2014-06-30

This Week's Prayer

Dear Beauty and Wholeness,

You surround us. May we know it and show it.

In the sounds of night, in the noises and smells of early morning traffic, in the clatter of human interaction, in the calls, cries, songs, and scuffles of animals, beauty and wholeness surround us. May we see it and be it.

Wherever we may be, in city, town, or field, in woods, desert, or upon the ocean, struggling with a diet of too many calories or too few, sitting in meditation or screaming in violent combat, beauty and wholeness surround us.

War and rumor of wars beset our time, as they have all times so far -- even as beauty and wholeness surround us.

In Syria and Iraq, in Somalia and South Sudan, in the West Bank and Egypt, in Ukraine and Afghanistan; our siblings suffer amidst the fighting. Our children are coopted and deceived to participate in violence, subverting their native impulse to love, peace and compassion. Beauty and wholeness surround us. May we take it and make it.

Courageous love breaks in and reaches out all around our world. Young people and old, rich people and poor, women and men, in ways humble or heroic, celebrated or unsung, manifest lives of love and care, peace and connection. Through their humane skill, they enable others around them to survive, to develop, to come at last into their own.

Thank you for the blessing and the revelation of their lives and their love. Thank you for every act, small or large, fleeting or enduring, by others or by ourselves, that came from you, Beauty and Wholeness.

May our hearts join in a tide of lovingkindness that reaches to every corner. May we let in and shine forth the beauty and wholeness that surrounds us.

Amen.

Photo by Meredith Garmon

2014-06-26

Remembering Rorty: Father Earth 4

The other Father Earth of mine I want to tell you about today was Richard Rorty. Rorty is actually famous, as fame goes in academic circles. He was a philosophy professor at Princeton, then the University of Virginia, then Stanford. His 1979 book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was something of a sensation among philosophers. I encountered Rorty's work while at Baylor, and I went to the University of Virginia, where he then held the distinguished chair of Kenan Professor of Humanities, to study with him.

He was something of a renegade figure, which I liked. He said things that appalled the other philosophy professors. Which I also kinda liked. They would characterize him as claiming that there is no such thing as truth. That’s not what he said or meant. He did say that “true” is merely an empty compliment that we pay to beliefs we happen to share.

He wrote philosophy in a style I found fun to read. I can see now in his arguments for anti-essentialism that he laid the foundation for me for the Buddhist teaching that all phenomena are empty. Empty of what? Empty, as I understand the Buddhist sutras, of just the sort of essence that Rorty taught me things don’t have.

I became, for a while, an almost personal assistant of Rorty's. I prepared the indexes for three of his books. I spent hours assembling a five-fat-volumes of kinko’s packets of his collected essays.

And I read them all.

In one piece he was addressing the situation of education. He said, we have actual professors in our universities – instead of just mimeographed lecture notes, videotaped lectures, and exams proctored and graded by graduate students. The reason for having live professors, he said, is so students can see freedom enacted before their eyes.

And I did see him enact freedom.

I had read every essay of his, thousands of pages, knew every nuance of his position, even as it had evolved over the 30 years he’d been publishing, yet he’d still surprise me in class.

One time another student asked a question, and I sat there confidently expecting he would recite what I knew to be the Rorty line on that subject. Instead, he stood there feeling his way, as if grappling with the question for the very first time. The next day, I went to see him in his office. I asked about that question from the day before. I said, “I would have expected you to say" thus and such.”

He shrugged: “Yeah, I would have expected me to say that too.”

He had poured years of hard intellectual labor into working out what to say on complicated philosophical questions – but when a student asked a question, he was capable of setting aside that substantial body of accomplishment and tackling the issue fresh. Rorty never showed the slightest interest in Eastern philosophy or Buddhism or Zen, but he showed me what Zen mind, Beginner’s mind was.

Rorty later left the University of Virginia and took a professorship at Stanford. He died in California in 2007. Here’s to you, Richard Rorty. Thanks, Prof.

Under a number of guides, I worked at reasoning and arguing things out: becoming an architect for a city of words in which order would reign. Yet the enduring legacy of the Father Earth figures that helped ground me are the examples that they were of vulnerability, of laughter, of caring warmth, and honest freedom.

Who were your mentors? Take a few moments today to tell somebody about at least one of them. In holding those memories, we empower both ourselves and the person with whom we share them to build, not merely a city of words, but a land of relationship and connection; not merely knowledge, but wisdom.

2014-06-23

Sarcasm, Ludicrity, and Angst: Father Earth, 3

By the end of 9th grade, when we talked to Coach Blackwood about the losses, it was a little different. After asking what the other team argued and how we responded, instead of telling us a better way to respond, he'd just nod and remind us: “What you think you said, and what the judge heard you say aren’t always the same thing. You’re thinking along the right lines, but you’re not getting it across clearly.”

