Sunday, March 15, 2015

"How, Then, Shall we live?" Repost from my friend Satya Vayu

A really excellent 50 page essay examining the life of a spiritual renunciate, in the form of the Buddhist lineage. Since being apart of his sangha, I have primarily modeled much of my way of being after these examples, easily the most profound reason for my catalyst in becoming a fellow wisdom practitioner.

How, Then Shall we Live?

Touching Earth Sangha Website

Thursday, March 12, 2015


My story with religion starts with being raised Christian Science until I was about 8 or 9 years old. Quite the unique faith perspective growing up, and one full of controversy, usually involving tales of children being harmed because of lack of medical intervention. I remember my Mom sneaking me Tylenol here and there..,she had married into it, and I don't think was fully onboard. My father had come from a pretty strong background in CS, enough so that his late mother refused to be treated for cancer and went on prayer alone. She was actually given 6 months to live...but ended up lasting for 2 more years,,,

Christian Science Symbol

I'm still uncertain as to why we fell away from CS, but I pretty much stopped going to church around 10 or so. My parents were never pushy with religion, so it allowed for some wiggle room for other ideas to percolate, especially in high school where I was exposed to many philosophical and religious concepts. Reading books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Siddhartha and others really set the tone for my open mind. A few of my buddies were really into Young Life, a Christian youth-focused organization, and I went on a few outings. We used to meet with my history teacher Mr. Coppelly (who brought his buddy Howard Zinn to our school to speak one year) at Sherries diner to talk about Jesus, God etc. I vividly recall him saying that he firmly believed there was real, palpable evil in the world...not just of man. This was a person well-versed in teh horrors of humanity, so no small remark by any means. I never fully jived with the message though...too many inconsistencies, superstitions and pushy social pressures to "be saved" would turn me off again and again.  I would also at this time profess the moon might actually be a spaceship full of lizard I was definitely exploring my realm of reality. :)

I retained my agnostic/skeptical focus into college at Oregon State, but didn't really care enough either way to go further for quite awhile. I met my future ex-wife Michelle at age 22, and she happened to be raised LDS, aka Mormonism. I was aware of the LDS faith- often derided by fellow Christians-but wasn't really exposed to much of it directly. From my time spent with her family and hearing stories and bits of her belief systems still intact, I was at times shocked and aghast at the backwards nature of the teachings. I recall many a heated conversations about the existence of God...I had oft raised the issue of "why doesn't he just show himself in the sky to everyone?" Which usually conjured the sticky faith issue, leading to an "agree to disagree" deadlock. Michelle seemed to actually grow more agnostic over our years together, but her upbringing and familiar influence remained quite prevalent in her mind. I often wonder if she just appeased my notions, and withheld her true thoughts. We used to watch Bill Maher together-a notoriously outspoken atheist-and she grew tired of his overly negative ranting...and I tended to agree with her. Still, Maher has often been one of the more popular and stanch advocates for ridiculing religions of all types, so he shares a special place in my secular heart. Many other comedians used their rapier wit to eviscerate fallacious belief systems- among my favorites are Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais and Louise C.K.

Even during the divorce process(Spring 2012) most of the nearby support groups were faith based, especially one called DivorceCare, using so much God-centric scriptural jargon that it was offensive to my rational sensibilities, despite the facilitator assuring me there was enough sound, non-religious information to help me....just not the right environment. (As an aside, when I worked in teen drug rehab, we used Alcoholics Anonymous as a go to method, and I was appalled at  how faith-based it was...and felt very sorry for those non-believers trying to find solace in this supposed cornerstone of sobriety.)  Not surprisingly, post-divorce she moved to Texas and reinvigorated herself in the Christian community there, professing many of the virtues of a personal relationship with Christ to me-in a very sweet way mind you-but I was too far beyond that.   In fact, I had pretty much resolved myself to never seriously entertain any groundless faith position since about 2004 or so...effectively making me an atheist. I did claim the classic fence-sitting "agnostic" title, mainly due to fear of persecution from that loaded term. You can't turn away from reality and knowledge....once certain epistemological doors are open, they can't be closed...and thank goodness for that!

