Search This Blog

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Compassionate Heart Mystic Heart Session 5

This is session 5 of the Compassionate Heart Milwaukee book study of The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale. Today's discussion covers the second part of chapter 3 and the first part of chapter 4.

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Vanishing Moral Code

I have for some time been of the opinion that the concept of a person having a moral code is an endangered notion. I don't blame the people that lack such a code. I believe it's a natural consequence of the large scale failure of institutional religions to remain relevant in the west. That doesn't change that such a code is a necessary part of a fully human life, however.

I suppose (though years ago I would never have dreamed this would be the case) that it's first necessary to explain what I mean by "moral code." At its most fundamental, a moral code is a list of things that I wound never do, or would always do, simply because of what I believe is right and wrong. Such a list by its very nature isn't going to be pages and pages long, because much of morality lives in the vast grey area where the majority of life is conducted. Also, it isn't possible to cover every extremely remote possibility that could, given just the right combination of extremely unlikely circumstances, arise. In other words, the seeming absolutes of a moral code might not apply on the fifth Thursday in February of a leap year during a simultaneous solar eclipse, tsunami, and winning lottery ticket purchase. Such situations, often raised by skeptics, are absurd and contribute nothing to the discussion, because for a moral code to be relevant is has to be functional and easily remembered. None of us is going to carry around the equivalent of an Encyclopedia Britannica that contains the text of our moral code.

Here are some questions we might ask ourselves in developing the short list of things we will always, or never, do:

1. Would I ever kill someone other than in self defense or to protect innocent life? At this point many nay-sayers often counter that "we never know what we will do in any given situation." I reject that notion as absurd. In most situations we absolutely do know what we would do. If we were walking into a department store and saw an elderly person slip and fall on ice in a traffic lane, most of us would stop traffic so they didn't get run over. It's not that hard, and reducing the establishment of a moral code into an exercise in absurdity isn't productive.

2. Under what conditions is it acceptable to steal? To feed a starving child? To provide medicine for someone who needs it to stay alive? To get stuff I want and just can't afford right now, but feel I deserve? Never?

3. With whom is it appropriate to have sexual intimacy? What lines, if any, will I simply not cross? Are German Shepherds (the dog, not the sheep herder) out of the question? What about married people? What if I am married? What about patronizing prostitutes? How many partners am I comfortable being sexually active with over a certain period of time, or at the same time - if not in the same encounter? At what point will I determine that a person is too incapacitated, for whatever reason, to consent to sexual contact and so I will refuse to be intimate with them?

4. What are the circumstances under which I would be compelled to break the law? You may notice that some of these overlap. Would I steal to get food for a starving child or medicine for a critically ill person? Does my answer change if they are related to me? Am I willing to go to jail for protesting unjust or immoral situations? What situations would cause me to be willing to get arrested and face the possibility of jail time?

5. What is my comfort level around the use of intoxicants? How drunk, high, or otherwise impaired is it acceptable for me to be, and how often?

There are more issues that may be a part of our moral code depending upon our life history and cultural heritage, but these are a decent start. Knowing what I am going to kill, steal, consume, sleep with, or put my freedom on the line for is a pretty basic list! The advantage of having a basic moral code is that when we encounter certain situations we already know what our response will be. If, for example, I have decided that I will not sleep with an intoxicated person then when I encounter one it will not matter how attractive they are or how horny I am because I have committed to my moral code. Over time, as we mature and have different life experiences, I would expect our moral code to evolve. What may have been acceptable for us in our twenties may not be acceptable for us in our forties, and that's perfectly fine because our moral code will be informed by our life experience.

