Friday, August 31, 2012

Quiet

I grew up in a city deemed the most densely populated in the United States in the 1950s. There were approximately 35,000 people in less than one square mile. It was, and still is, a place of crammed-in triple-deckers and old houses, broken into small apartments.

Quiet was a commodity which was hard to come by. Traffic, sirens and the constant tread of heavy feet on creaky stairs punctuated every hour of the day. As children, we played and screamed in the streets. Small congested apartments did not provide the space for intimate conversations. With the noise came a certain blunt insensitivity in human interactions. 

Today I see poor urban youngsters on the train. They live in similar circumstances to those of my early life. I understand their raucousness with a certain amount of painful empathy. I watch the quiet ones, hiding behind their smart phones and insulated by their headphones. I remember sitting in their place as well. 

I have become an avid appreciator of simple quiet. It is different from silence. In my house, I can hear various neighborhood sounds in the distance. They are muted by insulation and double-paned glass. They form a background to the quiet of my own space. In that quiet, I can communicate with my own thoughts without distraction. In that quiet, I can work happily at various chores. I that quiet, I can truly relax. 

Meditating breeds an appreciation of both sound and quiet. For example, I use the low fan on my air conditioner as white noise when I meditate in summer. By allowing the fan's noise to wash through my brain, I can detach from other ambient sounds and rambling thoughts. My room is not silent, but the white noise provides a form of predictable environmental quiet. After years of daily meditation, I can find quiet in most environments by selecting a similar sensory focus. 

Urban life is noisy. The noise can infect the untamed mind. The untamed mind can then become addicted to constant stimulation. New sounds. New sensual experiences. Finding your personal quiet place is a first step in practice for self-development. It does not require traveling to a mountaintop in Tibet. Finding a quiet personal place is more about finding what form of quiet brings your mind some peace.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Outlook

I seems to me that my generally positive outlook on life has taken a fair amount of practice. I'm not a naturally cheerful person. Nor am I incorrigibly optimistic. Yet I maintain a half-full outlook through most days. 

A deep depression over the deaths of several people close to me when I was very young dented my genuinely optimistic childhood. Despite being a sickly kid, I was known for being unnaturally cheerful among the people whom I loved. When I became depressed at eleven, I secretly fell to the deepest depths of suicidal pessimism.

I emerged from that depression five years later when I entered university. The shock of finding myself in premedical studies at sixteen with peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than my own got my attention. My professors were brutally clear that they were on a mission to cut 2/3 of the entering premedical class. "Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you will be here after the first year." That was the speech on the first day of freshman orientation.

I realized some years later that I didn't really belong there. I was an obsessive-compulsive, dyslectic, gay kid with a panic disorder, commuting from a troubled home 90 minutes in each direction on public transportation. And there I was in the most competitive program of a nationally respected private university.  I decided to swim rather than sink. I see that time as the start of my daily practice. 

It became obvious to me very soon that my outlook each day at the university had a significant impact on my performance and on my social interactions. I developed a method of gearing up for classes on the trolley ride to the campus. It was an early form of meditation in my life. Between classes, when my dormitory-residing friends went off to their own dining commons, I smuggled my bagged lunch into the library stacks. I secured a remote cubicle in the stacks. Like a hunched-over monk, I nibbled my lunch and studied with intense concentration. 

I graduated third in my premedical class four years later. And, despite the fact I had a degree I had no real interest in parlaying into an elite medical career, I knew I could control my mind and body to achieve. This is a tremendous lesson for a 20-year-old. I knew then that my process of managing my outlook on life's situations could turn difficult challenges into bearable and workable situations. 

Given the challenges to humanism in current society, that ability to maintain a positive daily outlook is priceless. This blog is part of my process in maintaining a healthy and practical outlook on my own life in its environment. I work through tendencies to become overwhelmed by what is wrong with my life to take even a minor step to do something to make it better. Opening the door to view the possibilities is the first step in developing a positive outlook. This takes practice. Meditation, self-education and reflection help a great deal. Maintaining physical health is essential.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Yesterday

Being in the moment is wise and difficult to do. Today I am in a moment of fatigue after a very stressful day yesterday. My mind and my body are stressed. I can feel the effects of yesterday's pressures.

So, what can I do? Staying in today's moment does not entail denying yesterday's repercussions. I can be gentle with myself today. I can recuperate. Rather than denying the effects of the past, it is best to face them. This is a practice which comes with looking openly at all the past's demons. Denying the past amplifies its effect. Compensating myself intentionally and healthily for the effects of yesterday makes today's moments less stressful.

Practice is a process of intentional maintenance of mental and physical balance. Time is the stream in which I must practice. Learning to use precious time constructively brings greater joy and peace than making money, becoming famous or satisfying material urges.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sacrifice

The whole notion of personal sacrifice has been distorted by religion. Religions have manipulated followers to sacrifice money to support the people who run religions. Giving hard-earned money for constructing ostentatious meeting places has been portrayed as a holy sacrifice. The ostentatious meeting places are simply career-boosters for the religious hierarchies who build them.

True compassion often requires sacrifice. It requires sacrificing personal prejudices and egocentric ideas about how things should be. Compassion entails getting in touch with and accepting the way another person feels and thinks.

