Form and Content

There is an old idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It derives from the times in which people drew water, heated it, put it in tubs to bathe, and then tossed it out when the bathing was done. It means to retain the old values, those handed down from millennia, as the forms of things are so rapidly changing. The “baby” is the eternal values, the “bathwater” is the forms that no longer work. I am passionate about this. Of course, the forms need to change. If they did not, there would be no growth, and no growth means the end, death. However, that does not mean also abandoning the values and truths that those forms contained.  One of the areas in which the baby is in danger is religion.

 Religion is under attack.   Although no one has proposed to abolish the First Amendment,  laws are being advanced which require people to pay for and participate in actions which are contrary to their beliefs, and the public viewpoint of those who express religious beliefs is that these people are racist, biased, ignorant, possibly violent, and utterly unfit to hold public office; those who are supported by religious people are also deemed less desirable for office, as they are seen as being influenced by religious positions.  The worst examples of those who claim to be religious are publicized.

Religion has a bad name with people who see religion as harmful, the cause of societal ills, and who choose to be either agnostic/atheist, or “spiritual” but claim no form and often no company or group/congregation.  Religion is also under attack by the state, which would like to see all people believe and act the same because it is easier to govern that way. The state insists that any kind of religion not interfere with what the state says is right to do. Both, I believe, are confused.

Religion consists of two aspects, form, and content. Form is the structures in the physical world which define the expression of the content. Form codifies how a given people perceive and how they are urged to act upon the underlying aspects they perceive as eternal.  Forms are human and belong to the physical world. Forms are many and varied and sadly, their adherents often tend to quarrel about which one is better.  Forms are human;  they exist in time and space and are amenable to the effects of each.

Content is the core reality, the unembodied source that form encodes.  It is that core which mystics, saints, seers, master shamans, prophets, and bodhisattvas understand and have borne witness to for eons. Content is universal and crosses all expressions.  Content is not judgment, punishment, or condemnation.  It is loving, in an eternal sense.  Content belongs to the realm which has no boundaries of time or space. Content is like water or air – here on Earth, it needs a structure or form to contain it. Therefore, in the physical world, forms, or practices, have been made to hold it. Some forms have lasted longer than others. Some forms have also altered over time, even shifting shape from the basic content they were designed to hold. Of course, change is necessary – but so also is continuity.

Many people profess a form and are sometimes quite active in it and devoted to it and are good people. Yet, if all they have is form, and they do not understand or connect with content, what they have is essentially an empty vessel. It is no longer the whole.  An empty vessel, an empty form, is simply that. It is not religion as a whole.   Empty form is not connected with the core which gives it meaning, and thus can draw people into conflicts, judging and behavior oppressive of others. 

Some people have an understanding only of content – those who are “spiritual” without having either a private or collective form or practice in which to contain their content. For these, over time, the content tends to dissipate, as will air or water not in containers. These folks may have touched the essence of being and been thereby enriched, but without a container, a form, a practice, the essence will not be enduring for them.

There are many forms. Try the names of all the world’s religions. Privately created and regularly practiced forms are still others.   Positioning forms as subservient to the state, or trying to eradicate them, serves to weaken that which contains the content.  The content is essential to our survival and the survival of our planet.  Happily, more and more people are beginning to seek for and connect with eternal content to fill their forms, private or communal.

There is no need to ban or weaken religion.  There is also no need to agitate for the forms of one religion over another, or for the prevalence of the one position of the state.   There are win-win solutions if we only look for them. Each faith form is an expression, in a different language, of the same essential and ethereal content.  Better to recognize and respect all the forms and focus ourselves on perceiving and understanding the universal content and striving to live our lives accordingly.    That is progress, not the requirement of the state (or, in a theocracy, one form which is the state) for all to think and act the same.

It is time for people to come together in cooperation and respect, and to heal the Earth and ourselves with understanding and the creative energy from which we draw our being.   It is counterproductive to expect others to express their understandings in the same way we do, or to have the state decide and regulate expression of the truth.

