Monday, August 24, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, August 29, 2020 - “Don’t Look a Gift Judas in the Mouth”

What is it about villains? Why are we so attracted to them? We know there are lots of actors who love to play villains. Writers love to intricately craft their darker characters, while most of their heroes are only two-dimensional. What is the origin of our relationship with villains? Why are there those whom we love to hate?

Many psychologists believe that we are attracted to villains because they represent our desire for freedom and lack of authority. But those ideas go against other notions of psychology which claim that while we often resent authority, we actually rely on it every day for our continuing existence. We have a love-hate relationship with authority, just like we do with our villains.

Some believe that villains are necessary in order to facilitate good heroes and heroines. As a literary tool, villains are what gives our heroes something to do. Our heroes would be nothing without them, they claim.

But I wonder if there is another idea at play. Because quite often the villains in our stories serve as catalysts for positive change and growth. We tell ourselves that type of story more often than any other. The formula is basic. Life exists as a status quo, which means to say that it functions but not necessarily all that well, only to have the apple cart upset by an outside source with a dastardly agenda, then to be successfully rallied against by a unified community. In the end, the defeated villain slinks off once its purpose has been served, leaving behind a greater unity in its wake.

It sounds kind of like a virus that leaves behind immunity after the healing. We might have preferred to never have been sick at all, but we know for a fact we are stronger because of it.

Are we at all attracted to the villains because we, on some level understand and perhaps even appreciate, the capacity of the change they are about to inspire in us? It’s OK to have a love-hate relationship with change, but we still ask for it nonetheless. Might we look at the catalyst differently?

An ancient document from the third century entitled “The Gospel of Judas“ was found in Egypt in the 1970’s but not protected or translated for another thirty years. The National Geographic Society published a translation in 2006.

For those of you who don’t know or remember, Judas was the infamous disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin priests, setting in motion the events that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. As the traditional Biblical version tells us, Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and later hanged himself with guilt. Throughout the centuries the name Judas has been synonymous with betrayal, evil, and shame. But the ancient yet newly discovered Gospel of Judas tells the story a very different way.

For the record, I am not here to authenticate the Gospel of Judas. I am not going to attempt to validate the text as either truth or fiction. Like the Bible, it is whatever it is, provable or not. These are texts which we may look to for inspiration or food for thought. They are historical reports and open to interpretation as your own faith dictates.

I have chosen to discuss this text because it turns on its ear the long-held notion that Judas was evil for what he did. We can too easily dismiss him for being evil and then fail to see ourselves in him. The Gospel of Judas makes the suggestion that Judas was, in fact, Jesus’s favorite disciple and the only one with whom he shared the real truth about the purpose of life and humanity.

In the text, Jesus tells Judas about the creation of Adam. He tells him about the Cosmos, Chaos, the Underworld and those who rule it. He teaches him about the creation of Humanity and the destruction of the wicked. He also tells him of the crucifixion to come, and the greater necessity of it.

So when it came time, according to the story, Jesus instructed Judas to betray him, that he might bring about a greater purpose through his actions. He told Judas that he would be hated for his act of betrayal and that he too would suffer. But also that he would exceed all of them. Because Judas would sacrifice the physical body which clothed him.

Conversely, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Judas was acting on his own selfish behalf in turning Jesus over to the authorities. They claim it to be an act of greed and resentment. They claim Satan had entered him. But the Gnostic Gospel of Judas tells a story about a favored disciple who reluctantly accepts the role of betrayer at his master’s request.

You may believe what you will about it. The point here is not the truth or lack of truth in the story. It’s the suggestion that things may not always be as clear cut as they seem.

So what might we do with this story? I lift it up for one reason: I ask it to examine for us the disparity between our understanding of hardship and the blessings of challenge and disappointment. Christian culture has reviled Judas for two thousand years while it has also acknowledged its belief that it was all part of a big cosmic plan. It contradicts itself in its choice to vilify Judas when according to all stories Judas is the one who put God’s plan in motion. With or without the Gospel of Judas, shouldn’t we wonder why we are vilifying him for being the catalyst to something that the Bible itself claims to be a good and necessary thing?

Like a lot of people, I am tempted to resent the deeper challenges of my life as well as those who supposedly “caused” them. I am tempted to be angry for what happened and to blame all those who made it happen.

