Just say no…

Earlier this evening I browsed an article online that showed television and music stars from the 1970s in a “then and now” photo series. Hence, the title of this post.

Boys and girls, just say no to cosmetic surgery. More than half of the celebrities in the article were not recognizable, yet they all had similarly distorted faces. Two of them looked like they had aged naturally. The rest, though recognizable, clearly had more than a little surgery and other treatments. Their mouths had gotten wider, their cheekbones higher if not evenly so, their necks bore significantly more wrinkles than the rest of their face, and their eyes had become more round. In short, they weren’t fooling anyone.

We all age, and as we do so it shows. The alternative is to look less than human, distorted more than aged, and run the very real risk or not recognizing ourselves in the mirror. I guarantee that will bring less happiness, not more – both to you and old what’s-his-face in the mirror.

What We Are Missing

It seems to me that we have lost sight of a basic ethical principal. I would state that principal as follows: An action is right or wrong independent of the impact of that actionBurning-House on me. Stated another, perhaps less gentle, way no one of us is the center of the ethical universe. Indulge me as I offer some examples.

If it is wrong to set fire to my neighbor’s house, it is wrong even if he offers to share the insurance money with me. My personal profit is irrelevant in making decisions about right or wrong. Similarly, telling someone at the bar that I am personal friends with Brad Pitt is wrong (unless of course I am), even if telling them that makes it far more likely they might go home with me. It’s wrong to lie, even if it means I stand a better chance of getting laid. This is the same principal at work as in setting fire to my neighbor’s house: My personal profit is irrelevant. Taking this to the employment environment, it’s wrong to lie on my resume or CV even if I think doing so offers a better chance of me getting hired. Again, same principal.

I am afraid that we have come to conflate and confuse several related topics. We have decided that lying by a politician isn’t lying, it’s just “playing politics.” As Shakespeare said, “A rose (or in this case a turd) by any other name is still a rose (turd).” There is nothing about our goal in lying to people that makes lying a moral virtue or even morally neutral. Politics and integrity should walk together, not be opposed to one another. When that’s not the case, the result wide ends snlis what we have today in both parties: a highly corrupt system.

The idea that the ends justify the means may have valid applications, but we have pushed it too far and find ourselves left with, in practice, a system in which some believe that if the ends are of value then any means to achieve them are valid. That is absurd. If my wife asks me if a particular dress makes her ass look big and I want to stay married, a nuanced my answer may be justified. If I can make more money by lying about the environmental impact my actions will have, an impact that endangers countless lives, no level of nuance is acceptable. Nuance is okay if it saves marriages and avoids being needlessly cruel, but it’s not okay if someone becomes sick or dies. That should be as plain as the nose on our faces, but we’ve lost sight of it. We desperately need to correct our vision!

Pain as Spiritual Teacher

As someone who lives with chronic pain, I can tell you from my experience that it can be a tremendous spiritual teacher. It can also make you want to eat a bullet. Most of the chronic paintime, I find I sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You might say that if we constructed a scale in which eating a bullet was a zero and experiencing great spiritual insights was a ten, I live my life drifting between two and nine, with rare peaks at ten. In truth, you only get a brief stop at zero, and I don’t think I will ever be there. At the same time I believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of zero.

I have read a lot of spiritual teaching from the eastern traditions that suggest we can reduce our experience of pain by not allowing ourselves to be attached to it or to resist it. If I am honest, I must admit that I never really understood what either of those things meant until I came up with my own words to describe what I believe they are trying to get at. In my experience, I struggle more with my pain if I believe that I am not supposed to be in denialcalvin-hobbes690x400pain. In the past I used to believe that I was too young to have this kind of problem, or that it shouldn’t happen to people like me (whatever that means), or some other similar nonsense. I call it nonsense because such beliefs fly in the face of what is. If I am in pain then there is a reason or reasons I am in pain. Therefore, to say that I shouldn’t be in pain flies in the face of reality! I may wish things were other than they are, but that doesn’t change that reality is what it is. If I can drop the idea that things should be different then I can begin the much more important work of dealing with what actually is! In this way, I free myself from the possibility of feeling persecuted or of having been treated unfairly and am freed to live in the present moment. If there is one thing we know, it’s that the present moment in the only moment we can impact.

I would suggest we can apply this reasoning to many life situations we struggle to grasp. If we feel we shouldn’t be pregnant, or bald, or working where we do, the first step to dealing with whatever underlies the issue is accepting that it is, in fact, the truth. If our issue isn’t the truth we can rejoice, because no action is necessary, but if we are bothered by something it is probably true and it is probably exactly how it is supposed to be. Now we can start asking ourselves if it is possible to make a change that will impact our situation.

Believing that things aren’t supposed to be as they are is a kind of denial that our mind creates to help us deal with the unpleasantness surrounding our condition. While denial can help us if we aren’t quite ready to deal with whatever is going on in its fullness, it also can stop us from moving forward if we don’t release it. That is a realization that can help us in many areas of life, if only we will embrace it!

