Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed.  
--Mohandas Gandhi

Our last stop spent a lot of time stating what Self-Possession isn’t, so let’s spend more time talking about what it is--and we can move on to the next stop on the journey, visiting a Theravadan Buddhist virtue sometimes translated as “Self-Possession,” the virtue of Sampajañña. 

Sampajañña is a word in the Pali sacred language. The 19th century English scholar Thomas Rhys Davids translated it as "attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension, circumspection.” This fits: We noted that Self-Possession has roots in Self-Knowledge, so it makes sense that Sampajañña, as a close relative of Self-Possession, has a necessary aspect of understanding of the self. 

But this virtue also involves knowledge of the world, and mixes the knowing and the doing. In fact, a famous modern-day monk from Myanmar, Dhammacariya U Htay Hlaing, says this about the word:

The word sampajañña is derived from the combination of three syllables- sam + pa + janna=
sam (rightfully, completely, by oneself)
pa (in different ways and means, specifically)
janna (knowing, realising).

Ven. Dhammacariya goes on to use the same analogy I used of rider + steed= Self-Knowledge + Self-Possession (although instead of a horse he uses an ox, of which I imagine they have a lot more in Myanmar!) 

So, what are the “ways and means” implied by Sampajañña? Another modern-day Theravada scholar and monk, Analayo1, explains it is to conduct one’s self with dignity and care, with a sense of purpose, keeping to a specific terrain and seeing the world and those in it with truth and clarity. Sampajañña implies awareness of the basic anicca (impermanence) of the world. 

Urk! A tall order, right?! Analayo’s “purpose” means the path of spiritual development. A person with Sampajañña not only knows who they are, they know where they are going--and not going--in life, and how to conduct themselves on the way. They not only know, they understand, and their actions in even the most minor activities, like walking, lying down, brushing the teeth, show this. 

One valid translation of Sampajañña thus might be “Behaving Mindfully.” In this respect, Sampajañña has something in common with the Martian virtue of Grokking--a topic that, yes, I promise, we will visit further on down the road (and not just because I’m a fan of science fiction!). Mohandas Gandhi, whose spiritual insights and self-mastery extended to a savvy political conduct that attained independence his nation, gives us a nice example of Sampajañña. 

How, then, do we realize Sampajañña? Knowing that Buddhist monks spend their whole lives in meditative practices to attain it, I’d venture it probably, like a lot of virtues, points to an ideal that we may strive to reach, even if we never quite get there (like Moses with the land of Canaan). If you were to ask the Theravadan clergy, they would tell you the road to Sampajañña starts with meditation. So, if you do not have a regular practice of meditation, consider starting one, as a first step on that road.

May we see the gates of Sampajañña and perhaps make a home there.

1Anālayo (2006). Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications, pp143-5.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Each man is a new power in nature. He holds the keys of the world in his hands... But he enters the world by one key...
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Lecture VI: ‘Self-Possession,’” Natural Method of Mental Philosophy

The natural second stop on this journey of ten-thousand virtues is Self-Possession, falling right on the heels of Self-Knowledge. It’s a close second; these two complement one another so obviously they are like fraternal twins (not identical, but close together).

Like Romulus and Remus, mythical wolf-child founders of Rome, Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession might be thought of as the founders of the City of Virtue. (Alas, Romulus ultimately killed Remus in a pique of rivalry. As an identical twin myself, I confess this is why we identicals semi-secretly look down on fraternals, like poor country cousins with mismatched socks and uncertain adherence to incest taboos.... No self-respecting identical would murder their twin! [At least not while sober...] I admit to jostling with my “monozygotic other” Kael esp. on “bad” a.k.a “no-coffee” mornings. But at those times I'd say it's a tossup as to which one of us truly qualifies as the “evil” twin. I digress...)

What is Self-Possession? The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as “full command of one's faculties, feelings, and behavior.” So, working the metaphor: If life’s journey makes a pilgrimage through the virtues, perhaps Self-Possession can be thought of as the steed we command to take us to desired destinations (and Self-Knowledge that which helps us direct it).

In his 1858 lecture on “Self-Possession,” American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson defined Self-Possession as speaking your mind, as opposed to parroting the ideas of those around you:

Your power in the world must be by and through your individualism. Opinions are organic. Every man who stamps his personality on his life is great and free.

As a child in the 70s, “be yourself” was an alembic in which I swam almost daily, and the Transcendalist fathers no doubt would have approved. (Imagine Emerson with braids, granny glasses, Jerry Garcia-esque tie dye, and beads. Kind of a homely hippy... no offense, Mr. Emerson!) Back in the 70s, the Sisters of the Presentation of a Very Special Mister Christopher Parish1 took us schoolkids to assemblies to see films like Free to Be, You and Me-- 
--paeans to the beliefs of Emerson and his followers. (Notice those 70s kids' horses are going in circles. Hmmm...)

