A Little List of Awesome & Not-So Awesome!

Things that bother me intensely:

*Dishonesty – Boom, right up at the top there.

*Elitism – that is, considering you and your approved peers as better than other rejected individuals or groups, affording your consideration to this very small circle of friends, and forming your sense of identity (incredibly!) around the exclusion of others.

*Cutting Off Communication – Yep. It’s called not being a jackass.

*Littering – There are more than just Native American’s crying because of your ignorant and self-absorbed dumbass.

*Apathy – Yeah, apathy is pretty cool right now in a lot of circles, principle among them the hipster, that amorphous, stand-for-nothing type of person that floats among the sea of options, whether activist or entertainment, much like how they go shopping. What activist issue best expresses ME? None of them? Op, oh well. Maybe I’ll try on a pair of these ridiculously over-sized sunglasses. Because that’s what matters.

*Fake agreeableness, compliments and smiles (also called insincerity) – If you want to talk about creepy this takes the cake.

*Ego Games – Though, I gotta admit, if you can see the cosmic drama of life in a comedic light, and aren’t overly attached to your particular ego in the play, they can be pretty damn funny sometimes.

Things I like a Lot:

Well, the opposite of all of the above, really.

*Authentic Being-ness, for starters – No false fronts. No masks. You are you yourself, just as you are. Part of this comes from 2:

*Deep Communication – Being able to express your desires, needs, intentions, issues, hang ups you’re grappling with, beauties, joys, and dreams all with honesty and up-front transparency.

*Compassion – Ahhh yeah. This one doesn’t get a lot of play in the fashion or lifestyle magazines, but it’s pretty awesome. Loving someone when it may not necessarily fulfill one of your own desires may not be sexy. It may not promise the on-demand satisfaction and entertainment value that a more selfish, material-oriented world-view can offer, but I think it offers the difference between the instant satisfaction of Taco Bell verses the slow satisfaction of growing, cooking, and eating food you made yourself. Tasty!

*Mindfulness – Mmm, yeah I could devote a whole book to this… but fortunately someone already has. It’s called Teachings On Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. Read it and be amazed.

*Ego Relativism – Did I just make this term up? If so I’m putting a copyright on this term. Feel free to use it and send royalties to my home address. Haha. So what is Ego Relativism? It’s realizing that every conscious being on the planet earth has an ego, and that, as it was so finely put in Earthlings, we are all the psychological centers of a life that is uniquely our own.

That part we all understand. Here’s the crazy part: Our ego is not more or less deserving of happiness than any other ego. We all view life through the filters of our own ego’s needs and desires, but an ego relativist often steps outside of this filter to see a situation from all the other egos involved.

An example would be good here. Let’s say you’re dating a woman and she loves you but also still has feelings for her ex. The default habit here would be to put our own considerations above the considerations of the other two people, and especially the ex. The ex becomes a threat to our own ego’s happiness, so we get intensely jealous and possessive and may get angry and hate the ex and get mad at our partner for having any feelings that might threaten our own wants. An ego relativist, on the other hand, can see that their own wants are no more valid and deserving than their partner or their partner’s ex. Their egos are thinking exactly what you’re thinking. They want to be happy. You want to be happy. And from this realization, the only inevitable reaction becomes to work towards fulfilling the happiness of everyone involved – as best as you possibly can.

Now when I told my friend Eli about this, the first thing he asked was, “Well what if you’re in a situation where everyone’s needs can’t all be met? What do you do then? What if one of them is staunchly monogamous?” And I said, well, if you are firmly an ego relativist, then a flexibility to explore possibilities flows naturally from this original logic. Their happiness is your happiness. Their suffering is your suffering. From this understanding, a willingness to explore third-dimensional options beyond the usual 2D, black and white monogamous option becomes second nature. You might even attempt these explorations without even knowing there is a name for it. You just do it because it makes sense.

But, if you or the other two people are definitely not into an open-relationship situation, and there is no way for the needs of all three people to be met, then an ego relativist would handle the situation in the following two ways. Ultimately, your partner is put into the undesirable and tricky position of having to choose (a real tragedy in my opinion, but hey, it’s their choice to go this route).

If they choose you, then you can simply try to be as loving and considerate to the ex as you possibly can. You will probably experience deep empathy and ambivalence because you’ve been on that end of the equation many times before. You share their suffering as if it was your own, and whatever you can do to lighten this suffering, you do it.

If she chooses her ex, it is difficult, but you can experience some peace knowing that her ex is happier now that he can be with her, and that she is happy with him. Their happiness IS your happiness, too. Their happiness is equally as deserving as your happiness, and the dice just happened to come up snake eyes for you – this time. Next time it will probably come up sevens, and that’s just the nature of life.

