Friday, February 25, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 26, 2022 - The Physics of Saying Grace

I admit, I’m terrible at remembering to ‘say grace’ before a meal. Of course, that statement, in and of itself, is quite self-judgemental. For, after all, who says we need to say grace in the first place? 

Remember that, despite those who’d prefer we obey without question, questioning has value too, so long as it is done with an open mind. I’ve always been curious about the physics behind religious obligations. I approach them with an assumption that there’s some potentially intrinsic human benefit to be discovered.

Often, when exploring various rituals, traditions, and ceremonies, I remember the things I’ve learned about quantum physics. Granted, I’m no expert, but some of it is quite rudimentary and accessible to even a non-scientist such as myself. 

In particular is the evidence that an observer’s expectations influence the outcomes of atomic particles. That seems hard to believe, but it’s proven to be the case. Atomic particles behave differently when observed, and when the observer (typically a scientist of some kind) has an expectation about the behavior of the particles.

This has implications much larger than most of us have the capacity to perceive. But at its most basic level, we know for a fact that the building blocks of our physical reality are vulnerable to our desires. That’s huge.

It brings to mind the work of scientists like Masaru Emoto and his experiments with water. His scientific methodologies have been brought into serious question, so it’s important to take it with a grain of salt. However, his work does configure into what quantum physics already proves to be true.

Essentially, Masaru Emoto’s work focuses on the formation of ice crystals in water samples that have been exposed to various thoughts, music, and other non-physical experiences. The ice crystals, frozen after their exposure to the above, appear to form in line with what one might expect. That is, water exposed to ideas like “you make me sick” created ice crystals that actually looked like a virus; asymmetrical and unattractive. Water exposed to beautiful music or ideas like “I love you” formed beautiful and intricate symmetry in their crystals.

What’s interesting to me is the possibility that the experiments showed something perhaps different from the scientist’s intent, yet quite relevant nonetheless. I suspect that the samples conformed to his expectations rather than to the environmental stimuli he presented to them.

In other words, he expected the crystals to show elegant symmetry when exposed to love and music, and so, because these things begin at the atomic level, they did. 

Granted, this is only my theory, and I have no way to prove it. But the implications of what we do know scientifically about an observer’s expectations support the idea.

So, how does this connect with saying grace before a meal? It’s about two things. One is the physical benefit of appreciation and gratitude, and the other is utilizing the physics of our expectations. 

If we conclude that the process of stilling our minds for a moment and choosing to experience a brief period of appreciation and gratitude before we eat might soften our emotional state, perhaps align even the physical reality of the food itself to our benefit, is that worth the effort? Does that attitude literally change things?

I believe it does.

I believe that there is enough evidence regarding the effects that appreciation has upon our physiology and that our expectations have upon matter to conclude that the act of saying grace, through whatever tradition you choose to say it, indeed does have a literal, physical benefit.

So what does saying grace look like? What form should it take? Must one believe in God or some other higher power to enact it? To the latter, I’d say no. We do not have to believe in God to say grace. As to what form it should take, it depends upon what puts you at ease. Being uncomfortable likely works against the process.

An old friend of mine used to simply hold hands with those present, regardless of their belief or tradition, close his eyes and contemplate all that went into creating the food that was in front of him. The processes of the sun and the earth upon it, the farmers who grew it, the people who sold it, the hands that made it. He felt gratitude and appreciation for it all.

He then mentally blessed the food itself. He imagined it doing wonderful things inside him. Making him heal, making him glow, making him happy, making the molecules line up and click into place. All in silence. He’d then give a little squeeze to the hands he was holding to signify it was time to eat. The whole process occurred in less than a minute.

Add the saying of grace to your personal set of daily rituals. I’m going to try to do it more as well. It might just live up to my expectations, after all. 

Friday, February 18, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 19, 2022 - A Bone to Pick

 A long-held pet peeve of mine has been rearing its prickled head a bit more than usual lately. I’ve gotten into a few religious debates with people, both online and in person, about the problems with making concrete interpretations. 

To assert that something is true and factual, and that others must also believe it, despite that it cannot be proven, for instance, to a court of law, or by repeatable scientific processes, is both irresponsible and dangerous. Great harm has occurred through the misuse of scripture in this way. 

Now, this is not to say that some things people hold to be factual yet remain unprovable aren’t true. There are many likely true but unprovable facts out there. How does one prove love, for instance?

One could say we prove our love through our actions. But is that definitive proof that love exists? How does one point to love? Or measure it? We could point to actions which we deem loving and declare that to be proof of love itself. But is it?

To say “I love you“ is not proving the existence of love either. In fact, it doesn’t even prove the existence of my own love. My declaring it to be so does not prove it’s true. It is just my testimony. 

