Thursday, September 23, 2010

Change

This is my last post on Buddha's Pillow.

My new blog is The Practical Humanist.

The title says it all. I have been working with remarkable people at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard since last year. Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain, has managed to open the first Humanist Student Center on a university campus in the United States this year. Seeing the development of a humanist community at Harvard is the actualization of a dream I have shared with many: The coming together of people for the promoting the greater good without the trappings and divisiveness of religion.

In the spirit of this new Humanism, I have decided to write under a more direct title, one which better describes me and the way I view humanism in my life.

Consumers


I hear we live in a consumer economy. The term is used in media constantly. It is a given. By defining human beings as consumers, some human beings exploit human greed and materialism for great profit. This is not new.

Stepping away from the addictive process of consuming every new thing is part of an awakening. The brainwashers of advertising use peer pressure and fear of isolation to peddle electronic devices, cars, clothing, alcohol and soft drinks. They used to peddle cigarettes in the same way, before the product was revealed to be more toxic than being the odd man out.

Watching television with commercials has always felt like manipulation to me. I could not enjoy the content of a drama or comedy without the nagging feeling that my brain was being programmed to do things against my better interests. I stopped watching commercial TV about twenty-five years ago.

I come back to the Japanese Buddhist mantra , "Person environment one." If you are submerged visually in commercial advertising all day, your mind and your environment are no longer your own. You are inhaling messages, overt and covert, which shape your ideals and your interests. The goal of the originators of these messages is simple. They wish to own you.

You are what you eat. In a similar way, you are what you watch and consume. Taking time away from the messages of media and the process of consuming or planning to consume is essential to finding your center. Meditation is a useful tool for this. Yoga is another. Other forms of focused activity, geared to releasing the mind from cluttered thought, are useful tools to break the pattern of wanting and buying and wanting more.

As I have said before, wanting more when you are full is a symptom of disease. The lords of the consumer economy never want you to stop wanting. This is a struggle for your health and mental well being in a world driven by money and profit. The choices are difficult and require great balance and persistence.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumn


In the Northern Hemisphere, we move into Autumn. The arc of the sun shrinks on the horizon. Days shorten. The light becomes sharper on clear, dry days.

It is easy to ignore the turning of the seasons in an urban environment. Our lives, tied to illuminated panels, large and small, are less impacted by the shrinking hours of natural light. The projected world, a transmitted construct of bytes and code, fuses with the natural world in our distracted minds.

Get out. Look around. Breathe deeply. Leave the iPhone at home. Walk (not ride) in the world and look at the houses, the trees, the gardens. Meet the eyes of your neighbors. Stop and talk with someone who is working or sitting in a yard or on a porch.

The time is coming when this activity will be more difficult, less attractive. Take advantage of the season. Be present in your natural environment, whatever and wherever it may be.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Vision


I have been told by the astrologically enthusiastic that my Aquarius predisposition accounts for my idealism. However, I believe having vision is more a matter of exercise and practice than predisposition from distant constellations. Vision comes with keeping your chin up and your eyes open.

I have found that maintaining my personal awareness in the moment makes it much easier to look ahead with confidence. There is the Great Vision: Peace and justice for everyone on a planet which is cherished and respected for the life it gives. Within that Great Vision is the immediate vision of the scope of my own life as I age and eventually die.

These visions of a future which is never promised sustain me in my daily practice, my practice in the moment. My practice of mindfulness, study and compassion in the moment sustains my hopeful vision of the future. This is the dance of consciousness within the boundaries of space and time. Meditation and reflection allow me to project myself outside the boundaries of space and time by strengthening my imagination and reducing my physical stress.

Life without vision beyond plain sight is self-limiting. The blind man with vision walks bravely through life. The sighted man without vision is materialistic and self-centered.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cruelty


The minor cruelties of life are the most socially erosive. I see examples of these minor cruelties every day in my crowded urban environment. The adolescent thug lounges across three subway seats as people stand around him in the aisles. Groups of young pedestrians push past a tenuously balanced elder on a crowded sidewalk. The entitled customer holds up a cashier line for no reason with little regard for those behind him. Drivers routinely risk the well being of others by running red lights.

When I walked into my 90-year-old mother's hospital room last evening on a relatively quiet hospital floor in a renowned urban hospital, I found that the meal server had placed her food tray just out of her reach and had not helped her raise her bed to an eating position. My mother, having had a hip replacement two days earlier, had been struggling to reach her meal prior to my arrival. I later saw the meal server when she collected the tray officiously. It was obvious that she was oblivious to how cruel and alienating her attitude was.

The minor cruelties add up to the major atrocities in society. This is a well known process. It can be reversed only by education and example. I consider it part of my practice as a humanist in society to foster attitudes of cooperation and consideration of all human beings in life situations. As a citizen, I believe I can do this best by modeling considerate and cooperative civil behavior in public situations. In work situations, modeling cooperative and considerate behavior with peers is a way of working against a culture of cruelty. As a supervisor, intervening against cruel or antisocial behavior is an ethical responsibility in my opinion.

