The Meaning of Life

26 06 2011

We’re going to take a breather from religion today to talk about life.  It is always astonishing to me that people don’t understand the meaning of life, because it is so simple.

The meaning of life is to live it. 

Every person is given a finite moment of birth and a finite moment of death; and what you have in between is time, and what you do with your time defines your life, your influence on the world, and if and how you will be remembered.

If you bring life into this world, you may think that you are done: that your purpose is to be a bridge between the past and the future.  But, that isn’t true; because if that was your only purpose, you could die after your last child is weaned, and the world would be the same.

Each individual is unique in the world, as is every snowflake and every fingerprint.  We each bring with us a thread of the tapestry of life, which we, ourselves, direct the placement of; yet, we will never see the tapestry from any perspective but that of the thread.  What do we touch?  Where is our location?  Maybe what’s around us, maybe not.  And yet, with our every waking moment, we affect the whole.

If your spend your life eating and working and watching TV and sleeping, your thread, and what it touches, is very small, and, no matter the length of  your life, your thread is short.  But if you go out and influence the world, go to new places, touch new lives, your thread is long and is woven all over the tapestry.  You will understand more of the tapestry because your little thread and woven its way through more of it.  The wider your influence, the greater your understanding, and appreciation of the tapestry around you.  The greater your influence, the thicker your thread becomes, and the more you stand out from your fellows.

The world is a large and interconnected place.  Each of us has a sphere of influence.  For now, imagine what a large community you have is all your Facebook friends, and each of your friends’ friends.  Every day, something you say on Facebook goes to this population of people.  If you say something funny or profound, perhaps one of these people would pick up your golden words and share them with another set of friends’ friends; until, theoretically, one catchy phrase might go viral and a billion eyes might see it.  And this is Facebook: a gathering of pixels and electrons that, in the long run, means very little; but can be a vehicle for incredible change.  What if, rather than your influence being in the virtual world, it was in the physical world? 

Look, over the course of your lifetime, millions of people around the world will starve.  That’s the nature of the world and the current distribution of wealth.  If you are reading my little blog, the odds are very good that you will not be one of the people who starves, because you are in a part of the world which has resources and cares at least enough about its people to share things like electrical power and such.  But any one of those people who will starve during your life time might have, had they been born in a place like yours, where people are taught to read and write, where people are given a floor under which they cannot fall or be born, any ONE of them might have done something astounding: cure cancer; find an alternate power source; dance like Nuryev.  Multiply it out, and, the law of large numbers would kick in and the world would be a different place.  And that’s fine.  That’s the nature of the world we have.  But.  Every day, do something to earn the food that someone else will die for the lack of.  Don’t just piss away your days, your years, doing nothing. 

Some people believe that there will be a war between good and evil.  I say that war happens every day.  Every day, in a thousand places, there is a decision point where something good could happen or something evil.  And good is a nice guy, and evil fights dirty, so the odds are always going to be with the evil.  But, be a force that stands up.  Whenever there is an injustice, stand against it.  Add your voice to the fight.  Whenever the weak are being abused, stand with them.  If there *is* a fight between good and evil, stand on the side of the good.  Because, if you are driving down the street, and you see some kid getting beaten up and don’t stop and help him, you’re on the side of evil.  Someone far wiser than I once said that all that evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.  Don’t do nothing.  Earn your food.  Make your time matter.

If we all did this, the world would be a better place, starting right now.



Religion and Politics

29 01 2011

The world of religion and the world of politics have always been intertwined.  From the very first societies, the Ruling Class and the Priest Class have had an uneasy relationship, as one controlled the physical aspects of life, and the other controlled the metaphysical aspects of life. 

This got very sticky in the earliest phases of human development, when we were a Hunter/Gatherer society, and when we transitioned to an Agricultural society.  In both societies, the Priest Class was in charge of the food supply; and, when game was scarce, or the rain wouldn’t fall (or wouldn’t stop), the Priests were, necessarily, found to be ineffectual, and, to appease the angered gods, the Priests were often called to sacrifice; which meant that being a Priest wasn’t necessarily a long-term healthy profession.  Eventually, the Priests realized that it would be better to sacrifice something other than Priests, and a variety of other sacrifices were found, many of which were unpleasant, but none as unpleasant to the Priest class as the sacrifice of Priests themselves, and so the practice continued, and, in some religions, continues to this very day (e.g., the Blood of the Lamb of God).

The Ruling Class, generally, had it better, although when the Priest Class was strongest (in times of plenty), the Ruling Class served at the indulgence of the Priest Class; which, as you might figure, wasn’t the best thing for the Ruling Class either. 

