The past gets you tomorrow

She drove to the cemetery. With no experience with the military or even death, really, she drove into the national veteran’s cemetery feeling overwhelmed. Tears hit her at the first site of a bank of white gravestones.

Finally finding the one she sought, she knelt, and tears poured fourth. It wasn’t a man she knew, not in this lifetime anyway. But the emotion was undeniable.

The hate was undeniable, the promise to give other victims a way out.

Her entire life, folks had told her to stay put. That day, crying on the grave of a seeming stranger, she knew why she’d never respected that attitude.

If someone is hurting you, you have two, maybe three choices: kill, sue, or run.

Maybe that explained why America, a country of cowboys used to settling battles with a six-shooter, had become so litigious.

That bastard in grave #930 had long ago given up the privilege to be sued, and so, all that was left was hatred. Looking back at her life, it was hard not to think some forms of hate simply turn your heart to ice.

She drove north to Taos.

A strip mall of tourism, the Southwest commodified, Taos turned her off. She kept driving. Meditation had said, Just go to a town with a Q. Weeping on that grave, she’d thought, just go till you see the metal crescent moon.

She drove to Questa, and went into a shop with a sign that said, “For your Spiritual Journey.” Inside it seemed everything was two or three dollars – talismans, incense, crosses, cards.

There was a wind chime hanging in the window, metal, a crescent moon with Tibetan bells hanging from it.

She bought it and some other trinkets that had long ago lost any value. As the woman rang her up, explaining her nonprofit mission to feed those who had nowhere else to go, she fought the sensation that she was high. She fought the very real sensation that she was two or three feet taller than this woman.

Getting back into her rented truck, with her Tibetan bells, a donation behind her, she put the truck into drive. She didn’t breathe, really, until many miles west, when she stepped her toes into the Rio Grande.

Maybe it’s John Wayne’s ghost, or Dean Martin’s. Maybe you just need water. But the weirdest experiences are baptized – or simply soothed – by water.

You can fight the crazy all day long. But one day you will reach a point where you will realize that sane, as currently defined, is full of shit.

On that day you will dip your toes into the water and you will know the simple truth: Life is unknowable. But you can find joy in trying to know it.

A logical argument for spiritual practice

Educated people are raised to believe that life on Earth evolved through purely biological means and that there is no logical justification for a belief in God, the human soul, heaven and hell, or any other “spiritual” concept.

At the same time, we’re told that believing in something is better for our state of mind and our emotional wellbeing than atheism or agnostism. Presumably this is an argument for a symbolic faith. You go to a yoga class involving poses and mantras derived from centuries-old Hindu religious belief, but you’re not actually supposed to believe in reincarnation. You may consider Jesus a historical figure or an inspirational one, but not actually a god requiring worship. Maybe you toy with crystals, read a bit about chakras, or decorate with dreamcatchers. You might try a session or two of acupuncture, or read a weekly horoscope.

A lot of people in the Western world dabble in religion and spirituality without even noticing.

Our political and legal structures encourage this half-faith as well, from the ritual of swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court, to our pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” to the ongoing debate about when life begins, to the practice of sentencing people with substance abuse issues to religiously-based AA programs.

Citizenship seems to require a certain amount of symbolic belief.

It doesn’t really work to believe in Santa on a symbolic level. Without getting into an argument over what faith technically is, or whether it’s reasonable or intelligent or morally necessary, it’s either something someone feels, or they don’t. The cultural expectation that people develop their intellect based on scientific understanding, while also maintaining some kind of spirituality, has left nearly a quarter of the nation adrift.

It’s time to reframe the conversation. First, spirituality as a sense of awareness of things not yet proven may not have anything to do with gods, chakras, angels, spirits, or souls. Spirituality can simply be the practice of acknowledging things that feel true but are not yet explained. As long as this practice does not encourage prejudice, fear or irrational behavior – as long as examining the inexplicable doesn’t include speaking in tongues or performing ritual sacrifices – what can it hurt?

