Monday, January 31, 2011

Entitlement

According to Wikipedia, "An entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation. A "right" is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an "entitlement" is a provision made in accordance with legal framework of a society. Typically, entitlements are laws based on concepts of principle ("rights") which are themselves based in concepts of social equality or enfranchisement.

In clinical psychology and psychiatry, an unrealistic, exaggerated, or rigidly held sense of entitlement may be considered a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder, seen in those who 'because of early frustrations...arrogate to themselves the right to demand lifelong reimbursement from fate'[2]."

Republicans and Libertarians attempt to merge these two nuances of the word "entitlement" in order to cast a negative shadow on demands for economic justice and social responsibility. They do not seem to understand that deprivation breeds a attitude of narcissistic entitlement in human beings. This lies at the heart of generational poverty, encouraged by unscientific government policies. Or, if they do understand these concepts, they wish to ignore that understanding to benefit their own wallets.

As a humanist, I believe equal rights, food, shelter, health care, meaningful work and a nonviolent environment should be basic entitlements, awarded to all human beings at birth. We are still very far as a species from providing these basic entitlements to all human beings. Why?

Is it because the planet cannot provide the means for providing these entitlements? No. I believe the planet could sustain a population determined to provide these entitlements to all its members. Even at the current state of environmental deterioration of Earth, technology could be utilized at the expense of war and politics to provide these entitlements.

So, what are the obstacles to providing these entitlements to all human beings? Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the education gap between those in political and economic power and those out of power. As we see now in North Africa, a boom of a better educated young adult population changes the social and political terrain drastically in a relatively short period of time. Educated young people, with untarnished ideals and energy, are an engine for social and political change in the direction of providing basic human entitlements to all citizens in society.

A simple mathematical obstacle to providing basic entitlements in society lies in population and the distribution of wealth in population. Free-market capitalism in its pure form encourages high birth rates. This is based in the premise that the base of the population pyramid produce laborers to support the relatively tiny apex. In other words, the very structure of society, as seen by free-marketeers is statically and functionally unjust. It claims to be based in meritocracy, but, in practice, it is meritocracy of the aggressive, who then rig the stakes by transferring hereditary wealth and provenance.  It is also unscientific, in a holistic sense of the word.It disregards alternate hypothetical models of economic structure to deal with burgeoning populations with longer life expectancies in degraded environments. Free-market capitalism is an absolutist ideology, like a religion or rigid Communism. It is not science.

The most basic obstacle to providing basic entitlements to all human beings lies in the state of human reproduction. As long as a woman is guaranteed the basic right or entitlement to conceive and deliver another human being without restraint or consideration of her capacity to raise a child responsibly, then the society that grants that entitlement bears responsibility for the human being who is brought into that society. In an educated and civil society which strongly supports religious ideologies which promote unrestrained reproduction  and suppresses sex education, it is unethical for politicians to even suggest that basic human service budgets be restrained in any way that inhibits basic human entitlements. It is unethical for politicians to oppose universal health care. It is unethical for politicians to obstruct education funding. It unethical for politicians to limit the collection of taxes for providing for all human beings.

A certain amount of narcissistic entitlement is healthy in current society.  The archetypal African-American woman, a product of sexist and racial oppression, who is angry and puts up with no nonsense, promotes social consciousness and brings attention to the plight of her people. The archetypal gay man with an acid tongue who refuses to be cowed by homophobia also promotes awareness and combats prejudice. In a Freudian or Jungian Utopia, angry entitlement is seen as dysfunctional, diseased. In a real world, where people are born into oppression, neglect and poverty, angry entitlement can fuel a civil rights movement.

Entitlement is not a dirty word. It refers to the human contract between individual and society. It is true protection for the unborn. It is a truly pro-life mechanism for improving the human condition. How government approaches basic human entitlements is a measure of its humanity and morality.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ego

Martin Buber (1878-1965)
The great trick of living in mindfulness with compassion is wrestling with ego without becoming obsessed with the struggle. I was stirred by Martin Buber's Ich Und Du (I and Thou) when I was a college student, struggling through a very difficult coming out and separation from a dysfunctional family situation. Martin Buber's I-Thou relationship, the ultimate bonding in Love, juxtaposed to the I-It relationships of daily reality without Love, struck a deep chord within me. If there was anything resembling what others called God, it was, I agreed with Buber, rooted in this I-Thou experience.

So much of appreciating the beauty of life entails getting out of your own line of vision. Getting out of you own way.

The baggage of ego is heavy. It takes years of packing and unpacking to accumulate the junk of ego in its cumbersome steamer trunk, slung over shoulders, stooped by its weight. The older the person, the larger the trunk. That is, unless you travel light. Traveling light is one of the keys to mindfulness. Letting go of high school trophies, hard-earned pay-grades, honorific titles. Being, instead of being who you are supposed to be. Ego's weight lies in who you are supposed to be and what you deserve, in your own mind.

Loving in each moment is hard work. Loving yourself at 6 AM with arthritic pains in winter darkness does not come easily without practice. Loving yourself after you have hurt another in anger does not come easily without practice. Loving another who has turned you into an object of scorn or hatred does not come easily without practice. Barricading yourself behind your ego comes quite easily without practice.

I believe that much of what makes up my humanist practice is my struggle with my ego in relationship with the world. My ego may see a mission to change the world. But, my true human nature understands that I may only turn my own mental focus and actions to compassion in each moment with practice. If my own practice is worthy, perhaps, by living it mindfully in each moment, the world may benefit from it.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Triggers

The recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, revolution in the streets, exemplify human behavior under extreme stress. A brewing misery among majority populations of young underutilized workers of these countries, stretched by environmental and population pressures, was sustainable until triggered by a repressive response from authority. Pressurizing stress and anger is a recipe for rebellion.

Maslow's Hierarchy
This has parallels on an individual level. Living under the constant stress of a demanding life with inadequate emotional compensation and/or inadequate self-care nutritionally, sexually and psychologically leads to an explosive situation. Repression of healthy desires in an ill-informed attempt to improve the situation can trigger unhealthy responses in the individual. Binge drinking, drug abuse, overeating, indiscriminate sexuality, etc.. These are forms of internal rebellion, which may lead to new regimens of stress relief or may lead to even worse addiction and self-abuse.

