Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chemistry

Molecules and Atoms of the Air
A basic knowledge of chemistry is invaluable when trying to understand life. Chemistry trumps religion, culture and all other human imaginings. A realization of what we are, as opposed to who we are, is a gateway to mental liberation from impeding illusions. 

From the bread I am baking as I write this to a recent reference to cremated remains in a novel I am reading, an understanding and acceptance of the chemistry of life enhances my existence. Knowing that a cap-full of cider vinegar alters the pH of my bread dough to give it a silky texture may not be akin to achieving world peace, but it is a reminder of the notable impact of small incremental change in life. Every morning I take a handful of small pills which keep me alive by chemically sterilizing a lethal virus in my body. And, this body which I try so hard to maintain, can be reduced to a jar-full of inanimate dust with a hot flame in minutes.

Reflecting on the chemistry of the food I eat, the water I drink, the air I breathe keeps me 'real' in a way that few other practices can. Understanding that those gurgles that occur after I eat are the sounds of my internal chemistry lab as it tends to converting my food to parts of me. The awareness of what comes out of my body is as informative as paying attention to what goes in. 

The young are commonly immune to this personal awareness of chemistry. Their hormones are driving their brains to achieve or to breed with their bodies. At the other end of the spectrum of life, the old are often obsessed and vigilant about their body chemistry and mechanics. This comes from feeling pain and weakness, which get the brain's attention in a big way. 

The recent pink slime controversy illustrates how aversive people are when faced with the realities of their chemical lives. Making the decision to consume the organic matter of another animal is a far more drastic step than quibbling over what part of that animal is being processed for your consumption. Pink slime or filet mignon use the same basic net metabolism in a human body. In fact, from a chemical perspective, pink slime is barely distinguishable from prime cut by the body. The fantasies and tastes of the brain, also products of chemistry, make the distinctions which cause enthusiasm or revulsion. 

As a humanist, I think it is important for me to stay real when assessing my life and environment. Seeing reality on a chemical and physical level removes man of the silly barriers and distinctions which obscure the path to goodness. Goodness, constituted by nonviolence, fairness and generosity, is the wonder of being human in a simply chemical and physical world. We have the rare choice in the context of a chemical and physical  Universe to move from happenstance to intentional progress for ourselves as a species and for an entire planet. That choice lies within every one of us every day.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Optimism

The daily news in this media age is enough to color the world in deep grays and dark blues. However, the optimistic viewer sees the wonderful exposure of issues that once never saw the light of public debate. Working through centuries of patriarchy, sexism, racism and homophobia requires unearthing a lot of unattractive muck. But, any seasoned gardener will tell you that the unearthing of muck, the aeration of soil, makes for fertile ground for new growth.

My life has taught me to get my hands dirty if I want to achieve something. When I was young, I resented my father's constant insistence that I join him in the most strenuous and exacting clean-ups, repairs and reconstructions. I now realize he was trying to teach me something very valuable about achieving change. This lesson was learned, but I sometimes have to push myself to roll up my sleeves and get to it.

Getting to it is the key to maintaining optimism. Without actual work and actual results, looking at what should be done becomes very daunting. Rationalizing without actualizing is the realm of the ineffectual academic. Humanism, as I see it, is the actualizing of the rational in daily life through practice. Practice is optimistic, because it is based in a belief that progressive change begins with progressive daily action in one human life.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mobs

There is a trend to see mobbing, enabled by mobile communication, as fun or as an expression of benign causes. Tahrir Square was an example of the power of mobbing, enabled by cell phones. However, there is a darker side to mobbing. 

Spike Lee, the famous director/producer of films, made a simple mistake on his Twitter feed recently. He forwarded a malicious Tweet which gave specific information about the whereabouts of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin in Florida. The Tweet, sent initially by Marcus D. Higgins, encouraged its followers to find and commit violence upon Mr. Zimmerman. Unfortunately, the information in the Tweet was inaccurate and gave the address of elderly Zimmermans who have no relationship with the perpetrator Zimmerman. That's right, it was like sending a lynch mob of as many as 250,000 angry people to the wrong address over the killing of a Black adolescent in the American South. The irony is stunning.

As a gay activist who lived through the Matthew Shepard incident,  I can understand the rage of African-Americans in the Trayvon Martin case. As the partner of a gay man who was nearly stabbed to death by a Latino street gang in the 1990s in Boston, I can understand how race and ethnicity complicate these situations. However, understanding is not condoning for a humanist. 

Mr. Zimmerman is a citizen and deserves a trial by a qualified judge and jury. This is civilization. The uncivilized actions of the law enforcement system in Florida has complicated the process. It is not the role of policemen to judge any case of violent killing. That is not democracy. That is a police state. 

There is a need for personal moderation and responsibility with public electronic media, just as with any other form of communication. As a humanist, I feel it is necessary to be measured in expressing my reactions in transmitted text that is open to public scrutiny and interpretation. Yelling "Fire!" falsely in a theater is a crime in many places for obvious reasons.The subsequent stampede could injure or kill an innocent. Using electronic media to incite mob violence is just another form of lynching. It does not serve justice.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fraud

Richard Cohen represents himself as a healer. He calls himself a psychotherapist, even though his license to offer psychotherapy was revoked in 2002 by the American Counseling Association. He calls himself an educator, even though the education he offers is actually unfounded in biological science or prevailing social science. Mr. Cohen's mild-mannered vitriol has been used by Ugandan legislators who want to kill homosexuals legally in that country.

International Healing Foundation, Mr. Cohen's business, is perhaps one of the vilest examples of a non-profit which exploits law to provide a living for someone who is trying to undermine human progress for his own benighted reasons. Mr. Cohen exploits the self-torture of self-loathing homosexual men and women. He has made a religion out of it, the religion of self-hatred in the name of conformity. And, like most religions, his actively seeks to damn those who will not convert. Of course, he denies this when confronted with reality.

