2017-05-31

Believing In Privilege

White Supremacy, part 2

The Long and Continuing Ideology of White Supremacy

After the Civil War, slavery continued under different names. One of those names was "sharecropping."

Another name was "incarceration." The 13th amendment ended slavery or involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” so the white power structure started fabricating crimes to convict blacks of to continue slavery.

We have seen the photographs from the 1930s of smiling, celebrating white faces, where in the background we see what is hanging from a tree and realize that they are partying because murdering a black person makes them feel good. The Jim Crow era of separate water fountains and bathrooms – of restaurants and hotels that barred blacks was not just an inconvenience. It was a constant reminder that if you were black, you were despised.

Imagine housing policy that systematically corrals you into segregated neighborhoods, and then enforces poverty in those neighborhoods by denying home loans or business loans to any attempt at development. White people who advance up the economic ladder are generally committed and hard-working – and, somewhere along the line they got personal and business loans, they got insurance that lowered their risk, they got various financial services that have been systematically denied to blacks.

And if the people in your neighborhood can’t pull themselves up by building business that serve you, then you go unserved: African American neighborhoods have often been limited in their access to banking, healthcare, retail merchandise and even groceries. Deliberate policies preventing development also lead to abandoned buildings – which facilitate drug dealing and other illegal activity.

If a referee is unconsciously swayed by a little booing, what’s it like to be subject to continuous booing your entire life no matter what you do – and knowing the booing can turn into beating or killing at any moment?

And it’s not like that’s all in the past. We saw eight years of unprecedented disrespect to a president – including doubts about his citizenship – because he was black. And we followed that by electing a man whose company the Justice Department sued ― twice ― for not renting to black people. In 1992, his Hotel and Casino company in New Jersey was fined $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler. During the campaign, he was supported by white supremacists – that is, the explicit kind – whom he refused to condemn. His rhetoric is consistent in treating racial groups as monoliths. He encouraged the mob anger that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. At a campaign rally he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester. And we elected him anyway. He drew only 8 percent of black voters, and only 46 percent of all voters, but he got 58 percent of white voters. For a 58 percent majority of white voters, the candidate’s racism was not a deal breaker. Then he “picked top advisers and cabinet officials whose careers are checkered by accusations of racially biased behavior.” The ideology of white supremacy continues.

Privilege Generates the Belief It is Deserved

Another bit of human psychology that isn’t itself about race, but then manifests racially is revealed by observations of subjects playing the monopoly board game. Two people play, but with different rules. One randomly selected player started the game with $2,000 of monopoly money, got $200 for passing Go each time, and threw two dice for every move – which, you may recall, is the normal way monopoly is played. Let’s call this player Bob. The other player, let’s call him Bill, started with $1,000, got $100 for passing Go each time, and threw one die for every move.
“The students play for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.” (New York Magazine, 2012)
What happens? Initially "Bob"
"reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. 'Hey,' his expression seemed to say, 'This is weird and unfair, but whatever.' Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate....He balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece as makes the circuit – smack, smack, smack – ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang!...As the game nears its finish, [Bob] moves his [piece] faster....He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet [Bill’s] gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash."
People who are given unfair advantages start to act like they deserve it, must have earned it, must be better somehow. So Iowa Congressman Steve King last year wondered where
“are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people?...
Where did any other subgroup of people [other than whites] contribute more to civilization?” (NYTimes, 2016)
Western civilization, he said, is rooted in “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of American and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”

The phenomenon of people born on third base believing they hit a triple is built into us – it’s in our nature -- which is to the detriment of the guy born on third but also to the detriment of the guy who is still at the plate trying to deal with the curve balls he’s being thrown. The guy at the plate is also likely to start believing the guy on third base must have hit a triple. It’s what he keeps insisting, and who has the energy to refute it when the next difficult pitch is about to come at you. That’s how white supremacy works.

