Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween

Photo: Peter Petraitis
early frost morning
shining black branches quiver
clinging yellow leaves

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blindness

I was born with bad eyesight. Until I was nine, I lived in a myopic fog. When my eyes were examined at the insistence of a nun, who had brutalized me for not being able to read off a blackboard for months before having the epiphany that I might not be able to see the blackboard, I was found to have inherited the myopic and astigmatic eyes of my Dutch-American grandmother. In fact, according to an impressed opthamologist at the time, our eyes were a rare physiological match.

While I had mixed feelings about wearing glasses and the new stigma that brought to my life, I was relieved to find out that I was not "mentally retarded", one of many assumptions made by my family about my mental capacity, based on several unfortunate neurological traits I displayed in my early childhood. This did not stop my mother from frequently bemoaning the fact that she had conceived a myopic, as well as "neurotic", child.

I realize now that I would not be alive today if I had been born a member of any other mammalian species. Despite the blindness of my parents and teachers to my poor vision, human society protected me from predators and pitfalls. Though denigrated for my falling short of certain childhood norms, I was allowed to live and grow.

This was an early personal lesson for me about what it means to be human. While I had been brutalized verbally and physically enough to mistrust most human beings, I realized by my adolescence that I had been spared a worse fate by being born into the human species. This took the sting out of being an oddball. I believe the realization that human society often surpasses the goodness of the individuals in it has been the strong foundation of my socialist leanings.

Fighting blindness is an ongoing exercise for me today. After all, isn't that essentially what mindfulness is? It is so easy to be satisfied with my own vision of the world at the expense of my expansive curiosity. The mindset of "I've seen it all before" so easily blocks my vision of someone or something I haven't seen before. In fact, when I find myself saying, "I've seen it all before", I now find myself laughing at myself and the situation. I know my depressive cynicism has been triggered. I also know there is hard work ahead to overcome it.

This is all practice, my humanist practice, as I call it. So much of not being blind is opening the eyes to what is right there in front of you, then opening your mind to what it may mean beyond your assumptions or fears.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Center

Photo: Maze at Glendurgan Garden
Finding your center, in terms of mindful and compassionate practice, does not mean finding your ego's center. That center is called your identity. The center of practice is the core of your personal peace. Where does peace reside within your being? That is your center.Yoga, regular aerobic exercise, proper diet, abstinence from mood-altering stimulants/depressants, fulfilling sexuality and meditation promote the discovery of your inner center of personal peace, or well being. All of these practices are important supports for finding and maintaining your center. Personal peace comes with psychological and physiological health.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Insurance

Cartoon: Richard Mitchelson
The insurance industry is a symptom of a sick and alienated society. People in glass towers profit on human misery and gambling on its mathematical probability. This takes the place of mutually responsible and caring social structures. The American insurance industry in all its forms represents a corruption of basic human values in a capitalist society.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Multiculturalism

Frivolously superimposing the philosophy and rituals of one culture upon another is folly. Some enthusiasts of multiculturalism simplistically attempt to fuse their own native culture with another without true understanding or rational creativity. I believe this is counterproductive. This blurs cultural distinctions and diminishes cultural diversity, the joy of multiculturalism, the ability to leave one cultural perspective and visit another as a curious guest. Meanwhile, an overriding human identity, greater than any cultural identity, is sorely lacking on the planet. 

Photo: Kenneth Zerkel

For example, in urban America, segments of the intelligentsia have embraced Tibetan Buddhism as a model discipline. This strikes me as somewhat frivolous. Prior to the violent and unjust colonization of Tibet by China, Tibet was an ethnically homogeneous, rural culture subsisting largely on yak milk in a tremendously challenging terrain. The Tibetan Buddhism of that culture stems from that culture. It is interlaced with nature religion and superstition. While I believe that the meditative aspects of its tradition are useful, there is little else in Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan culture that strikes me as existentially informative, despite the fact it is complex and fascinating from an anthropological point of view.

The core values of secular Buddhism and secular humanism, when studied, are very applicable to urban life in a diverse population. These core values cut across cultural lines. And, these core values are applicable only if actually applied in a daily practice. This requires more effort and self-sacrifice than most Americans are willing to endure.

