Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post soon after my sister died, "Memorial service shows sad side of religion."
I'm re-sharing that link for the reason I expressed on Facebook just now.
Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post soon after my sister died, "Memorial service shows sad side of religion."
I'm re-sharing that link for the reason I expressed on Facebook just now.
Regret is one of the more interesting emotions. Assuming that is what it is, an emotion.
I find that regret isn't like happiness, sadness, anger, love, or any of the other emotions with an obvious feeling component.
Regret is more subtle.
It's like a raw ingredient for other emotions such as sadness or anxiety. Cooked in a certain way, regret can turn into an unpleasant emotional stew, though by itself regret often is rather cerebral.
The foundation of regret is feeling that I should have done something differently, even though at the time I did that thing, it seemed like the right thing to do.
That's a complex sentence.
I'm pretty sure only humans feel regret. Other animals probably lack the ability to mentally time travel that regret requires.
If I simply did something that turned out badly, I'd just be disappointed.
Like when I played competitive club tennis. I'd know that I lost the match because of too many double-faults when I was serving. OK, you can't win them all. No big deal.
But adding in the time travel of regret changes my disappointment into something more disturbing
Brian, you fool, if you hadn't double-faulted at game point when it was 5-5 in the second set, you would have won the match.
Now I've both gone back in time to remember that screw-up, and also gone forward in time to an alternative reality where my double faults didn't exist, and maybe even turn into aces.
My regret is that I'm stuck with what actually happened, instead of the imagined better happening if I hadn't done what I did -- double-fault too much.
Of course, there's no guarantee that I would have won the match even with zero double faults.
My opponent might have won regardless. So it's difficult to see the positive side of regret. I can learn from my mistakes without feeling that if I hadn't made them, everything would have turned out fine.
I don't know that.
And even if somehow I could know that, I didn't know at the time I was making a mistake. If I had, I wouldn't have done what I did, because who likes mistakes?
So regret rears its ugly head when I envision myself in the present doing what I didn't actually do in the past, even though back then I had no idea I should have been doing something differently.
Laying out the logic (or illogic) of regret in this way makes it seem like a crazy way for my mind to act.
Which is why I'm writing a blog post about regret. I know that I don't like the sensation of regret, but it's been difficult for me to figure out how to stop feeling regretful.
Regret is kind of like pressing on a sore spot. I realize that this isn't a wise thing to do, but the painful sensation has a certain pleasure to it.
What I just said doesn't make a lot of sense, even to me, though it seems true.
Rather than trying to explain how something painful can be pleasurable, I'll head off in a different direction for my final paragraphs.
I was baptized as a Catholic.
For a few years in elementary school my mother had me go to a lunchtime catechism with black clad nuns while my Protestant schoolmates got to frolic in the playground.
I made it as far as first communion before flaming out on confirmation. Going to confession was, I believe, a requirement for the first communion.
Being in first or second grade, I didn't have much to confess. I recall the priest asking, "Have you been going to mass every Sunday?" No, I told him. Ah... a sin!
"Say three Our Father's and two Hail Mary's," I was told, the exact number being lost to my memory.
I did just that, in what, in retrospect, was a form of regret. I wasn't able to take myself to Sunday Mass, so there was no way I could have done anything different than what my mother had me do.
Yet I still had to confess to a failing even though prior to confession I had no idea that I'd done something wrong.
I can't say that repeating the prayers was pleasurable. However, I can see how confession could become a way of coping with regret.
The confessor tells the priest something that, in retrospect, wasn't a good thing to do.
Ordinarily regret would ensue, but since the priest forgives the sin in exchange for, in my case, a few prayers, the pain of regret is lessened or eliminated by the pleasure of scratching the sore of sin through confession.
Maybe writing this blog post is something vaguely similar -- a way to come to grips with the nature of regret by delving into it more deeply than I've ever done before.
Hey, I didn't set out to write a philosophical Mother's Day blog post, but what emerged has enough philosophy in it to justify sharing here.
In "My mother lives on in the back of my books" I talk about how we don't really need to think or feel our way toward being close to our deceased parents, for they live on as us in large part.
This is possible because the boundaries of our "self" are decidedly fuzzy.
There isn't a firm boundary between us and everyone else, since who we are depends on our genetic heritage and experiences, both of which involve contributions from many other people.
It's a bit difficult for me to tell when my spiritual searching began.
Was it when I tried to figure out in high school the deeper meaning of Bob Dylan's enigmatic song lyrics? Was it when I devoured Sartre, Camus, and other existentialists during my early college years?
But for sure it started when, in 1969, my wife-to-be and I began learning hatha yoga and meditation from a crazed Greek guy who melded Christianity and Eastern philosophy in a decidedly weird fashion.
Ever since, I've pursued some sort of spirituality.
For several decades I spent about two hours a day meditating in accord with a mystical practice that aimed at uniting my soul with God.
Eventually I came to doubt whether soul and God even existed, which understandably deflated my interest in trying to join them together.
In my early 40s martial arts became a sort of spiritual search.
After earning a black belt in a karate style that was pleasingly eclectic, I switched to Tai Chi in 2004, which I've practiced ever since.
Taoism and Buddhism became my favorite spiritual philosophies. I made mindfulness my meditation.
Now, at the age of 72, I've started to ponder the pros and cons of ending my spiritual searching -- with a emphasis on the pros.
Always looking for more from life than what life already is giving me is beginning to seem unwise.
More meaning. More happiness. More purpose. More depth. All that more, more, more seems to lead to a hamster-wheel sort of existence.
Spiritual seeking can become such a habit, the seeker doesn't realize that they're going around and around without really getting anywhere.
If we're in an endless loop of seek-find-seek-find, the way out is to either stop seeking or find that which satisfies completely.
Since I'm not completely satisfied with life (who is?), it seems to me that giving up a quest to make life into something that it isn't already is the best way to go.
Understand: in no way do I see this as embracing fatalism or not trying to make my life better.
But I want to do this in a natural fashion. I want to just be an average person living life as it is, not as some imagined Spiritual Life with capital letters.
Three weeks ago an inguinal (groin) hernia came into my life, an unexpected guest.
About a quarter of men will get a hernia at some point. So what I'm dealing with is common. Last week I had a consultation with a surgeon, which went well.
My old spiritual self would have tried to find some deeper meaning in the hernia. Working off karma? A way to test my equanimity? The universe sending me a message of some sort?
My new not-so-spiritual self just wants to handle the hernia as smoothly as I can and to get it surgically repaired ASAP.
In other words, I'm viewing myself realistically. I'm just a guy who, like lots of other guys, has a hernia that he wants fixed. End of story.
This is, of course, the way lots of people look upon problems in their life.
Not as an opportunity to evolve into a more refined spiritual being. Just as a damn problem that needs attention.
I can't say that I've totally given up my addiction to spiritual seeking. I just see the light at the end of the seeking tunnel.
Or maybe more accurately, the lack of extra light.
Life already has plenty of light. That's how I'm able to write this blog post. An LED bulb is shining on my desk. My laptop's screen is aglow.
Where's the need to be spiritually enlightened when the world already has so much light?
I wish I'd taken a "before" photo of my office before I was forced to move everything out so it could be painted after wallpaper was removed.
Just believe me when I say that while some people might consider that I have too much stuff in it now, the post-painting makeover is an astounding de-clutterization.
Which makes my wife happy.
You can marvel at the New Look via a post on my HinesSight blog, "My office looks more Zen after painting forced it on me."
Easy to remember our anniversary when it is St. Patrick's Day.
I shared some photos of our 1990 wedding and my ghastly-botched attempt at a marriage proposal in a HinesSight blog post, "Been married for 31 years today. But I'm not great at proposing."
From the photos you'll see how much marriage has aged me. Or...wait, maybe it is aging that has aged me.
For many years, at least seventeen, but really even longer, I've been steadily discarding bits and pieces of the religious beliefs (Eastern variety) that held sway in my mind for thirty-five years.
I've done away with overt religiosity, but subtle remnants remain.
For example, at times during the day for a short period I like to repeat a Buddhist mantra, Namu Amida Butsu.
And while mindfulness doesn't strike me as being at all religious, sometimes I go beyond simply paying close attention to what I'm doing and imagine that mindfulness can lead to benefits such as fewer problems in my life.
That might be the case. However, that sort of imagining can edge mindfulness into prayer territory, a hope for what might be rather than focusing on what is in the present moment.
Last night I had an interesting experience.
It was one of those times where I feel like something that's been churning away in my unconscious suddenly bursts through into conscious awareness -- unexpectedly, strongly, clearly.
The experience only lasted a second or two.
What flashed brightly in my mind was a message that wasn't expressed in words, but via an intuition. Stop. Just stop.
Instantly, without thought, I knew what the "stop" meant.
Stop finding problems in your life when they don't actually exist.
Stop trying to improve yourself, since you don't have a self.
Stop trying to control what can't be controlled.
Stop adding an unnecessary "spiritual" dimension to reality.
The flip side of that "stop" was equally vivid.
Embrace not knowing.
Today I still had a feeling along the lines I've just described. I had a lot of chores to do. I did them. All of them. I didn't make more out of them than was necessary.
Here and now physical reality seemed just fine to me.
Yes, things weren't perfect. I didn't need them to be. I didn't even need them to be any different than what they were.
That included my mind, my awareness, my focus, my emotions, my thoughts.
I felt like a psychological weight had been released from my psyche, a burden consisting of should's left over from the many years when my mind was filled with religious rules, vows, commandments, aspirations, and such.
Of course, this isn't the first time I've had that sort of "Stop. Just stop." message appear in my mind. Here's some blog posts along that line.
Following on the heels of a previous email exchange of views that I fashioned into a blog post, here's another one.
This time I was asked about a relative of a Church of the Churchless reader who surprised this person by embracing a yogic view of chakras that was "woo-woo."
Here's the message that I got, followed by my response.
If Church of the Churchless visitors want to see a photo of me as a kid, looking questionably cute, I just wrote a post for my HinesSight blog that included one.
My mind, like God, works in mysterious ways. Of course, the big difference between my mind and God is that I, along with my mind, actually can be shown to exist.
At any rate, this morning I found myself thinking along this line. If you consider that this shows I'm questionably sane, I'd be the first to agree with you.
I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. So have you, I'm confident. But from here on I'm going to use "I" to refer to myself as an example that applies to almost everybody.
The problem is, those mistakes have only been evident after the fact. Meaning, after I'd already done what, a bit or a lot later, I regretted doing.
So at the time I did what turned out to be a mistake, my mind was feeling that I was doing the right thing.
This is obvious, because if I'd had a feeling that I was doing the wrong thing, I would have stopped and tried to figure out what needed to be done right.
Now, this shows that it is really difficult for me to not do the wrong thing, since there's no warning light in my mind that flashes when I'm heading off the right track.
My Subaru Crosstrek, on the other hand, makes a chirp when I cross the center line of the road. In that sense, my car is smarter than I am.
On the positive side -- assuming there's something positive in doing wrong -- it's hard for me to blame myself when I didn't know that I was screwing up at the time, only later.
Hard, yet not impossible, because I often do berate myself for not recognizing what I should have done differently.
I then pondered the question of what to do about this vicious circle of not knowing that I don't know what I should be doing until it is too late to do anything differently.
At first I thought it would be possible to carefully consider alternative ways of doing something before I did it, to have a better chance of doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing.
But there's several problems with this.
One is that it would take too much time, even if I only did this for new or unusual things that needed doing. Washing dishes, for example, is so habitual and familiar, I rarely mess it up.
By contrast, last Saturday I changed the oil in our generator after it had been running for most of the day during a full week after an an ice storm caused massive power outages in Oregon.
I got the warm oil draining into a quart yogurt container and figured I had time to change the air cleaner on the other side of the generator. When I went back to the oil change side, the container had started to overflow with oil.
I immediately thought, "That was stupid of me." Yet at the time I had no thought that taking my eye off of the draining oil was going to cause a problem.
So is it possible to eliminate our screw-ups when we have no idea that we're doing something wrong? No. Screwing up comes with being human. I do feel, though, that focusing on doing one thing at a time reduces the chance of a screw-up.
If I'd patiently watched the oil drain into the yogurt container instead of changing the air cleaner simultaneously, I would have been able to prevent the minor oil spill onto our carport cement.
However, no matter how carefully we try to do things, frequently we'll find that we've done something wrong. In that case, compassion appears to be in order.
After all, few of us consciously set out to mess something up. Almost everybody tries to do the right thing, even if it seems clear to almost everybody else that we did the wrong thing. Thus self-compassion is as important as compassion for others.
Often we just don't know. And we don't know that we don't know. Neither do the other people who don't know that they don't know.
If the person in the car ahead of me knew that their left-turn blinker has been on for several blocks, I'm confident they would have turned it off. So they're not trying to irritate me by pretending they're turning left, yet never do.
They, like me frequently, are just caught in the grip of not knowing that they don't know.
This, of course, gets us into the much larger question of free will. Along with many, if not most, neuroscientists, after a lot of reading about how modern science looks upon free will, I don't believe it exists.
Which doesn't stop me from getting upset when generator oil being changed overflows a yogurt container. I do, though have a more philosophical attitude when I do something that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn't done.
At the moment it's hard for me to write about anything other than the ice storm aftermath here in Oregon, the subject of my last churchless blog post, "Being without power for a week shows what's important."
Well, it's now been nine days since our electricity went out. All of our neighbors are in the same power outage situation, along with 38,000 other Oregonians.
Last night my wife and I hosted a Zoom meeting of our monthly Salon discussion group. Our generator powers a Starlink satellite internet connection, which worked great all through the 100 minute meeting.
After the meeting I wrote on my HinesSight blog about three themes that dominated our conversation: How to prepare for no electricity, Independence versus reliance on society, Staying in touch with others.
It wasn't surprising that everyone wanted to talk about what's been the focus of their minds recently -- coping with no electricity.
One person only was without power for about a day. Others, about a week. My wife and I, along with neighbors who also are part of the discussion group, were the only ones still without electricity because we live in a rural area.
Usually talking about politics takes up about half of our conversation time. Sometimes even more. Last night, no more than five minutes, or about 5% of the Zoom meeting, focused on politics.
What this shows is something obvious that is nonetheless often overlooked.