This whole situation was resolved by the merger between the Priest Class and the Ruling Class, with the various GodKings, which, again, continues to this day, with monarchs of various countries asserting that they rule by Divine Right.  And, conveniently enough, God isn’t there to tell people, one way or the other, whether this is true.  But, to this day, it is the head of the Church which confers power to the Heads of State, whether by literally placing the crown on the monarch’s head, or by doing a blessing or convocation or benediction at the time that an elected official assumes high position.

Now, the question might well be asked: why does the Ruling Class serve by the consent of the Priest Class?  It is because all power asserted over a population is done with the consent of the population.  And, yes, the Ruling Class can assert its power by strength of arms, but, in the long run, the people with the arms are, really, members of the populace being ruled.  And, nothing is more frightening to the Ruling Class than a mob which it cannot control.  Of course, nothing is more frightening to the Priest Class than a mob which it cannot control either; but the Priest Class will always have the advantage here, as the Ruling Class controls the Physical and the Priest Class controls the Metaphysical.  Therefore, if the populace can be convinced that there are eternal rewards in Heaven or eternal punishments in Hell, that will *always* trump anything the Ruling Class can do to the corporeal body.

In the years since we first plowed the fields, the job of delivering food has become a question of the physical rather than the metaphysical, and, so the burden of feeding the public has shifted from the Priest Class to the Ruling Class which suits both just fine.  The Priest Class prefers this, because they no longer bear the responsibility for drought or famine; and the Ruling Class prefers this because it implies a dependency from the people at large, which the Ruling Class desperately needs if it is going to retain power.  Also, as  the Ruling Class has changed in form and substance, so too has the Priest Class.  It must be said that, after countless generations of amassing wealth and power, the Priest Class itself has changed to the individuals which control the wealth and the power, and often uses religion simply to manipulate the masses – thereby wishing, first, to weaken any educational system which might expose them.

But, once again, there is a problem because *now* the Priest Class does best when the general populace is generally uncomfortable, through poverty, or hunger, or deprivation of some sort, because people clamor to their religious leaders in the hopes that their situation can be assuaged, or that, barring that, there will be a happier place for them to go to after this life.  Also, the more desperate people become, the hungrier or sicker their children are, the more easily the Priest Class can assert its authority and flex the arm of its power via displays of civil disobedience or violence, which, it must be said, is done solely to scare the Ruling Class and remind them of who is boss.  Finally, the Priest Class universally believes in a Closed System – where if someone gains, someone else loses, so the less the masses have, the more they have, and since their power is now based on wealth, the poorer and more deprived the masses are, the richer and more powerful they are.

Now, let us pretend that we are members of the Ruling Class – the governing elite.  There are two fundamental courses that we can take in governing our society: we may choose to place the Ruling Class firmly under the Priest/Wealthy Class, thereby making the Priest/Wealthy Class happy; or we may choose to attempt to remove ourselves from under the Priest/Wealthy Class and risk their wrath.

If we choose to attempt to place the Ruling Class under the Priest/Wealthy Class, that is most easily done by further amassing and consolidating wealth and power for the privileged; this, coincidentally, allows us to live as wealthy and powerful, which isn’t such a bad thing for us.  However, if we choose to subvert the Priest/Wealthy Class, we must  weaken the Priest/Wealthy Class by giving more wealth and power to the populace; this, coincidentally, will make us popular and bring cheering hoards and happy children to our rallies, which isn’t so bad either; but will make us targets for assassination, as the Priest/Wealthy class does not like to be thwarted by upstarts, like us.

Now, while the Priest/Wealthy class likes wealth, and dislikes others who threaten their wealth, the Ruling Class likes power, and dislikes those who threaten their power.  So, if you’re in the Ruling Class, the question comes down to, whom do you trust more to keep you in power: few with much, or many with little?  If you trust your Priest/Wealthy Class, and they aren’t asking you to do anything you wouldn’t do anyway, it is expedient to consolidate as much wealth and power as possible into their hands; if you distrust the Priest/Wealthy Class, or, more importantly, if they seek to impede your power, it is more beneficial to lessen their grip on your reign by diminishing their influence by increasing the wealth and power held by the masses, thereby decreasing the wealth in the hands of the wealthy. 

The relative states of the Ruling Class versus the Priest Class can always be determined by looking at the chasm between the rich and the poor.  The wider the gap between the richest and the poorest, the stronger the Priest Class is; the narrower the gap, the stronger the Ruling Class is, and, not coincidentally, the more secular the society is.