I grew up with – and maybe you did too -- the mythic tales of the rise of Western Civilization, the kind of stories about ourselves that congressman Steve King so evidently believes in. Will and Ariel Durant’s “Story of Civilization” stretched to 11 volumes, the first published in 1935, with a new volume every few years until the last in 1975. It was hugely popular, sold over two million copies. The Durants “told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” (Brooks) While the Durants never said, "white people are genetically superior," or "are God's favorite," they also provided no other explanation for why these "great ideas and innovations" did not appear in the pre-Colombian Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, or East Asia. White readers were left to assume that there must be something special about white people.

I grew up inspired by that kind of story of my place in history. I came eventually to understand that the silences in that story -- silences about why the West's ideas and innovations occurred where and how they did -- created spaces within which racist assumptions could flourish. Twenty years ago, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel helped many us get a better understanding of the rise of European wealth and power as geographically determined. Temperate climates, suitable soil, and availability of domesticable animals created the initial conditions that freed a little time for technological development and the rise of population centers which fueled further sharing of ideas and innovations. Moreover, close proximity of humans to each other and their domesticated animals led to diseases and eventual immunities not found among other humans. The technological development (steel, guns) and the immunity (germs) were the key means by which Europeans came to dominate the globe. The Europeans aren't smarter or more virtuous by nature, they are just the beneficiaries of geographic good luck.

Humans and chimps have a deep history of conquering each other when they can, so any people that stumbled upon the means for vast conquest was liable to use it. With that domination also came the willful destruction and erasure of the advances and contributions of Nonwestern peoples – advances all the more remarkable because not supported by the powerful geographic advantages of the civilization that emerged and spread from the fertile crescent into similarly temperate climes.

It was a long march through the last 3,000 years to the rise of white supremacy. It will be a long march to dismantling its injustices.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 1: Truth With Your Own Tribe
Part 3: Realities of White Privilege

2017-05-30

Truth With Your Own Tribe

White Supremacy, part 1

Charles Deas' The Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts
 a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
"Oh Shenandoah" (also called simply "Shenandoah" or "Across the Wide Missouri") is a traditional American folk song of uncertain origin, dating to the early 19th century. The song appears to have originated with Canadian and American voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, and has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the American Indian chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world. ("Oh Shenandoah," Wikipedia)
Our American Myth has depended on images from our early history like the hardy fur-trader, wresting a living from a challenging wilderness – yearning for home and for the native chief’s daughter. It seemed heroic and noble, and our hearts go out to the lonesome traders in their canoes on the Missouri.

Hearing the stories of early American history as a child in elementary school, there was no hint that this was anything problematic about:
  • the purely instrumental and short-term view of nature – there to be despoiled of its resources, such as fur, without regard to welfare of other species and ecosystems;
  • the treatment of the native peoples as equally there for the pillaging – or exterminating. 
White men didn’t mind taking Native brides, though they’d never stand for their daughters taking a Native husband. Patriarchal attitudes about women intersected with racial ideas about which men had access to any woman and which did not.

One-hundred-fifty to two hundred years later, Woody Guthrie taught us to sing this land is your land.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the red wood forest to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
How does that make you feel? It feels warm and fuzzy and inclusive. If we know about Woody Guthrie, we know he was saying this land doesn’t belong just to the corporations and the bosses, but to all of us. When my third-grade class sang that song at a class recital for our parents, I’m pretty sure it didn’t occur to anyone in the room to wonder how Native Americans would feel about this warm, fuzzy, inclusiveness we were having about our land. We took our supremacy so for granted that it was invisible to us. More of us can see it now, though we still have a ways to go.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association is examining the ways that our tacit assumptions that whiteness and white culture are better. So the call went out for Unitarian Universalist congregations to hold teach-ins on white supremacy. Many voices in the African American community have told us, “you white folks have to do your own work.” And the African American writer Michael Eric Dyson addressing white people says,
“You see, my friends, there is only so much I can say to white folk, only so much they can hear from me or anyone who isn’t white. You must be an ambassador to truth with your own tribes.”
Yes, we certainly need to attend to black voices, and defer to their authority to describe their experience, but white people also need to speak up as part of processing what we are learning.