Meditation is the perfect case study for this theory. The practice of sitting and doing nothing, developing a quiet mind, focusing on a candle’s glow, a simple mantra or just one’s breath, is one that millions of people around the world find helpful. Sometimes it calms down an obsessive or stressed mind, sometimes it leads to deeper insights or creative breakthroughs.

Marijuana and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties are also capable of putting one in a more reflective state or leading to genuine inspiration. Not always, but sometimes.

Even intense physical activity, or being lost in great sex, can take you “to another place.”

Do we need to write this off as a fluke? Do we need to downplay our experiences of a more expansive, intuitive mental state? Do we need to rationalize away the dream that offers a perfect solution, the urge to drive this way to work instead of that, the hesitation you feel when meeting someone seemingly friendly?

Why should we?

Becoming a reasonable adult means being vigilant about bias. We all have work to do in this area, all the time. You may favor women who remind you of your mom, or hesitate to talk to strangers of a certain race, or explain things in more detail to someone of a certain age. The only way to avoid acting on unfair bias is to become aware of it. Morality in day-to-day life is dependent on self-awareness.

Assuming that you cultivate self-awareness, and are practicing kindness, patience and so on, you should feel safe to trust ideas that arise from seemingly unknown sources. You should test them. You should engage in activities that encourage those breakthrough thoughts, whether it’s mountain climbing, meditation or just getting more sleep.

This is not blind faith in an angel whispering in your ear. This is a humble recognition that our conscious mind, fed by education and experience, is not all there is to consciousness.

Your gut processes information, your subconscious processes information at a different pace and in a different way than your conscious mind, and the people around you will influence what information is available to you about what you’re experiencing. (Anyone who’s ever been distracted by a child suddenly “acting up” around a stranger, or experienced dramatic weather influencing the mood of an entire group, understands that some circumstances provide more or less actionable information.)

Basically you know more than you know. It’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo to practice activities that help you think at a higher level. It just happens that a lot of traditional religious activities such as prayer, group song or dance, meditation and yoga were developed over centuries to encourage a trance-like, aka transportive, mental state. In a cathedral in medieval England, that prayer was designed to fill a peasant with awe of Christ. But prayer can help you, now, dig past everyday preoccupations to reflect on deeper goals. Meditation can help you create a clear mental space for new ideas to emerge. Yoga can help you kinesthetically let go of anxiety and fear.

You deserve to give your brain (and your heart) every aid you can. You are surrounded by shallow distractions that can make life feel mundane and meaningless: another notification from Instagram, another sitcom on TV, another argument with the kids about the same damn thing. It feels boring because it is.

You don’t have to go to church to find meaning in your life. It can start in your own mind. A new idea sparks new work. Processing inconvenient emotions lets you connect with others more authentically. Discovering unfulfilled desires changes your plan. This is not grandiose exaggeration. The meaning of your life is within you, but you have to be ready to hear it.

To listen, create silence within yourself. This is often called a spiritual practice but could also be called a mental one.

Step one: Create a quiet time and place.

Step two: Within that space, engage in an activity that is absorbing but “pointless,” ie it does not have a goal. This sets your conscious mind free to wander. Examples include exercise that is playful or exploratory, like a casual hike or trying out new dance steps. You may prefer a traditional activity like meditation or yoga. Hobbies like cooking, gardening and painting work great too. Even a nap can be valuable.

Step three: Repeat. Train yourself to let go of daily preoccupations during this time. You do not get to think about your debt, or the project at work, or your waistline, or whatever it is you usually obsess about.

The challenge is to develop a habit of thinking about nothing for 20-30 minutes.

If along the way you find God, awesome! Maybe you can introduce Them to the rest of us.

Namaste.

the meaning of life, what happens when you die, and other dumb questions

Here’s the scoop. Life on Earth is indeed hard AF, and there’s a reason for that: because we need it to be, and we make sure it continues to be. But let’s back up one sec.

Energy comes in degrees of physicality. Everything is made up of energy, but some energy is more dense, more measurable by human tools, more visible. The heaviest, densest energy is a rock, which is super interesting, and then a little further along the spectrum you get your average mammal. This is energy that requires physicality, and also requires complexity and conflict.