Daily practice is a personal preventative measure to avoid these trigger situations, which often become cyclic Taking care of yourself every day, routinely, to avoid stress that is unnecessary is crucial to personal peace and progress. Maintaining physical health is a top priority in daily practice. What you eat, how you maintain your hygiene, the ways in which you exercise, all contribute to the foundation of all good daily practice... good health. Proper amounts of restful sleep and daily meditation are excellent for stress reduction. So simple, yet seemingly so difficult for many people in developed countries to grasp.

If a society focuses on promoting the health and mental well being of its citizens over the accumulation of wealth or power, it will reduce its triggers of violence and unrest. There are examples of societies which are doing this right now on the planet. Unfortunately, the United States, as a society led by an elected government, is not yet one of them.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Hypocrisy

I feel great shame over the actions of my country's government. I have found the violent foreign policy of the past eight years hard to bear. Today we see the hypocrisy of those in power in the United States.

Swift to bomb and kill tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq, who were victims of the Saddam Hussein regime, in the name of liberating them, our government now stands back and analyzes dryly as civilians fight dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Under the pretext of remaining "calm" and "civil", our robotic President pontificates on the situation in Egypt with the same attitude which Americans frequently perceive as elitist snobbery. How calm and civil is this Commander-in-Chief when he is overseeing the bombing of villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

I thank the people of Tunisia and Egypt for shining a light on failed American foreign policy. I admire them for bringing the focus of "freedom" back to human rights and economic justice. "Freedom" in American English now means "cheap gas prices" or "low taxes". I am embarrassed for the President of the United States and his Secretary of State, who pose as Liberal icons in America. How far from the spirit of John F. Kennedy they have drifted! In fact, today, they seem to stand to the Right of Ronald Reagan's position in 1989. They epitomize the hypocrisy of the current Democratic Party.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Money

In the face of widespread human suffering in the nation, the American President and the American Congress have decided to focus almost exclusively on money. Saving money, printing more, spending less.

Tunisians demonstrating for economic justice.
Teenagers are shooting each other over drugs with illegal hand guns, made readily available by failed gun laws. Teenagers are committing suicide after being bullied in underfunded and poorly regulated public schools. Minority students fail at increasing rates. Prisons are filled to overflowing. The rich flaunt their immunity to the suffering around them. The poor, manipulated by the media of the wealthy, do not know where to turn for relief and leadership. They are being divided and conquered by those relatively few who wish to hold onto 80%-90% of the wealth of the nation.

The Supreme Court has facilitated this process by allowing corporations to buy political propagandists (candidates) who represent their interests, not the interests of the people. Banks are taking back houses from bankrupt families at five times the normal rate. Unemployment is high. The climate is changing. Total dependence on the petrochemical industry to maintain the quality of life in America persists. The government obsesses on the automobile industry, the banks and Wall Street. The Republicans plot with Libertarians over taking away the social security network.

The wave of change in North Africa reminds me of the wave of change that occurred in Paris in 1968, which sparked student demonstrations around the world. Again, America looks abroad for examples of popular uprising against the selfish and greedy, who seek always to create a new aristocracy through war and empty nationalism. Now, this is happening in the Islamic world, where populations are awakening to their own needs for economic justice and civil rights. The American State Department, predictably, tries to prop up the Egyptian dictatorship as part of its Middle East chess game, based in petroleum politics.

It is time for the American people to drive the money men from the halls of democracy. This can happen peacefully in the voting booth or it can happen less peacefully in the streets. I hope the nonviolent path can be taken before the path of violence inevitably returns.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Liberation

And yet it is not good conduct
That helps you upon the way,
Nor ritual, nor book learning,
Nor withdrawal into the self,
Nor deep meditation.
None of these confers mastery or joy.

O seeker!
Rely on nothing
Until you want nothing.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, v.19,p.72

Compartmentalizing practice into one segment of your life by attending the occasional yoga or meditation class is ritual, not necessarily following the way to greater good in your own life and the lives around you. Binging on practice, like binging on anything else, is a sign of imbalance or disease. Mindful practice is like constantly pouring water on the stone of your own resistance to do what is right and compassionate in favor of your selfish needs. Inevitably the stone yields, but only after persistence with constant intent. Liberation comes when practice is simply a way of being in every moment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nimrod

Legend places Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah, in opposition to monotheism. Nimrod, the king and hunter, is represented as a rebel against the God of Noah. He encourages his people to build the Tower of Babel, from which, in some legends, he shot an arrow at Heaven. He unifies them in a common language. His defiance against an all-powerful, patriarchal God in favor of uniting all the people of his kingdom causes the retribution of that God, who baffles the people by taking away their commonality, their common language. They are cast into chaos, speaking seventy-five different tongues.

'Little"Babel by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder
Perhaps humanists are the ethical Nimrods of our time. Perhaps all scientists are. Or, perhaps those who promote progress through information technology, united largely on the Web by a common language, English, are aiming an arrow at God in His sky.

I often wonder if the apparent human fear of worldwide unity and harmony is based in an animal instinct to promote biodiversity for the sake of genetic evolution and survival. Is this a manifestation of the frontal-lobe-vs-animal-brain conflict? Human beings genetically modify plants and animals enthusiastically for the greater good. Yet, they recoil from any intentional genetic improvement of their own species. Laws are passed against stem-cell research and cloning with resounding applause. Is this rooted in the animal brain? Is it a conditioned response, stemming from religious indoctrination?

And what of our Tower of Babel? Will it be built for the common welfare? Or, will it be built to house an elite at the top, served by the proletariat at the bottom?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fellowship

People often turn to religion for fellowship in promoting what they perceive to be the greater good. Religion triangulates good intentions between the congregation, the pastor/imam/rabbi and the god-of-choice. Fellowship is often seen as a by-product of religion, not its central purpose. The variety of fellowship mirrors the dogma of the various religious groups. Some congregations are more inclusive than others. Some focus on cake sales. Others run thrift shops. Radical Muslims plot bombings together, I suppose. The triangulation between the congregants, the pastor and the god creates an impedance against a greater human fellowship.