Fast forward to summer 2012, and I was yearning to connect with more like-minded folks, Luckily, Portland has a sizable secular community and I attended a Center for Inquiry picnic at Laurelhurst Park, where I met several folks, including Professor Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State.  I went on a few more Meetup adventures, like trampoline dodgeball at SkyHighSports(FUN!) and "Life of Brian" movie night at my friend Troy's house....but something wasn't quite synergistic. It might have been just a logistics issue...I lived in Oregon City still, and worked weekend graveyard shifts and had a dog, so I was limited in my ability to zip around to locations. I think also I was a little turned off by the "mainstreamness" of many of the people...and some had the infamous atheist bent of negativity and hostility towards religion that irked me a bit. In fairness, I didn't get to know many of them on a deeper level beyond a few encounters. I also looked into Humanists of Portland, but due to scheduling issues I never made it out to their Sunday meetings. Oh...and I watched Zietgiest. #Mind Blown #Paradigm Shift  #Religious fallacies.

I finally moved to Portland proper in Spring 2013, and that summer met my wonderful Food Not Bombs comrades, and started "taking refuge"(spending time) with Touching Earth Sangha. The sangha(Buddhist spiritual community) has been crucially important in my life the past couple years, not only in exposing me to Buddhist principles, but also their ecological awareness, expressed in veganism, cycling, low-footprint etc. I was always intrigued by Buddhism, but honestly never studied it closely...I used to think it was largely nonsense with reincarnation and mystical woo woo angles. However, my sangha's particular brand of Zen Buddhism practice doesn't put much weight(if any) in the more superstitious concepts and rituals; Tibetan and other schools are more religious in that sense. Zen is more about honing aspects of the present moment through mindfulness and meditation, a very secular friendly technique; an almost proto-psychology via examination of consciousness. Along with some wisdom teachings like the Eight Fold Path, it suggests many virtuous qualities to try out for oneself. We meet every Sunday at Kailash Eco-Village here in SE Portland, sitting at Noon for 30-45min, walking meditation, qigong, dharma talk, Indian Rag and flute music, followed by  a freely sourced vegan feast! We;ve also gone on a few wilderness retreats this past summer to Wy-East(Mt. Hood)-all by bike, the last one hiking around the entire mountain for a week. We are currently working on finding land/space to be a full-time practice community, one that offers retreats and refuge for others, as well as connecting with the larger community in activist endeavors. That's been a sticking point issue of mine for many monastic communities....they provide a role in society, but for me it's too secluded and self-focused for my liking. I feel a strong calling to both cultivate my practice and share it with others, but also to be a true radical Bodhisattva, helping to end the suffering of all beings. Thic Naht Hahn espouses about this concept of engaged Buddhism,  first catalyzed for him during the Vietnam War peace movement. The Buddha said

"Do not go by revelation;
Do not go by tradition;
Do not go by hearsay;
Do not go on the authority of sacred texts;
Do not go on the grounds of pure logic;
Do not go by a view that seems rational;
Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances;
Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it;
Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent;
Do not go along because [thinking] 'the recluse is our teacher'.
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; and when undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them...
Kalamas, when you know for yourselves: These are wholesome; these things are not blameworthy; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, having undertaken them, abide in them."

Touching Earth Sangha(TES)

Another enlightening experience came from my most recent romantic relationship. When I first talked to this "loveliest one" -as I endearingly call her- she literally blurted out "I love Jesus!"  My heart sank a little hearing this...but I was so smitten by her, I decided to pursue and explore our spiritually further. Over the months we dated, there were numerous times when we butted heads over these concepts, but we also allowed a space forsolace and respect for our differing views. Ultimately, that along with some other diverging paths, led us to part ways Summer 2014. I felt like I stunted  her spiritual connection by not sharing her love of Jesus, and a deep, personal connection to the mystic. Since being apart romantically, she has grown more into her faith tradition, and is seeking likewise for future partners; just as I am seeking out like minded practitioners of reason, and congruent wisdom teachings. I'm very much excited for her renewed passion, for it brings her sublime joy and peace- I love her so very much!

