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)

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