Vulnerability and Inner Strength

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

One of the things I do all the time (and often regret) is read the comments on mainstream news articles. If you’ve ever done that, you know, that more often than not, the conversation is comprised entirely of ad hominem attacks and fact-free condemnations. And it has become the playground of trolls that love to bully and intimidate.

And for a while now, I’ve wanted a strategy that doesn’t necessarily stop that, but at least can cut through it. And in talking with a good friend about this, she helped me to come across a useful strategy. A comment I might make would go something like this:

I feel sad as I read the ways in which people talk to each other in this conversation. It’s painful to me that we have such a hard time seeing each other as fellow humans. Ultimately, we share so many of the same hopes and fears, underneath the rhetoric and dogma. Can we find our shared humanity?

I also came across this post, from twitter, where a woman responded to a hateful tweet very simply with love, and that changed the result.

As I thought more about this, I realized that these kinds of responses embody a willingness to be vulnerable, to express our emotions and our pain. I think that’s what’s missing in so much of our public discourse these days. We often feel that we need to show our strength, but actually, it is when we can be vulnerable that we are more likely to reach others despite our differences.

And, of course, one might say, that it’s too dangerous because there are people who take advantage of vulnerability. Or people will ignore it, or belittle it, or what have you. And it is true, this is not without it’s danger, but showing this kind of vulnerability is a hallmark of some of the most important teachings of many spiritual traditions. For example, the words of Jesus, from Matthew 3:

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

That’s nothing but radical vulnerability, in the face of danger. But how do you get there, what makes it possible?

One of the things that makes it possible to be radically vulnerable is to have cultivated compassion, both for ourselves, as well as for others. Building deep compassion for ourselves helps us to stand firm in our own strength (be boundaried, really) even while being vulnerable. And cultivating compassion for others makes us want to open doors and let others in.  In fact feeling compassion, and acts of compassion are a very important part of most spiritual traditions. We now know that cultivating compassion through lovingkindness meditation (called Metta) actually makes big changes in the brain, deactivating our limbic systems, and strengthening parts of our brains connected to empathy.

So here’s an idea: how about instead of avoiding comments sections, or responding with facts, we love-bomb the trolls (wherever they are – Facebook, Twitter, news sites, blogs, wherever.) How about responding to ad hominem attacks and insults with love? Can we strengthen these capacities by practicing them in action? I’ll be trying.



One Halting Step at a Time

If you were to ask me what my optimal political alignment is, it would be that I am a libertarian socialist (or an anarcho-syndicalist.) One could argue that Jesus would have been a libertarian socialist. I am about as left wing and anti-authoritarian as you can get, although more broadly, I am a part of the libertarian left. According to the Political Compass test, I am more anti-authoritarian and more left wing than Gandhi.

But I am also a student of history, and have read vivid accounts of life in this country from the 18th and 19th centuries. I am a child of two people who experienced racism in much more stark ways than I have in my life (police violence notwithstanding.) I actually knew someone (my great-grandmother) whose mother was born a slave. My mother experienced Jim Crow first hand before she moved to New York, and was told point blank that she shouldn’t try to be an academic. My father did the best he could, knowing how many careers were simply out of his reach. There were many places they couldn’t buy a house, even though they had the money. And from hearing their stories, I understand clearly how their lives have changed in deep ways from the civil rights movement and accompanying government policies. I myself have experienced how my life has changed from the feminist and gay rights movements and the accompanying government policies. I understand how my life in 2016 as a queer black non-binary person is not only possible, but actually pretty good. Could it be better, and could the lives of all queer black non-binary people be better? Of course. But our lives are so much better than they were even 20 years ago.

I also know that most people in this country don’t agree with me.  Most people aren’t hanging out on that far libertarian left end of the spectrum (a lot of my friends are, but most of the country isn’t.) I know that the government of my dreams isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, and I’ve accepted that.

I heard something from a good friend of mine, which I really appreciate. Being an elder (I guess I must count, now) is “taking everyone’s side.” I thought that was brilliant, and deep.

