Evangelicals Advocate Irresponsibility

In the wake of POTUS 45’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, I have been seeing some stories about how conservative evangelical Christians agree with this decision, due to some notion that “God will take care of it.”

As a Buddhist, I’ve been told that the goal of realizing the enlightened mind is up to us. There is no savior, just Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to inspire us with their example, and Teachers, who can point the way.

I have never professed Christianity as my religion, but from what I can see,  Christians are also supposed to take some responsibility for their own salvation. Some Christians have a notion of being a steward of the Earth. Most Christians I know, as far as I can tell, do not abdicate their responsibilities toward the earth and its living beings. They don’t assume that just because Jesus died for their sins, now they can just sin as much as they want and they will be forgiven.

The attitude of the evangelical branch strikes me as dangerously lazy. I have heard that many of them believe that what happens on earth doesn’t matter because they will be raptured off to heaven, and even that they should try to hasten the End Times.

I think it is important to note that in the USA, one-third of registered voters are evangelicals. That leaves the rest of us to do the work of ensuring the survival of the human race and the planet we inhabit, since millions of Americans have indicated that they have no interest in bothering with that task.

It’s ironic that the folks who tend to decry the government as a “nanny state” are the ones most likely to expect some one else to take care of cleaning up their messes for them. It’s also ironic that the folks who complain about wanting more jobs in the USA reject the huge job potential of the alternative energy industry. But that’s another post, for sure.

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NaPoWriMo 2017, poem 13

Nangahar —

the largest non-nuclear bomb just hit

between Mes Aynak and Swat Valley.

 

Mes Aynak is full of Buddhist relics

archeologists have been racing to save

before a Chinese mining company comes in.

 

Swat Valley was once known as the land of Oddiyana,

a Buddhist sacred place, home of Guru Rinpoche,

a sort of Jesus for Tibetan Buddhists.

 

Time will tell

what has been wrought

but for now,

all I can think of is holy lands

being destroyed

by a yellow-haired toddler

released from his giant playpen

to play with a 21,000 pound toy.

 

Hard Conversations

Last month I took an online course facilitated by Patti Digh and Victor Lee Lewis called “Hard Conversations: Intro to Racism,” because I wanted to learn more about systemic racism in the USA and what I can do to be an ally to people of color. During the course of the learning, we covered a number of topics, starting with basic advice about how to listen deeply, understand that “it’s not about you,” empathy vs sympathy and non-violent communication. We watched the movie “The Color of Fear,” and the documentary, “A Class Divided,” and saw a number of educational YouTube videos by people like Chescaleigh, Kat Blaque and Akilah. We got into upsetting topics like the murder of young Emmett Till, the corruption in Ferguson, redlining in the housing industry, police brutality, and also touched upon Black Lives Matter and various activists in the new civil rights movement. We were reminded to take self-care days, and to grant specificity to the other, lest we fall victim to the danger of a single story.

From what I could gather, the majority of the participants were European Americans like me but there were also people of color present. You can’t fully understand other people’s experiences unless you have a somewhat complete knowledge of yourself, and white people in America tend to ignore their own whiteness, so we also got into discussing things like: what is whiteness? what’s wrong with saying you’re ‘colorblind‘? what are ‘white privilege‘ and ‘white fragility‘?  Additionally, we discussed microaggressionscultural appropriation and biracial identities.

I’ve shared all these links to videos and articles to give you sort of a mini-version of what we learned, and if you have the time to go through the links at your leisure, I highly encourage you to do so. If you’re really into this topic, here are a couple of bonus videos: White Man On White Supremacy & Fear of a Black Nation and A Brief History of White Privilege, Racism and Oppression in America | Legalize Democracy excerpt. And check out Michelle Alexander‘s book (or at least the review for) “The New Jim Crow.”

I’d like to share some of the things I learned which were especially eye opening for me personally:

  1. Racism is subtle. I grew up thinking racists were a small minority of clueless white people who just hadn’t made it past the turn of the 19th century in their thinking. In reality, racism is pervasive in American society, yet you may not be noticing it. And this failure to notice can be more damaging than a KKK march. After all, you can’t fix something unless you can admit it is a problem.  Some examples: You might live in a progressive city and hire minorities at your company, while paying them less than white people for the same work. You might live in a diverse neighborhood, but when you walk by darker skinned people, you automatically pull your purse closer or avoid eye contact with them. You might be working retail and unconsciously spend more time and effort with your pale skinned customers under the assumption that they have more money to spend, while at the same time side-eying your darker skinned customers with the idea that they might be fixing to steal something. And this is just the beginning.
  2. When someone tells you their story about how they were hurt by something that happened to them as a racial minority, it really isn’t helpful to chime in with your own anecdotes about a time when you experienced something that felt like prejudice to you. People don’t feel listened to when you keep bringing the attention back to yourself.
  3. Most people of color are more comfortable talking about race than most white people. Pretending to not see someone’s skin color doesn’t actually help anyone.
  4. I also realized that I have long felt a sense of not really relating to my race or ethnic heritage, and that being able to ignore my race and ethnicity is actually a kind of luxury. No one looks at me, sees my Italian background and jokes about the Mafia, sees my German background and jokes about the Nazis, sees my Russian background and ribs me about the Cold War, sees my British background and makes a crack about the Revolutionary War, or sees my Polish background and jokes about how dumb I must be. My whiteness is considered the “default” so I have the luxury of being able to forget about it. Not so for people of color in America.

