What "Spiritual" Means

Some Unitarian Universalists hit a little mental snag on the word “spiritual.” I grew up with that snag. "Spiritual? What does that mean?"

Let me try this. Spiritual means being aware of abundance. Spiritual means knowing – with an abiding clarity -- that what you have, what you are, where you are, is enough.

It’s one thing to know this in your head. “Right, right, I’m enough. Gotcha. Heard it before. I know that.”

It’s one thing to have that cognitive knowledge. It’s another thing to live that truth with every breath and every step. That’s hard to do. It does not come naturally to us who are acculturated to modern society, and it involves more than cognition. "Spirituality" is quite a handy word for this capacity for not-merely-cognitive perception of abundance.

The abundance is there. We have but to expand the circle of our consciousness to take it in. All the world’s religions teach this.

In the Jewish tradition, the scriptures say it over and over: God is good, God provides, God is faithful. In Genesis, God lovingly brings the entire world into being, and provides human beings with everything they need. "Be fruitful and multiply," God says, and the fruitfulness overflows. The Book of Psalms sings again and again about all the gifts God gives us. Psalm 104 says, all the creatures of the earth
"look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things." 
Predominant is the picture of God, the generous provider, the faithful parent -- always giving, supplying our needs. The Jewish tradition is emphatic in saying God loves us extravagantly and wants to provide for us, richly and abundantly. That’s the Jewish way of saying that life is inherently abundant.

The Buddhist tradition teaches letting go of desires. Why? Because we have all we need, abundantly. Wanting things to be different obscures from us awareness of the ample riches that are present to us right here, inalienable from us, we have but to notice them.

Taoism’s emphasis is on the Tao, which is usually translated as “the way.” The Japanese word for Tao is “michi”, which means “abounding.” It is abundant everywhere.

Despite the teachings of the dominant religion in our culture, and despite the teachings of every other major world religious tradition, we have a hard time accepting it.

Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)
We spend much of our lives in the grip of a delusion: the delusion of scarcity. Christian theologian and Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Breuggemann has written elogquently on "the myth of scarcity."
“The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity....Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us.” (“The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century, 1999 March 24)
Brueggemann notes that the US has cornered more than three-quarters of the world's resources, but we want more, always more. And the more we have, the less satisfied and the less secure we feel. That's how powerful the myth of scarcity can be: it can take the wealthiest people on earth and make them greedy and mean, unable and unwilling to share.
“The ideology devoted to encouraging consumption wants to shrivel our imaginations so that we cannot conceive of living in any way that would be less profitable for the dominant corporate structures.”
The ideology of consumption requires us to buy the myth scarcity – for if we buy that, then we’ll want to buy lots of other stuff.

If "spirituality" means "awareness of abundance," then it also includes a political capacity to resist corporate structures demanding consumption.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity."
Next: Part 4: "Fabricating Scarcity"
Previous: Part 2: "Interruptions"
Beginning: Part 1: "Miracles"



The previous Lake Chalice mentioned the “miracle story” of the loaves and fishes – the only miracle story or parable that appears in all four gospels. Here’s the version from the oldest of the four, the Gospel of Mark:
‘The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”
But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then [Jesus] ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand…’ (Mark 6:30-42)
Five loaves and two fish. Five thousand were fed. What happened? The story may, of course, have been fabricated from whole cloth, but that hardly matters. What is it a story of? What does it teach us? What is its poetic, rather than "literal-factual," meaning?

The great Unitarian Rev. Theodore Parker notwithstanding, I want to say there was a miracle there – even if there wasn’t . . . what? It gets difficult to say what it wasn’t. Some folks like to say it wasn’t “supernatural,” but that word has so many conflicting meanings, connotations, and associations that I think it is useless. Theologian Daphne Hampson has a phrase that may be helpful here:
“an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” (Hampson, After Christianity, 1996, 12)
Daphne Hampson (b. 1944)
OK. That’s what there wasn’t. Whatever it was that happened that gets represented to us as five thousand being fed from five loaves and two fish, it wasn't “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” It was a miracle. It was a miracle of and within – not a miracle that interrupted -- the causal nexus of history and nature.

The miracle did interrupt something, though. It interrupted the mind’s chatter about its needs and fears. It interrupted obliviousness and allowed people to notice wonder, beauty, and the abundance that life presents in each moment. It’s a story that still has the power to interrupt the ego’s defense mechanisms and call us to neighborliness – call us to expand our circle.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity."
Next: Part 3: "What 'Spiritual' Means"
Previous: Part 1: "Miracles"



Theodore Parker (1810-1860)
Unitarians and Universalists have had an evolving understanding of miracles. The issue of miracles was, in fact, a defining point in our history. Prior to the Civil War, in the 1840s, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker created a stir by saying Jesus did not perform the miracles that most Westerners at that time interpreted the gospels as saying Jesus did perform.

Theodore Parker’s preaching career spoke to many topics, most of which were lost on his critics who only heard one thing: Rev. Parker denies the miracles. This is the tradition we inherit. It is the ground from which we grow. It doesn't have to be the mud in which we are stuck, for the tradition we inherit also includes an older wisdom concerning the miracle of abundance and community.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes)
There was a time for hard-nosed denial of the miraculous. And there is a time for rediscovering and reclaiming that older wisdom. I’m talking about the kind of miracle of abundance in and through community that the Quaker writer Parker Palmer spoke of:
Parker Palmer (b. 1939)
"Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply. If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited. If I become jealous in relationships, it is because I believe that when you get too much love, I will be short-changed. The irony, often tragic, is that by embracing the scarcity assumption, we create the very scarcities we fear. If I hoard material goods, others will have too little and I will never have enough. If I fight my way up the ladder of power, others will be defeated, and I will never feel secure. If I get jealous of someone I love, I am likely to drive that person away. We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded in the Sahara at the last oasis. In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them—and receive them from others when we are in need. Here is a summertime truth: abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole, and in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn’t just create abundance—community is abundance.” (Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)
Yes, the “true law of life,” is this miracle “that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.” Expand the circle, and it will be full.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
One of the miracle stories of Jesus – in fact, the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels – is the story of the loaves and the fishes. This seems to be just the sort of miracle that Theodore Parker was at pains to deny. Thomas Jefferson, in creating the “Jefferson Bible” cut-and-pasted favorite passages from the four gospels, and he excised this story all four times. We stand today upon the shoulders of Parker and Jefferson, grateful for the work they did. In the time of Jefferson and continuing through the time of Parker, a certain conception of the miraculous exerted a kind of “tyranny over the mind” – and Jefferson had declared:
“I Have Sworn Upon the Altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
They served the cause of human freedom in their times by calling our attention, instead, to Jesus’ ethics and teachings.

