Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Intelligent Evolution

An interesting addition to the evolution/intelligent design argument comes in the form of Francisco Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, who also has the unusual pedigree of having been a Dominican priest.

You can see a recent article summarizing Ayala's work here.

Ayala's basic position is that a belief in science and evolution are not at all incompatible with a genuine religious belief. He persuasively argues, in fact, that the principle of evolution makes a stronger case for believing in an underlying order than does either creationism or ID.

If one was to subscribe to ID, he says, you'd have to conclude that God is an idiot due to the mistakes made. Only a fool could believe both in God and ID. Evolution, on the other hand, implies a natural order governed that allows change and survival through adaptation. Evolution itself has an inherent intelligence; there is no need to clothe the principle with the trappings of a religious deity.

Ayala lectures frequently, and his background ensures that the ID crowd can't dismiss him. Virtually all the routine arguments against evolution are rather breezily and cheerfully dismissed in Ayala's hands, giving the creation apologists very little leverage. There quite simply is no aspect of intelligent design that bears up to reasonable minds.

But Ayala made an equally firm statement that atheists by no means speak for the field of science as a whole. The use of science to discount religion is just as insidious as fundamental Christianity seeking to ban the teaching of evolution.

"Science and religion concern non-overlapping realms of knowledge," he writes in his new book, Darwin's Gift. "It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that evolutionary theory and religious belief appear to be antithetical."

Amen to that.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Not a PETA Story

Between the years of 1965 and 1970, our neighbor farmer, Howie, had the lushest, most pastoral fields of alfalfa and corn and oats of any farm in the valley. All the farms were pretty darned nice, since this valley 60 miles south of Minneapolis was an ancient river bed, and the floor of the valley had a 3-ft. layer of topsoil derived from prehistoric river silts. It would grow almost anything. Corn stalks would routinely top out at 8, even 9 ft. planted in this magical soil.

But Howie's fields were the nicest, and one reason was that he had lots of predators keeping the pocket gophers in check. Pocket gophers, if you've never seen one, are nasty, ugly little creatures, not at all like the cute little striped gophers that look like chipmunks or small prairie dogs. Pocket gophers can devastate crop fields, and can so damage pastures that cows and horses may break legs in the holes they dig. Pocket gophers look something like moles, with long sharp front claws and beady little eyes and sharp teeth.

In Howie's fields, though, there were lots of natural predators kept the gophers in check. There were red fox that hunted the gophers; an occasional badger might be expected to nab a gopher; razor-eyed red-tail hawks might seize one; one summer, we even had a pair of bobcats in the area that might have snatched an occasional gopher.

The most successful predator in those years, though, was a boy 10 to 15 years old, armed with a canvas bag containing a garden trowel, stakes and boards, a hunting knife, and a dozen spring-loaded metal traps. The most fearsome gopher hunter in the valley was...yours truly.

For five years or so, from the moment frost was out of the ground in the spring to the day when the autumn earth was too stiff to dig into, I made three early morning trips each week into the fields lining the hillsides, to trap gophers and keep Howie's fields green. I was paid .15 for each pair of front gopher claws I turned into Howie, and believe it or not, this added up to a tidy $5.00 per week allowance, which was good spending money for a young boy in those days.

The main reason I did it, though, was the soaring sensation I enjoyed by rising before dawn on those mornings, and walking through the woods and into the adjoining fields to dig in aromatic soil and hunt like some primordial man. The feel of the country air in the early morning hours is indescribable. By the time I returned home to get ready for school, I had already been awake for two hours, and had seen things about the outdoor world that most people never see. My jeans often would be soaked to the waist with dew, and I'd need to scrub my hands for a long, long time to get the dirt out from under my fingernails.

Trapping gophers is done like this: First, you look for the telltale mounds of black dirt in a field, marking exit holes of a pocket gopher. The freshest holes will be the darkest in color, and will not be crusted over with rain splatter.

When you approach the hole, you must be quiet for a moment, because putting your hand down into a hole where an active gopher is located can be trouble. You hear them if they are actively digging in the area. Or,more accurately, you feel the vibrations of them digging in the earth. If all is clear, you then use a trowel to widen the hole and dig down to create a flat-bottomed wide area about a foot laterally into the gopher tunnel.

Next, you open the jaws of a trap, set the trigger, then carefully set the trap into the hole. The trap is attached to a chain, and the free end of the chain is secured to a stake driven into the ground outside. In the early days, I used clam-shell type foot traps, but these generally did not kill the gophers instantly, and so I eventually went to a prong-style trap that gripped the gophers around the torso, suffocating them relatively simply and painlessly.

A small flat board covers the top of the hole, held in place by a handful of dirt.

I generally set six to twelve of these traps each mornings. The fresh traps were set after I checked the previous sets, marked by stakes with rags tied to the top.

Checking a previously set trap would involve one of three things. In some cases, removing the board covering the hole would reveal a solid wedge of dirt. Here, the gopher had spotted my trap, and had pushed dirt into hole from somewhere beyond the trap. I'd now need to dig rather laboriously to retrieve my trap and find a new location to set it.

If removing the board showed an open hole, a gentle tug on the trap's chain would tell the story. If the chain moved freely, the trap had failed, and I could either leave it in place for another day, or I could pack it up to move it to fresher hunting grounds.

But if the chain felt sluggish and anchored to a weight, I'd hit the jackpot. At the end of the chain when I pulled it from the hole would be a dead gopher about the size of a small rabbit, the life squeezed out of it by the heavy wire prongs of the trap. On very rare and unpleasant occasions, a gopher might not yet be dead, and I'd have to dispatch it with a solid blow to the head. I didn't like this much, but neither did I agonize much over it. It was just life.

