Sunday, July 29, 2012

Worldwide Secular Celebration

Well, this is it--the biggest secular celebration of humanity that we have. The dream is peaceful competition among nations. The reality is a spectacle of the human body being pushed to its limits in every way imaginable. It comes down to courage, focus and execution. And the best human wins.

I love the Olympics. I've always loved the Olympics. I love watching sports that I never think about when the Olympics aren't on. I love watching people push themselves and achieve their best performances ever on the biggest stage in the world. I love the fact that almost everyone practices good sportsmanship. I love everything about it.

But now that I've realized I'm a Humanist, I think I love it even more. The Olympics is a time when the whole world comes together to celebrate humanity. How many times during the broadcast do we hear the phrase, "Human spirit?" Olympians may or may not trust in god, but they don't rely on that--they prepare, they train, and they come together with other people, whether it's teammates, coaches, family, or the support of national fans. Maybe Olympians are praying before every performance, but we don't see that. Every commercial during the Olympics focuses on the fact that nobody gets to the Olympics alone. And so we are reminded of our connectedness, and of our potential.

We need more secular ways to celebrate and to come together as a community.

Here's one.

Monday, July 23, 2012

More about post-its

I tried two meditations today. First, a walking meditation with the dog, focusing on the word "gratitude," then a more traditional meditation lying on the floor using the word "peace" every time I exhaled. I wouldn't call either a success, but I'll give myself some points for a good start.

The walking meditation might not work with the dog. I couldn't walk slowly, one step per breath, because the dog requires brisk walking. He also requires me to stop from time to time. However, while my brain was full of stray thoughts--mosquitos! No, dog, you can't go into the street. Ooh! I can blog about this later!--at least some of my thoughts were about gratitude. Maybe a couple more than I would normally think, so that's something. And I did notice that I was less annoyed by the lawn mower in the park than I usually am. Maybe that was because I was focusing on gratitude instead of how annoying everything is.

The second meditation worked better, and I only stopped (I made it 12 minutes!) because I was feeling a cramp coming on in my left shoulder, and I've had a headache in that shoulder for the past two days and I felt I shouldn't push it. (Yes, a headache in my shoulder. Either you understand that or you don't. Suffice it to say, it's unpleasant and not something one courts.) I didn't feel transcendent or anything, but I did reach a nice state of relaxation that remained even after I got up and started to peruse the internet, until the dog heard the garbage truck and started barking like only a terrier/hound mix can. In fact, I didn't realize how relaxed I was until I was so suddenly surprised out of that state.

I know my choice of "gratitude" for a focus word was brought on by The Little Jewess. She was angry this morning, and in a fit of typical suburban-kid rage, she screamed, "There's nothing good at my house anyway!" Now of course, being American, my child is practically drowning in stuff. And so while I was walking and trying to think about gratitude, I also started thinking about what kind of post-its I'd like to have in my life, and what would be good for my family. I thought I could make a list here and then I can start thinking about what the post-its would look like.

My biggest problem in life is Depression and Anxiety with a side order of OCD. I take meds, but some spiritual practice and regular exercise are known to help as well. So mainly, I'd like my post-its to be things that take me outside of myself while helping me care for my body.

The things I'd like to increase in my life are:

  • Peace
  • Gratitude
  • Love
  • Relaxation
  • Forgiveness
  • Tolerance
  • Trust
  • Community

I think that's enough to be going on with. Now I need a new homework assignment: something that will help me to find out what other Humanists are doing to increase these things in their lives.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What are your post-its?

I've been fascinated by Eric Weiner's idea of religion being a series of "post-its for the brain." If good religion reminds us to be better people--calmer, more generous, kinder, and more focused--then how can this translate to the non-religious? What kind of "post-its" are appropriate for someone who doesn't believe in god?

As I discussed in a previous post, prayer is one that works for me, even without god. One other thing that works for me is my pets. At present, we have three pets: a dog, a cat, and a gerbil. I try to spend time with each of them every day, doing what he or she likes best. I walk, hike or train with my dog, relax with and stroke the cat, and for now, just hold the gerbil and try to be calm so as not to scare him (he's new.)

