A return from the blogging sabbatical

 

 

Image

I decided to take some time off from writing, although perhaps it wasn’t really a conscious decision. That’s pretty funny though, considering I had only just begun.  Instead, I have been continuing to wrestle various issues, mostly centered around my full-time struggle with religion, god, and the like.  I don’t remember what has been shared previously here, and I haven’t looked through previous blog posts in a while. The gist of my conundrum has been that I had left the Catholic Church some time ago and, ipso facto, any real, substantial belief in “god” has pretty much been jettisoned as well.  Instead, I have gravitated towards a more Buddhist spirituality due to a lack of “proof” of the former.  (This isn’t to say that I buy into the Buddhist belief of reincarnation and other shit like that.  I find such things as fanciful as other religious beliefs.)

What has been so attractive about Buddhism is what Siddhartha Gautama said (and I’m obviously paraphrasing here):  Don’t take anything I say just on faith alone.  Take what I say and test it.  If it fails you, abandon it.  If you find that it works, then use it.  There seems to be an “empirical-ness” built into the method of Buddhist practices.  I dig that.  Some have argued with me that the same sort of “cause and effect” relationship exists with prayer in Christianity.  I say, “nay nay.”  In Christianity, insofar as I understand it, one offers prayers to the deity and, as a result, grace, peace, joy and other gifts are metered out as that deity sees fit.  It was my experience that such gifts did not come.  Sorry, there was no Santa Claus.  However, with Buddhist meditation, with focusing on breathing, with actively performing things designed to quiet my mind, I absolutely did experience peace, a decrease in anger, and an increase in clarity in thinking.  I also noticed that my relationships with others improved.  I have been much more happy.

 In spite of the obvious benefits of Buddhist practice, I still find myself searching for answers to the “god” question. Some of the questions that  just vex me to no end are:

1.  If God exists, why does he (sic) make his presence so difficult to discern?  A related question is,

2.  If the Christian God is real, why must THE most important decision of a human being’s entire life be based on something that is so difficult to discern AND be made on pure faith?  Namely, we must believe and accept that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved.  Otherwise, guess what awaits us?  That to me is simply untenable.   We could go on for days and days about this point alone, but what if, through honest investigating and searching, I come to the rational belief that Jesus was not God, using all of the “gifts” of my intellect, will, senses, etc.?  Would I still be banished to hell for that decision?  What does that say about this all-merciful God?  “Sorry, Johnny. You work on the problem was sound, but you still got the answer wrong.  You still failed the test.  No partial credit.  Go to hell.”  “Sorry God, my name isn’t Johnny. YOU go to hell.”

3.  If the Christian God is real, how can he be both all merciful and all just?  How can opposite qualities, being possessed to infinite degrees, exist in a rational, intelligent being simultaneously?  That defies all logic.  “Sorry, it’s a mystery!”  Don’t give me that.  That’s a cop out for something you don’t understand.  And, I don’t mean to sound glib or disdainful.  I just can’t take such “god of the gap” answers and fallacious reasoning any longer.  Of course, if my reasoning has any problems in it, I’m completely open to it being pointed out.

4.  If the Christian God is real, how are the numerous scriptural contradictions and obvious fabrications explained?  (I do not care to list them here.  For a brief listing, see Dan Barker’s book, Godless, or just use Google or something.)

5.  If God exists and we have immortal souls, at what point in the evolutionary development of man did “souls” get infused into human beings?  There are all sorts of logical problems with this.  And, for the record, I do believe in evolution.  To deny the truth of evolution is to act as if one has had a transorbital lobotomy.  I will not go into the defending evolution here, but the evidence for the existence of evolution is so overwhelming, that one has to be practically decerebrate to deny it.  (And so, how could a specific man named Adam be made from the dirt?)

This list could go on ad infinitum (a little more latin as a shout out to my Catholic friends), but these are just some of the questions that still make me lose sleep.  I’m simply not satisfied with throwing up my hands and saying, “aw fuck it, I’ll never have answers to these questions.”  Neither am I satisfied with the cop out, “You just gotta have faith, Michael!”  (Please do not start singing George Michael.  Please.)  The reason I think this is a cop out is that, if God really made us, then he also made our intellects, our reasons, our senses.  It seems to me entirely ridiculous and cruel for a god to give us such capabilities and then to demand that they be purposely suspended.  “Sorry kids, I want you to just ‘believe! Use those tools for discovering that spoiled milk is yucky, but when it comes to proving that I exist, sorry, I’m not going to subject my superior nature to being discovered that way!”