I quickly severed the front claws from the gopher with a hunting knife, and put them into a pouch I carried. On Saturday afternoon I would bring the pouch to Howie, who would count the claws, divide by two, multiply by .15, and pay me my bounty.

Initially, I reburied the gopher corpses, but then one day I saw a red fox lying by a gopher hole about a hundred yards away, and I realized that other creatures could make use of the meat. After that I simply left the dead gopher out in the open to be eaten by fox or hawk. There came a point where red-tail hawks would see me coming, and would come perch in nearby trees waiting to be fed.

Years later I would become more of a softie, and would give up all my hunting and trapping activities, but in those days nothing seemed more natural to me than to be out in the world making my way by wile and muscle. The first date I ever had--taking a red-haired girl to see Ben Hur at the local theater when I was 14--was paid for by gopher claws.

I don't think I ever felt more alive or more natural than on these early morning forays into the woods and fields when I was just a boy. To this day, when I awaken in a delightful, serene mood, I am always reminded of the sensation I had while hunting gophers in a prehistoric river valley amidst the limestone bluffs of southern Minnesota.

Friday, April 25, 2008

...25, 26, 27.

My spiritual practice (and my life, for that matter), though esoteric, is relatively classic in style. I do things in pretty tried and true ways, although some of those ways are more familiar in the far east or in ancient traditions than they are in the modern west.

What this means, for the most part, is that almost all of my beliefs and practices can be found in well-established, legacy wisdom traditions--Buddhism, Hinduim, Taoism, Christianity. Very little falls under the “new age” umbrella; in fact, I tend to find astrology and other such practices a bit distasteful.

But there is one exception. Several years ago, a friend who was savvy in feng shui practice told me that experts in this art give special importance to the number 27. If redecorating a room, for example, it’s thought that changing exactly 27 elements has spiritual significance.

Recreationally, at first, I started incorporating 27 into my own routines. Admittedly, this is probably an outlet for the little bit of compulsive-obsessiveness I do own. If I’m doing dishes, for example, I find that the dish-drying rack in the second sink bowl comfortably holds no more than 27 dishes. In my garden, planting beds with 27 specimens are somehow most pleasing to me. When cleaning my office, putting away 27 items gives the place a comfortably neat look, without making it seem sterile. Reading 27 pages of a novel each night is ridiculously satisfying. A small flower bed that has been thinned of 27 weeds looks very nice.

Most significantly, I often try to count 27 tasks or accomplishments in a given day, for which I maintain full mindfulness. So it’s kind of a feng shui Buddhism, in a way.

On most days, I keep track of those activities for which I’m fully present, and I consider it a good day at the point I reach 27. There are of course lots of things done on autopilot; the only thing I count are those activities for which I’m fully present, mentally.

At the end of the day, the list is an odd hodgepodge. Some things wouldn’t really be called accomplishments by most workcoholic standards, while others would strike you as a fulfilling day’s worth of work all by themselves. On a recent day, for example, one item in the litany of 27 was “take shower,” while another was “pour concrete aprons around basement windows.” The point is that I was fully engaged and present for each of the activities.

Surprisingly, 27 items turns out to create an extremely fulfilling day, if you’ve been mindful for each of them. And I think it’s important not to insist that all 27 items be acts of supremely meaningful work. I make sure that a few items on the list are purely recreational. “Eat lunch” is usually one out of 27. “Take bike ride” might be one, as well. "Meditate" always makes the list. Sometimes, even watching a movie will make the list, provided I’m engaged and present while doing so. Such things, which we often do without really paying attention, turn out to be quite meaningful and worthwhile if you're closely aware during the doing of them.

I’m not sure what exactly makes 27 meaningful, though it may have to do with the number 3 factored into itself 3 times. Recently, I did learn that in one branch of Tibetan Buddhism, the strings of mala beads include 27 small beads as well as one mother bead, so perhaps there is some karmic legacy to the number 27 for me.

Time to go. Been writing for 27 minutes.

Monday, April 21, 2008

That was Zen, This is Now

In the Tibetan tradition with which I'm most familiar, spiritual practice revolves around conquering desire and ill will and delusion, which are said to be the hindrances that prevent us from knowing the condition of enlightenment, otherwise known as nirvana. The principle method for reducing these hindrances is to court an attitude of compassion, often referred to as "loving-kindness."

It's a perfectly good philosophy, but the Tibetan tradition can be just a bit too laden with folk-religion trappings. It can also be a bewilderingly complex practice, heavily dominated by numbers. There are times when I just need a break.

So from time to time I find it useful to look to other related traditions, especially the Forest (Theravedan) practice; and Zen tradition, which is essentially a blending of Tao and Buddhist philosophy.

Recently I reread some teachings of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese scholar and Zen master, where there was a refreshing and instructive simplification of the meditation practice, known among Zen practitioners as zazen.

The goal of meditation, says Suzuki Roshi, is to simply be yourself. And the way to be yourself is to systematically and unconditionally drop all expectation during meditation. Greed and anger and fear and attachment can all be described as some form of expectation, and so all that is necessary is for us to relinquish expectation itself. With each exhalation, Roshi says, allow a bit more expectation to evaporate. Zen meditation is largely about emptiness, and this emptiness can be defined as the non-existence of expectation--at least in Suzuki Roshi's formula.

It's a simple approach, and one that is remarkably effective. Your meditation is simply about being on the lookout for expectations of any kind. As you look closely at the nature of expectation during a meditation, you come to realize that it creates a clear physical sensation in the body, and identifying this sensation makes it relatively simple to experiment with surrendering it. Expectation can come in the form of hopes you have for your own mediation; or it can come as intruding thoughts where other life expectations make themselves known.

