Thursday, March 31, 2011

Practice

Whether you are aware of it or not, you have a daily practice. Your practice may be a practice of materialism, in which you are focusing your mind on accumulating material goods or physical pleasures. Your practice may be one of constant self-defense, in which you approach the world from a position of a victim or the misunderstood. Your practice may be a practice of ego enhancement, in which you focus your energies into promoting yourself or creating a public persona in every action you take. There are many more forms of practice, perhaps as many as there are human beings. I have chosen to live a conscious daily practice rather than allowing an unconscious daily practice to define me.

My intent in sharing my own humanist practice here is simple. I would like to promote self-questioning awareness in you, the reader. Self-inquiry is the first step to rational and mindful living, an important part of humanism or any other form of ethical world-view, in my opinion. 

Our age is becoming heavily influenced by social media, like Twitter and Facebook. As I continue my daily practice of living my own truth of who I am and who I seek to become, I experience my own internal dissonance when dealing with social media. This blog is an ongoing place where I hope to reconcile my internal process and my expression of who I am for public viewing. As long as those two versions of me are harmonious, I feel I am walking the Middle Path of my practice. It is a yoga of personality which enhances my experience of living with self-awareness, mindfulness of my environment and compassion for myself and others. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is the mortal enemy of inquiry. Inquiry is an important element of all human progress. 

Human beings in newly formed groups tend toward orthodoxy, an enforced conformity, based on religious tenets, conventions or ideals. Orthodoxy is a tool, often seized upon by leaders in groups, to create group cohesion by establishing a rigid inside-outside boundary. Concrete manifestations of orthodoxy are dietary prescriptions, behavioral prescriptions and formalized rituals. For instance: The cow is sacred; WE don't eat cow. Another example: The god likes bowing; WE kneel down on the floor and bow to where the god lives. A more subtle example: Speaking loudly is scary; WE never raise our voices.

One alternative to using orthodoxy in establishing group cohesion for a common cause is using the group's awareness of its own process, or manner of being,  to establish group cohesion. Another alternative is brutal or subtle enforcement of conformity, or single-mindedness. 

The determinant of which method of establishing group cohesion is used a particular group is the leadership of the group. Religious leaders nearly unanimously utilize orthodoxy in some form to pull together a congregation. Some orthodoxy is presented as anti-orthodoxy or reform, but it is really orthodoxy-lite, a kinder, gentler orthodoxy, with basis in similar rituals, texts and/or belief systems.

Among atheists, agnostics and other secular humanists, I hear as much loathing of orthodoxy as of dogma. Perhaps this lies at the root of the difficulty which free-thinkers have in establishing cohesive and effective communities. Few people are exposed to the theory of group process outside therapeutic or corporate development circles. We live in societies still based on hierarchical patriarchy, which is itself an outgrowth of the tendency toward orthodoxy. It is easy to revert to orthodoxy unintentionally in groups without great vigilance.

As a retired psychiatric nurse, I am familiar with utilizing group process to build group cohesion and develop group culture. It is a time-consuming process, which requires commitment and regularity of communication as an assembled group. In other words, it requires community and a skilled leadership which trusts in the development of the community's own process.

As an individual member and a group leader, I have participated in many groups in the past forty years. I have assembled groups for specific forms of support and community. I have also led therapeutic groups for people with a wide range of needs. I have never found orthodoxy necessary or helpful in participating in or leading a group. In fact, groups I have experienced which have courted orthodoxy, though longer lasting and more profitable for the leadership, have been dissatisfying to me as a humanist and free-thinker.

It takes courage on the part of a leadership to trust in a group's potential without having to create a rigid list of prescriptions for actual behaviors and personal styles. It also takes a great deal of creativity and limit-setting within the group's process to make sure things get done. This requires skill, experimentation and scientific evaluation of what works and what doesn't. It requires making mistakes, having disagreements and debate.

The first step to forming any healthy group or community is the informed commitment of all its members. Members must know what the group's function is. They must know what their roles are. They must trust that the leadership is flexible, accountable and honest. Setting up this framework is the responsibility of the leadership in consultation with the group. Leadership must bear the burden of modeling vulnerable creativity, while also bearing the responsibility of gate-keeper and limit-setter, within parameters agreed upon by members of the group as they enter it. These parameters are usually based simply in non-violence, civility and common sense. 

In work groups, helpful tools are clear job descriptions, clear lines of authority, transparent methods of promotion and compensation. In social action groups, establishment of teams or committees which take responsibility for mission crafting, action planning, fund-raising, etc..Leadership usually bears the burden of devising these methodologies for the group, based on group surveys, leadership experience and leadership skill development through ongoing education/research. Orthodox leadership retreats behind dogma or rigid ideology. Process-oriented leadership thrives on the new and the challenging.

As an individual humanist, I have seen  great examples of the development of vibrant free-thinking communities of atheists, agnostics and believers. These groups have been small and locally based. Some have been focused on a particular social phenomenon or issue. All have been acutely attentive to their process and the individual needs of their membership. None have reverted to orthodoxy to suppress expressive individuality or creative skepticism.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Disease

Having the common cold is an opportunity to assess the well being of my daily practice for health and creativity. When I was young, I was tremendously reactive to getting a cold. I would panic, get depressed and make it worse. After several years of working as a nurse and being exposed to far worse things than the common cold, I grew up a bit. 

Part of the Immune System
Our unprocessed emotional reaction to illness often gets in the way of the cure. Athletic types sometimes decide to throw themselves into frantic muscle-flexing in reaction to developing an exhausting illness. More exhaustion lowers defenses. The illness often worsens as a result. Others collapse under bed covers at the first sign of a cold or flu. Stagnation inhibits immune response and can lead to lung complications. Learning and adopting moderation in treating an illness is very helpful.

With the information available on line, there is little rational excuse for an intelligent, literate person to react to disease with anything but quick research on the best course of action. Type the symptoms into a search engine. Voila! Instant education in the possible issues at hand. The next rational step is to go the the drug store and/or the doctor.

Life by science and personal responsibility is the best way to reconcile the animal brain and the frontal lobe. Yielding to panic and denial in the face of disease can be self-defeating, even fatal. Getting past learned behaviors which are counterproductive in your life can start when you must address a serious illness. Truly accepting that disease and eventual death are part of every single human life is a first step at taking adult responsibility for your own body's health and well being.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Godless

I recently received a forwarded email from a loved and respected friend. It was a pass-this-on email: "Please Pray to God to Cure Cancer." I am happy to say I couldn't think of anyone in my life right now to whom I would forward such an email. The sender's flirtation with Catholicism and mysticism is known and accepted as his way of looking at life.

I am a cancer survivor. My cancer and its treatments, not provided by God but by an urban medical center, almost killed me. So, I am not at all glib about the horrors of cancer. But, I strongly believe the concept of simply praying for a cure is ludicrous and scientifically naive. As a professional nurse and humanist, I see this as a clear line between my humanism and religion. I will explain how boldly that line is drawn in my mind.

Before I retired from nursing, I worked in a residential AIDS hospice in Boston. It was at the peak of deaths from AIDS in the 1990s. In my time at the hospice, 5 years and 6 months, over 2,000 men and women died of AIDS in our 18-bed facility. It was a busy place. There was a death on most days. Often two. Each bed filled shortly after it was vacated. We knew the first names of most of the morticians in the Boston area.