There are differing ideas about what racism is. Racism
“signals the power not only to hate, but to make that hate into law, and into convention, habit, and a moral duty.” (Dyson 152)
– so if a black were to have a bigoted, discriminatory prejudice against whites, that wouldn’t be racism because he doesn’t command the institutional power to make his prejudice into the law and custom of the land. But the word racism isn’t always understood that way. White supremacy cuts through all that. “Reverse white supremacy” is still white supremacy, whereas it isn’t clear what, if anything, “reverse racism” is.

It’s in all of us – white or black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever. We all carry this tacit notion that whites are better. White supremacy is in black activist Cornel West, who said at the UU General Assembly in 2015:
“I've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters that walk with me and say, Brother West, Brother West, you know, I'm not a racist any longer. Grandma's got work to do, but I've transcended that. And I say to them, 'I'm a Jesus-loving, free, black man, and I've tried to be so for 55 years, and I'm 62 now, and when I look in the depths of my soul I see white supremacy because I grew up in America. And if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is you've got some work to do too.'"
James Baldwin wrote about his father that
“he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”
White superiority infects the souls of black folk somewhat differently from the way it infects the souls of white folk, but in this country, it infects all of us. Michael Eric Dyson writes about a time his father said something disparaging about him.
“He lived in a prison of disbelief in his own worth, therefore he doubted mine too.”
My students at Fisk University, the historically black university in Nashville where I taught in the 1990s, told me about walking down the sidewalk beside a car stopped at a red light and hearing the sound of the car’s doors locking. It occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t even notice the sound at all. But when that happens over and over, it breaks through to consciousness. When I’m in stores, employees don’t follow me around.

Look, human psychology without race in the picture shows us some things. A careful analysis of football games has shown that there is a slight home-field advantage, and that advantage consists entirely in this: in the final quarter of close games, referees are a tiny bit less likely to call a penalty against the home team. They are human beings, and they don’t like being booed. They’ve been trained to put that out of their minds and call what they see. They know that fans are just being fans and that they, the referees, are just doing their job, and in a few more minutes this game will all be over and they can just walk away and forget it. They know their colleagues and bosses will back them up all the way, and, not that it matters, but they also know there are just as many fans watching on TV cheering for the visiting team. They have every possible social and legal protection, but being reviled, however temporarily, still affects them.

Applying that human psychology to the racial situation, how much more profound must be the affects on the hearts and spirits of anyone recognized as black of 400 years of contempt and hatred?

When my students at Fisk would remind me that under the constitution slaves were counted as just 3/5ths of a person, I was at first a little puzzled by the outrage about that. After all, slaves are zero percent of a person. How could 3/5ths, which was just for purposes of counting a state’s population to determine its share of representation in Congress and the Electoral College, be worse than the zero that slavery already entails? Eventually I began to see the indignity added to the oppression: Not only do you get no vote at all, no rights, but your mere presence as an owned human being gives more voting power to your oppressor. In the strange mathematics of humiliation, 3/5ths times zero makes something even lower than zero.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "White Supremacy"
See also
Part 2: Believing In Privilege
Part 3: Realities of White Privilege

2017-05-29

The Three Base Practices for Joy

Joy, part 3

Some spiritual practices might be your thing -- or might not be. Other practices are worth a try -- even if you end up only doing them once. Then there are the kinds of spiritual practice that are slogans to keep in mind and try to live by. Beyond these three categories are the basics for a life of joy. (They're all listed HERE.) The basics are things like: Get Enough Sleep. You can’t be happy if you’re sleep deprived.

Exercise has actually not yet been the subject of a "Practice of the Week" post, though I expect it will be, and “Nourish Your Brain” is listed as a “keep in mind” exercise. A healthy diet and exercise are also among the basics of a life of joy. I’ve seen people sick in hospitals and in hospice who have a deep inner joy, but if you don’t have to be sick, doing what you can to be healthy and vital helps with joy. Taking care of yourself is a form of self-compassion, which is a practice of and for joy.

