Monday, April 30, 2012

Price

A materialistic society is hypnotized by commerce. Listening to American media quickly reveals the materialism that now rules in the United States. From electoral campaigns to electric cars, price is the topic of focus and discussion. The European Debt Crisis, the Chinese refusal to devalue the yuan, the rise and fall of stock prices. These are featured as major news stories every day. 

What is the price of this obsession with money and materialism? The United States and the European Union are grappling with this question as they surface from a period of devastating money manipulation by the unscrupulous. In the United States, religion is merging with materialism in the Republican Party. The bottom line may well become an object of worship.

As a humanist, I believe the worth of human life is the ultimate measure of value in this world. I mean this in a cumulative and individual way. The cumulative value of human existence has no monetary price. The value of a moment of an individual life has no monetary price. Comfort can be purchased. Joy and peace cannot. Stimuli can be purchased. Appreciation and understanding cannot. Education can be purchased. Depth and insight cannot. 

The price of being a practicing humanist in an individual life is very little in terms of money. It is very high in terms of time, effort and commitment. Time is the currency of deliberation, mindfulness and compassion. Persistence is the currency of maintaining health and mental well being.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unlikely

The Way to Calvary by Peter Breugel the Elder

Insight came to me yesterday in an unlikely situation. I was viewing the 2011 Polish-Swedish film, The Mill and The Cross. The film is available for on-line streaming at Netflix. It is an expressionist piece about "The Way to Calvary", a painting by Peter Breugel the Elder (1525-1569). The unlikeliness of my enthusiasm for this film is probably evident already to those who are familiar with my blog. 

The film allowed me to see myself in the shoes of Breugel, as portrayed in the film by Rutger Hauer. The character is trying to convey his understanding of mortal existence through his painting. He explains the painting's composition to affluent patron in Spanish-colonized Flanders. The character and the film are able to show the horrors of religion and political oppression with a lack of sentimentality which is stunning. 

I was able to see the subversiveness of Breugel's work more clearly. He lived in a time when a common man could be picked off the road by authorities and strapped to a wheel after being beaten nearly to death without a trial. There are parts of the modern world where this still occurs daily.

The irony of the 2011 film is its adoption by the religious as a "Christian film". The film, as I experienced it, is overtly anti-religious. It is a depiction of the horrors of blind belief in gods or men in authority by divine right. As a writer of thought which often disputes the commonly accepted or believed, I felt a kinship with the Peter Breugel of the film. I have been in awe of the real Breugel's art since I was a young student of art history. His merging of art, social insight and protest against brutality represents a milestone on the road out of the Dark Ages toward the Enlightenment.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Questioning

Asking questions is a good habit. One of the tragedies of poor child rearing is the tendency to discourage children from saying "Why?" repeatedly. The childlike curiosity of "Why?" is the key to skeptical and scientific living.

The person who does not ask questions lives in a world of presumptions and assumptions. The unquestioning are the ideal minions of dictators and other abusers. Resting quietly with conformist assumptions about what is "right" or "normal" sedates the brain and endangers society.

Questioning is different from challenging. This is evident in the difference between a curious agnostic and an evangelical atheist. In order to be a secure questioner, it is helpful to first be secure in the understanding of your own knowledge and ignorance. That includes knowledge and ignorance of your own personality. So, questioning yourself is always a good place to start in developing the skills of a good questioner. 

Humanism, as I experience it, isn't very complicated. It begins with a questioning and exploratory journey within. It leads to developing a process of relishing change and exploring the uncertainty of life. This opens the mind to exploring an understanding of the oneness of the human experience and its intricate diversity. Immersing the mind and life energy into the human experience inevitably leads to an appreciation and curiosity about everything in the human environment. The happy questioner doesn't expect answers. The happy questioner takes delight in the questioning itself.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Process

Process is the current of my humanist practice. My practice isn't about accomplishments or goals. My practice is about the way, the process, of achieving personal integrity and peace in relation to myself and my environment. "Enjoy the journey." is a pop-culture summation of this concept. But that version is too passive for me as a humanist. 

Making the journey a worthwhile exercise of my full humanity is the process of my humanism. This is an active dynamic within me and with my environment. The quality of personal process builds with the exercise of mindfulness and compassion in every aspect of daily life. There is no goal of perfection or purity in my practice. The goal is simply to practice. The goal is the process of being the most humane and open person you can be from moment to moment. Sainthood is irrelevant to real-life saints.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kudos

I am a regular critic of the Roman Catholic Church. However, today I have to applaud the faculty of Jesuit Georgetown University. They have broken the usual tacit peace between Catholic institutions and any Catholic politician on the national scene to serve the political interests of the Catholic Church, which are considerable. The Catholic Church receives a considerable amount of Federal and state funding in the United States. 

The Georgetown faculty have scolded Congressman Paul Ryan for representing his Libertarian budget, the standard for the Republican Party, as Christian and consistent with Catholicism. The Georgetown rebuke suggested that Ryan's ideas are more Ayn Rand than Jesus Christ. Bravo.

This behavior of Church versus State is the whole point of the Constitutional separation of Church and State. Religion could be a valuable check or balancing influence on government, as opposed to being a manipulator of government, as it has become since the 1980s. The gospel of corporate welfare for non-profits, which churches are, has corrupted this separation and its positive function in society. Sadly, part of the motivation of the rebuke of Ryan may be related to the cuts in parts of the Federal budget which most benefit Catholic institutions which are subsidized by tax dollars. Whatever the motivation, it is refreshing to see this assertion of the truly Christian message against an exploiter of religion for political and financial gain.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Money

The banking system in the U.S. obstructs rather than cooperates for the common good. The insurance industry actively obstructs the provision of equal high-quality health care for all. A few egocentric billionaires toy with Presidential politics like a spectator sport. Media, once the guardians of Fact, have become prostitutes for advertising dollars and hits to Web sites.

The financial system of the proud capitalist West is falling apart. Why? It has become a swarm of sharks feeding upon themselves. It has turn its back on the people and their needs for financial equity and security. It has placed itself in proud opposition to entitlements of contributing citizens and affordable education for the masses.