When we don't have a moral code in place all situations become relative simply because there are no hard and fast rules. I may or may not stop traffic for the fallen elderly person in the Target parking lot, depending on how busy I perceive myself to be. The problem is that if I don't stop the traffic it says one thing about who I as a morally responsible human being am, and if I do stop traffic it says another. Who do I want to become? Having a moral code helps me evolve into the person I want to be. I am afraid, from my observations, that many people today have no idea who they want to become. The result is poor decisions, people unhappy with who they are, and a lot of elderly people fallen on the ice in parking lots without anyone to help them. Ultimately, it reflects poorly on all of us.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cha-Ching of Buddhism in America

Okay, I need to vent here. I know as well as anyone that it costs money to run a spiritual center. There are ways to do it that are more cost effective than others, but no matter how you slice it you need to bring in money. That being said, there is a tradition in Buddhism that classes and groups are held without specific charge and "dana," a word meaning generosity, is how a center supports itself. In the East, generosity is part of the culture and Temples and other Buddhist centers survive very well on the "dana" system. In the West, the claim is that generosity is not part of our culture and so specific charges must be set. I'm not buying that argument (pun intended), at least for the segment of the population that has had any exposure to Christian churches which run entirely on "dana," though it's called "pledging." I might have less of a problem with the fees associated with Buddhist centers if the ones I encountered here in Milwaukee weren't so ridiculous. Tonight I saw an advertisement for a six week, weekday morning introduction to mindfulness course that was priced at $125. In the neighborhood where this guy is located he won't have any problem raising the money from bored housewives, but that isn't the point. The point is that the pricing - and his location - locks out a lot of middle class working people.

In the building where I do my spiritual classes there is a guy who regularly charges $175 for daylong meditation sessions. He's just a local guy who I am sure is well qualified but not a nationally known teacher - though he charges more than nationally known teachers do. Once again, middle class working people are priced out of the dharma without mention of any sliding scale or scholarship availability. How is that loyal to the tradition? How is that compassionate? How does it reflect any knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha?

Large retreat centers have adopted the practice of charging for facility use only and paying the teachers through dana from attendees. That's a step in the right direction that covers the legitimate costs of the center, and they usually offer scholarships and other financial assistance for those with need. If the large centers can do it, why can't the local centers? Large centers have substantially more overhead than local centers, so the answer isn't financial need. I'm afraid to say that the answer is  greed, and it's not pretty.

Buddhism in America has developed the reputation of being an elitist religion for the wealthy only, and that's a far cry from its origins as a religion in which monastics depended on daily contributions of food from laypeople for the one meal they ate each day and were not allowed to handle money. As it spreads from the east and west coast into middle America, there will need to be strict guidelines for the operators of small, local dharma centers if Buddhism is to remain relevant and viable into the future. Spiritual centers should be run as responsible not for profits, and if teachers are to draw an income from their work it should be from dana, not from fees for classes and retreats. Teachers should know that (for most of them) a day job will be necessary to meet their living expenses. Most day to day operating costs of the center should be covered by regular attendees at weekly meditation groups and classes. Open and honest discussion about the financial needs of a center are not only appropriate, they are necessary. If a particular offering isn't self supporting, it should be discontinued.

These are just a few of the guidelines for responsible operation of a spiritual center of any kind. Fiscal responsibility allows centers to offer classes that are affordable to the majority of people, whether through setting a lower base price,  offering scholarships, or both. Centers should also offer classes in locations accessible by people without their own vehicle, on or near a bus line. These few steps would go a long way toward changing a rapidly developing image problem for Buddhism in America and would also make it possible for more people interested in the dharma to check it out. That's a win-win situation for all involved!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Persecution and Nonviolence

"Persecution and Nonviolence," The Milwaukee Compassionate Heart message from 2/23/14 looks at issues of justice and our response to them while trying to avoid a simplistic understandinf of nonviolence.

Check out this episode!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Body Image

Perhaps the largest proliferation of ego in America is our obsession with our physical selves. From the abundance of gyms and health clubs, to advertisements for plastic surgeons in the food court at the local mall, to television ads to resolve non-existent "low T" issues in men, to hair replacement clinics, to anti-aging creams and other cosmetics, to Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, we are convinced that we can avoid aging, weight gain, and the effects of gravity while living forever. Three thousand years from now, archaeologists digging up the ruins of our cities will be convinced we were a society of narcissists - and they just might be right.

I was watching an online retreat done by my favorite Buddhist teacher the other day and noticed a comment someone had left that this teacher should stop her publicist from using twenty year old pictures of her in promotional material. The commenter felt, rightly so, that such a practice denied the reality of aging and sickness and so was contrary to Buddhist practice and values. I was shocked when I went to see this teacher speak a few years ago by her physical appearance, not primarily because she doesn't look like her twenty year old pictures but because she appears to have been on long term steroid therapy and I was concerned for her health. It's a sad statement that Americans may not want to hear the great wisdom this woman has to offer because she has aged and gained weight - especially Buddhists, who one would hope wouldn't be so superficial!

