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Flakes

I hate when people don’t call back. As a writer, I deal with rejections all the time; it’s part of the business. But the non-returned emails, the promised phone calls that never come — these are the worst. Really, I … Read More

By / March 1, 2006

I hate when people don’t call back. As a writer, I deal with rejections all the time; it’s part of the business. But the non-returned emails, the promised phone calls that never come — these are the worst. Really, I see them as a form of cowardice: it’s easier to ignore someone than to tell them you don’t want them, or don’t want to offer them the help you’d promised. Maybe it’s just disrespect.

I work in several fields: I am a writer, a graduate student, an editor, an attorney, and the head of two nonprofit organizations. It’s not unusual for me to rush home from a class on the erotics of the Zohar in order to get to a conference call about open source software. As a result, I work within many different discursive communities, some businesslike and by-the-book, some languid and emotional. I have to watch myself, as I move between them, to ensure that I’m serious and professional sounding in the software business and “spiritual” sounding in the Kabbalistic one — and not vice versa.

I’ve noticed that the overwhelming majority of unreturned phone calls, unanswered emails, and cancelled plans that I experience come not from the supposedly cruel world of business, but from the spiritual and artistic types — people (and institutions) who produce “spiritual” literary products, create “soulful” events… and routinely drop the ball, change plans in the middle, and leave their partners hanging. On one level, this phenomenon should not be surprising. Of course, people who are interested in Kabbalistic chant are going to be flakier than those interested in making money in the high-tech world, and the institutions they create will be no less flaky.

Yet flaking isn’t only dropping the ball; it’s also exquisitely selfish, since it ignores the unkindness and unfairness that flaking out represents. It’s narcissistic, and egotistic, since it brushes off other people as soon as the attention is elsewhere. Isn’t spiritual work supposed to make one kinder, and more considerate of others — rather than so self-involved that flaking out on others is a part of daily life?

The reason I’ve scarequoted words like “spiritual” and “soulful” is that, as I’ve written in previous columns, these words mean very different things for different people. For one, it may mean studying text; for another, leaving text behind and working in the body. For one, it may mean “witnessing” more clearly whatever is happening in ordinary life; for another, it may mean deliberately creating an environment, or state of mind, that is contrapuntal to ordinary life. And while for one person, spirituality may be intimately involved with the cultivation of ethics and consideration, for many others, it is essentially self-involvement, in which other people are asked to understand that one is in this or that journey, or process, or whatever.

That’s what’s interesting about spiritual flakes — not that they are irritating, but that they are ideological. Because, far more interesting than the petty annoyance of flakes is how their doing so reflects a distinctive ideology of spiritual practice, which values softness, relaxing, and “being in the moment.” I want neither to complain about flakes, nor to condemn them, nor, really, to exclude myself from them, as my inner flake often runs my life. It’s possible that a world with too many flaky liberals would be much less violent than one with too many tough, mean conservatives. Beyond personality type, what are the philosophical beliefs that underlie spiritual flakiness? How do they grow, and diverge, from contemplative traditions? And would we all be better off if we were flakier?

1. Turn the hate around

There is no point in denying that much of the flakiness of “spiritual” people derives not from ideology but from personality. Just as some people are better at math, some personalities are just more temperamentally suited to exploring feelings in a group setting, holding hands and singing, and intuiting imbalances of energy fields than others. In my experience, they are also likely to be more suited to myth (not in the sense of something untrue; rather, a narrative which speaks to the soul on a level deeper than fact) and to the belief that true wisdom lies not in books but in accessing the stirrings of the soul. Spirituality is often imprecise, intuitive, and not amenable to rigorous, rational inquiry, and some people just prefer that. Maybe this proclivity is genetic; maybe it results from environment. Maybe, as some cynics like to say, it results from an inability to experience love, meaning, and self-acceptance through more conventional methods.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the non-rational. As I wrote several years ago in an essay on “Energy,” there is obviously quite a lot in the observable world that does not conform to rational or scientific categories; while perhaps the precise maps of chakras, ch’i, and the rest may be incorrect, the phenomena that they describe are real, and skepticism is often less scientific than a form of emotionally-grounded willful blindness. Moreover, even if one day we will understand, in a scientific way, the neurophysiology of love — would one think that a life well lived is one that reduces love to neurons? Surely not. The intuitive, the imprecise, and the emotional not only have their place; they may have a central place in the actual lived experience of a well-developed human being.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that cultivating the flaky mode of spiritual and emotional openness is as important to living fully as cultivating the intellect or the body. There are no prestigious degrees for being able to cry in front of strangers. But as someone who has worked (and obtained) both the degree and the ability, I think maybe there ought to be. An integrated life means developing the self in all of its faculties, pursuing “emotional excellence” as seriously as intellectual, or financial, excellence. And it isn’t easy.