Ultimately, the deepest takeaway from this course is the reminder that we are all connected, and if one part of the human race is suffering, then we all are suffering, even if we don’t realize it. And, we all have an obligation to do what we can to help relieve systemic injustices that keep us from being free. In that sense, this understanding fits in well with my Buddhist values.

The course calls itself a “firehose of information” and it was indeed, but I looked forward to each new page of links to articles, videos and audio interviews.  If you would like to sign up for the next session, you can do so here.

 

 

Something I recently learned about chronic pain

“Pain depends on how much danger your brain THINKS you are in, not how much danger you are really in.” – Dr. Lorimer Moseley

After several years of chronic upper back pain, my doctors had done all they could for me, and sent me to Carolyn McManus, a specialist in managing pain with mindfulness. I learned some things from her I wish I’d known thirty years ago.

Once an injury has healed, if you continue to feel pain in the area for months or years, this is happening because of the messages your brain is sending to the area. A feedback loop is created when you think things like, “There’s that pain again, will it ever go away? Maybe I will be like this for the rest of my life! I wonder why my doctors can’t find anything wrong? I better take another Tylenol…” By thinking these sorts of thoughts, you are effectively making things worse. The new hypothesis of chronic pain indicates that emotional memories modulate our experience of pain, and the result is “a brain that has learned to filter emotions, actions, and reward through the lens of pain, rendering the brain addicted to pain.” (From this research paper)

Professor Lorimer Moseley has a fascinating YouTube talk called “Getting a grip on pain and the brain.” He explains how a person can continue to feel pain in a body part, even when they no longer have that body part. Damage to a body part doesn’t have to be painful. Conversely, you could be in a lot of pain without any tissue damage. He tells a story that may feel vaguely familiar once you realize once he’s getting at: pain accompanied by fear and worry is significantly worse than pain accompanied by a relaxed acceptance.

It’s important to understand that this theory does not mean “pain is all in your head.” The pain is real. But if I’m honest with myself, I know that thinking negative thoughts about it isn’t doing me any favors. By continually focusing on the area and how it feels, I’m not only tensing up the muscles inadvertently, but I’m also burning neural pathways that make it easier for me to go down this same negative thought spiral again and again.

The solution, then, is mindfully being aware of the “sensation” you’ve labelled as pain, and noticing that it comes and goes, just like a cloud in the sky. “You are not your pain” to quote a book of the same name. There are other suggestions as well, which you can find either in the book and other links I just mentioned.

This focus on mindfulness and meditation resonates with my practice of Buddhist meditation to some degree. In fact, it could be argued that Buddhists who have reached a high level of attainment have managed to eliminate pain and suffering…after all, isn’t that what Shakyamuni Buddha was said to have done for his own mindstream? Look at this real life example from the life and death of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, as described by his Doctor (minute 27:50 of this documentary).

His Holiness Jigdal Dachen Sakya Rinpoche

The first time I ever encountered His Holiness Jigdal Dachen Sakya Rinpoche was on the staircase of the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. I had followed some other newcomers to the temple up the wrong set of stairs and we encountered him as he was coming down. Instinctively I put my hands in the prayer position and bowed to him, even though I had no clue who he was. Later I learned he was not only a founder of the temple there, but also a Tibetan Buddhist master of high rank, one of the few aside from the Dalai Lama who could be called “His Holiness.”

Less than a year later, in July 2014, he led the refuge ceremony that ushered myself and a handful of others into the Buddhist community there. During that ceremony, he broke from speaking from Tibetan to say clearly in English, “no meat for a year.” The translator sought clarification, as Rinpoche had led many refuge ceremonies before and had never made this request. Being vegetarian is not a requirement for a Buddhist, but in this case, Rinpoche was recommending we be vegetarian for a year. I figured he must have a reason for saying this, perhaps a certain clairvoyance. One of us must need this commandment, and perhaps that someone was me.

So I started off the next day trying earnestly to be a vegetarian, which is challenging when you also eat gluten-free. I succeeded for four or five months, with only a few slips that were not really my fault as I recall. My resolve slipped around the holiday season, partly because I didn’t want to burden my mother-in-law again with trying to figure out what to feed me. But a change had occurred: I was eating more soy products, possibly more dairy. I believe this is why in March 2015, something shifted in my digestion and I began to have gall bladder issues. For months I struggled with gall bladder disease and had the little squeezer removed in June 2015. But not before things got really interesting.

Along with the health challenge of having gall bladder disease but not gallstones comes lots and lots of tests. And one of the tests I had was a colonoscopy, which revealed precancerous polyps, which were then removed. This is what I believe: if I hadn’t attempted vegetarianism through Rinpoche’s suggestion, I would not have had the gall bladder trouble which led to the removal of precancerous material in my colon. It likely would have been three more years before I learned about the polyps and by then it might have been too late. So I am grateful to my gall bladder — and to Rinpoche — for possibly saving my life.

Yesterday I learned that Rinpoche has passed into parinirvana, like Shakyamuni Buddha before him. Like many others in the sangha, I will be remembering this great master for what I hope will be many years to come. Thank you, Rinpoche, for all you have done.
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