My family was always obsessed with weight - at least my mother and her sister were, which was enough to make both of their families obsessed. I remember stories of my aunt buying her husband and son's belts one size too small to encourage them to lose weight and my female cousin only being allowed half a sandwich for lunch in junior high school - and none of them were overweight! As for my immediate family, at five foot ten and one hundred sixty-five pounds I was always called fat. You can only imagine my surprise a few years ago when I found some pictures from high school and discovered that I wasn't fat at all! More recently I found some pictures from my early thirties and had the same amazing discovery. Of course, since then I have gained weight due to injury and illness - but I found it shocking how I tend to project my current weight backwards through my life. Of course, that tendency probably was aided by more than a few people who called a skinny Craig fat throughout the years! Then there is the recent "winner" of The Biggest Loser, who played out on camera what goes on in families across America when young people feel there is little to nothing they can control in their lives - they choose to control their weight, and eventually it controls them, sometimes until it kills them.

I have come to the conclusion that we focus on our external selves so much because we either don't like what we see when we look inside or are afraid even to look. It's as if we are engaged in doing the best remodeling job we possibly can on the exterior of an outhouse in the hopes that nobody notices the stench - but the stench is only in our imaginations! What we perceive to be an outhouse is actually a palace, and if we would only visit the interior once in a while and clean off the cobwebs we would realize just how wonderful a palace it is! The circumstances of our lives and the messages we have received from other people have so convinced us of our outhouse status that we have become afraid to even look through the windows. That's a real tragedy, and it pervades our culture.

I want to be clear that exercise is a good thing and contributes to our health and well being. To the extent that it is possible maintaining a healthy weight is a good thing, too. It's also good to have good hygiene and do whatever we do to look our best - within reason. However, when we start deluding ourselves that we can look twenty years younger than we are or live forever we have crossed over from healthy practice to unhealthy self delusion. When that happens we would be much better served to take at least half of the time we are devoting to our appearance and devote it to regular spiritual practice. In fact, if we had been doing spiritual practice all along the odds our we wouldn't have found ourselves exercise addicted, underweight, and having had so much plastic surgery we look more like a platypus than a human being.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eat The Rich? To Whom Does Mindfulness Belong?

There are more than a few Buddhists who are upset that mindfulness is finding its way into corporate America. Recently protesters disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco in protest of Google using mindfulness trainings with its employees, apparently feeling that mindfulness can be somehow corrupted when not taught with "Buddhist values." It's a refrain I've been hearing a lot lately, sometimes even from Buddhist teachers. The fear is that somehow corporate America will use mindfulness techniques in their employees to make them more loyal cogs in the machine, better able to concentrate on their duties and tasks and turning them into even bigger automatons than they already are. They say that without the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path mindfulness becomes some sort of value neutral concentration technique that can be used for good or evil, depending on the will and motivations of the teacher.

This sounds an awful lot like fundamentalism to me.

What does mindfulness do? Essentially, mindfulness puts us more directly in touch with reality, with our thoughts and feelings. We see the reality of our circumstances more clearly, and are better able to make responsible decisions and take responsible actions because we aren't responding in a knee jerk way to distorted impressions of reality - at least, that's the eventual goal. It's fair enough to say it takes more than a couple weeks of practice to see dramatic changes in our decision making ability. It has also been said that we see more clearly the suffering in the world, both our own and the suffering of others, and so become motivated to respond compassionately to suffering wherever we encounter it.

None of this is dependent on Buddhist ethics, because mindfulness and meditation predate Buddhism. The Buddha didn't invent mindfulness, mindfulness meditation was a part of the Hindu tradition in which he was raised. We don't see Hindu adepts running around criticizing Buddhism for "stealing" meditation from them without accepting the entirety of the Hindu cosmology! What's more, mindfulness and meditation are a part of every major religious tradition, though perhaps under a different name. One could argue that for as long as there has been spirituality there has been a desire to sit in the silence and pay attention to what is happening in our mind.

