Thursday, June 30, 2011

Focus

Why am I writing this blog? I ask myself many mornings. I am not asking myself out of frustration or weariness. I am asking myself because that is a way of being in focus as I sit in front of my keyboard. 

It is my practice to frequently question what I am doing and why I am doing it. I guess this is an outgrowth of my education in science. Life is a laboratory. There are many variables. One way of establishing parameters and controls is being in touch with my own feelings and needs. The proper focus of my actions comes when I have been able to fold together my feelings, my needs and my sense of my physical health. 
 
Focus brings me to this daily task of writing, which in turn brings focus to my day. Today my focus of activity continues to centered on responsibilities which are necessitated by my mother's recent death. My psychological focus is on my grieving process and its implications in the other relationships of my life. My dietary focus is on managing my intake today with allowances for consuming more calories and water to compensate for my increased physical exertions.

Focus is directed intent. Mindfulness is maintenance of focus throughout the day as circumstances develop as I act and interact with my environment. These are dynamics of practice. Consciousness with focus is very powerful. Practicing the development and maintenance of focus builds self-confidence. I find that increased self-confidence bolsters my capacity for joy, compassion and generosity.  These are essential ingredients of my humanist values.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Perspective

It is important to me to maintain an awareness of how my perspective is being shaped by the daily events of my life. Past experience brings filters to present experience. Sometimes these filters are helpful and can save me from repeating a mistake. Sometimes these filters can cause needless suspicion and anxiety when what I see triggers memories of past unfortunate experience.

Most psychotherapists understand that mining the experience with a patient is a good way of discovering triggers and filters developed by past experience. By helping the patient to make these filters and triggers accessible, the psychotherapist hope to help the patient to consciously use this awareness to change or modify dysfunctional behaviors. If I know that I am afraid of something irrationally due to past trauma, I can begin to deal with that trauma consciously and diminish my irrationally fearful behaviors. This in turn makes me feel more powerful. It creates a more optimistic perspective in that area of my life.

Sorting out and applying a practical behavior based on perspective in the moment requires some work and, of course, practice. I have found it helpful to maintain an inner dialogue about my perspective. I question my impressions and challenge my judgments. This means I often respond to my environment with thoughtful silence, rather than living in a reactive fashion. I observe the external and my internal reactions, while processing my reactions quietly and honestly within my mind.

Motivation is important. If I live every day motivated by making money or having fun, I have no need of any perspective other than the perspective of my personal stimulation. However, if my motivation is to live by my humanist values in full awareness with a sense of responsibility, I had better be clear about what my perspective is telling me about me and my environment. Otherwise, I am simply fooling myself and being a hypocrite. Behavior based on simple reflex or habit is seldom mindful or compassionate.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer

The days are already becoming shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere. I woke to the light of Summer yesterday morning as I paused my fury of activity.  Brilliant light was coming in the windows from the high morning sun. The dimmest corners of the room were illuminated. Beautiful light.

An essential ingredient to my human happiness is paying attention to the seasons. When I lose track, as I have done lately under the onslaught of unnatural concerns generated by my mother's death, my sense of place in the natural world diminishes with numbing consequences. My own light dims.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chores

Nataraja: Cosmic Dancer
As I rush to get this entry written in order to get to yet another plumber's appointment across town, I wonder at the way chores can eat up a perfectly harmonious schedule. The interplay between what must get done and what should get done is a basic life dynamic. Keeping the rhythm of positive activity for health and well being in the face of plain old reality can be a challenge. Like balancing plates on sticks. 

I am trying to learn the trick of doing the musts and shoulds simultaneously, or sometimes braided together in the day. A little of this and a little of that. Since I am a bit of a perfectionist, a personality flaw I am trying to overcome, I find multitasking particularly difficult. I am also dealing with my frustration over the gross imperfection of those whose work for me when it is the product of their poor multitasking. 

I know I will simplify eventually. The chores will get done. The rhythm of life will smooth and become more natural. My skills at multitasking will be improved for the next wave of change. I just wish I could type faster.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Perseverance

Perseverance is one part stubbornness, one part endurance and one part self-confidence. A human life is not like a river within its banks, which can be readily channeled or dammed to suit purpose. A human  life is like an expanding pond with often unclear boundaries, through which the conscious mind must navigate to achieve happiness. This takes perseverance, especially for those whose lives are not privileged or sheltered by fortunate birth.

Many choose not to persevere. They surrender to a conformity which keeps them safer from harm or loss. Many with little or no education simply do what they are told by those who are more powerful. Others get involved with crime in an attempt to escape a hard life, which they see as inevitable under the circumstances of their birth or personal characteristics.

I have learned to balance my perseverance with a hard look at reality in order to maintain my personal happiness. My experiences with AIDS and cancer were great lessons. Perseverance was essential to my recovery, but I also had to accept the harsh realities of the altered body I was left with after those experiences. Accepting the hard realities allowed me cherish, nurture and rebuild this new body, all I ultimately am in this world.

When I meet young people, I am impressed with their vitality and great plans. That vitality can provide the endurance which can achieve great things. Yet it can easily get derailed into the pursuit of things instead of sustainable joy, based in living human values of fairness and peace. Perseverance alone cannot not achieve sustainable joy. It must always be guided by personal truth, gained from a practice of daily reflection and internal honesty. Changing course is often more valuable than persevering on a course unworthy of the best human values.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Validation?

