Doing the Same Thing…

There is a very human tendency to, when we find one approach to a problem doesn’t work, do the same thing over and over and hope for a different result. That’s known as insanity, and we seem to excel at it. We might change our approach ever so slightly, but in truth we don’t change it substantially. Then we sit around, throw our hands up in disgust, and wonder why we can’t seem to change anything. We might even feel sorry for ourselves. I believe a great deal of this repeated pattern exists because it’s easier to repeatedly try the same approach than to come up with a new approach and implement it. I don’t believe that we are consciously aware that is what we are doing, but we do it nonetheless.

sewing frustrationImagine that you were trying to sew something with a sewing machine but didn’t have any thread. Imagine that a few years ago you had thread and everything worked out just fine, but now you are out of thread and nothing you “sew” seems to hold together. You read an article a few weeks ago that said you don’t really need thread, so you keep on trying but nothing changes. Would you run out to the store and get some thread, or just keep poking tiny holes in fabric? Many of us would end up with very artistic renderings of Swiss cheese made of fabric.

In the early part of the last century, despite the fact that there was plenty of land, we tended to build homes right next to one another. Then, after the second World War, we decided we liked yards around our homes and so small, postage stamp lots became the nosy neighborsnorm. Kids played in the yard and we still had regular contact with our neighbors. We put up three foot picket fences to keep the kids and pets in the yard, but we still socialized over and around the fences. Then bigger lots became a status symbol, as did homes with attached garages. Privacy fences went up, because we were sure our neighbors had nothing better to do than monitor our behavior. Soon it was possible to avoid our neighbors completely by coming and going through our attached garages, retrieving our mail from the car, and wearing huge hearing protection headsets on our riding mowers or hiring a landscaping service. We retreated behind those privacy fences, not recognizing that we had become imprisoned in a fort of our own construction.

friends we don't need noWe sacrificed community on the altar of privacy, not realizing that all people need community. The Church started to shrink, as did service and fraternal organizations. We disassembled community piece by piece. We didn’t know the neighbors, we didn’t like or couldn’t trust our coworkers, and we didn’t get out enough to meet people we wanted to associate with away from the context in which we met them. We sat in our castles behind our moats and were lonely but didn’t understand why. We might talk with the other parents at our kids’ soccer game, but that was more to pass the time than to build relationship. The more we retreated the unhappier we were and so we retreated even more.

Most if not all problems have multiple causes, but I would like to suggest a remedy to the isolation we all seem to feel. Say “hi” to the neighbors. Walk to your mailbox to retrieve the mail and greet everyone you see. When you do to the grocery store, greet people that you recognize, even if you don’t know them well. Practice being social again, and encourage your family to do the same. Stop isolating. You will be amazed at the difference it makes! Oh, and yes, you do need stinking friends! Well, at least friends who smell nice!

 

What Has Happened to Us?

Somewhere along the way, our society has gone to hell in a handbasket. We drink and drug ourselves into oblivion on a regular basis, a horrifying number of us have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults – sometimes both. Corporations are people, kids are bringing guns to school on an almost daily basis, airports get nudie pictures of us as we go through security and we haven’t increased safety, racism is rampant, politicians of all stripes are corrupt, and we aren’t quite sure where Richard Simmons has gone.

second_industrial_revolution_gettyimages-51632462I truly believe that the industrial revolution changed our lives so fundamentally that we have been unable to adjust. From a schedule that was based on the rising and setting of the sun we moved to an alarm clock timetable. From the time we came off the farm, workers have been exploited and abused by corporations – which have now been declared “people,” perhaps the surest sign of judicial corruption we have seen. As we struggled, and failed, to adapt to these changes our stress increased and in many cases came out sideways in the form of abuse, assault, and self-medication that created disinhibition and made it easier to act out.

As a realist, I don’t believe we can put the genie back in the bottle. Nor do I believe that we can continue for much longer with the status quo. I believe we can learn to adjust to some of the changes that have caused us to struggle, but others we will have to walk back. We will need to ask ourselves, and others, tough questions. How much is enough? Can we see that working sixty hours a week destroys our relationships, and no amount of money can adequately compensate us for those losses? Do we realize that our rampant rates of sexual abuse and assault are crippling our relationships? Might we see that sexless marriages are doomed, and that marriages are sexless largely because of the impact of abuse and assault? How can we not see that our love of guns over the safety of our children is not lost on them – nor is our impotence and inability to do anything about it lost on them?spirituality

We have to come to a new spirituality, by which I mean a new way of understanding and making sense of our world. We must realize that self-care and the care of our relationships is a huge part of that spirituality. Selling our souls for a paycheck is creating a world that is polluted, and that in turn is having an impact on our environment and our climate. Those who would hide behind the facade of the flat earth society may be the largest victims of our worship of corporate big daddy, and we need to educate and heal them, too. We need to shift our primary question from “how can I screw you over?” and “how can I force you to comply with my perspective,” to “how can I help you?” We can do this only if we understand how interconnected we really are, and through that awakening come to see that what I do to you, I do to myself. We need to start right now.

Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.

rage

Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.

Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!

Are there similar things that leave you mystified?

Spiritual Hierarchies

One of the very just criticisms of institutional religion is that it has become profoundly hierarchical, and hierarchies become self-serving, top heavy, and potentially corrupt. Human nature being what it is, we tend to run headlong to the other end of the spectrum in search of an answer. In Protestant Christianity this resulted in the rise of the non-denominational church. No hierarchy, but also little to no supervision. That means no way to check misconduct or hold people accountable. Within the institution you have misconduct followed by coverup. Outside the institution you have the likes of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and the late Jerry Falwell amassing fortunes without the need for coverup or even shame, because they are accountable to nobody.

