Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 5, 2022 - Pick Your Algorithm

Many of us, when struggling with finding a way to feel a bit more resilient and helpful to this conflicting world rather than be overwhelmed by it, we think about adopting a set of guidelines for ourselves. We might take up yoga, or tai chi, and learn some of the principles for optimal living that they offer. Maybe get some exercise and have our “church” at the gym. There’s an awful lot to be gained from it. Almost any intentional discipline will have wisdom within it meant to teach us how to be at greater ease and strength. It has a ripple effect on our lives.

Choosing a life practice is somewhat like choosing an algorithm. An algorithm is a set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations. Usually on computers, but metaphorically, in the adoption of a life practice for ourselves, we are literally selecting an algorithm for our daily living. 

Setting aside the conflict and corruption which damages our trust in religious institutions, as well as their specifics regarding the metaphysical, the messages they carry, specifically the algorithms for daily living they offer, have inherent within them some fairly irrefutable ideas about how to enjoy an optimal experience of life on this beautiful planet. 

These life practice ideas (a.k.a. their dharmas) operate independently from the theology which surrounds their religion (a.k.a. their dogmas) and guide us in how to conduct ourselves peacefully and ethically, how to both seek and offer forgiveness, how to have a happy life, and leave the world better than we found it. That is the source of a life practice we might meditate upon and do our best to follow. Even when we don’t fully subscribe to the theological ideas around which these teachings have ultimately reached our ears and eyes, we can still benefit from their wisdom. The religion is the bottle. The dharma is the message inside it.

The crucial advice is this: Pick one. Because nature abhors a vacuum, we either choose a life practice for ourselves or one chooses us based solely on the vibe we are throwing out there. What kind of vibe are you throwing out there right now? How are you feeling? What are you wanting? What do you feel you deserve? Whom do you love? The answers to all of these questions together emit a vibration into the universe. And we generally experience life through these lenses, overlapping one another as they will. 

Our individual worldview plays a significant role in our individual world experience. How we think affects what we notice. It affects the opportunities we recognize. It even makes an impact on the words we choose to describe what we want to others. Life practices help us refine the signal we’re transmitting into the universe.

So maybe it’s even time to consider a church for yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean on a Sunday morning, although that’s often when it occurs. But the rhythm of that could be a benefit to your life, and it’s a ready group of new friends. An important caveat in the selection of a life practice: Don't go it alone. We need other people for these journeys. A walk in the woods, as comforting as it can be, is meditation, not church. Church, by definition, is a group of people gathered together for a shared purpose. The purpose is to make our lives better with others around to help us verbalize our understandings and even ritualize them. That's how we get better at them. We’re a communal species, after all.

But whether or not you choose a church, or even if you’re already attending one, mindfully adopt the principles of a life practice for yourself. When being pulled along by the current of life, it’s the equivalent of climbing aboard a raft, finding that there’s an outboard motor attached to it, discovering there are written instructions on how to operate it, and then setting about mastering the tides. We don’t change the tide in the process, but we most definitely alter our relationship to it. 

Hopeful Thinking- Saturday, October 29, 2022 - There’s Hope After All

Do humans demonstrate more hope than despair? It’s a worthwhile question. One for which I believe I have a concrete answer. Hopefully. I believe the answer is yes. And I believe the simplest evidence for that is the fact that we just keep getting up every day.

When things are truly hopeless, meaning objectively and literally without hope, they generally begin to shut down on their own. This fractal of reality occurs in the natural extinction of a species, in a game of chess, the demise of a giant corporation, even by molecules in the melting of ice. 

However, every day billions of us keep getting up. Even those in the midst of struggle and despondency. Even those who can’t imagine good coming. We keep trying. We keep aspiring to things. Why is this so? Where does it come from, this inner directive to not give up, even while feeling as though humanity has sometimes given the appearance of utterly abandoning all hope? 

My sense is that if it were really true, if humanity had really given up on itself, we simply wouldn’t keep getting up in the morning. If we really believed the future was hopeless, we wouldn’t keep trying to make it better. On some level, we must not have given up hope. Is there evidence to the contrary?