This personal sacrifice of ego to develop compassion is world-changing. It is not masochistic, like the sacrifices exalted by many Christians. Giving myself to the lions of the Colosseum with a smile is the stuff of cheesy 1950s Christian propaganda films. It has little to do with the sacrifice of ego for compassion in the name of peace and shared joy.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Clarity

A muddled mind is unlikely to progress. The muddled mind will rely on what it knows to get through stressful situations. Clarity of mind is the product of mental stamina, developed through regular education, meditation and reflection. This is essential for any progressive personal process, or practice. 

How can I effectively educate, meditate with or reflect with a mind polluted with drugs, too much refined sugar or alcohol? The answer is simple: I cannot. How can I expand a sleep-deprived mind? I cannot. How can I expand a mind fixated on materialistic or hedonistic concerns? I cannot.

Clarity comes with health and simplicity. From that clarity come mindfulness and compassion in the ongoing moments of conscious life. I am either engaged in conscious practice or running on mental automatic in the moment. Practice is the choice of an intentional mental life. That is not a life of reactions, impulses and apologies. The intentional mental life of practice is clear. It is responsive and responsible.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Conservatism

Strong vine!
If you see it spring up, 
Take care!
Pull it out by the roots.


Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Ch. 24, p. 91

On the eve of the U.S. Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida, currently worrying about the possible flooding by Hurricane Isaac's passing, I am thinking of conservatism. You know, the kind of conservatism that preaches that LGBTQ people are less human. The kind of conservatism that preaches that evolution is an evil lie. The kind of conservatism that preaches that climate change is a myth. 

I also consider these words attributed to Gautama Buddha.

Conservatism requires something to conserve. In American politics, this conservation is most fundamentally the conservation of hereditary wealth. This isn't much of an advancement from Euro aristocracy. Funny thing is that the Europeans, sickened by millennia of aristocracy, have surpassed Americans in their remedies of social and economic inequality.

The vine of egoistic biological reproduction, heredity and wealth is deeply rooted. What does it take to pull it out by the roots. Mao tried. Lenin tried. Their efforts became corrupted by the same smothering vine, reborn. Bureaucrats as aristocrats.

Struggling, evolving America was a place where the roots of heredity paled compared to the success of personal achievement and personal contribution to the greater good. The pioneering spirit of the early Americans, eventually corrupted by conquest and wealth, inspired the Declaration of Independence and the original U.S. Constitution.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lists

I have become a writer and follower of lists. I use small pads of plain paper. Three inches by five. I like to write my lists with a bold roller-ball pen in black ink. 

I am 62. We older folks need lists of some kind, perhaps more than our younger neighbors. Our brains don't work the same way. I am fine with that. 

I started making lists as a young nurse. A corridor of patients with highly specific needs can be daunting. Forgetting something has consequences, sometimes very serious consequences. Apologizing to a patient who has soiled his bed because you weren't there to help him up is cold comfort. Letting an IV run dry is unacceptable. Not changing a bandage could lead to an infection.

A benefit of writing separate lists for the short term and long term is the reflection inspired by reviewing them as the time approaches to tick off the items. "Do I really need to do this right now? Shouldn't I do that before I do this? Do I even need this?" These are some of the questions that run through my mind regularly while editing my lists. 

I have found my lists are a form of personal accountability. I can't ignore things which I don't want to do. Something can't be crossed off unless it is done. If my mind thinks, "I should do such and such," I write it on my list for the future. If I read it later and scratch my head, I know it was simply an unimportant whim. 

Finding what I need when I open my refigerator is a great benefit of keeping lists. Having the tools and materials to complete a project quickly and efficiently is another. The most gratifying benefit is being able to relax with the knowledge that I am on top of things that can support my daily practice. When life's emergencies occur, I appreciate this tremendously.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Details

Being detail-oriented has its limitations and benefits. It depends on the circumstance. He who is uniformly detail-oriented often ignores the forest for the tree. If he is a botanist or an entomologist, he will go far with this perspective. If he is a hiker or forest ranger, he will get lost easily. 

Detail-orientation often develops from fear. Studying the environment for minute deviations allows the defensive person to anticipate sudden changes or oncoming harm. This is an early adaptive defense in the abused or in victims of other trauma, whether that trauma was intentional, like a childhood surgery, or unintentional. 

Dealing with post-traumatic or post-abuse-based defensiveness opens the mind to the bigger picture in situations. Intentionally retaining the talent of detail-perception makes these individuals particularly skilled in many fields. Their investment in self-development broadens their abilities. Those who have not developed detail perception until later in life find this process more difficult to adopt consciously. It often takes years of study and practice.

Being detail oriented is most limiting when that orientation causes the person to focus on flaws rather than the potential in the details. When detail-orientation is paired with lifelong depression, this can be fatal. Life becomes more difficult and more flawed as the body deteriorates with age. Pain and loss of vigor are inevitable with advanced aging. The physically health person who is depressingly obsessed with the negative details of life may turn to suicide before facing the worst of aging.