Another question Eli asked, playing Devil’s Advocate at this point, “What about when two countries want the same oil?” And I said, simply, “They share.” It’s called the Oil Depletion Protocol, an international treaty that has not been put into place, but follows the same logic of Ego Relativism on an international level as it follows on an individual level.

Now as some might have guessed by now, when we believe that no ego is any more deserving of happiness than any other ego, this applies not just to human egos, but every conscious ego on planet earth – anything with a nervous system, in other words. Suddenly, consenting to the mass slaughter and suffering of chickens, cows, and pigs at the moment of our purchase and consumption of meat seems entirely unethical.

Of course, my decision to become vegetarian came from many angles, but what sealed the deal was the realization that the human-centered view that puts human interests above the interests of all other species was not based on any objective truth, but definitively a culturally conditioned mythology. It is speciesism – a step up from sexism and racism in the moral hierarchy of today’s culture, but a form of baseless and selfish discrimination nonetheless. It seems like if we are to follow Ego Relativism to its conclusion, then fighting for the rights and happiness of all animals seems to arise organically.

Hmm, I’m wondering how many people reading this were gung ho about Ego Relativism right up until this moment. Our eating habits are certainly a sensitive topic. It puts us face to face with our own limits to compassion – “Yea I’ll be compassionate all you want until you start talking about what I like to eat! Then we gotta a problem here.”

Well, fortunately, a side-effect of Ego Relativism is a good degree of moral relativism. I believe in being vegetarian and I hope someday all humans are, at least 90%, but I don’t hold it against anyone that isn’t. Everyone’s got to make their own choices in life. It’s why I’ve never held it against anyone I’ve dated that wasn’t a vegetarian, either.

Ah, trying to harmonize a strong belief in social justice and compassion with not judging people or cutting off my heart from them – it is one of the most beautifully complex balances to find, but it makes for a great life adventure!

Ah ha! Well. I seemed to have went on a bit of an unproportional tangent on that one. What’s the last thing I really like a lot you ask?

*The willingness and desire to learn and grow from every situation. – Yea, without this one, the rest seem pretty hard to achieve.

What’s It Going to Take to Heal the Apathy in Our Society?

With a growing awareness of mounting ecological, economic, political, and social problems, there exists many growing currents of response.

On one hand, more people are waking up. They’re getting involved. They’re saying, “Not another day! This is where I mark the line.” Their desire to change the world is turning from simple wishful thinking on Monday mornings into tangible action. The thoughts they used to have only occasionally about their relationship to the rest of the world now occurs to them all the time. They’re beginning to see activism not as something that is done only at non-profit meetings and at protests, but that activism is a way of life – that it represents nothing less than our personal, spiritual choice to choose determination over defeat, and compassion over apathy. Ultimately, in some way, it is the choice to reject our culture’s post-modern slide into narcissism. It is to reject the modern consumer philosophy that true happiness and joy comes from personal material accumulation, from seeking personal desires and needs. It is the realization that the joy that comes from connecting to our relationship with the planet blows the old way of seeking joy out of the water.

These people are realizing that humans are social animals; we crave connection and community; we crave a wide, encompassing identity that connects us with the whole humanity of the world – not just our friends and family, not just our city, our country, our species – but every living being on Earth – plant, animal, and human.

It is a new philosophy, perhaps a very, very ancient philosophy, one that sees everyone on this planet as one family – that everything is interconnected, that the whole humanity and life of all beings resides in each one of our hearts, and that we reside in theirs. There is no “I” and “them.” Truly, honestly.

The happiness of another is my happiness. The suffering of another is my suffering.

There is no separation. For millions and millions of people growing around the planet, the problems of the world are their problems; the happiness others find as we collectively realize a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world is their happiness. It is the most profound and meaningful happiness one could possibly experience.

You can’t buy that kind of happiness at a store. You can’t get it from beating the last level of a video game. It doesn’t come out of the end of a pipe or at the bottom of a bottle. It doesn’t come from watching sports. It doesn’t come from how you dress or what kind of car you drive. It doesn’t come from getting a college degree or from getting a fatter paycheck.

It comes directly from the final and profound realization that there truly is no “self” and there is no “other.” We are inter-connected with everything. We are all of it.

To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki:

If the world did not exist, I could not exist.
If I do not exist, then nothing exists.

Scientifically, this is true, but our culture makes it hard to see. But it is what Martin Luther King saw; it is what Gandhi saw. It is what every person that works to change the world in some way experiences – not in words, but in conviction. It is what animates the life of every person that has committed to not giving up until the last person has the same opportunity for happiness that everyone else has.

It is this realization, how ever it might be described (it has been described in hundreds of ways) that gave every inspirational person in our history the personal, spiritual power to face the most impossible odds and to succeed.