What we pay attention to depends on what demands attention. This relates to the familiar hierarchy of needs. I'm not sure where politics and religion are on the hierarchy, but they seem to be near the top of the pyramid rather than close to the base.
Being without electricity for more than a short time when you're used to it -- which is the case with almost everyone in the United States and other wealthy nations -- shifts one's focus into the safety and physiological levels.
It is more difficult to cook, get water, flush the toilet, sleep comfortably. People reach out to neighbors in a different way than before, because they seek safety and a sense of belonging.
It isn't that I'm no longer interested in politics or in pondering the downside of religions. Those subjects just haven't been much on my mind the past nine days, because I've had to focus on playing my part in keeping our electricity-less home going.
(Yes, we have a generator, so we have 7,000 watts of electricity available. But that isn't enough for our heat pumps, hot water heater, most lights, oven, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and other things in our house that have been dormant since our power went off.)
So this experience, which is the longest time I've been without full electricity in my 72 years of living, has given me more of an insight into how lots of people in the world live all the time. Namely, struggling to find the necessities of life.
For them, a religion often provides a sense of comfort and meaning.
But if that religion takes up too much time and attention, that detracts from their ability to meet their safety and physiological needs. Same with politics. A little attention is fine; more than that is counter-productive.
Which raises a question. If what seems important to us is so dependent on our circumstances, can we ever be really confident that what we care so much about at any given time truly deserves all that attention?
I guess the answer is that in one sense it does, and in one sense it doesn't. Which isn't much of an answer, but it's the best I can come up with.
My wife, Laurel, and I, along with all of our neighbors, plus over a hundred thousand other Oregonians, have been without electricity since last Friday night, February 12.
That's when a massive ice storm hit Northwest Oregon, powered by cold air from the polar vortex that afflicted much of the United States and a moisture-laden storm coming in from the Pacific.
The result was snow in areas to the north of us, including Portland, but freezing rain in our area. Which, believe me, is way worse than snow.
I shared photos of the damage to our property in a Saturday post on my HinesSight blog, "Photos of the Great Salem Ice Storm of 2021." The next day I wrote a light-hearted post, "Our dog is enjoying no electricity. Me, not so much."
After that, my mood turned darker as Portland General Electric, our power company, stopped providing estimates to their customers of when power would be restored.
I wrote "PGE getting well-deserved ice storm criticism" and "Ice storm disaster should prompt close look at PGE." By tomorrow PGE claims that power will be restored to 90% of those with outages. I hope we're not part of the 10%.
Laurel and I have a wood stove, a fairly plentiful supply of oak firewood, and a generator -- so we're more fortunate that lots of other people in Oregon lacking power. Still, it's been tough.
Our routines have been disrupted, obviously.
First thing in the morning Laurel starts a fire in the wood stove. I add gasoline to the generator, check the oil level, and start it up.
That provides us with warmth that slowly permeates through part of our house, and enough electricity to power some lights, the microwave, cooktop, TV, and internet router, plus some outlets to charge our phones.
During the rest of the day we have to keep the wood stove going and the generator supplied with gas. We've done quite a bit of cleanup of tree limbs that fell from ice accumulation, but there's a lot more to do on that front.
The chain on my chainsaw came off and was damaged in the process. So I had to take the chainsaw in to Ace Hardware for a chain replacement. The seal on our wood stove door fell off, which required a drive to a wood stove store that, thankfully, was able to glue in a replacement seal.
Otherwise it would have been difficult to burn wood, our only source of heat.
In short, going without electricity changes one's focus to immediate needs. Heat, water, food. Sure, we still watch TV in the evening, but much of our day centers around activities that were absent from our life prior to the ice storm.
I'm a political person. For the past week I've thought of politics much less often.
In fact, recently I emailed our conservative Republican state representative to complain about PGE not giving estimates of when a customer could expect to have power restored, and to ask him to urge PGE to start providing estimates.
Ordinarily Representative Nearman and I are on opposite sides of the political divide. We've never talked, but if we did, we'd disagree about most issues facing our state and country. However, when it comes to PGE giving its customers an estimate of when their power would come back, we were in perfect agreement.
Nearman told me that he also lacked electricity. So we had that in common. It felt good to have a pleasant exchange of emails with someone whose politics I heartily agree with.
That didn't matter, because coping with an electrical outage provides the common ground that politics lacks.
Something similar happens during the two-mile late afternoon dog walk that Mooka (our Husky mix) and I take around a road loop in our rural neighborhood.
I end up talking quite a while with people who I usually just exchange a nod and "Hi, how's it going?" with. The electrical outage creates a bond that brings us closer together, since everybody out here has to figure out how to get the same basics of life -- again, heat, water, food.
Sometimes it seems like what divides us is stronger than what unites us.
But the ice storm electrical outage has shown me that this really isn't the case. Underneath the divisions of politics, religion, nationality, and such lies a common humanity that rests on our common needs to stay alive and well.
It's been a very good thing to realize this more fully. That said, I really, really hope our electricity is restored soon.
Today my rather lengthy interview with Marie D'Elephant's Everyone's Autonomous podcast interview appeared on her web site. The episode starts off with about 35 minutes of Marie talking before our interview starts.
So click your way to the 35 minute mark if you're mainly interested in the interview with me. There's a few gaps in the recording, but they don't last long, so stick with the silence and it will soon end.
We covered a lot of spiritual, philosophical, and religious ground. The focus of Everyone's Autonomous is on recovering from dogmatic religiosity. Mostly Marie speaks with Christians who have had a bad religious experience.
So I provided a somewhat different perspective, having spent 35 years as an active member of an Eastern guru-centered religion.
It's always a bit disturbing for me to listen to myself, especially my frequent use of you know. But that's something I have no control over when I'm talking, so I guess it doesn't make sense for me to be disturbed.
That's one of the themes we covered in the podcast. How we often are much harder on ourselves than we would be if someone else came up to us and said, "Should I be so worried about this?" Usually we'd answer, "No."
In my recent post, "Here's some churchless do's and don'ts for the new year," I invited blog visitors to leave their own do's and don'ts in a comment. So far, five people have done that.
Here's what they said. Nicely done, guys.
DON'T seek God because He ain't seeking you
DO live your life as an ordinary person
DON'T seek enlightenment because it's already there
DO simply BE YOURSELF
DON'T try to be anything other than what you are
DO simply BE YOURSELF
DON'T complain about your life
DO simply accept what you have in life
DON'T think you NEED anything to be happy
DO be happy regardless of circumstances
DON'T seek perfection as it does not exist
DO embrace all aspects of who you are
DON'T be fake and a hypocrite
DO be authentic and true to yourself and others
DON'T connect your self worth to what you do or achieve
DO understand there is NO SELF
DO understand that if there is no SELF there is no SELF WORTH either
DO understand that the SELF you experience is not YOU
DO understand that there IS NO YOU
DON'T SEEK heaven, God, Self or Nirvana - they don't exist
DO live each moment of your life
DON'T take anything for granted
DO realise that you cannot take anything with you because there is nowhere to go
DO simply live and LET GO in each moment
DON'T hold on to anything as all is false
DO enjoy each moment and let it go
DON'T try to be anyone special or above the rest
DO be ordinary and be happy with what life gives you each moment
and when death comes - embrace that as you embraced life
Don't worry about Do's and Don'ts.
Be yourself. Be willing to learn more about that... Or not.
Try to be a better person if you can....
Or just be whatever you are.... But try to be nice.
If you can hurt yourself and others less, and help yourself and others more, that's always a good thing.
If you choose to believe in anything and have faith, there is power in that.
If you choose to tear down walls, that's nice too.
But there is great power all around and within you, and it is accessible when you put your daily thinking and logic aside to see, to feel, to hear, to witness.
The engines of the creation are on all the time and you have connections to them.
Whether it is within yourself or this world. It is all inside you. There is nothing outside you that you can sense.
But in all events, be gentle. Everything that is and that we are, including our choices, comes from things we don't fully understand.
And our actions have results we can never fully predict. Results affecting others.
So be gentle. Seek to be awake more than in control.
DON'T waste your precious life following a debilitating Cult (Radha Soami)
DO realize we are already, what we are looking for
DON'T bother with Fake Babas too (GSD)
DO look for inspiration from within
DON'T look back, that's not where you're going
DO realize the impossible is always possible
DO it all, while you have the time...
DONT fall for a sheep in wolves clothing , GSD being a perfect example
DO do your independant research before you trust someone
DONT listen to a man that thinks he knows it all on a stage
DO listen to your own gut instinct
DONT Become a RSSB agent, a servant of satan, thinking it is seva.
DO look after your self and loved ones
DONT be a sheep and blindly follow the crowd
Do - enjoy your life and your dreams
Don't - waste your life in cults like RSSB
Do - keep your own power
Don't - give your power to fake clowns
Do - learn from your mistakes
Don't - stay in places you don't progress
Do - wake your brothers and sisters from the RSSB hell hole
Don't - Give up
Do- enjoy your freedom
I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. They are easy to say and difficult to do. I figure that if there was something I should change about my life, it would have been obvious before the arbitrary date of January 1, 2021.
But I do believe in taking stock of, well, what I believe.
So here's a run-down of some of my personal do's and don'ts for the coming year -- which aren't different from what I did in 2020. I'm sharing them because others might find them useful. Or entertaining. Or useless.
If you have your own do's and don'ts, feel free to share them in a comment. I'd be interested in seeing them, and likely others would also.
(1) Don't waste time trying to discover your true innermost self. You don't have a self, nor are you a self. Problem solved!
(2) Do focus your attention on the outside world. Engage your senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touch as fully as possible.
(3) Do keep your mind and body in sync. That way you won't forget where you put your car keys.
(4) Don't let a problem ruin your entire day, unless it's a really big problem. Be like the zebra who, after being chased by a lion, goes back to grazing on grass.
(5) Do keep an eye out for lion'ish problems. But if they aren't visible, relax. Until they rear their head.
(6) Don't imagine that you can be sure what is going to happen in your life. Be open to surprises, since they are inevitable.
(7) Do tell that most special person "I love you" every day. Or as often as possible.
(8) Do something to benefit others whenever you feel like your life lacks meaning. Meaning comes mostly from giving, not getting.
(9) Don't strive for perfection. Rejoice in your vices, so long as they aren't overly illegal or excessively dangerous.
(10) Do pat a dog, cat, or other furry creature as often as possible. Furless creatures are fine also, just less soft.
(11) Do meditate every day, if only for a few minutes. Just don't expect any benefits. Meditation is its own reward.
(12) Do get out in nature regularly. Just remember what the poet David Ignatow said: "I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is and not as a comment on my life."
(13) Don't expect that the world will ahower you with praise. You aren't that deserving. But a dog may lick your face!
(14) Do live as if every day could be your last. One day you'll be correct about this, you just don't know when.
(15) Don't assume you'll have another chance at life after you die. Place all your bets on the life you're living now.
(16) Do know that darkness is greatest just before dawn. Also, when you have all the curtains tightly closed.
(17) Don't expect much from religious leaders and politicians, then you won't be disappointed.
(18) Do try doing nothing while in line at the grocery checkout. Those text messages can wait a few minutes.
(19) Don't be afraid to say "I don't know." Unless your spouse just asked, "Are you glad you married me?"
(20) Do laugh at yourself. Others are doing that behind your back, so you might as well join them.
(21) Do remember that while marijuana won't solve your problems, it will make you feel a whole lot better about them.
(22) Don't forget that the physical world is always in the present moment, unlike our minds, which like to ponder the past and forecast the future.
This wasn't a great year, to put it mildly.
At first I wondered if I should even write our usual Christmas letter, which Laurel, my wife, and I call a Holiday Letter since we don't believe in Christ or any other imaginary god/supernatural being. (I share it as a "Christmas letter" because that's how most people refer to these things.)
Laurel convinced me that finding some humor in tough times is a good thing. So after writing a serious first draft of the letter, I started over last night and composed a lighter version.
Here it is, in PDF and JPEG formats.
Download 2020 Christmas Letter PDF
When I was about 20 or 21, I was a yoga dude. My college girlfriend and I had been studying yoga and meditation with (in retrospect) a crazed Greek teacher who managed to cobble together a blend of Eastern religion, yoga, and Christianity.
We used to drive around with him in a VW van with Christananda Ashram on the side. Yeah, it was weird, but this was 1969 and 1970, when weirdness permeated the San Francisco Bay Area, where we attended San Jose State College.
Here's a photo of me from my yoga days. I got pretty damn good at Hatha Yoga postures. Meditation, maybe not so much. But I became one of Yogiraj's lead students, until the weirdness went over the top in a dramatic health food store confrontation.
At any rate, I never forgot some of the many yoga postures that I learned back then. For many years I practiced a short yoga routine that I did at our athletic club after doing aerobic stuff, lifting weights, and some Tai Chi.
But in February of 2020 I developed a pretty serious sciatica problem in my right leg. An X-ray showed that my lower back just showed normal wear and tear for a 71-year-old. So the cause of the leg pain remains a mystery.
l'm much better now, thankfully. I've been doing physical therapy exercises every day, walking two miles up and down hills every day, and using home exercise equipment for strength building every day. Still...
When I realized a few weeks ago that I hadn't done my yoga routine for a long time, I got out my mat and gave it a try. Wow. I wasn't nearly as flexible as I was six months ago. Not a huge surprise, but it still shocked me -- since I'd been exercising so much and doing other kinds of stretches.
So I started doing my yoga routine every day also.
I'm already seeing some improvement, flexibility-wise. And it feels good to be doing the yoga moves. Wanting to broaden my repertoire, I downloaded several yoga apps for the iPhone. They were OK. I can see how many people would benefit from them. However, I concluded that I'd rather get back into yoga on my own, choosing my own postures, and doing them at my own speed.
That led me to buy the Yoga Bible.
It's got over 1,200 mostly positive reviews on Amazon. I took the advice of many reviews and had the book spiral bound at the FedEx copy center in Salem. That allows the pages to fold flat, making it much easier to follow directions while laying on my mat or standing up (the book stands up nicely also, after being spiral bound).
There's a nice overview of what yoga is all about in an introductory section. Here's some excerpts. I hadn't thought before that the body always is in the present moment, but this does make sense.
Yoga is actually a state of mind. Achieving the goal of stilling the mind is a tall order, so practices have been developed that allow you to move toward this state. Quieting the mind is a rather intangible goal.