Humanist practice, while based in skeptical application of reason and science to life, is optimistic at the same time. Humanism sees the overall tendency to do good through developing the human mind, despite the tendencies to behave unconsciously under the influence of basic animal instincts. Opening the mind to the big picture is part of the evolution of the humanist. The details of practice, however, are also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle which promotes proper brain and body function. So, once again, it all comes down to balance and the middle path.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Inevitability

There is a vast difference between predestination and inevitability. Death is inevitable in the current scheme of biological life. However, there is no certainty about the individual path to death from birth. This is the basis of all hope. Practice is an attempt to day-by-day direct my personal path mindfully and compassionately. The only predestination I fear is the unconscious mind, programmed by genetics, negativity and dogmatic nonsense. If I allow my unconscious mind to determine my path, I will soon end up in the dark woods of materialism, aggression and selfishness.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Feminism

The recent uproar over Rep. William Todd Akin's blundering revelation of his ignorance about the issues of rape, reproduction and abortion has raised the ire of women who refuse to submit to patriarchal control of their bodies. This is a good thing. The days of middle-aged heterosexual men controlling the bodies of women and others who are sexually different from them are coming to an end. It's about time.

This morning on National Public Radio I was listening to a report on politics. A woman was interviewed about the candidates' stances on student loans for college education. She said, "For those women who may decide they want to help their children pay for their education..."  This clarified something for me. There has been an element of the new feminism which has been troubling me. 

The uproar in defense of a woman's right to control her own body is perfectly understandable. As a gay man, born in 1950, I get it. Heterosexuals have tried to control how I use my body ever since I was aware I could use it for sexual pleasure. A large segment of the heterosexual population worldwide would still control my sexuality if they could. 

The difference between my sexuality and a woman's ability to reproduce another human being is vast. My sexuality, when enjoyed privately with another consenting adult, is a free act between two developed human beings. A woman's sexuality could be seen as the same thing, obviously. The confusion sets in when female sexuality is fused with female reproductive rights. 

Part of Women's Lib in the 1960s was the declaration of women that they could enjoy their sexuality without reproducing children. In fact, many feminists of the time saw the bearing of children as counterproductive in that fight for liberation from male domination. The male models of femininity did fuse reproduction with sexuality for women, not for men. The women of earlier feminist movements defended the right of women to live a healthy childless life with dignity and respect by men and other women.

That sensibility has been lost in the new feminism, as I experience it as an observer. The new feminism has gone back to the sexuality-reproduction model. It is more conservative than previous feminist movements. It is also more fragmented and less consistent. This is a feminism of individualism and narcissistic self-determinism. It is both conformist, in the sense that women have returned to pressuring each other to reproduce, and also antisocial, in the sense that many new feminists would defend the behavior of the Octomom as her socially acceptable assertion of her feminist right to choose. This is close to being insane.

The radio commentator's words summarize what is wrong about the current feminist attitude toward reproduction: "For those women who MAY DECIDE they WANT to help their children pay for their education..." This implies that a woman's right to choose includes choosing to have children for which she feels no lifelong responsibility. This is intrinsically socially irresponsible. 

We may be primates but we have evolved to the point of overpopulation in organized societies. The intentional or unintentional production of a child into these societies by a woman is NOT instinctive propagation for a species' survival in small familial/tribal groups which share child rearing in a cohesive social culture. It is a conscious social act, with the rare exceptions of the under-aged, the raped and the mentally ill. At any time, a mother may die or become incapacitated. It is then the job of society to take on the rearing of her children.

The new feminist attitude, present on both the political Left and political Right, seems to assume that society should take on all the responsibilities of child rearing without any questions or conditions. On the Right, vocal women decry taxes as evil but are the first to declare that government is letting them down by not providing adequate education and benefits for their children. On the Left, women defend indiscriminate use of any methods used to produce children, even by women who carry STDs and genetically transmitted debilitating diseases.

I consider myself as much a feminist as a physiological man can be. I worked in a traditionally feminine profession, nursing. I demonstrated for women's rights as well as gay rights in the 1970s. However, I am also a humanist, whose practice is based in science, education and social responsibility. I believe these basic elements are essential to promoting peace and joy for all people on the planet. The vein of narcissistic self-determinism in the current feminism in the U.S. and other developed nations is troubling to me as a humanist and a feminist.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prevention

An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure. Any medical worker understands this principle. Working in an emergency room, which I have done, teaches this lesson in gory detail.

Many Americans currently confuse attempts at prevention of disease as government control or loss of freedom. This is largely due to propaganda funded by the corporations which make fortunes off human gullibility. Health insurance companies scare the uneducated about government health insurance. The corn industry lulls near-diabetic fat people into acceptance of high fructose corn syrup in everything. The petrochemical industry threatens the fall of civilization if naturally derived electricity replaces coal, methane and oil.

Prevention does require some education and intelligent application of that education. These are elements of what I call practice. I consider prevention of disease a cornerstone of effective humanist practice. After all, how effectively can I be mindful and compassionate if I am debilitated by disease?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mondays

I am always fascinated by periodicity and habit. I worked for decades as a nurse at night and on weekends. Like a vampire, I slept during the day and arose at dusk. My work week was likely to start on a Friday evening and end at 7 AM on a Monday morning. For some years, I worked two evening-night shifts, 16 hours, on two consecutive weekdays at a nursing job. I kept a small antiques business going on the other days of the week. I was busy.