Now, there are real benefits to a society with a small gap between rich and poor, and real dangers to a society with a large one.  The quality of life is better when more people have more: people live longer, it is more peaceful and tolerant, the art is better, the crime rate is lower, the general health is better, and you don’t have those pesky people starving in the streets to deal with.  The most glaring of the dangers when there is a large schism between rich and poor is that people, eventually, realize that the control over their lives, by both the Ruling and Priest Classes, is illusory, and they seek to reassert control over their own lives, becoming the uncontrollable mob that both Classes most fear, and anarchy reigns.  And once that starts, everyone loses, but the ones who lose most are the ones with the most to lose: the Ruling Class and the Priest/Wealthy Class.

Why and How Prayer Works

6 03 2010

I have said many times, in the course of this very young blog, that prayer works.  Furthermore, I have asserted that chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo works.  I will go further and assert that affirmations work, that repeating a sentence 10 times in the shower every morning, like “I will have a good day today” works, that writing on a piece of paper 100 times everyday “I will get the job of my dreams” works, and that everyone from Mary Baker Eddy to Louise Hay are onto something when they say that the fervent application of prayer or affirmation can heal you.  This is NOT to say that you should stop taking your meds or refuse medical advice if you are ill.  Very clearly, allow me to say that the physical sciences, including medicine, biology, chemistry and phyics should not be ignored.  But neither should the metaphysical.

Let’s start with some definitions.  In this wide and wonderful universe, there is matter, there is energy and there is space, and that particular trinity makes up the whole of the physical universe.  There is nothing else there.  And, by its very existence, matter exerts force on its surroundings: in the physical universe, every piece of matter exerts a force on every other piece of matter. 

However, if we live as if that is all there is, simply because that is all that science that show us exists, we lose our humanity.  Because, indeed, quite a lot exists outside the physical realm of the universe.  This includes life, information, and emotions.  And it includes belief, faith and grace.  Where is the science when a mother looks into her baby son’s eyes and feels love?  Where is the science when you see a person who has fallen upon hard times and feel pity?  What “use” is there in laughter, in joy, or in sorrow? 

Every single emotion that you feel that makes you human is dismissed by a culture which simply wants to see science, where every human is a very finely crafted machine, which can be fixed when broken, for the right price; but says to the unfortunate, “you are a burden”.  This is a zero sum view of the world where the more one has, the less another does, and if one has very little, it is better to forfeit all so that those with more can have yet more; as if there was finite bread in the world and better the weak forfeit their crumbs so the strong can survive… better that some should live than all should die.

In fact, the physical world and the metaphysical world are interwoven, and everything exerts its influence on every other thing.  Prayer works because the metaphysical exerts an influence on the physical.

As in the physical universe, the metaphysical universe has a concept of gravity as well.  Your “gravitational force” is strongest on the people around you, the people you influence most, and if your personality is “big”, it exerts a stronger force than those people whose personality is “small”; but, even the least amongst us has a gravitational force on even the greatest or those at the farthest distance.  And, so if you pray for someone close at hand, or whom you know well, that prayer is stronger than if you pray for someone you don’t know at all, or whom you have not seen in many years.

Still, while the gravitational forces are similar in nature, they have no concept of size.  So, when a little baby laughs, his mother feels joy.  The strength of the bond has no bearing on the size of the parties involved or in the length of their relationship. 

In the metaphysical world, there is no zero sum game.  When that little baby laughed and his mother’s heart swelled with gladness, no one suffered.  Her joy did not mandate someone else’s sorrow.  When people are glad, we all benefit, and  when they suffer, we are all lessened.  The metaphysical world is not a tug of war with winners and losers, rather it is like a room that we are trying to keep warm and comfortable, and the best thing we can do if we all want to stay warm is to plug the holes where the cold comes in.

Let us look, now, at prayer.  There are only so many ways that we can pray: meditation, recitation, contemplation, repetition, and by physical acts.  These physical acts can range drastically from singing songs in glory of the Supernatural to sacrifice, which, in turn can be physical in nature (sacrificing a goat) or metaphysical in nature (deprivation of something which we desire), or some combination thereof (mortification of the flesh thereby causing pain, fear and distress).  But what you are doing when you pray is exerting your energy to a greater or lesser degree, according to your own fervency, and you are putting that energy into the universal whole.  You are literally building a universal energy corresponding to your own prayer.  This energy can be directed to aid the cause you are praying for, or it can be undirected and simply be put into the universe, to plug the universal holes, as it were; to make the universe a better place for everyone. 

