Sunday, February 27, 2005

You’re Out of Your Mind

For most people, being told “You’re out of your mind” is not considered a compliment. It’s the kind of putdown someone throws your way when they feel you are behaving in an irrational, reckless or destructive manner.

But being told “You out of your mind” could just as easily be the highest accolade any of us could ever receive.

We humans tend to use our minds too much and our brains too little. We analyze, strategize, romanticize, idealize, mull over and dissect almost every stimuli that we are conscious of. We add, subtract, multiply, divide, quantify and qualify the world around us. We take this digested information and collate, merge, separate and amalgamate it into a pretzel-like rationality in order to fit it inside of preconceived notions.

Yet, for all of these histrionics, our lives are beset with self-doubt, anxiety, fear, alienation and a certain amount of self-loathing. It almost seems like we simply don’t possess the necessary tools to make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

It’s so unfortunate that far too many people don’t realize we each DO possess an amazing apparatus that can synthesize far more than we could ever imagine – It’s called the brain.

Our brains are the computers that run our bodies. Our brain controls all the involuntary functions that keep us alive from minute to minute. We don’t have to think, “Take in air and now expel it” to breath. We don’t consciously have to direct our digestive system to digest food. When we suffer a cut or a bruise, we don’t have to tell the cells in our body how to regenerate themselves.

With all the amazing processes that our brains control WITHOUT our minds needing to play an active role, why then don’t we apply our brains to the everyday occurrences of life? Why don’t we encounter situations and let our brains figure out the most logical courses of action? Why must we always gum up the process by calling on our minds and not our brains?

Actually, almost by accident, we do sometimes allow our brains to take center stage. We’ve all heard of athletes being in “the zone”. Most of us have, at one time or another, been hit with an inspiration which has led us to scribble out a beautiful poem, sing a song like we’ve never sung before or spring into action to solve a crisis.

In such instances, we aren’t consciously thinking but reacting in tune with the circumstances and situation. In essence, we’ve allowed ourselves to go “out of our minds”.

This represents a key teaching of Taoism – Don’t throw a roadblock into the transmission lines by thinking. It only causes clutter. Be one with the Tao and the Tao will work through you.

We Who?

A few months back I engaged in an ongoing email discussion with two friends who are self-defined conservative Christians. We discussed the foundations of the Christian religion vis-à-vis their understanding of its basic truths. Not surprisingly, though they both described their personal beliefs in similar ways, they disagreed frequently.

There were several tenets they did agree on. One of these is the belief that humankind was created in the image of God. While I discussed, debated and argued with them on a host of key issues, I had a hard time putting into words my difficulty with the acceptance of the Man-in-God’s-image conceptualization.

Last night, however, while drifting between consciousness and sleep, it dawned on me that the key question inherent in a discussion of this issue is: If we are created in God’s image, what do we mean by “we”? Put another way, we who?

As we gaze out onto the world, we see complete images…people, cars, buildings, mountains, streams and sky. Though this is what our eyes see and what our brains comprehend, this does not genuinely represent the world we live in.

The world we live in is made up of particles, energy and sound waves. The letters, words, and sentences I’m keying in right now and that you are now reading on my blog are nothing more than different arrays of mathematical symbols that a computer translates in such a way that each of us can make sense of it all.

I am not really a finished structure of bone, tissue, blood, etc. No, my body, my mind and the person I call me is a mass of millions and millions of particles that come together in a symbiotic relationship to form the human called Trey. Everything we can see, taste, or feel is formed in this same manner.

So, when it is said that humankind is created in the image of God, which part or parts are we referring to? The amalgamation of particles or each particular one?

I suppose the answer for a conservative Christian would be the amalgamation. For me, though, this creates two interdependent problems.

First, if only the amalgamation is the representative image of God, then it would need to be acknowledged that the building blocks to form that image are not themselves representative of the almighty.

Second, if the building blocks themselves are not formed in the image of God, how can the amalgamation then be said to form such an image? How can a pure substance be created from impure parts?

Unfortunately, if a conservative Christian answers the other way – that all particles are the image of God – it creates just as serious a problem. If all the molecules, atoms and particles of the universe are created in the image of God, then ALL things are created in his image, not just humans. Every rock, bird, tree, river and crystal of sand would have the same standing as you or I and this would mean an end to the belief of humankind having dominion over all earthly things.

It would seem to me that the conservative Christian is boxed in no matter which way one turns.

This image dilemma is of no concern to a Taoist. Since the underlying belief of Taoism is that everything – seen or unseen – is part of a universal whole, all things share a commonality. And, because all things share a core element, Taoists believe we are but one part of nature, not something independent of it that may hold dominion over it.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Great Publisher

The Almighty must have too much time on her/his/their hands. That’s the only explanation that makes much sense when one considers that most religions believe their sacred text[s] were handed down directly from “up above”. The deity either wrote it with divine penmanship OR the deity commandeered a few mortal scribes to do the actual work.

Since the Almighty is supposedly almighty, why in heaven would this entity use the written word as its vehicle to inform humanity of the right ways to live?

Think about this for a moment. The written word is a most indefinite animal. String a few words together on a piece of paper or a blog and have 20 people read the words. Chances are those 20 people will understand the words in 20 different ways AND none of these ways may come close to what the writer intended!