Each pet affects me in a different way. The dog encourages exercise and releases a sense of love in my heart when I look into his affectionate gaze. The cat helps me to relax. In fact, if I wake up in the night after a particularly bad dream, I love to touch the cat. Feeling her complete relaxation helps me to relax my own body and mind in a way that nothing else can. When my previous cat died I was in an agony of grief--I had adopted her right after college and bonded with her in a way that I don't think I ever will bond with a pet again, as she was with me through big changes in my life. One of the things that was most difficult about losing that cat was that I didn't have her there to comfort me in my loss. Sure, I had people around me, and a dog, but cats have the ability to relax their bodies totally, and I have always found that touching one can help me achieve a similar, if inferior, state of relaxation. And as I get to know the gerbil I have to focus on him in a way that I don't usually focus. I don't know much about gerbils as I never lived with one before, and so I'm trying to learn about gerbilness at the same time as I get to know this gerbil in particular. In order for him to gain trust in me I have to be perfectly calm when I'm around him and I find that I'm able to do that in spite of what goes on around me: the Little Jewess panicking because he tickled her hands and she's not sure she can hold him, seeds falling everywhere, the cat sneaking into the room where the gerbil lives, or whatever.

Animals have always responded well to me. They tend to trust me. I think this has something to do with a state that I enter when I'm trying to connect with an animal. It's a state of calm in which I forget my problems because I'm focused on the animal. When I'm with the dog, I do doggy things. I don't act like a dog, but I do thinks that interest him--walk, play fetch, sleep on the couch--and living in dog time separates me from my problems. Dogs don't worry about money, or whether they're raising their kids correctly, or whether there's a god. Dogs just worry about what they need right now, and once they've got it, they stop worrying. I'd like to be more like that, and when I'm with my dog, or my cat, or my gerbil, I am.

So for me, pets can serve as a post-it for the brain. A reminder to chill out, spend time taking care of my body, and not worry about the other stuff. And when I am worried, they help me by being a warm body to cuddle with. Pets are a source of pure love.

What are your post-its?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Man Seeks God

I recommend Man Seeks God, by Eric Weiner. It's a really interesting memoir about a man who searches around the world for something he's missing. In the book, Weiner explores eight different religions (although mainly the mystical branches of these religions) in an effort to "find his God." In the end, he concludes that his premise was wrong, but he's much more comfortable with religion, specifically Judaism, than he was at the beginning.

He comes to Judaism (his family's faith) through Kabbalah, which he studies in Tsfat in Israel. I find Kabbalah fascinating because it is an individual approach to Judaism, but I can't subscribe to it myself because its focus is a direct connection to God. However, some of Weiner's conclusions about Judaism really resonated with me. For example, he points out that because Judaism is so old and has survived so much, it is flexible. That so much of Judaism involves questioning and challenging, not subscribing to a creed. I think this is why so many famous scientists have been Jewish.

He also points out that if people like him (and me) leave Judaism, then the only people left will be the ones who focus on doctrine to the exclusion of everything else. And he emphasizes again and again that "Truth is what works."

So even as I take the first step towards becoming a Humanist Celebrant, I am comfortable remaining a Jew, a Religious School Teacher, and an active member of a Reform Congregation.

So many things in religion are what Weiner describes as "post-it notes for the soul--" things that remind you to pay attention, to help others, to take care of yourself. These things are good even without God (and without a soul, even.) And recently, while listening to a podcast about money, it occurred to me that if money only works because we believe in it, maybe other things can be evaluated the same way. Sure, I understand that the paper in my wallet has no intrinsic value, but I believe in it because thousands of times in my life I have handed it to someone and gotten stuff in return.

Prayer works for me, too. I never believed in prayer really. I didn't think that if I prayed for something, God would do it. But prayer has always worked for me. I love the ritual and community experience of services. I like the way it feels in my body and the way it focuses my mind. I like learning something new as my focus changes because of the vocabulary I've been teaching at school or the experiences I've had that week. And silent prayer is a chance to list the things I want for myself--peace, generosity of spirit, the ability to forgive. I think that meditating on these things is a useful task, even though nobody else is listening. Focusing my attention on the ways I want to improve has to be a good use of time. So in that way, it works. So why not?

And there's something to be said for participating in rituals that have supported my ancestors for thousands of years. Sure, I understand them in a different way, but I understand freedom in a different way from the Founding Fathers, and I still consider myself an American. I am a Jew. I can't run away from that, whatever I do. Humanistic Judaism doesn't seem like the place for me, so like Weiner, I'm going to have to find my own path.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Response to "An Atheists Prayer"

I just read this article on Parenting Beyond Belief--an excellent blog, which is linked at the right. This article is an excellent example of the kind of thing I want to talk about--atheists incorporating prayer into daily life.