There are some extremely important issues we are facing as a country, at the same time as we have to face our legacy – the legacy of a country built on genocide, slavery, and exploitation. And none of this is going to happen quickly. (Although frankly, if we don’t deal with global climate change quickly, it’s all going to be moot.)

This has been, for many of us, an agonizing year, for all sorts of reasons. And the election has been particularly fraught. But we have a chance, we have one step we can take. It’s not making me super happy to vote for a pair of people who, in many ways, aren’t my ideal. I’ll be honest, they have voted for, and advocated for some policies that I find abhorrent. But when I look at the big picture, this is what I see – I see a country on a tipping point – a tipping point we haven’t been on, possibly since the Civil War. A tipping point between fear and hope. Between slamming the doors, and having them open, between the worst of our natures, and the better.

I know that in the same way as I have experienced positive change in my life, and my parents have in their lives, that change is in real jeopardy. And so I’m not really voting for Hillary/Kaine. I’m “taking everyone’s side,” and voting for the one halting step in the right direction.


“Fear is the Mind Killer”

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

If you’ve read the science fiction classic “Dune” by Frank Herbert, or you saw the movie, you know this scene. A young Paul Atriedes, son of Duke Leto Atredes, is being tested by the Bene-Gesserit. There is a box, and he must put his hand in the box. And the woman testing him places a poison needle next to his neck – if he removes his hand from the box, he will die.

The box is a box full of pain. He feels as if his hand is being flayed. And he says to himself, “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings obliteration. I will face my fear.”

As I read over my Facebook and news feed this morning, it seems soaked in fear. On one hand, you had a speech last night by Donald Trump which was basically “be afraid and I’ll save you.” And on the other side, we have people who are deathly afraid of a Trump presidency.

Fear is literally the mind killer. I’ve talked about the Amygdala hijack already. When we are actively feeling fear, our Amygdala, which mediates the fear response, hijacks traffic that would normally go to our neocortex – our wise, rational, creative brain. And our fear will get re-stimulated over and over again, not just by hearing new things, but by thinking old ones – continuing the process of hijack.

Fear is the most powerful of emotions – it’s evolutionarily designed that way. And if you look back at history, the worst of leaders that created the conditions for the worst atrocities ruled by fear.

The most important thing you can do between now and November 8 is to get yourself out of the state of fear, face your fear, and befriend your fear, and help your friends and family do the same. Because if you’re not in fear, you’ll be much better able to act in ways that will have more impact, because those actions will be smarter, more rational, and more creative than actions you take out of fear, because fear is the mind killer.

So how to do that? Spiritual traditions have developed these practices over many hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years. They include mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga breathing, and many, many others. Today, I’m introducing the concept of concentration practice (including saying the rosary) on my Life as Practice Blog.


Conscious vs. Unconscious

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

On July 18th, an unarmed black man who was a caretaker for an autistic patient was shot while he was lying down, with his hands up. The officer who shot him, when asked why, said “I don’t know.” And the truth is, likely, he actually had no idea.

The main narrative of the simple, proven fact that being black means you are more likely to be shot by police than if you’re white, is that there there is conscious bias in the police force towards people who are black. I don’t doubt that this is the case – it clearly plays out in higher rates of traffic stops, for example. But what’s also important is a different narrative – that biases that we cannot consciously control play a large role in these incidents, and in the ways police interact with people of color.

I’m going to take a little detour, then circle back, I promise.

In many spiritual traditions, there are three important ingredients to live a life that is holy. I’m using holy as a catch all. If you were a Buddhist, you’d say something like “free of suffering.” If you were a Christian, you might say, “right with God.” Whatever the optimal life a faith tradition imagines, fit that into the “holy” word.  Those three ingredients are: ethical behavior, spiritual practice, and a belief structure that holds it together. For some traditions (like Buddhism) that belief structure is less important than for others.