In contrast, the progress made on accomplishing a yoga posture can be evaluated by alignment, length of stretch, and the length of time it can be held. It's much easier for you to relate to something tangible -- the body -- and then move on to something intangible -- the stillness of the mind.
During yoga practice, you begin somewhere known and, using your body and breath, you move toward an unknown. As you open your body and mind with yoga postures and breathing, you become receptive to the delightful and profound experience of inner stillness.
While the human mind tends to drift off into thoughts of the past or future, the human body exists only in the present moment. Hatha yoga, a type of yoga that emphasizes strenuous and persistent effort, encourages awareness of the body.
Coming back to your body draws your mind back to the present. Then, worries drop away and there are no more "shoulds" or "musts." One of the reasons yoga is so refreshing is that, even if only for an instant, there is only the reality of the present moment. Each time you come to the present moment, you drop a certain amount of baggage.
You may pick it up again shortly thereafter, but the point is that you have practiced letting it go. Eventually you will be able to reduce the stress more often and for longer periods of time.
In this respect, yoga is like life training. Its practice is a fabulous tool for transformation.
...However, yoga may be anything that gives you a sense of unity, helps you better connect with yourself, and helps you remember who you are. It might be a walk along the beach, a luxurious yawn, or simply taking a single conscious breath.
Any practice that helps you center yourself is important. When you operate from a space that is close to your center, it is easier to be calmer and more focused. Being off balance is a huge source of stress.
When things go wrong when you are already off balance, it is like swimming against a strong tide. The farther out you are, the harder it is to swim to shore.
Yet, distractions and sensory stimulation often cause you to look outward rather than gazing inward. The real challenge in life is to manage to stay "with" yourself while at the same time interacting with others; to respond appropriately to people and events while maintaining a sense of connection to yourself.
Religions are prone to all sorts of ridiculous errors, but one of the worst is believing that reality can be tamed. Meaning, eliminating uncertainty, chance, randomness, unpredictability.
It's a psychological truism that we humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty. So we make up stories to fill the gap between what is known and what we have questions about where answers are lacking.
How did existence come to be? Nobody knows. Science is content with leaving this question as a mystery. Religions, though, make up a tale about how God created the cosmos -- ignoring the obvious problem of how God came to be.
(If it is assumed that God always has existed, then it also can be assumed that the cosmos always has existed.)
Here in Oregon, and also in our neighboring states of Washington and California, massive wildfires are burning. Today I saw a tweet by a reporter that said, "Since 1900, Oregon has never had more than 2 mega fires (100K acres or more) in a single year, said Jim Gersbach from @ORDeptForestry. Now depending on how you count them we have 3 or 4 all burning at once."
Earlier in the summer it seemed that Oregon would have a mild wildfire season. There were some fires, but they weren't creating big problems.
Then an unexpected combination of circumstances combined to create a Perfect Storm for wildfires.
Oregon has been in a long-standing drought. Very little rain has fallen for many months. And a rare September snow storm in the Rockies was followed by high pressure in that region that created strong east winds in the Pacific Northwest.
The National Weather Service realized the danger. They designated much of Oregon as being at high risk for wildfires. That turned out to be an accurate prediction. Yesterday I took this photo at 9 am while standing in our almost pitch black driveway.
Smoke from what now is called the Santiam Fire was so thick, blown by the east winds in the direction of Salem, where I live, that the sun was completely obscured. All that could be seen in the sky was an eerie red glow. Later in the day it was still strangely dark, which made me think darkness at noon.
Thousands of people living in the Santiam Canyon east of Salem had to evacuate in the early morning hours on Tuesday. A small fire in the mountains that seemed to be posing little danger grew astoundingly rapidly, pushed by the strong east winds. This map shows the current size of the fire from satellite imagery.
(Yellow is satellite fire detections 24-48 hours ago. Orange is 12-24 hours. Red is 0-12 hours. So the red dots show where a fire has moved most recently. Note: on a slow Internet connection like what I have, the dots take a while to load.)
So far two people are known to have died in the Santiam Fire, a grandmother and her grandchild, who were in a car trying to escape the flames. Many homes and businesses have been destroyed. And this fire is just one of many ravaging Oregon.
Bad things happen.
This isn't news to anybody. It's the way the world is. If bad things could be predicted with certainty, we could stop them from happening. But usually we can't do that. Sure, meteorologists knew that the strong east winds could fan dangerous wildfires.
Yet whether this actually would come to pass wasn't known until the winds arrived. And yes, now Oregon is suffering through the worst wildfires in the state's history.
My Tai Chi instructor and his wife have had to evacuate their home. They live near the road that links Silverton and Molalla in the map I shared above. They got out safely, along with their dogs, horses, and goats. That's good news, though better news would be if their house ends up being untouched by fire.
I can hope for that. Yet I can't know that. Life is uncertain. That's for sure. Which is why I started to work on an evacuation checklist yesterday, just in case.
If you ever wonder how religious stories -- Adam and Eve, Krishna, Moses, so many others -- are believed by billions of people, go into a movie theater. (Or remember doing this, if theaters are closed where you are because of the Covid crisis.)
If it's a horror film, likely you'll hear shrieks of terror. If a thriller, gasps of surprise. If a romance, tears being wiped away.
We humans have no problem being drawn into a fictional story to such an extent it arouses much the same emotions as if the drama was happening to us in real life. Yet part of us recognizes that we're watching something made-up.
So we embrace a "willing suspension of disbelief."
This has been on my mind lately because a few days ago I re-discovered a series on Netflix that I watched a single episode of years ago, "Designated Survivor."
I've become addicted to the show, having watched about half of the first season. It features Kiefer Sutherland, who I loved in "24," though he plays a very different character this time. I love politics, mysteries, thrillers, and intelligence agency intrigue -- all of which feature prominently in Designated Survivor.
The strange thing is, and given what I said above, actually it isn't really very strange, I get so immersed in the engrossing plot lines that I become worried about what will happen to the main characters who are heroes, not villains.
"No, Hannah, don't trust him," I'll scream inside my mind, "likely he's part of the scheme to kill the President." (Hannah being a FBI agent.)
Yet I'm watching the plot play out on our TV or my laptop. I'm perfectly aware that I'm streaming a Netflix show. I know that I'm seeing actors speak scripted lines. I can tell the difference between reality and this bit of fiction.
But I still worry that the good guys will be fooled by the bad guys. I agonize if there's a cliff-hanger at the end of one episode, being eager to find the time to fire up Netflix again and see what happens in the next episode.
In short, I'm acting almost exactly like religious believers do when they feel deep emotions upon, say, hearing a moving sermon about how Jesus' love for humanity was so great, he died for our sins.
I don't think this is true, of course.
And I strongly suspect that if pressed, a large percentage of Christians would admit that they aren't sure this is true either. They simply love the story as told in the New Testament, which I readily admit is a compelling piece of fiction -- in my atheist opinion.
A big difference between my devotion to Designated Survivor and the devotion of people to religious stories is how serious we are about the object of our attention.
I have minimal interest in converting people to become a Designated Survivor fan. When I've watched every episode I'll move on to viewing or reading other works of fiction. If someone tells me they can't stand Designated Survivor, I wouldn't argue with them. I completely understand that what I'm fixated on is made-up, not an inherent aspect of reality.
Still, there's a common element between me and religious people. We both love a good fictional story.
A few days ago I tried to explain my relationship with reality. Given how meaty, or in my case, tofuy, that subject is, I necessarily had to leave out some of the maxims that currently guide my life.
The title of this blog post is another one: live as if you could die at any moment.
Practically speaking, i really mean live as much as possible as if you could die at any moment, because likely it would be counterproductive to always have a sensation that death could come in the next instant. Or, maybe not. I'm unsure about this.
Regardless, I like this maxim better than how it often is phrased: live as if this could be your last day.
That strikes me as problematic for a couple of reasons. First, until it really is the day of my death, I'm going to be wrong about this being my last day.
So it doesn't make sense to spend every day doing things that I wouldn't engage in if I wasn't going to die that day, since the odds are strongly in favor of that being the case. For example, on my last day I might want to have lengthy heartfelt talks with my daughter, granddaughter, and wife about how much I love them and what they mean to me.
If I did that every day, before too long they'd be justified in telling me, "Um, we really need to cut down on those talks, because they're taking up too much time in our own busy days."
Second, life is uncertain, as is death. We don't know when our life will end. If we're young, the odds are that we have many more years to live, but that isn't guaranteed. Those odds go down the older we become. However, the uncertainty remains.
Thus living as if every day could be our last day introduces more of a sense of certainty into our lifespan than I feel comfortable with.
This is why I prefer the feeling that I could die at any moment. This takes away the "day" restriction, making the sensation of life's fragility as ever-present as possible -- again, I emphasize the "as possible." Feeling pressure to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of each moment would be exhausting and life-defeating.
Instead, periodically throughout the day I simply enjoy thinking, "If I were to die in the next moment, how would I feel?"
Now obviously I wouldn't feel great about dying, to put it mildly, unless I were in so much pain, or otherwise fed up with living, that death would be a welcome event.
Rather, what I'm getting at -- and this is rather difficult to put into words -- is feeling that at this moment I'm doing the best I can to be happy, productive, and aware. A no regrets sort of feeling. A feeling largely or entirely lacking in "I should have done _____" instead.
Again, I'm not saying that I want to always be doing something dramatic and heartfelt, a last day on earth sort of thing. Mostly my days are filled with ordinary stuff: emptying the dishwasher, going for a dog walk, grocery shopping, brushing my teeth, watching TV.
My goal is to be content with doing all those things. That's what would make dying in the next moment easier, more acceptable, less jarring. I don't like the idea of dying with an angry thought in my head: "Why is that goddamn driver ahead of me going so freaking slow!"
If a semi-truck suddenly crosses into my lane and is about to hit my car head on, I'd prefer that my mind at that moment were to be filled with something more positive, like the idea of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. Ah, bliss...
Thus I'm not concerned very much with what I might be outwardly doing when death unexpectedly pays me a visit, as what my inward state of being is at that moment. I'd rather die with an inner smile than a frown. Knowing that to be the case helps me try to be as calm and positive as possible when things go wrong in my day, as they always do.
Our coffee grinder stopped working this morning in the midst of grinding beans. Not exactly a huge problem, but it irked me, because I then had to take the time to see what Consumer Reports recommended for a replacement, then order the highest rated grinder from Amazon.
If I'm going to die while my web browser is focused on Amazon, I'd like my online shopping to be a pleasant experience, not an unwelcome one.
That's what I mean by live as if you could die at any moment. Being content with whatever I'm doing, no matter how mundane it might me. This is the OXO Brew coffee grinder I ordered. Time will tell if it brings contentment. But it has to be better than no grinder at all.
For quite a while I've enjoyed a loving-kindness form of meditation where I contemplate these words, repeated twice more with "May you..." and "May all...."
May I be happy.
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be at peace.
Lately, though, I've been experimenting with more of a catchall phrase.
May I accept reality as it is.
Perhaps this sentiment has become more attractive to me after three and a half years of suffering through the presidency of Donald Trump, who lies incessantly and wrongly believes that reality is something that can be bent to fit his own desires.
Like, to be re-elected. So Trump has taken to claiming that everything is going fine with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, ignoring the inconvenient truth that cases have skyrocketed after states began reopening too soon.
In a sense, it is a shortcut way of saying much the same thing as "May I be happy; May I be safe; May I be healthy; May I be at peace."
Most obviously, happiness and peace of mind have a lot to do with accepting reality as it is, rather than as we would like it to be. If there is no difference, or at least a minimal difference, between what is actually happening with our life and what we want to happen, then happiness and peace of mind are more likely to be ours.
When it comes to being safe and healthy, these appear to be more objective than happiness and peace of mind. So whether or not I accept the reality of how safe and how healthy I am seemingly wouldn't affect the actuality of my safety and health.
Even so, it makes sense that being firmly in touch with the reality of my current safety and health increases the chance that I'll be able to maintain or improve how safe and healthy I am. For example, if I haven't checked to see whether a smoke detector is working, my safety is at risk. Ditto if I'm unaware of my blood pressure and cholesterol level.
So on the whole I'm becoming a fan of May I accept reality as it is. Sure, I can quibble with myself about "as it is," since apart from the rigorous methods of science, reality appears differently to different people. Thus part of me prefers May I accept reality as it appears.
Either way, though, reality is our best friend and we should do our best to accept it. I just wish Trump felt that way. Thankfully, Joe Biden does, so there's hope after November.
Over on one of my other blogs, HinesSight, yesterday I shared some thoughts about getting together with a friend, as we have been doing for many years, for coffee and conversation.
Have a read: "Having coffee with an old friend on Father's Day is a great gift."
Here's how I introduced the post on Facebook.
Hey, I'm actually sharing my feelings about how much I've enjoyed getting together with Jim Ramsey, an old friend, for 49 years. Of course, being a man, I'm going to send him a link to this blog post rather than tell him in person how I feel.
As a bonus, I also copied in a post from 2005 that i still like a lot, "Why men don't share their feelings." Here's how it starts out:
“How’re you doing?” says Dennis as I walk into the Pacific Martial Arts changing room. Instead of replying with my habitual robotic “Fine, how’re you?” I have a crazy impulse to actually tell him. I’ll share my feelings!
“Well, my feet have been tingling for about a week. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor tomorrow.” Without missing a beat (appropriately: Dennis is a drummer) I hear, “You’ve got a brain tumor. No doubt about it. You’re going to die.”
For the rest of our hour and a half training session, whenever I stop to check on how my feet are doing Dennis again says, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a brain tumor. Your time is up.”
Sensei Warren, our regular martial arts instructor, came in late. After telling him my tale of tingling feet I got a marginally better prognosis: “You’ve got diabetic neuropathy. No doubt about it. You’re going to lose your feet.” And I don’t even have diabetes.
Now, I know both Dennis and Warren care a lot about me. They demonstrated their manly concern by telling me that I’m either going to die or lose my feet. If one of them had given me a big hug and said “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right,” I would have begun to worry that he had a brain tumor.
To inspire myself, an admittedly circular task, I've been reading a mini-chapter from my "Break Free of Dogma" book every morning before I meditate.
Naturally I like everything in the book, because it consists of posts I selected from the early years of this Church of the Churchless blog, 2004-06.