A critic of Emerson at the time2 bashed his remarks for being 1) vague and 2) failing to give his listeners clear moral directions--in other words, mistaking the steed of Self-Possession as the map to the destinations of virtue, rather than the means of getting to them. The horse is not the rider, nor is it the destination.

Modern-day fairy tale expert Vigen Guroian, in his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, goes further, arguing that such thinking leads to a chaotic landscape featuring relativistic “values” of variable meaning, instead of virtues that are innate unto themselves. To work the metaphor: Imagine setting out on your faithful horse, Self-Possession, to attain a destination, say Valor, or maybe the Celtic virtue Iondracus (Truthfulness), or the Buddhist virtue Upeksha (Equanimity). And maybe you find it. Or, you can have such faith in your mount that after a full day of riding, you conclude that you have found the place you sought, wherever you wind up: “I now dub this pretty boulder-and-cactus Valor, property of the King!”

In other words, we’re not talking about “values,” a word that Friedrich Nietzsche invented3 to describe the behavior of his Ubermensch or “Overman” (an idea that found strong appeal among the Nazis). Chosen values may differ from person to person; virtues are solid qualities unto themselves. Mistake Self-Possession for the destination, rather than the way to get there, and Self-Knowledge transforms into Self-Delusion, and like the jealous Romulus, it kills its brother in a rage: Self-Possession is lost.

I give Emerson credit for one illuminating angle in his lecture: It is through the keys of individual people (mostly) that we find the gates to the virtues.4 Your mother’s Patience; your best friend’s Loyalty; the Joyousness of your pet dachshund--these are glimpses into Divine qualities. Some of these aspects shine out of us naturally, like cities found along the coastline. Others, if we are to discover and claim them, take a journey to reach and manifest. They are within our undiscovered country, and just like the invisible cities of Kublai Khan's far-flung empire, we can find them through effort. The marshalling of that effort is through our Self-Possession.

The image of the horse-and-rider, and even the term Self-Possession, makes me think of certain ceremonies in Vodoun in which a Loa (revered Spirit) can possess and speak through the body of a human being. This is literally called "riding the horse." (See the delightful Talking Heads song "Papa Legba" for a description.) (And because this is a happily ecumenical blog, I note that some Christian denominations similarly believe in ecstatic rites the Holy Spirit can cause a penitent's body to "speak in tongues"; in Reclaiming this is called "aspecting.") When we chose to take "command of our faculties," when we take possession of who we are in the world, it's a spiritual act. And I think it's only possible through the more fundamental quality of Self-Knowledge. 

This elevating effect of Self-Possession is seen in our living examples. If you ask people to describe someone with Self-Possession, often they will list world leaders, or famous historical figures who rose to greatness from humble beginnings--in other words, the lofty. But while we might not all have perfect Self-Possession, anymore than every horse can be the Lone Ranger’s Silver, we all have some serviceable amount of it, enough to move us forward. 

Today, spend a moment asking yourself, "Who represents Self-Possession to me?" Is it a famous general, a saint, a president? Is it a friend or co-worker or relative? How does their example inspire you to holler: Heigh ho, Silver! Away...

May we see the gates of Self-Possession and perhaps make a home there.

1 I’ll tell the story behind the parish name at a later stop, promise!
2 The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871, Vol. 2. Eds. RA Bosco, J Myerson. p. 117.
3 in his work Beyond Good and Evil, for those interested
4 I believe there are certain virtues that pertain more to the behavior of groups rather than individuals; we will visit the idea of "group virtues" later this month.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Know thyself!  
--slogan on the Temple of Apollo, Delphi 

I have chosen Self-Knowledge as the first stop, and step, on this journey of ten-thousand virtue-laden miles. Few world cultures list Self-Knowledge as an explicit virtue, but I think Self-Knowledge is a necessary ingredient for cooking up all the other virtues. Whether we’re making a cake or bouillabaisse, the recipe calls for water; whether we’re cooking up Humility, or the Jainist virtue of Akinchanya (Tolerance), or the Jewish virtue of Anavah (Modesty), Self-Knowledge is a necessary precursor.

Or, since I have chosen the metaphor of a road trip for this blog, consider the virtues as destinations on a pilgrimage. We cannot get to them until we know where we are to begin with, and our readiness to set out. We find our way using the compass of Self-Knowledge. It may be the ultimate root, the mother of all virtues. (I will visit the notion of “root virtues” at a later date.)

Speaking of roots, and mothers: The veneration of Self-Knowledge stretches its roots far back to ancient Western times. The second-century Greek geographer Pausanias noted that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi emblazoned “Gnothi Seauton!on its entryway--that is to say, “Know thyself.” (The temple had two other juicy proclamations: “Nothing to excess,” which speaks to a more familiar cross-cultural virtue called Temperance, which we will visit later in this journey at some length; and the much more controversial “Pledge and mischief is nigh,” which speaks to the virtue of Prudence and whose paradox offsets and deepens the meaning of the other two. But more on all of that later!)