Our facility was staffed by an amazing group of nurses and nursing aides. We had nurses and aides from Ireland and Congo through an agency we used to supplement our regular staff, who were relentlessly dedicated to our work. We worked scientifically. We studied our methods closely. We developed techniques for maximum pain control, nutrition and skin health maintenance for the bed-ridden. I can proudly say our standards of care were outstanding. In fact, we discharged several patients, who did so well in our scientifically-based care that they were restored to years more of functional living.

God did nothing at that hospice but get in the way. We were constantly assailed by religious professionals who wanted to be in the limelight of AIDS care, which was becoming trendy in the media at that time. Elizabeth Taylor visited our hospice with great fanfare during my tenure there. Many who came in the guise of religious comforters were homophobic. Their narcissism did not even allow the idea that being homophobic at an AIDS hospice was neither compassionate nor comforting. I did not tolerate that kind of behavior then, and I do not intend to ever tolerate it.

God did nothing for AIDS. Science has saved many of us from premature death. And, even science has provided a mixed blessing of life in exchange for grotesque side effects for many. Science has been corrupted by the greed of the pharmaceutical corporate model, but science cannot be blamed for causing AIDS, unlike an omnipotent, all-creating God, if you are going to believe in such nonsense.

My humanism is not branded with the broadly anti-religious ire of some modern atheists. One of the most wonderfully intelligent influences on my childhood was a great-aunt who was a Catholic nun and librarian. She was perhaps a Catholic humanist.  I do have certain lines, boundaries, which I will not cross for the sake of inter-faith fellowship. Praying to God to cure anything is one of those lines. Allowing religious people to interfere with medical treatment and medical science is another.Allowing religious people to undermine sexual education and sexual health is yet another.

As a humanist in community, I would encourage those who engage in inter-faith fellowship with religious believers to keep in mind that there may be social values which will not be reconcilable between humanism and religion. These conflicts need not negate the value of inter-faith cooperation in certain social causes. However, there will most likely come a time when humanists must say "No!" in the face of a religious choice of ignorance over education and science. Progress does not come without activism in some form. It is my sincere hope that future humanists choose activism for the greater good over just getting along when they find themselves in conflict with their God-fearing friends.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Community

Since I am a gay man and grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a working-class city, I did not have the opportunity to take any community for granted. As a young sissy, in the estimation of my peers, I was ostracized and bullied by various cliques from grammar school into high school. In my Catholic parish, I tried to lie low, but one particularly muscular nun threatened me with a bruising if I did not become an altar boy after I was forced to quit the choir by pubescent changes to my angelic singing voice.

After I assisted the priest for the first time on the altar, my one school friend came into the vestry. He was laughing uncontrollably in a way I instinctively knew wasn't good. "Your shoes..." he gasped, "your shoes..." Tears were streaming down his cheeks and he was bent over with laughter. I raised my right foot and looked at my shoe. Then I looked at its sole. There in large block lettering was stamped "REJECT". My parents always shopped in outlet stores, stocked with factory seconds. So, as I knelt sanctimoniously on the altar with my back to the congregation, my true place in my community was revealed for all to see by the stamp on my soles.

Some years later I read The Scarlet Letter for the first time. You can imagine how I immediately identified with Hester Prynne. You can probably also imagine my horror at the choice of Demi Moore to portray her in the movie, but that's another story.

As I became liberated from my childhood, I had already taken the lesson that meaningful community would not be something promised or provided to me by anyone but myself in active pursuit of fellowship with like minds. I also made every attempt as a member of any community, large or small, to actively include those on the margins, who may not have the confidence or trust to join in without loving encouragement. This seemed the least I could do, but it often put me at odds with others in those communities who wished to have an exclusive club.

As a member of a humanist community, I am very aware of these dynamics in myself and in that community. The beauty of humanism, in my opinion, is its lack of an entrance exam. There is no catechism or recitation of Torah. There is no genuflecting or special wardrobe with deep historical meanings. We don't have to eat the same bread or drink the same wine. Everyone by virtue of his/her humanity should be qualified to be a part of our humanist community. 

However, not everyone knows what it is like to have to build a community and maintain it. Those who come to humanism from other religious traditions where they felt equally welcomed for the greater part of who they are might see a humanist community as simply another congregation, set in place for them to join and follow along, with some 'provider' responsible for the details. As in every community, there may be those who need to stamp themselves as a member of this subset or that. Atheist vs. agnostic. Inter-faith vs. ant-faith. Whatever. Maintaining a community which is inclusive includes allowing for individuality, as long as one person's individuality does not become a divisive campaign for control and domination.

I believe I have learned one important lesson about community. Community has its own evolving life. If this is denied, the result can be seen in the state of the current Roman Catholic Church or in the state of Islam or in the state of Judaism. By trying to restrain the natural evolution of community, authorities in the community foster conflict and sectarianism. The community ceases to be inclusive. It becomes fractured and divided up like property by those who would selfishly own and control it. This happens in smaller communities and in families, which cease to exist for the inclusion and valued participation of all their members. It is my hope that humanists in community can avoid these pitfalls and allow the development of an ever-evolving, inclusive movement for the greater good .

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Deep

I remember what is was like when I first broke from my family and was totally on my own financially and emotionally. I was 20, very naive and broke. I soon found I was living in an overwhelming stream of change and new information. My young brain thrived on this, as young brains do. 

My first contact with formal psychotherapy occurred twelve years later, following a difficult separation. I suddenly realized, with the help of that therapist, that my mental-emotional life was embarrassingly superficial. It came as quite a shock, since I was by then working in the field of psychiatric care. It was the most useful shock of my emotional life. I think fondly of that therapist and the seeming torture of those sessions to this day.

Going deep is an important part of self-discovery, in my opinion. Some people do this easily. They are raised with permission to be emotive and expressive. They are in touch with their inner process somewhat naturally. This is very rare in my fairly wide experience with human beings at various life stages, as a professional caregiver and as a person in relationships. Most of us need to make an intentional effort to go deep, to stay there for any length of time and to learn from it. 

While going deep may sometimes feel like having a root canal in an oral surgery, it doesn't necessarily have to be so traumatic. A new friendship may trigger reminiscences in the getting-to-know-you phase, for instance. In a moment, you may be confronted with a sealed-over volcano of feeling. Caught by surprise, you may choose to skip deftly over it. However, a great deal can be gained by excavating it, venting it and sharing it. 

Many people are in the defensive habit of skipping over these opportunities every single time to maintain a certain posture or level of internal calm. Unfortunately, these superficial states can be slowly undermined by anxiety, fueled by unexplored and unspoken feelings. Suddenly, with just the right amount of external stress, all these sealed volcanoes can erupt simultaneously, causing a meltdown or a state of frozen fear.

The Facebook Age is one of superficial friendship and virtual personalities for many. Crafting the right postings to your profile may feed a sense of control that has no foundation in reality. There may be a hollow or hurting person behind a wall of impressive news feeds. The people who have worked at self-discovery and have wrestled with their inner identities stand out clearly to someone who has made similar choices. 

I contend that mindfulness and compassion are fed by ongoing self-discovery, which in turn is continually fed by attempts at mindfulness and compassion. This is the engine of humanist practice, as I see it. Its manifestation is consistent action for the greater good in the here and now. It's that simple and also that difficult.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Seasons

This is a wonderful time in the Northern Hemisphere to practice mindfulness in Nature. My own self-awareness of the practice began in Spring decades ago. Simply marking the progress of growing vegetation on your daily walks is a good start. Pick a lawn, a tree or even a sprouting weed. Adopt it. Check in with it every day as you pass by for as long as you can. You will learn something from what you see if you really pay attention.