Rachel Maddow has interviewed Mr. Cohen quite effectively. The interview exposes Mr. Cohen's ability to repackage any reality into his own self-absolving version. However, Mr. Cohen is the most insidious kind of hate-monger. He uses fake statistics to support his self-justification for promoting fear of homosexuals. When exposed for using fake statistics, he smiles and says he is no longer going to use those fake statistics. No remorse. No apology. We can be sure he will do it again until he gets caught.

The Richard Cohens of the world have held a lot of power over the centuries. Priests and politicians have used his methods to sway public opinion in ages of limited education and information. However, in this age, these frauds are beginning to face an onslaught of challenge from an informed public. This is a battle, as can be seen in Egypt before, during and after its recent revolution. It can be seen in Syria today.

Humanism, based in scientific skepticism, is an antidote to the actions of Richard Cohen, President al-Assad, Pope Benedict and their ilk. Their legitimacy is easily tested as long as information is freely available and accessible. However, there will be attempts by those who wish to maintain the big lies for power to limit public access to information and affordable education. As a humanist, I take it as part of my practice to challenge any attempts to limit free speech and public education through the free flow of information.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Memories

I was startled once when a hedonistic friend justified spending himself into bankruptcy by saying, "The memories I bought with that money were worth it." He was one of the most anxious and unhappy people I have ever met. But he sure did have memories. Memories of lawyers, memories of dunning notices and memories of nice living situations he could no longer afford. 

Nostalgia can be a symptom of significant depression. Elderly people lapse into nostalgic fogs when left to isolation and lack of new learning. I remember my father, who suffered from depression and a subsequent head injury. He sought comfort by sitting in front of hours and hours of movies on television. These were movies made when he was young. It was often difficult to drag his attention into the room where he was sitting.

The value of personal history is not a replay of the minutia of its memories. The value of a personal history lies in the essential lessons of that history put into daily practice. Running through life as though it were a supermarket of memorable experiences is just a form of hoarding. Savoring whatever experiences occur to extract their lessons is wisdom.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Conflict

For some deep psychological reason, I'm sure, I decided to watch a really cheesy superhero movie last evening. You know, the kind of movie adapted from a comic book which is all sanitized violence and special effects. Sexy men in fancy dress. Explosions and trite moralistic pronouncements. It was just what I had a hankering for...audio-visual potato chips. I surrendered to the urge.

The conflict in the film was staged as Will against Fear. Will, in this case, seemed to represent self-actualization through self-knowledge and self-control. Fear seemed to represent submission to the Will of another or to the subconscious. 

The protagonist worked out his inner conflict by being a defender (in the name of Will)  of the human race against an evil invader (a consuming Fear). Of course, the protagonist won. He pushed Fear into the gravitational field of the Sun. Poof...Fear was vaporized. Quite heroic Nothing but evil-vanquishing Will for that superhero in the future, as his misty-eyed Lois Lane watches from an asexual distance.

Conflict is the engine of the human mind. We tend to see it in the form of daily decisions and choices. In real life, Will never permanently defeats Fear. Fear is what keeps animals alive. Fear of predation, fear of disease, fear of deprivation. Our animal brains are preset to monitor our fears and react accordingly. The conflict arises when our minds think differently from our instinctual reflexes. The tension created by this conflict is basically the business of practice. 

Having a personal practice is a way of channeling internal conflict into progressive action within a life and within a society. For example, my fear of irrationality and emotionality, based in my childhood experiences, was in conflict with my autonomy and science education, when I was trying to find a satisfying career after college. Eventually, exploring this conflict led me to pursue my first nursing specialty in psychiatric hospitals. My work within mental institutions led to other conflicts which helped form my current daily practice. 

It is part of my personal practice to embrace my internal conflicts, as opposed to dismissing them or sublimating them. One net effect of this practice is a diminished interest in engaging in externalized conflicts with other people. By understanding my own conflicts, I am less willing to enter into the conflicts of others in an externalized fight. This is an element of compassion, developed through understanding that all people are living with internal conflicts between their will and their fear.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Awe

I have experienced awe, even though I am an atheist. Two guaranteed exercises can inspire awe for me. I'll pass them on.

The first exercise is perfect for Spring. I find a place where there is no visible or loudly audible evidence of human invention. This can be a beach, a forest or a large meadow. Any time of day or night will do. Part of the awe of this exercise comes from the difficulty involved in finding a non-human place on this densely populated planet. Once there, I sit and breathe deeply as I do in meditation. I listen and observe. It usually takes minutes for the crust of human civilization to fall away. The awe comes slowly as I feel my animal self emerge and harmonize with the life around me. Insects, small mammals, birds, reptiles. This is the awe of discovering my true being on the planet as a large mammal in a larger natural environment. My awe supports my humbling respect for the natural beauty and intricacy of this planet.

The second exercise can be done in my own apartment. I sit in a chair and breathe deeply, meditatively. As my body relaxes, I begin reflecting on my chair. I consider all its parts. I think of the hands or machines required to craft and assemble it. I think of the journey it traveled before getting to my apartment. I then look around me. From one object to the next I repeat this reflection. All the pieces of crafted wood, all the bolts and screws, all the molded plastic. How was it made? Where did it all come from? How many people participated in making each thing? What technologies had to be developed over how many centuries to craft each thing?  What was the journey which it traveled to the store where I found it?  This exercise brings me the awe at what it take to provide the comfort and practical functioning of my daily life. My awe supports my mindfulness of human society and its capabilities.

This sensibilities have supported my interest in science and education over the years. The awe I experience at the Universe as it simply is has inspired and humbled. I am this Universe's creation, along with all other living beings and non-living matter, as we humans can perceive it. Isn't that enough? Isn't that humility and respect for my place in the Universe enough to inspire me to be respectful and responsible every day? I think it is.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Complexity

One incentive to reach a state of simplicity in my life practice is to position myself to deal with life's complexity with a clear mind. By keeping my own life simple, I am more capable of expending thought and patience in the face of complicated situations. This is a strong element in Zen philosophy, which has influenced me.

