The Rite of Spring

Art By February 2, 2017

Here’s how The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ritual:

noun. A formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way. An act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.

Every year, on February 2nd, thousands of people gather in the early morning hours at Gobbler’s Knob, a few miles outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to witness a weather prediction. Men in formal wear pull a groundhog from a stump. This groundhog’s name is Phil. (Why not?) Tradition holds that if Phil sees his shadow, we’ll have an early spring. If not, we’re stuck with six more weeks of winter. One of the men reads Phil’s prediction in highly-prescribed language. The gathered crowd then rejoices or boos, depending on the outcome. This has happened every year since the 1880s.

Most rituals are serious events—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the like—but some are just for fun. Blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, for example, or gathering on a freezing cold morning to watch a large rodent predict the weather.

When we hear the word ritual, this is the kind of thing that comes to mind. There’s a formal, prescribed series of events or actions, special clothes, special language, etc. A ritual, in this sense, is not a part of our ordinary daily lives. It’s something special, different, set apart.

The Groundhog Day ritual is what brings Phil Connors to Punxsutawney in the movie Groundhog Day. As a TV weatherman, it’s his job to “present” this ritual to the viewing audience. Because Phil is forced to relive the same day over and over, he’s forced to re-present the Groundhog Day ritual over and over again, too. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that Phil feels that this ritual is beneath him.

If this is the first you’ve heard of Groundhog Day, I should point out that no one actually believes that the groundhog can predict the weather. We just act as if he can because it’s fun. The ritual involves some make-believe. Phil Connors comes off as a jerk in the clip above not because he doubts the accuracy of the weather-predicting groundhog. Rather, he’s a jerk because he’s not playing along. The point of this ritual is to be silly and have some fun and Phil is not taking the ritual seriously.

Confucius had a lot to say about these kinds of formal rituals, but he also used the word 禮 (li) in a broader sense. For him, 禮 (li) wasn’t like a set of “Sunday clothes” that we bring out just for weddings and funerals. He recommended bringing the same sense of attention, reverence, and good conduct that we associate with formal rituals to our everyday lives as well.

Oddly enough, by the end of the movie, Phil Connors’ life has become something of a ritual. He has adopted an optimal pattern of behavior for living virtuously in his one allotted day.

Confucius said, “Restrain the self and return to ritual (禮, li). That’s virtue (仁, ren). If for a full day you can restrain yourself and return to ritual (禮, li), everyone under Heaven will move toward virtue (仁, ren)…” (Analects, 12.1)

For his single day, Phil Connors is acting according to 禮 (li). In his last Groundhog Day, Phil not only acts virtuously, he does so with a sense of effortless grace and elegance. He is frictionless, floating smoothly from one virtuous interaction to the next. It is the best illustration of the Confucian conception of the intimate relationship between 禮 (li) and virtue 仁 (ren) I have ever seen. And like that conception, it’s much easier to experience than to put into words.

But, back to the quote, does the “whole world return to virtue” in Groundhog Day? Phil’s “whole world” in the movie is Punxsutawney. (Literally. He cannot leave the town.) Although he doesn’t bring about utopia in Punxy, he does have a profound effect on everyone he interacts with. He comes to the rescue of a carload of stranded elderly ladies, a boy who falls from a tree, and a man chocking on his dinner. He saves the marriage of a young couple. He brings joy and happiness to virtually everyone in the town through his art, his music, and his humor. And, in a scene that destroys me every time I see it, he gives comfort to an elderly homeless man whose death he cannot prevent.

Hold on…get your tissues. I’ll wait here…No, I’m fine. Just got something in my eye. 

By the end of the movie, Phil also exhibits what Confucius called 德 (de), a kind of moral charisma or moral power. In addition to helping others, he exhibits a positive sway over them. Again, it’s easier to experience than to put into words, but just look at how other people “brighten” in Phil’s presence in his final Groundhog Day.

And let’s not forget the more ordinary sense of ritual, either. On Phil’s last Groundhog Day, he has mastered his role in the ritual, retaining the fun while, at the same time, transforming it into a moment of deep and sincere gratitude.

Link: All of Confucius’ Analects on ritual (禮, li).


Say it in the Story

Fiction By September 19, 2016


…all that I could say of the Story, to any purpose, I have endeavored to say in it.

-Charles Dickens, From the Preface to David Copperfield


It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading…it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.

-Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review




Recommendation: The Science of Enlightenment

Uncategorized By September 19, 2016

For most of human history, a person who wanted to learn to meditate had one teacher who taught a single, unified approach, with a coherent set of practices and terminology. An American in the 21st century, however, faces a bewilderingly diverse array of traditions, each of which has its own practices and special terms. To complicate things further, many of these traditions use the same terms to mean different things and the same practices aimed at different goals.

