Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Duality

The Middle Path means walking in two minds. The one mind plans each precious day painstakingly to the best purpose for the individual and greater good. The second mind surrenders itself to the moment in free and open mindfulness with an eye to compassion and justice.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The happy life is the balanced life. Living in balance requires great care of mind and body. Meditation of some kind, a healthy diet, a healthy sexuality and regular exercise are essential to balance. Satisfactory labor and meaningful connection with others are essential to balance.

A balanced mind in a healthy body can easily live in duality or multiplicity of awareness. Ancients called this Liberation or Enlightenment. To a secular humanist, this is the work of living a scientifically managed and informed life with an intention to promote personal progress and expansion. Healthy, educated human beings form healthy, educated societies.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Silence

Sometimes the loudest response is silence.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Solitude

The Facebook generation prides itself on connectedness. This hyper-socializing in two dimensions has its social and personal applications and advantages. Loneliness and alienation can be partially avoided through virtual connection.

The down-side to the social network mentality can be an aversion to developing a routine use of solitude for personal growth. Time alone is essential for personal creativity. The undistracted and concentrated mind can find peace within itself. This can become the bedrock of personal practice for a mindful and compassionate life.

Watching TV, surfing the Web, perusing your iPhone are not uses of solitude. They are distractions from solitude. Intentionally walking alone in a natural or urban setting (without earphones on) is a constructive use of solitude to develop mindfulness. Being present in you environment while alone and silent opens up a world which the device-distracted ignore: A strange land of real, interactive people, noises, smells and sights.

For the novice, I suggest planning a simple circular route from your front door and back. A two-mile route takes about 45 minutes to walk at a moderate pace. Google maps are a great help in planning the route, but carrying a GPS device on the walk is discouraged. Plan the route and rely on your memory to guide you. This will require your attention and heighten your awareness. Repeatedly walking this same route over a few weeks will be a worthwhile exercise in solitude and mindfulness.

There are a few side benefits to this practice. You will build in 45 minutes of aerobic exercise. Errands can be accomplished along the route if you include a commercial district. You will earn an increased sense of belonging to a community within reach of your home. The changes of light and weather will increase your awareness and appreciation of living on a planet with natural cycles and changes.

Experiencing your own environment alone, in solitude, allows you to develop a realistic sense of self. It provides you quality time to get to know yourself better. This is a first step in developing any daily practice for increasing your mindfulness and compassion, the qualities of a progressive human being.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Time

My understanding of time weighs heavily on me as I age. While physicists would have me believe that there is no past, present or future in a Universal sense, my life, as I perceive it, is trapped in the bottle of time and space. Just so many heart beats. Just so many breaths. Just so many sunrises.

The trick of living well within the constraints of time, in my opinion, is to maintain an acute sense of the passing of it. Busily wasting time is the great disease of the age, as electronic screens distract and dominate the minds of many, who live with the delusion that the structured reality on those screens is somehow controlling or enhancing their actual life. Just so much whistling in the graveyard, as I see it. Meanwhile, these over-wired unfortunates are being buried under their self-inflicted pile of information. To what end? In most cases, to make money or spend it. In other cases, to build an illusion of community with two-dimensional relationships.

Some turn to hedonism to soothe their recognition of time-limited life. Go rock-climbing in New Zealand. Sample wine in the Loire Valley. Cruise to Alaska on a floating city while enhancing your girth at endless buffets. Have a sex holiday in Vegas. I have been subjected to the boorish accounts of these attempts to season an otherwise empty life. Filling life with pleasurable events does not yield a full experience of human life in the end.

The essence of my daily practice is intentionally focused in the moment as a way of coping with time and space. As my awareness of the vastness of the Universe and the miniscule size of my own life converge, I channel my energy into making each available moment count as best I can. Time is the precious currency of my life. If I am to live a life of value, dignity and compassion, I must try to do that in each moment. To do less is to squander the only true wealth I possess. Time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

NPR

I was once a shameless subscriber to two local National Public Radio stations. I am still a subscriber to them both. I listen daily. However, I am no longer as enthusiastic about their content.

The infomercial ad men and publicists have invaded NPR. I'm not happy.

From "Morning Edition" to "All Things Considered", there are countless plugs for books and subliminals about retail marketing. Interviews with authors have turned to book-signing raps, rather than constructive critical conversations. Financial "news" has been flavored with pro-free-market cheerleading.

So, this morning, as I am being pummeled by items on "Black Friday", the retail promotion day after Thanksgiving Day, I am wondering why I am contributing to my NPR stations. Why shouldn't Kmart, Target and Walmart be paying for this content? Why shouldn't Wall Street be paying for all the propaganda on NPR about the financial sector? Why shouldn't the real estate industry pay for all the propaganda on NPR about the housing sector? Why am I helping to pay for this stuff?