To quote from the documentary that Films For Action screened at Liberty Hall on April 26th, it is what “Martin Luther King called ‘Love in Action’, and Gandhi called ‘Soul Force’; what Velcrow Ripper is calling ‘Fierce Light.’”

It is what has made me want to dedicate my life to improving the world. It is why I do not feel like I have a choice anymore in the matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter if everyone around me says it’s hopeless. I’ve got to do it because my inner-most nature wants me to do it.

I’m not sure when it happened. I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point, reading more news about how the world is falling apart, watching more documentaries about how urgent and dire our situation has become doesn’t shut me down. I’ve watched over 150 documentaries at this point, absorbed an ungodly amount of “depressing” information, and I have not become jaded. I’ve been burnt out before, several times in fact. And over time I have come to see that if we don’t know how to absorb this information we will undoubtedly be crushed by it. I’ve seen this happen to many of my friends. They just shut down, not because they don’t care, but because there is too much to care about, and we just don’t know how to deal with it.

In an age where we receive more information from one edition of the New York Times than a man in the Renaissance might receive in his entire life, it is simply too easy to become overwhelmed by the barrage of stimulus, the barrage of causes and problems that beg us to care about them and to help out.

It is a problem unique to our generation (and I have to laugh as we throw one more on top of the list). But it is one that if we do not discover the solution to, frankly, we’re all gonna be screwed. Figuring out how to turn apathy into action is one of the most important and vexing problems we can try to figure out.

Because as I mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways people are responding to our mounting environmental and social problems, and among all the people that are waking up and getting involved, there are many that have responded by shutting down. The empathy center in their brains has short-circuited: too many images of oil-soaked baby seals, too many images of starving children in foreign countries, too much political corruption rampant in Washington, too many examples of the media failing to do their job on The Daily Show, too many ingrained and inter-locked institutions upholding the status quo. Logically, they could make quite a case for saying that trying to change anything is pointless. And it seems that the logical side of their brains has won over and suppressed the voice in their heart. Or maybe not.

But in either case, they have given up before they have even started. They’ve accepted that the world is spinning out of control and have resigned themselves to enjoy what little of the party pie is left before it’s all gone. There may be a deep seated rage in many of today’s youth, that goes suppressed, a rage from simply being born into these problems – that it was already out of control before they were even born.

And from the way it’s looking, the world they will inherit has already been squandered. Our parents generation grew up in a time of unprecedented growth, the age of cheap oil – a 100 year paradigm that fueled all the rich affluence that we have enjoyed up to today. But the 21st century, the young are realizing, will be a century of decline – declining supplies of cheap energy, fresh water, arable soil, and clean air; declining mental clarity in a world saturated by commercial noise, declining security in an age of climate change and growing resource wars. For the youth of today that have not responded by becoming incredibly pissed off, they have responded by becoming incredibly despondent – birthing the kind of philosophical narcissism and ironic distance that is so perfectly embodied by the modern “hipster.”

Of course, billions of people all over the world never even got a taste of the party that we in the affluent West have gotten to enjoy. Can you imagine the rage and anger one would feel knowing how so few in the West could enjoy so much while so many in the rest of the world will not benefit from any of it before it’s gone? And some people have trouble understanding (not condoning mind you, but understanding) why kids in the Middle East would dream of blowing us up.

We’ve got to listen to this rage, not fight it but listen to it. So many people in our society are apathetic towards politics or social change. How can we turn the tide? What’s the secret to transforming apathy into resolve?

I mean, what do you say to a person that says “everything is pointless”?

Like I said before, I’ve felt burnt out and depressed about our situation many times, but every time, a spark was lit and my enthusiasm regenerated. Now, it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt jaded. Something happened to me that made “pessimistic realism” completely unacceptable to me. Now, I get depressed if I play video-games or party too much, and I feel more alive than ever when I’m “working” on activist projects. I don’t even feel like I have a choice about it anymore. I do it because there’s simply nothing else to do. Anything less just feels like I’m denying reality. I know that a world of incredible potential and beauty exists if I will simply work to find it.

That’s the conclusion, but like many core convictions that we accumulate over life, I cannot remember how I got here. I know millions of people all over the world have had this same kind of conclusion. I know many of my friends have had this conclusion. They’ve felt jaded about the state of the world, and then something happens to them, and suddenly their old view of the world seems entirely unacceptable. A spark ignites inside them, a passion to engage with the world rather than insulate oneself from it. And the beautiful thing is, whatever this spark is, it is self-sustaining. It is the furnace that burns in you the rest of your life, and the more you use of it, the more of it you have.

