Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap

Today is February 29th. Most of us accept a calendar for what it is. But consider the effort it took to do the math which gives regularity to our days, months and years. Think of the worldwide benefits of a universal calendar. This was not brought about by divine intervention. This was done by science and mathematics. If we had waited for a god to tell us what time it is, we would be late for the bus. In fact, there wouldn't even be a bus.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Practice

The process of practice is as crucial as the goals of practice. Developing and living ideas is the process of my humanist practice. Reining in anger. Mobilizing compassion. Courageously looking at my own life under the light of rationality. This is the work, the process, of humanist practice as I seek to live it. 

I do not seek to be a paragon of any moral or ethical measure. That is the realm of celebrity, not practice. I could write and market a book on practice, but that is not my current humanist practice. I strongly believe that persisting in my own practice, which includes sharing these essays publicly, is a worthwhile process for my life. If and when my sharing of my own practice resonates in the life of another person, my own practice is strengthened with the knowledge that I am not alone in my single attempt to improve my own human condition. 

The ancients spoke of practice in terms of mastery, a masculine and patriarchal concept. I seek no mastery. My own mind is like a bag of eels. It requires constant taming. I do not strive to become a serene icon. The serene icon is simply that: A serene idol. This is fine for altars and movies. My life is neither an altar nor a movie.

My life is a flowing river of change leading to an inevitable merging with a great ocean of time and space. That river carves channels and is also channeled by its banks. Learning to be the river in a conscious way with a limited aptitude for guiding its own current is how practice often feels to me in its best moments.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Law

"Sharia Judge", Mark Martin
Islamic extremism and violence have already occurred in our society. This is the disease which comes from engaging in war, supported by popular fear, whipped up by political and economic motives. The psychological and sociological fall-out from Afghanistan and Iraq have just begun to play out in American culture. This Islamic extremism did not take the form of a car bombing. It was much more insidious and corrosive to the American justice system and Constitutional guarantees. 

A Muslim man, attending a Halloween parade in a small Pennsylvania town,  physically attacked a marcher in the parade because the parader was costumed as a Zombie Mohammad, next to a friend who was costumed as a Zombie Pope. The Muslim man was detained. Charges were filed. There were many witnesses. There was a video of the attack. It was a costume parade in public on an American street, after all.

The judge, a military veteran of service in Muslim countries and Muslim convert, who presided over the case when it came to a hearing dismissed the case on the basis that its was the Muslim man's right to attack a person who represents Mohammad. He spent six minutes berating the attacked victim for his actions in the parade. He defended the Muslim man's religious right to violence in the circumstances. 

I am happy to say that most accounts of this incident in the media express consternation. However, there is no clear indication that this incident will not be met with state or Federal intercession. In other words, local Sharia Law may already be in effect in the U.S..

As a gay man, should I expect that I can be attacked by a Muslim if I kiss my partner on the street in America? Will I need to research the local law if I travel in the U.S. in future? Are we returning to a new era of Jim Crow with atheists, homosexuals and freethinkers being the new targets of sanctioned hate crimes?

This may sound like hyperbole to more conventional ears. Segregation was once widely accepted in America not so very long ago. Gay men were sentenced to criminal punishment as Communists and degenerates in courtrooms across America not too long ago. 

Look to the mosques being built in every major U.S. city with money from Saudi Arabia. How long will it be before these incidents become commonplace if the law does not firmly assert the separation in the U.S. between civil and religious laws? While those of us who are more easily identifiable as non-Islamic in the eyes of fanatics may bear the earliest attacks from this extremism, it will not be long before this cancer corrupts the fabric of civil, secular society for all citizens, unless it is nipped in the bud by those who are sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States. At this writing, no authority seems to have come forth to deal appropriately with Judge Martin.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Light

In the Northern Hemisphere this is the time of light. As we emerge from winter darkness, crisp blue skies are dramatic stages for lengthening evenings and teasing dawns. The mournful purples of winter dusk are replaced with rosy pinks on pale yellow clouds.

Watching the sunlight change is one of my deep joys of being alive. I feel the rolling planet under my feet as we tilt toward the sun on our vehicle's axis. It is dizzying and awe inspiring. Better than a Disney theme park ride.

As the days lengthen and daylight increases, moonless nights seem even darker. Venus sparkles in the southern sky like a blue diamond. The void of Space invites sober meditation. The stark absence of light and atmosphere.

Take the time to be where you are. This is my best advice. There is no busy work that is so important to distract you from your life as a living being on this special planet. There is no greater awe than simply understanding more and more deeply where you are and what you are are in the vastness of The Universe. No dogma or fantasy can do more for the human spirit than simply embracing the natural wonder of life.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sensitivity

As Afghans continue to kill Americans in Afghanistan under the excuse that they are defending their religion, I continue to hear commentators in the U.S. criticize the military in Afghanistan for being "insensitive" in their mistake of burning holy books. This is patently absurd. 