As a person who used to listen to NPR gleefully, because I felt I was listening to non-commercial radio with a full spectrum of political and social opinion, I am feeling less confident in its editorial integrity. While it still shines, compared to most FM radio content, it isn't the NPR I once supported with fierce loyalty.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

The American habit of naming days as memorials and party themes belies it basic materialistic nature. As someone who practices daily thankfulness for human kindness and my own good fortune, whenever encountered, I seeThanksgiving Day as rather redundant. Some people need the pressure of a public holiday to stop and think about the quality of their lives.

Photo by Peter Petraitis
If you believe that your good fortune is due to a supernatural being, your thankfulness is inevitably combined with a sense of spiritual superiority. Your deity has blessed you above others because you must be better. If you believe your good fortune in life is due to your aggressive material work, you hardly have anyone to thank other than yourself. If you believe that your fortune in life is due to good luck, then you are thankful that you are lucky. If you have inherited a comfortable life from your family, then your family would be the focus of your gratitude.

By staying in the moment, it becomes easy to understand good fortune for what it is: Well-being, mindfulness, compassion. Without well-being of mind and body, there is little happiness. Without mindfulness, there is no way to happiness. Without compassion, there is no point to happiness. Thanksgiving is a way of sharing good fortune. It is an exchange.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, I offer my appreciation and encouragement to all of you who are developing your own daily practice for the greater good. Thank you for your companionship on the way. Together, we can make a significant contribution to universal peace and justice.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Direction

The way is not in the sky.
The way in in the heart.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Verse 18, Impurity.

A hazard of being idealistic is the temptation to compare what is with what should be. This breeds impatience and frustration. Significant change occurs slowly in complex systems.

Being centered in love, compassion and peace is a way to cope with impatience and frustration. By firmly anchoring your consciousness in the moment, dealing with people and situations from the heart comes much more readily. Mindful observation and understanding of your reactions to your environment in the moment can help you to put into practice some of your ideals.

This practice is not easy. The mind is a garden which needs constant tending. Without pruning and nurturing, the mind can become a tangled jungle of emotion and confusion. Identifying and following your determination to work for the greater good in every moment makes the work easier and brings great happiness.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tantrums

As a veteran of significant protests in American history for peace and human rights, I am amused by the current Facebook tantrum about airport screening methods. Tantrums are not a respectable form of political protest. Here in the new America of Me, the nature of reactionary complaint is getting more narcissistic.

I think it is worth noting that Tea Party types and this new wave of pat-down enthusiasts are relatively affluent, middle-class Americans. Their protests are centered on what they do NOT want. They do not want to pay any taxes. They do not want universal health insurance. They do not want to pay for public education. They do not want airport safety. They DO want wealth, material pleasure and a sense of superiority over those who do not want these things.

An elderly Japanese Buddhist, whom I once knew, had a wonderful way of speaking of this kind of behavior as evidence of a "very low life condition". I think it was a way of saying it is childish. And it is.

The protests of the Civil Rights Era in the U.S. and the Peace Movement against the Viet Nam War were about improving the basic human condition for everyone. Many of us who protested were not directly effected by the injustice we protested against. We were protesting in unity with people whose needs we valued and supported, because those values of universal peace and justice were the right values.

These pop protests of Facebook groups and meetups are more often selfish tantrums of privileged people who want attention and more special treatment. Flying to California for Thanksgiving is not a universal human right. Having to take greater precautions to hide your illegal drugs when boarding a plane is not a human rights violation. Worrying about how your body looks on a scanner is simply narcissistic and self-centered. Preferring to have a pat-down over a remote scan is pathetically kinky.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Poverty

Affluence is a drug. It has the ability to erase memories of poverty. It can obliterate empathy for the poor, even in those who grew up in poverty. For those who grow up in relative affluence, most Americans by world standards, poverty is a dim concept with little relevance to daily life. It is something that happens in Appalachia or Africa or Haiti.

Few of us intentionally live humbly when given a choice. The recent financial crisis in the American middle class is a glaring example. Irresponsible people, already living moderately affluent lives, brought down the U.S. economy by reaching for more and more, beyond their means. McMansions, Hummers, bling. All bought on fraudulent credit. Now these willing 'victims' of capitalism are whining about foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment.

The most disabling poverty is the lack of common sense, which seems an endangered species of thought in current society. Many people who lived through the Great Depression in America had common sense. Unlike the willing victims of today's financial mess, most of those impacted by the Great Depression were truly innocent victims of the fall-out of bad decisions made by the upper financial class of American society. As the grandchild and child of some of those impoverished survivors of the Great Depression, I cringe at government comparisons of these times to those. Yes, we all suffer when the wealthy unwisely manipulate financial institutions to suit their greed, but this time millions ran to dance to the devils' tune. They bought the myth of Free Market Capitalism hook, line and sinker.