And we didn’t know how to be clearer – so we tried saying it louder. So we’d be in these debates, yelling at the judge. Paul’s voice still hadn’t changed, but mine was now changing. So you can imagine me yelling my arguments punctuated by random high-pitched cracks.

Coach Blackwood would periodically remind us: You guys are going to be good. And then he’d tell us a story about his debating days, in which he or another member of his squad performed some outlandish antic, or brilliant maneuver, or incredible blunder in a debate round. It made us feel that our screw-ups had potential in them. That it wasn’t just a matter of fixing the mistake and thereby attaining to a mistake-free but bland competence. Something more exciting: the idea that in the very screw-up itself lay a better way of doing things than anybody else could do – at least, a better way for me to be. My screw-ups had transcendent potential. My personal and unique style of debating was beginning to emerge.

There was a heavy layer of cynicism and sarcasm in my style back then. I was, after all, a teenager. I would say things like: “The very ludicrity of my opponent’s argument is beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend.” More than one judge informed me that there is no such word as ludicrity. Yet underneath that sarcasm was a faith in the basic worth and dignity of every human life. I always argued from a fundamental assumption that one starving Somalian or Bangladeshi was every bit as bad as one starving American. Sure, I was teenager. I was also a Unitarian Universalist.

I was creatively trying out argument strategies for what resonated with me. Paul was -- reasonably -- thinking more about what would resonate with the judge. We would get to squabbling sometimes, and Coach Blackwood would tell us how much our different styles complemented each other. “Your differences are what makes you two such a good team.”

By eleventh-grade, Paul and I and the other teams on the Central High debate squad met during the week with Coach Blackwood for general strategy sessions and practice rounds. But on the week-end, when the tournament itself started, he didn’t have anything more to advise us on specific arguments for specific rounds. Before each round, he’d just clap our shoulders and say, “be tough.” And off we’d go to our next round.

We were winning a lot now. And, frustrating as those years of losing records had been, when winning came, I found myself with niggling doubts about the whole zero-sum competition thing. It was a lot more fun to be sarcastic to my opponents when I usually lost to them. Now that I was usually winning, I began to feel some sympathy for their efforts.

It all came to a head at the state championship tournament: a grueling week-end where the 8 best teams in the state debated each other round-robin: seven rounds, every one of them hard fought. After those seven rounds, the two teams with the best records would face each other again in a final round with the Georgia State Championship – and a trip to the national debate tournament – on the line.

Paul and I made into that championship round. Before the round, Paul and I were waiting for the seven judges to arrive and get settled. Suddenly, I had a moment of existential angst about the very nature of competition. I turned to Paul and said, “I don’t know why those guys, the other team, shouldn’t go to Nationals. Do I want to keep them from something they want?”

Paul just stared at me, and then, without a word, left the room. He went to get Coach Blackwood, who came in to talk sense into me.

“What’s up?” he asked me.

I told him I thought the other team deserved to go to Nationals. "They want to go. Why don’t we let them?”

Blackwood looked thoughtful for a moment, then he said. “I want to go to Nationals. I think you’d have a really good time, too, but if you don’t think that counts, do it for me.”

I said, “Oh. OK.”

Two hours later the round was over and the judges had submitted their ballots and Paul and I had squeaked out a 4 to 3 win. And we did have a great time at Nationals.

Actually, what I remember best about Michael Blackwood is the sound of his laugh. Funny how that’s often the thing we do remember best about people long gone from our lives: their laugh. It might do for us to remember that we ourselves will be remembered for that – and laugh heartily and often.

Here’s to you, Michael Blackwood. Thanks, Coach.

* * *
This is 4 of 5 of "Father Earth"
Previous: Father Earth 2: Coach
Beginning: A Prayer for the Fathers

2014-06-21

This Week's Prayer

Dearest One,

We must be in touch with the world’s pain, hold it ever in awareness, never grow callous or oblivious.

On June 9, at 3:00 in the morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a pickup truck appeared to intentionally swerve to run over a group of four homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, then took off. One woman died; the driver has not been caught.

A few days later, in Paris, France, a mob attacked a teenage Roma boy, leaving him badly injured.

We must be in touch with the world’s pain, hold it ever in awareness, never grow callous or oblivious. We must confront afresh every day the question:
“What is mine to do in this world? Human hearts, including mine, are susceptible to hardening. How shall I be in this world an agent of gentle love? How shall I be an agent of gentle love where I am? Hardened hearts are all around me – and sometimes there is one within me. Am I prepared to respond in compassion?”
Every day that question presents itself.

Iraq descends into civil war. Congo and Rwanda have both sent extra troops to their shared border after gunfire broke out, ending months of relative calm. Hundreds of Pakistani families have fled from a surge of fighting between Pakistani government forces and militants into neighboring Afghanistan.

How shall we agents of love?