Humanists, as I understand Humanism, believe in the fellowship of all human beings, regardless of their religious or irreligious beliefs. We believe that there is no need to work through middlemen, corporal or invisible, to achieve the greater good for all. This is one of the most fundamental reasons to be a Humanist, as opposed to being a follower of a religious sect. This is an essential difference between Humanism and religion. Humanists believe that their fellowship, without sectarian boundaries or hierarchy, is a greater good in itself.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alcohol

I strongly believe, as stated many times in this blog, that individual human progress is retarded by the use of alcohol. I say this from personal experience with drinking. I say this from observing the effects of alcohol on individuals and groups. I say this from working as a professional in detox centers, psychiatric hospitals and hospice. I say this as a son of an adult child of an alcoholic. I strongly believe the insidious effects of alcohol on human life stunt any attempt at progressive daily practice. My opinions on alcohol are based in experience and in scientific evidence.

EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL
Ritualistic drinking is a remnant of the Stone Age. In current society, fostering ritualistic drinking has become a business plan for huge corporations. Is it a coincidence that increased social drinking has blossomed in an era following the banning of tobacco products in restaurants and bars? Or is it simply a shifting of propaganda, aimed at impressionable young people, from cigarettes to alcohol? The same wealthy stock holders and government officials who reap tax benefits are profiting from drunkenness who profited from lung cancer. If you have any doubts, read this report from Maryland's comptroller.

Alcohol is simply fermented sugar which effects brain activity in the short and long term. It has no nutritional or mystical value. It simply impacts the brains and major organ systems in such a profound way that it alters consciousness and senses almost immediately. This speaks more to its toxicity than its value. It is a form of self-medication for some, like people with ADD or Bipolar Disease, who suffer from hyperactive brain activity. However, unlike more refined chemical therapies for these disorders, it is highly addictive in a sizable percentage of the population. Those who are depressed and drink are more likely at risk of committing suicide.

Routine moderate alcohol use leads to some dependency and eventually addiction in many. It saps energy and creativity. It contributes to a general denial of responsibility and accountability. It narrows and eventually inhibits meaningful relationships. Alcohol's most evil attribute, common to all addictive substances, is its ability to distort brain function to the point that the addicted individual prizes his relationship with alcohol over human relationships.

The propaganda in alcohol's favor, funded by those with vested interests in its consumption, is everywhere. Subway floors in Boston are papered with alcohol ads. Huge billboards are popping up along major highways everywhere with pictures of smiling affluence peddling liquor. The melding of materialism and alcohol use is a great marketing ploy. But, it has nothing to do with humanist practice or human progress. In fact, it is a great obstacle to human development.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Humility

More info on the Sombrero Galaxy















try to remember
all of us
no matter
how powerful
how famous
how rich
how beautiful
how virtuous
how ingenious
how resourceful
all of us
are just specks
in the vast universe

Friday, January 21, 2011

Generations

We have a very serious problem with the understanding of aging in the U.S., and perhaps in the Developed World generally. As cultures and societies are driven more and more by popular media, which is based in a Hollywood model of perpetual cosmetic youth, the perception of aging is becoming very conflicted in people of all ages.

Whether we accept aging as reality or not, it happens according to basic chemical and physical processes, which are increasingly understood and predictable. We have the choice as individuals to study and accept the findings of science or to avoid and deny the findings of science. If we learn and accept the science, we can live accordingly and adjust our daily practices to accommodate aging in a proactive way. This, in my view, does not entail saving money for plastic surgery and pretending to be twenty-five forever.

The establishment at any age of a daily practice, based in exercise, proper diet and mindfulness, aided by meditation and reflection, is one way of living with aging proactively. By accepting that you will age and die, perhaps accidentally or abruptly, you open your mind to the profound opportunity present in each moment of each day. This acceptance and understanding of your own mortality places you squarely in harmony with the world around you, if you pay attention. There is aging and death all around you if you open your eyes and pay attention to it.

The avoidance of accepting mortality fuels alienation between generations. Well-meaning young people minimize the effects of age when their elders try to point out their real limitations. To the elder person, this translates as, "If you can't pretend to be youthful and vital, I don't want you around." In turn, alienated old people wave off attempts by the young to engage them in activities within their capabilities. They often retreat into an isolated world which seems predictable, safe. However, there is no safety or joy in that isolation.

Religious congregations used to bring people of all ages together. However, the unwillingness of religions to sacrifice dogma for social relevance has deprived many free-thinking people from a place where they can experience people of all ages. This is an unfortunate trend. Free-thinking people, the more progressive members of society, are more likely to become age-limited in their social or organizational groups. I think this is reflected in some segments of current Humanist Movement in the U.S..

This has devastating consequences for the young, the old and those in between. I am especially aware of this because of my own experience of aging within my GLBT minority. The exchange of exuberant energy of the young with the experience of the old fueled the early Gay Liberation Movement. People like Harvey Milk built on the work of people like Harry Hay to make Gay Liberation happen. Now, with the devastation of a whole generation of activist gay men by AIDS, the GLBT movement is continuing to actualize the goals set fifty years ago. This would have occurred sooner, I am sure, without the loss of a generation of out gay men to AIDS.

The work of creating inter-generational community must be shared equally by all ages within the community. Perhaps the onus falls more heavily on the elders of any community to adapt and surrender parental entitlement to veneration based in their seniority or financial prowess. In other word, it is perhaps harder for elders in a community to break out of their entrenched habits to reach out to the young or to surrender control to the young. Always being the sage is a very lonely path, one ill-suited to a member of a community or fellowship.  Likewise, an organization composed exclusively of the young tends to be high on ideals and very low in efficiency or effectiveness. It also lacks the necessary financial support for its work.

