Friday, December 31, 2010

Celebrate

celebrate by letting go
burning the old furniture
wearing the ashes out
into streets of revelers
most looking to start
changing their own lives
from clinging to the old
by the act of forgiving

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Folly

Concert ticket sales last year declined by over 12%. Yet, I have heard one report that Bon Jovi concerts brought in 200 million dollars in 2010. In the worst economic environment in eighty years, human beings spent 200 million dollars on a single entertainment event, collectively. In this same year in the U.S., voters supported candidates who vowed to balance budgets and cut taxes. Slashing of public services, including public education and public health, has already begun.

The continued public support of celebrity culture and accompanying public condemnation of public institutions are symptoms of a mentally unbalanced society. These regressive phenomena do not bode well for America's future. Choosing pleasure over responsibility is a human tendency, based in our animal brains. Unfortunately, our animal instincts for survival, which would balance pleasure seeking behavior, have been suppressed by technologically devised comforts developed with the aid of our frontal lobes.

We are still animals in a limited ecosystem. Our frontal lobes could be used to address overpopulation, energy needs and environmental degradation with the full support of human society. Our frontal lobes could be used to override our animal aggression, which fuels our monetary greed. Our frontal lobes could be used to understand that cheapening any human life cheapens all human life. Our frontal lobes should be able to grasp that the money that goes to support the inflated lifestyle of a celebrity when buying an expensive concert ticket could go to support human progress in the form of public or private funds.

I struggle in my humanist practice against misanthropy when I examine this kind of human folly. Having worked to help homeless and disenfranchised people during most of my nursing career, I have seen the worst of human indifference and selfishness. However, I still believe that there is a basic human will to do what is right by other human beings. As long as society is guided by materialism and hedonism, that will to further the greater good will be challenged at every turn.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Addiction

There is little personal progress where addiction determines choices and decisions. Whether seen as disease or lack of self-control, addiction undermines mindfulness and compassion. Therefore, precaution against addiction is an important part of any practice based in mindfulness and compassion.

Illustration: Secular Organizations for Sobriety
The most salient feature of addiction is denial. This defence mechanism makes addiction very difficult to treat by caregivers. Denial is an electrified fence around the addict's mental processes. Painful craving and fear of withdrawal fuel denial. A cognitive disconnect develops as the animal brain subverts the frontal lobe. Some form of motivation must be found by the addict to overcome denial. More often than not, this motivation comes in the form of significant human relationships.

A recovering addict ultimately chooses against his relationship with the object of his addiction in favor of healthy relationships. Once this choice is made, the success rate of recovery is better than 50-50. Relapse is common, but is often part of the recovery process.

If addiction is part of your genetic/family history, there is a high likelihood that you will have to deal with some form of addiction personally or in your family system. This is good to know. It enables you to intelligently choose to take precautions in your own behaviors to avoid addiction. However, it still isn't easy.

I recently had a conversation with a man who said, "I go out to the bar once a week and have a few drinks. I have to do it to show I am control of my drinking. I know my father is a bottomed-out alcoholic. So, it's important for me to do this to show I'm not one." Given that this individual is now struggling to remain financially and socially functional, I asked, "Did it occur to you that you might make the point more effectively by having no relationship with alcohol at all?" He laughed knowingly and said, "Yeah, that did occur to me, but...."

Most addicts I have known know they are addicted. Admission of this knowledge is often hard to elicit, but it is usually there, a protected secret. Unlocking that secret is by itself a step to recovery. As a humanist with my own familial relationship with addiction, I feel it is part of my practice to help addicts when I meet them. However, I am aware that no addict can be helped without his willingness to surrender his denial in our relationship. Helping someone with an addiction is a long and often tedious process, punctuated with unrelenting potential for conflict and relapse. It should never be taken on lightly.

This time of year is particularly difficult for alcoholics and other addicts. Social celebration to an addict is license for total surrender of self-control. Friends and family often become mindless enablers. Binges, started over the holiday season, often extend for months with disastrous consequences, as those who are not addicted or less addicted carry on with their lives without the addict in tow.

I believe being a humanist entails being aware, or mindful, of the health needs of the people around me. Acting compassionately sometimes entails helping people to work against addiction, despite the repercussions and difficulties which this may bring. It is also important for me to be mindful of my own limits, when an addict ultimately chooses his addiction over my help.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Voice

Have you found your own voice? If you are an actor or a singer, you know something about finding your voice and practice. If you write, you strive to develop a sense of your own voice. You learn that refining your voice takes practice.

Understanding and developing your own voice in music, print and/or speech is a powerful tool for self-development. The voice is a useful tool in mindful practice. For example, this blog is a use of my own voice as part of my humanist practice. By tapping my inner voice and writing down my reflections on what I hear, I am able to look at my own practice more clearly. I am also able to refine my practice by clarifying its motives and actions. My voice is an essential part of being who I am and of becoming who I wish to be.

Being secure in my own voice has made me better at listening to the voices of others. Many people live with internal voices which are not entirely their own. They are driven by the internalized voices of parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and so on. Most of this is unconscious. These voices of the past are often inhibitors to progressive personal growth. Meditation is a helpful tool for separating out your own voice from these voices of the past. In some cases, psychotherapy or some form of counseling accelerates an understanding of whose voice is driving a person's life.

Paying attention to your own voice, once found, is helpful in finding direction in life. I think keeping a diary or journal is a helpful tool for those who are new at seeking their own voice. A personal journal in my early adulthood was instrumental in my decision to live my life mindfully engaged in working with people for the greater good.