One last thought before I wrap up.  This part of my life is extremely difficult, and I don’t share either it or that it is difficult lightly.  I do not desire condolences or sympathy.  However, I do wish to explain something.  When belief in a god, especially as defined by a religion that one loves, no longer seems tenable, it’s as if one’s world is turned upside down.  The warm rug that one used to curl up on and fall asleep on has been pulled out and tossed asunder.  There is not a small amount of fear, anxiety, depression, disorientation, loneliness, self-doubt, and anger.  I’m sure there are other emotions as well, but those are the ones closest to the surface right now.

These emotions may come out in communication with others, in Facebook posts, in overall demeanor, and the like.  To most people, that would seem perfectly natural.  To the most judicious and gracious of souls, I’ve been met with warm hugs, understanding nods, and accepting words.  To her great credit (and perhaps the greatest proof of a loving god so far), my loving wife has treated me in the most admirable of ways and she has my praise.  However, there are some who have reacted to me in various, negative ways.  I’ve been called an apostate.  I’ve had various personal faults of mine voiced publicly by friends who felt that I was acting disdainful towards their religion.  All this goes to show me that this topic hits so very close to home and I guess I can’t really blame others for reacting with such strong emotion when I, myself, am also experiencing similar strong emotions.  These issues touch the core of who we identify ourselves as being. I can tell you that I will try to treat everyone with respect.  I may not respect beliefs that I think are silly (if you think that you need to cut your testicles off, where fancy sneakers and kill yourself so that you will meet up with a spaceship, yeah, that’s pretty stupid in my opinion) but I will try to convey that, as a person, you are worthy of respect and love.  I hope that you all can do the same.

Thanks for reading.  More to come.  -michael

Anger, Part II (or, why I sold my guns)

ImageThis post is going to be a bit difficult to write.  It’s about guns.  And it’s going to be difficult to write because this topic can so easily be divisive, polarizing, political.  But what I want to say applies just to me.  That’s one thing I really dig about Buddhism:  It seems to me that Buddhism is an accepting and nonjudgmental system of belief.  Evaluate what works for you.  Try it on.  Test it out.  If it doesn’t work, move on.  No biggie.  Don’t accept things blindly just because some smiling chubster said it was so.

Anyway, I’ve always been a gun lover.  My father was a cop.  I grew up in the military.  Guns were always a part of my “culture.”  And, following an event years ago when I was a therapist, involving a deranged patient, guns became a very intimate part of my everyday life. I convinced myself that they *needed* to be part of me for my intrinsic well-being and for that of my family.  They became a large part of my identity.

The only problem is that I as I started to delve further into Buddhism, I noticed two things:  First, I have a huge anger problem.  Second, one of the aspects of “Right Action,” as one of the core teachings of the Noble Eight Fold Path is to abstain from killing.  Regarding the first issue, it’s not like I was having a hard time refraining from shooting people.  It wasn’t like that at all.  However, I did notice that there was a connection between being around guns and not being at peace.  Between packing heat and being able to respond to other humans with unconditional positive regard and without suspicion.  I felt like I always had to have my guard up, I always had to be alert.  I’m not saying that this is a bad thing *in general.*  It’s wise to be aware of one’s surroundings, to be sure.  I’m just saying that for me, it was starting to cause problems.  It was keeping me from being settled.

Secondly, the admonition to not kill was causing me a moral dilemma.  I was looking to people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama who have been two very powerful forces for peace specifically *through* their nonviolent stance.  I began to wonder if my attachment to guns  (as well as my saturation in the gun culture) was prohibiting me from fostering peace within myself, within my family, and within the world around me.  The image of a would-be Buddhist, sitting on the cushion to meditate, while having a .45 strapped to his hip just seemed terribly incongruent.  “I want to be at peace with every living thing, but I also want the ability to blast the shit out of something that is a threat to me.”  Those two thoughts, at least in my current evolution of thought, don’t seem to be able to live together.  Maybe they can, and I’m just myopic.  I don’t know.

Now, before anyone decides to start a debate about this, let me again say this:  These are just *my* thoughts about this matter as they pertain to *me.”  I am not making any judgement at all about anyone else’s beliefs.  In fact, I’m still not completely settled about the matter, especially in terms of self-defense:  I live out in the middle of no where, and law enforcement are slow to respond.  What if my wife or children were in danger?  What is my obligation to protect them?  What is the best way to protect them?   On our farm we occasionally have coyotes that can threaten our animals.  Wouldn’t it be prudent to have a firearm to protect again them?  These are questions I still struggle with.

