Friday, January 29, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 30, 2021 - Small Seeds, Big Trees


It’s easy to see examples of people making big changes in the world. People we see as being more powerful or influential than we are instigating change or instilling comfort. Most of us feel pretty ineffectual at accomplishing the act of making a difference. 

But there are often ways to make a difference we don’t typically think about. Smaller ways with enormous implications. They are in the daily interactions we have with other people. Don’t scoff at it just because it feels too simple or because you imagine it would be ineffective. Never underestimate something as simple as a smile directed toward a stranger. That’s the same as walking past thousands of pennies on the sidewalk because you’re waiting for a twenty.

When we look back on the people who have changed our lives, or helped us define our sense of self, the origins of those changes are usually just moments, and usually very brief. Sometimes they’re given by people we’ve known for years or someone we happened to be in line behind at the grocery store. A single compliment or just the right word of encouragement given at just the right time. 

I could name five, probably more, incredibly brief moments of my life that continue to impact me in positive ways to this day. Thoughts that sit with me still to which I turn for comfort when I doubt myself. For the most part, unless I’ve had an opportunity to tell them so, the people who gave me those brief moments of encouragement likely have no idea the decades of positive impact they have made on my life. 

It’s good news here because planting seeds is a work-smarter-not-harder concept. Just ask Johnny Appleseed. We don’t have to arm wrestle change into anybody, or the world. Our job is not to cultivate an entire field to the point of harvest. It’s only to plant one seed. Assume that if you’ve planted it on fertile ground, and with lots of manure to assist it, all shall be well. And, let’s face it, there’s plenty of manure here to go around. Give it permission through your action to become an excellent garden.

I think part of the reason we’re hesitant to get involved as changemakers is because we see the task as being too big, too daunting. We are only one person. What difference can one person make? And even when we believe that yes, one person can make a difference, for we see examples of it nearly every day, we don’t think we’d be that person. 

I invite you to take the pressure off of yourself a bit. There are already visionaries out there doing the big work. Of course they could use more, but not everyone has to operate on that level in order to help nudge our world toward a more loving future. We can best support the visionaries by remembering that our own small actions can and do have huge effects.

For this I’ll let you in on a little secret: No matter how badly someone feels about themselves, their inner light is listening. Beneath the heavy cloak of this human vessel, who we really are is paying very close attention for anything which resonates with it. Light always knows light when it sees it. Trust that process. Believe it to be at play. 

But we get confused. We over-think things. We doubt our power to affect change. We definitely doubt that it can be done easily, so we tend not to bother at all. We get self-conscious, uncomfortable. We stand at the soil waiting for the seed to sprout. We get impatient. We conclude ourselves to be a failure, foolish for staring at the dirt for so long. We retreat.

We don’t know where to begin, what action to take first. But, as an example, we know there is power in song. We know that there is a force in music. And music is easier. So when in doubt, when you think you have nothing at your immediate disposal to do, sing. Hum. Whistle. Ring a bell. It’s like vibrational air freshener. Science has shown that when we sing together as a group our heartbeats align. We can conclude there is a gift in this. A gift we give other people around us. And even when we don’t sing, we know our hearts can hear each other, in the literal sense.

If your heart is electromagnetically “chatting” with the heart of a person walking down the sidewalk passing you in the opposite direction, what is it saying? Probably whatever you happen to be thinking and feeling at the moment. What do you find yourself thinking and feeling as you pass people on the street? Are you judging them on their clothes? Their bodies? Their smell? Their hair? Their strange reaction when you say hello to them? Whatever it is, that is what you’re sending them. And a part of them, if not multiple parts, are hearing you.

So, if your heart is a transmitter which is always in communication with its surroundings, what are you doing with that fact?

If our hearts, and perhaps even our individual consciousnesses, are communicating with one another, what should we have them say? Making a difference can be as easy as thinking or wishing well for someone to whom you may never even speak. Your heart will literally be projecting that idea to another heart, which is also listening for it. 