Even Thich Nhat Hahn, when asked about meditation in a corporate setting in the winter 2013 edition of The Shambhala Sun, has said that mindfulness in corporate America is a good thing because as people become more mindful they will be less willing to take action that harms people or the environment. In other words, such values are innate human values and they will emerge from mindfulness regardless of the spiritual context (or lack of one) in which it is practiced!

There is something inside of us called ego that wants to mark our territory. It leads us to build institutions around our religions so that we can protect and preserve them just as they are - and in doing so we strangle the life from them. The people objecting to mindfulness in the boardroom are simply trying to trademark their "technique," perhaps so that people will have to come to their meditation group if they want to learn mindfulness. It's the same faulty thinking that led the Roman Catholic Church to declare itself the "one true church," no matter how many people left it and found authentic church elsewhere. There is something very western about all of this, and also more than a little irony that in a spiritual tradition that recognizes the need to dismantle ego a cadre of "true believers" has arisen to keep mindfulness out of the hands of the heathen - no matter how much it might benefit them and society. Can a mindful person dump toxic waste? I doubt it.

We all would do well to hold our spiritual traditions, values, and techniques loosely. They don't belong to us because we didn't invent them, we simply appropriated them along the way - just as corporate America is doing with mindfulness now. We cannot really control where our traditions go or how they evolve. Believing we can is a rejection of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, that everything changes all the time. It would seem that those who are upset about the use of mindfulness without Buddhist teaching and values are forgetting more than a little of that teaching themselves!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Mystic Heart Book Discussion Session 3

Session 3 of Milwaukee's Compassionate Heart Community's discussion of Wayne Teasdale's The Mystic Heart covers the second half of chapter 2,

Check out this episode!

The Mystic Heart Book Study Session 2

This is session 2 of The Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Community's study of Wayne Teasdale's The Mystic Heart. This discussion covers the second part of chapter one and the first part of chapter 2.

Check out this episode!

The Mystic Heart Book Study, Session 1

This is the audio from the first session of the Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Community's study of Wayne Teasdale's important book, The Mystic Heart. This episode convers the introduction and part of Chapter 1

Check out this episode!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

Suffering as Path

As many of you know, I am working on a book on suffering. I'm not making much progress beyond an initial outline, and it recently dawned on me why that is the case. I had been seeing suffering exclusively as a problem, and I now realize it is the essence of the spiritual path. Some of you may be thinking that the Buddha's First Noble Truth is that suffering exists and that the Eightfold Path shows us the way out of suffering. I believe a better translation is that life is unsatisfactory - and it's not because I am a Pali expert, because I certainly am not, but because many who are Pali experts have suggested that as a better translation. I've also read more than a few Buddhist teachers who suggest that while pain is unavoidable, suffering only occurs because of the thoughts we have about and around our pain. I suppose that depends on how you define suffering. Certainly, we make things worse when we believe that our pain will never end. Many of us also catastrophize, effectively turning a hangnail into gangrene with our projections. I have read with interest the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, and highly recommend his book Full Catastrophe Living to everyone on the planet. I have enjoyed reading all of the theory around suffering, and I would certainly agree that we make our suffering worse by how we view our suffering. I also agree that we can do things to lessen our suffering, and highly recommend meditation to that end. That being said, I do not believe we can eliminate suffering, and I am not sure it would be desirable to do so if we could. Allow me to elaborate.

I am a chronic pain patient. As I write this I have been up since 3:30am after going to bed at midnight. I have been awake largely because of my pain. Barring an unforeseen miracle or the invention of new medicines or procedures, I will die a chronic pain patient - hopefully many years from now. In fact, approximately half of all Americans have chronic pain at some point in their lives. For some of them, their pain resolves. For many others, it will not. At times they will suffer despite the best efforts of modern medicine, psychotherapy, physical therapy, and spiritual practice because at times their pain will be more than they can tolerate. We might tell them in those moments to notice how their pain changes, how it won't always be the same and so on - but at those moments, they suffer. No amount of philosophy will change that, and that's okay. Why? It's okay because I am a big fan of facing reality, but more importantly it's okay because suffering opens us to the spiritual path - in fact, I am convinced suffering is the path.

