her goal throughout the year we worked together had been to help my body breathe freely again and relax.
Along with my stopping writing poetry during this crisis, I also progressively lost enthusiasm for my work as a high school teacher, a profession I had pursued for almost fifteen years. This was not an easy experience, if fact, it was devastating. I had invested much of myself in this vocation, and loved the work, and yet, if I was honest with myself, it was the work of an era that seemed to be coming to an end. Simultaneously, I began to sense that I had new work to do, more a feeling than any clear thought, but I had little idea what shape it would take, not to mention how I would make money and support a family. Clearly a part of my new work expressed itself in the creation of The Freehoodship. Though I have yet to fully define this new work, I have thankfully experienced the re-emergence of my enthusiasm for high school teaching as a parallel path. Most recently it has become clear to me that my crisis was less about what I was doing and more about how I was doing it.
About halfway through “A Little Reality Music,” there is a shift in tone, like the volta in a Petarchan sonnet. The “I” in the poem, on experiencing a widening of perception, stops lamenting the dearth of awe in reality, and says instead, “I witness likewise an auspicious orbit of a new spirit/ my novitiate itch to intuit a secret exit/ into the infinite itself.” This itch to intuit an exit, which is really an “ex-it” was and is a manifestation of my effort towards a new form of effort that was about flow and breathing and infinite non-space as opposed to pushing and straining within the confines of an all too finite space. Though I don’t feel anywhere near fully out the other side of this crisis or rite of passage, I’m feeling up to the task of not pushing and straining to complete it.
My friend, high school teaching colleague, and fellow freehoodship leaf-catcher, James Meier, died quite suddenly on February 19 — he was 58 years old. I would like to share the elegy his students, fellow teachers, and I created for him.
Elegy for Mr. Meier
He was never small: too many liters of majesty, cubic acres of strength, kindness immeasurable.
He was towering, mischievous, sassy, commanding, devoted, wise, and gentle,
a great and fearless lion: teacher, sponsor, St. Nick, Michaelic Master of Ceremonies, Dumbledore.
He was tire iron and tissue box,
forged, by the man-makers of the old world, of pure thought, feeling, and principle.
He was the teacher of morals for those whose fathers never were,
book in one hand, spread open wide across his huge palm, the other with chalk
between his fingers, gesturing as he spoke.
He was an oracle
but you didn’t have to climb a mountain to get to him.
He knew the right words for situations, his voice
filling every corner of the room, no matter how quietly he spoke.
He saw each of us for who we were – he saw what was shining inside.
I want to thank him for that, thank him for having my back even
when I was not honest with myself.
He taught more than humanities;
he taught us what it was to be humanity.
He was a knight,
an instructor of strength, completely in character when striking
a superman pose as a fireman in front of the Oasis Springs hotel,
saying, “No thanks are necessary, I was just doing my job!”
He was here to teach us that we can always do better,
that we can always do more than we ever thought possible,
that giving our best is the best thing we can do.
He was inspirational with his blue toenail polish
and spandex bike shorts. Once, he taught, nonchalantly, an entire
English class dressed in a long flowing purple robe and turban.
He was the king of Waldorfia: when he told the people to cheer,
Here are five instructions for being Mr. Meier:
1. Become a great writer with hard-to-read handwriting.
2. Learn everything there is to know about U.S. History.
3. Have a voice meant for audio books or radio.
4. Learn to sing.
5. Try again. It will take a lot more practice to be Mr. Meier.
In his pastel shirts,
he would stride across campus,
covering what seemed like a mile with each step. Only yesterday,
I had a dream I was in class and Mr. Meier was the teacher.
For the whole class he walked around giving students hugs.
Never spoke a word, just gave us hugs.
Now, as I wander on the bike path,
through a grassy field, past the quad,
and near his office, I feel surrounded by his presence
and his deep capacity for love.
Every so often I feel as though I need to reestablish (or establish anew) the principles of the Freehoodship, which means getting not merely at the principles, but at the principles behind the principles, to the deepest layers of human motive and action, where even the subtlest residues of duty and compulsion dissolve and the free human being arises full of enthusiasm for action, for missions in the world that are also alembics for the individual spirit.
Google, Apple, and Facebook are known for the unusual interview questions they ask prospective employees, ostensibly hoping to distinguish the especially creative and hardworking from the rest of us. When I create my behemoth tech company (the freehoodship), I will subject prospective employees to a ritual meeting with death like the one I briefly describe in my documentation of mission #25. I would “test” prospective employees with this ritual because I would want to see whether they could think symbolically, experience reverently, and reflect deeply. In the years that I have played death in this ritual, I have realized that for the experience to mean anything, one must experience it as a symbol of a human life, that from the time one is led into the room (into life) until the time death taps one on the shoulder, one has simple, but powerful, ways to live the life one wants. Will I stand in front of the candle in the middle of the room and await death? Will I run away from death as he wanders slowly through the room? Will I consciously go and face death? Will you look into the face of death, literally? You can tell a lot about somebody by how she participates in this ritual. Indeed, many these days find it difficult to achieve the heightened attention and reverent engagement that a ritual demands, particularly rituals unsanctioned by institutions thousands of years old.
First trying used to be so easy, then I had to try to try. Now I welcome myself without expectation to the age of crushed expectations. My first mission there? To accept as true Kant’s “thing-in-itself”? Ouch, but doable, because there’s always something I don’t know, like some unknowable “thing-in-itself.” To finally concede that the spiritual world is just an illusion? Okay, we’re getting somewhere, but still only like a scientist hoping to remove the memories of beheadings while ignoring the beheadings themselves. How about if my first mission is to just give up? No way! Impossible! You can’t be serious! That’s my first mission? I don’t even know where to begin.