Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pace

Life is change. No matter how organized a person is, life will see to it that patterns, schedules and deadlines are altered. This is inevitable. It needn't be disruptive to daily practice.

Maintaining my pace is essentail to maintaining my practice. In other words, I must determine the pace at which I attend to life's demands. This begins with a humble admission that I am human and limited by space, time and personal energy.

Rushing around and trying to juggle too many tasks in the name of efficiency is counterproductive. Multitasking looks impressive and seems to make sense, but an honest assessment of the quality of the products of multitasking will tell a different tale. Quality of work or play demands concentration and commitment to practice.

Discovering my own pace came after years of fumbling in the dark. Years of doing too much in too little time made for a fascinating resume, but it did not make me happy. When I was forced to look at my life by dangerous life events, I saw a picture I needed to change.

Discovering my pace came with discovering my path. When I realized that my path consisted of moving toward peace and the promotion of human happiness by the application of my skills and values in daily life, my pace slowed and became more easily maintained. Knowing, the the deepest sense, that I am mortal compelled me to value every day of my life. Using those days at a pace which will achieve peace and harmony within me and in my environment has become my daily practice. There is no need to rush or to do anything half-heartedly. It is the quality of my life that matters, not the quantity of my superficial accomplishments.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorials

spare me death with honor
i prefer to live with honor
killing no man is honorable

spare me flowers on graves
i prefer to burn to ash
returning to nature's wheel

spare me hymns of heaven
i prefer to sing joy here
where i may love and share

spare me weeping eulogies
i prefer to speak my mind
to ears which can hear me

spare me everlasting life
i prefer to toil in this one
learning by using it up

spare me fine memorials
i prefer the howling wind
to blow my remains away

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dying

Now that my mother is in hospice care and in her last hours of a long life, I sit by her bed and am reminded of the many similar deathbed vigils I have kept professionally. I suppose it is a verification of my humanism that I am not going through any tumultuous cognitive dissonance in this situation. I am feeling the same deep sadness over the human condition...mine, my mother's and all the others. We have the privilege of understanding our lives in this scientific age, but also the suffering of knowing our inevitable loss of them.

My mother has been angry. Since surviving breast cancer over twenty-five years ago, she has become something of a professional patient. I believe she has five or six doctors for various parts of her anatomy. She has seen them all regularly by religiously booking appointments exactly within the payment parameters of her rather generous health insurance plan, a benefit of her well earned retirement. Since her recent diagnosis with an untreatable cancer, which is now killing her, my 91-year-old trooper has said repeatedly with consternation and frustration, "I don't believe this happened to me."

We've discussed the inevitability of death and dying for years. Sometimes our discussions were heated since she did not want to do any planning for this inevitability. "I'll just go to a nursing home. That's what I want!" This was always her discussion closer, for which I had skeptical respect. Now she is unconscious in the nursing home near her home, where she holed up for the last eight years since my father's death after 60 years of marriage.

I sit by her bed as she is breathing the deep, sonorous breaths of the dying. Last evening I drew her portrait twice as I kept my vigil. I drew the lines, some the same as those in my own face, and shared that suspended space between self-conscious life and oblivion. All my technical knowledge of what is happening is useless now. I have gotten her to a safe place, where she is meticulously cared for by good people. She is beyond waking. We are beyond discussions or disagreements or difficult histories.

I once asked Richard Alpert, also known as Ram Dass, how he continued to do work with the dying over the years. He said serenely, "You must fall in love with each one and then let him go." My mother's death is the death of the source of my own life. I am of her. This is the ultimate realization, taken in with full mindfulness and feeling, of my own human condition. With this understanding, how can I bear anything but compassion for another living being?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Biology

I have often been amused by atheist-naturalists whose writings often sounds like Calvinist sermons on predestination. In their avid embracing of (sometimes outdated) science, they speak of the inability of human beings to live outside the box of their genetic maps. In other words, some seem to be implying, "My genetics are probably better than yours, because I understand this stuff and you can't.." Elitist philosopher's nonsense.

The latter ten years of my professional nursing career were spent delivering hospice care to approximately 2,500 dying AIDS patients. I personally bathed, washed and sat at the death beds of nearly half of those patients. I participated in or supervised the direct care of the rest. A hospice nurse often sees the complete arc of a person's life through a patient's own account and that of his/her family/friends. Real people. Real lives.

I will say that our biology is our life indeed. Without all our biochemical ingredients...well, we are not we. But, our biology is a dynamic and often unpredictable thing. Not everyone with the genes of former cancer sufferers gets cancer. Not everyone with the genes of former suicides commits suicide. Not everyone with the genes of a serial killer becomes a serial killer.

Our best work as beings with frontal lobes is using our biology for positive change and psychological growth. For me, this process was accelerated by very difficult struggles with my biology from an early age. Later, working with the sick put that process into overdrive, as I concretely encountered the amazing potential for human beings to creatively excel psychologically beyond the real limits of their biology.

Racism, elitism and social Darwinism are all rooted in the belief that "breeding will tell", as some British might say down their noses. This bigotry has nothing to do with ethical science. The point of understanding the potential limits or downfalls of our genetics from an ethical scientific point of view is to improve the quality of all human life. Many who fear genetic research and genetic testing often run to religion or deluded self-determinism. They are missing out, in my opinion. Some of those same people would nod assent to the saying, "Knowledge is power."