The military is not supposed to be sensitive. The military is a killing machine. As a pacifist, I find this sudden re-framing of military role very disturbing. It is a lie. The function of the military is to apply lethal force against enemies. The military is not a democracy machine. Men and women with uniforms, rifles and heavy ordinance are never going to be peace ambassadors, nation builders or missionaries. This is cynical public relations at best.

Religions notoriously speak of reaping what is sown. The Afghans are reaping what they have sown over centuries of patriarchal tribalism and xenophobia. The Americans in Afghanistan are reaping what they have sown by aggressively entering a country and culture which have no reference points to American democracy or modern Western mores. Their mission failed before it began. The senseless cost of human life and financial security at home are results of that insensitivity to reality.

Sensitivity? How about some sensitivity to the poor men and women in the U.S. who are coerced financially into taking up arms to pay for an education or a path to citizenship?  How about sensitivity to the women and children who will suffer in the aftermath of the American invasion of Afghanistan? How about some sensitivity to the ignorance in  the U.S. which supports this form of violent, hollow nationalism?

As a secular humanist, I am frequently amused by the knee-jerk calls for sensitivity to organized religions, which have cheered on murder and war throughout history. I am equally amused by the knee-jerk "multiculturalism" in the U.S. which pontificates on the necessity for sensitivity to cultural mores which violate all basic definitions of human rights and justice. These calls for sensitivity are as hollow as the patriotism, religiosity and multiculturalism they are supposed to represent. They are simply cowardly howls in defense of the status quo.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Sense

The Universe doesn't really make any real sense in terms of human understanding. Read astrophysics theories until your eyes cross and you will soon realize this. Here we are. The evolution, by which we have developed the capacity to try to make sense of The Universe, didn't really make sense. We can interpolate some patterns which explain how fins turned into legs, but it doesn't really make any sense in human, logical terms. Stand naked in front of a mirror and ask yourself if what you see makes sense.

So, isn't it interesting that we continue to try to make sense out of nonsense? Why? Perhaps we do this because it has worked for us as a species. Perhaps we do this because it is just how our brains work. After all, we try to make sense out of nonsense, but most of us live nonsensically, even while trying to make sense out of our lives. And, we often use nonsense to make sense out of our reality. Look critically at most religions.

I have discovered something. The less I try impatiently to make sense out of life's nonsense, the more capable I become to observe the nonsense patiently. Sometimes with extensive observation and reflection I can actually make some sense out of the most flabbergasting nonsense. Meditation helps. Keeping my mind uncluttered helps. Basing my own life on basic common sense helps the most.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Community

There are many forms of communing with other human beings. Social networking is one. A local organization is another. Another is the community of practice. 

I recently heard from a young man in Finland who shared some thoughts on his own personal practice. A retiree from the Midwest in the U.S. shared  his frustration with his new meditation practice. A woman in Seattle recommended a bakery there because it offers daily quotes from the Buddha for reflection while munching on its goodies. Sharing practice is part of practice. And, in sharing practice, we support each other in health and consciousness. 

Community does not require a building or an organized meeting in the same place at the same time. While having the nucleus of a center or a regular meeting is helpful to sustain an organization, it is not necessary for maintaining personal practice. The community of personal practice is available everywhere to the person who shares his/her practice with others. For me, it is the sharing which makes for a sense of belonging to a community of humanist practice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Afghanistan

I am an angry American citizen and taxpayer. The sight of an American General pandering with the necessary approval of the Commander-In-Chief, Barach Obama, to neolithic fanatics turns my stomach. How many lives and billions of dollars have been poured into the bottomless pit of Afghanistan? How many more will be? What have we gotten? Religious fanatics, whipped up by Taliban living easily in the capital city, chanting, "Death to America!" By the way, the American media have covered up the fact that the crowd was yelling "Death to America". I clearly heard the word "America" in the chants of the mob on BBC World Service broadcasts. Unless "America" means "foreigners" in the Afghan language, we are being lied to by the American media about details of this incident to provide political cover to the Obama administration and the military-industrial complex.

The obvious fact, staring us in the face, is that Afghanistan will most likely fall back to the Taliban. And who are the Taliban?  The Taliban are a highly organized, armed criminal enterprise. They are drug dealers and human traffickers. They are the lowest ranks of bullying men, hiding behind religiosity.  And now the U.S. government will be dealing with these thugs as legitimate politicians in Qatar.

The U.S, itself is in the hands of a criminal enterprise. Corporate financiers have kidnapped the American Congress and Presidency. Many of these thugs hide behind religiosity as well. The Koch brothers of Texas manipulate religious zealots in the South in support of the Tea Party within the Republican Party. Powerful pro-Israel interests steer American foreign policy with lots of cash in the name of the sanctity of the Jewish state. Saudi Arabian money pours into American coffers to sway American political and social attitudes toward orthodox Islam.

