Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Who Gets Forgiven?

No one can force you to forgive. It doesn’t work that way. Is it reasonable to ask a victim to forgive their wrongdoer when there has been no admission of wrong-doing, and furthermore, when the harm is on-going? To pressure a victim to forgive under these conditions is to re-traumatize the victim. This sin is especially prevalent, I’m sorry to say, in so-called “spiritual” circles. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” they solemnly intone. But what about the wrongdoer? Is there anything they need to do to facilitate this process? Or is forgiveness a one-way street?
            Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort was a frequent guest speaker in my world religions classes at Palomar College. He was brilliant, funny, warm – in a word, a mensch. It was from Rabbi Eilfort that I first learned about the three Rs. In order for us to be forgiven for our wrongdoing, in order for us to be restored unto right relationship with God and with one another, we must first do three things.
            First we must feel remorse. We must genuinely feel the suffering we have caused the other. Secondly, we must repair the damage. If you stole, pay it back. If you lied, admit it. But how can you repair murder, false-imprisonment, or structural discrimination? We’re going to have to get creative. And this is key: our efforts at repair must be made directly to the harmed – we cannot sit back and wait for a supernatural third party to do it for us. Thirdly, we must reform, that is, lend new shape to our lives. The offending behavior has to stop. When these three conditions are met – remorse, repair, and reform – forgiveness may be granted thereby drawing both wrong-doer and victim into right-relationship and inner peace.
As a straight cisgender white male, I am the beneficiary of untold unearned privilege. When I walk into a store, when I rent an apartment, when I apply for a loan, when I interview for a job, or when I’m stopped by the police, I am treated differently than people of color or other discriminated groups not because of my individual merit, but because of an accident of genetics.
Being a person of color means living in the shadow of multi-generational, institutionalized, and often unconscious discrimination. Growing up black in America means growing up in a nation built by slaves, learning American history from white teachers in schools named after slave owners, and living with the fear that simply being black is a death sentence in all too many situations.
And yet a majority of white people mistakenly believe that racism is no longer a major problem, and that it’s all behind us. “I don’t see color,” they say. Believing that racism doesn’t exist is a privilege reserved only for those who never experience it.
Racism skeptics also say things like, "Black people need to get over it. Slavery was a long time ago. And besides, I didn't do it, I don't have a racist bone in my body." How are people of color supposed to forgive the dehumanizing horror of racism when it remains unacknowledged and when they're gaslighted for even bringing it up? So they don't. And we don't talk to each other. And a sickening silence descends like a fog keeping us all in the dark. Real forgiveness is possible. Real restorative healing is possible. But first, the dominant culture must work through the three Rs.

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the November/December 2019 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, September 30, 2019