We live in a society that sues first and asks questions later. We imprison people based on a sense of revenge and call it justice rather than make an assumption that things happen for reasons which need looking at. Sometimes those reasons are because we have let a problem get out of hand rather than deal with it. Everyone is still responsible for their own actions, but we push mental illness under the rug and then shout foul when someone acts out in that untreated, uncared for state. And there are other times it’s through no known fault of our own that bad things happen, but we then live in a space of anger, hostility, and vengeance. What will that get us?

If you are a person who believes in the Will of God, or that things happen for a reason, or that some good might very well come from difficulty if only we can choose to see it that way, then Judas the Betrayer should become something more.

What are the Judas moments in your life? Who are the Judases in your life? When something challenging happens to you, how do you react to it? Who or what is your authority? Is God your authority? Love? Justice? The Bible? Who or what tells you how to react to life’s challenges?

Because I have a suggestion about that. Let love be your authority. Hold your solutions to life challenges up to a yardstick of love and see how they measure up. Hold a challenge in your lap and love it and see what love tells you to do with it. Don’t punch it, don’t reject it, don’t strangle it; caress it, and see what happens.

Consider that life itself might be a trick question. Be open to the possibility that if life’s challenges have served you well, even if on only one single occasion, it might just happen again. When you despair and don’t know where to turn, give thanks for the solution that is already out there somewhere waiting for you to discover it like soulmate you just haven’t met yet. That solution is out there walking the earth, knowing the sun and the air, waiting to meet you.

Be open to thinking differently about the world and what has made it the way that it is. Be open to what it may yet become because of the challenges it has seen. And be open to what it might be that saves us all from ourselves.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, July 18, 2020 - The Physics of Compassion

About what or whom do you feel compassionate? Compassion literally means to “
co-suffer,” which sounds a lot like empathy, when you think about it. Different from empathy, however, though still closely related, compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Empathy is the ability to perceiveBy and sometimes even feel another’s suffering. But where empathy feels, compassion acts. It must.

One important facet of compassion is in how it differs from the concept known as altruism. Altruism as a concept is a bit of a fabrication, actually, of 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte. He was looking to create a word that could serve as a good opposite to the word egoism, which is itself a word to describe those who only think of themselves. But the opposite of thinking only of oneself can’t be about thinking of everyone but oneself. Because there‘s actually never a time when we don’t think of ourselves. We’re always aware of how we fit into a situation and how we will either be benefited or harmed. Even when we’re doing something for someone else. And we’re constantly striving to feel good. That is our permanent inner directive, feeling good. When we do good deeds, we feel good. That’s a benefit. And it’s one which can’t be discounted.

When M. Comte created the concept of altruism he was mistaken. His concept does not exist. Not that goodness doesn’t exist, but I mean to say altruism, as it’s creator intended it and as it’s defined, does not. And his word has only served to muddy the waters and make compassionate action seem even harder to accomplish because it mistakenly gives us the impression that we’re not supposed to benefit in any way, even to feel good. We are to be selfless. That’s the advice. That’s the standard being set with regard to serving others. That bar is not just too high, it’s a fantasy.

And knowing that, knowing that a false ideal has been placed into our moral universe, we can let it go. Because we matter in the equation of our service to others. If we are to co-suffer we should also have earned the right to be co-inspired, co-joyful, and co-relieved by helping another. That is the only way compassion functions. Compassion is a co-experience with a personal benefit we can’t separate from the whole. Good! By the philosopher’s ideal, any time you take pleasure from helping another person, you’re no longer being an altruist. Which amounts to a judgment against you feeling good. “He’s not really an altruist, he liked it.“

Let’s release that. Even if you don’t consciously think that way, it is in there. This idea is written into the mission statements of thousands of nonprofits and community service organizations. Because even though we don’t realize it, that unrealistic human aspiration subtly impacts our ability to be of genuine service to the world. And whether or not you’re a religious person makes no difference to whether or not you’re influenced by the larger society who tells you that you should only give without wanting and serve without needing. I think there’s a backlash to that. I fear it only has the ability to infect a culture with the belief that since they can’t live up to these lofty ideals they might as well grab what they can for themselves regardless of how it might impact others. For what’s the point in caring about others if we’re not allowed to care about ourselves? Why, don’t we count?

The fact is, we do. We count very much. The sacred advice they’re alluding to in their desire to accomplish selfless good in the world is a caution to make sure that what you do for your own state of goodness should never impinge upon the state of goodness of another. But as well, the actions you take to feel good can also, if not careful, follow the old aphoristic idea that ‘weakness is merely strength in excess.’ We can do so much of a good thing that it becomes harmful to us. That’s true for everything from potato chips to philanthropy. That’s where the advice to be selfless comes from: Our fear that if we give permission to feel good, no real good will come of it. We will just overdo it and mess it up. But that’s a lie. Even if a well-intentioned one. Don’t buy it.