If American troops had burned textbooks on science, engineering or agriculture, these same zealots would have cheered. Afghanistan's howling, impoverished mobs are a shameful living example of the byproducts of unconstrained religiosity in lawless society. While the culture war rages in this election year in the U.S. once again, perhaps Americans will wake up and look to Afghanistan as an example of a society without basic human rights and economic justice for all of its people. Rather than trying to fix Afghanistan, the American people may well consider preventing the U.S. from falling back into the compliant stupor of the Bush Era. It is indeed time to move on.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cooking

Puzzled by the concept of humanist practice? Try baking a loaf of bread from scratch. Try making a flaky pie crust. Try baking a cheese souffle. 

Baking and cooking are activities which make the concept of personal practice clear. Concentration, timing and educated standards combine with intentional repetition to pursue an ideal result. With practice, confidence grows. Confidence with more practice develops mastery. Mastery with more practice develops innovation and creativity. 

It has taken me years of following prescribed recipes over and over again to be able to make up my own. Each new recipe I concoct must be repeated again and again to achieve a result which is consistent with my standards of taste and presentation. I can walk into any kitchen prepare my recipe from memory. It is simply part of what I can do. I aspire to eventually feel this way about my humanist practice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Appreciation

How often do you fully appreciate your experience in the moment? Does your life simply flow from one scheduled event to another? Can you recall when you last breathed deeply and fully experienced the moment without a sense of having to move on to the next?

So much is lost with loss of being fully in the present. While it is advantageous to plan and be organized, it is also advantageous to experience the present as it is. How else can I move progressively from one point to another?

This part of my practice, this blog, is part of my practice of appreciation. By having a time every day when I sit quietly and look calmly at my present, I am able to explore my thoughts about my life and my environment. Writing an essay for the blog often raises my consciousness of issues in my own present. It often spurs me in another direction in some area of thought or action.

Being lost usually starts with not knowing where you are. Stop. Breathe. Open your eyes. Feel your emotions. Appreciate the now. This is the GPS of intellectual and emotional travel.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Education

'Fine words or fine features
Cannot make a master
Out of a jealous and greedy man


Only when envy and selfishness
Are rooted out of him
May he grow in beauty'

Shambhala Dhammapada, v.19,p.70

I listen repeatedly to radio and television stories about the cost of education, student loans and the growing number of high-school drop-outs in America. I hear grousing teachers protest being held accountable for student performance under their charge. I hear a U.S. President threaten quality control by government to prevent colleges in league with bankers from ripping off their students with expensive, useless degrees. 

Where does mastery in a life start? Education, whether found in the home or in a school, is the way to happiness, peace and independence in life. Yet educators have bought into a capitalism which reduces the noblest of professions to dollars and cents. They have prostituted themselves to greedy administrators, bankers and politicians. The results are obvious.

As a humanist, I see self-education as the foundation of any humanist practice. Self-education requires a skill set which must be learned from teachers. However, as a humanist who supports organizational humanism, I see too little emphasis on working in the schools in the actions of humanist groups. In my own limited experience with organized humanists, I saw a hesitancy to engage with the public education system as a method to impact young minds by assisting them with reading and tutoring. 

We can all be teachers in the moment. Giving directions on the street is an opportunity to impart helpful information, for example. Interceding in a disagreement among friends or strangers is an opportunity to educate. Correcting unduly harsh treatment of a child by bullying adult can be an educational moment. Reading to a child is an easy and rewarding way to inspire a young mind.

Spreading humanity's finest ideas and impulses to young minds is perhaps the most admirable form of humanism. At present, this is not the main thrust of the humanist movement, which is based largely in privileged collegiate environments. While The Academy is a wellspring of innovation in thought and education, the crucial opening of minds begins much sooner. There are no fortunes to be made teaching the young in America or anywhere else. However, those who teach the young have the power to change the world.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Evil

A 2008 Swedish film, Troubled Waters, frankly explores the concept of evil, goodness and atonement. I think the average American viewer would be astounded by it. There are neither all-bads nor all-goods in this film, despite its subject matter of child murder. 

The world is currently plagued with "moral crusaders". These include the bearded hoodlums of the Taliban as well as the Bible-interpreting hucksters of American mega-churches. However, we see that these crusaders have already lost their battle with their own evil from the start. They consciously exploit and subjugate their followers for their own power and profit. Their core evil is hypocrisy.

Conformist morality is overrated and ever-changing. The nuclear family, a current conservative icon, has become increasingly dysfunctional in the face of social change. It has been eroded by the hypocrisy of superficially monogamous, sexist marriages which eventually end in divorce. The single parent, once scorned as somehow morally inferior, is common. Life goes on. The world has not fallen into chaos, as many Bible-thumping zealots had predicted. 

With the advancement of science and the tortuous decline of religion, it is becoming clear that secular ethics are an improvement over dogmatic religious prescriptions. Civil and criminal law trump faith and cultural tradition in societies which are less violent and more generally prosperous. There is a greater understanding that evil is really a disease state which any person can develop when subjected to violence, psychological abuse and/or extreme poverty. Once driven sufficiently mad with negative conditioning, some people cannot come back from a state of self-fueling violence, hatred and aggression.