So I would like to ask everyone reading this, what was the spark that lit the fire for you? If you felt jaded once but found your way out of it, what was the catalyst? What gives you the energy to not just care intellectually, but in action?

I would love to hear your stories and thoughts on this. Because if we can figure this out, then I think we’ll have found the key to riding this tsunami of growing problems like a surfer rides a wave. We can engage with the reality of the world without being drowned by it.

From this, I think we can discover a philosophy on how to live one’s short life on this planet with passion and vigor, with unconquerable determination. And from here, a whole other world becomes possible.

How Am I to Live? How Am I to Be?

This question has been elusive to me since I was seventeen. There are so many ways of being in a given situation. If someone betrays your trust, for example, I could see many ways to act. I often feel differently about the situation at different times. Sometimes I feel anger and I want to express that anger towards the person. Sometimes I feel compassion. Sometimes I feel forgiveness. Sometimes I feel acceptance. Sometimes again I feel pissed off. Sometimes I just want to love them, despite it all. Sometimes I just want to be able to hate them and forget them, like so many other people seem to be able to do.

What’s the right response? Looking at the situation from a raw human perspective, or from a Buddhist perspective, each way of responding has its own justification. Each path can find sympathy, praise, and understanding with different people. Each path seems like the right way to go at different times. I feel like I have no “fixed self.”

Each choice seems attractive in its own way. I have this sense that nothing really matters. Each option seems more or less equal. So you can be whoever you want to be. You could be compassionate and they wouldn’t notice. People aren’t used to compassion. People are often selfish. They could just take advantage of your kindness and not learn anything – go on doing their thing, hurting others.

Getting angry and putting them in their place might be the most appropriate and beneficial way to handle the situation. Some people don’t respond to the language of love and mindfulness. They only respond to what they’re used to. Angry, or frank words, may be the only language they can hear.

I often thought when I was seventeen that if someone was being a total jerk or an asshole to me, I should not hesitate to punch them in the face. This, of course, coming from someone who is studying Zen Buddhism may be surprising. After all, if we are truly all one, then the person who is being an asshole is also myself. I am not separate from him. We share the same basic desires, hopes, fears, sufferings and dreams – the same basic humanity.

But even though I can see myself in the asshole, and the whole universe can be considered “the self,” sometimes we all need a good punch in the face! Yes, I am punching myself in the face. But hopefully, if I was ever being an asshole, or was incredibly hurtful, someone else would do the same in kind to me, and I would have the good sense to thank him for it.

Truly, it’s the fake friends that smile and nod and then gossip to others. Your true friends won’t hesitate to set you straight, if the need arises.

Of course, I’m only really kidding about physically punching someone. What they need is an emotional punch, a spiritual punch – something to wake them up and get them to pay attention to their actions. If people hurt others and do not realize they are doing this (or admit that they know but don’t care), does it benefit them or others to leave them alone? Until they learn the lessons they need to learn, they will continue to make the same careless mistake, burning a long path of tears and heartache for others, and eventually, themselves.

It is the reason why I do not simply want to accept others. I do not want to have the same attitude as a good German. I do not want to sit quietly and let an injustice stand unchecked. Whether it be a friend, a relationship, a stranger, a politician, or a corporate CEO, life is too short to not say something, to not school a person when they need to be schooled.

Again, I feel like if there is any commonality among humans to want to learn and grow, we could only hope others would care enough to do the same for us, when our own blind-spots mislead us.

At the same time, try as we might, it is very difficult to change people if they have no inward desire to change and improve themselves. Some people may need to suffer greatly and cause others to suffer greatly before they finally learn the lesson they had originally been offered. There is some old wisdom from the book Siddhartha, which is that people will always learn the lessons they need to earn in their own time. While you may try, while you may earnestly want to spare your friend, ex partner, spouse, or child the same lessons you yourself learned with much strife and difficulty, ultimately, you cannot change their path. They are the only ones who can do that, and we cannot know if it will take five months or five decades.

This is why the ancient masters talk abut letting events take their course, and not trying to force things. It is why Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you do not understand, you will think not getting angry to be the act of a fool.”

When Siddhartha ran to find his son, his friend looked at him and smiled with sincere consideration, but he did not hinder Siddhartha’s path. Vasudeva knew that Siddhartha’s search to find his son would be futile (because his son did not want to be found), but that Siddhartha had to come to accept this himself. He had to seek and find despair before he could finally accept, ultimately, what he already knew. It is a moment that speaks truth and wisdom to me. Vasudeva knew how to yield, how to love without interfering.