The Great Lie

From farm to factory
They said it would be a better
Life and so we upped and moved
Though they did not say for whom.

From working hard to working
Harder the open spaces had
Disappeared in favor
Of canned sardines packed on a shelf.

It is all your fault they
Said and so we redoubled our
Efforts to no avail wages
Stagnant as expenses climbed.

As the good life turned sour
The lie that we were to blame when
There was nothing more to give
Rang hollow, an empty coffin.

One day we will wake up
And take back our lives no matter
The cost, reclaim the power that
That has always been our birthright.

The Great In-between

The older I get, and the more time I spend in spiritual practice, the happier I am when I find what I call the great in-between. It’s not always easy to find, but whenever I do I am richly rewarded.

It seems that the great majority of spiritual material out there is intended to introduce people to the tradition from which it emanates. There is no shortage of teachings on mindfulness, or centering prayer, or the Four Noble Truths. I often say the Fifth Noble truth is that introductory teachings can take you only so far.

There seems to be no shortage of deeply intellectual teachings, either. Academics and assorted pointy headed intellectuals produce copious amounts of sleep inducing material that, for most people, is of limited use due to its esoteric nature. It may be interesting once in a while, but it’s not the stuff on which the spiritual journey is founded.

In between those two extremes lies something of a wasteland. It’s something of a scavenger hunt, I suspect because it’s a smaller market. If you can find it, however, the rewards can be great. Where do you find nourishing teachings?

Separating Person and Behavior

Many of us have a problem – maybe even most of us have this problem. We confuse the value of a person with their behavior. For example, we know that someone plays for the Chicago Bears football team, and we cannot even begin to understand the abysmally bad judgment that would lead anyone to consider, even for the briefest moment, playing for the Chicago Bears. We decide, therefore, that anyone who plays for the Chicago Bears must be an awful person with whom we could never be friends – and likely never even bring ourselves to be kind towards. This is a classic, if someone silly, example of confusing person and behavior.

Step it up a notch or ten, and consider someone you meet who is a member of the other political party. Now it’s a bit more serious, although as a Green Bay Packers fan I might argue that my first example is much more serious. We could certainly never be friends with a person who belongs to that party. Anyone who belongs to that party must have serious character flaws, and they probably eat babies for breakfast. Maybe a person has a different ethnic background, or went to a different school, or once committed a crime, and we find that we can no longer fairly evaluate their humanity. If this is the the case, the problem is inside us and not in the other person.

If we are going to live anything even remotely resembling an ethical and/or spiritual life, we have to believe that all people have inherent value. In fact, every major religious tradition teaches precisely that. There is nothing any one of us can do to erase that inherent value, though many of us do a pretty good job of covering it up with our poor choices. The task of a spiritual life is to uncover that inherent value by stripping away the detritus we have splattered on it. Going about declaring others to be of no value does nothing but pile more obscurations on our own inherent value. In truth it does nothing to the other person.

Today, before you set out to round up a posse to hunt down the imagined unacceptable other, you would do well to find a mirror and look into it. If you are honest, you will realize you have some work to do in your own house. We all do.

You Aren’t Defective

This post is the first in a series of occasional posts about the future of religion and spirituality in Western civilization.

I have long been of the opinion that, before it is possible to build something healthy to replace something that is in the process of dying, it is important to clear up mistaken notions from the dearly departing tradition. Nothing from the death rattles of institutional religion is more harmful than the idea that human beings are inherently broken.

calvin matt lauerThis belief takes many forms in different traditions, but perhaps the best well known in the idea of Original Sin in Christianity. Less well known, but even more dysfunctional, is the Calvinist Christian notion of the total depravity of humanity, often expressed with the delightful metaphor that we are “worms.” Coming in a close second is Luther’s preoccupation with feces and bowel movements, which led to some very unfortunate metaphors indeed.

All of these beliefs stink. The fact is that the idea that human beings are inherently defective is not only inaccurate, but harmful because it removes all hope. There isn’t any objective support for any of these notions in the scriptures of any tradition, leaving us to conclude that they are projections unfortunately recorded by their authors that caught on. Particularly for those ideas that caught on in the Middle Ages, it’s not hard to understand why they became popular. When everyone around you is dropping dead from one or another plague, it’s easier to hold onto a lousy explanation than to sit with a mystery. What’s more, Neuroscientists tell us that the human mind has a bias toward the negative. It is easier for us to understand and recall the very things which tear us down than those that lift us up.

You can’t have a healthy spirituality if that spirituality doesn’t recognize that its adherents can, in fact, be healthy! A religion that understands its primary task as undercutting the hope of its members is little more than an enemy of those same people. Do human beings make mistakes? Of course we do, some of us quite frequently, but it is in making those mistakes that we learn an grow. That means that even mistakes are good things.

The next time someone tries to peddle you some nonsense about how bad we all are, send them packing. You deserve better. More importantly, you need better.

Ah, No.