I’m sure there are many things one could point to and declare it to be a harbinger of end times. But that’s a conversation that’s been happening for at least a couple thousand years now. It’ll happen when it happens if it happens. If you definitively believe the end of the world is nigh and yet keep getting up in the morning, you must have more hope than despair about it. Lean into that  

If we do acknowledge that there is more hope in the world than despair what should we do with it? What good is that fact? Firstly, just believing that others have hope can act an antidote to our own despair. Take advantage of that knowledge by giving inner thanks for the hopeful people in the world. Tell the waitress you’ll “have what they’re having.” Feel gratitude for the existence of hope.

Does that sound like too frivolous a mental exercise? Does it sound silly to consider being hopeful and grateful as a key toward better physical and emotional balance? A lot of books have been written about the effects of these thoughts on our bodies and ideas. There is empirical evidence as well included in them. Don’t discount it.

As a place to begin, simply think: I am grateful  for and appreciate the presence of hope in this world. Then spend a moment marinating in some thought on that idea. Think of an example of something where hope exists. Let it physically affect you, even if only for a few seconds. Take it to a place where you might even feel a lump in your throat, or goosebumps, or faster breathing, faster heartbeat. Ride that for a bit. 

If you can’t think of a worthwhile example of hope off the top of your head, feel free to do a little homework ahead of time so that you have a ready thought to ruminate on when you begin the exercise. 

Examples of things that are hopeful are: seeds, savings accounts, caterpillars, puppies, a gentle rain, a college education. Think about things you still want to do and haven’t yet given up on. 

Every moment you spend doing this mental activity are moments when you are literally healing your body. Among other physical benefits, your optimal thought patterns generate a beneficial hormone response. By ruminating on thoughts of hope and gratitude you are supplanting harmful stress chemicals in the body like cortisol and adrenaline with helpful ones like serotonin and dopamine. And for extra credit, take note that the only way to release adrenaline and cortisol from your body is cardiovascular exercise.

If we can admit to ourselves that there are reasons out there in the world to be hopeful, we can better amplify within ourselves the beneficial effects of hope as a productive form of energy. What might the world become if a few more of us thought this way? I certainly have hope in that.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 22, 2022 - Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

“Comparison is the thief of joy," Teddy Roosevelt once said. Mark Twain felt even more strongly about it, exchanging the word death for thief. 

Before ever hearing of these quotes, I learned the general idea of this thought from my husband, quoting a family member who often said, “Don’t compare your insides with other people's outsides.” This one I felt to be far more user-friendly than those by Roosevelt or Twain. Sometimes poetry isn’t the most efficient educational tool.

When comparing ourselves to others, we often do it with a mind to motivate ourselves to be better. People in a position of mentorship, like parents or teachers, often slip into the mistake of comparing us to others in order to get us to work harder. The system of education itself, with its standardized tests and tradition of grading, is one giant paradigm of comparison from which most all of us feel the pressures of having fallen short.

Religion, too, often asks us to compare ourselves to the masters while at the same time basically telling us not to bother because we will never be like them.

Social media is, of course, a devil of human comparison. What’s worse is that through this platform we are often presented with only an idealized version of other people, whose use of tools like facial filters and virtual fashion create an even greater chasm between how we view them as compared to how we view ourselves. Some online influencers present lives of such interest and ease and perfection and wealth that they seem to mock our basic-ness with every bit of content they post. 

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here. Comparison is not a particularly useful tool for personal advancement. While we often use it to accomplish that very thing, it is a double-edged sword. And I would argue one blade is much deadlier than the other. 

However, comparison is inevitable. Because we are a communal species, it is impossible not to compare ourselves with either our predecessors or our contemporaries. Comparison tells us how we are doing. The pitfalls are so great, though, that we must develop resiliency and balance in our use of it so that we do not to come to the heightened risk of depression or anxiety which often befalls those who are constantly seeking to not just be better than earlier versions of themselves but better than all others. 

