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Monday, November 17, 2014

Secular Mindfulness, A Buddhist Blind Spot?

There is much rumbling and grumbling in Buddhist circles around the so-called secular use of mindfulness with Buddhist ethical principles stripped away for what some Buddhists perceive to be unethical ends. Clark Strand, in a recent article on, recalls that during the 1970s and 1980s Buddhists didn't object to Vipassana meditation being taught outside of official Buddhist circles. Now, however, mindfulness is being taught to employees to help them work more efficiently (sometimes for lower pay), to the the US military both to teach them to be more efficient killers and to treat PTSD upon their return, and somehow being used by the 1% to control the outcome of elections and thereby the 99% of us.

I have three questions: Is he right in his assessment that there is a problem? Perhaps more importantly, is this abnormal or should these complaining Buddhists have seen this coming? Finally, is this something that can be controlled? I will address those questions one at a time.

Is he right that there is a problem? Frankly, my answer to that question depends upon which specific example one is talking about. I feel it's important to point out that his assessment that mindfulness training makes soldiers more efficient killers is biased, clearly springing from prejudice against the military. While I am no fan of war, I would submit that mindfulness is equally likely to keep soldiers alive because they become more aware of their surroundings and the danger that lurks in those surroundings. If we are going to send young men and women to war, aren't we obligated to do everything we can to ensure their safe return? Regarding elections, I feel an honest examination would reveal that campaign finances and the misleading advertisements placed on radio and TV have a lot more to do with unfairly influencing election outcomes than corporate mindfulness training ever could. Television and radio simply reach more people.

In the case of corporate mindfulness training, it may well be true that the goal is to increase productivity without increasing pay. Wouldn't, however, a mindful employee also more easily discern what their corporate employer is attempting to do to them and so be better equipped to refuse? Also, I find the assumption that since the Buddhist moral teachings are not included with secular mindfulness training the result is that you have an employee devoid of moral and ethical training to be more than a bit of a leap. It's not as if these employees were raised in a vacuum, after all. Many of them have had moral or ethical instruction from other sources in their lives, whether formal or informal, from parents, religious training, and other educational and interpersonal sources. Corporations would be hard pressed to hire people who are tabula rosa regarding morality.

Is this abnormal or should Buddhists have seen this coming? How many people wear Christian jewelry while having no current involvement in Christian practice? How many people, if only in times of stress, pray for relief - and how many of those people haven't seen the inside of a Church for years? How many people attend classical music concerts in which sacred music is played and enjoyed, yet have to interest in stepping in a church? There should be no surprise that the Buddhist mindfulness teachings have found their way to secular America. In fact, I want to say that I find the distinction between sacred and secular to be a false distinction, and those Buddhists who insist such a distinction exists are either Buddhist fundamentalists or haven't understood the Buddha's teachings very well. How ironic is it that Buddhists, who follow the Buddha and who often point out with pride that Buddha was silent on the notion of a creator God (which is fine with me, by the way) should object to their teachings being used in a secular context?

Our final question is whether or not this can be controlled. I would first like to say that those people raising these concerns seem to display more than a little attachment to the outcomes of these teachings, and from my understanding of Buddhist teachings, that's problematic. I don't believe that the trend can be controlled as long as it has the desired results among those that promote the teachings. If we don't like the teachings being promoted in secular settings without ethical teachings accompanying them, it would be more effective to start teaching ethics in a secular setting than wasting our energy trying to stop the mindfulness teachings. We should direct our energies toward what is possible and what will change the outcomes rather than stand around wringing our hands like a Christian fundamentalist who has just discovered their child listening to Ozzy Osborne music. We can only take that kind of effective action, however, when we let go of our attachment to outcomes. Anything less is the most impotent kind of fundamentalism that exists.

What is really happening here is a normal consequence of a religion gaining popularity in contemporary culture. Some practices and principles cross into the secular arena. Whether or not that is desirable, it is in fact normal. Rather than try to stop the trend, Buddhists would be better advised to consider how to respond to the trend in a way that reduces whatever damage they believe had been done. A good place to start would be by clearly saying that mindfulness in a Buddhist context is quite a different thing than what is being taught in other contexts and then working to educate people about the differences. That has started in some places, and should replace the wringing of hands in others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Males - The Great Spiritual Exiles

I know this won't be popular, but it has to be said. First, though, some stipulations. It's true that most organized religions are patriarchal messes that have a long way to go to include people of all genders, people of all abilities, and people of color in leadership. That fact simply cannot be debated. However, I am not writing about leadership today, I am writing about belonging. When we look to the average member, participant, congregant, person in the pew, person facing east with their head on the floor and butt in the air, whatever they are called in your tradition, two things become clear. The first is that, by and large, men are missing. The second is that there is very little reason for them to show up because we have so concentrated on everybody but men that there is virtually no programming for men.