Reading, as with all things intellectual, is colored by our biases, prejudices, experiences, observations and perspectives. Consequently, the written word – whether written by mere mortals or not – cannot bestow upon the reader anything that is absolute.

If we humans can understand this point, don’t you think that God knows it too? And if God is aware of this imprecision, doesn’t it follow that, if she/he/them really wanted to inform people of the rules of life, she/he/them would choose a far better mode of communication?

Taoist don’t pretend that our foundational texts came from some celestial being. The Tao Te Ching was written by a sage, a person with keen insights. But neither the sage himself nor the followers of Tao believe that the sage was compiling words directed from the heavens.

He was simply one person sharing his thoughts with others. Period. End of story.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Taoist in Us All

A great deal of what each of us encounters in this life is frightening. I don’t mean that things are necessarily life-threatening or life changing, but so much of what we experience is of an unknown quantity and what we fear most is anything unknown.

Every corner we turn COULD present us with particulars we are not prepared to deal with. An off-handed remark COULD turn someone against us. An action we decide to take or not take COULD have deep consequences. It is all the coulds that make our lives an adventure.

To try to shield ourselves from the unknown, we try to clothe our psyches in some form of certainty. Most people find this solace in the form of religion.

Religion helps many not to feel like a tiny speck in an endless ocean. It provides a set of fairly rigid rules for believers to follow. It paints a world, full of a multiplicity of hues and shades, in a starkly black and white fashion. Most religions promise that a future paradise awaits those who muddle through their ephemeral lives here on dear old planet earth.

In the end, however, what each of us chooses to believe or not believe will have little lasting impact. We are all part of some ultimate force or reality and this force or reality defines our destiny. It will take its course regardless of whether or not we acknowledge or comprehend it.

This is the very essence of Taoism.

Don’t get caught up in the word tao. It’s just a word, no better or worse than any other. All it signifies is that we are each part of a universal something. It is this incomprehensible something that impacts our lives far more than we may care to admit or realize. And it is this great unknown that we will never understand as long as we live in our current form.

In the end, we are ALL Taoists.

Nothing Will Help

We live in a world in which the average person should not be idle.*

If a person is not constantly striving to get ahead, then, if they are not a member of the privileged class, it said that such a person DESERVES to be poor and hungry. Such a person DESERVES to be miserable. Such a person DESERVES to be one of the have nots.

Yet, this constant striving for financial success, societal approval, fame and status doesn’t seem to bestow upon people (EVEN the wealthy) what they desire more than anything else – contentment and happiness. In fact, it almost always creates the very antithesis – restlessness and UNhappiness.

Though it might not seem to be a pervasive problem in our world today, I submit that one of the chief reasons that far too many people wallow in self-created despair and angst is because they tend to think too much.

Thinking certainly has its merits. Rational thought and analysis are the hallmarks of homo sapiens. It allows us to recognize factors that help us to avert danger. It can assist us in increasing pleasure. And it can help us, at times, decipher complex concepts and observations.

But, for its obvious merits, most people seem to take “thinking” to a dangerous extreme. They think and think and think. They think about thinking. They think about what they thought and then rethink it.

One would think all this thinking would have solved all the riddles of the vast universe by now. So why does humanity still act like a drunk bumping into things in the dark? Why haven’t we cured cancer or AIDS? Why don’t we understand how our own bodies really work? Why don’t we have the foggiest notion how we even think?

On a more individual level, why is it that, when we forget the name of a movie or the name of an acquaintance, the harder we think, the more elusive the answer becomes?

Look, we’ve all been there. You want to share a tidbit or some vital information with somebody else. Just as you’re about to say somebody’s name or spout out a cool statistic, that key piece of information just seems to float out of your mind. So, you start thinking. You concentrate on this thing you’re trying to think about. You think really, really hard. And it doesn’t do you a damn bit of good.

Commonsense tells you that you’re just not thinking hard enough. So, you twist yourself in knots and still the thing you crave to think of most seems to be anywhere but WHERE you are.

The Taoist sage would look at you and smile, “Nothing will get you ahead”. The sage is not saying that no amount of effort will do you any good; instead, the advice is starkly straightforward. Quit thinking about it and it will present itself to you. This is the concept of wu-wei.

Wu-wei means doing by not doing. In other words, quit thinking so damn much and allow the flow of the universe to nurture you. If we each would avail ourselves of the rhythms of life itself, we’d soon find that, all the things we make so difficult through constant thinking, would be naturally comprehensible.

While this might sound like a really strange concept, almost all of us have experienced it in our lives – often without realizing it. After we’ve thought and thought and thought about the word, number or name that simply evades us, we throw up our hands. We grumble and kick the dirt. We move on to other things.

Once we’ve removed the “thinking” stumbling block, the information we simply could not think of, magically appears. It might materialize a minute, an hour, a day or weeks later. We awaken from a sound sleep or we’re walking down the street and, all of a sudden, we look at the sky and say, “Of course, it’s Virginia (or 26 or “Forest Gump” or whatever it is).

In this instant, if we’re in tune with the Tao, we come to understand that nothing often does and will help.

*No one seems particularly upset if you happen to be a member of the idle rich. “Hey, they’ve EARNED the right to be lazy!”

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Mirage of Perfection

Practice makes perfect.

This sentiment must make life hell for the Christians among us. On the one hand, we humans are supposed to strive for the example of Jesus, the sinless lamb. On the other hand, Christians accept the foundational principle that none of us can be perfect. So they find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place – trying to obtain an objective they already KNOW they can’t possibly reach!