My sense of a week was altered, unconventional, to say the least. Maintaining relationships fell to me more than to those friends and lovers who worked in the conventional 9-to-5 world. My schedule was always seen as a hassle, an encumbrance, in those relationships. I stopped apologizing for my work week early on. I knew I was doing valuable work in nursing. I also knew my work was taken for granted by society, including my own social network. That came with the choice to do it. The antiques business was fun, but also necessary to supplement my low wages in nursing at that time.

The up side of these challenges of scheduling was my learning to not suffer fools in my social life. I took my friendships seriously. They required foresight and planning on my part. If a person could not appreciate my efforts, I soon sought different company. I also made sure to recognize the efforts of the rare person with a day job who might meet for coffee before work as I was getting out of work. 

My retired life has returned me to the day-worker world in many ways. I sleep at night. I am awake relatively early in the morning. I schedule my time like a day-worker. Morning, lunch, afternoon, supper. There is regularity in my days and weeks. This brings me to Mondays.

Mondays are the measure of my happiness in this world of regularity. Until recently, I looked forward to Mondays. A new week, unburdened by fatigue and unpleasant sequels to stressful days. My weeks had an easy rhythm. Good dietary habits, walking, time at the gym, meditating, writing, etc..

For the past two months, I have been supervising work on my house by contractors. I am up early. I remove my car from the driveway to accommodate vans, trucks and dumpster deliveries. The house hosts a symphony of pneumatic hammers, crowbars, dropped pipe wrenches and power saws. I am immersed in the work weeks of others. This has not easily been incorporated into my practice. It has also made maintaining my happiness a greater challenge at times.

I realized yesterday evening, a Sunday, that I was anxious. Another week of the schedule of others approached. Once again I find myself accommodating the work week of those whose rhythm is more conventional. And this time I am paying for the privilege. Sometimes the results of the work seem inadequate to me.

Whatever compassion I develop comes from these reflections. Compassion, as I know it, does not come from high-minded philosophy. Compassion comes from social engagement and opening the mind to the experience of other life forms. My struggles with time and relationships has broadened my understanding of the differences in vocational lives from one person to another. My struggles with my own body when dealing with nocturnal work have broadened my understanding of those whose lives are radically out of step with the conventional 9-to-5 world. 

I do not accept my own suffering as preordained or somehow just by the measure of an omniscient god.  It is the result of a choice or an accident of living. When it is a result of a personal choice, my practice entails accepting responsibility, initiating curative change and moving on to the pursuit of happiness. When my suffering is the result of a simple accident of living, like a disease or some trauma, my practice entails acknowledging the accidental nature of my own life, initiating whatever action I can to make things better and moving on to my pursuit of happiness. 

So, Blue Mondays are simply a matter of accelerated practice. Acknowledging the challenge is the first step. Centering on my values and my own process before addressing the momentary challenges of the impact of other lives on my own builds compassionate and generous interaction with my environment, despite my stress and normal human emotions. Understanding that the imposed periodicity of a work week is simply a human contrivance to get things done does help. Divorcing my identity from the work and its problems allows me to be the person I wish to be no matter how distasteful the situation.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Practice

I routinely have to begin my day with thinking of practice itself. Am I simply following a script of detailed behaviors every day? Am I retaining the creative edge that inspires growth and change? What is the health of my practice right now, today?

Bringing enthusiasm to each new day takes practice and courage after 62 years. Trying to remember that I don't really know too much about life helps. Cynicism grows from a belief that the answers are all figured out. Life is not that predictable. The questions change moment by moment, so the answers are always elusive. 

Immersing myself in the questions without obsessing on final answers is one way I manage to pay attention to life around me. What is that person trying to achieve? How does that process work in that system? How can I engage better in some process? 

Answers develop, but they often lead to more questions in the open mind. This is simply what life in practice is like. Certainty is the adversary of discovery. This is why religion, with its dogmatic answers, stifles creativity and the joy of deeper understanding of how life works.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rand

The resurrection of Ayn Rand in U.S. politics is troubling to me as a humanist and as a person who believes in personal responsibility in society. Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential candidate, maintains he is a Roman Catholic Randian. This tells us most fundamentally that the man is a ball of inconsistency and intellectual confusion. These are major obstacles to personal integrity.

Rand ended her life maintaining, "I will not die. The world will end." A better definition of egoistic narcissism is hard to find.

This is a time of egoism and hedonism in the face of poverty, unemployment and decimation of the middle class by a greedy financial aristocracy. Media, controlled by the aristocrats, brainwashes the victims of exploitation into believing they can be aristocrats themselves with just the right idea, the right break, the right photo op. This is nonsense, of course.

Ayn Rand would smile on these developments. After all, she bemoaned the "horrors" of the Russian Revolution which displaced her from her privileged bourgeois life in Saint Petersburg. Her post-traumatic disorder blossomed into a media super-career with the rise of McCarthy-ism (Fascism) in the U.S.. Today's Bible-thumping, tax-hating, conformity-promoting Tea Party members are the grandchildren of Rand and Milton Friedman.