The core values of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Jainism, and other religions do not vastly differ. The cultural overlays upon those core values cause problems and strife. This is inherent flaw of multiculturalism. Defined and enforced subcultures in a fragmented multicultural society are potential wedges against overall cultural progress. Without an overriding identity, whether national or religious, human beings, when stressed and/or impoverished, tend to revert to violent tribalism. Bosnia, Kosovo and American drug gangs are prime examples. Yet, overriding national and religious identities have been shown to be disasterous to human beings who are perceived as "the other".

I hope someday the overriding planetary identity will be the human identity. This is a core value of my humanism. Universal human rights will be established when all human beings indentify with each other above nationality, ethnicity or religion. We are far from that, and I sometimes think that avid multiculturalism among the elite is more entertainment than an attempt at realizing greater justice and greater peace. I see little evidence of its effectiveness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Release

Holding on to objects and ideas which interfere with personal well being is a disease. A favorite Zen saying of mine is: "Disease is wanting more when you are full." But, being unable to let go of what we already possess or create in our minds is also a disease which weakens us and makes us dysfunctional in a constantly changing Universe.

Meditation, exercise and proper diet can make letting go of the weight of possessions or obsessions easier. Wellness is more effective than will power. When we experience the feeling of well being which comes with freedom from the objects and ideas which weigh us down, we naturally want to feel that way all the time.

I have had to learn to throw unnecessary things away. I have also had to learn to let go of relationships with people whose behavior toward me is not caring. I have had to learn to release ideas that keep me from being mindful and compassionate. These are elements of what I call "practice". The great exhalation of relief when freed from impediments to wellness speaks for itself.

When my life is free of distracting physical, emotional and mental clutter, I am able to look outward more easily. My mind is opened. My heart is more generous. My focus shifts to what good I can do in my environment. This is liberating and expanding. And, in being more engaged in my environment in healthy ways, I find my own needs are met. I have less need to accumulate things or accomplishments to prove my self-worth to myself or others. I am focused happily practicing my humanism in the moment.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Conformity

I speculate that conformity is a natural response to population pressure. Increasing population pressure makes competition for natural resources and the means to secure them more intense. Conformity is an alternative to hostility in securing the necessary means for survival. This could explain the ease with which people accept Fascism in difficult times.

My own life experience has been one of non-conformity in most areas of my life. Initially non-conformist by nature, not choice, due to learning disabilities and the effects of domestic dysfunction, I learned as a young child to tap my inner world for a sense of calm and safety. As a pre-schooler, I spent hours alone on the floor of an empty room with a pencil and paper. I drew my life in cartoons. Apparently, these early expressions of my inner life were so shocking to my parents that they routinely destroyed them, so they would not be seen by anyone else.

Punishment did not make me a conformist. It was the treatment of choice of the Roman Catholic nuns who succeeded my family as angry disciplinarians. My internal center remained in tact through countless attempts to pulverize my individuality into a conforming, grinning blandness. Attempts to make me into a "normal boy" failed every time. I persisted in being who I knew I was in my own consciousness.

Perhaps this is the practice that made accepting my own homosexual needs and desires quite simple for me at an early age. Conformity in the 1960s would have demanded my hating myself for loving men. I never did. Instead, I learned to hate the violence and psychological abuse that was employed to force me to become just like everyone else.

The new conformity has a cheerful face. Facebook has become one of its unintended vehicles. This is obvious as we see story after story of adolescents driven to suicide by Facebook bashers. It is obvious to me when I read my own Facebook home page. Antisocial and dysfunctional behaviors are sometimes applauded there without disagreement because they are perceived as "normal". I am left scratching my head, as I have been for over five decades, at the mindlessness of conformist behavior.

Being an individual with a social conscience is hard work. Most of us were not conditioned to live this way in America. We see the current populist abhorrence of individual human rights and social responsibility in politics on The Right. We are becoming a society of "Mind your own business and pretend to like everybody." I would like to live in a society whose motto is "Learn to be yourself and work to help your fellow citizens to do the same happily and peacefully."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Guns

The obvious solution to the murderous atmosphere in our cities is the banning of hand guns. Illegal hand guns can be concealed and trafficked easily. In the hands of a criminal or a drunk, a hand gun is simply a murder waiting to happen.