The first reason I believe suffering is the path is that suffering, more reliably than anything else, convinces us of the truth that we are not in control of our lives to the degree we like to believe we are. To be sure, we have some degree of control and have free will. We make choices. We also make plans, and quite often those plans don't quite turn out the way we expected because we cannot control all of the variables necessary to make our plans turn out. How many of us are working in the career we thought we would be working in when we graduated from high school? How many of us have been divorced? With just those two questions I have proved to the vast majority of people that our plans often don't work out.

When we realize that we aren't in control most of us put a lot of effort into regaining the control we never really had. When those efforts don't work out we are ripe for the spiritual path. Some people use the spiritual path in an attempt to regain control - hence the appeal of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which promise that if we just follow the rules everything will be fine. In other words, if we follow the rules we will regain control. The problem is that fundamentalists and evangelicals still get sick, still lose their jobs, still get divorced, still lose loved ones, and still die themselves. When things go wrong, their pastors tend to tell them they don't have enough faith - that it's their fault that the promises their religion made fell flat. It's an odd cycle of recognizing you are out of control, trying to regain control by agreeing to be controlled, then losing control and being blamed for it.

Back when I was a part of the institutional church we recognized that people tended to drift away from the church during their college years, if not before. They would return to be married and then drift away until they had a child and needed the child baptized. Then they would drift away again for a while. Sometimes they returned because they wanted to raise their child in a religious environment, but I believe they more often returned because of some level of suffering in their lives. Of course, I can't prove it because there aren't any studies - the church doesn't ask people returning why they came back, they are just so glad someone came through the doors they don't take any chances asking questions. Despite that, my informal polling suggests that when something cracks the very natural delusion of immortality that characterize our teens and twenties, we start looking for reassurance that there is meaning in life. For many of us, whether we look for that meaning in formal religion or not, this constitutes the start of our adult spiritual journey - and it's suffering that opened the door. The odd thing about institutional religion, and in my estimation a large reason for its decline in our day, is that it has historically spent more time judging people for the reasons they suffer than inviting them onto the path. We then go back and forth between denial about the truth that we aren't in control to pursuing the spiritual path. (Even the people who believe they have rejected spirituality and chosen to place their faith in science have made a spiritual choice, for one way that spirituality can be defined is the way we make sense of our world and our lives.) 

One of the things I have noticed in my own life is that times of illness and injury have been times of great spiritual growth. I'm not alone in that experience, and I believe the reason is that when we are physically diminished we cannot deny that we are not in control. We also tend to be willing to consider that there is more to life than our grand plans. In other words, we realize - perhaps for the first time - that life is not all about us. We are opened to possibilities. There is something larger at work, seven billion other people on the planet asking many of the same questions we are asking and wanting many of the same things we want. While we certainly aren't comfortable at those moments of illness or injury, we in the developed world are still more comfortable than most people in the world on their best day. What does that mean? If we are sick we probably know at least one person who has a more severe illness, and if we have lived long enough we know someone who has transitioned this life into whatever is next. These are some of the profound issues of spirituality, and there is something about suffering that simply won't allow us to ignore them.

Of course, I'm not advocating running out in pursuit of suffering. There have been periods in history when that was the practice, and I want to suggest that not only is it more than a little bit twisted but it is profoundly ineffective because it is a false sort of suffering that I control - and authentic suffering is about being out of control. Fortunately, life is more than happy to provide us with opportunities to suffer. Ironically, they become a little easier to deal with when we start to see them as opportunities on the path - but they nevertheless retain the quality of suffering and aren't something we look forward to! The spiritual path is full of paradox.

Can we come to see our suffering as opportunity? Can we take advantage of that opportunity to explore the great questions of life, to search for meaning even in the unpleasant, to understand that our time is limited and use that understanding to examine how we spend our time and learn to use it more wisely? Rather than hide our suffering away, can we allow it to be seen so we can teach others that it isn't all bad, that an opportunity is conceal within it? I believe learning to do these things significantly opens the spiritual path to us, in fact I believe these questions are the heart of the path. Won't you walk it with me?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wisdom: The Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Gathering for February 9, 2014

Wisdom: The message from the February 9th Compassionate Heart Gathering in Milwaukee, WI. Wisdom is more that just accumulating knowledge, more than just scientific inquiry.