For there is also in this hard and hurting world a tide of hope.

Our ancestors 10,000 and 1,000 years ago lived and died amid greater levels of violence. Only since World War II has the international community generally accepted the concept of war crimes. Last week in London was a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict – the first ever such summit in human history.

Thank you for women and men of conscience who help awaken our own. Thank you for the capacity to be uncomfortable and face the difficult questions. Thank you for the yearnings within us for peace to all beings. Thank you for this green and beautiful world.

Amen.

2014-06-19

Coach: Father Earth, 2

Connecting with our Fathers is, for many of us, a deep longing. Every family is different, of course. Still, the more common story is that Dad was – a little or a lot – more distant. If one parent was too close and the relationship felt smothering, in our society that’s more often a mother. It’s possible for a Dad to err in that direction, but more common for them to err in the opposite direction: too distant -- leaving their kids longing for connection.

We need grounding in Father Earth. We honor our Fathers or we honor our memory of them. Some of us grew up with live-in Fathers, who were part of our home life and through daily contact from the day we were born until adulthood raised us, taught us, guided us, gave us that solid grounding. Some of us didn’t have that sort of fathering. Whether we had a father at home or not, we had father figures: male mentors who may have played a brief but crucial role at one stage of our development. These father figures showed us with their lives new possibilities of living we would not have imagined without them – and in this way contributed essentially to the people we became. They were soil in which our roots could grow and spread.

In this series about Father figures and the grounding they give us, The Liberal Pulpit will share very brief sketches of two men other than my actual father who shaped my life: Father Earth figures that grounded and rooted me. My invitation to you is to do likewise: find some one to talk to – a youth or a child, perhaps, or another adult -- and take a few minutes to be uninterrupted. Tell them about a hero or a mentor you had, and what that person meant to you. Honor the memory of one such mentor by telling another human being about him.

I remember my high school debate coach, Michael Blackwood. I joined the debate team at his instigation as an 8th-grader, along with Paul, a fellow 8th-grader. The experience of being a sub-freshman is time spent as the lowliest of the low. Michael Blackwood saw something in Paul and me. He said, "You guys are going to be good."

We were 13 years old. Our voices hadn’t changed yet. We were thrown up against opponents 17- or even 18-years-old, with 4 years of experience at debating. Even when these opponents were female, they had deeper voices than we did. And we were slaughtered.

We did not own suits. I remember that I had this awful bronze-colored paisley clip-on tie that I wore to debate tournaments.

Coach Blackwood would say, “Here’s what you say.” And we would write it down. And then we'd stand up and say it when it was our turn. We’d say it out of context. We’d say it not knowing what the words meant. And we were slaughtered some more.

And yet, judges, after the round was over, and they had filled out their ballot voting against us, would look over at us before they left the room, and say, "What grade are you guys in? Eighth grade? You guys are going to be good." And that was the mite of consolation that fed us, kept us going. That, and the fact that when we got back home, to walk the halls and classrooms of Central High School, though we be lowly subfreshmen, we had a place. We were on the debate team representing the whole school.

Ninth grade came. We were still losing. Coach Blackwood would say, "Well, why’d you lose?"

And the words would pour out of us, Paul and I talking on top of each other. "We said this, and they said that, and then we said that."

And out of the jumble Coach Blackwood would discern some clues about what really happened in the debate. “Wait a minute. They argued that? And what did you say?”

And we’d tell him what we said.

And he’d say, "Next time trying saying this instead."

And we still kept losing. But not every round. Typically, our freshmen year, we’d finish a 5-round tournament with a record of 2 wins, 3 losses.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Father Earth"
Next: Father Earth 3: Sarcasm, Ludicrity, and Angst
Previous: Father Earth 1: In Case of Rain
Beginning: A Prayer for the Fathers
Photo by Meredith Garmon

2014-06-18

In Case of Rain: Father Earth, 1

Back in the days when there was such a thing as "calling collect," in this country, Father’s Day was the day that more collect calls were made than any other day. We'd call Mom on Mother’s Day and call Dad on Father’s day – but we’re more likely to let dad foot the bill.

When you got your learner’s permit, was it your Dad who took you out for the driving lessons? And did he hop in the back seat, saying, “ah, now it’s my turn to kick the back of the seat while you’re trying to drive”?