I submit that their dilemma is even worse than they could ever imagine. From my vantage point, their ultimate goal doesn’t even exist – perfection is a mirage.

Perfection, the act of flawlessness based on a rigid standard, can only exist in a static environment. One must be able to see and comprehend all the variables involved plus all the consequences – intended or not – that will result from the action to be taken. And then, perfection can still only be attained if none of the variables changes in character once the decision is rendered.

Following such a formula would mean that each of us could only hope to attempt to make one decision regarding one solitary action in our entire lives. As we broached the given situation or circumstance, we would necessarily have to keep readjusting our view of what constituted perfection as the millions of variables kept changing or altering that view. It would become an unending exercise in futility.

The key problem with trying to define perfection is that it contradicts the one constant in the universe – change. Because of never-ending change, there are no fixed standards to use as permanent yardsticks. And we know that Christians, many who live by rigid standards compiled in a centuries old book, need this kind of unerring permanency in their lives.

In Taoist belief, there is no talk of perfection or the sin of not achieving nor striving for such. All things or beings have a place at the table because all things or beings are part of one universal whole. If one wishes to define this ultimate reality as perfection, then it follows that, since we’re each part of the whole, we each are one of the variables that define what perfection is.

The salient value in understanding that either perfection doesn’t truly exist or we are all part of the make-up of perfection is that it removes the sense of guilt for not being “perfect”. People waste an inordinate amount of their lives feeling guilty. Guilt leads to many of the personal problems people face.

When you screw up, instead of feeling guilty, learn from the situation and move on. You’ll soon find you will lead a far more productive life.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Unintended Consequences

You know things aren’t going well in this country when a self-help organization tries to turn a good deed and the good deed creates an unintended negative consequence. In this particular case, recipients of Habitat for Humanity (HfH) houses in Northern Virginia are finding out that home ownership isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The problem has nothing to do with the houses per se. This isn’t a scandalous tale of shoddy workmanship or the use of substandard materials. This also has nothing to do with hassles between the home owners and the group that holds the mortgage, HfH.

No, this concerns the all-too-familiar problem of property appreciation. It seems that property tax rates are going through the roof in Northern Virginia. As the rates climb, HfH homeowners are discovering that their property tax bills are exceeding the monthly house payment. Many are worried that property taxes may soon force them from their homes.

For me, this underscores one of the problems I have with organizations like HfH. Groups like this become so focused on one narrow concept – in this case, home ownership one person at a time – that they fail to see the big picture. And one of the recurring problems with a myopic view of the world is that good intentions often lead to these dreaded unintended consequences.

A few years back, my wife & I were very active in our local HfH. The organization is a good one that stresses self-empowerment through sweat equity. However, one aspect of HfH that began to gnaw at me was the fact that HfH didn’t seem interested at all in lobbying government for solutions that might alleviate the housing shortage.

I sat down one day and wrote a letter on this issue to the founder and president of Habit for Humanity International (his name escapes me now). Surprisingly enough, he responded, though not in the way I would have liked. In essence, he said that the task for finding solutions was better left to others. Habitat would stick to its singular mission.

And it’s this singular mission that is now having a most negative impact on the folks in Northern Virginia.

Maybe this situation will help to open a few eyes at HfH. Think again, maybe it won’t.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

In Whose Image?

It is written in the Bible that man was created in the image of God, but I've got to tell you that it appears to me that, for Christians, it's the other way around. In various places in the bible, God is described as behaving jealously, angry, irritated, pleased, etc. When God is jealous or angry, he tends to punish people. When he's pleased, he generally rewards people.

These are LOWLY human traits, the kinds of behavior that Christians usually label “sins of the flesh”. When any of us behaves in such a way, we’re supposed to feel guilty AND we’re supposed to repent. So, if we are indeed created in God’s image and it’s a-ok for God to be jealous, why then is it wrong for US to behave in a jealous manner?

But the problem is worse than that. As children, we're taught to control our anger and not to strike out at others when we are angry. Yet, you can read in the good book about God behaving in precisely this way. For me, it boils down to a really strange philosophy in which it appears like God is saying to us, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Now, most of us know that such advice is not very effective. Children learn more from the genuine actions of their parents rather than from what they say. For example, a child whose parents say “don't use drugs”, while the kid knows the parents ARE doing it themselves, generally ends up using drugs. A father who warns against the dangers of violence – while beating his wife and/or children – generally produces kids who grow into adulthood thinking that it's okay to “solve” problems through the use of violence.

This begs the question: If God is the embodiment of perfection, why in the world would he behave in such a human [imperfect] manner? And, as asked above, if it's okay for God to do ugly things when he's jealous or angry and we're created in his image, why then is it wrong for any of us to do the nasty things we do when we’re angry or jealous?

What becomes painfully obvious is that Christians have created a God in OUR image, a supreme being replete with all of humanity’s warts, blemishes and quirks. They have created a religious entity that
  • kills outsiders who view the world differently when he is angry (Canaanites, Egyptians, etc.)
  • backstabs allies when he’s being petulant (turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt)
  • orders the state to execute an innocent person to absolve the guilty (his OWN begotten son)
  • sets out to destroy the entire world when he is really ticked off (the BIG flood) and
  • bestows wonderful gifts (like wealth and power) when he’s pleased as punch.