I awoke to news of the legalization of gay marriage in the State of New York. I hear the cheering, recorded last night in Albany. I am happy for the joy of those who are cheering. 

I re-learned something valuable in the early years of my involvement in Gay Liberation in the 1970s. It was a lesson I had earlier learned from the brave campaigners for African-American equality in the 1950s and 1960s. It's simple: Validation from other people or institutions is not a substitute for self-validation. Unfortunately, many rely on validation from outside themselves to avoid the hard work of looking honestly at their lives. 

Gay marriage passed into law in New York with a political deal that religious institutions would be exempt with full legal impunity from honoring GLBT civil (marriage) rights. In other words, New York State has written a form of discrimination against GLBT people into law. This is, of course, against all humanist principles of equal rights and justice. So, I am not cheering. In fact, I am a bit disappointed that some in the Gay Rights movements are satisfied with a law that is a blatant institutionalization of religious prejudice. Is the pomp and circumstance of a gay wedding worth that loss of dignity in the eyes of the law?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Commitment

Commitment to practice isn't always easy. It is 9:20 PM. I have just remembered I did not post to my blog today. I had to leave the house early to deal with a plumbing emergency at my mother's house. I was there for 9 hours today attending to details, unpleasant details. I am tired. I just tuned into a French action film on my Roku device. Then I remembered my blog, my practice, my commitment to write every day. The TV is on mute. I am simply offering this experience, since my brain is close to being numb from fatigue. Commitment to practice isn't always easy, nor is it always profound.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Criminals

Suspected Bulger Victim
The big news today of Whitey Bulger's capture by the FBI is laced with the predictable fascination at his cunning and ability to escape capture. Predators are cunning. Human beings are predators to a greater or lesser degree.

I was reminded of a childhood experience. When I was a preschooler, I was riding along with my father in our 1950 Plymouth. It was Saturday. He was doing errands for my mother. My father was a policeman. As we rounded a corner, he slowed the car and pulled over to the curb. He got out of the car and told me to get into the back seat. I scrambled over the front seat to the back.

My father returned with another man, who got into the car. "We're going to the station," my father said to me. I was thrilled. The guys at the station gave me candy bars and nickels. A great place. After a short stay at the station, my father said we should get going. On the way home, he explained to me that the man he had picked up was an escapee from Walpole prison, an armed robber, whom my father had previously arrested. "He's a tough customer, but we hit it off pretty well." 

The conflictual relationship that human beings have with law and order impacts us all. One man's justice is another man's injustice in some cases. However, the distinguishing factor when considering the likes of Whitey Bulger is violence. This is a man who reputedly killed 17 people with his own hands. I doubt he would have stepped calmly into my father's Plymouth.

I have worked with felons over the years. Being a nurse, I have treated felons no differently from saintly people I have encountered as patients. The treatment I have received in return has been quite another story. My experience of criminals has informed me that criminality with intentional violence is indeed evil behavior, often associated with people whom I would have to describe as evil, in the sense of irreparably diseased mentally. Jeffrey Dahmer qualifies for this category. These people are worthy, in my opinion, of respectful containment by society.

Those who will romanticize Whitey Bulger are fools or exploitative scoundrels, who would do anything for profit. There is little to be learned from Whitey Bulger beyond the respect for his evil as truly dangerous and remorseless. In my opinion, those who are entranced with violent criminality would profit from looking at their own propensity for evil and its effect on their own lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Moderation

The "middle" in Middle Path is moderation, as I see it. Some in the New Age vein confuse this Buddhist concept with equivocation or neutrality, in the sense of dispassionate detachment from everything. A quiet reading of Dhammapada will dispel this notion quickly. If that document represents the Buddha's ideas, you will find him far from equivocal or neutral on his ideals and values.

Moderation has a lot to do with action in balance with thought. By centering thought on values and ideals, the practitioner of humanism is confronted with a potentially overwhelming consciousness of immediate daily suffering everywhere. That suffering occurs in varying degrees. The humanist is faced with moment-by-moment choices which can either increase human suffering or decrease it. The best beginning is to deal with my own suffering, so I may be able to deal with the suffering of others more effectively.

Moderation is a helpful habit to culture in these moment-by-moment decisions about daily life. Thinking or acting in extremes only brings more suffering. Eat too much and you get fat. Drink too much and you damage your brain. Focus on others too much and you can lose your own compass or well being.

By working at knowing myself truthfully at any given time, I can moderate my behavior to best meet my values/ideals under life's changing circumstances. By focusing too much on myself, I lose the opportunity at forming mutually helpful human relationships. The Middle Path lies between all extremes. The compass to stay on the Middle Path lies within me. Its North Star is my humanism, my developed ideals and values I hope to put into action, into my being. Mindfully and compassionately placing my feet along the Middle Path every day is my humanist practice.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Simplicity

Mindfulness brings a certain simplicity to living while opening the mind to the complexity of life. This is the beauty of paying attention internally and externally in the moment. Meditation is indeed a portal to this sensibility. The practice of patience also opens the mind to appreciating how simple action in complex situations is often best. Doing nothing observantly  is often better than doing too much too quickly.

This kind of patient simplicity of living makes materialism irrelevant. Acquiring possessions or glamorous experiences no longer impresses. In fact, it becomes obvious that hedonism is like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch, the more it itches. 

My practice is the daily application of mindful and simple living, based in humanist values. Promoting peace and human joy of life are the core humanist values I try to live up to and exemplify. Living this practice leaves little time or energy for hedonism or materialism.