I have found that immersing myself in a quest to understand how my body and brain work is a worthy pursuit which does not require daily hours of narcissistic self-examination. I learn as I live by reading, meditating and reflecting on my life. This is part of my humanist practice, which is my daily attempt to live in peace with joy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Priorities

What are your priorities? I think this is an important question for anyone who wishes to live an intentional and decent life. It is a question that should posed regularly. It is a question which can be answered in two ways.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
There are actual priorities and ideal priorities for most of us. My actual priorities are the daily personal needs that keep me alive and well, physically and psychologically. They guide my diet, my exercise and social behaviors. They also guide my fiscal behaviors. My ideal priorities are those geared to lovingly and joyfully fulfilling my responsibilities and commitments to everyone in my life.

I maintain an awareness multiple priorities, actual and ideal, in my consciousness as part of my daily practice. By maintaining this awareness, I am more likely to satisfy those priorities. All my priorities are associated with other people's needs or my relationships with other people. For me, this is essential for my psychological health. This is not said from a social-life perspective. I mean that I see my life as actively intertwined with the lives of others even when I am making decisions about my own life's direction and actions. This is responsible social consciousness, as I see it.

I find that too many priorities can mire down my sense of personal well being. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless tasks to be crossed off an ever growing list. Lots of accomplishments with little personal peace and joy. In walking my path, I sometimes must choose between climbing a mountain in my way or taking the pass around it. Adjusting my actual daily priorities with kindness to myself sometimes supersedes pushing toward my ideal priorities. I know that all my priorities, actual and ideal, will ultimately be better served if I am less stressed.

Many people live in crisis mode. They bounce from one situation to another, as though they have no control over their lives. They are adrift on the sea of circumstance. This is particularly true of those who find early success in exploiting their circumstances of wealth, talent and/or beauty for their own personal gain without regard for a wider view of life and personal responsibility. Their priority becomes getting more. This lifestyle can work for some. Many celebrities have succeeded in their careers in this way with disastrous results in their personal lives.

Reviewing my priorities is an integral part of my daily practice as a humanist who wishes to promote peace and joy in myself and my environment. Seeing my own priorities, actual and ideal, in the context of other human beings and of our shared environment is essential to being an ethical and contributing member of human society.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Religiosity

I was sitting by my 91 year old mother's bed in the nursing home where she is now in hospice care. As my mother dozed, I put on Oprah, a show my mother watched regularly and skeptically. It was Oprah's "finale show". This in itself was a mixed message, I felt, since the whole week has been finale shows, which I have been watching with astonishment by my mother's bedside, as my mother occasionally chimed in weakly, "What a phony that Oprah is!"

Toward the end of yesterday's show, interrupted by the cheesy commercialism that made Oprah her fortune, Oprah crossed the line between religiosity and delusional grandiosity to the cheers and tears  of her minions. It was true cult worship. I have checked her official Web site this morning to read the transcript of the show. I found that her Web editor had wisely omitted her grandiose ramblings, delivered with the outstretched hands of a high priestess.

Oprah had explained that God had ordained her to be rich and famous. She explained that the finding of her mother's egg by her father's seed during intercourse "under a tree in Mississippi"...I am not elaborating here...had been a miracle ordained by God to produce her, a Messianic figure with raised palms and a swing of her ample hips. She went on in this babbling vein. Perhaps she was speaking in tongues. The basic message: God loves me and made me rich and famous, so I can tell you all what to do to be just like me.

The subliminal message is ages old. It is not Liberation Theology by any means. Its is simple: If you have problems and are poor, you are not blessed by (her) God. In other words: Pray harder and buy my products, stupid!

I looked over at my mother as she dozed. She is a woman who has survived and persisted through growing up an impoverished, first-generation American through The Great Depression and World War II. She worked for pennies from the age of eleven. She scrubbed floors and changed diapers for middle-class women who treated her like a slave. Her immigrant family was tortured by alcoholism and violence in response to the stress of trying to survive in an alien culture. And, even in her sick bed, my mother tries to humbly maintain her composure and dignity to the best of her ability. In Oprah World, however, my mother most likely would be seen as not trying hard enough or not praying loud enough, because she did not gain a cult following or live ostentatiously.

The foundation of any humanism, in my opinion, is the equal worth of all human beings, despite their material or psychological circumstances. In a world where worth is measured in dollars, this is not true. Religion is often a justification for this materialism. Look to the Papacy for example. The hypocrite preaches the holiness of prosperity as a justification for her own greed and egomania, while pandering to the poor with lip-service to keep them coming back with their money. The truly good human being lives responsibly to the best of her ability without exploiting other human beings and seeking their adulation.

Oprah has learned the way of those who have exploited religion for centuries. By exploiting her own troubles and seducing others to exploit theirs for profit, she has built an empire on being the resurrected, redeemed victim. She has poisoned modern feminist culture with self-entitled materialism and self-entitled hedonism. Appropriately, in the glossy final hours of her reign over her cult, she has taken on the mantle of holy priestess. She has become the perfect embodiment of popular American religion. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Responsibility

Living from a core awareness of personal responsibility is very challenging in a civilization which increasingly sees responsibility only in terms of dollars and cents. Materialism is not responsible. Hedonism is not responsible. These movements in the current civilization of the developed world have brought us to the brink of environmental collapse of the planet.