If your energy is directed, and the cause you are praying for only needs a little oomph to succeed, then you may very well have provided that oomph, and, poof!, your prayer has been answered.  If many many people simultaneously pray for a single directed result, say, world peace, which requires far more than a little oomph, still that energy is sitting out there aiding that cause.  And, because energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form, it sits on that cosmic scale until it provides the difference between success and failure.  And if energy alone will never be enough to provide the difference between success and failure, the prayer will go unanswered, as so many have before it.  If you pray every night that you will never die, that prayer will never succeed, because the physics of the universe are stacked against you.  In these cases, it doesn’t matter how hard you pray, your prayer will never be answered.

But the success or failure of a particular prayer does not mean that the act of prayer itself is worthless.  Indeed, what you are doing when you pray is providing a little extra energy in the universe to help make your life, or the life of someone you know, of the universe as a whole, just a little better.  And, a stone, no matter how small, cast into a sea, no matter how vast, still causes a ripple.  That ripple is the equal and opposite reaction to the prayer that you have put forth.

I love it when Religionists assert that if you believe in prayer, you must acknowledge the existence of the God to which you are praying, as if the success of the prayer is proof of God’s existence, and ignoring the myriad of prayers that are never answered.  But even if they are right, are we to think so poorly of God that he revels in being told how wonderful He is that He would create a universe so vast simply to hear songs in praise of Him?  That He would allow terrible sueffering just to see who would pray to Him and who would not?  No.  If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and the Source of all love, He would not need to see who prays and who does not, because He would *know*; and he would certainly not withhold the answers of prayers from those who need it most.  Indeed, if you believe in a great and powerful and loving God, you do so in spite of prayers going unanswered rather than because of prayers being answered.

Rather, I say, that prayer is like throwing a tennis ball at a wall.  If the wall is close, and the ball is thrown with sufficient strength, it will come back to you.  But the act of prayer itself is the act of strengthening hope in the universe; and the act of praying, whether or not your prayers are ever answered, is never a waste.

The Nature of God

25 02 2010

I promised you that I would tell you truth, and that truth, like good pornography, was easily recognizable when you saw it.

For a long time now, I have been talking about religions as being a central myth with associated rituals by which you can comfortably live your life, and by which you can gracefully accept your death.  I’ve spent a lot of time in religions during the course of my life, and I went there, as so many people studying religion do, searching for truth.

Here’s the truth: in any exchange where money is sought, there is a buyer and there is a seller.  The buyer’s job is to determine whether they want to buy what the seller is selling, so the work comes on the seller’s side.  The first thing the seller has to do is to see what need can be filled, and fill it.  If there is no need, the seller must create it.  Once the seller has successfully created the need, he must work to see that he has the largest marketshare, and that he develops a brand that people will be loyal to.  One more thing.  To get the maximum profit, sell something that has an infinite supply that is free.  Think about it: if you could sell something that you paid nothing for, how much money could you make?

I suppose that depends on what you’re selling.  Imagine that you’re selling a big invisible thing that would never argue with you no matter what you said about it.  Imagine giving that big invisible thing a big carrot, like eternal paradise, and a big stick, like eternal damnation.  Imagine making a set of rules and guidelines that allowed you to punish your adversaries, say, by burning them alive.  Imagine that your brand was so powerful that global leaders came to you to ask you, please, to allow them to rule their countries, but that you maintained veto power over everything they did.

Here’s the thing.  The God that religion sells does not exist.  Not only does it not exist, but the very existence of it, as it is described is nonsensical.  There’s a big invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent being out there which is so powerful that it created the universe and everything in it, that sends fires and floods and famine and plagues to places that offend it, but that still needs YOU to do its dirty work for it, to kill people who believe in other big invisible, omnipotent and omnipresent beings.  Who also creates entire populations of people that it doesn’t like that it wants YOU to go and crush, and that has laws that have to be written down that YOU have to enforce.  Well, that’s just silly.

What’s really ballsy is that these religions are so comfortable that you won’t see that they’ve created this being out of thin air, that they’ve taken the drapes down and shown you how to do it so that you can do it to your own children.  So, every December, there’s a big old white man with a beard who comes and gives out gifts if your children were good and coal if they were bad: a very thinly veiled metaphor for God giving heaven to the good and hell to the bad.  In fact, there’s a great deal more proof of the existence of Santa Claus than there is of God.  Children can see him on the street corners, ringing bells.  They can send him letters.  They can go to Macy’s and sit on his lap and tell him what they want, and, miracle of miracles, he delivers them, right into their very house on Christmas morning.  Yet, we expect our children to figure out, in the face of overwhelming emperical evidence to the contrary, that Santa doesn’t exist.  It is a mark of maturity when kids stop believing in Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, and the myriad of other creatures we create for them.  And yet, they are still expected to believe in God?  How does that make sense?