My friend, Rick Heller, has published a very good article about consumerism in The Humanist magazine. I appreciate Rick's integration of Buddhism, psychology and neuroscience in his piece. He articulates concepts which are very important in my own practice of humanism. I recommend reading it.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Walking

I am a walker. To drivers and bikers, I suppose I am a nuisance. I press pedestrian light buttons and use crosswalks. I don't run across intersections usually. I assert my legal right of way, when necessary.

I recently heard an NPR story about a man who disciplined his disrespectful thirteen-year-old boy by leaving the kid in a fast food restaurant with the angry words, "You can walk home." Other customers called the police. The man was brought up on charges of child abandonment. The fast food restaurant was only 0.7 mile away from the child's home. A fifteen-minute walk.The man should have been arrested for feeding his kid obesity-promoting junk food. Making the kid walk home seems to me doing him a favor.

I frequently walk the two miles between my house and Harvard Square. It takes me about 45 minutes at a steady pace. The smelly bus takes twenty minutes. That 45 minutes does me a world of good. I get to observe the seasons. I reflect on life's problems and joys. I make an occasional fleeting human connection with a fellow pedestrian. That walk helps me feel at home in my local geography, while improving my circulation and burning excess calories. And it gets me to where I want to go without fossil fuel consumption or having to park a conveyance once I get there.

It is common knowledge that the American automobile manufacturers colluded with Federal government to dismantle America's omnipresent trolleys and pedestrian thoroughfares in the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, the same folks you just bailed out with your tax money made your cities the inaccessible and pedestrian-unfriendly places they are today. I witnessed that transition in my own lifetime. In fact, I commuted by public transportation to both high school and college.

I prefer walking to any other form of transportation. As a grow older, I often think of old Mr. Fothergill, a retired fireman in my home city. Mr. Fothergill spent his retired years walking every day for the pure pleasure of it. Everywhere we went in my parent's car, I would see old Fothergill smiling as he walked along briskly. I believe he lived well into his eighties and died in his sleep, an unusual and happy end for a fireman. I am happy to carry on his tradition, even though we never spoke to one another.

In recent weeks, due to the repercussions of my mother's death, I have had less time to get out and walk. I miss it. My body misses it. Today I will walk. It will be my intentional delight of the day. I don't know where I will go. I will simply get out in the air and move through the streets with my open awareness and joy of being alive.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarity

There is a vast difference between having clarity of personal vision and having all the answers. In fact, once my vision cleared, due to living a daily practice, I realized that I have no solid answers at all, just questions, accumulated observations and hypotheses. What is clear to me from day to day is who I am and who I am trying to become.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sanctuary

The city of my birth is now a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants, predominantly Latino. The house next door to my parents' home of 57 years was sold several years ago to Latino immigrants from Central America. While my mother was alive, I seldom spent much time in the house. Our visits were short and rather business-like for many reasons. Now, as I try to sort out the house after her recent death, I am spending quite a bit of time there. I now better understand why she was increasingly stressed in her last years.

The house next door is a large turn-of-the-20th-century structure. It functioned as a family-occupied two-unit home when my father built my parents' house in an empty lot next to it. Three generations of a Polish-American family lived there. The eldest generation had come from Poland as legal immigrants, imported for labor jobs in the early 20th century. They were rather serious people. Short on conversation and long on hard work. They grew vegetables and flowers. They maintained a couple of fruit trees. The property was meticulously groomed with respect for their land, their house and their neighbors.

Now that house is occupied by an ever-changing population. It is hard to tell how many people live there. It could be a dozen. It could be as many as thirty. Their cars occupy the curb along half the length of the once sedate street. There is a constant stream of traffic to and from the house, much of it accompanied by booming Latin rhythms from over-sized car stereos. The doors and windows are open all year round. The once pristine yard has large patches of bare dirt from human traffic. There is a rusting universal gym in the yard, probably salvaged from the trash, upon which many screaming children hang and swing. There is often the smell of marijuana on the breeze. 

Last evening, as I was leaving my mother's house, one of the cars from next door was obstructing half of my driveway. I could hear the loud partying of many people in the yard next door. Salsa music blared on a boom box. I went back in the house and wrote a note, "Please do not park in my driveway." I placed it on the windshield of the offending car. Before I could exit the driveway, a young man from next door was looking at the note I had left on his car with obvious puzzlement on his face. I assumed he could not read English.

I rolled down my window and politely asked him not to park there. I explained that I need access to the driveway and may need to have a truck come into it at some point in time. He stared at me blankly without any expression. I think he didn't understand a word I was saying. He simply turned, with note in hand, and walked slowly away. He did not move his car. He did not apologize for inconveniencing me. He did not say anything. I simply maneuvered around his car to get away.

I hear a lot of claptrap in the media about the poor illegal immigrants who need sanctuary here. I hear about their decency and their heartfelt wish to become Americans. I hear about their strong family values and religiosity. I see something very different next door to the house where I grew up. I see it all over the city of my birth. These are not the values of human respect and decency I learned as a child.

So, what of the sanctuary for those poor Americans who have lived in working class neighborhoods with strong American values of hard work, respect for their neighbors and respect for their property? Who attends to the loss of their property values when those who refuse to acculturate negatively impact their neighborhood? What is the responsibility of a city government which encourages this type of immigration within its city limits? What is the responsibility of a Federal government which allows municipalities to opt out of Federal law?

