Living in the moment

How do you pull it off?

There are people everywhere telling us to live in the moment, from Eckhart Tolle to Buddhist monks—and I am inclined to agree with them. Why worry about yesterday when it’s over? Why worry about tomorrow when the only moment we are guaranteed is the one we are in right now? It makes plenty of sense, and I think if we could do it, we would all be so much happier.

All of that said, it’s also almost impossible for so many families in America—or maybe even anywhere, for all I know. Not only are we constantly having to pay for our pasts (whether via the law or via the people in our lives), which often prevent us from moving on; we also are constantly being told we must prepare for the future, whether it’s 401k plans, college savings accounts, or even burial plots! All of these things can calmly and reasonably dealt with to still allow mindfulness, I think, but we are expected to do so much these days that it still makes people crazy.  Some people have high-demand jobs that require constant daily activity—from running businesses to running households. You might be planning meals or meetings or mergers; your mind is on the next day all the same.

The solution, of course, would be to stop juggling so much if you can if you want to be more mindful—but what if that’s not a good option? For me, it’s simply stopping when I feel overwhelm, or am multi-tasking too much, and slowly just listening to my own breathing. My daughter and I might stop and hold each other—she’ll say, “Mom, can we cuddle for a minute?”—or just take a few deep breaths. Sometimes that’s all we need to get us back in the moment. Scaling back—on anything from things to media consumption to daily activities—also helps, as do the tips found at the website Zen Habits.

What do you do to practice mindfulness? Is it a constant daily practice—or a constant daily struggle? Do you have any great resources or tips to share, especially to the Western world where everything seems to be demanded at the speed of light? In addition to simple self-love and self-acceptance (which would admittedly put much of the media out of business!), I think simply slowing down and savoring the moment could be one of the best things we can do to improve our way of life and the world itself.

Are we even capable of mindfulness?

Our Western culture seems to multitask in its sleep.

While texting photos to myself, doing a Sudoku puzzle, and going to the bathroom last night, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I’ve become—what humans have become. We have all of this technology in our lives meant to make it easier, but in reality it has only made things more complicated—made us all busier as a result.

Each year, I dedicate a journal to a theme. Next year’s theme, for example, is Moxie; this year’s was She-Hero. Last year’s theme, however, was supposed to be mindfulness, and I have to say it was my most unsuccessful theme yet. Why? Because I’m just not sure if I can do one thing at a time—and neither can many other people.

We live in a society where people are expected to be on and going all of the time. My cell phone, though incredibly helpful sometimes, is a pain in my butt alone. Everyone expects you to be available these days. Nothing—not a movie, sleep, evening dinner—is sacred anymore. And if you miss a call or text, people are like, “Where were you?” It’s not a nightmare but it’s not pleasant.

I remember quitting a client because she demanded constant attention, among other things. She would call at ten o’clock at night asking for things, or want me to be at meetings I wasn’t paid to attend. I felt so good when that was behind me, but now my cell phone seems to have taken her place—perhaps in a worse way, as it makes me feel resentful toward people I actually care about.

Try sitting still for five minutes and doing nothing. Don’t talk, don’t watch TV, don’t surf the Internet—just sit and see how long you can do it. It could be the hardest thing you have ever tried to do!

This inability to sit still with ourselves, to really be mindful in the moment, is ruining us. We are too busy to care about anything important surrounding us, whether it be genocide or pesticide. We are too busy to enjoy our own lives! I used to sit in the bathroom while my child took her bath and giggle with her, playing with bath crayons or boats. Now I clean the bathroom, make phone calls, and sometimes even work in the bathroom instead of enjoying this time with her. What is wrong with us?

I think we need mindfulness classes in schools today. That might serve us better than any other courses we could take.

A morning with Buddhist monks

This was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had this year.

This past Tuesday was the official Not Back to School Day for many homeschooling and unschooling families in our area. We participated with our annual Not Back to School ice cream, but this year was also different because we were able to spend our morning with seven Buddhist monks. Our encounter is briefly described here on CNN.

I have to say that this was one of the most amazing experiences of not just this year, but perhaps my life. We started out in the church sanctuary, listening to a chanting demonstration. I was expecting something soft and a capella, so you can imagine my surprise when loud, joyous sounds—both vocal and instrumental—greeted us. Several incredible, ancient-looking instruments were used, and the voice of one monk in particular was so low in pitch it made me feel like it was emanating in my own bones. His voice alternated so widely between pitches, however, that it was like two different people singing there.