Release is much harder to do if you see expectation purely as an abstract, mental event; but once you feel the physical nature of expectation, you can release it and define its release by the physical sensation you feel. The feeling isn't like any other, but I do find myself reminded of the phenomenon of static cling being de-energized by a sudden spark. Expectation is like a subtle form of static cling. This isn't to say that it is trivial or unimportant--remember that lightning itself is static electricity.

When expectation is surrendered, what seems to fill the new emptiness is, for me, an experience of intense "nowness" which is intensely pleasant and satisfying. Such a surrender is not all that easy to achieve, though, because it goes against our habit, which is to fill every mental moment with plans and goals and recrimination. The kind of meditative surrender we're talking about takes a leap of faith, because we have to be willing to follow nature rather than insisting on being its observer and ruler. Your sense at these times will be that you are nothing more than a joyful part of nature rather than a personality separate from it. You have to take a chance with being small, in other words, and stop insisting that expectations must rule.

Even a moment or two of surrendering expectation is of supreme value, though. For it's now fairly easy to spot the moment when expectation once again enters a meditation, and sure enough, ill will and desire and frustration and pride and passion and fear do seem to build upon expectation. And strangely, there can also a feeling of relief when these annoyances return, because they are familiar to us; we are actually quite addicted to our various forms of suffering, and it will take practice to learn how to live in happiness.

So at moments when you are perhaps slightly weary of the diligent effort to be kind and loving and devoid of ill will at all times, it's possible to shift gears just a bit and simply watch for the presence of expectation in your life and your practice. Experience the sensation of expectation in your body.

And experience the feeling of surrendering it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Work in Progress

The last week or so has seen me in a mild depression. In professional terms, it would be called situational rather than clinical, I imagine. Its nature doesn't come close to the snarling Black Dog that took up sleeping at the foot of my bed for a time many years ago. Still, this is an unpleasant feeling, and it's presence tells me that perhaps I'm not as evolved as I'd like to be.

This bad mood has come to me in response to certain personal difficulties, and thus I am reminded that my happiness, even now, hinges on my attachment to things being a certain way. When my wishes are violated, happiness tries to run and hide. The stronger the wish, the harder it is to reclaim peace of mind when it goes into its cave to fume.

The particulars here aren't important, but the essence of the situation is this: I've learned that some people I trusted and believed respected me, in fact do not. And after a time trying to see myself as blameless, I've had to acknowledge that I've acted in ways to deserve their reaction. It's not that I've done anything particularly heinous; but I've also not been as fine a human being as I'd like to be.

So my image of self has been jarred badly over the last couple of weeks, and it's this discrepancy between what is and what I want that is causing my discouragement. The flavor of my personal neurosis involves deeply wanting to be liked by others, and I've been forced to face the fact that not everybody likes me, and that they have their understandable reasons.

There is some value in the experience. I have learned that my self image is just that--an image--and that it's subject to change. Not a bad lesson. And I've been reminded that my foundations for happiness aren't quite as foolproof as I thought. When relatively routine events can snatch away our peace of mind so readily, we perhaps must acknowledge that the foundations are in need of some renovation.

So I am a work in progress, and by no means the enlightened fellow I'd like to be. Apologies if I've disappointed any of you.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Human Wound

I’ve come to believe that the quality distinguishing humans from other creatures is our awareness of a wound, a sore spot, a tenderness that is the source of both all our pain and ultimately our joy. Other living creatures, though subject to the same natural pains and laws of physics, remain blessedly unaware of the nature of the wound, and hence do not suffer in quite the same way as do conscious humans. The dawning awareness of this woundedness, this tender spot, is the real life phenomenon that sees its symbol in the idea of our fall from grace, our expulsion from the garden, our entrapment in samsara.

How we respond to our woundedness governs the quality of our lives, in the end. It determines if we remain trapped in dreariness, or find at-one-ment.

The traditional path of a life is to structure things so that we cover up the wound, hide it from others and even ourselves. In anger and fear, we try to plate over our mortal wound with thick layers of costuming and personality, trying to keep others from seeing it and trying to forget about it ourselves. We go to war to protect the wound. We build civilizations around the effort to hide the wound. Our technologies evolve as efforts to defeat the wound. We dress in fancy clothes and dwell in palaces to keep attention away from the wound. Though this is the common way to live, it is not a very pleasant one. It is a happy occasion to wake up from this condition.

Fortunately, the wound is inherent in us, and cannot be avoided forever. Clear seeing will eventually show you the truth of this. Knowing it and accepting it is a sign of our evolution, our consciousness. To hide from the wound is to live a life of non-truth. To do this is ultimately an evil life, for virtually all evil acts are strategies to hide from the wound or to push it onto others that we might forget it.

We are lucky that we can’t hide forever from the truth, and a genuine glimpse of our own mortal woundedness is what offers us the opportunity to change, to awaken. To awaken and feel the wound after a long period of hiding is something you should celebrate. Some day, you may well come to realize that the moments of greatest trauma were also your moments of greatest awakening.

Sometimes through luck, sometimes with help, you may find that there is another way to respond to the knowledge of our wound. We do not have to hide, we do no need to defend. We can acknowledge the wound, accept it, live gladly with it even. We can tenderly care for their own wound, and treat the tender spots of others with compassion and empathy. We can respond to it with good nature, with irony and humour and understanding. This is the path of the artists who live to articulate the experience of our human woundedness; the mystics who lived and died with compassion for the wounded; the saints who care for the universal wound. It’s also a trait found in every good soul you’ve known.

Perhaps you have known people who live this way, or maybe you have discovered it for yourself: It is when we are confronted with the indisputable and unavoidable truth of our woundedness that a conscious, free life begins.

The happiest people I’ve ever known are those most aware of the tender wound in themselves and others. They ache with others, and for others.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Reader Writes...

