Saturday, October 26, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 26, 2019 - Serenity is the Measure

I had a conversation with a good friend recently. He’s not a religious person, by any stretch. He has been to my church a couple of times and has expressed an interest in the way I approach things. But that’s about as close to organized religion as he’s ever been comfortable with.

I have no issue with this, of course. It’s not my job to convert people to any particular religion. I prefer to help people assess what religion they already are. Because I truly believe everybody has a religion. Of one fashion or another.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize what religion we profess. And by use of the word ‘religion’ here, I mean to say that we all place our faith in something. It’s good to have an idea of what it is. But most of us subscribe to faith systems which we don’t even realize are in progress. We may go to church, we may profess a certain type of faith regarding the nature of God, or lack of It. But the philosophies and principles of those religions may not be what you, deep down, actually live by. It’s good to know if that’s true or not.

By the same token, it’s good to recognize when the way you live your life happens to already coincide with what all religion is trying to teach us.

How do you live your life? How do you govern your behavior? Are you judgemental? Notice about what. Notice when the particular behaviors of others tweak you. Wonder why that is so. When we are tweaked into judging others, there’s something important to be learned about ourselves. It hinges on the practice of whatever religion you have deliberately or inadvertently chosen. What is your faith?

Many of us live our lives by what we learn in the church of materialism, for example. We subscribe to the doctrine of gain-at-all-costs when a slight shift toward a respect for abundance might yield a greater return on your faith investment. It’s not that having “stuff” is bad, it’s when that “stuff” is used as the metric to define your own worth that your weakness is revealed to be a strength in excess. In other words, “stuff” is fun to have around. But don’t let it define you. Don’t let Stuff=Worth become your religion.

My friend owns and lives in an old granite mill building by a river that was converted into multiple apartments many years ago. He was telling me about the slight cultural shift he’s noticed in the building.

A while back, he put a bench and tables by the river’s edge and noticed the tenants increasingly gathering there together in ways they hadn’t before. He found it meaningful. He attributed an overall neighborly shift in the building, which occurred over time, to choices like that and others which have a tendency to bring people together.

There are other aspects of my friend’s character which reveal a deep generosity and a love for other people. These qualities are natural to him. He has told me they were definitely not learned in the home. They are simply intrinsic to him.

It occurred to me that this was how he expressed his faith. With or without a conscious belief in God or Its nature, nor the rules for good behavior that we are meant to memorize and follow, my friend was good because it is fulfilling for him to be good in these ways.

That’s not to say he doesn’t revel in his streak of curmudgeon. He loves to occasionally feign a grumpy exterior. But the goodness of his heart is unmistakable and there should be more people like him. People who are unapologetic about the goodness they perform and need no higher guidance to tell them how or when to perform it. It has just become natural to them. That’s a good religion.

After talking about it for a while, he described the overall philosophy simply as this: “Serenity is the measure.” It’s what motivated the bench and tables by the river. Serenity. It’s what motivates even the smallest of actions in the management of his building in favor of friendliness among the tenants. Peace. It’s what motivates his desire to be of service to the elderly across the street, even when he can’t quite figure out how. Inner satisfaction. Serenity is the measure.

Serenity is his religion. The inner doctrine he has written in favor of that outcome helps him make choices about how to be in relationship with the world. Serenity is his dharma, his rulebook.

That’s not to say he is any more or less perfect than the rest of us. I have highlighted his halo and wings here for a moment, but the rest of him is just as human. He struggles just as much with the implications of his faith as the rest of us.

But we should recognize the goodness we perform in the world and ask ourselves what motivates it. If we do good to simply feel good, that serenity is our measure. If we do good so that we won’t feel guilty, or so that we can make someone else happy, or so that we can prove something to someone, it won’t make you feel very good. It’s swimming upstream and will wear you out over time.

