“Your mind is all you truly have. So it makes sense to train it.”
Focus on the essentials and jettison the rest. – Leo Babauta
Only small pieces of a life make an interesting memoir.” ~ William Zinsser
I’ve long been a fan of William Zinsser. His ‘On Writing Well’ is one of only a few print volumes I have on my shrinking physical bookshelf. The title pictured above is perhaps the best I’ve read on writing about one’s life. I’m reading it in preparation for a memoir I’ve been contemplating. I have an outline that fell into place -love when that happens- a few days ago.
In my book, The Practical Buddhist, I recounted several experiences in my life that led me to reject theistic religion in favor of non-belief and ultimately Practical Buddhism. Those sections weren’t written in any style that would be counted as a memoir. Although it contains elements of memoir, the book stands as a non-fiction solo work that sets forth the definition of Practical Buddhism and how I engage it in my life.
Memoirs can be autobiographical, but creative non-fiction as a style of writing is a much more enjoyable for the reader. It mixes the tools of creative fiction with actual life experiences. A friend suggested I use the Roman à clef model where the memoir is more a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise. The idea has merit and I’ll certainly mull it over. However, while this book will be autobiographical, it will also be a kinder, more engaging treatment of its rather controversial subject.
The working title of the book at present is, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: One Man’s Journey from the Constraints of Religious Fervor to the Freedom of Non-Belief. My aim is to treat my subject fairly and truthfully without the need to invent experiences.
Why write this book? I come from a very conservative and religious family. My parents, children (two of the four), and several extended family members are practicing Christians and are very devoted to their faith. Each day when I open Facebook I am reminded of this by the posts and statuses that represent their views. I also have a large number of friends and acquaintances that share their faith.
I stand out as an anomaly in my family. I was once a fervent believer, an evangelical who believed most were going to hell. At about age 35 I awoke from what seems now like a dream state and was suddenly and overwhelmingly convinced that my life in the church was a false reality. My new was a reality was the result of a lifetime of experiences that left me puzzled with my own responses to social issues and basic humanitarian morals. My mantra became the pronouncement to attributed to Socrates’: The unexamined life isn’t worth living.
This sparked a decade of investigation, learning, reading, and listening to my heart. My life was forever changed by asking the big questions.
I’ve been openly and privately criticized for my views and my lack of belief in God, the church, and religion as a whole. I can be painful at times, but I’m largely immune to them. I was once guilty of holding the same views and making the same judgments. Perhaps this memoir is part atonement for my past actions.
The main reason to write this memoir is find and share the common ground to which we we can all lay claim and from which we can build enduring relationships.
As I get older, I mourn the loss of the common ground I once had with my family. While I can never return to my former views and beliefs -a mind stretched to new idea doesn’t return to its original shape- I hope that in this book I can create a dialogue based on real experiences that will help others understand instead of judge, open instead of insulating, and love instead of hate.
I will share bits of this book here on these pages as they evolve. Your comments and feedback will be appreciated.
Belief: Confidence in the truth of an idea or concept that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.
I’ve stated, both in my book and in this post, that I live belief free. I live independent of the need to exercise faith in ideas or concepts that are unproven, unobservable, unsupported by independent investigation or experience, or that would be considered hearsay.
I thought I’d write a post about how I live my life free of the need to exercise faith in ideas of concepts for which there are no proofs. At first glimpse, it seems almost unnecessary to list these types of ideas, but here goes.
Examples of the types of beliefs that I no longer concern myself with are, but are not limited to:
- the existence of Santa Claus
- the doctrine of original sin
- the existence of sin
- the immaculate conception of Christ and his ascension into heaven
- the ascension of Muhammad and his horse into heaven
- the existence of God, angels, Satan, or demons
- non-whites are intellectually inferior
- sexual orientation is a choice
As I started this post with a definition, let me give you another that is equally important. The definition of belief as stated above is but one you’ll find in numerous dictionaries. This particular definition makes the most sense to me because it clearly distinguishes belief from its opposite, the other necessary term in this discussion – fact.
Fact: A truth verifiable by independent investigation, experience, and/or observation.