The politics of fear in America have many side effects. One unfortunate side effect is the obvious hesitancy of people in public situations to engage with strangers. This generalized social isolation is destructive to the fiber of social cooperation and consideration. It makes open expression of compassion a rare commodity. And, it makes each of us more vulnerable to the cruelty of others.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crises


The best way to avoid constant crises in life is to avoid constant crises in life. By increasing your awareness and general state of mindfulness, many of life's so-called crises can be avoided entirely by proper planning and responsible action.

Yes, shit happens. To a certain degree, accidents are unavoidable. However, many accidents are the results of lack of care and attention in potentially dangerous situations. Improper home or car maintenance are common precursors to accidents, for example. There is no need to invite shit to happen.

It is important to know yourself and to take full, proactive responsibility for yourself and your personal environment, which includes all spaces you occupy in life. Practice, as I use the word frequently in my writing, includes vigilant and persistent maintenance of body and environment. The practice of meditation assists the brain in taking a relaxed and clear view of your life and your environment. Exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep maintain the brain and body in a state of efficiency and adequacy to the task of averting or dealing with disaster.

Multiple personal crises are symptomatic of disease and/or personal dysfunction in your environment. Where there is constant and dedicated practice, crises are minimal, because practice places you in a functional and efficient state wherever you find yourself in life. Instead of being a barreling, reactive train, headed for a wreck, the person with a well established practice of health and mindfulness is like a gyroscope, always maintaining balance and simply bouncing away when it hits obstacles.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Suffering


Suffering is not composed of the difficulties and tragedies of life. Suffering is in the perception of life by the individual mind. This is the reason for practice. By practicing meditation and other forms of strengthening the mind and body, it is possible to endure life's inevitable challenges without suffering. This is true liberation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Politics


The media obsession with details of politics in America breeds an apathy, born of overkill. Politics have overshadowed government. The manipulations for power have become a spectator sport on the level of professional wrestling. Meanwhile, the quality of American government on all levels deteriorates. Look at your roads, your buses, your subway trains for an illustration.

The yowling Tea Party contingent bring more dysfunction to this environment. Playing with covert racism and homophobia, these closet Republican Rightists seek to immobilize any progressive legislation in a time of national crisis. Their motivation, shrilly misrepresented as patriotism, is obviously manufactured by corporate financing.

Progressives of all types are disillusioned by the Obama administration's sadomasochistic love affair with Wall Street. Summers, Frank and Geithner serenade Obama with sonnets of Wall Street's inherent love of democracy and freedom, as the money men continue to pick the pockets of the American people.

There comes a time in any organization's life when it begins to exist for itself, not for those who have formed it or pay for it in money or labor. This seems glaringly true of the U.S. administration, Congress and Supreme Court. Our government is foundering in a sea of political self-interest. And the people are suffering for it.

Perhaps it is good for the citizens to disengage from this government, as it now operates. Perhaps this is a time for a Jeffersonian revolution. This Fall's election will definitely be a harbinger of what form such a revolution will take in America.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Liberation


One way of achieving enlightenment in ancient prescriptions is striving for emptiness. Emptiness implies letting go of ego and a cluttered mind. Meditation is a traditional method for practicing emptiness of mind and liberation from suffering.

While I understand these concepts, I feel the ancient concepts of enlightenment and liberation are relevant in a very different way in modern society. As we become liberated from religion through science, our minds can open to many other ways to achieve liberation from suffering. For example, some would see pharmaceutical technology as a substitute for meditation or psychoanalysis in the pursuit of personal insight and evolution.

The problem with technological substitutes or alternatives for meditation and reflection is simple. Most of us cannot develop our own technological substitutes for these activities. In other words, liberation in a full sense is impossible, since we depend on a factory to make the pills which may take the place of practice. Capitalism fosters this dependence on product as a substitute for practice.

The beauty of practice as an approach to liberation from personal suffering is its empowerment. It requires no dependence on pills, gurus or mentors. By emptying a life of dependence and taking full responsibility for its suffering, a seeker who develops a daily practice of meditation and mindful investigation of being achieves one first step toward liberation.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Anger


The politics of anger are rising from the relatively wealthy in the form of the Tea Party in America. Funny. I am reminded of the advent of the French revolution, when the relatively affluent Bourgeoisie manipulated the destitute and truly poor to dislodge the aristocracy for them. The result was a Reign of Terror, in which many of those leaders of the Bourgeoisie were cannibalized by their own monster.

The politics of common sense are seldom popular, because common sense is an antidote for personal greed in society. Greed wins the attention of the middle class. Trashing the concepts of progressive taxes, public health care and business regulation gets the bourgeois mob inflamed. They are motivated by greed, not by social justice.

This year's elections in America will be a test of the true center of the American conscience. Will the people choose the politics of anger and materialism? Or, will the people realize that patience and the correction of the materialistic and militaristic policies of the past decade will eventually promote greater economic equality in the country?