Because science has now repeatedly shown us that doing good for others is extremely beneficial to our selves. There are endless scientific studies showing evidence of the health benefits of compassionate action such as reducing the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus nerve, it makes us more resilient to stress and strengthens our immune systems, it increases our ability to socialize, and countries who make it a habit to help their most vulnerable are statistically proven to be the happiest. Shouldn’t that matter? It would almost seem that some have concluded God’s only happy when we aren’t. Does that make sense?

Still, we should check our motivations. It’s always important to know why we are doing something and for whom we are doing it. Because sometimes we’re playing at compassion and using it as a smokescreen (even from ourselves) to support behavior that harms us. When we put others before ourselves, harm occurs. When we put ourselves before others, harm occurs. When we make ourselves equal to others, compassion occurs.

I think one of the most astonishing observations I found in my research on this topic was in the tactics shown to cultivate compassion in ourselves and others. We can actually make more compassion in the world by modeling it. Because compassionate action is a learned behavior. And research shows it’s contagious. Did you know that if you tap your finger at the same time as a stranger it increases compassionate behavior in ourselves? How does that happen? I don’t know how they proved it, but it aligns with the other things we’ve learned about engaging in group activities and how they impact our mental state. Doing things with and for others changes us in profound and positive ways.

And though we can’t see or taste compassion, and we definitely don’t understand it, we can still use it. We can’t see the wind, but we can see the leaves moving within it. We can use our observation of the leaves to conclude that there is power moving them. A force we might choose to participate in ourselves. We can take what we learn from the leaves and then build a sail for our boat. The leaves show us that the wind has physics. Even if we don’t always understand it.

Through science we can see that compassion, too, has physics. It has replicable outcomes and predictable opportunities for taking the best advantage of what compassion has to offer as a life practice. We may not fully understand this wind, but we can allow it to be at our back, guiding our forward movement to occur with greater ease and purpose. We can take the oars out of the water for a while and just allow the momentum of the wind to carry us where it wishes us to go. Be free within it.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 11, 2020 - Accomplishing Forgiveness

Whose bright idea was it to forgive and forget? It’s been an idiom of the english language for over 600 years, yet is it really good advice? I ask because when we’re being recommended to forgive, forget seems to be the very next word we all think of.

Yet, I think forgetting is only in the best interest of the person who has done the wrong in the first place. I’m sure they’d love for you to forget what they did. I’m guessing it was a guilty party who first invented the phrase to get themselves off the hook. Not so fast. Remembering is accountability. For instance, we should definitely remember US Confederate history. That’s not the same thing as honoring it. We have special places for things we want to make sure we don’t forget. They’re not the same places we put things we wish to honor. We will have to forgive our past in order to come to terms with it. But we won’t accomplish it by forgetting. Some history just needs its proper place and context.

Just as there’s a difference between remembering and honoring, there’s a difference between forgetting and forgiving. Forgiving is about letting go of the anger, resentment, and hurt we experience as a result of someone else’s actions and no longer allowing those emotions to have power over us. It’s not letting them off the hook. It’s about letting go of the poisonous after-effects of our experience. They no longer serve a purpose except to hold us back. 

Our continued emotional hold on our pain only helps them keep winning every time our hurt is remembered afresh. As long as we don’t forgive, their knife is still in the wound, doing its damage. Only they don’t have to do anything except to go on with their lives. We’re the ones now holding the knife in place. You can take it out now. 

It’s time to heal. Which can’t happen fully if we forget about what hurt us in the first place. We can’t learn from our trials if we forget about them. Remembering while forgiving is the key, as well as the hardest thing of all to do.

It’s easy to maintain forgiveness when we’ve forgotten the hurt. Sadly, that’s how history repeats itself when we brush our past under the carpet. But we can separate the two. We can work through and heal the emotional pain while retaining the historical fact. This is the basis of all trauma therapy. 

It’s understandable to say something like, “Well, I’ll never forgive them for what they did as long as I live.” Forgiving is not condoning. You can forgive someone whom you still plan to prosecute. But it will be easier to create solutions that will actually change things for the better, rather than just perpetuating the old cycles of vengeance. This is the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. One just punishes, the other wants to know why it happened and take steps to heal the original wound so it never happens again. One silences a bell to the universe, the other rings it.