Whatever the answers, I know what I want.  And that is to live a life that is at peace with myself, with my loved ones and with the world in which I live.  And at this point in my life, I’m willing to do anything to accomplish these goals.  I know that, since I’ve gotten rid of the arsenal (well, everything except the 12 gauge anyway – coyotes and other predators really piss me off), I’m a lot more peaceful.

Anger

Image

First, let me say that I mean no disrespect to the Dalai Lama or anyone who reveres him by posting this meme.  For me, it illustrates a very important belief that I’ve always carried around about anger, which is that if you make me angry (and underneath that anger, at least for me, is usually hurt of some kind, often based in fear), I have to retaliate.  I have to defend.  I have to strike back.  And I usually did.

But why?   I’ve had such a problem with anger.  And I’ve had it for a very, very long time. As I started to explore Buddhism, I found a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, simply titled “Anger.”  In it, he wrote this simple piece:

When someone says or does something that makes us angry, we suffer. We tend to say or do something back to make the other suffer, with the hope that we will suffer less. We think, “I want to punish you, I want to make you suffer because you have made me suffer. And when I see you suffer a lot, I will feel better.”  Many of us are inclined to believe in such a childish practice. The fact is that when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more. The result is an escalation of suffering on both sides.  Both of you need compassion and help. Neither of you needs punishment.

When you get angry, go back to yourself, and take very good care of your anger. And when someone makes you suffer, go back and take care of your suffering, your anger. Do not say or do anything. whatever you say or do in a state of anger may cause more damage in your relationship.

Most of us don’t do that.  We don’t want to go back to ourselves. We want to follow the other person in order to punish him or her.  If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist.  If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire.  So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.

It’s that bit about the “house on fire” that really got me.  I’d much rather run after the arsonist and beat the shit out of him instead of tending to the house of my person – my mind, my emotions, my body – and getting that fire under control, so as to minimize the damage being caused.

As soon as I started to meditate on this, an interesting thing happened.  I stopped getting so angry at everything.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Some people can still push my buttons and get me in a fit of rage.  However, it’s not nearly as bad as it was.  For example, it used to be that whenever some slow schmuck wouldn’t get out of the left lane so I could speed by, I’d ride his tail aggressively, and when he finally did pull over, I’d glare hard at him.  Now, not only do I not do that, but I find that I don’t even speed as much.  Well, most of the time, anyway.  What I discovered, and this probably isn’t any big surprise to anyone but me, is that the only reason my house was burning is that I had been dousing it with gasoline.  So, whenever any spark came close to it, it practically exploded.  My house was burning because of me.  It wasn’t on fire because of an arsonist.

Now, my house is covered in flame retardant material.  Now, if someone lights a match near my house, either intentionally or while just being careless, it’s far less likely to burst into flames.  That material is created by mindfulness and meditation.  By taking care of myself like I never have done before.

It’s nice to not be governed by anger all of the time.

On the beginnings of meditation practice. Or, I’m Dug.

ImageI attended my first Buddhist retreat in Wisconsin this past June. It was at the Windhorse Retreat Center (windhorse.shambhala.org), located near the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour north of Milwaukee.  I really had no idea what to expect and I was a bit nervous.  Being a “beginner’s retreat,”  it was focused on introducing the practice of meditation to participants.  Now, meditation, for those who may not know, is a strange sort of thing for a lot of westerners.  You plop your fat ass down on a cushion and adopt a particular posture.  I won’t describe the ins and outs of the posture here, but I’m told that every aspect of it has been introduced due to it’s efficacy in helping practitioners meditate.  Then you sit there.  In silence. Focusing on nothing but your breathing.  The first thing that popped into my head was a line from a college friend of mine: “don’t tell me how to breathe, I’m alive, ain’t I?!?”

So we sat there.  Breathing.  Being mindful.  Of our breathing.  In, I’m aware that I’m breathing in.  Out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out. The first couple of minutes were fine.  Then I got a cramp.  OK, keep breathing, just adjust yourself a little.  In, I hope that fucking cramp goes away, we only just started and I won’t last another two minutes if it keeps cramping.  Out, oh thank you fat, happy, smiling Buddha that my cramp is now gone.  In breath.  Out breath.  Wow, it’s really quiet in here.  In.  Out.  You know that dude behind me that said he’s Jewish?  He totally doesn’t look Jewish.  Oh come on, concentrate, goddammit.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  You know, the chick leading this retreat is sort of cute.  And she is SO sweet.  But Christ on Crutches, the food here is terrible.  I don’t know if I could ever be a vegan like everyone else here.  Where’s my bacon?  Ugh, my mind is all over the damn place.  OK, c’mon, focus.  In.  Out.  Feel the breath come in over your teeth and in your nose.  Feel the breath leave your body.  In.  Out.  Yeah, I can do this.  Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.  Wow, that’s a funny expression.  I wonder who came up with it?  It’s sort of sing-songy.  I love how my five year old says it all the… dammit, there I go again… In.  Out.  Oh man I have to fart.  And I bet it’s going to really smell.  And all of these other retreatants are totally going to know it was me and they are going to pass out.  In…. don’t breathe out, don’t breathe out… please God don’t let me fart out loud… OK I have to breathe out or I’ll faint…