As a humanist, I understand and despise the economic inequities that exist in this country and internationally. I certainly do not begrudge any law-abiding, respectful person their place in this country. However, as a humanist I also strongly support civil order and the right of everyone to the peaceful enjoyment of their own home. I do not support the narcissistic imposition of another culture upon my own. 

The working class in America is bearing the brunt of the day-to-day adjustments to illegal, ethnocentric immigration. I am convinced that much of the anger that is heard coming from the Tea Party is rooted in this adjustment. Unfortunately, those with money and power, who are immune to the ground-level effects of illegal immigration, have turned a deaf ear to the cries of those most impacted by it. This will bring serious repercussions for all Americans in time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Identity

When does identity become a necessary tool for personal growth? When does it become an obstacle? These questions rose in my mind as I listened to a report of NPR this morning about the closing of an antisemitism institute on the Yale campus. The controversy over the closure was peppered with cries of antisemitism, despite the fact the decision was made by university administrators, whose ranks are people by highly placed Jewish members.

When does identity become a crutch or excuse for dysfunctional behavior?As a gay man, I have had to work through many issues concerning my homosexual identity. The homosexual identity which society tried to impose on me in the 1960s, when I was becoming self-aware from childhood through adolescence, was abhorrent to me. After I came to grips with being gay, I came out everywhere in my life with the exception of my workplace when I was teaching at age 21 in a Catholic high school. I desperately needed that job, since I was independent from my rejecting family and had little money. My discomfort with that closeted situation contributed to my leaving the teaching profession after two years.

I became politically active in those early adult years. I also became a regular at gay bars and gay events. Then I discovered other challenges to my identity. I was seen as too serious, too butch, too tall, etc.. There was no safe, one-size-fits-all gay identity. This was deeply disturbing at the time. More perceived rejection convinced me to walk my own path as a gay man. I avoided cliques and chose my friendships carefully and individually, based on their merits.

Later in life, it became evident to me that my paternal grandmother was most likely Jewish by birth. I suppose technically this made my seemingly Irish-American-cop father a Jew. Now there was a mind-bender in the identity department. It explained why my father volunteered for years at the YMHA and why I was the only ostensibly non-Jewish boy there in my childhood. That childhood identity as a beleaguered goy-boy at the YMHA was a preview of coming attractions.

Practice is very helpful in placing identity in perspective. By establishing a daily personal practice, of which the core principle is self-understanding as a basis for understanding others and the world, I have discovered the person underneath my multiple assumed and assigned identities. When confronted with others who are entrenched in a monolithic identity of any kind, I am able to see past that barrier to their core self with some effort. This disarms reactive reflexes whenever that makes sense.

What kind of world would this be if there was simply one identity, shared by all people, a human identity? Perhaps dismantling our imposed or assumed identities is the work of the time. Social media certainly can help, as long as we do not succumb to shallow political correctness. By displaying who we are honestly, we soon find out that others will gladly do the same. Once we are all 'out' as human, perhaps we can get on with the work of being the best that we can be as a species.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sports

Vancouver hockey fans rioting.
Is there social value to an activity that encourages public drunkenness and violence? I do not think so. There certainly is commercial value. As I walked through North Station in Boston last evening at 8 PM, I noticed the unusual number of security guards and policemen, all looking nervous. When I exited the station on my way to the subway entrance nearby, I observed several clusters of drunk men and women in gold-black Bruins outfits. This was puzzling, since the game they were here to celebrate was already on TV in numerous nearby bars. Maybe they had already consumed all their drunk money.

This morning I listen without surprise to reports that discouraged fans in Vancouver, B.C., had burned and overturned cars. I am treated to repetitious slurred comments of interviewed drunk fans. This, mind you, is on National Public Radio. The auditory nods and giggles of the radio interviewers astound me.

I can understand the exultation of the fat cats who own arenas, bars and the teams themselves. They have managed to pull in millions of dollars overnight from many people who could barely afford it in a depressed economy. They have sold their fan jerseys. They have sold the ad time on the television broadcast. The bookies have made their bet money. A producer of Bruins shirts was interviewed in a hung-over state with great enthusiasm by a local broadcaster for a supposedly non-profit station, which perpetually seeks contributions from "listeners like (me)". Is there any reason why he would not be celebrating, no matter who won the Stanley Cup? It's not religion for him, it's a business.

Hockey is a particularly violent sport. Perhaps, as a team sport, it closest resembles the Roman Coliseum's delights of an ancient time. Modern gladiators, paid to beat each other up to delight the repressed, angry fans. Like many before them, these angry and desperate fans all don matching jerseys and waddle into crowded venues, where they are allowed, for a price, to demand blood tribute. That blow to the jaw for the boss who laid them off. That jab for the wife whom they would like to hit. That stick to the groin for the family which brought them into a miserable life.

I have been bored silly for years by commentators who drone on about the tremendous value of competitive sports. I look around me at a society where competitive sports are big business. I am not impressed. And what is the alternative experience to which to compare the value of these sports? Hard to find. Violent sports have grown out of murderous combat, a mainstay of human civilization for as long as there has been such a thing. It is probably difficult for a brain, conditioned to generating endorphins at the sight of one man smashing another with a stick, to comprehend my point without defensiveness.

I see violent sports as atavistic mass-controlling devices, like religions. They yield great profits for the powerful, who minister to the violent impulses of the masses. They give the populace an outlet for their justifiable rage. They even provide sublimation of natural homosexual impulses for men who would otherwise be even more twisted about their sexuality in a society that demeans psychotherapy.