Appreciation of life, all life, is key to humanist practice. Paying attention to seasonal changes helps you to understand that you yourself are a growing and constantly changing organism. Deep appreciation and acceptance of this can produce a certain amount of fear initially and eventually an energizing motivation to care for yourself and life around you in a more attentive way.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Maurice

I don't usually share personal anecdotes in this blog. My aversion to reminiscence increases with age. Nothing more boring than an old fart who rattles on endlessly about 'the good old days'. That's up there on my list of unpleasantries with world charter travelers who subject the unsuspecting to really mediocre photographs of churches, parks and monuments. However...

Letter from Maurice, 1986
This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of meeting a truly influential person in my life. Since I speak to his picture daily as it looks back at me from its perch inside a framed piece of his artwork on my bathroom wall, I am always aware of his effects on my life. I seldom share the details of our friendship.

Maurice, who pronounced his name in the French manner, grew up in a small  town in Western Canada. Slight and scrappy, looking typically French, he had a rough go among the bigger, beefier Anglo peers of his Canadian hometown. He dropped out of high school at 15 and fled to San Francisco.

Maurice survived in San Francisco by selling himself on the streets. He found that he was no longer the ugly duckling. He was a wanted commodity. His clientele improved with his understanding that he could charge higher prices and meet men in better parts of town. Eventually, as Gay Liberation dawned, Maurice met a gorgeous blonde man with a trust fund who became the love of his life.

Maurice and his lover rode the great wave of Gay Lib in The Castro during the Harvey Milk years and thereafter. Milk was one of their friends. The wealthy lover financed Maurice's art education and bought the expensive cameras which eventually took the abstract photographs, displayed and sold at high prices in city galleries. Maurice became a collected artist. Then the 1980s came.

While Reagan was ascending, Gay Lib was flagging, deflated by cocaine and HIV. Maurice and his lover became addicted to cocaine and eventually to heroin as well. The lover, the cornerstone of Maurice's life, died suddenly of AIDS before people really understood what AIDS meant. Maurice knew he would follow. Just a matter of time.

In his grief, Maurice stopped using drugs and sought support in AA. He fled across the continent to Boston in 1983. He left behind his gallery connections and a regular income. His lover's family took all the lover's estate, including the home Maurice had shared for over a decade. They would not communicate with Maurice and addressed him through lawyers. So, Maurice came to Boston with very little.

Now in his thirties, somewhat scarred by his recently dissipated life, Maurice maintained a natural elegance and sexy masculinity which landed him a job in Boston's jumping leather bar, The Eagle, then located in the Fenway neighborhood. (Ironically, The old Eagle's location is now occupied by an apartment complex owned by the Roman Catholic diocese of Boston which houses AIDS patients and elderly residents.) I first saw Maurice at the door of the old Eagle bar. His piercing blue eyes, black hair and huge handlebar moustache were unforgettable.

Two years later, after a wearying evening shift at the psychiatric hospital where I worked then, I went to another gay bar, Chaps, which was located in Copley Square. (This now replaced with a luxury condo complex.) I was asked to dance by a well known Boston news anchor. The TV anchor was plastered and sloppy, but he was tall and handsome, so I was happy to have an excuse to dance.

"You should really get away from him. He's trouble." The husky voice whispered this in my ear as I paid for two beers at the bar. I turned and met Maurice's deep hazel stare and beaming white smile. "Don't worry," I answered with a smile and took the beers over to the TV anchor, who was literally propped against a counter along the wall. I put the anchor's beer on the counter. Then I guided him to a nearby stool where he dozed off. I realized with a cynical chuckle that I was now nursing a drunk, despite my attempt to unwind from a shift of nursing difficult patients.

A hand grabbed my right shoulder. I turned. The same deep-set, hazel eyes and an even wider smile. Maurice said, "I told you."

I said, "What do you expect me to do? I don't want to leave him alone like this." Maurice took my hand and dragged me to the dance floor. I danced half-heartedly until I saw a tall man take the TV anchor gently out of the bar. "That's his boyfriend!" Maurice shouted and laughed at my concerned look. I laughed at myself, and we danced madly for an hour, until the bar closed.

I remember the next three months as a creative rebirth under the wizardry of Maurice. We spent a lot of time together. We became good friends with the inevitable gay benefits. As we spent hours drawing together, walking around the city, lying in bed, I learned more and more of Maurice's story of survival and resilience. The alcoholic and abusive family. The bullying siblings. The equally bullying teachers and priests. Sometimes he wept, and said,"Who the hell are you? I never cry about this stuff." I shared similar stories. Sometimes we just held each other and cried. The healing was deep and mutual.

"I'm taking a bus to San Francisco on Saturday at noon." We had just spent two hours working on pen-and-ink drawings in my living room in the South End. Mine was a floral study in obsessive-compulsive control. His was an amazingly detailed and colorful robot figure, composed of bits and pieces but very much human in its eyes and expression. He had titled it: "Boston X-ray Three Year Scope". I feared it was a self-portrait.

"I've got to go back to be with my lover." He said this flatly, while eyes conveyed deep conflict and emotion. I knew what he was saying. I wanted to ask many questions. I began to argue that he should stay with me in Boston. I could see from the tears in his eyes I was making him feel worse. I stopped.

"What will you do for money? Why don't you fly? A bus will take forever." I wanted to protect him. I wanted to heal him in a way I knew was impossible. I fought my own selfish pain of loss as best I could. In the end, I offered to pay for his bus ticket and give him a little money to get started. He fought me, but he eventually took it, and said, "I probably won't be able to pay this back, but I will be in touch with you. Thanks."

I never saw Maurice again after he left my living room that day in June, 1986. Inspired in part by our friendship, I left Boston and moved to Provincetown, where I had always wanted to live. Maurice wrote regular, wonderful letters with illustrations. We continued to work together through the mail. We decided to put together a children's book with his illustrations and my writing. The drafts passed back and forth in the mail. I often think of the wonders we could have done with today's technology. His drawings became darker. His characters looked more and more distorted and reptilian.

The phone rang on a stormy winter night in January. It was Maurice. It was the first time I heard his voice since the Spring. Tears formed in my eyes. I asked him to tell me what was going on in his life. He told me to stop asking questions. To just listen. "I'm outside the restaurant. Pay phone. I'm washing dishes. Got a shitty room close by. Doesn't matter." I could hear the deep congestion in his lungs over the phone. I felt a weight in my chest. "Left Boston because I found out I'm done for. Kaposi's sarcoma. All over, inside. Surprised I lived this long. Couldn't die anywhere but here. All arranged. Going to be cremated and put next to my lover's ashes. Sorry, Paul. Have to go. I'm OK." The phone went dead.

I grieved long and deeply for Maurice, even though I didn't know if or when he died. Nine months later I received a manila envelope from Canada. It was from Maurice's sister, with whom he had a troubled relationship. A brief and formal note said the contents had been found after his death in his room. It contained a bunch of drawings. But one stood out. It was a self-portrait, simple and naked. His figure was bent in a fetal posture. In his distinctive script underneath he had written, "Until the next time, Paul. Love, Maurice."

That last message is now mounted next to Maurice's smiling image, a photo-booth photograph he sent me from San Francisco shortly after I last saw him. They reside in the frame with his drawing from that last day we spent together. Wherever I have lived over the past twenty-five years, I have found a prominent place for that item. Embracing its meaning in my daily life is part of my daily practice. This is Maurice's tremendous, ongoing gift to my life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Planning

Planning is a good way of staying ahead of time and the inevitable wrenches that life throws into well oiled machinery of any life. Living in reaction to what life throws at you while speeding down its highway is a recipe for disaster. I can't help thinking that people texting while driving is a symptom of this mentality. In my own practice, planning is a daily activity in various situations and in various forms.


