25 January 2010

Practices for the Flourishing Life

Being interested in "the inner life", or the cultivation of the self as it were, I like to engage in a few practices some might call spiritual. Although some of them arose from suggestions from others, I typically avoid suggestions that seem artificial or imposed. My idea of spirituality is decidedly naturalistic, and I prefer practices that seem natural -- those that I can slip into.

1.Rubbish-Clearing:  Doug Muder introduced the idea of mindfulness to listeners and readers of his "Humanist Spirituality" lecture by recounting his decision to examine his thoughts for their worth, to ask -- "What is the use of dwelling on this idea? Is it good for me?"  I tried it then and found it simple and very effective, but somehow it slipped my mind until recently. I don't know if it has a better name, but I think of it as clearing mental rubbish.

2. Journaling. Although I've kept a journal since 1998 or 1999, more recently my journals have become important to me as a way of exploring my thoughts. If I can write down my thoughts and feelings  on paper, I can examine them better. If you've ever read the Harry Potter books, think of Dumbledore's Pensieve:  he uses it to clear his mind so that he can think about matters more intently.  Something I started last spring was to write thought-provoking quotations I encountered through books, lectures, and the like into the journals, in a space I ordinarily wouldn't write in, allowing me to return to them and mull over them in the future.

3. Reading:  In reading the thoughts of others, we allow their ideas to strengthen ours, either by introducing us to different perspectives or by giving us the opportunity to think critically. I make it a habit to read something thought-provoking several times a week, and have collected a notebook of favored quotations, articles, and poetry for the purpose when not relying on a book from my library. Contemplating poetry and thoughts that lead to more mindfulness strengthen me.

4. Rest meditation: I enjoy reading, and I do most of my reading under a tree outside or lounging on the couch with the curtains open so that I may gaze outside. When reading for prolonged periods, I often pause every ten or fifteen minutes, close my eyes, and maintain mental silence for a few moments -- usually no more than five minutes. I breathe deeply and focus the rhythym. This makes me feel more centered and better able to engage the book.I also do this when I'm about to go to sleep, or sometimes during the day when I need to find my "place".

5. Nurturing empathy:  I find it uncomfortably easy to pile labels upon people, so I force myself to think of other's humanity. In the interests of enabling communication, I think about why people might believe or say the things they do. What need are they attempting to meet in this way?  Also, the best way to nurture friendliness I've found is to be friendly. I don't mean being polite: I mean being friendly.  False smiles and generic greetings are useless, but if you honestly reach out and say "Good morning!" or "How are you? in the right spirit, you'll be better for it. My experience is that while not everyone responds well to friendliness, enough people do to justify by doing it. This betters my life and theirs, and I have made friends in this manner.

6. Immerse yourself in beauty:  Every so often, at least once or twice a week, I make a point of indulging myself in beauty. I see and hear beauty all the time, of course, and I soak it in as much as I can, but once a week or so I like to purpously seek it out, either in music or in photographs. Youtube or Pandora are good for finding awe-inspiring music, and one especially good natural gallery is here. It's in Spanish, but there are enough English cognates in there to make sense of things. The best subgallery is "Hongos, plantas y flores".

These are just a few of own, and I imagine there are other practices out there waiting for me to encounter.

18 January 2010


I read this poem a little over a year ago and quickly put it to memory. The fourth verse is especially meaningful for me, as it takes a stand against the fear of the supernatural ruling people's lives.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

 - William Ernest Henley 

Martin Luther King Jr.

We shall overcome. Deep in my heart, I do believe, "we shall overcome." You know, I've joined hands so often with students and others behind jail bars singing it, "We shall overcome." Sometimes we've had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it, "We shall overcome."
Oh, before this victory's won, some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but we shall overcome. Don't worry about us. Before the victory's won, some of us will lose jobs, but we shall overcome.
Before the victory's won, even some will have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent psychological death, then nothing shall be more redemptive.
We shall overcome.
Before the victory's won, some would be misunderstood and called bad names and dismissed as rabble rousers, terrorists and agitators, but we shall overcome. - Martin Luther King Jr.

My hometown is Selma, Alabama --  a town known in American history for being the site of the Bloody Sunday Massacre. In March 1967, in response to the local government’s de facto disenfranchisement of black citizens, Dr. Martin Luther King and others in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a march to the state capital of Montgomery fifty miles away. Like Gandhi before him, King and his followers were met with violence -- and like Gandhi before him, King succeeded in forcing the powers that be in the United States to face the human consequences of their indifference and hostility.

I’ve only come to appreciate King in recent years. Growing up in the town of Selma -- seeing the bridge on a daily basis -- I thought little of the town’s history. The sense I picked up from relatives and other ‘whites’ was that the past was the past and they’d rather it not be brought up. My appreciation for King was very benign, as if he’d only made speeches about what should be done.  Then I read Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and suddenly realized that democracy wasn’t really about  ballots. It’s about people acting and forcing the status-quo-enforcing institution that is the government to respond. I have since begun to admire his commitment to nonviolence, as I increasingly perceive the strength it takes.