We are believers is equality, and we don’t want to pander to stereotypes of male incompetence. We know there are a lot of new fathers who are as adept at changing a diaper as any mother. We also know the reality that some new fathers know a lot more about baseball than about diapers. For them, here’s how you do it:
  • Spread the diaper in the position of the diamond with you at bat.
  • Then, fold second base down to home and set the baby on the pitcher's mound.
  • Put first base and third together, bring up home plate and pin the three together.
  • Of course, in case of rain, you gotta call the game and start all over again.
In our culture, the father is a figure regarded with some ambivalence and tension. There is often something unresolved there – something still in need of working out. Fathers sometimes, somehow, go wrong, and, speaking as one, we do so many different ways. A poem by Dick Laurie was quoted in the movie “Smoke Signals” asks:
"How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream.
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers?
Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning?
For shutting doors or speaking through walls?
For never speaking, or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs?
Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it.
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”
On Father's Day we recognize and celebrate today: Fathers. Father's Day is also the final Sunday of spring, so we're highlighting the last of the sources of the living tradition we share:
“Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
At the intersection of Earth-centered traditions and Fathers, would be the figure, "Father Earth."

Of course, the more common association is Mother Earth and Father Sky. In culture after culture, around the globe and through the eons, we find the idea that the Earth is like a mother and the sky is like a father. This way of dividing up the earth and sky has a natural logic to it: The Earth gives birth. The sky rains down, inseminating Earth, allowing her to give birth.

Interestingly, ancient Egypt was a rare exception to the general association of Earth with mother and sky with father. The ancient Egyptians tended toward Father images and gods for the Earth and Mother images and goddesses for the sky. This is probably because the livelihood of the Egyptians depended on the annual flooding of the Nile River. For them, the waters that made fertility possible came up from the Earth – and the hot sky incubated life as a mother.

So the concept of Father Earth is not entirely without precedent. In this series on Fathers, The Liberal Pulpit will invite consideration of Father Earth -- the ways that fathers, father figures, and mentors give us grounding.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Father Earth."
Next: Father Earth 2: Coach
Previous: A Prayer for the Fathers
Photo by Mondocain, http://www.vloggerheads.com/profiles/blogs/father-earth

2014-06-16

A Prayer for the Fathers

(Slightly adapted from Rev. Christine Robinson)

God bless all the fathers who drive kids to games
and help with science projects
and fix breakfasts,
explain how babies are made
and how baseball works
and read Richard Scary and Goodnight Moon, over and over and over again.

We pray for the fathers who fight in wars praying that victory will keep their children safe –
and for the fathers who work a second job so that their kids will be financially secure –
and for all the fathers who pay the bills and manage the accounts while the household sleeps.

We pray for beleaguered fathers and happy fathers,
Rich fathers and poor fathers,
Healthy fathers and challenged fathers.

Bless the fathers who made homes for the babies they fathered,
who stay married for the children's sake,
and who stay in their kids lives in spite of divorce.

Bless also the fathers who are excluded from their kids lives,
and the fathers who wish they had never been fathers but never forget,
and for those fathers whose much-wanted and much-cherished children love them deeply and bring joy to their lives.

Let us pray for grandfathers who watch the kids while parents work,
who tell their grandkids about the old days
and teach them how to use a saw, make a kite out of newspaper, and fix a real ice cream soda.

And let us pray also for boyfriends, step-fathers, foster fathers, and adoptive fathers, who, without ties of biology, do the same.

We pray blessings upon the fathering men who faithfully, appropriately, and, these days sometimes fearfully, teach school, lead scout troops, sign up to be a big brother, to coach a team, to pastor a church.

We also hold in prayer the men who wanted to be fathers and never were.

Our prayers are with the fathers who bite their lip and clamp their mouths shut when their 14-year-olds dye their hair green or pierce their who-knows-what.
We pray for the fathers whose children have lost their way and won't call home,
whose kids can't hear their wisdom
or their love
or their anguish.

We pray for the fathers who could never find the words to say how proud they were of their kids who did OK,
and we pray for the fathers who did find those words, and said them.

God bless the fathers who teach their sons to cook and vacuum
and their daughters to sink a jump shot and change a tire
and who teach their sons to respect women
and their daughters that they can expect to be respected by men.

God bless the young fathers stumbling through diaper changes and sleep deprivation.

God bless mature fathers learning to let go.
God bless working fathers and stay-at-home fathers.
Single fathers and married fathers.
Gay fathers and straight fathers.
Fathering men, and men who support fathers –
And God bless the women and bosses who support fathers and fathering.

God bless all of you.
Hang in there.
Our hearts lift this prayer of gratitude for the love of fathers everywhere, without which the world would be a terrible place.
God bless all the fathers for they make this a more civil, caring and safe place for the precious children in our world.
May they know, on this day and always, how much they matter.

Amen.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Father Earth"
Next: Father Earth 1: In Case of Rain
Picture by Yesenia603, Wikimedia Commons

2014-06-14

Goo

In spring, butterflies emerge from the cocoons into which they went, as caterpillars, about a week before. If you were to open a cocoon midway through that week, you would find it filled with whitish mush. I do not recommend this, because it kills the butterfly-to-be. Still, I recall as a child that I did once open a cocoon. The mush inside is not a caterpillar, nor is it a butterfly, nor is it some in-between half-caterpillar-half-butterfly. There is, in fact, no recognizable portion of anything alive. It’s just unpromising goo.