Let serenity be your measure. Seek a deep inner satisfaction in the goodness you perform. If you are part of an organized religion, notice the places in which it says to do just that and look for more of the same. If you have no religion at all and seek none, it’s OK. The same still applies. Notice your goodness and do more for the sake of it. Let that be your religion. Let it be well with your soul. That is the goal of any faith.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 19, 2019 - Don’t Not Look Up

Never look down. Don’t look at it. It only grows with your attention. That is your prayer. Look up.

I’m surprised at the amount of times I have to remind myself of that. Keep looking up. All is not as it appears to be. There is greater love at work than we can imagine. Let It do Its job.

We take too much at face value when we’d be far more comforted to take a step back and look at the wider picture of how humanity is working to unify itself against all odds. The reason things are so scary right now is because humanity is actually winning. Try to find a space in your heart where you can believe that to be true.

When we’re too close to drama we perpetuate it by our presence. Simply by witnessing it we are empowering it. Even in the most practical terms, our neighbor pays attention to what we notice. If you’re standing next to someone and they suddenly turn their head, what do you do? You instinctively turn your head just after them. It’s natural pack mentality. Biological. We can’t help ourselves. It’s deeply programmed. But it can be used for good as well. Be a friend to your neighbor and turn your head toward love. They will instinctively turn to look as well.

What does it feel like inside an engine when it shifts gears? It sounds to me, even in the microsecond in which it occurs, like a violent affair. We are in that microsecond of human history right now. Hold tight. We will be in gear before long.

If you wish to be of greatest service to yourself, your community, and the world, do less, not more. It’s easier on your heart to look up. It’s easier on the decisions you make. It’s easier on your friendships and your relationships with challenging family members. Take a deep breath and let it go. It’s going to be OK because it already is.

How often have you worked and worked your brain to solve a problem whose solution was already in progress? It happens more often than you notice. Pay attention to those moments. They are an indicator of something powerful, or at least coincidental, working in your favor. We too easily brush off serendipity as coincidence when it very well could be something more. Many of us think that way when the stakes are low, but when pressed, don’t truly believe it. What harm would it be to believe that greater forces are at work, constantly nudging us toward growth? What if it’s not God‘s job to prevent suffering, but gently guide us through it?

I learned somewhere that a negative thought registers a much smaller electromagnetic signal in the brain than a positive one. I can’t confirm this to be true without more research, but I like the idea. And I believe it as well. Plus it makes things easier.

To me, a negative thought is like a dark room. It doesn’t matter how big the room is, it could be the entire universe. Yet a single candle can’t be outdone by it. Darkness is not a thing of its own and has no power whatsoever. The same is true, in my opinion, for a negative thought. One small light can banish it utterly.

Sometimes more lights are needed to really see into the deep corners, but the darkness remains powerless to resist its encroachment. Light on. It wants you to believe you can be stopped. It’s lying.

Sometimes the wind will blow, for that is the only tool darkness has. It fools you into believing that there is more to come, more behind it, more substance, just wait for it, but it never comes. It’s just more wind. Cup your hand around the flame and stand together in vigil. Dare the wind to blow. Breathe love into the air. Eventually the darkness will gasp and your light will be taken in by it. Infect the system from within.

These are not the answers to problems, they are the methodology for inventing them. Use these ideas as the tools for human advancement. They are the secret to greater understanding of how we unwittingly compose the very tests we so often fail. Even when we knew the correct answers all along.

Just keep looking up and all shall be well. There is a reason for the times we are in, and it’s a good one. There are undiscovered blessings to be recognized. It’s best to remain calm and loving.

Some dangers are ones we must face nonetheless. There are crimes which cannot be ignored. We must be courageous, but shrewd. Firm, but loving. Standing up to power is not the same thing as feeding it. But when deciding upon how to engage it, resolve to leap upon then with open, loving arms. Your enemies will scratch their heads in disbelief, and in that brief moment, truly see you.