Part of my humanist practice, which grew out of my experience as a nurse and participant in Gay Liberation, has been to remain open to people of all ages to learn from their wisdom, intelligence and energy. In a society driven more and more by superficial materialism and sexuality, this becomes more of a challenge. I have been fortunate to find an inter-generational community in my work with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. And, it is now part of my daily practice to contribute to the health of that community.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Practice

A fool is happy
Until his mischief turns against him.
And a good man may suffer
Until his goodness flowers.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, v.9, p.33

Now, in deep Winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, low light and cold often challenge optimism. Energy goes to keeping warm, shoveling snow, balancing on icy sidewalks. It sometimes becomes a challenge to stand erect and look ahead to Spring. The fool succumbs to the circumstances of his/her immediate situation at the expense of continuing along the path of personal progress. Sustaining practice through all conditions of life is The Way. The reward of practice is practice itself, which, if sustained, will sustain the practitioner under all circumstances, joyous and difficult. Practice brings a calm strength at the center of consciousness. Seasons come. Seasons go. We all age and eventually die. The person who lives in daily mindfulness with compassion learns to relish the journey no matter how rough the terrain.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reactionary

Today's activity in the House of Representatives of the U.S. is reactionary. Playing to the tantrum-throwing mob of middle class businessmen who organized the Tea Party, the Republican members of the House will symbolically vote to repeal the recent Health Care Reform Act, which was a first attempt at establishing universal access to health care in the U.S..

This is not simply reactionary ritual. It is test of the majority of the American citizenry, who can only benefit from the Health Care Reform Act. The Republican leadership wants to see how much can be taken away from the majority of Americans to favor the elite. How easily can they manipulate the voters? How effective is their tactic of fear-mongering in this post-911 time? How effective is their use of anti-Liberal, anti-government propaganda?

This is an era of reactionary politics at a time when the U.S. and the world desperately need proactive governance. Recent events in Tunisia illustrate clearly where corrupt, reactionary politics lead. The Arab world, acutely aware of the challenges caused by environmental deterioration and overpopulation, is struggling against reactionary potentates and dictators, whose alliances are forged with their elite to protect their hold on the greater majority of wealth in those countries. History is not linear. It is cyclic.Today's democracy can become tomorrow's dictatorship just as today's dictatorship can become tomorrow's democracy.

Human rights and economic justice are never guaranteed without a struggle, even in America. Those who have wealth and power become corrupted inevitably. This is ancient wisdom. Rather than falling into the trap of shrugging at politics as irrelevant to your life, it is wise to pay close attention to what is being done in the name of democracy. Repealing increased health benefits for Americans is an obvious attack on human progress. If those who make that attack see that the people are not paying attention, it will only embolden them. This is how bullies operate.

I believe being a humanist in society entails actively participating in the society. This includes participating in representative democracy. Voting, writing to politicians and speaking out are essentially American. Viewing politicians with disdain as long as what they do does not directly effect you is not, in my opinion, a humanist attitude. You can find the tools to getting more involved at Congress.org

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Codependency

I recently had an encounter with a middle-aged man who has fallen on difficult times. He has become unemployed. He has taken the step of moving in with his mother, who has a long history of putting her own needs above his. This well-meaning son believes his mother cannot do without him, even though she did quite well without him for twenty years when he lived one thousand miles away.

As I entered into this man's world with my own motivation to be helpful and to be a friend, I found myself blocked repeatedly by the relationship that exists between mother and son. Mother habitually supporting the son's bad habits. Son remorsefully living with the mother's repeated bad choices which impact them both. Both seeing themselves as helpless victims of their dance. My attempts to ally with the healthy instincts of my new friend were met with hostility and finally with the blanket statement, "I have no choice. I love my mother."

I am sure millions of people live in similar situations. Perhaps these relationships prevent human progress more than any other impediment. Individual human progress does entail growing up and developing an independent mind, an independent truth within the context of a greater society. If the individuals in a society do not progress, then the society itself cannot progress.

The hallmark of a healthy adult relationship is mutual respect and ongoing creativity, which requires constant evaluation and change. This is true of healthy relationships between parents and grown children, as well as relationships between friends and partners. Maintaining a healthy relationship and continuing to pursue a personal daily practice is challenging. The first step is establishing clear understanding of individual needs and limits, based in shared goals of individual health and happiness.

Lack of education is the fertile soil of codependency. Without a view beyond the horizon of your conditioned beliefs and habits, there is little incentive to change or grow as a human being. The window to that view is study. By learning about current science of the body and the mind, you are reading the owner's manual of your own being.

By understanding the proper operation and maintenance of your own body, you are embarking on a path to tremendous growth as a human being. Independent thought develops naturally on that path. Breaking the chains of codependency follows. Reforming healthy relationships where there was once codependency is very difficult. Those relationships must often be left behind. However, connecting with other healthy human beings becomes easier. This can lead to a rich and happier life with daily practice.

Monday, January 17, 2011

King

Martin Luther King was assassinated when I was a college student. I heard the radio report of his death on a car radio, as I rode with three friends. We were all working-class, white and male. The profound silence in the car, punctuated by the occasional sigh, is still a palpable memory.

Like many others of my generation, I grew up with images of the Civil Rights struggle which Dr. King came to represent. Our parents often spoke unsympathetically of the demonstrations and speeches of that movement. But, my peers and I were inspired by Dr. King and his peers. They were our teachers. When the Peace Movement blossomed out of the Civil Rights Movement, we knew what needed to be done. We took to the streets in peaceful dissent. We exposed the military-industrial complex for what it is: Murder and enslavement for profit. The symbolic massacre at Kent State drew hundreds of thousands of bystanders into the streets with us, just as the murder of Dr. King brought bystanders into the Civil Rights struggle. Later, the murder of Harvey Milk brought bystanders into the Gay Rights Movement.

Dr. King was not a social entrepreneur. He did not punch a clock or focus on balance sheets. He did not travel Business Class on a non-profit corporation's expense account. He rode buses with his fellow demonstrators. He stayed in cheap motels, like the one where he died. His life was dedicated to his cause. He did not Tweet or just show up on Sunday morning TV panels. He showed up where he was needed with his full energy and attention.

