Contact Us

Use the form on the right to contact us.

You can edit the text in this area, and change where the contact form on the right submits to, by entering edit mode using the modes on the bottom right. 

         

123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789

email@address.com

 

You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.

IMG_0944.JPG

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Empyreanism: The quest for awareness always starts within

Stephen H. Provost

Spiritual definitions have always been a bit of a sticky wicket for me. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring various beliefs, but none of them ever seemed quite right.

Most of them were theisms: monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism. ... While I found something to admire in each of them, I felt a bit like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit in the home of the three bears.

The problem is, it was somebody else’s house.

Exploring the options

The teachings of Jesus the Galilean often inspired me, but the dogma that grew up around him seemed at odds with much of what he said. What do you make of an admonition to “judge not” when Jesus’ followers these days spend so much time sitting in judgment? To “pray in secret” when so many condescendingly announce, “I’m praying for your soul”? To turn the other cheek when so many self-proclaimed Christians clamor for war?

Indeed, monotheism seems vulnerable to abuse by its very nature: The temptation to disguise one’s one biases as “the will of God” and attempt to force or intimidate others into heeding them will always be there. Not all monotheists succumb to this temptation, but enough of them do that it made me uncomfortable identifying myself with such a movement.

I found polytheism fascinating. The myths surrounding many gods in various traditions offer amazing insights into human history and psychology. They shed light on our attempts to explain the world around us and offer evidence of the connections we share with other humans and with nature. But I couldn’t take them literally. The gods were, it seemed to me, archetypes that offered important knowledge, but not actual celestial beings.

Pantheism was appealing – except for the fact that, if everything is divine, how is that different from everything not being divine? A definition that is all-encompassing loses its meaning. And its power.

Atheism isn’t even a belief so much as a philosophical statement: “I am without god(s)” is what it literally means. Atheists will tell you as much, and that’s all well and good. But it’s a negative statement, and I realized I wasn’t interested in defining myself in negative terms anymore.

I realized, at this point, that all of these beliefs related, in one way or another, to god(s) – beings presumably superior to human beings. Humanism was different, but it focused (naturally) on humans, and I was attracted to a broader approach that recognized humanity as just one strand of thread in a much larger tapestry of the universe.

The kingdom is within you, and all around you.
— The Gospel of Thomas

The Thomas revelation

I started describing myself as “eclectic” to indicate I was open to strands of philosophy from various traditions, but the description that always resonated with me most strongly was a saying attributed to Jesus in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, a work with ties to both Gnostic and mainstream Christianity:

“If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But rather, the kingdom is within you, and all around you.”

That sounds a lot like pantheism, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

In some quotations, Jesus refers to it as the kingdom of God; in others as the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” to the ancients meant the celestial firmament, or, metaphorically, the highest state of being. To say that the kingdom of heaven was within was to say that, inside each of us, there exists the highest state of being. But there’s something more: It’s all around us, too, if we only choose to recognize it!

Key to the kingdom

The key in discovering this celestial kingdom is recognition, or awareness, that it exists. Roald Dahl once said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” That might sound like you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias, but I’m convinced that’s not what he meant. The point is, unless you’re looking for something – even something ordinary like a loaf of bread in the supermarket – you’re not likely to find it except by a lucky accident.

The second-century philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer and mathematician, referred to the highest heaven as the Empyrean. It was a place of elemental fire and perfect light. Hence the Latin name, incorporating the words for fire (pyr) and the prefix for within (em). The translation could be “in the fire” or “the fire within.”

Within us, and all around us. The kingdom of God. For Ptolemy – who was not a Christian but an Aristotelian – the Empyrean was the seat of God – pretty much the same thing Jesus referred to. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian, either, since Christianity didn’t exist until after he died. The saying attributed to him in The Gospel of Thomas reflected an insight that transcended Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy or, really, any other belief system.

In fact, it wasn’t a system at all. It was, and is, a state of awareness and a gateway to achieving that awareness. The first step is to understand that the gateway to kingdom is within. This is because awareness always comes from within. Although it’s expressed in celestial terms, looking for the kingdom in the sky is futile: “or the birds of the sky will arrive before you.” This is why, I think, the saying is constructed the way it is, placing inner awareness of the kingdom before the declaration that it is also “all around you.”

