2017-05-27

Joy Practice

Joy, part 2

Practices that help cultivate joy (SEE HERE), I have grouped into three categories. The “Might be Your Thing" category has practices that are not for everyone – but one of them just might be what really works for you. These are things like:
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Quilting
  • Art
  • Martial Arts
  • Poetry by Heart (making a practice of memorizing poems that provide insight or guidance for you)
These things really bring joy to some people. Any one of them might not be your thing. If it is, the question is, are you setting aside enough time to do it?

The second category is “Worth a Try.” These are practices for everyone, although perhaps not on a regular basis. I’m saying, try these one time. If you really like it you might start doing it on a regular basis, but even if you only ever do it once, it’s kind of a nice exercise to have done once. These include things like:
  • Create a Home Altar
  • Let Your Precious Go
  • Failure Gratitude (make a list of your failures in life, and then reflect on reasons to be grateful for those failures)
Some of these "Worth a Try" exercises are for doing with another person, and require some care in selecting the suitable partner.
  • Spiritual Intimacy (should be entered only with someone you’re prepared to be vulnerable with)
  • Fall in Love with Someone (your spouse or partner, perhaps! Otherwise, be sure you're ready)
Some of these practices are “lift your spirits” practices:
  • Watch an Inspiring Movie (includes a list of 36 films good for lifting your spirits)
  • Create a Magical Playlist (pick your favorite songs and make a playlist on your iPod, or on Spotify, or, if you’re old school, burn a CD -- or, if you’re really old school, making a tape, if that's still possible)
A key part of your strategy for cultivating joy in your life is (a) noticing when you’re kind of bummed, (b) making an intentional decision about what to do about that, because sometimes grief is appropriate and you need to let yourself be in that space for a while, and (c) having ways to cheer yourself up – if you decide that being cheered up is what you want.

The May issue of On the Journey explores the theme, Joy. The issue mentions several of the "Worth a Try" practices:
  • The Mirror Exercise (where you look yourself in the eye in the mirror and tell that person how much you appreciate and are proud of them)
  • The Year to Live List (where you imagine that you had one year to live, and make a list of what you’d like to do in that year, and then, maybe some of those things you go ahead and make plans to do, or else do something a little bit along those lines -- for instance, if “go to Tibet” would be what you’d want to do with one year to live, but that wouldn’t be responsible in your current reality, maybe you could make plans to visit, say, the Tibetan monastery in Woodstock)
  • The Birthday-Funeral (invite friends over, perhaps as a birthday celebration, and ask them to not to bring a gift but come prepared to share a favorite memory about their connection with you – the kind of stories that too often don’t get told except at funerals)
  • Create a Pain and Pleasure List (write down 10 things you like to do, 10 you don’t like doing, and then notice how much of your typical week is spent on the “don’t like” items -- see if you can move yourself to spending a bit more time doing what you do like)
All these are worth a try for everyone – at least once, and return to them as needed. This is how we pay attention to intentionally cultivating joy in our lives.

The third category are the “Keep in Mind” practices. These are things for everyone to just keep in mind, try to cultivate as you go through your day – try to make into a habit.They aren’t particular exercises, other than sometimes making them a focus of your journaling. Mostly these are little reminders to give yourself, habits of being to tell yourself to try to exemplify.
  • Be Patient
  • Pause
  • Slow Down
  • Take More Breaks
  • Honor Your temperament
  • Love Your Inner Child
  • Enjoy Humility
  • Accept the Limits of Your Influence -- and at the same time:
  • Do What You Can
  • Cultivate Self-Acceptance, and have compassion for yourself
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally
Each one of these has its own post on CUCmatters.org detailing what’s it’s all about and how to do it.

You’ve got your “Might Be Your Thing” practices – find one that is your thing. There’s the “Worth a Try” practices – give each of them a try once, and stay with the ones that seem helpful. And there’s the “Keep in Mind” practices that are slogans to live by and try to make into habits

Beyond these three there are simply “The Basics” for a life of joy.

Next: The Basics

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Joy"
See also
Part 1: Joy and Happiness, Evolution, Money
On Joy
On the Journey: 2017 May: Joy

2017-05-25

Joy and Happiness, Evolution, Money

Joy, part 1

I do believe there’s a difference between happiness and joy. A British website called psychologies explains it this way:
“Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.” ("Joy vs Happiness," 2015 Sep 1)
OK. Joy comes from a place of peace – peace with who you are, peace with your world. Happiness often comes from a place of excitement.

