The Future of Religion

I have always been tolerant of religions. I think good comes out of them as well as bad. Besides, the religious impulse is a part of human psychology and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Live and let live, I say.

At least, I used to. My thoughts may be changing. I was at a young cousin’s memorial this month. The family was gathered in small groups, talking and reaching out to one another. A sad and dignified affair it was until a Catholic priest rose from the assembly to perform the requisite rites. He spoke of a loving God and of eternal life, as if we’d somehow forget that we were burying a 28-year old.

I was incensed. “How dare he stand there and spout such nonsense,” I said to a friend. “These people are grieving, for God’s sake.”

The poor girl had it bad. It’s an insult to her memory to suggest that she’d left sorrow behind; that the misery of her life didn’t matter any more. If I were looking down from her heavenly height, I’m pretty sure I’d feel ripped off. I’d want someone speaking up for me.

With automated incantations pouring from his mouth, the dreary little man in black painted his fable in sunny colors; he made preposterous promises; he made little eye-contact with his congregation, lifting his gaze from the missal only to stare into space at the abstractions he believes in. He knows as well as you and I that life’s as fragile as mist, but that takes second place to higher knowledge, which he finds reassuring.

He’s hooked on it, too committed to admit that knowledge is just as fragile as life. It would terrify him, which is why he’s a terrible role model.

Grief is hard, not bad. Anyone who encourages you to escape it at this most crucial time is simply irresponsible. As a matter of public mental health we need to speak honestly and openly with one another, without recourse to childish metaphors, without tolerating denial. The human race has never been more informed, or more exposed to the world. We’re all growing up. If we’re to move intelligently into the future, our religious leaders need to join the rest of us.


In memoriam: Chloe Ann Haboush


Bad Gurus

Jian Ghomeshi was, until a few weeks ago, one of the CBC’s most successful personalities. His fall shocked his audience more than his colleagues. Apparently, it was long overdue. For years he’d manipulated his personal and professional acquaintances with all the narcissism of a bad guru.

The crucial question here is not what happened or how creepy it is, but how it is that people buy into it. Gomeshi lorded over his staff, and they allowed it. The victims of his assaults chose to remain silent.

This susceptibility crops up wherever there’s a power or celebrity imbalance. It happens in business and religion, politics and science. I found it in Tibetan Buddhism and it’s still there. When Westerners convert to Asian religions and accept the norms of communities they’re not really wired for, we say, ‘Well they’re strange anyway.’ This completely misses the point.

Rather than rock the boat, the socialized instinct is to
look around at what others are doing and fall in step

It’s not about celebrity or religion or weirdness. It’s about the human need to fit in, and its flip side—the fear of sticking out. Once we’ve found and secured a place for ourselves in a group or a corporation, we align our perceptions to that social environment. Sometimes it’s called hypocrisy; usually it’s not called anything because everyone does it.

In this case at last, one person finally broke the silence. She could have been sidelined, silenced or worse, but fortunately she wasn’t. Because of this, others were then free to come out without sticking out.

The social contract is not simply thrust on us; we shape it too. We follow the rules more or less, but we must also be ourselves. It’s a responsibility. It requires us to explore our intelligence, take risks, learn from failure and keep growing up.

Motivated by the fear of being wrong,
humans give up the freedom to be wrong

In Buddhist communities, and as we now see at the CBC too, this responsibility is taken lightly. In the name of peace, full-grown men and women give up their critical voice in public and private; sometimes even in their own head. They pretend ignorance and hope it will be blissful, but it isn’t. Rather than rock the boat, the socialized instinct is to look around at what others are doing and fall in step.

To be yourself means to resist such complicity. As simple as it sounds to be yourself, it’s not. We all understand that. Still, you’re who you are not only by genetic accident but also through your own decisions. People forget that. They think their beliefs are who they are. Beliefs are hardly worth the paper they’re written on. All that counts is how you behave.

The behavior of Jian Ghomeshi speaks for itself, as does that of his colleagues. With the freedom to choose comes the responsibility to do it with integrity.

Motivated by the fear of being wrong, humans give up the freedom to be wrong. It’s hardly what you expect from the creative centre of the Canadian arts scene. A group of CBC professionals—presumably educated, liberal and secular—allowed Gomeshi to trample their rights and mistreat them for years. They accepted a sick working environment that hurt people. They were irresponsible.