Money has become divorced from its worth to humanity in favor of the greed of a relatively few individuals, the infamous 1%. How long will it be before the 1% becomes the 0.5% in a world of burgeoning population? How high will the walls around the estates of the privileged have to be when human desperation turns to hunger, thirst and rage? No walls will suffice then. 

Government has truly failed in the U.S.. As the Presidential election campaign limps from talk show to speaking engagement, all the candidates are preaching some form of maintenance of the status quo. They pathetically shrug over student loans, which are a form of overt corporate welfare for banks and private universities. They accept the current state of grossly inflated rents in much of the country and property values determined by racism and class. They howl about jobs, when the quality and compensation of work in the U.S. is deteriorating due to unjust labor practices and the decimation of unions by greedy venture capitalists. 

Until money is addressed as the problem, there will be no effective solutions. This age of materialism cannot be sustained for the general population on its current course. Those in power know this. However, like drug addicts, they are too addicted to the highs of their own privileged lives and power to rehabilitate themselves for the good of the people. Their addiction and self-delusion is infecting the whole society. Meanwhile, the realities of wealth disparity exist fully on the ground and will take their course, whether those in power wish to address them or not.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Edwards

John Edwards, former Presidential candidate currently on trial for electoral corruption, represents the patriarchal hypocrisy which uses religiosity, nuclear family and cosmetic superficiality to attain social dominance. Reviewing his rise to public prominence during the 2008 Presidential campaign is a study in all that is wrong with U.S. politics and U.S. media.

However, it is wise to remember that Edwards is just one who is being held to account largely due to his betrayed wife's popularity with female-targeted media. The patriarchal paradigm of the high school hero who dates the head cheerleader permeates middle class American society. When he jilts the cheerleader, the star quarterback becomes vulnerable, as the illusion of perfection melts in the solvent of reality.

The up side of the Edwards matter is its corrosive effect on this patriarchal paradigm. Peeling away the hypocrisy of false monogamy and born-again morality humanizes social leaders in a positive way. Stripping away the falsehoods of the perfect couple or perfect family may be criticized as voyeuristic muckraking, but it forces those entranced with conformity and conservative values to question. This questioning can begin a process of skepticism in a person who may otherwise be sleepwalking from shopping mall to grave.

The world of patriarchal privilege denies equality to the vast majority of people. Despite the mouthing of words like "freedom" and "self-determination", the patriarchal exploiters maintain and enforce a system that excludes and confines on the basis of economic class. Lifting the lid and exposing these vampires to the light benefits the whole human species.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spending

References to "lost youth" amuse me. The years of a healthy young adulthood are not lost. They are spent. How they are spent determines the future life of most adults. 

The concept of loss has merged irrationally with the concept of victimhood in U.S. media culture. Loss implies the passive, unavoidable subtraction of a benefit, talent or capability by accidental circumstance. Spending implies the conscious decision to participate in behaviors with probable or at least possible repercussions. Smoking, drinking and violence are clear examples of spending. Smoking cigarettes is a conscious decision to spend a certain amount of a body's capacity for healthy respiration and metabolism. Drinking alcohol is a conscious decision to spend a certain amount of the body's capacity for brain function, liver function and kidney function. Spending time in violent occupations, such as making war or policing, have potentially crippling and lethal repercussions.

Like compulsive shopping, habitual or addictive spending of the body's health has a cumulative tab to be paid. Hundreds of nights of inebriation inevitably yield an irreversible price. Years of smoking inevitably yield an irreversible price. Those who run up these tabs are not victims of lung cancer, emphysema, cirrhosis or diabetes. They have spent their capacity for health to acquire these conditions. 

The Buddhists speak of cause and effect. Part of the concept of cause is how a person spends time, thought and action in life. Effect is the result of cause. Good cause yields good effect. Bad cause yields bad effect. We are only beneficiaries or victims of our own spending, in other words.

Practice is a way of living on a spending budget for personal energy and health. The person who develops a practice based in intelligence and responsibility does not see himself as a victim when he reaps the effects of his own spending. Letting go of unfounded victimhood is part of liberation. Taking control of and responsibility for my own spending of time and energy is an essential part of what I call humanist practice.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Inevitability

We live within lives of inevitability. We will inevitably grow from infancy to full size. We will inevitably be driven by hormones to behave in certain ways in our early years. We will inevitably mature, reflect more and try harder to do better at something, as experience knocks us around. We will inevitably grow older and wiser. We will inevitably have a fatal accident, contract some disease or develop some physical dysfunction, and then inevitably die.

Of course, the inevitable is only for those who survive long enough to experience it. Perhaps the unpredictable is what makes living with the inevitable bearable. "You never know. They may come up with a cure for that." These words are spoken often to people whose focus on the inevitable seems quite rational. The resistance to allowing the terminally ill to end their lives with comfort and dignity reflects this human need to trust the unpredictable over the inevitable. 

I am amused by those who accept philosophies which maintain that all human behavior is predictable and inevitable, based on natural genetic or environmental factors. These left-side brainiacs see us all as walking algorithms. They feel they can write an equation for anything and everything. The scary thing is that they are accurate sometimes. But chance always looms over their statistical predictions, and sometimes proves them dramatically off the mark. The recent global financial crisis is a notable example. Overpopulation, tsunamis and climate change are other examples.

The fatalistic confuse inevitability with powerlessness. "I'm going to die eventually, so why bother with anything!" This is like saying, "Well, I'm going to California from New York, so what difference does it make how I get there?" Try walking in bare feet. Then try a jet. You'll get my point.

Life's inevitability is like a pole star for my practice. I know the hard parts that always lie ahead. I accept the inevitable disappointments in those whom I might trust and love. I accept my own inevitable failure to make everyone happy. Death has approached me so closely three times that I know that exit is somewhere up ahead as I navigate my curving path. However, I also know I can take many turns before them. I know that I will be surprised, sometimes joyfully and sometimes sadly, by events and people I cannot now imagine or predict. 

Who needs a mythical paradise or a manipulating deity to make life more interesting or gratifying? Looking at life as it is fascinates, mystifies and humbles me every day. Mindfully living on the edge between the unpredictable and the inevitable is an extreme sport, which I call my humanist practice.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Water


It has been a dry winter in the Northeast U.S.. Spring rain has been scarce. So, when it does rain, I become more aware of the cycle of water in my environment. 