Our politicians are gutless on this issue. They readily bow to pressure from the gun industry, represented covertly by the NRA, which shouts constitutional protection at every attempt to curb gun violence. The huge traffic in illegal guns brings profit to the gun industry. No rational opponent of illegal hand guns will attack the right of citizens to own a rifle for protection of his/her home or for sport. Yet, the NRA rabidly resists any moderate measures to stop street violence in our cities.

As long as our public policy is determined by profit motives of individuals and corporations, we will be denied the safety and health we deserve as human beings. This is a key difference between progressive thinkers and conservatives. Conservatives are so obsessed with holding on to what they have that they are unable to honestly look at what they and their fellow human beings need.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Good

Being good is not necessarily doing good. Doing good does not always entail being good in the conventional sense.

For example, the culture of political correctness, currently practiced in certain media and more affluent segments of society, is rife with hypocrisy. Yet, I believe, this politically correct speech is a good thing in a society torn by inflated political differences and greed. I deplore the hypocrisy, but I accept the politically correct speech as an improvement upon demeaning speech. "Person of color" is preferable to any number of other descriptives. "Gay man" is preferable in the same way. Though racism and homophobia may exist and go unaddressed in circles where this speech is commonplace, I do believe it does serve to defuse some of the more hateful behaviors which get triggered by less self-conscious speech.

Other examples of being good vs. doing good are common in the greener circles of society, which also tend to be associated with affluence. Ecotourism is one of my favorites. Wealthy consumers pay high prices to stomp through virgin forest and scuba on pristine coral reefs. They travel by polluting aircraft or ocean liners. Their impact on the planet is far from good, despite their good intentions.

Yes, as my Roman Catholic grandfather often said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Intent, without accompanying personal development and mindfulness, has dubious worth. It is more often simply an expression of egocentric need. Being good to yourself and doing good in your environment simultaneously require serious thought and daily practice of what I call "humanist values". The development of mindfulness and compassion, in concert with intent, is a lifelong pursuit, comprised of each conscious moment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Celebrity

The politics of celebrity have merged with the celebrity of politics. This is very dangerous in a democracy.

Photo: USLaw.com
I recently heard interviews with participants in some of Mr. Obama's community gatherings, his attempts at appearing folksy in the countryside, where the Tea Party has manipulated the uninformed to support policies which are to their own disadvantage. Some of the interviewed participants spoke of being hugged or touched by Mr. Obama in a way that reminded me of teen-aged girls talking about The Beatles in my generation. It was quite creepy.

Mr. Obama is the President. Being President in a democracy is a job of a peer, elected to fulfill an administrative function as a civil servant for a defined period of time. A President is not a rock star. A President is not a quarterback. A President is not a Pope. A President is not a king or emperor.

While I admire President Obama as a human being who has worked hard for himself and for the American public in a difficult job, I do not see him as superhuman or ordained by a higher power to be a savior. Perhaps my job as a registered nurse over two decades with the desperate and the famous has shaped my views. I know that everybody has the same basic anatomy and bodily functions. I know everybody has insecurities and flaws.

If we all calmed down and stopped fighting for our "team" by growing up a little bit, the great divide of the true middle class, who are the heart and soul of a democracy, could be healed. This is contrary to the wishes of the wealthy, who are invested in the division of the middle class to maintain their dominance, avoid taxation and insure transmission of their wealth to their progeny. If we could untangle entertainment and professional sports from politics and government, we would all be better off.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Weapons



Cartoon: Alex Hughes
 
$60 billion in weapons are to be sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. government, pending predicted approved by Congress. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, a corrupt and repressive regime, kept afloat by petroleum politics and fundamentalist Islam. And, Saudi Arabia is our fair-weather ally in the roiling debacle of Middle East diplomacy. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabians were the majority of 911 terrorists.