A current example is the unfolding complexity of the Martin-Zimmerman case. While some are understandably giving way to their rage and outrage, I am trying to keep a clear mind as I consider the complex issues involved. Name calling and snap judgments are poisonous in these situations. It is important to separate grieving from understanding.

I consider two young men who were raised in a period when criminality has been packaged and sold in rap videos and video games. I consider young men who were taught by adults to be who they were when they encountered one another. I think of all the elements which led to the fatal action of the one against the other. While the outcome seems simple to many, the simplicity is perhaps just a way of dealing with the complex reality of life in an overarmed and over-drugged America with vast social and environmental problems.

As an obsessive person by nature, I try to avoid vortexes of complexity in the simple day-to-day of my life. However, I also try to keep an awareness of the complexity of human social situations. Walking the path of simplicity through an awareness of complexity is part of the balancing act of humanist practice.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Exercise

A recent radio segment about a charter school which weaves exposure to all forms of the arts into their weekly curriculum brought the realization that the children were getting quite a bit of daily exercise since dance was a staple of their arts curriculum. Another segment, following soon after, was about a college basketball tournament which mimics the high-profile and high-profits of pro basketball. 

Organized, competitive sports are the first form of exercise offered to most children. Those children without the natural aptitude or interest in these sports are often left out or put through the routine torture of being a square peg, pushed by peers and adults into a round hole. Is there any rational reason to wonder at the extent of obesity in the young people in the U.S.?

Sports are increasingly exploited as a spectator activity, involved with wagering and heavy drinking. Public schools are dropping organized sports and physical education classes in favor of lowering tax rates. The gap in physical education can lead to a lifetime of chronic illness and depression for those students who are not naturally motivated or encouraged by parents to be active and fit.

How many of qualities of any society can be traced back to the health and wellness of a population? I speculate that most aspects of any society are strongly influenced by the general well being of its population. Starvation and poverty are associated with social instability. Obesity and chronic illness could be fundamental to the deterioration of democracy and socioeconomic equity in a society.

The team-competition paradigm, fundamental to the current form of capitalism in the U.S., is not the solution. It is part of the problem. As society drifts more and more to conformity and submission to corporate authority, finding an individual path for those who are skeptical and free thinking is more challenging. Children can be exposed to forms of exercise which are not competitive but meditative. Yoga, hiking or jogging in nature, rock climbing, dance....there are so many ways for children to be happy and fit without donning a team T-shirt or having to hit a person or a ball to earn a point.

Those who are naturally drawn to team sports will always find a way to fitness. However, as a humanist, my attention and concern turns to those children who are not. Our education systems have be seriously lacking in concern for the physical well being of those students. The results are becoming glaringly obvious.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aspiration

There is a constant drumbeat of aspiration in American education and media. We are always being encouraged to push ahead, move up or reach further. This is considered part of the religion of the American Dream.

What is lost to all this aspiring? Well, for one thing, those who are always looking ahead seldom look down at the ground under their feet. It is hard to get attention for the polluted environment. It is hard to get attention for economic disparity. It is hard to see that the American Dream is not working for the vast majority of Americans. 

The aspirational nature of American propaganda is a mixture of aggressive capitalism and social Darwinism. Sharks must continually move in search of prey or die of suffocation. Predators on land are never satisfied. Given excess prey, they slaughter beyond their capacity to eat it all. It is hard-wired into their survivalist DNA.

There is little talk of global human aspiration. In fact, statements regarding world peace are often scoffed at cynically among the educated and powerful. Global aspirations against racism are undermined by racial assertion into every issue by those who are most limited by racism. Global aspirations for clean air and a healthy environment are swiftly sabotaged by capitalists who rabidly defend the American Dream religion.

My humanist practice is motivated by aspiration. That is the development of more compassion, more mindfulness and more personal joy. But my practice is also firmly based in a rational and realistic understanding of where and who I am at any moment. Unlike the American Dream, my humanism is not a myth, a faith, a religion. It is a personal commitment to humanist values right here and right now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Birthright

Recent news has been peppered with stories about the reproductive rights of women. The Catholic Church's attempts to undermine public health reform for women raised the current controversy. The reproductive rights of women have been banner issues in modern feminism for decades for good reason. These issues run the gamut from simple birth control methods to the most scientifically complicated fertilization methods. Science supports the notion that female reproductive rights and the dynamics of poverty are closely linked.

The issue of birthright is usually ignored. As illustrated in this story, the birthright of children is seldom considered with thorough scientific investigation by the courts. The rights of birth parents trump, or are equated with, the birthright of children to proper nurturing, safety and education. This is a blind spot among many natural parents who tend to see themselves, perhaps unconsciously, as omnipotent custodians and possessors of their children.

My humanist views on children diverge from many commonly accepted assumptions of birth parents. This is how I see it: Children are not pets. Children are not puppets. Children do not exist to please or cater to parents. Children are individual human beings with unique human experiences and a birthright to develop to their best potential.

My view differs considerably from pro-life dicta about life's sanctity and immortality. My views place the onus on the natural parents to consciously deliver the birthright of any life they procreate. I would have this codified into law, based in the best current information from developmental and medical science. Parents who procreate and subsequently deny their child his/her birthright would be held criminally liable. This would entail a sea change in criminal and civil law.

The notorious Octo-Mom is perhaps the most grotesque example of a procreating parent who took no stock of her responsibilities before having eight children at once as a single parent with limited resources and an apparent psychiatric history. She was enabled by a government-licensed physician. Yet she became a celebrity with many female defenders. Until the birthright of each and every child is secured by society, the quality of life will be diminished for all society. The current political debates in this Presidential year in the U.S. are far off that mark.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Skepticism

Humanists pride themselves on inquiry and skepticism.  The way through prejudice, superstition and unethical knee-jerk reactions entails investigation and questioning assumptions, based on hearsay or lack of evidence.