In the “square” world, however, the spiritual proclivities of flakes are often chalked up not to a talent for spirituality but to the flakes’ own emotional or intellectual inadequacies. I remember early on in my practice, how I used to judge the array of misfits who would come to spiritual retreats. Here we are, I would think, a bunch of weirdos, freaks, and malcontents, being told by our bearded teachers that we were God incarnate, or that we were the vanguard of humanity’s spiritual awakening, or whatever. Sure. Eventually, what I came to see was that the weirdos and freaks were little different from the socially inept people who staff university philosophy departments, or the emotional infants who are partners at major law firms. Just as the partner’s temper tantrum doesn’t invalidate his legal brilliance, so too does the weirdo’s weirdness not undermine her genuine spiritual insight.

But this is not the view one generally receives in elite publications like The New Yorker or at the right kind of cocktail parties. There, one hears that spirituality is pure delusion.

Perhaps because of the scorn with which the mainstream treats spiritual development, spiritual types tend to make their own mistake in return. Excluded by a world which regards spirituality as worthless, many of them regard the rest of the world as worthless. The professor of Kabbalah thinks the practitioners are deluded; the practitioners think the professor is missing the entire point. The medical doctor thinks the holistic healer is dangerously misguided; the holistic healer thinks the same of the doctor. Marginalized, criticized, and relentlessly mocked by the cynical, often-blind, and often highly cruel mainstream world, one can hardly blame the spiritual set for turning the hatred around on them.

And then, because values such as punctiliousness, steadfastness, and goal-orientation are symptomatic of mainstream consciousness, they too come under withering critique by spiritual people. Relax; get in touch with your deeper self; stop worrying so much; stop being a “human doing” and just be a “human being.” These are pronouncements one hears all the time, not just in the New Age, but even within more mainstream religious and social action settings. Punctuality is a symptom of mechanization, of digital watches and calendars. Seeing a project through to its end may often be “unhealthy for me right now.” If the trains are running on time too much, something has probably gone wrong.

A curious paradox then results: flakes simultaneously condemn the faculty of judgment, and judge people they perceive to be judgmental. This happens both individually and communally, in what Don Beck, Ken Wilber and others have called the “green meme” of human (and societal) development. The green meme is an advanced mode of human thought and development which values pluralism, listening, sitting in circles, and non-judgment. It is essential, and enlightened; it is the source of feminism’s reaction against patriarchy, of pacifism’s response to violence, and of democracy’s response to dictatorship. Without the green meme, we are doomed.

But the green meme also tends to be blind, not seeing that it, itself, is in a hierarchical relationship to that which came before — because hierarchy, characteristic of the previous stages of human development, is its great enemy — and not acknowledging how important those previous stages still are. Without collaboration, cooperation, and some measure of egalitarianism, we will destroy ourselves. But with only the green meme, we don’t get anywhere at all. Once all judgment is suspect, even distinctions that most green-memers want to make — gentleness is better than oppression, openness is better than prejudice — become very difficult to justify. Everything gets processed, but nothing gets done.

In the world of the green meme, flakiness is raised to an ethical value. Always answering emails? Too much linear thinking. Running four hours late to a gathering, as certain much-beloved spiritual rabbis used to do? A sign of good priorities, and an opportunity for the rest of us to turn off the scheduler and sing a little more. Green-meme flakes love that infrastructure in India doesn’t really work, because you have to relax and let life unfold the way it’s meant to unfold. They are suspicious of trying too hard to accomplish something, because the journey is the destination, and the process is more important than the product. ==== 2. Spiritual Poverty

Yet by denying the importance of some aspects of the self, the green meme distorts the self. Green-meme spirituality is, above all, opposed to the treadmill of corporate America, which squashes the soul and paves the Earth. And yet, in my limited experience of it, corporate America isn’t really a treadmill, because it actually does go somewhere. Even a treadmill accomplishes something, after all: you lose weight and strengthen arteries. Ten years in the corporate world, you don’t have nothing to show for it: you have anywhere between a hundred thousand and three million dollars. That may not be a green-meme value, but it sure helps pay the mortgage.