Oh, sure, Evangelicalism has men's groups where everybody sits around and talks about what positions they have sex in and how many times they masturbated this week. I'm sorry, but that's not a spiritual group, it's a sick exercise in boundaryless self-disclosure. There are also the occasional retreats for troubled young men, and they are a wonderful thing - but not the sort of thing that Joe Average would attend. Richard Rohr has done some great stuff in men's spirituality, but he's just one person and can only do so much. All in all, the men's movement of the 1980s had all the staying power of a popcorn fart, and since then there hasn't been much.

If you think I am off base here, just scan your social media feeds and Google Ad Words. There are retreats for women, for working women, for women with children, for women without children, for women of color, for Breast Cancer survivors, for women with endometriosis, for women who leak urine when they cough, for female Latvian Dwarfs, and on and on - except nothing for Joe Average. You will say to me that programs aren't offered because everyday, regular spiritual events are dominated by women. I will reply that simply doesn't logically follow since current offerings aren't really directed toward men.

In Christian terms, we aren't excited about cleaning the altarware, or joining the knitting circle, or making cookies for coffee hour. We don't want to shop for flowers for Sunday. Most of us are so unprepared to teach Sunday School it's laughable. About all we can do is be an usher, because we know how to show people to a seat. We can show up when it's time to clean the property in the fall, and we don't mind doing work around the physcial plant now and again, but that's about it. Gee, what aren't we just bum rushing the doors on Sunday morning? Why aren't we just knocking down the doors to sing songs that we can neither relate to nor sing? Let's all hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer, that would really make us happy!

Buddhist centers aren't much better. You want us to take off our shoes, and the truth is we aren't comfortable with that because if we are blue collar workers our feet are smelly and beat up. If we are wearing dress clothes we are probably wearing socks that we aren't comfortable in and that will cause our toes to freeze on contact with your arctic, hardwood flooring. Speaking of dress up, many of us don't like to dress up in our free time so that rules out Shambhala centers. Worse, you expect us to get down on that cushion that we will never get back up from, humiliating ourselves in the process? If we can't sit on a cushion, we can always sit in the back away from everybody else - just like we had to do in grade school when we were naughty. Then we might have a fancy tea ceremony or eat vegetarian food? Oh yes, sign us right up for that!

What's needed are men's retreats that don't presuppose men must then show up to the main event on Sunday - or whenever it's held in our tradition. Let us approach at our own pace. Allow us to come as we are and have discussions that are meaningful to our lives. Don't ask about what we do with our penises. Ask what we want to do with our lives, what scares us about the changes we are going through in our bodies and careers, why in the hell our hair seems to be disappearing from the top of our heads and reappearing in our noses and ears. Let somebody else take care of the physical plant and show people to their seats, and we will gladly give up the administrative tasks. Let the spiritual center or church become a place where we are actually nurtured. and we will show up.

I don't think it will happen. The people being served probably won't want to give up any of their time or attention to let other programming happen. There's a privilege is spiritual circles that comes with being oppressed. It's almost as if spirituality is God's great affirmative action center. It's not going away, and people aren't likely to surrender it. In fact, a lot of those groups spend a pretty significant amount of time identifying males as the problem - and then wondering why we don't show up. Like I said, it doesn't take a rocket scientist.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Where's Your Messiah Now, See?

In one of my favorite Billy Crystal stand up bits, he takes off on the classic movie The Ten Commandments. In its day, it was a cinema masterpiece and a work of epic proportions. It still bears
watching, but you have to put aside your need for twenty-first century special effects and keep in mind this is a movie from 1956. It was a virtual who's who of casting, including even the likes of gangster movie phenom (and terrible actor) Edward G. Robinson. Robinson, when Charlton Heston's Moses had gone up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and not come down fest enough for the liking of the masses, demands of Moses' brother Aaron, "Where's your Messiah now?" Billy Crystal has endless fun with this line, adding Robinson's gangster character's tendency to put "see" at the end of what seemed like every sentence. It's from Crystal's work that I draw the question that is the title of this post - I really want to know, where IS your Messiah?

I'm sure you remember all of those promises from Sunday School, CCD, books, sermons, even the
Bible - the ones that said that Jesus would always be there for you, no matter what. Wherever two or three are gathered, just ask my Father for anything in my name and it will be given to you, send the creepy televangelist a big check and it will come back ten fold - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. If you are honest, you have to admit none of that stuff has ever happened to you or anyone you know. If you are a liar and want to convince me that these promises do come true, I am afraid you are going to have to send me video evidence along with the name, addresses, and phone numbers of the people you want me to believe have received these blessings. Even if we could scrounge up a couple hundred people throughout history who got two of their friends together and called on Jesus to appear like a genie popping out of a bottle, there are literally millions more whose call was not answered. They, and their friends and relatives, are mad as hell and they want to know what the deal is.