But some of those old posts appeal to me more than others, which gets them highlighted in the Contents section. Here's the first of a two-part Blast From the Blog Post Past, the second being a follow-up I wrote on the theme of mystery.
There: Right there. See the blank space after “There:” That’s where I revealed my mystical experiences.
I was impelled to disclose the status of my inner spiritual realization after reading a comment by A fellow bubble-bursted soul on my recent “Bursting Belief Bubbles” post. This person, a fellow Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) initiate, said that he/she was still pursuing the experiment of meditation even though positive results to date had been lacking.
The commenter said, “Unfortunately if I have a break through I won't be able to tell you because us satsangis [initiates], conveniently, aren't suppose to reveal our inner experiences.”
Yes, that’s true. And “conveniently” is the operative word here.
I used to think that the reason for the injunction against revealing inner experiences was that if you had a profound experience and talked about it, other people would start looking upon you as a divine being. This could inflate your ego, thereby causing you to be dropped from the Mystic Experience Club.
However, that reasoning doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, and many other supposedly elevated souls have spoken about their inner godly experiences. They don’t seem to have been spiritually harmed by sharing their contacts with divinity.
If I hike up to an alpine lake, then descend and tell people how lovely the scenery was, am I now an egotistical maniac who should forever be barred from entering the mountains again? Of course not. I’m just telling about my experience.
So I’ve concluded that the main reason RSSB initiates aren’t supposed to reveal their inner experiences is that hardly anybody is having any. Maybe nobody. I can say this quite confidently because over the past thirty-five years I’ve talked to lots of mystic meditators. Plus, I talk to myself all the time.
The constantly-recurring theme that I hear is “My meditation sucks.” Not always said quite so bluntly, but that’s the message. Now, “sucks” is a value judgment made by comparing one’s actual experience with an expected experience. Some mystical paths (such as Zen) don’t speak much about what is going to happen along the way.
But RSSB does. There are various metaphysical regions that the initiate is told about, along with the sights and sounds that will be seen and heard in each higher domain of the cosmos.
So if you’re stuck in the dark silence of your own brain, repeating your guru-given mantra over and over like an obsessive-compulsive parrot, it’s difficult not to eventually come to the conclusion, “My meditation sucks.”
That said, and I’ve said it countless times, I still meditate every day for an hour or so. I enjoy my meditation. But I’ve never experienced anything that I could conclusively call “mystical,” “spiritual,” or “divine.” I’ve felt like I was rising up into a blissful void, but neuroscientists theorize that this could be the result of sensory deprivation (I usually use earplugs and a blindfold).
I’m a strong believer in inner meditation. It seems to me that this is the best way to grapple with eminently scientific questions about the essential nature of consciousness, life, and existence. If I can simply be conscious, simply live, and simply exist in meditation, I feel that I’m going to be closer to getting some answers.
Who knows? Maybe I am indeed closer. But close doesn’t count in scientific research. You either get a definitive finding or you don’t. I’m still waiting for results. And believe me, I’ve been experimenting for many years—most of that time doing just what I was instructed.
Now I’m modifying my meditation, tinkering with alternative approaches, becoming more open to different ways of opening myself to whatever reality may lie beyond that which I know now. This feels right and good to me. Why should I keep on doing the same thing in meditation when I’m not getting the results that were anticipated?
Life is too short to spend bumped up against a dead end. When I hear a whisper—“back up, turn around, and head in a new direction”—I’m going to listen to that inner voice. And I’ll let you know how the advice turns out.
I have a friend who likes to say, “Nobody’s life is ever completely wasted. He always can serve as a horrible example for others.” Great saying. Science progresses by researchers sharing the results of their experiments and investigations. A negative result can be almost as valuable as a positive result, helping to guide research in a more productive direction.
I wish more meditators, of the RSSB variety or whatever, would speak more clearly, honestly, and forthrightly about their inner experiences (or, lack of them), even though spiritual practice always will be highly individualistic and personal. I doubt that a foolproof, 100% effective, guaranteed-results system of meditation ever will be discovered or developed.
However, if people who meditate talked more openly about what works and doesn’t work for them, I think we’d be more likely to achieve the illusive goal of making spirituality a genuine science rather than merely a collection of competing unproven beliefs.
There are lots of ways to feel a sense of community with our fellow humans.
Going to a religious gathering is one way, but definitely isn't the best way, because religions are divisive -- if you aren't a member of a particular faith, likely attending a "service" there is going to feel out of place.
Yesterday I took part in a protest here in Salem, Oregon against the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. I was deeply moved by thousands of people coming out to protest the needless killings of so many black Americans at the hands of police officers.
What connected us was a commitment to justice for all.
It is deeply wrong to treat people of color differently from white people. But my country's racist past -- slavery -- is still being manifested today. This has to stop. Hopefully the massive protests around the United States will help bring about positive changes in not only policing, but other areas such as education and health care where blacks still are not treated equally.
Have a look at the photos I took at the protest, plus a video of part of the march that followed a rally. I used an Adobe Spark web page to share the images.
Last week I got around to fixing two typos in my Break Free of Dogma book. That took some emailing back and forth with the folks at ebookpbook, as they had designed my 2019 collection of selected posts from the early years of this blog, 2004-06.
After getting print and Kindle files with the typos corrected, I uploaded them to Amazon and basked in the good feeling of finally having a typo-free book. Which led me to think, "Now is the time to do some promoting of Break Free of Dogma," something I hadn't done much of before.
Being familiar with buying ads, or boosted posts, on Facebook due to my political advocacy of local progressive candidates here in Salem, Oregon, I wanted to start that way.
And that meant fashioning a Brian Hines, Author Facebook page. Since I'd done that several times, it went smoothly. The toughest part was getting our dining room table set up for a cover photo to be taken by my wife. Here's the iPhone result. Not bad. It fits nicely on my Facebook page.
Only two of my four books would fit in the photo. Hopefully they aren't jealous of the books that were chosen to frame my face. I've given Facebook $100 to plug a post about Break Free of Dogma with atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers in the United States.
If you want, give my Brian Hines, Author Facebook page a like by clicking on, not surprisingly, the "Like" button under the cover photo.
In the course of re-reading the first part of my book to make sure there weren't any unnoticed typos, I came across a January 2005 post where I mentioned Steve Hagen's book, Buddhism Plain and Simple. I bought another copy a few weeks ago, having forgotten that I already had one.
I'm glad that I did.
After 15 years of increasing churchlessness, my view on reality has become considerably more godless than when I first read Hagen's book. So reading it again was like the very first time. (Of course, even if my views hadn't changed, my memory of the book would have been dim.)
The 2005 post was called "Religious questioning is natural." Here it is. I've added a few extra paragraph breaks to make the post easier to read. (Blogs were called weblogs way back when.)
Like most bloggers, I love getting email. Making connections with like-minded (or unlike-minded) people from anywhere in the world is a wonderful reward for the time and effort that goes into a weblog.
Recently I got a message from another member of the spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), that I’ve been involved with for thirty-five years. This is how my correspondent ended his email:
I do not know whether you will feel the following questions too personal to answer, but if you do not mind , will you mind answering them?: Are you or were you ever a satsangi? What is your spiritual philosophy these days? Can you comment at all on the Sant Mat Gurus, especially Maharaj Gurinder Singh? How do you recommend one seeks the Ultimate Truth?
By “satsangi” he meant specifically an initiate of the mystical path known variously as Sant Mat, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Science of the Soul, Surat Shabd Yoga, or Radha Soami. Satsangi is a generic word that literally means “one who associates with truth (sat).”
Since many spiritual groups in India and elsewhere consider that they are on the path to knowing truth, you can be a “satsangi” of various denominations—to use a rather ill-fitting Christian term. “Satsang” is a meeting of satsangis, a service if you will.
I was asked good questions, some obviously much easier to answer than others. Though personal, I didn’t mind making a stab at answering them and have shared my response below.
I realize my language will seem foreign to many people. But substitute, for example, “Pope” for “Master” and “Catholic Church” for “Radha Soami Satsang Beas” if my message seems too distant from your own experience.
My basic point is universal: after you’ve belonged to a religious or spiritual organization for more than a few years, it’s natural to be more critical of it. The more knowledgeable you become about a church, faith, philosophy, or theology, the more flaws you’ll find.
The ultimate reality we call “God” can’t be confined within any manmade system. Religions try to put bounds around boundlessness, but this is a futile exercise. Truth always finds a way to express itself. So I encourage people to trust their direct experience over abstract concepts.
When something seems wrong about the spiritual path you’re following, likely it is. If it appears that you can drop some inessential ritualistic practice, almost certainly you should. Keep what works for you; discard what doesn’t.
Here’s my mildly edited response to the questions I was asked:
I am indeed a Sant Mat (RSSB) initiate, dating way back from the class of 1971. I now am inclined to shy away from labels such as “satsangi.” My wife is a non-initiate and I have found that this satsangi/non-satsangi distinction is unproductive, just as the Christian/non-Christian distinction is.
Sometimes a satsangi will phone us; my wife answers and hears the greeting, “Radha soami.” She then says, “Hello.” The caller again says, “Radha soami.” She refuses to go further with the conversation until the person communicates like a normal human being rather than a cult member.
I’ve become a bit of a Sant Mat “heretic,” just as you seem to be. Maybe more than “a bit of” in fact.
My quest these days is to discern the essential in spirituality. The rest seems to be in the realm of religion, not mysticism or what I like to call spiritual science. There is a lot of religiosity in RSSB even though this path supposedly isn’t a religion. When blind belief and faith are elevated over direct experience and questioning, I call that a religion.
I still feel a lot of fondness for RSSB/Sant Mat and continue to attend satsang most Sundays. But I’ll admit that I go more for the socializing than for the satsang. Our post-satsang coffee shop conversations go on for considerably longer, and with considerably more enthusiasm, than the 45 minute satsang.
My spiritual philosophy keeps evolving in the direction of Advaita and non-religious Buddhism, assuming those terms really mean anything, which I suspect they don’t. Immersing myself in the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plotinus exacerbated my existing tendencies in that direction.
I think you would enjoy my book “Return to the One,” though since I’m the author, I’m obviously horribly biased. Plotinus’ philosophy is remarkably close to that of Sant Mat, with the notable exception of not mentioning the need for a living “guru.” Or, for that matter, a dead guru.
I’ve been reading several books by Steven Hagen, who I like a lot.
His “Buddhism Plain and Simple” reverberates with me, as does “Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs.” I don’t agree with everything Hagen says, but I very much appreciate his attempt to get beyond the religiosity of Buddhism and reach the essential core, which he says is simply seeing.
I empathize with your frustration with Sant Mat meditation, and RSSB in general. We’re different people, so my experience may have no relevance to your own.
All I can say is that I’ve been energized by taking a fresh look at what seems to work for me in meditation, and what doesn’t, regardless of whether it is 100% Sant Mat certified. The goal in Sant Mat meditation, after all, is to do nothing. No mantra, no visualization. Just being there as soul, pure consciousness, and experiencing whatever is there.
This is perfectly compatible with Hagen’s plain and simple Buddhism, and also with Ramana’s plain and simple Advaita. Ramana is another teacher whom I’ve enjoyed reading, finding in him the core of mystic practice without the distractions of complex concepts and suppositions.
Re. Master Gurinder Singh, since I don’t know who I am, I certainly would make no claim to understanding anyone else. Only Master Gurinder Singh knows who Master Gurinder Singh is.
Since he doesn’t make any claims of godliness for himself, one can either surmise (1) that he is a humble god-man, or (2) that he isn’t a god-man. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter which is true. It’s my own experience that I’m concerned about, not the Master’s.
That is, my current approach to spirituality is basically this: I’ll do my best to meditate and discover what lies beyond appearances.
I believe that if the cosmos is One, and I’m part of it, that whatever the essence of me is, also is the essence of the cosmos. Wherever this journey leads, I’ll believe in what I see and experience directly. Everything else is just a hypothesis: Guru is God, spirit creates and sustains the universe, soul can unite with spirit, and so on.
I muse about this stuff on my Church of the Churchless weblog. I haven’t arrived at any real answers yet, but I’m enjoying the questioning. Trust yourself. If I have faith in anything, it is that the Truth with a capital “T” is able to burst through any and all barriers, and it makes its presence known in all sorts of highly individualistic ways.
My guess is that you already know what spiritual path attracts you, and you are just looking for validation.
I could be wrong, but I do this all the time myself, so the process is familiar to me. I look for books and people to affirm what I already am quite sure of, deep down. If I didn’t already know what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be attracted to it when I saw it.
Warm greetings, Brian
When something has gotten worn out and doesn't work well for you anymore, it's natural to lean toward discarding it. But often it's possible to find another use for the item.
For example, in my closet I've got a place where I keep my work-in-the-yard clothes -- old pants and t-shirts that I put on when I'm going to get dirty or sweaty. I didn't buy them for that purpose. They've just been repurposed from their original use.
Likewise, it makes sense to do this with outmoded religious beliefs. You've moved on from the dogmas that you used to embrace. Probably there's something about them you still enjoy, though. So adapt them to your new atheist, agnostic, or whatever frame of mind.
I thought of this yesterday when I was doing chores in our yard, trying to get as much of the grass mowed as possible before it started raining heavily.
For 35 years I belonged to a guru-led religious organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), that had its headquarters in India. Thus many of the central tenets of RSSB were expressed in Indian words.
Like, seva. Which means selfless service.
Obviously this can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere. We're seeing seva expressed wonderfully during the coronavirus crisis. Medical personnel, grocery clerks, cleaners, delivery truck drivers, and so many others are doing their jobs with steadfast dedication.
So it's ridiculous to view seva as something that one does for a religious leader or organization. However, that's how it was generally viewed by RSSB. People would travel to India or to RSSB centers in their country so they could perform selfless service. Which is totally unnecessary, of course, since there are plenty of opportunities for seva close to home.
Or, right at home.
After I finished mowing, which took longer than usual because the light rain that had been falling, combined with tall lush grass, caused the discharge chute of my large walk-behind DR Field Mower (with lawnmower attachment) to keep clogging with wet clippings, I was ready to go inside and relax.
But then I realized that the lawn hadn't been edged for several weeks. And that the mower had left some pieces of mud and grass clumps in the carport as I was pushing it into the garage.
So I got out my battery-powered edger. Followed by my Stihl backpack blower.
