Thursday, November 20, 2008

Entrance, Entranced

One benefit of working at a college is that sometimes you get to sit around and listen to smart, well read people talk about an interesting topic. Of course, usually these talks occur during an hour that's squeezed between several hours of teaching, office hours, and many hours of committee-work--not that I'm complaining; it's just that college is somewhat less leisurely than it's portrayed, say, in the cinema, even though college is, undeniably, a privileged place. Sitting around talking about ideas is a privilege. It is also a necessity.

Yesterday I listened to colleagues from departments as far-flung as Math, Religion, English, and Political Science discuss the topic of religion/spirituality--how spirituality plays a role (or not) in their lives, the extent to which it's become socially acceptable to mock religion of any sort on campuses, the extent to which religions are reduced to caricatures and then, like straw men, knocked over, and the extent to which a broad education requires some education in religion. One need only consider how little Bush II (a U.S. president, a graduate of Yale) apparently knows about different kinds of Islamic belief, and how this absence of knowledge may have affected his foreign policy (strategically and tactically), to take the point well.

The professor of religion mentioned that some yogis in northern India practice the following ritual: In Winter, clad only in a small piece of cotton and wearing no shoes or sandals, they walk slowly around a village. Then they sit in the snow and have a kind of friendly meditation-competition. Presumably, the temperature is at or below freezing. They measure the competition by how many blankets they can soak with their perspiration. They perspire because, through meditation, they can raise their body temperatures as much as 17 degrees. Apparently scientists have studied the practice, the phenomenon, the temperature-increase, etc., and although they have documented a factual basis, they have not yet arrived at an explanation of how the yogis can manipulate their physiology to such an extent. The point the professor wanted to stress, however, was not that this practice was somehow exotic or strange but that "there are things out there that we simply don't know" and that, to some degree, religion is one lens through which to examine such mystery.

So is science, of course. His assumption was that science and religion could and should coexist quite comfortably. He also opined, refreshingly, that of course students should leave college knowing something, knowing many things, but that, perhaps more or as importantly, they should leave college not knowing things--or knowing what they don't know, being comfortable with some areas of uncertainty, some mystery, and with that vast universe of things about which humans know nothing. He also quoted Nietzsche (by way of Freud, perhaps), who noted that when people don't undertand something, they often rush to "explain" it, take pleasure in feeling "safe" from confusion once more, and move on--having explained nothing, really, of course. This sort of thing may help to explain why citizens are so comfortable with political slogans, as opposed to more patient, subtle political analysis. Slogans "feel better" to the brain, perhaps.

Today, I was looking at a sign that said "Entrance," and then I associated it with the word "entranced," which made me think, again, about how fluid language is and about those yogis (one of whom is 80, by the way), essentially naked in the snow but sweating profusely, entranced, as it were. So I played around with a draft of a poem:




The entrance entranced her.

A portal, it projected a practical

sign of passage. A designed object,

it also evaded intepretation,

asserted its mystery. To pass through,

she knew, would be to know the entrance

differently. Entrances don't really

lead anywhere, she believed. They

are their own expressions of somewhere.

Entranced, she chose not to pass through

the entrance. Just yet.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

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