Writing this daily blog is a practice of sharing my voice with anyone interested in humanist practice and also staying in touch with my voice for the sake of my own practice. Each time I test my voice in this way, I learn something about myself. Sometimes this occurs in the process of translating my voice to the page. Sometimes this learning comes from comments I receive from a reader. My practice is a process of constant creativity and change within a framework of commitment and routine.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Breathing

Effective breathing is regular, deep and relaxed. Anxiety, congestion and fatigue can prevent proper breathing. These impediments can develop into a cyclic worsening of symptoms, requiring medical intervention. Improper posture, lack of muscle tone and obesity are other causes of improper breathing.

Proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide on the internal (alveolar) surfaces of the lungs is absolutely necessary for good health. The more the lungs expand, the greater the surface area of gas exchange. Smoking and air pollutants degrade the internal surfaces of the lungs. This diminishes the effectiveness of gas exchange and decreases the available energy to the body by hindering metabolism and operation of body systems.

Developing an awareness of your breathing can be a first step to better health. While yoga is a wonderful method for developing an awareness of breathing, it is not the only method. Simply adjusting your posture when sitting, for example, can have a noticeable positive effect. Extending the spine upwards, pulling the shoulders back and raising the chin will give you an immediate experience of better expansion of your chest when you breathe in. If you work at a computer, lifting the monitor or placing a notebook on a riser can help. It also helps to take occasional moments to readjust your posture.

When walking, the head should be held up. Staring at the pavement restricts your airway. Imagine that you are pulling your head up from the top of your skull and extend you spine. Do not hunch your shoulders, allow them to relax. Allow your attention to take in your surroundings at eye level and above. I think you will find that your pace will seem easier to maintain. You will feel more energetic.

Meditation, based on focusing on your breathing to clear your mind, is another way to be aware of your breathing. When meditating, relax your shoulders and keep your chin elevated slightly. Relax your jaw. Allow the air to flow in and out of your body naturally. Gradually, you will feel your body relaxing and your breathing coming easier. By focusing on your exhalations whenever your mind begins to wander, you will maintain your relaxation. Doing this for fifteen minutes once or twice a day will bring you an immediate result of greater energy and a calmer disposition. This is not magic. It can be explained by neuroscience and metabolic science: Relaxation of segments of the body's nervous system and proper aeration of the blood stream.

Nothing is more elemental to a daily practice for good health than proper breathing. Anyone who has had pneumonia or asthma will testify to this. Meditation and daily exercise are good ways to maintain proper breathing. Walking is an excellent exercise for practicing proper breathing and engaging in your environment. No matter how out of shape or disabled you may be, learning to breathe properly is a first step to rehabilitation.

Humanism, by rejecting a complacent acceptance of Fate or human powerlessness, can promote the pursuit of individually powerful and scientific ways to maintain personal health and well being. Good health and intelligence are not matters of predestination, economic class or genetics alone. Mindful living with ongoing study and practice can effectively enhance any life.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Path

A life lived on waves of sentiment is unlikely to stay on a path to mindfulness and compassion. Post-holiday depressions are common among those who focus their minds on one event after another as a distraction from who they really are or what they know in their hearts they should be doing for their own good and the greater good. The passing of a holiday or special event leaves a vacuum, where there is no solid daily practice.

Addiction to sentimentality can be very powerful. It is a form of self-stimulation. Emotions are intentionally stoked by anticipation of or participation in an activity which will yield a predictable emotional response. Riding the wave of that emotional response is like shooting up for those who are hooked. This is common among people who frequent sporting events or rock concerts. Adding alcohol or other intoxicating substances to the mix is a natural progression.

The vacuums between highs can be painful as well as depressing. Squandering time on planning and participating in one high after another doesn't leave much time for meditation and reflection on the true direction and purpose of a life. Avoidance of self-discovery leads inevitably to self-alienation. Lack of engagement with yourself prevents meaningful and sustaining engagement with others.

A committed daily practice of actively structuring routine times for proper nutrition, exercise and meditation is curative and sustaining. As you develop a healthy relationship with your own mind and body, you will naturally progress to developing healthy relationships with others. This process is called choosing your Way, or your Path. It is not complicated. It does not require a guru. It simply requires a commitment to yourself to create peace and love within your own body and your own life. The rest will follow quite naturally.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas

Digital Art by GothicAngelWings
be the guiding star
to bring us all to peace
by embracing shepherds
by humbling all kings
by offering your love
lighting every moment
starting right now

Friday, December 24, 2010

Anticipation

Christmas Eve still brings with it an uncomfortable feeling. My childhood years, spent in a Roman-Russian-Orthodox Catholic home, was fraught with conflicts over Christmas. The Irish-German-American side of the family took a Dickensian attitude about Christmas, as a time for generosity and enjoyment. My often grim policeman father became jovial and youthful as the holiday approached. His giddy anticipation could be contagious at times.

My mother, whose Polish-Lithuanian-Roman-Catholic father, a beefy blacksmith, was a physically abusive alcoholic, became anxious, and her anticipation of Christmas was laced with dread, even though her monstrous father was long dead. Her Russian-Orthodox mother, whose Christmas did not coincide with the one we celebrated, retreated to her room in our house and protested silently against our apostasy. My parents inevitably argued under the strain.

This domestic dissonance, which would now be seen as charming multicultural diversity by the politically correct and inane, led to my anticipating the end of Christmas with anxious urgency. The emotionality about the Savior's Birth, the sentimental music and enforced participation in events at my Catholic schools fed a flood of neurotic tension within my childhood body which began with Advent and ended with Boxing Day, when I usually slept for hours out of pure exhaustion. My old body still tenses unconsciously around Christmas.

The touting of Christ as a Prince of Peace rang hollow in my young ears. "Peace!" I'd think, "If this is peace, then what is war?" Perhaps my early Christmas experiences set me on my path to humanism.