The Almighty, as depicted by the Christian faith, actually resembles all the worst traits of Dirty Harry, The Terminator, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Rambo rolled into one.

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching states, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao." What this means to a Taoist is that the ultimate reality is so beyond human comprehension that, as soon as we try to quantify or explain it, we've missed the boat entirely. It's simply too expansive for our feeble human brains to understand. So, we don't spend much time at all thinking about what we know intuitively we can’t begin to know.

When the time comes to be one with Tao, it will happen naturally, whether we want it to or not.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Who Decides?

Whenever a progressive-minded person starts talking about equitable ways to distribute wealth, a conservative is bound to jump up to ask, "Who decides who gets what?"

One way to answer this question again is to return to a discussion of what wealth is. I stipulate that wealth represents an excess of resources. If every individual in the world possessed a savings account of $1 million, then $1 million would not represent wealth as it would not exceed what any other person possessed.

Therefore, wealth is to exceed what others possess.

I suppose some would say this is all well and good. Though I would likely argue that point, I would at least point out that we don't live in a world of infinite resources. If we did, then wealthy individuals could possibly excuse their excess by stating that any other person could achieve the same level of excess as they had. In fact, they might accurately state that people who lived in poverty were simply lazy and had not put forth the needed amount of effort to obtain that which is there for the taking.

However, as we all know, we live in a world of FINITE resources. There is only so much oil, gold, food or trees in existence. To be certain, the amounts of these things do change and the number is never static, but, only the fool believes that their is an endless amount.

Since our world is bound by its finiteness, the fact that some individuals possess an excess of resources concurrently means that others possess a corresponding deficiency in resources. While some have vastly more than they need, others have far less than they need, often below the minimum subsistence level.

In essence, the wealthy are stating that THEIR personal needs are somehow more important than other people's needs. It's as if their needs, desires, dreams and aspirations matter, but millions of other people's needs, desires, dreams and aspirations don't matter. What it really boils down to is the narcissistic statement, "My life matters more than yours!".

So, to return to the initial question, each person needs to decide what is basic for their own survival AND they need to temper this decision by the knowledge that a) We live in a world of finite resources AND b) They aren't the only person on the planet.

If you have 5 starving people sitting around a table with one pizza, a person would have a lot of gall to declare that they needed to consume 3/4 of the pizza to meet their most basic need. Each of us might relish the thought of eating 3/4 of the pizza, but the compassionate individuals among us would settle for a piece that represented 1/5 (a little more or less).

Unfortunately, using the example above, there are far too many wealthy individuals in our world today who would not only claim the ENTIRE pizza for themselves, but also the table the pizza is on and the chairs the other 4 people are sitting in.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Sad Irony

I genuinely believe that the vast majority of war, crime, hatred and general violence against others/nature emanates from religious conservativism. I don't mean just Christian conservatives either. In general, terrorists and hawks are the conservatives and fundamentalists of every nation or people. Remove the conservatives from the equation and both terrorism and counter-terrorism evaporate.

I would say that conservatives of all ilks are defined by three primary characteristics: 1) Resistance to change, even if the change means progress; 2) Once the change becomes the entrenched status quo, embracing it like it was their idea to begin with; and 3) Believing that they have found the ultimate truth and hitting everybody else over the head with it.

The Christian religion offers a great illustration of this three-step process. It was the conservatives of Jesus' day who fought him at every turn, criticized his every move, castigated his every word and ultimately sentenced him to death. It was these same conservatives who then tried to snuff out the subsequent spread of Christianity.

However, once Christianity became firmly established, it was the later conservatives who embraced it. Once it was embraced by the conservatives, it was then used as a weapon against others who didn't embrace it also. The conservative leadership of the Church used Christianity as the theological impetus to torture, maim and kill millions of pagans and followers of other religious traditions.

If you look back through history, almost every war you come across has been initiated by conservatives. What's most interesting is that though the conservatives make the decisions to go to war, they rarely engage in the art of war itself. Both Bill Clinton & Dubya are great examples. Neither of them ever fought in a war. Both found creative ways even to avoid genuine military service. Yet both have had no trouble sending others off to die, often needlessly.

But it's not just the issue of war. Fundamentalist belief serves not as the foundation of love and compassion but of hate. Because fundamentalists believe they have a special corner on the truth, anyone not sharing their belief is demonized. Demonization leads to depersonalization and depersonalization in turn spawns hatred. It's easy to kill people you hate. It's easy to lock up people you hate. It's easy to create economic and social systems that keep the people you hate in their proper place -- dead end jobs, ghettos, underfunded schools, lack of adequate health care, etc.

For me then, this is the tragic irony of conservative Christianity (it applies just as easily to fundamentalist takes on other religions too). Conservative Christians talk so much about love, compassion, salvation, devotion and the like, yet they behave in the exact opposite fashion toward most of humanity. Unwittingly, fundamentalists commit the exact same "sin" that Jesus accused the Pharisees and Sadduccees of. They have become so caught up in dogma and rigid belief that they miss the genuine liberal spiritual freedom that Jesus advocated.

Jesus gathered around him prostitutes, vagrants, and tax collectors. He spent most of his time with the underclass, the throw aways of his society. The conservatives of his day lambasted him for such behavior.

