Mixed Salad of Thoughts

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Following the rules Part 2

Capitalists are no more capable of self-sacrifice than a man is capable of lifting himself up by his own bootstraps. (Quote by - Vladimir Lenin)

At some point here I'm going to have to admit that I don't really believe there is much value in performing something you see as sacrifice if you do it just for the sake of sacrifice. The spiritual benefits from sacrifice come from doing a selfless act and there's a paradoxical situation that when you see something as a sacrifice and do it for that purpose (to gain spiritual rewards) that it becomes a little less self-less.

Indeed, most of the things that I do in observance of my religion's laws I would never say feel like a sacrifice. Is it really that hard to not drink?... no, not really, I can't say as I've ever felt I was suffering from lack of alcohol. Is it really something I would have to "endure" to not use drugs, or to not gamble?... Not so much. Like many changes in life you adjust and move on and after a while there is little question or desire for these things. There were small teaspoonful doses of sacrifice along the way but very rarely is this sort of thing done "cold-turkey" with the accompanying strongly-felt pangs of withdrawal. It is usually a process with the slightly less felt cravings of withdrawal.

And I can't even say that the process always takes that linear path, there are sometimes swings and shifts and backsliding. We are created of a physical and spiritual self and our physical self will always have cravings and will always struggle with desires and actions that our even our logical mind might tell us are not in our best interest (Another piece of cheesecake?...Well, I wouldn't want it to go to waste.)

While I could easily be distracted and veer entirely off my subject at the mention of cheesecake it brings me quite neatly to my next point, and that is the idea of consumption. We, as Americans, have been consumed by consumption. We are trained from our earliest days to be consumers. Infants wear Nike sneakers and have brand-name strollers (often more than one). Even before elementary school kids are already demanding that their parents buy them the latest toy that their friends all have and that they've seen on television. Telephones are out-dated in 6 months and clothing styles change with the seasons. Products are designed to fail and styles designed to be temporary so that consumers can feel a constant need for "new." While there is nothing inherently bad in ownership there are often negative effects. Buddhism speaks beautifully about detachment as "freedom from lust, craving and desires" and relates that desire is the cause of suffering and elimination of desire eases suffering. I think it's also important to look at the side-effects of our attachment and consumption. One of those effects is this sense of "need" that skews our normal sense of values. Like I related in part 1 of this posting I had a re-alignment of what I saw as "need" after living in one of the poorest countries in the world. Americans as a whole are rarely exposed to those far outside of their economic level and often have very little concept of what life is like in other tax brackets*. The growing emphasis on consumerism only serves to further our sense of "need". We feel we are falling behind our peers--items that wouldn't make it to even the upper echelons of Maslow's Hierarchy are instead given the status of "needed". This focus on self and belief that we are still "in need" can leave little room for charity, generosity and compassion for others; it negates the concept of moderation and eliminates perspective for temperance, self-control, and restraint.

As a Baha'i I observe the Baha'i Fast. For a period of 19 days, leading up to the celebration of the Baha'i New Year, I abstain from food or drink between sunrise and sunset. I find I have a heightened awareness of many things when fasting. Some of the things I'm aware of are simply due to changes in my routine, while others are due to the physical nature of fasting. I am more aware of the changes in the day, the sound of birds that grow louder as the first light enters the sky and reach their peak at sunrise. The quickness with which the world grows dark once the sun sets. The things I miss when I'm not eating: the warmth of a cup of tea in the afternoon, the pleasure of an afternoon piece of candy, the joy of socializing over lunch with friends. I am aware of the sensation of hunger and lethargy that sometimes come over me in the afternoon. The joy of finally eating at sunset, the tastes of food heightened by my hunger. I feel more human, more frail, more aware of myself, my body, and my needs. While I enjoy my dinner I also recognize its need to nourish me and I put extra effort into eating healthy food that will nourish and sustain me and will not tax my system or fill me without providing nutrition. Throughout all of this I also am aware of bounty. I am aware that I am starting and ending each day with foods that are easily available to me, not a burden on my budget, and that are as nutritious as I make them. It helps me to remember how much of a blessing that is and that there are many people throughout the world for which all three of those things are a struggle. It awakens my sense of compassion.