Some green-memers really have no use for decent homes, trips to the Caribbean, and dinners in nice restaurants. However, these kinds of pleasures exist because they speak to powerful human desires — otherwise, people wouldn’t pay for them. Obviously, the excesses of conspicuous consumption race far beyond actual human desire, and rich people are often as miserable as anyone else. But in my experience, it seems that people who are paid well for their work do a better job of returning phone calls. They’re less rushed, and perhaps less absorbed with questioning whether all this was really worth it or not. They may even have a secretary to help with the workload.

Of course, from the perspective of justice, this is the whole problem: lawyers who help corporations grow get rich and happy, while those who help abused women get temporary restraining orders struggle with the bills. No public interest lawyer I know would make the green-meme-spiritual argument that more money would actually be a bad thing. On the contrary; they think these benefits should be on the side of people who help.

Financial poverty is a form of spiritual poverty. Chronically-underfunded organizations are unhappy ones, and it takes an awful lot of job satisfaction to overcome the fact that you don’t have decent health care. That spiritual poverty, in turn, leads to all kinds of distortions of the self: to flakiness, to burnout, even to precisely the kind of rudeness that spiritual work was supposed to help diminish. It’s terrible that our society asks so many do-gooders to sacrifice so much. Why should one have to be a hero just to do some good in the world?

Of course, some spiritual traditions value povery, because it keeps one from being deluded. But not the Jewish one, which holds that spirituality should never be the source of one’s material living. Even the 106-year-old sage Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, who died last month, worked as a bookbinder to support himself — not to get rich, but to pay the bills. Maimonides was a doctor; Rashi was a vintner. L’havdil, I’m a lawyer, and thank God routinely that I do not rely on my Kabbalah teaching or writing for all of my means of support since otherwise I’d be even more envious, needy, and resentful. Having a “day job,” certainly in the Jewish tradition, is not an inconvenience, or a necessary evil. It is part of the spiritual path, both because it keeps one grounded in the material world, and because it is meant to provide one with enough satisfaction in that material world to be a balanced, happy person — whatever that means for each specific individual.

We’ve seen, then, several interrelated causes for the congruence of flakiness and spirituality: the ressentiment flakes have for the mainstream world and its values, the green meme’s emphasis on process rather than product, and the distortions that come from neglecting certain aspects of the self in favor of others. I’d now like to turn to how spiritual flakiness utilizes (and distorts) the teachings of two contemplative traditions I know reasonably well, Buddhism and contemplative Judaism. There are, of course, many other sources for green-meme, flaky spirituality: astrology, Taoism, Vedanta, paganism, you name it. But these are two traditions with which I’ve worked closely over the last ten years, and I think the way they are appropriated is representative. Let’s look at Buddhism first.

3. Feel-Special Dharma

Buddhism as practiced in Asia is greatly, perhaps overly, aware that it is a path, with a beginning, middle, and a hoped-for end. One really does make progress (hopefully), even though one does so precisely by letting go of the idea of “progress.” It’s tricky, because “advancing” means a greater and greater understanding that there is no such thing as advancing. But there is still a path. There is also, of course, a seriousness to the practice. One doesn’t go on retreat now and then, because why not, it sounds nice, my soul is in the mood for it. One goes, and one sits, and, ideally, one is serious about attaining liberation from the chains of attachment and thirst (tanha, the urgent, consuming desire for the pleasant).

This is how Buddhism came to the West, too — initially. We may have an image of hippies from the 60’s meditating in between hits from the hookah, and indeed there is some truth to that image, but the ones who became today’s leading meditation teachers actually devoted years to concentrated, devoted practice, generally spending years in Asia. And the original Bodhidharmas who brought Buddhism to America — D.T. Suzuki and his ilk — were not easy teachers. Yes, they taught acceptance, yielding, and nonviolence — but you had to work hard at it.

However, as we’re seeing today with the Kabbalah (more on that below), difficult dharma doesn’t sell, either commercially or psychologically. And so, within two decades, Buddhism, and meditation more generally, came to mean something that you could do in your spare time, almost like a hobby. This shift wasn’t for purely economic reasons; There were at least three ideological, non-economic reasons for the flake-ization of Buddhism, as it is understood by sincere practitioners in the West.