Watch these paragons at the links above. Listen carefully. Do they present the vision of a more equal, kinder world? Do they strike you as models for the future of the population of the United States?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Freedom

Today I take solace and inspiration from these words attributed to Gautama Buddha:

Master your senses,
What you taste and smell,
What you see, what you hear.

In all things be a master
Of what you do and say and think.
Be free.

Shambhala Pocket Dhammapada, Chapter 25, The Seeker.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Genuine

I would need to write a paragraph on what it means to be genuine, but I recognize a genuine human being readily. A genuine person basically presents no guise or guile in normal human interactions. He or she is the "real article". 

Few of us, as adults, walk through life as our genuine selves. Why is that? Well, I believe roles are foisted upon us at a very early age by parents and our social environment. Here in 2012 I still see babies of various ethnicity and classes clad in their assigned blue or pink, for example. Sports insignia are worn generally on everyday clothing to present a conformist identity. Television and the Web market to image and role with everything from cars to toothpaste. 

To be a genuine human being entails being somewhat vulnerable. Individuals do not conform naturally to one-size-fits-all social groups. Some can readily adapt, mimic and conform. Others struggle to simple be true to themselves in the face of social pressure. They are often the brunt of mockery and violence.

As a nurse and a humanist, I have appreciated the genuine person in my care and in my social environment. That person may be debilitated and impoverished by schizophrenia or fortunate enough to have inherited a fat trust fund from highly functional parents. Those details do not matter. That is the remarkable thing about genuine people.

Being genuine, true to the true nature of the person within, allows a human being to connect with other open minds more easily. The practice of self-awareness and self-development inevitably leads to a discovery of the genuine person within. Getting acquainted with that person isn't always comfortable or easy at first for those who are prone to be conformist. However, the rewards, as well as the difficulties, for being genuine in daily life are deep and very personal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Satisfaction

Where do you find satisfaction? Is your satisfaction associated with need or generosity or accomplishment? Is your satisfaction cyclic, alternating with periods of feeling deprived?

This summer I have been engaged in a home improvement project of a greater scale than my own manual skills could manage. I have had to rely on others to do the kind of work I have done myself or have some experience with. I have had to learn to be satisfied with standards different than my own. This has helped me realize what my own standards for satisfaction in craftsmanship and organization are in practice.

Some people are content to live a life of hedonism. They are satisfied by periodic indulgence in travel, gourmet food or recreational psycho-pharmacology. This lifestyle is often balanced by massive dissatisfaction with other aspects of life. Hedonism is sometimes the reward for distasteful or even antisocial labor.

As a humanist, I find satisfaction in my own daily practice. My practice satisfies my need to feel I am transcending impulses and compulsions by opening my mind and awareness in the moments of my life. Even difficulties bring a certain satisfaction as I struggle with them in terms of practice. Realizing that I have gone through a challenging time with my values in gear is highly satisfying. 

Learning to gain satisfaction from the daily process of living takes a great deal of practice when age brings pain, financial problems, disease and impending death. This learning is the material of humanist practice. The resources lie within the human mind and body. Proper health maintenance, meditation and reflection provide the basis for developing those resources. Education and creative social interaction refine those resources. There is no big bonus at the end of humanist practice. Its end is natural death. However, the journey to that end is very satisfying with a deepening understanding of my own individual life experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Want

Controlling want is a path to liberation. Addressing basic needs every day for health and well being is a path to liberation. Assessing the weight of want is part of daily practice in my life. Looking skeptically at what I perceive as need is also part of my daily practice. Wisdom lies in being able to discern the difference between want and need. Wisdom also lies in realistically measuring the value of each want and perceived need. This process is a key to mindfulness. Once the path is cleared of want and needs are met with practical simplicity, compassion develops more naturally.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ideologues

Ideologues, like Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, are dangerous. They are dangerous because they seek power rather than consensus. Ryan wishes to impose his Libertarian ideas on the nation. His identification and collusion with Tea Party ideologues is an indication of his motives, despite his verbal assertions that he wishes to help the poor and save the nation through financial manipulations. 

This stated motivation is obviously a sham. Mr. Ryan is in the pocket of big business and the financial moguls who brought us the current depression, which his sort continue to call a recession. And this depression in the U.S. is no accident. Dismantling workers' rights by creating massive unemployment is no accident. Ryan's assertions that the current government is to fault for the state of the economy are laughable. Ryan was a strong supporter of the Bush administration policies which brought the country to ruin.

Ideologues prescribe. Thinkers share. Elected officials should carry out the consensus of the many. They should not tell people what to think. They should listen to the people. 

Ideologues are often fond of religion. After all, the absolute power of a god is what they themselves aspire to. They see themselves as the ordained, the offspring of the omniscient and omnipotent. This too is why they are dangerous. 

True humanism in practice is not prone to hijacking by ideologues. It is based in science, skepticism and good old common sense. Humanists are thinkers, who are prone to conversation, sharing and consensus building. The humanist tends not to idealize leaders, since humanist values are based in human equality and the greater good. 

This election year raises the old religious crusade against basic human rights in favor of ideological control. Denial of LGBT rights, denial of women's rights, denial of government responsibility for the general welfare of all citizens.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Money

There is a difference between earning money and making money. There is a difference between earning money and taking (stealing) money. However, there is a narrow difference in the U.S. today between making money and stealing it.