When I was studying Christianity, and reading my Bible cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, over and over and over again, I was struck how little Christianity bore any resemblance to Christ.  In fact, the church leaders of the day had real problems with Jesus saying stuff like not to pray in the synagogues like the hypocrites do, rather to pray in their closets.  And yet, the moment he was out of the way, they had no problem recognizing him as God and changing his message out from under him.

This is not to say that Jesus is not God.  He might be.  In fact, all the miracles that he performed, I’m not saying he didn’t.  I have no problem believing that whatever is in the red letters was actually said by him, and that the miracles he performed actually happened.  And, if there was a religion out there that actually did all the things he asked (visited the sick in the hospitals, fed the poor, clothed the naked, housed the homeless, ensured that the prisoners were well tended to, looked after the lowly), I’d have stopped my search long ago.  But the religions which claim to follow him most closely tend to behave in ways that are very unlike him.  And the political parties that cleave unto him are the ones which most punish the sick and the poor and the homeless and the prisoners and the lowly. 

Is Jesus God?  That’s up to you to decide for yourself.

Because God is what you believe it to be.  If you believe it exists, then it does.   And if you believe that no God exists, then, no God *does* exist for you.  There is a saying that if God created Man in his own image, we have more than returned the favor.  In fact, the God you worship is a reflection of who you are.

I had a thing up on my Facebook page for awhile that, if God was what people proposed him to be, that there was a God out there who was an angry old white guy who wanted to keep women in their place, beat up gay people, smite people who didn’t look like him, and generally just wanted everyone else off His lawn.  Of course, this is a joke, but if you hear people on the Christian Right preaching, that’s exactly what God sounds like, and, for them, that’s what God is.

There is a way that God can be everything that people say that God is.  Imagine, for a moment, that it is possible to imagine the sum of all matter and all energy, all life, all emotion and intellect, all communication and thought.  Would that be an infinite and invisible being, all-knowing, all-seeing?  Would that being survive the eternal universal expansions and contractions?  Of course it would.  Would it want to ease suffering and misery?  Maybe.  Would it step in to stop it?  No. 

The problem with a God like that is that any God which embodied both Hitler and Gandhi is not one which could be thought of as being 100% good, because it would be as close to true neutral as one could get.  All the positive and negative charges would balance out, and so, it would not be the kind of God one could take solace in.

God has to serve the purpose it was created for, and, so, one must create the God one needs to fulfill one’s own needs.  Again, the God you create, the God you worship, the God that guides you, must be the God you want it to be.  So, go, create your own God in your own image.

The Beginnings of Metaphysics and the End of Comparative Religions

24 02 2010

Today will end my introduction to the world of religion.  This blog is supposed to be New Thoughts for a New Age, and my views on the world’s religions, while it might be entertaining to read and fun to write, is hardly an exploration of new ground.  So, with this entry, on SGI Buddhism, I will begin to explore the world of metaphysics.

The word “metaphysics” means “beyond physics”.  Whereas most of the world’s religions are about the interrelationship between the Natural and Supernatural, they only border on the metaphysical. 

Metaphysics is a word which connotes wizards and witchcraft and ghosts and ghouls and, almost without exception, things that make most learned people’s eyes roll.  The truth of metaphysics is that each and every one of us encounters the metaphysical every day. 

In the physical world, there is matter, and there is energy, and there is space.  In fact, matter and energy are the same thing, and space is simply a lack of it.  So, it is a binary thing: either there is matter/energy, or there is not; and, every point of the physical universe is proscribed by that.

But, beyond that, there is life.  Life cannot be explained by simply the existence or non-existence of matter.  A dead body occupies exactly the same amount of space as a live one.  And, not everything which has both matter and energy is alive, otherwise we would have been overrun by photocopiers many years ago.

Furthermore, each of us experiences emotions.  There is love and anger and fear and joy, and while scientists may scan the brain and the body for what is shown when these emotions are felt, my thought is that the activation of various regions of the brain is a reaction to these emotions rather than causing it.