Yet practically all of us factually believe in the existence of love. And that’s a good thing, of course. The problem arises, however, when we declare something which we personally believe to be true as an indisputable fact; sometimes to the point that one should even be willing to risk their life to defend it. 

Does that sound reasonable?

Now we jump to the question on the existence of God. I personally believe in what people call God. I believe in a higher power, larger than myself, who/which is the central unifying force in the universe. I also believe that love is not only at the core of It, but is all of It. 

And what if I told you that you had to believe in my version of God because I said it was factual and because I could find various scripture which supports my claim? Potentially, I could locate dozens or maybe even hundreds or more people in the world who would join me in declaring it to be a fact. I could start a church based on that idea, couldn’t I?

But have I presented any facts? Would my claim be valid simply because I hold it to be true?  

This is where the lesson of humility comes in. If we can first acknowledge that there’s no way we as humans could know everything there is to know in the physical universe, or beyond, we might conclude that we rarely have any basis for making a definitive statement about virtually anything. Certainly not about God.

Some people have a hard time with that. Some people require fundamentally concrete ideas which they can personally hold to be true. And because of a lack of humility, they then need that truth to be co-validated by other people. Sometimes at great cost. 

But a more humble approach to faith would recognize that others don’t need to believe what you believe, in exactly the way you believe it, in order for it to be okay. Because the truth is, it is never true that any two people believe exactly the same thing. We often come close to others; close enough that we may find ourselves to be part of the same general community. But like a fingerprint, my belief will never be exactly the same as another’s.

That’s probably the only provable thing about faith. I’m certain that there’s a way of scientifically demonstrating that no two people think exactly alike about the Ultimate Reality. I can’t conceive of the scope, creativity, expense, and oversight that would be required to undertake such a scientific survey, however. 

So when we are looking at scriptural passages, for instance we would do well to remember that a thousand years from now people might look upon our printed words of today without realizing that the words sick, wicked, dope, lit, and chronic can all be used as the highest of compliments in today’s vernacular.

Whether you personally would use them in that way, is beside the point. They exist in print, and therefore could be interpreted many years from now, out of their historical context, out of the realm of understanding of what is meant by them in their use, but interpret them literally, nonetheless. 

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making definitive statements. We should add a bit of humility to our language. We should add the words “I believe“ or “it is my hope that” to our ideas when speaking about them to others. 

When you think about it, to declare anything religious or spiritual to be an undeniable fact is a form of idolatry. And you are the God you’re falsely worshiping. 

Friday, February 11, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 12, 2022 - The Function of Ecstasy

It’s funny the words we see all the time and use regularly, yet when called upon to spell them, we blank. 

When I decided to write about ecstasy I misspelled it. I could have sworn it had an X in it. 

Which made me laugh to myself at the irony of it because we do often equate ecstasy with X-rated things. Perhaps it revealed a bias in me. 

Conversely, when one describes having an “ecstatic experience,” many first think of religion and spirituality, or a view from the mountaintop. 

I would argue that, at some level, they might all be the same thing.

I say this by way of making a belated New Year’s resolution for myself. And perhaps suggesting one to you as well. Have more ecstasy this year. A lot more of it.

The word ecstasy comes from the Greek ekstasis meaning to stand outside oneself; to leave one’s body. I also read that it was a removal from one’s “proper place.” Ouch. That almost seems like religious judgment against potentially religious experiences when put that way.

Ecstasy is also described as a rapturous experience where one leaves one’s body to experience epiphany, enhanced connection to Spirit, and insight into the oneness of all existence. Is that improper? Hardly.

One might say we have a complicated relationship with the subject of ecstasy. But what is our real actual relationship with ecstatic experiences? How do they affect us physically and emotionally? Is there a difference between different types of ecstasy? Does the brain register a difference between sexual, environmental, and spiritual ecstatic experiences? Science says it does not. 

There is actually a field of study on the effect that religious and spiritual experiences have on our brains. It’s called neurotheology. During intensely religious or spiritual experiences, generated by meditation, speaking in tongues, or trance-mediumship, the brain undergoes a transformation that shifts its focus from the frontal lobes, which regulate attention, language, and behavior, to the thalamus, which regulates the flow of incoming information. 

One could argue this to be evidence of something outside of ourselves engaging with us more fully. And while there’s room for that perspective, there isn’t enough definitive evidence to confirm it.

Suffice it to say, that we experience ecstasy quite differently than our normal walking life. We temporarily forget ourselves, and all of our attention is given to the experience itself. 

What might we conclude from the available facts? While it’s hard to say with any definity, we do know that biologically, our body and brain chemistry is altered to the point where new perspectives often become possible. That, in and of itself, makes it worthy of consideration as a potential pathway toward making a change for the better in our lives. 

Many of us feel that we need to make a change now. Our recent global challenges make existential reevaluation an inevitability. We don’t exactly know who we are anymore. Many of us have thought we knew ourselves and our desires quite well. Only to find that as the earth shifts beneath us we are suddenly wanting different things, or feeling depressed, unfulfilled, underappreciated.