None of us is all good or all evil. However, it is naive to believe that every form of evil can be overcome with simple kindness and love. As with other human disease processes, there are degrees of rehabilitation which often require expert help. There is no pill for personal evil. However, the practice of intentional good action, good speech and good thoughts, based in equanimity and generosity, is one method for overcoming the capacity for evil which resides within each of us. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Rationality

Rationality is hard work. Many personal behaviors which seem irrational or simply crazy can be reasoned out with time and effort. Most people do not take the challenge. It is easier to simply pray to a god, throw salt over a shoulder or repeat dysfunctional behavior with an irrational expectation that someday a better result will magically occur.

Preaching rationality is not as effective as patiently teaching rationality. As long as the public education system of a society is inadequate, there will be little rationality in that society. Railing against religion, pointing out its gaping flaws of logic and posing a rational debate against its irrationality are useless when the audience is simply uneducated in science, math and basic logic. You might as well try to explain high cholesterol levels in red meat to a dog.

Those who are highly educated, rational and compassionate can teach rather than proselytize. The place to start a humanist revolution is in the schoolroom, not at the podium. Human-to-human transmission of knowledge is the cure for the disease of ignorance. Writing bestsellers reaches the effete who read the New York Times bestseller lists. Writing this blog simply reaches those with the time and disposition to read a blog about humanism.

I first learned this wisdom by being an out gay man in my life and work at a time when this was still risky business. I also learned that this is a long and hard road with small, incremental results. Humanist practice, spreading the word of rational living, is not easy. It is inherently counter-cultural in most places on this planet. In many ways, it is an irrational choice for a happy and prosperous human life. However, I will testify here that it proves itself as a rational choice with aging, because it brings a depth of personal confidence, happiness and peace which is unattainable through a life of conformity, magical thinking and materialism.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Restore

One of the features of the Windows operating system which has come in handy for me at times has been the Restore Point. When everything starts going awry with my computer, I can reset my operating system to a previous state, in which everything went smoothly. It isn't always a permanent fix, but it helps me to calm down and try to figure out the root problem. 

I have a personal restore point. I developed it when I was in cancer treatment a decade ago. The treatments were so strenuous and painful that no medication which allowed me to maintain consciousness touched the pain. This lasted for about three months. I learned to restore myself to a functional state by doing relaxation exercises, similar to self-hypnosis. This would allow me to meditate and then nap. When I awoke from one of these periods, I was restored to a functional state. Some days I had to do this process a half dozen or more times. 

I looked back over my life and realized that I had a less structured and more sporadic method for doing this restoration process. I had worked night shifts, evening shifts and day shifts equally over my nursing career. I usually had a second job. Nursing in my day was not the lucrative occupation it can be today. While many of my colleagues drank and used drugs to cope in their off hours, I learned to take time to meditate, exercise and sleep enough hours to ward off fatigue.

It is beneficial to intentionally develop a personal restore point which can be accessed whenever stress becomes toxic. The methods are less important than the reduction of stress and renewal of a clear mind. I learned that the most hectic and stressful day can simply be placed on hold for fifteen or thirty minutes. My world does not fall apart. People do not dislike me for taking care of my stress. In fact, taking the time to get back to my restore point makes my life and the lives around me much better.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Patriarchy

Does freedom of religion mean allowing the patriarchal to control the sexuality of women? Does freedom of religion mean allowing the religious to psychologically torture homosexuals? Does freedom of religion mean allowing the religious to undermine human progress in a democracy? Does freedom of religion mean allowing domestic abuse under the veil of religious multiculturalism?

As a humanist, I say loudly "No." Are any major religious leaders confronting these issues among themselves? I do not hear many religious leaders loudly standing up to the Catholic hierarchy on female reproductive rights. And since when did insurance policies come under religious control? Where is the outcry from the usually vocal insurance industry?

Organized religions are an extension of patriarchy. The religious support of the American Republican Party is all about patriarchy. "Family values" is code for patriarchal control of women and children. "Cultural conservative" is code for a patriarchal reactionary.

As a young man in the role of a nurse in an acute psychiatric hospital, I learned many things about patriarchy and control. I saw how deeply the society fears confronting patriarchal control in families and in heterosexual couples. This is fear planted by religion and family/cultural conditioning. The conflict between religion and human progress has never been clearer. The obstruction by patriarchy to human progress has never been clearer.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rhythm

The rhythm of my life now is more important to me than the lyrics. The rhythm of my heartbeat is the underlying engine of everything I do. The rhythm of my movement informs and transports me. The rhythm of my weekly schedule maintains my productivity and ability to absorb new information. 

Those who live in the jazz of chaos fascinate me. I have known some who are creative and productive. I have known more who have squandered their time and talents. Their lives resist a steady rhythm. Maybe it is simply brain wiring. Maybe it is more voluntary than that. In any case, it is the rare lover of chaos who can work well in concert with others. 

There are those who are so occupied by the minutia of their own lives that they miss the greater rhythms of life around them. Their lives are a medley of one obsession after another. Their own rhythm  is sporadic.