Physicality provides unique opportunities. To combat, to overcome, to enjoy desire and sex and deliciousness, to feel the sun on your face.

Physicality is the result of strong emotion. It is strong emotion. You feel, you want, you need. All these things weigh you down and keep you alive. We call these dreary challenges “the reality of life,” and yet it is only the reality of human life. It is unlikely that the average tiger, parrot, or fern spends a lot of time wishing it were really a basketball player.

Only the human has optional desires, like being taller, or richer, or more lovable.

All life forms desire to eat, procreate, and maintain the other basic requirements to remain alive. Only humans want add-ons.

We are here to explore the mess. We want mess. It’s why we became human. Pretending to “rise above,” feign intellectual superiority, or stifle emotions are just ways to buy time. Distractions like drugs, shopping and booze are also just buying time. You have serious things you need to experience. Until you do, you’ll continue to suffer.

Some of these experiences are pleasant. Some aren’t. Sometimes growth comes from letting yourself be loved; sometimes it comes from experiencing rejection. This ebb and flow is so hard to live through, and yet live it you must.

The only way out of this mess is to be in the mess.

Some may accomplish enough in one lifetime, some may need lifetime after lifetime. Maybe we take breaks, playing harps in the cosmos. Maybe we come back occasionally as dolphins. Who knows, and frankly, who cares. It doesn’t matter to those of us who are here, what happens when we are not here. What matters is that we have shit to do, and do it we must.

Over time, you will do it more awesomely. You do it with more love, more patience. You make fewer mistakes. You do more. You gain the add-ons you desired, or you realize you no longer needed them. You grow your hair out, spiritually seeking, and you learn to breathe from the tips of your toes.

You learn to look a stranger in the eye and truly see her.

You learn to hear the higher voices.

You learn when to wait, and when to act.

Over time, the weariness becomes curiosity, frustration becomes acceptance.

You grow.

And as you grow, you become less. Less real, less physical. Less needy, less desirous. You carry fewer emotions, toss aside preconception. Your appetites forget themselves.

For as you grow, you discover the hunger is sated by what comes without hunting. What has no taste tastes most flavorful. What has no value seems richest.

So,
watching the sunset one evening,
you fade
into the other side.

a commodified soul

Asking myself big fluffy questions about art and my art and art as story versus art as craft… yadda yadda… it finally occurs to me how deeply inauthentic my work has been in recent years. Like a forgotten early 80s James Taylor song, my paintings and videos and photographs are so impersonal they disappear.

In my desire to tell moving stories, to inspire and even at times educate (many of those efforts can’t be found on this site because, hey, they kinda sucked), I kept trying to create a product. A brand name, a handle, a message.

Intuitives said: Think about who you are rather than what you do. But I couldn’t stop.

I wanted to create soul balm, vanishing cream for shame, a spray-on remedy for hopelessness. Not a terrible endeavor, but the harder I tried to document my beliefs in order to share them, the less clear they became. So I tried harder, pushing myself to codify my homegrown spirituality in some digestible form.

I didn’t want to package my ideas because it would make them more accessible, I wanted to because that’s what you do.

We live in the age of the personal brand. The lifestyle blogger, the influencer, curator, the hashtagged name. The way to excellence, today, is to pick a subject and a look and stick to it with every meme you’ve got.

And I wanted to do that about god.

Here’s the terrible truth: I have no idea why we’re here. I don’t know if there is a bliss to follow. I’m not convinced that it matters how you eat or whether you save for retirement. I’m not sure that personal growth is even possible for a lot of people.

I don’t know if anything happens after you die except the biological process of decomposition.

I do know that kindness tends to make life more pleasant, and I know that the line between kindness and weakness is perpetually shifting.

I was watching Manifesto tonight, a wonderful, very artful, movie, and remembered, Oh yeah. Artists and philosophers have only been asking these questions for thousands of years.

Questions like, Why am I here? Does any of this matter? Do I matter?

These kinds of questions are often waved off as depressing or “existential.” They are big, amorphous, dusty as the inside of a cave and dark as a starless sky. They serve no purpose, lead to no known target.

These kinds of questions will not be summarized in a hashtag.