The music was joyous but also jarring, different from anything we’d heard—something between choir music and marching band and Pure Moods. But it was more than that, too. It was almost heady while still being light, striking right at my heart. I honestly don’t know how else to describe it because it was so different from anything I’d ever experienced.My six-year-old also had the opportunity to make rock paintings, sculptures, and sand art (see photo) with the monks, and they were so quietly joyous as they took time to show the children how to do their arts and encourage them. If only all teachers were like this!

The sand art was incredible, as you can see, but it was the simple, repeated act of rolling out clay (in this case, Play Dough) into careful flowers that affected me the most. I could probably do that all day long, adding soft, slow petals over and over again as I quietly reflect on the moment, being still, being now. Although my daughter and husband had a good time, I felt like I stepped away from the experience a little changed.

I’m still as hotheaded as I was before, especially with some messiness going on in my life at the moment, but I also find myself wanting to explore Buddhism a little more. Sure, I have a dozen Buddha sculptures in and outside my home, but I think I may be ready for this stillness, this peaceful quiet joy, in my life.

Analytical Thinking May Reduce Religious Belief

A recent study shows that thinking analytically increases questioning of faith, even among believers.

Basic human psychology holds that there are two fundamental ways of human thought; analytical and intuitive. The former is a highly specialized process of tearing apart ideas and concepts, looking at the origin and their implications. The latter is also highly specialized in its own way, involving mental shortcuts and “gut” instincts. According to Dr. Ara Norenzayan, a psychology professor at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, it’s the latter type of thinking to allows us to most readily believe in God, while analytical thinking actually seems to mitigate that belief.

It’s clear why so little of our knowledge of psychology has delved into the realm of religion; it remains one of the most sacred (excuse the pun) and defended aspects of human thought. So much so that to even consider it a facet of our psychology, rather than a innately held truth, immediately alienates wide swaths of our population. As a result, Norenzayan and his colleague, Will Gervais, decided to examine the connection between religion and analytical or intuitive thought to begin to fill this taboo gap in psychological study. Norenzayan acknowledged the danger in addressing the psychology-religion link, telling futurist publication io9, “I’m bracing for a lot of hate mail.”

There were a series of four experiments to test whether analytical thinking impacted religious belief, encompassing 650 respondents throughout Canada and the U.S. One easy gauge of the connection was to administer a simple questionairre, in which responsdents answered a series of questions that tested their likelihood for analytical thinking over intuitive thinking, or vice versa, and religious belief. The simple correlation showed that just as intuitive thinking increases a person’s likelihood for piety, analytical thinking decreased it. Norenzayana dn Gervais then attempt to prompt individuals to think analytically, often by solving a problem or just looking at photo of a person concentrating or a difficult-to-read font. Afterward they were prompted with more questions to see if just the pattern of thinking might reduce their level of belief. The result was that respondents, believers or atheists, were more likely to acknowledge questions of faith if they had previously been exposed to analytical thinking models, and the effect size was moderate, according to Norenzayan.

The authors of the study noted the study isn’t intended to show that analytical thinking is a  superior mode of thought, no more than it’s intended to portray religious people as simply “gut” level thinkers. Everyone has the capacity for both types of thought, and religious individuals may be as analytical as agnostics and atheists are intuitive. Norenzayan explains, “Theologians reason over religious beliefs all the time.” There are many cultural factors and other variables that effect religious belief, and beliefs can be as varied and subtle as there are individual believers. Instead, the study simply points out a socio-religious tendency in human psychology; thinking analytically is not a highly present (or often encouraged) aspect of religious discourse.

Atheism in the United States

Atheists are the most hated group in America.

According to a recent study by the University of Minnesota, atheists are the most distrusted and hated group in the United States. Furthermore, American voters would rather elect a homosexual or a Muslim as president than an atheist. They are also the group that parents say they would least like to see their children marry. The study makers called more than 2,000 households to compile their answers. Atheists make up an estimated three-percent of the American population.

 

Why so much hatred in a country that was built on religious—or non-religious—freedom?

 

Researchers in the study try to explain this hatred of atheists. They say that most Americans feel that the quality that makes Americans trustworthy and connected is a belief in God, in whatever house of worship that God may come in, it seems. They also say that in today’s society that atheists play the “other” role that Communists, Jews and Catholics have played in the past—atheism is where acceptance in American society ends.