Art and Memory


There is a mistaken assumption that memories are reasonably accurate movies, little pieces of trustworthy journalism, reliable reporting about prior events. It’s a comforting, if false assumption. I’m afraid the truth is much less comforting. Truth is like that.
            Believing that memories are reliable helps us cling to the notion that there is a clear and linear continuity binding together the moments of our lives, both as individuals and as society, into a knowable whole. Everything – history, identity, even our very notion of truth – is built upon the foundation of memory. So if we’re wrong about memories, if they’re not as reliable as we think they are, then we might be wrong about everything else too.
            Memories are simplistic portraits of highly nuanced and complex phenomena, like children’s drawings of quantum fractals – phenomena that cannot be reduced to a single narrative and painted with crude brush strokes.
Memories cannot be objective. In fact, they are the very definition of subjective – everyone has their own private memories of even the most communal events. And the way we perceived that event was largely filmed, so to speak, through the lens of our own prejudice and conditioning. It really is true that we do not see the world as it is – we see the world as we are. At root, memories are projections of what we think we saw, not what happened. They are creative acts. And we’re the artists.
            What’s most troubling is this irrefutable fact: when you are indulging in a memory, you are not going back to the past. Here’s why. A memory is a thought, and thoughts by definition exist only in the present. In other words, the past doesn’t exist, except as a thought occurring in this present moment. You can never return to the past. There’s no such place.
            All of this leads to the next question. Have you ever wondered why so much art is about memory? From Proust’s madeleine to Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, art looks back. Think about how many songs and movies and novels and plays and paintings and poems and short stories and television shows are anchored to an earlier time. Why is that? For a lot of reasons. Sometimes artists are genuinely trying figure out how we got here. Other times it’s pure escapism. People simply want to swim in a dream world of a past that never really existed. The same dynamic applies to so much of fantasy literature and film.
Even the world’s creation myths can be seen through this lens. Many people believe that the world’s creation myths are attempts to answer the question: How was the world made? But Joseph Campbell and others suggest that a far more personal question is in play: What am I? The idea is that if I could understand the creator’s essential nature, I might begin to understand my own essential nature.
All of the world’s creations stories, if read as history, are of course patently absurd. Did any of the people who wrote these stories witness the events they describe? Obviously not. How can human beings be reliable witnesses of their own emergence?
            And yet stories of the past, creation stories included, have enormous power and purpose. And what is the fundamental purpose of this kind of art? What are we really after when we write a song or a myth about the past?
            It depends. Creation stories, as we have seen, have a largely investigative purpose. They are poetic attempts at metaphysics, and if read metaphorically, have much to teach us. Or at least they help us raise beautiful and profound questions. Creation stories allow us to confront and frame the ineffable forces of the cosmos itself. But if you’re writing a song that simply draws the listener into an idyllic vision of a lost world, whether that world be “Dixie,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” or “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” you’re trading in nostalgia. Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, the songwriters of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” taught us all how to sing “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,” but neither of them had ever set foot in West Virginia. They made the whole thing up.
            Maybe Plato was right when in The Republic he warned us to be wary of artists. Artists, he argued, don’t deal in truth or reality. They lie for a living. They weave threads drawn from real experiences into entirely fictional but comforting burial shrouds. They don’t lead us to the light, but to the comfort of the coffin.
            But there’s another side of the coin. There always is.
            In his essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote that poetry (and by extension all art) strengthens our capacity to empathize by exercising our imaginations, for it is our capacity to imagine that makes empathy possible. If you cannot imaginatively put yourself in another’s life, another’s circumstance, another’s skin, then you cannot experience their suffering. And if you cannot feel their suffering as your own, you cannot experience compassion. Without empathy we are sociopaths – no one but ourselves is real. Art then has an enormously important and therapeutic role to play – it is an instrument of global awakening and social justice.
            Still the fact remains that art trades in illusion. Artists create artificial worlds where they, like gods, ascribe value and meaning to everything in them. Depending on the artist, this can be a benign process, or a simply enjoyable one. But it is also how pedantic, manipulative, and dangerous propaganda is constructed.
When in the early 20th century, some 40 years after the end of the Civil War, white supremacists in the American south began to push back against the enormous strides freed slaves had realized during early Reconstruction, they concocted and propagated a false narrative about the war that served their racist agenda. Racist white leaders reframed the war as a noble cause that had little or nothing to do with enslaving African Americans. And they erected statues of Confederate generals all across the south as totems of their self-serving nostalgia. For generations, every black child walked past these statues on their way to school – schools named after prominent slave holders. The paradigm of racism and inequality got codified into the consciousness and baked into the structures of the community through art, song, and even curriculum. This is how a lie takes hold, with art as the glue that holds it together. Can you whistle “Dixie?” Yeah, I can too.
“Dixie” was written by a white northerner in the mid-19th century and quickly became a standard on the minstrel circuit, the most popular form of entertainment at the time – white singing groups in black face depicting black people as infantile simpletons. Songs like “Dixie” wistfully portrayed slavery as a bygone age of bucolic happiness. The lie of the happy slave salved white conscience, and made possible all the horrors to come – black codes, Jim Crow, lynching, and institutional racism.
Who owns the past? Who gets to sing about it? And what is their agenda? These are important questions we ignore at our own peril.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Ten Best Life Hacks

