Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm a lousy ideologue

I know I'm probably going to alienate a lot of freethinkers here. If you're interested, hear me out. If not, well, don't, I guess!

To be clear, I haven't affiliated myself with a religion, but it's fair to say I'm investigating it.

Here are some quotes (I'll give sources at the end of this post):

Nothing is extraordinary or supernatural in life. There are no miracles. [...]When we classify something as a miracle, we might as well say that, "I do not know how it happened."

If the scriptures say something about [...] the world around us - which contradicts what perception and inference [...] tells us, then, the scriptural statements have to be symbolically interpreted.

The second statement was actually written over a thousand years ago! The tradition they come from is Hinduism, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Philosophically, it's actually very similar to Buddhism. In fact, one of the criticisms directed at Advaita Vedanta is that it's Buddhism in a Hindu framework. Both groups tend to take a skeptical approach to things.

Long before George Harrison chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, some Americans were familiar with Hindu teachings courtesy of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to many Americans when he participated in the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. Since that time, Vedanta Societies based on his teachings and those of his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, have slowly sprung up throughout the United States.

As you may have guessed, there's a group in my area. I've checked out a few services, and have had some very nice chats with the nun who serves as Resident Minister. She told me that the group is basically apolitical and stays out of the bedroom. She also told me that if I have a hard time believing in a particular thing, I shouldn't believe in it until I can verify it for myself.

So what distinguishes them from, say, Unitarians? Philosophically, probably not much. Both groups tend to consider ethics a mostly personal matter and focus what ethical talk they do have on being a good person to those around you. Both groups tend to see mythology as useful metaphor.

The differences come down to practice. In Vedanta, while each member may interpret things differently, everyone's still using the same set of metaphors and symbols. In Unitarian congregations, that tends not to be the case. I can't think of much offhand that actually unifies Unitarians. Also, my experience with Unitarian congregations is that they tend to be more political than they let on. I think I may have mentioned before on this blog that I like my separation of church and state to apply in both directions.

See, if I'm going to give a group (religious or otherwise) significant amounts of my time, there needs to be some benefit. I don't necessarily mean, "What can the group do for me?" as much as, "Does this group have a worthwhile purpose, and can I make a positive contribution to it?" So far, I seem to be able to answer "yes" to both parts of that question with Vedanta. To refer back to the title of this post, I'd rather do some good with people I may disagree with on some things than do nothing with people I do agree with.

For the time being, I'm trying to take it slowly. I haven't outfitted my apartment with statues of Hindu deities or anything. I'm aware enough of my own history to know that this might not work out. But for the time being, I'm enjoying participating in a really nice community to the extent that I'm able.

Quote sources: The first quote is from the podcast "Vedanta and Yoga," put out by Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston. The episode containing the quote is called "Practice of Raja Yoga" and is dated 11/16/08. I get the podcast through iTunes; I don't know if it's available through other means. The second quote comes from Adi Shankara, the person who consolidated the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. More information about that here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buddhism redux

(h/t to Deip for the title!)

So why has the possibility of "cutting a deal" with a religious or spiritual group even arisen? I've talked before about how much I loved the sense of community I felt when I was going to synagogue regularly. And it didn't come from debating the finer points of Jewish law. It came mostly from ordinary conversations about jobs and families. I felt valued as a human being.

And I don't feel that way in the freethought groups I've hung out with (if any of you are reading this, sorry). In those groups I feel like a stack of ideas, if that makes any sense. When someone new comes in, they're asked the typical getting-to-know-you questions, but usually the only real interest is in the person's deconversion story. I don't feel like there's much interest in me (or anyone else) as a person. In fact, one day when I was venting about a personal problem that had nothing to do with religion, it was clear they had no interest. If anything, I got shamed a little because I wasn't handling it like a hyper-rational being. (Edit: I don't think it was anyone's intent to shame me. It was probably just an unintended consequence of less-than-stellar people skills. But that was cold comfort at the time. 10/27/09)

So would it be possible to make nice with the Buddhists? Unfortunately, the closest group to my home is affiliated with the zendo I had the bad experience with. While it's possible that a lot has changed in the last ten years, I wanted to check my alternatives first. Fortunately, there are many groups within a reasonable distance. I also wanted to check out some Buddhist websites so I could see what actual practitioners had to say about their practice. In too many cases, it amounts to, "My practice can beat up your practice!"

There's a term that describes the whole thing beautifully: spiritual materialism. Ironically, this term was coined by a Buddhist author (Chogyam Trungpa, if you care). It refers to the tendency of people to pursue spiritual practices in order to build their egos--the Dharmic version of "holier than thou." And unfortunately, when so many people are convinced that they are on the one true path that the Buddha intended all those years ago (stop snickering! Of course there's such a thing! </sarcasm>), it tends to stifle real dialogue.

Most people at some point in their lives go through a stretch where they keep breaking up with and getting back together with the same person. But they almost always end up breaking up again over the same issues (yes, I've learned this the hard way). Generally, people don't change much over time. This is neither good nor bad in itself.

Regardless, it would be really arrogant of me to expect a person or group to change its habits for me. If I thought for a second that I could find a Buddhist community that resembled the ideals in Rahula's book, I'd probably join up in a heartbeat. But I just see way too much of the "look at how enlightened I am" vibe (and have even been guilty of it myself at times) to go down that road again.