While those of us who are relatively affluent human beings obsess on not having shiny, new things, the majority of the world's families live in deep poverty by comparison. Women in war zones are bearing unsupportable children by brutalizing and raping men. Women, brainwashed by religion, are bringing more unsupportable children willingly into situations of poverty and desperation. Disposable suicide bombers or paramilitaries of the future.

Americans argue over an immense budget for weaponry and wince at foreign aid for education and health. The cries to dismantle social security and health care merge with cries to end all taxation. The selfish do not only ignore poverty; they would support policies that would plunge themselves and their offspring into it. This is the madness of relative affluence in America.

The truly affluent, the 10% of the population in the U.S.who control the vast majority (71%) of its wealth, use the facade of token, tax-deductible charity to mask their total indifference to making progressive political change worldwide. They are still committed to patriarchal, aristocratic wealth transmission. They support Social Darwinist ideals, while mouthing the lyrics to "We Are The World", when it is socially convenient.

As a practical humanist, I feel it is my first responsibility to live within my means and to be cognizant of my privileged life, in comparison to my human brothers and sisters around the world. It is my responsibility to loudly support public policy that fights greed, ignorance and poverty. It is my responsibility to work, in whatever way I am capable, to improve the general welfare of humankind and the planet, upon which we depend for survival. Living with daily recognition of poverty in my environment and in the world is a necessary part of being a humanist, in my opinion. This consciousness is the motivation which can eventually contribute to creating actual change.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.

Beter than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Verse 8, The Thousands.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Provenance

Some time ago, I was facilitating a meeting of a diverse group of people who came together to meditate. When we went around after our meditation to share our experiences, a graduate student, who came late to the meeting and had missed the introductions, started his remarks by saying, after a look in my direction, "I think we should all present our provenance, that is, what qualifies us to be part of this kind of meeting." He then went on to present us with his curriculum vitae, which included several prestigious ivory towers.

Elitist humanists?
I think he missed the point of the meeting by a good mile. My work as a professional nurse, as a secondary-school science teacher and even as an antiques dealer has educated me to understand that provenance is usually a moth-balled list of reasons why someone should be given deference, despite his own disrespectful behavior. Provenance is the pedigree of the academic. Fortunately, the world actually progresses by way of talent and skill, and not by provenance.  

I think one job of the humanist is to bridge the difficulties raised by religious prejudice. One of the most basic prejudices supported by religions is the distorted concept of birthright. Devotees of religion see themselves and their offspring as chosen or special because of their religious provenance. This is the seed of the us-them dynamic that leads to human conflict and misery. Whether it is based in nuclear family, tribe, nationality, education or religion, the concept of provenance is often used to exclude, dominate or belittle.

The only provenance which should matter most to a practicing humanist is another person's humanity. I am not equivocating all skills, talents or education, but I am saying that truly humanist greeting to another human being is a smile and a welcome, offered with openness to whatever that human being can bring to life in the moment for the greater good.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Promiscuity

Promiscuity traditionally refers to indiscriminate sexual intercourse with multiple partners. Most male-dominated cultures accept male heterosexual promiscuity as a right and expectation of men. These cultures include those which traditionally sexually mutilate women and restrict female heterosexuality to mongamy under pain of death. There are deep evolutionary roots for these behaviors.

Dr. Ruth
Industrialized nations have seen a degree of charge in this paradigm. The liberation of female sexuality has led to an increase in female promiscuity and a separation of female sexuality from female reproduction among educated women. Single female parenting, divorced from sexuality is becoming a more common occurrence. Women are becoming less ashamed of their sexual needs and desires. Some women are asserting their individual human right to have sexually satisfied lives without bearing children.

I believe the rise in sexual promiscuity in both genders in developed countries mirrors the social networking that has become a mainstay of social interaction. Just a decade ago, the thought of someone seriously saying they have 300 or 3000 friends was laughable. Now, Facebook profiles commonly boast friends in those numbers. This is a social parallel to sexual promiscuity, multiple uncommitted contacts which are based in immediate or transitory connections. It has not destroyed civilization. Many feel it has enhanced it.

Sexuality is obviously neither sacred nor tied to reproduction in most cases. If it were, the planet would have been destroyed by human population a long time ago. Sexual fulfillment is a basic human need. Like eating, having sex can be underdone or overdone. Maintaining a healthy sexual routine could entail behavior which some may consider promiscuous. This is an example of superimposed morality being unhealthy. However, having multiple sexual experiences with multiple partners at the expense of other fulfilling human relationships is an imbalanced and unhealthy sexuality. A sexual addiction, perhaps. There is a sexual Middle Path.