I don’t want to alarm you, but Hollywood is divided over the friendship shared by Ellen ellen-bushDeGeneres and George W. Bush. I know, you too might well be as scandalized by this news as anybody else with nothing to worry about. You too might be thinking, “If Ellen is going to hang around the W., she can’t be a lesbian any more! We can’t have Ellen befriending a Bush…or at least not that Bush. We’re simply not going to watch her TV show any more, and we are going to have to find a new token favorite lesbian. We might even Rosie-ODonnell-is-cordial-with-Whoopi-Goldberg-after-mean-remarkhave to go back to Rosie O’Donnell! These are desperate times, indeed.

Here’s the problem: That attitude is everything that is wrong with America today.

Let’s just run down the top several problems:

  1. You don’t get to choose anyone else’s friends, period.
  2. It is good, even a desirable thing, to have friends of different political views.
  3. Some are saying George W. Bush is a war criminal. That’s irrelevant (see #1, above) and also simply not true. It’s your opinion. No court has convicted him, and even if it had, he still gets to have friends.
  4. Nobody has appointed any of us the friendship police.
  5. The LGBT community has been far too oppressed to go about oppressing itself, but as groups begin emerging from under oppression they almost always go about looking for others to oppress. Just stop, now.
  6. In America, we are free to believe what we will and to associate with whom we will. You don’t have to like it, but it is the way things are. You can’t choose freedom when it suits you and try to eliminate it when it makes you uncomfortable.
  7. We are more divided than ever before in our history. This kind of nonsense makes it worse, not better.

In other words, check yourselves and your behavior. You are being a huge collection of asses.

The “Potential” Movement

Whenever I receive an email that asks, “do you want to grow, to flourish, to be the best possible version of yourself?” I do two things. First, I check to see that my wallet is still in my pocket. The second is that I delete the email.

Why delete the email? I delete the email because I reject the notion that some person who (1) has never met me, (2) is looking to turn a quick profit, and (3) believes that a preformed, one size fits all program to maximize human potential is either possible or desirable, has anything to offer me.

Determining for any person what will maximize their potential requires establishing a relationship with them over time and thereby coming to really understand their history and their circumstances. It simply isn’t a cost effective way to run a business, so businesses offering to maximize your potential are forced to cut corners to maximize their profits. That’s why you are much better meeting with a spiritual guide or companion to investigate your humanity than a spiritual snake oil salesman.

Some thoughts on going to a concert

I have heard people complain that they can’t go to a movie anymore because there always seems to be someone nearby who is carrying on a conversation with someone, taking a phone call, has seen the movie too many times and so speaks the lines with or before the actors do, or any number of obnoxious behaviors that might be appropriate in your living room but certainly aren’t appropriate in a theater.

I am coming to think that concerts aren’t much better. Of course, if you are at a Metallica concert you probably wouldn’t even notice any of these behaviors because you would be far too busy thinking about how much they suck and wondering why you spent your money on these outrageously priced tickets, but I digress. Here’s my list of things not to do at a concert.

  1. Unless the artist has specifically invited you to sing along, don’t. The reason is that william hung american idolyou can’t sing – not even a little bit. I so want to break this to you delicately. If you auditioned for American Idol, your audition would be one of those they show for people to laugh at. Even if you sing in your church choir, screaming descants at the top of your soprano lungs, you still don’t sing as well as the artist you paid to see and hear. How do I know? I know this because you are in a seat, not on stage. If you are still convinced that you are good enough to sing along, sell all your shit, move to Nashville, and spend the rest of your life waiting tables while you wait for your big break, which isn’t likely to come. If I end up being wrong about you and you do make it in Nashville, let me know and I will send you a written apology. Until then, please shut up at concerts.
  2. I don’t care how much you love God and really want to tickle his ass, leave hands_raisedyour arms down. The reason is that while you are waving your arms about reaching for God’s butt, the people behind you can’t see the artist they paid a lot of money to see. You are being obnoxious. Obnoxious people really irritate the shit out of Jesus, and he will slap you silly when and if you manage to get to heaven – which isn’t too likely, given that you are so selfish that you raise your arms at concerts. If you aren’t trying to tickle God’s testes, why in the world are your arms up? Are you being mugged? Call 911, but put your arms down.
  3. Don’t try to carry on a conversation with the artist or scream out that you love 9_creepiest_stories_of_celebrity_stalkersthem. They aren’t your friend, even if they are nice to you. Lots of people are present to hear the artist sing, or tell jokes, or whatever they do. They have not purchased tickets to eavesdrop on your private conversation with the artist, no matter how fascinating you think it might be. If you feel compelled to shout, “I love you,” don’t. Seek help from a qualified mental health professional immediately before you get arrested, you budding stalker. Your love is unrequited. In fact, you are scaring everyone around you. The artist does not love you and never will. In fact, if you keep screaming stuff at their concerts, they may very well come to despise you. Just stop.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start. Shape up, or stop going to concerts. It’s just that simple.