Planning life's practical decisions in advance with mindful and scientific calm requires the establishment of an ongoing mindful and scientific daily practice. The mindful piece is achieved through being well balanced in who you are in the here and now. This enables you to take in data from your environment without defensive or overly emotional response. The scientific piece is the conscious accumulation of that data from the environment to formulate a hypothetical plan of action. By keeping all planned action in the context of mutable experimentation, you are able to remain flexible and effectively responsive to changes in your environment or situations. 

The key to effective planning is timeliness. It is one thing to put off deciding on your wardrobe until an hour before you are leaving for work. It is another thing to put off planning about where you will be living in six months or a year if you change or lose your job. Keeping an ongoing list of projects, desires and long-term goals is helpful. It is the habit of planning out ahead of tomorrow that brings benefit. This process encourages dreaming and fantasizing in a positive way. It can open your creative process, rather than confining it. 

Modern information technology, by enabling routine contemporaneous decision-making while driving or picking a restaurant for dinner, impedes forming habits of long-term planning for those who have never been schooled in doing it, in my opinion. Driving behaviors again illustrate my point. Reliance on GPS devices has enabled people to drive without planning their routes. Dependence on the GPS device can be effective. However, having swerved to avoid a dozen drivers recently, who made erratic turns in response to their GPS commands, I do not feel the devices have contributed significantly to the general safety of the roads. I have also spoken with several people who have gotten seriously lost by following the directions of their GPS into areas they never studied before going there. My point is simply this: Using information technology to plan is very different from depending on information technology to compensate for disorganization or laziness. 

Effective planning requires self-discovery. If your life is your laboratory, you are the variable that must be first examined. Figuring out your baseline abilities, tolerances and needs is a necessary part of planning. Some of this discovery inevitably comes with time and ongoing experimentation. However, it is establishing the scientific approach to looking at your own behaviors and emotions which will be most helpful in planning your future actions. Relying on events and circumstances to shape your life may land you in a comfortable situation by chance, but that situation will feel tenuous as long as you don't feel you had a guiding hand in getting there.

Planning should be mitigated by realism. Any plan can be crushed by circumstance. Recent earthquakes illustrate this well. However, despite the crushing of the plan, the effective planner is much more likely to survive catastrophe, if given even odds. Learning to relinquish illusions of control of anything but yourself helps to make planning more realistic. The benefit of planning is ultimately the planning itself, rewarded by the occasional successes along the way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Aging

Aging naturally diminishes the effectiveness of body systems at producing energy and strength on demand. It is necessary to compensate for metabolic and structural changes of the body in order to harness the energy for creativity and continued learning. Getting the basic things done to meet daily needs, unless you have hired help or a dedicated helper in your life, becomes more challenging. This can sap energy from learning and adaptation to inevitable change. 

Conservatism is the easy route. Retrenching into habits and traditions can be a symptom of stress from aging. It can also be a symptom of fear of mortality. We are feeling the strain of this dynamic in society with our growing elderly population in the U.S.. Elderly people readily respond to fear-mongering by those conservatives who wish to manipulate them politically for their fiscal agenda. The irrational opposition of people receiving government insurance (Medicare) to the recent attempt to develop a reformed, one-payer government health insurance is a prime example of fear trumping reason in the older mind. The proposed reforms would not have significantly effected Medicare, which is a successful health insurance program, run by the U.S. government. In fact, the reforms would have made Medicare work more efficiently and fairly. Panicked older voters turned out in force to vote against health care reformers.

Age-ism in American society is revealed in the media's easy sell of plastic surgery, erection-enhancing drugs and life insurance policies for the elderly. Cosmetically enhanced and relatively athletic men with bleached smiles trot proudly while revealing that they have high cholesterol. Women with cosmetic enhancements proudly proclaim that they are mistaken as a sibling when with their daughters. The subtle message that natural aging is a bad thing is easy to transmit to people afraid of aging and death in a society where inter-generational living is rapidly disappearing in favor of retirement communities, in-home medical care for poorer, isolated seniors and assisted living complexes for the wealthy.

I hope the development of humanist communities will continue to place a value on inter-generational conversations and shared activities. My own experience of the Gay Liberation movement made me painfully aware of the great lack of inter-generational community within the GLBT subculture. Age-ism and homophobia go hand in hand, just as age-ism and sexual repression go hand in hand. It took the horror of the AIDS epidemic to bring some inter-generational segments of the gay community together for a common good. Yet, as the threat and lethality of HIV subsides, I see the inter-generational divide widening in the GLBT community once again.

As an aging humanist, I see inter-generational interaction as absolutely necessary for my practice as a developing human being. Unlike those who see themselves as venerable because of a list of material achievements, I feel I must work harder against the disadvantages of my aging to remain a vital and contributing member of an inter-generational community. I must embrace learning curves rather than presenting myself as the ever-sagacious teacher. It is an upward climb, not a view from above it all. Along the journey, I may have something to share from experience that may help my younger companions, but they have just as much to teach me about their understanding and perception of the world we share, the world they will be shaping when my time has passed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Persistence

I have spent some time in my life with Japanese Buddhists. One of their adages always tickles me when I feel like I am walking up hill against the gravity of my own indolence or resistance to change. To paraphrase: Whenever you set about vigorously to do great good, the forces of great evil will combat you just as vigorously. It may help to know that much of this Japanese Buddhist thought is centered on concepts of cause and effect, consistent with physical principles of action and reaction. 

My Japanese Buddhist friends recommended vigorous chanting of Buddhist sutra twice a day as a tonic against bad karma. I have translated this to mean that a meditative practice, centered on positive thought and action alone and in community, helps me to persist in living a healthy, mindful and compassionate life. Persistence to achieve balance.

America is becoming a land of fickle extremes, a national ADD, in a way, driven by an extremely capitalistic and superficial media. Viciously partisan conflict in politics is a reflection of this, I believe. For the slow and persistent, like myself, this can be socially alienating and challenging. There are days when I identify with ancient Irish monks who built tiny stone cells at the edge of the Atlantic, as far away from European civilization as they could manage.

Persistence is its own reward. No matter how rattled I become by culture shock, returning to the basics of my daily practice always brings me to some sense of balance. Developing a daily practice requires persistence and commitment to yourself. Making your practice a priority in your life and sticking to it, day in and day out, despite distractions or peer pressure or seductive trends, develops the muscles of positive thought and well being which enable positive living for yourself and in your environment.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spirit

Quantified Self T-shirt
Yesterday I was reading interesting information on a group called Quantified Self. This form of self-discovery and personal development is truly secular and aligned with scientific methodology. It could be described, from what I have read in their literature, as better living through math. I hope to learn more about it.

Thinking about this information and my own humanist practice, which includes similar behavioral techniques, I thought of the common marketing jargon used by many in the Feel-Better-About-Yourself industry: Mind, body, spirit. I wince a bit at the word "spirit" in this context. It stimulates post-traumatic ripples of horror from my early life when The Holy Spirit was used alternately as good fairy and avenging angel by burqa-clad nuns, wielding yard sticks.

The Quantified Self-ers raised another mental question mark in my neural network. If we reduce ourselves to composites of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms with a few other elements thrown in for good measure, do we run the risk of being too narrow-minded about the equations of good health and social fellowship? What are the mathematical equations for fear, anger and joy?What are the mathematical equations for love and commitment?