I now see an attempt by corporate power to make Materialism, as embodied in Commercial Christmas, the new world religion. "Buy presents and save the economy!" This is the Brave-New-World motto. No good will to anti-materialist Muslims but good will to pillaging bankers. More manipulation, different package. Same holidays.

I now eagerly anticipate and work toward a time when religions, like Catholicism and Materialism, do not stand in the way of human progress. I anticipate the pulling down of idols, such as popes, pop culture celebrities and greedy moguls, in favor of elevating the common man as the focus of love and appreciation. This will be the advent of world peace. This will be the beginning of unprecedented human progress for the greater good.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Prosperity

True prosperity is the possession of health and happiness. No amount of material wealth can compensate for sickness and misery. Materialism is a compensation for sickness and unhappiness, but it is not a cure.  In fact, materialism itself can become an addiction which brings even more unhappiness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Meditation

Are you enjoying the ride? This Winter Solstice brings awareness of our constant motion around our Sun. Over the years, I have practiced many meditations to heighten my awareness of my travel through Space on this sphere which I often perceive to be stationary or stable. In fact, even in our most relaxed repose, we are spinning at 1,000 miles per hour and moving through Space at 67,000 miles per hour.

I have found meditating on my actual progress through the Universe on the Vehicle Earth both liberating and, for lack of a better word, grounding, even if the ground is in such a constant state of motion. If you do a sitting meditation, open your mind to the realization that you are on a rapidly moving sphere. Visualize yourself on that sphere. Visualize looking out into Space as your position on the sphere turns toward and then away from the Sun. You may actually experience a sense of motion. Relax with it. Enjoy the ride.

A more visual exercise is to meditate in a sunny room or outside in the sunlight. Prior to beginning your meditation, take a few moments to look carefully at the shadows in your environment. Notice where the shadows are falling in relation to surrounding objects. Make a mental note about the shadows and note the time. (Inexperienced meditators may want to set a timer for 15 minutes.) Now meditate, relaxing and breathing normally with eyes open and unfocused or eyes closed. Focus on your breath, especially when you exhale. If you feel distracted, refocus on your breathing and relax. There is no wrong way to do this. When you end your meditation and become more aware of your surroundings, note where the shadows are in your surroundings. Then contemplate on the fact that the Sun hasn't moved relative to you. You have moved, relative to the Sun, even while meditating quietly in a still position.

This kind of experience attunes you to your actual environment, beyond the petty distractions of man-made things and activity. If you do it regularly, you will find your mind opening to a new awareness of your life and actual position in the Universe. And, as our Great Vehicle, Earth, tilts those of us on its Northern Hemisphere toward the Sun gradually with longer and eventually warmer days, your appreciation of life and its very basic elements may grow.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Conformity

Dying Gaul, Roman, 230-220 BCE
Real social change does not come from conformity. As I look at today's GLBT movement, I am both impressed and disappointed. I am impressed with the result of our struggle in the 1960s and 1970s to embolden gay protest and visibility. I am disappointed in the application of that new political power to conformist causes. I am sophisticated enough to understand that this is the rock and roll of change in human society.

I contributed volunteer hours to the gay marriage movement here in Boston, despite the fact that I feel the government (or religion) should have no place in the psycho-sexual bond between free adults of any preference. Using marriage as a political lever to pry open the doors of equal citizenship for GLBT people has its logical basis, when working with the real world on its own terms. Marriage has more to do with wealth and property than with true affection or healthy sexuality. State/church marriage has a very poor statistical basis of success in modern society for many valid reasons. But, it is not an inherently violent process, so, as a humanist, I do not challenge its ethical basis, just its practical worth for human health and well being.

The recent lifting of barriers for GLBT people to participate in militarism is another thing. The current U.S. military is based on violence, control and aggression on the behalf of corporate interests. While I do not support discrimination against GLBT people by any institution funded by taxpaying citizens, I find it disappointing that GLBT people, an oppressed population murdered and tortured for centuries by militaristic elements of societies, should be so interested in joining those militaristic elements of any society.

To any GLBT person who should make a case for the value of gays in a military as a protection of GLBT people in a society, I would say, "Look to history." The head of Hitler's S.A. was a sadistic gay man whose troops ushered thousands of gay men to concentration camps with pink stars on their clothing. From the time of the Spartans, homosexual bonding in uniformed troops has most likely been a mainstay of militarism. Hitler praised the homosexual Goering,
I liked him. I made him the head of my S.A. He is the only one of its heads that ran the S.A. properly. I gave him a disheveled rabble. In a very short time he had organised a division of 11,000 men.

I will admit to being an idealistic pacifist, a very unpopular world-view in these times of hedonistic materialism among the wealthy and envious poverty among the rest. These trends are perhaps more pronounced in the GLBT community. The political leadership of the GLBT community has certainly moved drastically to the Right with the infusion of national lobbying money from wealthy GLBT people, whose loyalty to their class supersedes their compassion for their fellow minority citizens or their respect of subcultural mores which have withstood centuries of persecution.

My humanist practice would not allow me to kill for any reason other than my own individual self defense if attacked with lethal intent. So, putting on a uniform and picking up a gun to train to kill another human being I do not even know over a political ideology determined by someone to whom I have submitted my human will is an alien concept to me. I suppose, in militarist terms, this makes me a conscientious objector. In my mind, this makes me a human being and a humanist.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Children

Christmas is marketed most vigorously to children, who are the consumers of the future. It is the Indoctrination Holiday for Materialism. So, behind the many pompous and hypocritical rituals about generosity and world peace, lies a ruthless campaign to sell the latest gadgets and hook youngsters on the latest craze. Corporate advertisers encourage competition and envy in children by setting up the "must" acquisitions of the given year.