We don’t forgive for the purpose of allowzing the wrongdoing an opportunity to repeat itself. Sometimes that means forgiving someone strictly for our own sake, but not continuing the relationship, because trust is gone. Forgiving doesn’t always mean getting together again. Sometimes it’s just closure. 

Forgiveness itself is not something we just do once in a while, it’s a life practice. It stems from the practice of nonresistance. For as you may remember, non-resistance is a platform of allowing that gives us permission to see those who have trespassed against us in a more human light. Non-resistance is a preparation for forgiveness. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I,’ we forgivingly might say when realizing that, had the shoe been on the other foot, we might’ve done the same thing.

When someone’s harmed us, either deliberately or accidentally, we undergo a chemical and emotional stress protocol in our bodies. Depending on whether or not the person who harmed us is remorseful, and has perhaps validated our experience with genuine apology, we’re able to achieve a sense of peace about what’s happened and can move on.

But this doesn’t typically happen. Especially with more serious offenses. It isn’t often we get the kind of validation and remorse we truly need from those who’ve harmed us. We usually have to forgive those who aren’t actually asking for our forgiveness and who probably have no interest in validating our negative experience with them. 

Our inner peace isn’t handed to us on a silver platter, we have to work for it. That’s where life practices come in. Dharmas. They guide us toward right actions we might otherwise only be able to manage under the most perfect circumstances. And life is rarely, if ever, perfect. We need tools. We need practice.

Notice the difference between anger and rage. Anger is motivating, sometimes even productive. Rage is only destructive. If you feel rage, even rightfully so, it means the situation has moved you into a state of reduced effectiveness toward your goal. You’ve allowed it to go too far. Take steps to correct it. 

As an exercise toward this, try to see the humanity in your opponent and be allowing of the existence of their fear. Pray for them. This will offset the balance in your brain chemistry and downshift your rage back to a more effective, and less personally damaging, regular old anger. Your actions will reflect your higher presence of mind and they may even affect how your opponent responds. Is consciousness at work here, too? What do you think?

The practice of forgiveness on a daily basis for ourselves as well as others begins, as all things do, in small ways. Notice your feelings. Don’t judge them, just notice them. Passively observe them as if you had a mini stenographer sitting on your shoulder taking notes. See if you notice a pattern in the types of things which upset you most. If you see a pattern, there may be something in you which is being triggered by things having nothing to do with the present situation. Be curious about them.

Make sure you understand your triggers and not let them negatively impact the present. Sometimes we’re more hostile than we mean, or than the moment required. Was our outburst all for the person who just upset us? Or was some of the excess leftovers from the past? That’s when the rubber really hits the road in the life practice of forgiveness. We have to open up the cans of worms we’ve been avoiding. There’s always a stack of old things waiting to be let go. Chip away at the pile one thing at a time. You’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes, once you start.

Notice what you do when you get mad. This is so important. If you’re a person who brags about how no one wants to get on your bad side, or if you take pride in holding onto grudges, you may have some work to do in this area. If you believe that no one can be trusted, and that you trust no one as a matter of principle, you definitely have some forgiveness work to do. And it won’t be easy. But it will change your life. Start small. Avoid revenge at all costs, even if it means swallowing your pride. Don’t worry, you won’t choke on it.

Choose to see the dignity and humanity in those who’ve hurt you and treat them as such. They will still be accountable for their own actions, but you will no longer be a victim of theirs.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Practicing Life - Saturday, July 4, 2020 - The Impact of Consciousness

Life is complicated. Right now we face so many challenges. Our perceived ability to control our world continues to slip through our fingers every day. But we are still designed for joy and for community. And we are agile enough to survive this. We’re incredibly creative and adaptable. And though we sometimes use that adaptability and agility to further dig ourselves into a hole, we, for the most part, usually take two steps forward for every one step back. The long game is to our advantage. Have courage. 

Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to consider that there is more to us than what we appear. The greater consciousness of humanity—meaning what the majority of us are thinking or praying about at any one given time—has been shown to play a part in how things unfold. Including the ways which appear to be beyond our ability to intervene. Mysteriousness. Is consciousness at work in places we don’t readily assume? Does our consciousness affect things? Things like the planet, perhaps? We’re made of the exact same materials. Just how deeply does our divine spark reach? Just what might we be able to affect by all of us collectively directing our conscious thought toward the same idea? 

While several different faiths have a similar idea to this, in Christianity, Jesus is quoted as saying, “When two or more gather in my name, I am in the midst of them.” It’s an interesting statement. And I’ve heard a few interpretations for it, including its usage in prayerful conflict mediation or to align its references to the Old Testament law recommending two to three witnesses in conflict resolution. Interesting to me that both of these explanations involve the repairing of relationship. 