You might have thought that some logical and orderly transition was going on inside that cocoon: that the caterpillar’s body was becoming sleek and segmented and wings were sprouting out of its back. But no. The caterpillar dissolves away entirely into goo. I imagine it wondering, in some dim gooey way, whether it should have remained a caterpillar.

From the undifferentiated goo, a butterfly begins to form. The transistion's logic and order, if it has any, are invisible mysteries.

Transformation requires this courage: to let what you have been melt into a sticky puddle. To get from the caterpillar that we now are to the butterfly that we may become sometimes requires a goo phase: some time spent being nothing at all except a mushy mess.

I'm not suggesting that you consider deliberately deciding to be a mushy mess for a while. This is not a matter of intentional choice. Rather, we simply find that through no power of our own the life we have known has dissolved, and we along with it have become undefined and shapeless: an indeterminate mystery of limitless possibility.

If you happen to be in a goo-ish time right now -- or if you know someone who seems to be -- just keep in mind that, even though it seems that nothing is happening, quite likely, something is cooking. Inside the chrysalis, molecules rearrange themselves, following a DNA recipe far beyond the ken of caterpillar or butterfly. Inside us, too, in times when our lives seem to be goo, imperceptible rearrangement is occurring, beyond the ken of our understanding. Out of the opaque mysterious soup, a new life is forming. Have faith.

Photo by Charlesjsharp, Wikimedia Commons

2014-06-12

Atheists, Agnostics, and Unitarian Universalism

"The Summer Day"
Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Atheists

One criticism of atheism goes like this:
"It’s presumptuous to claim to know. The atheist and theist alike claim to know what is fundamentally unknowable."
This criticism is silly. Atheism and theism are not, except peripherally at most, about knowledge. They are about deciding how one is going to live. Are you going to live as if there were a God, or as if there were not one? That’s the question.

It is true that a certain arrogance can sometimes bedevil a person of either persuasion. Some atheists and some theists will regard you as benighted – ignorant (perhaps malignantly) or stupid (perhaps malignantly) – if you do not agree with them. Theism and atheism each come in arrogant and humble variants, and neither arrogance nor humility is an inherent or predominant characteristic of either atheism or theism as such.

My complaint to the atheist is not that she presumes an unattainable certainty (after all, who am I to be so certain that her certainty really is unattainable?). My complaint is that “atheism” is not an answer to any question I’m interested in asking. If I am interested in your faith, in your spiritual life, in your religious practices or beliefs, and you tell me you are an atheist, you have only told me what you don’t believe. But what I would be wanting to know is what you do believe. Or, better yet, what you practice.

What do you do to cultivate in yourself the qualities that you most want to have, to be the person you most want to be? What do you practice to help you develop the spiritual virtues (inner peace, equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, intuitive wisdom)? What groups do you join with, or would you consider joining with, in spiritual community to foster together those spiritual virtues? What rituals does that group perform to strengthen the communal connection of its members? What other ethics and values do you adhere to as supportive of your path toward the cultivation of those spiritual virtues? What experiences of transcendence, or one-ness, or interconnection, or wholeness have you had that have had lingering effects on your interest in the spiritual virtues? All of this, I would be interested in hearing about from you. And saying, “I’m an atheist” doesn’t answer any of these questions – or any question that I would care to be asking. “Atheist” leaves all of my questions unanswered, still on the table, awaiting your response. (Saying, “I’m a theist,” if that's what you are, is slightly more informative, though only slightly.)

Agnostics

Consequently, “agnostic” is no improvement over “atheist” as a way to identify yourself religiously. If you tell me, "I'm an agnostic," you’ve told me what you’re not sure about. But I’m not asking what you are or aren’t sure of. I’m only asking what you are willing “to do with your one wild and precious life” (Oliver) vis-à-vis those spiritual virtues, communities, experiences. Let us grant that we do not have certainty. Now what? What ethic and values shall we live by? What community shall we join and build? What intentional practices shall we undertake to sharpen our perception of the luminous quality of existence? These are questions to which living cannot help but offer up an answer, one way or another, by default or by deliberate purpose.

Unitarian Universalism

Both the self-identified agnostic and the “true believer” have in common that they take as central the question, “What can I know for sure?” The agnostic answers, “Nothing.” That's a fine answer for that question, but "what can I know for sure?" is not a very interesting question for religion. (It was once the central question of the area of academic philosophy known as epistemology, but even that field -- which was always merely peripheral to spiritual practice and religious matters -- is no longer focused on the quest for certainty.)

For Unitarian Universalism, "What can I know for sure?" is not the central question. For us, the question is more like: "What shall I be in the world? How shall I practice awareness and bring to the world compassion and wisdom?” Our answer to these questions identifies our religion – and “agnostic” is not an answer to these questions. Saying you're agnostic – just as saying you’re atheist -- answers a question that we're not asking.