In addition to awareness of the plight of others, the fast also makes me aware of my own ability to suffer. Although it is mild, hunger is not pleasant,and working while hungry and tired, going about your daily life for 19 days while fasting can be difficult. But this too brings insight. In a way I thank all of those who shake their heads and tell me "I could never do that" because I know I can. I know it because I've done it for some 19 years. And in the end that is empowering. Doing something that is difficult and that requires discipline, will-power, and determination once a year before the Baha'i New Year celebration gives me strength to believe in my abilities and perspective to see what is really important.

So as an exercise in will-power daily fasting might make sense but what about daily prayer, what about abstaining from alcohol and all the other "rules" that come with religion? Well this may be part of where I go back to "faith" a little and instead of writing objectively I have to write more personally. First allow me to give a quick example of prayer for Baha'is:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth.

There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.


As you can see the prayer is written in the first person and in it the reader/speaker is recognizing qualities of God and the reader's position, purpose, and qualities as God's creation.

If you have ever read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink you are probably familiar with the concept of "priming", if not you have likely heard of "positive affirmations" and the effect of words and statements we say to ourselves upon our subconscious. By this standpoint alone I think one could believe that there was value in daily prayer. If only to remind ourselves of beliefs we hold and hear ourselves say them or to read lists of virtues that we might be better able to recall and display during our daily lives. Those words will echo in our subconscious and affect our actions throughout the day.

But for a believer there is the added belief that you are reading the word of God and the advice and beliefs that he has set down for you. If you believe these words to be from God and believe also that he wants the best for you, you will not see the laws and admonitions set forth as restrictions and punishment, you will see them as guidance, as a prescription for well-being. Looked at as such "laws" become "medicine" and following them becomes a means for bettering yourself. So when I look at a prescription that tells me not to drink alcohol, or speak ill of others, or gamble I know it is best for my spiritual health (and in some cases possibly physical health as well.) I can break these laws but it will be my own spiritual health that will suffer.

Additionally, for a believer there is a sense of loving commitment. If you are to say "Yes, this is the Word of God," and you believe that God has given you this advice out of love for his creation, and you desire a closer relationship with God you are then entering into a "committed relationship." And just like any other "committed relationship" there are obligations. So while your spouse might have certain things they ask you to do out of love and commitment to them (faithfulness, fidelity, financial security, leaving the toilet seat down, etc.) there are things that a believer will do out of love and commitment to God (prayer, fasting, observing laws, trying to better themselves spiritually, being kind and generous to others, etc.) And just as in marriage, respecting and honoring this commitment can strengthen the relationship.

I also see this "prescription for well-being" also is a fundamental part of our development as people. Just as we teach children that they need to share their toys, to be polite, to be kind, to be clean, to eat their vegetables, and we do so to help them grow into well-adjusted, healthy and respectable adults, we, as adults need to continually develop ourselves. Learning to be honest and trustworthy and kind and generous and all the other moral teaching we confer upon children don't cease to be important as we become adults and without effort and training those qualities will not continue on, let alone grow, as we go through life. How many of us share our toys as adults? How many of us eat our vegetables even if we don't like them? How many of us are polite and respectful to our elders?