A seventeen-year-old is shot and killed by a twenty-eight-year-old. There are apparently no eye witnesses to the event. The deceased was not engaged in criminal activity and was unarmed, as far as we know. The shooter is a criminal justice student who has a community reputation as generally friendly and over-vigilant as a neighborhood-watch member. The deceased was African-American. The shooter has a Latino family background with some African-American family members.

Why has the media highlighted racial aspects this event without information about the actual event? Why does a young man of questionable intelligence and training with no civil authority feel free to wield a handgun in a residential neighborhood? Why wasn't Zimmerman taken into custody? Has Zimmerman's handgun license been suspended by the police pending investigation? What is the responsibility of poor law enforcement in this situation? What actually occurred between these two individuals? What is the forensic evidence? 

It may well turn out that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman intentionally with racial prejudice. However, it could as easily turn out that Trayvon Martin tried to grab Zimmerman's gun and it fired. In any case, the societal damage done by knee-jerk reactions serves no one. 

In a media-driven society, the responsibility of the media to report skeptically and accurately is increased. Unfortunately, in a capitalist society, media depend on revenue to provide information. Revenue depends on advertising. Advertising is sold by the amount of attention a media outlet attracts. This increases the likelihood of sensationalism replacing skeptical journalism. The outrageous sells better than the rational. 

As a humanist in a media-driven, capitalist society, I feel I must always approach news with my own skepticism to avoid being caught up in mindless causes, driven by prejudice, superstition or speculation. Patience is required to wait for the facts of any situation to emerge or to ferret the facts out of sensationalized reporting. However, I think it serves any humanist well to breathe deeply and refuse to be swept up in populist or conformist reactions to life events.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Equinox

The Vernal Equinox occurs tomorrow in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the first day of Spring. 

How many urban dwellers thoughtfully mark its occurrence? As a greater percentage of the human population lives in cities or around them, sensitivity to seasonal changes among human beings may become dulled. This is another distancing from what it takes to provide the food supply. It is another distancing from what it means to be mortal animal on a rare planet with an intricate ecology. 

The wonders of astronomy and natural science are far more awe-inspiring than any packaged mythology of religion. Watching green life forms grow in tiny patches of soil amidst concrete and tar teaches me something about the reality of life on this planet. Following the life of a random plant in the cityscape can be an experience which brings me back to a basic appreciation and understanding of the natural cycles of all life.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Responsibility

Responsibility, as a word, is often tied to weighty financial and moralistic concepts. In some contemporary social contexts, reference to responsibility triggers groans and eye-rolling sarcasm. Perhaps this is related to the association of the word with fiscal and social conservatives who have appropriated it for political gain. Closer examination by the skeptical often belies the use of the word by these same Bible-thumping, checkbook closing politicians. Responsibility when touted by liars is simply hypocrisy.

Responsibility, as I see it from a humanist perspective, is closely linked to responsiveness. I do maintain that following law in fiscal and civil matters is responsible when the law itself is responsive to science and rational debate. Responsibility is the daily social sense is another aspect of the term. 

In the daily social world, responsibility from my humanist perspective is based firmly in responsiveness to the feelings, needs and behaviors of those in my environment. Being engaged in an honest and open way is the key element of this responsibility. Trusting my own feelings and processing of those feelings in my environment allows me to be responsive without being overly defensive. This in turn fosters my own responsible actions in my environment. 

Learning to discern my role in my environment from situation to situation requires attention, self-examination and the courage to engage in dialogue. There are situations in which dialogue may prove useless. In these, simply removing myself from the situation is the responsible thing to do. Being responsible is a process of personal development within the law and social conventions of civility.  Law and social conventions depend on the active responsible engagement of those in society. Compassionate practice is a form of that engagement.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luck

The cable-watching public in the U.S. has sent a message to HBO which has restored some of my faith in the media-consuming American public. An HBO series entitled  Luck  has been dropped after one season. Tough luck, Luck. But its failure is due to more than bad luck. 

Luck is about horse racing, that perfect nexus between the filthy rich and organized crime. The show received bad publicity when it was revealed that horses were dying of injuries during the filming. Apparently some footage of the actual fatal injury of a horse was used. This enraged animal rights advocates. It simply churned my stomach, since the one episode I watched seemed to include a fatal equine leg injury. Aside from the gore, the show was simply derivative and boring.

Perhaps the demise of Luck sends a long-awaited message to media moguls that many Americans are looking for entertainment that is not based in criminality or the lives of the self-satisfied 1%. The last decade in media has exploited the fascination of the masses with wealth, fame and crime. Post-911 escapism? Perhaps. Whatever the reasons, this media overkill of adulation of those hardly deserving of it should not be sustainable during an economic period of ostentatious haves and befuddled have-nots.

I hope that media producers turn from luck to skill in developing work that speaks to its viewers from a position of progressive human values. Rehashing and reviving has been the mainstay of most media forms in the last ten years. I hope Luck's demise is an omen of a return to original works with something to say.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Dynasty

The controversy over priggish Donald Trump, Jr.'s safari massacre of big game illustrates the flaw in the system of wealth transference within families when families simply have too much private money. This was not a case of simple privilege. This was a case of breaking laws in a country and then claiming immunity to those laws based in personal wealth and notoriety. The stuff which inspired the invention of the guillotine.

As a humanist, I am reminded that I have no control of what happens with my own resources after my death unless I plan ahead. As a citizen, I support taxing surplus and extraordinary personal wealth to support the real needs of general society. Great personal wealth is generally extracted from society by the sale of goods or services.  In these times, great wealth is amplified by playing with computers and hedging bets on a worldwide economic system that is capricious and inequitable.There is no honor or justice in the accumulation of this wealth. So why would anyone expect that it will be used in a socially responsible or progressive manner?