I doubt this essay will be buzz kill for any sports enthusiast. I can easily be consigned to the "them" of pacifists, sissies and snobs. So be it. I prefer that company. However, as a humanist, dedicated to promoting personal peace and joy, I think the energy, time and money spent on competitive sports could be better spent on education, political activism and human service to those less fortunate.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grief

Some grief is explosive. Most isn't. The grief which results from a traumatic, unexpected loss can be devastating, exaggerated by shock. The grief over a more predictable loss is simply a deepening of the sadness over our shared human condition.

As I gradually dismantle the physical details of my mother's life, I grieve. I get frustrated by the clutter of her life, filling garbage bag after garbage bag. I also ponder more seriously than ever on the circumstances of a life which produced this relentless fear of deprivation. I reach across time and space to the little girl who suffered so miserably from poverty and cultural dissonance. I feel deep sadness for her, but realize how helpless I have always been to heal her damage. Now I am simply cleaning up the aftermath.

Last year I spoke on the telephone with a psychic, recommended to me by a friend in Canada. At one point she said, "I want to encourage you to realize that your life is separate from your mother's. This will become an important thing for your to realize soon." At the time, I shrugged and thought: Big news. My mother and I were far from chums.

Now I understand this concept of separation more than ever. The separation I experience is purely human, since I am concretely composed in part of my mother's DNA. I see physical habits and gestures in myself that are the same as my mother's. These are unconscious, until noticed. Once noticed and analyzed, in a way that humans can do, I have the choice to modify them or simply accept these behaviors. In modifying them, I create a separate identity.

Boxing my mother's collected tokens of security, I put to rest some of my own questions about our 61-year relationship. I stand there alive and consciously a very different person in her loud absence within the walls of her house. The small child I once was has slowly disappeared from those rooms over the years. Even the memories of him are almost gone by choice. With the lightness of being is the shadow of loss, intertwined and inseparable. This strikes me as essential to the mindful human condition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Priorities

What are your real priorities? In my experience, the foundation of living in practice is a clear set of personal priorities. These priorities guide the moment-by-moment decisions that apply or do not apply of my values.

One of my own priorities is acting responsibly with money, for example. I do not share the values of many capitalist financial institutions. By making sure my expenditures do not exceed my income, I maintain greater independence from financial institutions, whose values are inconsistent with my own.

Another of my priorities is dealing immediately with the needs of anyone who asks for my help. I can safely say this priority has done more to shape the texture of my life than any other. It has focused my energies on human service over my own personal recreation or pleasure. There is a great deal of need around all of us. Few of us really take the time to look at it and respond to it directly and personally.

As I listen to Republican political candidates chant against President Obama's health care reform, Medicare and environmental regulations, I realize how different my priorities are from theirs. There is no wonder in my mind why the people of this country and the world are always struggling to assert their humanity against political forces. Cover words for selfishness and greed like "freedom" and "free markets" have replaced the priorities of fairness and sharing in this nation.

I believe humanism is all about fairness and sharing. If we all would adopt priorities which are centered on love, justice and peace, instead of wealth and power, the world could heal itself. This is the purest idealism in the face of today's materialism. However, it may well be a practical approach to a world in distress.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sex

The disgusting media-stoked hypocrisy about Anthony Weiner's private sexual behavior is a resurgence of the political Puritanism of the Clinton era. The American public's general naivete and/or hypocrisy about sex gets full rein. It is exposed for its puerile attitudes toward sex.

And why shouldn't the American public be stupid and naive about sexuality? Public sex education is primitive at best, thanks to the influence of the Religious Right on curricula. Both political parties abuse sex for political purposes. Trashy print media exploit sexual ignorance and childishness to sell papers. Bloggers and Tweeters exploit sex to get page views.

Anthony Weiner did not beat anyone. He did not rape anyone. He did not verbally abuse anyone. He was perhaps indiscreet with someone who was too immature or exploitative to simply ignore his indiscretion. He has not taken a vow of celibacy or monogamy as part of his role as a public official. His sexual behavior is irrelevant to his job, unless he is legislating against sexuality and being sexual himself.

I am amused and annoyed by Nancy Pelosi's matronly, perhaps Roman Catholic, indignation. Ms. Pelosi has five children. I assume she has had her share of sex in her life. Certainly her love affair with plastic surgery indicates some sexual interests. She seems too readily horrified by her colleague's sexual indiscretion for someone who maintains her power as a leader of the Liberal Left. Maybe being the wealthiest Representative in Congress has made her prudish, a symptom of moving to the Right.

As a person in a sexual minority, these furors over sexual behavior in the public domain make me very uncomfortable. This is a country that does not hesitate to lob missiles at civilians who live thousands of miles away from our borders in the name of "freedom" and then condemns a man for taking a picture of himself in his underpants. This is a country that still practices capital punishment. Think about it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Environmentalism

As I made my bed this morning, I listened to a story on Public Radio about the Tea Party Republicans and their attempts to dismantle the environmentalist movement by reversing legislation in individual states which would advance environmental research and regulation. The initiatives of these born-again troglodytes are funded in part by the Koch brothers.