Athletes, scientists, and memory specialist can all tell you about mental plateaus or walls. These mental blockades exist when someone thinks that they have either pushed themselves to the limit or have pushed themselves as far as they need to go. Whether it is the speed of a typist or of a sprinter they know that breaking the next barrier is often just a matter of exercising mental skills. Once you have learned to type you are no longer focused on learning and your brain will stop focusing on the task of learning and your speed will likely remain the same the rest of your life. If you want to speed up your typing you will have to change something in your way of thinking. It is not that your hands CAN'T type 80wpm it is that you got comfortable at 40. With proper focus and pushing yourself beyond comfortable limits, forcing yourself to type faster than you are comfortable with regardless of the number of mistakes, you can increase your speed and continue your growth. But this is challenging and you will likely make many typos along the way. But failing is a part of growth. The typos and stumbling along the way are things that must be sacrificed for growth, but first the realization that additional growth is possible and a proper method for reaching it have to be established. For me, Religion provides that realization and prayer and prayerful-action (following of laws, making necessary sacrifices) provide the method for this growth. While many of us may believe we are kind enough or generous enough or that we are not overly effected by materialism or gluttony or pride we may find that following the laws set forth by religion help us break past walls we didn't even know were holding us in and reach new levels of awareness and growth. At the very least you can expect to learn something new about yourself with every challenge that you meet, be it external or self-imposed, so why not set a few that will draw out your best attributes?

(I've been sitting on this post for a while looking for the right ending but have determined that I want it "out there" despite a possible need for re-organization and a few more points I'd like to cover. Let me know if there is anything you think I should have included but didn't.)

*Today I read that 42% of American millionaires do not feel rich and would need to have at least $7.5M before they felt they were.

The world will never have lasting peace so long as men reserve for war the finest human qualities. Peace, no less than war, requires idealism and self-sacrifice and a righteous and dynamic faith. (Quote by - John Foster Dulles)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 04, 2011

Following the Rules Pt. 1

[Note: this is the first part of what I intend to be a two part post. Edits to this post may be made as the second half is finished and edited.]

I've once again been trolling through some of my old blog posts (both published and unpublished) and marveling at the range of topics I've covered (is it still vanity if I can't even remember doing it?) In 2007 I wrote a blog post that dealt with a topic I've been discussing and thinking about frequently of late.

If I remember correctly, the impetus for the conversation I was having in that post had to do with religion and the multitude of laws or "rules" that its followers were told to obey. The person I was communicating with was not religious and believed that, while there might be a spiritual value to an individual participating in religion, that religion itself was perhaps too strict and that its precepts and rules should be regarded individually for their value. I assume it would follow that these rules should therefore be abandoned if their results could not be seen/quantified, and/or proven (or possibly if they prove too inconvenient to follow?) It is a discussion that I have heard echoed several times throughout my life.

In that post I seem to be defending these rules using an argument that rules create a structure in which creativity and communication often flourish and that we cannot actually judge a rule until we have embraced it and worked within its boundaries to see all of its effects. I compared it to the training musicians have that allow them to play in harmony together as a band or the frame and tension a partner dancer uses to communicate with their partner. Without these rules the chaos of the individual can never experience the joy of the whole.

While I still think there is some value to that argument, today I'd like to approach the subject from a different angle. It is perhaps a bit more personal for me to talk about my own religion and beliefs not in some abstract way, but as an individual believer so I apologize in advance if some of my viewpoints stray from an objective voice or if my thoughts on some matters do not seem fully formed. Like the rest of the world, I'm a work in progress.

I am a Baha'i. I am one of millions of Baha'is around the world. I am not an authority on my religion, I am not a perfect Baha'i and many times I wouldn't even say I'm a very good one. The Baha'i Faith, whether you've heard of it or not, is considered one of the world's major religions. It has a central figure (Baha'u'llah), volumes upon volumes of Holy Writings, a calendar with 9 Holy Days, a Holy Land, and a book of laws. It is sometimes difficult for people new to the knowledge of the Baha'i Faith to grasp the size and complexity of teachings and laws, but I am fairly certain it would be just as baffling to try to understand the whole of Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam if you had no prior knowledge of them.

Baha'is believe in God, and believe the teachings of Baha'u'llah are the teachings of God on Earth. As such it would be easy enough to simply say that as a Baha'i I must blindly follow the laws because God told me to, but I think this simple acceptance leaves no room for any sort of explanation for the non-believer. It is the age old excuse of "I don't need proof I have faith" which seems to do nothing towards acceptance and only makes the speaker sound to the non-believer as if their rules and beliefs are unfounded and unexplainable. So in these two posts I will attempt to explain my reason(s) for believing that following the laws of my religion are important.