 

America is alone in its intolerance of atheists. A high percentage of Europeans and South and Eastern Asian people claim no relationship with any deity, and are accepted into their various societies. Notably, these countries are often more peaceful than the United States—something that certainly seems to have a high correlation.

 

It seems that one of the reasons that atheists are so persecuted in this country is because Christians think that they are encroaching on Christian rights to practice their religion in public spaces. Atheists should not have to bear the brunt of this country’s historical founding on the separation between church and state, but far, far too often, they are blamed for fighting to eliminate prayer in schools or Biblical verses in public spaces.  

 

Like other groups that have fought battles against prejudice, atheists need to be humanized as thinking and feeling people who are trustworthy and have moral consciousnesses. Also, as is to be expected, too many atheists are forced into the closet with their beliefs. Atheists do not need to be converted—they can choose no spirituality for themselves, just as any other thinking person should choose his or her religion, rather than simply being born into it. Additionally, atheism is a difficult thing to accept because it comes in so many forms and packages—there is no huge body of atheists that gather together.

 

What do you think about atheism in America? Why do you think it’s so hard to embrace?


 

30 Challenges for 30 Days of Growth

"Which challenge do you like best?"

While I don’t always agree with what they say, I am a big fan of Marc and Angel Hack Life. The duo is famous for creating dozens of lists of ways to help you live and grow, from tips regarding how you treat yourself (or not treat yourself) to the best ways to improve your health or follow your dreams. Their most recent list is one of my favorites. It involves 30 different challenges that you can take on to improve your life, 30 days at a time. You can be your own Morgan Spurlock, where your life is the experiment!

I am planning on scheduling a couple of these challenges for 2012. I love 30-day challenges, myself, and I have done many of them—though most of them have involved art or writing. I have also done meditation challenges. I have also performed the “one selfless act a day” on the list challenge before—in fact, I tried to dedicate an entire year to performing random acts of kindness every day. I didn’t make it every day, but I made it for most days, and hope to try again. I also already do “teach someone something new each day,” as I homeschool my daughter and am constantly learning and teaching new things with her, as well as her friends.

So I want the challenges that I take on to be as different from these as can be.

I love the “Try one new thing every day” challenge, but I just don’t know how I would go about it with a budget of $0 extra to spend! I guess I could try doing something a different way—like walking through  the house backwards one day, or eating meals in reverse, or something like that. I also love the first challenge, which is to say only things that make people smile (including yourself, I would think!) for 30 days.

There are lots of other worthwhile challenges, like treating everyone you meet nicely, or focusing on the positive at all times. That last one will be a difficult one to do for many people—including me, though I used to be quite good at it when it was easier to do!—and I think that’s the one I really need to adopt in February. As far as the “Create something in 30 days or less” challenge, my daughter and I did a similar one where we made something new every day for a week over the holidays and it was a real blast. If I did this challenge, I think it would have to be art-related, though; maybe I could finally finish one of the dozens of novels I have started.

Which challenge do you like best? If you decide to take part, be sure to share your experience.

Contradictory Holiday Stories Must Confuse the Hell Out of Kids

Oh, the joys of being five!

Wouldn’t it be cool if we all skipped teaching our kids about religion? Or better yet, taught them about every religion we know, and allowed them to decide which they preferred best? It just seems to me that between churches and communities, school and the media, songs and mall Santas, every bit of information kids get during Christmastime is so confusing! (Not to mention the confusion during Easter…)

In my family, we don’t celebrate Christmas religiously. We do the whole Santa thing, and we celebrate the winter solstice, and participate in welcoming activities for the return of the sun (including some delicious orange punch, naturally). So what do you say to a kid who sees a nativity scene, or one of those Elf on a Shelf creepy dolls, or any other holiday tradition that you don’t engage in?

In my family, we certainly talk about how different people believe in different things, and that each of these is a symbol of the season to different people. The religious stuff is the hardest to explain so far, since I don’t want to turn her off like I am and keep her open-minded while still telling her the truth—that religion is a manmade concept, and that religious texts are written by people, not gods.

