A Lesson in Fear, Anger and Freedom

FearThe other day on my walk to the park, I was almost run over by a man in a large pickup truck. It was a nice, shiny red Ford or some muscular American brand, the kind you see in ads pulling a house or 18 wheeler, like that’s what you need it for. The man in it…well, I’ll let my description of the truck speak for itself.

The road is as residential as it gets, of no use to anyone but those who live nearby. There are no sidewalks in our neighborhood, which is a mixed blessing. Everyone who drives through (or almost everyone) knows pedestrians use the road, so they slow down. But unfortunately some drivers consider pedestrians to be a hazard to their vehicles and would rather they just get the hell out of the way, so they can get on with their busy day!

As I reached the middle of the intersection, I noticed the large, red truck coming from my right. So I started to trot to get out of his way. Instead of slowing or going around me, he stayed his course and drove in front of me, barely missing me as I moved in the direction of his path. He actually swerved a bit to his right to make sure he made his point to drive in front of me. Needless to say I was alarmed, frightened and then very angry.

Anger, RageVery, very angry. I had every right to be. He was scum for doing this to anyone. My mind raced, wondering if he treated his wife and children with such obnoxious disdain. Since I’m gay, I assumed he was homophobic. I gave him the finger, several, in fact. I shot an Uzi full of fingers at him. I noticed he turned left at the next intersection. I thought he might be turning around to confront me. My adrenaline rushed. Every cell in my body prepared for defense. I was invincible, ready for the fight. My righteous indignation and rage would cover me for any lack of power. I picked up a large rock to defend myself. My body shook, but I felt high with power!

Well, he didn’t come back. Relieved and a bit embarrassed when I realized people along the bike path might be wondering why I was carrying a head sized rock, I began to calm down. I put down the rock and continued my walk.

Right away I knew what I had to do. The words came to me as from a teacher, though the voice was mine. “By giving in to your anger, you are letting him control you, becoming like him.” I struggled with this for a few minutes before putting my rage aside. I filled my lungs with the breath I had come to know on these walks, a breath of playful introspection. I began to feel sorry for that man, but left the thought at that. The trees and river and prairie beckoned.

A half hour later on the same walk, I was surprised to find myself running like a child around a large, open field with my eyes closed. I felt as if I were flying. By closing my eyes, I was able to face the fears I had of losing control, of falling into a pit, or perhaps the fear of making a fool of myself by falling flat on my face. But by releasing my neck to float above my body, I was able to (with concentration) release the fear from myself. Then I was free to playfully navigate the slightly irregular ground.

Running BoyA feeling of free abandonment entered me, or at least my body. I began to swerve from side to side, leading with my head. My body followed. Suddenly I flashed back to being 8 or 9 years old, when I last remember being so free and “floppy”. For some reason, that period in my life held a transition from feeling free to self-conscious. I specifically remember how differently running felt before and after. I don’t know pivotal the event, if there even was one. Perhaps I just “grew up”.

Flopping as I ran through that field with eyes closed, I felt I regained some of who that child was, and that he was still alive in me. I had come a long way during that walk, from poisoned, fearful, vengeful man to free flowing, replenished child.

Can Athiests be Spiritual?

ConnectionsCan atheists be spiritual? I hope that after reading further you will be able to answer this apparently oxymoronic question with a comfortable “YES”.

The problem, of course, is how you define spiritual. I know, it sounds like Clinton saying “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” So why dwell on this confusing word “spirit” when we believe there is no god? Because it’s a useful term with resonances in great and wise traditions. The problem with atheism is that it tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. My intention is to freshen and balance spirit’s meaning between the wisdom of ancient intuitive thinking and current knowledge. I also like the idea of reclaiming it for modern secular use.

CounterbalanceWe often use the word spirit in secular vernacular to mean a general quality of a person’s demeanor: “He’s in poor spirits.” We all know exactly what it means. There is no need for an atheist to refute its validity. We know that something is causing that “poor spirit”. You could argue it’s the same as saying “He’s an unhappy person right now.” But what is unhappy about him? Is it his mind, his body? The word spirit fits because it describes something else, neither mind nor body alone. I propose that spirit is a relationship or connection between parts, between mind and body, between self and other. This idea can be expanded further.