This morning I heard the current African-American President urge citizens to participate in community service today in honor of Dr. King's memory. Community service? Rather than speaking to the current inequalities in the country he administers, this man urges citizens to do community service on the day which commemorates Dr. King's life and work? Does he believe that Dr. King would approve of him urging the populace to accept the status quo by propping it up with food banks and soup kitchens? Is he honoring a sanitized, middle-class Dr. King, instead of the dedicated socialist who was maligned and persecuted by the U.S. government as Communist? Perhaps he is. After all, our current President has proven to be more pro-establishment than pro-people, in my opinion


This day I honor the memory of Dr. King by appreciating the good he did in my life. I thank him for opening my eyes to the unfairness of capitalism. I thank him for encouraging me to not accept being talked down to by those with more money, more genetic provenance or more political power. I thank him for making me understand that poor people are constantly being played against each other by the wealthy for their own purposes, as we see with the exploitation of illegal immigrants today. I thank him for teaching me that peaceful, intelligent dissent is ultimately stronger than brutality. Finally, I thank him for showing me that a life spent trying relentlessly  to improve the human condition is its own reward, whether it ends in untimely death or in old age.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dissent

The current economic conditions in the U.S. impact workers, the people who actually perform the tasks that keep this service-oriented economy moving. By some estimates, 20% of the working population is unemployed or underemployed. Meanwhile Wall Street profits soar to new heights.

Materialism is the driving engine of this economy. As a result, despite the general increase in health and longevity resulting in less hard physical labor to maintain a high standard of living, a shrinking percentage of the population enjoy the full benefits of rewarding employment and assured income. This is simply an unsustainable trend. It will inevitably lead to social discord and violence without proactive resistance and dissent.

Tunisian Labor Protesters
The unfortunate mentality, born of the crushing work of the Industrial Age, that work is something to be gotten through for so many decades before reaping the happy leisure of retirement, persists. The materialistic carrot of more work leading to more luxury fails as a model for older workers, whose wisdom dictates a simpler lifestyle with less complications. So, we now have the stick, waved by Ayn Rand Republicans and Libertarians: We will punish you for opting out of the workplace by cutting your retirement benefits and health care insurance. The double-speak of this position is astounding, since there are few jobs for older workers, who are the most effected by the current unemployment crisis.

The capitalism of materialism is a bulky and clumsy ship, built on rigid supply-demand principles of an imaginary "free" market. There is no freedom actually in this model. It is a model tilted in favor of the haves against the enslaved have-nots. Fearful capitalists point to anecdotal success stories whenever this is pointed out. The entrepreneurial model of the Reagan Era is slowly being revealed as having severe shortcomings in providing a safe, equitable and stable society.

A humanistic capitalism is shouted down in America by vested interests, represented by a bought-off media. It is labeled as Socialism, as if Socialism is a bad thing. Playing to the poorly educated, sabotaged for decades by the same vested interests who have gutted public school systems of the nation for tax relief, the bought-off media empires breed fear of social innovation. This would inevitably entail dismantling the power of the greedy who now maintain control. Adults and children are indoctrinated into a numbing political correctness under the guise of preventing hate crimes. The message is clearly, "You cannot trust yourself or your impressions about anything if you are not conforming".  Independent thought is discouraged by social media networks, like Facebook, where people self-edit for fear of becoming unemployable.

Those who speak out loudly are labeled "conspiracy theorists" or "crazies". They are equated with terrorists, assassins and bigots. The politics of fear are succeeding better than any wily politician could have hoped. Meanwhile, the politicians themselves are grappling to join the new aristocracy.

In my opinion, it is impossible to be a humanist in these times without objecting to these trends. To profit from the stratification of society into the rich and the poor is simply wrong. No amount of "social entrepreneurship" (good works, repackaged as small businesses) can justify the dismantling of social security, housing programs or health care provision for everyone.

It is a sad time when Americans have to look to Greece, France or Tunisia for models of protest against social injustice. It is even sadder that religious fundamentalism in America resembles religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. The U.S. used to be a model of public education and equanimity, despite social inequities. However, the new aristocracy, based in corporate and inherited wealth, threatens the principles of democracy in America. They recite The Constitution verbatim to justify their actions. It must be remembered that some of the men who wrote The Constitution were themselves slave-holding aristocrats in their time.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Accountability

The recent events in Tucson, Arizona, have triggered a tsunami of lectures on civility in the media. As I have written here, much of this new political enthusiasm for civility seems to be an excuse to further suppress protest of any kind in the country. One aspect of the horror of Tucson has been largely ignored in its aftermath: The public accountability of the person(s) who provided a mental ill person with a firearm and automatic ammunition.

We have heard of those who refused to provide the assassin the means to carry out his crime. Where are the people who did provide him with his arsenal? Are they being held publicly accountable? Or will they be shielded by the same NRA fascists who have created the atmosphere of violence and intimidation in Arizona which made this crime probable.

And what of the medical professionals who, over the years of his lifetime, attended to him and his family without intervention to get this man the mental health services he so obviously needed? Did he never see a doctor or a dentist? And what of the schools he attended? Did he never have any contact with a teacher, a guidance counselor? Are there no child-protective services in Arizona?

Hindsight should be 20:20 in a case like this. Those who failed to take any responsibility as a fellow human being to help this individual should be held accountable, in my opinion. I am not talking about criminal charges. I do believe the media could be focusing a light on the process of this young man's descent into violent insanity, rather than providing us with endless sanctimonious rationalizations by talking heads on the payroll.  The money would be better spent on actual journalism about this man's past and what went wrong along his way to that fatal incident.

How can any of us learn from our mistakes if we do not take inventory of our own accountability in making them? As a society, how can we begin to learn from these incidents unless we  hold ourselves and those immediately involved accountable? Rather than rationalizing away all accountability, as the ultraconservative promoters of aggressive and denigrating speech have been doing, those who wield power could help a struggling society to cohere around basic ethical and educational principles. Accountability is a key to accepting responsibility for promoting personal and social health.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wakefulness

Wakefulness, in the Buddhist sense, is presence of mind, or mindfulness, at all times, no matter what you are experiencing emotionally or sensually . Like sobriety, it's not for everyone. However, it is a choice. It is a choice that becomes a way of being, when made in practice moment by moment.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Civility

In the aftermath of the recent Tucson handgun deaths, it is understandable that President Obama has focused on civility as the new by-word of politics in the U.S.. Yes, civility, based in respect for our commonality as human beings, is a wonderful ideal. However, in a society where social and economic injustice are growing, civility can become a propagandist's code word for, "Shut up and be compliant."