The day I started this blog, my brilliant cousin Judith asked me, “what is love?”.  Love is a metaphysical entity which most of us are privileged to feel at some point in our lives, whether to another person, to an animal, to a thing, or to God.  Love is hardly the only thing in this category.  Each of us, when we meet another person, or animal, or thing, experiences a feeling about it.  This is sometimes called a first impression, and is other times called “chemistry”.  These are reactions that our innermost being experiences when it recognizes another’s innermost being.

Allow me to proffer the following premise: prayer works.  Prayer works whether it is for yourself or someone else; whether it is for someone close by or far away; it works regardless of your religion, or the religion of another person.  Prayer, itself, is a physical act which spawns a metaphysical reaction.

This brings me to SGI Buddhism, or Nichiren Buddhism.  I like to think of the SGI Buddhists as the Galileos of the religious world.  They don’t care what you believe in.  You can believe in Buddha, Jesus, Moses or Mohamed, or you can believe in nothing at all.  But if you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, a metaphysical process will happen and you will get what you chant for.  The SGI people encourage you to try it.  You don’t have to believe in anything; you don’t even have to believe in the power of those words or the chanting.  Just chant, they say, and try it out.  It is like Galileo walking around with the telescope asking, PLEASE, for people just to LOOK through it.  And, of course, there was no happy ending for Galileo.  Similarly, many people look askance at our SGI friends and colleagues and go on about our lives.  But it *does* work.

I had a friend in Denver, back in the early eighties, who was an SGI person.  She had a Gohanzan, and she burned incense, and she encouraged me, as so many SGI people do, to just try it for a couple of days and just see what happens.  Well, I was off exploring the world’s religions, and I was up for anything, so I tried it, and sure enough it worked.

I thought, perhaps, there was something funky about the words.  Like maybe I was offering some demon my first born child if they delivered on what I was asking for; but, after extensive research, I found that all the words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo mean is “I dedicate myself to the Mystic Path”.  It was at this point that I determined that it was not a religion at all, but some kind of cosmic ATM machine, and I walked away from it to other forms of Buddhism, and then to, well, God only knows what.

But sometime about 5 years ago, I ran into a period where, no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to dig myself out of a hole.  As it happened, a couple of friends of my Beloved were SGI people who, to my great and enduring gratitude, gave me hours and hours of their time and we chanted together in front of their Gohanzon.  And, once again, the cosmic ATM machine provided.

I love my friends, and I do not cast aspersions on their beliefs nor on their religion, because they work really hard to build a mythology around their chanting that performs the requirements of an actual religion: to provide a framework of rituals by which one can comfortably live one’s life, and by which one can gracefully accept one’s death.  But, this is hardly a requirement of SGIism.  In fact, there’s an episode of Absolutely Fabulous where Edie mutters something incomprehensible and then bows her head and intones, “and school supplies for Saffron”.  She maintains that she is speaking Buddhist, darling.

SGI walks away from the trappings of other religions, in that it does not construct a God to worship, nor rules to follow.  Anyone can chant, at any time, and they will gain benefit.  In short, they forego all pretenses of forging a bond with a Supernatural entity and go directly for the cosmic forces.

My friend Carrie, when she first started reading my blog said to me, “that’s great and everything, but when are you going to get into the real stuff?”.  Carrie, right now.

And school supplies for Saffron.

The Purpose of Shiva

23 02 2010

My aunt did not have a shiva, and, while I’m not the best Jew around, I found myself really missing Shiva.  I went to lunch with a friend who asked me why we covered the mirrors, and I told her a lot about Shiva.  I realized that I hadn’t talked about Shiva here, so, while I’m on this death thing, I thought I would take a few minutes to tell you my thoughts on the subject.

We Jews put our dead in the ground almost immediately.  Generally, we bury our dead the day after they die.  In the old days, this made a lot of sense.  You don’t want a dead body in the heat of the desert to just lay around for a long time.  Of course, with the modern age on us, with embalming and refrigeration, the rush to get people in the ground is a matter of tradition rather than necessity.

So, when someone dies, and you’re wandering around numb, you do all the things you have to do.  You talk to the funeral director.  You check the various plots to see which one has the best view.  I don’t know why that’s important, but it is.  And, you have to see who else is buried around there.  I mean, your loved one is going to have them for neighbors for quite a long time, so, again, it’s important.