One generation’s liberation, however, can become a subsequent generation’s chains. If we throw out the story of the loaves and the fishes, we forego the lesson it teaches of the “natural” miracle of abundance.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Myths of Scarcity"
Next: Part 2: "Interruptions"


The Inevitable and the Optional

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness-based stress reduction – MBSR – is an approach originally pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn for helping hospital patients deal with pain. Don't reject the pain – for rejection comes from fear of the pain, and fear exacerbates the pain. Instead, sink into the pain with full acceptance. Bring all your attention to the sensation itself. Simply be present to the sensation as the sensation is present to you. In that simple presence, the stuff the cingulate cortex adds about how much it all hurts tends to fade. With practice.

Research psychologist David Creswell has reviewed the many studies on MBSR and its effect on pain. Creswell says:
“Just by simply observing and noticing how you’re responding, you are actually enlisting resources to regulate that response.”
Bob Stahl, the founder and director of MBSR programs at three San Francisco-area medical centers, adds:
“Learning to be with pain may feel counterintuitive, but it’s a fundamental step in healing. Rather that investing your energy in fighting or resisting pain, learn to go with it. This is an ancient wisdom that goes back to the Buddha, who taught that whenever there is resistance to what is, there’s suffering.”
Whenever there is resistance to what is, there's suffering. Or, as is often heard at the Friday night practice of the Dancing Crane Zen Center:
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
Psychiatrist Dan Siegel has found that mindfulness practices produces structural changes in the brain. Mindfulness:
  1. cultivates approach state;
  2. improves the immune system;
  3. enhances stability and clarity;
  4. helps OCD, borderline personality disorder, drug addiction, depression;
  5. improves empathy and reduces burnout.
Being mindful, the ego, and all its desires that are at the center of the brain’s fictional story, comes to be joined by an observing self that doesn’t pretend to want this, or be averse to that, or to have intended to do what you find yourself doing. This observing self is open and accepting, tuned-in, and curious about the experiencing self.
“MBSR has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people. Some 85 percent of them report that the practice has healed them in some way.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn says,
“My working definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are.”
Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

Judith Lief has been working for 20 years with mindfulness in her hospice work with dying patients. She has also found that mindfulness heightens our empathy and our connectedness with one another:
“The feedback I get from people being cared for by someone practicing mindfulness is that they feel seen as people, apart from the medical or mental problem.”
And writer Carolyn Rose Gimian concludes:
“Unless we can make friends with what occurs in our life, we are simply subject to circumstances and controlled by them.”
Carnegie Hall, New York City
"Make friends with what occurs in our life." Without control, without desire or aversion, with acceptance and the simple gift of presence, befriend each instant that presents itself. In bringing the gift of ourselves, our presence, we thereby become who we really are – not the story that ego is constantly fabricating.

You are not your thoughts, remember. You are, however, in this very moment, right here and right now, perfect, and beautiful, and whole just as you are. You are not a separated bundle of attachment, clinging to what is always flowing away from you, resisting what is always flowing toward you. You are, with everything, One.

How can you know that, down in your bones?
The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain"
Previous: Part 4: "You Post Facto Fabricator, You!"
Beginning: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"


Saturdao 30

Dao De Jing, verse 19a

16 translations.