Peace, Diane

An Apology for Arts

This Wednesday and Thursday, I watched the debates between the prospective Democratic candidates for president; mostly, they did not solve much, just argued with differing degrees of passion which one-sided views they espouse and will promote. (Republicans are not much better, although their specific issues act as alternative window-dressing).  Neither side seems to be willing to really discuss, without attacking each other, real differences of opinion on real issues so that change can be proposed that would satisfy the deepest issues of the respective sides.   At the same time, I have begun to work with a startup arts center that is currently only partly up and running.  I do this because we seem to have forgotten the arts in the pursuit of science, and I believe we are the poorer for that.   Hence, the following reflections.

We live in a world of complementary dualities, each of which is a part of a complete whole.  Light complements dark, sorrow complements joy, effort complements ease, sleep and relaxation (down time) complement our working life.  In life as in art, the negative spaces empower and define the positive ones.  Each defines the other, each gives life to the other, and thus in our world the whole exists.  They are sides of a single coin.

In fashion now are the sciences, currently called STEM, science, technology, engineering and math.  Sciences are concerned with the physical world, the observable and quantifiable.  They seek to understand how the physical universe is constructed, how it works, how it might be changed to adapt to circumstances, how it might serve people.   The sciences work with what can be logically proven or disproven through experimentation.   Together, the sciences have brought about immense and rapid advances in our understanding and in applications in our physical world. 

My grandmother began life in a world in which the use of horses was still common.  Before she passed, men traveled to the moon.  Technology in the present advances even more rapidly. The quickened pace of these advances comes at a cost.  In order to devote the amount of attention and cultural value to STEM topics and to fully support these rapid advances, we have largely neglected the partner of STEM, the arts.

Arts – visual arts, music, dance, theater, literature, philosophy and writing, to include some – are more concerned with that which is less readily apprehensible.  Arts apply themselves to our values, our pursuit of wisdom, subjective perceptions and emotions, and to concepts such as joy, beauty and existential truth.  STEM deals exceptionally well with the concretely physical; arts express marvelously our souls.  Both are necessary.

Our world today is unbalanced; some would say it is chaotic.   This is not amazing if we notice that we have neglected the sisters of STEM.  The whole cannot be complete while only half of it is fully accepted and appreciated.  Putting an “A” into the acronym “STEM” to make “STEAM” does little.  The four strands of STEM are still emphasized while the arts are lumped together and given lip service. 

At one time – my grandmother’s and maybe also my mother’s – arts had a greater place in our culture.  Schools gave emphasis to literature, writing and music.  Elocution, painting, drawing and crafts were also given instructional time, and exhibitions of these were valued.  Dance and theater were not only performing arts, to be enjoyed if one had time and money, but also often popular pastimes.   In private life, there was time to create beauty.   Math and science were certainly not ignored, but the whole was more balanced.

Not so today.  Schools emphasize and promote STEM subjects, and parents rush to enroll their children in STEM summer camps and extracurricular lessons. Arts in the schools are underfunded and minimal. Those who enroll their children in the few art camps do so mainly because their children demand that.  (There are also sports camps, some of which are neither STEM nor arts.  These, too, are more accepted than camps that feature arts.) 

We have lost something.  Social structures have lost center or direction as they change and grow.  Balance is good as change progresses; it keeps the change from falling into destructive chaos.  We have lost that balance, that sense of direction, that guidance system.  Some would say we have lost our soul.  Re-including and re-establishing the importance of what we have neglected can help restore what we have lost. 

Let us individually grow our whole selves, both the logical and the intuitive, with a sense of the wonder of the universe.

Peace, Diane

An Age of Machines?