Of course, I have been trained to know all of the official answers and explanations. I am even willing to pass along the most reasonable one - that either the authors of the gospels of some later editor added these claims and they never sprang from the lips of Jesus. That would be all well and good if we weren't sitting here not quite two thousand years later waiting for a retraction. We would probably be willing to settle for a clarification or six, but they don't seem to be coming. While there is a shortage of explanations, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of clergy types hanging around mystified as to why there is a credibility problem in Christianity today. In truth, Christianity didn't need scandals to blow (pun intended) its credibility out of the water as long as it had its history of doctrine and dogma. It wouldn't be fair to only blame the institution, however, because for the last six hundred years we have been able to hold a copy of the Bible in our hands, though most of us have probably only been able to read it for the last hundred years or so. While it does have its share of fantastic claims that defy
understanding, it also pretty clearly says not to look outside of the here and now for your salvation. Whose fault is it that we preferred the easy, though imaginary, way out and kept looking to the sky?

I don't want to bore you with a Bible or Sutra study, but both the Buddha and Jesus were pretty clear that we are the agents of our own destiny. They used different language. Buddha talked about enlightenment and nirvana while Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, but they were both saying we had to do the heavy lifting ourselves. This propensity we have for grabbing onto isolated passages of scripture - whether Buddhist, Christian, or some other tradition - and insisting our favorite snippet means that somebody else has to rescue us isn't going to change either reality or truth. We can weep and gnash our teeth, or in contemporary terms piss and moan, all we want but it won't change the truth that your Messiah is within you. The reason you aren't very happy about that truth is that sometimes
life is pretty shitty.

For the vast majority of us, life doesn't work out precisely according to our dreams. By the time we hit fifty years old we can see that pretty clearly, and some of us engage in some pretty stupid exercises in futility to try to convince ourselves we can make it work out according to our dreams. All of the running around involved in midlife crises of one sort or another, all of the new objects of attachment purchased do absolutely nothing to change reality. In fact, they often create even a bigger mess than we had on our hands when we realized things weren't going according to Hoyle. The sad thing is that many of us just run from one "cure" for our dissatisfaction to another, never slowing down long enough to see that they aren't working - and that we are alienating just about everyone around us in the process.

The truth is that when we are in the midst of this hot mess called life, the only thing that will help us is to see things as they really are is spiritual practice. Buddhists talk of seeing through the ego to impermanence and emptiness while Christians talk of moving from the False Self to the True Self. It doesn't really matter which language appeals to you more, both systems will get us to the same place - and so will Judaism, Islam, and every other tradition. The thing is that you have do the work and you have to decide to start. There's no time to start like now, because every day you waste is another day of dissatisfaction. So, cancel your appointment for liposuction and hair plugs, penis extensions or labiaplasty, and get started with some serious spiritual practice already! If you don't know how, contact me. I can help.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

With Acceptance Comes Ordinariness

With the rather anti-climatic "coming out" of Apple CEO Tim Cook, we are yet again faced with a problem lurking around the corner. Cook's coming out, anti-climactic because he was accidentally outed on a television news program recently, was characterized as "brave" and "courageous."

Really? Bravery and courage require the possibility of loss, and Apple is one of the most gay-friendly companies in the world. There was little danger that Tim Cook would lose his job for coming out. Cook said he knew what it was to be persecuted, a comment that may or may not be true given his professional and financial success. I'd suggest persecution is in the eyes of the beholder, but a white male who rises to the top of one of the largest companies in the tech world has no idea of the level of persecution experienced by a person of color living in an urban neighborhood or even of a poor white person living in the hood. Add to it the fact that as more and more gay and lesbian people come out, coming out becomes less dangerous and less unusual, particularly for the wealthy.

Here's a shocking truth - as marginalized groups move closer and closer to achieving their goal of full acceptance in our society, they will have to surrender their special status. The day will come before too long that announcing you are gay will garner the same reaction that my announcing I am straight gets. That reaction is a big yawn and a request to move on.

Marginalized groups tend to gather around and celebrate the reason for their marginalization. It's a good and normal reaction to an unfair and evil situation. Once the marginalization ends, and I am not saying it's over yet in the gay and lesbian community but I do believe the day is very close, that reason for celebration and the claim of special status that go with it will be gone. With acceptance comes the perhaps unpleasant reality that you are part of the norm. I wonder how many people who make their living as gay and lesbian advocates are really prepared for that day.