But if you think of happiness as not just a moment of happiness, but the overall happiness of your life, then you’re getting a good measure of joy. Joy may be different from happiness, but if you’re unhappy, it's hard to be joyful. In fact, if you’re unhappy, you don’t really have a heart filled with peace, hope, faith, or love either. For that reason, it seems OK to go ahead and take happiness as a proxy for joy – understanding that we’re not talking about the momentary happiness from momentary circumstances, but your overall norm of cheerfulness about your life. The more you cultivate happiness, the more you’ll also at least contribute to cultivating the abiding joy that is a fruit of the spirit.

So how do you cultivate happiness and joy? Oh, I thought you’d never ask. OK, so maybe you didn’t ask. Either way, that’s the question I have been answering for you week after week for more than three years: the "Practice of the Week" posts describe practices for cultivating joy. But before I talk about that, I want to set the stage with a couple items that came to my attention in the news this week. One of them illustrates that challenge – why it’s hard to be joyful, why it takes intentional work. The other illustrates that our most common strategy isn’t all that relevant.

First, the challenge. It takes intentional practice to cultivate joy because evolution has designed us to be a little bit unhappy. A little unhappiness gave our hunter-gatherer ancestors a better chance of surviving and reproducing. They needed to be focused on dangers and problems and competition. We have inherited that tendency. This news item from just this week about that was about was about Homo Naledi, a human relative unknown before bones were discovered in South Africa in 2015. It took a while to get a good measurement on the age of the bones, but on Tue May 9 it was revealed that they are roughly 236,000 years old. That’s a lot more recent than the original guess that had them at about 2 million years old. It means that homo sapiens – us – and homo naledi were living at the same time. We already knew that Neanderthals were living at the same time as homo sapiens. Now we know that Homo Naledi was also among the competing homo species – and that only homo was equipped to win. The article I saw concluded with this observation:
“We are a competitive, resource-gobbling species today, and the new research helps confirm that, for better or for worse, we always have been.” (Time Magazine, 2017 May 11)
We evolved to really want to get stuff, to out-compete others at getting more of it. That’s the recipe that brought us into existence and allowed us to survive, but it’s not a recipe for happiness. The circuitry of anxiety and stress and continual acquisition that improved survival among our ancestors is no longer functional for us, so we need ways to override that circuitry. So that’s why it takes intentional focus – because we’re rewiring our circuitry to override aspects of our evolutionary default.

The other news item this week has to do with our usual strategy for making our life better: earn more money. On the one hand, there is such a thing as not enough. It’s hard to be happy amidst the insecurities of extreme poverty – not impossible, but hard, and it takes a rare level of spiritual attainment. On the other hand, there is also such a thing as too much, as when too much of our life is spent tending to finances and too little on the things that really make life joyful. For those of us without the level of spiritual attainment that makes abject poverty acceptable, how much is enough? There seems to be some geographic variation on that. A recent Gallup study looked at how income affects people’s daily emotions in 12 U.S. metro areas.
  • In Atlanta, the annual salary that correlates with peak happiness is $42,000.
  • In Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, and Wahsington, DC, it’s $54,000.
  • In Boston and Houston, the annual salary that correlates with peak happiness is $75,000.
  • In New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles, it’s $105,000. (Time, 2017 May 8)
Interesting! That’s the peak – so people who made less than that as well as people who made more than that weren’t as happy. But, of course, that’s the general population – people that aren’t particularly doing the work to cultivate happiness. Do the work and you can override the circuitry of unhappiness with less than the salary correlating with peak happiness. (Or, for that matter, with more.)

So, what does this work look like? I have had a lot to say about that in the “Practice of the Week” posts I started posting on the CUUC Matters website back in 2014. Almost every week in your E-Communitarian newsletter (links to which are posted on our Facebook page HERE) you’ll find a title of a practice, a brief blurb, and a link to the full description. As of this writing, there are 127 different posts at cucmatters.org describing various ways to cultivate joy, and there are new ones still coming most weeks. Many of them overlap, and a few of them are the same practice, explained in, I hope, a helpfully different way.