I want to focus on the first two: ethical behavior and spiritual practice. They are very different, of course. Each tradition has an ethical framework (which are, unsurprisingly, astonishingly similar.) You know the drill, do unto others, etc. And of course, the spiritual practices differ, but in the main, they are designed to quiet the mind and connect with the Divine, however one conceptualizes it. And these two, although quite different, are actually inseparable, because it is the spiritual practice that makes it possible for us to follow the ethical framework. And why is this so? Science knows the answer.

As I’ve outlined before, and again (and will again and again, I’m sure,) our brains are amazingly designed to keep us alive. A good chunk of it spends pretty much all of it’s time figuring out whether or not we’re safe. It does it without our conscious control. It’s quite good at it, I mean, really, really good at it. So good at it, that we actually need help not to use that part of our brains. And the spiritual practices are one form of that help.

So back to the shooting, and the officer who didn’t know why he shot the man lying on the ground: there is some very interesting work going on about the neuroscience of prejudice. Basically, our brains, because they are hard wired to figure out what’s safe and what’s not, makes super-fast (faster than we can consciously control) decisions about who is “us” and who is “them” – labeling “them” as dangerous. Add a gun, and you get the picture.

So who is responsible then? Is the officer off the hook because his Amygdala shot the man on the ground, not his conscious brain? No. But he is not solely to blame. My point is that we cannot really find the right solution to this problem without addressing the full spectrum of the causes, and one of them is unconscious bias. If police are going to continue being armed, without some sort of mindfulness training (and some anti-racism training, too, so that they understand how unconscious bias works,) unconscious bias + gun = more black people dying.

Of course, disarming them would be even better.



This Present Moment

I was folding laundry this morning, a task I generally don’t like, but try to use as a way to stay present. But my monkey mind was doing its normal thing. I was perseverating about the election season (actually, freaking out is more accurate,) and I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep myself sane for the next 3+ months (and, potentially, the next 4-8 years.)

I was asking myself what kind of information would I want to hear right now? What would I want to learn? What would help me stay centered? And then I remembered one of my current projects. It’s a low-key project, one I’ve been ruminating on literally for years (since seminary 10 years ago.)  I wrote a blog post last month about it. I thought that perhaps, making it a bit more front-burner would be a good idea, both for me, and potentially others. I decided that I would dedicate the next 3 months at least to writing several posts a week (potentially one a day, but I don’t want to promise too much) on aspects of this project. I have tentatively named this project “Overlapping Magisteria.” I’ll describe why I’ve used that name in a subsequent blog post.

As I was thinking about what’s happening right now, not only in US politics, but in pretty much everything that’s happening in the world, I realized that it is a function of two key truths.

  • First, we human beings have the amazing capacity to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed (so incredibly well) to keep us alive, but we too often don’t. And it is crucial that we learn how to do this – or else things are going to get much worse.
  • And the second truth is that we have been taught by very wise people for literally thousands of years how to live and create beyond the part of our brains designed to keep us alive, and it’s only now that we’ve got some amazing tools to image the brain, we’ve begun to learn why that stuff works so well.

This project is actually going to take place in two places. Here will be the scientific, theological, political, and philosophical discussion and reflection. On my other site, called “Life As Practice” I’ll be posting specific practices from a variety of faith traditions designed to allow us to get out of our reptilian brains. Some of these practices have been shown by current science to have very specific effects on the brain. I’ll aim to post at least one of those per week, and I’ll be practicing them myself each week. (And, if you’d like to join, there’s a Slack team.)

I would love this to be a conversation. It doesn’t matter what your faith tradition – since this wisdom is found in all faith traditions. It doesn’t matter if you have no faith tradition, because there’s a heck-a lot of science, too. I’d love to hear your perspectives, your ideas, and your experiences. I’d love to hear how this is reflected in your life. I’d love to hear about your practices, and your wisdom.


Activism of the Heart

As you may or may not know, I used to be an activist. I spent many years (from ages 22 to my early 50s, at times much more intensely than others) in the trenches – organizing with like-minded people in living rooms and out in the streets on a wide variety of topics overlapping in years. I started out focused on environmental causes, then got sucked into the AIDS crisis, like many of us, and after that spent time as an anti-death penalty and prison reform activist, protested against every war, worked in the pro-choice movement, worked on food access issues, then finally, briefly and very peripherally, Occupy.