Now, I am sure I can hear the chalk screeching across an M.I.T. blackboard (quaint metaphor) with mathematical representations of hormones and limbic system. But, how specifically quantifiable are my mind-emotion-body complexes into one equation that represents individual human emotional response? Is there a point where we have to let go of math and physical science in favor or psychology and social science? I think so.

I believe the Middle Way of the ancients is translatable to crafting math, physical science and social science into personal practice. The mind is a product of the chemical responses of the body. The body develops from and responds to genetic and environmental causes. The emotions are the instinctive and automatic responses to internal and external stimuli. The whole, the person, is a synthesis of all these simultaneous streams of experience. So, when I now hear the word "spirit", after a brief reflexive wince, I hear "integrated emotional response".

I see my own humanist practice as scientific. I am my own walking laboratory. In this, I agree heartily with the Quantified Self folks. The challenge of humanist practice for me is learning to apply the science of my laboratory in harmony with the results of the personal laboratories of the millions of people around me. This is the element of compassion, which is most likely undefinable in one equation.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Progress

 
Ignorance is bliss. 
Study and practice bring liberation.
Mindfulness brings joy.
Joy is the deep well of compassion.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Work

The events in Wisconsin and in Japan have stirred my thoughts about work and community. Citizens of Wisconsin, whose former Governor Tommy Thompson became a star in the Republican Party by abruptly ending state aid to the poorest members of Wisconsin society while providing state-subsidized health insurance and school vouchers for those who were too well-off to qualify for Medicaid,  are embroiled in a nasty campaign, led by its current Republican Governor, to gut union bargaining and political power. The events in Japan, on the other hand, have brought to clear light the realities of our lives as dwellers in space and time with all the unpredictability of a real world.

The conflict in Wisconsin is the antithesis of what human beings should be doing for their own greater good. The exploitation of labor by those who are rich or in power decimates human community. Labor must be divided to be conquered. This is a tactic as ancient as the most ancient civilizations on the planet. In turn, alienated workers deliver labor grudgingly and are infected by the greed of their masters.

Police and Citizen: Greek General Strike.
It is obvious to me that universal healthy living in a community cannot be achieved through capitalism as we know it in the United States. Universal healthy living is not a free market. It is a standard of living, based in equality and justice for all. This is why I like the word fellowship, as a synonym for a functional community.


Fellowship. I like to think of community as an organic vessel, which both holds and is composed of its members. The work of keeping a fellowship afloat is an integral part of belonging to it. Rather than ticking off the hours and tasks with a punch clock, members of a healthy community work, play and relax in response to their own and the community's needs. They own their community and share it along with the responsibility of keeping it operational and satisfying to all who belong to it.

Our overpopulated alienation in urban environments stems from the ineffectiveness of government and social institutions to counteract the relentless objectification of human beings by capitalists. In exchange for creature comforts, peddled for profit by those capitalists, Americans are sacrificing investment in their local communities at great psychological and environmental cost. And that cost will be shouldered ultimately by the great majority of citizens, while those who exploit for massive profits wander about the planet from gated oasis to gated oasis.

I believe that conscientiously promoting community on a human scale is a humanist activity. By keeping the awareness of healthy intentional community alive, humanists can promote a greater good in society. As the events in Japan have reminded us, even prosperous societies can be brought low in minutes by life's accidents. A society divided against itself by those who seek to exploit for profits cannot maintain a healthy balance under duress. Perhaps humanism's greatest value to society could be its assembling functional, inclusive communities, which are focused on promoting their own quality of life and the quality of life of the greater human community without the spoilers of religion, politics and materialism.

Integrating the concepts of work for pay and work for the greater good has been a central part of my life's humanist practice. Sharing that process with other humanists sustains my humanist practice. I cannot effectively practice my humanism in isolation. My humanism requires working with other humanists at promoting fellowship, based in our common desire for our own health and for the greater good. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hope

You don't have to have faith to have hope. In fact, when dealing with life scientifically and methodically, there is more reason to hope for success in living a happy and creative life. Religious ideology lends nothing to the process of actually doing what is necessary to have hope for a better future. In fact, blind faith retards the development of practical skills to better deal with life's realities. Information and understanding through challenging inquiry are the keys to developing a hopeful life.

What is simply life is often perceived by human beings as disaster or catastrophe. The first benefit of integrating scientific knowledge with personal practice is the awakening of consciousness to the true nature of life, all life. Life is chaotic. As human animals with frontal lobes, we imposed order on life in order to increase our likelihood of surviving the inevitable and unpredictable. In some ways, we are like colonies of ants with a greater view of The Universe and power tools. When disaster comes, we regroup and rebuild. We are not immortal, but we have a vision of survival that sustains us through life-threatening events. The more skilled we get at creating artificial security, however, the more complacent we can become...until the next disaster awakens us. 

Our social nature also supports our hopefulness. We draw strength from our sense of community, of belonging to something greater than ourselves. The more inclusive and caring the community, the greater the hope it inspires. The greater our isolation, the less hope we have as individuals. Understanding social sciences can help us build communities which sustain hope in its individual members. Unfortunately, anti-scientific religious zealotry has interfered with this process for centuries by being violently divisive, while touting itself as The Way to Salvation.

I have lived with and without hope. Ironically, surrendering my hopes for certain concrete life achievements eventually led me along a path to a different and more sustaining hope in my life. Learning to accept the finite nature of my life increased my hopefulness and happiness. Learning to adjust my hopeful vision to a vision of moment-by-moment potential for good and happiness in my daily life with little regard for my past has brought me great peace and joy. It is the suspense of what lies around the corner of time in each moment which fuels both my optimism and my respect for what it actually means to be alive.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Responsibility

It is very easy in an age of constant media stimulation to lose track of where your own life begins and where it ends. In a recent conversation, a friend said she was postponing plans for a long-anticipated trip to Europe because of the earthquake in Japan. When I asked her what logical process led to her decision, she was unable to articulate one. This is troubling.

Establishing your personal practice entails discovering and enforcing your own boundaries. In developing a sense of your true self by honestly acquainting yourself with your own motivations, habits and needs, you begin to see where your life ends and the lives of others begin. This usually entails letting go of delusions about your ability to effect or control your environment and the people in it.

Taking responsibility for your own real happiness by living healthily in mind and body will take up more time than rolling through life in a delusional, reactive dream. From a position of sustainable joy in life, you will be more likely to lighten the load of others in your environment. You will be a better coworker, boss or teacher. By seeing the futility of controlling people and situations, you will see your own path through your life, as a contributor to and supporter of the happiness of others.

The fascination with spontaneous celebrity in current society is a terrible distraction for many young people who are really motivated to work for the greater good. The glamor of celebrity does not relate to the humdrum of daily responsibility. However, a close look at those who have gained celebrity, based on years of doing the responsible thing for themselves and those around them will reveal a different view of celebrity, coming from hard work and conscientious dedication to a craft or an ideal.

Daily responsibility begins from the way you greet yourself in the morning. It entails what you eat for breakfast. It entails how you maintain your personal hygiene and your living environment. It entails how you interact with the world from the first contacts of your day. It is rooted in mindfulness and grows with compassion for yourself and others. Daily responsibility in practice resides in each mindful moment of each day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Identity

How do you identify yourself? What power do you grant to the labels you apply to yourself? Are you the labels? Or do you define your labels by your behaviors? How would others identify you?

Recent American culture has been obsessed with gender identity issues. Trendy documentaries pop up on TV about gender-reassignment surgery, which impacts the tiniest fraction of the population. Why this attentiveness to such a minuscule part of society? Isn't it interesting that this awareness accompanies a parallel awareness in media about plastic surgery to obliterate signs of normal human aging?