The U.S. government portrays itself as a force for peace and freedom in the world. This is a propaganda lie. This weapons deal underlines the lie. Peace is nonviolence. Freedom does not exist in a totalitarian state.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Driving

I will be driving a car for hours today. Long stretches of roaring highway through peaceful fields and forests. Lulling the mind, sedating the body.

I don't like driving much. My mind goes to thoughts of all the other things I could be doing. This breeds impatience and frustration. Tailgating trailer trucks keep me from relaxing into meditative enjoyment.

There is no reassuring sense of belonging for me in a driving culture. Cars represent a failure of our science and technology which has deadly implications for this wonderous planet. This is partly why driving is a joyless activity for me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Farm

The Farm, Ilion, NY
I am on a farm today. Yes, a farm. My friends, Laura and Michael, are living on a farm, on which they are raising organic produce, which they market directly. An admirable form of right living. A demanding occupation of long hours and back-breaking work. While interacting with Laura and Michael, I see a clarity that comes with hard work and mindful routine. It's impressive.

How far too many of us have drifted from the basic work of living! We see food as commodity. We busy ourselves with our minds and have to remember to work our bodies. We prize our homes and cars without appreciating the labor required to produce and maintain them. The realities of maintaining planetary life and health are hidden under a layer of business and trade. We buy things instead of making them. And, as human beings and citizens of the planet, are are lessened by this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time

I believe the most valuable element of life is time itself. Since we live lives which are bound by time, it is the currency of our experience. How we choose to use or misuse our time determines the quality and depth of our human experience. And, our use of our time is our choice, moment by moment.

In terms of time, we are all like trust-fund babies when we are young. We have a wealth of time in The Bank of the Future, which seems to hold deep vaults of inexhaustible time. As we mature through the joys and sorrows of adolescence and early adulthood, most of us are far from frugal with our time. Then we reach middle age.

The slow understanding and acknowledgment that time is limited makes most of us more serious and introspective. We evaluate our use of time. We begin to use it more consciously. The more conscious we become about time, the more precious it seems. There never seems to be enough of it in a day, if we are engaged and active.

Then, with illness and old age, time becomes a mixed blessing. Old bodies hurt. Pain can make time drag. Slower minds find it harder to concentrate. Distraction and depression are present dangers to be avoided by greater effort and determination to stay active and engaged in a world that seems to be zipping by at breakneck speed. We understand that time cannot be bought or sold. We see the future, when our time will end.

As a person who has been in the company of many dying people in my professional life, I have been aware of the value of time for decades. I still feel challenged each day to use my time, this precious resource, consciously and to some valuable purpose. I have little or no time for fretting about time or anything else. I try to stay in the moment, cherishing, as I dsipense, the tiny coins that make up the greater wealth of my time. I carefully assess the value of the experiences, on which I am spending my time. If I waste my time on poor experience, there is no exchange or refund.

So, part of my daily humanist practice is a commitment to myself to keep track of and to honestly assess the quality of the experiences of the days. I find that my mindful presence in the moments of each day makes decisions about how to best spend my time much easier.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Perspective

Poets on Issa
Where there are humans, you will find flies,
and Buddhas.  Issa

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Science

I attended a lecture by Sam Harris, noted atheist free-thinker and neuroscientist, last evening at Harvard University. He was promoting his new book, The Moral Landscape, as well as supporting the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard.

Wikimedia Photo:
Sam Harris
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Harris's premise that there is a scientific basis for doing good which is more relevant and potentially beneficial to modern society than religion. I differ with Mr. Harris in my vision of social progress, as effected by science. I do not share his hopeful view of a scientific future.

It would be more honest of me to say I don't share his focus on the future as guidance for the present. I do not believe we can look to an optimistic future for motivation in the present to address social and economic inequality. This futuristic optimism has been shown over and over again to be unfounded in history.