But there is perhaps a more esoteric thought to have about why it might be that if at least two or more gather together in the spirit of the same idea, surprising things can occur. It may be for the same reason that it’s good Old Testament advice to have 2 to 3 witnesses on hand when trying to resolve conflict. They’re not just there to witness, they are there to add their consciousness to the proceedings. 

In 1993, a national group of trained meditators created an experiment with the intention to decrease the crime rate in Washington DC. They predicted they’d be able to reduce it by over 20% and prepared to catalog the data empirically. Before the project began, the Chief of Police said the only thing that would create a 20% drop in crime would be 20 inches of snow. The study occurred in summer of that year, but it didn’t snow. The crime rate began to drop immediately after the project began and continued to steadily drop until the end of it. Crime went down 23.3% below the time series prediction for that period of the year. Look that experiment up for yourself. Was consciousness there? If so, what does it imply about our capacity to affect physical reality on the level of our consciousness? What did those meditators affect and how? 

This points to an idea that when a group of people choose to direct their thoughts toward a particular idea or reality or solution, stuff happens. Just how much is our consciousness capable of doing? 

Let’s then consider for a moment what consciousness itself might be. The primary definition of the word consciousness says only that it’s about our awareness of our own surroundings. That we know a tree is over there and a house is over there and we know are standing in between them is, by definition, “consciousness.” The origins for the word ‘conscious,’ though, are about special knowledge, really. Holders of a secret. And also an inner awareness of self, not just our surrounding environment. In the late 16th century, though, the word ‘conscious’ came to mean an awareness of our own personal wrongdoing. In other words, self-conscious. It meant shame. 

But we can also use the word consciousness to describe the part of ourselves which is larger than our physical bodies. The part of ourselves which is plugged into the divine. The part which is permanent and eternal and, true to the contemporary definition, utterly aware of its surroundings and its place within the universe. The part which is aware and self-aware but leaves the shame part to us humans. Shame is one of many classrooms of the human experience. It’s appropriateness lies in the overcoming of it. 

Back to consciousness, though. Does our consciousness have physics? In other words, are there rules to it? If we were smart enough, could we measure it? Could we invent a device to see consciousness? If we did, what would we conclude from empirically proving our consciousness exists? What might it change and us and how we more deliberately use consciousness as a tool of advancement?

I believe that when two or more gather in the name of something greater than themselves, magic happens. I think when a certain saturation point of our individual minds gather together around a single thought, the thought itself can hear it. On the quantum physics level, it seems that when we gather we have a greater capacity to collapse a waveform around a particular potential into the reality we ultimately experience. I think I sounded very fancy there. 

But that’s the quantum physics way of saying that our expectations are often realized on the quantum level where our thought is provable to affect reality. You can look that up too. I think whatever it is that makes that happen we could safely refer to as consciousness. 

It could be thought of as a magic wand, of a sort. One that we’re not particularly sure how it works, or just how much power it has. And for which we probably should get a little bit of education. But it’s a power nonetheless. And one that we own for ourselves to do with as we wish. Make an assumption that how you feel and the thoughts you project manage to accomplish something beyond your understanding. Create communities of those who wish to conduct their thoughts in the same direction with you for mutual benefit. May your divine spark, along with the divine sparks of others, together light a fire storm of compassion and resolution for our world. Amen.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 20, 2020 - Enhanced Collaboration

What shall come of this strange time? What is its wider purpose?  If God truly exists, what is Its point in all this for us? Personally I see no reason to exclude the notion that divinity has a loving and benevolent hand in our current experience. My own leap of faith is that there is love and benevolence in all things, even when they seem at their worst. I choose to see benevolence here.

What are some of the things that we already notice to be changed about our culture from this virus? Virtual gatherings, for one. And that has some interesting merits. I’ve noticed on Sunday mornings that there are people who have moved away or whose schedules and families have become too busy to attend church, now joining us again virtually. They’re finding fulfillment in being part of the virtual community. We will now continue the practice once able to gather again.

This is of course not limited to church life. Humanity has been moving for some time toward greater work-at-home models, remote operations and methods of virtual collaboration. Even surgeries can be performed remotely now. Is the pandemic nudging us now toward utilizing that ability to even larger degrees once it’s over? Is there benevolence here?