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but today I’m going to post nothing more than a response to a single reader comment, Sacred Slut’s response to yesterday’s post.

Among the items in her well reasoned discussion, Slut notes that many atheists do feel the draw of a spiritual component, but prefer a non-theistic approach. I’m heartened by this, though I don’t see such an attitude as all that widespread. She then suggests that we define the emotional, feeling side of experience as “spirit” and says this is the aspect to which we should give rightful attention. And finally, she asks for further discussion of the premise that “spirit” is energy, and for an argument that consciousness may survive after death.

First of all, I have to say that I do not subscribe to the hindu-buddhist notion of a literal transmutation of individual human consciousness. I see this as a remnant of eastern folk-lore religion, not a component of the modern eastern philosophy. Reincarnation itself is for me and for many modern Buddhists a symbol of the cyclical nature of all existence. It’s the folklore equivalent of astrophysics concept of an oscillating cosmos.

(Slut asked for a reading list; I would point out anything by Chogham Trungpa, particularly The Lion’s Roar, for evidence of how modern Buddhist scholars view the idea of different “realms” of reincarnation. In this book, Trungpa states that we should think of these different realms as psychological states, not literal rebirths.)

Slut makes a couple of premises, though, that violate my own assumptions. First of all, I don’t believe that true spirit or consciousness is the “emotional-feeling” part of us at all. What we aim for is well past that. Much of what commonly thought of as mind is not mind in the Buddhist sense, but simply another manifestation of body.

This includes thought, which is not considered special or spiritual in any way. Nor is emotion, even pleasant ones, thought to be evidence of some divine state. These things are considered aggregates—temporary assemblies of matter that will arise and fall away like everything else. They are not particularly important. Eastern mysticism points at something beyond and antecedant to thought and emotion. Although perception of the mystical may well stimulate intensely pleasurable feelings, the feelings are a byproduct, not the goal.

Where this leads us to is that consciousness itself is defined much differently in many eastern philosophies than it is in the west.

What westernerns call consciousness is not the thing that Buddhists believe travels on after death. At best, the thing we call human consciousness is nothing much more than a very rudimentary, vestigal form of the universal consciousness we believe exists. Consciousness is not the condition of being awake-and-out-of-bed. It refers to much more rarified condition.

So most Buddhists wouldn’t argue with the premise that mundane human consiousness is extinguished at death. This is somewhat like saying that, although twilight marks the death of a single day, it doesn’t mark the end of the sun itself.

The goal of Buddhist mysticism is stop dwelling on the day (small individual consciousness) in order to have experience of the sun (universal consciousness).

Next, I would say to Slut that I sense that she wants me to present some kind of scientific evidence of the truth of this. Alas, it can’t really work that way, since these are truths that use entirely different vocabularies. I can’t describe mystical truth using the language of science, anymore than I could write a sonnet using decimal mathematic language. It doesn’t translate that way. Nor could you translate a sonnet from English to Russian, because the rhyme schemes simply couldn’t work.

But there is perhaps a form of logical thought that might be followed.

If you read the biographies of Newton, Albert Einstein and a host of other scientific minds, you begin to see a pattern. Many of the most startling scientific discoveries seem not to be the product of reason at all, but often arrive at moments of utter detached receptivity. The Law of Specific Gravity, for example, is said to have simply popped into Archimedes head at a moment of utter rest. And Einstein was fabled for the fact that his insights were not products of reasoning at all, but products of inspiration. The literature is full of examples like this. Although there is a good deal of reason and logic that goes into the utililization of scientific insight in applied science, the insight itself—the theoretical science-- seems quite divorced from reason, and much more closely resembles the insight of the mysticism. Perhaps its not power of intellect at all, but mental receptivity that is most important.

What this suggests to some of us is the presence of a larger consciousness which gifted or skilled individuals may be privileged to tap into. What we suspect is that science discovers nothing; it simply sees, at long last, what is already there. Cutting edge minds in both science and mystical pursuit often have exactly the same experience in the throes of insight—they report simply coming upon an understanding that is already present.

The “already there” is what we Buddhists would call universal consciousness. We believe that death probably simply involves the return of puny human consiousness to the universal pool. And for some people particularly advanced in the pursuit of consciousness, we don’t discount the possibility that a perception of universal consciousness, once achieved, could be maintained through a death cycle. For an astronaut circling the earth at the right speed, there would be no night and day—only day.

It’s for this reason, I think, that many Eastern thinkers have no quarrel with science at all. They don’t see science at odds with mysticism. The Dalai Lama, for example, is fascinated by scientific study, and keeps quite current on all research pertaining to the study of human happiness. This fact often surprises western scientists when they first are confronted with Buddhism. We really don’t see that science and religion are at war at all. The goal of both, we feel, is an understanding of the mechanics of human happiness.

So perhaps it is the case that Buddhism, next to genuine humanism, most closely approximates the non-theistic approach to spirituality that Slut describes.

What will we do, without something to argue about?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Prophet in the Brothel of Iniquity

I lately find myself fascinated by the surging anti-religious mood in this country. It is both heartening and worrisome to me at the same time. I applaud the modern atheist assault on religious hypocrisy, especially in fundamentalist sects of all stripes. Religion has caused a great deal more problems than it has solved, it seems to me, so it's high time to set it in its place. But at the same time, I also worry about the atheists' denial of any kind of symbolic, spiritual life.

A number of the folks I've linked to in my list to the right are atheists, but the site I'd most recommend is Sacred Slut in the Temple of Reason. I recommend it not only because her site features one of the best layouts and great writing, but because its a blog that serves as a clearing house for lots of extremely reasonable voices in this community. It's also a site where I can occasionally play devil's advocate and actually get reasonable arguments rather than shouts.