1. James Legge:
If we could renounce our sageness and discard our wisdom, it would be better for the people a hundredfold.
If we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly.
If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.
2. Archie Bahm:
Therefore – If we ignore intricate learning and knowledge of petty distinctions, we shall be many times better off.
If we neglect to insist upon the formal proprieties of etiquette, our intuitive sympathies will return.
If we abolish opportunities for profiteering “within the law,” incentive for political corruption will disappear.
3. Frank MacHovec: “On Real Education”
Do away with learning, the same with wisdom; the people will gain a hundredfold. Do away with “humanity” and the same with “justice”; the people will rediscover love and duty. Do away with expensive arts, the same with profits; there will be no thieves, no robbers.
4. D.C. Lau:
Exterminate learning and there will no longer be worries.
Exterminate the sage, discard the wise,
And the people will benefit a hundredfold;
Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude,
And the people will again be filial;
Exterminate ingenuity, discard profit,
And there will be no more thieves and bandits.
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.
6. Stan Rosenthal: “Returning to Naturalness”
It is better merely to live one's life, realizing one's potential,
rather than wishing for sanctification.
He who lives in filial piety and love has no need of ethical teaching.
When cunning and profit are renounced,
stealing and fraud will disappear.
7. Jacob Trapp: “Return to Simplicity”
Get rid of cleverness and craftiness,
and the people will be better off.
Get rid of preaching and moralizing,
and the people will be more neighborly.
Get rid of competition for profit,
and there will be fewer thieves.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won't be any thieves.
9. Victor Mair:
“Abolish sagehood and abandon cunning,
the people will benefit a hundredfold;
Abolish humaneness and abandon righteousness,
the people will once again be filial and kind;
Abolish cleverness and abandon profit,
bandits and thieves will be no more.”
10. Michael LaFargue:
Discard “Wisdom,” throw away “Knowledge” –
the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Discard “Goodness,” throw away “Morality” –
the people will turn back to respect and caring.
Discard “Skill,” throw away “Profit” –
robbers and thieves will disappear.
11. Peter Merel: “Simplify”
If we could discard knowledge and wisdom
Then people would profit a hundredfold;
If we could discard duty and justice
Then harmonious relationships would form;
If we could discard artifice and profit
Then waste and theft would disappear.
12. Ursula LeGuin: “Raw silk and uncut wood”
Stop being holy, forget being prudent,
it'll be a hundred times better for everyone.
Stop being altruistic, forget being righteous,
people will remember what family feeling is.
Stop planning, forget making a profit,
there won’t be any thieves and robbers.
13. Wang Keping:
Only when sageness is eliminated and craftiness discarded,
Will people benefit a hundredfold.
Only when humanity is eradicated and righteousness abandoned,
Will people return to filial piety and parental affection.
Only when skill is thrown away and profit ignored,
Will there be no more robbers or thieves.
14. Ames and Hall:
Cut off sagacity (sheng) and get rid of wisdom (zhi)
And the benefit to the common people will be a hundredfold.
Cut off authoritative conduct (ren) and get rid of appropriateness (yi)
And the common people will return to filiality (xiao) and parental affection (ci).
Cut off cleverness and get rid of personal profit
And there will be no more brigands and thieves.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
Abandon the relative notions of holiness and wisdom, and people will benefit a hundred-fold.
Abandon the outer codes of benevolence and rectitude, and people will return to natural filiality and kindness;
Abandon the unbalanced acts of cleverness and profiteering, and there will be no robbers or thieves.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
Banish learning, discard knowledge:
People will gain a hundredfold.
Banish benevolence, discard righteousness:
People will return to duty and compassion.
Banish skill, discard profit:
There will be no more thieves.
* * *
"By getting rid of a reliance upon an unnatural moral catechism, we can restore our pristine ethical sensibilities." (Ames and Hall)
So learn that ren,
know all about yi,
become adept at sheng, and
a master of zhi,
You can't abandon what you don't have.
* * *
Next: Saturdao 31.
Previous: Saturdao 29.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.


Saturdao 29

Dao De Jing, verse 18

15 translations.

1. James Legge:
When the Great Dao (Way or Method) ceased to be observed,
benevolence and righteousness came into vogue.
(Then) appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy.
When harmony no longer prevailed throughout the six kinships,
filial sons found their manifestation; when the states and clans fell into disorder, loyal ministers appeared.
2. Archie Bahm:
When people try to improve upon, and thus deviate from, the way Nature itself naturally functions, they develop artificial codes of right and wrong.
When knowledge becomes highly abstract, men are deceived by mistaking abstractions for realities.
When instinctive family sympathies are replaced by rules for proper conduct, then parents become “responsible” and children become “dutiful.”
When corruption replaces genuine benevolence in government, then loyalty oaths are demanded of officials.
3. Frank MacHovec: [verse 18 omitted in MacHovec]

4. D.C. Lau:
When the great way falls into disuse
There are benevolence and rectitude;
When cleverness emerges
There is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are at variance
There are filial children;
When the state is benighted
There are loyal ministers.
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
When the great Dao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.
When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.
6. Stan Rosenthal: “The Decay of Ethics”
When the way of the Dao is forgotten,
kindness and ethics need to be taught;
men learn to pretend to be wise and good.
All too often in the lives of men, filial piety and devotion arise only after conflict and strife,
just as loyal ministers all too often appear, when the people are suppressed.
7. Jacob Trapp: “Decadence”
When men cease to follow Dao,
The need arises for public charity
And severe law-enforcement.
With the complications of these
Come cleverness, hypocrisy, favoritism.
With the weakening of family ties
Come more elaborate codes of filial piety.
When the land falls into misrule and chaos,
Then there are special encomiums
For honest and loyal public servants.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
When the great Dao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body's intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
9. Victor Mair:
When the great Way was forsaken, there was humaneness and righteousness;
When cunning and wit appeared, there was great falsity;
When the six famly relationships lacked harmony, there were filial piety and parental kindness;
When the state and royal house were in disarray, there were upright ministers.
10. Michael LaFargue:
When Great Tao vanished
we got ‘Goodness and Morality.’
When ‘Wisdom and Know-how’ arose
we got the Great Shams.

When the six family relationships fell into disharmony
we got ‘Respect and Caring.’
When the states and the great families became all benighted and disordered
we got ‘Loyal Subjects’.
11. Peter Merel: “Hypocrisy”
When the Way is forgotten
Duty and justice appear;
Then knowledge and wisdom are born
Along with hypocrisy.
When harmonious relationships dissolve
Then respect and devotion arise;
When a nation falls to chaos
Then loyalty and patriotism are born.
12. Ursula LeGuin: “Second bests”
In the degradation of the great way
come benevolence and righteousness.
With the exaltation of learning and prudence
comes immense hypocrisy.
This disordered family
is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society
is full of loyal patriots.
13. Wang Keping:
When the great Dao is rejected,
The doctrines of Ren and Yi will arise.
When knowledge and craftiness appear,
Great hypocrisy will also emerge.
When the six family relations are not in harmony,
Filial piety and parental affection will be advocated.
When a country falls into chaos,
Loyal ministers will be praised.
14. Ames and Hall:
It is when grand way-making is abandoned
That authoritative conduct (ren) and appropriateness (yi) appear.
It is when wisdom (zhi) and erudition arise
That great duplicity appears.
It is when the six family relationships are disharmonious
That filiality (xiao) and parental affection (ci) appear.
It is when the state has fallen into troubled times
That upright ministers appear.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
When the inner truth of the Dao is lost,
The outer code of morality comes into being.
When cleverness reigns in the world,
Hypocrisy becomes rampant;
When discord arises in the family,
Filiality is emphasized;
When chaos befalls the nation,
Respect is accorded to loyal subjects alone.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
Great Dao rejected: Benevolence and righteousness appear.
Learning and knowledge professed: Great hypocrites spring up.
Family relations forgotten: Filial piety and affection arise.
The nation disordered: Patriots come forth.