In Buddhism and Hinduism it isn’t much different. Sex scandals, Rolls Royce collections, and worldwide organizations staffed almost entirely by volunteers loyal to the guru means the often massive donations that flow in end up largely in the guru’s pockets (or wherever you keep your money while wearing a robe). Across the board egos run amok and people are worshiped as if they were God, or at least gods.

As Lord Acton reminds us, “absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Whether at or near the head of a hierarchy or in a system without accountability, corruption waits at the door, an almost ceaseless temptation. Nevertheless, when organizations grow beyond a certain size, some sort of hierarchy is necessary to provide a level of organization to keep things running. The proper balance can be difficult to find. While a collection of independent communities coming together on an ad-hoc basis works for smaller issues, if we want to run a number of homeless shelters in area communities, somebody will need to do the accounting and make management decisions on an ongoing basis.

I honestly believe that the only way to solve these serious issues is through the use of shared power and responsibility. Do spiritual bodies need spiritual teachers and/or leaders? Absolutely. Are those teachers and leaders necessarily the best people to be performing administrative function? Most often they are not. The areas of administration and spiritual leadership require two very different sets of skills. It has been to the detriment of the Christian Church in all its forms that pastors have become administrators, rendering them less available for pastoral duties because they are making business decisions – decisions their spiritual education does not prepare them to make.

In the end, however, this is not a complete solution. Spiritual groups of all kinds absolutely need a board comprised of, for lack of a better term, lay leadership. It also needs to be a board that has rotating membership. If a board does not have regular inclusion of new members with fresh perspectives, it can become entrenched, encrusted, odiferous in places, and part of the hierarchy – subject to the same temptation to corruption and coverup.

Finally, a clear and enforceable code of ethics needs to be in place that addresses leadership at all levels. This code of ethics should clearly delineate acceptable and unacceptable behavior and the consequences for violations of these expectations. The code of ethics should also be subject to review and amendment as necessary, because as circumstances change so does the nature potential problems.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the changes we need to implement, but it is is decent beginning. We must abandon the flawed notion that our leaders and teachers are beyond question or beyond supervision. None of us are perfect, and so all of us should be willing to receive appropriate questions and explain the rationale behind out decisions. None of these actions decrease the credibility, in fact quite the opposite. Transparency serves us all very well, and should be welcomed with open arms rather than avoided.

Nobody’s is Bigger

I am coming to see that no one religion can possibly hope to do an adequate job capturing God. Those that believe they can have washed God in some very hot water, indeed, and then thrown God in the dryer on the highest heat setting. How hot is that? That’s hot enough to turn the biggest pair of granny panties ever made into a size zero thong.

Why do I say that? I say that because the finite can never capture the infinite. The best we can do is observe our subject from as many different vantage points as we can while keeping in mind that we will still fall short. Making sense of life – and God – is a task far better suited to spirituality than religion because religion is quite simply too small and too rigid for the job. So relax, and broaden your horizons!

Thanksgiving Thoughts: Screw Your Fussy Food

To tell the truth, I have had more than enough of moderately well off white people telling the rest of the world what it needs to eat. This is made even worse because all of those proponents of specialized diets that may or may not actually be healthier for people don’t realize how much privilege is involved in being able to eat that rather odd-looking, tasteless mess and slapping it on the Internet for all to see.

I think it’s great if you want to run off to the organic grocery store, take your purchases home, and concoct something that I couldn’t even begin to identify but that makes you ecstatic. Good for you! Before you turn on your computer and start telling the rest of the world how they need to shop at Whole Paycheck and search for alternate protein sources for their vegan diet, or only eat raw foods, please consider that the majority of people in this country and the vast majority of people in the world simply can’t afford to eat that way. In fact, a great chunk of the world struggles to find enough to eat, period.

The same social conscience that leads you to elect not to eat meat for the sake of animals is often quite blind to the truth that there are children who go to school hungry every day in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet. Only you can decide if it is more ethical for you to overspend on your exotic diet in light of those hungry children, or if perhaps some of your resources would be better served helping them eat better. Maybe you are one of the very lucky few who can do both! How wonderful!

I’m just saying that before you start waving the flag of privilege you might want to consider how it looks from the outside.

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Who are “They,” Anyway?

I am sure you know. We all encounter them in our chosen fields. They are the experts, the ones who supposedly are in the know and who may, if we are extremely lucky, deign to share their vast knowledge with we commoners.

They have a lot to say about you. They say you have a fractured attention span, that you prefer a short, Twitter-ish message length, and that you won’t take the time to read anything more than a few paragraphs long because you are unwilling and unable to do so. They tell me that means I should write in snippets so that you won’t pass me by and every day so you won’t forget me. I should be the written equivalent of a gnat, buzzing at your ear regularly but not long enough to get slapped.

I reject those interpretations of the people that read my work as insulting and unworthy of either of us. If I am wrong, if some of my readers are so impaired from participation in our fragmented culture, there are plenty of options out there for you. On the other hand, if what you are interested in is a relatively intelligent, relatively insightful exploration and conversation around what’s going on in our world then we are both in luck, because that’s what I feel led to write.

Moving forward, starting on Monday, I will be posting one to two times a week on topics that I think are important. There will be observations of popular culture, spirituality, religion, and contemporary life. I will do my best not to write eight hundred page essays, but I will also try not to give a topic short shrift. I invite you to join the discussion by commenting, and I will do my best to respond to all of your comments. Together, we can build something worth reading. I hope you will join me!

Becoming Comfortable with Change

My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!

We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?

It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.

Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.