Finding a sexual balance for personal health is unsupported or ignored by most religions and philosophies. Many disciplines advise abstinence, perhaps the worst possible choice for emotional and physiological health. Most disciplines simply ignore sexuality with the exception of strict prescriptions for heterosexual behavior, geared to producing more followers.

As a practical humanist, untied to moral prescriptions of religion or philosophy, I feel it is very important for human beings to be at peace with their sexuality. People who are not tend to be grumpy, unhealthy and resentful. Being at peace with your own body requires that you be at peace with your own sexual needs and desires. If you are fortunate enough to have more than one sexually satisfying and emotionally supportive relationship, I would encourage you to be happy for your good luck. However, mindless pursuit of sex for sex's sake is a dead end street. It interferes with emotional health and prevents effective practice in other areas of life. Placing all your sexual needs and desires on one person is, in most cases, a time-limited arrangement. The challenge, as with most things, is finding the right balance.

Until you get a balanced view and satisfying peace with your own sexuality, true personal peace will elude you. The primary sexual relationship in your life is the sexual relationship you have with your own body. By nurturing and becoming skilled in that relationship, you will develop a clear understanding of your sexual needs and desires. The one thing worse than too much sexual release, is no sexual release. I think an assessment of my sexual needs and desires is a necessary part of my daily practice. I see fulfilling those needs as my own personal responsibility to myself, with ot without the help of others.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Convenience

How much of your life is based on seeking convenience? In many ways, the American penchant for convenience is self-defeating. Increased convenience can free up large amounts of useful time, the most precious commodity in mortal life. However, convenience can also make the mind and body lazy, thereby sapping the mental energy and muscle for using precious time productively.

Our evolution from the plains of Africa and Asia came about through adaptation and effort to survive as hunters and gatherers. Cultivation is a recent development of human history. Approximately ten thousand of our 200,000 years as a species, 5% of human history. Most of human history has been spent in pursuit of shelter and food. The current convenience of human life in industrial nations is still very fresh. And, with it, we are just beginning to realize the problems that come with it: Obesity, overpopulation, environmental degradation.

On an individual personal level, the quest for convenience takes many forms. More and more electric appliances to do mundane tasks that require relatively little muscular effort. Electric scooters for the obese, who could maintain mobility with decreased weight and physical therapy. Website grocery stores which provide high calorie foods to your door without your having to expend calories to fetch them. Shopping malls with everything from vitamins to vacuum cleaners and fast-food courts.

Al Gore struck a profound note when he titled his global warming revelation An Inconvenient Truth. The vehement reaction he received from the uneducated and media-mesmerized was, perhaps, the seed for the current Tea Party rabble-rousing against the Intellectual Elite. Providing for the general health of a society, taking care of the elderly and disabled, standing up to people with too much money...these are all inconveniences for a segment of the Middle Class who are living a very convenient life by working the systems as they now exist.

I believe that humanism is not about convenience. The greater good cannot be served conveniently. The greater good entails change. Change is seldom convenient from the point of view of human inertia. Science and reason will eventually move beyond the current human love affair with convenience and laziness. If the fulcrum of human intelligence and energy shifts from convenience to progressive change for all human beings, our species will embark on intentional evolution. If this shift does not occur, human existence will inevitably become far from convenient.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good

Math and ethics?
As a secular humanist. I believe that reaching the greater good is a matter of educated reason, based in science, not a matter of intuitive absolutes or religious morality.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Extraterrestrials

There is a community if intellectuals who are focused on provng the existence and activity of extraterrestrials in our current world. One of the leaders of this community is Dr. Steven Greer, a medical doctor, an atheist, son of a NASA scientist who helped develop the lunar module for the first manned moon landing.

ET poster: filmsite.org
Dr. Greer implies that he is communicating with extraterrestrials who have told him that this planet is about to be given free energy methodology by benign aliens who will enlist Earth into a Universe-wide movement of peace and prosperity which will last for the next 500,000 years. His claims can be viewed in this video. His program is called The Disclosure Project. In it, he maintains that the truth of extraterrestrial contact with human beings has been suppressed by a small cadre of several hundred wealthy world-shapers, whose motives are to maintain control of the Earth's population by withholding energy technologies and by programming human beings to see aliens as hostile. He maintains that he has met one of these world-shaping people, who confided in him that pitting aliens against humans will bring about a desirable Armageddon, and thus the Second Coming of Christ.

I have been watching several long videos on this subject in an attempt to get my own head around why this seemingly intelligent man, Dr. Greer, is so passionately convinced of his premise. I have to confess, as a former psychiatric nurse, I am troubled by themes that could be consistent with paranoia and megalomania (not in the aliens, since I have yet to see a video with an extraterrestrial in it). As a person who has had some in-depth contact with extremely telepathic and possibly prescient people, I remain rather neutral in my judgment of this movement's veracity or sanity. It is hard for me to agree with or disagree with something without accessible scientific evidence.

