Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 4/21/11

Compassionate work is patient work, determined sacrifice, trudging through all the expected and welcomed failures, and in these failures finding the building blocks of authentic success and happiness that one can never have in complacent, shallow sameness.

Actual, sincere compassion, free of envy, duplicity, and hypocrisy, requires that character change which is considered too "foreign", too "toxic", to our contemporary sense of self. Therefore what is so simple, so natural to our soul, to love and to give, to share Krsna and serve each other with body, mind, and sweet word, becomes excruciatingly difficult.

This is a personal revolution. The soul's natural state, glimpsed in particles of effulgence through the smoke and dust of our conditioning, give all positive momentum to us in the course of our too-human endeavor.

The compassionate heart is the sacred heart. The compassionate heart is a weapon against the decay of our very being, the very structure of our personal and collective existence.

Let us embrace this turning inwards and outwards. Let us become natural again, even if it is swimming against the same current we have always floated along with. It is this effort against the tide which makes us whole, which makes us grow, which makes us true lovers of Krsna and of each other.

We must have in our heart a great and strong internal sense of mission, focused and perhaps even quite contrary to whatever external consequences we find ourselves in. It is the furnace of our heart which drives us forward towards this great compassion to properly qualify ourselves as the servant of the servant.

It is this internal fire which is one of the great gifts of the culture of bhakti, filling a void within our existence left open and festering by the ruthless and void expressions of "self" and "community" that pass for our excuses for civilization.

This personal revolution begins when we simply become obliged to think of the spiritual pleasure and well-being of others before and beyond the fulfilling of our own selfish appetites. This is the pillar and the mason-stone for all further and deeper growth. But this is quite contrary to the current shape of my character.

The only path to becoming a real instrument of compassion is to learn how to become a mature servant of the Divine intuition within myself. The mature heart can be trusted to extend itself in all matters of responsibility and dynamic love, where it can be most and completely effective.

As we become aware of our duplicities we shouldn't become shattered. It is part of our growth, if we make it so, to use the clarity of our weakness to see what we need to do to become stronger, more sure, more simple. It is a two-way street; increasing our attachment to the personal, to the devotional, while sacrificing that which has little tangible value or worth in our lives.

If we are determined and struggling forward on these paths, then our failures along the way can always be put into proper perspective. We can see the weeds in the garden of our heart quite clearly. We can pull them out with the right deftness and torque, examine them for all that they are and aren't, and toss them aside for good.

Without the momentum of this personal revolution in our heart, then we are stagnant, hypocritical without redemption, and just the same as we were before

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Intersection-Spirit Not Commodity

Spirit Not Commodity

The strength of Thomas Merton's prophetic voice was particularly potent is his ruthless observations of what mass media, mass industry, and mass technology were doing to the human spirit, leading us to a potential abyss of Orwellian visions come alight to destroy our privacy, our integrity, and our worth as individuals. Speaking from the platform of the 1960's, his observations, concerns, and calling out reach to us even sharper today, as we look towards a “Blade Runner” future that looms like a whirlpool before us, inexorably sucking us in.

He writes:

The Greeks believes that when a man had too much power for his own good the gods ruined him by helping him increase his power at the expense of wisdom, prudence, temperance, and humanity until it led automatically to his own destruction.

What I am saying is, then, that it does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration...The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet livable for mankind as a whole.”1

This immersion in the glittering silicon progress becomes a drowning of our spirit when the flickering of the TV and computer screen replaces the connection to our conscience, and when the voices from these screens become unquestioning authorities in our life beyond philosophical and moral reproach.

One question essentially sticks out: Is our technological age, an age of human progress beyond apparent limit, even the “limitation” of sacrifice and obligation to God, actually creating a better present and a better future? Are we actually progressing, or is this a terrible illusion?

Merton is not hopeful of this progress if the forces of material science and technology are allowed to rule without careful consideration of their consequences, or without any link to the spiritual realities and obligations of selfless love and care. He writes:

The central problem of the modern world is the complete emancipation and autonomy of the technological mind at a time when unlimited possibilities lie open to it and all the resources seem to be at hand. Indeed, the mere fact of questioning this emancipation, this autonomy, is the number-one blasphemy, the unforgivable sin in the eyes of modern man, whose faith begins with this: science can do everything, science must be permitted to do everything it likes, science is infallible and impeccable, all that is done by science is right.

The consequence of this is that technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own...Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way-even if what is done happens, for example, to be genocide or the devastation of a country by total war.”2

This struggle between forces of power blind to ethics going against the spiritual way of life, of a developed humanity steeped in compassion and the depth of awareness, goes to the very heart of our individual and collective existences. If our society is geared to the mass forces of blind power and profit, buttressed by the increasing paradoxical sense of control/anarchy that comes from the misuse of science and technology, then we are only geared to our lower nature, to our lust, greed, and envy. We will remain senseless in all senses to our spiritual heritage, what to speak of the realm of ethics which comes from that heritage.

We are fully dynamic spiritual individuals, capable of the highest and deepest love with each other and with God. If we choose to give ourselves without compulsion and contemplation to this inhuman and impersonal machine of power and profit, we become like that machine, like unfeeling and incomprehensible animals running only on a perverted instinct.