First, Asian Buddhism grew up in its societal context; many of the strictures of Theravadan Buddhism, and the hierarchies of Tibetan Buddhism, legitimately came to be seen as more products of their societies than essential parts of the dharma. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once quipped, if Buddhism came to America the way Judaism did, no one would ever have taken it up. It’s often sexist, sometimes classist and even feudal, and tied to a society that valued the monastic way of life in a way American society never has. Much of Buddhist practice had a sharp distinction between monks, who pursued enlightenment, and householders, who supported the monks. This did not work well with American values. We all want to have our cake and negate it too — why can’t I pursue enlightenment and the American dream of financial security, accomplishment, and personal achievement? And whatever our economic reality, we don’t like feudalism in principle. So Buddhist doctrines shifted, either to beliefs that you can be fully enlightened even while living a conventional Western life, or to a more incrementalist approach to Buddhist practice, which sees a lot of value in “leaning back” — in desiring less, in getting trapped less — even if “full enlightenment” is no longer the goal.

These moderated, perhaps “watered-down” practices do work, remarkably well. I teach a class called “Meditation on the Run,” in which students learn simple meditation practices that can, indeed, be squeezed right into an existing, rushed life. They work: you can be calmer and happier even if you just do walking meditation for thirty seconds on a subway platform. Certainly, even just by going on a week’s retreat twice a year, you can experience intensely blissful mindstates, become more compassionate, even begin to loosen the identification with the small, egoic self. But none of this means “don’t worry be happy.”

Second, and as an unintended consequence of the first factor, meditation became confused with a spa. On the one hand, it can have some very pleasant side-effects: bliss, joy, and relaxation, to name a few. And on the other, the Buddha is saying it will release you from suffering — just like a good spa! The dharma has devolved to such a point where “meditation” now means diametrically opposed things to different people — just like the word “spirituality.” It means both stopping thought and focusing on thought; both letting go of imaginary ideas and exploring and visualizing imaginary ideas; both appreciating the normal and leaving the normal to be special. The special feeling — that, I think, is the central relationship between Western Buddhism and flakiness. A “good Buddhist” is supposed to be really, really relaxed — so what if he’s an hour late to a meeting? You should let go of your judgment; hey, you could have used that time to meditate! Besides, I was late because I was on a vision-quest, in which I spoke with angels.

And finally, as the Dharma came to the West, it inevitably became partially absorbed in the grammar of the West, which is an egoic grammar. Spirituality became something to attain, or something with which to please the self. I meditate because it makes me feel good — and what could be more important than me feeling good? As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, however, this kind of spiritual materialism is very different from Buddhism. It feeds and enlarges the self, and it’s the self that’s the problem. At the same time, it must be admitted that spiritual materialism does get you somewhere: by letting go of the real world and entering an imaginary one, it can be a delightful excursion away from the unpleasant. Not a Buddhist one, which would ask you to go right into the unpleasant and work to accept it, but a very enjoyable trip nonetheless. And one exquisitely amenable to not returning phone calls.

These three distortions — domestication/watering down, a focus on special feelings, and spiritual egotism — together worked to create a form of Buddhism that is focused on feeling good, rather than on feeling whatever arises, and on reinforcing the green meme’s disdain for too much linearity and hard work. To be clear, very little of this is found in the actual words of Western Buddhist teachers. It’s more a symptom of what one might call magazine Buddhism, in which writers (including myself) are asked to explain the “benefits of meditation” in 500 words or less. If Buddhist meditation is poured into an unaltered Western professional container, then sure, it means worry less, relax more, and stop being so tightly wound up all the time. For most people, that is a necessary correction to a wild, high-pressured lifestyle. But don’t make a religion out of it.

==== 4. In Search of Integral Kabbalah

The religion of flakiness has also found a vocabulary in contemplative Judaism, chiefly that of Kabbalah. Here, the distortions are different from those of Buddhism, but instructive nonetheless. Kabbalah, in its essence, teaches about depth and balance. Depth in that there are many layers of reality, of which the visible one is only the most superficial. Balance in that both the horizontal and the vertical forces of the universe are constantly shifting, and are in constant need of maintainance and correction.

In the traditional vocabulary, depth is expressed in terms of the four layers of interpretation of scripture, the four worlds, the four souls, the vertical direction of the sefirot, and so on; it’s how the One relates to the Many. Balance is expressed in terms of the horizontal array of the sefirot, maintaining the Divine flow primarily by means of observing the commandments, masculine and feminine as well as the later Lurianic themes of breakage and repair and Hasidic ones of ratzo v’shuv (oscillating between Divine and ordinary consciousness). Of course, there are countless other themes in the Kabbalistic literature, but this will do for a start. And in the Kabbalah of flakes, both depth and balance are utilized in the service of negating the importance of “square” values.