NEXT: About the practices.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Joy"
See also
Part 2: Joy Practice
On Joy
On the Journey: 2017 May: Joy

2017-05-24

Pride

Pride: arrogance, vanity, hubris, haughtiness, conceit, snobbery, self-importance. “Pride,” said Pope Gregory I “is the root of all evil.” The other vices “spring from this poisonous root.” Pope Gregory identified four species of pride:
(1) Boasting of having some excellence that you don’t have;
(2) Having certain excellences and believing that you got them entirely on your own;
(3) Having a certain excellence and believing that no one else has it;
(4) Having an excellence, understanding that it came to you from above, but still believing that it came to you from your own merit.

“Pride is the beginning of all sin” says Ecclesiasticus, a book that Protestants class as Apocrypha, Catholics call Deuterocanonical, and for the Eastern Orthodox is simply Biblical, as it was for Augustine. Citing Ecclesiasticus, Augustine went on to argue:
“Every sin is a contempt of God, and every contempt of God is pride. For what is so proud as to despise God? All sin, then, is also pride....Pride encourages humans to displace God, to act on the willful denial of human limitation, to covet unjust privileges, and to glory in itself far too much.”
What Augustine thought of as displacing God, we might call choosing the delusion of separateness over the reality of interconnection and interdependence.

Pride can be a problem for ourselves and for others. On the other hand, pride can be a necessary antidote to a history of shaming and denigration, as it is for LGBT folk and African Americans. As the African American writer Michael Eric Dyson has observed:
"White pride is the vice that makes black pride necessary."
Or, as Martin Luther King put it several decades earlier:
“Yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black and I’m beautiful,’ and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
From my position of privilege (white, straight, cis-male, middle-class, educated), it’s easy for me to say I don’t have any more need for pride. Indeed, it is one of my privileges that my life situation allows me the luxury of preferring humility and gratitude – though that doesn’t mean I’m successful at achieving them. I don’t have to fight daily for recognition and respect. If I’m not heard for what I wanted to say, almost always it is because I wasn’t very skillful in saying it, not because of pre-existing doubts about my worthiness to be listened to. There are others who don’t have that privilege, who exhort themselves and their peers to pride as a necessary bulwark against social forces and conditions that denigrate who they are.

Pride in being LGBT, African American, or Latino/Latina is important and valuable. On the other hand, pride in being American is a bit different. It’s understandable if you’ve just been sworn in as a naturalized citizen. If, however, all four of your grandparents, both your parents, and you were born and raised on US soil, I don’t see the point. Our national arrogance has been more problematic than whatever felt need is being addressed by proclaiming pride in being an American. Yes, we do need to know who we are, understand how our country and culture shape us, and understand the power and privileges that are at our disposal so we can deploy them with lovingkindness and compassion. Paying attention to all the things that being American means – the attitudes and the assumptions that we imbibe – is crucial to self-understanding. And, yes, the U.S. has done some good in the world. As a nation, we've also done some damaging things – both abroad and to many of our own people.

Comedian Chris Rock captured the ambivalence when he said:
“If you’re black, America’s like the uncle that paid your way through college but molested you.”
The question isn't whether to be proud or ashamed of our country, but how to take the benefits Uncle Sam conferred and use them to stop the molestation. What shall we do with the privileges of being American?

Our national policies have arrogantly pursued what we thought was our own self-interest without regard to what damage we were doing to other peoples. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out:
“Great nations are too strong to be destroyed by their foes. But they can easily be overcome by their own pride.”
The strand of the American inheritance for which I am most grateful is our tradition of criticism and dissent. Through the institutions of free speech, free press, and an independent judiciary -- flawed, sold-out, and co-opted as they sometimes are -- this country has fostered development of a deep and rich discourse of self-critique. I am profoundly grateful for that development. "Grateful," I say. I might, instead, have said the tradition of dissent makes me proud of being American. "Grateful," however feels more to the point, more germane, and more accurate than "proud." True patriots love their country enough to tell it the truth, and I am grateful that our country has had many such true patriots.

Claiming pride is sometimes a necessary antidote to a history of shame. I don't expect that in my lifetime the day will come when that strategy is no longer necessary. Not in my lifetime. But I see the little ones in our Religious Education classes -- kindergartners and elementary-schoolers -- and I imagine saying to them:

"Not in my lifetime, but maybe, just maybe, in yours, little one, the day will come when no one’s pride functions to deprive and shame others. On that day when no group is systematically shamed, countering the shame with pride will be unnecessary. The day will come when gratitude takes the place of pride. The day will come when being grateful for being, and for the conditions that made us what we are, always feels to the point, and comes from a place near to the heart. The day will come when being proud of ourselves will seem, at worst, hubris and, at best, a quaint way of expressing what is really gratitude. The day will come. Not in my lifetime, little one. But maybe in yours."