Many people assume identities to hide. Most often they are hiding from themselves. Some assume identities to deceive or impress others. It is amazing to consider how easily human beings can be deceived or impressed by disguises. 

One enemy of personal development is self-disguise. Convincing yourself that you are someone you are not retards growth and personality enrichment. While there is some benefit to behaviorally trying to be who you wish to be, there is little benefit to simply acting out a role without the personal grounding to follow through on those behaviors in a responsible and effective way. For example, you may pretend to be a doctor, but you will most likely not do much healing without some basic medical knowledge. 

How much of your identity is defined by others? If you receive positive attention or benefits from behaving a certain way for certain people in your life, you may continue to do so, even if the behaviors are not productive for your own development or happiness. Gay men who stay in heterosexual marriages with high school sweethearts for decades can attest to the pain of this course. How many of us have stayed in jobs for the social or economic benefits despite our private misery? 

Identity is a dynamic process when approached from the perspective of daily practice. Realizing that identity changes with life is a great release from having to maintain rigid roles in relationships and situations. Finding and trusting the core of your true self through practice is the basis of a comfortable identity. Operating in the world within a confident and relaxed self-concept eliminates a great deal of needless anxiety. This requires a strong commitment to honesty and practice.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Catastrophe

The current horror over Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami speaks more to the delusions of modern man than to the magnitude of the disaster. As a young Japanese woman said in a radio interview this morning, "We are used to earthquakes in Japan. They happen every day. This one is simply worse than most." I was fortunate for some years to be in the company of Japanese Buddhists here in the U.S., who were secularized and working for world peace and human equanimity. I learned something of the Japanese ability to be both detached and tremendously energetic in all things. I see that amazing ability at work now in their reaction to this natural disaster.

The greatest impediment to any recovery is panic. And who is more likely to panic? Those who live in a dream or those who are wakeful and watching? So many of us live in a dream of material pleasure under the delusion that our luxury, by comparison to the lives of the majority of the human species, is guaranteed and never-ending. Perhaps this lies at the core of age-phobia in U.S. society. Those who are awake maintain a constant awareness of the impermanence of all things.

Living life is a state of wakefulness is another way to look at practice. As the Buddha says in Dhammapada,

By watching and working
The master makes for himself an island
Which the flood cannot overwhelm.

Practice is watching and working at being the master of the mind and body. Meditation, proper diet, proper exercise and provision for basic human needs in daily life with an emphasis on healthy living contribute to mastering mind and body. With mastery of the self comes greater security in the otherwise chaotic and catastrophe-prone world. To live without practice is to live an unhappy life of reactions and panic in the face of difficulty.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time

Playing with time, as we do when we turn clocks forward in anticipation of Spring, helps me get back to examining the artificial nature of so much of my human existence. The reality that time is our adaptation to living on a whirling ball of water and rock, circling a star, causes me to grin with uneasy delight. I measure my life in seconds, days, years. Whether I measure it or not, it passes. Even when I think I am at rest, everything around me and in me is in motion. Moving and changing. I have no control over it. Practice is an attempt to live well with constant change through constancy of purpose and action.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Control

I practice humanism, a daily process of mindful human self-development in an attempt to create love and peace within myself and my environment. I hope to positively effect my environment and the people in it by being honest and compassionate, by being fully human. I am committed to practice. Practice is not tactical. It is not about manipulating or controlling other people or my environment. Practice is largely about self-control.

Contention and conflict come from attempts of two or more parties to control and then possess a common ground. While I think debate and discussion of opposing views within a community are part of the growth and health of any community, I strongly believe that any healthy community is an entity in itself, not be be enslaved by any one member or gang of members. I cannot possess or form a community by myself. I could form and control a gang or an army perhaps. I could procreate and control a nuclear family perhaps. But these are not communities of free minds.

I recently received an email from a national secular organization which urged me to harass the commandant of an army base because he had the temerity to obstruct a festival for free-thinkers on the base. Free-thinkers in the military...novel concept. My reaction was immediate. Why would I bring a philosophy based on individual freedom of thought to an organization which represents the antithesis of freedom of thought and action? Why would I even expect cooperation? Why would I waste my resources in such a pursuit? I would have asked myself, "Am I hoping to undermine the military or convert it to start a secular coup d'etat?" Mao Tse-tung did that, and it didn't work out too well for a lot of human beings.

I believe that humanism begins in the home. If those who are committed to secularism in community would focus on community with all their resources, perhaps militarism would eventually diminish in the society because fewer young men and women would be prone to enlist in the military. What would aid the development of free-thinking more than a decrease in militaristic thinking in the world? Taking secularism to the military is fine, but I would think that a truly scientific skeptic would not be at all surprised when those in charge slam the door to an event which promotes free thought. How about a free-thinkers' festival in the poorest neighborhood in Washington, DC? 

I think humanist practice within the secular movement itself can help avoid needless conflict situations with organizations and people who are all about control. By learning to control our own lives individually to the best of our abilities through healthy diet, healthy thought, healthy exercise, we can relinquish our need for trying to control each other. Fear and anger subside. Vision clears. We can see a way in which we can join in community with like minds for the greater good.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Faith?

I had faith when I was a child. I had faith in a family fractured by language, cultural and religious differences. Violent arguments in Russian. Cold stares with muttered English. New immigrants vs all-Americans. Roman vs Orthodox Catholicism.  I had faith in an older brother, a grandmother and a mother, who routinely subjected me to regular violent harm. I had faith in my physically abusive religious teachers who taught me to fear God and be grateful for all my misery. I had faith in a grandfather, my one heartfelt, safe connection, who withdrew from me and died when I was eleven. I had faith in a neighboring family who took me in as one of their own after my grandfather's death  and then were killed in a head-on collision when I was twelve. I had faith in a Jesus whom I once imagined I saw emerge from a stained glass window in my church, but he never came back to take me away from my suffering. I had faith in a priesthood that rejected my application on the basis of my controlling parents' objections.

Then I grew up. I grew up when I had to make it on my own in the world after coming out as a gay man at age 20. The family, which I depended on, feared and clung to because I was more afraid of rejection, isolation and destitution, outright exiled me under threat of lethal violence. My discovery was shocking and liberating. The fearsome world without family, reliable shelter and religion was shockingly safer and easier than the world within my family and the religion that had tried to subjugate my mind. I learned that skepticism was more functional in this world of impermanence than faith. Scientific method in all things became my touchstone whenever swayed by ideology or emotion. I have made my way through poverty, homophobia, epidemic and cancer with scientific reasoning and method as my guides, not faith.

I hear a lot about faith now that I am very happily associating with Secular Humanists. I don't really understand why faith seems such a hot topic there, to be quite frank. I think of faith as a mainstay of religion. I am certainly not participating in a Humanist community to be anti-religious, religious or co-religious with the religious. Humanist community itself for itself suits me just fine. I suppose I often stretch to the point of admitting a tentative, nuanced faith in the basic goodness of humanity to fuel my own humanist practice. But, there isn't a whole lot of statistical and historical evidence for that belief. I would have to call it a working, optimistic hypothesis at best. A pessimistic hypothesis would model humans as highly evolved predators currently on the brink of self-decimation by their own mindless predation and overpopulation.  The scientist has to be open to all possibilities, choose an operational framework and act accordingly with a willingness to change, based on new evidence. One thing I do know is that there is currently no hard evidence for religious faith.