Of course, this choice is satisfying to us because we, the reader, can share in his wisdom. In real life, the other we have in mind has no idea we have decided to love them from afar, to let them find their way in their own time. They move past their experience with you in very traditional terms, thinking they were right and totally justified, whatever it is they’re thinking. This may be an example of my own struggles with this path, but I find it hard to let a situation go in this way when I know their ego has probably thought of all kinds of justifications to put themselves above the other. In their minds they have created a “version of events” that somehow always puts them definitively in the right.

So from another perspective, Vasudeva’s choice could be seen as overly passive. Not doing something is the same as doing something. What is the right action to take in each moment?

Be true to yourself and express yourself, but learn to let things go.
Be definitive, but know how to yield.
Reflect on all this, but be spontaneous!

Hopefully by now you can get a sense of the predicament I’m in. Let events take their course and be mindful of the wisdom of Vasudeva’s non-action, or take a more direct stance and say fully what you feel and believe? That’s the predicament. Which self, which way of being am I too choose?

February 2010

The Right Time for Now is Now

Example: You’re not in a relationship with anyone at the moment because the right thing to happen right now is happening right now. When the time happens that I’m in a relationship, that’s what will be right for that moment. For that moment, but who can tell what will be right in the next?

I find that things have a way about working out. It’s just the nature of life that there are good fruits to life and there are bad fruits. And unfortunately, we don’t very much like when what’s right for this moment, isn’t what we want it to be.

So whaddaya do?

For every fruit that comes, good or bad, there will be a thousand others just down the road. I already feel like I’ve experienced so much, and yet, so much awaits me. There’s so much to look forward too. It’s like you’re on a train to happiness – to whatever you want in life. You know you’ll get there, eventually, so you can be free to enjoy the sights you see out the window at the moment. Ooh, what’s that? You see yourself suffering outside the window? Well yeah, it happens, and I’m sure there’s a good philosophical reason why that’s alright, but I don’t think it actually matters. I mean, try not to suffer Tim – if that’s your thing – if that’s what you want to do. But again, you’ve just got to be real. “Here I am, suffering.” Or: “Here I am, happy because I realize this thing that seems to make sense about how things are.”

Or whatever. Say it. And laugh. And love. Because really that’s all you’ve got, Tim. That’s all, really. Just fill yourself with love, and you’ll be alright. It really is quite amazing. Because when you do let go of all the buts and the shoulds, and you just let yourself love – that’s all there is. That’s all that matters, and you can deal with anything.

The hardest part, I guess, is loving what you don’t like – loving your suffering, loving whatever or whoever you are, completely.

Right now, I do love myself. I love suffering Tim and angry Tim and happy, vibrant, loving Tim. They’re all welcome in my house.

Now, I know I’ve heard this all before, but really, you’ve got to really try to try to not try to try to not forget! 🙂 I mean, it’s really going to take some effort, if you want to have… whatever you want. Things don’t happen on their own (although they do, at the same time… funny that.). You just have to remember this simple point, and try to remember each time you forget, and slowly you’ll be “sleeping” less and less, until you get to a point where you’re happily aware that the right time for now is now – as much as you want to be. Whatever feels comfortable. Because really, you have to get some sleep. You’ can’t be in this state of mind all the time. You have to fall asleep so you can enjoy waking up. Right? I’m pretty sure you do.

Now, I recognize the inherent dilemma at this age: Because you’re so young and have yet to experience so much, how can you stay awake for very long? Temptation grabs you. But I think that that is necessary. After all, what is happening now (the temptation) is the right thing for right now. So, those parts in life can’t be all bad. And really, they aren’t at all. It’s all a part of the dance. It’s all a part of life.

January 2003

Attachment in Non-Attachment

”Hold on tightly. Let go lightly.”

Love the world. Hold it closely. Hug fiercely with all your might (love), and like a good hug, let go lightly, gently, letting the world go.

In each breath, this is our life. Enlightenment is not something to achieve. It is everyday practice. It is not a juncture to reach. It is a sincerity, an understanding and compassion – each day. Enlightenment is not enrapture and ecstasy on the mountaintop. It is our everyday mind. It is the ordinary way.

June 2006

Dreaming of a Buy-Nothing Christmas

It’s kind of ironic that for several years being an atheist I still celebrated Christmas reflexively because that’s what I’d always done. The last several years I’ve been gradually winding down my participation. I still love to gather with family and friends, but each year I buy less. This year I have come the whole way – a total Buy Nothing Christmas. I haven’t bought a thing.

I also decided that, instead, I’m going to start celebrating the Winter Solstice and other sun, earth, and universe related happenings. Instead of paying homage to the birthday of a  debatable mythological figure that likely has it’s roots based in astrology, why not celebrate the real thing?