So, it hit me during this retreat.  I’m Dug.  You know, from the movie, UP.  Always distracted by squirrels.  Hell, we all are when we first start to meditate.  And I guess that’s the whole point:  To begin to look at what is in there.  To work on quieting the mind.  To learn to focus and be still so that we can liberate ourselves from attachment and delusion and ignorance, all of which cause suffering.   But man, the beginning can be rough!  The woman who led our retreat told us that the beginning of meditation, where one’s thoughts seemed so scattered, where they crashed in from every direction, was often described as being immersed in a thunderous waterfall.  What an apt description.  The noise in my head was a cacophony of voices, songs, thoughts, half-finished conversations, and a thousand other things, all vying for attention.  However, she also said that, with tenacious practice, it would be like emerging from the waterfall and standing beside it.  Then, eventually, it would be like sitting next to a rushing river.  Then, a more tranquil river, then a calm sea.  A calm, smooth, tranquil, deep sea.  And that thought brought peace.  That someday, with practice, my mind could be sharp, focused, calm, and filled with peace.  Simply by meditating.

Since then, my practice of meditating has been pretty inconsistent.  I *have* bought lots of books on Buddhism and meditation, however, which should account for something. 😉   Like any new habit, it’s hard to get into.  Especially since, at first, it’s a bit maddening.  But, from those I’ve met who have stuck with it, the payoff is great!  So, I’ve found a Sangha, which is the Buddhist term for a congregation or a group of like-minded practitioners, which will certainly help in being consistent.  I’m also trying to be more mindful in other things I do throughout the day as well – being present, being focused, being IN reality, since the here and now is all we have.

Becoming Buddhist

baby buddhaMy decision to “become a Buddhist”  occurred slowly (as if one every really “becomes” a Buddhist, when in reality they adopt Buddhist practices – “Being a Buddhist is more of an action than a state of being, at least IMO).  I had been having such a very had time with the faith I was raised in: Catholicism.  Well, perhaps not with *that* faith per se, but with the whole concept of God, especially as He is presented in Catholicism specifically, and in western religions generally. 

See, I just didn’t *get* God.  Or maybe “He” didn’t get me.  Intellectually, I understood the concept of a creator, an un-created being, a deity, a non-contingent reality.  And for most part, I still buy into that concept.  Where I couldn’t quite connect, as say, my wife could, or many of my friends, was the whole concept of a “personal” God.  “Someone to hear your prayers, someone who cares,” as Dave Gahan sings.  Sure, I’d had what I *thought* were real experiences of this God, this Lover of Souls who “knows you better than you know yourself,” but when I look back on these experiences now, it’s easy to think that these were just fabrications created by my mind, made to feel more real due to emotional impressionism and a desire, a wanting, them to be real.

Maybe they were.  I really don’t know.  How can I?

What I DO know is that I have very real, very tangible doubts (can a doubt be tangible?) about the existence of a loving, personal God.  I’m not saying that He *doesn’t* exist.  To say such things would be the height of hubris.  But what I *have* been saying, at least to myself, is that I desperately want to know.  I crave understanding.  But how can I get that understanding?  Ultimately, I can’t.  I’m convinced, at the present time anyway, that there simply isn’t any way to know – and I mean to know in an experiential way – that He *really* exists.  And so, what am I to do?  Well, what I *did* do is seek out a philosophy that made sense to me.  That “met me where I was at,”  (I sure hate that expression) and what I found was Buddhism.

What struck me about Buddhism, as a practice, as a manner of living, as a philosophy, was that it is highly experiential.  Observable.  As one’s sitting practice of meditating develops, one can directly see peace, tranquility, and a calm mind developing. And it doesn’t rely on faith in some God “out there,” to provide grace in order for one to wake up, become enlightened, become actualized, whatever term you wish to use.  Now, there may BE a God out there providing grace but Buddhist practices don’t rely on one’s supplication and sacrifices to that deity.  Just practice.  Meditation.  Calming the mind.  Detaching from one’s attachments.  Practicing compassion for others.  Loving one’s self and other living things.  It’s all very simple.  No dogma, no infighting about this doctrine or that tradition.

What a breath of fresh air this has been!