The cycle of water is amazing and humbling. Our planet is a closed system, more or less. The water we have is the water we have. The water we consume is part of it. The water we excrete is also part of it. The vapor we breathe is part of it. The vapor we exhale is part of it. 

I share the water which passes through my body with the farmers in China and Africa. The same molecules may have passed from my body to hers, and from hers to mine. I may breathe molecules of water which have been blown from the spout of a whale or passed through the gills of a shark. 

Water is a sacred communion to me. It unifies me with all other living things on the planet. It is scourge and blessing. It is waste and plenty. The degree to which I appreciate water and its significance in my life is a measure of my respect for my environment, my respect for myself and other living things.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Listening

There is no real compassion without listening. Listening is a form of ego-surrender. Good listening is a refined practice.

The iPhone culture does not promote good listening, in my opinion. There is a lot of talking and hearing going on. Sidewalk and subway monologues, laced with frustration or rage, are common in the city. Observing the monologist with any concentrated attention reveals a person who is not used to getting the attention of a good listener. Someone who is used to being listened to does not need to rage to get attention. 

I see a lot of vacant nodding when I watch people on the subway. I watch one person talking to another who is playing with his/her phone and nodding. The nodder is not listening. The speaker is not really talking to the nodder. She is talking to herself. This is masturbatory, not interactive.

Compassionate listening leads to compassionate responsiveness. This entails the undivided attention of the speaker and the listener. It requires a mutually focused moment. As a humanist, I respect a person's genuine need to be listened to or to listen to my responses. This is where human equality and love reside. Otherwise, peace, love and compassion are simply hollow words with little relevance to a self-absorbed life.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wonder

Last evening I caught the last bit of a 1986 Star Trek movie, in which a Earth woman in the 20th century is beamed onto a star ship which had time-warped back to Earth from the 23rd century. Prior to being beamed up by Scottie, the woman thought Admiral Kirk was a lunatic, posing as a visitor from the future. Her arrival on the star ship humbled her and shook her. She was a scientist and soon decided she did not want to return to the 20th century.

I'm glad I saw this again. It bolstered my confidence in my conviction that the Universe as it is should suffice as a source of lifelong wonder. Who needs ghosts and goblins, born of human fear? There are enough terrifying realities in front of the naked eye in daylight. Who needs a god? The intricate workings of our conscious existence, of our own bodies for example, can provide enough awe and wonder for the most skeptical.Who needs stagnant rituals? The Universe, and everything in it, is constantly changing.

After being exposed to the tools of education about the Universe, relying on religion or mysticism to explain the big questions of life and death is a form of intellectual laziness, infected by emotional cowardice. Look at what is in front of you...really look. Opening the eyes is liberation. Liberation opens doors which do not bring comfort and assurance. Living with a free mind is walking a tightrope above the abyss of fear, ignorance and arrogance.

Each day offers wonder when you decide to take the risk of being mindful and compassionate. The way of humanist practice requires a commitment to wonder, insecurity and experimentation. Dogma and ritual bring a false sense of security and indisputable correctness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Walking

Walking is underestimated for its value as exercise and therapy. Walking is a simple practice which can bring you health and a deeper awareness of your environment. By walking where you live, you can become a more engaged member of your community. 

The U.S. is a challenging place to walk generally. The obsession with and dependence on the wheel to get from one point to another has created a tangled mess of roads, highways and train tracks. Urban dwellers will often sit in traffic longer than it would take to walk to their destination or to a public transit conveyance. As they sit, chat or text on their mobile phones, and also eat, their waist bands stretch and their health deteriorates. 

I walk daily. I walk to do certain errands within my area. I also schedule a daily walk for pleasure. A one-hour walk on flat terrain is between three and four miles, depending on the pace and leg length of the walker. In the city, it pays to plan a route which will form a circuit: Going out from home on one route and returning from another. Familiarity with several routes I use helps me to feel relaxed, interact with people along the way and to appreciate my environment. 

On two occasions, walking brought me back from disability. Slowly developing my endurance every day by walking to my best ability brought me back from using a walker to walking miles every day. The walking rebuilt my confidence, as well as my muscle strength. 

There is a minor down side. You will find you need to buy shoes more frequently. A good shoe is essential for comfortable walking for an hour or more, even on flat paved terrain. It is important to check the soles of your shoes regularly. As soles fail, joints are stressed in different ways which can lead to discomfort or even joint stress. 

I have worked out countless problems on my walks. I sleep extremely well as long as I walk for an hour or more a day. My digestive system works much better with my daily walking regime.  Any neighborhood becomes more friendly if you walk through it regularly with your head up and an open smile for strangers. Part of our alienation from each other and from our environment comes from our lack of physically being on our streets in a relaxed and open way. Walking fuels my humanism by getting me in touch with other human beings in my greater environment.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Outlook

The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s-1970s in the U.S. opened the minds of many in the society to expansive outlooks on self-development, identity formation and interaction with reality. Self-help became a regular mainstay of the American lexicon. Gurus, many of whom were simply self-appointed hucksters, peddled all forms of composite philosophy and practice in books, lectures and retreats at trendy spas. Some of the more successful gurus ended up living on lovely properties in Hawaii or Northern California.

An intelligent, literate person does not need a trendy guru to develop a more constructive outlook on life. There is a mountain of useful information behind every type-pad or keyboard. Part of my humanist practice is using information to balance and re-frame my outlook on the world and on my own life. This is education. No tuition or fees required, other than the price of an Internet connection.

Whenever I feel stuck with a problem or a blue mood, I look to information to open a window. A wonder of this information age is the search engine. By knowing the question to ask, I can usually plow through and garner enough information to improve my outlook. I am not a groupie. I go to vastly different sources of information on a particular issue or problem. This helps me stay on a Middle Path with my adjusted outlook.