I live each day unconcerned with belief and the refusal to exercise faith, but very aware of facts. Because facts can be verified and their relative truth corroborated by independent observation, they do not require the exercise of faith. I choose to live my life not tied to the ancient stories and histories found together in various religious tomes but alongside the verifiable truths supported by observation and reason.
Some might counter that I place my faith in facts, but that isn’t true either. Faith is the intellectual and, sometimes emotional, the choice to support an idea or concept for which no proof exists. Who has time for that?
A friend recently argued this point in response to my position, stating:
All logical and rational behavior is based on a set of axiomatic beliefs. There is not logic or sanity without beliefs; People who claim they don’t have beliefs believe that there is a real world that their brain is capable of accurately perceiving.”
I countered that:
…people who claim they don’t have beliefs experience sufficient sensory input to displace the need for voluntary faith in something unknown, unknowable, or comprised of a false set of proofs.”
Religion and beliefs
Adhering to beliefs can be harmful. Many people live their entire lives constrained by belief systems that hold them to near impossible standards of behavior. It’s not that all of these standards are negative, in fact I quite like most of the Biblical ten commandments purportedly brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Not stealing, not committing adultery, not coveting, loving your fellow humans, and not lying are positive moral teachings and stand apart from the need to believe in God as their author.
Unfortunately, the near impossible standards imposed by most religious beliefs simultaneously induce guilt, feelings of inferiority, and negative self-esteem in those who fall short of the ideal; this is accomplished by weekly, and sometimes daily, exposure to the exhortations of religious leaders, talk show hosts, and television evangelists who urge believers to continually strive for the impossible all the while knowing it’s impossible.
Religion and sexual oppression
A study by Darrell Ray as cited in the BBC television special, ‘Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life,’ asked over 14,000 participants about their sexual history, specifically their age when they began engaging in masturbation, petting, oral sex, and intercourse.
The study found that the responses of those raised most religious compared to those raise least religious, were identical.
But they also found that those raised most religious suffered excessive guilt, shame, and blamed themselves for the failure to achieve the ideal standards of behavior.
The ideal standards set by Biblical and Koranic belief systems, to name the most oppressive, set believers up for continual failure and subsequent feelings of unworthiness, and guilt.
To those who support such a choice, I have a question: What’s the point of repressing a person’s sexuality? In doing so, more harm is done than good. In fact, no good comes from it.
For a parent to willingly engage in this repression via shaming and castigation is perhaps the most harmful act they can engage in.
Most, but not all believers, treat their religious belief systems as factual and unassailable. However, as we have seen, by their very definitions beliefs and facts lie worlds apart on the spectrum of proof.
Religious belief systems set believers up for failure
Christianity teaches that every person is born unredeemed, imperfect, neck deep in original sin, and in dire need of salvation via faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is necessary, according to their beliefs, to right the congenital condition with which humanity is born.
The very idea that my grandchildren, or yours, or any other human beings, were born with this innate deficit is absurd.
Christianity exhorts believers to accept this as the ultimate truth. When children -the precious little concrete thinkers who automatically accept their parents’ work as truth- are raised with this belief they grow up with a burden of self-doubt, decreased self-esteem, and the probability of judging their spiritual development as inferior and substandard.
I know because it happened to me. When faced with the weekly exhortations by preachers and lay leaders to “be a better Christian, and refrain from sin,’ all the while realizing how incredibly futile this goal was, I was already an adult male with a family of my own facing the grim reality that it would soon break apart if I didn’t play along.
To use a Biblical metaphor, my ‘wilderness experience’ brought forth the fruits of an open mind and the ability to remove the rose-colored glasses of religion through which I’d previously viewed the world and my own life.
Abandoning religious beliefs
Choosing to abandon beliefs altogether is something most will never do. The cultural imprinting of most beliefs occurs in young children before age five. If a child is raised in an environment that reinforces the religious beliefs of their parents, the child grows up to accepts them as fact. When they fall short of the ideal, they inevitably experience guilt, shame, and a diminished self-esteem.
Indeed, some religions and sects widely acknowledge that any believer who leaves the community will be shunned forever. Entire families turn their collective backs on sons and daughters who stray from the religious community. In my opinion, this practice is the epitome of selfishness and deceit.