The return of international aristocracy is glaringly obvious. The Trumps are perhaps a more obvious example of their class, but they do belong to an international class of world-hopping aristocrats who see themselves as above the rules applying to the rest of the human race. They live for hedonist pleasure, as aristocrats have always done. They feel entitled to their elevated state of life on grounds of traditional religion or lineage. 

Humanists and other free thinkers have been writing about the injustice of aristocracy for half a millennium. Revolutions have come and gone. Their benefits are inevitably watered down by politics in their aftermath. Those who control money manipulate systems to reinstate their aristocratic privilege. We see this glaringly illustrated in the debates in the U.S. Congress. Inherited fortunes are the foundation of support for politics which restrict personal freedoms and socioeconomic justice. This is not new. It is as old as money itself.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Halal

Halal (Arabic: حلالḥalāl, "lawful") is a term designating any object or an action which is permissible to use or engage in, according to Islamic law. The term is used to designate food seen as permissible according to Islamic law. The opposite of this word is haraam. (Source: Wikipedia)

The culture war is heating up again in France as the Presidential election approaches. Media reports here present a pro-religious bias. An example is an NPR report this morning. The issue at hand is one of inhumane treatment of animals by halal butchers and its impact on the French general meat supply. NPR's correspondent describes a French government  minister as having "put his foot in it" by simply saying that some religious rituals may be outdated and unscientific. A rational human being would most likely think this minister should be commended for being grounded in the 21st century.

The issue in France and the issue here is the issue of deference vs tolerance. Religious leaders predictably push for deference to their practices, even in secular societies which offer them official tolerance. This is true of the extremely orthodox Jews in Israel. It is true of the extreme evangelicals and orthodox Roman Catholics in the U.S., as the recent dust-up over birth control illustrates.

Democracy and diversity will work when official tolerance of non-violent, non-intrusive differences is generalized in a society. This includes tolerance of secularism as well as religion. Societies which are constitutionally secular must defer to secularism in governmental decisions. Tolerance may entail specific exemptions, as long as those exemptions do not enable violent or inhuman behaviors in the name of religion. A religious exemption in the case of halal butchering is, in my opinion, is not tolerance. It is enabling and lending government validation to an unnecessarily inhumane violent behavior.

As Islam flexes its social and political muscle in the West, there will be more conflicts like this one. The recent acquittal of a Muslim man on charges of assault in Pennsylvania by a Muslim judge who blamed the victim for the assault because the victim wore a Muhammad costume on Halloween is a minor example. Perhaps the many specialized demands of religions in the U.S. for deference will undermine secular law in the U.S. as it threatens to do in Europe. If it does, religion will gain its deference at the cost of a social harmony and justice for all.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Loss

What we often perceive as loss was never really a gain in the first place. Our minds play tricks on us. Since we have the ability to conceive of an ideal state of stable happiness based on life's material details, we are often disappointed by life's failure to conform to those mental images or concepts. We feel we have lost something we have never really possessed in the first place.

This becomes very evident in personal relationships. Our family structures indoctrinate us into a culture of possession. We are taught that our family of genetic origin has paramount significance in our lives, no matter what else happens to us. People who have been adopted are often tortured by the dissonance they experience with this family notion. They can find it hard to simply accept that they have been loved and raised as well as possible by their adoptive parents. They feel a loss which has had no real impact on their lives. In fact, in many cases, once they have encountered their genetic families after years of research they are even more conflicted and disappointed. Despite their first-hand knowledge that their adoptive parents were far more loving and capable than their genetic parents, they still struggle with a sense of deprivation. 

Parents raise children as their possessions in most cases. Procreation is not seen generally as the bringing forth of a completely independent human being in the making. When the young adult offspring asserts autonomy, parents indulge their feelings of loss of the dependent child. They see this as loss, instead of realizing this was their biological mission from inception. Conscientious human breeding brings the responsibility of understanding the implications of developing a new human being, as opposed to cloning the parents for their vicarious pleasure and gratification.

Death brings out severe mental conflicts over loss. When someone we care about dies, they lose their life. We lose an object of affection. However, this loss can be anticipated from the moment we become affected by another person. Just as the fertilized egg is destined to die some day, we are all destined to be parted by our own deaths. This is not outlandish, weird or bizarre. It is not catastrophic. It is life within the constraints of matter and energy . 

Being a humanist often entails acknowledging that life is what it is, from a scientific perspective. Within ourselves, we understand that we did not decide to be born. We do not decide what factors in our time and lifespan will lead to our eventual deaths. We are perhaps more fortunate than most mammals who are born on the run in order to avoid early death in the jaws of a predator. If those mammals were able to reflect and speak to us about their lives, I believe they would be able to give us a vastly different perspective on loss. 

I think it is very helpful to stay real about what life is about. Our minds and our emotions can wrap us up in a very false sense of reality. We have the capacity to weave and encase ourselves in cocoons of self-delusion. Once we ground ourselves in what is really happening in our lives, we realize that we must change or get more real about ourselves. Then we often set about weaving a new cocoon. Living naked and securely independent in reality is a rough practice, but I believe it is a way to becoming a truly compassionate and mindful human being.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Violence

Tokyo subway
Violence is both a disease and a symptom of stress. This is true on an individual and societal level. The recent situation in Afghanistan is an illustration of the contagious and cyclic nature of violence in human groups. The infusion of manipulative religiosity by the Taliban illustrates the role of sectarianism in the cycle of violence throughout the ages.

A warlike society will not contain or diminish violence in another warlike society. The absurd assumption that this would be possible doomed the American Afghanistan War from its beginning. Any understanding of human psychology, based on a long history of war and violence, would have brought our leaders to this obvious conclusion before expending our national and human capital in that country. 