Deep in Sacred's archives there is a post (read it here) in which she describes her "deconversion"--her move from a religious perspective to a secular, atheistic one. The story is that she came to a point where she began to shine the light of practical sense and reason on her beliefs, and found them wanting. Her investigation was a courageous one, and I admire her for it.

Except for one thing, Sacred's story is a lot like my own. Though my religious upbringing was different (I was raised a Lutheran), I too came to a point where I realized that the tenets of my religion were nonsense, and that I'd need to find truth elsewhere.

Sacred and I came to different conclusions, however. As she describes in her early post, Sacred came to the conclusion that there is no spirit, no reality separate from the body. Her conclusion was that everything commonly called mind or spirit or soul is in fact a manifestation of body, and that there is no supernatural reality separate from the physical.

But while I agree in the falseness of the religious premise, a similar investigation caused me to reach different conclusions from Sacred's.

The premise of the modern atheist is that all spiritual endeavor is inherently false. The belief is that what passes for mind or spirit in fact emanates from the physical. Our sensation of soul, in other words, is nothing more than a highly refined manifestation of matter.

My own investigations, on the other hand, continually point to another equally likely explanation: that the physical emanates from the energetic. What we know as "spiritual" in the end, simply refers to the realities we can't immediately see or grasp. The energy rather than the matter.

It's likely that neither Sacred nor myself is right or wrong. In the end, as Einstein showed, matter and energy are exactly the same thing.

And taking both meditation and daily vitamins is probably a better prescription for happiness than either one alone.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Endorsment You've Been Waiting For

I've changed my mind.

At the democratic primary in my state, I voted for Hillary Clinton, for purely objective reasons. Though I was already impressed with Obama's ability to inspire, when I looked strictly at the issues, I found that Clinton's positions more closely matched my own. A lot of it boiled down to her position on national health care. And I found her approach to Iraq a little more reasoned.

Back at that time, though, I felt as though we were rather fortunate to have three candidates who would have made good presidents. John McCain didn't even seem half bad to me, though I rarely support a Republican.

But in the months since, I've changed my Democratic preference and have become quite sure that a McCain presidency would be a tragedy.

Hillary Clinton has greatly disappointed me in the strategy she's now employed to try and claw her way back into the race, and I'm finally seeing the issue of integrity that others have pointed out. A turning point came when she described dodging sniper fire in Baghdad--an event that clearly never happened. Moreoever, the Clinton efforts to find dirt on Obama seems to have come up with exactly nothing. Recent reports now hint that Clinton knows she cannot get the nomination, but wants to dilute the race making it likely that Obama will lose to McCain, setting up her last-grasp for the White House in 2012.

Barrack Obama now appears to be exactly what he appears to be. Honest, hardworking, inspiring. The last Clinton innuendo--that Obama lied by referring to himself as "professor of law" at the University of Chicago, when in reality his title was "senior lecturer"---pretty much fell apart when U of C issued a statement that indeed Obama was considered a faculty member and could rightly use the title of Professor. Nothing I have seen thus far has put Obama's character in serious question. He is terrifically ambitious...that's just about the worst thing you can say about him.

Also impressive to me, though, is the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama seem to have the legitimate kind of family life that other candidates like to falsely claim. Despite common arguments that a candidates private life is irrelevant to the ability to govern, I believe this is nonsense. Surely a candidate who has the ability to lead an honorable family life brings viable skills to the act of leadership. There is a stunning difference in the quality of the Obama family when compared to the Clintons.

As far as John McCain, the final nails were driven into the coffin when I learned this week that McCain once publicly called his wife a c----, when she teased him about his thinning hair. Several different sources substantiated this event. And McCain once explained that the reason Chelsea Clinton was so ugly was that Janet Reno was her father.

This kind of stuff pretty well overwhelms a couple of positives about McCain--such as the fact that he refuses to use his son's military service in Iraq to his own political gain.

So here it is. Barack is my candidate. I hope we get to celebrate in November.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Drive All Blames into One

By my bedside is a translation of the 59 lojong slogans--a Tibetan Buddhist program of spiritual discipline and mind training. One especially helpful slogan is the twelfth, which in my favorite translation is phrased in this way: “Drive All Blames into One.”

I imagine it would be even more helpful if I was truly good at the practice .

The meaning is essentially this: Whenever misfortune or controversy befalls us, we're advised to simply accept the blame for it, rather than seeking excuses or devising explanations for it, or looking for others to blame for the problem.

“Now hold on just a second,” I can hear some of you saying. “That’s hardly fair. What if I’m really NOT to blame. Maybe it IS the other guy’s fault.”

This might be so if you insist on some kind of human arithmetic, but it’s really not the point of the practice. The idea is to turn our typical manner of being completely on its head. In our standard way of living, so much of our time and energy is spent in defending ourselves, in trying to see ourselves as blameless or good people, that our essence is pretty much held hostage by the effort. So in the same way that it’s human nature to try to talk your way out of a speeding ticket when a cop stops you, we find that we're constantly trying to establish our rightness in the world. In various ways, in fact, this effort to defend an image for ourselves occupies virtually all our effort. We have become so accustomed to a defensive style of life that we never really experience freedom.

So, for example, the advice within this practice would be that when we find ourselves in a squabble with the family member or neighbor or work colleague, rather than trying to argue for our own rightness, we simply capitulate and accept all the blame. Absolutely and unequivocally

I’m sure this is easier in the eastern traditions, where it's literally believed that the woes that befall us today are likely the karmic debt of bad decisions made in other lifetimes. In those traditions, you might well actually believe that kicking a puppy in a former life is why we have have come down with a painful case of boils today.

But strangely enough, there is a notable benefit to this practice even here in the modern, bustling West.