While appreciating his sense of the evolution of humanity with the increasing body of applicable science in health care and social sciences, I am perhaps more concerned about the misapplication of science to weaponry, control of information and burgeoning overpopulation. These counterweights to the "good" of science are considerable. I don't see them being naturally diminished by some inherent human desire to do away with them. As long as money makes the world go 'round, science will most likely be its slave.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Politicians


     
Wikipedia Photo:
Christine O'Donell
In some cases, power corrupts. In other cases, power is corrupted by the crazy and stupid. This election season in the U.S. may be marked by the disappointing amount of fringe candidates present in the public arena. These candidates are preying on fear and anger, the staples of any dictator or mass murderer. I would suggest that discerning the difference between a fringe candidate and a candidate who promotes the public good is not rocket science.

A candidate who decries universal health care is a fringe candidate. Universal health care is essential for a healthy nation. A candidate who decries basic social security is a fringe candidate. Social security mechanisms put us in line with other industrialized nations with political stability. A candidate who decries government itself is clearly a lunatic. If a candidate decries government, he/she should not be competing for a government job.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Path

The core purpose of practice, as I implement it in my life, is to maintain my life's direction, my path. This is different from maintaining control of my emotions or my environment. In fact, letting go of controlling of my emotions has enabled me to be better at seeing my life truthfully and dealing with that truth. I maintain my own healthy body and home environment as best I can, but I have had to learn to accept disease, disability and recovery in my life as well.

Maintaining my life's direction entails looking beyond the next mountain that appears on the horizon. Climbing the mountains, rather than avoiding them, affords the best view beyond. Practice is the emotional, psychological and physical exercise that allows me the energy to climb the mountains in my path so I can see beyond them.

The path taken across life's ever-steepening mountain range of challenges leads to the same ultimate destination as the path across the flat plains of privilege or good luck: Death. However, the path through adversity to attain peace and justice is a journey to the limits of human potential and strength. I believe that walking this path in view of others furthers the cause of peace and universal human rights.

I will readily confess that I get tired. When I do, I rest. I have no illusions that this path stretches to a heavenly horizon or that it leads to some rewarding oasis. I know the climb will become steadily steeper until it ends. But, in a time when self-promotion and self-gratification are considered to height of human success, I feel walking my chosen path in the light of day is what I can do to promote compassion and social responsibility.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Equivocation

The problem with the current lack of judgment in American pop culture is its inability to discriminate between genius and outright lunacy. The "anything goes" mindset, polarized against Bible-thumping Puritanism, sometimes within the dysfunctional brains of single individuals, is symptomatic of mental illness. The evidence of this in the media is stunning.

This morning, I listened to a National Public Radio piece, somberly delivered, about Revolution Muslim, a fringe jihadist group in New York, founded by a (former) Jew, who did orthodox rabbinical studies in Israel. The punch line of the piece was, to paraphrase, "It's just a phase people go through." What? In other words, we all join murderous, religious-fundamentalist groups at some point in our lives? I don't think so.

What is the matter with America? How have our minds been so numbed? What happened to the American passion for common sense and frank speech? How has our intelligent public conversation become such equivocal drivel? Is their any wonder why some flock to the banner of exploiters like Glenn Beck and humorists like Stephen Colbert out of pure frustration with the general tone of news media in America?

There are some who would defend this new political correctness and narcotized blandness as nonviolent communication, enlightened conversation, above the fray of emotions. I think there may be some merit to this view in some circumstances. However, equivocation of criminal propaganda with religious freedom or passing phases is simply stupid. And, the lack of critical analysis in media reportage of such issues is symptomatic of a society which is simply afraid to be smart.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Steps

Choose your path with well placed steps. Leaping blindly can be dangerous.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cinema

I was very disappointed in Ben Affleck last evening, when I attended a movie at the suggestion of a friend. The Cambridge-raised actor, producer and director of major Hollywood films has recently offered us "The Town", a dreary epic of violence and the cult of victimization. I watched the film last evening in a crowded theater and walked away shaking my head.

Photo: Wikipedia
"The Town" is a euphemism for Charlestown, Massachusetts, a section of Boston. I grew up just across the Mystic River in Chelsea, an equally working-class city on Boston's northern border. The Charlestown of "The Town" is no longer a real place, despite the contemporary setting of the film. That Charlestown died decades ago with the gentrification of the neighborhood and the integration of the huge city housing projects with a more racially and ethnically diverse population. But, I am not upset by the film's anachronisms and bad accents.