The materialist lives under the delusion that as long as he can afford something, he is being responsible in having it or doing it. This is at the root of American piggishness with the planet's natural resources. Other countries, such as India, Brazil and China, now seek to imitate America's bad example. This is catastrophic.

When the flow of material and hedonist pleasures is terminated, as it must inevitably be with overpopulation and diminishing resources, the materialist is left with nothing. No resourcefulness, no personal peace, no self-sustaining joy. Frankly, the materialist works hard at producing his own misery in such circumstances.

Being human in the fullest sense is to be a socially engaged and responsible being. Obsession with personal gratification breeds mental dysfunction and social isolation. Groups which cohere around hedonistic pleasures are simply cultish cliques, even if they maintain a veneer of respectability.

Each moment entails decisions which either enhance or detract from a development of responsible living. From dietary decisions to decisions about activities of daily life, the practitioner of responsible living maintains an awareness of what is best for himself, his society and his planet. With this practice, these decisions become clearer and clearer. With that clarity come simplicity, peace and joy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hope

I believe humanism offers sustaining hope to the person who chooses to practice it in daily life. As a humanist, I appreciate that I have only this one life to live with this brain in this body. So, any hope I derive from life is dependent of the proper development and maintenance of my mind within the body I have available to me. Distraction from this primary consideration leads to diminished happiness and diminished hope.

My greatest hope is that I can lead a life which, to its end, will be a contribution to the greater good in other lives. What could be a better human life? Being human entails having the consciousness of the unique experience of every other human life. Being human at its best entails having the consciousness that each individual life has equal value. Being human at its best entails having the consciousness that the whole planet is an amazingly rare phenomenon in a vast, cold Universe.

As a humanist, I do not garner hope from the promise of an imaginary afterlife. Those who spend their lives looking to an imaginary afterlife's bliss often overlook their own potential for creating daily bliss in their real lives. That daily bliss lies in the sense of wholeness and satisfaction that comes from doing the loving thing by people and the environment in each moment. This sustains hope by bringing with it the peace and love it inspires.

My daily struggle, my daily practice, is a struggle of creating peace and joy in a world of materialism and violence. This is what I call my humanist practice. It is indeed a struggle. In part, it is a struggle against my own personal history and early conditioning. In part, it is a struggle against the darkness in the lives around me. Shedding the light of my own truth is all I can do to combat that darkness when I encounter it. However, that process brings its own hope when the darkness abates and a human connection develops where potential conflict or alienation may have developed instead.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornadoes

Massive, random destruction in seconds. Tornadoes are a good metaphor for life's many uncontrollable changes. The measure of a person's resilience lies in the wake of life's tornadoes. Some obsess on what has been lost. Others look ahead to the new day and cherish their survival. Practice places a person on the latter path.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Impermanence

I recently had a discussion about moving with some friends after dinner. They gaped in horror as I revealed that I have probably moved thirty times in the last forty-one years. I laughed and explained that my motivation for these moves was largely economic, but also occasionally psychological. I have moved away from living situations because they were not healthy for me psychologically.

One of the company proudly stated that he has lived in his current house for nearly forty years. He shared details of his purchase of the property and his renovations over the years. Others shared less extensive histories with some more frequent moves. It occurred to me during the discussion that a large part of my readiness to change living locations stemmed from my being raised in a house which had been hand-built by my father. It was a shrine to counter-dependence and land-based stability. The house became a personal extension of my father and my mother.

A comment from one of my friends made me realize that I see housing much the same way I see clothing. If it no longer fits me, I change it. I have never been particularly fashion-conscious and treat clothing very pragmatically. Over the years, I have done the same with my residences.

By not identifying with clothes, cars or houses, I have been able to embrace change more readily than many people I have known. This is a form of what Buddhists call detachment. The paradox of this detachment is that I have taken great joy in setting up house and looking forward to the next adventure. My friend who has lived in the same house for forty years has done this through travel, which he does extensively. I see myself as a constant traveler, not in miles but in attitudes and adjustments.

Embracing impermanence is liberating. Cresting the great hills of the roller coaster of life affords breathtaking views to be remembered while plummeting to the low points of life's trials. Learning to live life by not clinging to the safety bar of the roller coaster car is the skill of joyful detachment at its peaks and in its valleys until the end of the ride.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Militarism

Militarism is a sign of an unhealthy society. The current U.S. love affair with militarism in its media is symptomatic of the failure of the best American values to supercede materialism and corporate greed. The paranoic propaganda that the U.S. is under constant attack serves those who would suppress protest and radical change of the political and economic situation in the U.S.. In other words, militarism is just another advertising ploy to promote corporate power.

The real story behind militarism is told by the few veterans who speak out about their experiences inside the beast. The rare soldier who decries the violence and injustice of war is victimized and marginalized. Isn't this strange in a country that has always boasted its citizen-soldier ideals, rooted in a revolution against a colonizing military machine?

Reaganite apologists have rewritten the history of the Viet Nam Era in an attempt to squelch the recurrence of mass protests in the U.S.. Cities in the U.S. host mock terrorist attacks as drills to terrorize the civilian population. The subliminal message is clear: We can find you and root you out, just like the terrorists. This obvious militaristic technique is employed by dictators and ruling elites worldwide. The current Syrian regime has declared its protesters terrorists and criminals to justify mowing them down with military forces.