A pretty remarkable thing can happen when you stop defending against fault and imperfection and just accept it. A large amount of tension is instantly released, and a feeling of relief and freedom comes upon you. What you come to realize is that the price of accepting blame is far less ominous than we thought, and, in fact costs us a great deal less than constantly establishing our rightness. It's like carrying a three-pound weight high above your head for your whole life, then realizing that you can just as easily cradle it comfortably in your arms.

This practice can work in all sorts of everyday situations, including the most routine of squabbles between friends or family members. Surrendering the need to be right can instantly make the world seem enormously brighter and far less complicated.

I"m not entirely sure about the reincarnation and truth of previous lives, but when bad things happen I do find it useful, at the very least, to imagine that there is some lesson to be learned, that these things are happening for my long-term benefit. At the very least, the high cholesterol I have today is the result of one cheeseburger too many yesterday, and this of course is one form of karma. There is very little harm, I've found, is simply accepting whatever happens as the just rewards of being human. It has already happened after all, so there's not much point in struggling to establish its unfairness.

It costs me nothing to entertiain this "what if," and in this way, misfortune seems much less personally insulting and outrageous.

And the practice is even more valuable, I think, if you happen to have done something that is most definitely embarrassing to your reputation or damaging to your career or family. For at these moments, if you simply acknowledge your blame, your mistake, and decide to accept whatever retribution or judgment the world chooses to give you, all worry vanishes and you find yourself able to sleep nights.

And slogan 12 has lulled me to sleep on more than one occasion. Recently, in fact.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

That Was Then, This is Now

All things come around.

After an abysmal week at work, I slept not at all Friday night with a mind full of worries and regrets and strange dismal dreams.

I awoke with eyes feeling like sand had been ground into them, and all signs suggested that it wouldn't be much of a Saturday. A bad day, though, is the very best time to just get on with the chopping wood and carrying water, and so I did. There were dozens of routine chores around the house to take care of, and there is a kind of dignified elegance to tending to small details when you're feeling depressed. It's awfully good therapy.

Then, about noon, my son appeared downstairs.

"Hey, old man," he said. "Got anything we can build today?

Well, now, there was a thought. Not much better than tinkering with hardware on a bad day.

This is something of a joke around my house, the fact that I will try to fix and build almost anything around the home. My knowledge far exceeds my skill though, and it's a running joke that if you look closely, the signs of my imprecision and lack of motor skills are evident. My daughter likes to grab my hands and hold them up to new friends, pointing out the stitch marks and scars from various battles. My sons friends joke whenever they come over, wanting to know what I'm building now. "Can you teach us something?" one will say. "My dad can't even change a car tire."

Though he had worked the overnight shift at one of two jobs he tends while trying to make the leap from college grad to career man, Boy was rather bright-eyed and serene after just a few hours of sleep. He's now in job interviews and apartment hunting, as well, and so he has a fresh haircut and is generally clean-shaven, which also helps.

So on Saturday we added some roof gutters around a section of the back porch that has been funneling water into the window well for the basement egress window--which happens to the last building project Boy and I tackled a year ago.

So we listened to the ball game on a radio as we measured and cut and nailed and screwed. And we made a total of four trips to the hardware store, since no American man ever manages to get everything he needs in just one trip. And the trips to the store were actually the best part of the day. Men, they love their hardware. The last trip to the hardware store was a lark: we bicycled there to buy wrenches with which to tune up our bikes. Boy teases me about the old-man bike I've just bought--I no longer have any interest in being streamlined, and it's just fine to sit bold upright where I can see things and my back doesn't protest.

Sometimes I regret that my son and I don't share more interests. But then I pause and reflect on the fact that we'll occasionally go to rock concerts together to see guitarists we both admire, that we've been to action films together twice in the last two months. There is a pretty unique pleasure to having a 23-year old son who is a good, responsible man, well adjusted and friendly to people. And moreover, one who not only tolerates his dad, but seeks me out to do things. I couldn't say the same thing about myself at age 23. I never really did get to know my dad. Still don't.

Odd thing. People have asked me what was my favorite age as the kids were growing up, and upon reflection I always recognize that their current ages are always my favorite. I've never got more pleasure from parenthood than I do right now. I will admit, though, that it's the thought of toddler grandchildren, just beginning to master language, that I'm now looking forward to.

Then on Sunday, I drove over to the University to watch my daughter, a freshman, compete as one of the coxwains on the University rowing team. This is big time Division 1 college athletics, and she made the team as a walk-on, while also earning an academic scholarship and studying Chinese and global politics. So Sunday was spend with my other child, sitting in a comfortable chair on the banks of the Mississippi and reading buddhist philosophy in between races while sipping hot tea. Her team won three times.

This is very early spring in Minnesota, and although it was mild in temperature, the limestone walls of the river valley were still coated with glacial ice on the far side, where the direct sun doesn't shine. It's chilly over there. Then my eyes raised a little higher and I was startled to suddenly recognize the big brick building on the far side of the river, sitting high up on the bank. Riverside hospital. A gust of wind came up and I shivered. I counted up to the windows of the seventh floor of the hospital. More than 30 years ago, that's where I spent the better part of a year staring out at the world and not knowing if I would ever really emerge again.

How very strange. Only thirty years, and yet this is an entirely different river I see today.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Alone at the Movies

The Rolling Stones weren't the main sound track of my youth, but they were certainly the flip side of the 45.

Red Wing, Minnesota, population 12,000, was the booming metropolis of my boyhood, and it was a reach for me even to get there. My home was seven miles south, deep in the countryside, but in the summertimes, I would sometimes bicycle, or sometimes catch a ride with a neighbor, or my dad, if he had errands to run, to hang out at the municipal swimming pool at the city park near the Mississippi River.