"You are what you eat." is a common adage. I support that notion. I also support another notion: "You experience what you choose to see." Outlook is part circumstance and part choice. Reshaping my outlook often takes work, but that work is always worthwhile.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Running


Marathon today. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Today is Marathon Monday in Boston. Thousands will run the twenty-six-mile race from suburb to city. The marathon itself is a phenomenon which evolved out of war culture in ancient Greece. The legendary run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the invading Persians in 490 BCE was resurrected for the Athens Olympics in 1896, basically a public relations myth. 

Running for some is meditative. For others, it is addictive. Brain physiology is changed by running. The release of endorphins during the stress of running produces a euphoric high. How many of us spend our lives running? Running from pain. Running from commitments. Running from facing our own mortality. Like the physical act of running, running in other ways can produce release, euphoria and the illusion of escape from the inevitable. 

I ran for years as a method of maintaining endurance and reducing anxiety. It was very effective as an antidote, a balance, to the stresses of my nursing career. I stopped running in my forties. Since both my parents had already encountered knee degradation or replacement, I decided to give my own knees a break at the suggestion of a physician. 

The loss of running as a coping mechanism was disruptive to my life's routines. I began substituting more walking and other forms of exercise to compensate. I realized how central running had been to my metabolism, my sleep patterns and my general sense of well being. The change was a milestone in my development of my personal practice. I embraced more fully the guiding concept that my body is a complex machine with a limited lifespan and requirements for intelligent maintenance. In other words, I could no longer run away from the fact that I am inevitably aging and changing physically.

A central element of my humanist practice is maintaining my health. Functionality depends on health, and continued health depends on functionality. Without nerve-muscle health, proper respiration and proper metabolism, the body becomes immobilized. Once immobilized, the body begins to deteriorate very quickly. Muscle wastes. Ligaments contract. Bones lose integrity. Running is a great form of conscious exercise to keep the body strong and functional. However, running from the core issue of responsibility for maintaining a healthy lifestyle to be a better human being is a no-win game. Life is one course which we do not wish to finish in record time.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Clutter

Many self-help gurus speak of "centering" as a method to develop a clear mind and happy life. However, I think many people cannot see their center until they do significant clearing of the clutter of their minds. The clearing is a very important first step in achieving an ordered mind. 

Think of a cluttered closet, basement or attic. The clutter itself becomes overwhelming. You take a deep breath and rush through the process of trying to find something in the mess, thereby creating a worse mess in the process. The cluttered space is dusty and even dangerous, because disrupting one thing can result in an avalanche of harmful objects.

The only effective solution here is to empty the cluttered space of all its contents. Objects long forgotten can be examined and evaluated for their usefulness. Detritus can be thrown away, donated or recycled. The space can be examined, cleaned thoroughly and organized with shelving. Objects of value can be placed in clear view, kept clean and ready for use with regular discipline. 

A mind can be a cluttered space. Some of a mind's clutter can be caused by its infrastructure, like a badly designed closet. We inherit brains with certain chemistry and proclivities. Our brains are conditioned by our developmental environments. Some of us are left with brains that are very difficult to organized, clear and use. Some of us have to work harder to keep the deep recesses of our brains well maintained day by day. Some of us need to use psychotropic medications to accomplish the process of clearing the mind. 

Like a closet, the mind must be maintained by the development of daily habits of organization. If you just throw your shoes into a closet at the end of every day, you will soon have to spend a lot of time every day finding the matching shoes you want to wear. The tidy mind, like the tidy closet, allows the user to access information and feelings without having to sort through obstructing rubble every time. This saves time, the most precious currency in a mortal lifespan.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Words

There has been a lot of hypersensitivity to words in media and in general society in America. A recent report on a racial murder in the South by CNN garnered resounding criticism because the newscaster simply repeated the alleged words of the murderer, who use the word "nigger" in describing his victim. This is being interpreted as the smoking gun in the hate-crime case. In another less abrasive example, a reporter described the wife of a wealthy Presidential candidate as "never having worked a day in her life". An avalanche of defensiveness fell on the reporter from wealthy stay-at-home moms and their supporters. Sadly, the reporter apologized. 

This school-yard approach to language and reactions to language are indicators of the adolescent attitudes in the media and in American society toward serious life issues, such as racism, violence and wealth disparity. Like a school-yard spat, the participants hyper-focus on the details and totally lose sight of the process of what is happening. By banning the word "nigger' in public, some feel they are actually curing racism. By prohibiting the statement of the obvious privilege of some in society, some feel they are actually closing the wealth gap by mere equivocation.

I am no stranger to these issues. As a gay man, I grew up under the oppressive weight of the words "faggot" and "queer" and "sissy" at a time when they were commonplace everywhere, including my parents' home. In fact, my seriously Catholic parents would not utter or allow other words for racial or ethnic groups. "Queer" and "sissy" were allowed. I knew I was the lowest of the low in just about everybody's estimation at a very early age. 

Preventing bullying in the schools is the best way to eliminate the unthinking use of bullying language. Recent consciousness of the devastating psychological effects of bullying is a great thing. The "It gets better." campaign for LGBTQ youth fell short of the mark in this regard, as I see it. A campaign to empower LGBTQ children to report and enlist the aid of adults against bullying in concert with all other children would have been more powerful. "It get better." translates to "Be quiet and get through it!" in my mind. This is what I did, but I would not encourage any child in this society in the 21st century to take bullying and shut up as the LGBTQ youth of my 1950s generation did until we grew old enough to take to the streets in protest.

"Be quiet!" is part of the underlying message I hear when media people shout down those who lay out the naked truth with real language. Accurately recounting a situation where ethnic or racial slurs occurred is a way to the truth of that situation. Sanitizing the report of it is simply telling people to deny how harsh the reality was. Telling a reporter she cannot state the reality that a rich woman has it a lot easier than a poor woman is a form of class censorship. The poor cannot criticize the rich in public today without being accused of class warfare.

As a humanist, I cannot allow myself to fear words. To fear words is to fear free speech and the portrayal of reality as it is. To fear words is to keep the secrets which oppress. To fear words is to surrender to those who use them as weapons. When gay men established "Queer Nation" as a slogan in the 1970s, they captured a word which had oppressed them. Africa-Americans have captured the word "nigger" within their own culture. These actions against fearing words which once oppressed have shed the light on them, so that now we know immediately from context when they are being used to oppress.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Violence

In an age when murderers are cheered as heroes by religious fanatics, how do we distinguish between the liberator and the lunatic? As a humanist, my measure of the ethics of any political leader or advocate for a cause is non-violence. The advocate for violence is not progressive. 