Several days ago, I made a stop at the post office to find out if I had put enough postage on the letters I was mailing for them to reach their destinations.  Most post offices now have machines that can tell the amount of postage a given item requires.   As I was making the stop on the way from one appointment to another, I thought I would be efficient and use the machine rather than stand in line for the attention of a clerk.  To my surprise, the machine had been re-programmed; instead of telling me what postage was due, the machine now insisted I buy a pre-printed label.  I did not want a pre-printed label.  I had one stamp on each letter already; I simply needed to know if that was enough.  At first, I thought I was doing something wrong with this postal computer.  I focused, concentrated and tried again, several times. No luck.  The machine still insisted I buy a pre-printed label.  Frustrated, I finally left the machine and stood in a rather long line to get the information I needed.

If I am to believe what I am told, machines (especially computers or computer-facilitated machines) have been invented for our convenience.  Self-service postal machines, self-checkouts in stores, pay-at-the-pump gasoline pumps – all are there so a customer can quickly do his or her business without having to talk with another human being.   I use these as little as possible, as I like talking with people, so I am not an expert.  Yet, it seems that, at least in the post office case, the machine was commanding me – making me do something in a way I did not wish to – instead of serving me.  I am wondering to what extent that which was designed to serve us has morphed – or is morphing – into what we serve.

I am also in the process of looking for a summer position to provide me with work for the summer.  Many of the openings that I find online, such as data entry operators, or website maintainers, or operators of accounting software (not to include actual computer repair people), require people whose function it is to supply computer programs with information needed to keep the computers running at the top efficiency required by their employers.  These programs, of course, operate by methods and rules designed into their software, and provide their end users with specific and limited types of information.  They are useful, and they do calculate faster and store information in a less bulky way than paper files.  However, to what extent are they serving people, and to what extent are people having to adapt to and serve them?   I do not have a clear answer, yet it seems to me that frequently those of us who interact with computers, especially at the entry levels, are being required to operate using machine methods of process, increasingly becoming a part of the machines, perhaps beginning to become ersatz machines ourselves.

A machine does not need to eat, sleep or take a break.  A machine functions at high speed.  A machine requires certain specific means of interaction, but it does not require emotional support, such as compassion or appreciation.   In today’s workplace, what is being required of many employees, particularly those at lower or entry levels (even middle management) is an ability to work in tandem with a computer.   A high degree of competence in interacting with the computer (a machine) in the manner required by the computer is mandatory.  Being able to work faster and faster with complete accuracy is important.  Being able to accomplish more and more, even when necessary to continue without a break, and the ability to tolerate repetitive tasks is preferred.   Unless one is supervised by a sensitive middle manager, appreciation, compassion, personal interaction with co-workers is discouraged.  And as for compensation, which is not required by a machine, many if not most of these machine-like jobs are paid close to minimum wage, barely enough to house, transport and hopefully feed oneself.  Machines, of course, do not have many needs.  It would seem that some of us at least are being required to become like machines as we interact with them.

Medical practice, too, is more and more being run by computers and sophisticated machines.   Conversation is now often by computer interface, and it would seem that the doctor who can diagnose without a computer is a dying breed. AI, another upcoming development, draws ever closer.  AI is expected to replace many kinds of jobs, and whether people can be trained to do other jobs (maintaining the AI computers/robots?) fast enough to keep employed is another question.  Yet another touted invention and one of my pet peeves is the self-driving (computer driven) car, in which the passenger is to simply sit and give instructions in a language the computer understands and be driven from one place to another. All of this is billed as marvelous progress, but I wonder.  Are we not losing precious aspects of our humanity to this progress?

Perhaps things are not as dire as I am describing, and it is just that I am observing only that part of what is happening.  I hope so.  We do need our technology and our progress.  But if people would pause for just a bit to question what we are losing for what we gain, we might be able to keep more of what is precious to us from the past and present and still make progress into the future.  We are not machines. Keeping on chugging, faster and faster, without reflection is not the answer.   We, the people, need to retain our privilege of thought and reflection, and to maintain enough control over what we have designed to serve us so that our human needs take priority, for all of us.  An Age of Machines is not only destructive towards humans, but also inimical to the planet and its denizens.

It is time to pause, to observe trends and patterns, and to understand more deeply where they are taking us.

Peace, Diane