We have chosen to become numbers, commodities, products, anything else but who we actually are, anything else but our natural, spiritual being. From this, we suffer in unspeakable ways, bringing this pain deep into our own existence and into the existence of all other sentient life.

Merton writes:

It is by means of technology that man the person, the subject of qualified and perfectible freedom, become quantified, that is, becomes part of a mass-mass man-whose only function is to enter anonymously into the processes of production and consumption.

He becomes one side an implement, a 'hand', or better, a 'bio-physical link' between machines: on the other side he is a mouth, a digestive system and an anus, something through which pass the products of his technological world, leaving a transient and meaningless sense of enjoyment.

The effect of a totally emancipated technology is the regression of man to a climate of moral infancy, in total dependence not on 'mother nature'...but on the pseudonature of technology, which has replaced nature by a closed system of mechanisms with no purpose but that of keeping themselves going.”3

The basic problem is that our character is stained on a very fundamental level at the base of our being. This stain is, as mentioned above, our deep inner hypocrisy and selfishness. The rise of technology is, in many ways, reflecting this stain out into our external world. Somehow, by our unyielding and often merciless intelligence, we have discovered how these mystic powers can be best used to shape our way of life, but because we have largely lost our sense of responsibility towards our self and towards each other, we use these powers to create a situation largely intolerable towards the cultivation of our deeper spiritual reality.

From his vantage point in the early 1960's, before our time of instant thought transmission and criticism via 24/7 news cycles and all-pervading social networking and observation, Merton's prophetic voice rings out to us to understand our stain, to understand our sickness, and to do something about it. He writes:

The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see we cannot think.”4

He continues:

Nothing can take the place of thoughts. If we do not think, we cannot act freely. If we do not act freely, we are at the mercy of forces which we never understand, forces which are arbitrary, destructive, blind, fatal to us and to our world.

If we do not use our minds to think with, we are heading for extinction, like the dinosaur: for the massive physical strength of the dinosaur became useless, purposeless. It led to his destruction. Our intellectual power can likewise become useless, purposeless. When it does, it will serve only to destroy us. It will devise instruments for our destruction, and will inexorably proceed to use them...It has already devised them.”5

The committed spiritual activist thus deeply understands the imperative need to purge and purify the consciousness and the space in which our consciousness interacts. Through this cleansing, the truth, the actual spiritual truth, can shine through, can be visible again. When this torchlight of actual knowledge shines through, the darkness born of ignorance has no place to stand.

We may take to the streets to protest and to even give our lives against the corporate, industrial, and military structures representing and implementing the interests of this cold, impersonal machine. We may consider ourselves as no longer a “blind follower” of this machine, of possessing an individual integrity that refuses to be crushed under tank wheels and wireless radiation.

Despite this conviction, we need to look at the actual, bigger picture. Do we actually succeed in what we set out to do, in the revolutions we attempt to create? Do we actually overthrow what we set out to overthrow? Do we even understand what success is? Do we know what it takes to set one apart from the impersonal flow towards an actualization of being? What the committed spiritual activist can offer in this arena is an understanding of our self and our predicament that transcends the cold, impersonal machine within us, a machine that runs on the oil of selfish greed. Within us instead is a greater and more bold power, the power of God nourished and nurtured by our faith put into action, into expression, and into an undeniable reality.

1Merton, Conjectures Of A Guilty Bystander, 73

2Merton, 75

3Merton. 77

4Merton, 77

5Merton, 79

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monks Embrace Web To Reach Recruits

Stew Milne for The New York Times

A group prayer at the Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. The monks there have gone online to find new members.
More Photos »

The Benedictine monks at the Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., have a problem. They are aging — five are octogenarians and the youngest will be 50 on his next birthday — and their numbers have fallen to 12, from a peak of about 24 in 1969.

So the monks, who for centuries have shied away from any outside distractions, have instead done what many troubled organizations are doing to find new members — they have taken to the Internet with an elaborate ad campaign featuring videos, a blog and even a Gregorian chant ringtone.

“We’re down in numbers, we’re aging, we feel the pressure to do whatever we can,” said Abbot Caedmon Holmes, who has been in charge of the abbey since 2007. “If this is the way the younger generation are looking things up and are communicating, then this is the place to be.”

That place is far from the solitary lives that some may think monks live. In fact, in this age of all things social media, the monks have embraced what may be the most popular of form of public self-expression: a Facebook page, where they have uploaded photos and video testimonials.

A new Web site ( answers questions on how to become a monk — one F.A.Q.: “Do I have to give up my car?” (yes) — and print ads announce that “God Is Calling.” Some monks will even write blogs.

“If 500 years ago, blogging existed, the monks would have found a way to make use of it,” Abbot Holmes said. “Our power is very limited. In the end it’s God who is calling people to himself and calling to people to live in union with him. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our part.”

For some, the technological approach to advertising and marketing may seem at odds with the image of an almost hermitlike monastic existence. Not so, say the monks. The use of technology and social media has been embraced even by the Vatican, which has its own YouTube channel and a Facebook page dedicated to the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

“We were going to do this no matter what, but we are happy that the pope thinks well of this kind of media for our purposes,” said David Moran, director of the monastic renewal program office at the abbey.