Photo: Peter Petraitis
The Middle Way here will be rather tricky. As the Homeland Security Industry continues to crowd human rights at any opportunity, the need for loud and clear protest is greater. Civil disobedience, in the form practiced by Chris Hedges, may well be the model.  Will the powers which want to suppress all protest against corporate domination see civil disobedience as part of their definition of civility? I doubt it. Their police will probably be cast as heroes of civility as they pummel protesters. We have been here before.

Non-violence as a way of life is not easy in a violent society, like America. Violence in an economically stratified society boils in the lower economic layers of that society. Frustrated individuals, deprived of adequate incomes and mental health services, are bound to express their rage violently. They live under the threat of prison or homelessness daily. They are tortured by propaganda-filled media, which casts them as failures in a Land of Plenty. Soldiers, police, violent criminals and many protesters come from this stratum of society.

So, in a wave of sentimental public relations, it is fine for President Obama to preach civility, like a Baptist minister, in front of traumatized crowds. Pomp and circumstance has its place in times of public disaster. However, it is hard to forget that Mr. Obama's economic policies favor the people who are creating social oppression. Mr. Obama's policies support an overinflated military, working for corporate interests at the expense of human lives and domestic prosperity in the U.S..

The binging on sentimentalism in politics continues. The new Speaker of the House cries openly like a late-night drunk at the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, he rants against the common interest in favor of the wealthy at every turn. The assassination survivor in Tucson is compared to Biblical figures. The expensive technology of neurosurgery which saved her is ignored in favor of talk about miracles from the mouths of people who resent paying for health insurance.

I am a committed practitioner of civility, when it is appropriate. I definitely think that media celebrities and politicians should be better schooled in civility. However, I also believe that civility does not gain universal human rights for the poor or disrespected. I do not believe that civility will create economic justice in America.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Good

Set your heart on doing good.
Do it over and over again,
And you will be filled with joy.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, v.9,p.33

This verse from the sayings of the Buddha, as interpreted and translated, is the blueprint for all forms of practice. The first line represents the intent of practice, to do good by yourself and all beings. The second line is a prescription for the action of practice, also called "right action".The third line is the promise of practice, sustainable happiness. 


Marketers of practice technique often complicate the concepts of practice beyond any practical application in reality. "Breathe this way! Sit this way! Eat this way!" Most of this is packaging to make someone a comfortable living, in my opinion. While sampling a variety of techniques may be helpful for initiating a daily practice, those who become obsessive about finding the "right technique" waste precious time in which they could be practicing "right action" for the good of themselves and those in their world. The master of himself is not a groupie. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Violence

Violence lies within each of us. We are driven in part by an animal brain with hormonal triggers which can become activated when we perceive ourselves to be threatened. These triggers work automatically. The threshold for these triggers being tripped varies from person to person, depending upon individual genetic and environmental factors. In short, each of us is capable of violence; our circumstances (luck) vary.

Photo: Peter Petraitis
A dysfunctional brain, combined with environment stresses, produces the kind of person now in the news after his mass murder in Arizona. As long as we ignore the realities of our biology and the needs of those who are born with mental challenges, we will have these incidents in society. Unlike some societies, where the mentally ill are exploited by religious fanatics, the U.S. has the wealth and capability of taking excellent care of its mentally impaired citizens. Yet, we have a Congress which is still arguing over public health insurance for all citizens.

So, aren't the recent events in Tucson merely a case of cause and effect? For over thirty years, the U.S. has dismantled its extensive mental health care system. State and county hospitals for the chronically impaired have been shut down and turned into profitable real estate. Rather than updating the existing state hospitals by incorporating modern pharmaceutical and therapeutic techniques, the politicians saw an opportunity to tear down the whole system in favor of tax savings and profits, which may well have ended up in the pockets of the corrupt.

The results are quite obvious. Many homeless people are the people who once lived in these facilities, where they had a clean bed and three meals a day, even when the treatments for violent mental illness were primitive and somewhat brutal. The mentally tortured are now forced to beg for food or self-medicating alcohol on cold streets. How humane is this?

People like the Arizona assassin are living lives of isolation everywhere in the U.S.. Those who are marginally functional are perhaps even more dangerous. They can afford to buy a handgun, easily obtained in most of America. Once triggered by too much stress, these individuals are simply atrocities waiting to happen, through no competent intention of their own in many cases. Paranoid delusions seem as real to these individuals as what most of us consider objective reality. Their brain chemistry is simply different.

In a society with these circumstances, media demagogues might well reflect on their use of inflammatory speech. This is not a question of free speech or governed speech. This is a question of mindfulness and compassion. As lawmakers scurry to make new restrictions on free speech, they might reflect on their manipulation of media demagogues to get their political messages across in big red letters. They might take some responsibility for not providing the public health care that would make an isolated man with mental illness feel less alienated and more cared for as a citizen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mindfulness

For a while the fool's mischief
Tastes sweet, sweet as honey.
But in the end it turns bitter.
And how bitterly he suffers!
 Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, v.5,p.21

Mindfulness is an antidote for impulsive and compulsive behaviors which undermine progress in human development. Foolishness wastes precious time. It stands in the way of achieving real joy, sustainable happiness. Overindulgence in passive entertainment, food, alcohol, recreational drugs and/or sex deadens the mind. The practice of mindfulness with generally healthy living brings internal peace and a greater openness to others. A community of addicts is no community. It is a cult or a drunken mob. A healthy community requires shared mindfulness and intentional participation, motivated by a concern for the greater good over individual, selfish desire.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Handguns

Yesterday's assassination attempt on an Arizona Congressman shines the light once again on two issues in the U.S.. The first issue is the media-driven division of the American public to the point of erasing a national identity. The other is the absurd accessibility of handguns in America.

The "troubled" suspected assassin is no different than an Afghan boy who is lured to commit violence by manipulative extremists. The shadowy older man, who is now the subject of a search, based on his being recorded by security camera, may be the equivalent of a religiously deranged imam, a puppet-master of violence and hatred. (Post-publication note, 1-11-11: The investigators eventually found that the shadowy older man was simply the cab driver who took the shooter to the scene. However, there are many less-than-shadowy shock jocks who should search their consciences in this case.)