Despite all the Libertarian lies about the practicality of allowing the Free Market and Private Enterprise to solve environmental issues, the environment is deteriorating rapidly. The environmentalists have not helped. Being good Leftists for the most part, they could not form a national coalition to decide which way is up and which way is down, let alone how to solve complex environmental issues. Too many environmental enthusiasts are scientific and logistic ignoramuses. They wax poetic about the spiritual significance of exotic butterfly species while sipping a latte at Starbucks. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us are chin deep in toxic pollution as this Titanic, known as Earth, sinks. The problem is not government. The problem is lack of good governance.

Good governance in this case would entail considerable spending on general public awareness about the environment. Government should be doing everything in its power to enable individual behavioral changes and changes in business practices. Yes, we've done the light bulb thing to death with excellent results. But how about encouraging industrial use of recycled materials by funding research and development of more efficient recycling technologies for industry? Rather than obsessing on remedial methods of clean-up, how about focusing on preventative methods of regulation? If we wait for the Walmart method of greening the world to work, there will be no world.

Probably the most effective environmental movement would fund political candidates who would throw the likes of the Koch brothers out of state houses and Congress. The current environmental stalemate is caused by the oligarchy in Washington and across the nation in state assemblies. Oil interests and gas interests are standing boldly in the way of progress on the issues. Massive retailers, whose shelves are lined with petrochemically based products, are right behind them. Why aren't environmentalists teaming with existing government agencies to organize boycotts and demonstrations against these obstructive titans boldly and openly? Instead, many environmentalists and academics are courting the enemies of progress and humming their privatization hymns along with them. Bought off by the Machiavellian 'philanthropy' of the Koch's and their ilk.

Whether environmentalists succeed or not on this issue or that, the environment of the planet will continue to react in response to human action, which exponentially grows with population and petro-based technologies. There is a calculable end point to this process, as it now proceeds. And, that end point is not far off.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pride

Boston's Gay Pride Parade is today. To those of us who grew up in the dark ages before Stonewall, this annual reminder of the progress in gay civil rights in our lifetimes often raises mixed sentiments. As I look at the jaded amusement on many young faces in the crowd, I am reminded of earlier marches which were neither amusing nor jaded in any way.

Gay Pride, Rio de Janiero
The annual celebration of LGBT civil rights has become a realm of corporate-style non-profits with slick merchandising and sponsors from the alcohol industry. It seems more promotional party than community celebration. It reflects the materialistic times we live in.

The advancements in LGBT rights did not come from parades or law suits or legislation. The advancements came from thousands, perhaps millions, of gay men and lesbians standing up and saying "I'm gay and I'm here!" at work and at home. There were many casualties. There were great costs.

I came out as a teen in the mid 1960s. Because my father was a policeman, I never tried to enter a gay bar. They were constantly being busted up, and I dreaded getting arrested in a raid. So, I wandered the streets at night to meet my peers. I consorted with gay sex workers on sidewalks and in a bus station. I walked through dark parks in the wee hours. The risks were considerable, but so was the need to be released from my loneliness.

My motivation to be an out gay man grew from the pain of that loneliness. When I met several older men in a state hospital where I studied as a nursing student in 1975, I was confronted with the dark truth of how heterosexuals had isolated and tortured us. These several men had been incarcerated for their adult lives in the back ward of an institution for being gay. One had been lobotomized. The others had been subjected to insulin shock and electroshock therapies. I became so enraged at my medical colleagues I nearly left nursing school. Then I saw a better way to change things.

Emerging from the imprisonment of homophobia is like being released from any form of isolation. It takes a good deal of work and determination to overcome wariness toward other human beings. Those of us who achieved gay liberation through being vocally out in all areas of our lives were the foot soldiers of change. And, coming together in our early Gay Pride marches was a public and concerted demonstration of that activity of changing the perception of LGBT people. Those marches were not about selling things or having a party or looking fabulous.

It is the lot of those who effect change to pass the results on to the next generations. Unlike human beings who are connected by blood lines, our LGBT generations are connected by our understanding that being different is hard and requires effort to overcome. Gay pride is about self-respect and dignity in the face of rejection and prejudice. No banner or T-shirt can bestow or maintain human rights. It is the individual practice of requiring equal respect by respectfully asserting our place in society that advances our rights.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hoarding

I am cleaning out my mother's house. She was a hoarder who stashed things in every corner, cabinet and closet for years. When my father was alive, he helped to keep her in check. He died eight years ago.

In my mother's case, hoarding made great sense. She was raised during the Great Depression in the poorest of immigrant circumstances. She wanted for everything as a child. Her hoarding was pragmatic, as she saw it. She saved every plastic bag from a loaf of bread. She saved every plastic margarine container. She saved every opened envelope from junk mail for scrap paper.

Unfortunately, compulsive hoarding, when untreated, leads to a particular brand of social irresponsibility. The implications for those who care for the hoarder are grave. The hoarded goods become a priority at the expense of human relationships. An inevitable miserliness of spirit develops. The hoarder retreats more and more into the cave of squirreled prizes.

As I plow through my mother's treasure of saved trash, I am encouraged in my personal distaste for materialism. There are moments when I am enjoying throwing things away. However, I am mostly saddened at the realization that my mother had an internal emptiness and fear which led her to accumulate these worthless things.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Theft

According to MSNBC, $30 billion of retail goods are stolen annually in the U.S. in a relatively new phenomenon of organized retail thievery. What does this say about a society which overwhelmingly declares itself to be religious? What does it say about religion? Black markets in the U.S. are thought to be worth $460 billion.