The message seems plain: You won’t recognize the kingdom around you until you first become aware of and acknowledge it in yourself.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Heaven or hell

That’s where it – and you – are forged “in fire.” And it may feel more like hell than heaven. That’s why, I suspect, some turn away from it. The light from the fire is too bright, and the heat it generates too much for them to withstand. To recognize the kingdom is to recognize self, and only through that recognition can one begin to acknowledge the kingdom that exists all around us. Perception is the necessary precursor of awareness.

And awareness is not a belief system or doctrine or series of commandments. It is pure, undiluted understanding. But to go back to Roald Dahl’s observation: the belief that understanding can be attained always precedes understanding itself. Those who wish to find this magic, this alchemy of the soul, must first believe that it is there to be found.

Not in the sky. Not in the sea. But in the celestial core of the self.

Suddenly, the Psalmist’s declaration can be read in a whole new light: “You are gods; you are sons of the most high.” Not offspring of some old guy with gray hair and a beard sitting on a mythical throne in some external heaven. But scions of the highest celestial reality that exists within us and functions as the seat of divinity. The seat of self.

The spirit within.

When I realized the implications of this – that awareness, and the quest to attain it, was at the core of my being – I understood why the various “isms” I had explored all fell short of what I was searching for. Those “systems” shared the same desire for meaning, but each began by seeking it on the outside – in the sky or the sea, as Jesus said, or in a “holy book,” a sermon, a culture, a set of commandments or social expectations.

Hard work or easy answers

It’s easier to exist in an external system than in the fire. The answers are provided for you. You haven’t found them yourself, and they may not even apply to you. They’re like prepackaged fast food that has lost most of its nutritional value sitting on a shelf in shrink-wrapped cellophane. If you’re diabetic and they’re full of carbs, they could kill you. If they’ve lingered on that shelf past the sell-by date (e.g., are no longer relevant), they can make you sick.

If you start by looking within – by figuring out whether you’re a diabetic or allergic to peanuts or at risk of a heart attack if you eat fried food – you’ll recognize the kingdom outside: what’s good for you. It’s scary to look within, and there are plenty of people on the outside with their own agendas who want to keep you from doing just that – so they can sell you their prepackaged answers and get you hooked on them.

They often do this by offering to replace the scary aspects of self with a different kind of fear: threats of condemnation if you fail to do as they say. But such threats are false, and facing false fears never fostered growth. It’s only by facing the seat of your true fear – inside you – that growth will occur.

I call this dedication to awareness Empyreanism – or Panempyreanism, because it exists “within us and all around us.”

When it comes right down to it, I guess that’s what I am: an Empyreanist. I decided I’m done trying to make myself fit in someone else’s house. Goldilocks has gone home.

Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
— John Hurt as the War Doctor, "Doctor Who"

Momentum is real, and believing is the key

Stephen H. Provost

In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors trailed Toronto by five points at halftime. One of their three best players was injured and couldn’t play; their backup center was hurt, too. They’d lost the first game of the series and were playing on the road.

Yet the Warriors started the second half by scoring 18 consecutive points to take a lead they never relinquished. They turned it around.

The Warriors have done that consistently this year. They came back from 18, 17 and 17 points down in three separate games against Portland in the Western Conference Finals – which they won in four straight games. It wasn’t as though they played perfectly; they were simply able to change the course of the game when then needed to.

Anyone who doubts the power of momentum needs to watch the first six minutes of the third quarter of that game.

Momentum is one of those things sports analysts call “intangibles.” Practice, skill and conditioning can get you to a certain point, but if you lose momentum, none of that will matter. Just ask the Houston Rockets, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA, who missed 27 consecutive 3-point shots in losing to the Warriors last year.

