Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pain and Suffering

"Pain is Inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
Contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami

Last week I had the flu.  High fever, body chills, sweats, coughing, congestion, body aches…  You get the picture.  It is amazing to me how each time I am in pain, I have to learn again that feeling miserable is a choice.   It is easy for me to be impatient, to want to be better now, and want doctors to fix me yesterday.  If you know me, you know I don’t like to sit around and do nothing.  Yet my mind is clouded and my body and head ache terribly if I move around too much. 
I self-identify as a Buddhist.  I don’t feel much like a Buddhist when I am sick.  I am attached to the pain.  I pay too much attention to each supple change in my sweating, my temperature, my coughing.  They become too important to me.  The doctor says, “A virus just takes time to get over; drink fluids, and eat enough so your body can heal.”  She gave me Theraflu for the flu and a Tylenol for the fever and sent me home.
After I got home, I expected to feel better after one dose of the medicine.  When I didn’t, I began practicing my meditation while in bed or in the recliner (my two go-to places while I was sick).   I wasn’t able to sleep, but I meditated so my body and mind could rest.  Hours passed, and the anxiety abated.  My mind could let the pain and other discomfort come and go without dwelling on it.
However, in my sicken state I was still vulnerable.  I returned to obsessing about the object of my attachment, how I should feel.  I was actually feeling a little better.  Yet, my monkey mind whispered, “On my first visit, hadn’t the doctor said that my temperature concerned her.”   I started obsessing about my temperature again; I felt overly hot, maybe my temperature was at a dangerous level again.  I called the doctor and fortunately I was able to get a call back; she reassured me that the temperature would ease in time, and not to worry. 
Irrational thoughts can easily exacerbate feelings of anxiety, fear, making the pain seem worse.  Suffering ensues.  I had to return to my practice of meditation and mindfulness again and again and again and again and again.  That is not nearly enough “agains.”
I approach life as a series of opportunities to learn lessons, to embrace life, to let go of attachments, to choose contentment.   I choose to be happy even when I am sick.  I don’t always achieve that, but I am committed to keep coming back to happiness rather than misery.  So, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, I’m grateful for having the flu.  It gave me the opportunity to “walk the walk” I so often talk about.  Namaste.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sanctioned Prejudice

Cardinal Francis George, Head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, writes in a column for Catholic New World (September 7-20, 2014):  “In recent years, society has brought social and legislative approval to all types of sexual relationships that used to be considered “sinful.” Since the biblical vision of what it means to be human tells us that not every friendship or love can be expressed in sexual relations, the church’s teaching on these issues is now evidence of intolerance for what the civil law upholds and even imposes. What was once a request to live and let live has now become a demand for approval. The “ruling class,” those who shape public opinion in politics, in education, in communications, in entertainment, is using the civil law to impose its own form of morality on everyone. We are told that, even in marriage itself, there is no difference between men and women, although nature and our very bodies clearly evidence that men and women are not interchangeable at will in forming a family. Nevertheless, those who do not conform to the official religion, we are warned, place their citizenship in danger.”

Where do I start?  I grew up Catholic and broke away from the Catholic Church over a woman’s right to choose whether to bring a child into this world.  I always loved the beauty, the ritual, the pageantry of the Catholic service.  Many of the priests I knew growing up were thoughtful, compassionate people; many continue to work to abolish the death penalty, to build bridges in the interfaith community, to develop comprehensive programs to help the poor/homeless, and to reduce gun violence.  

While I still hold a great deal of affection for aspects of my childhood religion and for the good work that many Catholics do in this world, I am flabbergasted when I read something like what Cardinal Francis George writes.  He is using fear to try to manipulate Catholics.  He is not trying to engage in a dialogue over theological issues.  He wants Catholics and others to believe the way he wants them to believe.  And if they don’t, he says, they will be “putting their citizenship in danger.”
This irresponsible fear-mongering is not the role of religion in our world.  What the Cardinal is doing is expressing fanaticism. Religion’s role, at least from my perspective, is to build community, to affirm compassion, to encourage people to look more deeply within themselves to answer the ultimate questions of existence, and to encourage living an ethical life.  When respected religious leaders use their authority to manipulate and control, it not only hurts this denomination’s faith, it also supports a negative view of religion for non-religious people. 

So many of our GLBT community are not engaged in religious communities because they gave been hurt by religious communities that have preached that their sexuality is sinful, wrong.  And when a Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender person hears this kind of intolerant language from a religious leader, their opinion of the value of religion is even more negative.  Is there a place where a spiritual GLBT person can find a welcoming religious community?  Yes, there are many, but when a GLBT person hears prejudice from a religious leader, the likelihood is that they may stop looking for community.  And, to me, that is the true “sinfulness,” the sinfulness of sanctioned prejudice.   

Monday, September 8, 2014

Waking Up to Religion

"Almost midway through Sam Harris’s new book, “Waking Up,” he paints a scene that will shock many of his fans, who know him as one of the country’s most prominent and articulate atheists.  He describes a walk in Jesus’ footsteps, and the way he was touched by it. This happened on ‘an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,’ Harris writes. ‘As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.’ Harris is actually up to something more complicated and interesting than that. He’s asking a chicken-or-egg question too seldom broached publicly in America … Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? … Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?” (Op-Ed Column, New York Times, “Between Godliness and Godlessness” By FRANK BRUNI, August 30, 2014)  