The greater tragedy is that so many people are afraid to live their own lives. We all need to fit into one or more communities, but we must also be able to step back for a hard look; and we must always denounce bad gurus, no matter the cost. In this case, as in so many others, the community itself was the force of silence.


Sincere Dishonesty

When little Philip was told he was stupid, he believed it. That’s how it is with children: they take abuse and think they deserve it. They also deny it, burying that misinformation as deeply as they can. There’s an awful lot of angry grown-ups out there.

Some of them vent their spleen all over the blogosphere. For them, it’s awash in effing idiots, morons, retards, Taliban-lovers and good old-fashioned bastards. Behind their anonymity, they feel no pressure to obey the social conventions they conform to when face-to-face. So much for integrity.

The fuel of this cycle is denial, a stubborn habit that passes on the toxicity from one generation to the next. It’s possible to break it, but first they have to acknowledge the awful power they wield. That’s hard on the self-esteem.

There’s honor among thieves, but no integrity in ignorance.

I hear about such people all the time in my one-on-one coaching sessions. There are so many stories about abusive parents, spouses, siblings, bosses, co-workers — even gurus. Abusers are often so forceful that my clients not only lose the will to fight back, they lose faith in themselves. It’s horrible.

As Philip said, “I used to be angry but I’m not any more.”

“Really? I asked. “You don’t feel it or don’t express it?”

I love the pause that follows.

It’s not easy to question yourself and come up short. We’re advised these days to feel good about ourselves at all costs and in all situations, but how honest is that? While self-doubt can be destabilizing, fake certainty’s worse. New-age saints keep their negativity in, but something’s bubbling under the surface and they’re not willing to face it. The solution is a bit of constructive negative thinking: serious doubt forces you to look deeper and be more honest.

Once you’re willing to doubt yourself, change is possible

Being angry and choosing not to react is your right; pretending you’re not angry when you are is wrong. Only by paying close attention to your motives can you avoid confounding the two.

We wish to not offend, to keep the peace, to not stand out. It sounds neighborly and humble, but it’s not. It’s just self-disrespect.

But we don’t want to see ourselves that way, and so we spin the facts. It’s weird how we choose to believe our own lies, how we actually think we get away with it. Nothing’s more complicated than the image we project on to our history, habits and proclivities and that we call, ‘me.’ That’s why “know thyself” is the most basic of all Greek proverbs and the foundation of all useful philosophy.

Projecting oneself as restrained and civilized may be a guide to refined behavior and self-improvement, but it can also become a show. That’s when Philip said, sincerely but dishonestly, “I’m not angry.”

Knowing yourself is not just hard and confusing. It’s also extraordinary and courageous. It requires honesty not just about facts but about the way you resolve your feelings. Once you’re willing to doubt yourself, change is possible. It’s only a first step, and yet it’s the greatest.


When Rights are Wrong

Our neighbor just forced us to cut our beautiful spruce tree in half because it was overhanging his property. Under Quebec law, he’s entitled. I also had to take out our lovely honeysuckle and lilac flowering bushes that were growing through his wire fence. His side of the line is now desolate, but he seems pleased. He demanded his rights; he got them.

Good ethical decisions take time, deliberation and integrity — three things in short supply these days. Rather then think, the lazy fall back on legal or religious codes. In either case, you get to feel ‘right’ with minimal effort and risk.

I always presumed that legal rights should do good, but I’ve been disappointed more than once. A judge once told me from the bench, ‘This court has no mandate to be fair, only to apply the law.’

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’m reluctant to let go of it.

The world will never be perfect, but we can strive for something better than this. I survived the cold war and count my blessings to not be living in a Nazi or Stalinist state, but today’s status quo leaves much to be desired.

It’s good that we don’t have to believe in God, but can if we choose. It’s good that our gender, skin color, sexuality and age can’t be legally held against us. Still, the right to live on the fringes of conventional life still comes at a price.

If you think rights are dodgy, freedoms are even worse

There are more dubious rights: for individuals to own billions of dollars and ignore the poor; to manipulate millions into buying and consuming stuff that makes them sick; to use the law for strategic gain rather than the public good. Your neighbor can still sue you into doing something ridiculous.

