A Matter of Style: A Reflection on Chögyam Trungpa, Steve Bannon, Derrida’s Spurs, Personal Identity (Are the Dead Made of Style? Are the Living?), and Reincarnation. Plus a Tiny Little Bit of Quantum Physics.

The word style keeps coming up lately.

I have two examples on my mind.

First, a quote from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that I heard from Acharya Richard John at Milwaukee Shambhala’s recent Chariot of Mahamudra retreat. Acharya John commented that Trungpa Rinpoche tended to discourage Western students on the subject of reincarnation, telling them that the person themselves doesn’t carry through from one life to the next, and that, when asked, what does carry through, Rinpoche answered, “A certain sense of style.”

Which is delightful, obviously.

And then there’s Bill Maher’s interview with Steve Bannon last night (betcha didn’t think I was going to go straight from Chögyam Trungpa to Bannon, did you?), when Maher asked Bannon what he thought of the President saying that Democrats were “horrible people” and “evil.” Bannon responded, “He has a different house style.” 

I’m not a fan of Bannon, but that line is also delightful. Maybe, as an editor, I just love the style reference.

However, I think this question of style is something we should reflect on. We usually think of style as something that doesn’t matter: style is just the clothes we dress up our actions in.

And yet, our style reflects who we are, how we are aligned, and generally, we want it to.

For example, my style is to be kind to everyone. It’s not because I like everyone equally well or agree with everyone on everything they say. Not at all.

It’s because I think kindness is the most skillful default setting, and because I think that those moments when I choose to be unkind should be chosen for reasons that are equally skillful. 

So for example, I chose to learn self-defense and martial arts, in part because I think that if someone attacks me, my most skillful action would be to stop them, even if I must do so in a way they find unkind. (In the course of my training, however, I came to think that my preventing someone from harming me is actually an act of kindness to them, because it prevents them from having the consequences of having harmed me–and especially so because I studied an art that has an ethic of doing the least possible harm while still remaining safe.)

But, is my kind demeanor a true and accurate reflection of my interior self? The answer would be yes and no. Sometimes I am quite angry and choose to be kind because I believe that it’s important to have the person I’m talking to actually hear me. Other times I am quite angry, choose to be kind, and the person I’m talking to doesn’t pick up the kindness because they can literally feel how angry I am and see my eyes flashing. (Like the time when I got kicked out of the Ozaukee County Courthouse for being quietly sarcastic to a clerk who flashed on the anger behind my quiet sarcasm–the office wouldn’t accept a cash payment and I had commented, “why, has Ozaukee County seceded from the United States of America?”–and she didn’t flash on my choice to channel my exasperation into nonviolent words–instead, all she could see was my anger. If you’re wondering why I was angry, come on, it says right on the currency, “legal tender for all debts public and private.” I expect state and local government to respect that.)

So, anyway, sometimes my kind style is a mask. 

And yet, my choice to put on a kind mask is simultaneously reflective of who I am on the inside. 

Editorial style books are like that too. Chicago style is elegant because to the Chicago Manual editors, elegant means clear, accessible, and accurate. Clarity is what the Chicago Manual worships as its highest value. AP style is choppy and abrupt because it’s meant for news stories and reporters love to deny you any and all context. “Hurry up and read this” is the AP’s highest value. (I’m not biased on this subject, at all.)

So style does reflect basic values. Though, I have to admit that my kind style does deny the people around me access to certain basic qualities that I also have: my tendency to be judgemental and Machiavellian, for example. The people who know me well who are reading this are undoubtedly laughing their heads off right now–“yeah, you’re real Machiavellian, Bonnie!” they’re thinking. But, I am, and the fact that I just told you I choose to be kind because I think it’s the most skillful option should tell you that. Because my actual style is to be kind, kind, kind, quiet, quiet, quiet, until you let your guard down, and then craft my words into the exact right precision arrow to shoot into your heart so that you are then forced to take those words literally to heart, and THEN you will hear me and you will fucking think about what I said. And I don’t know how you can be more Machiavellian/Scorpio/realpolitik than that. You just think I’m sweet because all I’m using are nonviolent words and not actual guns or sharp objects and because my agenda is one of caring but guys, everyone’s agenda is one of caring about something. But anyway.

My point is that Bannon’s comment, “He has a different house style,” simultaneously points at two realities that are equal and opposite and BOTH are correct and true. He’s dismissing the content of the President’s speech as mere style, on the one hand, saying it’s not important, it’s how he talks. And I think that’s true, that IS how the President habitually talks, and if you were to flash to the inside of Trump’s brain, you’d find a guy who sincerely considers himself “a nice guy.”

At the same time, Trump chose his own mask, just like every day I choose my kind mask.

He chose it.

Do you hear what I’m saying? Trump chose his house style. The White House didn’t impose it on him. In fact, he tossed out the regular White House style that was in place for decades, the style that we call “presidential.” He threw that out in order to instead adopt a name-calling, inflammatory style.

So his words are not just a matter of style, though they are a style.

Because our style is not nothing. It’s indicative of who we are and what our basic values are. Words matter and style matters.

When we choose a personal style, we say to ourselves, essentially, the most skillful thing I can think of to do right now is X. 

So Trump thinks the most skillful thing he can do is to attack, even though, and I don’t think people pay attention to this, attacking is not something he’s very good at. Or at least, his attacks are not precision tools, they’re more like bludgeons. He didn’t get to his position through skillful language use; he got to it through Republican strategists coming to him and asking him to run, through a lot of help from the Republican apparatus, and through timing. His style tells us that his world view is about people on two sides fighting, and tells us that in his view, in his world, you’re either a winner or a loser.

I’m not saying this to make a political statement, although if you follow me, I’m sure you’re aware of my politics and that I differ from the president.

