Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn in More Ways than One

Here in Minnesota, by the time the calendar announces the start of autumn, we're already in full sway. A few of the maples begin turning their colors in early September, and my staghorn sumac was hinting yellow by mid month. Winter, too, will impatiently come well before the Dec. 22 calendar date, often settling in here shortly after Halloween.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. There's a poignancy about it, as we're always well aware that the first killing frost is just around the corner, even while the gardens and landscapes are at their most colorful. Minnesota is mid summer is a lush place dominated by greens, but as autumn begins, the greens are beginning to turn to yellows and browns, and the garden plants still flowering take on an almost neon intensity: brown-eyed susans, asters, mums.

For some people, autumn is a somewhat sad time, but I've never felt that way about it. There is just a hint of melancholy about it, but it's that kind of nice melancholy, like you get before going to bed after a full day of boisterous, fun activity. Winter for me is a time of peace and contentment, as so it doesn't particularly bother me that summer is over. Summer 2010 was a little stressful for me this year, with a difficult economy making for a challenging work situation, and a bum knee giving me a fair amount of physical pain to accommodate. So I find myself ready for a more restful autumn and winter.

The last couple of years have found me feeling even more nostalgic in autumn, and I wonder if this is perhaps because I'm now in the early autumn phase of life myself. I'll be turning 55 later this year, eligible for senior citizen discounts at Perkins restaurants, and with a family legacy that has most everyone moving onward in their 60s or 70s, I'd be fooling myself to imagine that I'm still a young man. You might think that this would be sobering or depressing, but strangely it's not.

I suppose I take comfort from the fact that I've never seen a winter that wasn't followed by spring. It's just that one day in the future, spring will look quite a bit different than ever before.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Leaving the Club I Once Belonged To

I'm perilously close to handing in my lifetime membership card as a Christian.

I've not really been a practicing Christian for awhile, but the last I looked I had some rights to be grandfathered into the club. As an infant, I was baptized in the church, and if I'm not mistaken this kind of makes me a member by default, much the way being born in the US automatically makes you a citizen.

Christianity is certainly my heritage and my culture, but events over the last week or so——some dramatic, some quiet—are making me seriously think about formal and forever disavowal.

• The nutcase preacher in Florida who is promising to burn copies of the Qu'ran on 9/11.... Now, I know that freedom of speech makes such a thing legal and technically defensible, but surely we can all agree that it's a bad idea, in incredibly poor taste. The outpouring of criticism of this wack job, though, has been slow to emerge if you ask me. The fact that "normal" Christians remain so silent in response to this and other actions of their lunatic fringe is disheartening. And this morning, I even heard some member of the conservative press begin to express defense of his planned actions.

• On the bus the other day, a fellow sitting near the front bid me farewell when I reached my stop, with the words. "God bless you sir. Jesus loves you." Now, normally I don't particularly care about such displays, but on this day I suddenly was struck by the fact that this demonstrates a kind of arrogance I don't much appreciate. Especially in the more fundamentalist wings of Christianity this kind of "witnessing" is expected, but it seems to me to be quite a presumptuous stance to assume that your God is the one that I really want blessings from. I wonder what this fellow would think or say, for example, if I replied " Blessing of the prophet of Allah upon you." My hunch is that he might be offended, perhaps even enraged. Hari Krishnas were banned from handing out flowers at the airport years ago around here, but nobody thinks twice about trying to impose Jesus on others.

• A pair of women offering the Gospel knocked on the door last night, wishing to speak with me about Christ. "Sorry," I said, quite politely, "But I don't share your particular practice."

"You're not a Christian?" One said, aghast. "What, then?"

"Well, I might well be Jewish," I said. "Or I could be a Hindu, or Buddhist, for example. Actually, I don't really care to discuss that with you, as it's really a private matter."

"We'll pray to the Lord for you, sir," the other said as they turned away in horror.

• At the bus stop this morning, a Chevy Impala with a fish decal in the back passenger side window pulled up and began honking frantically at a stopped car holding five members of Somali family, the distinctive headwear of the mother and three daughters being unmistakable. Our fellow in the Impala desperately wanted to turn right on red light, but the Somali father ahead of him was obeying the traffic prohibition, which dictated "no turn on red."

Once the light turned green, the Somali driver quietly turned the corner and pulled over to the curb to let the American driver roar by. As the Impala turned, I saw additional Christian decals and bumper stickers on the back of the car.

This, frankly, has been my general experience of Muslims in my own community——as conservative, law-abiding folks who rarely make waves at all, and tolerate a good deal of angry abuse at the hands of Christians, some of whom vocally express their hatred.

I know that it's certainly not fair of me to paint all Christians with the same brush that colors the wacky few; just like it's illogical for Westerners to dress all Muslims in the robes of Bin Laden. But damn it, it begins to make you ashamed of your own heritage. On the eve on 9/11 anniversary, I read statistics that western retribution for 9/11 over the last 9 years has led to the death of at least 110,000 Muslims in Iraq, of which 95,000 are thought to be civilians, according to the Associated Press. That's a ratio of 30 teeth for one tooth, and Lord almighty, we appear to have no intention of stopping anytime soon, as the crusade continues in Afghanistan.