I am disturbed by the portrayal of violent sociopaths as sympathetic characters, who are simply misunderstood victims of their environment. This does not bother me just because it idolizes bad behavior. It offends my intelligence because it is a lie.

The rapper culture that has taken root in America and spread like a virus around the world is a strange mutation of the rebel-without-a-cause culture that preceded the social revolution of the 1960s. The portrayal of criminals as misunderstood underdogs was charming and understandable in the previous Great Depression of the 1930s. However, we now have the science and information to understand that this economic depression is in part a result of the rapper culture and other erosive media messages, which have corrupted our government, our financial institutions and our own minds. The messages that 'bad' and greed are good have fertile soil in the minds of alienated human beings in industrialized, impersonal cultures.

And now Ben Affleck has added another fuming pile of twisted relationships, violence and crime to the heap we are already buried under by the mushroom cloud of capitalist media. As a humanist, committed to nonviolence and promoting peace, I watched in horror in the theater last evening as three African-American teenagers cheered at every machine-gun blast and death. We have just had an execution of five black citizens in the Mattapan neighborhood. One of them was a toddler.

The millions of dollars that were used to make "The Town", as well as the profits garnered from it, could rebuild the whole neighborhood of Mattapan in Boston. That amount of money, dedicated to youth intervention, education and facilities could prevent violence and create a peaceful environment for generations of citizens.

As I looked around at the relatively young audience, I wondered how many of them would vote Libertarian or Republican.  I wondered how many would be duped byTea Party manipulation to dismantle government regulation and fair taxation. As they cheered at the massacre of policemen in the film, I wondered who among them would stand up and protect a fellow human being from violence at their own peril. The answer seems quite obvious.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Compulsion

Compulsion to do well by others makes a person a valued citizen, neighbor and friend. Compulsion to nurture selfishness makes a person materialistic, greedy and a true friend to no one.

As someone with a compulsive nature, I have had learn to direct my compulsive streak outward. Through my nursing practice and my various volunteer jobs over my adult life, I have learned that the key to my own well being is investing my compulsive energies in doing things for others after securing the basic needs of a modest life for myself. I do not believe in or advocate for the value of masochistic self-sacrifice of burlap-clad monks, though I understand those individuals are channeling their lives in the way they see fit for themselves.

Living creatively in the world entails dealing with the world on its own terms. I believe that being change changes the world. By channeling my compulsions toward doing good for others in the mundane, material world, I feel I am being the change from selfishness to generosity. By intentionally fostering peace and love in my own life, I feel I am part of changing the world to a less violent and more just environment. This is the basis of my humanist practice.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Light

Photo: Peter Petraitis
In the Northern Hemisphere, our seasons are turning from warm to cool. Light lowers. Shadows lengthen. The air becomes infused with the odors of decay from dying leaves. Cooler nights condense the humidity from the air. Drier days with deep blue skies and crisp breezes result.

Watch the light. Note where the sun rises and sets. Appreciate the changes from day to day. Look up when you are walking. Pick a single tree or shrub. Watch it change.

So much of being truly human is feeling your feet on the surface of a turning planet in a vast Universe. Feel the true scale of your single human life. Breathe in deeply and exhale as you look around you at your planet, your rare, illuminated environment in dark Space.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Responsibility

What does it mean to live a responsible life? I have struggled with this question in my own life. I am not sure of any one answer, but I know the peace I have made within myself about my personal responsibility in my life.

One of my first lessons in adult responsibility came when I was twenty years old. I was clearly aware that I was born homosexual. I was living in my parents' home where homosexuality was considered an abomination and a Roman Catholic mortal sin. When I told my parents about my sexual orientation, their reaction was irrationally violent and rejecting.

I felt responsible for making this right, for healing this family which I had somehow damaged, according to their perception. I was accepting their perception as the correct perception. Though I was expelled from the home in anger, I returned regularly for a while to try to work things through. Each time I did, I was confronted with rage and violence. I was torturing myself needlessly. My perception of my sexual preference was not negative. I realized that my perception of myself was more important than theirs.