Today's conservatives hold Jesus up as their ultimate role model, yet they lambaste the very same people Jesus sought to uplift. Today's conservatives support underfunding mental health services so that the mentally ill are left to wander the streets in homelessness. Instead of trying to heal these people, as Jesus would, they instead support building more prisons so they can lock them up far away from general society. Jesus brought these people to him; conservatives push them away.

Jesus gathered the poor and tried to uplift their spirits. Today's conservatives underfund welfare programs that might allow some of the poor to rise above their poverty. Again, the distinction is startling: Jesus brings these people to him, while conservatives push them away.

Jesus, the revolutionary, has become the icon of present day anti-revolutionary forces. It's a sad and rather pathetic irony.

Selling & Winning

I've come to realize that one of the major communications problems we have in this country is the way different people conceptualize the world. There are two terms I often see in relation to the world of ideas that are foreign to me: Selling & Winning.

I believe that far too many people view ideas as commodities. It's their aim to package these "commodities" in bright packages, replete with a slick marketing campaign, in order to sell the "product" to the masses. Then, if enough people buy the "product", a person can claim victory (i.e., a win).

I don't share these views at all. I don't view ideas as commodities. For me, ideas are always evolving. They aren't static. They never become a finished product. As soon as an idea is shared with others, it morphs into something new. In other words, unlike a car or a missile or a loaf of bread, no singular individual owns ideas. They are part and parcel of the community domain.

This is very similar to the way Native Americans view Mother Earth. Back in the 18th & 19th centuries, the Great White Father was always trying to cajole and bribe Indian Tribes to sell [their] land. The Indians just looked at US negotiators as if they were stark raving mad. They would say something like, "Mother Earth belongs to all creatures. How can we sell you something that all of us already possess?"

Their point, of course, is that nobody can "own" the land. And the same can be said for ideas. If no one owns an idea, how can you sell it? If ideas belong to all as part and parcel of the public domain, why would anyone need to buy one?

The second term used frequently is "winning" or "win". I don't like that term at all. My problem with having a winner is that you must concurrently have a loser. Many of us (me included) often talk about win-win situations, but winning only has meaning if someone, somewhere loses. So, in reality, win-win situations don't exist UNLESS what we really mean is a WIN-WIN-lose situation.

Going further, I'm not interested in ideas that can be conceptualized as "winners". Winning is an amoral concept. For any idea to "win the day", it doesn't necessarily need to be moral, ethical, favorable, honest, fair, just or beneficial. All it needs is for more people to accept it (or more power brokers to accept it) than don't accept it. And, since winning is amoral, it leads us down the road of idea manipulation. It leads to a place where the marketing and the packaging of an idea is far more important than the idea itself. In fact, we often find that the marketing and packaging skew the basic premise of ideas so much that they rarely resemble the idea that one is trying to sell.

The Bush people represent a classic example of this concept in action. They market an idea as the Patriot Act and the true premise of the idea (hidden behind layer upon layer of marketing) has next to nothing to do with patriotism. They market another idea as No Child Left Behind and yet the implementation of the genuine idea itself is leaving children behind left and right.

So, I have no interest whatsoever in selling ideas to win. Both lead down a path I'm not interested in traveling. Any person, of course, has every right to continue utilizing these two terms, BUT it must understand that I will be unwilling and unable to answer any questions someone may pose to me which feature these two terms as the overriding concepts. A person might as well ask me such questions in Swahili.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Too Much

Why do people desire more than they need?

I see two answers to this question: 1) Practicality and 2) Power.

It's certainly not uncommon nor unwise to want a back-up. If you lose your job, it's wise to have a savings account to see you through the lean times. If your car is in the shop, it's nice to have a 2nd vehicle to get you around (though maybe it might be better simply to take the bus). If a friend stops by around dinner time, it's nice to have an extra potato on hand to pop in the oven.

I think this desire to want a little extra is rooted in the history of human existence. In days of yore, our species often existed at the whim of nature. A mighty wind or wall of water or a trembling of the earth could easily destroy the year's crops. If nothing had been put away from previous seasons, the whole tribe or community might starve. So, it makes sense to want to fill one's basic needs and put a little back for safekeeping to get one through a calamity.

Unfortunately, we humans, being as we are, seem to have a penchant for taking a pragmatic concept and stretching it out to its extreme. What began as a simple concept -- holding a little back as a safeguard -- has morphed into a mentality that is altogether different. Instead of holding a little back, many tend to hoard. It's one thing to keep a potato or two in reserve; it's quite another to fill warehouses with bushel upon bushel of potatoes.

For starters, the individual who is hoarding the potatoes knows that he can't possibly eat them all before they rot. If he attempts to eat as many as possible, he will be nothing more than a glutton. If he has no use for the extra potatoes and simply allows them to rot, then he is nothing more than a selfish person who has promoted great waste.

So, why collect all these bushels of potatoes? I would say that, in almost every case, the potato collector is hoping to cash in on the misery of others. If others fall victim to calamity and are on the brink of starvation, the person who has hoarded potatoes can sell them at almost any price he names. This is called the science of monopoly and it is why monopolies are adverse to the concept of community.

In my opinion,the drive to accumulate more than one needs or could ever use is rooted in a far more sinister motivation. If you have vastly more of something of value than others do, this excess grants you immense power. Using the example of the potato, you alone get to decide who can buy a potato and who can't -- you are able to accomplish this feat through the "pricing" mechanism. In other words, you alone get to decide who lives and who dies. In a manner of speaking, you obtain the power of God.