To approach the matter another way, once we acknowledge uncertainty – that there's always more to learn, and nothing is permanently exempt from revision – then either we have to say there is no such thing as knowledge, or else we must conceive of knowledge as allowing for change and growth. The latter course seems the better. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition inclines toward a view of knowledge as doing. Specifically, "knowing" is "effective doing" (hence, "ignorance" is "ineffective doing"). If this is what “knowledge” is, then we UUs are not a people who “don’t know.” We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. So, no, Unitarian Universalists are not agnostic, for we do not profess ignorance. Indeed, our knowledge is displayed in all our doing; and our religious knowledge is manifest as our way of living in community, with care, and for justice.

Photo by Meredith Garmon

2014-06-10

Choicepoint: Meditation or Ecoterrorism?

What's it going to be, meditation or ecoterrorism? A lot of people, of course, choose neither. But the more interested you are in the future of the planet, the more it starts to look like it's going to have to be one or the other.

Ajahn Chandako, now a Theravada Buddhist monk, was born Jim Reynolds in Minnesota. He is the abbot of a monastery in the Thai tradition near Aukland, New Zealand.

Recently he was back in his home state, Minnesota, giving a series of talks. He spoke about his physical and spiritual journeys:
“I could have gone off to the Amazon and become an ecoterrorist, blowing up bulldozers that were ruining the rainforest. But I knew that would potentially harm other people, and it wouldn’t come from a peaceful mind. If one is practicing meditation correctly, it naturally leads to a reduction in anger and selfishness and greed. It very directly affects the people around us, our family and friends, the people we know best. Ripples start to go out in unseen ways. Immediately, the idea of meditation as a selfish thing doesn’t make sense. It has immediate effects.”
The good Ajahn's remarks struck a chord for me. Frankly, those un-blown-up bulldozers really are wreaking an atrocious toll on the rainforest, and, yeah, I’ve got some anger about that. I can see the appeal of taking direct action to equalize the ratio of blown-up bulldozers to not-yet-blown-up bulldozers.

Ah, but Chandako is right. Such playing with incendiary devices is not the product of a peaceful mind. Not to mention that it would harm other people.

Compassion and understanding toward the downtrodden – the people and ecologies bulldozed by injustice and greed and fear and consumerism and ignorance – is easy. The trick is to bring compassion and understanding to the bulldozers, too. In the end, only this can effect real and permanent good.

Does spiritual practice help you feel better? Sure.

It also cultivates the peace and compassion that our world so desperately needs.

Photo from Inmagine: royalty-free stock photo of rainforest clearing in Gabon

2014-06-08

Prospects for the Nonlobotomized: Happy, 4

With our frontal lobes we play out various future hypothetical scenarios, and through connections to the limbic system, where emotion happens, those scenarios compel attention. The frontal lobes, in other words, create imagined futures and generate anxiety about our futures. This explains why the frontal lobotomy – that is, the destruction of some part of the frontal lobe -- “became a standard treatment for cases of anxiety and depression that resisted other forms of therapy.” Lobotomized patients were indeed calmer and less depressed. They also “performed well on standard intelligence tests, memory tests, and the like.”

Yet, as doctors began to notice, these patients “showed severe impairments on any test – even the very simplest test – that involved planning.... They found it practically impossible to say what they would do later that afternoon” (Gilbert 13).

So here we are -- we nonlobotomized humans -- with this amazing capacity to envision our futures with a level of scope and detail far beyond other primates -- and at the same time so seized by our own imagined future scenarios that we spend the better part of our waking hours slavishly in the service of future selves who can never repay us and will scarcely acknowledge that we gave them the best years of our lives. Would we be happier if we weren't so enslaved to our future selves and carpe diemed ourselves a few more paper hats and pistachio macaroons?

Our capacity to think about the future allowed us to invent agriculture, plan cities, build civilization so that we can inhabit this glorious world of cable TV, garage-door openers, smart phones, ipads, spam (both the canned meat and e-mail versions), traffic jams, and strip malls. Because of these hugely enlarged frontal lobes, our lives are, as John Lennon said, what happen to us while we're busy making other plans. Living in the future, we miss the joy of our present moments.

What's the answer? Lobotomies for everyone? There must be a better way. We like the job that the frontal lobe does. We need the frontal lobe to do its job, and we also need it to take breaks and vacations so that we can have some time to get out of living in the future and spend some time living right here, right now. Take more breaks from serving your imaginary boss, your future self, and do something nice for a concrete real other person in the present.

Again, notice when you like something.

Laugh.