Amid global fears of water and food shortages, increased visibility of bigotry, racism and hatred, enhanced awareness of sexual assault, and of course, a hostile political landscape, there is good news which falls to the sidebars because bad news travels faster than good. But the truth is, extreme poverty has fallen from 35% in 1987 to only 9.4% in 2017. Hunger is falling, child labor is on the decline. In fact, child labor has fallen over 40% just since 2000. The cost of food has fallen. Life expectancy has risen, child mortality is down. Teen births in the US are down by more than half in only the past ten years alone. In 1955, 45% of Americans smoked. Now it’s only 23%. Homicide rates have fallen dramatically, violent crime in the US is going down, the global supply of nuclear weapons has rapidly reduced, more people in the world live in a democracy than ever before, more people are going to school for longer, literacy is up, access to the internet has increased, solar energy is getting cheaper. People are even getting taller.

A difference has been made in this world because people are awakening to new perspectives about their power and value. They are recognizing their light and sharing it. They are seeing the light in other people and helping them to reveal it.

You are not alone in your desire to improve, even save, this world for a new age. The wind is at our backs, never doubt it. Don’t believe all the news you hear. They have an agenda, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on. But I have one too. I want you to feel better. I want you to recognize that the good in this world is definitely expanding. Wake up. “Get woke,” as they say. You’ll see that the heart in us all beats to the rhythm of this earth and all those who walk upon it.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 23, 2021 - Constructive Delusion

I am an optimist. And not just your average glass-is-half-full kind of optimist either. I am the glass-is-overflowing type.

I’m not sure where it came from exactly. My family are not particularly noted for either their pessimism or optimism, so it’s not likely that it stemmed from that (although I acknowledge it was not prevented either). My mother is still fond of reminding me that things always happen for a reason. And while there’s a thread of optimism to that, it’s more about maintaining faith that our challenges are not in vain.

In my own practice of optimism I take it a lever further. I go to the creative effort of slightly deluding myself about things which I don’t yet know. I fill in the gaps with something good. If I’m later shown to have been wrong, no biggie. I’d prefer to use my creativity to get over disappointments than for trying to prevent them. The former is a regularly useful skill, the latter is pointless.

The word delude is not an optimistic one. It means to intentionally deceive. It has a long record of harm in uses meant to mock, to play, even secretly ridicule. But that’s actually part of the purpose of my using it here. As a foundation of my optimism I am selectively—constructively, hopefully—misleading myself about the proper use of the word delude in order to take away its power. (For the record, I use the words selfish and revenge in exactly the same way.)

Is it possible to lie to oneself? Of course. We do it every day. But can deceit be constructive? Yes. But it depends upon intent.

How does this configure with optimism, you might ask? Ultimately I’m playing around with a natural human phenomenon known as confirmation bias as a tool for experiencing a better life.

Confirmation bias is a term that is used to describe our natural tendency to look at the world in ways that confirm our existing worldview. If we believe that people are horrible and irredeemable, we will consciously (and subconsciously) be on the lookout for every shred of evidence that proves our point. We end up moving through our daily lives on the constant lookout for horrible people so that we may say, “See! I told you!”

What state of mind does that encourage overall? What is the daily stress level of one who is constantly collecting proof of humanity’s darker nature? It can’t feel good. It can’t be healthy. And as it says in Luke, does worry ever add a day to one’s life? Nope.

But what if you saw things differently on purpose? What if you elected to be a bit more scientific and empirical about your approach to life? Because I have a bit of non-fake news for you. Factually, there are more good people in the world than bad. Factually, we are safer than we realize. We are healthier than we are sick. We are smarter than we are dumb. We love more than we hate. Historically, we are more peaceful now than at any point in the human timelime since the dawn of agriculture. Why not consider these when choosing how to determine the level of water in the glass?

I practice something referred to as constructive delusion. I constructively choose to see the best of all possible options occurring. I constructively choose to see the best in people and their intentions. I’ll look at what’s around me with a belief that benevolence, however improbable, is at work. Even in the darkest of moments I believe, without reservation, that the potential for good exists inherently within the core of the experience. Even the darkest nights of the soul exist with an expectation of the coming dawn.

Am I lying to myself? Yes. Because in truth I don’t know what’s to come. I don’t know if benevolence is really at work. I don’t even know if there is a God, but I believe in the existence of It nonetheless. Is my belief in God a constructive delusion? Fully. Even the most ardent of atheists, however, could not convince me that I am being done a harm by my belief in It. Likewise, I could not prove to an atheist whether or not harm is befalling them either.

So what’s the harm in a bit of self delusion when the only result is that I just might notice a good path in the midst of an array of bad ones simply because my belief in their existence predisposed me to noticing it? Does the lie then become a truth? Or is the truth (that was always there) revealed in the process of believing I would have to “lie” to myself a bit in order to get it? Thought provoking questions, these.