Check out this episode!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Moral Bankruptcy and The Biggest Loser

Frankly, I am surprised it took fifteen seasons of The Biggest Loser for the inherent flaws in its perspective and its relentless pursuit of profits and ratings, health of the contestants be damned, to actually manifest in a visible way. I have written in the past about the frankly unhealthy perspective of trainer Bob Harper in particular. On one Thanksgiving episode he invited the contestants to his home for a Thanksgiving meal during which he spoke tearfully of his overweight sister as if she was not only freebasing cocaine but also had a terminal illness from which she would die the following week. While I readily acknowledge the health impacts of obesity, it isn't brain cancer. I suggested at that time that a massive dose of perspective was in order. At the risk of saying I told you so, here is a picture of this season's "winner."

From two hundred sixty pounds to one hundred five, Rachel Frederickson lost just under sixty percent of her body weight. Using standard calculations, her current BMI is 18. Anything under 18 is considered unhealthy. If we factor in the possibility the the camera "adds pounds," I cannot help but think she looks even worse in person. Even trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels appeared horrified, and Michaels was heard to be muttering, "Oh my God, oh my God" under her breath on the air. Presumably trainer Dolvett Quince's reaction was so bad it couldn't be shown, or else he was too busy changing into a tighter shirt to notice.

Why the surprise? The only real surprise is that it took fifteen seasons for this to happen. Then again, it may well have happened before at some point after the finale when we couldn't see it. When you take people who have an unhealthy relationship to food (and who usually have other psychological issues as well that the show loves to exploit by getting contestants to reveal them in dramatic, tear-filled talks with trainers but doesn't appear to follow up on with qualified therapists) and teach them that the most important thing about their existence is their weight and physical appearance, it only stands to reason that sooner or later one of them is going to flip their unhealthy relationship to food one hundred eighty degrees and become anorexic. Here's the kicker: anorexia will kill you a whole lot faster than obesity.

We have gone from throwing Christians to the lions to throwing Tubby to the lions. I suppose at least the lions are eating better - and the corporations are raking in the cash. Make no mistake about it, one thing The Biggest Loser isn't losing is money. Despite giving away a huge chunk of cash to the winner and the at home runner up, despite some pretty pricey prizes and a pretty plush "ranch," the show wouldn't have lasted fifteen seasons if it wasn't turning a profit - but at what price?

A healthy perspective on self is that while good hygiene is important to health, physical appearance simply isn't. We are all beautiful in our own way, and that beauty absolutely transcends physical appearance. Of course, we should do our best to be healthy and part of that is maintaining a healthy weight, but there isn't anything psychologically healthy about spending endless hours in a gym or obsessing about what's for dinner - and it matters little if what's for dinner is cake or tofu, both are unhealthy. I have often wondered what will happen to the significant percentage of Biggest Loser contestants who leave the show and start working in gyms when their bodies no longer allow them to constantly work out. Have they acquired enough life skills to continue at a healthy body weight once their bodies force them to slow down their workout pace, or have them simply transferred their food addiction to a gym addiction?

It's great that Biggest Loser contestants are followed by a medical team. I would like to see them followed by a psychological team not only during the show but for at least three years after their participation on the air - and at the show's expense. The Biggest Loser seems to emphasize the physical self to the exclusion of both the emotional self and the soul self, and we saw the results in this season's finale. Enough, already. What The Biggest Loser Really does is exploit people for ratings and profit, and that is a morally bankrupt practice no matter the outcome. With this season's results show, gone forever is the mythology that the show helps people. We can now see that what it really does is play irresponsibly with people's futures while we sit on our sofa and eat bonbons. At least the viewers aren't wasting away.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Beatitudes - The Heart of Christian Spirituality (Compassionate Heart Message from Feb 2nd)

The Message from the Milwaukee Compassionate Heart Gathering on February 2nd, 2014

Check out this episode!