I knew that my wife, Laurel, enjoys seeing the edges of the lawn neat and clean. Probably more than I do, because Laurel does a lot of weed pulling, and that's more difficult when you can't see what's sprouting in the bark mulch that surrounds our lawn. And I also knew that if I left the clumps of dirt and grass in the carport, Laurel would get a broom and clean them up herself.
Doing those additional jobs, edging and blowing, felt good, even though I was tired and hungry. In fact, it felt exactly like the feeling I'd have when I was setting up chairs for the weekly meeting of our local RSSB group here in Salem, Oregon.
I'd put extra effort into lining up the chairs just so, because I was imbued with the notion of seva, selfless service. That was a fine thing to do. What largely escaped me at the time, though, was something that now strikes me as obvious: as noted above, service to others can be done by anybody, anywhere, anytime.
During my religious believing years, though, I made the mistake of viewing seva on behalf of RSSB and the guru as somehow being more important than seva to my family, community, and others.
Having seen the error of my ways, I've repurposed that word, seva, to encompass any and all forms of selfless service. Plus, I've pretty much discarded the "selfless" part. I really have no idea if my edging the grass and blowing off the carport was selfless or not. Since I got pleasure from imagining my wife feeling good about what I'd done, arguably I wasn't really selfless.
But who is?
If Mother Teresa felt pleasure from serving the poor, does this take away from her "selfless service"? I don't think so. It would be crazy to think that we have to be miserable while serving others. If that makes us feel good, so much the better, because then we'll want to do more selfless service, more seva.
Anyway, I could give more examples of how I'm repurposing outmoded concepts from my previous religious life. Another time, perhaps.
Head on over to my HinesSight blog and learn what's been keeping my mood up during the enforced isolation of Oregon's Stay Home, Save Lives orders.
Tonight I wrote, "My top 10 bright spots during Oregon's stay-at-home period." Number 1 is:
This afternoon I came home from a dog walk to find my wife taking part in a Zoom dance party celebrating her grand-niece's birthday. Naturally I had to grab my iPhone and upload a short video to You Tube.
Since this blog attracts people from many countries, I'm curious to learn how you are coping with the coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak.
Leave a comment on this post, if you like.
It'd be good to know both how people in your part of the world are handling the disruption in everyday life that, likely, has been imposed by government authorities, and also how you yourself have been affected.
What disturbs you the most about what's going on? What bright spots can you find in this otherwise dark and distressing situation?
All I ask is that you keep religion out of your comment. This is a time when everybody should be coming together to fight a common enemy, the COVID-19 virus. Religion and politics shouldn't play a role in this.
Our common humanity, and susceptibility to getting sick or even dying from the virus, is what binds us together. The coronavirus doesn't care if you are a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. Nor should the medical professionals we're counting on to guide us through the COVID-19 outbreak.
Here in Oregon, where I live, there are 88 reported cases and one death out of a population of about 4.2 million. But testing for the virus has been very limited, so the actually number of cases must be far greater.
A few days ago Governor Brown issued an order to close bars and restaurants, including coffee houses. Only take-out food can be ordered from restaurants. This afternoon I got a latte from a drive-up window of the French Press coffee house in south Salem. I left a generous tip and told the barista, "You deserve this. I know this is a tough time for you and other employees."
After that, my wife and I took Mooka, our dog, to the Minto Brown dog park. The sun was out. Temperature was in the 60s. Lots of people were at the park, since schools are closed until the end of April and many businesses have either cut back on employees or closed temporarily (hopefully not permanently).
While we were watching dogs running around playing with each other, and walking around with other people (keeping six feet apart, naturally), it was easy to forget that a deadly disease is wreaking havoc on the world. It also was nice to get away from the news for a while and simply experience a pleasant outing in great weather.
My Tai Chi classes have been cancelled until further notice. My wife and I no longer go to our athletic club, which I'm unsure is even open. The monthly Salon discussion group that we're a part of isn't going to meet in person, though we might try conversing through video conferencing.
Grocery stores shelves are mostly bare of toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting cleaning supplies. I couldn't find bread when I went shopping on Monday. But on Tuesday our natural food store had some. Joy! I felt like someone in World War II must have when food in short supply was available.
I've been writing about the coronavirus on my other two blogs. Here's links.
My thoughts about the coronavirus outbreak
I'm not wearing gloves because of cold, but of old (COVID-19)
Salem's city officials need to WAKE UP about the COVID-19 outbreak
My daughter clues me in to why small businesses need help fast
Progressive policies will win the war against COVID-19
Many years ago, too many to count, a friend brought a tape recording to our house (yes, tape) of a talk that contained a marvelous little poem by David Ignatow. I wrote down his words. I've thought a lot about them ever since.
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment on my life.
In my religious-believing days, I would look for portents, signs, indications that the cosmos had something to say to me. If I was late getting to a meeting of my spiritual group and every traffic light would be green as I approached it, I'd consider that God was on my side.
(Or the guru, since I belonged to an organization headed up by one.)
Even after I embraced atheism, I'd still occasionally wonder, what message is the universe sending to me? My present-day answer: no message at all, because reality, like a mountain, is what it is. It's not about me. Or you. Or anybody else.
Today I was late for my 4:30 pm Tai Chi class, per usual. I felt like I'd get there close to on time, until I noticed flashing lights of several police cars that were diverting traffic from the street I was on because of an accident.
I had to go out of my way to detour around the blockade. Pleasingly, a car pulled out of a parking space as I got close to the building that houses the Tai Chi class. Somehow I was almost on time, a remarkable feat that a classmate remarked on.
But I didn't look on this as a comment on my life. It was just life, just a sequence of events that had nothing to do with me, even though I was experiencing them.
A few days ago I had coffee with someone who wanted to talk about local politics, one of my favorite subjects. Our conversation went in many different directions, so I can't remember what led me to quote the Ignatow poem, which I managed to mangle while still conveying the meaning accurately.
I told this person that my goal is not only to be able to look at a mountain as not being a comment on my life, but something more radical: to look upon my own life as not being a comment on my life.
Meaning, it'd be nice to be content with viewing the things that happen in my life as what they are, and not as a reflection of me. Which probably won't make a whole lot of sense to other people, though it does to me -- more intuitively, than rationally.
Recently I jotted down something Sam Harris said on his Waking Up daily guided meditation that I listen to on my iPhone. It kind of fits with what I'm talking about here. He's speaking about our conscious awareness.
Drop back into the condition of everything arising on its own, the ground of experience.
Harris, being a fan of Dzogchen Buddhism, doesn't consider that we have, or are, a self. There's nobody inside our head watching and doing stuff. There is simply life happening, "everything arising on its own."
OK, calm clear consciousness isn't really a mantra for me, notwithstanding the title of this blog post.
Those are just three words that I've been saying to myself a few times a day, because they do a good job of summing up my current approach to meditation and spirituality.
Here's some additional words that explain part of the meaning that I attribute to calm clear consciousness.
Consciousness. Everything we have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience is dependent on consciousness. No consciousness, no experience.
But there are degrees of consciousness.
There's a big difference between someone comatose, in a dreamless deep sleep, awake, and so on. We also can be conscious but not aware, such as when we do something yet don't know that we did it -- like locking a car and then wondering if the car is locked as we walk away from it.
And consciousness is inherently subjective. Humans have a different form of consciousness from other primates, and even more different from bats, birds, bees, and the many other living creatures that appear to possess consciousness to one degree or another.
Thus consciousness is private. No one has direct access to anyone else's consciousness. At least, there is no demonstrable evidence of this.
Some people view consciousness as something separate from what we are conscious of. I'm skeptical about this, since I have no idea what consciousness without some conscious content would feel like or be like.
That, though, is a peripheral issue for me. The brain produces consciousness. Whether consciousness is something that can stand alone, or is always associated with some conscious experience -- that's scientifically unanswerable at the moment, and may always be.
Clear. We don't see things as they are, but as they appear to us. That's the nature of conscious experience. Just as there are degrees of consciousness, so are there degrees of conscious clarity.
This is difficult to put into words, though I think almost everyone knows what I'm talking about.
Sometimes life seems murky, shadowy, difficult to discern. In my experience, this occurs most often when too many things are competing for my attention at the same time, since the human brain isn't equipped to multi-task.
Typically we can do one thing at a time well; two things with some difficulty, like driving while having a phone conversation; three things at a time is very difficult, like driving, talking on the phone, and changing the station on a car radio.
So to me, "clear" has a lot to do with being mindful.
Meaning, knowing what we're experiencing while we're experiencing it. If I lock my car, that's an experience. However, if i don't know that I've locked the car because I was thinking of what to have for dinner while performing this habitual action, i'm into murky conscious territory, not clear territory.
In other words, I aim to be as clear as possible about what I'm doing, feeling, thinking, and otherwise experiencing. Not in the sense of watching myself as an outside observer, but rather as a conscious undistracted subject.
Calm. Even if water isn't murky or clouded, it still can be difficult to see what's beneath the surface of it if the water is rocked by waves.
Likewise, even if my consciousness is quite clear, if I'm focused on one thing and am well aware of it, my emotions can make it difficult to really tell what is happening with my experience. Or, can make it difficult for me to respond appropriately to what I'm experiencing.
For about 30 years I've practiced some form of martial arts. Karate at first, then a mixed form of martial arts, and Tai Chi for the past 16 years.
So this has offered me a lot of direct experience of what happens when my mind isn't calm. Being anxious about getting hit in the face doesn't help with not getting hit in the face. All it does is make me tense up, which reduces my ability to dodge a punch and respond in an effective fashion.
Likewise with other situations where I'm not calm. Arguing with someone when I'm angry doesn't help me "win" the argument (assuming anyone ever wins an argument; I just can't think of a better word).
But I've also found that it doesn't help to pretend that my mind is calm when it actually isn't.
Which gets me back to mindfulness. Simply saying to myself, "I'm upset," has a way of making me less upset, because speaking those words to myself creates some distance between the emotion and my awareness of it.
Anyway, I'm enjoying playing around with using calm clear consciousness as words that represent a sort of goal for me.
I'm a believer in the power of our unconscious or non-conscious mind, which modern neuroscience and psychology tell us is by far the greatest part of our mind. Since most of us talk to ourselves a lot, it makes sense to me to speak some words, now and then, that point to how I'd like my mind to be.
Not all of the time, obviously, since I don't have that much control over my mind. But more of the time.
Calm clear consciousness. Something to aspire to.
I'm assuming, and hoping, that my many mini-enlightenments are adding up to an eventual maxi-enlightenment -- in the same way saving spare change found in pockets eventually totals to some real money.
Today I added to my mini-enlightenment score card while standing on a mat in an exercise room at my athletic club where I do some Tai Chi and yoga after doing my elliptical trainer and weight lifting thing.
I decided to take a photo of the just-after-mini-enlighentment moment in case I ever attain maximal Buddha nature, and those who revere me want documentation of something analogous to the Buddha's realization under the Bodhi Tree. Plus, I like how the sunlight illuminated the mat, and how marvelously the color of my Darn Tough socks matched the mat.
Naturally the wisdom that flowed into my psyche as I was doing a yoga movement can't be expressed in language, being an ineffable showering upon me of cosmic truth.
But I'll try to distill my mini-enlightenment into a few inadequate words.
This, right here and now, that's all there is, and will ever be. Experiencing that truth had an immediate emotional impact on me. Namely, relief.
I recall that I'd been thinking about what to have for dinner, what time the Democratic presidential debate tonight was, and other mundane thoughts. But when my mini-enlightenment hit, I realized that no matter what happens in my life, no matter what I do, no matter if pain, pleasure, or anything in-between becomes my lot -- in a very real sense, it's all the same.
Reality. This. Right here and now.
Sure, the details of here and now are ever-changing. But that everything anyone ever can be aware of is localized in here-and-now was a realization that relieved any pressure on me to be somewhere there-and-then.
Because that place would turn out to be another here-and-now.
And so it goes, for every moment of every person's life, until a last breath brings an end to here-and-nows. (Since I'm a proud atheist, I view life after death as an extremely low probability; greater than zero, but not much greater, like maybe .0001%, or a thousandth of one percent.)
Here's my New Year's wish for visitors to this Church of the Churchless blog, myself, and indeed, everybody.
Be ordinary. Do ordinary things. Feel happy in your ordinariness.
I say this because now that I've reached the wise old age of 71, I've realized that overlooking the ordinary that's right at hand for some supposedly extraordinary thing that's around a corner has some serious drawbacks.
One reason is what I talked about in a post last month, Why you should be happy today, right now, no matter what.
Be happy today, right now, at this very moment and every following moment.
Why? Because our future contains only three possibilities.
Tomorrow, or the next moment, could be better than right now.
So be happy! Life will look even brighter soon.
Tomorrow, or the next moment, could be worse than right now.
So be happy! Enjoy life in this more pleasant present.
Tomorrow, or the next moment, could be the same as right now.
So be happy! Life has brought you some stability.
I'd like to die with a smile on my face. Problem is, I don't know when I'm going to die. Few people do, aside from those condemned to death, those who commit suicide, and a few other types of predictable deaths.
Since my life, as is true of almost all other lives also, mostly involves experiencing ordinary things with my ordinary self, it figures that being happy with ordinariness offers the best chance of dying with a smile on my face.
Or at least, with an effort to smile. And if even that isn't possible, with neither a smile nor a frown, but an expression of acceptance.
Another reason is that ordinary things bring considerable pleasure when they are enjoyed for what they are, rather than feeling that we're missing out by not pursuing something extraordinary.
Here's an excerpt from a 2018 post, "Happiness lies in ordinary things." This is a quote from a TIME magazine essay by Meg Wolitzer in a special issue about the science of emotions.
At this point, being happy is about having the space to appreciate the ordinary things that do in fact make me "happy," though at first glance they might not be seen that way.
An absence of chaos; an absence of phone calls with disturbing news; an absence of business emails that up-end your day and demand attention right then and there; no acutely ill parents; no fragile children calling shakily from college.
Being able to sit down with a glass of wine and some really good, tiny little olives with your husband; having a nice meal with your kids that's not rushed or fraught.
These seem like small things, perhaps pedestrian things, but I protect them fiercely, knowing that on the other side of an imaginary wall waits the possibility that all of them will soon be gone and that something terrible will replace them.
But I no longer quake in fear.