Or ask the members of the 1974 Notre Dame football team, who appeared to have all the momentum in their game against the University of Southern California, when they led by 24 points just before halftime. USC scored a touchdown just before the break, but what really changed the momentum was when Anthony Davis ran the second-half kickoff back for a touchdown. That ignited a 35-point third quarter, and Notre Dame never scored again. Final score: Trojans 55, Fighting Irish 24.

Generating momentum

You can’t quantify momentum, which makes it easy to doubt its existence. The evidence is largely anecdotal rather than empirical, and it’s hard to tell when it might kick in. But it’s easier to predict who might grab it.

Take the Warriors, for example. They’ve made the NBA Finals five years in a row. They haven’t always had the league’s best record, and they don’t win every game. But, far more often than not, they get hot when they need to and win when it counts.

“Of course, they do,” you might say. “They have the best players.”

But here’s the thing: The best players tend to believe in themselves, because they’ve had success, and success begets momentum – which, in turn, begets further success. The lack of success, on the other hand, can generate negative momentum, and with it, feelings of despair. This leads people to stop believing or even stop trying, which is a sure-fire way to preclude success altogether.

This isn’t a new idea. The author of Matthew’s gospel quoted Jesus of Nazareth as saying, “To him who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

Growing up reading this quotation, I thought it seemed patently unfair – especially coming from someone who once counseled a man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. Then I realized Jesus wasn’t giving advice, he was simply telling it like it is. Momentum is a thing – not just in sports, but in life, and it comes largely from something else Jesus talked a lot about: faith. It doesn’t have to be faith in a deity; in fact, I’m convinced that it’s even more powerful to have faith in one’s self. This generates momentum.

Practicing faith

It won’t happen all at once or all the time, any more than the Warriors make every one of their shots. But it will happen often enough to make a difference – if you practice. That’s the thing: You have to practice believing, just like you have to practice whatever skill you’re using in the game you’re playing.

Cynics say you should “fake it till you make it,” but genuine belief doesn’t fake anything. It is, to quote the author of Hebrews, “The assurance of things hoped for (and) the conviction of things not seen.” There’s another saying, that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” I prefer a more positive spin: If you practice faith and practice your skill, you will find “it” – the “it” being momentum and, ultimately, success.

Yes, you have to practice both. Faith isn’t blind, and magic isn’t two-dimensional wish fulfillment. They’re more like keys that unlock the door to your success; catalysts that activate the main ingredient inside you. Imagine if the Warriors believed in themselves but never practiced. Would they beat anyone in the NBA?

Nope.

And on top of that, you’ve got to be in the right game. If you practice playing basketball in preparation for a baseball tournament, that’s not going to do you much good. A lot of people stop believing in themselves because they’re in the wrong game; they haven’t figured out that the problem isn’t with them, it’s with where they’re putting their energy. And that can be tricky. When does practice make perfect, and when are you just banging your head against a way?

You have to know not only yourself but your situation to answer that question.

But if you’re in the right situation, you develop the skills you need to succeed there, and you practice believing in yourself, you will find that sweet spot. You will get in “the zone.” And you will gain momentum.

You may not be able to quantify it or predict when you’ll catch fire, but finding momentum isn’t about predicting something will happen, but believing that it will. In the meantime, keep honing your skills, make sure you’re in the right game, and – in the words of Steve Perry – don’t stop believin’. The third quarter is about to begin. Take control of the game.

Our addiction to outrage only empowers the bigots

Stephen H. Provost

One unfortunate byproduct of the internet age is the rush to judgment: the pressure to decide – and boldly declare – just how despicable an act is before we know all the facts.

But if we can’t just blame the internet, not if we want to be honest with ourselves. The internet is a tool, one we use to justify our own laziness and focus our addiction to outrage. We want to be pissed off. We want to feel superior, to believe that we are best equipped to make decisions about other people’s lives.

When we aren’t.

That’s not the worst of it. Outrage is contagious, viral, if you will. Not only are people tempted into outrage by their own egos, they’re afraid they’ll be shamed shamed – right along with the original target – if they’re not outraged. If something isn’t condemned immediately, suspicion arises.

“You must be one of them. How could you possibly side with that (racist, sexist, homophobic ... fill in the blank) so-and-so? You must be just as bad yourself!”