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust

2017-05-19

Lust

We inherit a long tradition of serious repression about lust. Augustine (354-430) was a major contributor to this repression. For Augustine, the ideal is life-long virginity of heart, mind, and body: without a hint of desire ever arising.

Second best would be a life of unmarried virginity of body.

Third best: matrimony without sex.

Fourth best: matrimony with pleasureless procreative activity. It should be like shaking hands. Through sufficient exercise of the rational will, we can control our feelings and impulses so that sexual activity occurs without any enjoyment, but solely for fulfilling the duty of procreating.

Fifth best: procreative activity accompanied by pleasure. This is a regrettable and clearly degraded state of affairs.

Worst of all: Acting for the sake of pure sexual pleasure without intending to produce kids.

Augustine, like Plato before him, put inordinate emphasis on rational control. But life is not just about what we choose. Some of it is about what chooses us. Sometimes, in fact, we require loss of control. The good life is about being open to the surprises that come to us, including the surprising emotions, and involuntary sensations. The good life includes the possibility of intimate partnership, a possibility undermined by too much control.

We want to feel swept away, and we want our partner to feel swept away. We want to turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing: a thing grander than our individual rational choice; a love we don’t choose or control, but simply serve. Lust is the unchosen desire best satisfied through losing ourselves in the service of love.

Each one of the seven deadly sins contains a virtue as well as a possible vice. The virtue of lust is that it impels us to risk setting aside our usual defenses and entering radical mutuality.

Lust is not simply a desire, but two desires that become one. It consists of the desire to please and to be pleased. Lovers A and B, in their consummation, find that A takes pleasure in B’s pleasure, and B takes pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure, and A takes further pleasure in B taking pleasure in A taking pleasure in B’s pleasure. And so on. In this feedback loop, the two desires merge into one, and the pleasure belongs to neither lover separately.

While there is much about this that is voluntary, and mutual consent is crucial to the enterprise, there is also a significant role for the involuntary – for the delight we take in evoking from each other involuntary bodily responses. In the merger there is a depth of surrender, a surrendering of rational will and separate identity, and thus a liberation from the tyranny of our separateness with its calculated self-protection. The experience reveals and manifests a spiritual possibility: we might learn to encounter each moment of our living with something like that ecstasy of merger – a continuous unfolding lovemaking with reality.

We are emerging out from under the long shadows cast by Plato and Augustine. More and more of us now understand that our bodies are not corrupted prisons for our pure and ethereal souls, but, rather, our bodies are integral parts of our identity and potential vehicles of liberation and fulfillment.

If we find that an attraction, an urge, has arisen within us, we can indulge it. Or we can repress it. Or we can bring presence, awareness, and investigative curiosity to the urge, neither indulging nor repressing. What is it, exactly? What are the options for honoring it and addressing it? We might then choose to defer the urge, seeing a greater possibility of fulfillment at a later time and place. We can bring the urge into dialog with our values: that is, not allowing the urge to overwhelm our values, but also not attempting to use our values to deny the legitimacy of the urge.

To have that dialog, it helps to be clear on what the values are. Margaret Farley, a Sisters of Mercy Nun, articulated seven value principles for sexual ethics:

1. Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms: “physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.” Lust tugs us toward situations in which either we or our partner are likely to be uniquely tender and vulnerable. Our values tell us to pay acute attention to the risks of harm.

2. Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. Promise-keeping and truth-telling are also aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person.

3. Mutuality

True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both bringing roughly equivalent levels of heart and self to the encounter, it isn’t mutual.

4. Equality

The partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners. The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.”

5. Commitment

A one-night stand “cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” Nevertheless, an encounter that turned out to be brief may still have been ethical as long as it accorded with each of the preceding principles, and there was openness to the possibility that the encounter might have led to long-term relationship.