I consider self-defense in the face of aggression to protect those who are non-violent as an exceptional action which may lead to injury or even death to an aggressive attacker. The civilian fighters and army deserters in Syria who are trying to stem the slaughter of unarmed civilians are engaged in this form of self-defense. The shame of powerful democracies with great armies for not intervening surgically in this situation is obvious.

Here in Boston, a religious fanatic was sentenced to prison for planning terrorist acts in league with al-Qaeda. He gave a notorious speech in which he defended his actions as those of a defender of the oppressed. There is no greater oppressor than patriarchal religion and its violent self-justification. The sad fact that he is admired by anyone supports my point. 

Humanism, whether inspired by religion or secularism, entails a rejection of violence as a means to human progress. Its short-term gains are always leveled by violent reactions. The people of Libya and Egypt are struggling with this process. The fortunate citizens of Tunisia are beholding the blossoming of their Arab Spring, stirred by non-violence.

Contention and violence will never yield the same benefit as cooperation and conciliation. As a humanist who has worked with violent mental patients in communal settings I have seen ample evidence of the soundness of this reasoning. The most disturbed and impaired human mind responds to love and affection far more readily than to aggressive confrontation. I see humanist practice as a daily method to promote non-violent and mutually rewarding existence in a world confused by aggression and greed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Fairness

There has been much debate and protest about the lack of fairness in the criminal justice systems and the economies of capitalist nations. Money seems to buy preferential treatment in the courts. The rich get special exemptions from paying taxes. 

As long as economies and criminal justice systems are based in a competitive, or bipolar, model, I doubt these systems will bring about fairness for all. For example, a crime is perpetrated against a victim. The process in most criminal justice systems becomes wrapped up in a competition between prosecutors and defense lawyers. The victim's and convicted perpetrator's relative needs or requirements for rehabilitation are generally ignored right from the beginning of the process. The process is one of winning, not finding truth or administering fair justice. 

The issue of money's influence on fairness is more clear-cut. In a world where human beings must still compete to survive within their own species, greed is a normal defense against the fear, whether realistic or not, of deprivation. Capitalism by definition is based in competition for resources, products and capital. It is an extension of the struggle for survival from human beings' ancient past. Social Darwinism is intrinsic to capitalism. There is no fairness in Social Darwinism, if we are to prize mindfulness and compassion. If we accept the assumption that human beings cannot supersede their animal instincts, then Social Darwinism is inevitable and fairness, as conceived by the compassionate mind, is off the table. Discussing it, as politicians often do, is simply hot air.

We are light years away from a fair human society worldwide. However, as a humanist I can practice fairness in my individual lives to the best of my daily ability. This is part of what I call humanist practice. This is a demanding practice. It often requires questioning my own motives at times when my instincts convince my brain that I am in the right. This practice begins with being fair to myself by avoiding black-white decisions and exploring the gray options vigorously. By becoming less competitive (conflicted) within myself, I can be more open to choices which can yield a fair result for myself and those in my environment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pleasure

During a typically thought-provoking conversation last evening with an intelligent young friend, the subject of life's enjoyment came up. My young friend, who is developing his persona and credentials in the international diplomatic field, said he looked forward to being my age some day so he could truly enjoy life's moments in an uncluttered and simple way. This got me thinking.

I live in a culture where the hedonistic pleasures of youth are practically a religion. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll have been American obsessions since the late 1960s. The mutated Sexual Revolution now presents as media-driven, soft-porn crassness, staged around the globe in resort-cities from Vegas to Phuket. The MTV reality show, Jersey Shore, exemplifies this cultural trend.

My young friend was looking at my life and commenting on its apparent simplicity. While I do not experience it as he sees it, my life is comparatively simple by choice to his. It must be. As I explained to him, his life, at 20 something, is about construction and my life, at 62, is about deconstruction. We seem to connect as those on opposite ends of a life spectrum often do, since life, being rather cyclic, tends to bring ends of a spectrum together to form a circle, or continuum.

The experience of pleasure does indeed change with personal development, age and circumstances. The body and brain change. Stimuli are processed differently with biochemistry of age and experience. The key, from the perspective of personal practice, is to develop a taste for the changing nature of pleasure, rather than specific pleasures themselves. By nurturing a tolerance and eventual enjoyment of change in the nature of pleasure, the wise person can always live life with enjoyment. The experience of joy becomes an active pursuit, a part of daily practice, rather than the passive sensation of repetitively pursued external stimuli.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Direction

Young people whose fortunate birth brought them proper nurturing and education find direction laid out for them in modern society. Primary school, high school, college, perhaps graduate school or a job. The socially presumed path is linear, clear, focused. This is role fulfillment, not personal practice.

For those with less fortunate circumstances, life is a journey without a road map. These young people are pioneers in a difficult landscape. Without high school diploma, skilled vocational training or college degree, making ends meet is very challenging. The less fortunate balance on a ridge between bad alternatives. They must struggle against society's subtle pressure to stay within their caste.

Both fortunate and less fortunate eventually must deal with the choices which determine life's path. The ultimate life journey is the same for us all: Birth, growth, decline, death. Developing a personal practice is a way of determining a path in life. It is a process of building and following a personal compass. Determining True North on that compass is the process of choosing the basic values and ethics of daily life.

Being a humanist for me entails consulting that compass in the most trivial moments as well as the most life-changing moments. This is the work and benefit of daily conscious practice. While the path ahead is seldom predictable, having a practice and a path give my feet a firmer footing in each moment. This process builds confidence with which to face the worst and the best of life as it comes.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Absolution

There are no blank slates in life with the possible exception of the world-view of those with severe dementia. We each live with the cumulative effects of the causes we have initiated or pursued. We are the choices we have made with the bodies and minds we have been given by our biology and our environments.