Then, the next day, we have the funeral, and we retire to the bereaved’s home where there is food and many many people.  We sit, and talk, and cry, and compare stories.  And we eat.  Eat and grieve.  Grieve and eat.  But, after hours and hours of close family and friends, eventually, naturally, the stories go from our loved one’s last days to earlier times, and, soon the stories end in peals of laughter.  After hours and hours, perhaps a deck of cards comes out, or a Mah Jongg set, and maybe some booze.  And then it’s a party.  Which is fine, but, eventually, it gets late, and people go home, and the bereaved remains, of course, in his or her home, where the emptiness of their loss, of course, revisits them.  Perhaps they sleep in the same bed they shared with their spouse, who is now gone; or perhaps they walk past their mom’s room on the way to their own, knowing that mom will never come home.  And what happens then?

Well, that’s the beauty of Shiva.  Shiva goes on for 7 days.  7 days when the bereaved isn’t supposed to worry about cooking or cleaning or washing or shaving their beard; when they are allowed to wallow in their misery.  But, in the morning, while they are aware of their profound loss, there’s a knock on the door, and it’s Aunt Lois or Uncle Dave, bringing prune danishes.  They come in and tut tut tut the bereaved out of the way and go to make some coffee.  Maybe, at some point, the bereaved gets out of their bathrobe; maybe they don’t.  But, soon, there’s a whole house full of people, all descending with food.  And maybe the bereaved wants to talk, and maybe they don’t, but eventually, the stories come out, and maybe Cousin Phyllis has brought an old photo album, and, in the subsequent hours, there is much talking and laughing, and, again, maybe there’s some cards or Scrabble or who knows?  And, the bereaved is surrounded by people who care about them.  The hours go by, and, soon, people, in dribs and drabs, start to leave, and, again, the bereaved is back in the house that they used to share with the loved one.  And once, again, they are left with their loss.  But, a few hours later, the whole thing starts again.  For seven days, the bereaved is surrounded by people, and, for seven days, the horrible emptiness in the bereaved’s heart is filled by their friends and family in the light of day, as the natural grieving process becomes less.

It is my thought that death beckons death.  When someone close to you dies, you don’t want to eat.  You don’t want to go outside.  All you want to do is sit and be miserable.  Maybe sleep.  Thousands of years ago, Jews recognized this, that all the telltale signs of clinical depression, come right after death; and that support groups work.  So, Shiva (which shares Hebrew letters with “sheva”, meaning 7) was put into place to help combat it.

And, at the end of the 7 days, you take the drapes off the mirrors.  You shower and shave and go out into the world again.  You’re not healed, but you’re healing.  And, when you leave your house, the Shiva house, you don’t walk into the cold cruel world alone, you walk into the warm embrace of your friends and family, who remind you that you’re not alone, and that there’s so much to keep living for.

We didn’t have a shiva for my aunt, and I really missed it; I just didn’t know why, until Carmen asked me about the mirrors.  Thank you, Carmen!

Birth, Death, Reincarnation and the Essence of Life

19 02 2010

I lost my Aunt Goldie this past week.  It was on my birthday. It wasn’t unexpected.  She was old, and had been sick for the past couple of months.  

But, still. 

It was my birthday. 

My family tends to die off in the winter time, when it is cold and snowy.   It is always cold when they go into the ground.  There is always snow cover.  Maybe my family likes the metaphor.  The dead of winter, as it were.

In 1993, I was working for the Department of Defense, in Washington D.C., and I got a phone call.  It was my mother calling to tell me that my grandmother had lung cancer, and that she didn’t have long to live.  I said that I was coming home.  My mother told me not to.  She said that no one had told my grandmother that she had lung cancer and she would surely get suspicious if I came home.  I said that was nonsense.  As much as I travelled back and forth from job to job, I always came back to Chicago.  And, sure enough, she thought nothing of it.  I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the months before she passed.  She was a hoot and a holler, and we spent long weekend days at the Arboretum, or exploring Hyde Park, or any of the myriad of hidden places of Chicago, and she enjoyed it.  I asked her what she thought of reincarnation.  She said that it just made sense, and that she was coming back as a house cat, because, in her opinion, house cats had it good.  They did what they pleased.  They enjoyed the sunshine.  They were well fed and well cared for.  And, they didn’t have to answer to anyone for anything.

Fast forward to this past weekend.  Siri had put an ad on Craigslist for some part-time help at the store and we had over 200 responses.  I took the first round of interviews.  35 people.  15 minutes each.  I asked them three questions: tell me about yourself; give me five words that you would tell a stranger about you; and, tell me about a weird situation you found yourself in and how it was resolved.  And one of the gals said that she had been working in a store and a psychic had come in and told her that she had had two — count them, TWO — past lives.  He also said that he had a psychic link with his wife, but she was in the shower right now.  OK, yeah, weird situation.  But, I laughed and said that there were two — count them, TWO — ways to look at reincarnation: either you believed that you lived once and then you died, and whether you went into a hole in the ground or heaven or hell, that was it; OR that life was eternal and persistent, and that even if you came back only once in a million years, you still would have come back some 5000 times in this lifetime of the Universe.  There was simply no way that someone would have had *2* past lives.