Let me make it clear that as much as I love a thorough, logical argument there are likely to be many instances in which I must still resort to saying "because I believe" and I ask that you look at these as simply a case-study for the thoughts of a believer. This post is not about my religion per se and its intention is not to try to convert a reader to my thoughts or beliefs, but simply to explain, for those who have asked and for those that might be curious, why it is I try to follow these laws. Additionally I do not make claim that my reasoning is true for all people of religious beliefs or even other Baha'is, and although in some cases these beliefs might be similar, each individual is unique and must therefore have their own unique relationship with God and religion.


First off some background: I live in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States. I have friends of diverse backgrounds but the majority of them are college-educated and reside somewhere in the range of the middle class. True to that demographic a large number of my friends are Atheists, agnostic, or are not involved in any sort of organized religion. The most common instance for someone to find out about the laws or restrictions of my religion is when they ask me why I don't drink. The second most common instance occurs during the 19 days of the Baha'i Fast when I have to explain why I'm not eating. Responses for both range from curiosity to disgust. I don't know how many times I've had someone just look at me and say rather sadly, “Why would you do that to yourself?” as if I were involved in some sort of hideous self-mutilation rather than the minimally invasive restricting of food and drink for 12 hrs or as simple as abstaining from alcohol.

More and more I've come to realize that a large part of this gap between me and the people I'm talking to is due to American culture as it is today. It seems the average American has little to no real grasp of, or experience with sacrifice. Sacrifice and self-restraint are key ideas in religious teachings of many religions but are often looked at by American society as if some sort of barbaric Medieval torture. I know that sacrifice was a component in our American culture just a few generations ago. During the second World War the nation began rationing supplies and recycling metal. People bought war bonds and men signed up to voluntarily serve in the military. The war efforts were pushed as needing the collaboration and support of each individual and people believed in their “patriotic duty” to help these efforts. These were all examples of people sacrificing for the greater cause. But then those same people had just survived the Great Depression. They had experienced suffering and many had learned to work as a community to help each other out. My own grandmother had a “brother” who was taken in by the family when a neighbor could no longer afford to take care of him. I struggle to imagine any circumstance that would draw out these qualities and universal commitment towards a common goal in our society today. Despite our economic down-turn I look around and see the level of “sacrifice” this recession has led to for many amounts to waiting an extra month before upgrading to the newest, sleekest smart phone on the market or forgoing their annual or semi-annual vacation in favor of a stay-cation. Is it any wonder that sacrifice is a foreign concept?

In fact I can greatly attribute a good amount my perspective on sacrifice to having been a foreigner. For a year before going to college I lived and did service work in southern Africa. I lived in several countries and stayed in everything from mud brick homes with grass thatch roofs in Malawian villages to a lovely apartment in a chic neighborhood in Cape Town. But regardless of where I was during that year, poverty was never far away. When I returned to the States I found it difficult to fathom that the frivolous purchase of a candy bar in the check-out lane was enough money to feed someone for a week in Malawi, or that I could buy a shirt with the money necessary to send a girl to school for a year. All of these years later these thoughts still linger. To sacrifice something is to “endure the loss” of that thing. How can I possibly say I'm sacrificing when I have a house full of objects, closets full of clothes and so much food that invariably some of it will go bad before I have a chance to eat it? I am so shrouded and pillowed in my consumer goods that it would take a significant blow for me to be able to feel or endure any sort of loss. Natural disasters in recent years have brought record donations from Americans, and while I applaud the sense of connection and humanity of those actions I still feel that they have come, for the most part, as one-time donations of those watching and reading emotionally and making an empathetic gesture within their comfort range. Most will feel fulfilled with that one action and will no longer feel the need for additional donations. How many have made gestures that made a real difference in their own personal comforts to improve the lives of others?

More on consumerism, will-power/determination, and commitment/relationships in Part 2...

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,