Is there any true wonder at the sloth-like progress of the human species toward universal human rights and universal economic justice? Hardly.

Capitalism is based on the atavistic model of two cavemen beating each other up over a fertile female. All world cultures share this outmoded model, but capitalists have refined it to sell everything from expensive arena tickets to flying automobiles. Meanwhile, cooperation, a much more efficient and productive model for actually getting things done, is delegated to mergers and acquisitions. Cooperation is seen as effeminate, passive and suspect, perhaps part of some Communist Terror.

Children get the message. They are learning to bully. They know how to form gangs. They storm schools with automatic weapons. Their narcissism now persists into early middle age. More and more children with more and more materialistic aggression will lead to inevitably grim consequences for the species and the planet. We see all too many examples, presented in the media with befuddled naivete, "How could this happen?"

As long as children are indoctrinated into a life of competitive consumption, human progress will be hampered by aggression and economic inequities. This is simply cause and effect.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Way

So awake, reflect, watch.
Work with care and attention.
Live in the way
And the light will grow in you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Perspective

How does Christmas look to the goose? Silly question, I know, but it sums up my thoughts on the elusive nature of perspective and objectivity in this holiday season, advertised as a time for generosity and magnanimity.

As our political and social structures are dominated by the corporately wealthy, a tiny percentage of the population, there will be a growing distress in society. This is inevitable and has precedents in history. The inevitable result will not be pretty, of course. It never is. The trigger of war, famine or other environmental catastrophe will set society aflame, as it always has. Those in power never learn. Power corrupts.

This week, just before the much touted Christmas season climaxes, the wealthiest Americans received a big present in the form of tax cuts on incomes and estates. Unemployment, reported conservatively at 9.8%, is thought by some economists to be closer to 20% when all segments of the unemployed and underemployed are tallied. That number is four times the number of people who hold 90% of American wealth and a higher percentage of American political power. The average annual income of the members of the House of Representatives is $900,000. The average income of the U.S. Senators is in the millions. We are being ruled by an aristocracy in favor of an aristocracy!

The rich never see it this way. They see themselves are endowed with wealth under the auspices of a beneficent God or genetic superiority or 'hard work'. Aggression, risk-taking and selfishness are all that is required to make money and keep it. Most people with money do not start off without money from parents or some luck of right place at right time.

Similarly, the wealthy preach. They sell potential converts to materialism books on how to join their ranks. They flaunt token tax dodges as altruistic philanthropy. They set up foundations in this manner. Howard Hughes, a notable miser, started this trend with his Hughes Foundation, set up originally so he could declare no income and never pay income taxes. Howard Hughes still managed to live with whatever he wanted without any income. The miraculous powers of the rich. More to do with wily lawyers than loaves and fishes.

The descent of the pecking order does not stop at the 20% unemployed in the U.S. if we open our eyes to the rest of the world. I recently heard a rather smug commentator on NPR state flatly, "Well, poverty around the world is diminishing because people in poor countries are now employed making things for those of us who are in more developed countries." This man was an educated person, according to the brief introduction he received. However, his education failed to teach him that living in a squalid factory dormitory in Asia or Africa and working 14 or 16 hours a day for a dollar is poverty and economic slavery!

Listening to American media gives the listener a false impression that we are all contentedly sitting back and enjoying these economic times, that "we are all in this together", just like the bankers who caused this mess at great personal profit and with absolute impunity. The reason for this misrepresentation of reality is simple: Those bankers now own everything, including the media. As we have seen with the governmental reaction to WikiLeaks worldwide, nobody will get away with telling the truth about what is really happening. The Truth is the enemy. The Lie is the new Reality. This is a perspective I refuse to accept as a humanist, committed to universal human rights and economic justice.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Defences

Today's anti-Psychology trend is unfortunate. While Freudian theory has been misused to oppress and silence some who have been outside the norms of society, it has also been used effectively to liberate and open the human consciousness for others, when applied with mindfulness and compassion. Current therapeutic trends seem to delegate all hope for remediation of psychic pain to the geneticist and the psycho-pharmacologist. Fortunes are being made on psychiatric drugs and genetic research. Yet the level of homelessness and chronic mental illness rises.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Mechanisms of defence, core structural components of Freudian theory, are still helpful in looking at human behavior for the purpose of understanding others and understanding yourself. Realizing that the animal brain is behind much of what we think and do helps. Studying the history of individual development and conditioning also helps. By learning the Freudian theory, an intelligent individual need not fear it or fear being victimized by it at the hands of an unscrupulous psychoanalyst. The linked Wikipedia summary is actually quite good.

A modern mantra is "Don't judge (me)!" I find this very odd. It often seems to me that those who fall back on this slogan most often are those whose behavior screams most loudly to be judged. Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and other celebrities are famous for whining about being judged. Their public behaviors have been self-destructive, addictive and generally obnoxious. Yet they, and many like them, scream "Don't you judge me!"

Perhaps it is time for people to start to judge their own behavior more honestly. This may do more for eliminating external judgments than anything else. Honestly judging your own behavior is the first step to a realistic picture of who you are. Without knowing who you really are, you are condemned to a life of self-delusion. If self-delusion is a social trend, then the society itself will be deluded with disastrous results.

Sub-prime mortgage, anyone?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pace

Discovering your pace in life is helpful. Trying to conform to the pace of your environment, if it is inconsistent with your own, is an exercise in needless frustration. By pace, I mean the natural speed with which you ingest and process information for use. Some people have a naturally fast pace. They bounce along easily with lots of stimuli and can react and function happily. Others need more time to process stimuli before reacting and functioning with it. Anyone who has taught a class understands this.