I have to say, as much as I love social media, I do find that it makes me anxious and depressed if I’m on it too much. I don’t consciously mean to compare myself with others. But subconsciously that comparison is inevitably being made every time I look at a video designed to teach me how to do something better. If I’m not careful, I’m subliminally notifying myself of my inadequacy by overdoing it. But we all need teachers. The betterment of humanity is accomplished only through education and mentorship. 

Personally, I feel the key is in attempting to learn without comparing ourselves with others. To engage in comparison only with ourselves. To focus on how we keep getting better and encouraging ourselves as we continue to learn and grow. To insulate ourselves from needing to be as good as, as pretty as, as strong as, as smart as, as rich as, as lettered as, or as fashionable as, other people by shifting the inner narrative just a tick. 

One of the greatest things that I have learned personally from my study of Islam is the expression “mashallah.” Its literal translation means “God willed it.” But its traditional use is a term of congratulations towards someone else for an achievement or success, sometimes against truly unfavorable odds. To say mashallah is an act against the feelings of envy. 

Personally, I feel that it is the perfect antidote when used as a trained reflexive response to feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy as compared to other people. Whenever I am feeling inadequate to someone else’s success, it is my intent to shift my inner narrative to that of congratulations for them rather than deprecation of myself. 

As it was described to me, mashallah acts like a prayer that tells the angels to include us in the loop of the successful person's joy. The alternative is an inner resentment that pinches us off from it. 

I found this to be an earth-shattering thought, really. And it ties in with what others have said regarding the law of attraction. We have to be thinking and feeling in the direction of where we wish to go in order to get there, not sulking about where we are. 

So, spend less time on social media and eschew the desire to compare yourself with others. Congratulate their successes, not with just your words but your heart. You’ll find that in doing so, you’ll not just feel better, you’ll be better.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, Oct 15, 2022 - Are We Too Sensitive?

Am I a snowflake? I think I’m a snowflake. I know the term is meant to be pejorative, but I find I have a hard time taking offense at it. Of course, I’m bothered by the fact that someone would use it in my direction for the purpose of making me feel ashamed or foolish. I feel neither of those, but I am hurt by the intent to be hurtful.

I do wish to clarify that those who might call me a snowflake are forgiven for it long before they do so. And maybe that makes me one even more. So be it.  

Snowflake is a term that is used to describe someone, typically liberal in their political leanings, who easily takes offense. Its intention is to bully someone down whom they feel are being too sensitive, particularly with regard to social progress, environmental concerns, and the oft-accompanying hostility of politics. In other words, fragile. The term even includes a gleeful swipe of schadenfreude at a snowflake’s fleeting existence. 

It’s a social coping skill, really. A tool used by those who are, in fact, highly offended themselves by the requirements of our era. The increasing social expectations to be inclusive, equitable, respectful, careful of others, and stewardly of the earth are gnawing at them. 

Of course, whether or not something is truly offensive to these ideals is often debated. For instance, one might look at the publisher’s choice last year to no longer print certain Dr. Seuss books, whose racial depictions now seem dated, and think too much of a deal was being made. When you look closely at the issue, you’ll realize not all was as portrayed by those who criticized it. Bringing it up here is not meant as an opportunity for further debate on the subject so much as a pointing out of how easily a situation, that was intended as an inclusive gesture on behalf of the publishers, became a hostile accusation of cancel culture by others. The sloppy debate points of which ultimately became the entire focus of the debate itself instead of recognizing the genuinely correct gesture of the publishers to use it as an opportunity to say that earlier times might have been okay with things we would no longer do today. Let’s move forward as friends.

Is it likely, though, that there will be things canceled which we might look upon in hindsight and wonder if we had gone too far? Probably. Does that mean we shouldn’t be looking at everything? We definitely should. I’ve said before that we are now in an age where all of our old ideas are being checked for their expiration dates. Why is that so? What is fueling it? Is it possible that human society is maturing? Are these squabbles really growth pains?

I’m sure you’ve picked up on the fact that my answer would be yes. 