It could be seen as a fake-it-till-you-make-it way of looking at life, and I suppose that’s fair. Anyone could choose to bristle at the words lie and delude and deem them to be a fool’s path toward salvation. But I will save them the trouble. Because the intent matters. My intention is to not only feel better, but see better. My choice is to recognize the patterns of good which exist in all things. Because then I never miss a single good thing as it passes.

And if I see more good things, I am allowing my confirmation bias to attract more notice of these good things. I am effectively deluding myself with the truth. I am assuaging the darker part of my psyche that’s always on the lookout for a lie by giving it one to gnaw on for a while to slowly get used to the taste of truth. It takes time.

The truth is that we are not doing so bad, we humans. We’re messy as hell, but we’re loving. Even when we hate, we still love. Hate is fake. It’s a non-constructive delusion. But even hate has benevolence locked within it. Make that assumption and watch and wait. You’ll see that lie become the truth too.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 16, 2021 - That Part of the Elephant

There is an old story. It is known as the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Originating in the ancient Indian subcontinent many centuries ago, it has circled the globe in an effort to explain the various perspectives available within one single, overarching truth. 

Because of its deeply useful philosophy to remember that not all which we see is the complete truth, alternate versions of the parable are found throughout many cultures of the eastern world in Buddhist, Jain, Baha’i, Hindu and Sufi Muslim texts. Later spreading throughout Europe and the west, the story takes on even further significance worldwide as a metaphor for retaining our sense of humility regarding objective truth. 

In the story, a group of blind men who’ve never seen an elephant before, encounter one upon the road. The men surround the elephant and each take stock of one of its parts in an effort to understand the whole. One feels the elephant side, One feels the tusk, one feels the trunk, another feels its ear. They argue about their discoveries and claim dishonesty from among the others. In some versions of the tale, the blind men nearly kill one another from disagreement. For they know with certainty that their perspective is correct.

In the Hindu collection of Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda, composed over 3000 years ago, the idea is expressed as follows, “Reality is one, though wise men speak of it variously.” This is not claiming that any of their perspectives are incorrect, it is acknowledging that truth has many forms, even ones which appear to be in conflict with the others. This way of viewing it allows room for truth to exist within the gaps of their differences. There is grace and benevolence here.. 

The Buddha is also quoted to have spoken the following verse in reference to his use of the parable in his own teachings. “Oh how they cling and wrangle, some who claim for preacher and monk the honored name! For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. Such folk see only one side of a thing.”

What part of the elephant of Ultimate Reality are you feeling? Are you holding the tusk or the tail? Are you claiming that life is like a spear or like a rope? Are you holding the elephant’s ear and feeling the large leaf of a plant, claiming that to be the Ultimate Reality? Where is your humility? Where is your beginner's mind?

There is wisdom in letting go. The truth will be the truth no matter what we believe personally. The Ultimate Reality exists with or without our acknowledgment. Existing in a state of openness gives permission for truth to evolve closer and closer to its natural unspun state. Even this we may not be able to comprehend without bias. But choose to expose yourself to it nonetheless, and with love do your best to discern what is real. 

Let go of the truth. Let go of needing to be correct. Let truth and correctness be whatever they are and pray for truth to reveal itself. Empty yourself of expectation and open yourself beyond what you think you see to discover further layers of truth within. The truth belongs to you, however elusive it may be. It is your right and duty to pursue it. But let it not control you. Let your curiosity become the holiest thing about you. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 9, 2021 - The Best Revenge

We’re all human. And humans are all, to one degree or another, vengeful. Even those of us who work so hard to overcome the lesser angels of our nature love a good car-keying breakup song or can’t help dropping a snarky Yelp review when crossed. 

Why do we feel the need for revenge? It doesn’t seem to have an obvious biological value, yet that’s the likely point of origin. Science demonstrates that vengeance activates the reward centers of our brain. So that’s at least an indicator that the biology is somehow involved in our desire for revenge. 

But why? What purpose does revenge have for our biology? Why is it hardwired into our brains that we need to get back at someone for pissing us off? Clearly it’s something we deem to be of great importance to our civilization that we curtail this natural desire through our laws and faith systems designed around a goal to sublimate the human instinct for revenge. Christianity is based almost entirely on this single idea alone. Love your enemy. 