It is helpful to acknowledge both your capabilities and your limitations honestly. Struggling internally to be someone who you are not is a waste of time and energy. Accepting yourself realistically is a first step to compassion for yourself and others. There are many pressures in a media-driven society to do just the opposite. We are encouraged to be perpetual contestants in our own reality-TV show. There is no real prize for living like this in the real world. There is a vested corporate interest, represented in corporate-funded media, in making workers believe they can always do more for less.

Learning to get into sync with your own natural pace brings immediate relief from stress. Living from a position of doing what you are able to do at your own pace allows you time to examine your own life while functioning in the workplace and society. By acknowledging your own abilities and limits, you can see the skills in your life which can be expanded and improved from a proactive position of self-development.

Learning about who you are requires honesty and perseverance. Some people need professional help in this process. Others are able to work at this by themselves. For many, a major life trauma or loss triggers the pursuit of this self-understanding. A daily period of quiet reflection or meditation is often a first step to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Winter

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the Northeastern United States, Winter temperatures have preceded the beginning of that season on December 21st. It is currently 17 degrees Fahrenheit or -8.33 degrees Celsius.

This is the cold which freezes breath and smacks exposed skin harshly with the least movement of air. The same temperature can seem colder after dark than before. I look up at the black sky on cold Winter nights and think, "It's even colder out there." I realize then how precious our planet's atmosphere is. How essential it is for my own existence.

Paying attention to temperature, light and the quality of the environment becomes second nature with a daily practice of mindfulness. Finding your place in the great scheme of Nature is instructive, humbling. You don't have to climb Everest or walk in a rain forest to experience this wonder. This is the first step to becoming an intentional custodian of the planet and a respectful inhabitant of it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Humanity

Yesterday, I heard an historian on the radio speculating on the future and exponential evolution of the human species through technology and medicine. He stated flatly that the human species will evolve more in the next 100 years than it has in the previous 100,000. Impressive vision.

The basis of this prediction is the gradual replacement of natural organic parts of the human body with mechanical or cultivated organic parts. The merging of robotics and genetic manipulation with natural development. The implications are staggering.

More human beings in the upper echelons of human populations will live into their second century potentially. They will have access to the newest life-prolonging interventions. The lower echelons of human populations, unless subjected to some form of control, will continue to have more and more children with less and less possibility of a long and healthy life. This obvious parallel process was ignored by yesterday's erudite presenter. The blindness of the privileged academic.

I am neither a Luddite nor a futurist. I like to think both of my feet are on the ground, but still progressing in the direction of knowledge and understanding. So, I am thinking, "Is this really where the human species, as a whole, wishes to go?" Obviously, those who think that cloning or nanotechnology are the salvation of mankind will salivate at this vision of the future. What of the billions of human beings who are far removed from these visions of eternal robotic life and heavenly materialism? Will they be conscripted for labor or will they be swept away?

When I first pondered the historian's vision, I thought, "There is no place for humanism in that future." I subsequently realized that vision, representative of the vision of those who embrace corporate power over human rights and justice, is an outstanding reason for furthering humanist ideals and action in the present.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Responsibility

Nowhere!
Not in the sky,
Not in the midst of the sea,
Nor deep in the mountains,
Can you hide from your own mischief.

Not in the sky,
Nor in the midst of the ocean,
Nor deep in the mountains,
Nowhere
Can you hide from your own death.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Verse 9, p. 35

The key to accepting personal responsibility is acceptance of the transitory nature of your life and the world: Understanding that each moment is one of a tightly measured amount of moments which will constitute your life. Like a purse of precious coins, these moments are spent wisely or squandered on empty folly. The Great Lie is our denial of the mortal nature of our lives.

"He was unlucky. I have good genetics!" The fool feels superior when looking at human tragedy that befalls others. "I will go to heaven if I repent before I die for what I'm doing now." The fool thinks religion will save him from death and reverse the damage of his misdeeds. "I will live on in my children and their children." The fool does not realize that his life is his own, and his children must live their own lives with or without the effects of his deeds or misdeeds.

Keeping a firm grasp on the purse strings of the moments of your life is a way of looking at daily practice. By trying to make each moment count in some responsible and creative way, you invest the wealth of your precious and limited time. You do not squander it on momentary and fleeting pleasures or escape from your life's path. This is part of the concept of mindfulness: Being in the moment with awareness of life's transitory nature. With this mindfulness, responsibility comes readily. First, the responsibility to yourself to nurture and maintain your body for the longest and healthiest life possible. Then the responsibility to your environment and those in it to foster peace, justice and compassion.

Personal practice is a wise expenditure of your time in life. It also supports the greater good. By embracing a personal daily practice, your path becomes clear and more joyful. Meditating, eating properly, exercising are all essential activities of a healthy daily practice. Self-deception breeds laziness and wastefulness. There is no more time in your life after this moment. There is less. Practice, focus and spend your time wisely.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Compassion

Compassion comes with the deep understanding of your own mortal humanity. Those who are spared material want in their lives are often compassion-challenged. The reason for this is quite simple. While they will inevitably suffer from aging and will die, they are allowed the material comforts and distractions to avoid experiencing the reality of mortal existence until they are old. I am fascinated by the tendency among wealthy people to climb mountains and endure extreme sports. To me, this indicates a basic human drive to understand and acknowledge their mortal limitations.

The mountain to mindfulness and compassion is perhaps more difficult to climb. In a world where there is an app to distract you at any given moment, maintaining a mindful focus on simply being is more and more difficult. While governments merge to suppress human freedom under international corporate fascism in response to the planet's inevitable deterioration due to human overpopulation, the opiate of technology slowly replaces the opiate of religion. It is more useful to the wealthy leaders. It not only provides mass distraction; each mobile microchip is a potential homing device on each potential trouble-maker. To awaken to this is a first step to individual freedom and compassion.