But my point here is not that.

My point is, style matters. Chögyam Trungpa saying that what comes through in reincarnation is just “a certain sense of style” is very, very sly. I mean, to say that when, for example, my snarky friend with red hair and tattoos dies, that what will come through after she reincarnates is just the red hair, the tattoos, and the snark–well, isn’t that her? Is there anything to us other than our sense of style and the mind behind it?

You’re saying, “aha, but now you’re making reference to the mind.” Yes, I am! Thank you! But the mind is not “the person” either, if you’re thinking about “the person” and whether or not they come through as themselves to the next life.

But if you look at the mind and the style, together, then I don’t know what you see other than the person. You don’t get their physical body, that’s true, but news flash, you didn’t really get that in any life, anyway, because the physical body is constantly losing molecules and taking in new ones until it changes over all its cells completely–it’s more like waves rippling along a body of water. With every breath you’re breathing in new molecules (well, ancient molecules that may have been breathed by the Buddha or by Jesus, but you know what I mean), and breathing out ones that were part of you until that moment when you breathed them out. You’re not static. You’re not Mount Rushmore. You’re changing every second (I mean, so is Mount Rushmore, by the way).

While you’re reflecting, here’s another question for you: is this blog post about metaphysics? is it epistemology? Is it ethics? Is it aesthetics (which you’d think would be where style belongs)? We can’t really talk about any of the topics separately at all, can we? They’re stuck together like a tangled bunch of knitting.

Having begun this post thinking about Chögyam Trungpa, I end thinking about Derrida’s (published) lecture, Spurs. Because yes, I’m that crazy. Derrida notes, “the question of style is immediately unloosed as a question of writing.” (It’s always about words and writing with you, isn’t it, Bonnie? Or at least, that’s what the style of my dead husband is telling me right now. Write now!) Derrida points out that style has to do both with piercing and with the veil that is pierced, that style can be the weapon that pierces or the veil that protects. He refers to codes, to parodies, to the many intentions that may lie behind a given piece of writing, to the possibility that certain words may mean something or multiple things or may mean nothing at all–all of which must be considered, right?, when you are looking at a person’s words, mine, Trump’s, anyone’s words. Do our words refer to things, as we commonly assume, or are the words themselves acts of skill, as I’m arguing above? Derrida says,

…you could reply that one person does not make a code. To which I could just as easily retort that the key to this text is between me and myself, according to a contract where I am more than just one. But because me and myself, as you are no doubt well aware, we are going to die, my relation–and yours too–to the event of this text, which otherwise never quite makes it, our relation is that of a structurally posthumous necessity. And it is hardly necessary to know that this text is undecipherable for it to remain, at once and for all, open, tendered, and undecipherable. 

[The boldface above is mine.]

So when we think about style, what I see in ALL of this, is that we’re talking about communication. Style is the trace of the mind in action. Our words are tendered to each other, tenderly, but also tendered in the legal sense, sort of–we tender our communications to each other knowing that we may be quoted, that we may be replied to, these days that our words may be shared or forwarded, that we may through our use of words, incur a debt, that that debt is something we might later be called upon to honor. After a death, even the aspects of style that are not words, the clothes, the furniture, the STUFF, the papers especially (but then we’re coming back to words again), are hard to part with, because in the style of them there is a trace of the person themselves. People say that as long as we remember someone, they are still with us–and Derrida talks about forgetting too, and about lack of understanding, that someone might have the text, the words, and that it might be closed to them, folded up like an umbrella, or held over their heads like one, but still forgotten. But that’s not so different from spending time with people in physically embodied form yet not really connecting, keeping one’s thoughts to oneself or not being understood when one does reach out.

And meanwhile, we have quantum physicists saying that things don’t exist when we’re not looking at them, not in their solidified particle form anyway, that they revert into waves. And style is very much about what we see when we look, what a person wants to have seen when others look. Our style is fundamentally how we choose to be present, how we manifest, with people when we spend time with them.

It’s not totally unreasonable, I think, to say that when we appear to someone, we appear ONLY as style, while the desire to be intimate is fundamentally the desire to get past the style, to see what’s really under the veil, to ask, as in Phantom of the Opera, “Whose is the face in the mask?” So the question of personal style is very much tied up with personal identity: will others understand the clues that we leave for them in our style? What kindred spirits will decode the codes that we have just made up?

The Knight of Cups from the Darkana Tarot, along with its Judgement card, because isn’t style all about judgement? and others’ judgements of us? And the cat who sits on these cards every time I try to take their photo today. 

Basically, to bring this back to tarot, since this is a tarot blog, style is how we do our Knight of Cups moments. We throw some comment out, and some person hears it/reads it, and says, “what mind said this?” and then we reel them in, we make the connection. And to bring this back to death, which is often on my mind lately–we don’t actually need a physical body, to do that. We don’t even need to be conscious for THAT. You just read two dead writers in my quotes above–they reached out, they connected, they touched you, whether they are aware of having done so or not. Connecting with the dead is certainly not just about reading what they wrote when they were alive, but it can be that, that is one thing that it can be, because those words, that style, did leave a trace of that person. In fact, you’re reading this and connecting with me through these words right now, even though I don’t know that you’re reading it, and for all I know you could be reading this after my death, maybe even on some 3020 version of the Wayback Machine. “Our relation is that of a structurally posthumous necessity.” And really, ALL my words are dead words after I finish saying them. They are pointers to a time that has now just passed even while I’m still exhaling the breath that I spoke them with.

So think about style. Reflect. Style matters. It might even be the only thing that matters in the sense of forming substance, forming matter. Those choices of how to form matter, the shaping of matter–what is that but style? Style, with mind as consultant?

Your comments? Let’s see your words and your style! 🙂

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