Take up a meditation practice. Find the stillness within which the busy-ness of our mind takes place -- the context of silence surrounding the mind's chatter. By taking a break each day from being dominated by, consumed by, and identified with the frontal lobe's fabrications, when you come back, and the planning function resumes, you are better able to hold your own planning activity within a mindful awareness.
“Happiness isn't just the limited positive states we strive for, but rather there is a larger openness that includes sorrow and joy. That's true happiness.” (Ferguson)
“When we live our life as a whole, there is no longer an aspect that gets singled out as 'suffering.'”
So what have we learned?

Don’t chase after happiness. But do take a look what you are allowing to make you unhappy. It tends to be wanting things that aren’t, and not being mindful of what is. These are skills.

There are good evolutionary reasons that those skills don’t come naturally to us, but we can train ourselves in the skills of harmonizing with reality. With discipline, we can cultivate the habit of happiness.

Well, 40 percent of it.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Happy"
Previous: Part 3: Curse of the Frontal Lobe
Beginning: Part 1: The 40 Percent

2014-06-06

Curse of the Frontal Lobe: Happy, 3

Consider this: You spend a large part of your life and energy on behalf of someone else: the future self that you will become. Psychology professor Daniel Gilbert notes:
“We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor's witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, – jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts -- enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of “The Cat in the Hat” so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps.” (Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, xiii-xiv)
No frontal lobe here . . . 
And even if you’ve reached that retirement, even if the fat-cheeked grandchildren are all grown, you’re still spending large portions of your day trying to take care of your future self – fretting and working for the sake of somebody else.

Why would you work so hard for someone else -- even if this taskmaster will have the same name as you (and maybe even the same mortgage)? You’d have to have some kind of large growth on the front of your brain.

And you do. It's the frontal lobe. Our brains are a lot like other primate brains -- and even like marsupial brains -- in most regards. The biggest difference is that massive frontal lobe we got. This lobe pushed the low, sloping brows of our ancestors forward to become our sharp vertical brows.

What does this frontal lobe do – besides keep our hats on? The frontal lobe is where we create our future in our imaginations, allowing us to act today on behalf of someone else: the future self we will become. Animals generally make predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. For instance, they smell a predator and predict that they should run and hide. Humans, however, actually think about what they'll be doing tomorrow.

With this capacity to project the future, we go on to wonder about other future things:
“the annual rate of inflation, the intellectual impact of postmodernism, the heat death of the universe, or Madonna's next hair color.” (Gilbert 6)
People who have received injuries to their frontal lobes can appear and act indistinguishably normal. They can engage in pleasant conversation with you about the weather, or the drapes. They can reminisce with you about the great play at the end of the game last night. They express likes and dislikes, seem to have a coherent personality, they're socially amiable, and can solve logic problems. But ask them what they'll be doing tomorrow, and they simply cannot process the question.

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells the story of a patient who was in an automobile accident at age thirty and sustained extensive damage to his frontal lobe. Asked what he will be doing tomorrow, this patient doesn’t know. Asked to describe his state of mind when he tries to think about what he’ll do tomorrow, the patient says,
“Blank, I guess. It's like being asleep; like being in a room with nothing there; like swimming in the middle of a lake. There's nothing to hold you up or do anything with.” (Stumbling on Happiness 14-15)
* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Happy"
Next: Part 4: Prospects for the Nonlobotomized
Previous: Part 2: Savannahs to Socks
Beginning: Part 1: The 40 Percent
Photo by Meredith Garmon

2014-06-04

Savannahs to Socks: Happy, 2

Apparently, humans are not designed to be happy. The mildly unhappy among our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a better chance of surviving and reproducing. They needed to be focused on dangers and problems. We have inherited that tendency. We have brains that are built for the savannahs, woodlands, and jungles and for doing three things in that context: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate.

Survive and reproduce. A little bit of anxiety kept us on our toes so we could survive and reproduce as hunter-gatherers in savannahs and woodlands. We have brains designed for those priorities in that context. Yet here we are: not living in savannahs or woodlands, and not needing to focus on surviving and reproducing. The circuitry of anxiety and stress that was so helpful for our ancestors is often not functional for us. How do we rewire that circuitry?

The growing legions of spiritual advisors whose books fill bookstore shelves these days speak often of “mindfulness.” They mean paying attention to everything that’s going on in you and around you while it’s happening. Start by noticing what you like. Be more present to what you’re enjoying while you’re enjoying it.
“You can spend an evening with friends and only realize once you get home that you had a good time.” (Cristophe Andre)
You can eat a pizza, not noticing what a great pizza it is.

Things you enjoy are the places to look first if you’re having a hard time finding your happiness. Try pausing to say to yourself, “This is a nice moment. I’m having a good time. Right now, I’m happy.” Happiness really is a warm puppy – when you bring awareness to the enjoyment.

The Mindfulness habit begins by being conscious of when you’re having fun – when you’re enjoying something. As like as not, it’ll be some little thing. The painter, Vincent Van Gogh describes getting up from bed at night after a snowstorm, and looking out at the landscape:
“Never, never has nature made such a moving and touching impression on me.”
Moments of grace like that happen when we’re open to receive them.