So, for those of us who would choose to be well informed on issues like this, and as a point of respect for others, choose to use accepted terminology and depict others fairly, how do we cope with those who would rather we not? 

To be honest, I wish I knew. Wish I had an easy answer for it. The most satisfying ideas, of course, are also the least appropriate. But when I don’t readily know the most loving answer, a direction toward it can often be found by looking at ancient wisdom. In particular, wisdom that teaches us how we were all connected, and that we should find a way to love our enemy. Teachings that encourage us to listen with the heart at the fears of others and read between the lines of their actions so that we might intuit smarter ways of moving toward the future with greater ease. 

Being called a snowflake by someone is a sign that they are afraid of an inclusive future and what it would mean for them. It means they don’t see themselves as a part of it. They don’t get it. They don’t understand why you aren’t as afraid of change as they are. And they’re angry with you for it. Pray for them. Pray for their ease. Don’t tell them you’re doing it. That will have only the opposite effect. But imagine them being at peace, and then do nothing yourself to prevent it. 

Except of course continuing the mission of peace, justice, and equity on earth. Keep doing that.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 8, 2022 - The Near-Death Effect

Many years ago I was sick. Very sick. In fact, I nearly died. I lost the ability to walk or to speak. I was in the hospital for weeks.

The whole time I just knew I would recover, though the doctors seemed to think otherwise for a while. I overheard them talking about it. I remember experiencing an inner belligerence that they weren’t going to tell me what to do. I felt, rightly or otherwise, that if I wanted to live, it wasn’t up to them, it was up to me.

Once I had recovered, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d experienced something approaching a near-death experience. Mainly because I hadn’t actually died. I was definitely threatened with death, I had to cope with the knowledge that medical professionals treated me with the deference of the dying and spoke in hushed voices of its likelihood within the feathered edges of my earshot. Yet to my face, they spoke in soothing tones and carefully curated their words. It was more annoying than comforting, really, but ultimately, I felt dared by the universe to survive.

The type of near-death experience we mostly hear about is that of a brush with clinical death resulting in what’s commonly described as an inviting light, a tunnel, a temporary reunion with loved ones who have passed, and often an admonition to return for our time has not yet arrived. Frequently, those who experience this phenomenon describe having felt a connection with the universe and a new comfort with the subject of death and its otherworldly implications.

But what of those occasions when we only nearly die? Do they count as a form of near death experience too? Apparently, they do. 

Within a year things began to change for me. It was neither conscious nor deliberate, but as the months and years passed, I steadily abandoned or reconfigured eitirely many of the things that had become standard desires in my life. Relationships that I’d endured despite their challenges now revealed themselves to be toxic and no longer tolerable. Career goals I’d long held for myself with ambition suddenly deprioritized themselves. After travelling the world for nearly ten years and loving it, I now couldn’t wait to move back to my hometown. What had become of me?

When we are faced with death, our lives inevitably change. We experience a subtle shift in values, which has the capacity to undermine the softer foundations of things we believed to be built on solid terra firma. Now we discover that we never needed them or were perhaps even in denial about real harm they were causing us. The blinders come off. 

I am definitely not the person who nearly died. The changes which have occurred since then are vast. These were not conscious decisions I was making, however. Only in hindsight have I been able to see just how much a small shift in values has changed the entire course of my life. Decidedly for the better.

I would not change a single thing about having nearly died. To this day I am eternally grateful for what I went through and consider it to be the most important thing that has ever happened to me in my life.

I say this all because that’s the exact experience our society is going through right now. We have all had a version of a brush with death. 

This pandemic we are still digging ourselves out from under has caused a pronounced but subtle shift in human values. It is worldwide, and affecting us all. 

I feel as though I am seeing on a global scale all of the micro changes I experienced as a result my own near death experience. Old ways of being that I’d grown used to suddenly felt so pointless. Toxicity that I too easily endured became firmly untenable. Desires that I’d only subconsciously entertained stepped to the fore and demanded identity. 