I also include in the basics category three practices that aren’t just some people’s thing but help everyone, aren’t just worth a try, but are worth sticking with, and they aren’t just for keeping in mind because they do require setting aside some dedicated time -- every day if you can, or at least every other day.

Three practices, 10-15 minutes each.

So, yes, if you do all three, we’re talking about half an hour to 45 minutes a day, and I know your schedules are already full. But I have a duty as your spiritual leader to tell you what I know about building more joy in your life, and this is what I know. Whatever else you are able to do of all those practices that are described on the website, these three will lay down a base that will facilitate all of them – will help you be better able to keep in mind the "keep in mind” practices and will deepen and enrich your “your thing” practice, and will strengthen the experience of the “worth a try” practices.

Most people find that the morning is the best time for these, and doing all three one right after another is a good routine, but, really, wherever you can fit them in, fit them in.

One: Journal for 10 or 15 minutes a day. (See also: "Morning Pages.") A cautionary note: not all journaling is equal – there are some ways of journaling that are just perseverating about one’s unhappiness, and that really doesn’t help. I’d say start with listing some gratitudes. There is a post about journaling at cucmatters.org that will provide you with some further helpful perspective.
“Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory....The power of writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.”
Two: Read wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is writing that’s inspirational or spiritually insightful. Choose for yourself what counts as wisdom literature for you, though I’d say the latest spy thriller or romance novel probably isn’t it. Essays of Thomas Merton, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or Pema Chodron, or writings of Rabindranath Tagore are certainly good. The poems of Mary Oliver or Walt Whitman, perhaps would work for you. The post on “Study Spiritual Texts” provides a sampling of over 30 titles just for a start.

In my own morning study, I find myself returning periodically to re-read certain ancient sources: The Dao De Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible’s Book of Psalms. There are always fresh.

Pick a book. Dip into it for a 10 or 15 minute period each day. When you finish, move on to another. Spending some time learning and reminding yourself each day of the wisdom of the ages builds joy.

Three: Just attention. Not attention TO anything predetermined, not moving, not talking – attention that is JUST attention. Find a posture that will allow you to be perfectly still without having to adjust yourself for 10 or 15 minutes. Decide beforehand how many minutes it will be, and set a timer, so you don’t have to be glancing at a clock to guessing when you’ve been at it long enough. Almost but not quite close your eyes. Sit motionless. Bask in silence. Start off by bringing attention to your breath – the sensation of air going out and coming in. When a thought arises, notice that you are thinking that thought. Watch the thought, watch yourself thinking that thought. Under this watchful attention, the thought will fade. Return to watching the sensations of the breath. And so on, until the timer rings.

You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just things that happen to you. Once you truly grasp this, your own thoughts don’t have such a grip on you, and that’s very freeing, and very joyful.

So those are the three base practices I encourage. A final note about joy, and maybe a caution.
One of the sources that I have adapted from in several of the Practice of the Week posts is Jonathan Robinson’s book, Find Happiness Now: 50 Shortcuts for Bringing More Love, Balance, and Joy into Your Life. Another of the sources I draw on is Norman Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion. I mention these two titles by way of pointing out that finding joy and training in compassion turn out to be the same. So that’s the caution. This joy thing and the compassion thing go together. Joy makes us more compassionate, and compassion brings us more joy.

If you’re not interested in being a more compassionate person, then you might want to stay away from the practices that cultivate joy. If you’d really rather focus on guarding your resources and making sure other people aren’t taking advantage of you – if you’re more interested in assessing other people’s worthiness for whatever you might offer than you are in just offering it freely and profligately – then maybe joy itself isn’t your thing.

Is it?