Others immerse themselves wholeheartedly in the greater rhythm of society. The rhythm of their lives is indistinguishable from the rhythm of crowded city streets, backyard cook-outs and football stadiums. They lives in sync with millions of others. Their comfort lies in their belonging to the greater rhythm of society, whatever the tune.

My practice has a rhythm which I try to keep in sync with my internal physiological and psychological rhythms. This requires self-awareness and effort. I have found that maintaining my own rhythm makes me more able to get in sync with the rhythms of others when that matters. I suppose it is similar to the musician who hones his own art and is then more capable to play well in concert. It helps me to understand the difference between my own life's rhythm and the the rhythms around me. It is also important for me to continue to experience harmony with the rhythms of others.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sentimentality

Embracing humanism entails seeing the world as it is and as it could be with the application of universal education, peace and rationality. This does not mean that humanism is an emotionless framework for living. However, it does mean that the humanist, understanding the intrinsic interplay between personal physiology and psychology, knows the difference between sentimentality and emotion. 

Sentimentality is unbridled indulgence in unexplored emotion without rational integration into personal consciousness.The emotions which fuel sentimentality often arise from unexplored and misunderstood life experiences. It is quite common for the psychologically unsophisticated person to be sentimental. Clinging to anniversaries, holidays and birthdays brings the sentimental person a sense of permanence and comfort. Repetitively listening to songs associated with life events to evoke the same emotional response is a form of sentimental masturbation for some. It brings temporary relief without addressing the underlying emotional and psychological cause of anxiety or depression. 

Humanism is based in a commitment to rational and responsible thought and action for the sake of progress for mankind and its environment. Rational does not imply cold or unfeeling. Rationality includes the recognition and integration of feelings with intelligence. Feelings can be understood and then applied as motivation for progress. This is hard work, but it is the work of human intelligence for the sake of human progress.

Sentimentality lies at the roots of racism, homophobia, nationalism and greed. In my practice, I have had my battles with sentimentality. As a nurse on the front lines at the height of the HIV's lethality, I was surrounded by those who sentimentalized the death and tragedy of that horrific time. Young people struck down by a torturing disease were the fodder for soppy films and ad campaigns to raise needed funds in the vacuum left by government inaction. Sadly, this was the only route to the conscience of Americans at that time. But, on the ground, the sentimentality was more obstructive than helpful. It actually increased the suffering of those afflicted.

Hopefully, we are emerging from the anti-scientific and hyper-religious times spurred on by conservative politicians during the past thirty years. Sentimentality is the grist of religion and politics. Playing to the unprocessed emotions of the general public raises flags, pays for wars and silences rational dissent. Monarchies survive on sentimentality, as do Popes and ayatollahs. Humanism is one way to identify a personal practice for the betterment of life on this planet. An essential part of that practice is integrating emotion with mind before applying it to action.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Karma

Buddhist Wheel of Life
There are a lot of jokes and puns about karma. The popular conception in Western culture merges karma with the Galatians verse in the Christian Bible which uses the sow-reap analogy to explain cause and effect. Karma in the Western sense gets wrapped in terms of Judeo-Christian morality, the right-wrong, or good-bad, paradigm. However, Buddhist, or Eastern, concepts of karma are much more organic. Cause and effect in this sense can be seen in ways consistent with modern science. Action and reaction, in the language of physics.

Look at the current Syrian situation. A country of diverse religions and tribal roots unifies around xenophobia about Jewish statehood in Israel. The country becomes an armed fortress with an overdeveloped army and secret police. The leaders sow fear to unify and gain social compliance. Eventually, the fear of the outward threat turns into fear of the inside threat of human autonomy and intellectual curiosity. Oppression inevitably leads to revolution. Action and reaction.And it continues. Demonstrations lead to repressive measures by authorities which lead to more demonstrations which lead to massacres which lead to armed conflict. All actions with predictable reactions. 

Liberation in Buddhist terms is liberation from karma itself. However, short of liberating enlightenment, human beings have an opportunity with intelligence to effect their own karma. By controlling their actions, human beings can also effect reactions to those actions. By initiating causes for progress, the reactions to those causes can further that progress. This is not a vapid New Age positivism. This is humanist practice. 

By practicing self-development in a daily life of health, non-violence and generosity, I am living a progressive cause for peace and mental well-being in my life and environment. The effect is a life of increased peace and mental well-being in my life and environment. Preventing actions based in emotional habit or reflex in my life diminishes those reactions to my life. There is no supreme, omniscient Karma Judge who doles out rewards and punishments. I make my karma and live with its consequences in my moment-to-moment life by the choices I make and the actions I take. In this way, the old joke, "My karma ran over my dogma.", makes a certain amount of sense.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rights

Yesterday I had the displeasure of hearing a young Catholic woman on NPR as she railed against contraception. She maintained that medical care is an entitlement (earned privilege) and "being religious" is a basic human right. Really? 