The Great Theft, known as the 2008 Financial Crisis in the U.S., was a case of making money by taking money. Madoff may have gone to prison, but score of people just like him are living exorbitant international lifestyles among those of us who struggle to live in the urban environments they are turning into gated communities. Madoff was just a clumsier thief.

The trend of making money at the expense of others is not new. Usury was banned in the Middle Ages in reaction to the earlier versions of day-traders and hedge-funders. Those who become rich through aggression and wily manipulation of money easily develop shell games to gain more. This is as old as money itself. 

Those who earn their money through service, skill and/or hard labor have been told in recent decades that they are worth less than those who make money from money. Earning money is considered retro and a sign of low intelligence. Scheming and bilking are elevated to the level of art or academic (mathematical) brilliance. 

This represents the corruption of human civilization by diminishing resources, deteriorating environment and overpopulation. Look to India and China for the histories of this corruption and its inevitable result in the context of overpopulation and deteriorated environment. Strip away the novelty and charm of the cultures of these countries and look at the hard facts of their histories. Look into the future of the U.S. in its current course.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Relaxation

The dependence on alcohol, prescription drugs and illegal drugs in human society is staggering. So is the stress. The two are linked.

A good example of the relationship of general stress and dependency was clearly seen in a gay-sponsored study of the gay/lesbian community in the late 1970s. It was found that the gay men and lesbian women were twice as prone to be dependent on alcohol for stress reduction than the general U.S. population. The stress on that community was historic and current. The historic stress of living in the closet. The current stress of being out and active for civil rights in the face of rabid homophobia in the general population and media. 

Learning to divorce relaxation from external stimulus is very difficult. We are given food and sucking apparatus from the time we are infants to calm us or placate us when we are stressed. Oral dependency is socially acceptable. The resilience of cigarette sales speaks to this acceptance as much as it does to the addictive nature of the product. Obesity, while still openly mocked in society, is difficult to treat because eating has become socially acceptable in all places at all times. There was a time, not long ago, when eating on a subway car was considered socially unacceptable.

I have found that addressing my own oral dependency in various forms has been a first step in deepening my humanist practice. When I was an adolescent, I was overweight. When I began studying biology and psychology as a premedical student in college, I realized that my weight was unhealthy physiologically and psychologically. I also realized that my frontal lobe held the key to changing my behavior to lose weight. I devised a diet, based on my studies of metabolism. I lost forty pounds in several months. The results in my life were impressive and heartening. Consciousness of metabolism and body weight then became a regular part of my daily practice. I was faced with a new problem. How would I comfort myself when stressed?

My progress with weight reduction was offset by my starting to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol socially. In other words, rather than devising a new way to relax under stress or in social situations, I transferred my dependency from one oral stimulus to two others, both biochemically addictive! I was the roguish life of any party. A cigarette hanging from my lips while I slugged back bourbon. Relaxed? No, I was simply intoxicated.

I discovered detoxified relaxation in my mid-30s. I had given up smoking with great difficulty. I had stopped drinking alcohol. I was occasionally smoking marijuana. Then I discovered chanting Buddhism. I joined a group of Buddhists who chanted sutra in Japanese every morning and evening. I discovered something strange. I no longer enjoyed marijuana's effects on my mind. My mind went into a state while chanting which was far superior to the high I got from smoking weed. My chanting was a form of meditation.

I had attempted to do sitting meditations as far back as college. However, I was unsuccessful at achieving a truly relaxed state because I was still addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. My mind was chemically poisoned. Chanting meditation overcame any residual effects of smoking weed. It was done in a structured social setting, which amplified its affect for me. Eventually, after chanting for several years, I took a meditation class in conjunction with yoga. Bingo! Sitting meditation provided me with a deep, restorative relaxation in fifteen minutes. And I learned I could do this at any time anywhere.

I meditate at least once a day for about 20-25 minutes. It is a pillar of my personal practice for health, peace and joy. It does not require a PhD. It does not cost any money. It does not require special cushions, gongs, incense or other paraphernalia. It does not require a prescription, a drug dealer or a bartender. 

The relaxation I achieve with my meditations is restorative. I usually meditate midday for this reason. I would caution those who are new to meditation that it is best done when the body is most free of alcohol, nicotine, sugar or caffeine. Meditation can be successful for anyone who is willing to try it daily with persistence. Setting a timer in a quiet space for fifteen minutes initially will do. Sit comfortably or lie down. Breathe steadily and naturally. Start by counting breaths or simply attending to the sensations of breathing. That's it. Most important is the commitment to do this every day for one week initially.

The benefits of simple organic relaxation are many. Recent research links positive effects to circulation, sleep and intellectual function, to name a few. Daily meditation and its relaxation, from my own experience, promote insight and helpful reflection prior to action. My humanist practice is supported by relaxation through meditation.




Friday, August 10, 2012

Process

Each day in every moment we determine the quality of our personal process. Personal process basically means how I live. For example, I am on a busy urban sidewalk. I approach a busy intersection. I see the traffic light about to turn. Do I run in front of traffic which has the legal green light to save a minute or two? If I do so, I will take time from the drivers in the road. I will increase the potential for an accident which could injure me and radically change the life of a driver. My own process in that situation is to yield to the traffic and wait for the next pedestrian light.