Connecting with the natural rhythms of life, the winter for me is a time to meditate on the fact that food and life doesn’t come from the supermarket. It comes from the sun. The sun is the life-bearing force of this galaxy. Nothing would exist that we know today without the sun. The seasons, the crops, the plants, the animals, the evolution of a brilliant diversity of species of living beings – it’s all tied to the near infinitely predictable rising and setting of the sun each day. Ancient culture’s understood the importance of the sun, and they viewed the sun, the earth, and all life on the planet as sacred, the same way many cultures today believe in invisible angels and gods as sacred.

Coming from a mystic Sufi background, I’ve studied many religions and spiritual paths, and have come to see how so many of them share many beliefs in common. The teachings of Buddha and Jesus run parallel. They often say the same thing, but using different words to speak to different cultures and audiences. The story and mythology of Jesus is heavily based on Pagan beliefs and values, making this new religious paradigm more accessible to the people of the time. This, for me, speaks to the common truth that can be found in all religions. When you strip away the anecdotes and parables and koans that give texture to these teachings, the core principles of how to live a compassionate life are virtually the same. But this also speaks to how philosophical principles are taught and spread amongst culture of vastly different time periods.

The worshiping of the sun is perhaps one of Homo Sapien’s oldest spiritual beliefs and cultural rituals. Over time, these beliefs (often taught through stories) are reinterpreted and recast for changing times and peoples. Jesus Christ is a perfect example. The whole story of Christmas and the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus into heaven can be understood entirely as a parable that personifies  the Winter Solstice and the original worshiping of the Sun.

It seems kind of bewildering how the religions of the last 10,000 years have come to believe so wholeheartedly in belief systems centered around invisible godly beings and other dimensions beyond this life, while at the same time they have become utterly divorced from respect and appreciation for the natural world. Unlike god, heaven and hell, which we cannot see and which have no tangible influence on our lives beyond our imaginations and surrounding culture, the physical world actually exists. The sun, plants, water, and animals of this galaxy actually exist, affect our lives – give us life! But we pay virtually no respect to this fact. There is no holiday to mark the occasion.

We fill our time with man made objects, man made cities and houses and cars and TVs and little boxes we shuttle back and forth from in between work, school, and play. We find value in these anthropocentric artifacts. But nature – the sky, the sea, the wind, the soil, the seeds that are fertilized each year that miraculously give us life and sustenance – these things we do not relate to.

We relate to Christ, we relate to heaven and other worlds. We relate to American Idol. But we see no relation to nature. We do not see ourselves in the eyes of a bear, or the bees, or a bird, or a dolphin. We simply do not see the connection.

This is reflected in our economic system. It is reflected in our entertainment, our movies, our religions, our school and government and business institutions. It is a paradigm lived and breathed worldwide, a fundamental worldview so ambient and pervasive it is almost universally invisible. Nature is not us, it is apart from us. We are it’s masters. And for the new hippy-mystic generation, we are it’s stewards.

But we aren’t nature itself.

This, this I think, has to change.

A new paradigm is possible. Reinterpreting our relationship to the universe is the inflection point where it all flips inside out, and a whole new perspective unfolds.

It’s 6am on this quiet winter morning. I suppose I’ll have to follow this train of thought on a future night.

Until then, cheers! and Merry Solstice!

December 25, 2008

Religion, Nature, & the Perception of Self

I’ll never forget the effect this poster had on me when I saw it some years ago. Upon first impression, the poster seemed to be an appeal to the mainstream Western view that religious extremism was the cause of the September 11th attacks, and if religion did not exist, thousands of innocent Americans would still be alive today. When I saw the poster, however, the September 11th attacks represented to me the zeitgeist of an entire generation’s struggle with religious and political conflict, with no simple causes and no simple effects to summarize the event so easily.

Decades before September 11th, 2001, our American foreign policy had long been involved in supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. We’ve propped up dictators, built bases on holy lands, bombed mosques and innocent civilians and called it “collateral damage.” And of course, all of this, along with our unwavering support of Israel and seeming indifference to the plight of the Palestinians has continued to inflame old religious wounds and anti-U.S. sentiment.

After the September 11th attacks, our government has waged two wars in retaliation, killing innocent Iraqis and Afghanis on a ten-fold scale in our efforts to “bring freedom” to the Middle East and “justice” to the terrorists. Of course, beyond the political rhetoric, a quick search on Google with the terms Bush, Iraq, and holy war will reveal religious connotations rooted in our foreign policy too numerous for me to stomach. Knowing that Bush has used the term “crusade” to describe the War on Terror and has said that the Iraq war was a “mission from God,” one can’t help but sense the overtones of Christian empire building that draw parallels to past periods of conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Seeing the September 11th attacks in this broader light, the full meaning of the political poster I saw becomes apparent: the blame for the whole karmic tragedy of 9/11, its lead up, and its aftermath, cannot be found in the zealous ideology of one religion or another, but within religion itself.