Thanks be to the undiscovered solution in all things. May we do our best to stay out of its way, looking up all the while, sending gushes of warm, loving air behind it. Amen.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 12, 2019 - The Act of Persuasion

I was recently watching the television show Mad Men for the first time. It’s about the advertising industry in the 1960’s. I’m not sure what part about it I found the most surprising. The blatant sexism, The constant smoking, the drinking during working hours, or the rampant belittling of the smaller by the larger.

For a split second, I felt like a prude. A voice in my head told me, “Boys will be boys. Don’t be a killjoy.” Where did a thought like that come from? Especially when I disagree with it completely?

Strange as it sounds, before I caught it, I was actually belittling myself for taking a critical view of the destructive behavior being depicted on that program.

How it happens that we second-guess our own judgment of what’s right and wrong at any given moment is dependent upon our personal experiences. My inner criticism of their behavior came from being bullied as a child. I let my childhood bullies’  dialogue about me become my own without realizing it. Even as a full-grown man, I see evidence of my having been persuaded as a child to believe that what I was seeing was not what I was seeing. That their wrong behavior was somehow not wrong. They had persuaded me that their behavior against me was not only justified, but somehow also my fault.

Remember to check your beliefs. Of what are we being persuaded and why?

The mid-century world of American advertising depicted in Mad Men is Persuasion Ground Zero. What might we learn from it?

None of it surprised me—though it shocked me nonetheless—the methods and morals of those who construct advertising campaigns. One wonders who raised them as children and how. I wish I could believe that the advertising world has today learned its lesson and mended its former ways. But we can’t un-see this glimpse behind the green curtain covering the psychology of persuasion. We know it’s still going on, and worse than before. Through the very Internet to which we are so drawn in our curiosity about one another and the world, they are using our natural tendency toward unity against us. We see it in the reports of foreign countries persuading us to their own benefit. We see it in deodorant commercials. It’s literally everywhere.

It’s partly why there are so many in our country who wish we could go back to the “good old days.“ The times before we knew all these things which go on behind closed doors. The loss of our innocence. We know too much. The rapid increase of transparency in our world is exhausting and we wish sometimes to just be able to go back to before, when we didn’t know about it all. Back when we thought America was great for different reasons.

I heard once that weakness is merely strength in excess. I think a lot about what that might mean in terms of our egos. How much does our bruised ego masquerade as honor? It’s equivalent to how much we hate to be wrong. We hate to be mistaken about what we believed to be reality. We are mistaking our weakness for strength. We are so resistant to changing our beliefs once they’ve been ground into us. Others know how to persuade us perfectly well, but we haven’t yet figured out how to un-persuade ourselves of things which cannot be true.

This is starting to sound like conspiracy theory thinking, and I don’t mean for that. I don’t really think it’s a conspiracy at all so much as it’s a natural reaction to very human fears of limited resources in troubling times. A survival mechanism misused, misunderstood. We have been persuaded to divide ourselves rather than unite in order to solve our problems.

When people are afraid of disaster, the natural biological reaction is to horde resources. They begin use their creativity to survive at all costs. The sense of ‘us versus them’ is enhanced because in survival mode we seek to clearly know the boundaries of our own tribe. The creativity of persuasion is informed by their fear. Ethics don’t stand a chance.

But we are not unarmed in this battle of wits.

Assimilating new knowledge is difficult, but also powerful. Once we brush the dust off of our awareness that things have never been as they seemed, we will be OK. We have been persuaded to believe a lot of things that weren’t true for a very long time. It’s painful to look in the mirror. But we will make an excellent garden of this manure.

Those who use the art of persuasion for exclusive gain at the expense of others do so because they do not see how the concept of abundance really works. They have no faith. They think that they must take from others in order to accumulate for themselves. They don’t get it yet. Pray for them.