Because you have a corner on all the potatoes or you and a small cabal have hoarded all the potatoes, you must erect an apparatus to protect "your" potatoes from the hungry masses, lest they all get together and storm the warehouses. So you create the "state" and develop police powers to shield you from the have nots. You pass a lot of laws that "apply" to everyone equally BUT, in reality, only truly apply to those you seek protection from -- the starving masses.

And this leads to my belief that the DESIRE to become wealthy is evil. I have no problem whatsoever with the drive to meet basic needs and to keep a little extra in reserve. This I call prudence. However, when an individual moves beyond this basic precept, we enter the realm of desiring to have power and dominion over others. You want freedom for yourself and your family, but not for others. You want the power to say who receives and who doesn't. In other words, you want the opportunity to be able to call the shots as YOU see fit.

But, I hear some say, "I want everyone to have the opportunity to become wealthy". The problem here is that if everyone became "wealthy", then wealth would cease to exist as a concept. Wealth can only exist in the presence of poverty. It is only by understanding its opposite that any concept holds meaning. If everyone possesses 100 bushels of potatoes, then nothing of these potatoes has any value or, we could also say, they are all valued equally. Therefore, no one would gain an advantage.

In the end, that's the entire motivation of accumulating wealth -- gaining an advantage over others. You want to be richer, stronger, or more powerful than most of your neighbors. And the only advantage you gain from being richer, stronger or more powerful than others is being able to control the lives of others. In essence, wealth is merely a synonym for control. And where there is unregulated control, there cannot be true community.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Hue of History

It’s that time of year again. Each February scores of newspapers, magazines, television networks and big-name corporations revel for 28 days (29 days in leap years) in sharing with the rest of us the exploits and triumphs throughout history of people of color. Yes, the proverbial Black History Month.

I simply detest it!

Now my problem has nothing to do with the desire to trivialize the contributions made by blacks to American and world history. It also has nothing to do with the bigoted and asinine complaint of reverse discrimination – “Well, we don’t celebrate White History Month.”

No, my anger with Black History Month concerns the fact that we as a society still need to designate a particular time period to recognize the contributions of an important segment of our population. Just the act of reserving February to celebrate one particular ethnic group tells us that we have a long, long way to go before we realize the American ideal of the melting pot.

As with my critique with the “Teaching Tolerance” Campaign (go here), the goal itself of this annual designation trivializes the very thing it seeks to promote. By reserving one month – the shortest one at that – for the recounting of these important stories and events, it allows the vast majority to not have to think about blacks the 11 other months of the year.

It’s very similar to the way most people participate in our political process. For the majority of the year, most people don’t give a hoot about anything political. Accidentally say the word politics at a family gathering or around the office water cooler and most people will immediately change the subject or briskly move away from you.

This all changes come October. Now, all of a sudden, every single conversation is about all things political. People talk and talk and talk. Then they vote. As soon as their votes are cast, they don’t want to hear the word politics again.

Too many people follow this same formula for Black History Month. Before or after February, the accomplishments of blacks just aren’t important – Who cares? Accidentally mention race relations or something of that ilk and nobody wants to talk to you. However, during the wonderful days of February, far too many whites try to absolve their guilt, for the rest of the year, by engaging in a media and corporate orgy celebrating all things black.

The best way I know to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our black brothers and sisters is to acknowledge them 365 days per year. Further, such acts should not be viewed solely as black accomplishments but as human ones.

Every month is White History Month – It should be the same for Black History Month too!

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Tolerating the Tolerant

There’s a program, “Teaching Tolerance”, that’s been around for a quite a few years. While I certainly salute and applaud the motivation behind the development of this educational vehicle, I seem to a have a real problem with the choice of the word tolerance.

From my humble perspective, teaching people to tolerate others sends an unintentionally negative message. The whole point of this program is to motivate each of us to be more accepting of diverse cultures. In my book, there is quite a bit of difference between acceptance and tolerance.

To accept something is to agree to receive it. When a person agrees to receive something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they must like it or embrace it unto themselves, but it does mean they are affirmatively building a bridge between the person making the offer and themselves.

The concept of acceptance does not necessarily involve any hierarchy. Whether you’re the king/queen or a slave you can choose to accept or not accept something offered.

Tolerance, however, is a completely different animal. In order to be in a position to tolerate something or someone, one must be ABOVE or SUPERIOR to the thing or person to be tolerated. In other words, tolerance is TO ALLOW something or someone to exist and the only way one can allow something is if they exercise some measure of control over the person or situation.

Consequently, I believe the unintended subliminal message of the “Teaching Tolerance” Campaign is to tell people that they should tolerate others because they are better or superior to the people or cultures they should tolerate. And, if you think about it, that’s not a very uplifting nor positive message.

Far worse, if you happen to be a member of the ethnic or cultural group to be tolerated, you are being told that you are inferior to the people who should learn to tolerate YOU! It’s like being hit with a double whammy. The predominating group ALREADY thinks you ARE inferior and now the very campaign that seeks ultimately to lift you up is concurrently reinforcing the idea that you are INDEED inferior.

As the Tao Te Ching teaches that we are all part of one universal cosmic force, no one is superior or inferior to another. With no hierarchy, the concept of toleration doesn’t need to be learned nor promoted.