The most recent development was a re-exploration of my secular principles...partially brought on by my growing commitment to my makes you get really serious about practice, and if you truly are in agreement. Thankfully, as I said before, our style is very supportive of rational behaviors. Another aspect was the general woo-woo of the progressive community...sometimes referred to as "hippie bullsh*t." healing....many things on the pseudo-science skeptical red alert radar, but often lauded by many in my circles. I still prefer a holistic approach to reality, and not just dogmatic science, but some of these beliefs are just downright wonky, and frankly betray the intellect/ They seemingly arise from uneducated ignorance/group think, or perhaps over reliance on anecdotle and personal testiomy that fails to withstands rigorous inquiry.  Lastly, since I share another marginalized and oppresed view in regards to veganism, it's yet another reminder to do my part as an ally for reason. Hopefully, I can be another lighthouse in a sea of foolishness.

So in my backlash against the hippie zeitgeist I am so entrenched in, I started to delve back into the "classics" for insight ; Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, as well as relative newcomer Peter Boghossian. I came across a great series on Youtube called "The Big Question?", a very amicable forum for discourse between secularists and faith-based camps. My mind was like a parched desert, and the injection of all this skeptical logic and dismantling of unnecessary illusion was like a great deluge of relief, rejuvinating dessicated sections of my brain. I've always been enamored with the oratory prowess of Christopher Hitchens, who is infamous for mopping the floor with opponents in debates, but I hadn't spent as much time looking into Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or the lesser known of the Four Horsman, Daniel Dennet.  Sometimes I get irked by their overly smug nature, but considering they face rampant attacks on not only their sound positions of reason, but ones against their very character, it's understandable if they can come across with a bit of snark. Not to mention the fact that they often  engage in maddening discussions with entirely well-meaning, intelligent and educated people....who also happen to have a grand disconnect when it comes to their faith delusions.   There is telling parallel with "lifting of the veil" in regards to my veganism....once I saw non-vegans from that angle... their behaviors looked absurd and extreme-not mine.So too it goes with the utterly bonkers nature of many in the faith based communities....we are expected to shape our world, political policies and so forth with such a diverse range of irrational positions....?  I found this little gem of a summation in a YouTube comment.

"Christopher Hitchens inspires us to exercise the courage of carefully considered moral conviction. 
Sam Harris leads by example toward a future where we shape morality and society through reason and empathy.

Richard Dawkins, Neill de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence M. Krauss, and many others invite us to share a quest for knowledge, to undertake together our own journey to become our best risen ape.

Richard Feynman showed us that science is the domain of wonder, that joy is created by the quest, that knowledge enhances beauty, that we are all scientists, that it's OK that we don't know all the answers.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali inspires us that we can and must stand up for freedom of thought in the face of adversity, lest we leave the task so difficult for those in our historical wake they'll be swept away by the ever looming threat of fascism

Peter Boghossian helps us learn to shine light on the path toward emancipation, so we may daily help others liberate themselves from the failed epistemology of faith.

Samuel Becket exposes the veil of absurdity in which, as we are very lucky, we have awakened.

Stanley Kubrick gifts us the only sensible mantra: in a universe of darkness we must make our own light.

Our lives are enhanced if we strive to be even a tiny bit more like these people."

 I recently finished Peter Boghosians Manual for Creating Atheists; a rather provocative tool for dispensing reason and "cleansing the faith virus via Street Epistemology" as he puts it. I read about half of this along the Portland waterfront and was a little sheepish in flashing the cover around....lest some faith-filled jogger accost me. His focus on how people come to knowledge really resonates with skirts around the positive trappings of religion like community, family, morals etc, and goes at the errors in thinking that give rise to securing the anchor of faith in the first place. Some may say "why try and take away something that brings comfort to someone?" I do not doubt the supreme importance it holds in billions of people's lives....but we do not live in a bubble...we are connected in interbeing as Thich Naht Hahn says. Ideas inform actions and behaviors; on the wider scale they influence policy, laws and shared norms... look no further than our own right wing fundamentalists, or the current geo-political terror of ISIS, for evidence. This does not discount the great wisdom's and truths contained in many religions...but we can (and should) separate delusion from valuable universal notions. As Boghossian illustrates... people inherently deserve respect; not so their ideas-nothing is off the table for debate. Cultural and moral relativism has eroded our sense of truth, and the ability to exist in objective awareness. Plainly speaking, faith and religion muddy the waters of reality at the very least, and cause irreparable physical and psychological damage in the extreme. If we can "skip" the woo woo nonsense and get at the discernible, essential nature of existence, we will be that much better off.