Luckily, I realized this before some irreversible damage was done. My responsibility to myself and to my parents was to walk away to prevent something horrendous from happening. My responsibility was to grow away from them to save myself. I walked away and did not communicate with them for three years. When I returned after that time, a very different and mutually adult relationships began between me and my individual parents.

This first success of my following my inner compass, tuned to the pole of nonviolence and love, set me on a path to a life of gauging and accepting responsibility in harmony with my heart, common sense and my conscience, which was informed by past and ongoing study of great religious and nonreligious ethical movements in history. My paramount responsibility on that path has been to be at peace with myself by loving myself.

Loving myself does not imply a narcissist's life of exotic travel, hedonism and weekend spa trips. Loving myself has meant taking full responsibility to nurture and  maintain my mind and body. The greater purpose for loving myself is to be capable of loving others and loving my environment. Peace for me is being in loving harmony with myself, with others and with my environment. While I seldom achieve this ideal peace overall, I do aspire to it in every moment, whether I succeed or fail. I believe aspiring to peace in each moment is the only way I may achieve it.

By maintaining my responsibility to myself in this way, I feel I naturally act responsibly toward others and toward my environment. This is a key element of my daily humanist practice.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dreams

Old dreams, like old clothes, seldom fit. The portly matron may cling to her dream of being a starlet, but her imagination would serve her better if she got it in touch with her present reality. Dream research has shown that very few people can control their sleeping dreams. However, most of us can control our conscious dreams.
Wikipedia  Photo:
Dream Catcher
The New Age movement was enthralled with conscious dreaming. From Shirley MacLaine's past life regressions to Shakti Gawain's self-actualizing dreams, the process of opening the mind to visualizations of fantasy and aspiration held mystical importance. Lo and behold! I can realize my dreams!

Twenty years ago, as I lived and worked in the heart of the AIDS epidemic, I encountered young, dying patients and friends who bemoaned the loss of their dreams in their last, painful days. They suffered from regret. Many of these unfulfilled dreams were still the wants of adolescents and young adults. Some wanted fame. Some wanted to climb Everest. Others wanted to have a dream house. None had ever dreamed of dying a peaceful and contented death.

I took that lesson on dreams seriously. I chose not to be a slave to my outdated dreams. Rather than dreaming like a child, I resolved to base my ideal vision of some future life on the realities of my present life. I soberly assessed my skills and talents. I reflected on what was most important to a responsible and modest life, based on the Buddhist principles I held at that time. I plotted out the work I needed to do to achieve those dreams.

The process of harnessing my dreams, of making them intentional and realistic, has served me well since then. I have realized more dreams in the past twenty years than I had in the previous forty. By becoming my own dreamweaver and dreamworker, I have felt empowered to better steer the course of my life through accident and circumstance. Using the brain, rather than allowing the brain to use you, is always a better choice.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fear

Illus.: How Stuff Works
Fear corrodes human interaction. Homophobia, the irrational fear of homosexual feelings or homosexual people, prevents constructive communication between homosexual and heterosexual people. Racism, based in the fear of "the other" as defined by skin color, divides communities and saps the energy out of a society.

Fear of commitment, symptomatic of narcissism or insecurity, prevents people from having lasting and mutually supportive relationships. Fear fuels addiction to substances as substitutes for human relationships. Fear keeps some people from becoming mindful and compassionate.

Denial of our fears leads nowhere. Some of us plow through life as a way of coping with our fears. Aggression and violence are symptoms of fear.

Taking a regular, honest inventory of my fears has helped me to progress beyond some of them. I have made this a habit. It is part of my practice. I have come to recognize the cues in my own behavior that signal a fear reaction to a situation or anticipated event. Sometimes, I have to get through the fearful situation without focusing on my fear in advance of it. However, some fearful situations become less stressful when I have time to reflect on my fear and face it beforehand. The awareness and acknowledgment of my fears are keys to making progress beyond them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Science

Science, like religion, can be very impractical. The news of a Nobel Prize awarded for in vitro fertilizatiuon research causes me to question how practical, from a truly scientific point of view, is in vitro fertilization on a planet which is already overpopulated by the human species. But, scientific exploration often needs to be impractical (hypothetical and theoretical) to make positive advances.