I do know this: My own life has not been impacted directly by extraterrestrials. Given my knowledge in this moment, I am not going to depend on the promise of extraterrestrial intervention. I do know that peace and justice begin with me. I know that my own daily practice is something I can improve and remain true to.

For some, extraterrestrial salvation may fill the same need which belief in God fills in others. If extraterrestrials show up today and offer us free energy and universal peace, I'll be on it, believe me. But, until that happens, I am doing the best I can to seek peace and happiness with the tools I have right now.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wisdom

Happiness or sorrow
Whatever befalls you
Walk on
Untouched, unattached.

Do not ask for family or power or wealth
Either for yourself or for another
Can a wise man wish to rise unjustly?


Liberation, partially defined in this quotation from the sayings of the historic Buddha, hinges on feedom from greed, or desire. Learning your true needs is a lifelong occupation for many. Only in old age do they realize the folly of their lifelong ways of striving, attachment and pain. Others never make it to this realization before death.

The wise person strives only for understanding of the human condition. This person understands that everything is transition, change, from one moment to another. Seeking solid footing in any one moment is foolish. It is like trying to stand on the surface of a stream.

Thinking that having the perfect family is the key to personal immortality leads to eventual disillusionment. Building on provenance or pedigree leads to lack of self confidence and individual growth, despite the material success it may bring. The only true measure of a person is that person's measure of himself, naked and alone.

Practice is the daily, moment-by-moment quest for freedom from petty desire and insecurity. Physical and mental health promotion are essential elements of practice.  Its focus is not the navel; its focus is the horizon of personal discovery; its purpose is creating peace and justice in the self and in the world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Materialism

Materialism is contrary to the practice of humanism, in my opinion. For example, in a recent radio story on NPR, a farmer was interviewed in Michigan. He presented himself as knowledgeable about the current issues of clean water regulations in his state. He uses a great deal of water for his orchards. An international corporation wants to drain water from Michigan for bottle water. It could negatively impact 30% of the fresh water tables in Michigan. The state legislature wants to institute a water trust, meaning that the water in Michigan's water tables would become a protected, publicly owned resource. This is based on scientific projections of water scarcity due to climate change.

Photo: Park Howell
 The intelligent, previously ecologically minded orchard owner states, " I oppose this...it could negatively impact the economy." Deciphering this statement and paraphrasing it: "I could lose money if I am found to be using more than my share of water." In other words, ecological awareness and activism is great, as long as I don't have to share in the cost. Materialism over consciousness.

This is common everywhere in American society. Billionaires, aware of the devastation of their capitalist practices on the nation, do not want to pay taxes to remedy those problems. Parents in cities and towns across America demand super-schools for their children, but they resent paying property taxes or income taxes. Educated women use fertility treatments which cause multiple births and also support political movements that decry national health care insurance, because it is "too costly". Elderly Americans scream about the "death tax" on their estates, while hiding their money in trusts to avoid paying for their own late-life care at a sizable cost to the public purse.

Materialism (greed) breeds hypocrisy and social dysfunction. Humanism, if practiced in daily life, entails living with a consciousness of and giving support to the greater good in society. For those fortunate enough to have material wealth, it means sharing it generously. For those without material wealth, it means living responsibly and within their means. Humanism is not just a concept, it is a way of life.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aging

Elements of the medical establishment have been doing a great disservice to the human condition. The widespread application of plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons has elevated the misconception that aging is weakness and failure to the status of valid prejudice. The popularity of the television series, Nip/Tuck, speaks to this dehumanizing trend. This is just one symptom of a very big problem.

Google Image: Joan Rivers
The fear of aging in America reveals the justified insecurity of growing old in a country with a poor social support network. Elderly people in America are neither generally valued nor happily cared for directly by their own families. The elders themselves have been conditioned to be averse to the concept of living in an intergenerational environment. The focus of most "senior" services is to herd old people together in insulated activities and venues. There is no solid intergenerational culture in America.

This age-apartheid is fostered by corporate advertisers. In the eyes of these society-shapers, the ticket to staying engaged in life is to dye your hair, surgically alter your body and take growth hormones. For those who fail this gauntlet of consumerism, there is always the motorized wheelchair, redesigned to look more like a child's motor scooter. The medical establishment enables obesity and profits greatly from attending to its side effects, which are guaranteed in old age.

The saddest effects of all of this are on the young. They are being conditioned from an early age to dread their own natural physical development. A self-fulfilling phophecy of misery and self-mutilation is likely to be their fate. And, in a society where the medical-industrial complex is determined to keep them alive well over 100 years, this is indeed a recipe for Hell on Earth.