I used to think that happiness was something a person was so lucky to find that, like Lord Voldemort (a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named), it should never actually be mentioned. Now, with happiness taking on a new, modest cast, the fear of losing it is smaller too.
You might think: Good god, woman! This isn't happiness. Happiness has wild colors and flavors; it involves bodies draped across a bed, or things that come in gift wrap. Or even, once in a while, Carvel. Don't you want any of that?
Of course I do.
But being allowed to enjoy some of the more modest pieces of my life happens right now to be my own personal Carvel; my own dachshund, gift-wrapped present, snow day and secret lover. Perhaps for most of us -- or anyway, for me -- happiness has gotten smaller over time, becoming endlessly and exquisitely refined, though somehow never diminished.
Lastly, I'm continually impressed by the marvelous grace and courage of ordinary people. There's no need to look for heroes anywhere else but next door. I'll offer up two examples from my ordinary life.
Here's a Facebook post from a woman I've known here in Salem, Oregon for many years. She's one of the sweetest, gentlest people I've ever come across. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, even though she'd never smoked, this was a big shock to me and her many other friends.
Yet yesterday she wrote:
What a year! 13 months ago I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I haven’t written about it because I know that many deal with worse, and the world is beset with larger problems than what I face.
But, at the end of 2019 I’d like to share what these harrowing months have taught me.
Despite pain and fear, illness and uncertainty, 6 hospital trips, harsh chemotherapy, infections, being too sick to work - or sometimes even to eat - I have learned gratitude for each and every day. Maybe this is surprising, maybe it isn’t.
I have been amazed at how many have been generous to me, and how many have been kind to me. How many have donated time, resources, advice and food. THANK YOU, thank you!
Also - I can’t remember ever enjoying each day more, or feeling more gratitude for the multitude of sights and sounds, large and small, that make up my life. I can’t remember ever appreciating more the wonders that each day brings.
Scans show the cancer is growing, but I mostly feel pretty good these days, and keep hope alive. While my prognosis is not what I want, I understand that ultimately we all have the same prognosis.
I celebrate knowing you! I wish you a happy and meaningful 2020!
Those words are more inspiring to me than anything I've read in a religious book, or heard from a religious person. They're the words of an ordinary person dealing with their troubles in an amazingly courageous way.
Then, my wife came home a little while ago from her New Year's Eve stint as a volunteer dog walker at our local Humane Society. She told me about a man on her shift who "walks" dogs even though he is in a wheelchair.
This can be difficult for him even on nice days, since some dogs are strong pullers on their leash, so can take him for an unwanted ride before he can get them under control. Today it rained heavily for much of the dog-walking shift.
He didn't have a jacket with him, so even though my wife helped him find a jacket he could borrow, it wasn't waterproof. And his knees got soaked anyway from sitting in his wheelchair while walking dogs in the rain. Yet this man is one of the more dedicated dog walkers.
An ordinary man. Doing an ordinary thing. Yet in such an admirable way.
I aspire to being as good a person as the woman with stage 4 cancer, or the man who walks dogs with a wheelchair. I have no interest in emulating saints, gurus, holy men/women, or any other religious personage.
I just want to learn from ordinary people who are able to live their lives with love, peace, acceptance, and courage.
If you think I'm tough on religious leaders, check out what I wrote about Santa Claus in my HinesSight blog post, "Santa Claus must be impeached."
I credit my wife, Laurel, with coming up with the concept for our 2019 Christmas letter. Then I researched the grounds for impeachment and came up with four excellent reasons.
There are more, of course. For example, I deeply doubt that Santa Claus is abiding by minimum wage and workplace safety laws in his present-making workshop staffed by elves.
Today a commenter on one of my blog posts said something astoundingly obvious -- that what I write about now is different from what I wrote about five or ten years ago.
I'm constantly changing, as are we all. I learn, grow, evolve, change my mind, look upon things differently.
Since I've published a book that consists of Church of the Churchless posts from the early years of this blog, 2004 to 2006, I'm well aware of how my approach to spirituality has changed since then.
If you read Break Free of Dogma, and naturally everybody should, you'll see that I've added a short introduction to each post that talks about how I look now at what I wrote back then.
That's because my own journey of breaking free of religious dogma was a gradual affair.
I can liken it to dismantling a Belief House that was built up over my 35 years of being an active member of a India-based religious organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas.
It took me quite a while to figure out what parts of that Belief House still appealed to me, and what parts needed to be demolished because they didn't fit with my current understanding of reality.
Earlier this year I wrote "Changing your mind is a superpower. Use it." Here's excerpts.
I have a superpower. But unlike those with superpowers who inhabit the pages of comic books and the screens of movie theaters, my astounding ability is available to everyone.
It's called changing your mind.
I'm sure you've used it -- many times. After all, we change our minds about countless things during the course of our lives. For example, I've changed my mind about my...
Politics (Used to be conservative, now I'm a liberal).
Cars (I've gone from a 57' VW bug to a 2017 VW GTI, with many other makes in between).
Marriage (Got divorced, then remarried).
Profession (Earned a master's in social work, then went into health planning/research).
Eating (Loved meat until I became a vegetarian in 1970).
Residence (Grew up in the country, then lived in cities, now back in the country again).
Religion (Was Catholic for a while as a child, then a believer in an Eastern religion, and now an atheist).
So how is changing your mind a superpower? After all, everybody does this, all the time. True, but since we're so used to changing our minds, it's easy to overlook how marvelous this ability is.
Rocks don't have minds. Nor do stars. Living beings, though, have various sorts of minds. We humans have a powerful one. Other primates, ditto, though to a lesser degree. Plants have some sort of cognizance, but probably not a mind. Computers are very adept at certain tasks, yet so far lack what we would call a "mind."
Thus people are able to learn, adapt, modify our thinking, feeling, intuition, and such.
Because very little of human behavior is controlled by instinct, we have the capacity to transmit knowledge between people and across generations. We can read Plato and understand a great mind that lived thousands of years ago, thereby altering our own.
One of the best things about being able to change our mind is how good it feels, and how freeing it is.
...I'm not saying that change is always welcome, or even tolerable.
That isn't what I mean by changing your mind being a superpower. Sure, it is possible to reduce anxiety, fear, suffering, and such by altering one's thoughts and feelings, but I'm not aware of anybody who can remain completely unmoved by severe pain, disappointment, or loss.
What is possible, though, is altering our psyche to embrace a new reality, even though it may be unwelcome. That's a superpower in and of itself -- the ability to say "This is...," no matter what those three dots stand for.
Here's some examples of what I mean.
On this blog I've been writing quite a bit about the legal, financial, and ethical troubles involving the guru of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), Gurinder Singh Dhillon. I was a member of RSSB for 35 years, so I like to use this organization as an example of how religions can be wrong, and do wrong, since I'm so familiar with it.
(If I'd remained a Catholic for 35 years, then became an atheist, likely I'd be using Catholicism as an example of bad religion.)
Fairly frequently commenters on my blog posts about the Dhillon family's alleged criminality will say something like, "Brian, when it turns out that the guru did nothing wrong, you're going to be unable to accept this."
That really isn't true.
Because I'm adept at changing my mind, if the Indian legal system ends up exonerating Gurinder Singh Dhillon, I'll accept that reality with very little trouble. In the same fashion, back in November 2016 it took a few days for me to fully accept that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.
But it didn't take long for my mind to adjust to a new reality.
Now I'm hoping Trump will be a one-term president. If that doesn't happen, and he is re-elected, I'll be disappointed. However, I won't deny that this happened. (I do worry, though, that Trump won't be able to accept the reality of a 2020 defeat.)
I'll end by noting that even though I'm used to many varieties of religious craziness after 15 years of regularly writing here on the Church of the Churchless, it still surprises me when a commenter expresses extreme surprise at how I could have changed my mind about the validity of the RSSB teachings after being a member of the organization for such a long time.
Often I'll ask them how many things they have changed their mind about during their lifetime. Have you stuck with the same job, same car, same residence, same friends, same political views? Almost certainly not.
There's something about religion that encourages a rigidity of mind that isn't nearly as evident in other areas of life. Members of some religions, like Mormonism or Scientology, will shun people who leave the religion. Yet if someone changes their mind in a way that leads them to join the religion, that's not only fine, it's marvelous.
For many fundamentalists, mind-changing is a one-way street. It's great if you convert to their religion, yet horrible if you deconvert.
But since just about every religion believes that it, and it alone, is privy to the eternal ultimate truth of the cosmos, this encourages true believers to denigrate anyone who embraces that religion, then chooses to leave it. I guess changing one's mind makes those fundamentalists fearful that their chosen faith really isn't true.
Which, almost certainly, it isn't.
I feel good about having changed my mind to realize this. It's much more pleasurable to accept reality as it is, or at least as it appears, than to cling to a rigid way of thinking that no longer makes sense to me.
Our oldest dog, ZuZu, died last month. I'm still grieving. So when I looked through my previous Thanksgiving Day blog posts (a holiday here in the United States), it seemed fitting to share a 2013 post, "Our 14 year old dog teaches me about thankfulness."
That dog was Serena, shown above in her younger days on a bank of the Metolius River in central Oregon. Here's most of what I said in the blog post I wrote about her when Serena's health was fading.
She doesn't look like she did in her younger days. But heck, who does? Surely not me. Being almost fourteen, Serena is something like 100 years old in dog time.
Serena is a Shepherd/Lab mix (her sisters looked like black labs; we were thrilled to get a kind-of German Shepherd-looking dog with a laid back Lab personality -- great combination). Her back legs are weak, a common trait in aging Shepherd canines.
Yet she still can go on a mile walk every evening with me and ZuZu, her four year old sister-dog. Not literally; they just look somewhat alike.
Serena chugs along, uphill and downhill, across two creek bridges, around a neighborhood lake, through grassy fields. I fired up an iPhone GPS app a few days ago. We meander along at an average of 1.8 mph. Hey, not bad for a 100 year old.
Her pooper, which may not the precise veterinary term for what controls her bowel movements, isn't working very well.
Most mornings we get up to find roundish firm dark "presents" in the room where Serena and ZuZu sleep. A tiled room, thankfully, because some days the poop is mushier. Which, in case you're worrying, is all I'm going to say on this subject.
Because its my Thanksgiving Day thankfulness thoughts about Serena that are important. I'm grateful that she's helped me realize the importance of, so to speak, sniffing the heck out of life every single freaking day.
I used to look upon our evening dog walk much differently. That was when both Serena and I were younger, when it seemed like an endless stream of dog walks lay before us.
If Serena paused too long to smell something, inhaling the scent of what, to a dog, at that moment, is the most fascinating thing in the world, I'd get impatient.
Hey, Serena, I'd think, get a move on; I've got other things to do than watch my dog obsess over a clump of grass that, to my impoverished human senses, looks utterly meaningless.
Now, though, our walks have taken on some of the quality of the Zen "Enjoy the Strawberry" parable.
The meaning of living fully in the present moment, neither retreating to the past nor anticipating the future, is wonderfully illustrated by a Zen parable about a monk being pursued by a ferocious tiger.
The monk raced to the edge of a cliff, glanced back, and saw the growling tiger about to spring. The monk spotted a vine dangling over the edge of the cliff. He grabbed it and began shinnying down the side of the cliff out of the clutches of the tiger.
Whew! Narrow escape.
The monk then looked down and saw a quarry of jagged rocks five hundred feet below. He looked up and saw the tiger poised atop the cliff with bared claws. Just then, two mice began to nibble at the vine.
What to do?
The monk saw a strawberry within arm’s reach, growing out of the face of the cliff.
He plucked it, ate it, and exclaimed, “Yum! That’s the best strawberry I’ve ever tasted in my entire life.”
If he had been preoccupied with the rock below (the future) or the tiger above (the past), he would have missed the strawberry in the present moment.
I'm thankful when Serena stops to taste her canine equivalent of a strawberry. My dog-expert wife tells me that dogs experience dementia just like people do.
But I prefer to think that when Serena suddenly stands still, staring off into the distance for no discernible reason, she is drinking in the present moment. Just as I should always be doing. As we all should be.
Because even though I'm appeciative that Serena's advancing age and deteriorating health have helped remind me that I'm in the same sinking mortality boat she is, it shouldn't take a 14 year old dog to remind me that we'll never know when the last time will come.
Probably it won't be very long before Serena and I take our last evening dog walk.
There's a good chance I won't know which one it is. So I want to look upon every walk as our last walk. I want Serena and I to enjoy it like the best strawberry (or chew stick) either of us has tasted in our entire life.
The older I get (I'm 65 now), the more I realize there is only one way to cheat death: making the most of every moment. Not in a frantic skydiving, tango in Buenos Aires, howl at the moon fashion (though there's nothing wrong with this).
In the sense of being present, in the present.
Serena is. Dogs always are. Serena doesn't know she's old and getting ever closer to dying. She just knows that when her nose senses an enticing odor, it needs to be attended to.
Last Tuesday our older dog, ZuZu, had to be put to sleep. Which is another way of saying, euthanized. Tearfully, I was able to write about her last days on my HinesSight blog in It was a good day for our dog to die.
Of course, it wasn't a good day. Not really. I wanted ZuZu to live much longer. What I meant was explained in the first part of the blog post.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't want our beloved older dog, ZuZu, to die. But she did last night, put out of her misery by a dose of morphine at Salem's emergency vet clinic.
What made it a good day -- and now the tears are coming, as I figured they would when I set out to compose this blog post -- was how ZuZu and I got to have a pleasant day together yesterday, since she went downhill really fast, as I'll describe later on.
Monday ZuZu and I had come back from central Oregon a day before my wife and other dog, Mooka. So on Tuesday I didn't want to leave her alone when I went to exercise at the River Road Courthouse athletic club.
In the morning we'd had our usual walk through our rural property, across a creek, and along a community trail here in Spring Lake Estates. ZuZu seemed pretty normal at that point.
She was walking a bit less energetically than usual, which likely was a sign of what was to come. But when she spotted a squirrel, the old ZuZu came to life. Zoom! She raced ahead and excitedly stared into the branches of a tree the squirrel had escaped to.
I'm so happy that ZuZu was able to chase a squirrel on her last day alive. It was one of her favorite things to do. We also ran into some neighbors walking their dogs, so she got to greet them a final time. Nice.