The U.S. increasingly represents "world order", while its internal environment is increasingly plagued with social disorder, violent crime and social disparity. More than half a trillion dollars a year is spent on the U.S. military. This is twice the amount of money spent annually on Medicare/Medicaid. In other words, the U.S. government spends twice as much money on trying to kill people as it does on trying to keep people well. What does that say about a society?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Land

Isn't it paradoxical that human beings are willing to die and kill over artificial land boundaries while they defile the very land they contest with artillery, land mines and careless pollution? This is instinct over intellect in action. All wars are blatant, intentional examples of  inhumanity.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a glaring example of racism and religion in symphony to breed hatred and stupidity. By investing land, which is a totally neutral substance, with symbolic value, the inhabitants of that region are living unnecessarily diminished lives every day. Generations have participated in the voluntary sado-masochism of that conflict in the name of holy rights of possession.

This past week, Queen Elizabeth II of England visited Dublin in a regal gesture of conciliatory largess. To the credit of the Irish Republicans, they graciously humored the walking anachronism, despite centuries of colonial oppression by her predecessors. The Queen, however, did not hand over the keys to the rest of the Irish island, as obvious a boundless natural formation as could exist.

Possession breeds suffering unless tempered with an acknowledgment of its folly. We possess nothing ultimately...not even ourselves. The instinctive impulses to nest, build shelter and then fortify it are often at odds with our cognitive desires to seek peaceful happiness in the company of our fellow human beings. Opening the mind is a way of keeping narrowing possessiveness in check.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Parents

I have long believed that my relationships with my parents have been my most challenging opportunities to place my ideals and principles into action. Since these have been the most challenging opportunities, they have also been the most fruitful in developing my own sense of self and my practice. 

Few human beings devote the time and energy as adults to craft an intentionally evolving relationship with their parents. Roles remain in place while personalities change with age. This is different from intentionally addressing the process of the parent-child relationship through life. This takes time, patience and perserverance.

Sitting across from an elderly parent after years of conflict and attempts to understand each other is a gift to the child who blossoms into a caregiving adult as the parent approaches death. Abandonment of roles in favor of clear-eyed human connection with all its pain and anxiety yields a clarity which is healing for former parent and child.  The most profound transmission of human wisdom about the human experience lies in these moments.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Values

I listen with frustration and shame for my native country as the newscaster explains that the King of Bahrain continues to receive the official support of the U.S. government despite massacre and torture of his citizens to retain unjust power. This is a symptom of U.S. militarism and hypocrisy.

In a recent conversation, in response to a dear friend's observation that he felt  I am "living my values" in a situation, I said, "If I didn't live my values, they wouldn't be values. They would be bullshit." Perhaps nothing better explains what I mean when I call my humanism "practical humanism". If the U.S. practiced its so-called democratic values, the King of Bahrain would be on his way to prison in The Hague for trial in the World Court.

Humanism is worthless, in my opinion, unless it is practiced in daily life, moment by moment. Hot air alone has done nothing for human rights and justice. My humanism is not print on a page. My humanism is moment-by-moment choices to further human peace, justice and joy by living my values.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climate

As we enter our fifth day of clouds and rain in Boston, I am impressed with the effect of environment on mood, despite human preoccupations. The lack of sun takes its toll, whether recognized or ignored. More frequent yawns. An encroaching fatigue.

We look at earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as anomalies which invade our synthetic human safety. This estrangement from our real environment and place in it is itself toxic. If we allow our minds to kidnap our consciousness away from our basic animal needs and our place in the greater ecology, we pay dearly as individuals and as societies.

I am an animal, dependent on my environment for sustenance. Though I can jump in a polluting car to go to a supermarket to pay for food with artificial value (money) instead of my labor, I must maintain a present consciousness that this synthetic life is more fragile than Nature and at its mercy ultimately. 

Millions of human beings have never raised a plant from seed. Millions more are incapable of maintaining a plant, purchased from a supermarket or nursery. What is the inevitable fate of these human beings when their synthetic environment is destroyed by flood, earthquake or desertification?  The answer is painfully obvious.

As long as human beings worship imaginary protectors and money, instead of their own precious planet, human misery is guaranteed in ever-increasing quantities with overpopulation and diminished natural resources, like fresh water and clean air. Part of waking to a daily humanist practice is paying attention to the immediate environment. Maintaining my own personal environment in simple and concrete ways enhances my appreciation of the planet. Expending my own labor in this way leads me to appreciate the labor of farmers, engineers and others who work to maintain the planet and its precious resources, human and non-human.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Art

I walked through a jostling, bovine mob past the genius of Chihuly at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Some would say we were there to "support the arts". That is, we were there so Chihuly and those like him can further culture through art. At $20 a pop, that is some shot in the arm for culture...and Chihuly.

I don't think the true genius of Chihuly's craft was at all infectious or enhancing to the greater multitude. As I sat next to an exhausted father whose young son was gaping at the bright-colored glass sculptures, his breathy wife approached in wonderment. "It's just amazing. How does he do it?" After listening to several minutes of her wonderment, I offered the suggestion that they watch a recent documentary made about the artist and his work. Her wonderment might be converted into actual understanding, I implied. I then shared a little of what I remembered of Chihuly's technique.