Fortunately, Buddhism does not have a monopoly on meditation. In fact, I've previously discussed forms of meditation that aren't specific to any religion. Living close to a major city, I have a lot of options. In fact, I think I might have found one that I could live with. But since I try to stick to one topic per post, I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Dark Thoughts

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that most people have their Dark Thoughts that bother them. They tend to appear in the brain at inopportune times and say things like, "You're unattractive," or "You're not good enough."

I am no different. And sometimes, the Dark Thoughts are really hard to shake. Those who know me personally can attest to how difficult such thoughts are for me to shake once I'm in their grasp. Perhaps this is an actual psychiatric condition, but I don't think so.

One of the side effects of this sort of thing is that I become not-at-all-fun to be around. I start posting cryptic Facebook status updates that trigger worried phone calls and text messages from those close to me (if any of you are reading this, don't worry, I'm OK right now. Of course, you're welcome to contact me just because, though!).

A few weeks ago, it was driven home to me just how much I was scaring the people around me. Jenny showed up at my apartment because I hadn't responded to her text messages. The actual reason I hadn't responded was that I hadn't received the messages because my phone was malfunctioning. But I'd been enough of a downer lately that she felt the need to check on me (for the record, I had no intention of harming myself).

As it turned out, I had decided that morning that I had to make some kind of change. In fact, when Jenny arrived, I was listening to a guided meditation on loving-kindness. This type of meditation is practiced regularly in some Buddhist traditions and is called metta bhavana, which simply means "cultivation of loving-kindness" in Sanskrit.

So I decided to read up some more on Buddhism. Perhaps a deal could be reached? Details next time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I need to update my musical tastes

It has been brought to my attention that my musical tastes are woefully out of date, much like someone who's worn the same hairstyle for decades.

Like many people my age, I got into They Might Be Giants in the early 1990's. I stayed with them through the addition of a regular live band (which actually produced some great albums), and even some of their forays into children's music. Now they're coming to Dallas at the end of the month, but it's a kids show. I posted this dilemma on my Facebook page, and a friend pointed out that this seemed to be the new direction for the band, and that they do the theme song for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (not having children, I didn't know there was such a thing). While I appreciate what they're doing from an educational perspective, I must admit the music isn't doing anything for me.

It seems like all the other artists I followed in high school and college have either stopped making albums, or at least stopped making good ones. For instance, I'm glad that Elvis Costello seems to have found domestic bliss and whatnot with Diana Krall, but I preferred his music before he got so respectable. In the interest of fairness, I'll say Ms. Krall has produced some worthwhile stuff during this time. I actually don't blame her for his decline or anything; I'd pinpoint that on when he decided that he and Burt Bacharach needed to do a full album together. If you can listen to the middle third of that album and not imagine yourself in an elevator, you're a better person than I am.

So it's time for me to find someone to get into who's releasing awesome albums now. Is the new Mika any good? The consensus seems to be that it's decent but maybe a tad overproduced. But I've only listened to previews and not the whole album. Also, I want to emphasize the "now" part of the first sentence of this paragraph. I don't want to hear about great 30-year-old albums, even if I haven't heard them before. If you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dipping my big toe oh-so-tentatively into the pool

When I got back into freethought a little over six months ago, I have to admit that I was excited about one thing. I knew from previous experience that freethought is male-dominated. My plan was to waltz in and snap up some handsome freethinking fellow, and we would be blissfully rational together.

Do I even have to tell you how that's turned out (hint: it's at the top of the page)?

At first I was slightly miffed that I wasn't just swamped with men wanting to do my bidding (hey, I can dream). But I realized that while I liked the idea of being a dude magnet in theory, I had to admit that in practice I wasn't actually into any of these guys as more than friends.

So I've taken my search online. Those of you who keep up with the atheist blogosphere are no doubt aware of the publicity that OkCupid has gotten recently. For everyone else, the gist of it is that mentioning "atheist" in your message to another user greatly increases your chances of getting a response over mentioning "god" or any particular religion (details here and here if you're interested).

But for the time being, I am not closing the door to theists. As long as the guy doesn't try to convert me or drag me to his house of worship on a regular basis, I don't see it being a problem. I've heard some atheists say things like, "I could never be with someone who didn't believe rationally." But everyone has some irrational beliefs. It's part of human nature. Also, there are other qualities to consider in a potential partner, like kindness and fashion sense.

Obviously, you have to strike a balance and draw the line at certain behaviors, beliefs, etc. But this is true for everyone, religious or not. Maybe in the future I'll have a bad experience with a theist that will lead me to change my mind. But for now, I'm not limiting myself to atheists/agnostics/Pastafarians/etc.

So what are your experiences with religious/non-religious relationships? Please feel free to share them in the comments!

An announcement

I had an epiphany the other day. No, I haven't had a vision from Ganesha (although, as visions from deities go, I could do worse--Ganesha's adorable!), but an important realization, nonetheless.

On my Facebook profile, my observations about everyday life seem to get more of a response than when I try to be profound. So I'm going to widen the scope and lighten the tone of this blog. It occurred to me that people who talk almost exclusively about their religion (or lack of it) tend to be incredibly dull. My attempts at philosophical ramblings have been good practice for me, but perhaps not as interesting for the reader.

I'll still talk about religious and philosophical issues, but I hope to do it in a more lighthearted manner, and in the context of other topics. For example, I'll post some stuff about freethought and dating soon, possibly even later today. After all, what good is a religion or philosophy if it has no applications to your everyday life?