Here in Boston, as a highly publicized trial of drug-dealing murders comes to a conclusion, one community activist declared that it will take more than prayers and fasting in Black churches to end the violence in the Mattapan neighborhood. To this I say "Amen". Mattapan is poor, crowded and insular. Perfect conditions for violence. The municipal government has done little to address these factors by innovative infrastructure investment and innovative law enforcement. Part of the problem has been the municipal government's catering to publicity-seeking religious leaders over city officials, including law enforcement. 

I envy those whose lives have not been touched by violence. The affluent in the U.S. have turned to child rearing which excludes violent discipline as an option. This is producing a young adult generation, perhaps a minority among their peers, who are less prone to violence from their development. It is my hope that these young adults will gravitate to careers which will allow them to share the example of their freedom from violence.  It is my hope they will pursue careers in politics and education. They may gradually spread an a awareness of the value of a nonviolent life. 

In an increasingly stressful and crowded world, individual practice may be necessary to avoid violence. Crowded urban situations hold the potential for violence, especially when alcohol is in play. Human beings stressed by crowded confinement on subway trains often display marginally violent behavior. Pushing, shoving and elbowing. Human beings can become inured to violence. This is common is war zones and societies riven by chronic civil war. For all their howling, the Afghans are notorious throughout history for chronic tribal violence. It is a rough country with limited fertile land. 

I maintain that any humanist must be committed to nonviolence as any commitment to human progress. This means being anti-war. This means being against aggressive physical acts of any kind which may promote, rather than quell, violence in normal human affairs. The job of law enforcement and the military should be the prevention and containment of violence. Modern technology has ample tools for these functions. The days of armed men attacking other armed men on the ground to prove some point or to maintain the control of autocrats should be numbered if the international politicians are indeed committed to peace and human progress.




Monday, March 12, 2012

Morality

Morality is based on a composite notion of right and wrong as accepted by a group or society. Religious morality has little to do with good and evil, from the perspective of humanist values. To the humanist, good is comprised of intentions and actions to promote peace, health and justice for all by valuing the natural environment and everything in it. Evil constitutes all those intentions and actions which undermine human progress from the point of view of peace, health and justice for all in a cherished natural environment. 

Those obsessed with religious morality operate under patriarchal standards of judgment of those who deviate from the the dogma of the religion. However, religions, often corrupted by hierarchy and money, operate with multiple standards of morality for different classes within religion. Clergy or officials are often held to a different standard within their own ranks. Those outside a religion are often summarily damned to subhuman status. The divisiveness of religion plagues humanity and hinders its progress. 

The humanist who is guided in all aspects of daily life by principles of nonviolence, pacifism and environmentalism will live a truly ethical life. Parsing morality becomes irrelevant in the mind of the educated and actively compassionate, because evil does not pollute that consciousness. This is the value of humanist practice. It is a process of living well and doing good to the best of my ability.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time

I turned all my clocks ahead last night. "Spring forward. Fall back," as the reminder goes. Poof! I've changed time! It is a good reminder of how much of our world as human beings is fabrication. 

The unfabricated aspect of my existence has always fascinated me. I tend to be very aware of the change of light through the seasons. When I have lived near the ocean, I have always marked changes brought about by changing tides on my daily walks. I am puzzled by those who need to be awed by mythological gods. There is so much awe in simply opening the eyes to what our lives really are.

My sensitivity to time has grown more severe with age. It was always somewhat above average. Being a clinical nurse is all about time and timing. Now that I am 62, I can see the stretch of time more clearly, because I can feel the approach of my ending in time. This is not a morbid sentimentality. I can feel my body winding down in stamina and available strength. Muscle gurus and the new breed of info-doctors on public broadcasting are full of it when they try to convince you that you can physically feel like 20 when you are 62. They are simply selling snake oil in the form of books and DVDs. 

The up side of this awareness of time is a growing appreciation of the benefits of leading a life of healthy habits and self-development through maintaining education and consciousness. Stumbling down the road to oblivion in the dark is no fun. Those with frozen smiles of Botox and plastic surgery may look happy, but that is because they cannot move their faces. Appreciating time for what it is and how to use it bring greater joy.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sports

The perfect storm of violence and monetary corruption: Professional football. The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal is an example of how a testosterone-based game of violence is not an asset to a civilized society. It is an atavistic ritual of violence for the masses. Gladiators in marketable gear. 

A second story on sports left me scratching my head. The Battle of Little Big Puck, an annual Canadian hockey event between real cowboys and real aboriginals in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. The title of the event refers to a brief stay of Sioux and Cheyenne after their victory at Little Big Horn over George Custer in June of 1876. Sitting Bull led the victors across the Canadian border to avoid capture. Hockey, another game of intentional violence, is another atavistic throwback to cavemen acting badly. The festive absurdity of Little Big Puck, while grimly humorous, given the history of genocide and killing involved in the historical basis of the joke, hardly makes it less offensive in my eyes. 

Violent professional sports, inflated by capitalism and mass media,  are not contributions to civilization. They are deterrents to human progress They are diversions and outlets for the angry and frustrated. Happy and peace-loving people are not be attracted to a display of violence for money. I frequently pass a large sports venue in Boston and see parents dragging small children under 6 years of age to hockey games. What are they trying to teach those children? Are they even aware that they are indeed teaching those children something which may not be in their interest as they grow up? Do they even ask themselves the question?

Look to the current situation in Syria to see the realities of violence embedded in human society. Life need not be an arena for bloody conflict. Progress does not require violent competition, in which the winner takes all. In fact, progress is drastically impeded by the effects of violence, alienation and greed. Violent professional sports are not harmless distractions. They are a touchstone for those who do not wish to move beyond conflict to cooperation, from battle to reconciliation.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Patience

Ghandi.

In all things, remember this: 
Patience with practice wins the prize.