I stopped calling myself an activist a few years ago, because I didn’t feel like one, at least I didn’t take part in activities in the way I used to. And if someone would ask me a while ago why I left being an activist, I think the only answer I could give would be “I was tired, and burnt out, and wasn’t sure it was working anymore.”

But I have gotten a lot more clear in the last year or so why I’m not an activist, and what it would take to get me back into being one.

I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll spend a little time explaining things here. So we have this wonderful part of our brain, called the Amygdala. It is responsible for keeping us alive, which is, of course, a very good thing, for the most part. It’s basic function is to monitor whether our environment feels safe, and if not, to cause a cascade of responses, including secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, both of which have a whole host of physiological effects. In our brains, what happens is that the Amygdala “hijacks” our neocortex, and reduces our ability to use our cognitive, rational functions.

All (and I mean all) of our initial responses to the events that have happened in the last week have been mediated by our Amygdalas. That’s why we all feel so crappy.  And if we maintain ourselves in a state of anger and outrage, we’re operating from our Amygdalas. What does this mean? It means we actually, literally can’t use our brains to their best effect, besides the deeply negative effects on our bodies.  There’s a quote I’ve seen flying about lately, and it says, “If you’re not angry (or outraged) you’re not paying attention.” Actually, what’s true is that if you are angry or outraged, you can’t pay nearly as good attention as you would if you weren’t.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but this is just simply brain science.  And on the extreme end, if there is great mental distress or mental illness (coupled with access to guns,) activating the Amygdala means you pull a trigger.

So what’s happening now is that everybody is triggered, and few are talking about it (if they are, it’s in the context of “self-care,” which is important, but only a small part of the picture.) And no one really knows the fact that being triggered means that people aren’t at their best, they simply can’t be. You can’t get around it. When your Amygdala is in charge, your neocortex isn’t, even if you think it is. And, also, our Amygdalas can’t understand compassion, because they are too busy trying to keep us safe. As someone who is committed to a path of consciousness, operating in a context where everyone is triggered, and no one is talking about it, and no one is working to get untriggered before they act, just doesn’t work for me. But that’s what activism is now. In fact, some activism now is designed to keep people triggered.

I’m completely convinced that the change we humans have to make, in order to get ourselves out of the multi-faceted morass we find ourselves in, is to put brain science to work, and deal with our triggers, and deal with our fears deliberately and compassionately. And the thing is, we have the tools. Most every spiritual tradition has them, and if you aren’t spiritual, we have a ton of tools now that people have really been studying this stuff. This is one side of my idea of an “Activism of the Heart” – learning how to lead with our calm, rational, and, most importantly, compassionate minds, instead of leading from anger or outrage (thus, our Amygdalas.)

And for me, there is something else, the other side of an “Activism of the Heart.” Although there must be “tearing down,” I think more importantly now, there needs to be a “building up.” We must start creating the culture we want to replace the one we have now. How do we want to relate to each other, even if we disagree? How do we hold all of our differences with love and compassion? How do we want to live our lives outside of our capitalist stranglehold? How do we want to create communities where everyone is taken care of?

I think that we’re used to the model where we protest, and the government acts, and changes things. That worked for a good long time, but those were always band-aids on a rotten edifice. The edifice is dying, and if this election season isn’t a clue, I don’t know what is. As good an idea as, for example, changing the way police are trained is, it’s just one small part of the whole picture. We have to start figuring out what’s next – and we can’t do that if our Amygdalas are in charge.

What I would love is a group of people committed to an “Activism of the Heart,” who will do these things:

  • Spend time talking about our feelings about what’s happening from a self-responsible place
  • Teach each other tools to get untriggered, and teach each other to heal conflict
  • Connect our commitments to a higher purpose – something like the “Kin-dom of God,” or “The Liberation of All Beings.”
  • Spend time envisioning new ways of living and being in this decaying edifice called “America”
  • Addressing the current situation with actions grown from a deeply calm and compassionate, as well as rational, place.