One study acknowledges that what the angry mind really wants is not so much the meting out of punishment or suffering, but to accomplish a change of heart from those who have trespassed against us. We want the other person to change, to acknowledge what they did, to understand how it made us feel, and to promise never to do it again. Most of the time that’s a tall order. But that’s what we want. And there’s a clue here about why we are intrinsically wired for revenge. The clue is in our desire to accomplish a change of heart in the one who acted against us.

It’s true that revenge feels good. At least for a moment. It’s the subject of nearly all television, film, and books. We cheer when the villain gets their “reward.” It translates into our own lives and personal experiences where we think we will feel as good by committing our own vengeful acts as we did when seeing the villain get theirs. The irony is that revenge gives us only a short term boost of positive brain chemicals followed by a long period of slow deterioration of that feeling. We eventually end up feeling worse than we did before. We end up re-injuring ourselves. The villain wins in the end to the same degree as our unwillingness to let our sense of vengeance go. 

It turns out that there are deeply biological reasons for revenge. They hinge upon the fact that we are a communal species. Biologically, revenge is a social deterrent. Through our retributive actions, be they wise or not so much, we are attempting to cultivate behavioral change for the better within our tribes and social groups. When employed judiciously, revenge is actually meant to prevent negative actions taken upon us in the future. It’s meant to deter predators or those who would encroach upon our territory and modify behavior among the members of a society. It is also a demonstration of prowess and strength; things which are of prime importance in reproduction of any species. Standing up for ourselves is attractive. 

But, knowing that standing up for ourselves can go too far—because we are a greedy species—our tendency toward gluttony will take the form of revenge if not careful. We can deteriorate into obsessively fixating on getting back at those who have hurt us. Hence, the formation of laws and life practices. 

Having demonstrated that revenge is an inevitable reality for us all, how might we choose to handle it? Of course there’s plenty of advice out there. But how to choose from among them? When in doubt, always choose the most loving alternative. 

I practice a form of revenge, whenever possible, which entertains me to no end. Kindness. It really drives an enemy crazy. They don’t know what to make of it. 

Years ago in an old neighborhood I used to love to shovel my cranky neighbor’s sidewalk in the winter. He was so mean he even made a report once to the city’s building department that I was gay. (As if that somehow would make a zoning impact upon the community?) He was a perfect candidate for a revenge of utter kindness. He really had it coming to him. 

I don’t think I ever enjoyed shoveling so much in my life as I did his sidewalk, watching from the corner of my eye as he peered out through the curtains. I would imagine him flummoxed and confused. He was far too old to shovel for himself, and as the laws require the sidewalks be cleared in front of everyone’s homes, he actually needed someone to do this. But he had no friends of which I was aware and certainly was too cheap to hire someone. I know he was a stickler for law and order. It probably rankled him that the sidewalk wasn’t clear. He may have even worried about getting a citation. He needed me. Ha ha.

It’s true that he may have been sitting inside thinking he was the one taking revenge upon me rather than the other way around. He may very well have thought that he was the winner of this little “battle.” But I know he was wrong. I’m just as happy to entertain a thought that he was smugly satisfied. Because the brain chemicals we both had were good ones, and I’m the one who caused it. 

In the final analysis, it’s up to us how we manipulate our desire for revenge within us. There are many things about our human nature we cannot change, but for which we can create balance. The prime directive is to feel good. Not just in the short term, but the long term. The main goal of life is joy and anything which interferes with that is anathema. It will not rise to the top, for it is not natural to us.

Our biology may wish to enact measures to protect itself and its interests, that is logical. But make careful note of this desire and take steps to ensure that what tastes good right now won’t make you sick later. Revenge is a drug with harmful side effects. See to it that you make loving use of it. Surprising and positive changes will occur which you could not have imagined. Congratulations in advance.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, January 2, 2021 - The Point of Beginning

You might find it surprising to know that I possess a belief in astrology. Or perhaps you won’t find it surprising at all. As a way of making an eventual point, in the roundabout style I typically employ, I’ll share the details of the astrological portion of my faith. You need not subscribe to these beliefs, but keep an open mind as they shall eventually become metaphorical to the premise which follows.