Celebrating the Old Ways - In Praise of the Safety Razor

This post may seem out of character, but at heart it's about simplicity and the fact that slick marketing sometimes convinces us that more is better - and then gets us to pay for it. If you shave, and most of us do shave some part of ourselves at least every now and then, and if you use a blade razor to do so then this blog is for you.

Long, long ago when I was in high school I had the misfortune of stepping on my mother's safety razor when I was in the shower and taking a divot out of the arch of my foot. The experience instilled in me a mistrust of those silver headed razors with their opening doors that resembled a B-25 bomber from World War II. At the time I used an electric razor. Later, when I used a blade razor I chose what were in my mind much safer options, razors with enclosed shaving heads that ejected off the handle or were completely disposable. They were inexpensive, efficient, and made it hard to cut myself. Even though I have had facial hair on and off for the last twenty-five years or so I still need razors - unless, of course, I want to look like someone who just stumbled out of the woods after being raised by wolves. Even a full beard requires maintenance, and it's easier to do with blades than with an electric razor - though I do own an electric razor for those times of year when my facial hair takes a holiday, or at least a few hours off.

Over the last few years something odd has happened in the blade razor market. There are fewer companies making blades, and the ones that do have increased prices dramatically. The Gillette Fusion, for example, is priced from about $4 per razor head and up. There are four blades inside the head of a Fusion razor, and (for reasons that quite frankly escape me) those who chose to do so can even purchase a Fusion razor that vibrates. Recently an enterprising entrepreneur has entered the replacement blade market and will send you four replacement blades a month for between $1 and $9, depending on the number of blades in each head. It's better than $16 and up, to be sure, but still a bit ridiculous.

A couple of months ago I visited a newer barbershop in Milwaukee called Stag Barbershop. It is run by a local entrepreneur who happens to be a woman and features, among other things, straight razor shaves. With the exception of the person who works at the desk, the staff are all female but they avoid the sleazy atmosphere of some of the trendy chain salons that cater to an exclusively male clientele. They have the old barber pole in the window, a manly ambiance including dead animals on the floor and walls, and an impressive quality control program for their young barbers in that a more experienced barber checks your haircut before you leave the chair and points out corrections that need to be made. In truth, that didn't keep me from getting a haircut that was MUCH shorter than I wanted, there seeming to be this culture among the younger barbers that everyone must want a haircut that belongs on a twenty-five year old. I also had to tolerate some pretty inane conversation from my barber that I am sure would have been fascinating to a twenty-something year old guy but left me wanting to harm myself. However, in their product case they were selling the old-fashioned safety razor. I've noticed the same thing at the local mall in a store called The Art of Shaving, so I got curious and went on eBay. On eBay I found a red handled safety razor (trying to avoid flashbacks to the shower incident, I avoided silver) for under twenty dollars with ten blades included and ordered it. I noticed that I could get twenty-five replacement blades for well under ten dollars - a far cry from four dollars a piece, but how would they work?

To be honest the first time I used the razor I cut myself in a couple of places, but I quickly discovered that the reason I was cutting myself is that I was pressing too hard. All those years of apparently inferior cartridge razor use had caused me to press down pretty hard when shaving, something that isn't necessary with a really sharp, single blade safety razor. Since that first day I rarely cut myself, and the results are at least as good as a cartridge razor with fifty seven blades in every head. I am a believer! There are even an array of accessories that you can buy including the old-fashioned razor brush, mug, and shaving soap as well as stands to put your razor on when it's not in use. Since there are toddlers in our house I have avoided temptation in those areas and just secure my razor in the medicine chest, though I have discovered the joys of shaving oil. If you are shaving your face with a blade and not putting shaving oil on your beard before your shaving cream you are missing out. It's only a few dollars for a bottle that will last a couple of months (though you can spend much more) and well worth the investment. I change my blade once every other week or so, keeping in mind that since it's winter I am only shaving below my beard line. When summer finally arrives and I shave more of my face I will change the blade every week. Perhaps best of all, it feels like I am engaging in a bit of self pampering, which is definitely good for the soul.

So get on eBay, or go to a local outlet if you want to pay too much, and order yourself a safety razor and some shaving oil. You'll get back in touch with your face, and save a ton of money too!