Fear seems to be a primary reason people turn to religion. I have many fears. I fear failure. I fear rejection. I fear being judged wrongly by others. I fear hate from others. I fear loneliness. Believing in a god gives solace that you are never alone, that you are always loved. We all suffer from the misconception that we are separate from others and that we have to “fit in” to be accepted. So how do we deal with the issue of fear of loneliness?

Interwoven IndividualityIndividuality is the hallmark of free society. We are encouraged to be unique, new, daring, different. But something gets lost in all that separateness: our connection to each other. Think for a moment of the worst pain you have ever suffered. With a little imagination, you can picture someone else on earth suffering as much or much worse. Imagine the love you wish for, then know that someone else suffers the same need. Keeping these little awarenesses close to the heart through a day sooths the emptiness of separateness. With individualism as the pinnacle of freedom, we tend to forget these simple connections. Boundaries of thought between people create loneliness, not being alone.

Expanding connections further. I once listened to all 9 symphonies of Beethoven on day, beginning in the afternoon and continuing until late evening. As my fatigue encroached from so much listening, my mind opened up to another level. I stopped thinking about the music and started just experiencing it. That’s when Beethoven came rushing deep into my being. The last three symphonies, Nos. 7, 8 and 9, were truly spiritual experiences, poetic inspirations, moments of connection between history, culture, music, myself and my muse. Beyond a connection to something there was also a liberation from something. Boundaries became less distinct between me and the world. I felt as if I were in Beethoven’s head, hearing and writing them with all their meaning and depth and quality.

Symbolic ConnectionsSo it is with the spirit of living. It is neither yours nor something separate from you, but an interaction, a relationship between you and the world around you. It is a coaxial cable connection to the universe, a direct link to all that is and is possible.

The problem is, our natural spirit is often damaged, or at least obscured. The various trappings of life’s maintenance, cultural oppressions, poor upbringing, physical distractions, ego, desire and self-deception cause myriad malfunctions and disconnections. It’s as if the “software” to life is damaged by various “viruses”. The usual suspects are judgment, self-deception, hubris, attachment, fear and ignorance. Add to that habits of unclear thinking and living, or the misfortune of traumatic experience, and one faced a veritable minefield of obstacles to experiencing a clear spirit. Luckily, science, psychology and modern meditative self-examination are valuable tools for clarifying spirit. So are the connections experienced through art, poetry, music and the beauty of nature.

But how do we find time to do all this growing in a short life? The atheist’s sense of the finality of death is a problem. I don’t really know if I fear the end of my life. But I want to accomplish so much before then. How can we be happy if we’re always in a hurry to live a full life before we “disappear”?

Daybreak, no cloudsHere again that illusion of separateness comes into play. Thich Nhat Hahn brilliantly used the metaphor of a cloud. The fact is, a cloud does not disappear when it evaporates into humidity or falls as rain. True, the cloud as it was is gone. Its beauty or inspiration or perhaps the shade it offered from the sun is no longer. But the raw matter of the cloud still exists in a different form. So it is with us. We cease to be a living human. But our energy still exists. These observations are small comfort to those whose egos cling to a singular, separate identity. But personally, I feel good knowing that I will continue in some other form.

Most spiritual traditions refer to something which encompasses All. With growing awareness, we begin to know that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We can sense and fathom a connection and unity between all things. I timidly dare to call this great spirit as an extension of the individual one. Here again, a hybrid relationship of scientific humanism with intuitive spirituality can lead us forward. We know that we came from and will return to some common pool, since our matter only changes forms. So, we are from it and of it and will return to it. Scientifically, the atoms are barely differentiated between earth, life and sky. Boundaries blur further.

Tapestry of connectionsThe wisdom of Buddhism teaches that our suffering is caused by attachment to things, time and ego. Ironically, Buddhism’s ultimate goal is to break the illusion of separateness by dissolving the illusion of ego. Things, time and ego are necessary to life, but damaging to spiritual health.