But this extends to other areas as well. The tooth fairy is different in every household, and now after that movie with The Rock and Julie Andrews in it, it’s like the media just took over our lovely traditions and made one universal, ugly, merely mildly entertaining (but mostly stupid) story to feed to our children. When this happens—and it often happens with Christmas movies, too—I merely tell my daughter that it’s art, just a movie, one person’s idea, etc.  She’s old enough to understand this now, too, which makes it easier.

I do have a problem with people assuming that you partake in any or all of these traditions, however. No matter where you go, for example, people ask your kid if he or she has been nice or naughty, something that I don’t like. I’ve never liked the concept of being bribed with toys during Christmas, or external motivation in general.

I think the key is to just keep it simple, letting your children know not just what you value, but that you also value them and their own feelings and opinions. They are separate beings from you—as much as it breaks your heart to admit—and must form their own opinions and beliefs in their lifetimes.

The Language of "Christ"iness

How the language of Christianity has become a CW-inspired status symbol.

I was sitting in a coffee-shop to avoid the inevitable housework and distractions of a morning at home, I grab a cup of Joe to get the synapses firing and sit down. I forgot my earphones, so my only soundtrack this morning is going to be the natural sounds of the shop, which is usually muffled conversation and the clink and drip of the baristas' work. However, this morning there's a new sound, the attention-dominating laughter of two young women that were making their particular conversation a public service announcement. Actually, more of a public missionary service. The two were involved in some kind of interview for a local church, with one asking questions regarding topics such as faith, loyalty, family, and Biblical "aptitude". Listening to the two talk, it was almost impossible not develop an opinion, and for a card-carrying skeptic like myself, I decided to write them down and post them in an equally public forum.

The language of the modern young Christian observer seems to be primarily focused with one's "relationship" with God, and to listen to the interviewer speak in that was was to listen to a twenty-something talk about their benevolent but absentee boyfriend. The language seems like a kind of hip (but politically-correct) mish-mash of Biblical jargon like "spiritual foundation" (which the interviewee needed clarification about) and the kind of gushy verbage one would hear on a CW TV program (the "pretty-white-kids-with-problems" variety). In fact, at one point on the discussion of prayer the interviewer asked the other young woman to describe "what prayer means to you". The interviewee said, simply, "talking to God'. The interviewer wanted to dish more, however, and launched into a story about sometimes when she sits down to pray, and "God doesn't say anything to her right away", she "kind of says bye and, like, hangs up the phone". On the topic of a "spiritual foundation", the interviewer made it very clear that it's like having an open and honest faith with God, making sure that he "understands how much you love him". In addition, she described Jesus as having many relationships that "are not that deep", whereas her "relationship is the deepest of her life". In other words, she's experiencing some unrequited love from her deity because he's playing the field?

Is the modern Christian outreach movement to grab youth really such a 1950's-style characterization of a woman's role in her relationship to boyfriend? There's a lot of "walking with Him", and allowing "Him to hold your hand", and when God "asks you to jump", you "find it in your heart to jump". Of course, there's still the conversation of apostles and disciples, and their teachings of Jesus, but they're still; referred to in a way that sounds like they're simply Jesus' buddies. Peter, Paul, Mark, and Luke are like your boyfriend's guy-friends. It's difficult, as someone that studies religion in an academic sense, to see the youth-centered Christian movement overtaken by such a simplistic, under-informed, and vapid view of religion is discouraging. Perhaps it speaks to a larger cultural cheapening of those social norms that were once much more strongly held, or perhaps this is the branding that Christianity has needed to adopt to speak to this age group. It's not fair to characterize an entire movement by a handful of eye-witness events, of course, but it does seem to be a growing trend among the "righteous" of my generation (and slightly after).

Does stuff purchased at new age shops count as spirituality?

I doubt it.

There are a lot of new age-y or spiritual shops in America. They always smell like incense and usually sell a variety of brightly-colored clothes with beaded, jingly edges. Because we Americans itch for this kind of stuff. Some of like to prove that we’re alternative and Bohemian and that blown glass bong is the best way to prove it. Here’s a list of some of the typical mystical/religious stuff that we’ve appropriated as part of American culture:

-Yoga. I love yoga. I have a bunch of songs about gods that I don’t know on my iTunes. I know some basic things about yoga—chakras, that kind of thing—but for the most part, I like yoga because it makes me more flexible. So many people in this country are like me and love yoga but don’t know anything about it. Message to myself and others, it’s religious, so maybe we should be a bit better informed! I hate the trend of super-aerobic, lose weight/tone your arms, etc…yoga classes that are popping up all over the country. Those are completely against the yoga spirit.