I see acceptance of the natural body and its development as an essential part of humanism. By gaining acceptance of and taking responsibility for my own body's health and normal development, I develop understanding and self-acceptance, which then form a basis for midfulness and compassion in the world. Aging is part of the human condition. Death is inevitable. Bringing this awareness into daily life deepens any practice of self-development for the greater good.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Anticipation

I am learning that anticipation of the future is sometimes a barrier to experiencing it fully and creatively. As a person who has encountered my share of speed bumps in life, I am prone to cling to a sense of control of the future by being overly cautious and perspicacious. In some situations, this is wisdom. In others, it is folly.

If I am focused on my own practice of being centered in my personal values and boundaries in the moment, I need not anticipate the future with needless anxiety. By eating well, getting enough rest, meditating, exercising and doing all the things that keep me healthy, I am able to be in the moment with confidence and optimism. However, if I let my practice slide, trouble is inevitable. My judgment is less true to my values and human needs. Then I am again in a position of being anxious about the outcome of my decisions.

The intensity of anticipation of the future has become a useful barometer for me. It is often the stimulus for my working harder on my daily practice. Living at peace in the present generally leads to a more peaceful future in my experience.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans

Google Image
This is Veterans Day here in America. It was originally celebrated as Armistice Day, a commemoration of the end of "the war to end all wars", World War I, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Study of World War I politics and military leadership reveals that the Great Powers intentionally massacred millions of human beings in order to play out a political chess game. Armistice Day was simply a token gesture to acknowledge the stupidity and waste of war to placate the horrified and traumatized survivors of the debacle. The subtext was "we promise we won't do this to you again".

Veterans Day has become a celebration of militarism in America. It is equivalent to May Day in Red Square in the former Soviet Union. The elevation of soldiers to the status of heroes and martyrs is a time-worn method of militaristic societies to justify their aggression for their own selfish purposes. Behind the drum beats and the banners is the harsh reality that the poor and directionless are used as cannon fodder for geopolitical maneuvers of the wealthy to gain more wealth by wresting control of natural resources and territory from which to dominate regions of interest.

The original purpose of Armistice Day was to remind the world that war is an unproductive and unjust method to solve human problems. The politicians and wealthy classes are still using war as a method to maintain their control of human destiny. War is poison to true democracy and true freedom. This is not the way to universal human rights and real justice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Judgment


Rubens: The Judgment of Paris

I am often in the company of well-meaning people from privileged backgrounds who promote a practice of what they call "non-judgmental" Christianity, Buddhism or Humanism. From their life experience and perspective, they see evaluation and estimation of the motives and behaviors of other people somehow crude or unfair. This is, of course, a privileged point of view, impractical and irrelevant to people who must live on the pavement. In my opinion, while I approve of their understanding that they have no right to judge people who have to scrape together a living, I disapprove of them preaching this as a workable life practice to those who do have to scrape together a living.

The rage in America at the over-educated elite, as exemplified to some by President Obama, relates to this divide. To prescribe behavior or ideology from an ivory tower is always risky business. Ask any Pope, queen or potentate.

From my perspective as someone who lives on the pavement, judgment is essential for protecting my sanity and my life from abuse or violence. I ride the subway into and out of areas of my city where gang violence exists. The subway station nearest my own house is always crowded with transfer passengers from some of the poorest and most congested areas around Boston. There is often an air of potential conflict and danger there at night.

Those who can afford an iPhone to obliterate their surroundings are freed from judgment, I suppose, until someone rips the iPhone from a pair of non-judgmental hands. The daily warnings on the subway P.A. system are a testimony to the lack of judgment practiced by those passengers. I do not believe their carelessness makes them more moral people. In fact, their callous carelessness in the company of poor people, who could never afford such a device for casual use, could be seen as antisocial.

My father was a police detective, a good one. His long police career was based on practicing acute, sometimes harsh, judgment for the safety of the public. I myself worked in acute psychiatric hospitals for over a decade. My judgments were absolutely necessary to prevent patients from hurting themselves or others. Every job in society requires some form of judgment. Without qualified judgments, society would be reduced to chaos.

There is evil in the world. It's not the bat-winged, devil-made-me-do-it kind of evil. It is the evil that comes from greed, selfishness, hatred and deceit. While I, as a practicing humanist, may work hard daily to live a life of peace and compassion, I also recognize that many human beings are consumed by their own evil. Denying this, by subscribing to an ostrich approach of being totally without judgment of the behavior of others, is simply stupid and does not help to combat the evil in the world. Acknowledging evil, after judging it, is a first step to making progressive change in ourselves and potentially in the world.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hospitals

Why FRIST Aid?
A Massachusetts chain of Roman Catholic hospitals, which had been operated poorly by the Roman Catholic Church, has been sold off by the Church to pay off some of its debts. Those debts are in part due to litigation awards to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Yes, Catholic Church, bad hospitals, sold off to pay for the sexual proclivities of priests.