If the first step is telling ourselves that we like what we’re experiencing, the next step is to stop telling ourselves so much about what we don’t like.

Byron Katie suffered from depression and eating disorders – and then one day she had an experience she called waking up to reality. She wrote:
"I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment."
Elsewhere, she writes:
“Before I woke up to reality, I had a symbol for all my frustration: my children’s socks. Every morning they’d be on the floor, and every morning I’d think, ‘My children should pick up their socks.’ It was my religion. You could say my world was accelerating out of control – because in my mind, there were socks everywhere. And I’d be filled with rage and depression because I believed these socks didn’t belong on the floor, even though, morning after morning, that’s where they were. I believed it was my children’s job to pick them up, even though, morning after morning, they didn’t.”
Live in reality, says Katie, instead of in our “should be’s.”
“After 10 years of deep depression and despair, I came to see that my suffering wasn’t a result of not having control; it was a result of arguing with reality. . . . Until you can love what is – everything, including the apparent violence and craziness – you’re separate from the world, and you’ll see it as dangerous and frightening.”
Loving what is – total acceptance of reality exactly as it is – does not mean that we do not work for social justice. It does mean that we simply let go of our frustrations as we go about that work. The Bhagavad Gita teaches: You have the right to your work; you do not have the right to fruits of that work. In other words, what is yours to do, you offer up to the world. The world will then make of it what it will: that’s out of your hands.

So follow the best strategy you know for how to make the world better. At the same time, let go of any expectation that strategy will work, and love everything exactly as it is.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Happy"
Next: Part 3: Curse of the Frontal Lobe
Previous: Part 1: The 40 Percent

Photo by Meredith Garmon

2014-06-02

The 40 Percent: Happy, 1

Are you happy? I hope that you are. Sometimes, when someone express a hope for your happiness, it’s because they are mad at you. They say, "I hope you’re happy . . ." when what they mean is, "You ought to be miserably consumed with regret."

I actually do hope you’re happy because the world needs happy people in it. One thing that stands out in the tragic and short life of Elliot Rodger (age 22, who killed 7, including himself, and injured 13, on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California on Fri May 23) is that he was a very unhappy person.

Psychologists estimate that about half of your happiness is simply genetic. Some people are born with a predisposition to be cheery and upbeat, others are more predisposed to be grumpy. About 10 percent of your happiness is circumstantial. Things happen to be going your way, and you’re in a good mood. Things happen not to be going your way, and you're in a bad mood. That leaves forty percent of your overall happiness left. This 40 percent is determined by how well you have learned and cultivated the habits and skills of being happy. I can’t do anything about our genetic predispositions. And I’m not in charge of your circumstances. So what I’m talking about today is the 40 percent of your happiness that is in your power.

Let’s look at the habits that tend to make us unhappy. Like: wanting things.

Once upon a time, back in the days when I was a philosophy professor, one day one of my students, a philosophy major, came to see me. I had discerned from our prior contacts that he was a young man who wanted the finer things in life: he wanted a big house, fast car, tailored clothes -- the trappings of status and comfort. He came to me because he was concerned about how he would get these things. He wasn’t quite seeing how being a philosophy major squared with his material ambitions.

I said to him, “I know a way that you can have everything you want.”

“How?” he wanted to know. He was looking straight at me, fully focused. I don't think he ever gave me that level of attention in class – but right at that moment he was ready to believe philosophers really had discovered the arcane secret guaranteed to bring success and wealth – and that he was about to receive this secret. The dues he had put in – all the hours reading Plato and Descartes (well, all the minutes, anyway) were about to yield their ultimate reward.

“The way to have everything you want,” I said, “is to want just what you have.”

He didn’t buy it. The expression on his face indicated that he was, in fact, abjectly disappointed with my answer. He looked as though he thought he'd fallen for some stupid trick, and couldn't decide if he was more disgusted at me for pulling this dumb hoax on him, or at himself for falling into it.

It's no trick, no hoax. To have all you want, want what you have.

Focusing on what we want and how to get it is a path of unhappiness. Do I want a bigger house, fancier gadgets? Do I want solar panels for my roof, and an all-electric car? Do I want the nation’s elected leadership populated with people who think like I do? Whatever I want, that’s where the source of my suffering will be. That’s even true if the focus of my desire is “happiness.”

Wanting to be happy isn’t a very good way to get it. Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can orient ourselves toward happiness without chasing after it. Turn toward joy and open ourselves to it -- rather than pursuing happiness as a goal-object.

It’s the difference between taking in what’s there and fretting about what isn’t.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Happy."
Next: Part 2: Savannahs to Socks
Photo by Meredith Garmon. No rights reserved.