-Indian pajama tops. Pajama tops are those smooth cotton, brightly colored tops that are printed with Indian decorative designs. They hang down to about mid-thigh and usually have two or three buttons on the neck.  If you want to look like a Bohemian hipster, you probably have two or three of these in your closet, to match your scraggly and unwashed hair. They make your waif-like, organic quinoa-fed body look really slammable.

-Incense. I remember the first time I smelled incense. It was in my friend Julie’s sister’s room and I gagged. Like many Americans, she burned 100+ sticks at a time to cover up the smell of pot smoke from wafting into her parents’ noses. Incense really is a nice scent—most of those “air fresheners” are too wimpy for the stench that I’m creating in my place—but can set your original, hand-painted Indian curtains on fire if you’re not careful.

-Tibetan prayer flags. Almost every house that I see in Seattle has a row of these prayer flags across the entry of their door. Come to think of it, everyone I knew in college had a row in their dorm rooms.  Oh, and wait, I have a row in my apartment! I know that the colors probably mean something and one of the pictures on one of the flags is Buddha, but aside from that, I’m lost. They look nice though and the vague sentiment of “prayer flag” makes me want to buy some more.

-Chinese lanterns. I had these all over my bedroom in high school and dorm room in college. Whoops. If you hadn’t noticed, this is really just a self-hating article about all the shit that I buy. Seriously, I really like these and as far as I know, it isn’t terribly offensive to hang them from your bedroom ceiling or outside on your lush, rooftop garden with the wooden terracing and string of twinkly lights. I would suppose. All I have so far are the lanterns.

-Dragon well tea. This tea is really good—strong and delicious. According to the book I’m reading, apparently it’s the best Chinese tea, grown by monks in some regions of China. In the states, a lot of tea shop or dim sum places serve dragon well tea. Dragon well teas are the little balls of leaves that slowly unravel in your tea cup, releasing more and more flavor in each round of tea. It’s delicious.

Father Spanks Daughter to Death

And he says God made him do it

Apparently there’s a new group of Christian fundamentalists who take the phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the child” to a whole new level. They believe that in order to create happy, healthy, God-fearing children, you must spank them—to death.

That’s what Kevin and Elizabeth Shatz did to their adopted daughter, Lydia. Lydia was spanked and beaten for seven straight hours, resulting in her death. She was seven years old.

 

What on Earth could a child do to deserve such treatment? I don’t care if she murdered the family cow and set her little brother on fire (she did neither), no child deserves to be beaten like this. What a horrible way to die, at the hands of the people who were supposed to love you more than anyone else in the world and care for you until adulthood. What could her last thoughts have been? I can’t even imagine the fear and sorrow in her heart while she died.

I suppose it’s no wonder these parents thought torture was an okay way to deal with a child; their very symbol (see left) is a medieval torture device used to murder thousands of people.

The two abusers, who were her adoptive parents—as well as the adoptive parents of several other children, including Lydia’s sister—are both going to jail, but not for nearly enough time. They both confessed, resulting in what this mother believes are some pretty light sentences for murder. Mr. Shatz will be in jail for 22 years, while his wife is getting 12 years. That just doesn’t seem to be enough when poor Lydia had so many stolen from her.

I have to wonder if this story is going to get as much press as the Casey Anthony trial did. Will these parents be shunned? Will anyone realize that spanking is wrong as such? I’m thinking no. After all, they are Christian parents, and our country has a special relationship with that particular group right now—both in and out of Congress. Spankers will likely note that this was only one instance, and that if practiced “in moderation,” spanking is just peachy keen—despite the fact that it’s abusive, something dogs and prison inmates are protected against (though most children are not), results in more violent children with lower IQs, and has been found to cause plenty of other problems. I have a difficult time understanding how anyone could want to physically harm their own children, let alone any child so much smaller and more vulnerable than they are. And what a way to teach peace on Earth besides!

My heart goes out to poor Lydia, as well as her sister, who is 11, and asked her so-called parents at their trial, “Why did you adopt her? To kill her?” My heart also goes out to any and all other children whose parents might spank them tonight, for anything from sneaking a cookie to uttering a swear word. I hope you can grow to know better than your parents, to not treat your own children (or wives or other loved ones) as such, and to survive childhood to be able to do so in the first place.

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