* * *
You can say, Decay that only worsens the decay.
You can say, In a period of decline "philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in so doing, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalizing an artificial alternative that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment."
Yeah, you can say that. Ames and Hall did.
Laozi didn't.
Or, instead, you can say, the Great Dao generates the corrective it temporarily needs.
Moral codes, hypocrites, chatter about filiality and loyalty:
these are the Dao's antibodies.
Fake it til you make it.
* * *
Next: Saturdao 30.
Previous: Saturdao 28.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.
* * *
Note: Of course, it's doubtful whether Laozi could have said anything in the language that he spoke that translators would have been at all likely to render into English as:
"Philosophers arise to proclaim the obvious, and in so doing, ironically exacerbate the problem by institutionalizing an artificial alternative that suffocates natural unmediated sentiment."
When I had "Google Translate" translate that sentence into Chinese (Traditional), and then directly back into English, it came back as:
"Philosophers appear obvious announced, and in doing so, the irony is intensified through institutionalized an artificial alternative, of suffocation natural intermediary emotional problems."


You Post Facto Fabricator, You!

There is no central ego, no “I,” that generates intentions that then generate actions. Rather, a lot of different unconscious brain processes are working out what to do, moment by moment. It’s like a cacophonous parliament of competing impulses in there. When a sufficient coalition of unconscious impulses forms in support of a given action, out comes that action.

Your conscious awareness likes to pretend it’s the monarch in charge, and to protect that illusion of being in charge, it stays very busy taking in the data of what you have already decided to do, and weaving a made-up narrative about how that’s just what you intended to do. It is that fabricated story that is the source of the illusion of self.

The post facto fabricated story is a tale of a hero – you – venturing out and dealing with this and that – deciding what to do, and carrying out those intentions, confronting obstacles and heroically overcoming them, or sometimes tragically falling to them. It’s the grand drama of our lives – presented to us streaming live as it is concocted by the very talented master narrator.

Here’s the thing: the master narrator is only the court storyteller, not the queen, not the king, not the one who makes things happen. There is no unified self: there’s just a constantly shifting coalition of competing impulses.

Our brain does us wrong – it overstresses us, it runs two different operating systems at once, it has memories that are unreliable, forms beliefs that unreliable, it gives us more pain than we need – and it lies to us about who is in control.

What can you do? It might help to remember you’re not alone. Whenever your spouse, or your boss, or your child or your coworker – or the chair of a church committee you’re on – is getting on your last nerve – remember, they, too, are doing the best they can with a brain built solely for the purpose of keeping paleolithic hunter-gatherers alive and reproducing.

You can’t take over and reassert control – because, after all, the very idea that there is a unified “you” who could do that is itself a brain fabrication. What you can do – what the un-unified, highly disparate collection of impulses and misconceptions that goes by your name can do – is watch. Be present to all the mess of your life and all life around us. You can’t make it what you want, but it can be trained to love what it is.

To love what is. This is the spiritual task.

The popular word for it these days is mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is being purposefully aware. It is noticing what we are experiencing and our response to those experiences. It isn’t simply knowing we are eating an apple. It is paying precise yet relaxed attention to the sweet smell and to the crunch between our teeth; it is paying attention to the glossy red skin and the bruise near the stem.” (Andrea Miller, Shambala Sun, 2008 Sept)

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain"
Next: Part 5: "The Inevitable and the Optional"
Previous: Part 3: "I Meant to Do That"
Beginning: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"


I Meant to Do That

Our brains mislead us in a variety of ways. Perhaps the chief deception is the illusion that I'm in charge: that there such a thing as an “I”, and that I am in charge of making the decisions about what I do from one moment to the next.

My conscious brain makes up a story about what I'm doing. Key features of that story are that I am doing what I do as the result of a rational intention and deliberate decision. In fact, the vast majority of the things any of us do during a typical day were already decided before we knew we were going to do them. I'm not saying they were decided by fate, or extraterrestrial beings using mind-control rays. I mean that the unconscious brain took in the data, decided what to do, and put into motion our action. Conscious awareness actually trails the process by a few split-seconds.

Yes, brain studies have repeatedly confirmed that motor commands come from the brain before there is awareness of intention to move. My conscious awareness notices what I have already begun doing, and busily fabricates a story about how that action is exactly what I meant to do.

Benjamin Libet had subjects watch a clock and, at a time of their own choosing, move their right hand, reporting at what position the clock hand was when they first ‘felt the urge’ to move their hand. Electoencephalogram readings on the scalp showed that the ‘urge’ to move their hand occurred about .2 seconds prior to muscle movement. But the electrical activity in the brain regions that created the motion began at least one second before hand movement! Thus, brain activity is the cause of conscious intention and not the other way round.

Our conscious intentions occur too late to be the causes of our bodily expressions. In one experiment, electrodes in an arm muscle could make the muscle contract and make the arm move. The arm motion was entirely involuntary – the experimenter decided when to trigger the electrodes to make the subject’s arm move. Yet subjects often reported that they had, in fact, meant to move their arm. They were quite ingenious – and sincere -- in making up an explanation for why they would have wanted to move it – “it was starting to stick to the arm rest” or some such.

Those explanations were made up after the fact.