Taoist thinking highlights the unity of opposites: good cannot exist without bad, self without other. Again, relationships. These empirical truths are often elusive to our clinging, categorizing natures. My intention in calling these elusive goals spiritual is to get beyond the clunkiness of analytical thinking and begin to gain a deeper sense of intuition and feelings. Our lives are empty without them.

Spirit is a poetic relationship between awareness and experience, between knowledge and intuition, identity and mystery, connection and separateness. When we embrace our spiritual gifts, our humanist natures can blossom. Who needs god for that?

Like the beautiful quilts photos dotting this article, the connections and relationships between various parts gives rise beauty and meaning.

All quilts photos from the collection The Linear Series by Carol Taylor. For further information, please go to Carol Taylor Quilts.

Bloggers for Positive Global Change

Bloggers for Positive Global ChangePamm tagged me for a meme to spread the word about “Bloggers for Positive Global Change“, where the idea was started by Deborah and Francis of Climate for our Future. Check the original post for details of the meme.

The idea is to name (and thereby award) blogs and bloggers who are making a difference for global change. Though I’ve been “awarded”, I wonder if I am making a difference, really, for global change. I tend to believe things are so out of control there’s not much we can do except take care of ourselves. This challenge was a wake up call for me. Thank you Pamm.

The ubiquitous photo of the lost Polar Bears trying to ford a crumbling ice scape breaks my heart every time I see it. I know there are 100’s of species going extinct every day. I know the rain forests are being destroyed at sickening rates. We are killing our planet.

But I also know I am a citizen of the country whose ridiculous standards of living have set the level the rest of the world feels they deserve, as they should. My father likes to play devil’s advocate when I rant about how much energy Americans consume. He looks me in the eye and asks, “Are you going to trade your house for something more Eco friendly?” It stops me in my tracks.

I try to do my part by recycling, using less electricity, gas and water. I garden organically, though not very water efficiently. I still use my Central Air when it gets too hot for me to work or sleep in the heat. But deep down, I know my father is right. Someone has to go first. And as much as I want to be the first, I still wait for someone else to start. I am selfish and want to keep the good life I have.

But this meme has made me more aware of possibilities. I will now keep an eye out for more and more little things I can do. My attitude has awakened. That’s a beginning, at least. I will now award several blogs which I feel are doing something, more than I have, to make a difference. I hope they will spread the recognition further with their own choices.

Brian of Backseat Driving challenges a bunch of global warming denialists with a bet that global temperatures will continue to increase over the next 20-50 years. I have a feeling he’d win them all. He also has another fun idea for bloggers to help charity in his post Global Warming Cut and Paste for Charity.

In Gristmill, a very good group blog about environmental issues and commentary from the website Grist, I found this very inspiring list of the core principles (links to articles) for a bright green future, taken from WorldChanging.

Real Climate, a very comprehensive blog of climate issues and science made accessible, posts a Friday Roundup of recent news. Included among stories and updates of current global warming debates; the Sun is off the hook for causing global warming; further reports on “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, (TGGWS) attempts to debunk the facts; a useful link to their new RC Wiki, where the debunking is debunked with authority!

Tamino does his small but important part to educate a skeptical reader who doubts the validity of the science of averaging temperatures to predicts global warming.

The Oil Drum reports and fosters discussion about energy and our future. Their post about the peak oil debate reminds me that driving is no longer a right, it’s a luxury.

Blue Climate posts a NYTimes article warning of flooding in the NE US if continuing warming raises sea levels. The areas affected include lower Manhattan. Nothing like a reality shock to wake us up!

100 Mile Diet is a blog (comment-less) about eating local. Another reminder of things we all can do.

Global Climate Change blogs about a Car Free DC Day on September 17 in Washington, DC. Alas, Columbus doesn’t really have any decent mass transportation. Slow, smoggy buses are all we get.

Eco Street suggests ways we can give the office a green makeover.

Alt+Energy writes about the Sustainable Bio Diesel Summit.