While we could argue until our Sun goes into nova about the many factors involved in such an act, the harsh and simple reality is that a mentally impaired person, an addict and/or a criminal can get a handgun in the U.S. all too easily. It is time the N.R.A. be held accountable for its bullying the American political establishment into giving free rein to indiscriminate gun dealers. It is also time for a ban on handguns. Perhaps our armed services would best serve the American public by being deployed in this task along with state and local police departments.

Yes, I agree that it is undesirable to control a whole population because of one violent misfit or felon. However, the whole population can be enlisted in a campaign against handguns for its own general safety and protected freedom of political discourse. The likelihood of assassination for holding a certain political view in this country places the U.S. alongside Pakistan in terms of safe political discourse. Do we wish to emulate Pakistan in this way, or in any other way?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Paradox

I recently complimented a young friend who explained that she had reached a point in grappling with certain issues out of her control by saying, "It is what it is." I believe she meant that she was accepting the thing she did not have the power to change in order to be focused on her own abilities to progress in her own life. This is a paradox of my own humanist practice.

Much of what I understand of Zen Buddhism centers on the principle that simplicity and acceptance of the nature of things can bring great inner peace. Working within the context of what is, while keeping a consciousness of what could be, has become a very basic element of my own practice. Meditation has helped me greatly to have the patience to come to terms with the "what is" factor of situations and relationships.

The "It is what it is" moment is often a point of relaxation and compassion. However, rather than a point of passive resignation, it is a point of mustering creativity in approaching whatever it is with a new vision and new behaviors. In other words, relinquishing the illusion of control over the "what is" empowers me to act and think in ways that could potentially change the "what is" eventually. This is the paradox.

One of my favorite sayings is, "And how has that been working for you?" I usually say this to someone (often myself) who is trying to push a huge boulder up a greased incline, metaphorically speaking. This person will painfully recount his litany of frustrated failures with a certain situation with masochistic enthusiasm. By engaging all his energy and determination in tackling the unchangeable, he is unable to move around it deftly to continue his own personal development. In other words, he's wasting his time and energy.

Recovery programs have a saying, "Let go. Let God." My secular humanist version of this is, "Let go. Get going." In other words, when encountering an "It is what it is" situation, it is best to see how to progress, rather than straining to push a boulder uphill needlessly. Sometimes, learning to walk around it can save precious time, a commodity that cannot be borrowed or bought.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Center

The point of practice is to find your center. This concept seemed vague to me for many years of seeking balance in my life. The cloud that obscured my understanding was composed of old habits, useless identities and unhealthy choices. My seeking nature saw me through to a comprehension of what my center is. It is my being balanced and at peace within in the moment, despite the circumstances of my life.

In recent conversations with a new friend, he dismissed several supportive remarks I had made in response to his litany of difficult circumstances. "You just say I could do this or do that to improve things. My life just isn't that simple!" After agreeing that his life wasn't at all simple, I suggested that his resistance to simplifying it might be his way of avoiding adult responsibility for his own situation. It appeared to me that he was quite content to blame his circumstances and others for his seemingly helpless misery. His responded, "I would like to live like you, with simplicity and clear boundaries, but I'm not there yet."

I'm not really "there yet" either, I assured my friend. Being centered is a dynamic process. I see myself more like a gyroscope than a static sphere. Daily practice is my method of staying in touch with my own balance point. As I say frequently, daily practice is multifaceted. It includes exercise, healthy diet, abstinence from mood altering intoxicants, meditation, healthy sexuality, loving relationships, creative outlets, study, reflection and adequate sleep. I believe that it is very difficult to maintain a center without this holistic approach to maintaining physical and psychological health.

Severe illness and aging are great teachers. Recovery from any illness is an opportunity to find your center, from which to rebuild your life. When you are incapacitated by illness, you are forced to spend time with your body under a heightened awareness of your physical and psychological core. The symptoms of illness are often the signposts for the needed direction of daily practice. Listening to those who have overcome disability and disease to reach a balanced life can be extremely informative. Rather than being in awe of these survivors, you should put their wisdom into action in your own life.

Being centered in the fullest sense is doing it, not just talking about being centered. The doing is what I refer to as practice. Mindfulness and compassion develop naturally in the centered consciousness. Mindfulness and compassion for yourself are useful tools in developing a balanced life.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Constitution

Today the new Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States will supervise the reading of The Constitution of the United States before starting business. This seems innocent enough. A quaint ritual perhaps? No. This is no quaint ritual. This is religious fundamentalism merged with politics. The backward see The Constitution as a civic Bible, a static rule book, subject to interpretation only by the chosen few, those who wield political power at any given moment.

Fundamentalism of this kind is the enemy of progress. By cloaking themselves in this religious 'belief' in The Constitution, the new breed of American conservatives, goaded along by Tea Party extremists, are trying to tap into the religiosity of recent decades to manipulate the American conscience. This is cynical and motivated purely by greed and corruption.

The great tool of mass distraction is being used to avoid dealing with urgent human problems in America and across the planet. American coastal areas are flooding from sea-level rise. America is locked into two war zones for stable oil supplies. America's clean water supplies are under threat by toxic waste disposal and international, corporate privatization. Across the planet, the effects of human overpopulation, including symptoms like illegal immigration, are being addressed by reactionary methods rather than a vast investment in sex education and empowerment of women.

And the arrogant suits in Washington will be smugly reading their Constitution, while collecting salaries from the U.S. Treasury and getting a full benefit package at the expense of the American people. They will plot the destruction of health care coverage for those tax-paying citizens. They will look to increase the profits and tax breaks for the tax-evading wealthy who got them elected. They will shout about the will of an American electorate, manipulated by the propagandist media owned by the special interests they represent. Great theater, lousy public service.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Equality

The world is on fire!
And are you laughing?
You are deep in the dark.
Will you not ask for light?

For behold your body
A painted puppet, a toy,
Jointed and sick and full of false imaginings,
A shadow that shifts and fades.

How frail it is!
Frail and pestilent,
It sickens, festers and dies.
Like every living thing
In the end it sickens and dies.

Behold these whitened bones,
The hollow shells and husks of a dying summer.
And are you laughing?