Can’t Take the Rib-bing

As a Taoist who believes that all of us are part of a unified whole – different manifestations of one unifying entity, force or energy – there is no rationale in elevating one human over another or humans over any other entity. We are all part of Tao (e.g., God, Allah, Nature, etc…whatever word pleases you).

It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, black, red, yellow or white, rich or poor, attractive or ugly, right-handed or left-handed, a CEO or a janitor, female or male…it especially doesn’t matter what your gender is!

I wish the same could be said for other belief systems. Unfortunately, under fundamentalist Islam & Christianity, your gender plays the seminal role in how you may interact with the world and how that world will view and interact with you.

I don’t know what precisely served as the impetus for the differentiation of gender standing in Islam, but I’m convinced that its cause in fundamentalist Christianity is derived from the creation story in the Book of Genesis.

Actually, there are two divergent creation stories in Genesis. If you accept the first of the two (Gen 1:26-28) as the authoritative one, then you are less likely to view the feminine gender in the guise of second class citizens. If, on the other hand, you view the second version provided (Gen 2:18-23) as the real deal, then you will most likely believe that women should be subservient to men.

The crucial difference in these two versions of the same event concern when woman was created. In Version #1, man and woman are created simultaneously and, therefore, are of equal value and worth. Both are created in the image of the Almighty.

Version #2 strips woman of her equal status. Instead of being created alongside her masculine counterpart, she is now said to be created from HIS rib. In other words, man was created in the image of God and woman was created in the image of man.

The significance of difference between these two versions of human creation is stark and the latter goes a long way toward explaining why women were considered chattel in early Judaic history. One can’t very well treat an equal as a piece of property to be bought and sold on the open market, but it’s much easier to do so with someone considered a rung or two down the social ladder.

Though the Women’s Rights Movement has made some remarkable strides in the last 100 years, fundamentalist Christians – particularly the males – have clung to Genesis 2:18-23 while ignoring the earlier reference. For them, creation story #2 serves as the bedrock foundation in the vulgar belief that men are naturally the arbiters of human civilization.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Step Into the Void

Show a picture or read a poem to 20 people and it wouldn't be surprising to get 20 different observations or interpretations. Because we each live unique lives, we each filter information differently. What is beautiful to one person, may be ugly to another. What appears disjointed to one person, may seem linear to another.

While this difference of perception affects each of us as individuals, its even more true when considering belief systems.

In the western world, the perspective bestowed by Christianity represents the dominant paradigm. Under this paradigm, everything is estranged. Life is viewed as a mass of separate entities separated by meaningless space.

The foundation of this perspective of a separation hearkens back to the Genesis story of Adam & Eve. When both partook of the original sin and realized their nakedness, they unknowingly separated themselves from the intertwined powers of the universe. Not only did they create a chasm between themselves and their maker, but they also erected a barrier between each other.

And, by concurrently committing both of these acts, they drove a wedge deep into their own psyches. From this moment on, according to Christian belief, guilt was born.

It’s easy to see how this manifestation has played out throughout the years. Because of this perceived estrangement, western society has raped and pillaged Mother Earth. We’ve denigrated the poor. We’ve discriminated against others whose skin pigmentation happens to be different than our own or whose sexual orientation is not the same as ours.

In other words, we are suspicious of anything and everything that is not of us – as individuals, as families, as groups or as a nation. And anything or anyone who we are fearful or suspicious of, we must dominate and control -- show 'em who's boss!!

We know that something is not of us because of this meaningless space that stands between us. And it will always be that way!

From a Taoist perspective, this is all unnecessary nonsense. This separation is merely a human construction. To put it another way, there is no separation at all.

While the Christian views space as a meaningless void, the Taoist views the void as having supreme meaning. As explained in the Tao Te Ching, what makes a beverage container or a window useful? It’s not the substance we see, but the space we cannot see. It is the void that allows us to fill the container or stick our head out the window.

Remove the space and neither the beverage container nor the window would serve its rightful purpose.

Instead of separating us from everything, empty space connects us to everything. Space can be viewed as a highway to our next destination or the veins that nurture the universal body.

It’s is this belief in the connection – an intertwining interdependence – of all things that motivates a Taoist to engage the world in a totally different way than a Christian.

If we are all part of one underlying force, principle or entity, then we will treat everything with the same level of value and respect as ourselves. We won’t devastate Mother Earth because it is the same as driving a knife into our own physical human heart. We won’t denigrate or discriminate against others because the psychological wound will be felt in our own human psyche. We won’t try to spread hate and fear because it will own mean hating and fearing ourselves.

Monday, February 7, 2005

I Beg Your Pardon...

I've got a great idea for a hit country song. The chorus goes something like "I beg your pardon...there's an impostor in the Rose Garden".

You see -- and I know this is going to sound very unpatriotic -- I simply cannot accept the smirking grin that occupies the White House. Every time I see his face or hear his voice, it pushes me into a mad fervor. Knowing this, I avoid his countenance at all costs.

I realize some might say I'm behaving like a sore loser. My guy didn't win and so I'm throwing a tantrum. Well, I've got something to say to those people -- I've NEVER voted for the presidential victor. Not once. In 1980, I voted for John Anderson. In every race since, I've voted for a 3rd party candidate or (one year) I simply refused to vote in the presidential race.