The two parents, now joined by their genuinely interested son, gaped at me stupidly. "Thank you," the deflated woman said abruptly with a sidelong look of suspicion at me, "We have to get going!" I had apparently shattered the mystery of glass magic. In other words, I had placed the burden of education upon her in response to her preferred wonderment at her own joyful ignorance. Buzz kill.

Art and religion are a killer combination, as history attests. Vast glass-lined cathedrals brought the unruly back to their knees after the Dark Ages. Domed mosques, punctuated with mathematically placed arches and tilework, placated and awed others who were massacred into submission. Even the Buddha's own words were ignored in favor of the artfulness of his enthusiastic followers, determined to popularize his message with guilded images and massive monasteries.

Could some humanists abandon religion in favor of a rite of hedonistic culturalism, laced with intentional celebrity worship and wonderment? Or, will the individual humanist realize the value of persoanl expression through art as part of daily practice and self-discovery? As long as art is money in a materialistic civilization, the former seems more likely.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gaydar

As a gay man of 61 years, I have a skeptical view of 'family values'. So many of my GLBT brothers and sisters have been ejected, sometimes physically, from their families of origin because of their genetic predisposition for same-sex love, passed to them by those families. Like the females of misogynist cultures, GLBT family members were most often viewed as less-than, disposable.

As a gay man, I learned early in my days of personal discovery that skin color and ethnicity were useless barriers to love, acceptance and affection. Nationalism means little to me. It is a hollow clinging to the same familial chauvinism that rejected me and portrayed me as a perverted aberration.

The fraternity among gay men still plays an important role in my life, even as I have adapted to the new liberalism among heterosexuals in my environment. Learning to see one another past the superficiality of passing as neuter or heterosexual, or gaydar as we call it, develops a perceptive skill often lacking in those who take their acceptability or even superiority for granted.

Wouldn't it be a better world, I often think as a humanist, if all human beings learned to perceive their commonality past superficial poses and identities as we do with gaydar?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Disconnect

The great disconnect that comes from being religious strikes most bitterly when disaster hits. If one believes in supernatural rewards for goodness, lack of rewards, or punishment, is an indicator of evil. This is tragic for those afflicted by the everyday problems of life. It can lead to depression and mental illness.

"How could this happen to me?" Ironically, this is often the question asked by the most benevolent who are also religious. It is also asked more often. You see, the most benevolent also tend to be the least aggressive. They are not cut out for material success in a competitive world. They are prone to poverty, poor health and the problems associated with living in the poorest parts of town. Religion's indoctrination makes their plight even more devatating emotionally and psychologically, no matter how many soup kitchens or canned-food drives the religious provide.

The disconnect between a person's actual worth in a community and that idividual's compensation is dismissed by religious indoctrination, which is often used to convince the disenfranchised to not rock the boat of commerce and statehood. As a Saudi Arabian royal once said to me in Cairo, "Hear that call from the mosque, Paul? That is how we get the masses to do our bidding."

As a nurse, I saw this disconnect manifested daily on the stunned faces of good people with horrible diseases. This disease of the mind, planted by religion, was more malicious and harder to treat than the wounds on their bodies. And, in most medical settings, the religious swarm in to reenforce the message.

Recognizing that my intrinsic motivations to do good for my own sake and the sake of my community is a natural part of being a human being brings liberation and joy. Nurturing that understanding and putting it into practice promotes peace and happiness within me and in my surroundings. This is an essential part of my humanist practice. Letting go of dependence on authority, both human and imagined, for validation is a first step to true freedom.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hiatus

I opened Blogger this morning to write my post at the usual time. Blogger was off line with no indication of when it would be on line. It is now 6:45 PM. I have spent my day doing many necessary things. I am too tired to write an entry other than a candid confession of this writer's mental limitations. Tomorrow, if it presents itself, will be another day with or without Blogger.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Time

Absolutely nothing is more precious than time. If you live to be 80 years old, you have 700,800 hours of life. If you are now 30 years old, you have used up 37.5% of your life, or 262,800 hours. If you live to be 80, you have 438,000 hours left. These numbers are real estimates of the possible quantity of your life. I encourage you to do your own numbers, based on how old you are now and the general longevity of people in your genetic family. It is an exercise which brings your consciousness to sharp focus on a very basic part of what it means to be human. There is no guarantee that you will have more than this moment ot the next. Despite that, it doesn't hurt to keep an awareness of how precious time is and to not waste it on unimportant things.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Roles

We are raised into roles. It does not matter where we come from. Roles are developed by us and for us within all the systems we encounter. This is part of the human social condition.

Our inner monologues often conflict with the role expectations of those around us. I may see myself as the dutiful son or stellar worker while those in my family and work system may see me as inadequate or mediocre. No manner of discussion or logic may change this dissonance in certain cases. Those who see me in a role may be operating from role concepts imposed on them by their development, of which I have absolutely no knowledge and to which I can never measure up.

Marie Cosindas: Masks, 1966

I have found it useful to be extremely clear in my communication about my roles in various situations. This takes a great deal of effort and sometimes very lengthy negotiation. I find that those with whom I negotiate my roles often become frustrated by my insistence on attending to specific details. However, I feel that relying on assumptions about what certain aspects of a role entail only leads to inevitable and useless conflict or disappointment.