One of the most popular stolen items is baby formula. What does this say about parenting in the U.S.? What kind of parenting goes on in homes where baby formula is stolen, rather than being purchased? What does this forecast for ethics in the future America? Those of us who actually pay for our goods pay the price of this theft. It is wrapped into the cost of the products at drug stores, food stores and department stores.

As a humanist, I strongly believe in the rule of civil law. A society which surrenders to petty crime soon corrodes from within. As crime increases, civil rights are more likely to be abused by both criminals and police.

While the U.S. spends trillions of dollars protecting "freedom" in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the homeland falls prey to crime and corruption. At the same time we are being bankrupted by war, we are being fleeced by thieves at home. Where is law enforcement? Where is the protection of our rights as taxpaying citizens to domestic safety and peace? Perhaps those in Washington who are concerned by our budgetary woes could pay more attention to internal homeland  security on our streets by reining in our military in favor of better policing in support of the law-abiding here at home.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Churches

Yesterday I sat in the same pew of the same church where, as a six-year-old, I hallucinated in a mist of incense. It was my second return to that pew in forty years. The last visit was eight years ago at my father's funeral service. Yesterday, it was my mother's body which rested in its sealed coffin before the altar.

My 1956 hallucination was a liberation dream, a prophecy of my life ahead. Far above the altar, the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant with a babe to be named Jesus. They are frozen mimes in stained glass, objectively unchanged in these 55 years, unlike me. In my waking dream of childhood, Gabriel turned to me, suddenly alive and beautiful. A ladder of light extended down from his perch. He waved me up, and I gladly ascended to meet him. He enveloped me in his frankincense embrace. And then, smacked on the back of the head by my teacher, a dour nun with bad breath, I woke up.

Gabriel looked flat and androgynous yesterday. Not an outstanding representation of angelic vigor, no longer my type. The Virgin looked older and sleepy. The church is also changed. The old hardwood floors are covered in cheap linoleum tiles. The altarpiece has been deconstructed to give the illusion of accessibility, thrift and humility. The whole scene is rather unattractive. To one side of the altar, a bizarre grotto, perhaps a baptismal pool, has been constructed. That truly gave me the creeps for some unexplored psychological reason.

My hallucination was the best thing that ever happened to me in any church. Yesterday's ceremony, performed to comply with my mother's conventionality and my relatives' Catholicism, was a bit of a chore for me and my partner. The standing and sitting and standing and sitting provided some stretching and break-up of the empty ritual. The music was pleasant. An attractive tenor's voice pierced the large empty space. Yet, as gay men, who were both psychologically tortured throughout childhood in these places, we cannot help being discomforted there. We cannot help feeling we are in the heart of a hostile camp, determined to ostracize and punish us for being human, being ourselves.

Yes, it was my mother's funeral, her ritual, though she was not there to enjoy it. It was a ritual for those who need to hear the message that awakening to inevitable and final death is an illusion. The message seemed to be: Go back to sleep in your dream world of secrets and lies because you'll have a happy and holy life in the Great Beyond. For others, I am sure, attending this funeral was simply a gesture of respect for my mother or the mourners. Outside, a Hollywood movie crew, for the most part ignoring our minor pageant, were using the location to film a cheesy comedy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Resurrection

Physical death is final and irrevocable, despite mythologies of resurrection. There is no hard evidence to the contrary. Our bodies simply stop working. We are our bodies.

Allowing this reality into consciousness is hard for most human beings. The inevitable losses of a long life gradually educate and desensitize the elderly to their coming end. However, few attempt to master the acute consciousness of inevitable death as fuel for an exuberance in life. Many elderly people pull in and isolate themselves when they fully accept their mortality.

I have found the consciousness of mortality very helpful in resurrecting my life through practice. By accepting that I have very nearly ended as a human being twice, I have been able to more clearly see the importance of daily practice for healthy living. I have resurrected my body twice through practice with the good fortune of living in a society with advanced medical technologies. By maintaining a daily awareness of this good fortune, I am happy to do what I must do to live a healthy and engaged life.

I experience moment-by-moment resurrection as a benefit of my practice. If I descend in mood or behavior to a less mindful or less compassionate state, I can choose to resurrect my life to a state of mindful compassion. In that moment, I can choose creative life over habit or conditioning. Living out of mindless habit or conditioning is a form of living death. The death of the human capacity of self-awareness and choice makes us less human.

As a humanist, I see resurrection whenever I observe another human being embrace life intentionally. This does not require divine intervention. It often requires love and compassion from other human beings. In this way, we can bring each other back from the death caused by simple inhumanity.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Communication

The best way to avoid conflict is clear and honest communication. I do not subscribe to the current illusion created by social media that we all can get along by simply posting ourselves on a wall. While I value this form of community-building communication in its place, I also believe many see it as a substitute for intimate and committed relationships in the flesh. This can be a tragic loss of opportunities for personal growth.

Honest communication is often awkward and time-consuming. It requires thought and patience, especially when true feelings are being shared in the moment. With practice and openness to learn, honest communication brings the light of mutual understanding and peace of mind. It seldom, if ever, brings absolute concordance.

The offer to participate in an honest dialogue is a great gift. It may be refused or even harshly rejected. But, the initiator is always rewarded with a greater understanding of the relationship. I have found that trying to communicate openly as part of my practice has brought its own rewards to my inner life. Whether I succeed at engaging another in this communication or not, I always come from the experience more fully human, in my opinion, than before.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Practice

Practice is the keel of life's vessel. It is the ballast and the balance when life is tossed by tempest and turmoil. By fostering and relying on my practice daily to keep my feet on my path, I reap the return of available personal peace and joy, despite changes in circumstance. The person who I practice being by applying my values in the moment helps me to become a more mindful and compassionate person in life situations, despite stress and trauma. Without practice, I would be adrift on a sea of conflicted emotions and desires.