The gimmick of absolution was best exploited by the medieval Catholic Church as it hurled armies at the Holy Land in the Crusades, payback for the fall of the last vestiges of the Eastern Roman Empire to rising Islam. The absolution game was simple. Catholic aristocrats could commit rape, incest, patricide, fratricide, or any other atrocity against humanity, and eventually attain cleansing absolution in exchange for joining the Crusades in cooperation with the Papacy.

We now know from psychology that experience imprints information on the brain, like data on a hard drive of a computer. While the brain may not easily offer up specific memory on demand for multiple reasons, the data is there. It is reasonable to assume that its impact on the body and mind is also still there to some degree. Research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder supports this concept.  

How different would the education of children be if this was taken seriously throughout society? How much more onerous would it make any decision to commit violence? How much more seriously would politicians take sending soldiers into combat? 

The realization of the stubborn emotional consequences of my own actions came early in my life. When I was a young boy, I assaulted my cousin violently when he goaded me in public about a frightening secret I had shared with him privately. I actually blacked out with rage. The only time in my life. When I was pulled off of him, I was scraping his face against a concrete sidewalk. He sustained no permanent physical damage, but we were both traumatized by what I had done. He was never open with me again. It contributed to my decision over a decade later to work in a hospital for the violently insane. My compassion for my most violent patients was born of empathy.

My chest tightens today at 62 when I recall that early-life trauma. Perhaps I would feel exonerated if I believed that my physical reaction is some god's punishment which would thereby absolve me of my violence. I think that would be irresponsible. I committed the act. I live with its effect. I have chosen to acknowledge it and learn from it. I have not initiated aggressive violence against another human being since that day. I have turned my poisonous rage into practical medicine by physical and emotional care for others professionally and in my private life in many forms. 

I believe the humanist need not seek absolution. He seeks understanding with responsibility for his thoughts and actions. He transmits that understanding to others after honest reflection. He accepts the caring and forgiveness of others while understanding the value of their compassion. Humanist practice entails honestly looking at our own actions with a skeptical and analytic eye. This is so much more valuable than an imagined absolution. It is the foundation of learning and changing who I am. And its weight is a great preventative force to avoid committing the same mistakes repeatedly.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter

My great aunts in Belarus.
My maternal grandmother came from a small farmstead near the primeval forests of Belarus. She was illiterate for her whole life. She could not add or subtract. She thrilled me with stories in Russian of howling wolf packs on winter nights. Her amusement at terrifying a three-year-old child with wolf stories sheds some light on her character and general disposition. I think of her at Easter.

Russian Orthodox Easter occurs a week later than Roman Catholic Easter. My parents were Roman Catholic. My grandmother was Russian Orthodox. These calendar discrepancies between two brands of the same religion launched mini-jihads every year at Easter and Christmas in our household, which we shared with my Russian grandmother.

Easter is a bigger holiday in Orthodox Catholicism than in Roman Catholicism. Our local Russian priest, a jolly fat man with a funny hat and a waist-length beard, visited houses on Russian Easter morning to bless traditional egg-bread and white boiled eggs. He also expected a shot of good vodka and a roll of cash pressed to his palm discreetly. The cash was tucked quickly into a slit of his black cassock just to the right of the large gold-and-jeweled Orthodox cross that hung from his neck. My rapt attention to every detail of his visit usually gained me a firm, head-shaking pinch to my cheeks with his plump fingers.

The charming multiculturalism of all this, from today's American cinematic perspective, was overshadowed by the heated arguments in Russian between my grandmother and mother that persisted for weeks around the holiday. Easter to me entailed the descending of a black cloud over our house for weeks. While my peers reveled in coloring Easter eggs, I was more fascinated with the white eggs of my grandmother's holiday. "Who wants to eat a purple egg? I like the white ones." This questioning and statement of taste fueled my mother's American-acculturated fury. "What is the matter with you?" She would ask and tilt her head at me, a cuckoo in her nest. 

The old priest retired, and the new, much younger priest stopped doing Easter visits. My grandmother stopped going to the Orthodox church shortly thereafter. I could see her bitter disappointment at losing this last strong link to her homeland as she had known it as a child at the turn of the twentieth century. The Tsarist White Russia which she had left at seventeen to work in American textile mills had still existed in her mind decades after it was changed by The Revolution. The young priest had brought The Revolution to her new home as well.

My grandmother's troubled journey with religion and culture informed me at an early age: Her 'mixed marriage' to a Roman Catholic blacksmith from Lithuania, the conflicts she experienced with family and community over this religious difference, her lack of assimilating mentally and culturally into the society where she was a naturalized citizen for over 50 years. All this comes to me today at Easter. I think of her inability to reshape and resurrect a new life in her adopted country due to her lack of education and lack of intellectual curiosity.

This personal history has consciously fueled my enthusiasm for change, education and maintaining a humanist practice over the years. Despite her anger and depression over her own life's disappointments, I know that my grandmother held out some hope for me that my life would be different. She did not know how to encourage me in that direction, but her example provided its own form of incentive for me to be different. A form of turning poison into medicine, in the Buddhist sense. My humanist practice first developed as a walking away from divisive rituals and anger-provoking difference in beliefs in dogmatic nonsense. Rolling away the darkening stone from the stifling tomb of tradition and convention.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Feminism

I was encouraged recently when I heard a report on NPR that women voters are polling 18 percentage points in favor of President Obama over Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. However, I was also genuinely surprised, despite the recent outrageous debates by men in civil and religious positions of authority over a woman's right to practice birth control with her own body.

This is a time of very subdued feminism in America. This is disappointing to a older gay man like me. Loud feminism lifted the cause of gay rights in America in my youth.  Loud protests of women against racism, sexism, war and homophobia changed American society. However, the well-financed Thatcher and Reagan drumbeat of returning to "family values" in the name of Right Wing fiscal affluence muffled many stalwarts of the early feminist cause, as young women turned to materialism and executive-promotion ladders in the new corporate America. 

Perhaps the most stunning cultural blow to American feminism came with the Sex in the City woman, who is ironically a hedonistic gay man in a dress. The series was conceived and largely written by gay men, but was a huge success among young women. The media portrayal of the "successful" woman, as exemplified in exaggerated form by The Devil Wears Prada, is comparable to the portrayal of upwardly mobile men in the culture comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and One, Two, Three.  