In my own experience, it was a painful process to abandon religion because my nuclear family was so entrenched in church life. After years of doubt, I came to a point of realization that it was, for me, a false existence. My western mind wanted very much to corroborate the claims of the Bible, but I found no such corroboration.
I learned how some trusted leaders were actually aware of child-abuse, sexual abuse of minors, and other horrific human tragedies and never once reported such behavior to the authorities. Men of God? I think not.
Even today there are those that tell me I am deluded, misled or even a heretic. But that’s OK. I no longer feel any need to believe anything. The concepts and Biblical stories they hold as facts are no longer a concern for me.
Removing the lens of religion
What if children were only taught facts? What if, instead of teaching unsupported beliefs for which there is no proof, children were taught to think for themselves; to evaluate verifiable facts instead? They would live more honest lives without the lens of religion that many force them to wear.
What if children were taught truth-telling and non-stealing simple because it’s the right thing to do? Is there really a need to create a deity that will punish us unless we comply with his/her commands? What if religious-colored lenses were not handed out willy-nilly by parents? Are really necessary to teach right and wrong?
When you view the world through a religious lens, everything is skewed toward the Bible, Koran, or whatever holy book your religion sets as the standard for behavior. You must always be on the defense. You constantly need to formulate responses to the questions about proof, faith in the unseen and the unproven, and even -if you are hopelessly out of touch with science- defending your belief that the age of the earth is only 6,000 years.
Removing the lens of religion helps you see the world not as a collection of lost and imperfect people in need of redemption while struggling with their spiritual condition, but as a world of interconnected peoples with a common goal of making life the best we can make it.
Removing the lens of religion frees you to simply be the best person you can be without the impossible standards that repress your efforts to succeed.
My life without religion
“But wouldn’t life without religion result in rampant rioting, looting, lawlessness, and blatantly immoral behavior?”
I don’t see why it would result in this at all. People, regardless of religion, choose their modes of behavior. Religious people riot, kill, maim, steal, fornicate, etc., just as non-religious people do.
Since abandoning religion, if anything I’ve become more peaceful and less stressed by the rules of society. I don’t fear repercussions for my actions because I act in a way that causes no intentional harm to anyone. I live in a manner that peaceful and kind. Of course, I could choose to be violent and unkind, but why?
Living without God isn’t horrible, violent, or immoral. For me, life without religion is a vastly more enjoyable experience. I am free of the guilt that arises from not measuring up; I live without fear being ostracized for holding obscure views based on theory and fantasy; I am kind, gentle, and helpful because I want to be, not because I fear I must be.
The role of prayer
I don’t engage in prayer. Why would I? Because there isn’t a God who hears my prayer, what is the purpose? I’ve always had a problem with the hypocrisy of prayer anyway.
It is said and taught in Christian circles that God hears and answers all prayers. How does God answer the prayer of a four-year-old girl heartbroken over her parents’ divorce? How does God answer the prayer of a loving wife entreating Him to save the life of her dying husband?
Wouldn’t the events following such prayer requests ensue anyway?
Headaches go away. Diseases run their course. People die and so will you and if you believe there is a God, guess what? He is going to let you die. Why waste everyone’s time asking them to pray for a reprieve when you know damn well you’re going to kick the bucket one day?
I am reminded of Frank Underwood, fictional President of the United States in the television drama House of Cards when he said:
“I pray to myself, for myself.”
That’s strangely comforting for me as I reside on the other side of religion.
Enjoy your life now. It’s really all you’ve got.
Finding meaning in life without religion
My life is full of meaning, more so now because religion no longer plays role in it. I live life every day as if it were my last. I let people know how I feel about them. I enjoy my days and nights. I don’t waste time worrying about the fate of millions of unsaved people or native peoples who’ve never been subjected to a truly boring Southern Baptist church service.
If I can leave you with a final thought -since you’ve been so patient in reading every…last…word of this post- 😉 this would be it:
Love everyone equally. Lead by example. Be happy and stop worrying about native peoples not singing Kumbaya. Be good to your children and let them choose their own lives. Teach them right from wrong by example, not by pounding them over the head with requirements for church attendance and memory verses.*
*OK, that’s more than one final thought, but they’re all good.