The very nature of religion makes violence possible, makes the most horrific and barbarous behavior acceptable so long as the violence dished out is upon the “other” and not “yourself,” and is otherwise done in the service of a god or divine covenant. How many people have been killed over the last 10,000 years in the name of one god or another? How many nations have conquered another nation and put its people in bondage in the name of one god or another? The story of Exodus is just one example of literature that reinforces this acceptable doublethink. “You shall not murder,” as Moses is commanded. Yet it was perfectly acceptable for hundreds or more of the Egyptians to be killed off so that God’s “chosen people” could be freed and prosper. Earlier in the story, God says that:

I have come down to rescue [the Israelites] from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land … the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

So, following God’s logic, once the Israelites come to this land, they now have the officially stamped and approved permission from God to take for themselves the land currently occupied by six other groups of people. The message of God and the authors who speak for Him seem to be clear: don’t kill people… unless God says it’s okay, or says it’s okay indirectly by giving you land that’s currently occupied by others.

Later in history, Socrates, one of the greatest philosophical thinkers both then and now, was put to death by a jury in Athens because he was either an “atheist” or because he just didn’t believe in the “right” gods, which, according to Meletus, the man who convicted him, was probably the same difference (Trial & Death of Socrates 29-31). In both examples, and thousands of others, the common thread is this: belief in the “right” god or gods gives a license to kill.

This “one right god” meme is common to almost all religions throughout history, and, evolutionarily speaking, we can understand why. Religions who posses this meme are more likely to pass on their beliefs to the next generation. If your religion is the “only right” religion, and your relationship with God is more important than everything else in life, then you’ve got a pretty good incentive to convert others and kill any detractors. It’s a spreading mechanism, selected naturally in the meme pool not because there is any rationality to the “one right god” meme, but because it gives spreading power to the religions that get infected by it. It’s in this way that I consider this meme much akin to that of a sexually transmitted disease. Like any virus looking for an exploitable niche, it seems inevitable that such a meme would come to find a home in most of the world’s major religions.

Another meme that may prove even more lethal to our species on a collective level, rather than an individual one, is the meme that says that Man is separate from nature, and that God gave Man the world to rule and use as he sees fit. The most obvious example of this meme in literature can be found in Genesis:

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

The implications of a human culture seeing itself as separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world are deeply profound. This meme would not be such a problem if it were contained within just one culture among many others. Unfortunately, this meme long ago hitched a ride on the back of our main civilizational ancestors, which have since colonized 99% of the planet, so that now, the belief in our divorce from nature is considered nearly synonymous with humanity itself.

It’s here that I should mention that religion has played a useful (though I would argue outdated) role in our history as an evolving species. Religion has provided the primary means that we have so far found meaning in life, and Man cannot live without meaning. Religion has shaped and defined our place in the world, made sense of the injustices, given us hope for the future, and offered us security in times of uncertainty. It has helped to explain the big questions, and given us comforting explanations for phenomena that at the time we were unable to comprehend. But given the power of religion to shape how we see the world and how we live in it, the narratives and mythologies that we tell ourselves are incredibly important.

What happens to a culture when it believes it is separate from nature and weaves this narrative into all of its stories, literature, movies, books, and conversations, so much so that it becomes ambient in the culture and is taken for granted? To put it simply, it becomes a blind spot, a silent cancer, an unspoken burden – one that, no matter how many problems it causes, we cannot question, because we must fulfill the sacred covenant most explicitly and famously outlined in Genesis. We are separate from nature, and it is our job to rule over it.

The most fundamental aspect of this belief is how it shapes our core identity. What do we consider “self” and what do we consider “other”? Think about all of the implications: you can exploit or destroy that which is not yourself. You can believe (foolishly) that you are not subject to the same laws that govern nature. You can care less and value less the things that are not connected to “you.” You can objectify nature and destroy it at your whim, exploit it as you please, kill it as you see fit, all without much internal conflict, because, according to your religious mythology, that’s what you’re “supposed” to be doing anyway.

Now let’s turn it around. Let’s think about how all of these things would change if our original premise were changed to: “we are nature.” Most people value things they identify with themselves. You do not destroy, pollute, exploit, or try to maim yourself. You would realize and accept the scientific and ecological laws that say, “Destruction of an ecosystem that you depend on destroys you as well.” You would value yourself over a corporation’s profits. You would value higher pollution taxes that protect you from toxins in your body. You would consider any economic costs that would be incurred to protect nature unquestionably worth it, because you value yourself more than any economic profit. You would design your cities, cars, factories, and material products in ways that do not destroy or pollute your self. You would do innumerable things that would contribute to the health and prosperity of nature, because that translates directly to the health and prosperity of society.