Compassion comes with experiencing life as it is without the drugs and distracting entertainments of modern society. By meditating daily and spending that time being focused on simply breathing and observing your own mind's unpredictability, you begin to see the true nature of being. By opening to your environment and the people in it, you learn about the range of being human. By looking for the truth behind media distractions, you learn about the corruption that comes with selfishness and power. By nuturing and maintaining your own body with healthy food and exercise, you learn about the reality of physical existence and your place in it. These practices liberate the human mind and body from the oppression of materialism.

What good is wisdom if it is not shared? What good is wealth if it is not shared? What good is well-being if it is not used to serve a greater good? Selfish enjoyment is limiting and leads utlimately to unhappiness. The first step of developing compassion is sharing in whatever capacity you can to promote peace, justice and the greater good.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Practice

Whatever a fool learns,
It only makes him duller.
Knowledge cleaves his head.

For then he wants recognition,
A place before other people,
A place over other people.

"Let them know my work,
Let everyone look to me for direction."
Such are his desires.
Such is his swelling pride.

One way leads to wealth and fame.
The other to the end of the way.

Look not for recognition
But follow the awakened
And set yourself free.

Verse 5, p.21-22.

The way lies ahead for each of us to pursue. It is about becoming, moment by moment, with each thought, decision, conversation. We strike our intentional mindful paths, or we allow conincidence and emotion rule us. No minister, rabbi, priest or sage can map our way for us. It is our responsibility to choose and live with our choices.

If we progress with a mind to love, generosity and peace, the way will unfold clearly before us. If we scurry from one material opportunity to another without mindfulness, we may become wealthy, powerful and/or popular but we will not be our own masters. A plant which grows up quickly in times of flood withers and dies first in times of drought. The deep roots of mindfulness and compassion, learned from daily meditation and daily right action, sustain us in difficult times. This is the ultimate worth of personal practice.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Taxes

I listened this morning to NPR as President Obama defended his decision to support tax breaks for the wealthy as part of a compromise package with Congressional leaders. He asserted his position that people like himself, "those blessed", as he put it, should pay more taxes. Well? He's President! Why has he caved in to Republican pressure to extend tax breaks for the wealthy? Why hasn't he used the power of his office to flood the airwaves with public education about the unfairness of his own compromised position?

I think the answer is self-evident. President Obama is part of the power structure which will ultimately not support universal human rights and universal human economic justice. Talk is cheap. Right action in the face of personal and political fall-out is courageous.

In Mr. Obama's self-description this morning as "blessed", I hear something worse than Republican Social Darwinism. I hear echoes of Brahminism. The gods have ordained his good fortune, perhaps? This is the kind of thinking that promotes aristocracies and class division. Coincidence of upbringing, intelligence, historical context, hard work and good breaks is not a holy mandate. Many have led much humbler and much holier lives under similar circumstances.

The current struggle in government reflects the internal struggle of individual Americans. The religiosity of the Bush years was insincere and materialistic. It failed the majority of those who bought into it. Homes foreclosed, jobs downsized, children destroyed by foreign wars for oil. Many Americans are having trouble admitting that they made a big mistake in jumping on the religious, patriotic and buy-now-pay-later bandwagon. Those who drove that bandwagon have won a major political victory this year. They want to get that bandwagon rolling again to bilk every last cent out of those foolish enough to go for the ride.

The public outrage over the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy is encouraging, though it is also troubling to see how politically naive a large part of the electorate is. The President's position is becoming quite obvious. He is siding with the political class, one of the wealthy classes. To some of us, this comes as no great surprise, but it continues to disappoint.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mysticism

Unlike some who identify themselves as secular humanists, I am not averse to discussions of mysticism or investigation of mystical phenomena. I had a recent conversation about this with two friends. It was helpful to me.

Some atheists are cynical to the point of mocking anything mystical. Mockery, usually associated with blanket dismissal of the mocked premise, is unscientific. Skepticism is the hallmark of scientific method, not cynicism. In fact, those who are cynical are seldom scientific. Science breeds curiosity. Cynicism dulls curiosity.

Likewise, many mystics are intentionally naive. They cling to their ignorance of science as a defense against losing 'faith'. This too is unscientific and rather out of sync with general human evolution from ignorance to knowledge. Science breeds wonder. Naivete simply promotes ignorance and stupidity, no matter how blissful.

As a practical humanist with a scientific background and a considerable exposure to The Mystical, I see much of the debate and controversy that banters back and forth between these poles as a waste of time. Ranting atheists are about anger, not about humanism. Ranting mystics are about fear of progress, not about effecting human progress.

A focus on human rights and human justice inevitably brings an intelligent person to scientific thought. How else can a modern person wrap his head around the challenges of the human species on a deteriorating planet? Whistling in the dark with mystical incantations will not solve the problems. Alienating those who need to be brought up to speed on the challenges and their possible solutions will not solve the problems.

There is no need for me as a practical humanist to denigrate mysticism to those who hold it dear. However, it is my place as a practical humanist to engage those intelligent people who may believe in mysticism as I encounter them. As a member of the human species, committed to peace and justice for all, I need the help of any like-minded person to spread mindfulness and compassion, whether they believe in magic or not..

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Icons

The death of Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former Presidential candidate and suspected abuser of the public trust, John Edwards, has spurred a flood of media attention to terminal illness. This anniversary of the handgun assassination of John Lennon thirty years ago has spurred media attention to his fame and violent demise.