Another thing that religion often does well is gratitude. It's one of the things I've always liked about going to services, especially when I can go to a weekday morning service (there isn't one available in my current congregation, so it's been a while for me.) I like the Jewish morning prayer because it's a list of things for which one is to be grateful. I dislike it for many reasons, but I'm not going to go into that now. It's good to be reminded, even in godly terms, that I am free, that my body works, that I'm glad I woke up this morning.

I like the ritual in Liz James's family of expressing gratitude before dinner. Taking time to be grateful for what we have can make us happier. Reminding our children of their privilege is a good thing, too. There are people in this world who don't have food or a table or a house to put it in, and before we get into the inevitable complaints of the day that come during dinner, it's a good idea to remember that we're better off than most people in the world.

And we don't need a supernatural eavesdropper to make it good.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Are religious people less angry?

I've been working on my summer homework, reading Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner. In chapter 2 (on Buddhism) Weiner states that the religious people he's been meeting all say that they're less angry and more peaceful since beginning religious practice.* That got me wondering. Clearly it's an anecdote, not a statistic, but the people Weiner discusses in the first two chapters are Sufi Mystics and Buddhists. Both traditions focus on meditation, circling, repetition, and communion with a greater power (Allah for Sufis and everything for Buddhists.) It stands to reason that spending time each day working on becoming calm, or working on focusing the body in motion (as Whirling Dervishes do) might help to reduce stress. And I wonder how much the surrender also helps. Recognizing a higher power is Step 2 in Alcoholics Anonymous, after all.

So the question is, is this one of the things religion does well that Humanists could adopt and adapt, or is it really god entering into the equation? The Humanist Community Project at Harvard has developed a meditation group (I'll have to cite that later, because their website doesn't seem to be working at the moment, but take my word for it for now) and I found this version of the twelve steps by Googling "Atheist Twelve Step Program."

I'm wondering how many Humanists out there are practicing some kind of meditation. Buddhists don't believe in god per se, but the whole interconnectedness of all beings thing is more or less beyond our ability to prove scientifically, and reincarnation is definitely beyond belief. On the other hand, Weiner tries out (also in chapter 2) imagining that everyone he sees was his mother in a past life, and finds that he is less judgmental and more forgiving to the people around him, and this relaxes him a bit. Is that useful as an exercise, even if we don't actually believe it, or does one have to accept reincarnation to practice that particular exercise? Is being less judgmental and more forgiving a good goal for Humanism? What about being less angry? It seems to me that a particular group of Humanists could set goals like this and work toward them as a group, and that might form a good community for those who wanted it. Good without God, and all that...


*I think I remember this is on Page 76, but I might be wrong. Anyway, Weiner said it, and it's in Chapter 2 of his book, and this isn't a scholarly article, so I'm deciding that's attribution enough. If Eric Weiner wants to leave a complaint in the comments, I'll be happy to add a proper citation at a later date.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Are Religious People Healthier?

I've been thinking a lot about this guy since yesterday. Obviously, his argument (that religion makes you healthier so Atheists should pay a tax penalty for not going to church) is ridiculous. But I do believe that people who belong to things (clubs, neighborhoods, organizations and yes, churches) are healthier. I don't think this has anything to do with God, but I know from my work in public health that one of the things we look for in our studies is connectedness. We ask questions like

Is there someone who could look after your children for 20 minutes if you needed them to?
Is there someone who would check on you a few times a day if you were sick in bed?
Is there someone who could help you find new housing if you needed to move?

All of these things relate directly to health. People avoid going to the doctor if they can't find someone to watch their kids. They get sicker if nobody brings them chicken soup. They stay in unsafe housing if they don't know where else to go.

Does it matter if they know these people from the neighborhood or from church? Not really. But your congregation is more likely to get together to bring you food when you're recovering from surgery, or to visit you after a death in the family, than your neighbors. Your clergy person has special visitation rights in the hospital.

This is one of the issues I plan to bring up in my presentation on secular religion. Because I think that these are issues Atheists need to deal with. Caring for others in the community is something Religion does well, particularly in our current society where most of us don't live in small towns where everyone knows each other's business. My congregation has a Caring Community whose job it is to make sure that people in distress get visits from community members, a few meals if they need it, and they keep the Rabbi updated if someone wants a visit from her. There's no reason a Humanist community can't do the same for its members.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Summer Homework

It's about time I got started on my presentation. I'm not presenting until November, but there's a good deal of research involved and a lot out there to read, so I've decided to assign myself some summer reading.

First up: Man Seeks God, by Eric Weiner.

Anyone want to read with me?