Her position is quintessentially Catholic. Not in the sense of the faith, hope and charity of the Biblical Christ. It is quintessentially part of political Roman Catholicism, rooted in the Vatican nation, a religious monarchy. Yes, for those of you who are not political scientists, the Vatican is a sovereign nation, ruled by the Pope, who has ultimate authority along the lines of the Grand Ayatollah of Iran.

I am reminded that during the height of the AIDS epidemic deaths in the United States the Pope condemned condom usage as sinful contraception. If practicing any cultural form of religion were a right in America, then Shariah Law would be a right. Involuntary female circumcision would be a right. Polygamy would be a right. Perhaps stoning would be a right. 

Medical care is not a universally guaranteed human right, as yet, in the United States. The female caller to NPR was correct there. Disease prevention is certainly not a universal human right in America. Nor is sex education a universal human right in America, even though it is a scientifically proven method of preventing poverty and premature death. However, I strongly disagree with that Catholic woman caller: It should not continue to be this way.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Socialism

Is it stupidity or plain old politics? The news cycle hypes the "settlement" between Attorney Generals of many states in the U.S. and major mortgage-holding banks. There is inflated talk about "principal adjustment" for "some" homeowners. "Principal adjustment" means discounting the value of a mortgaged home to the current market value, sometimes 50% lower than the purchased value. Imagine this: 50% off on owning a house! This is even more amazing if you lied on your credit application to get the house in the first place. It is gob-smacking if you can get this discount by simply saying you were too stupid to read the mortgage documents or to hire a lawyer to read them for you before signing the loan.

All this in a country where "socialism" is a dirty word. This isn't socialism, this is the worst kind of carving up an economy, where fairness no longer applies for the common good. This is pandering to a token segment of the population to garner votes to bolster political power. This is a process befitting corrupt societies where bribes and special hand-outs rule the day.

Then there is the other story here in Massachusetts and in other states in the U.S.. 70,000 Massachusetts citizens receive food assistance in the form of state-issued debit cards through the SNAP program. These cards are meant to feed children and poor adults. The legislature is currently answering the alarm caused by the abuse of these cards to buy drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. The cards are also being sold on a black market. They are being used to buy TVs and other non-essential items at taxpayer expense. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Massachusetts who are potentially qualified for these cards due to the current economic climate. Are the working citizens of Massachusetts willing to pay for them under the current mismanagement by the state?

All this in a country where the vast majority of citizens have been brainwashed against socialism. Well, they are not getting socialism. They are getting corruption and exploitation by the aggressive, deceitful and shrewd. The politicians are getting good press and secure jobs with great benefits at the expense of good and fair government.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lifespan

As I was doing my maintenance workout yesterday at a local gym, I happened to make eye contact with a young man who may have been 30 years old. He was apparently, judging from his expression, curious about this 62-year-old's persistence at staying functionally fit. He nervously looked away at my notice. I understood.

Three decades ago, I may have been that young man. I recall thinking of men in their 60s as a different species from myself. I did not think that those older men had once been as young and vital as I was then. I knew they had been, in an intellectual sense, but I did not make it a habit to bring that intellectual understanding into my relationships, or lack of relationships, with them. It was too frightening, I suppose. To admit to myself then that those older bodies represented my own inevitable future was to admit my own mortality and ultimate helplessness in the face of Time. It was easier to live with my delusion of invulnerability to the changes of aging.

The three decades since I was 30-something have passed quickly. They have been full. However, like the most exquisitely satisfying meal, personal history, no matter how colorful or joyful, is eventually a digested memory. I am now left with the very present recognition of how quickly the remainder of my life will pass.

I like to share this recognition with the young. This is generally a fruitless exercise. It's all about differing hormones and brain chemistry, I suppose. More often then not, old folks convey the vapid message of "Enjoy your youth while you can." This isn't how I see it. I would like to help young people to understand that the practices they adopt now will be their future wealth or future ruin. It would be my hope that some would consider developing a practice which is centered in health, mindfulness and compassion, rather than a practice of conformity, materialism and hedonism.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Activism

Activism isn't just about marching down a street with a banner or poster. Activism, like any other significant progressive change, begins in the home. Activism isn't just a protest, a rally or a speech. Activism is a daily framework of thinking and behaving in interpersonal relationships.

If you are gay or lesbian, do you passively listen to heterosexuals discuss your basic human rights to have relationships of your choosing? If you are a woman, do you passively listen to others pontificate on women's rights, your rights, to manage their own reproductive health? If you are a human being, do you passively listen to others spout violent, hateful or pro-war speech about other human beings?

Passivity is the enemy. Non-violence is not passive in a violent world. Assertion of progressive thought among reactionaries is difficult and risky business, but it is the business of activism. The non-violent activist is the standard of human courage in the face of ignorance and bullying. Look to Syria. Look to Tunisia. Look to Egypt. Look to Occupy Wall Street.

