Thursday, September 30, 2010

Balance

Yogi
Your capacity to do good in your environment is directly related to your own balance and ability to maintain a responsible life. If you are excessively self-centered, you will be unable to focus on your commitments to others sufficiently. If you are excessively other-centered, you will diminish your own capacity to do good for others by depleting your energy and efficiency. All life depends on balance to sustain itself.

Finding your personal balance point is a lifelong pursuit. That balance point changes as you change your environment and as your environment changes you. Learning to build a sense of balance that carries from moment to moment of consciousness is the basis of many so-called 'spiritual' practices. Yet, the basis of this sense of balance is healthy brain chemistry, founded in a healthy body metabolism.

Those who are strongly habituated to physical exercise and proper diet tend to be more capable at achieving a sense of balance under stress. This is not spiritual. This is just plain common sense. A well maintained machine (human body) works more efficiently and is easier to fix when something wears out.

The foundations of any healthy daily practice are sufficient diet, sufficient exercise and sufficient rest.

The habits in daily life that build these foundations of practice require planning, setting boundaries and some routine. Meditation is rest for the mind and body. Reflection is useful time spent looking at the details of your life and planning better ways of living. Study is necessary to learn about how the human body and brain operate.

Part of being awake is the understanding that your body is your only vehicle in this precious life. It is all that you truly possess. It is also mortal and will eventually stop working, no matter what you do. Maximizing the usefulness of your brain and body comes with understanding how it works and then doing what needs to be done to keep it working well. As you adapt to this way of being, balance becomes more attainable. Imbalance becomes more evident. Gradually, you begin to maintain your balance less self-consciously. It's like riding a bicycle. Eventually, you can maintain balance and bring that balance to everything you do.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Violence

Mattapan scene
Here in Boston we are hearing about another multiple execution in our Mattapan neighborhood, a neighborhood populated for the greater part by Black residents, mostly African-Americans and immigrants. Is this a surprise? I say it is not at all.

The criminal culture of urban ghettos has been glorified in music and film for twenty years. Rappers and hip-hop singers flaunt their criminal pasts with god-toothed pride. Young children have been allowed by their parents to emulate these products of poverty and ignorance in dress and mannerisms. Computer game designers have profited in the millions from placing the violence of the streets on computer screens, to mesmerize young brains with images of extinguished human life. No wonder many of them see life as an animated smear on a computer monitor or mobile phone display.

Can police or schools turn the tide of media brainwashing? No. Looking at Mattapan's scene of mindless death of adults and children is looking at the future of urban America as long as guns are sold and children are indoctrinated in the culture of macho violence.

I do not play violent games. I do not patronize violent media. I disagree that violent team sports are a positive activity in any way. I have lived in violent cultures. I have been the responsible authority on violent psychiatric units. I have lived in poor neighborhoods, where street violence was commonplace. I see all violence, with the exception of personal self defense when attacted, as a crime against humanity. I believe that this is the place to start when trying to eliminate violent crime in a society. I also believe that American society is more primitive than some in dealing with these issues.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Greed

Photo: Peter Petraitis
Current statistics show that 50% of America's yearly income is earned by 20% of the population, those who earn over $100,000 a year.  Those living under the poverty line, 17% of the population, earn approximately 3% of the nation's annual income. Meanwhile, our Congress is dithering over whether to extend tax breaks to people earning under $250,000 a year, as though people earning between $100K and $250K are part of the middle class. They are not. That group is part of the wealthy class.

The "populist uprising" of the Tea Party and its aligned Libertarians centers on eliminating taxes and further deregulating business, so it may continue to drive wages to the cellar. Those between the 17% below the poverty line and the 20% above the $100K per year income represent the middle class, 63% of the population. A growing portion of that 63% are edging toward the poverty line. This middle class will not be served by the Tea Party or the Libertarians.

This time in American history will determine whether the nation will tip into the kind of republic found in the Third World, where the elite prey on the poor to maintain their privileged lifestyle. The Tea Party and the Libertarians, being financed by the 20% at the top of the current social pyramid, feel perfectly comfortable with allowing the nation to slide in that direction. A nation without a public health care system, without publicly funded higher education, without social security.

In my opinion, a humanist cannot support a political movement which facilitates greater disparity in the wealth distribution of the nation. Greed is not consistent with humanist values.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Militarism


A disturbing trend in current political culture is the carte blanche acceptance given to military service as a qualification to hold civilian office. Former Marines are greeted with the kind of deference given formerly to Catholic priests and ministers. We are seeing clearly that former deference to the so-called ordained was not deserved. I feel the deference given to veterans should be earned by more than wearing a uniform.

As a humanist, committed to peace, social justice and non-violence, I am very wary of voting for anyone with a military background. In order to wear a uniform, a person must commit themselves to kill other human beings at the command of a superior officer. This is a basic requirement of a soldier. Once the line of killing is crossed, a human being is permanently changed, in my opinion. That change is obviously not in the direction of peace and compassion.