Thursday, March 8, 2012

Process

Galaxy image from Hubble
Practice is process. The key to practice is establishing a daily mental and physical process in life. In a humanist practice, that process is based in health promotion, consciousness raising and compassionate action. The emphasis on process rather than detail is essential to living a life of practice. Obsession on details can trigger inattention and dysfunction. Focus on process enables the handling of a wide variety of details from a position of personal confidence and vision. 

If I attempt to treat everyone I meet with a level of attention and compassion which is consistent with my humanist values, I am living my practice. This is a process which, over time, will increase my capacity to deal with all people from a humanist perspective. If I attempt to approach every situation from the perspective of my humanist values, I will gradually increase my capacity to live my humanist values in every situation. 

I do not consider this mastery. Mastery implies a conflict or obstacle that does not have to exist within me or between me and my environment. I consider developing a humanist practice a form of personal liberation. Freeing my human feelings and accepting them for what they are allows me to be more accepting and understanding of others. Putting aside the attempted control by others in unjust authority of religion or social conformity is a first step to this liberation. Opening the mind and eyes to what it really means to be a living being on this planet in a vast Universe begins the healing and liberating process which leads to a practice of joy, discovery and compassion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Food

I have been following news about food in the U.S. from several perspectives. For example, since 2008, approximately 15% of the farm conservation land, supported by a Federally subsidized land management program, has been brought back into production to grow corn and soy for the Chinese market. In another area of food information, the caramel found in many cola drinks has been condemned by scientists as a carcinogen due to its processing with ammonia under high heat and pressure. Billions of people worldwide drink this carcinogen daily.

The whole world of feeding 7 billion human beings is vast. There are cultural differences and agricultural differences determined by growing seasons and conditions. There is food for the effete in Manhattan and food for the starving in Somalia. There is little discussion of morality or ethics in the area of food production and preparation. But eating is a common human necessity.

Think of how responsibly you eat. Do you simply eat to your budget? Do you eat for health and well being? Do you eat to achieve a certain body type? Does it occur to you to check where your food is coming from? Do you actually shop for and prepare your own food at home? Do you grow your own food?

Fast food eaters have distanced themselves from the reality of their food and its source. Gourmands may understand the exceptional nature of their food, but may have no idea of the human labor and intelligence it takes to present it to them on a restaurant table. A starving child in a desert plain may savor a corn gruel with the same gusto given to the perfectly grilled steak by an obese American.

The more distanced we become from our food's sources due to overpopulation and urbanization, the less responsible we become in our attitudes toward food and hunger. We become dependent consumers. This dependence breeds selfishness and entitlement, distanced from any solid knowledge about what it costs to feed ourselves in the big picture of humanity and the planet. Our focus become the acquisition and consumption of food over the growing and provision of food.

I believe that humanism must include a reverence for the planet and its resources. One of the most elemental ways in which we interact with the planet is the growing and preparation of our food. The planet feeds us. Developing a humanist practice can start in the garden and in the kitchen. By learning the process of growing food, harvesting food and preparing food, I have begun to understand what it means to be a human being in harmony with my planet in a very real and basic way.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wellness

Wellness, or well being, is not the same as good physiological or psychological health. Wellness is a state of the mind which exists even in diseased states of the organic body. Wellness can be a benefit of humanist practice. 

The anxiety and pain of illness is amplified by the fear of death or disability. Wellness is a state in which the fear of death is eliminated by an acceptance of the the human mortal condition. Wellness is facilitated by an understanding that all things, including pain and disease, are transitory. Understanding that pain and fear are simply natural irrational reflexes in response to injury facilitates acceptance of these experiences for what they are without magnifying their impact on living. 

Wellness is a state of balance in the face of the inevitable trauma of life. A daily practice of proper diet, exercise and meditation support wellness. For some, psychotherapy facilitates wellness. Learning about disease and death from the sick and dying is a path to developing wellness while healthy. Those who develop the balance of wellness in their lives live in greater joy and peace, despite the trials along life's path.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Resentment

The power of resentment is often overlooked or denied. Many people in the U.S. bury their resentment because it is socially taboo to discuss class or other differences in American society. Political leaders prey on this prejudice and rapidly slam the hammer down on any airing of class, race or economic resentment. Religious leaders do the same. Followers are chided from pulpits to stow away any resentment they may have about the conditions of their origins. God's Will is held up as the reason for the sources of pain, prejudice and poverty. This tells the resentful that God has decided they have deserved all the misery they resent.

All of this denial fuels more resentment. Resentment which goes denied and unprocessed throughout a life is an acid that wears away at the fibers of a life's condition. The defensive denial of the legitimate resentment of others does not help society in general. This has been amply demonstrated by truth and reconciliation processes after periods of atrocity and oppression. 

For centuries, political structures and religious structures have been contrived to oppress. Our current political structure in the U.S. is up for grabs between those who conservatively defend that legacy of oppression of the majority and those who would reform government through regulation to provide for general health and economic well being of the majority. Our society also grapples with the conflict between oppressive religiosity and freethinking. 

Many in the U.S. have good reason for resentment. Conscious resentment is a basis for political and social activism. Repressed resentment is a source of dysfunction and mental illness. Silencing resentment with politically correct speech or holier-than-thou impatience is counterproductive. Airing resentment is a first step to conflict resolution and turning poison of repressed resentment  into the medicine of motivation for change. I believe that as humanists, who work for human progress in general health and happiness, it is important for us to encourage those with resentment to acknowledge it and work through it, or work with it. By mining the pain of individual resentment, the motivation for individual change can often be found.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Elitism

There are many aspects to elitism and its effects. What many call racism is actually elitism. And what many see as simple bullying is actually the result of elitist mentality. The reactionary position in the face of elitism is just as crippling. The inability to discern better from worse rationally and scientifically can result from a self-blinding reaction against elitism. The Bolshevik experience in Russia, for example, was a failed experiment in egalitarianism in part due to politically assuming that the natural human common denominator will be enlightened or humane. 