6. Fruitfulness

Making babies is one way to be fruitful and keep the relationship from closing in on itself. There are other ways for love to create new life: if not from the lovers, then in the lovers. This new life should bless the world, not just the lovers. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

7. Social Justice

Our intimate relationships occur within the context of social justice, which requires that all people’s romantic and intimate relationships be honored and respected. “Whether persons are single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from...[faith] communit[ies] as well as the wider society. These are claims to freedom from unjust harm, equal protection under the law, an equitable share in the goods and services available to others, and freedom of choice in their sexual lives -- within the limits of” these principles.

When lust arises, pay attention to it -- neither indulging nor repressing. In the process, also pay attention to these seven principles of justice in sexuality.

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Pride

2017-05-16

Envy

“You see something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it. Once the injustice of the other person having it is established – this doesn’t usually take too long – his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind. Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying. His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself. Whatever the object of inordinate desire – an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life – the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not.” (Joseph Epstein, Envy)
It’s that double-reality that’s insufferable: he has it AND you do not. If you both have it, that’s fine, and if neither of you have it, that’s OK. Envy says there are two solutions: one, you get what they’ve got, ideally in a slightly better version, or two, they lose what they had. Envy doesn’t care which. Of course, there’s a third solution: learn how to not be envious, but Envy won’t tell you that.

We envy people who we see as roughly comparable. I don’t envy LeBron James because I have long since given up any hope of that kind of athletic genius. But another middle-aged minister whose basketball skills exceed my own might trigger a brief bit of envy. Women tend to envy other women and men tend to envy other men – because we see them as being in a comparable position, and we’d like to do as well as they do.
“Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000.”
H. L. Mencken said that contentment in America is making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law. The advertising industry is built on the aim of inducing as much envy as possible. Envy seems to cut across all economic systems. As the saying goes:
Under capitalism, man envies man. Under socialism, vice-versa.
The “if-I-can’t-have-it-you-can’t-either” impulse runs deep. In an experiment with chimpanzees, there’s a chimp in a cage and a table of their favorite foods outside the cage. The cage is on wheels and the chimp can reach out, grab the edge of the table and pull it over and get the food. There’s also a rope attached to a couple of the table legs. Pulling on the rope causes the table to collapse and the food to roll away, irretrievably out of reach. Now put two chimps in side by side cages. They can both reach the table, and they each have their own rope that can collapse the table. As long as they pull the table closer to where they both can reach it and share the food, all was well. But if one chimp pulled the table over toward himself out of the reach of the other chimp, then the aggrieved chimp would often pull the rope, collapse the table and thus ensure that neither of them got the food.

Often. Not always. Some chimps have the “if I can’t have it you can’t either” impulse stronger than others. It’s the same with their cousins, the humans. And it’s a good thing. We need people who care about equality just for equality’s sake – even when that sometimes means taking away something from someone else with no tangible benefit to anyone.

That’s a strange thing to say. But even though there may not seem to be any benefit in one instance, over the longer haul there may be. The chimp who pulls the rope to deny food to another chimp gets no benefit THIS TIME. But next time, the greedy chimp will be more likely to share. When the deprived chimp does pull the rope to say, “fine, then neither of us is getting any food,” that chimp doesn’t just quietly pull the rope. Oh, no. “When the table rolled away from them, the annoyed chimps exploded in rage, turning into screeching black furballs.” (Ariely) They are very loud about communicating a message for next time: treat me fairly.

Maybe in some circumstances we know that there will be and can be no next time, but our emotions are wired the way they are from millions of generations dealing with situations in which there were next times. The roots of envy lie in an impulse to insist upon equality because even though there may be no benefit to you this time, you increase your odds of better treatment next time. Without that impulse, we’d never have developed as much fairness as we have.

The pinch of envy might spur us to a wholesome pursuit of justice. Another possible positive: it might drive us work harder to achieve the qualities we admire in others.

Still, we may pursue those positives without the wretchedness that envy brings. For the most part, we need an antidote for envy, and that antidote is what the Buddhists call mudita – sympathetic joy, taking joy in other people’s joy. Sharon Salzberg offers this beautiful meditation for cultivating and nurturing mudita.
"We begin with someone whom we care about; someone it is easy to rejoice for. Choose a friend and focus on a particular gain or source of joy in this person's life. Whatever good fortune or happiness of theirs comes to your mind, take delight in it with the phrase, 'May your happiness and good fortune not leave you.' Following this, we move through the sequence of beings: benefactor, neutral person, enemy [difficult person], all beings." (Lovingkindness, p. 134)
Even if you don't think of yourself as an envious person, we could all use mudita strengthening.