A much-appreciated and admired segment of the Humanist movement is now coming from Schools of Divinity.  This also strikes me as rather odd. I know this credentialing lends credibility to Humanists with religious folks. But, isn't this paradoxical? Wouldn't a secular movement reach for greater credibility with irreligious folks? While I understand the concept of the Religious-Non-Profit Complex, paralleling the Medical Technology Complex in its recent boom in capitalist societies, I am not sure this is all about faith, secularism or greater good. Not sure, because I try to be the skeptical scientist, even in my optimism and wish to be a force for that greater good in my personal practice and in community of like minds.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Communication

Communication for communication's own sake is rather hollow. This may sound strange coming from a daily blogger. This attempt at communication is part of my own daily practice. Sharing my practice in this blog is meant to share the issues and concerns that come to me in that practice in an attempt to engage others with a personal practice and stimulate a productive exchange of ideas.

Hollow communication, in my opinion, exists in gigabytes on message boards and Facebook walls. Some of it has value as information-sharing, but much of it is not really human engagement. It has replaced flyers taped to telephone poles and graffiti on bathroom walls. Useful, humorous but not personally nourishing.

The Hybrid of Battlestar Gallactica
I used to include multiple links in my blog posts. I eventually realized that I was trying to justify what I was trying to say, when I was simply trying to express my motivations in and reflections on my own life in practice. My practice is not subject to debate. It is my practice. But, so much of hollow communication takes on the semblance of debate on Facebook, for example. I seldom leave those strings of 'likes' and comments feeling I know anything substantially personal about the ribbon of attached faces, some of whom are my Facebook friends.

I have recently become a watcher of Battlestar Gallactica, thanks to Netflix. A character in that sci-fi TV series is a demented synthetic human in an electrified bathtub. She is called The Hybrid. I think tangential her speech is very similar to reading down a long stream of comments under someone's wall posting on Facebook. Is The Hybrid oracle or cyber-nutcase? In the show, she is a bit of both. I will let that simile stand on its own.

I don't reach for profundity here. However, I try to maintain a standard of candor and clarity in expressing thoughts and feelings which are truly mine. This attempt at communication is simply an extension of the communication I try to engage in life with my voice and actions. Sometimes I feel engaged in other attempts at communication I read in blogs and emails. Many times I simply feel like part of an audience at a performance of a rehearsed soliloquy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Birthright

My humanist practice acknowledges the birthright of all human beings to intelligent parenting, healthy food, adequate shelter, drinkable water, medical care, privacy, sexual freedom, participation in government and lifelong education. Apparently, my concept of human birthright is at odds with many current social forces, even those supported by other Humanists perhaps.

The fact that American prisons are filled to overflowing illustrates the failure of American society to honor the human birthright. Some may counter, "But, there will always be those who refuse to obey the law. The rest of the public deserves protection from criminals." But who creates the criminals? The same pro-life conservatives who would slash all human services in the government budgets in favor of building more prisons across the nation would laud any woman's right to have as many children as she wishes, no matter what her capacity to afford them their birthright.

Denial of the concept of birthright is not rejected exclusively on the political Right. The current feminist notion of reproductive rights also denies consideration of the child's birthright in the discussion of conception. A woman's right to choose among many in this Leftist camp includes an addicted HIV-positive woman's right to have an HIV-infected baby without ongoing supervision into a society which would not insist on providing for that baby's basic human needs. What are the ethics of that position from the child's perspective?

Birthrights in American society are still based in Biblical concepts, merged with social Darwinism and Calvinist predestination. Some are worthy of better birthrights than others, based on their parents' social  and economic status. Birthrights are measured by the achievement of parents. Great achievement is often based in aggression and antisocial behavior under the veil of business, politics or outright criminality. What is the moral measure of capitalist achievement? Reading the history of the sainted Kennedy clan would quickly bring you up to speed on my point.

Providing for the equal birthright of every human being is a long way off, if ever possible. As long as the right to motherhood trumps the birthright of a child, there is little hope. The key to providing equal birthright to every baby is provision of equal and science-based sex and parenting education to every young female from an early age. I totally support a woman's right to control her own body. However, I believe in her informed and responsible right to control her own body. Right now, religion stands in the way of that process, but it may come to light that some advocates of women's rights might also stand in the way of that process.

Meanwhile, I can afford respect of the birthright of those already born in the form of personal and civic responsibility. I can support political and social causes that will make equal birthright for all children more possible. I can pay my fair share of taxes to that purpose. I can promote awareness of the right of the unborn to live in a society that truly affords them a life of health and social well being. This is part of my humanist practice.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sex

Sex is politicized, objectified and vended everywhere in American society. It is primitively linked exclusively with reproduction in the more sophisticated media. The abysmal lack of sex education in our schools is all too evident. Internet sex vendors, while actually helping the sexually desperate in some cases, can be accused of generally contributing to sexual dysfunction in society. Sex for money is still the theme there.

America's chosen ignorance about and disrespect for aging is most glaring in its attitudes toward sexuality in later stages of life. High rates of prostate cancer in men are bolstered by sexual dysfunction in men over 50. Similarly, negative physiological and psychological aspects of aging in women over 50 are complicated by sexual inactivity. The simple fact that HIV transmission has increased gradually among the heterosexual population over 60 is testimony to the reality of human sexual need throughout life.

Sex is very often linked with alcohol and drug use or abuse. Some people with normal sexual appetites have been ushered into sexual addiction groups by sexually repressed psychotherapists, who maintain that sex out of the context of  long term mating is perverse or unhealthy. Sex, unlike alcohol, is a basic biological need. The perversion of sex in American society is its religiously-based mislabeling as unclean and unholy.

An important part of personal liberation is taking control of your own body. Women are particularly sensitive to this in modern society. Unfortunately, many women, still sexually inhibited and repressed, confuse their need for sex with their need to reproduce. Women are as entitled to and in need of sexual pleasure and release, unassociated with pregnancy, as are men. Denial of this human right lies at the core of some Islamic, Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic and Mormon-based cultural abuse of women.

Gay men have been persecuted historically on the basis of their sexuality. The current attempts by conservative gay activists to sanitize homosexual sex with marriage and child-rearing imagery within the gay community. A certain moral superiority is associated with this trend in the GLBT community. "We are not like those promiscuous single gay men,"is the subtext. Of course, in most cases this is an outright lie. All people have sexual needs that are not exclusively met within the confines of a religiously based contract, meant to provide financial stability and assure equal distribution of shared material assets. The natural need for sex is not driven by checkbooks or material luxury. It is intrinsically human and intrinsically individual.

The core of any sexual health is the healthy, informed relationship of the individual with the his/her own body.  We have regressed from the days of the original edition of  Our Bodies Ourselves (1971), a groundbreaking book on personal sexuality. In fact, the new edition of this book has fled somewhat from its sexual-liberation model and is needlessly fusing female sex with reproduction, as opposed to differentiating the distinctly different health aspects of female sexuality and pregnancy. Joy of Sex (1972) and Joy of Gay Sex (1977) exemplified the pre-HIV sexual liberation movement for sexual health. I note that these have recently been revised and republished over thirty years later, an indication of the backsliding in the progress to greater sexual health, after the exploitation of HIV by the those who wish to control and punish.

In the post-HIV age, sexual intercourse is often approached like driving a car. The main focus of sex education is avoiding an accident. This is completely wrong-headed, in my opinion. Anyone who has been a passenger with an anxious driver knows what I mean. Anxious drivers are more susceptible to having an accident by overreacting to perceived threats. Calmly vigilant drivers can enjoy the process and drive safely. Confidence comes with practice. And, new drivers get the best practice by driving alone for extended distances without distraction.