Delphi was home to the famous female Oracles, who advised the meek and the powerful of the time. It may be no accident that Delphi was also thought to be the location of the omphalos, the “navel” or center of the world. (Which makes me wonder, where might we find the elbows of the world?...Or the uvula?... )

According to Greek mythology, a monstruous Python guarded the omphalos. The young godling Apollo slew the beast, and the grateful people erected the temple in his honor. The Oracles’ roots may have stretched back ever before the time of the classical Greeks, however: in his play the Eumenides, Aeschylus commented that the priestesses originally venerated not Apollo, God of Prophecy, but rather the primal Mother Goddess, Gaia. (This makes the presence of the bellybutton of the world at Delphi all the more appropriate, right?)

Not only prehistoric Pagan mothers embraced Self-Knowledge; ancient Christian fathers carried the torch forward, with their own twist. As the Christian philosopher Augustine exhorted, “Let me know myself; let me know Thee.” If we interpret the maxim “know thyself” as directing us toward self-reflection or meditation, there’s hardly a spiritual tradition from which the directive of Self-Knowledge is missing. The Zen Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma beseeched a seeker, “Show me your mind!”; Confucianism demands reflection on one’s self three times daily; the arduous vision quests of the Celts and the Native Americans delivered spiritual liberty, or else death. Self-Knowledge is a constant part of the journey, not just a stopover. Wherever you look, the pursuit of Self-Knowledge is seen.

Today, take a moment to consider how all our forebears, our mothers and our fathers, sought wisdom through the gates of themselves, and passed on their encouragement to all of us. Think about the ways in which those around you revisit the quest for Self-Knowledge, whether in reflection, prayer, meditation, or simply in testing themselves against the world.

May we see the gates of Self-Knowledge and make a home there.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


When you study and write publicly about virtues, you risk people’s assumption that you are setting yourself up as some kind of authority, placing yourself on some sort of pedestal. “If you’re such an expert,” you can almost hear them say, “why aren’t you showing us perfect ____” (fill in the blank: Humility, Frugality, Chastity, Fortitude...).

For me, it’s quite the opposite: I need to study these concepts, not because I’m overflowing with virtuous qualities, but because for a while I was on autopilot in my life, and I lost sight of them (and myself). As an exile, I’m drawn to the study of virtues, right now, like a magnet to iron. It’s a way for me to get back in touch with the Divine.

Who am I? I’m a doctor, living in California. My medical career started almost 20 years ago on the streets of New York City, as an AIDS activist. (By the way, my pre-med buddies were wrong: Civil disobedience arrests do NOT prevent you from getting a medical license. You just have to fill out more paperwork. ;-). ) On my path I have made camp in diverse Churches. I have wafted the incense-laden thurible at Roman Catholic vigils. I have sought Refuge in the Three Jewels from a Tibetan Buddhist geshe, and revere them. I have danced in the redwoods around magical Reclaiming bonfires with fellow Earth lovers, incarnate or not. As I get older I worry less about designating a single “home.” On the road, every tool in your kit has value. Increasingly, I treasure them all.

As for so many, the past year has held grievous losses for me. I have at times felt like I am the survivor of a spiritual shipwreck, washed up on a shore I don’t recognize. So I’m setting out to map the territory. I have a compass (Self-Knowledge), which like True North is more a direction by which to orient than a Shangri-La I hope to actually find and claim. I have a steed (Self-Possession). I have a mission, with no specific end in sight.

The appeal of the virtues, in this modern-day world of “values,” is that virtues are true destinations, not mirages. While perhaps not agreeing on anything else, students of the virtues agree the qualities have substance unto themselves. I need that solidity under my feet. The virtues seem as good a way as any to find the World again.

And so, we set off. Will it be a short excursion, or a lengthy expedition? How many virtues does the World offer us? If you asked an Islamic mullah, he would say only one: Tawhid, the sanctified all-pervasive Being that is the Divine. If you asked a Buddhist bhikkhuni, she would tell you two: Sati (Mindfulness) and Sampajanna (Self-Possession, which we will visit next week). If you asked Christian clergy, they might say three: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Ben Franklin says thirteen. The Jains say 15. The philosopher Comte-Sponville says 18. The Hindus say 22; the Jews say 48. The Basilidean Gnostics say 365.

In truth, I think there are many, many. When you factor in nuances of language and inflected meanings, it could very well be infinite. As someone who sees virtues as emanations of the Divine, how could I put a limit on them? So far, for me, it’s been like stargazing: the more I look, the more I see.

So, I’m setting out into the undiscovered country. Today is my 41st birthday, an auspicious occasion for embarkation. (As the Creator has a rumored inordinate fondness for beetles, I admit to one for prime numbers...) Like Marco Polo in the Invisible Cities, I will dispatch tales of the fantastic urbs I visit. The journey will involve a bit of linguistics, dash of comparative religion, a slew of history, oodles of Humor, a fullness of Faith. The road is wide. Join me...