What I'm most glad about is deciding to take ZuZu to the Minto Brown Dog Park after exercising. It was starting to drizzle. I thought about going straight home. But I thought, "ZuZu enjoys the dog park. I've got time. Let's do it."
Yeah, it's a cliche. Live every day as if it were your last. And usually it isn't practical, since we need to plan for future days.
However, it's also true that we never know. When we will die. When a loved one will die. When a pet will die. I had no idea when I drove the short distance from our athletic club to the dog park that ZuZu would be dead in less than eight hours.
It's been tough. Really tough. I miss ZuZu a lot. That's the price of love: pain, when a loved one departs, or suffers, or otherwise tears at our heart. But it's a price well worth paying.
The day after ZuZu died, I opened the rear hatch of my VW GTI. What I saw brought more tears to my eyes, along with a bit of an inner smile.
The dog park I'd taken ZuZu to on the afternoon of her last day alive has an unpaved parking lot. When I picked ZuZu up to put her in the back of the car, her paws were dusty. This was the last time she rode in my car, since she was taken to the emergency vet clinic that night in my wife's car.
My first thought was, "I never want to wash off the paw prints." Yes, I know that will be necessary. Eventually. For now, I enjoy looking at the paw prints, because they remind me of ZuZu and of the good times we shared.
This is the reason I took her dog bowl and put it on a shelf in my office, along with a photo of ZuZu with our older dog at the time, Serena. A vase that was on the shelf graces the inside of the dog bowl. I did this after realizing that I had a couple of choices about how to deal with ZuZu's death.
Try to forget about it, or embrace it -- feeling the pain of love as acutely as possible.
I decided to go the embrace route. The first few days after ZuZu died I could barely bring myself to look at the dog bowl and the photo. I wondered if maybe it would be better to do the forget thing. But I can't forget ZuZu. I don't want to forget ZuZu.
Yes, love hurts. But a life without love isn't worth living. The death of a loved one hurts tremendously. Yet I'm glad that it does. The pain of love is also its pleasure.
One of the best things about being human is also one of the worst things: understanding that your death is inevitable.
We have this capacity because of our evolved brain. Other animals, almost certainly, lack the ability to envision a far-off future that bears no resemblance to what's being experienced in the present.
This enables us to construct civilizations that have transformed our planet. Cell phones, symphonies, electric cars, and so much else wouldn't exist without our ability to imagine possibilities that could exist, but don't at the moment.
But there's a dark side to what evolution has wrought. We members of Homo sapiens know that along with every other living thing, each of us will die one day.
I call this dark because the fear of death isn't pleasant. Nor is dying itself, unless our suffering is so great, death is a longed-for release, not a dreaded tragedy.
As I wrote about in Death and the primal fear of non-existence, I've had glimpses of the void that follows our last breath. It's more frightening than anything I've ever experienced, because nothingness is an absence, not a thing.
I’ve come face to face with not-existing. It’s scary. Really scary. I’ve never experienced anything scarier. I can call it “fear,” but it’s more than that. Worse than that. Regular fear arises when something bad is happening or could happen.
But primal fear is looking into the maw of nothing happening to you, because there will be no you around for anything to happen to. Do you get the difference? I hope so. I don’t know if I can describe it any more clearly.
This experience has come to me about a dozen times. Mostly while I’m going to sleep. Occasionally in meditation. It isn’t something that I can bring about on my own. It isn’t a thought; it isn’t an emotion; it isn’t a perception. It’s as if a curtain covering non-existence opens for a moment, giving me a peek into a nothingness that is absolute.
Because I’m not there. I mean, I’m obviously there at the moment, looking into the depths of not-existing for eternity. Yet what I feel all the way down to the marrow of my being is what it means to live for a time and then to not live for all the rest of time.
Yesterday I had a milder version of what I tried to describe above. I was exercising at our athletic club, doing my usual thing in the room with weight-training machines, when a sudden realization hit my mind with the force of a heavy bar-bell striking a mat.
Eventually I'm going to die. That will be the end of exercising. Also, of life, of consciousness, of existing as anything else but insentient atoms.
I let that feeling wash over me for a few seconds. Then I moved to the next machine. Soon I felt "normal" again, though that word has ceased to carry a definite meaning for me. I really have no idea what is normal and what is abnormal when it comes to the deepest questions of life.
Is it normal to go through life without a stark realization of our inevitable upcoming death? When I was younger, I thought so, given that dying typically is far from the forefront of what youthful people are concerned about.
Now I'm 70.
I've had friends and family members die. Many of them. When I get together with others my age or older, health problems often are a prime conversation topic. We don't talk a whole lot about death in a direct fashion, but the prospect of it lurks in the background.
This is good. In fact, I do my best to keep death in the foreground, since I find that life feels sweeter when I have the attitude of Not only will this moment never come again, there will come a time when no moment will ever come again.
Sure, I still get upset, frustrated, angry, worried, and all the other negative emotions that come with being human. But embracing the reality of my eventual death puts things in perspective. Compared to (1) being dead and not-existing at all, I find (2) dealing with life's problems as best I can a lot more appealing.
No matter how joyful I feel about doing something -- and sometimes the joy is minimal -- I'm grateful that the cosmos has conjured up my brain, body, and consciousness as existing for a certain amount of time on a planet circling one of the hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy that is one of hundreds of billions of other galaxies in a universe some 14 billion years old.
That is so freaking far out, I don't even need to be high on (totally legal) homegrown Oregon marijuana to be blown away by the marvelousness of it all.
Would I prefer to not know that I'm going to die? Well, I have no choice about it, though I suppose there's a slim chance I'll develop some sort of condition that makes it impossible for me to envision my eventual demise.
Unfortunately, that condition likely would also make it impossible for me to do most of the things I enjoy doing: write, read, ponder, plan, look forward to the future, engage in citizen activism aimed at improving the world for future generations.
So I'm happy with being fearful about death.
That anxiety adds an extra "spiritual" dimension to my life, using that word in a decidedly non-supernatural sense. I'm pleased that I've given up the fantasy of life after death, since believing that this world is merely a stepping stone to some imagined eternal existence diminishes the priceless value of our one and only human existence.
Mary Oliver, the poet, put it beautifully. (Paraphrased in the image.)
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I'm eager to write about a newfound typo in my recently published book, "Break Free of Dogma," for a couple of reasons. One is that this gives me another chance to plug my book, which is prominently displayed at the top of the right sidebar.
Also, I've got some deep thoughts about the typo that I just discovered in the book. It came to light today after I gave some copies of the book to my fellow Tai Chi students.
Handing a book to Jeremy, I told him that several of the mini-chapters refer to Tai Chi, such as the last one. I turned to that page, reading aloud the mention of how our Tai Chi instructor, Warren, reacted when I wore a t-shirt with the Chinese symbol for Wu, which indicates negation or nothing.
I was shocked to see that rather than saying I wore it to my Tai Chi class on Monday and today, in the book it says boon Monday and today.
Wow. The original blog post had "on," but when I copied the post content into a Pages file, autocorrect must have changed "on" to "boon." I then proceeded to proof read the manuscript at least three times, failing to see the typo each time.
This is common in human perception.
For example, our eyes don't faithfully reflect what is out there in the world, as a mirror would. Instead, the brain actively makes predictions about what it expects to see, filling in aspects of reality in surprising ways -- such as by eliminating the blind spot with surrounding images.
Some process in our brains interpolates the blind spot based on surrounding detail and information from the other eye, so we do not normally perceive the blind spot.
I expected to read "on, in part because I'd written the blog post that became a chapter in my book. So my brain failed to recognize the "boon" typo.
The lesson is that we can't always trust what we believe we're perceiving, because the brain often fails to show us what is really there.
A classic experiment along this line is a video of a person in a gorilla suit walking through some people passing a basketball back and forth. When an onlooker is asked to count the number of times the basketball has been passed, typically they fail to notice the "gorilla."
Expectations play a large role in perception. This is one reason I'm deeply skeptical about tales of mystical experiences. Almost always these reflect whatever religious teaching the person embraces. Muslims rarely, if ever, have a vision of Jesus, but Christians do.
Likewise, followers of a guru will claim they had a vision of him or her, not a vision of the Buddha or Krishna.
Thus almost certainly mystical visions are produced by the mind of the person having the vision, since otherwise we'd have to accept that a supernatural realm is populated with every conceivable religious entity that has appeared to devotees of the thousands of world religions.
I came to recognize the typo in my book. But most religious believers never realize that they are creating their own inaccurate images of their chosen faith.
So just as it makes sense to have several people proofread a book, something I chose not to do, claims of a mystical vision need to be examined extremely closely and skeptically, since chances are that vision has been fashioned by a human mind, not an actual divinity.
If we aren't in touch with the reality of what is actually present before us, right here and now, there's little point in conjecturing about what might be, there and then.
This is my main problem with religiosity.
Like a magician, religions do their best to distract our attention from what is really going on, so they can astound us with supposed miracles: A rabbit popped out of a hat! A woman was cut in two! is similar in kind to God so loved the world he sacrificed his only begotten son! and Heaven awaits those who have faith!
Atheists like me have seen through the trickery.
We're no longer willing to play the God Game. We have no patience with those who promise salvation after death. We recognize the con job being promulgated by religious leaders who lust after money and power while hypocritically preaching worldly detachment and humility.
Today I went on a bike ride with my daughter and granddaughter at a resort in central Oregon, Black Butte Ranch. Near the end of the ride we pedaled across the Big Meadow, which is both big and a meadow.
You won't find truth like that in any religion.
A fenced area adjacent to the bike/pedestrian path contained a bunch of horses and their foals. Some of them came to the fence to be fed, either with grass or tastier morsels. A woman had planned ahead and brought a bag of baby carrots. She kindly gave some to my granddaughter. Which ended up in the mouth of a horse. That was real. Very real. I saw it happen.
You won't find truth like that in any religion.
Look, I've done more than my fair share of theorizing, philosophizing, and fantasizing about what might lie beyond this physical world. It was fun, and I still enjoy dipping my toe into this sort of maybe, could be, perhaps.
But my passion is this world, this time, this place. Hopefully those who read these words are similarly immersed in the reality of here and now. That's the treasure which keeps on giving, not supernatural dreams.
Here's a few photos of what I experienced today.
The horse enjoying a baby carrot.
A foal lying in the grass.
Two other foals either playing dead, or taking a nap in the warm summer sun.
I just uploaded a video to accompany the Amazon listing of my recently-published Break Free of Dogma book. Here's the You Tube version.
Remember: this book is a great gift for the spiritual-but-not-religious person (or people) in your life. Which naturally could include you.
Today's visit to our mailbox was both exciting and a bit scary. I knew that Amazon would have delivered a print copy of my new book, Break Free of Dogma, which consists of 93 posts that I selected from the early years of this blog, 2004-06.
But even though the cover and interior design files uploaded without a hitch, I couldn't be sure the book would look as good as I expected until I ripped open the Amazon package.
Delight! Here I am, doing the obligatory author-selfie thing.
I chose to have a painting of my mother when she was sixteen in the background, with her looking over my shoulder, because she was a huge book lover who would have enjoyed my book, being a spiritual-but-not-religious person herself.
There's both paperback and Kindle versions of the book available on Amazon. Even if you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll enjoy the posts that I selected for Break Free of Dogma.
Each continues to speak to me, even after so many years. Because my views have changed considerably since 2004-06, I preface each churchless "sermon" with a brief comment from my current perspective.
Re-reading the posts several times in the course of fashioning the book, I was inspired.
Hopefully others will be also. As I say in the Introduction, each of the 93 short chapters is just a few pages long, so if a post isn't appealing, the next one is right around the corner.
If you read my book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon.
Sometimes, well, often, I wish that everyone who comments on this blog used their real name and shared personal details of their life -- much like Facebook does, or at least was supposed to do.
But once in a while I like to share some descriptions of my own life, if only to remind people that even though discussions and debates on this Church of the Churchless blog can get hot and heavy, each of us has much more important things going on in their lives.
So here's an Adobe Spark web page I made tonight of photos that I took Friday at the Salem Art Fair & Festival, where we live in Oregon. (A neighbor took one photo of my wife and I.)
It was wonderful to be immersed in the works of talented artists for three hours or so. Afterwards, we took our dogs to a dog park, where they enjoyed the "artistry" of such activities as smelling other dogs' butts, and having theirs smelled in turn. Now that is real living.
(For dogs, at least. I don't recommend it if you're a human, at least not unless you know someone very well.)
Please sign this petition I just started to support the Salem Human Rights Commission in its stand against the City of Salem leasing a building from the Salem Alliance Church to temporarily house the public library.
Click on this link to the Care2 Stand up for LGBTQ rights in Salem! petition.
The church rejects same-sex marriage and considers same-sex sex to be a sin. The Commission is calling on City officials to find another location for the library while renovations are made, even if that location costs more and is less convenient.
As a change of pace from our usual Church of the Churchless programming, I wanted to share what I did yesterday: attend the opening day of the Salem World Beat Festival, as I do every year.
It's difficult to draw profound philosophical messages from a highly enjoyable celebration of multiculturalism. But that won't stop me from trying.
After I got back from the festival, I shared photos and videos that I'd taken in an Adobe Spark web page. You can peruse them by clicking below.
Obviously -- but sometimes the obvious needs mentioning -- there was zero evidence of God or anything supernatural at the World Beat Festival. People simply were having a good time in this oh-so-physical natural world.
Which is where each of us spends all of our time.
I say this with confidence, because no one alive is dead. (Logic rocks!) Thus anyone who has a spiritual experience does so via a physical body and brain. Even a near-death experience is just that: near to death.
So yesterday I ate Yakisoba noodles and vegetables for lunch at the festival. I drank strawberry lemonade. At the Sikh booth I saw how turbans are tied. Drumming was taking place in the African area. An Arab booth sat peacefully next to an Israeli booth.
In the evening, my wife and I went back to the World Beat Festival to see DJ Prashant and his Jai Hoi Dance Troupe perform on the main stage. Here's a video I made of one of their numbers.
Prashant was adept at getting us audience members out of our seats to attempt some Bollywood dance moves he taught us. My wife took a video of me doing my best to follow along.
It may not look like it, but we've taken many ballroom dance lessons. Bollywood dancing is way different, obviously. I hugely enjoyed learning some moves, though.
As noted in the web page I made, if any Mumbai movie producers specializing in Bollywood films are looking to cast an old guy from Oregon who becomes an unexpected Bollywood star, get in touch. Who knows what I'm capable of if I get more than one dance lesson?