The hospitals have been sold to a private equity firm from New York City. Yes, they plan to turn these hospitals into profit-making machines. They are speculating on loopholes and fat reimbursement potential in the recent health care reform bill passed by Congress and hated by Libertarians, like the Tea Party folks. The for-profit hospital industry was very active in trying to subvert true health care reform. And, in many ways, they succeeded by destroying the possibility of a one-payer, national health insurance.

There is no better example of the dysfunction of free markets when it comes to health care. By focusing on health care as business, for-profit hospitals routinely cut wages and cut corners. For-profit hospitals make their profits by exploiting every possible revenue source in the medical payment system. Their focus is not on excellence of patient care. Their focus is on profit. And, taking care of sick and dying people, most of whom are old and have few resources, ethically and thoroughly is simply not a profitable occupation. Ask any small-town physician or public health nurse.

Twenty years ago, I was employed as a psychiatric nurse to review cases for a national health insurance company. My job was to find and end abusive practices by clinicians, who were milking the insurance company unfairly by keeping patients in hospitals for no clinically valid reason or by offering questionable services for which they billed fraudulently. At any given time, I reviewed three hundred cases a week from one end of the U.S. to the other by telephone. In one year, I learned a great deal about how capitalism corrupts and undermines the professional ethics in health care. The evil in these for-profit systems is profound.

Since then, the for-profit health care model has grown to profit from the negligence of government in maintaining quality-control in Medicare and Medicaid systems. The for-profit health care industry has paid lobbyists and politicians millions to undercut any reform. They have succeeded. Hospital Corporation of America, founded by a family whose members have been active in Southern politics, has been the spearhead of their movement to control health care in America.

Now we see one pathetically failed social institution, the Roman Catholic Church, desperately needing to reap profit by selling vital community services, hospitals, to businessmen who plan to use them to glean public funds for profit while delivering profit-minded health care, or substandard-but-costly health care, in my opinion. Here is an example of free market capitalism's true impact on the overall quality of human life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lavanam

I attended a lecture by Indian atheist, Lavanam, at Harvard University yesterday. Lavanam's view of the world from his lifelong experience as atheist and educator in India seemed quite sympathetic to my own. I found this very encouraging.

Lavanam stressed the current process of dehumanization of institutions in capitalist societies through the utilization of technology to increase profits by eliminating the high costs of human beings as employees and laborers. He sees capitalism as becoming centered on profits, not people. This is no big news to anyone in the U.S.. After all, we have an economic crisis here with nearly 10% unemployment, while the capitalists on Wall Street get richer and richer by the week, buoyed up by public funds to bail them out of their excesses.

Lavanam sees his atheism as I see my humanism. That is, a refocusing of priorities on the quality of the human condition itself. While those in power are focused on trade and GDPs, those of us in humanist organizations are focused on universal human rights and universal justice. Those human rights, as I see them, are the right to free speech and expression, the right to human equality under law, the right to basic nutrition, the right to safe shelter, the right to health care, the right to ongoing public education.

Free-market capitalists, who are currently seeking the control of world politics with money, see many of these human rights as privileges. They see wealth as the key to buying human rights and justice. They are comfortable with a world of elites and impoverished masses. They always have been. And, they look to established religion to bless their world view in exchange for financial support of ministers, priests, imams and rabbis.

The current humanist, or progressive atheist, movement is a chance to refocus the energy and intelligence of brilliant, young minds in colleges and universities. I also agree with Lavanam in this. Perhaps the great movement of the next generations will be a move to humanist values in business and government worldwide. This could be the salvation of the human species and the planet itself.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dharma

The difference between secular Buddhism and Buddhism as religion seems to hinge on the concept of Dharma (Dhamma), or law of the Universe, as perceived allegedly by Gotama, the historic Buddha. I believe, as a secular student of Buddhism, that elements of Dharma can be used as a part of a working model of a righteous and compassionate life in modern society. In the minds of the religious Buddhist, this most likely makes me a cafeteria or buffet Buddhist, picking and choosing slices of Dharma that suit my particular reality sandwich. They would be incorrect, because I am not a Buddhist at all.

The problem with religious practice is simply its one-size-fits-all approach. "You must meditate for one hour in this specific position with these specific elements in your environment!" is, in my mind, as questionable as "You must kneel, spin around three times and spit!" The historic motivations for these prescriptions, based in illiterate and unscientific societies, are no longer relevant. The incense, the robes, the head-shaving, the bells are all superstition, tied to a dead, albeit charming, past.