One of the more noticeable trends of human social evolution is enhanced collaboration with one another. As a communal species, it’s natural for us to collaborate. But the scope of our collaboration has broadened significantly over time especially with the development of technology. The modern collaborative trend really begins, however, with the invention of the telegraph in 1832, not this pandemic. That was when communication in real time across great distances actually began. That’s the moment the world began to shrink. And it shrinks to this day.

For all its wonders, mass communication has done as much to reveal our faults as gather together to share positive information. Being able to communicate with others in real time has propelled us forward as a loving species when injustice can be reported immediately. But we disdain the knowledge that comes as well. Technology has provided a glaring look in the mirror, and we often don’t like what we see. We shield our eyes until no longer able to do so. It’s human.

In most Christian traditions, the ritual of communion is celebrated. Sometimes daily, sometimes monthly or bi-monthly. But most recognize the act as a symbol of enhanced and deliberate community. It is an expressed intention to collaborate with one another in faith. The ritual is a reenactment of the final occasion Jesus would sit and break bread with his disciples. At this meal, the group were, in essence, making a pact with one another. Through the ritual born that night, the disciples were given a tool of remembrance that would foster an ongoing collaboration among future Christians everywhere.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, some churches celebrate a traditional communion, but nearly all celebrate a special kind of communion on the final Sunday of each church year in June: a flower communion. The words of this ritual honor the wider collaboration of all life as a model for human sharing and working together to make a better world. The most important thought of the prayer is in its final words: “...may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world.”

Rituals like these comfort us when we’re afraid or when we forget that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Remember that. Take part in these little rites of community. They will ease your heart.

Virtual collaboration has been forced upon us right now. What will be the outcome of that? Will it make our world better or not? In my opinion, how can it not? How could it be possible that a situation which compels us to work together in unique and broad-spread ways not ultimately do its part toward leading us in the right direction? Is benevolence at work here? What does your faith tell you?

Some religious leaders have concluded publicly that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. Some even claim to know that it is society’s increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ community which has angered God to the point of sending us a modern plague. But if that were the case. if God really did dispense punishment for humanity’s sins, I’d think It would have done so over far more far more sinful actions than whom people choose to love. If a punishment is to be dealt, it would be for our most unloving acts, not our loving ones. They are mistaken. And their mistake only alienates them, pushing them further from God’s hope of our one great human collaboration to be.

This is the opposite of the intent of religion. And they are doing it wrong. They’re cutting themselves off from the blessing of collaboration by isolating themselves in silos of fear and backward ideology. May we pray for all those who are afraid. But our global community is not waiting for them. They are being left behind. Pray for them.

In sending love to those who cannot work together we serve the purpose of enhancing our own ability to do so. Our love makes us more fully present to be there in service to our neighbor, to work together, and resolve the problems which humanity now faces. Problems that can only be solved by the act of communion with all humanity, indeed all life. Be at peace. Our great collaboration is now inevitable.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 13, 2020 - Leaning on the Warm and Fuzzy

I struggled with my message this week. For both my congregations, this Sunday is the blessing of the animals. We’re doing it virtually, of course.

But my mind keeps circling back to the crises unfolding all around us. It felt awkward to speak of something as trite as the warm and fuzzy when our world is suffering so. 

Of course there are genuine things about our world’s animal life which deserve our respect, honor and attention. Time should always be set aside for something as significant to humanity as that. Domesticated animals are our human responsibility for creating them in the first place. They’ve been bred by us to seek our approval and validation for their hard work while also providing love, validation, and companionship to us. We have played God with these creatures. There are responsibilities to that.

Far too many humans have taken on the responsibility of pet caretakership only to fail at it horribly. So we honor those who take in our loving life forms who’ve been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Please support your local animal shelters. They are doing good work.

Humanity has grown up alongside domesticated animals from the beginning. There are records of animals bred to be workers and companions dating back thousands of years. Selectively bred to enhance our preferred characteristics. Such as friendliness, for one. 

I remember reading once about a domestication experiment of silver foxes in the 1950’s. Illegal to study genetics in Russia at that time, it was conducted under the guise of fur manufacture by geneticist Dimitri Belyaev. He observed that by selectively choosing the friendlier animals to mate and create potentially friendlier offspring, while leaving the hostile ones to become fur coats, after a few generations, their ears started to flop over and their sharp teeth began to round off. As they genetically perceived the safety and support in their environment, their defense mechanisms began to switch off. 

While some of Belyaev’s conclusions from that experiment have come under fire lately, what still emerges from it, to me, is that as a species evolves generation after generation under safer circumstances where their ability to relate with humans is prized, even their physical characteristics become friendlier over time. 

