Douglas Murray and sincerity

There have been times on this blog that I avoided covering speeches by those who I felt had been covered here too often. Douglas Murray is one such. He is just so good that I know before it starts that my rhetor hat will be redundant, that I will sit and simply enjoy the quality of his speaking and be interested by what he says. The only negative will be the feeling of guilt at this self indulgence. Who cares! I’m going to permit myself a little R&R.

A month ago there was posted on YouTube a speech that he gave at Secularism 2016 which took place on 3 September last.

Though not wishing to get mired in semantics, I feel relaxed with secularism more than with atheism. I believe in the concept of a soul, yet organised religion bothers me – not least in its endless bloody bickering. (What on earth possessed factions within the C of E in the last few days with its hounding of Bishop Philip North?)  Secularism seems to be able to live with private spirituality while not caring much for liturgy, and that suits me very well. On the other hand I mistrust fundamentalism in all its guises, and atheists seem too easily to become tiresome ideologues. The late Christopher Hitchens used to be sneery, and even the admirable Matt Ridley in his otherwise excellent book, The Evolution of Everything is so obsessed with “skyhooks” that tedium threatens.

Enough of that. What has Douglas Murray to say?

He speaks with his audience, not to it. He has perfected the current speaking fashion for what I call ‘conversational sincerity’. If I put my rhetor hat on, I register the personal idiosyncrasies, the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’; but as soon as I doff it they disappear because he absorbs me completelyThat for me is the mark of excellence. I discern no trace of artificial persona: this is the real man. It is a stunningly good piece of speaking – but then that’s what he always provides.

He is also very sound on his subject, and very wise. What I like here is how he is tailoring to his audience. He is always well balanced, but here even more tempered and moderate than I have seen him. He recognises that this is an audience with grownup perceptions, so he doesn’t have to ram stark opinions down their throat.

That video above represents fourteen minutes that I am glad I spent. I am also pleased to have spent it twice. I am also pleased to have watched the panel’s Q&A at the same event. I am also pleased to have watched two other speakers at the same event. It shows that it was worth indulging myself. I shall cover their speeches shortly.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev questions

On 2 January 2017 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube the video of a talk and Q&A by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. He had delivered it on 15 November, but they held up online publication in order to present me with a New Year gift.

I jest, of course, but it was a very special New Year discovery. Since I first critiqued a speech of his on this blog on 5 April 2013, I have featured him several times; but I have sought out videos of his teaching very many more times. I have seen him impart wisdom to questions, and I have seen him deliver big, set-piece speeches. He is particularly comfortable with the former, but can also be very impressive with the latter. Usually I watch him merely to soak up wisdom, but occasionally I don my rhetor hat. Having watched many hours of him I have found what I perceive to be a chink in his formidable speaking armoury.

This is not a set-piece speech. For one thing he is sitting, and for another he habitually precedes set-pieces with a brief chant which I understand is not exactly a prayer but a device for self-focus. Here he merely begins talking.

If I were in his shoes, I should do the same. This is not a conference with a clearly defined theme on which he can hang a message. His teaching is so wide and far-reaching that he could take his pick of scores of messages without knowing whether they would chime with this audience. Far better to deliver a decorum-creating homily, and then address questions. The homily lasts for a smidgeon over 27 minutes.

I mentioned a chink in his armoury. He often asks rhetorical questions, not expecting an answer and not getting one. But suddenly sometimes he does demand an answer. What is strange is that this often happens when the answer is glaringly self-evident. Nearly all questions, even the rhetorical ones are followed by –

…isn’t it – yes or no?

If you have your audience under your spell and they are immersed in deep thought, a question with an obvious answer is likely to be treated by them as rhetorical because they want to stay with their deep thoughts. Why then toss a stone onto the glassy surface of that beautifully still pond and break the spell? Most speakers would give their proverbial right arm to get an audience in that receptive mode. Yet I’ve often seen him break his own spell – including on this occasion.