Have you ever done something unintentionally – like you made an unintentional pun, or you dollopped a bit more butter into the dish you were preparing than you would have thought a moment before that you would intend to. You may have noticed in yourself that impulse to believe that you meant to do that, or you intended that pun.

More likely, you’ll fool yourself, but a friend won’t be fooled. You’ll be: “I meant to do that.”

And your friend is like: “yeah, right.”

Have you ever had that happen?

Video: Pee Wee Herman "meant to do that"

Those are only the most blatant cases of what is actually going on all the time. Instead of being the cause of most of our day-to-day actions, the conscious feeling of intention or urge to act is an immediate by-product of the activity in the motor areas of the brain that actually instructed the movement itself. Conscious awareness trails the action, making up a story about it.

There are conditions under which conscious awareness – the story we construct about who we are and why we’re here – can feed back into the less conscious parts of the brain and can influence results. Under conditions of armchair reflection – when we’re really sitting back and thinking things through – our conscious story can affect what we later do. But for most of our ordinary, day-to-day movements and actions, the story of an intending self is an illusion.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain"
Next: Part 4: "You Post Facto Fabricator, You!"
Previous: Part 2: "Don't Believe Anything You Believe"
Beginning: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"


Don't Believe Anything You Believe

Our brains, it seems, are not always on our side. First, the human brain is highly reactive -- it triggers a "fight or flight" reaction when neither physical aggression nor running away is at all helpful. Second, it's divided into very different left and right parts that often "don't play well together."

Third, there’s the way the brain makes memories. Memory does indeed play tricks on us. It’s so far away from being anything at all like a photographic record of what happens. The hippocampus is in charge of storing memories, and that’s part of the limbic system – the emotion system of the brain. In other words, you remember things when you’ve had an emotional reaction to them. You only remember what is colored and distorted by your emotions. Then you recall the memory at some point when your brain thinks that prior experience is pertinent – so the application of the past event to the context in which you are remembering it distorts it further. In fact, if the circumstances are right and the information is plausible, completely false “memories” can be implanted – and our brains tend to retain false memories longer than accurate ones.

Fourth, our beliefs across the board are shaped by many things other than reality. We’re more likely to believe what we’re told:
  • by a family member, or
  • by a someone with power and status, or
  • by someone who’s attractive, or
  • by a member of our in-group, or
  • if it confirms what we already believed, or
  • if we wish it were true.
Other principles by which our brains are predisposed to operate include:
  • I am luckier than most other people.
  • Other people think pretty much as I do.
  • Any event that happens near and soon after some other event was caused by the first event.
  • Inanimate objects have person-like qualities.
  • My senses aren’t merely triggered by external events but actually map and mirror the outside world accurately.
  • Things in my memory actually happened.
  • The information that happens to catch my attention is also the most relevant and the most accurate.
  • The more anger I have when I express a belief, the more justified the belief is.
  • The vividness of detail with which I imagine a possible future event is proportional to the probability the event will occur.
Our brains are so unreliable at forming beliefs that you really can’t believe anything you believe.

Fifth, pain. Our brains are out to hurt us more than we really need to hurt. Pain has both a sensory component and an emotional component. We feel the hurt – and that will often also trigger an emotional reaction, and in particular it’s the fear centers that are triggered. It’s the fear, the aversion of the sensation rather than the sensation itself that constitutes our suffering. “Nerve fibers carry pain signals up the spine to a key branching point in the brain called the thalamus.” From the thalamus, the signal is split and sent to two places. It goes to somatosensory cortex which tells you where on your body the pain is: foot, hand, rib, wherever. And the thalamus also signals the cingulate cortex – a part of the limbic, emotion system -- which tells you it hurts. “People with damage to the cingulate cortex often report that pain doesn’t hurt. The cingulate gives the pain sensation an urgent quality that demands attention.”

Our earlier ancestors needed that – and sometimes we need that. But once we’re already doing everything appropriate to address the cause of the pain, we don’t need it to keep screaming at us like it does.

All those are ways that our brain does us wrong. On top of all that, it then creates the illusion that we’re in charge: that there is such a thing as an “I”, and that "I" am in charge of making the decisions about what I do from one moment to the next.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain."
Next: Part 3: "I Meant to Do That"
Previous: Part 1: "Your Brain Is Out to Get You"


Your Brain Is Out to Get You

“Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square.” (Daniel Gardner)
That’s basically our situation. We inherit a brain that evolved to work well for the Stone Age. Our brains were made for days that were mostly uneventful. Without romanticizing the hunter-gathering lifestyle, it’s fair to say that prolonged portions of their days were bucolic and placid. Then, when something did need to grab attention – a charging mastodon, a raid from an enemy tribe – or a dangerous place where some sort of threat might lurk – our brains had good systems for grabbing our attention. Adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones, kicked up, and gave us the energy for fight or flight without which we would not have survived as a species.

It was a system that worked very well for the way our ancient ancestors lived. It works less well for you and me, as our blinking and confused hunter-gatherer brains try to cope with our world of computers, and cell phones, and GPSs, and everyone seems to want everything, and they want it from you, and they wanted it yesterday.

I think the last time I actually needed either to fight or to run away was in 7th grade. Yet I’ve got this biology that gears me up for physical aggression or speedy evasion whenever I’m in traffic and someone cuts me off, or I get a certain kind of email, or I hear certain political opinions expressed on the news.

Our world has gotten faster-paced. Knowing that fear grabs our attention, the news, politicians, and advertisers unleash a barrage of things to make us scared. If we don’t take some intentional action to lower our stress response, it’s easy in this modern world for the stress response to be almost constant. Chronic stress is a threat to our health in a variety of ways.

That’s just one way our brains are out to get us.