I find it very interesting to imagine that as circumstances favor an evolution toward friendliness, an animal’s bodily defense structures such as sharper teeth, keener ears, or deadlier claws, become more dormant within the genes until perhaps needed again in some future generation. But that genetic adaptability to circumstance and desire raises a flag to me about our own ability to relate with one another.

Because human beings are a domesticated species. We are domesticating ourselves right at this moment.

We have selectively bred ourselves through our choice of mate for security, procreative ability, and resourcefulness, of course, but also we tend to choose our partners for their relatability, creativity, intellect, and ingenuity. One could argue that we often choose our sexual partners based on how naturally compassionate or empathetic they are as well. In other words, how friendly they are. 

Are these traits being handed down in our genes? Is there any evidence that our physical bodies have altered over time to accommodate our species’ perception of whether or not we are safe or in danger? Perhaps our brain wiring has shifted to value friendliness differently? Has it altered as a result of the fact that even though we exist in a difficult moment, over the course of human history we have only become more peaceful and loving to one another? I know some will argue with that last point. But a little research will show that it’s statistically correct. 

We have increasingly begun to demand the equal rights of all life and all humans. Is that a product of our self-domestication? Are we choosing to be more loving even on a genetic level? We should ask ourselves this question: Are the current challenges we’re experiencing right now a result of there being less love on the planet or more? We wouldn’t be demanding equal rights if our hearts weren’t telling us more loudly every day that that is what Love is asking us to do. We should be more like dogs. Dogs don’t discriminate against each other. They sniff each other’s butts equally. 

Which makes the subject of a fluffy kitten purring on our lap all the more relevant right now. Remember when the shutdown from the pandemic started back in late March, the first thing to go was toilet paper and the second thing was all of the animals in the shelters. 

Humanity has begun to notice the plight of the animal world and their environments more and more over the past several decades. Videos of animals being cute or loving literally built the Internet. Does that say anything favorable about our overall capacity to love?

Of course my thoughts immediately jump now to the ubiquitous evil figure in spy movies cradling a voluptuous cat along his arm as he dispenses murder and mayhem. Evil people like pets, too. But does it speak to the possibility that a thread of compassion and humanity still exists within them? (Remember I’m a rabid optimist.)

That’s sidebar notwithstanding, what I’m considering here is that our companion animals specifically have grown up alongside humanity, true unwittingly, but that relationship still has its advantages. So long as we remember our place is to lovingly care for them in exchange for their loving service to us. This has the potential of being a sacred relationship. And we don’t always treat it as such.

Of course this all is a persuasive argument for veganism and a life without contribution from animals as food or clothing. There are many ways and levels of embodying the maximum to do no harm. Find what is right for you, and purchase your products from ethical sources always. Even for those who eat meat, we should be purchasing pasture raised and organically produced meat without hormones or steroids. Vegan or not, there is no excuse for mistreating our domesticated animals, or any life for that matter. Vote for those who understand this issue. Spend your dollars on the same.

For those of us who have house pets, cherish them. Give yourself permission to be comforted by them now. They are the companions of humanity and they exist in our lives for a reason. They perceive our fear, our sadness, and our despair. Allow them to put you at ease. They wish for nothing more.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 6, 2020 - Peace Shall Prevail

It’s almost hard to conceive the level of desperate unrest occurring among humanity right now. A great moan emanates from us collectively as if we are slowly ripping at the seams while witnessing it in real time. We feel powerless to stop it. The sky feels as if it’s falling.

As real as this crisis truly is, the sky is doing no such thing, of course. It’s firmly in place as always. Yet none of this trauma is in our imagination either. Sadly, the presence of truth is no guarantee of progress when doubt is sewn. Even fake news makes its indelible impression on reality. Our own individual perception of this time is absolutely genuine. You are having a real experience.

But there are lots of real things in this world.

Love is real, too. So is compassion. As optimistic as I may be, I must be frank as well. I absolutely do see more hatred today than when I was a child. Much more. 

But, am I seeing less love?  I’m not. Much more, actually. It honestly appears as if there is more love actively and creatively expressed in the world today than when I was a child. 

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the increased brazenness of hatred being expressed. I can only assume. But even as we see more hatred, people are increasingly using their creativity and ingenuity to solve world problems. Society wildly celebrates those who make achievements of human compassion. It does not celebrate the opposite.

Against the backdrop of increasing riots and dramatic protests, there are hints at real progress occurring within society on the issue of racism which are crucial to its success. In fancy talk: the subtle perpetuating mechanisms inside systemic racism and discrimination (meaning some of what makes racism continue to flourish generation after generation) are becoming disturbed from their normal function by, among other things, our choice to use better words to describe other people. 