As a gay man, I know that quiet manipulation does not gain and maintain equal rights for a group which has been judged as "less than" for centuries. I also know that there is a wide middle path between reactionary riots and colluding silence. I see the modern American woman as diverging to the Right on that path. The patriarchal corporate structure will reward this. It will encourage women to become a new version of traditional heterosexual men. That will serve the corporate culture and also serve to disable women who see feminism as more than a negligible circumstance of birth. This has worked well with the gay rights movement. By normalizing gay men and lesbian women as gun-toting, marriageable folks just like every other American, the gay rights movement has been steered into the direction of materialist, corporate culture from its anti-war and feminist origins on the Left.

The lesson will eventually be revealed again that those who are exploited and oppressed by patriarchy and money. They will once again need to stand up and shout. The Occupy movement's rapid flare across the planet is a symptom of that smoldering fire of the human spirit. When women awaken from their satisfaction with mimicking heterosexual or gay men without really gaining respect as truly autonomous equals, the light of activist feminism will once again help guide the steps of global culture away from its current path to war and socioeconomic inequality.



Friday, April 6, 2012

Ritual

Ritual dictated by dogma or tradition is a vestige of religion's organizing and ruling role in human history. The most ancient rituals were simply codified superstition. Later rituals became history lessons, laced with grudges or aggrandising myths. Seasonal rituals were used to organize agrarian societies into food production cycles, coordinated with reproductive cycles for the birth of children, later exploited as future farm laborers. Eroticized Spring rituals in some societies encouraged impregnation that would result in Winter deliveries, which were less draining on the labor supply during high-production seasons. 

Religious rituals, in other words, were always part of social engineering by those in power. And, today we see the most avid supporters of religion and its rituals flocking to the most conservative and socially controlling causes.

Humanist practice is in part the development of individual and creative daily rituals motivated by a desire to lead a responsible and compassionate life. The humanist who has his/her own practice may be quite unimpressed with religious rituals. After all, the prescribed ritualism of religion has not generally kept up with the times. Religions have generally sided with forces which retard progressive movement of the species to deal with significant issues of war, overpopulation and environmental degradation.

The daily crafting of creative rituals, or habits, for becoming a better human being is far more sustaining than any prescribed, static religious rite. For those who prefer to support the status quo, prescribed ritual is a balm to distract from their sense of personal helplessness to change the world. It is a form of whistling in the dark.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taxes

Taxes are the price of civilization in a democracy. Protesters here in Boston are demonstrating against increased fares proposed for the public transportation system. I wonder how many of these demonstrators also supported state legislators who rejected Governor Patrick's reasonable plan to raise gasoline taxes to cover public transportation expenses several years ago. If Governor Patrick's plan had been approved, this crisis may well have been avoided. 

The cost of citizenship in a well maintained environment is paying taxes. The cost of having well educated and civilized children in public schools is paying taxes. The cost of reducing crime and increasing public safety is paying taxes. There is no magical way of providing for the common good. Libertarians are deluded in thinking that somehow the streets will get swept and the street lights will shine without a well funded government. 

This is where I see an inherent conflict between being a humanist and being a Libertarian or fiscally conservative Republican. I agree with President Obama in his indictment of the Congressional Ryan Plan as Social Darwinism. Darwin's observations serve us best when we acknowledge our unique power as human beings to work together to create a civil society which provides social and economic justice for all. Currently, many human beings generally behave as do all other animals. They think and behave under the assumption that prosperity is for the aggressive and the most fortunate. Many mega-churches preach a gospel of materialism that follows this general line of thought, substituting their god's grace for the fortune of genetics and circumstance.

In this tax season, I am always reminded of my own debt to social benefits which depend on taxes. My grandparents struggled through much of their lives without a social security system. They had no affordable access to health insurance. They had no unemployment insurance. Their children, however, were blessed with excellent public education, funded by taxes. My parents were able to utilize that education to overcome the devastating effects of a Great Depression on their childhoods. They were able to recover from the equally daunting effects of a World War. Their public education, even attained in poor communities, were their key to a more prosperous and secure life.

I cringe as I hear blowhards on the far Right blandly talk of eliminating public education, environmental regulations and public health activities of government. This is idiotic, to put it mildly. Since the proponents of this kind of drivel are usually somewhat affluent and appear educated to a degree, I have to speculate that they may be mentally or emotionally impaired in some way, as was their goddess Ayn Rand.

Without adequate tax revenues and government intervention in a positive way in the lives of citizens, there cannot be civilization in human populations in the millions and billions. Those with great wealth, subjects of greed and avarice who do not wish to pay taxes, are uncivilized predators. They are not fellow citizens. They are a self-appointed aristocracy. This is not class warfare. This is a simple statement of fact.

Taxing the rich more aggressively is the job of government. It is not the only answer. We all must contribute to the public budget in order to benefit from it fairly. As a humanist, I pay my taxes without regret. I have no children of my own, but I have paid property taxes for public education gladly. I know that my own enjoyment of peaceful citizenship is dependent on educated children who can grow to be self-educating and responsible adults. And, as a humanist, I take it as my responsibility to pay attention to how effectively and conscientiously my taxes are spent for the benefit of all citizens, not just the privileged few.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tribalism

Human social structures are evolving rapidly due to social media, mass media and high-speed transportation. The pull of tribalism is being countered by a pull to identify with the one human tribe, the human species. This greater human identity through the abandonment of tribalism is a basic element of humanism. This could be a threshold to great human progress. However, the pull of tribalism is very strong. It is fed by politicians, religious leaders, educators and parents.

Family identity is based in tribalism. Racism is based in tribalism. Team sports are based in tribalism. Nationalism is based in tribalism. War is based in tribalism. As long as the human mind is trained to see another human being as "the other", the negative effects of tribalism will hold sway on human behaviors.

The gradual effects of overpopulation may well counteract the positive effects of other factors which retard tribal reactions to perceived dangers of deprivation. Water wars have been predicted. Flooding and drought due to climate change and sea-level rise may necessitate large population shifts. Petroleum depletion may occur before adequate development of alternative energy sources. As the human population geometrically grows, it will be less possible for governments divided by nationalism and ideology to find non-violent solutions in timely response to environmental factors.  