After spending two years questing for a fresh-when-frozen, microwaveable meaning of life to sell the hungry masses one pithy tweet at a time, I am abandoning the pilgrimage. I have no answers. The existential question is all I’m left with.

And ironically, from that giant question mark in my heart, I find my voice. Simply to ask… What do you say? Why are we here?

god may not matter, but faith does

god may not matter, but faith does

God is irrelevant yet essential. Irrelevant in that it he or she – let us use the pronoun they for the fun of it – They the God do not actually control us. We go about our lives influenced, not by God, but by our neighbors, our biology, and our circumstances.

But the idea of God is essential. Even in the mind of an atheist it represents the great, fuzzy irrational thing against which they can push. God to an agnostic is as laden with possibility as the next season of Game of Thrones. And God to the faithful is life itself.

It is easy for the logical atheist to write off a religious person. But by doing so the atheist fails to acknowledge an as-yet unmeasurable, but very real, thing: faith.

Faith is a physical fact of existence as much as a stomach ache, or heartbreak, or inspiration. Write it off as an emotion, yet who writes off love, or sorrow?

You must simply allow for faith.

Which leads to the existence of God, not as an omniscient force, not as a He or a She, not as the ruler of heaven and hell. God as a human idea. One must acknowledge the human idea of a Holy All. And in acknowledging this you realize it doesn’t matter if there is a god, or not.

What matters and what, frankly, is rendered moot by how much it matters to so many billions of people, is belief.

What is belief, or faith? Just blind agreement with a collective fairy tale? Perhaps if we all lived, uneducated, in small isolated villages with powerful churches, one could argue religious faith is just the act of agreeing with the tribal myth. Instead, a lot of people grow up with an education and travel through spacious spheres of experience. Yet, in spite of everything they’ve learned about evolution and historic discrepancies in the Bible, still they will say…

I believe in something.

Why? It is not enough to shrug it off as, “People being dumb.” People are, generally, very dumb, I certainly am. But most people are also relatively reasonable. Most people accept the theory of gravity, and do not try to fly by leaping off their roof. Most people wash their hands after taking a shit. Most people will return a lost wallet. And this all happens, not because everyone has experienced violent run-ins with broken bones, E. coli and theft.

These acts of reasonable behavior occur all day, every day, amongst most people, because we have evidence of their value. We haven’t gotten E. coli, but we’ve had the flu. We haven’t broken bones landing in our yard, but we have broken a bone in Little League. Whatever your story, you’ve had experiences that, while not as extreme, still taught you not to leave the stove on or yell on an airplane or fart on the first date.

If most human behavior is based on education or experience, what is faith based on?

I find that the simplest explanation is usually the true one. The simplest explanation for the existence of this human emotion called faith is that there is something to believe in. Maybe we can’t measure what that is, yet. Maybe we can’t see God under a microscope (or in a telescope). But maybe people believe in They because They exist.

The question, Why do people believe, is more important than What do people believe in?

the easter bunny rides again.

A breeder puts one flat-nosed, bug-eyed Persian cat in the same room with an equally flat-nosed, bug-eyed Persianette; their offspring have no noses and their eyes are popping out of their head. The offspring of freely breeding humans, my cousins and I are all taller and wider than our grandparents (on average. My grandpa is 6′ 4″, my oldest male cousin is 6′ 5″). I’ve seen dinosaur skeletons that I’m pretty sure no one’s found mention of yet in the Bible. The scientific method has increased our lifespan and quality of those lives; the scientific method has also increased our doubts about this paradigm referred to as Christianity.

The Western world, once governed by the church, is full of folks who can’t reconcile their parents’ faith with their own perception of the world. These folks struggle with the moral implications of living without faith in a god, afterlife, or set of rules defined by the creator of all things.

If no one created this world, and that creator never defined a path for us follow straight to heaven, and we are bound for the grave only, why are we here? Do we indulge every whim, slaughtering puppies, shagging five in a bed, smoking hallucinegenic drugs for breakfast? Do we owe anything to ourselves and each other if there is no reward, no consequence except death, which is inevitable anyway?