The swimming pool staff broadcast the twin cities radio stations through the megaphone-shapd loudspeakers mounted on tall poles, and it was here, between the ages of 10 and 15, that the Rolling Stones sang in the background as I came to adolescence and watched girls gradually develop into young women,summer by summer, glistening in the sun.

For some reason, the memory that's most vivid is not inside the pool, but sitting outside the fence on a park bench, pleasantly tired and drying in the sun, listening the music and oggling girls--including the one I would marry in 10 or 15 years. The girl-boy flirtation for the day was already over, and I would sit outside the pool and think about what was to come. To this day, no Rolling Stones tune ever plays without me thinking about bikinis.

This was the late mid to late 1960s, and a lot of the big hits of the Rolling Stones weren't even recorded yet. On the radio not too long ago, my daughter was surprised when the announcer identified "Paint it Black" as a Rolling Stones song, and was even more surprised by "Ruby Tuesday." These, though, were the songs of my boyhood, along with "Street Fightin' Man." We were, I think, still a couple of years away from "Satisfaction." I know that I was, anyway.

I was much more a Beatles guy in those days, but the Stones did appeal to the anarchist in me, which was brewing even then. By the time I reached high school, though, I would have already started to favor mostly folk rock singers--Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, a bit of Bob Dylan, Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young.

So the Stones will forever be mostly associated with the summer swimming pool, and particularly with the image of my future wife's freckles disappearing under the edge of her bikini top.

This week, after a long and hard week of work, and with my wife on a school trip to Costa Rica until Monday, I took in Martin Scorcese's new documentary of the present Rolling Stones, called "Shine a Light." It's a film much like "The Last Waltz," Scorcese's tribute to The Band filmed some years ago.

It's a pretty interesting time capsule, and it offers an entirely acceptable image of time passing and all of us growing older. Musically, the band isn't quite what it once was, but for all of that there is something reassuring about the image of these 60-something wrinkled men still joyfully performing this music of my youth. Filmed in a smallish New York theater, what is most striking is how readily the four band members shed all the baggage of being THE ROLLING STONES, and just become what they always were at heart--a pretty good blues-bar band with an extremely mesmerizing front man.

Make no mistake about it. The Stones were always Mick Jaggar's band, and nothing has changed. Scorcese is clearly fascinated by the timelessness of Jaggar, and unlike your views of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, you would be hard pressed to seem much difference in the physical performance of Jaggar now compared to 25 years ago. It's only the deeply cragged face that gives away his age.

These are now old men, and it's perfectly all right. They ask for nothing except a place to play, and it's ever so clear how much they still like the music. The hit tunes are done a bit on autopilot, but the film becomes quite poignant at those moments when the band reverts back into the blues tunes which began their careers. The high point for me is a rendition of the old Muddy Water's tune "Champaign and Reefer," in which Buddy Guy joins the band, while Jagger plays harmonica with skill we forgot he had.

Juxtaposed against the current concert scenes are old television interview clips of the various Stones, most taped in black and white. Yes, Jessica. We once had television that wasn't high def, wasn't even color.

So in case you haven't figured it out, this is my enthusiastic thumbs-up film review. Shine a Light. Just like a young girl should.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I Hope, You'll Understand

A few days ago, an article I wrote here provoked more commentary—and intelligent commentary, at that—than anything I've written in the last year. And not only in blog-land, where the subject even found its way onto other blogs. In real life, too, discussions about the value and meaning of hope in human happiness found their way into lots of face-to-face discussions.

The premise of that article was this: I challenged the idea that hope is forever and always a prime human virtue. I suggested, in fact, that it can even be the driving force behind unhappiness.

It's easy to see why this was a controversial post. We have all been raised to believe that hope, along with faith and love and charity, is one of the very principle virtues by which people should live. It's in the Bible, after all. To say you're "hopeless" is thought to be represent the ultimate in discouragement and depression.

So at the risk of reigniting the firestorm, I'd like to address the subject again, and explain a little more about where my thoughts came from.

As tradition has it, we believe that hope is the force that brings positive change about. This is the standard logic, and it goes something like this: 1. We find ourselves in an unpleasant or painful situation. 2. This leads to hope—which we can define as a "visualization, or conception of a future situation which we will find more pleasant than the present one." 3. The energy of hope fuels action toward the hoped-for goal. 4. Upon achieving the desired goal, happiness is ours.

When we are happy, we generally assume it is because our hopes have been fulfilled.

But when I looked closely at myself, I began to see that this was not always the case for me. Sometimes, sure, it did work exactly that way. Confronted with a painful infection, visualizing, then seeking medical help, indeed led to a reduction of pain and more contentment.

But not always. Not even most of the time. Sometimes, all that really came for me was the faintest of rest periods before another round of hoping began. And then I began to see instances where the equation ran something like this:

1. I find myself with a hope, a desire, for something different. 2. This leads to dissatisfaction in the present circumstance, unhappiness. 3. I surrender hope (in the first instances, this was done somewhat experimentally). 4. I found that the here-now became much more immediate, more energizing. 5. I was considerably happier.

In other words, it was not an effort to change outer circumstances that brought about happiness. As often as not, it was the subtle inner adjustment that was far more necessary and effective.

This explained, in part, a most interesting phenomenon—the fact that happiness often seems to be largely independent of outer circumstances. On a day where I've arisen on the wrong side of the bed, there is nothing whatsoever uniquely awful about my circumstances, yet I might be mildly depressed and unhappy all day. But on other days, quite a lot of unpleasantness can occur, yet it doesn't really affect my general cheerfulness for life.

Or perhaps you, too, know a few people who will treat a simple rain shower as a personal insult to their happiness. And maybe you know other people able to live with cancer even while being exceedingly happy.

So what this all implies to me is that happiness isn't always about the outer circumstances.