Religion, however, seems to move from the practical to the impractical. Major religions have grown out of a practical need for social reform or cohesion. Once established as power bases, however, religions often morph into impractical social institutions which impede the progress and well being of the general human society.

There is a tendency among some in atheist movements of the current time to see science in the way that others see religion. The major difference is that good science constantly demands challenge of its assumptions and achievements; science is a process committed to change and reality-testing. Religion most often starts with assumptions that are considered sacred and eternal.

The problem with Nobel Prizes is that they can sanctify scientific accomplishments in a way that can subsequently inhibit challenges to those accomplishments. It is the corrupting effect of fame and money, in other words. Fame and money have had a similar effect on religion over the centuries.

As a practical humanist, I appreciate the advancements that science makes to aid the quality of life on Earth, but I also look critically upon those scientific accomplishments which are potentially detrimental to the human condition and the human environment. Antibiotics are good. The combustion engine hasn't worked out too well. I try to avoid devotion to any one area of science or philosophy. A basic, questioning skepticism is healthy in all things, in my opinion. I measure things by their contribution to peace, social justice and a healthy planetary environment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Kindness

Photo: Steve Heartsill's Blog
Those of us who have been involved with religion and non-religion in a quest to do good in the world often get very abstract is our approach to our own beliefs. Sometimes, in trying to foster the good in others, we try to justify our own approach to our personal practice of doing what is good, for ourselves and our environment. We sometimes forget that simply being kind is the best way to foster trust and openness in others. Kindness is contagious.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Shorthand

There is no word that can summarize me. However, I use the sentence, "I am a [blank].". I use that sentence less these days.

I have found that how I fill in the blank is often a justification for my place in a certain setting. For example, when conversing with a group of atheists or Buddhists, I might say, "I am a humanist." And, as I say it, I can read on their faces the many different individual things that means to the them. My personal reality as a humanist would not adequately or correctly be represented by the sum of their reactions, I am sure.

One of the best attributes of the Harvard Humanist organization, to which I am a friend, is its culture of endless exploration and explanation of what words like "humanist" mean. This lively process of shaping a humanist identity in a community of people, self-defined as atheists, naturalists, agnostics and so on, is the best part of the humanist experience for me in that community.

I marvel at people who so self-assuredly say, "I am a Catholic." or "I am an Episcopalian." with the certainty of placing a glass on a tabletop. Plunk. That's who I am. Period. When encouraged, these same people will add to the list in a similar manner. "I am a father of two." or "I am a machinist." or "I am an artist." Yet, when asked how they integrate all these I's into the person they perceive themselves to be in that moment, they return a puzzled or blank stare.

Perhaps we are what we speak. Or perhaps we are not.

I believe it takes a great deal of conscientious effort to integrate and understand the composite beings we are and are becoming in every moment of our lives. This is the presence of mind that integrates all the "I am"'s into a functional and awake person. Some of us have begun this discipline in religion, some in psychotherapy, some in art. Many of us simply cannot be bothered. For this latter group, life simply happens amid a jumble of roles, obligations and routines.

Integrating the self with an awake and intentional brain within its body in every moment is hard work. This is the core of mindful living. Meditation, yoga, proper diet, all help this process. But, the decision to be in each moment in the fullest human way comes first. This is a commitment to bring together all the indentities we have been taught and have assumed into a whole person. There is no shortcut to getting there. The only shorthand that describes that integrated person fully is "I am who I am".

Friday, October 1, 2010

Travel

We sail the sea of life no matter how much we cling to a sense of control and self-determination. The wind of coincidence and the currents of circumstance seem to sweep us off course over and over again. The wise sailor becomes one with his vessel and treats it lovingly so it will buoy him up in heavy seas of change. This is the purpose of meditation, reflection, exercise and study.

Painting by Wendy Puerto
Our pole star is death, inevitable and constant on the horizon. It marks our final destination. With recognition of that certainty, there is no need to fret over where we are going. This liberates us to appreciate the journey and to learn from it.