Two stories about Israel in this week's media strike me as illustrative of the down side of elitism in a nation which sees itself as bound by a form of racial and religious singularity. The first story concerns the ongoing harassment of Arabs in Israel's West Bank. Palestinian and Bedouin residents on the West Bank who recently developed a source of electricity from renewable sources for the first time in their history could lose their self-generated power on a political-legal technicality. The illegal Jewish settlers in this same desert area are provided with government grid power by Israel. This is a blatant example of apartheid based in religion, racialism and elitism.

The second story involves the refusal of 'religious' orthodox Jews in Israel to serve in the nation conscription for the Israeli army. These are the same 'religious' Jews who greet any deviance from their orthodoxy in their own self-segregating neighborhoods with extreme hatred and violence. These are patriarchal elitists, bullies, who are most cowardly in the face of bearing the military responsibilities for their own social, political and religious elitism. They hide behind Torah to justify their antisocial behaviors. This is typical of religious patriarchal elitism of any stripe.

To equate elitism exclusively with skin tones is indeed straight-forwardly racist. However, the layers of elitism in human society are far more intricate. Religion, capitalism and politics are all seed beds of elitism. Sexism, practiced by men or women, is also a layer of human elitism. Oppression of sexual minorities is the last bastion of human elitism, which unites the least elitist with the most in politics and religion. 

Conquering internal elitism comes with the realization of my own vulnerability and mortality. My own physical and mental limitations teach me more about the hollowness of my own elitism than anything I can read or hear. However, confronting my own elitism cannot be allowed to obscure my own ethical and compassionate judgments in my humanist practice. Equivocation is not a cure for elitism. It is simply a balancing reaction in the initial stages of becoming at one with humanity. Learning to connect with the humanity of any human being I encounter is the key to practically undermining my own elitism. Blanket political correctness is just a lazy way to deny and conceal the elitism that exists underneath it.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Syria

Bodies of the massacred in Syria
Syria belies the myth of human family. Syria tells the truth of human evil. Syria represents the end result of greed, patriarchy and genetic elitism, represented in family dynasty.

The atrocities in Syria and the immoral support of those atrocities by Russia and China expose the true nature of corporate control of human society. China tramples all human rights concerns at will in any global situation because it is the world's corporate lender and manufacturing supplier. Russia does the same because it is still a large nuclear power with oil and gas supplies. The corporate world is dependent on carbon-rich energy sources. 

And what of religions and Syria? Iran, a Muslim theocracy, is largely responsible for the massacres in Syria. Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca, is notably quiet. The al-Assad regime is an Iranian ally and surrogate in the face of Israel. What of Syrian Christians, a considerable minority in Syria? The Syrian Christians have largely supported the al-Assad regime and its atrocities. Have their patriarchs commanded them to do otherwise? And what of Israel? Israel's own theocratic state has been notably silent. It most likely prefers the chaos in Syria to a unified front against its existence. This would be a rational position, but not a highly moral one.

Syria exposes the impotence of money men in the face of power and control by dictators. Money has no ethics. Money has no moral compass. Money has no compassion. Just as the money men cynically wager on the misery of the Greeks, the money men wager on the blood flow in the streets of Syria. This makes the incompatibility between corporate capitalism and humanism very clear.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sugar

Dr. Robert Lustig is campaigning against a poisoned food supply here in the U.S.. His input into this San Francisco Chronicle article in 2006 is a primer on the enemy, covert and overt sugar additives throughout the U.S. food supply. Processed foods are disabling and  killing Americans.

Diet education and moderation is an essential part of any healthy life practice. Once I accept that mind body and mind are one, I realize that what I put into my body effects my mind as well as my body. To believe that I am reaching my full intellectual or physical potential while feeding my body poorly is delusional. To believe that drugs and alcohol do not significantly alter personality and intellect drastically is also delusional.

If I am eating properly, getting sleep and exercising regularly, I am approaching my peak performance of my humanist practice daily. If I am eating junk, sleeping poorly and exercising sporadically, I am failing myself in my practice. Yes, it is that plain and simple, whether you choose to accept the physical realities of your body and mind or not.

So much of the dysfunction we see around us daily in society or ourselves is caused by improper nutrition, poor living conditions which diminish healthy sleep and lack of physical training. Obese, disheveled people are commonplace. In fact, there has been a fashion trend to highlight obesity, to glamorize it. This is glaringly obvious social dysfunction in a society impaired by obesity and its health consequences.

While Dr. Lustig and others are waging an admirable campaign to get government to do the right thing in schools and supermarkets, the campaign for the minds of the afflicted is another matter. The poisoned mind  is often incapable of recognizing its own toxicity. It falls to those of us who recognize this dysfunction to intervene to make a difference in lives of those around us. This is a worthy humanist practice.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Fasting

Fasting is an ancient form of metabolic manipulation to achieve an altered state of consciousness. It's all about brain chemistry. Mystics claim a range of results from visions (hallucinations?) to intense clarity of vision (corticosteroid stimulation?). Intentional and rational self-deprivation is a way of concretely practicing control over desire, impulse or addiction. 

There are many ways of fasting. In the current industrialized world, there are more opportunities than ever to fast. We are all too easily acculturated to instant gratification of desire or perceived need. The untrained mind and body can easily become embroiled in a daily cycle of need and pleasure. The rampant obesity and addiction in modern societies attests to this available wheel of misery and confusion. Capitalism thrives on feeding this wheel with more and more product for profit.

I have found that learning to live in moderation with all things requires a form of constraint which modern hedonists might consider fasting or self-deprivation. I experience this moderation as liberating. By detaching myself from mindless cycles of need and need fulfillment, I am able to see the path to wellness and personal peace much more clearly. Simply questioning desire or perceived need regularly is a worthwhile practice. Just because you are capable of fulfilling a perceived need does not mean that fulfilling that perceived need is the way to actual happiness. This is a valuable thread of skepticism to maintain in the practice of mindfulness.