Be comforted, even though it feels like the world is on the verge of falling apart around us. It is the old ways gasping their last before dying. It is old relationships withering in the brighter light of our new selves. It is a battle between people who are willing to change and those who are not.

Comfort the frightened. In doing so you may very well find greater comfort for yourself. For we are all here in this moment together, and it is, without question, scary. 

But when we recognize that there is indeed a phenomenon at work, we can lean into it. We can use it as an opportunity to propel ourselves even further and with greater comfort over the shifting landscape of this traumatic era. 

My faith tells me that there is yet benevolence here. Embrace it. Take comfort in the shifting of values toward greater inclusivity and equity in the world. It will not come as peacefully as we would hope, nor will it be without loss. But it is a sacred momentum nonetheless, and shall deliver us one giant leap forward toward a better world. 

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 1, 2022 - Don’t Dismiss the Mind-Altering

I have done my share of experimentation with mind-altering substances in my life. 

Beginning as a teenager moving toward young adulthood, I became highly curious about how these drugs affected people. I felt no compunction against trying them out. Essentially, I wanted to know first hand what the big deal was. For the most part, I enjoyed them. A few I liked enough to try again, repeatedly. 

But I noticed my perspective on the reasoning behind my use was different from others. It was definitely not about partying, even though I did a fair bit of that. My perspective was always about a sense of deeply needing to know what the total experience was like, as well as the micro-cultures and rituals that formed around their recreational use. I can see now that many of these experiences were inadvertently ceremonial in nature. Does that point to something intrinsic about us?

Not surprisingly, the spirituality of mind-altering substances is at the root of it all for me. For instance, the ceremonial use of the mushrooms containing the psychedelic compound psilocybin predates recorded history. Humans have been using this substance and others like it to alter the terrain of their consciousness, whether temporarily or permanently, since our human beginning.

Repeatedly, users of these substances find that the experience has enhanced their ability to sense a connection with all things, to perceive the oneness of all existence, which proves to be an entirely comforting new mental paradigm for them. It literally changes them from within and alters how they see the world from that point forward.

Why is this so? Why do these things exist? What is their purpose? I maintain a spiritual assumption that there is something to be discovered in pulling a thread so long we can’t see the beginning of it. For the faithful who believe that God makes no mistakes, is there room to consider that there might be genuine spiritual purpose to the existence and long-standing historic use of these substances?

My journey continues, but so far this curiosity has led me to at least one genuine conclusion. Mindfulness and self understanding are the key to properly consuming them. That’s not to say that we don’t come to the altar with questions or flaws, or blemishes of the spirit. One can be a hot mess and still mindfully consume. One could argue, that’s the best time to do it. But mindfulness and intention and preparation and guidance all must be in place to fully benefit.

The trick is in being aware that the experience is a conscious and intentional measure you’re taking for the purpose of expanding self understanding and an enhanced connection with All That Is. Not just to have a good time. 

Of course, I cast not a single judgment against recreational use. But that is a different subject than mindful, ceremonial application of psychedelics, like psilocybin, DMT, LSD, and other intoxicants like THC found in cannabis, to bring about transformation in ourselves. 

There’s a range of things to consider, however, based upon your own current state of emotional wellness regarding their use. The greater the level of our personal emotional crisis, the more we need professional support to take advantage of the benefits of these treatments. Psilocybin mushrooms administered in a medical setting have been found to provide dramatic benefits to those suffering from PTSD, Alzheimer’s, even smoking. The drug ketamine has been found to treat depression, anxiety. and trauma. And for years there has been increasing positive documentation on the use of  LSD to help people face their own mortality when receiving a terminal diagnosis. But these are very different things from unsupervised self-medicating or recreational use. Always seek professional support when choosing to consume these substances as a aspect of mental health treatment. If your consumption is spiritual in nature, particularly with regard to psychedelics, be certain that you are working with an experienced shaman. It is a misuse of their sacredness to harm yourself with them. We all need a guide on our journey.

These words are for those who might find benefit in using mind-altering compounds, but they are also for those who struggle with the issue. Be at ease if family members or people you know seek them. Perhaps even suggest that they do.