That example is very mundane. Our lives are made up of mundane moments. The process we adopt in those mundane moments defines us in significant ways.

Japanese tea ceremonies were once in fashion in the U.S.. They are rituals, based on a behavioral metaphor for personal process, or personal practice. The precision of gathering tea leaves to pouring the first cup is a practice of self development and compassionate hospitality. The host is offering the guest his/her very best with humility and intense concentration in the moment.

Meditation, reflection and health maintenance are parts of what I call humanist practice, a personal process of choice. Just as I choose to not run into traffic at a changing light, I choose to develop patience and compassion at other intersections in my day. This entails thought, correct breathing and ensuring that I am well rested and well nourished, so that my body will support a thinking mind in every moment.

Taking control of my own daily process is a process. It will most likely never be done perfectly. I will die trying still to be the person I wish to become.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Anger

I posted an angry comment about one of my posts about Roman Catholicism today. The commentator enumerated his academic and humanities credentials as a preface to calling me a liar and implying that I am plotting against good causes. I was flattered that someone so accomplished took the time to denigrate my humble thoughts. I don't get many comments of this kind. In fact, I get few comments in general. I am happy to have it that way. This is not a message board or a forum. It is simply a blog, my journal, of my humanist practice.

The Web has become an outlet for unbridled, anonymous rage. I have no problem with that. Perhaps it is a deterrent to potential mass murderers. Perhaps not. It is hard for me to take anonymous rage seriously. I have confronted enough in-my-face direct rage in my life as an out gay man. The anonymous kind is a piece of cake. 

I have had a long and tortured relationship with my own anger. When I was a young boy, perhaps 11 or 12, I experienced a black-out episode of my own unprocessed rage. When I became conscious, restrained by several adults, I was told I had done something horribly violent to another child who had taunted me. My relationships with every person who was involved were permanently changed. The sheer power of my rage to change my life in an instant frightened me deeply. That lesson has never been lost, and I must still work with my anger every day.

Japanese Buddhists have a wonderful saying, based on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin on the Lotus Sutra: "Turn poison into medicine". Anger, unmitigated, is poison. Anger, acknowledged and understood, can be medicine.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Writing

Writing it down, getting it right, helps me focus on my own compass. Getting it right simply means expressing my inner truth without hedging or wrapping it in fake elegance. I don't write to be popular or to make money. I share this writing as part of my humanist practice. That's all. If it interests a reader, that is an added benefit to me. I take that as great encouragement.

Facing the blank page is the same as looking into a mirror. The writing itself is a sketch of what I see and feel in that reflective blankness. Sometimes the writing is a form of self-encouragement. Sometimes the writing is an attempt to voice my internal process. 

Reading my own writing is informative. If I look at my writing from years ago, I realize I constantly becoming a different person with age. I have journals which I wrote in my twenties. When I get frustrated with a young person in my life today, I sometimes pick up one of those books. This gives me valuable perspective and patience. It also helps me to decide what actions I may best take when dealing with that young person. 

There is a myth which teachers pass on from generation to generation. That myth tells young people that just a few people can write well. This is a shame. Every literate person can write and develop writing skill. In mental health circles, writing is viewed as a common tool for promoting self-awareness. Journal-keeping is a proven tool to raise consciousness of problems and obstacles to growth.

Writing this blog is a practice of personal responsibility and accountability within my own humanist practice. That is what it is all about.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Natural

The word "natural" has been hijacked. Cosmetics companies, fabric producers and food manufacturers have corrupted its meaning for profit. "Natural" has little meaning any more. How sad is that?

The human species is not a race. It is a species. We are primates, just like chimpanzees and gorillas. We have evolved differently. We have become global predators and exploiters. We have become the slaughterers of other species. That, my friends, is a realistic perspective of "natural".

The human species has degraded a significant part of this special planet. We have ruined much of it. We have sown heavy metals in landfills. We have poisoned water supplies. We have destroyed nearly all the planet's natural forests. The atmosphere is showing the effects of our pillaging and overpopulation. Our days as a carefree, overpopulating species will come to an end. That, my friends, is another realistic perspective of "natural".

If you consider me a doomsday fanatic, try walking somewhere where the impact of human population is not at all evident. Yes, walk. No bicycle, no car, no skateboard. 

As a humanist, I do bemoan the irresponsible behavior of my species. I see its failure at stewardship of a magnificent blue and green planet. I regret its callousness toward all other species. Human narcissism is one of the greatest weaknesses of our frontal lobes. 

Living responsibly is difficult. Living responsibly in the sense of stewardship of the planet in any urban setting is impossible. The very existence of large urban populations is degrading to the natural environment. This is a tremendous challenge to living a peaceful and joyous life with mindfulness. Living with the pain of this awareness is a burden of conscience. 

As a secular person and a humanist, I can only take practical steps every day to live responsibly on this planet. I can keep my 12-year-old subcompact car working efficiently. I can walk as much as possible or use public transport. I can take some comfort from the fact that I have not increased the human population. I can buy products that are responsibly produced. I can avoid degrading my own personal patch of the planet by tending it carefully. 