Faced with this Tower of Babel, it’s easy to superficially jump from one approach to another, not sticking with any practice long enough to make any meaningful progress. It’s also easy to respond to this confusion by throwing one’s hands in the air and simply giving up.

The value of The Science of Enlightenment is that it gives one a coherent mental framework with which understand all the world’s meditation practices. This is the sense in which we can say the author presents a “science.” Just as the scientific classification of animals equips a biologist to make sense of a newly-discovered species, this “scientific” classification of meditation practices equips one to make sense of the bewildering array of meditation practices they are likely to encounter in the modern “marketplace” of contemplative practices.

The book is available here.


Grey House

Poetry By August 6, 2016

Grey house,
Black gutters.

Stand on the brick path,
And enjoy the cooling
Shower of the leaky gutters.


Fatal and Unmanly Slumbers

Life By July 9, 2016

I feel nothing but pity for the five police officers killed last night in Dallas and I feel nothing but contempt for their killer. I also pity Philando Castile, who was, by all accounts, an honorable young man. We don’t know all the facts in that case, of course, but his girlfriend’s account of his killing makes far more sense than the story we’re hearing from the police so far.

The shooting of Alton Sterling is much less clear. I’ve watched the video and can’t make much sense of it. The angle at which the video was shot and the low resolution of the video make it impossible to determine what happened, as far as I can tell. Was he shot unnecessarily? I don’t know. Do I understand why many people are jumping to the conclusion that he was? Absolutely.

It is high time for all of us to stop pretending that the problem of police brutality is simply a matter of a “few bad apples.” According to an anonymous survey of about 900 police officers from across the country conducted by the Department of Justice back in 2000, 84% of the officers surveyed admitted having witnessed a fellow officer using excessive force. I think we can all agree that 84% doesn’t represent a few “isolated incidents” or a “few bad apples.” And please note, this is not a number generated by Black Lives Matter or the ACLU. This number is from the police officers themselves.

Can civilians expect justice when these incidents occur? Not usually. Here again, let’s look at the data provided by the police officers themselves: 61% of the officers surveyed admitted that they “do not always report serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” Further, 67% believe that officers who report these incidents are given the “cold shoulder” by fellow officers. (Source: Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study.)

I’m not going to post links to every incident of cover-up, corruption, or police misconduct, but they’re out there if you care to look. My friends who are pleading for everyone to “calm down” and look for “reasonable” ways to solve these problems would do well to make some specific, concrete suggestions for how this can be done. For decades now, citizens have been searching for justice, only to be shut down by police departments, district attorneys, and judges who all seem to be looking out for one another rather than doing the right thing.

The criminal justice system is the “calm” and “reasonable” channel for seeking justice, but what exactly do we expect people to do when that system fails them? Shut up and take it? Here’s a passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that I think speaks to the present situation:

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers…

Many passages from The Declaration of Independence could be cited here as well, to the same effect. As colonies of Great Britain, we suffered injustices at the hands of the mother country and all attempts to address these grievances through the proper channels were denied. As a result, we turned to violence. This is the predictable course of events when people are denied justice. Unless real changes are made, we can only expect more.

Here are a few real, concrete things we can do turn things around.

  1. Stop passing so many damn laws. Police officers aren’t called “law enforcement” for nothing. Their job is to enforce the laws that our legislatures pass. Every law is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. When a new law is proposed, ask yourself if its enforcement is worth the injury or death of a police officer or civilian. (I suspect that most police officers hate enforcing many of these petty laws as much, or more, than we hate submitting to them.) As a rule of thumb, reject the idea of a “crime” unless there is a clear, direct victim. Vote for legislators accordingly.
  2. Don’t expect people to rat on their friends. It is unreasonable to expect fairness when police departments investigate themselves. It is equally unreasonable to expect district attorneys who work closely with police officers to be completely objective when investigating the people they reasonably view as colleagues. This is not because they’re bad; it’s because they’re human. Police misconduct should be investigated by independent prosecutors and independent review boards. Always.
  3. Use body cameras. Every police officer should be required to wear a body camera, for their protection as well as our own. Body cameras ought to be activated the moment the siren turns on and there should be an automatic investigation by an independent review board every time a camera is “accidentally” deactivated. We are constantly admonished that if we aren’t breaking the law, we have nothing to worry about. The same standard should apply to the officers who enforce those laws: if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they have nothing to fear from a video recording of their actions. (There have already been many instances of good cops being exonerated from any wrongdoing by simply looking at the tape.)

If you disagree with any of my suggestions, feel free to tell me where I’ve gone wrong. More importantly, please offer some specific concrete suggestions of your own. More memes and good feels aren’t going to solve anything.