The blend of celebrity, sex-appeal and militarism is a well-worn method for Right-Wing extremists to attain power in politics. Military veterans most often present themselves as soft-spoken pragmatists, coming from a position of the war-weary, tested hero. Usually, they are front men for social and financial conservatives, whose agenda never changes. More wealth for the wealthy. Less opportunity for the poor and socially responsible.

A veteran certainly has a right to run for public office. However, America is a democracy, which has constitutional control of the military by civilian leadership. The increasing control of the country by corporate power and the longstanding co-dependency of the military with the corporate industrial complex in opposition to the best financial interests of the general public raise are troubling trends. An alarm goes off in my mind when I see an increasing number of cosmetically enhanced veterans marching into the political arena with shadowy financial support.

I look forward to a day when the American military returns to a policy of defense of true American values of peace and protection of the rights of the common people in America. The current policy of the U.S. military is obviously centered on aggression and the promotion of American corporate interests abroad at a great cost to the common people of America and the countries it invades. Veterans coming away from that military culture cause me great concern, when I see them seeking political office.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Alcohol


Alcohol impairs concentration and clarity of thought. While I am not in any way moralistically opposed to alcohol or drug use, I feel I must acknowledge the impedance that alcohol usage exerts against mindfulness and clarity of thought.

Intoxication, even when mild, distorts perception. Sometimes, these distortions inspire new takes on reality, otherwise mired in unpleasant routines and depressed moods. However, for every positive hypothesis on the effects of drinking alcohol, there is a score of scientifically proven negative side effects of drinking. The liver, pancreas and brain do not fair well with regular alcohol consumption.

My own experience since giving up routine drinking of alcohol has been fairly clear. If I consume any alcohol now, usually no more than 4 ounces of wine, I feel the negative effects profoundly the following day. I feel cloudy and my nervous system responds haltingly to commands which routinely cause no hesitation in my muscular responses. I find that my mind is more easily assaulted with distractions. Gradually, after twenty-four hours, these effects pass.

A person who seriously wishes to maximize his/her mental ability and general awareness will avoid the regular use of alcohol. The science behind that choice is clear. For me, as a humanist in practice, the maintenance of a clear and present mind is essential in every moment of every day. Therefore, alcohol inhibits my effectiveness in my humanist practice.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Interaction

As we waken from post-911 paranoia, used by politicians with the help of the media to divide and conquer the people here in the U.S., social interaction in the public space may be the best antidote for the current overheated and exaggerated approach being taken in media and in Washington to the most basic issues. My daily walks in my new urban neighborhood present dozens of opportunities for basic human connection with my neighbors and other pedestrians.

What does it take to look up and smile into the eyes of an oncoming pedestrian? Does it really require courage or magnanimity? Hardly. It simply requires some effort and compassion in understanding that the reaction you may get has little to do with you as a whole person and more to do with that person's life condition. If you manage to connect and get a smile in return, you have succeeded in making that moment in human time more friendly and peaceful.

What is life but a collection of moments? I find working at making these moments open to positive human interaction supports my humanist ideals. By interacting with strangers in any circumstance with respect and acknowledgment, I feel less estranged and more proactively engaged in making the world a more peaceful and friendly place.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Peace


Personal peace is the foundation of a peaceful environment. Living at peace with oneself is a challenge most of us face for much of our lives. Learning to love and accept ourselves deeply with a commitment to bettering ourselves is a skill, born of hard work and, sometimes, pain.

The society around us complicates the process. Endless distraction is available in the modern urban environment. Economic pressures can also make free time a precious commodity. The contemporary obsession with money, entertainment and gadgets saps interest in meditation, reflection and quiet intimacy.

Spending quiet time with ourselves is an essential part of achieving personal peace. Reflection is not brooding. Reflection is careful examination of our own emotional states and our own ideas. Testing our assumptions and challenging our prejudices can only be based on honestly recognizing those assumptions and prejudices within ourselves.

These efforts lead to intentional openness to others, which brings greater acceptance by others. These efforts also lead to understanding our valid boundaries and basic limitations. Gradually, this process brings personal peace and propagates environmental peace.

Humanism


Humanism is not just a philosophy or just a social movement. Humanism is a creative and progressive approach to the world. The measure of our humanism is our commitment to the greater good through thought, discussion and action.

Humanism is not religious or irreligious. Humanism's focus is the betterment of humankind and the quality of life on Earth. The humanist's path to humanism, whether from religion or atheism or agnosticism, is less important than his or her path each day as a human being in harmony with other human beings.

As a practical humanist, I walk into each day with a humanist consciousness. This is my guide for my spontaneous interactions with other human beings and my environment. I regard this as my humanist practice. That simply means I am practicing being a better person in each moment.