Here's what I'd call a guest post, if I wasn't the guest, since I wrote it for my HinesSight blog a few days ago. There I called it, Stuff happens. Things fall apart. Such is life. But "Stuff Happens" is a fine title all by itself.
Enjoy. Unless you don't. Which is fine, since stuff happens.
Sometimes the most obvious things about life need to be talked about.
It's easy to overlook them not in spite of their obviousness, but because the familiar tends to fade into the background, while new stuff grabs our attention.
So here's a few obvious truths about life:
-- Life is finite. It comes to an end for every living being. Including us humans.
-- Life is uncertain. We can hope for the best, but sometimes the worst happens.
-- Life is about caring. We care, because what we're concerned about is finite and uncertain.
I've been reminded about these truths by reading a fascinating book by Martin Hägglund, "This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom." It's over 400 pages long. Yet Hägglund's core concepts are quite simple, three of which I shared above.
Now, I realize that many people believe in eternity, being religious. There's a lot of talk about eternity in this book. I'm going to ignore that subject, other than to say that Hägglund argues persuasively that even if eternity exists, it isn't something desirable.
At the very least, and I think this point is virtually inarguable, the life each of us is living now is in no way eternal, nor perfect (eternity presupposes a certain perfection, since nothing changes in eternity).
Thus whenever we care, whenever we exert ourselves to nourish and protect what we love -- whether this be a person, animal, cause, object, or whatever -- we do so because the object of our caring is finite, and it could fall apart if we don't act to help keep it together. Of course, it might fall apart anyway, even if we act.
Again, in no way is this news to anybody. It just bears repeating.
One reason this is necessary is that most of us have a strong desire to look on the bright side. Usually when I go grocery shopping, as I did today, a clerk will say something to me like, "So how's your day going? Got anything exciting planned later on?"
There's a social expectation that I'll answer in some positive fashion. It would be jarring to tell the clerk, though honest at times, "My day is going like crap. I've got nothing planned other than to hope tomorrow will be better."
I'm not suggesting that we bare our souls at the checkout counter, since these brief chats while our credit card is being processed aren't the right time to share our most intimate secrets. Still, I've found that being as honest as possible often leads to a more interesting conversation.
Sometimes I'll respond to "How's your day going?" with "Fine, so long as I don't listen to the news. Then I get anxious and depressed." This is an exaggeration, though not hugely so. It usually elicits a reply like "I hear you. I feel the same way."
We're all in this finite life together. The boat of our body and mind is going to sink one day.
Keeping it afloat, and in decent working condition, for as long as possible, requires a lot of attention from ourselves and many others: friends, relatives, doctors, teachers, all of the people who interact in such complex and fascinating ways in the society that surrounds us.
To mix metaphors, no one is an island. We're all connected. We're all dependent. We're all caring. We're all in need of care.
A one-page article in the current issue of TIME magazine makes some of the same points that Martin Hägglund makes in his big thick book.
Here's some excerpts from "Tell kids the truth: hard work doesn't always pay off." It was written by Rachel Simmons, author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives.
The humbling, brutal, messy reality is that you can do everything in your power and still fail.
... Instead of allowing our kids to beat themselves up when things don't go their way, we should all question a culture that has taught them that feeling anything less than overwhelmed means they're lazy, that how they perform for others is more important than what actually inspires them, and that where they go to college matters more than the kind of person they are.
The point is not to give our kids a pass on working hard. But fantasizing that they can control everything is not really resilience. We would be wise to remind our kids that life has a way of sucker-punching us when we least expect it. It's often the people who learn to say "stuff happens" who get up the fastest.
(I wrote a post on my Church of the Churchless blog about Hägglund's book, "What sustains us is caring in time, not detachment in eternity.")
Life is difficult. Sometimes really difficult. Like when someone you love likely is going to die soon. Our dog, ZuZu, is in the late stage of chronic liver disease.
Her vet has told my wife and I that ZuZu probably has weeks or months left to live, not years.
So the WillaMutt Strut event ZuZu and I went to today was poignant for me. (It's put on every year by the Willamette Humane Society, where my wife is a volunteer dog walker.)
Here's photos of what likely was ZuZu's last time at the event. She enjoyed herself, as did I.
I'm grateful for every moment I can spend with ZuZu. I'm also grateful for the fact that while we humans can grasp the concept of impending death, dogs can't.
Well, the title of this post is accurate, but it needs some explaining.
Actually, I've already written almost all of the Church of the Churchless book, since after I started this blog in November 2004 I've written 2,601 posts. Assuming each has around 500 words (likely more, so this is a conservative estimate), that's 1,300,500 words.
For quite a while I've been thinking I should fashion those posts into a book. Recently that thought became action. I've already gotten 58,000 words worth of blog posts selected and mildly edited. Mostly I've just been removing links and a bit of extraneous material.
An 80,000 word book strikes me as a good length.
That's in the totally cool range of a Writer's Digest article. Since I'll have many short churchless "sermons," each starting on a new page, 80,000 to 85,000 words seems about right for this first Church of the Churchless book -- almost certainly with more books to come.
I'm enjoying the process of selecting and re-reading the blog posts, which will simply be listed chronologically in the book. Last Sunday I talked with an old friend about the book. He told me about an author who said, wisely, "I write the book that I'd want to read."
Since I'm feeling inspired by reading what I wrote quite a few years ago, I figure I'm on the right track. It looks like I'll be able to find 80-85,000 words worth of book-worthy posts in just the first year of this blog, between the end of 2004 and 2005.
Early on I decided that I'd only correct typos, not change what I'd written, even if now I don't agree with what I said back then. Likely I'll include a sentence or two of present-me commentary before each post, such as "Wow! I sure sounded like I believed in God here. Makes me cringe a bit to read this now."
Having written three previous books about spirituality/philosophy that I no longer believe in, to a large extent, it feels really good to be working on a book that comes much closer to my current atheistic world view.
The way I see it, converting to a religion is akin to walking up the stairs of a building with many floors. The height you reach depends on how strongly and completely you buy into the tenets of a religion.
Since I spent 35 years as an ardent devotee of the guru/meditation-centered Sant Mat teachings promulgated by Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), I did a lot of stair-climbing. When I deconverted from those teachings, it was a gradual process, just as walking down the stairs of a tall building to ground level takes time.
So it makes sense that the blog posts which will appear in the first churchless book are filled with mentions of God, soul, and such, since I was still a speaker at RSSB meetings until October 2005, eleven months after I began writing Church of the Churchless posts.
Here's one of the early posts that made it into the book manuscript, "Become a religion of one" from October 5, 2005. I like it a lot.
Most people belong to a religion with many members. There are about two billion Christians in the world, over a billion Muslims, and nearly a billion Hindus. Sure, company is nice, but here are some reasons to become a religion of one:
-- You can hold a worship service whenever and wherever you want. Your church just needs to be as big as you are.
-- No contentious arguments about leadership. Any jockeying for power in your religious organization will be between you and you.
-- Doctrinal disputes are easily resolved. What you say, goes.
-- If you’ve ever wanted to be known as “Most eminently enlightened great being” or “Her highly esteemed holiness,” within your own mind at least, this is your chance.
-- Beer and tortilla chips can be your holy sacraments. Or, cake and chocolate.
-- Sex between clergy and parishioners is absolutely fine. Encouraged even. It’s all in your own hands. Literally.
-- Finding a name for your religion is easy: just look at your driver’s license. The hard part is deciding between “ism,” “ity,” or whatever. In my case, Hinesism sounds OK, Hinesity terrible. Hinesiosity, maybe. I need to schedule a meeting with myself on this.
-- No worries about declining membership. You’re already as low as you can go (death will take your religion down to zero devotees, but that’ll be the least of your worries).
-- Salvation is assured. All you need to do is write “salvation is assured” on a holy post-it note and then have faith in your divine revelation. Heck, if it works for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it’ll work for you.
-- The next time someone says, “Who died and made you the pope?” you can reply with a straight face, “What do you mean? Nobody had to die, I’ve always held that office.”
But seriously…I’ve got shelves of books from each of the world’s great mystical traditions — Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu — that support the contention, “Become a religion of one.”
Science seeks universal material truths through a collaborative process of rigorous investigation. Mysticism seeks universal spiritual truths through an individual process of rigorous investigation.
Don’t believe it when you hear, “When two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I” in reference to spiritual presence. In truth, that’s when God is not present—in a group.
Believe it: the best religion has a membership of one.
Geez, I thought, when I read the comment. Another one!
I have no idea why so many people are so interested in why, after 35 years, I deconverted from being a follower of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), which is headed by a guru devotees consider to be God in human form. But here's the comment by the somewhat weirdly named "Guru."
Naturally my second thought was, No way am I going to pick only one option or reply in one sentence. Instead, I'll use this blog post to convey what I hope is the definitive answer to why I left RSSB. Then I can simply copy in this post's URL if I get asked this question again. (Here's a previous 2008 try at this, "Why I'm not a Sant Mat true believer.")
Short answer: It's complicated. Like everything in life. The long answer follows. First, though, let's dismiss the four A,B,C,D options the commenter suggested.
Regarding A, as I said in "Here's the truth about when I began criticizing RSSB," the reason a RSSB representative gave for me being fired as a satsang (meeting) speaker in October 2005 was that my blogging here on the Church of the Churchless since November 2004 was making people uncomfortable. So my criticisms of RSSB preceded being fired, rather than coming after that happened.
Regarding B, I wasn't much bothered by my book about the Greek philosopher Plotinus, "Return to the One," not being published by RSSB. We, RSSB and I, simply couldn't agree about some content that RSSB wanted me to add to the book, which I didn't want to do in a book that would be sold to the general public. I suggested having two versions of the book, one with the added content to be sold by RSSB, and one without that would be sold commercially.
I've written about this in several posts: "My letter to a supposed Godly guru," "My inside look at RSSB books," and "How writing a book rewrote me." I ended up publishing the book on my own, and it's been a steady seller on Amazon, with good reader reviews.
Regarding C, I never gave up on meditation. I've meditated every day for 50 years. I enjoyed my meditation during the 35 years I was a member of RSSB, and I've enjoyed my meditation both before and after my RSSB years. I still meditate every morning, in a mostly Buddhist/mindfulness fashion.
Regarding D, I liked Gurinder Singh Dhillon after he became guru. You can read the 2003 letter I sent to him. We engaged in quite a bit of other correspondence back and forth. I also had a number of personal interviews with him. I did "security seva" (volunteer work) during his overseas visits to Vancouver, B.C., Palm Springs, and Honolulu. Once I stood outside the bedroom where he was sleeping at 3 am in the morning, unarmed, willing to die in the admittedly unlikely event armed attackers showed up.
I wouldn't have done that for someone I didn't care about. I wrote about this in "Some thoughts on divine dying," Excerpt:
I regularly get criticized in comments on this blog for not having given the RSSB teachings and meditation practice a serious try. My two word response, which usually isn't quite this pithily direct: that's bullshit.
For thirty-five years I devoted myself to doing what I was told to do, and promised to do, at the time of my initiation by the previous RSSB guru, Charan Singh, in 1971.
Without going into the details, I can confidently say that my devotion to this spiritual/mystical path was considerably more serious and deep than that of the vast majority of other disciples.
To the above-mentioned critics, I'll ask a question: how many of you have stood outside the guru's window in the middle of the night, prepared to die for him? And how many of you have meditated an average of several hours a day for thirty-five years, prepared to "die" in meditation for your guru?
And that enables me to speak confidently about what my RSSB experiences taught me, because I've walked this faith's walk, as well as talked the talk.
Now I'll talk about the real reason I left RSSB. This can be summed up in just a few words: it's impossible to say. But since I'm a wordy guy, I'll say more about why I can't say why I left RSSB.
I don't believe in free will. I also don't believe that I, or anyone else, has (or is) a "self." You can use the Google search box in the right sidebar to find the many blog posts I've written about free will and having a self.
In brief, I'm convinced by neuroscience, psychology, and my own experience that our conscious awareness is just the icing on the cake of what the hugely complex human brain does. Most of our thoughts, desires, actions, and such flow from unconscious sources. There's plenty of scientific evidence that this is true.
But we humans love our stories. Even though we really don't know why we or someone else did something, we're addicted to making up stories about why this or that happened. When it comes to us, usually we conjure up a story that puts us in a good light as a hero or heroine.
If we like someone, we do the same for them. If we dislike someone, we fashion a story that makes them look bad. Progressives like me do that for Donald Trump (it's easy to make him look bad), while when Obama was president, conservatives did the same.
So whatever story I could tell about why I left RSSB wouldn't be true, nor would anyone else's story. Along with Buddhism and modern science, I consider that our world is a vastly complicated network of causes and effects that is virtually impossible to completely explain once we get beyond simple physical systems. And really, not even then.
It's often said that the human brain is the most complex entity we know about in the universe. The hundred billion or so neurons connect in astoundingly complex fashions. Yet when asked a question about why we did something, we confidently come up with a story.
The world isn't a story, though. It just is what it is. As I am what I am. And you are what you are.
Sure, I could supply a bunch of reasons why I left RSSB. These could include: getting divorced and then marrying a woman who supported me in my RSSB pursuits, but also asked probing questions about the RSSB teachings; writing the book about Plotinus' philosophy, which made me realize that blind faith in things unseen no longer appealed to me; having closer contacts with the RSSB guru and his close associates, leading me to see that they were fallible human beings, just like me.
I'll end by observing that few people, maybe none, have left comments on this blog asking why I joined RSSB. Isn't that an equally important question? And an equally unanswerable question?
Unanswerable it may be, but I told part of my story about it in "My strange RSSB initiation story." It really was strange. Given how bizarre the circumstances were that led to me being initiated by Charan Singh, the guru at the time in 1971, it seems fitting that I'm unable to give a simple answer to why I left RSSB.
I did. I'm pleased that I did. I'm more content now. That's what matters to me.
Can't resist sharing an (unposed) photo that a friend snapped of me back in 1970, I believe it was, when I was teaching yoga and meditation after taking classes from the crazed Greek guy who tried to meld Christianity and Eastern religions I talked about in the above-linked blog post about how I became a RSSB initiate.
Those were strange times. Not that things are less strange now. Life is just always strange. Which I consider to be a good thing.