Giving up the religious notion that some divine controller will make it all better in the end entails growing up and waking up. We speculate in modern physics that there is no happy ending. In fact, there is no ending. There is simply this reality and possible parallel realities. None of this is apparently under any monitoring or control. The moment is natural. Life is natural. Living responsibly as a human being apparently isn't natural. This takes practice.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Clarity

Clarity in personal vision and clarity in personal communication go together. Clarity in general is a product of honesty. This becomes acutely apparent in a crisis.

The first instinct in a crisis is to clear the debris of confusion to get at the facts of the situation. All mammals have hormonal mechanisms which expedite this process by chemically enhancing metabolic and brain function. Our species has the rare ability to intentionally implement brain function even outside of a crisis situation. In other words, we can learn to avoid crises in some circumstances. 

Maintaining a clear mind through meditation, reflection and concentration is an intentional preventive strategy to maintain health and stability. A clear mind speaks with a clear voice. A clear mind communicates the motivations for its actions and reactions. 

As a humanist, I take responsibility for my actions and reactions. I have no gods to blame these on. I make no claims of being possessed by evil spirits. I can acknowledge that mind self-awareness and self-control are not perfect by any means. I make mistakes. I say regrettable things. My humanist practice entails understanding my mistakes and making a daily attempt to learn from them. I try not to repeat them. In a similar way, my practice entails understanding what promotes love and peace in my life. I try to incorporate these behaviors into my daily life as well. 

A confused life is torturous. An untamed mind is a relentless impediment to connecting with others and making satisfactory relationships to achieve a healthy, peaceful and joyful life. Clearing the smoke of habitual self-deception and lying to others is a tremendous step to becoming a happier person. The opened and tamed mind is the portal to more peace and joy.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Silence

Today is a day of silence and reflection.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dishonesty

There is a deep divide between conscientious discretion and dishonesty. Blatant dishonesty is a cultural flaw around the world. In some places, it is considered matter-of-fact. In the U.S., there are perpetual screams about honesty in public discourse. Just screams about it. Little presence of the real thing, especially in the media. Just a brief look at the Wikileaks case illustrates my point. 

In a single human life, dishonesty is like rust. It gradually eats away at love's foundations. Without honesty and earned trust, there is no true love. 

Discretion in the name of privacy is certainly the right of any individual. Discretion may also be used in the name of compassion. Some people cannot handle the truth in certain situations. However, relationships in which discretion is the guiding principle are neither intimate or fully loving. To pretend they are is itself dishonest. 

Honesty is a fundamental action of humanist practice. It begins with the honest appraisal and acceptance of the self. Without that appraisal and acceptance, there is no real personal advancement or development. Working from an internal practice of honesty, the humanist opens to the world. This leads to ethical and compassionate action in everyday life. It is not an easy path. However, I have experienced it as a path to liberation, peace and joy.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Consequences

Every action reaps a reaction in the world of Physics. It is this way with human relationships as well. 

I often listen with amusement to subway " ...then I said then she said, then I said..." monologues. These loud monologists are often illustrating their rationalization for being enraged at the words or behaviors of the other party. I imagine a parallel conversation on another subway car in the city. 

Thinking of the consequences of action is one goal of humanist practice. It is also a key process in developing compassion. In thinking out consequences in social interaction, we develop the skill of placing our attention on another person's world. We pay attention to differences. We no longer assume that the other person thinks or feels just as we do. With this understanding comes respect. 

As I have learned the practice of taking full responsibility for the consequences of my words and actions, I have found I am less likely to offend or mislead in conversation. I am also more likely to listen and understand. 

Rehashing offenses in subway monologues is a sure way not to grow. It does not lead to reflective consideration of personal responsibility. Practice is hard. It requires growing up. It requires taking full responsibility for what you put into life. It requires surrendering unrealistic expectations of life. The consequence of humanist practice can be an ongoing development of peace and joy in life.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Retrofit

We live in a culture of apology in the the U.S.. Perhaps this relates to our warmongering of the past decade. We destroy whole countries, decimate civilian populations with shock and awe. The we apologize by way of nation-building with lots of cash and its inevitable corruption.

A driver recently cut me off in traffic. I was barely able to prevent an accident, for which I would have been liable. The young driver waved into his rear-view mirror. I observed he was laughing with his passenger as he did it. Did he really think me so stupid to accept this as a socially acceptable gesture after what he had done? Or was his rudeness accompanied with cynical meanness? I tend to believe the latter. I observe this behavior daily in grocery lines, subway cars and on sidewalks.

Anyone who has done construction or renovation knows that retrofitting can be much more difficult and costly than starting from scratch. The same is true of speech and behavior. Doing it right and saying it well in the first place takes constant practice. It makes life more peaceful and joyful. It is worth the effort.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Joy

Today I offer you the following verse from the Dhammapada. It can be found in chapter 13 under "Joy" in the Shambhala editon.  The freedom spoken of here is the internal, psychological freedom from self-propagated, mental need. It is ancient wisdom. It is contemporary wisdom.



There is no fire like passion
No crime like hatred
No sorrow like separation
No sickness like hunger
And no joy like the joy of freedom.

Health, contentment and trust
Are your greatest possessions
And freedom your greatest joy.