Were I to confront him on the subject I have no doubt he would give me a string of reasons; but I think it’s a mistake and that he should not pursue unnecessary answers. And even up against a Great Teacher, when on the subject of speaking I am – naturally – always right…

Do yourself a favour and watch the whole thing. You may not agree with all of it. I think I may have issues with his position in relation to the question that begins at 47:20 and intend to apply some serious thought to it. I also believe him to be profoundly misguided with the ending of his preliminary homily: I fear that he is lazily following a fashionable piety. But an opportunity to stop for an hour and fall under that spell is always spiritually refreshing.

And I shall be forever grateful to him for having clarified a personal conundrum with which I struggled till I first heard him in 2013. I stopped struggling and began embracing it. He addresses it again in the final question which begins at 58:30.

 

Sam Harris does some shredding

In 2011  the University of Notre Dame in Indiana conducted a ‘God Debate’ between Dr William Lane Craig and Dr Sam Harris.

If you’ve a mind to, you can watch the whole thing here. I should probably warn you that it is more than two hours long, but in my opinion it is worth every second. Some years ago I covered here in some depth a series of speeches that made up an Oxford Union God debate. In terms of profundity this at Notre Dame makes that at Oxford look like a squabble in a Sunday School.

As a seeker after truth who cleaves to the mantra that emerged in this blog from the mouth of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “I do not know”, I find these discussions fascinating. I instinctively recoil from fundamentalism in all its guises, but I find listening to fundamentalists sometimes triggers creative streams of thought. Perhaps that is one reason for me to be such an uncompromising believer in free speech.

I prefer not to try to analyse two hours of deep discussion; but it happens that on YouTube someone has lifted one of Sam Harris’ speeches from the debate, and has posted it under the heading of Sam Harris demolishes Christianity. Shall we see?

Though quietly and soberly uttered, this is a powerful 11 minutes. It gives you some idea of the quality of the arguments that you will meet in the rest of the debate.

To me his most obvious weakness, and it seems always to occur in discussions of this nature, is in conflating religions with spirituality. They are not, despite what all religions claim, the same. The former are manmade attempts to codify the latter, and that process necessarily limits it by binding it into a particular shape. They each claim that theirs was a divinely inspired manmade shape, but then they would.

Harris does indeed here make a very effective job of shredding Christianity as it is taught – as the video claims – but he is attacking merely that manmade shape. To my mind he lays not a scratch on spirituality in general.

For instance let’s look at a small section that begins at the 50 second mark. This is the same tired argument that Stephen Fry offered here. Imagine a loving father standing at a kerb, holding the hand of his three-year-old toddler. On the other side of the road is an ice-cream kiosk, and the toddler wants ice-cream. The father will not allow it, perhaps because the road is too busy to cross safely, perhaps because the toddler has some sort of medical disorder causing an ice-cream intolerance. We can imagine very many legitimate reasons for the father to withhold this desired treat, but the 3-year-old cannot. At that moment, as far as the toddler is concerned, the father is behaving unkindly. The toddler is not in possession of the bigger picture.

If there were any spiritual entity, of whatever description, being the cause and the root of all existence – let’s, for the sake of argument, call it God though in truth it could be very different from any God that any religion has described – then it’s safe to assume that it would possess a picture bigger than ours. Now Harris’ argument in this small section, and Stephen Fry in that interview, sound like that toddler in ignorance throwing a tantrum. Yes, I am conscious that deprivation of ice-cream doesn’t have an obvious equivalence to thousands of deaths from a tsunami, but the abstract principle still holds. Now we see through a glass darkly.

This speech is a good appetiser for the whole debate, which I found deeply absorbing. Does it go anywhere towards crystallising my ill-, perhaps I should say un-, defined spirituality? No, but the seeking after truth is what matters. Like André Gide I mistrust any who claim to have found it.

Ephraim Mirvis ranks with the best.

The Oxford Union very recently played host to a talk from Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi to the Commonwealth.