I also just finished listening to Waking Up by Sam Harris, whereby he expounds upon the wisdom of meditation, but also is wary of the clap trap religious dogma associated with a lot of it. I found it fairly insightful, and think he does a solid job of being balanced in his critique, even coming from his staunch secular framework.


Now, while I generally revere these mavericks in New Atheism for creating a platform for the marginalized secularists like myself, I do think they are a bit short-sighted, and perhaps barking up the wrong tree in a few regards. Peter Boghosian himself drives a car and eats Paleo last I heard....not exactly a holistic approach in my view....and many of his colleagues such as the Four Horsemen seem to be bogged down with mainstream political/religion conflict, rather than offering insight on how to behave. They have their role though...we need advocates to stand up and smash  paradigms so that new ones can emerge. Needless to say, my focus is on cultivating wisdom practices that can fill the void.

This brings us to Humanism and the more positive notions of establishing a secular framework on how one ought to live. There is even a Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, spearheaded by Greg Epstien, as he espouses on his central point of being good without often strange notion to many religious fundamentalists, who think nonbelievers would devolve into hedonistic barbarity and hellish acts, without the moral edifice of religion.

I take many of the Humanist wisdom practices, and incorporate them into my Zen Buddhist framework; there is much synergy here! Going forward, I plan on championing my secular beliefs as well as connecting with other like-minded practitioners open to this more rational mooring.

“Agnosticism is no excuse for indecision. If anything, it is a catalyst for action; for in shifting concern away from a future life and back to the present, it demands an ethics of empathy rather than a metaphysics of fear and hope.” — Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

“Using the supernatural to explain away gaps in our understanding is like using tile grout in brain surgery. Let’s be okay with not knowing… yet.” — The Secular Buddhist

“Mindfulness helps us to not just go through the motions. Instead, we’re fully engaged in the rich and incredibly diverse experience of each moment. We don’t just tell someone we love them out of habit, we put to voice the tremendous depth of that lightness of heart and mind. There’s no need for the supernatural when the natural world holds such wonder.” — TSB

“Years of meditation, studying and reflection have led me to believe that the Buddha Siddhattha Gotama was what I can only call a humanist and skeptic of the first order. He had no time for the religion of his day or the eternally inconclusive debate as to whether or not there is a creator God. His question wasn’t why are we here, but here we are — now what? Clearly, he saw philosophy as a way of life to be put to use, not as an emotional crutch or a merely conceptual structure.” — Stephen Schettini

Monday, March 2, 2015

Economics of Happiness Conference: Portland 2015: My thoughts

I just finished a great weekend spent with many fellow wisdom practitioners, trying to shift our enormous paradigm into a sounder way of being. I come away from the conference feeling both elated...knowing the solidarity of a shared vision, but also overwhelmed at how to truly manifest such an endeavor on a wider scale.

Highlights from conference:

  • Portland local Nora Gedgaudas ,and her presentation on the paleo diet as it pertains to native cultures, seemed a bit misplaced. Firstly, the data is still very much in contention, if not outright rebuked. Dr, Micheal Gregor of and PlantPositive are just two examples with many credible sources cited-and those are mainly from a nutritional angle, let alone environmental, political, ethical etc. Secondly, the way Nora presented the case for paleo as being a definitive "best practices" for diet was overreaching. It would have been wiser to go with a presenter who could show several angles to dietary life in a holistic way, but because of the correlation between indigenous cultures and paleo, that was her angle..but to have no vegan voice to differ seemed misguided, and grants credence to such beliefs. It would have been fascinating to have a panel primarily focused on food alone; growing, markets, dietary, ethics, harm footprint etc, I was going to raise points of awareness after she spoke, but a fellow vegan voiced rather eloquently on the systems of oppression/ethical approach that is seemingly lost on the paleo crowd. How the paleo diet manifests itself in the practical, real world is an enabler for more animal abuse; obfuscating and appeasing terms like "ancient wisdom", "humane", "free-range"( (Nora's words "in the sunshine and open air") etc. Exploitation is exploitation. (I will note peoples like the Inuit who primarily survived on animals, because their harsh regions cannot support plant based living. This is understandable for their survival. However, as my friend Satya pointed out, how many Inuit today truly eat in ancient ways? Could they be using their old meat based cultures as a rationalization for continued animal consumption using the fossil fuel soaked corporate supplies? I don't know the answer to that, but welcome insight.)