Listen to the ideas of others honestly. Don’t just hear their words, hear their hearts. Assume that no one is evil, just afraid. Point your compassion toward their fear. Then they will only ever be able to persuade you of the truth. Because you will compassionately see right through everything else. Keep a wary, but loving eye. All shall be well.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 5, 2019 - Withdraw the Wind

Recently in the city of Boston, a small group of dissatisfied people held a “straight pride” parade. It was a reaction to feeling marginalized by the social progress we’ve made with regard to LGBTQ rights in this country. It was very upsetting to many people, both straight and gay alike. The anti-parade argument being, no one has ever tried to take pride away from straight people for being who they are. They have no need to publicly assert their pride of being “normal.” And, in truth, straight pride wasn’t really the point the parade organizers were trying to make. It was that everyone else should be ashamed.

There are two types of actions one can take toward situations such as these. We can either react or we can respond. To clarify, reacting is ego-driven and emotional. Reacting is often hostile. It is a satisfying burst of immediate justice toward something which has deeply upset us. Reacting is knee-jerk and passionate, often involving saying or doing something we eventually regret, or should.

Responding, however, is a mindful process. To respond to a situation, rather than react to it, is a deliberate sublimation of our emotional reactivity in favor of a more rational, goal-oriented approach. After all, what is it you really want? Don’t you want the thing you dislike to change for the better? Or would you prefer the thing you dislike to react to your reaction with more of the same?

In other words, what is it that you think will come from reacting? Do you think fighting fire with fire is actually good advice? For the record, it isn’t. We love to wave that trope around when we’re good and angry, as if the aphorism’s merit is based solely on how often it is repeated. But consider it. Have you ever seen a fire put out with more fire? I haven’t. Fighting fire with fire is an emotional reaction, not a measured response. No firefighter would ever advise it. Take that professional advice to heart when deciding how to engage with distasteful realities.

Try putting out a fire with water next time. For isn’t that the result you actually want? Water is a quenching diplomat. Isn't it your desire to rid yourself of the flames all together? So why do we keep taking the same negative, vengeful retributions and expect a positive result? That old definition of insanity...

A better way to have responded to that so-called “straight pride“ parade would have been to ignore it altogether. Don’t go. Stay home. Don’t give them any energy. They are on the wrong side of history anyway and their numbers are declining every day. That is truth. Let it go. Vote instead.

This parade is a particularly good example of an opportunity to have practiced nonresistance. Because ignoring them would not have furthered their mission. Engaging them did. They weren’t doing anything of substance anyway. It isn’t as if they were legislators proposing new laws that could harm people. They weren’t doing anything except openly stating their unloving opinion. They had no real power to bring about their desires. They were nothing but a sad reaction to human progress. Their ideas were worthy of neither our time nor energy.

Scripture teaches us to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you. It doesn’t mean you are expected to offer your other cheek for more punishment. It means to turn away from that which is wrong, not add more fuel to the fire by engaging with it.

My advice would’ve been to simply ignore them. Let their parade attendance be the worst in the history of American parades. It would’ve been far more demoralizing to their unloving cause to see them walking down the street with nobody really caring much except for those few who still think the same as they do. Instead, dozens of people were arrested, mainly protesters who supposedly want more love in the world, not less. The security detail cost taxpayers over $600,000, mostly in police overtime. All of it unnecessary. Neither side convinced anyone of anything new. It only served to reinforce each of their original positions more deeply.

When faced with conflicts of more genuine substance than that parade, it’s easy to imagine that resisting or reacting or fighting is the only way to make it go away. But you’d be wrong.

Take the wind out of their sails entirely. Don’t just blow more hot air into them. Turn your back on them, don’t engage the beast. It only makes the beast stronger. It’s baiting you into a fight on purpose. The beast knows exactly what will make it stronger: your fear.

Gandhi didn’t fight the British, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t fight the segregationists, they each simply walked toward their destinies, unfazed.

A sail with no wind is dead at sea. A parade without crowds is just a walk down the street. Support what you love, turn your back on what you hate. It will go away faster that way. It may not seem logical, but no article of faith ever is. On the surface, anyway.