My grandmother believed that you lived once, and then you went into a hole in the ground, and all there was afterwards was darkness.  Still, she wanted to come back as a house cat.  Reincarnation, for her, was the impossible hope that her life, not all life, but her life, her essence, her soul itself was eternal.

But here’s the thing: matter and energy are both eternal.  Neither can be created or destroyed, but only changed in form.  What, then, is the nature of the soul?  Is our concept of life, of self, only a chemical illusion of the brain, which then fades and dies as the brain loses electric impulses, or is it something separate, which exists within the vessel of the body, which then separates from the body at the time of death waiting for the next vessel into which to lodge in the next life?  Is life both eternal and persistent both in the abstract and in the concrete?

I knew at a very young age that I would never procreate.  My body isn’t built for it, and my attraction was never to men in the first place, so that any life that I might foster would be external to my own body.  What is the purpose of life if one does not form a conduit between the past and the future?  This was the question for me from the time I could form these thoughts.  If I was not a link in a generational path from the beginning of human life to the end, what was I, then?  An anomoly?  A bit of excess taking resources from those more worthy whose offspring’s offspring might be that one in a billion who actually made a difference to humanity?  The next Mozart, or Einstein?  The finder of the cure for cancer?  The person who comes up with the equivalent of “a stitch in time saves nine?”, or was it incumbent upon me to be that one in a billion, the one who changes the world, makes it a better place, because none who come after me could perform that magical function?  Ah. the thoughts of a young philosopher.

But it occurred to me that if I touched people’s lives, if I made things better for people, if I, somehow, made the difference to someone else who might be enriched by me, might I then influence them to tell their children and the children who come after some pearl of wisdom that might, in many many generations to come, make some kind of difference to that little Mozart or Einstein or Salk?  Or was it, somehow, my birthright to eat food that someone else wasn’t eating?  How could *I* be worthy, in any way, of that?  For, indeed, we live in a world of finite resources.  Somehow, I thought, I must make myself worthy each and every day, of the food that I eat, the water that I drink, that others will not have.

But the vast majority of the world’s population does not think that way.  They think, and perhaps rightly so, that the purpose of life is to live it.  To live it everyday.  And, however people may spend their time, working and watching television and watching the days go, one to the next, in an endless stream of days, rarely being memorable enough that even by the end of the week, one day stands out from its fellows as memorable. 

I had a friend, at one point, who lost both of her sons very young, one in an extraordinarily dramatic way and the other just because that’s the way life goes.  I asked her how things were, and she said that there are bad days and there are good ones; but that isn’t so.  There are bad minutes and good minutes, and the days are comprised of these many bad minutes and good minutes, and the more good minutes and the better they are, the more that was a good day, and the more bad minutes and the worse they are, the more likely that would be counted as a bad day.

On my birthday, my aunt died.  Was that a good day, or was that a bad day?  Yes, it was.  A good day *and* a bad day.  But my aunt, like my grandmother, had a good life.  A long life, a healthy life, a life filled with love and with loss, with good days and bad days.  And poker. 

I had a cousin talking to my grandmother before her passing, she said, “Grandma, after you die, come visit me.”  And Grandma said she would, but my cousin continued, “but, when you visit me, you don’t get to tell me that I’m fat, or complain about the men that I’m dating, or what I’m doing at work.”  At this point, my grandmother told her, “to hell with it, I’m not going to visit you, I won’t have anything to talk about”.  My grandmother visited me, just once, after she passed, and she visited another of my cousins, one who, kindly, told Grandma that I had moved and what my new address was.  But that cousin, the one who didn’t want Grandma to tell her she was fat, her, I don’t know.  I doubt Grandma ever went to see her.  Grandma was that way.

This Universe, in this rendition of it, is 4.6 billion years old.  There are individual hunks of rock that are three times that old.  How is it that those rocks so predate the Universe, unless the Universe itself expands and contracts and has Big Bangs again and again and again?

And if the Universe does it, why not us?  So, if anyone out there is keeping a tally of reincarnation believers and non-believers, you might as well put me in the believer column.  Because life is eternal, and it is persistent, and, in all that time, without Reincarnation, it would just be boring.