I am only in control of myself and my own behaviors to the extent that even that control is possible as a human being, subject to time, space and circumstance. I have intentionally cast off traditional roles as son, brother and friend at different points in my life in order to be the functional human being I seek to be. I have rigorously tried to fulfill to my best ability roles which I have accepted as employee, caregiver and manager.

The trick of practice is to live mindfully and healthily within roles which I assume out of conscience and my sense of humanist ethics. This comes with careful reflection and a respect for commitment as a process requiring clear communication and ongoing assessment. Meditation helps a great deal. Maintaining healthy daily routines is absolutely essential. Most of all, I must be truthful with myself about my capabilities and needs. This is all part of what I call my humanist practice. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Practice

I find my own reactions to stress very instructive for my practice. Anxiety/fear is a natural reaction to external and internal stress. Cognition is a practiced habit of looking at my own reactions and behaviors in my life's circumstances. I consider it a basic element of mindfulness.
I chose some years ago to acknowledge my powerlessness to change the world in the face of most of my daily circumstances. My best designs and plans for how my life should be do allow me to feel I am practicing some form of control over my destiny. However, no plan or design has ever turned out as I have planned it exactly. Admitting my relative powerlessness was the first step to understanding and accepting how my own mind and body function or fail to function under duress. In other words, by accepting the world as it is and my limitations as they are, I was free to forgive my own incapacity to ever attain perfection and godlike independence.

What I can do and must do, in my opinion, is take responsibility for my own actions and reactions under any circumstances, whether I have chosen those circumstances or not. This I can choose to do well and recognize when I am not. Failure is simply a chance to improve when my failure impacts my own life. Failing others is a reason for seeking forgiveness and making amends, as well as learning a lesson for the future.

It is hard to pay attention to myself and others while looking at an electronic screen. I sometimes find myself gravitating to my computer when I am stressed. It is avoidance, unless I am doing some intentional research on the situation I am consciously trying to face. Computer games, especially violent versions, are perhaps the most obvious example of avoidance and sublimation. When used consciously for a limited time, I think these methods can have debatable worth. But those who spend hours every day staring at a manipulated screen are bound to lose some significant skills for emotional self-reliance under stress.

Developing the skill of examining life and applying the lessons of that perception is a basic thread of what I call practice. While some ancient traditions hold indifference and passivity up as a models of perfection in this form of self understanding, I reject the idea that there is any perfect model for applying this part of practice for developing peace and joy in a human life. Each person who attempts intentional practice, I believe, must find his/her own best way.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Power

When any President of the United States says, "Anybody who questions that decision needs to have his head examined.", our republic is in trouble. That was President Obama's comment from an interview on national television last evening concerning the Bin Laden assassination. Well, Mr. President, I think that was an unfortunate choice of words, if not an intentional ploy to side with those who would limit individual intellectual freedom in favor of nationalism and militarism.

A leader with the power of President Obama could plan, execute and cover up the truth behind an assassination of anyone, regardless of the true motivation. That means you or me. It certainly wouldn't matter much after the fact to either one of us, but human society would certainly be less civilized. A progressive leader, in my opinion, does not discourage or dismiss inquiry of any kind, especially inquiry concerning murder. Whether this imperious certainty of Mr. Obama's own infallibility in this case is related to his religiosity or his politics is irrelevant to me as a humanist. I no longer look at Mr. Obama in the same light.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Moments

Each moment is a living choice. We live on a wire, but seldom awaken ourselves to see that we are suspended in time and space on a fragile inner narrative of false security and imagined safety. The wakeful wisdom of the elder sage is bought with life's predictable pain and tragedy. The exuberance and adventurous grace of youth is based in happy ignorance.

Intentional awakening to life's moments for their potential in spite of their dangers comes with reflection and meditation. For some, it comes with hard work in psychotherapy. For others, it comes when they suffer a tragedy or participate in the tragedy of someone they love. Most people roll over and go back to sleep once a crisis passes. They are lulled by fear, depression and/or religion. Some crisis junkies are people who want desperately to remain awake to life's reality but need a crisis to keep their eyes open.

Living an intentionally wakeful life in which the moments are lived compassionately with awareness of the fluid nature of the human condition requires strength, resolve and dedication to healthy living. This is practice. In my humanist practice, the goals of living this wakeful life are sharing peace, sharing wisdom and sharing joy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Kindness

True kindness is not saccharine conformity to social conventions. That is hollow insincerity. True kindness is rooted in compassion.

In order to be truly kind, it helps to be fully grounded in understanding of self. Otherwise, much of what you may think is kind may simply be a projection of your own needs onto other people. There is no great value in being a bullying do-gooder. Many who proselytize as part of their charity work fall into this category.

True kindness comes from a desire to help others to attain their own peace and joy through their own means. Selling something to someone is not kindness. It is exploitation or domination. Doing the hard work of standing beside someone whose world view and methodology is completely at odds with your own is kind. Not giving up in the face of your anger or the anger of another is kind. Walking away rather than engaging in futile struggle is kind.

Learning to love yourself is the first step to loving others. Being kind to yourself without self-satisfaction or self-indulgence is for many of us an acquired skill which takes practice and moderation. True love is not blind. True love is mindful, patient and committed. Self-love shines in those who practice it. It is readily distinguishable from hollow bravado or conceit. Those who practice loving themselves are kind and loving to others.