Depth is perhaps the most obvious. If what’s happening on the material, observable plane is only the superficial skin of reality, why worry about it? It is significant only insofar as it reveals the much deeper, more profound shifts of the cosmic life within. Yes, it is important that an appointment be kept, but not (heaven forbid) because you are losing yourself in the world of materiality, but only because it has some higher purpose. If you give up on an individual project, it is meant to be. If you leave town in the middle of working on a group project, it is meant to be. The Kabbalah’s matrix of hermeneutical tools can easily be marshaled to explain why any development is “meant to be” — and this is what many Kabbalists themselves do, even regarding the most tragic of human catastrophes. Too much concern with gashmiut is a symptom of delusion, because it suggests that one thinks the material world is what really matters, on its own terms. And curlicues of “interpretation” are delights in the orchard of pomegranates.

The relationship of flakiness to balance is ironic, because here, the Kabbalah itself offers a way out of the green-meme cul de sac. The overwhelming majority of Jewish spiritual flakes, at least that I have encountered, are Hasidim — more specifically, neo-Hasidim, or those who combine Hasidic teachings with contemporary mores and ethics. Hasidism comes from the word hesed, which is the aspect of the Divine manifesting as lovingkindness, grace, suppleness, and extension of the self. (Interestingly, though in our contemporary culture, these values are usually gendered as feminine, in the Kabbalah, they are seen as masculine.) More love, more relaxation, more sensitivity; more openness, more extension. Now, in classical Kabbalah, hesed is balanced by gevurah, which expresses constriction, judgment, boundary, forcefulness. And in classical Hasidism, the hesed is yoked together with scrupulous observance of the law. But in flaky neo-Hasidism, hesed runs amok.

It is true that, according to almost every Kabbalistic teaching, what the world needs now is not more gevurah — more power and judgment — but more love. The Kabbalists devote much of their energy to the “sweetening” (really, in the original Aramaic, “perfuming”) of judgments, to avert harsh decrees and arouse Divine compassion. The impetus for doing so was less the desire for the Age of Aquarius, though, than for an end to the merciless persecutions and pogroms which tormented the Jewish people for centuries. Kabbalah was a literature of exile, and of course, they prayed for the exile to end, and for the harshness of Divine judgment to be averted.

Today, however, one might wonder whether the same imbalances are present in the lives of non-working Hasidim of haredi Israel, or the hippie-Hasidim of the American (and American-Israeli) community. As with the Buddhist world, the problem is not among dedicated practitioners who devote their lives to tikkun olam, to perfecting their spiritual traits, and toward a life of devekut. The problem is with the hobbyists. Exactly as in the Buddhist world, when the Kabbalistic-Hasidic worldview is simply injected into a pre-existing, self-oriented Western consciousness, the result is less transformation than tripping out. Spiritual practice becomes about “getting high.” Cosmological language is used not to question preferences, but to deify them (now that which one does not like is the klipa, the evil shells to be discarded). And hesed without gevurah leads to boundarilessness, flakiness, and, again, endless processing.

The irony, of course, is that Kabbalistic practice is about balance, not enhancing one aspect of creation at the expense of another. To be sure, the world may well need more hesed right now — more on that in the next, final section — but not necessarily in all cases. In a green-meme world dominated by spiritual materialism, narcissism, and “getting high,” perhaps what’s needed is not more hesed, but more gevurah.

5. But Maybe the Flakes are Right

Thus far, I’ve been pretty hard on the flakes. By way of conclusion, though, I want to entertain several reasons why they may be right — and admit that I really don’t know.

First, and perhaps most obviously, the culture of the flakes is a subculture, which cannot be understood except in relation to its dominant culture. Sure, within their own enclaves, the flakes are irritatingly soft and narcissistic — but those are enclaves within a wider society that is over-hyped, over-tight, and over-mechanized to the point of collective mass insanity. Maybe the flakes are too sensitive, green-memey, and unreliable, but they’re merely a counterpoint to a conservative, blue-meme world — a useful corrective to an overly uptight dominant culture.