I, for one, can’t wait to read Sam Harris’s book.  I am eager to read what this well-known atheist writes about a universal human experience, the feeling of transcendence.  And I whole-heartedly agree with him that the feeling can be separate from a religion or any specific faith.  However, I am not willing to take the ‘leap of faith’, and postulate that religion is “piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, with a lexicon grafted onto it.”
Most world religions address transcendence and offer many different paths to this experience.  Some world religions have forebears that had some kind of experience of transcendence and tried to find the words to explain it, a process our language is not well suited for.  Transcendence, however, is not he be-all of religion.  Religion offers other life-changing, worldview-altering experiences.
From my perspective, a religious community is a place to explore the great questions of existence and this community provides a keystone for a grounded moral/ethical life.  Granted, some religions answer the questions for you, and some people want the answers given to them.  And granted, some religions tell you how to live a moral/ethical life, sometimes in very absolute terms.  But if one looks deeper into religions, whether we are talking Christianity, Buddhism, or really any religion, we find people struggling with the great questions of existence and how to live a moral/ethical life.  Answers to the great questions that sages came up with hundreds of years ago are contained in certain writings, religious texts, holy books. These texts can be used today by spiritually oriented people to explore the great questions, if one doesn’t try to see these books as having absolute answers.  Even ambiguous texts—and, let’ face it, most of the texts are ambiguous—can offer a different way of thinking about things.  For example, the parables in the Christian New Testament encourages listeners to struggle with and determine “answers” within their own hearts and minds.   I don’t see any of the holy texts of any religion as absolute truths or history, but as a spiritual community considering meaning, purpose, life, existence, and how to live ethically.   Yes, some writers of holy texts offered answers, but not due to transcendence; they came up with answers for themselves, in a certain culture, at a certain time.   The questions these holy books ask still resonate with people today, even if the answers espoused by some religious leaders do not resonate as universally.  
Frank Bruni, who wrote the oped about Harris’s book,  also says “ … many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.”   I would respond that the scriptures are not the problem; it is the interpretation of the scriptures that can be a problem.  The vast religious writings of the world can be guides for those willing to open them and explore with their own heart and mind, or explore them in open, loving community where a freedom of worship can be found.  They do exist in this country, in fact, I would bet most of you reading this can think of one particular denomination where the open mind and questioning heart are not only welcomed, but nurtured and celebrated.
There are ancient and modern religious writings available, and liberal religious communities for people to explore their spirituality, to consider meaning and purpose, to discern morals/ethics, and to find paths to the experience of transcendence.   I invite you to take time to read, explore, visit and perhaps find what you are looking for in religion. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Recognizing Transgender Persons

“A huge number of Americans now have gay family members, gay co-workers ... but most of them don't know a transgender person, and that means we're ripe for scapegoating. There are a lot of people in this country who just are ignorant about us. They hear people in authority demeaning and dehumanizing us, and they believe it. I think for the next few years, until transgender people are more visible, come out at work, we're still going to have a lot of ignorance out there.” (Dana Beyer, Executive Director, Gender Rights Maryland, “The Best Way to Change Minds: Come Out, Stay Out and Speak Out,” Huffington Post, September 2, 2014)

I have had a couple of transgender friends, but not many.  I wonder if this is because they are still quite scared about coming out (which this article suggests) or because I just didn’t notice.  A person is a person to me; I don’t try to figure out a person’s sex or age.   Not long ago, I attended a chess club meeting and started playing chess matches with a young woman, Dana De Young.  She beat me handily.  It was some months later, when I was a panelist at a high school presentation on GLBT awareness that I saw this young woman again.  Since she was also on the panel, I assumed that she was an expert in the field.   She said she was, in a way; she was transsexual.  I was surprised.  Here I had spent a lot of time losing to her in chess and I just never gave a thought to her gender identity or expression.  She says she doesn’t make a big deal about it most of the time; she just lives her life and most people don’t ask.  However, she does speak out across the Midwest on Transgender issues, and advocates for transgender rights.  And recently she wrote a Transgender science fiction novel called The Butterfly and the Flame, which, because there are not that many transsexual novels out there, is classified under Gay/Lesbian fiction.

I want to share the next of the penultimate paragraph of the book: “She wanted to run down to the store, buy a dress, and reclaim her identity … She’d still have to wait, but now she had hope for the future, hope that tomorrow would be a better day.  Tomorrow she’d buy that dress.  Tomorrow they’d find a home and make a future together.  Tomorrow they’d rebuild their lives … Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.”  At first glance, you might think this could be any novel.  You wouldn’t make the connection that this is a transgender novel.  But for me, this is even more poignant because it is a transgender novel.  The transgender people that I have known have, to a person, had to struggle to claim their identity.  It was not an easy process.  Family, friends, co-workers, someone (or everyone) in their lives made the transition to reclaim their identity difficult.  

A few years ago, I watched the documentary called “Southern Comfort”.  This movie follows some transgender person in the Deep South.  One of the biggest issues brought out in the film were the problems faced when a transgender persons wanted a gender reassignment operation.  Doctors resisted or botched the operation.  Patients were left mutilated and unable to be easily sexual with their partners.  I was surprised; I couldn’t believe that doctors would do this butchery on someone.  I was later surprised that some of the gay and lesbian friends I had are not supportive of transgender people.

I may seem all over the map in this post, but the point of it is that I am deeply concerned for our transgender brothers and sisters.  Their lives are incredibly difficult because they want to claim their identity.   I cannot change society, but I do want to walk with them as they struggle to get rights, to receive proper medical treatment, to become recognized for who they are, rather than for who other people want them to be.  Perhaps you are surprised as well that such discrimination and persecution and abuse still happens against transgender persons.  My hope is if you learn a friend or acquaintance of yours is transgender, please consider letting them know that they are loved just as they are, and that you will walk beside them as they struggle.   And perhaps not just walk beside them, but help them in their cause as well.