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

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:
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:
Some of these "Worth a Try" exercises are for doing with another person, and require some care in selecting the suitable partner.
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.
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 categories 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
Part 3: The Three Base Practices for Joy
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
Part 3: The Three Base Practices for Joy
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 clichés 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

2017-05-11

Sloth

Is sloth such a bad thing? Jesus bids us to,
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27, NRSV).
Those flowers sound pretty slothful.

In dealing with sloth, or any of the “deadly sins,” the point is not to squelch, repress, or exorcise the sin, but to understand why it’s there and to recognize its positive function. We all need to chill out, take a break, de-stress sometimes. There’s a lot to like about sloth.

We are here to create connection by helping each other to listen to our deepest selves, open to life’s gifts, and serve needs greater than our own. In our deepest self, we know that we, too, like the lillies, shine with a beauty that we do not have to earn, do not work for. It comes not from what we do but from just what we are.

Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” makes the positive case:
“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”
Long work days keep us from activities that are more fun and creative, and the economic productivity of work enriches the government, which uses that wealth to build up its military and fight wars. Thus, says Russell:
“The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s book on Sloth is a parody of self-help books. Her book within the book is called Sloth and How to Get It: A Guide to Living a Happy and Guilt-Free Slothful Life. In it, the authorial persona
“claims to have tried every self-improvement plan known to addled Americans, from the Atkins diet to getting in touch with her inner child, until discovering the solution, Sloth.”
The book lays out
“a program for achieving absolute indolence, the secret of a stress-free life....You have the right to be lazy. You can choose not to respond. You can choose not to move."
The vital first step in becoming a sloth is to
"break the cycle of excess energy and stored dreams. Sloth will release you from all the terrible shoulds dominating your life.”
The book tells how to become a sloth in your diet, exercise, work, and even love-life: it warns against true love, for that leads to passion, and passion is the biggest enemy of sloth.

The rapier of satire shows us the real issue at one point when it is describing the false prophets who would lead us astray from the salvation of sloth. One of these false prophets declares, “I don’t need to rest. I get high on life.” The book responds:
“This is bologna if I ever heard it. Who could possibly get high on life? In life, there is disease, random acts of violence, natural disasters, undisclosed fascist governments, not to mention world poverty and hunger. If you look life in the face, you couldn’t possibly get high on it. Even love fades. Once you adopt sloth, you are dealing with a responsible reaction to the truth about living.”
There in a flash the problem is exposed: disconnection. Confronted with disease, violence, oppression, injustice how do we not disconnect from life?

The spiritual calling is to stay present to life, even the hard parts. We are called to be a student assistant to life. The student assistant is ultimately not in charge, yet here to learn, and to help others.

In the final chapter of her book, Sloth, Wendy Wasserstein offers an ironic insight. She describes the "ubersloth" -- a person who
“achieve(s) slothdom in a subtle and camouflaging way.”

“Have you ever been lying on your couch, watching four well-groomed women of diverse ethnicities on television chatting about how they manage to get everything done? They call themselves ‘jugglers,’ and they’re all able to have husbands, children, careers, social causes, plus they exercise three hours a day, eat only vegetables, and employ personal stylists to tell them what to wear every morning. Or, have you ever seen a man on television talking about how he made $100 million before he was thirty, then walked from New York to China, directed three Oscar-winning movies, got married four times, each with better and better sex with a different gendered partner? In their outside façade, they are they anti-sloths – the doers and shakers. But just like in politics, where the extreme right and the extreme left meet, so in sloth the extremes merge into one another....Are these hyperscheduled, overactive individuals really creating anything new? Are they guilty of passion in any way? Do they have a new vision for their government? For their community? Or for themselves? Their purpose is to keep themselves so busy, so entrenched in their active lives, that their spirit reaches a permanent state of lethargiosis. In other words, their hyperactivity is no different than your or my slothfulness. Whether you’re a traditional sloth or a New Age ubersloth, we are all looking at the possibility of real thought, and rejecting it....For myself, stylistically, I prefer to remain on my couch. But the creative, spiritual, and political void of these new ubersloths makes me proud.”
We can disconnect from life and from ourselves by lethargic withdrawal. We can also disconnect from life and from ourselves through frenetic busy-ness.