Kindness, compassion and mindfulness sound like big concepts. However, they can exist concretely in action with conscious practice. Choosing the truly kind thing to say or do in the moment is the core of humanist practice as I understand it. It will always take repeated failure and attempts to become the person I wish to be. The effort itself has great worth.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Communication

We are awash in communication. Mobiles, texting, emails, Facebook, Twitter. But what are we communicating?

Hehe, lol, wtf, brb. It seems we are trying hard to be present in the moment with our keyboards and keypads. Are we really present? Most often not. The fluid ease of the written word on line has replaced the fluid ease of verbal interaction, face to face. Many who are warm and urbane on a screen are stilted and cautious in person. The written word was once a carefully handcrafted attempt to be held, understood, touched by another, from whom the writer was separated. American Civil War letters from the battle front are a memorable example. Now the written word is a glib attempt to say, "I'm still here. I'm still paying attention." In reality, it is often a just key-clattering punctuation of a quick perusal of a Facebook page.

I don't spend a lot of time on Facebook for this reason. And, if I do comment on a friend's post, I do try to be thoughtful about both the post and my response. It always leaves me dissatisfied. I want to discuss the ideas with the person. I want to ask questions. I want to look into the person's eyes as we converse. The moment then passes, with the ideas. I truck on to the next post and the next, or I don't. More often the latter.

Last evening, before dinner, my partner and I were watching a PBS cooking show while waiting for a kitchen timer to ring. We began to discuss something, inspired by the program. Peter deftly picked up the remote and muted the TV. Our exchange last a few minutes before the timer summoned me back to the kitchen. As I dished up our meal, I smiled to myself at our ability to still communicate with full attention to one another, despite electronic distractions and entertainments.

Communication is the sustenance of all relationships. Whether with a stranger on a train or with your dearest friend, the quality of the interaction determines the quality of the human connection. It is not magic. It requires practice and skill to be able to feed relationships through effective self-expression and listening. As long as I focus on the humanity of every person with whom I speak, I find I can make a human connection through communicating with candor and openness. Silence, in my opinion, is better than just going through the motions.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Conspiracy

I am amused when I read conspiracy theorists' Web sites. I do not dismiss many of the theories I see. Some seem self-evident to me. Others reach the outer limits of paranoia.

Othello and Iago
The attainment of power over other human beings necessitates conspiracy. Conspiracy is the bedrock of  politics as we know that activity. Conspiracy is part of corporate business. Conspiracy is a tactic and a symptom. It is a symptom of evolutionary competitiveness, transformed subconsciously by the frontal lobes of human beings. It is a tactic which can be replaced effectively with open callaboration and cooperation.

Secrecy, the main ingredient of conspiracy, is a defense based in mistrust and fear. Fear of what? Fear of anything. Some fears which lead to conspiracy, even at the highest levels of government and business, may well be rooted in the infancies of the participants in a conspiracy. Richard Nixon was an obvious example of a paranoic personality, formed by childhood insecurities, who relied on conspiracy to feel safe in power, lost through his own conspiracy when revealed.

If the U.S. government conspired to perpetrate a fraudulent assassination of Osama Bin Laden, for example, such a conspiracy would really have little relevance in reality to the problems faced by the nation. However, it may serve, if believed generally, to secure the continued power of an intelligent administration which has been undermined by economic disaster. Like it or not, this is the state of politics in the U.S. republic.

As a humanist, I would like to see a change in paradigm. My support for Candidate Obama was based largely on his speeches about transparency and accountability. My hopes for his ability to change the paradigm in Washington have dimmed significantly. However, I do not perceive him as entirely resigned to the old conspiratorial politics. His recent release of his birth certificate in response to the demeaning hectoring by the likes of Donald Trump, a king of conspirators, was a step in the right direction. It should have happened much sooner.

Light is an effective disinfectant. In my own life, living in the truth of who I am has brought peace and liberation. It has not brought affluence or power. This is often the choice in a world of dishonesty and secrecy, where brutal competition is prized as the epitome of what it means to be creative and successful. I believe the potential to be brutally competitive is an inevitable part of being a human animal. The wiring is all there in our brains, left over from days of battling for mates and day-to-day survival. My measure of my humanism is the degree to which I can overcome that instinctive urge in order to promote goodness and happiness with my labor and communication. To inspire rather than conspire.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Inequality

The greatest inequality in our American society is economic inequality. Those who are born into minorities live lives of quality and length determined more by their socioeconomic status than by their skin color, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Retrofitting our society by focusing on the externally obvious, leaves the dark secret of American poverty in the shadows, where it can be exploited by the greedy and powerful.

Pfc. J. Villanueva, 19, killed in Afghanistan.
Two stunning examples exist in our urban environments. Communities of color still have staggering drop-out and virtual illiteracy rates, leading to unemployment, imprisonment and drug addiction. Poor children of all colors turn to the military to get advanced education, even if they have equal intellectual capacity and merit to the children of the more affluent. Many of them return damaged and incapable of collecting on the promise of a better life.

The gross inequality in public education is linked to the militarism-education relationship. Generationally poor individuals are coerced economically into military service as the employment for those with inadequate education dries up in the private sector. This serves many purposes for the wealthier Americans who consciously or unconsciously support this system politically. Taxes are kept lower by not supporting universal high-quality public education. A surplus supply of unskilled labor is available to keep service costs lower. The children of the more affluent have the edge with less competition from thir peers who lose two or more years to military sevrice at great risk. A "volunteer" military is maintained which saves the children of those with resources from being endangered by a universal and equitable military draft.