That small but profound shift is having an enormous and lasting effect on society. Even while the louder conflict rages and much larger battles are being fought, it's the meeker action which is the often the true stimulus of change. The call for kinder words is viscerally upsetting to some people and the ripple effect has been profound as the blinders have come off one by one. There are natural consequences to this. Rage is one of them. On both sides. Small shifts in our society, such as the advent of politically correct language, not only gets under the skin of racism and discrimination of others in general, but exemplify the success of the earlier work within the civil rights movement which has already made a lasting impact. That’s what’s bringing up the rage on both sides: It's the new visibility of social progress some don’t want. Do not despair! Keep supporting the cause of equality in your own way. There are far more on the side of unity than not.

Ironically, our natural instinct to work together is often switched-off in dangerous times. For ideological safety, people shut down and insulate themselves with those who think the same as they. Cross-pollination of shared ideas becomes quarantined. Fear makes us clench rather than embrace. There are natural consequences to that. Only an attention to the source of that fear will heal it.

Even while recognizing the abundance of violence currently occurring, people the world over are genuinely trying harder to expand their awareness of social issues. This is visible everywhere. Even national ad campaigns have picked up on our increased inclination toward unity and collaboration. Gender equality as well. Have you seen the new laundry detergent ads with men in them? I have. That never used to happen. Is that the advertising media trying to brainwash men into doing laundry? Not likely. And nearly all commercials today show people of mixed or ambiguous race. Hmm. Are they trying to convince us to be more racially mixed? Not likely. 

This is the advertising industry responding to the actual statistical changes toward gender and racial equity which we have already administered into our society. They spend millions on demographic studies and polls trying to get to know us and what makes us tick. They are experts on how we are thinking about important issues both political as well as personal. They know us better than we know ourselves. Look toward advertising if you want to see where humanity really is in real time. Advertisers always want to show us our most current selves—as improved through the use of their product, true—but ourselves nonetheless.

Civil rights has not arrived at its destination, by far, but it is doing its job relentlessly. The struggle is all real. It is based on a genuine and reasonable rage which legitimately exists. Sometimes that rage has been expressed in peaceful ways with successful results. Sometimes it has been achieved with violence and unrest as well, let’s be honest. Both have pushed the needle forward. 

I advocate for peaceful resolution always. But I also subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as a disproportionate reaction. It is always, always proportionate to something. Perhaps not the situation as it exists in isolation from the larger picture, but that rage is coming from somewhere. Seek it out and soothe it. It’s hard, and humbling, but it’s the only way.

Earlier this week, one of my dearest friends posted this profound solution: “When times are full of confusion, fear or anger, the question to ask ourselves is: What does love require of me?”

Hate is not a real thing. Only fear is. Look for the fear and do what you can about that. The hate will evaporate when the underlying fear heals. That is the weakness of all hatred: The wound. Soothe the wound. That’s what the teachings of Jesus, as well as many other spiritual dharmas, ask of us. Pray for your enemies. Send a psychic balm to their fear. Pray for their ease. Work against your fear and rage. Get under the skin of it. 

There’s some physics behind this idea as well. Though we don’t understand it, we have observed its effects enough to conclude it’s probably genuine. But it blows our minds so much we don’t know what to do with the information. We don’t know how to apply it to our lives. Remember, however, we don’t understand a lot of things we still manage to make great use of. 

In 1993, a group conducted a consciousness study experimenting with lowering the crime rate in Washington D.C. using only prayer and meditation over a series of weeks “without any verbal, social, political or physical interaction between the meditators and the local community. The positive impact would be made quietly and discreetly from the field of consciousness.

This sounds far-fetched. But the crime rate did in fact drop in the city by 23.3% during the summer-long study period; something the Chief of Police said would be possible only with 20” of snow. I encourage you to read the study for yourself. Cross verify the information. 

Within all this just mentioned, exists the thread of what to do to be of service to the solution. Meditate on peace. Encourage others to do the same. Pray for it in groups (virtually, for the time being, of course). Spread creative and ingenious ways to be of service to others. Be a balm to fear, in person as well as on the level of your consciousness. Don’t encourage violence, but dialogue. Insert yourself into the problem by hosing it down with empathy. Relieve yourself of judgement. You cannot walk a mile in their shoes. There will be things you just can’t be made to understand. Pray for understanding to occur anyway. You are a bell unto the Universe. Ring like the dickens.