The need, then is to lighten up on our preoccupations with work and worry and achievement, but without sinking into unremitting indolence. The middle way affords space for connecting to our life.

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

2017-05-09

Gluttony

Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony is the one with which we are most obsessed. Try going to a bookstore and telling an employee: “I’m looking for something that will help me with my problem of vanity. I suffer from pride and hubris, and I want some guidance on addressing that.” Or say you want to work on your envy, or sloth. A resourceful bookstore employee might be able point you to a few titles. If you say you want help with your lust, or your greed, you’ll mostly find titles giving advice on how to be more successful in gratifying these desires rather than in mitigating their control over your life. Tell the clerk you have an issue with anger, and you’ll have somewhat better luck -- there are several books about anger management. But if you say your problem is gluttony, then you have hit the mother lode. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of title upon title of diet and weight-loss books to help you not groan under the weight of yourself.

While we don’t often use the word “gluttony” these days, we are a nation and a culture deeply obsessed with overeating and with body image. The Center for Disease Control says that in 1962, 13 percent of the US was obese. By 2010, 35.7 percent of US adults qualify as “obese.” We get judgmental about this. If obesity is a disease, then it differs from other diseases in the degree to which many of us blame those who suffer from it. There’s discrimination against the overweight, and the bias and judgmentalism gets mixed up with what might be legitimate concern about public health. There is a prevailing attitude that the obese are morally contemptible. Studies show, for instance, that employers
“not only tend to assume that a fat person will be less reliable, energetic, and efficient, but are reluctant to hire the overweight for positions (receptionists, etc.) in which their size might affront the delicate sensibilities of potential customers and the general public.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
On the other hand, there is, at the same time, a recognition that gluttony fundamentally affirms pleasure and passion. Diamond Jim Brady (1856 – 1917), railroad magnate of the gilded age, the story goes, “would begin his meal by sitting six inches from the table and would quit only when his stomach rubbed uncomfortably against the edge.” The life force, the appetite, the unrestrained gusto for the pleasure of life manifest in such prodigious feasting inspires a certain respect. The fastidious fasting, dieting self-deniers are not so fun to be around.

We have contradictory attitudes about eating. The book of Proverbs warns:
“Be not among winebibbers, among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)
Yet in Ecclesiastes we read:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. For God has long ago approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
Nowhere are the contradictions of our lives and of our culture more obvious than when it comes to eating and body image. During any given half-hour of commercial television, you will see advertisements for restaurants, and fatty foods, and cooking shows. You’ll also see ads for weight loss that imply that eating is tantamount to suicide, that indulgence and enjoyment lead to social isolation.

We like food. It feels good. We can get obsessed with it if we get focused on too much – if we want only the finest foods, and we want a lot of them, and we want them right now. We also fall into obsession when we focus too much on denying the desire. Either way, we are defining ourselves by our desire – and that is the root of what gluttony is all about: allowing ourselves to be defined by desires for gratification.

In the balanced life, we have desire, and we are OK with the fact that we have desire. Our desire gets a seat at the table (as it were). But desire doesn’t gain total control. The voice of desire is neither suppressed nor indulged.

Paying attention to the voice of desire can guide us to a place where we respectfully hear that voice, and then make our own decision. That’s what neither repressing nor indulging looks like: it looks like separating ourselves from our desire, not identifying with it -- stepping back from it, yet paying attention to it. We can learn to investigate our desires, asking “What is this desire? Where did it come from? What does it have to say to me? What other desires are alive in me?” Freedom is not immediately caving in to every desire. Nor is freedom steadfastly suppressing every desire.