The Power of Compassion
Yesterday five-year-old Miles Scott, a leukemia survivor, got his wish via the Make A Wish Foundation to play the caped crusader alongside Batman fighting crime and locking up bad guys for an entire day.
The entire city of San Francisco got into the act of expressing their heartfelt compassion by making this childhood dream a reality for Miles.
The video below is guaranteed to bring a tear to your eyes but it will also arouse your sense of compassion. Watch and embrace the compassion that wells up in you. Then express your compassion by paying it forward in an act of kindness today.
Be the superhero the world needs you to be. 😎
Why am I here?
What’s my purpose?
If there is a God, what is her plan for my life?”
I used to ask myself these ‘big questions’ on a regular basis. In so doing, I was searching for existential answers to questions that mankind has asked since we developed the ability to question.
I never arrived at any answers that satisfied me. Instead, I banged my head against the existential wall and lived in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
Religion, philosophy, culture – all attempted to answer the big questions, but none succeeded. They never will. That’s because the questions are flawed.
They seemed like legitimate, well-intentioned questions that deserved to be answered. Yet as hard as I tried and as often as I pondered these questions, the truth about my existence eluded me.
Then one day I woke up
I don’t recall when it occurred or where I was, but I did awaken from the dream we call life. I forever left the world of conditioned thinking and religion-influenced dogma. I awakened to the reality that existential questions have nothing to do with the present moment.
Asking questions about my existence is like questioning the cup of steaming coffee on my desk.
The whole point is to drink it, experience it, live it.
- enjoy its strength
- enjoy its flavor
- enjoy its warmth
- enjoy its consumption
Asking questions about my life’s purpose will never yield satisfactory answers because they can change tomorrow. So I’ve forgotten about asking the big questions.
- I drink my coffee
- I live my life
That’s the point.
Relationships, like everything else in life, are as fleeting as the morning fog and unless we are aware of this, moving on can be a traumatic experience and one filled with suffering.
Like you, I enjoy many relationships with friends, co-workers, family, and others, each presenting different types of experiences
Two years is a long time
I’ve recently decided to move on from a relationship that ended two years ago. When I say ended, I mean it came to a close, but not for me. She was finished, but, alas, I wasn’t.
It’s been a rough two years getting to the point of moving on because of the intensity of my feelings for her. Those feelings prevented me from attaching to anyone else and kept me in a perpetual state of false hope.
I was allowing myself an apportioned daily serving of regret and suffering.
I eventually asked myself the following questions and noted my heart-felt responses:
- Is this situation (relationship), as it currently exists, serving me? No.
- Is it realistic to think this will change? No.
- What is the appropriate response at this time? Mourn the loss of the relationship and be grateful for how it enriched my life.
- What’s the next step? Realize I am whole and complete by myself.
As I write this post, I am not sad. I am content with my solitude and know that should another relationship be in my experience, I will be better equipped. I think the song by Rascal Flatts puts it appropriately.
I’ve been burdened with blame; trapped in the past for too long.
I’m movin’ on….I’m movin’ on.
I first read Tai Sheridan’s short ebook, Buddha in Blue Jeans: An Extremely Short Zen Guide to Sitting Quietly and Being Buddha, on my Kindle about a year ago. I read it again this morning. I recommend it for getting to the heart of what we learn sitting quietly.
Tai, a Zen priest, and author of several books on Buddhism gives away the Kindle version of his books on Amazon.com. Here is the link to download the Kindle version of Buddha in Blue Jeans. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still read Tai’s ebooks on your iPad, PC, Mac, or digital device by downloading an appropriate Kindle Reading App. Kindle Reading App info on Amazon.
Last week I tweeted a few mini-posts about the link between stimulus and response and their role in suffering. It seemed to strike a chord of agreement with many.
Perhaps it’s because it demonstrates the clear and ever-present control we actually have over our emotional responses and how our responses are linked to suffering.
I first learned this concept from Dr. Wayne Dyer, a psychologist, author, and perennial host of public broadcasting specials here in the U.S. When I did, my life instantly changed. Though I’d been reading Buddhist literature for some time, I didn’t fully grasp that within me was the power to choose non-suffering. I thought I had to work for it.