Second, maybe the flakes are really right on the merits. If one were to translate the dharma into contemporary life (i.e., my life), one might say: Stress happens because of too much desire. If I didn’t have so much desire, I’d do less, rush less, and enjoy more. On a small scale, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to pack as much into each day. On a larger scale, I wouldn’t feel I have to achieve so much in one life. But both the simple desires, and the more complex ones, push me to push myself. Flakes, in contrast, are relaxed. Sure, things don’t happen as they plan — but if you worry too much about planning, you’re going to suffer. Stop being so ambitious — what’s the point? Who’s happier — the busy Germans, or the lazy Greeks? The achieving Bostoners, or the laid back boys from Georgia? Maybe the day-job, and the day-planner, are keeping me from my full spiritual potential.

Third, not only is flaking better for the soul, it might be better for the world too. Ask yourself, which would bring more peace to the world — a million squares or a million flakes? Sure, the squares would make the trains run on time; so did Mussolini. With flakes, the plumbing might always be broken, but there probably wouldn’t as much war. I know, conceivably there’d probably be a lot more disease, and all the other bad things that left-brain, blue- and orange- meme technology has banished from our lives. And if one culture flaked, probably another, less-flaky culture (like the Chinese) would gladly take over the reins of world capitalism, eventually leading to the demise even of flakes themselves. But if we could all universally miss a few appointments and not worry about it, I wonder if the world wouldn’t be a happier place for awhile.

Part of the problem is that flakes don’t leave a record of themselves; they rarely bother enough to finish works of great literature, and they don’t do a whole lot. Thus, looking back at the sweep of history, it’s hard to find records of great flakes. Like Shakespeare’s sister, whose genius was never known, the great flake heritage has gone unwritten for centuries, maybe millennia. History is written by the victors, and the essence of neo-Taoist, narcissist-Buddhist, neo-Hasidic flakiness is that you don’t care about winning. Only the rarest of books — the Tao Te Ching, Ecclesiastes — survive to carry the banner of flakiness, or at least rest it somewhere against a wall.

At the end of the day, there is always an extent to which flakiness will always be less about ideology than temperament and upbringing. Some people have to train themselves to work hard; I’ve had to train myself to relax. But as a personal matter, I feel as though a lot of it is a choice — or rather, a hundred small choices, made each day as I try to balance enjoying life and making something out of it, being and doing. I’ve met so many interesting teachers and followers of contemplative paths over the last several years, with many different models for how to achieve that balance. Some have secretaries and Blackberries; others literally won’t use a computer. To the extent it’s a matter of taste, I don’t know which taste I prefer. To the extent it’s a matter of skillful living, I don’t know which side is right.

These questions matter to me because I notice that I’m happiest when I care the least about the trappings of the outside world. When I’m working hard to fund this magazine, or get my work published, or advance my career in this or that way, I find that I quickly become trapped in envy and regret. Why didn’t I become a professor, like my richer and more respected friends? Why didn’t I stay with politics, and fight for what I believe? Why is that other, worse magazine getting so much more money than this one? On the other hand, I often ask myself the opposite questions. Why do I keep trying so hard? Why don’t I feel I’ve accomplished anything? Why can’t I be happy with the love and success that I have — let alone the beauty of a spring day in Jerusalem?

The question of the flake is a real one because it speaks to the pursuit of happiness. I think what I’m yearning for is the ability to work with the resiliency of gevurah and netzach, but with the ego still relaxing in hesed. I’d like to be reliable and committed, but with the open heart of the flake. I’d like to run spiritual retreats in which souls soar, but have them start and end on time, with appropriate funding and support. Spirituality and a spreadsheet, as I said to one colleague recently. As always, I’d like to have my cake and eat it too.

Perhaps the resolution of the problem of flakes comes in noticing the problem of the self, which exists almost entirely congruent with it, but on another plane of psychological reality. Both hesed and gevurah work well enough when the self is not involved. It’s when the ego gets invested that things become a problem. That’s when hesed turns into the oxymoron of Buddhist narcissism, or when gevurah turns into games of power and violence, including against the self. When the ego is lessened, then commitment isn’t about disciplining the self and adhering to some kind of code — it’s about remembering the Other.

That’s it, isn’t it? That even the Bodhisattva turns back — even the one completely enlightened looks back at the rest of us and has compassion. Kal v’chomer someone who’s not got as pressing an agenda as realization. But I don’t want to hide my uncertainty behind the ethics of Levinas. I think the flakes are narcissistic, but it’s not like I know any better. Responsibility feels like an anchor, keeping me moored in the realm of the real. But who knows — if the anchor were cut, who knows in what seas I might sail?

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