Gotama reputedly lived in the same era as Socrates. While the Socratic method of education has been demonstrated to be effective, I hardly think we would be wise to teach science as Socrates understood it. Similarly, while Gotama was on to something very elemental in the human psyche, I believe, we owe it to ourselves to apply his wisdom to the growing understanding of the world through science.

Perhaps the key element of Dharma which often goes overlooked is its emphasis on change and impermanence. As someone who was drawn, as a young man, to the quaint aspects of Buddhist art and ritual, I eventually understood that the joy of Buddhism is growing out of the restraints of "temple Buddhism" and growing into a personal daily practice of consciousness and compassion. When Dharma fused in my modern life with ongoing education, practice and understanding, I saw this as the foundation of my humanism, which is nonreligious and motivated by the best of my educated human instincts.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Courage

Our current militaristic society sees courage as patrolling in gangs with automatic weapons. This is typical of aggressive cultures, which foist their will and values upon others at gun point (previously, at spear point). This is not courage. This is bullying.

Photo: Peter Petraitis
Courage is living a life committed to nonviolence and justice. Courage is walking your own path in the face of scorning conformity. Courage is accepting responsibility for living a life of service to humanity. Courage is choosing to do good for others over your own comfort and selfishness.

As population pressures and environmental pressures worsen on this planet, future generations will be faced with very difficult decisions. War for resources will be a natural progression from where we are now to that time. It will take a great deal of true courage to shape a future of universal human rights and universal human justice.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Death

Death comes to us all. It is often unexpected, but it is always inevitable. The lesson is to live each day with this in mind.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Peace

What do you think would bring you peace? Seek you inner peace. Be serious and honest in your pursuit of it. Meditation and/or reflection in a quiet space will help you. I think you know intuitively just how that peace would feel within you. It will feel different from joy or excitement. It may be like the smooth waters of a still lake on a cloudless day. It may be like the white silence after a passing blizzard. It may be like the soothing trickle of a fountain in a shaded courtyard on a hot day.

Photo: Zen Garden
If you are compassionate to yourself, you will work to achieve your personal peace. This is your source of compassion for all others. This is the source of peace for all mankind. Living in your own personal peace opens your mind and heart to others and to your environment. This requires determined practice in a materialistic, overpopulated world with monumental problems.

Daily meditation, yoga and/or aerobic exercise with proper diet, relatively free of caffeine or intoxicants, help greatly. Carving daily spaces in your life for experiencing and relishing your personal peace is essential. These spaces don't have to be too time consuming. Ten minutes a couple of times a day at first will work wonders for you. Just focus on your breathing and meditate in a safe space. Or, take part of your lunch break to walk in a neutral environment away from your work. Meditate on what you see as you walk. Smell the air. Look at the faces around you. Try smiling as you move along. Take occasional deep breaths.

Identifying and pursuing your personal peace is not complicated. It simply takes a commitment to yourself to begin the journey and stay on it. This is the commitment to a personal practice, which defines the intentional, mindful life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Politics

They say there were no atheists in foxholes. This may or may not have been true. However, I do know there are no Tea Party libertarians in shelters, cancer wards or hospice beds.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Definitions

Humanism is not just talking about doing good. Humanism is doing good and serving the greater good.

Practice is never complete. It is always practice.

Meditation is not talking about meditation. Meditation is meditating.

Having ethics is not talking about ethics. It is attempting to act ethically in every moment and situation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Citizenship

In his opening remarks at The Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington Saturday, Jon Stewart suggested that the estimated 200,000 participants on the National Mall pick up after themselves and leave the grounds cleaner than they were before the rally. I was impressed. It seems to me that the sentiment in this remark is at the core of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. We are all responsible for maintaining the health and well being of our nation.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Voting is not a sport or a game. It is certainly not meant to be a beauty contest. Voting is not just about backing the person who will give you what you want. Voting for the responsible citizen is an act of choosing the greater good for region or country by voting for the candidate whose ideals represent that greater good.

As a humanist, I judge the greater good simply by looking at human needs. Health care for all is a greater good. Safety in all neighborhoods and enforcing the rule of law are greater goods. Maintaining the safety of bridges and public spaces is a greater good. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels is a greater good. Making sure the elderly and disabled will have a decent quality of life is a greater good. Educating all citizens to their full capacity for learning is a greater good. Equal justice for all, without exception, is a greater good. Fostering peace and nonviolence in domestic and foreign policy is a greater good.

I will be voting by greater good tomorrow. I do not belong to a political party. I do not idolize any candidate. True freedom and justice for all is more important to me than belonging to any one team. That is my way of trying to leave this world a better place than it was when I arrived here.