A second way our brains are out to get us, or at least confuse us, is that our brains are divided into a left side, which is very analytic, and breaks things down into parts, and a right side, which is holistic. They don’t automatically integrate very well. Which side is really more reliable? The left side is good at analyzing detail and catching things the right brain would miss. But when it comes to overall things like face recognition, that’s really hard for left brain to do: “Well, the eyes are just so, and the nose is like that, and the mouth has that shape . . . it must be friend, Bill.” That’s how left brain would have to do it, and it would be really hard. Right brain has the holistic sense, and it just instantly knows, “that’s Bill.”

Even a super-high-powered left-brain-type system, like a souped-up computer, can’t keep up with the accuracy of holistic right brain in some ways. Andrew Newberg gives an example:
“Does holistic thinking offer a more accurate or integrated view of the world? A few years ago, our radiology staff had a chance to test this hypothesis in a very particular way. We compared the differences between human and computer evaluations of brain scans, thinking that a computer might more accurately quantify which parts of the brain were not functioning normally, leading to a more precise diagnosis. To our surprise, humans, using their intuitive holistic skills, did slightly better than the computer, most likely because we derive information from various patterns in the entire scan that help us in our diagnosis.” (Why We Believe What We Believe, 2006, 94)
Because your left brain has the language, it likes to tell you that it’s perceiving reality – but it’s more fabricating it that perceiving it. Sometimes left and right brain provide helpful “reality checks” for each other. Generally, though, they're each off in their separate worlds, from which each occasionally lobs a bomb at the other.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Making Peace with Your Brain."
Next: Part 2: "Don't Believe Anything You Belive"


Paying Attention

Mindsight lifted Jonathan's dark moods, got Stuart in touch with his feelings, filled the emptiness Anne felt, and helped Allison heal from trauma. There are meds for these sorts of things: for instance SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) help the brain be more flexible, adapt more smoothly to changes. Dr. Dan Seigel’s approach opted instead for mindfulness: “intentionally paying attention to the present moment without being swept up by judgments.”

He began with patients doing a body scan: sitting still and carefully noticing the feeling of the top of the head, face, neck, and so on, surveying the entire body, section by section. It’s the beginning of training focused attention on what’s there – noticing sensations, cultivating your inner observer. Siegel would typically progress his patients to a walking meditation – a slow walk with attention focused on the soles of the feet -- and then to a seated silent mindfulness meditation. Sessions with Siegel combined meditation and meditation instruction with counseling conversation inviting articulation of stories and feelings.

The details about how each patient was helped – and just what brain mechanisms were trained and strengthened – differed from case to case. Part of the training was learning about how the brain works – it helps to know the story about how mindfulness and mindsight are working.

The brain's middle-prefrontal cortex – just behind the eyes – is located close to just about everything. The middle-prefrontal cortex regulates the flow of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts through the brain. Stepping back from the feelings and thoughts and watching them strengthens those middle-prefrontal regulatory neurons.

Mindsight promotes these middle-prefrontal functions:
  • Bodily regulation (keep heart and intestines working well)
  • Attuned communication with self and others
  • Ability to have emotional balance (gives live meaning and energy – without too much emotion, which is chaotic, or too little, which is rigid.)
  • Extinction of fear
  • Flexibility – pause before respond
  • Insight into self
  • Empathy with others
  • Morality: to realize we are part of a larger whole, and we can imagine a greater good and can act for it
  • Intuition.
Watching your mind at work – being present to what comes up, neither being carried away with it nor suppressing it – actually strengthens the neural pathways by which the middle-prefrontal cortex regulates an array of brain functions. The myelin sheaths on the neuron’s axons grows thicker, which helps them function better, and that middle-prefrontal area gets more neurons to fire along with it. The cacophony of 100 billions neurons begins to approach a higher, or deeper, kind of harmony.

Maybe, like Einstein, you have a natural integration and awareness that separation is a delusion, that the reality is that we, all together, consititute one organism. Or maybe, like Jill Bolte Taylor, a traumatic brain accident woke you up. But for the rest of us, we won’t get to Carnegie hall by practicing every once in a while. We won't arrive at equanimity and empathy by meditating half an hour a week. It takes practice every day. To become who you are: practice, practice, practice.


Video: Dan Siegel on Mindfulness and Neural Integration. 18:27
* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Mindsight."
Previous: Part 3: "Perceiving, Not Just Having, Thoughts"
Beginning: Part 1: "Practice, Practice, Practice"


Perceiving, Not Just Having, Thoughts

Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke shut down her left brain and allowed her to see in a flash of awareness that, as she put it:
“We are the life force power of the universe with power to choose to be at one with all that is. The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemisphere, the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful our planet will be.”
Taylor appeared on Oprah, where she said:
“Pay attention to what you’re thinking. Pay attention to what you’re thinking.
And you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are created by a tiny, tiny, little group of cells about the size of a peanut sitting in your left hemisphere. And many of us let that little peanut rule our lives. And you have to recognize that it’s just a group of cells that is designed to tell stories so that we feel safe in the external world. You are not your thoughts. So pay attention to what you’re thinking – and then decide if those are thoughts that are creating the kind of life that you want created, and if it’s not, then change your thoughts.”
That may be easy for her to say. How do we actually develop the ability to perceive a thought – not just have one? This is the question of how to be receptive to the mind’s riches and not just reactive to its reflexes. It’s the question of mindsight: seeing what your own mind is actually doing.

Sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts arise. Freedom lies in recognizing them, and neither indulging nor repressing. “Mindsight,” Dr. Dan Siegel, professor of psychiatry, explains in his book, Mindsight:
“actually frees you to become less self-absorbed, not more. When we are not taken over by our thoughts and feelings, we can become clearer in our own internal world as well as more receptive to the inner world of another....By harnessing the power of awareness to strategically stimulate the brain’s firing, mindsight enables us to voluntarily change a firing pattern that was laid down involuntarily.”
Dan Siegel tells about some of the patients he worked with.