Ancient religious codes were often corrupt. Legal codes are supposed to be more enlightened, but how different can they be when both are drawn up by the rich and powerful? They’re designed to sustain the institutions they represent, and are only incidentally aligned with cause-and-effect, self-knowledge and human empathy.

Apparently, the real world is more sophisticated.

The trouble is, we’re founding a future in which we’re not obliged to listen to our body and minds. We submit to systems that make us dependent on rights, not clear thinking, that encourage us to sustain the status quo with scant concern for whether it’s right — or even whether it’s worthwhile.

Isn’t that what ethics is for? Rights are about what’s legal allowable, but the right life is a life worth living, with purpose and meaning.

We submit to systems that make us
dependent on rights, not clear thinking

If you think rights are dodgy, freedoms are even worse. Forget about personal freedom from base motives or from the tyranny of compulsive thoughts, today’s great freedom is the freedom to choose. Soon the entire human race will stand baffled in supermarket and pharmacy aisles agonizing over the right lifestyle choices. We already spend hours on the Internet, constantly sidetracked by fascinating tidbits and feverishly refreshing our inbox for new messages. We’re free to expend our libido on pornography without facing the complexities of human relationships, free to have children without really raising them, without even having meaningful conversation with them.

When we no longer feel it necessary to take a stand based on our own experience, merely on legal codes, we might as well be living in an authoritarian state. The great democracies today show signs of slipping in that general direction.

We’re distracted by the ‘debate’ between science and religion. Both are sometimes ethically right, sometimes wrong. Neither exist as objective realities. They’re just different expressions of human thought and behavior, replete with politics and self-interest. Most people are a somewhat scientific, somewhat religious and mostly impulsive. Science and religion work best when subjected to individual discrimination. But those who ask awkward questions risk being wrong. They also risk being excluded.

What peace and sanity we have is as fragile as life itself

I’m not too pessimistic about the future. The human race has done well in some ways. Economics is gradually displacing war as the basic exercise of self-interest and that may be a good thing, though it’s far from sure. Nevertheless, the notion that progress is our birthright leading inevitably to a utopian future is an unhealthy myth. What peace and sanity we have is as fragile as life itself. We cannot sit on our laurels.

Every act of rebellion,” wrote Albert Camus, “expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.

I sense a reaction brewing. Here in Quebec where social engineering is disguised as the defense of language, where the threat of English is an excuse to abdicate authentic government, I sense healthy outrage. In the news today I read about an abandoned Toronto Mayor claiming that “Everything’s great,” a jittery Prime Minister trying to manage unmanageable secrets, and a former chairman of the Security and Intelligence Review Committee in jail for fraud. The cracks are showing.

And that’s just this week in polite little Canada.

I dream of constant personal revolution

Is the wheel turning once more? Perhaps the Occupy Movement is the overdue heir to the broken counter-culture. The time may have come for a sharp, painful turn in modern society.

And that’s the easy part. The real challenge is to build a new way. It’s not going to happen through leadership alone. For it not to fail, those who make it happen must begin the revolution in their hearts, determined to keep rights in perspective and to pursue the good. I dream of constant personal revolution.

There’s more to mindfulness, and especially to mindful reflection, than sedate attention and loving-kindness. It requires us to skewer our treasured privileges and protections, to hold them up for closer inspection. We need to see their real cost, to renounce the complacency they breed and, above all, to undermine the noxious greed that flourishes today across the globe.

Mindful reflection is seditious, meant to undermine, doubt and reassess our most basic values and motivations. Band-aids can’t cure the inner rot. We need to cultivate razor-sharp, fearless discernment. How can we question our own motives without questioning the goals of the society that formed us? We are not independent of it.

If there is any freedom worth pursuing, it’s not the one to choose the best toothpaste and new smart phone, not to protect our personal rights, but to chuck everything to the wind and not believe one more goddamn lie.


Shadow of Hope

“It’s just an animal.”

So say some people when you lose a pet. They may try to sympathize, but they don’t really feel it. Not everyone understands. It’s not just about who’s gone, but who remains.

Our family cat Shadow died suddenly this past week from an unsuspected cancer. He was just ten. Only last week we were joking about his chances of making it to twenty. His departure was a shock. We still find ourselves watching for him at the door, listening for his cry.

It makes you think that life’s unfair. It reminds you that everything’s so fragile. And how.