It is apparent that all things have magnetism about them. Even the hazy rotation of an atom creates a field. That’s how it bonds with other atoms to form a molecule. It is also what repels some atoms away from one another. Within our own bodies exists magnetism as well. Our organs and cells all have polarity. They are affected by magnetic fields around them. We can be healed by magnets and we can become physically injured by living too closely to power lines or interacting with other types of strong electromagnetic fields.

Our cells use the magnetic fields they create to communicate with one another. Our eyes interpret electromagnetic radiation to create sight. Our hair stands on end before a lightning strike. We are intrinsically magnetic beings, head to toe; as are all planetary bodies. Stars, planets, asteroids, gas. All magnetic. All capable of producing a field. How far-reaching these fields may be is a matter of speculation and limited instrumentation, but that they possess such fields is not in question.

For those who remember enjoying music on the medium of cassette tapes, you may recall that those tapes are magnetically produced. Specialized magnets, affected by the sound they receive, arrange particles along a strip of cassette tape in such a way that a magnetic reader can later interpret the patterns and produce sound through a speaker. Unless erased or damaged by other magnetic fields, the patterns remain intact. 

Now picture yourself as the cassette tape. And at the moment of birth, whatever celestially-originated electromagnetic fields are most prevalent upon the earth at that time become imprinted upon every cell in your body. In theory, these imprints play that same song, in one way or another, throughout your life.

For the record, I do not believe all astrologers are genuine. And so, not all astrology is competent. The same can be said for medicine, education, and ministry. But I do believe that astrology could have some merit based upon the above. I do consider that we may tend to regularly play the song given to us by the heavens at birth. We can either become victims of that imprint or rise above it. But the imprint remains until it is erased, balanced, or modified.

The word constellation literally means a collection of stars. These celestial bodies, as arranged, are said to exert an influence upon the life which originates under their gaze. And while that may or may not be true, for I am agnostic on the point even as I debate in its favor, there is something quite earthly to be learned from the metaphor.

When we begin something—anything from a relationship to the first day of school—there are always a variety of factors occurring in the vicinity of that point of beginning. Influences that exert a force upon all which follows.

For instance, if a romantic relationship is begun under a lie, that lie will follow the relationship everywhere it goes. It plays like a song in the background you can’t get out of your head. The lie is a star within the greater constellation under which the relationship was born. But it will not be the only star. 

Other stars in play may also be of the person’s usually prevailing ability to be honest, despite the lie that was told, which eventually overrides the ability to keep the lie a secret forever. Should the lie be revealed with sincerity, those two opposing “stars” are given the opportunity to balance out the effects of the lie and perhaps even make the relationship stronger, risky as it may be to find out.

When a company is formed with solid ethics and honest practices, those are the constellation under which the company operates. Consumers like that. So do employees. Those companies which adhere to their best founding practices, tend to do better and remain nimble during lean times. They are often able to survive by the loyalty they have built over time. The constellation of their ethics generate ethical solutions to problems they encounter.

As this new year begins, what shall be the constellation of it for you? If you decide to lose weight, get a new job, learn a new language, start a new chapter, what are the various circumstances surrounding and influencing these beginnings? What will their effect be over time? What can you do to counteract the stars over which you have no control? That last one is often the main concern. What does a Taurus do to balance its bullish nature?

The answer is to care.

Care about the circumstances surrounding you. Notice what influences exist in your environment and do something with them. You may want to go back to school but feel you can’t afford it. Notice that apprehension and counteract it. Add a new star to the mix. Balance it out with added dedication to finding scholarships and grants.

Look at the situations around you. Your relationships, your job, your faith. Under what constellations were these things begun for you?  How are they working out now? Are there glitches that can be balanced? Is there hope, or must the cassette tape be erased and re-recorded to a better tune altogether? Maybe the song is good, it just needs a new arrangement, a perkier tempo, a new duet partner. What better influence can you be upon the start of something new or the improvement of something old? How can you sculpt (or surf) the constellation?

You are not powerless, despite our universal inability to control very much of anything. We can control our relationship with the world around us. We can exert an influence over the circumstances. We can change the way we feel by rearranging the stars which affect it. That’s something we definitely have which all quadrants of the zodiac do not: Free will. We can be mindful of the influences around us and take note when they are not singing their songs in our meter or key. We can write a countermelody which swerves and weaves through the wrought iron bars of what we think are the inevitable realities of who we are and transform their purpose into something else entirely. 

You are the positioner of stars. Use that power with good intent and they shall align for you.