Feeling lost and adrift? Out of sorts? Cut off from the things that used to bring you joy? Does it feel like a stranger has taken up residence in your own skin? Here are ten life hacks that will quickly get you back on track toward your own best life.
1.    Get up earlier
Instead of dreading the alarm clock and pushing it as late as you possibly can, try reclaiming the calm, quiet, sacred hours of the early morning. Stop intoning the lie that you are not a “morning person” as if that was even a thing. People are not cast in stone. They can change their patterns. Get up early and watch your happiness, self-esteem, productivity, and sense of calm increase.
2.    Turn ordinary activities into rituals
You’re already doing them every day anyway. You might as well turn them into meditative, conscious, reflective rituals. Grinding coffee with gratitude for the Central American farmers who lovingly tend their trees. Pouring that first cup with the focused intention of a monk in Japanese tea ceremony. Brushing your teeth, shaving, bathing, and dressing with deep appreciation for the magical mystery of the mind-body, and the creativity and ingenuity of those who design and make our clothing. This way, your very life becomes a temple, and everything holy.
3.    Move more
An unused door hinge rusts shut. An unexercised body closes down. You don’t have to do anything crazy. Just walk for an hour. Do yoga. Bicycle or swim. Take the stairs. Rake leaves. Whatever you have access to. For tens of thousands of years human beings walked for miles and miles every day. We were made to move. Not only will your body start functioning and feeling better, but your mind will too.
4.    Meditate
Finally commit to a real meditation routine. Not just a dabble here and there, but a commitment as consistent as eating and sleeping – because it’s damn near just as important. Meditation unlocks the mind-body’s hidden restorative powers. Wellness happens if you let it. And unburden your meditation practice of any silly and overblown expectations. Forget about enlightenment. Let the stillness and glow of meditation be its own reward. The rest happens by itself without your interference.
5.    Eat real food
Food guru Michael Pollan famously reduced all of his books down to one line: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” What he means is, eat real food – food as close to the source as possible. Ditch the margarine. Switch back to butter. Just eat less of it. And when you look down at your plate, it should be 75% plants, 12% protein, and 12% carbs. These aren’t hard numbers, but guidelines. Infuse your shopping, prepping, cooking, eating, and clean up with gratitude and presence. Let the miracle of food become a sacrament. Shifting your eating habits will awaken strength and restore equilibrium throughout your mind-body processes.
6.    Find some new music to fall in love with
Ludwig van Beethoven said that “Music is a higher truth than philosophy,” and he was right. If you’re not mindfully, deliberately, deeply, and consciously listening to music on a regular basis, you are at real risk of soul-starvation. Find new music. Ask around. Look up artists you like on YouTube and let the algorithms lead you to similar artists you’ve never heard. Indulge in satellite radio or commercial free streaming subscriptions. When you find artists you like buy their music so they can afford to keep making it.
7.    Fall in love
You can’t snap your fingers and make love happen. But it’s always hovering nearby waiting to be born. And let’s not limit this to romantic love exclusively. I’m talking about love in its broadest sense – that feeling of deep, liberating, exhilarating, and dizzying interconnection with everything. The way a bird loves the sky, a sailor loves the sea, or a singer loves a song. There’s an unbridled zeal within all of us longing to emerge. Don’t be coy. Get out of the way and let your love find its mark. To love is our deepest calling. Be still enough to hear it.
8.    Work in service, not self-interest
Sure we work to eat. We need money to live. That paycheck really matters. But there are deeper currents in motion. When we work we turn our time, talent, and energy into goods and services that help other people enrich their own lives. When we pull back and see the bigger picture, all work is service – an opportunity for us to participate directly in the healing of the world. When you begin to see your work in this light, everything shifts. Your self-esteem increases, your anxiety about outcomes abate, your depression reduces, and your enjoyment expands because you finally see your work for what it is – not a simple quid pro quo for money, but a tether that connects you to the tapestry of all energy, all matter, and all consciousness. It is through our work that we affirm our oneness. Our work is a ritual that sanctifies our life and the lives of all it touches.
9.    Mari Kondo your condo
Get rid of most of your stuff – you don’t really want it anyway, and mindlessly holding onto it is clogging up your life. Take a few days, empty every closet, hold each item in your hand and ask yourself, “Do I really love this, I mean really love this?” Kondo’s animistic Shinto spirituality asks us to feel the energy of each item. It will “tell” you if it should stay or go. If it vibrantly belongs in your life, keep it. If it doesn’t, say “Thank you” and graciously let it go. Place the items you are keeping back in your closets and drawers one piece at a time. Give the rest away. When you are done, your home will feel free, clear, and full of light. And so will your mind. Read Mari Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for guidance.
10. Ask for help
Maybe we don’t ask for help because we want to maintain the illusion of invincibility. We don’t want anyone to see how lost we are. I get that. But get over it. Ask for help. Delegate. There are people all around you who know way more than you do about just about everything. And they’re grateful to be useful. (They hunger for self-worth and validation just like you do.) When you ask for help you are giving them a gift – the opportunity to turn their work and their love into service. And you too are brought home to the truth that none of us does any of this alone. It’s a win-win.
            When you adopt these ten life hacks you’ll soon see changes happening within. You’ll see your old problems with new eyes, and feel reinvigorated enough to withstand them. You’ll shift from negativity to gratitude, from scarcity to abundance, and from fear to fullness. But don’t wait. Seeds don’t grow in a jar on the shelf. You have to plant them. Ideas alone don’t shift us, only actions do. Begin now. You do not have forever to begin living the life you were born to live.