It’s a new time. Everything has changed. Consider changing with it and finding new ways to expand yourself. Perhaps the ancients knew what they were doing. They have handed down to us more legacies than we realized. Thanks be to them.

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 24, 2022 - Play With Your Food

As a child, I was not known for taking no for an answer. I don’t have the impression that I was rude, just persistent. I have distinct memories of my mother repeatedly pleading, “Stop badgering me!” If I was to be told no, I wanted to understand why. I wanted to agree with the reasoning. I wanted an explanation. 

Since the badgering was likely a result of frustration, I assume it’s because the reasoning I needed was not forthcoming. Apparently, mom wasn’t offering an adequate rationale for the denial of my request, and “because I said so” wasn’t cutting it. To be sure, her reasoning was probably sound, I just wasn’t agreeing with it, in all likelihood, barely post-toddler that I was. 

I really had no standing to outwit or outsmart her. Also, my mother has always been a reasonable, kind person and her parenting skills were almost uniformly gentle. Only volume and length of word gave away her anger. (The angrier she got with us, the longer the words she used. I have an extensive vocabulary to this day with cause.) So I’m perfectly comfortable with acknowledging that I didn’t know my ass from my elbow at the age of 4 and she was likely right.

But it points to a character trait that has ultimately led me to a profession where the biggest questions are asked, yet the answers are always insufficient. I badger the Universe with, “Why?” Sometimes I get answers which I deem sufficient. Or at least, intuitive thoughts I conclude to be answers. Most of the time I do not perceive a response. Which of course, I consider to be inadequate. So I keep asking. To my memory, God has never asked me to stop badgering It. Ergo, today I’m a persistent theologian with an equally-persistent optimistic streak. I obviously wouldn’t keep asking if I had no hope in the existence of a reasonable answer.

This tendency makes me curious about rules which have no apparent acceptable rationale to support them. If people are required to follow a rule, we should, ideally, have buy-in to the reason why. This country was founded on that exact idea. It has supported the very culture which gives us the right to question the laws of both man as well as God. 

For instance, I think everyone should play with their food. Or at least be always free to do so. Regardless of age. Even when company is present. So long as the food is still eaten, still appreciated, does it cause actual harm to sculpt the potatoes? If you’re embarrassed that your child is doing it, first ask yourself what does the sculpting say about your child? Then ask, what does your embarrassment say about you?

When we take a look at arbitrary rules, we often find that they are more about control than care. They are authoritarian when the authoritative approach is wiser. 

In religion, we find many statements which can be defined as laws, rules, advice, and guidelines, in decreasingly heavy-handed order. My desire to understand them is as strong as my requirement to agree with them. I personally don’t follow religious rules unless I agree with them and understand the rationale as to why they exist. However, their presence in sacred texts makes me faithfully conclude that they do have a purpose of some kind, whether for all time/all places/all people, or for a specific group at a specific time, there is possibly a bit of wisdom behind them. Or evidence of a desire to control people. Either one of which is a curiosity to me.

Question all rules which appear to be, or reveal themselves to be, arbitrary. Why can’t boys cry? Why must we obey our elders? And circumcision, for that matter! Why are we still adhering to these things? 

The fact is, that’s the exact process all of human society is going through right now. Everything is being checked for authenticity and value. Old outdated ideas are being jettisoned at a rate alarming to some. Pray for them. They are kind of freaking out.

Be gentle with the authority we have to clear out old rules and old ways of being. Remember that it’s a difficult and scary process for some to recognize that it’s okay to play with your food now. It just demonstrates a creativity that should be identified and nurtured, not repressed. The world is better when we let go of these old authoritarian ways. But it’s a process that requires the use of compassion along with our fortitude.

We are enduring a sacred process of evaluation. Nothing is immune. That’s a good thing, but uncomfortable. Be a balm of comfort to those afraid of change even as we work to dismantle the traditional inequities of the past. Be at peace with yourself as well. That’s one bit of spiritual advice that’s definitely not arbitrary.