Do the Christians I see around me really, truly believe that this is how Jesus would act? If not, then why aren't they speaking up?

Here's my membership card. Take it, please.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writhing, as a Spiritual Practice

When I look openly at my own experience of life, and look nakedly at the behavior of people around me, it seems to me quite clear that in the base experience of human life, discomfort plays an important, crucial role. Discomfort comes in many forms, from mild restlessness to outright pain, but in all shades and variations, this discomfort is really the organizing principle for our lives.

I remember once seeing a film done by sleep researchers, in which the typical night's sleep for various test subjects was condensed into 30-second long fast-motion film clips. What was striking was that a "good night's sleep" featured a few moments of utterly relaxed motionlessness, but was mostly a matter of tossing and turning and writhing, as the subject twisted away from physical discomfort and tried to find a few moments of comfortable respite.

This strikes me as a microcosmic of what human life is like, as a great deal of what we do, both individually and culturally, is a form of writhing——an attempt to move out of discomfort and into comfort. It's something of a no-win battle, as no sooner do we find a comfortable position in which to lie, then it grows wearisome and uncomfortable, and we're left to writhe in a different direction to relieve the newly arisen discomfort. This seems evident on so many levels that I wonder if it can be disputed at all.

The creation of government is an attempt to reduce the discomfort of chaos; science is an attempt to establish comfort, either by simply relieving our terror of the unknown or by relieving physical discomfort through practical applications. Art is an attempt to articulate the dramatic interplay of comfort and discomfort and thereby make it understandable. Religious mythologies create stories that explain the origins of comfort and discomfort, and how to court one and banish the other.

I walked through a modern American mall the other day, and counted three store shops devoted to massage, acupuncture, oxygen inhalation and other forms of relieving physical discomfort. The other retail stores existed to serve other methods for courting pleasure and distracting us from pain. The entire capitalist structure it seems to me, exists in particular to nurture pleasure and banish discomfort, through dedication to the pursuit of happiness. When we suffer from great discomfort as a society, we're very likely to go to war to attempt to take gain some comfort, taking it from other people.

This may seem like a slightly cynical view of life, but I'm not sure it's really anything to moan about at all. It really seems to be mostly a matter of simple mechanical physics. Our experience of cycles of comfort and discomfort aren't really all that different from the physical laws we observe in the natural world, where periods of pacific weather give way to stormy turbulence, which then discharge energy and allow a period of peaceful, calm weather to settle in again. Calm landscapes are periodically thrown up in mountainous upheavals and earthquakes, then the landscape gradually erodes again to form calm plains. A boulder perched on the edge of a cliff strikes me as being quite uncomfortable there, and is much relieved when it tumbles into the valley and releases the precarious imbalance.

So our experience of comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure, may be nothing more than our subjective experience of normal universal physical properties. Wherever you look, you see the matter-energy matrix in a constant flux between periods of comfortable equilibrium and disturbed imbalance. It is the way of the world. The periodic arising of sorrow and unhappiness, and the subsequent appearance of peace and happiness, may be every bit as normal as the brightly shining sun that churns evaporated water vapor from oceans into storm clouds, which then must be relieved by thunderstorms before the sun can shine again.

Subjectively, there is some philosophical peace-of-mind to be had simply from understanding that the cycle of discomfort and comfort, pain and peace, is a natural one. At the very least, it makes it hard to feel put-upon by life's challenges, and it eliminates the "it's not fair" attitude that governs the emotionally immature.

It's something of a cop-out, though, to passively dwell here, tempting though it might be. For the truth is that the writhing itself, the instinct away from discomfort and toward peace, is in itself a natural function, and it's here that spiritual practice fits in. Spiritual practice, after all, isn't about detached philosophical acceptance, but rather, it's always a tool for improving the success of the writhing itself. When you look at the practices and rituals of any spiritual system, you quickly see that they don't really offer acceptance of the suffering, but always propose beliefs and practices aimed at discharging the energy, for facilitating the motion toward peace and comfort.

Even Buddhism, arguably the most detached and accepting of practices, holds as one of it's four basic tenants that its techniques offer an end to suffering. Every other system of spiritual practice also offers its own form of salvation from suffering, and that fact alone proves my contention: spiritual practice exists in the zone of writhing, that transition zone from pain and discomfort to peace and ease. Spirituality helps us writhe more successfully, much the way a lightning rod discharges the energy of a thunderstorm without burning down the barn.

The success of a spiritual practice, then, should be judged not by whether it offers never-ending happiness (clearly impossible), but by how well it helps us routinely negotiate the motion from imbalance back to equilibrium, from sorrow to peace, whenever those imbalances arise.