The media-bathed culture in America encourages life-by-icon. While there is value in educating consumers of media about the realities of dying with cancer or handgun violence, the constant use of icons to get this information across encourages a certain distancing of common people from the reality all around them. Token grief and token outrage are not real involvement in real community.

During the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., celebrities generally hid their diagnosis from the public. Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson were the most notable icons of AIDS. While their appearance in media helped to show the general population that AIDS could happen to anyone, the impact on actual AIDS patients was not at all positive. This is part of the schizoid effect of media. Many people reacting to Rock Hudson's death with great sorrow would run away from a neighbor with AIDS, living in desperate poverty and isolation.

Icons tend to reinforce the perception that their tragedies are remote. They also tend to create the illusion for the common people that somehow every person's tragedy will somehow be special and greatly supported by an imaginary caring society or fan base. Icons distract people from looking next door at their own neighbor who is dragging herself to chemotherapy every day without any help. The convenient assumption is that the neighbor must have a fan club to do that. This is most often untrue.

John Lennon's death by gun is somehow elevated to the level of cultural martyrdom. Meanwhile, young people of color are being gunned down in every part of the U.S. daily with minimal public outcry from those who set up altars to the likes of Lennon. John Lennon's death has done nothing for gun control in America. It has fueled an industry of Lennon memorabilia.

Life-by-icon is a pathetic shadow of real life, engaged with real people in real community. Turning away from icons to life around you is a great step to getting involved in community. Being engaged in the human joys and sufferings in your own environment makes you a part of that environment. Alienation is an obstacle to full health and well being. Being fully human entails living well in community. Living life through famous people is a path to self-delusion and alienation.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Practice

practice is a mountain
we climb and climb
we seek the peak
a view of no future
before falling to death

happy seekers watch
struggling on mindfully
steps placed with care
treasuring any progress
smiling at our own end

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pain

Pain has been my teacher. My upbringing in a family bruised by alcoholism and poverty conditioned me to embrace denial of psychic or physical pain. Numbness, punctuated by raging anger, was the norm.

Neurophysiology of pain.
As I separated from my family through my early adult years, I began to recognize myself. The consciousness I had been bullied into burying by my family turned out to suit me rather well when I had time and freedom to get to know it. However, that re-wakening of my personality was quite painful. All the cuts and bruises it had suffered in childhood had not healed. Some had even festered and were causing some pretty dysfunctional behavior.

I began to understand by experimentation that acknowledging the pain of loss and alienation was actually palliative. I sought counseling. I embraced a group of friends who talked about life realistically and candidly. I chose to work with others in psychological and physical pain. I chose a path in life which was centered on being and becoming fully human, not on acquiring wealth, status or pleasure.

Now, as I am more and more aware of the age of my body, pain continues to guide me to moderation in activity and appetite. Pain cues me to meditate, to breathe, to relax. I hesitate to take pharmaceuticals for pain. I have found I have less pain as a result. I have learned to tolerate more pain.

Pain comes to us all, with the rare exception of those who cannot feel any pain at all. Those unfortunate individuals live in constant vigilance, since they are constantly at risk of unnoticed injury or disease. The rest of us will experience more pain as we age. This is a certainty of being human. Incorporating consciousness of my pain into my humanist practice has made me more compassionate. It has helped me to connect with other human beings with whom I may have little else in common at first glance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Simplicity

I threw away my bowl when I saw a boy drinking from his hands at the trough.
                                                           ----Diogenes of Sinope (412BCE-323BCE)

Wikipedia Commons Image: Diogenes
Cutting through the fog of accumulated human custom and adaptation to the basic realities of human life is liberating and also frightening. We all construct self-images with the encouragement of society, which demands we play a specific role in the human matrix. Deviate too far from that role and you risk banishment, poverty and even premature death.

The endurance of Buddhism and Stoicism speak to an element in the human psyche which craves simplicity. Perhaps we all understand deeply that our better natures are linked to this simplicity, this basic humanity.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Food

Overpopulation has led to the development of a human food supply chain which depends increasingly on chemistry and mechanical technology to compensate for limited resources of land, water and farming labor. The result is a deterioration in the quality of readily available food generally. A heavy reliance on corn, a particularly nutrition-weak grain, is an example. Corn is easy to grow and harvest. It has been easily modified genetically for pest control. However, it rapes the soil of nutrients.

Corn has become one of the pillars of the American and world food supply. Along with soy, another easily grown higher-protein crop, corn has brought huge profits to the cheap-and-fast food industry. Of course, this has also enabled even greater world population growth.

In the industrialized world, academics flare their nostrils at childhood obesity, while their stock portfolios are bolstered by gains from the corporations which are causing the obesity. They scurry to seek fix-its for obesity by adding on more drugs and by surgical interventions. While the engine of obesity, bad food, steams on down the track to more profits and more human misery.

You cannot have good health without eating good food wisely. As long as poor-quality food is the norm, poor health will be the norm in a society. An unhealthy society does not progress in essential ways for the greater good. As a practical humanist, I believe healthy diet is an essential part of my personal practice. What lasting good can I do for health in society if I cannot first attend to my own health?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Quiet

I have found that my sensitivity to environmental noise is directly related to the intensity of my own mental noise. Another example of the dynamic interaction between person and environment. Quieting the mind can be facilitated by finding a quiet environment. However, a noisy mind, unattended to, may not find any environment quiet enough for peace. Getting adequate rest, a proper diet and routine exercise are essential to taming a noisy mind, aggravated by an irritated nervous system, as muscles, organs and bones protest their poor treatment. Meditation is an added layer of mind-soothing. A quiet mind allows its owner to hear the important things in his/her inner and outer environment.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Victims

There are victims in life. Children brought into an uncaring world by deficient parents are victims. Human beings injured or slain without provocation by the violence of the criminal, hateful or deranged are victims.