Be attentive, not indulgent. Talk to yourself: “Oh, there you are, you attraction to that cheesecake. I feel you there, pulling at me. And I know you are coming from a worthwhile place: you want me to have pleasure and maybe some energy from the calories and a little sugar rush. You’re just trying to look out for me.” From there, you’re in a much better position to choose. Maybe you then take that cheesecake, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you work out a different strategy to meet the need that is being voiced in you. By neither repressing nor indulging you are liberated from being controlled by the desire.

Desire isn’t you. And it isn’t your enemy. It’s a dear friend who’s a lot of fun, but sometimes gets crazy ideas. It’s not your master, and it’s not your slave: it’s your friend. So when your friend proposes some wild scheme involving, say, chocolate, you laugh. And then you’re thoughtful. And then you can either say, “OK, let’s do it.” Or you can say, “Let’s do that later. Let’s do something else, right now.”

We all have an inner glutton. It’s one of our teachers, telling us to enjoy what this sweet life offers us. But with this teacher, we don’t have to do every single assignment. And we can decide for ourselves how much we want to be graded on (ahem) the curve.

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

2017-05-08

The Seven Deadlies

There’s something about the number seven.
Seven days in a week.
Seven colors in a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
Pre-moderns counted seven celestial bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn).
The earth, we learned in school, has seven continents (though, frankly, the basis for counting Europe as a separate continent from Asia is more cultural than geological).
Sail the seven seas and see the seven wonders of the world – before you get the seven-year itch.

Your phone number, not counting the area code, is seven digits. There’s a reason for this. Bell laboratories research in the 1950s found a steep drop-off between humans’ ability to recall a seven-digit number and ability to recall an eight-digit number. Perhaps seven is significant for us because of the way our brains are built.
“Countless psychological experiments have shown that, on average, the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items. This limit, which psychologists dubbed the "magical number seven" when they discovered it in the 1950s, is the typical capacity of what's called the brain's working memory.” (ABC News, 2009 Dec 6. HERE.)
We love to make lists of seven items. One of these is the seven deadly sins. Can you name them all? No, they are not, "Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Doc." Those would be the seven dwarfs in the Disney "Snow White."

The seven deadly sins, as delineated by Pope Gregory I ("Gregory the Great") in the 6th century, are:
  • anger (or wrath)
  • lust
  • gluttony
  • sloth
  • envy
  • pride (or vanity)
  • greed (or avarice)
Then there are the seven virtues, that also go back at least to the Middle Ages:
  • prudence/wisdom
  • justice
  • temperance
  • courage
  • faith
  • hope
  • love
The first four derive from the writings of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and came to be called the “cardinal virtues.” The last three, from Paul's letter to Corinthians, are called the “theological virtues.”

These seven virtues do not parallel the seven sins. Thus, a list called "the heavenly virtues" has also been made, providing direct antidotes to the seven deadly sins. To counteract anger, lust, gluttony, sloth, envy, vanity, and greed, respectively, are:
  • patience
  • chastity
  • temperance
  • diligence
  • kindness
  • humility
  • charity/generosity
"Temperance" is on both virtue lists. The Latin caritas translates as both "love" and "charity," so we can say it's also on both lists. "Diligence," from the Latin industria, carries a connotation of fortitude, which carries a connotation of courage -- so maybe that's also on both lists. The other four -- "prudence/wisdom," "justice," "faith," and "hope," -- are replaced by "patience," "chastity," "kindness," and "humility."

In the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi crafted his own list of seven social sins:
  • Politics without Principle
  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Science without Humanity
  • Worship without Sacrifice
In 2008, Pope Benedict, noticing that the traditional seven deadly sins were very individual and typically victimless (in and of themselves), followed Gandhi’s lead in making a list of seven social sins. Benedict’s seven social sins are:
  • Drug abuse
  • Polluting the environment
  • Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
  • Excessive wealth
  • Creating poverty
  • “Bioethical” violations such as birth control
  • “Morally dubious'' experiments such as stem cell research
I was glad to see the Pope's interest in reducing the first five items, and I wished the last two items had been left off. Many better ways to bring the list to the magic number seven were available. Overconsumption of resources, exploitation of labor, undermining or failing to support: public education, full equality for girls and women, gun control, immigrant rights.... I have many helpful suggestions, and will return calls from the Vatican.