What’s Your Learning Edge?

The EdgeAdam has started a meme by the name “What’s your learning edge?”. And I’ve been tagged by Ed Mills from Evolving Times. The challenge is to write about what you need or wish most to learn.

First a few words on the idea of edge. The epigraph of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge reads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” (from the Katha-Upanishad). Pema Chodron often uses the phrase to describe the place where one becomes uncomfortable with new and challenging experiences or feelings. In the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author often discusses the importance of balance between challenge and reward in achieving a state of flow. If something is either too easy or too difficult, flow doesn’t occur. A while back I wrote a philosophical poem called The Edge about the difficulty of making choices.

At this point in my life the edge I wish to explore has nothing to do with reading or acquiring knowledge. Quite the opposite, my edge is to just be rather than always doing. I find that many problems in my life stem from my inability to just be, just be OK as I am, without any corrections, attractions, improvements or alterations. I am admittedly a compulsive doer, a perfectionist and very competitive. I am also a classical musician, where being present is vital. So just being is perhaps the most challenging goal of all for me to learn, and the one thing which may release the most constructive/creative energy for me. So there it is. Just BE. Simple. Perfect. And quite elusive to many of us, I’m sure!

I hereby tag Pamm, Isabella, Hilda of Living Out Loud, William of Integral Options Cafe, Josh of System 13, Scott of Finding Your Marbles. I’ve invited some new bloggers I’ve never met, but I thought it would be a good way to mix things up a bit.

Here’s what do to. To quote the original author of the meme: “Write a post about your “learning edge” and what you’re into these days. Feel free to mention any books you’re reading, classes you’re taking, people you’re learning from or collaborating with, etc. Tell us about the gems you’re picking up, the fun you’re having, etc., especially if they’re shifting the way you look at what you do.”

Alexander Technique and Buddhist Thinking

BuddhaI googled Alexander and Buddhism and found a few articles, but none which directly connected the primary principles of the two.

The Alexander technique teaches us to regain natural and efficient use of the body, with the mechanism of “primary control” as the director of a balanced body. Primary control is a phrase Alexander coined to indicate where the sense of control comes from when one is completely present physically and mentally. Buddhism focuses on the sense of being present as the primary factor in learning about one’s self and relation to the world.

To my knowledge, F. M. Alexander never studied Buddhism. He grew up in Australia and moved to Great Britain. Yet he came up with similar principals to the ancient wisdom of Buddhism using a completely different cultural structure. Western thinking tends to rely on the separation of parts to understand the whole. Mr. Alexander instinctively realized the importance of noticing the whole over the parts. The whole body is not a separation of parts, but a relationship between all of them.

Siddhartha (buddha) studied the methods of his time and used that wisdom to develop his own fresh version before becoming enlightened as Buddha. The teachings of Buddhism show a continuation of ideas from the Bhagavad Gita (balance), Yoga (relationship) and the Ascetics (detachment). Detachment as a tool for awareness is not new to Buddhist thinking. Buddha refined the idea to help alleviate the suffering he saw in those who attach too much importance to feelings and desires.

Alexander started from scratch, learning from his own bodily misuse. He observed himself carefully in an array of mirrors and found that only by inhibiting his ingrained habits of body use could he rediscover natural use. However, his detailed and continued observations led him to deeper patterns.

He learned the importance of being present to regain natural body use. Bad habits of body use are the product of lack of mental and physical presence. Going one step further, he found that changing habitual patterns required “inhibition” of those patterns, not just being present while they happened. Inhibiting one’s behavior while observing it takes a certain detachment. For example, when the phone rings the urge to jump and answer it can be inhibited until one consciously chooses to stay present and then move with that presence to answer the phone with physical quality.

So, the basic principals of detachment and being present are mutual to the Alexander Technique and Buddhist practice. Yet each teacher came from a vastly different time and culture. I am sure this subject could be explored more rigorously. But I am putting out a simple version for your interest, and perhaps to spark someone else’s interest in the subject.

I also wrote further thoughts on the subject of detachment in my recent article The Paradox of Detachment.