While it may seem benign to speak of "our team", it immediately draws a line which defines "us" and "them". This may be perfectly harmless and even creative when it is done intentionally among those who share the understanding that the team is a fluid and abstract concept, applied to a specific function or activity. But, many human beings unconsciously cast their identities within the rigid boundaries of adopted or doctrinal tribes. Some Americans actually perceive themselves as somehow intrinsically different from people of other nationalities. Some religious people see themselves as intrinsically different from other religious or non-religious people. 

A shift from tribalism to humanism may be the next major human evolutionary step. Many futurists look to electronically-based solutions to human overpopulation and planetary degradation. I think this is misguided. After all, our electronic technology is fundamentally as much planet-degrading as planet-improving. A shift to humanism in combination with smart technology may well be the key to establishing a needed balance between human population and planetary environmental health.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Truth

Discussions of what constitutes Truth always lead to a confused muddle about subjectivism and objectivism. However, a Global Post article about an Israeli reality-TV show shed some light on the power of telling it like it is. Telling it like it is, from an honest personal perspective, cuts through quibbling arguments over Absolute Truth.

In mental-health circles, we used to call this an observation and statement of Process. Stating process is simply laying out what is happening without delving into motivation or cause. Looking at and understanding the process of a group, as the Tavistockian Model advocates, can reveal the group's Truth, in a sense.

In dysfunctional families, one child or relation is usually the observer and commentator on that family's process. This person is often the Truth-teller in therapy. He/she reveals the secrets and lies behind the process by simply revealing the process and opening up the Pandora's box of motivations and history.

As a humanist, being the observer and commentator on process comes rather naturally with a practice of mindfulness and compassion. Awareness is the door to humanist perspective. Understanding is the humanist motivation. Open-minded observation is the humanist method to understand before acting. Absolute Truth is irrelevant to a humanist. Absolute Truth is a tool of religious control. The humanist is satisfied with the truth of process in each reality he/she encounters. Promoting understanding, peace and joy within that truth is the job of the humanist practice.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Communion

"It isn't much, but it's the best I can manage." We lived in four shabby rooms in Harvard Square in 1971. Every evening, James, my first partner, dragged one or more people up the creaking stairs for supper without any notice to me, the residing cook. I was teaching high school at the time. On my way home from my job, I stopped and picked up stew meat or beans for soup with greens and roots. Lazy nights gave way to jars of pasta sauce and macaroni.

The faces around our living room were often new. We ate from soup plates on our laps and bread plates on the floor by our feet. We sat on low platforms I had built from cheap lumber. I managed to line the walls of the small room with enough seating for a dozen or more. No matter how crowded it got, it never felt cramped. One regular guest called it "loaves-and-fishes magic". 

James, a musician and composer, had a knack for adopting people and stray animals. I never turned around from the stove when I heard his feet on the stairs. I knew we would have enough somehow. I also knew I wouldn't have to worry about left-overs. This was a labor of joy. I was "the quiet one" of our group. The others were actors, street musicians, painters, poets and radical activists. I cooked. I served. I was happy.

This time of my life was a time of constant communion. My apartment was no more my own than my soup or my bread. I was able to grow as a human being by leaps and bounds. Each stranger brought a lesson to our door. Some of those lessons were laced with giddy, dope-smoking laughter. Other lessons were deep blue with the struggles of those less fortunate than I was at the time. Our place was drop-in center, home and performance venue.

Thinking of this time is not the sentimental journey of an old man. I draw on memories of that time often. The lessons of it still apply. Learning to open the door freely, to open heart and hearth to strangers, is a practice in itself. The bumps and falls of life can cause us to bar our doors in self-defense. However, retaining the ability to throw open the door at any time is rewarding. Developing the ability to balance this ready openness to communion with pursuing a personal path and practice is the business of becoming a mindful and compassionate human being.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Murder

At the same time outrage explodes over the single death by gun of a teen in Florida, thousands of unarmed civilians are being massacred every month in Syria at the hands of a heavily equipped army of 300,000 directed by the dynastic dictator al-Assad. The two cases are not dissimilar. The Syrian regime sees itself as a defender of minority rights in the face of an enraged and oppressed Sunni majority. Mr. Zimmerman reportedly saw himself as a defender of the minority of home owners in his gated community against a perceived criminal threat from outsiders. 

Our human tribalism seems to be hard-wired. In-crowd vs. out-crowd is the core theme of wars and violent conflicts within societies throughout the ages. Whether it be for religion or politics, the human ability to alienate and objectify seems automatic and instinctive. It is counterproductive and life-threatening. However, as human beings in an age of science and mass communication, why are we still bound by these instincts to the point of murderous violence? Why are the conventions of violence still accepted by our leaders worldwide?

This is the question of a non-violent humanist. This is a question of a person who denies the validity of violence, no matter how it may be excused by religious texts or traditions. This is the question of a person who practices daily non-violence, even when confronted with his own violent impulse in reaction to aggression. Practicing non-violence is difficult in a peaceful society. It can be suicidal in a society which is ripped apart by terrorism and oppression by armed troops. 

The extinction of Osama Bin Laden by American commandos or the drone assassination of terrorists in Pakistan may be a more civilized examples of government actions to avoid mass murder. The line of who is, or is not, deserving of being murdered is a hard one to draw. George Zimmerman obviously was unable to make that distinction while armed with lethal force. Murder is too easy with a gun or a bomb.

As a humanist, I see violence which leads to murder as a disease. The best way of avoiding disease is to practice prevention. The weapons industries of the planet are part of the disease process of murderous violence. Nationalist military forces are part of that disease. Religious fundamentalism which justifies murder is part of that disease. Autocratic government is part of that disease. 

One positive development of the Arab Spring is a challenge to more affluent nations to examine their position on murder of civilians at the hands of armed military troops. This seems a small but momentous step in human history. International cooperation to condemn and potentially stop the mass murder of civilians is progress. In a similar way, the outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is progressive if it can move beyond a near-sighted reaction over possible racism to a discussion of the place of murderous weapons in American society.