You are a house of bones,
Flesh and blood for plaster.
Pride lives in you,
And hypocrisy, decay and death.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Verse 11, p.40-41

The common realities of each human life are its unpredictability, frailty and mortality. As a hospice nurse during the height of AIDS death rates in the U.S., I tended hundreds of dying patients over five years. Most were in their thirties and forties. Some were younger.

Encountering sickness and death, especially in the young, is enlightening. The caregiver quickly learns that the good suffer as deeply and horribly as the evil, as society or religion would classify them. There is no morality in death or disabling disease. There is only human suffering.

Perhaps you would like to try a simple exercise. When you find yourself looking over another human being today, perhaps someone superficially different in appearance or age from yourself, allow yourself to think that she is built from exactly the same materials as you are. Her bones are essentially the same, in the same basic configuration. Her blood looks the same, smells the same, tastes the same as your own. Her eyes see as yours see. Her ears hear as yours hear. She breathes and exhales the same air to stay alive.

I used this exercise frequently at the death beds of my patients, as they were breathing their last breaths. In a sense, I walked with them in that transition. I tried to learn what they were learning. And, years later, as I approached possible death on two occasions, I found I could draw on those deathbed experiences to face my situations without regrets and fear. Perhaps this is a piece of what the Buddha suggests. Compassion comes from allowing yourself to be fully human, equal to every man and woman and child, all of us walking through this world with what coincidence and our best efforts afford us.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Versailles

What kind of person vows to eliminate public funds to improve the health of a nation? What kind of person loudly fights to dismantle social security benefits for the elderly and disabled? What kind of citizen maintains that government should have nothing to do with alleviating human suffering? How realistic or sincere is the politician who claims that human needs in society should be met by social entrepreneurs, who will somehow personally profit from meeting those needs?

Perhaps the answer can be found at Versailles, where the sentiments and harsh realities of the French Revolution are being obscured by the development of a luxury hotel within the palace complex. The new international aristocracy will be able to stroll around the Versailles gardens with a sense of tenancy. The resurrection of the powerful over the mob.

Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
How many Tea Party members will smugly make reservations for a luxury stay at Versailles, paid for by their tax breaks and loopholes, delivered by a cowed Republican Party? How many self-identified Liberal Americans with incomes of $250,000 will spend some of their new tax break on Versailles vacations?


As a humanist, I am concerned with the callous indulgence of the wealthy in the face of world-wide environmental and economic crises. It speaks to a movement away from social responsibility and progress among those whose wealth could make a significant difference in every life on the planet. While their non-profit foundations are being publicized constantly in corporately owned media, the wealthy are still loudly asserting their divine right to do whatever their money can buy with impunity. This includes buying the U.S. government and perhaps the French government for their own purposes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Materialism

Image: Trekearth
Come, consider the world,
A painted chariot for kings, 
A trap for fools, 
But he who sees goes free.
 
Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Verse 13, p.47

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Details

The balance between attention to detail and openness to the Universe is a basic challenge to any seeker of a Middle Path in life. Without attention to detail, the mind becomes imprecise and dull. Study is essentially attention to detail. Yet, becoming too focused on detail in a particular subject or situation narrows the mind and lessens the opportunity for personal growth.

Specialists have made life easier for billions of human beings by making technological advances. But, sustaining billions of human beings on a small planet threatens their own ecosystem beyond the technological advances of the specialists. As the world becomes driven by the advances of specialists, working to increase profits for corporations, political structures are being overwhelmed by their default position as fixers of the demands placed on infrastructure by increased population and expectations of a better standard of life. In short, we could run out of fresh water and food, a couple of essential details.

The increasingly powerless modern human being, whose quality of life depends on mass infrastructure, is faced with the realization that she is more interdependent on all his fellow human beings, yet she knows a tiny segment of the human population. She cannot grow her own coffee. She cannot build her own smart phone. She may not even know how to germinate a seed to grow food. Even if she does, she could not grow enough food to sustain herself on an urban balcony. So, she increasingly invests her identity in a specialized role in the technological society which sustains her. This is ultimately depersonalizing.

Incorporating the specialized identity of industrial society into a humanist practice is one way to cope with the detail-Universe dichotomy. By meditating, learning about the Universe through study, developing community and focusing on mindfulness, a human being begins to look above technological, media-driven, consumption-driven society. With a dedication to compassion, peace and justice, a human being sees her power in helping others to live full and happy lives. Finding the balance between the details of making a life on a stressed planet and opening to the potential for world-wide peace and prosperity is the first step on the path to human happiness.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Beginnings

We enter another man-made year. The forests are still under snow or sultry with tropical shade. The oceans slosh and climb with melted ice. Birds fly their ancient patterns. We humans roar and dance our way to a perceived new beginning. But, is it a beginning at all? Or is it a continuation of our old habits of mindless consumption and disregard for each other?

The train of male-dominated oligarchy chugs along as it did on December 31st. The Bilderberg aristocrats are still calling all the shots. Protest is being strangled. Affluent youth are mesmerized with iScreens and apps. All of them are suffering from a delusion of greater personal power and freedom, when, in fact, they are slaves to Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, which are fiefs of Big Oil and Wall Street.

What would it take for you to have a real beginning of a new, better life today? All our lives are diminished by the diminished lives of our brothers and sisters in need. Perhaps your route to greater happiness will be rolling up your sleeves and actively doing something to improve human lives and our planet. Picking up your smart phone and pressing a touch screen will do nothing. It is simply a toy, devised to make you feel better about your affluence while ignoring whatever you wish to avoid.

Break free in your mind, in your heart. This is where new beginnings are found. Your liberation is the path to the greater good. Practicing moderation, focusing your mind with meditation, caring for your own body with respect for its health and well being...these are the first steps to a new beginning, a new happiness. Learn to breathe. Open your eyes to your good fortune and stop yearning for more and more. Think of sharing, not accumulating. Look to what needs doing around you, instead of focusing on the exotic or distant.

Beginnings often seem easy, when laced with physical and emotional pleasure. However, starting something difficult to which you will remain committed, no matter what, can be frightening. Being mindful and compassionate, moment to moment, is very difficult. It is a way to a better world for human beings. The path is open to anyone. All it takes is beginning today.