Within the LGBT movement, the simple process of asserting gay/lesbian/alternative sexuality in everyday life has been the key to changing social attitudes. This is still done at the risk of being ostracized, fired or abused. It is easier in some cases to passively hide. It is easier to pretend to subscribe to prejudice and oppression. But, the exposure of a single person's dissent within the fabric of a social system or workplace shakes the foundations of bigotry within that environment.

As a practical humanist, I see my practice as activism. By leading an ethical and mindful life as an openly gay, openly flawed and openly secular person, I am practicing activism for social progress every day. This is the activism of the home, the workplace and the marketplace. While parades and protests are wonderfully inspiring wake-up calls for a larger audience, everyday activism is the daily grist for the mill of progressive social change.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Structure

Great Mosque of Djenne. photo: Wikimedia

Religion has used imagination to structure those things which cannot be readily perceived with human senses. Science investigates those things by using the human imagination to understand how the Universe works as it exists. Religion itself is a creation. It is the creation of myth, back story and the subsequent imaginary laws of imaginary gods. Science looks into what is observable and not immediately observable, including the assumptions of religion.

This places religion in conflict with science. Religion is inevitably reactionary, unless it is part of the scientific quest to understand the workings of reality and to apply its understanding of the workings of the Universe for the betterment of life. The recent Catholic flap over reproductive health coverage in American health insurance is an example of reactionary religion which defies common sense and science to preserve dogmatic control of human minds and behavior.

Religion did not build great cathedrals, mosques or temples. Scientific engineering did. While religion's myths may inspire the imagination to do great things, the downside of repression and domination far outweigh its worth to human progress. Religion impedes progress. It has historically taken the side of traditional structures over experimentation and innovation for the good of humanity and the planet. Gradually science will make religious structures obsolete. When that day comes, human progress will have won a great victory.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Progress

As a humanist, I do see progress in accepting many common assumptions. Those who tout capitalism as the penultimate form of economy accept the assumption that some will gain an acceptable superiority over others. Those who preach competition as the only model for making advances assume that advances can only come with winners and losers. Those who preach pro-life positions against rational and intentional reproduction assume that women are not entitled by birthright work together to develop educational models for sane reproductive methods and policies.

Motivated progress in any single life begins with accepting responsibility for self-awareness, self-education and self-respect. This is the process of developing and maintaining a daily practice. For those with good parenting, this comes sooner. For those with bad parenting, this is a long and painful process. Until all members of a society are enabled to embrace progress in their own lives through human rights, economic justice and quality education, instead of being consigned to live under the assumptions of those in power, human progress will be a sketchy business of two steps forward and one step back.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gladiators

The overwhelming success of the Super Bowl in the U.S., which is a country deeply divided on critical issues of human rights and economic justice, reveals some things about human social dynamics. I am and have been quite detached from team sports in my life, so my observations may resemble those of a hypothetical alien from outer space, to those who are immersed in Super Bowl mania.

The Super Bowl was once a predominantly male obsession. Men slamming their heads together aggressively and violently to move a ball down a flat field was the province of the testosterone-driven, beer-swilling males who had their finest days (and most fit) in high school sports. They relived their glory days once a year in unison, aided by a national sports broadcast, geared to selling things in commercials.

Gradually, as women ascended into mainstream equality through various changes in the educational system, driven by feminism, the new feminism included adopting many of the behaviors of testosterone-drive, beer-swilling males: Aggressive driving, aggressive speech, excessive drinking and mannerism previously associated with male jocks. A segment of the female population adopted traditional heterosexual male behaviors to compete in a male-dominated society. This included enthusiasm for bloody and brutal team sports, like hockey and football. Super Bowl fans include more and more women, indistinguishable from their male counterparts.

Commercial team sports have been the beneficiaries of this development. While female leagues still struggle for financial sustainability, the grunt-and-grapple male teams have ascended with record profits and fan bases. Whole cities suspend their operations to host parades for winning sports teams. Politicians revel in the audiences these celebrations bring. Mayors ride the popularity of the contesting teams, like victorious feudal lords after jousting tournaments. 

And what does the drunken crowd want more than victory?  They want entertainment and distraction from their humdrum urban lives of office cubicles, crowded subways and worries about paying their bills. They want to see big men hurt each other as surrogates for their rage at their own impotence. They want to win a bet or a surrogate victory to break their boredom and complacency. They want an excuse to get drunk, to howl, embrace, and to simply cheer about something...perhaps about anything. 

All of this on the surface may be considered "normal" human behavior. After all, the same old story has been happening for centuries. Hitler made his proud global debut at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Many then thought that he was a great guy because he liked sports. Bread and circus were the Roman equivalents of guacamole and Super Bowl. Nero's balcony has been replaced by the corporate sky box. It is all neatly as it should be in the minds of those who garner profits and power from pitting one man against another in the ring of life. It is all neatly as it should be to those who satisfy themselves with a life of mindless conformity, living out the lives that are dictated to them by their TVs, their iPhones, their parents, their peers and their bosses.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Routines

Routines get a bad rap from people who have had to work lousy jobs which pay little for grueling repetition. This is understandable. However, routines are responsible for much of what is generally accepted as human progress. Routine hygienic practices, such as cleaning streets, sanitizing water systems, processing sewerage, have drastically extended the average human lifespan. The routines of factory floors have produced conveniences which have decreased the general labor of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The routines of science and engineering are the sources of human advancements for better quality of life. 