Today, of course, we can see clearly which one of these two mythologies was embedded within the civilization we have created. Declining fisheries, forests, and fresh water; poisoned lakes and rivers, depleted soils, and declining species diversity: they are all symptoms of a culture that cares more about its relationship with God and other humans than its relationship with the natural world. In the blip of just 10,000 years, we have doubled in population over a half-dozen times (fulfilling another common edict religion has provided us), and our impact on the planet now threatens us with a new problem our civilization has never faced before: ecological collapse due to the self-reinforcing feedback-loops that would be triggered by a two degree rise in global climate.

In a strange way, true contemporary followers of the Genesis story might say that all of these environmental problems we see today are all “part of the plan.” It’s all “collateral damage,” as the military would say, in our crusade to make the earth truly fit for Man, shaped to his needs and fancies – a home for a true king of kings. Of course, while putting the New World to the plow and building great cities was essentially holy work for our country’s settlers, seen from the Native American’s perspective, the story these settlers were enacting represented nothing less than a war on the natural world. Nevertheless, as our Founding Fathers saw it, it was their job to subdue nature and rule over it, and that’s exactly what they did, in a fashion not unlike so many of the rulers that we’ve all learned about in Western Civilization textbooks.

In more recent decades, while the language our political leaders use to describe our responsibility to nature has taken on the essence of a Mother Teresa more than a Ghengis Khan, the original belief that we are separate from nature remains the same. That is, whether we are nature’s good steward or its ruler, “we” are still separate from “it.”

As long as that remains true, and our sense of self and identity remains incredibly narrow and individualistic, the patterns we have seen play out over the last 10,000 years of Western civilization will continue, with all of the violence, blood shed, and environmental degradation that has come with it. This is one reason why I believe that the world’s religions have served their brief usefulness in our evolution as a species, but they are no longer necessary to experience meaningful, secure, and enriching lives. Currently, given the advances of science and the humanistic values of secular society, the archaic and dogmatic religions of our past are causing far more harm than good. If religion is to remain relevant in a society 200 years from now, or 1000 years from now, it will have to let go of many of the negative qualities that up to now, has been used precisely to define what religion is. Religion is going to have to reinvent itself, if we are going to continue to use the word at all. To point in the direction of where this search for a new interpretation might begin, I will end with a quote from one of my favorite thinkers, J. Krishnamurti:

When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind” (Freedom from the Known 51-52).

Ah ha, Living Life as it Were! That is All…

You know, it seemed that once in my life it was my perception that to live a spiritual life was to be conscious of reality from it highest vantage point, and that even though it was okay to suffer, you wouldn’t be if you were truly in that state of mind. But now, I can feel an added sense of depth to this so-called spiritual wisdom. And that is: To suffer, to desire, to want, to be upset, to be happy, to love and experience all of these emotions is to be human. And I have realized now that above everything else, spiritual or otherwise, it is most important for me to simply express my genuine nature as a human being in this moment.

“Be true to thy self and you will be free in the eyes of God” or so it was.

And that, being true to oneself, I have found, is the key to ones happiness, sense of self-worth, and fulfillment. Recently, I’ve found myself saying, “I’m living the life I want to live.” And I felt in those moments that quality of fulfillment – so long as I was doing whatever action or thought I intuitively felt best expresses “my self” in that instance.

Another quality I find is the great sense of acceptance and, in its time, forgiveness that you can have for who you are. If I am sad, then let me be sad. If I’m happy, then be happy. If something doesn’t feel right, express yourself until you come to a resolution you feel good about. If you want to do something, if it feels right in your bones, if that voice inside of you speaks to you and wishes some fulfillment of a present desire – then by all means, pursue it.

It seems like what I’m describing here is naturalness, achieving that same internal harmony that can be seen when two dancers move perfectly in step, or when an athlete loses herself so completely in her sports activity that she Is the activity. When I am expressing my true nature, when I am expressing the spontaneous realization of all my wants, desires, concerns, thoughts and aspirations, I am simply being who I am, as all of the countless beings of the universe are expressing who they are. Through expressing my true self, I express the unity of the universe.

The trees: look at them! At one point they’re just a little seed but through time they express their nature as a tree. In fact, the tree is expressing its true nature in every phase of its life. And the rocks, they too, are just doing their thing. Just being rocks. And so too is it with all creatures.

If only it were that simple for us to do that! Ah ha, maybe it is…

So then, the thing I must do is stop playing games, and stop living in samsara. As samsara is, just a very, very big game. Surely, I will still live in samsara, but no longer can it be called samsara. Living life, as it were. That is all.

Aug 6th 2002