Often, it's about the inner perception.

Those of you with strong beliefs in the traditional value of hope have a very legitimate comeback to this thesis. You might argue, for example, that if you simply tolerate every circumstance that happens to you, you will just wind up staying in situations that are demeaning, degrading, or even dangerous.

But it really hasn't worked out that way for me, and I'm certainly not recommending that we tolerate situations that are intolerable. That's stupidity. Faced with unpleasant circumstances, I always respond and react to them. But I'm not aware that hope is really present at all. In fact, taking action all by itself seems to eliminate the physical sensation of hoping. Responding to pain and suffering, it seems, doesn't require hope; it just requires practical sense and the surrender of inaction.

And it's been interesting to note that even the staunchest defenders of hope have told me that at those times when they are utterly happy and content, they're not hoping for anything at all. They are just thrilling to the moment.

Did they get there because their hoping has been successful? Or by turning loose of hope for a moment or two?

I have to tell you, with all honesty, that I'm happier when I'm not hoping.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Mild Rant

I find myself in an odd position, culturally, with a foot in two very opposite worlds. Or maybe it's actually three different worlds that I don't fit into.

I read lots of blogs representing lots of different view points, engage lots of people in friendly discussions over coffee, but I've lately been a little disturbed by some of the hostility and apparent arrogance I encounter.

I'm curious about the religious literalists, though I don't understand this position very well. This group includes the creationist crowd, and virtually all fundamentalists, whether they be Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist. What I most wonder about is how a person can live happily when a literal doctrine collides with common sense and evidence. I'm genuinely interested in how this works. I occasionally have tried to intelligently discuss these things on blogs hosted by Christians of this type, and I'm shocked by the hostile reaction There are some Christians who are meaner than any Ku Klux Klanner you'll ever see. I asked one blogger how he personally reconciled a hatred of gay people with the Christian injunction to love his neighbors... and was told that I was going to burn in hell most painfully for asking such a question.

But this doesn't mean that I fall neatly into the atheist club, because at the same time I reject religious literalism, I very strongly do believe in spiritual pursuit, and am frankly put off by the folks who act like science has all the answers. This crowd, to my way of thinking, has just substituted another false idol to the Jehovah they rail against. My instincts and my personal experience is that it's not a purely scientific approach, but a more symbolic and artistic life that leads to happiness. Such a suggestion, though, causes the apologists for science to be just as hostile and insulting as the fundamental Christians. I've been accused of ignorance by people who've never read Thomas Kuhn on scientific revolution. While I admire much of what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins say, a great many of their followers seem to have no forward agenda at all, and are simply interested in fighting religion. And living your life purely to fight is not for me.

Then there are the new age group, with astral travel and angel collections and crystal therapy.
For some reason, this group seems to be the friendliest and least judgmental, but it is just a little too undisciplined for me to want join their club. A 30 year old once tried to explain why Tantra was THE answer, and how I was a pure fool for not seeing it. Tantra, he kindly explained to me, was developed in San Francisco in the 1960s. His source of information was not the ancient Hindu or Buddhist root texts that lay out the basis for Tantric study, but some web sites he had seen sponsoring tantric retreats in New Mexico. A month later, he had turned to relexology.

So having no natural membership in any of these clubs, I choose to study all these various traditions, and to compose a spiritual practice based on a synthesis of the symbolic truths I find underlying all of them. My heroes, in this regard, are people like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, for whom religious mythologies and civilized culture represented extremely real psychological truths about human nature.

Jung once suggested that humans would eventually evolve to a stage where the pursuit of science, religion, psychology and art would be exactly the same endeavor. Yeah, man. I can get behind that. Jung, for example, thought we should openly accept the belief in UFO visitors...as an interesting manifestation of group delusion.

So my shelves include The Bible, the Quran, the Bhaghavad Gita, the Origin of Species, Id and Ego, The End of Faith, and many other books that are all equally valuable works of art. They all represent humans trying to understand what evolution is aiming toward, what we should strive for. What a great thing that we're all looking for virtually the same thing. It's through the hearing many different interpretations that I think we get closest to the truth.

But for those of you who think that one of these books is somehow more valuable and true than all the others...

I fear you won't be very interested in this particular club. And sometimes I fear that it's a club with only one member.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Somebody Else's Words, for a Change

I ran across this film clip tonight, and thought I would share it with you. It's a touch on the long side, but quite delightful and I think you might enjoy it.

It explains pretty clearly why some of us have received such help from Buddhist philosophy. This is a practice that is really nothing more than a rational study of the conditions of happiness, and I doubt you will ever hear anyone speak more logically than this Frenchman turned Tibetan monk.

Have a listen:
I ran across this film clip tonight and thought I'd share it with you. It's a touch long, but it is quite a brilliant explanation of why Buddhist philosophy appeals to many of us.

This practice is essentially a down-to-earth study of the conditions of genuine human well-being, and I think you'll never find a man that speaks any more rationally than this Frenchman turned Tibetan monk. If you have a few minutes, have a listen:

April Fool's Day In Minnesota

We Minnesotans took a certain glee in winter 2007-2008, because it saw a return to the fierce winters of yore, making us celebrate our Viking heritage. (Like roughly 99.9% of Minnesotans I am of Norwegian descent).

We saw 20 days or so where temps dipped into the double-digit below zero range, and for the first time in years we felt good about our hearty ability to thrive on the edge of the polar icecap. We hate global warming not because it threatens the planet, but because it threatens our reputation as America's heartiest citizens.

So we have rather celebrated this particular winter. We've laughed at wind-chills rated at -50 degrees. We've gone to school plays and routine dentist appointments in weather that would utterly paralyze the sissies who live down in Des Moines.

But it is now April 1. Enough is enough.

Make it stop. Please.