The temptation to make a seven-item list of special significance has not passed by the Unitarian Universalists either. We have our seven principles! (HERE) Some of us call them the seven lively principles to stand over against the seven deadly sins.

What motivated Pope Gregory I’s traditional list of seven deadly sins? And why those seven? After all, the seven deadly sins are not listed in the Jewish or Christian Bible. What is in the Bible are the Ten Commandments, the violations of which amounts to a list of sins: idolatry, swearing, sabbathlessness, filial disrespect, murder, adultery, theft, deceit, covetousness. (Count only nine? Some traditions split "idolatry" into two to get ten, and other traditions split "covetousness" into two. There's a handy table in Wikipedia's "Ten Commandments" entry: HERE.) Given the centrality of the Ten Commandments in our Judeo-Christian heritage, wouldn’t those be the main sins?

Maybe ten (or nine) is just too many to hold in working memory. Theologians might, then, have looked to the Book of Proverbs:
“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” (Proverbs 6: 16-19)
There are seven, here – quite different from Gregory the Great’s list (only pride – “haughty eyes” – made the cut for Gregory). These seven, though, aren’t nicely encapsulated in a single word each.

In the New Testament, there’s a sin list in Galatians:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21)
Despite these various Biblical sources for sin lists, early Christian thinkers felt a need to create a different list.

In the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus, made a list of eight “evil thoughts.” He almost, but not quite, grasped that seven is the magic number. When, over two centuries after Evagrius wrote his list, Pope Gregory I created the seven-sin list that became so widely known, Gregory only had to do a little tweaking of Evagrius. Gregory kept "gluttony," "greed/avarice," and "anger/wrath" from Evagrius' list. Evagrius and Gregory both listed acedia, though, for Evagrius, the term meant dejection, while Gregory and subsequent writers explained the term in a way that gradually made "sloth" the better English translation. Evagrius had listed the actions, "prostitution and fornication," which Gregory replaced with the psychological state, "lust." Evagrius used the Greek work lype, which generally means sadness; Gregory shifted to a more specific focus on sadness related to comparing oneself to others, "envy." Evagrius had hubris and boasting (or vainglory) as two separate sins, which Gregory combined into one, "pride/vanity," thereby getting the list down to seven.

Saint John Cassian, shortly after Evagrius, also had a similar list of vices, leading up to Gregory stamping Papal imprimatur on “the seven deadly sins.” What these church leaders were trying to do was identify the root sins. The seven deadlies are not the most serious offenses. A little envy, or a touch of pride is not as serious as lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. Rather, the seven deadlies were seen as the origins, the root causes, of the more serious sins. Envy, vanity, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, or greed could lead you to lie, steal, or kill.

These early church figures were developing a kind of theological psychology. If a person could purge themselves of these seven, none of those other sins would tempt. Indeed, precisely because these seven so often occur in mild form, and are universal, or nearly so, the seven deadly sins constitute an agenda for spiritual work for everyone. The project of coming to terms with these root bedevilments of the human condition is necessary for our healing and wholeness.

We might quibble with Gregory the Great’s list. Idolatry, for instance – broadly defined as attachment to a fixed concept or image, to the detriment of open-ness to the dynamic freshness of each moment – is at the root of a lot our suffering, and in some ways may even be the root from which these other roots spring. Still, by and large, Pope Gregory has given us a good list, attention to which reveals insights of meaning, power, and possibilities of liberation.

But entirely purging any of these seven is neither necessary nor desirable. Indeed, we need every one of them, and for that reason, they are always with us -- our taunting companions, as theologian Phyllis Tickle calls them.
“These [seven] taunting companions of ours can prod us into well-being as well as destruction. Indeed, without them we will die just as because of them we are condemned to die.”


* * *
See also
Gluttony
Sloth
Greed/Avarice
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust
Pride