I mistakenly thought that if I meditated long enough and practiced mindfulness often enough, then certainly I would no longer to subject to suffering.
It’s a mistake a lot of us make because we’ve been conditioned to see cause and effect as inextricably linked. But in fact, this is not always accurate.
Stimulus is nearly always followed by a choice that manifests in a reaction, usually an emotional one.
Of course, there are neurological reflexes that are almost instantaneous, like those found in newborns or by tapping your patellar tendon just below your kneecap. These reflexes are protective in nature and not a choice.
Suffering, on the other hand, is not a reflex. It’s a choice we make in response to various negative stimuli such as disappointment, loss, anger, or betrayal, as well as more positive stimuli like hope or anticipation. The link between these stimuli and suffering lies in our choice of response.
If we attach to a sense of hope and do not get what we want, we experience disappointment and unless we are mindful of our choice of responses we can lapse into sadness and anger. It’s not that anger or sadness are inappropriate responses, but by choosing them we open ourselves to additional suffering.
Mindfulness and non-suffering
In practicing mindfulness, we regularly examine our thoughts and ask if we are choosing the right ones. Through mindfulness we become increasingly aware of how we think, the patterns that emerge, and the resulting behavior that we engage in. Part of the payoff of practicing mindfulness -even though Buddhists claim there is no goal in practice- is that we increase our awareness around the choices we make in response to stimuli.
Choosing non-suffering begins the very next time you experience a positive or negative emotion. There isn’t a five-step approach or magic process for choosing non-suffering. You just do it.
When you experience a negative emotion, you have a choice to either let it in and ruminate over it and commiserate with your demons over it OR simply observe it and let it go. Letting it go is facilitated by making a choice to recognize your disappointment, allowing yourself to feel it but choosing not to internalize it and suffer because of it.
With practice comes awareness
This takes time and practice. I was once a hot-headed guy who many considered reactive in nature. And I was. But as I practiced mindfulness on a regular basis I began to see that my resulting behaviors were mostly conditioned responses. They were like psychic cow’s cudd; I could mentally chew on them again whenever I felt it served me. Mindfulness practice helped me increase the space between stimulus and response and make a better, more positive choice.
Mindfulness provides the space between stimulus and response.
You can’t make the choice of non-suffering unless you are mindful of your options. Being mindful of your options is the first step toward non-suffering. By practicing mindfulness daily, you will increase your awareness of your knee-jerk responses and begin to increase the space between stimulus and response.
When you find yourself in that space, you always have the power to choose non-suffering.
When I was growing up and searching for what it was I wanted to do with my life, I heard a lot of people saying a lot of different things.
I heard things like:
- Do what you love and the money will follow
- Follow your bliss
- Pursue your passion, but have a backup plan
- Go to college, learn a skill, get a good job
Do these sound familiar? Are they pretty much the same advice you heard growing up? Yeah, I thought so.
In my case, these, and other pieces of advice I was offered came not from those who’d lived these principles but from those who regretted their own choices.
Advice from the eight-fold path
The Buddha taught his followers that by walking the eight-fold path, they would end suffering in their lives. One of the spokes in the wheel of the eight-fold path is ‘right livelihood.’ He taught that followers should refrain from doing anything for a living that brought harm to other sentient beings.
So for instance, if you work for a company that manufactures weapons or bombs, most likely, in the strictest Buddhist definition, you’re not engaged in right livelihood. But engaging in right livelihood is more than simply not harming others. It’s doing what your DNA is coded for; it’s following your own individual path to expressing who you are as a person and a contributor to the world’s development.
That sounds heady, right? My position on right livelihood is that you should never ever spend time doing work that…
- harms others
- depresses you
- doesn’t come easily to you
- wastes the ability and talent you were born with
Settling for a career isn’t right livelihood
What about your own occupation? Did you choose it based on your unique abilities and talents or did you ‘choose’ it because it allowed you to pay the bills and support your family? Is it really something you feel deep inside is what you should be doing each day?
Only you can answer that question for your own situation.