It’s not hard to recognize the same kind of dynamic that led to communist purges in the McCarthy era. Supposed “sympathizers” were as bad the alleged communists. This isn’t far removed from grade-school scandbox mentality. Growing up in the 1970s, before advances in LGBT rights, kids on the playground were routinely shamed as “gay” if they failed to measure up to some social norm. And anyone who dared defend them was called “gay,” too.

The labels have changed, but the principle remains the same. The process has merely accelerated in the age of social media.

Mob ‘justice’

Mob mentalities weren’t built in a day. They were built in the amount of time it takes to film a video and post it on Twitter. It’s the psychological equivalent of arson: Drop a match by the side of the road and watch it incinerate everything in sight.

Case in point: CNN recently ran a story about Dominique Moran. I mention her name because it’s important, I think, to realize that people affected by our addiction to outrage are real people with real lives that can be turned to shit in the blink of an eye by nothing more than an accusation.

Moran is a 23-year-old woman of Mexican-American heritage, but according to the outrage culture, she was branded as “white” because it’s more convenient to be outraged at white people these days. We wouldn’t want to complicate the narrative, now, would we?

According to CNN, she was working at Chipotle when a group of black customers entered the store. Moran had seen video footage of the men “dining and dashing” in the past when a credit card was declined, so she required them to pay for their meal in advance. One of the men responded by accusing her of racism, then began shooting a video and later posted it online.

It went viral, complete with nasty name-calling and calls for her to be blackballed (“I hope you never get another job”) in the comment field. and She wound up being fired because, you know, outrage demanded it.

The outrage had taken on a life of its own.

Perfect storm

Modern outrage is the product of a perfect storm. On the one hand, you have a media culture built on the constantly shifting foundation of instant gratification. Social media enables it, and the news media perpetuates it. When you’re chained to a 24-hour news cycle, the pressure to be “first” in reporting accusations is immense – especially if it’s already trending on Twitter. If you’re out there “ahead of the story,” you’ll get more clicks, more viewers ... and more advertising revenue. The pressure inherent in “breaking the news” makes an earlier era’s rush to hit the newsstands first look like a walk in the park. And it makes mistakes all but inevitable. (For more on this dynamic, see my book Media Meltdown.)

On the other hand, there’s an understandable frustration with our legal system. When monied elites can run out the clock on justice by filing endless appeals, or use their resources to make legitimate accusations “go away,” is it any wonder mob justice becomes attractive? There’s a lot of truth to the old saw that justice delayed is justice denied, so it’s natural for social justice vigilantes to take matters into their own hands.

There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work. You wind up “winning” a battle with a straw man and losing the war against the monster.

At what cost?

The cost goes of our rush to judgment goes far deeper than Dominque Moran’s anxiety and lost job, or the other highly personal costs born by any individual who’s falsely accused. Because whenever we sacrifice an innocent victim on the altar of our outrage, it gives real racists, sexists and homophobes ammunition to argue that they’re being set up and persecuted. It uses real victims like Moran as an excuse to promote the kind of false victim mentality that attracts people to racist and sexist groups in droves.

If you’re a member of the outrage culture lamenting the rise in white supremacy, you might be part of the problem. When you point that finger to scapegoat Dominique Moran or some other person you’ve never even met, four others are pointed straight back at you. And if you refuse to admit it, the problem only gets worse – which will further fuel your outrage. And that of the racists on the other side. Vicious circle doesn’t begin to describe the damage.

In our rush to judgment against the Dominique Morans of the world, we give the real enemy – white supremacists, neo-Nazis, homophobes and their ilk – an excuse to dismiss credible accusations as merely another “left-wing conspiracy.” Worse, we give people on the fence an excuse to believe them. We can’t afford to do this.

The antidote to “justice delayed” is not “injustice imposed,” which is exactly what the outrage culture – fueled by media pressures and social media access – promotes. Our judicial system may be imperfect, and at times unjust or even corrupt. Still, that doesn’t mean we should turn the gavel over to social media vigilantes fueled by sanctimony, prejudice and their own fear of being demonized.

But that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Heaven help us.