* * *
See also:
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Lust
Pride

2017-05-14

Anger/Wrath

Anger, we've been taught, is a deadly sin. But there’s a crucial ambiguity about anger. On the one hand, there is the anger-the-feeling, the body’s physiological response to a situation that isn’t right. On the other hand, there’s anger-the behavior, which can take the form of stewing and seething or the form of yelling, gesticulating forcefully, and maybe hitting.

Anger-the-feeling is not wrong, not a problem, not a sin. Anger-the-behavior is a problem, either as seething or yelling. Fortunately, anger-the-feeling doesn’t have to be expressed in the forms anger-the-behavior stereotypically takes.

Anger-the-feeling is a version of the fight-or-flight physiological response to a threat – with the emphasis more on “fight” than on “flight.” Our ancestors millions of years ago were prone to being attacked, and they needed their body to trigger an upsurge in aggressive energy so they could fight to defend themselves.

Anger gets you ready to fight; fear gets you ready to run away, hide somewhere and be very still and attentive. Anger increases your blood pressure; fear increases your respiration rate. Anger makes you more risk-seeking; fear makes you more risk-avoidant. Feeling anger, people overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them; feeling fear, people underestimate their ability to successfully confront a situation. If an attacker or opponent has about the same height and weight as you, the lens of fear makes that opponent looks bigger than you. The lens of anger makes the opponent look smaller than you. Fear is your body telling you, “don’t be idiot; run, hide, be conciliatory and submissive.” Anger is your body telling you, “don’t let this twerp push you around.”

When anger-the-feeling arises in you, the crucial first step is to pay attention to it. Notice exactly what you are feeling: do you feel heat in your chest, a tightness in your shoulders? If you don’t notice that the feeling is there – or if you’re in denial about what you are feeling – then the feeling takes over. You lose the freedom to choose your response, for the feeling, if not identified, will simply dictate whatever form of expression it habitually uses – usually either seething resentment or yelling and dominance.

Once you name it to yourself and have pinpointed how it is manifesting in your body, the next question to ask yourself is where is this coming from? Can I bring understanding to the person who is triggering my anger?

To illustrate the role of understanding, put yourself in this scenario. You’ve been grocery shopping. Now you must get the groceries home and put away. You’re under some time pressure because you have an appointment coming up. You get to your apartment building, but the parking places on that side of the street are taken, so you park across the street. At the grocery store, you had asked for paper rather than plastic, and what you’ve got are three brimming-full paper grocery bags. You decide you need to do this in one trip, so you scoop up all three bags. Your field of vision is now somewhat limited. You wait for the light to change. You know it says “walk” for only a few seconds before it goes into its warning blink, and that stopped cars are ready to proceed the instant the light changes back. You’re making your way across the street, when some clod walking by the other direction bumps into you. Your groceries spill in the middle of the street. Your body floods with that anger reaction. Blood pressure up, you see red. You spin around, clutching the one bag of groceries that didn’t spill, and the angry, loud words that are already starting to come out of your mouth are definitely not words you would want your children to hear. And in that moment you see...the white cane. The anger just drains right away as you see the truth of the situation with clarity.

Understanding doesn’t usually come so quickly and clearly. But if we can give ourselves the space to work out as sympathetic an understanding as possible, then we’re better able to decide if a fight is really what’s called for.

Neither indulge nor suppress. Don’t suppress the feeling. It’s got something to teach you. But don’t indulge it either, by seething or raging. There may be a productive and important use for the energy of anger, preparing you to take on obstacles.

Carroll Saussy, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, distinguishes "holy anger" from "negative or sinful anger." Holy anger is
“a response to the experience of being ignored, injured, trivialized, or rejected, as well as an empathic response aroused by witnessing someone else being ignored, injured, trivialized or rejected. Anger is also a response to the awareness of social evils such as prejudice, oppression, and violence. Holy anger is a call to action. Negative or sinful anger is a vengeful, hostile, sometimes explosive reaction to an interpersonal or social situation; it aims to injure persons or institutions and tears at the fabric of society by destroying relationships. Whereas holy anger seeks to right a wrong, whether the evil has been perpetrated on oneself or another, sinful anger is the expression of a wrong-doer, who inflicts evil on wronged people.” (The Gift of Anger 115)
Anger can be the energy to right a wrong. Social justice movements are initiated and fueled by holy anger, righteous wrath against oppression. On the other hand, “an angry reaction to personal or social offense is narcissistic, a self-centered need to secure one’s power or reputation” (114). How do we tell the difference?