Entrepreneurs, especially the new wave of "social entrepreneurs" who utilize non-profits to gain personal fame and fortune, profit from social inequality by engaging in remedial services for the poor who are seriously impaired by poverty and/or military service. These services are subsidized through tax breaks and government subsidies. These tax breaks and government subsidies take money away from providing universal preventative human services, like a high-quality public education for all citizens.

Educational insitutions, where most academics will preach against the horrors of war and violence, are perhaps the most complicit cannibals in this system. By their push toward greater elitism and high-cost amenities on campus like vanity sports facilities and teams, they have made higher education unreachable for the great majority of the poor. Think-tanks and institutes pull millions from government education coffers each year with no discernible positive effect of public education. On-line degree mills have raped the public subsidies and loan programs. Educational institutions then profit from military-veteran tuition programs, accessed by the poor who survive their enlistment in the military to escape poverty.

As humanist, who grew up in one of the poorest and most congested small cities in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, I have seen the effects of war on the lives of men who were economically coerced into battle to fight the wars of the wealthy and ideologically corrupt. I escaped that fate myself, but felt as early as my teen years that I must continue to speak out against the abuse of the poor by a government, any government, which is unduly influenced by militarism. The U.S. government has become such a government once again. So, as some jump up and down over the death of one violent lunatic, I continue to look at the greater cause of suffering: The use of violence at the expense of the poor in a futile attempt to achieve peace.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reflection

Reaction is easy, especially when drunk or walking through life asleep. Reflection is difficult. Reflection is the measure of the awakened mind. Reaction is a reflex of the animal brain.

A violent terrorist is murdered. A psychological terrorist is beatified. Both announced in the same day, May 1st, which represents renewal and revolution. In both cases, celebration blossoms in the streets. One celebration is peppered with inebriation and hollow nationalism. The other is flavored with sanctimonious righteousness. Are the celebrants awake? Are they reflecting on what these events really mean for human beings in the broad span of human history and behavior?

Reflection might lead to the understanding that these are celebrations of those things which divide: Revenge and murder on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other. Hardly reasons to hoot and holler, if you cherish peace and joy. Peace and joy come with nonviolence, dialogue and generosity. However, addiction to emotion and stimulation at any cost makes peace and joy impossible.

Violence perpetuates violence. Contention perpetuates contention. Reflection brings mindfulness and personal peace, which can then be shared with the world. As a practicing humanist, I am digesting what today's and yesterday's news means for right now and tomorrow. Celebrating what it means in reference to a decade ago is foolishness in my opinion.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

McSaints

I am no saint. Karol Wojtyla has just been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint-in-waiting. He is better known as Pope Paul II. Wojtyla was a saint-maker himself. He beatified and canonized more saints than all the popes in history combined. He streamlined (assembly-lined?) the saint-making process up to Detroit standards when he was on the golden throne of St. Peter, who won his sainthood by proselytizing in ancient Rome itself.

Karol Wojtyla, as Pope
Now, I am no theologian. I can think of more productive ways to utilize my time on a planet where children starve and the poor beg in front of glass insurance company towers. However, as someone who was indoctrinated by Catholics in my childhood, I do know that sainthood is a measure of human perfection in the light of Catholic dogma. Under that light, Wojtyla may qualify to be a new-wave McSaint of his own making. Granted.

The common popular view tends to accept that the celebrity Popes are representative of some form of pure objective morality. This is where I have a problem with Wojtyla's elevation in their eyes through the media as an exemplar of goodness in the Catholic all-good-all-bad paradigm. A morally perfect human being does not intentionally enable and shelter sadistic pedophiles, in my opinion. A morally perfect human being does not groom a man who is tainted by association with Nazis to succeed him as the head of an organization that publicly abandoned massacred Jews to save its own fortunes under Fascism. A morally perfect human being does not support the denial of the basic human rights of millions of homosexuals to the degree that his subordinates in the developing world encouraged physical persecution of gay men and lesbians. I could continue my litany of Wojtyla's imperfect morality from my Catholic-educated humanist perspective, but, as I said earlier, I can think of better uses of my time.

One of the greatest sins, according to the Biblical Jesus of Catholicism, is hypocrisy, yet Wojtyla's papacy was a study in personal and political hypocrisy. The man aspired to rock star celebrity. He offered  public support for democracy in Poland while encouraging the Polish Catholic Church to practice a form of back-door theocracy in that country. He supported those in developed countries on The Right, who sought to undermine socially progressive policies in favor of corporate control and privilege for the wealthy. He publicly bemoaned the plight of the poor while living a life of luxury and world travel for self-promotion in the eyes of those poor whom he exploited and dominated to maintain his own lifestyle. Perhaps the vilest example of his hypocrisy was securing the succession of the current Pope, who now is making good his promise to canonize Wojtyla, the ultimate vanity in the Catholic world of icons.

Golden arches, golden crosses. Fast food, fast-track sainthood. When the pageantry fades, the realities of the human condition remain. There is no magic to feeding all our brothers and sisters with healthy food and water. It does not require a jewel-encrusted crown and a white dress to be a wholly decent and caring human being. There is no fast-track to human integrity and human decency in each moment. There is only the attempt and the commitment to do so, to learn from mistakes and to continue to practice.