I was eager to watch this, not just wearing my rhetor hat. I find it refreshing periodically to bathe my mind in the waters of matters spiritual. Though I harbour a gnawing uneasiness towards organised religions of all colours, I think it is good for us to suspect that there is some entity greater than us. To listen to a spiritual teacher whose apostolic succession covers many millennia can therefore surely not be time wasted.

 He is shooting from the hip. What did I expect?

Actually I always expect experienced speakers to shoot from the hip: it is easy, safe, and makes for an immeasurably better relationship between speaker and audience. Too often I am disappointed. In this case I would have been astounded if Mirvis had been using any sort of memory assistance. He is a Chief Rabbi who has elected to explain the five fundamentals of the Torah. What sort of Rabbi would he be if that needed prompting? Nevertheless merely a random dip into past postings on this blog would show lamentably frequent examples of speakers letting down both themselves and their audiences with use of paper.

Mirvis is good. So good, that I happily put down my notepad and just listen.

Almost immediately I learn the distinction that he makes between the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’. So startling is this discovery that for a few seconds I am guilty of tangential thinking. [I explain to my trainees that when an audience member’s mind goes off on a tangent it often means that the speaker has triggered it by saying something special; though while he is still speaking he needs to curtail that tangential diversion and bring the straying mind back to him – there are ways!]

Beginning at around 06:55 Mirvis has a message which culminates in a story that draws from me a genuine LOL. This is rare. Having been around for a few years, circled the block often, studied for my living all descriptions of entertainment and all types of audience, I very seldom laugh out loud. I get amused easily enough, but I tend to show it quietly. Mirvis made me laugh out loud. I might on reflection take issue with the message, but I tip my hat to the skilful delivery of the story.

Mirvis speaks till 36:25, and thereafter it is questions. I am very glad I watched all of it.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is not worrying

Every so often, finding myself in need of reflection and spiritual refreshment of a different kind, I like to examine talks concerning Eastern Wisdom. So it was that I found myself watching Sri Sri Ravi Shankar talking about Karma. This is not his first visit to these pages.

I thought Karma was simply a spiritual judgmental philosophy: behave yourself or else! How wrong I apparently was.

Mr rhetor hat is never far away. My passion for my work is such that though intending merely to soak up what he is saying I can’t help but register how he is saying it. Look at the way he lays out his stall so clearly in the first minute and a half. And look at how it leads like silk into the next section where he makes the distinction between good Karma and bad Karma, how the one can be used to drive out the other, but how even the good Karma must then be rinsed away.

“Rinsed.”  I had to use that verb – he made me. He weaves a vey clever parallel, beginning at 5:55, to explain why even good Karma must be evicted from your mind for you to be completely at rest.

His pace seems almost glacially slow, made slower by huge pauses, yet he explains more in twenty quiet minutes than I have often seen imparted in twice as many frenetic ones.

I love his final message. Having led us through a labyrinth of what Karma is, is not, and how best to cope with it, he finishes by saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

It is a little like my training. I very often say to my trainees that when you boil it all down this is just talking. And so it is. Don’t worry about it.

Rupert Sheldrake displays appealing eccentricity

On 12 January, 2013, there was a TEDx event at Whitechapel in London. One of the talks was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and was entitled The Science Delusion. This is the British title of his book which in the USA is called Science Set Free.

His talk came to my notice because TED later banned it. More accurately they removed the video from their YouTube channel, and someone else promptly re-posted it. There is a discussion on their blog on the matter. No doubt TED carefully considered the possible damage their action would do to their reputation for open-mindedness, and what they choose to include on their channel is their business, but surely someone there has heard what happens when you ban something. When the BBC bans a record it immediately climbs to the top of the charts.

When the equivalent happened to this video I waited a while till the dust had settled, the more calmly to examine it. Shall we now see what the fuss was about?