What role might ecstasy have in guiding us toward whatever it is that will help us to resolve these new discrepancies of identity?

These are all fancy words and terms that often confuse us when it comes to the practice of just feeling better. Mainly because the process of feeling better is a confusing one to begin with. The ambiguity of our language to describe it belies the inner confusion we feel. 

But that is the brilliance of seeking ecstatic experience. It is beyond words or understanding, yet it is accessible to us. It has the capacity to create change within us that we cannot predict or understand, or even foresee the need. We often don’t know what we need when we feel depressed or unfulfilled, or anxious, in order to feel better. 

Ecstasy is a temporary removal from that which frustrates us. And in the process, the soil of our emotional state is tilled and replanted with something we might never have thought to deliberately ask for. 

Ecstasy is a surrendering to something outside of ourselves. It may not be religious, or even as profound as the words we read from great poets. But each of us have opportunities to experience it and make profound use of it in the process.

So the advice here is to deliberately seek ecstasy. As well, to take whatever ecstatic experiences we might already enjoy, such as sex or nature, and lean into them more fully. Mindfully. With an expectation that something within us is being altered and can be made anew. 

Even the simple act of joyfulness is an opportunity to be remade. We might not understand the mechanics of it, but we don’t need to. Lean into it. Foster new opportunities for it to exist in your life. That act alone will transform you. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, February 5, 2022 - The False Paradigm of Altruism

Did you know that for all our talk about the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ we actually take a very dim view of people who seek it? We see the pursuit of pleasure as hedonistic. Old religious paradigms that encourage austerity and sacrifice and suffering as the only path toward true salvation have caused us to doubt the relevance or even the spiritual safety of just being happy. 

We are taught to be of service to humanity, but what good is raising the level of the water in the harbor so that all boats go up if your anchor is still tethered at the old water level? Everyone’s boat goes up but yours. Is that what we are meant to do? Where’s the logic?

If I consider you to be more important than me, how is that a respect for all of creation? Aren’t I a part of creation, too? These are the ideas we have been ingrained with which confuse us when it comes time to express our compassion for others. 

We have become infected with a belief that we do not matter. And how is that a good posture for humanity? For if we truly don’t believe that we matter, our inherent desire for equality still equalizes us—in the wrong direction. If I’m not worthy, neither are you. We will be equal one way or the other.

Which brings me to the paradigm of altruism. By definition, altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. in zoology it is the behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.” It’s that last part “at its own expense” which causes us grief. Must it be at our expense? Must we serve others to the exclusion of, even detriment of, ourselves? I’m not saying that we should exclude others, quite the opposite. The trick is in finding ways to be of service that are in alignment with who we are as people. 

One day, Abraham Lincoln was discussing this very point with a friend when they happened upon a big old pig stuck in the mud. Lincoln went down into the mud patch and pulled her to safety, ruining his clothes in the process.

His friend commented that that could not have been for his own benefit. Lincoln replied that of course it was. If he hadn't rescued her he would have worried about her for the rest of the day. That’s actually what altruism is supposed to mean. It means: I love because I am loved. Lincoln clearly saw the pig’s happiness as being equally worthy as his own. 

So I’d like to now state clearly that altruism, as it is defined by our society, is a lie. It is an impossibility. We can never be utterly disinterested in what we do. And one can say that altruism exists in nature. You’d have the support of many scientists. Many animal species sacrifice themselves for one another without apparent benefit. Unless you call the perpetuation of the species a benefit. And that’s the benefit which non-sentient animals are wired to choose. It satisfies their instinctual needs to serve the species by helping the herd. An elephant helps the herd by adopting orphaned elephant calves. A bee helps the herd by stinging the enemy of the hive, even though to sting means certain death for the bee. But it dies satisfied that it has fulfilled its instinctive purpose.

It may sound as if I am a pessimist when I say that altruism as defined does not exist. But I think this is freeing. We are not being asked to do unto others in ways that we would not let them do unto us. We are not being encouraged to ignore our own desires and dreams in favor of others.’ But when we think that way we do things like perpetuate unhealthy marriages “for the sake of the children” because that what parental selflessness suggests we do. And while every situation is different, forcing a child to live in an unloving household is not in the child’s best interest. 

So the lesson here is not to be self-less, but self-full. Involve all of your desires and dreams when deciding upon a course of service to another. That doesn’t mean you will have it easy. Some things which give us the most pleasure take hard work, determination, and doing things which we may feel are unpleasant. But they are toward a larger goal of not only peace in us, but peace on earth. They are in pursuit of happiness in the most sacred of ways. Excluding no one, especially ourselves, in the desire to be of service to humanity in the most profound and fulfilling of ways.