Take some deep breaths, be aware of your feeling, and calmly assess. Does this situation call for using your anger and confronting? Or does it call for surrendering the anger? Surrendering is not suppressing, but rather, after fully acknowledging the feeling, deciding to let it go and not seek redress.

* * *
See also
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Envy
Lust
Pride

2017-05-12

Greed/Avarice

Greed, more than any of the other “seven deadly sins,” has numerous and powerful champions. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” was initially titled “Greed.” The ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, advocates greed:
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind -- and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”


The speech by the fictional Gekko was inspired by a similar speech given by the actual Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who was charged by the SEC with insider trading and who paid a $100 million penalty to settle those charges. Speaking at the University of California's commencement ceremony in 1986, Boesky said:
"Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
The gospel of Greed has many followers. The stars and director of “Wall Street” have commented that over the years “people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because” they admired the characters in that film.

Yet greed is also universally seen as a problem by the world’s faith traditions. It goes by many names: covetousness, acquisitiveness, avidity, cupidity, avarice, miserliness, simony. Many find greed the root of all the other sins. In Hinduism, for example, the Mahabharata says:
“Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.... It is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring.... Pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all, mistrust in respect of all, insincerity towards all, appropriation of other people’s wealth... all these proceed from covetousness.”
Buddhism puts at the center the observation that desire is the cause of suffering. The Visuddhimagga says:
“Greed is the real dirt, not dust... The wise have shaken off this dirt and live.”
The Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, says:
“There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed.”
Sikh scripture declares
“Where there is greed, what love can there be?”
The goal of the secular world is to meet material needs. A fair secular structure will ensure that everyone has a chance to have their most basic needs met. That's important. Still, it’s about people wanting things – basic things, food, clothing, clean air, housing – and not so basic things, cars, TVs, books, "nice" clothes, corner offices. If we don’t have people wanting stuff, then we don’t have them doing the things to get it – thing which typically also provide goods or services to others.

Yet the market, upon which we depend for our material needs, requires a counter-weight. The good life includes openness to whatever comes – not just desire-driven activity to make certain things come. We express this in phrases have become clich├ęs precisely because it is so important to remember them: the best things in life are free; you can’t take it with you; money is the root of evil; we do not live by bread alone.

Even in the secular, market sphere, greed, unconstrained, backfires. Gordon Gekko, in the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” has come to recognize the problems of unmitigated greed:
“It’s greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he can’t afford with no money down. And it’s greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 house for $250,000. Then they take that extra $50,000 and they go down to the mall. They buy a plasma TV, cell phones, computers, an SUV, and, hey, why not a second home, while we’re at it, because, gee whiz, we all know the prices of houses in America always go up, right? And it’s greed that makes the government of this country cut the interest rates to one percent after 9-11 so we can all go shopping again. They’ve got all these fancy names for trillions of dollars of credit: CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, ABSs. I honestly think there’s only 75 people in the world who know what they are. I’ll tell you what they are: WMDs: Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Too much greed damages our economy. All the more so, it damages our souls. Some good things come to us only by not wanting them. Joy comes to us when we en-joy what we were not anticipating, did not expect, or earn, or deserve. Grace just takes paying attention. You can’t earn grace – if you earned it, it isn’t grace -- but you can work on your attentional skills.

A path of spiritual practice and development is necessary for seeing and coming to terms with our delusions, yet the spiritual path is a tricky one. The very practices to open us to uncontrolled grace can so easily turn into technologies of attempted control. At that point, “spiritual practice” is just one more ego delusion, one more channel for a kind of greed. That can happen, as this "Dharma the Cat" comic illustrates:


Having a community of accountability helps us stay on the path without the path becoming delusive. Left to ourselves to practice, our egos will bend the spiritual path into one more on-ramp to the ego highway. We need the help of others in identifying our delusions. (This is the crucial point that the SBNRs -- "Spiritual But Not Religious" -- often overlook.) With a spiritual path and a supporting community of faith, we have a chance to transcend greed and move into grace. We have a shot at freedom.

* * *
See also
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust
Pride
Pride