  • Bayo! Bayo! Bayo! Bayo Akomolafe is one awesome dude. Exuding a deep, loving wisdom, he was seemingly cherished by everyone at the conference. We resonate very much on transformative philosophies guiding our paradigm shift. <3

  • Charles Eisenstien! He was one of the key people at the event, and I attended his workshop on Sunday.  I managed to shake his hand and told him of his impact on my path....I had thought about a selfie but it wasn't the time or the place... He has such an effortless style of being profoundly insightful, it was a delight to have him here. He reiterated one of his central themes of how we are shaping our new story.  We actually invited Charles and Bayo to Food Not Bombs tonight(Monday) so fingers crossed. :)

  • Cameron! Local activist and hurler of dodgeballs(my thumb still hurts) Cameron Whitten spoke about the nature of social media to create change, citing the Arab Spring as major inspiration. Not so surprisingly, there was some backlash against this view from some in the audience who worry about screentime, lack of real human connection, and the rise of "slacktivism"(resharing/posting things on social media but not acting). As a fellow millennial, but one born early enough in the 1980s('82) to not be fully indoctrinated with pc technology/internet, I can see many sides of the debate. Overall, I still think social media does far more good than harm, and it's only going to grow in use while we have structures that maintain it.
Cameron Whitten

  • Climate Change Workshop: I attended this workshop on Saturday,  hosted by Dick Roy and Lenny Dee. Both are tireless agents of change for our environment and a more equitable world. I liked how Dick used the analogy of climate justice akin to a war front, and if we apply enough pressure and persistence in a focused area, we will eventually breakthrough into new territory. Many of us had congruent viewpoints on how to address these concerns, but there was a point of awareness I raised that is worth noting. A gentleman had posited that the real issue wasn't personal change, but more legislative or higher level avenues. I said the driving force fueling the  corporatocracy, is our own demand for certain standards of living. He also framed the issue of "downsizing" in the pejorative sense. At this, he received feedback  reframing that statement, and actually recognizing the immense gains from a movement towards simplicity. I also made sure to emphasis the vegan element in climate change, recommending Cowspiracy as something to watch.

  • More breakout/workshops: I loved the plenaries and speakers, but it felt hard to really meet fellow attendees and delve into smaller scale groups within the structure of the conference. Some of the onus is on us to provide space for that(talking over meals, hallways etc) but perhaps in future, some more structured time to connect would be wise. It's a tough balance I'm sure, and I commend the organizers for due diligence.
  • Lack of vegan community involvement: There was a host of progressive partners for the conference, but absent was organizations like NorthwestVeg and Food Not Bombs.Regarding FNB specifically, we actually could have provided free food for a day/meal, like we did a few months back at the same location(Eliot Center) for the Pacific Northwest Social Forum. I'm not sure why exactly, and perhaps I should been more involved with this process, but no doubt FNB and NWVEG would have added value to the assembly. As I grow in my activism, uniting like this is tantamount.

On balance, it was a honor to attend, but I do feel something amiss... Part of my discomfort is not seeing or hearing enough for a personal focus on change...there was a lack of radical practice and awareness. Not to say that things  like time banks, legislating against the TPP, retooling our education system etc  are without merit...they all play a part in addressing our crisis. However, from my area of focus, no substantive change can occur without first a thorough personal exploration of ways we directly contribute  to harm and suffering, and how we go about stamping out those delusions. How many attendees at the conference were car-free? How many were vegan or even vegetarian? Lived in tiny homes/yurts? What of their moral/ethical/spiritual framework? There is no definitive, be all end all answer...we must each cultivate our own awareness on these complicated matters, and I can only offer a few suggestions  to probe for self-betterment.  Times like these require radical forms to manifest if we have any hope of authentic, holistic change. 

Many thanks once again to the organizers of the conference, most notably Victoria Clark and Hellena Norberg-Hodge-cheers!

Economics of Happiness Documentary(2011)