Sixteen year-old Jonathan had dark moods, bouts of crying that came out of nowhere, bursts of rage.

Then there was Stuart, age 92, had apparently never had an emotional life. Lived in his head, and been a highly successful attorney. Late in life, his detachment had finally reached a level that his son brought him in for counseling, even though Stuart insisted he didn’t need it.

And there was Anne, age 47, a doctor and mother of 11-year-old twin girls. Said her life just felt empty. As a child, Anne had had a distant father, a mother who died when Anne was three, and subsequently a step-mother who was a harsh disciplinarian who criticized Anne relentlessly. At age 11, after one particularly painful dressing-down, Anne promised herself "she would never feel anything again.” It was a protection mechanism that lasted into adulthood – that Anne hadn’t recognized, and didn’t know how to turn off.

Allison, age 31, had persistent relationship problems, eventually revealed as connected with having been assaulted as a teenager in a way that was so traumatic she had no conscious memory of it.

Mindsight profoundly changed the lives of each of these people.

(Video of Dan Siegel on "The Power of Mindsight." 24:21)

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Mindsight."
Next: Part 4: "Paying Attention"
Previous: Part 2: "Neither Repressing Nor Indulging"
Beginning: Part 1: "Practice Practice Practice"


Neither Repressing Nor Indulging

My preparation for professional ministry included a year of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) – working as a chaplain intern. Day after day I held the anguish of the hospitalized and their families – and was grilled by my supervisor to identify the feelings that were in me. You can’t walk the heart path with others if you can’t locate your own.

That same year I began meditating – on my own once a day, and meeting with a meditation group once a week. This path of spiritual discipline appealed to me instrinsically. I also had an extrinsic motivation: as a ministerial aspirant, I wanted to be able to say I had a spiritual practice. It’s a good thing I had the extra extrinsic motivation, because the meditation didn’t seem to be doing anything at first, and I’m not sure the intrinsic motivation alone would have been sufficient for me to stick with it. I’ve since learned that meditation does have a cumulative effect – it’s just very slow, at least for me.

I was working on self-awareness. What emotions were there? What images, what metaphorical narratives suggested themselves? These were questions my CPE supervisor and the fellow chaplain interns were pushing me over and over to look into. And it’s what I was also looking into in the stillness and the silence.

You see, spending time every day being quiet and still isn’t about turning the mind into a blank. It is about setting aside each thought as it comes up – so that you notice the next thought. It’s about developing the inner observer who sits at the hub of the wheel and is aware of the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that come up at the rim.

Without regular practice at that, the thoughts come up, and run our lives. We can either let them carry us along, or, if we don’t like them, we can suppress them – in which case, they pop up in unconscious ways. The practice is all about being with what comes up – as I learned to be with the patients in the hospital, and what they brought up – neither repressing nor indulging. Just watching. It is an awareness of being more awake to our lives – of awakening the senses and also compassion and conscience and vision.

Meditation is a safe method of awakening. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s awakening came in a much riskier way: she had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Taylor’s stroke was unusual in that it shut down only the main functions of the left hemisphere and not other parts of the brain. The logical, linear, linguistic left brain generates the constant chatter of our mind’s inner commentary: I like this, I don’t like that, do this, I should do that, I wish they would do this – on and on. For Taylor, that chatter was suddenly turned off like a switch. In the silence, the awareness of right brain – an awareness which is always there but usually buried beneath the noise from left brain – came out the way that stars come out when the sun goes down. This is what she reported it felt like for her:
There is no reality except the present moment – the eternal NOW – right here, right now. I am an energy being, connected to the energy all around us. We are energy beings connected to one another as one human family. Right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment, we are perfect, we are whole, and we are beautiful. As soon as left hemisphere says, ‘I am,’ I become separate. With left hemisphere shut down, I could no longer define where I begin and end. I felt my spirit surrender, and knew I was not the choreographer of my life. My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria. I had the thought, there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormity of myself back into this little body.

(Video of Jill Bolte Taylor's TED Talk. 18:42)

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Mindsight"
Next: Part 3: "Perceiving, Not Just Having, Thoughts"
Previous: Part 1: "Practice, Practice, Practice"


Practice, Practice, Practice

You have heard, no doubt, the old joke. A tourist in New York stops a passerby to ask, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The passerby, who happens to be a musician, answers, "Practice, practice, practice." For a musician to qualify to perform in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall requires a lot of practice.

What happens with all that practice? We know that better today than we ever have. Brain scans show certain clumps of neurons getting larger with practice. Violinists show
“dramatic growth and expansion in regions of the cortex that represent the left hand” (Daniel Siegel)
– because the left hand has to finger strings very precisely and rapidly.

If you put up a scan of Itzhak Perlman's brain and my brain, side-by-side, someone who knows what to look for will be able to tell which brain belongs to a highly trained musician, and which brain can strum a few chords on a guitar. All that practice, practice, practice actually builds up neurons.

And just as violin practice changes your brain – and changes what you can do – spiritual practice also changes your brain – and changes what you can do. So it’s also the case that if we had a brain scan of my brain 15 years ago, and today, I’m pretty sure there’d be some differences. Some of those would simply reflect the aging process. Other changes though would have been produced from the last 10 years of spiritual practice.

I’ve moved toward a greater integration. Obviously, I have some areas for further growth -- and always will. But if you’d known my brain 15 years ago . . . well!

I was raised by solid rationalist, humanist parents. They were academics: Mom’s field was chemistry, Dad’s was English. His specialty was 18th-century British literature: the age of reason. So for me the arts and the sciences all pointed to reason. I was their first born. Wanted to please, and lead in the values my parents represented. Was on my high school debate team -- Georgia state champion. Went on to go into the family business: college teaching. I lived in my head, and trusted thinking more than feelings. Especially under stress, I trusted intellectual analysis – the strength of my arguments -- to get me through.