We live in strange times. Here in Boston, a city councillor, Chuck Turner, a convicted felon, who accepted a bribe on camera, repeatedly gets air time in the media to proclaim himself a victim and a crusader for the victimized poor in response to being legitimately and justly bounced from the Boston City Council yesterday. How could he be taken seriously?

As the U.S. has become a nation of increased civil rights, it has unfortunately also become a nation of decreased personal responsibility. This may well be part of the natural pendulum swing of change in human society. Balance is hard to achieve in an individual life in modern society. It makes sense that a diverse society must struggle even greater to maintain balance.

In a conversation yesterday with a respected and intelligent person who works with many troubled people with AIDS, I became aware that he sees anyone with HIV as a victim to be protected against what he perceives as a hostile general society. We were discussing methods of assuring medication adherence by people with HIV in correctional institutions. He rebuked my assertion of concern for the uninfected population, as well as the people infected with HIV. "It's their problem. They need to protect themselves from getting infected." He then defended people with HIV who do not disclose their status to potential sex partners as victims of prejudice. I was both disappointed and angered by this position, the official position of many AIDS organizations. I simply said, "I believe it is the responsibility of every infected person to disclose his status to every partner. I believe that people uninfected by sexually transmitted diseases have rights to tax-supported, public health protection too."

The internal group-think of a victim subculture can become paranoid and/or self-serving. This is due in part to shared trauma, which can become the glue that holds the subculture together. It can also be due to exploitation of fear by leadership who learn to depend on the subculture for their rather prosperous lifestyles. Examples can be seen in any minority subculture. A corrupt minority politician, a sex educator who decides that he is ethically obligated to one small segment of human beings, two examples at ends of a wide spectrum.

I resent the blanket denouncement of all victims by politicians and lobbyists on the political Right, who try to gut social-network programs and just litigation statutes for purely selfish motives. However, I also resent to exploitation of victims by their self-proclaimed advocates for equally selfish motives.

As a nurse, I have known many actual victims of life situations beyond their control. I have also known many people who see themselves as victims, when they are actually simply reaping what they have intentionally sewn in their lives by being irresponsible, proud and/or stupid. The problem with the "victim culture" mentality is that there are no lessons learned by discerning the difference between accidental and intentional personal disaster. In those lessons lie the means to prevent greater future personal disasters.

Being a humanist to me means being committed in belief and action to the greater good for human life and its environment. My commitment to non-violence is an essential component of that belief and action. I see violence as the greatest impediment to human rights and human justice. Violence, as I see it, is intentional human action which produces trauma. Trauma and the threat of trauma produce victims, who are impaired by their trauma to some degree for the rest of their lives. The prevention of intentional trauma is the responsibility of anyone who cares about human progress. Sheltering and/or enabling victims who then victimize is not a way to human progress.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

AIDS

December 1st is World AIDS Day. For three decades, many on the planet have lived in the shadow of this affliction. Its public image has evolved from moral punishment to chronic sexually transmitted disease. Those with the disease have lived through being treated as lepers to being understood as normal people with the misfortune of contracting a manageable disease.

"Sex in an Epidemic"
Weathering the seas of the AIDS epidemic has been an essential experience of my own life. As a nurse, I saw the brutal indifference of the medical profession in the early stages of the epidemic. Many male physicians, mostly heterosexual and homophobic, passed death sentences on newly infected gay men with a tone of moral superiority. Nurses, who ordinarily shrugged at the danger of infection from their patients, refused to work with HIV-infected patients, who were summarily placed in isolation rooms. They were often neglected by hospital staff, who grudgingly donned hazmat isolation outfits before entering the rooms of AIDS patients. The bedside care in those rooms was often abrupt and barely adequate, as staff rushed in and rushed out in panic.

My shame for the behavior of my colleagues was deep. Many of my professional relations suffered significantly as a result. The anger among my gay peers was sometimes vented upon me, as a representative of the medical profession. And, as a person infected with HIV since 1984, I lived in fear for years that I would be banned from my professional practice, if my HIV status was revealed.

In the wake of all this, in America, some people in the gay male subculture felt entitled to an attitude of narcissistic self-determination. Anger morphed into antisocial sexual behavior, fueled by drugs and alcohol. Infection rates continued to climb. The cross-over to bisexuals and heterosexuals was inevitable. The transmission through IV drug use and transfusions predictable.

The AIDS epidemic has taught me a great deal about community, society and social responsibility. It decimated a promising socio-political movement twenty-five years ago in the LGBT subculture. It spawned the current American mania for non-profits for every social or medical problem. It destroyed faith in the American government's ability to attend to the health needs of its people. It was the Hurricane Katrina of health care. Ronald Reagan was its George Bush.

Of the 30+ million people who have died of AIDS, most have died in miserable poverty in Africa. But, gay men in America also died in miserable poverty in the early days of the epidemic. Fired from jobs, denied disability benefits, turned away from dental and medical providers, denied housing, rejected by their families. They died alone by the thousands. I became an AIDS hospice nurse in response to this terrible reality.

I have learned to walk through the AIDS epidemic as I have learned to walk through life. I have sought the Middle Path. I have learned to be compassionate toward myself, but I have worked hard to maintain my study and practice. I have acknowledged my pain and anger, but I have continued to open my life to anyone in my path. I have accepted great losses physically and psychologically, but I continue to value and promote the health and well being of others. Continuing to grow in mindfulness and compassion in the face of the inevitable pain of life is its own reward. This is the lesson I have taken from AIDS in my life.