In a healthy sexuality, the individual is the driver of his/her own sexual experiences. This comes with learning your own sexuality, your own sexual organs and their pleasures. Just as learning to trust your mind begins with learning your own brain's motivations, joys and inhibitions,  learning to enjoy sex begins with learning your body's own desires, pleasures and methods of attaining satisfaction. Like meditation, masturbation is a personal method of self-discovery that improves and informs with regular practice. Even those who are in regular sexual relationships can benefit from masturbation as a tool for understanding evolving sexual needs.

Objectifying another human being for sexual pleasure (hook-up sex) may be mutually agreed upon. If this is consensual and causes no harm or disease transmission, what is the moral or ethical issue? Virtual objectified sex (pornography or video-chat) sex may also be mutually consensual. The objectified model may be performing out of economic necessity. As long as the performer is not being forced against his/her will, what is the moral or ethical issue? Wouldn't a humane society be more concerned about preventing the brutal exploitation of sex workers, rather than bullying sex workers who are socially and economically vulnerable? In the case of mutually consensual video sexuality, doesn't it serve the needs of the unavoidably isolated and frustrated without causing harm? Isn't it healthier for these individuals to have a sexual outlet rather than suffer in isolation?

Current American society is still immature in its conversations about sex. The Naughty Factor is everywhere. This reflects American neo-religiosity. It is a symptom of sexual illness. Healthy sexuality is uninhibited, consensual, expressive. Perversion is unhealthy sexuality of any kind, poisoned by guilt and shame. As a humanist, committed to promoting health in myself and in those in my environment, I support open conversations about sexuality in relationships and in communities.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fear

I have learned to welcome fear in when it knocks on my brain. The fear which comes obviously to mind is a benign fellow. Its intent is to awaken my mind to some real peril or some real insecurity, which needs some tending to. Conscious fear is my friend.

The fear I truly fear and sniff out with great vigilance is unconscious fear, which lurks under the front porch of my brain and has to be teased out with the stick of meditation and serious reflection, sometimes aided by good counsel. This fear triggers defense mechanisms that interfere with my relationships and my overall health. This fear triggers anxiety when defense mechanism are no longer effective. If the fear goes unrecognized, or unconscious defenses against it are ineffective, anxiety develops. Anxiety tears at muscles. It corrodes the GI tract. It fuels cancer. Unaddressed anxiety can spiral into depression and psychosis in the most functional minds.

The root of animal fear is fear of injury and death. Since we are animals, we have this instinctual fear. It scares us away from playing in traffic, so to speak. But, our frontal lobe, while very helpful at recognizing and processing instinctual fear, can also trigger instinctual fear for no concrete, external reason. The frontal lobe can be a trickster, as well as a judge. So, doesn't it make sense to get to know your own frontal lobe, so you can discern when it is being a trickster and when it is being a sound judge?

Getting acquainted with your own brain is not all fun and games. There's a certain amount of distasteful sausage-making involved. It requires looking boldly and honestly at yourself in the harsh light of day. As someone who is revolted by photographs of myself in some cases, I will share that I have experienced similar revulsion when I have pulled the cover off some of my own mental processes in an attempt to know my own mind. It isn't always pretty work. It entails loss, sadness and anger. It can also liberate and produce deep joy.

Being a practicing, conscious humanist requires a certain grounding in your own humanity, in my opinion. Being human is to be conscious of how much of our thoughts and intentions are rooted in instinctual as well as intellectual responses to our environment. Integrating who we are with who we wish to become in our daily moments often requires waking to our real fears and needs for safety. Uncovering fear and learning to disregard it when it is outdated or irrelevant propels a greater openness in every moment. Uncovering fear and learning to address it consciously through creative and healthy behaviors fortifies and expands the mind for personal growth. All of this is part of what I call my humanist practice.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Giving

An unfortunate side effect of living by television or Internet is the framing of all human activity in terms of celebrity and trend. That which is humble is seen as weak and failing. That which is glitzy is seen as moral and good. This is a very corrosive process for public morale and general human consciousness.

The much debated faith-based initiatives had something intrinsically positive about them. They were based in communities of average people with average, or even humble, means, who could take part and take consolation about their own positive humanity from the concrete effects of their deeds for a greater good in their own communities. No Anderson Cooper descending in a helicopter to bestow his cable-TV blessing; just the appreciative nods and handshakes of grateful neighbors.

Humanism on the ground is not glamorous. It entails picking up after yourself, paying your bills and trying to do whatever you can to give to others. Humanist awards ceremonies are for celebrities and the literary champions of a philosophical movement. Humanist rewards are personal peace, health and sense of social equanimity in any group or community.

I see giving as a personal process, more than a specific concrete act. My own humanist practice brought me out of a very angry and isolated place in my youth. By learning to give of myself and my labor every day in every situation, I began to heal deep wounds within me. That practice continues and the healing with it.

Giving money has become the token form of giving among the materialists who would step over a homeless person without thought to get into a trendy pub or restaurant. There is an immense industry of non-profits, which dispense on line indulgences and absolution to these flashy sponsors. But, look at the society this is part of. Is this a society, where those who are poor are afforded quality public education? Is this a society where modern medical advances are gladly shared with all of its members? Is this a society which is cherishing its natural environment for the sake of all its children?

Giving starts in personal practice, personal moment-by-moment behavior. It is polished and refined in personal behavior toward yourself, your closest life-companions and your community. Giving is not a check, a tax deduction or a quarter thrown glibly into a beggar's cup on the sidewalk. Giving is a constant habit, a reflex, a way of life.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Humor

A sense of humor is part conditioned, part hereditary and part developed through life experience. Depression is humorless. Mania is over the top. Most of us are able to find a Middle Way of humor with a little effort. There is a great value in developing a sense of humor, from whatever baseline has been handed you by Fate. Remembering to look for the humor in situations and interactions is part of this conditioning process.

Chaplin and Gandhi
Whether it's Schadenfreude or pratfall, humor lightens consciousness. Humor places us in touch with the illogical nonsense of coincidence, which rules much of our lives, no matter how seriously we try to practice or channel our energies. The guru is just as likely to have someone jumping off a building fall on him as he walks down a city sidewalk as the dolt. Neither reality is intrinsically funny, but the coincidence of events themselves tickle our sense of humor, entwined with our horrifying realization of our own tenuous mortality.

As a humanist, who is acutely aware of the progress that could be made by virtue of the need that is all too obvious to me, I require a regular dose of silliness and humor. Those who cannot or will not incorporate humor into their practice are usually a fairly depressing lot. Surrendering to the deep realization of my mortality and the randomness of Nature has actually deepened my own sense of humor. Those who refuse to open their awareness to their real nature as living beings just aren't very much fun in my experience.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Balance

Look at the world. Stay in touch. It is so easy to tread your daily rut. Don't be distracted by the material world at the expense of your personal development. This is a challenge of daily practice.

Balancing between healthy routine and openness to the environment around you is an acquired skill of practice. For many of us, developing healthy routines is the hard part. For others, maintaining openness to the environment is the hard part. When we achieve personal balance, we naturally meet and connect with other balanced practitioners of healthy practice.

Spontaneity without structure is chaos. While chaos can lead to the creation of something interesting, like life on Earth, for instance, it is not necessarily the way to human happiness. Living in chaos is the waste of a functional frontal lobe. However, structure without spontaneity is deadly. Calcified lives do not grow. Balancing structure and spontaneity for progressive development is a major struggle of the human condition.

Engaging in the moment-by-moment struggle to find personal balance is practice. Living in balance motivated by informed mindfulness with a compassionate intention to support the greater good of all human beings and their environment is humanist practice.