Society answered these questions with Mick Jagger. Yet even the world of rock, in which stoned men parade across stages with their balls bouncing in shiny leggings, comments on politics, love and civil liberty, raises money for the world’s starving, and spares a thought for the rag taggy people. Free from commandments or promise of an afterlife, society’s most liberal, “free-thinking,” and “wild” living still help old ladies cross the street and ask larger questions than where their next shot is coming from.

Why?

Today’s Easter. I’m an atheist. My mom stopped making easter baskets when I was about eight years old and I hate ham as a main course. This holiday’s only meaning to me is as a source of discounted chocolate in the coming week. But this Sunday in Suckallo is also a gorgeous one, crisp and breezy like a good French chardonnay, and my brother is moving back to the Northwest, so my head was full of the post-Christian question when I walked to the gas station to fetch empty beer boxes for Ian to pack his Mongolian statues and framed retro cheesecake prints. As the city meandered out of church this afternoon, I reflected on the sense of joy that I do feel and have felt, excepting a few years of bleakest depression, my entire life. I feel reverent and faithful all the time, and yet do not live in the eyes of a god or believe I am bound for a better place. I feel reverence and faith in something most religions do not pay enough attention to.

I believe in this life.

I share this for those of you who wonder how atheists get up in the morning, and those of you fellow “nonbelievers” who sometimes wonder what the hell is going on.

We cannot scientifically prove the existence of a god, but we can scientifically prove that men and women have performed selfless deeds, created works of sacred art, and otherwise manifested our concept of godliness. Whether you believe the “Hallelujah Chorus” was inspired by a deity or an incredible night with an English wench, the idea was put to paper by human thought and hand and is sung by human voices. We are capable of understanding, appreciating and arguably conceptualizing holiness. Physically, in this life, we sing songs of joy, paint images of unearthly beauty, write stories of heroism. We are moved by sacred art from cultures we don’t otherwise understand. We cannot prove the existence of a god, but we can prove the existence of our own understanding of what godliness is. For ourselves, in this life, now, we know exactly what good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, precious and useless, is. Those definitions expand and contract with time, but a man cheating on his wife does not need a holy book to tell him he’s making a mistake.

We have taken fear of God out of our debates about murder, theft, rape, and war, and yet we have still decided they are wrong. No longer afraid of being punished by hellfire, we still treat each other kindly. We do this for ourselves, because if we do not, this life, in this world, is not worth living.

I believe in our capacity to act on morals developed internally rather than those imposed externally by others. I grew up with boys and girls who believed in rules their parents had taught them they would burn in hell for breaking; I could write a series of blogs on the ways in which they have since broken those rules as adults. Leaning unquestioningly on someone else’s ethics rarely supports one for long, and when it does, I can’t see the value of actions lured by the reward of heaven.

I do not believe we can blame our mistakes on an invisible creature called the Devil, or thank an invisible creature called God for the blessings other human beings give us.

I believe help has merit, and harm deserves punishment, regardless of the philosophy of its perpetrator. Repentance does not erase consequence. And anyone, of any religion, is capable of both helping and harming at any time.

I believe wholeheartedly that “if it harm none, do what ye will.” I assume that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that simple philosophy is either terrified of making a mistake, or desirous of obtaining power over those too weak to define morality for themselves.

We each have the power and freedom to hurt or help other living beings, and any single act can reverberate around the world and for generations to come.

Because I exist, and because my actions could help another person, I choose to exist as helpfully as possible. I commit myself, not to a god or religious group, but to my own ability to become kinder, wiser and more tolerant in the future than I am today. I commit myself to others I meet along the way who try to not only live up to their own standards, but to improve their standards as time passes.

I know any human being on this planet may write the next “Hallelujah Chorus,” any human being may be the one to sing it first, and any human being may put down his gun because of the joy and affirmation that he hears in that song. When anyone can live and die by whatever rules they like, and that there is often no practical reward for kindness, I believe kindness is a miracle. I get up in the morning, not to witness miracles committed by God, but by myself, and by you.

I believe, not in a higher being, but in my highest being, and in yours.

I believe in you and me.