Those same people who don’t understand might say that keeping a pet is selfish. Of course it’s about us too, but there’s more to it than that. Some pet owners would have kept him going for a few more painful months, but we reserve that particular torture for our fellow humans. We spare our pets the pain, and ourselves as well.

You can choose what to think, but not what to feel

Thinking about how we form relationships, I recall the character Data from Star Trek. He was an android who puzzled constantly about what feelings were like. When a fellow crew-member died he expressed his friendship with her as ‘a sort of familiarity,’ and her absence as something he would ‘notice.’ We certainly notice Shadow’s absence. He was our friend.

Some would reply that Shadow was there for us because we gave him food and lodging. You could also say that we were there for him because he was warm and squishy. That exchange was constant and simple, unlike any human relationship.

We feel a hole and know it will heal, but that knowledge changes nothing until time works its mystery. Hope returns. With his indelible memory Data wouldn’t understand the impotence of knowledge. You can choose what to think, but not what to feel.

Sadness will be overtaken again by hope; that’s survival

So in time the hole in our heart will pass. The feeling will shrink to a memory. Sadness will be overtaken again by hope. That’s survival.

Everything changes. Nothing is reliable. We all die, and yet our hearts return constantly to hope. We know it’s a set-up. We do it anyway, without even having a choice. Knowledge can’t free us from the pangs of life. I used to think it could. I used to think that that’s what Buddhism was all about, but it was just a dream.

The best we can do with life is to awaken from that dream. The jolt of loss delivers us to reality. Painful and acute it may be, but it brings immediacy, a mindfulness we could never invent, a freedom we could never imagine. Hope may be treacherous, but we keep going back.

Where else can we go?

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The Key to Letting Go

We all carry around our burdens. We shrug and say, “that’s life,” but burdens are not just responsibilities; they’re feelings we add on to the things we have to do, as well as those we think we have to do. They come with a sense that we have no choice. Tell people to quit the job they hate and they say, “But I need the money.” They don’t want to know there are less hateful jobs out there. Logic’s got nothing to do with it. They’ve made an emotional decision to stick with the familiar rather than face change and take risks.

We all get stuck like that sometimes. We use rationalizations to make bad decisions look reasonable and to hide from our own motives. It’s a form of denial. As a survival mechanism it gets us off the hook, but in the long run it’s toxic. Rationalizations are inclinations to see things a certain way. In time, they end up as obligations to our self-image.

Human beings are exceptionally good at rising to a challenge,
but only when they put aside their preconceptions.

The fact that perception is all in the mind doesn’t make it any easier to change. It only gives us a say. You can change, but not just because you decide to. It takes strategy.

We speak of the mind as if it’s a container of thoughts and feelings, but when we actually look at it, we see an ongoing engagement with the ever-changing conditions of life, spinning a web of incredible complexity. Mind is a process.

Still, it’s not random. There are patterns. The most interesting is our habitual perception of ourselves and others. It determines the weight of our burdens. We decide we are ‘resilient and able to cope,’ or ‘helpless and unable to change.’ Either way, we think we know ourselves and expect nothing more. That’s when we say, “But I need the money.” We don’t even realize we’re avoiding the point. Human beings are exceptionally good at rising to a challenge, but only when they put aside their preconceptions.

By trying to evade stress we actually accumulate it,
turn it into a habit and carry it around.

Instead, we see an unbearable burden and choose to bear it. Are we strange or what?

We usually face habits only once they’re a matter of urgency. The mere thought of changing our mental patterns stresses us out. In that very reflex the process becomes startlingly clear. By trying to evade stress we actually accumulate it, turn it into a habit and carry it around. Hence the burden.

We can rationalize it: carrying around burdens for the rest of our natural life is perfectly acceptable because everyone else does it. Rationalizations pose as intelligence but set your mind against you. You can’t keep them up forever. As Pi says in Life of Pi, “In the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go.”

The problem’s not rocket science, and neither’s the solution The fact that it’s got so little to do with reasoning is exactly what confounds us. You can’t just figure it out like a puzzle, Instead, you have to retrain your perceptions. You need to believe in your ability to change and to cultivate the counter-habit of letting go. It’s simple but it’s not easy. It takes time, strategy and a good support system.

I’m teaching an eight-week workshop beginning February 21, entitled The Key to Letting Go. Click here to sign up or for more information.