He’s barefooted! I love eccentricity in all its guises, because it shows a determination to plough your own furrow. It also suggests an inner self-confidence and calmness, though I find other things about his body language tend to belie this. His hands bother me, because they seem to bother him. When they hang at his side, the fingers constantly fidget – a common nerve symptom. I find myself willing him to put at least one hand in a pocket and he appears to hear me because his left hand goes into his jacket pocket. I think that this configuration could be a suitable ‘Happy Home’ for his hands.

He needs to find one, a default location whither to send his hands when he finds himself conscious of them, because if it’s the right Happy Home he will immediately cease to be conscious of them and they will do their own thing. Their own thing is excellent: his gestures are eloquent and strong. Being eager to doff my rhetor hat and just listen, I quickly do so.

He lists ten dogmas on which he maintains science is built, telling us that he will have time in this talk to dwell on only two or three of them. Nevertheless he is already controversial. Science is supposed to be built on open-minded inquiry, and scientists will claim it is so, but immediately we spot that his claim must be correct. Dogma-free doesn’t ban speeches that claim it is built on dogma. Who are these poor dears that made his case for him?

His principal target seems to be an idleness that has caused the scientific establishment to try to simplify science into mechanistic constants that nevertheless seem to defy them by fluctuating. And it looks to me as if I have made the same mistake by trying to summarize the talk in a single sentence.

I think I should stop trying to précis this: I would prefer to trail it. You need to watch it. It is intensely thought-provoking, and already I plan to buy the book.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev returns

In April 2013 Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia, hosted a talk by the mystic, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

He has appeared four times previously on this blog, and the first of those remains my most viewed posting. Barely a day passes without there being several visitors to it. Are they coming to study his speaking skill or listen to his wisdom? I neither know nor care, because I have the same question with regard to myself. I luxuriate in how well he speaks, but mainly listen to what he says about life. He does not have all the answers. If he claimed that I would spurn him. What he has is guidance on how we should seek our own answers.

The reason I am featuring him again, apart from merely indulging myself, is because he displays some fundamental lessons for all speakers.

He likes to begin with that chanting. The one time on this blog that he didn’t was his least successful appearance on it. I am convinced it is a focus device, a form of yoga if you will. It lasts about a minute, so it will also double as a hump-buster. The rest of us would have difficulty in employing it, but we all use what we can to get on a roll.

He looks other-worldly, but doesn’t sound it. This is because he absolutely isn’t. His Isha Foundation is a hugely successful business, for which he makes no apology but instead uses its riches to do much valuable philanthropic work.

He doesn’t take himself seriously. His philosophy, yes, his work, yes, himself no. That is such an important lesson for life as well as for speaking. There’s some lovely, gentle self-mockery. The self-mockery extends to beyond himself. Listen to the way he speaks about India. His love for his country is obviously profound, but that doesn’t stop him ribbing it. All of that will charm any audience.

He has a habit of asking what appear to be rhetorical questions, and then asking for an answer. This keeps the audience slightly on the back foot, but also on its toes. If you are on your toes you pay attention. It’s clever.

He is wonderfully adept at classic rhetorical devices. There is a long and elaborate anaphora series “If you become pleasant …” beginning at 12:35. These things are not only really easy to deliver because of their logical progress, but they are just as easy for an audience to absorb. Win – win.

He needs no script: he needs no notes: he needs no slides. Many people think that this is a magical trick, but they are wrong. It is easy: you merely need to know how to do it. He has structured this whole hour-long talk in a way that has each section following logically from its predecessor. Also he knows his subject. You know your subject, so if you likewise structured your material you would not need script, notes or slides either.

But I think the single most important lesson that he provides for speakers comes from who he is and what he does. This man is supremely comfortable in his skin – do we have any doubt at all about that? His very stock-in-trade is that inner peace that I try to get my trainees to embrace. Thus he spares not a nano-thought to himself, but simply focuses on what this audience needs to hear and how best therefore to tell it to them.

That is the ideal mindset for any speaker. That is why he is so good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to him.