The campaign, especially on Facebook, presents the monks “as being open and friendly and totally accessible,” said Tom Simons, the chief executive and creative director of Partners and Simons, the advertising agency the abbey hired to oversee the new campaign. The Facebook page will allow the monks “to build out their fan base,” he said.

The Simons ad agency, based in Boston, typically has clients like health care and financial services companies. “This assignment from Portsmouth Abbey was intriguing because it’s the Lord’s work,” Mr. Simons said.

The day of the firm’s initial meeting with the abbey, Mr. Simons told his staff that a “holy person” would be visiting and recalled the sight of Mr. Moran and Brother Gregory Havill, dressed in his monk’s robe, entering the agency while electronic house music played in the background.

“I think Brother Gregory felt he had arrived in a brand/digital advertising theme park and he was alternatively bemused and delighted with the ride,” Mr. Simons said in an e-mail.

Once at the planning table, cultural differences faded and the agency and abbey quickly agreed to focus their efforts on the Web. “We knew from the outset that this wasn’t going to be solved through traditional marketing,” he said.

Partners and Simons collaborated with BPI, a film production company, to create online videos of the monks. The interviews were the building blocks of the campaign, Mr. Simons said, focusing on how the monks heard the call, what monastic life is like and inviting newcomers to visit. The goal was to capture “their warmth, their sincerity, their gentleness,” he said.

Brother Havill’s story, which revolves around a pastrami and Swiss cheese sandwich, plays a prominent role in the campaign both in print and in video. One of the print ads tells the story of a day 10 years ago when, while waiting for his sandwich to warm up in the microwave, Brother Havill says he heard the call to “go to Portsmouth.”

Having dabbled in genealogy, Brother Havill thought the Portsmouth in question was the port in England that many of his ancestors had traveled through on their way to the United States. But when he woke up the next morning, he said, he realized the message was for the Benedictine monastery at Portsmouth Abby.

“I didn’t have any plans to become a monk or anything like that,” said Brother Havill, who at the time was an art teacher and sculptor living alone in Cromwell, Conn.

The abbey is attached to a co-ed high school called the Portsmouth Abbey School, where two-thirds of the students live on the grounds. Some of the monks, including Brother Havill, who uses an iPad to teach art, work there. The monks can use technology to teach or for work, Brother Havill said, but “you won’t find monks out there playing with their iPads.”

In addition to providing an education, Catholic boarding schools like the one at Portsmouth also served another purpose.

“In the old days, they would just have kids there that they would educate, and every now and then some of them would join the monastery,” said Francis Russell Hittinger, a professor of law and Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa. “The number has precipitously declined over the last 50 years.”

Beyond recruiting from schools, the abbey placed ads in publications like the Catholic magazine First Things and Religious Ministries, a directory of Catholic communities. When those didn’t work, the abbey took the path of many major advertisers — hiring an independent ad agency.

With this campaign, Mr. Moran, who is a graduate of the Portsmouth Abbey School, said he expected the Facebook page to invite users to learn more about the abbey and the monks and to help spread the word about them. He will help some of the monks, including Brother Havill and Abbot Holmes, to learn to blog, which they will do between the five religious services they observe each day, although he has decided they are not quite ready for Twitter.

“Not yet,” he said. The social networking tool “requires a regularity in posting that we would find very difficult to maintain.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 4/17/11

I am not a great philosopher
I am not an inspiring preacher
I am not a trustworthy handyman
I am not a devoted seeker of knowledge
I am not a very interesting person, full of adventure and vigor
In fact, I have very little to offer at all, from this broken body and mind

What I do have, at least, is a sense of compassion for myself, to be pursuing this path, serving the servants of the Lord, and trying to melt my stone-heart. In this way, by the natural course of things, I will learn to express and give the gift of mercy that I have been given. Let me become Your instrument.

Actually, when we boil it down, our life becomes compelled towards its natural nature, its attraction for the pure, sweet, dynamic, ecstatic, fulfilling, invincible love of Shyamsundar. The moment we begin to turn towards this, we are swept up by a tidal wave which ruins our petty, lost thoughts and speculations, our mental gymnastics, our blows for our false pride, and our sense of the bitter and selfish.

Into the eye of the storm, the inescapable whirlpool of nectar
It is the culmination of all aspiration, a Love tasted in drops and then waves, our whole vision and our whole being finding its perfection in our embrace with Him. A fervent compulsion that pushes every inch of our being towards the only reality, the only framework that matters.

Real compassion is also a compulsion of our devotion. It's not just a side-note, a stepping-stone. Its the essential foundation for the responsible, progressive, dynamic, loving devotee.

It's no use getting teary-eyed for your old hipster coat. This is my imbalance. Can I develop the vision and the courage to go deeper than the person I'm used to being? The comfortable is often the contemptible. I should be learn not to be afraid to shake myself up for my ultimate good, and I begin by holding an even keel, a patient gaze, and a tough but soft heart when my own habitual pillow gets unstuffed.