Abhorring routine is a common reaction among people who are liberated from routine jobs by retirement or wealth. These same people rapidly discover that life without any routines is unproductive and dissatisfying. Careful observation of a dog or cat will quickly inform the observer that other mammals rely on routines to maintain health and contentment. 

As conscious human beings, we are capable of choosing and altering our routines to good effect. However, it is much more effective to adjust basically healthy routines than it is to radically alter unhealthy routines. So, the establishment and maintenance of basic, health-promoting daily routines lays a solid foundation for all other routines in life. I know this from my own experience of many life-shaking situations which have torn apart many of the more pleasurable routines of my life. Having my foundation of healthy habits made rebuilding my changed life much easier. 

Winter is a time of year for resolutions and gearing up for more active seasons. It is a good time to tend to the foundation of a daily life. By consciously adopting basic daily routines for health and personal progress, all other changes will develop with less effort.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Drama

We are all actor-playwrights in our own lives. Some of us maintain a droning Greek Chorus which tells us to expect the worse from our own mythology. Some of us compose a romping, farcical musical. Most of us plagiarize a script from our parents and grandparents with new sets and costumes. Whatever the play may appear to be about, Act III  usually reveals the truth of it. 

It is important to know the true identity and motivation of the cast in my play. Whether I am protagonist or antagonist, it serves me well to study all the action and my place in it. If I do not want to plagiarize the plays of my forebears, I must work very hard to remain creative, to improvise, to change a scene. Ultimately, I must recognize that I am part of a bigger play, a collaborative effort. My play is always a play within a play.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dishonesty

There is no growing love in a relationship crippled by dishonesty. I am not referring to parent-child "Where did you go after school?" dishonesty. I am referring to the adult dishonesty of emotional expression and intellectual truth. 

I recently watched a popular TV show, Sons of Anarchy. I wanted to see why a show based on meth-dealing sociopaths as heroes could be a smash hit. It became quickly evident to me with the repetition of the show's biker tag line, "It's all good." These "It's-all-good" creeps are dishonest to everyone in their lives as they use violence, selling guns and dealing drugs to maintain control of a small town. I suppose this show is a good allegory for modern America, but it is not at all about love, loyalty or belonging.

Maintaining an honest, equitable and loving relationship is a uniquely human capability. Whether it grows between lovers, friends or family members, this form of loving develops and reveals the finest human qualities of generosity and affection. Sadly, too few human beings know this kind of love in their lives. 

When human beings force themselves to conform to conventions, roles and rules of their culture or religion or parental tradition, they suffer. They fight their inner potential to be open, free and loving beyond the constraints of their birth and upbringing. They contain their mind's flight to light and growth by telling themselves lies and subscribing to the lies of their upbringing. They live limited lives against the grain of their better human nature.

Love is not sexual infatuation or addiction. I suppose some may equate love with the feelings of a good bowel movement or a tasty hamburger. These are simply examples of satiation of selfish natural bodily urges or needs. NSA sex is the same, and may well have its place in modern life. However, love is as much giving of self as it is getting an open understanding of another. The door to this process is personal and interpersonal honesty, not sex.

It takes being a grown-up to have an honest relationship. It takes time, even for grown-ups. It takes a commitment to mutual acceptance of mutual freedom, even if that mutual freedom may eventually lead to a physical separation. Honest commitment allows for individual choice and freedom of thought. Loving human relationships based in independent honesty and mutual respect are the hope of human evolution.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Popularity

Popularity in an overpopulated world is hardly a challenge. Surrounded by 7 billion human beings, soon to be 15 billion, it would be hard to avoid some attention when consistently voicing ideas or music or rants via easily accessed electronic media. Popularity, however, is not a reliable hallmark of quality of human thought or expression.

In fact, popularity has led human beings down many dark and deadly paths. The last century's history offers extreme examples. The increasing accessibility to and manipulation of popular media only increases the likelihood that popularity may once again bring human beings to disaster. 

In a celebrity culture of Web, television and movies, popularity becomes currency. In a materialistic culture, currency becomes power. In a competitive culture, the drive to be noticed supersedes good taste, progressive thought or ethics. This bodes badly for civil society.

Humanism is not popular. Hard work on personal development is certainly not popular in a society plagued with obesity, alcoholism and narcissism. Humanist practice is hard work. It requires daily adjustments, daily commitments and daily critical reflection. Humanist practice is about personal human interactions, not broadcasts or performances. 

This written aspect of my own humanist practice is just simply that. This is not an attempt to be on Youtube with a million hits. This is one real humanist's attempt to share one real humanist's thoughts simply for the purpose of sharing them. It is not self-promotion. I have no need for a new career or income stream. If this record of one humanist practice helps one person, it will have exceeded my expectations, since I have none.