Life does indeed come at us. It is easy when it brings delights, new horizons and good luck. However, every life travels over some bumpy terrain and eventually ends without much warning. Practicing peace, generosity and internal joy, no matter what happens, is a path that can traverse all of life's difficulties to its end.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Time

Time is the most precious thing. Irreplaceable. We walk in a line of time, whether we feel moments of liberation or not. We all walk a life span, not predetermined to the minute but most definitely finite to the second. Those who leave us along the way offer us reminders, lessons about the process of mortality. We attend to the message or turn away. Those of us who have chosen to be students of life learn a great deal from the deaths we encounter on our paths. Others choose to immerse themselves in the details of funerals and estates, while holding onto their denial of their mortality. They secretly feel they will beat the system.

My practice has benefited greatly from touching the dying and letting in their lessons. I was a young man of infatuation with superficial passions and my own suffering. Wasting my time on foolishness was so easy, so comforting at times. But, as I nursed the terminally ill, I began to pay attention. Holding the hand of a dying 35-year-old patient, a hard-working plumber, when I was twenty-three, as he clearly verbalized his experience before expiring, changed my life. I still think of him often and hear his voice in my memory.

My own mother passed away about two hours ago. I am incorporating the lesson of her death as I write this essay. She was the source of my life. Now she is an exemplar of my death to come. What I do from this moment on will be enriched by my experience of her death, as much as by the experience of her long life. This is the wheel of birth and death. Remembering the brevity of life as part of my daily practice will hopefully encourage me to apply the lessons of those who have gone before me in all my remaining moments.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Convenience

Life is not convenient. It is arduous and messy for the vast majority of human beings on the planet. Life, as portrayed on commercial television in the U.S., is fiction, peppered with commercials selling convenience.

The point of living with a scientific mind is to minimize the unnecessary suffering of life, which brings inevitable inconveniences. Approaching life rationally and utilizing scientific knowledge about health and efficiencies make life much more manageable, but still not convenient.

The measure of a life is not the number of inconveniences in it. The measure of a life is what we do with those inconveniences. Do we learn from them? Do we help others who share them? Do we accept responsibility for working through them without inconveniencing others unnecessarily?

Maintaining our precious planet entails dealing with many inconveniences. Waste disposal is messy and inconvenient, when done appropriately. Maintaining property without using pesticides is inconvenient. Growing healthy food without chemicals is inconvenient. Walking and taking public transit are less convenient than driving.

The ultimate inconvenience is death. How we approach our own mortality in the end depends largely on how we have approached life's inconveniences throughout.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Process

I am a firm believer in the power process. Process is the how of the what. In other words, the ways in which lives proceed or groups operate are the processes of those phenomena. Human process is both intentional and subconscious. The best laid plans are intentional. Their undoing is often subconscious individual process or dysfunctional group process.

Understanding my individual process continues as a life's work. Learning my own brain is hard. Changing its process often feels overwhelmingly hard. There are those who say it is impossible. I disagree.

My first attempts to  more objectively understand my own process, how I proceed in life situations, were reactions to failed interpersonal relationships in my young adulthood. Those awakenings to my own unintentional process were painful but absolutely necessary for my growth as a human being, freed from repeating the same dysfunctional processes over and over again. While working with a therapist was helpful in looking at root causes of my process at that time, the real work has been developed with reflection and honest self-assessment daily. This is an important part of my humanist practice.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rent

Photo: Peter Petraitis
The first of the month...rent due. Two days ago I spoke with a man camped under a bridge in Boston. He was young, relative to me, perhaps forty. He sat casually on a rattan chair with a cushion, a trash-heap find, I assumed. As we spoke, he puffed on a cigarette with the air of a habitue of a Paris cafe. I thanked him for informing me that the waterside path I was following terminated abruptly ahead due to the impossible inefficiencies of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Later that evening, I thought about this apparently fit, handsome man, living rent-free under a bridge, which connects two of Boston's higher-rent districts. He exemplified for me the absurdity of what we call civilization. His obvious resourcefulness goes unused while many with less resourcefulness live in luxury housing a stone's throw away. They have richer parents or family connections or just plain good luck.

I think of the rent I pay every month to a landlady who does not live in my building and shows little care for it. She is a lovely person, but I cannot be convinced that a society which encourages this kind of exploitation of housing for profits is truly civilized. Those who provide housing for others, in my opinion, should be willing to live in comparable circumstances themselves. If this were the norm, there would be no slums.

Our human detachment from our natural environment is evidenced by our housing. We evolved as family groups and tribes whose prime directive was the survival and sustenance of all members the group. In that evolution, we have lost some crucial values in favor of power and economic hierarchies. Perhaps our way back to a healthier environment will entail finding that lost cohesion of our humanity. It may continue to grow in the form of gangs, centered on terrorist or illegal drug activity, as the gap between rich and poor grows, if those in power choose to ignore the issues.

Since government on much of the planet has lost its human values, positive human evolution will most likely take the development of individuals, brought together by social media, to begin the process of healing our ailing human civilization. My part in this is to continue my humanist practice and to support the practice of others who pursue peace, health and joy.