So, this isn't about MY candidate not winning. No, my frustration is that the person occupying the White House didn't win either!

It's been very well documented that W did not win Florida in 2000 -- It was handed to him by Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush and the U.S. Supreme Court. Al Gore carried that state and should have been declared the winner. The ONLY reason the 2004 presidential race appeared as close as it did was because W got to play the role of the incumbent. But, as indicated above, he shouldn't have been the incumbent!

What's more, I don't think he won the electoral college vote in 2004 as well. I realize the "official" Ohio recount indicated that W indeed carried the state, but the official recount left over 100,000 votes still not tallied. Add to this the fact that there are strong charges of voting irregularities -- all conveniently favoring W -- in North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and who knows where else and the christened result is very much in doubt.

From my humble perspective, W has twice been crowned the victor and he didn't earn it either time. In essence, our nation is being lorded over by an imposter -- the man who would be king.

Please don't misunderstand. I believe in America. I believe in our ideals. I AM a bit perplexed with the 59 million of my brethren who it appears voted for W, but I'm willing to cut them some slack. I simply don't believe in the man and his minions who have stolen the reigns of government. It's like I'm a passenger on a hijacked airplane. I don't begrudge the airline; it's the hijackers I'm fearful of.

In the final analysis, though, I guess I AM a little upset with my fellow citizens -- more than I ever realized. It's bad enough to have this imposter as our so-called leader, but it's even worse that more people aren't up in arms. Americans can easily become indignant when they hear of voting irregularities in the Ukraine, but they seem to shrug their shoulders when it happens right under their noses.

If this kind of apathy continues or increases, then we will know that W truly did win. In the end, that's what W, Cheney and Rove REALLY want -- A docile electorate that feels so impotent that they will allow an armed robbery to occur right in front of their eyes and not even possess the gumption to try to stop it or call out for help.

I refuse to play that role. How about you?

Friday, February 4, 2005

Walking the Talk...But Somewhere Else

If someone happened to mention to you "wolf reintroductionin Oregon", would you be supportive or not? According to a columnistin the Sunday Oregonian, the way you would view this is issue is most likely tied to where you live. If you call an urban/suburban area home, then you'll probably think it's a smashing good idea, one whose time is long past. If, on the other hand, you live in a rural part of the state -- in an area in which you might actually come face-to-face with a reintroduced wolf while checking your mailbox or puttering in your garden -- you will most likely be opposed to the idea.

I believe this columnist aptly placed his thumb squarely on a very important issue, one that too many people don't like to think about -- People are more likely to support a policy, strategy or idea if it doesn't impact or effect them directly in their everyday lives. In other words, people are more likely to favor ideas that have a certain philosophical or romanticized resonance over ideas that might cause each to have to modify their own actions and behaviors. (Of course, this works in reverse as well. A lot of people are willing to support something if it directly benefits them, regardless of whether or not it benefits or adversely affects anyone else.)

We see this phenomena everywhere. Harkening back to the previous entry, the farmers of Klamath County most likely support general conservative economic policies, yet they are coming unglued at the thought of losing their liberally-initiated subsidized power. They fail to understand the contradiction between their general voting pattern and the theory behind subsidized electricity.

Many voters who have supported the various property tax initiatives -- those initiatives that have robbed government of its ability to serve the most needy -- go absolutely bonkers if a private agency attempts to locate a halfway house or a residential facility for the developmentally disabled within their cozy neighborhood. They don't seem to understand that if government isn't going to meet such needs, someone else will. And that someone else has to locate their facility somewhere!

This might sound like another rant against conservatives. It isn't. Progressives are just as guilty. As outlined above, most of the ardent supporters of Oregon's wolf reintroduction program are steadfast URBAN environmentalists. If the plan called for wolves to be let loose in the Rose Quarter in Portland or around Bush Park here in Salem, would the same individuals be the same vociferous advocates they are now? If history is our guide, the answer is a resounding NO.

Another example has played out lately in Marion County. As I'm sure most of you are aware, the American Nazi Party was granted participation in the county's Adopt-A-Road litter pickup program. I've heard many progressives both decry the county for approving the Nazi's application and applauding the unknown vandals who removed the taxpayer-funded signs. Such attitudes spring from the very same people who would become indignant if the group in question was the NAACP or Basic Rights Oregon.

The right to free speech should not be limited to those we happen to agree with. In fact, the true measure of freedom is how you treat those with whom you disagree the most. If one can guarantee the basics rights of the opposition, then the rights of all are protected.

Regardless of a person's political or philosophical beliefs, we each need to reexamine our bedrock principles. A principle doesn't mean much at all if we will only support it if it doesn't inconvenience us or cause us to alter OUR actions or behaviors. It's damn easy to support an idea, law or policy that directly impacts others, but might only impact us indirectly or not at all. The rubber hits the road when we can stand strong for things that impact us directly as much as the next person. In such cases, our support means that much more.

This should also give us pause as we debate solutions to society's ills. Each of us must try to follow the Indian concept of walking a mile in the other person's moccasins. It is only when we are genuinely able to crawl inside the skin of our adversaries that we can attempt to understand the problem at hand from THEIR perspective.

People who are more willing to view issues from all sides are the very same people most likely to forge strong compromises that all sides can hold ownership in and, since we all share our communities together, it's the only way we can move forward equitably and justly.