Because of King and men and women like him, I was able to grow up in a time where state-endorsed racism is a thing only found in history books and personal prejudice has become a public shame. In this way, he and they freed me -- and I thank them. King has become an inspiration to me in the past two years, and I greet the observance of his birth with the enthusiasm that a life so well-lived deserves.

15 January 2010

Love Rescue Me

Perhaps owing to my background, I am especially fond of music sung by choirs. Few things grip me as effectively as dozens of different voices singing in concert together,  all contributing to something of beauty. As a more or less nonreligious person, though, there are few choirs I can listen to without finding the lyrics of the song too objectionable. I often listen to choirs with religious lyrics and can enjoy them, but more often the lyrics are too contemptible and ruin the music. Thus, when I find a choir with a beautiful message as well as a beautiful sound, I am eager to share.

Unsurpisingly, I heard this for the first time via Playing for Change.  I've linked to their videos before, and will continue to do so in the future, but this I had never heard until I played their CD. I often listen to Playing for Change just for the joy the sound of their videos gives me. This particular video speaks to me, though. I often relate to the idea of Love the way other people relate to the idea of God, although I don't think "love" exists by itself in a form of Platonic idealism.

The choir singing is the Omagh Community Youth Choir of Ireland. You can see them singing -- and hear an account of how they came to be -- here. The lyrics they used are slightly different from the original lyrics. 

03 January 2010

Quotations of the Week

A year or so after I began this blog, I thought I might expand it to include critical reviews of books relating to philosophy, science, and religion. I had already started an enjoyable hobby at that point -- making informal comments about the books I read on a weekly basis at a social network site -- and decided instead to make blogspot "This Week at the Library"'s home.  Often, weekly comments have a "Quotation of the Week" section, typically chosen for point-making or humor value. Since it's the end of the year, I thought I would share the quotations with a point to make here.

"It's always easy to avoid other people's vices, isn't it?".  This is a paraphrase of a comment made in a Star Wars novel, but it struck home for me. My brain sometimes insists on chattering about other people's failings, even though I know good and well their behavior isn't really my business, and when I feel tempted to compare my behavior to theirs for reasons that are not for my own edification -- that is, learning from other people's examples -- I shut that part of my brain up with Sean Stewart's quotation in Yoda, Dark Rendezvous.

"The television commercial is about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales, which is to say it isn't. Which is to say further , it is about how one ought to live one's life." (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death) Television commercials not only sell products, they sell the idea that we should be interested in this product and its presentation.

"There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter what or who they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practiced these in our daily lives, [...] there is no doubt we will be happy. "- Tenzin Gyatso, Ethics for a New Millenium.   Gyatso, better known as the Dalai Lama, has a very humanistic religion of happiness at heart.

"What Camus is saying is that there is reason to be hopeful, that man must understand his condition and must struggle, fight, and rebel against the absurdity of life. There is hope, and hope is to be found in man and in man only. Man defines himself, gives himself an identity through his actions. Even though the futility of our condition leads us all to the same end, we must and can dignify life through our needs and behavior." - Jacques Pepin, commenting on Camus' Myth of Sisyphus in The Book that Changed my Life.

By ourselves is evil done;
By ourselves we pain endure.
By ourselves we cease from ill;
By ourselves become we pure.
No one can save us but ourselves;
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path,
Buddhas only point the way.   - repeated in Taming the Mind, an introduction to Buddhism. I find its lines very humanistic.

"Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. It is a way of of skeptically interrogating the universe with an eye for human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those of authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan -- political or religious -- who comes ambling along." - Carl Sagan, echoing a comment he made also in The Demon-Haunted World, which I re-read this year.

 "All men are created equal, endowed with reason sufficient to manage their own affairs and even to get to the heart of abstract and philosophical matters. The miracles attributed to the greatest prophets and religious leaders are tricks, no more real than the illusions of street-corner fakirs. People do not need rules handed down and enforced from one high to form orderly societies. In contrast, blind belief in the absolute truths of religions inspires fanaticism and hatred. All authorities and accepted knowledge need to be questioned. Each generation has the opportunity to move science forward through new observations and experimentation and because of such progress, society itself often advances." - Abu Bakr al-Razi, as quoted-in-paraphrase in Medical Firsts by Robert Adler.

"There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumblings of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, [and] kindness. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many where people have behaved magnificently -- this gives us the energy to act. Hope is the energy for change. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live in defiance of the worst of everything around us is a marvelous victory." - Howard Zinn, The People's History of American Empire.  Although my cynical mood has lifted in the last week, Zinn's thoughts -- and Jacques Pepin's -- should be taken more to heart by me, I think.

The general theme of these quotations, I think, is of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.