As in many mythic narratives of the spirit journey, the breaking up of hubris and the beginning of wisdom requires a descent into failure. Mine came when I didn’t get tenure as a philosophy professor. Despite approval from the faculty committees reviewing my performance, the President’s office cited institutional need – the slot I’d been hired into had essentially gotten filled when, in my third year, the academic dean gave up deaning and returned to full-time teaching. His field just happened to be philosophy, and the small school and tiny philosophy department didn’t need another full-time philosopher – a fact for which I’m deeply grateful . . . now.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Mindsight."
Next: Part 2: "Neither Repressing Nor Indulging"


"Their lesson could not be more important."

Almost immediately, after Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the debates about Luther’s ideas inspired some thinkers to go further than Luther. The radical reformers rejected church authority almost entirely.

The radical reformation included the Anabaptists – literally “baptize again.” They held that baptism entailed a serious commitment, which only adults could make. Some of the Anabaptist groups, including the Italian anabaptist movement of the 1540s also rejected trinitarianism. Faustus Socinus came out of that Italian movement, moved to Poland, where he attended and influenced Polish Brethren churches that would come to be called Unitarian. Thus, we Unitarians emerged out of the Anabaptist Radical Reformation.

Meanwhile, among the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren in the late 1600s, one Jacob Ammann, born 1656, argued for stronger church discipline, and a stricter application of shunnings – a system of social exclusion of excommunicated members. Those who followed Jacob Ammann came to be known as Amish.

In the 1900s, the Amish began migrating to Pennsylvania in reaction to religious wars, poverty, and religious persecution in Europe. Those who remained in Europe slowly merged with the Mennonites. By 1937, the Amish were no longer a distinct group in Europe. In the US the Amish are thriving and growing. In 1960, there were 28,000 of them. By 2010, there were almost 10 times that number: about 250,000.

Today, the Unitarians and the Amish are very different. We both came out of the radical reformation, however. The autonomy of the local congregation is something we share with the Amish as a result of our shared roots in the Radical Reformation.

Our distant cousins have developed a simple, sustainable way of living, with real community ties that ensure everyone is taken care of. We Unitarians have developed a liberal approach to religion that values gender equality and advanced educations. Is it possible to have the advantages of both? It would be difficult.

If the strong, healthy young people are sitting in classrooms getting advanced educations, we can't sustain the labor-intensive farms that are integral to the strong community ties the Amish have. Moreover, higher education tends to foster an independence of thought that might threaten the social cohesion their system requires.

Amish religious values are reinforced and sustained through biblical narratives, hymns, sermons. Similarly, the mainstream American dream of individual success and material consumption is reinforced and sustained through our teachers, leaders, speakers, media and entertainment. It seems unlikely that either the Amish or the mainstream way of life could be sustained without its respective myths, constantly re-affirmed.

Still, bless the Amish for what they bring to us. As their numbers grow, and more and more of us have Amish neighbors, the silent challenge that their presence presents is that, however clear we might be that we don’t want to wear wide-brimmed hats, don’t want our artistic expression largely limited to quilt-making (but those quilts are beautiful, aren’t they?) and don’t want to have seven children, we also, just maybe, don’t have to be stuck in the American dream-nightmare of stress, consumption, and distraction.
Anna Peterson
“Without utopian images and hopes, it may become difficult to conceive of even moderate changes to the status quo.” (Peterson 137)
If the Amish can envision the good life as communal, can replace individualism with solidarity and cooperation, can replace harried complexity with centered simplicity, can replace profligate consumption with sustainability and ecological responsibility, then maybe we can envision a future different from this present. Perhaps we can form a vision of justice, equality, and ecological sustainability -- a way of life wherein the reality of love and a genuine reverence for our interconnection, cultivated in disciplined spiritual practice, guides our every hour.

The shape of that spiritual discipline need not be constrained to Anabaptist theology. The details of the pattern of daily life, of work and worship, could unfold as we experimented and learned. Maybe the Amish, all things considered, aren’t a more desirable ideal than mainstream American life. But they point us toward what would be.
“They straddle the boundaries between the real and the utopian, embodying the productive tension between the already and the not yet of the reign of God. Although the longed-for utopia will always be not yet on earth, it is already among us in these small and vulnerable communities, seeds and promissory notes for the future. These communities do not lack problems and strains, but neither are they castles in the air. They represent the hope of learning, first, that it is possible, not only to conceive of a different world but also to create one, to live and make a living by different rules. Second, these small communities help us see how they are possible: what they might require of us, what they might promise. Their very existence holds out hope even while this hope staggers under the combined weight of the empire to which the communities refuse allegiance and of their own human frailties. They are far from perfect, their survival is far from assured, and their visions may never be realized beyond their own borders. Still, their lesson could not be more important: human beings can live better; injustice, destruction, and cruelty are not inevitable. Another world is possible.” (Peterson 144-45)

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Previous: Part 3: "What Putting Community First Looks Like"
Beginning: Part 1: "But apart from that..."


Early Voting

It felt like church: sacred, moving.
Gathering at the temple/precinct with my neighbors
I say hello to the greeter, am known, identified.
I receive my order of service, the ovals to fill in.
My neighbors and I have come together because we, the people, have work to do.
Liturgy means “the work of the people,” and this is ours.

The sacramental power is stronger when scripture study prepares the way.
Whatever your scriptures -- Vedas, Sutras, the Psalms of the Bible or of Walt Whitman, epistles from Paul or Thomas Merton or Thich Nhat Hanh -- studying them deepens your worship.
For this worship, the assigned scriptures are newspapers, magazines, candidate records and statements.

I go into the confessional booth and pray.
Before I pick up the felt-tip marker,
I bring my palms together,
take a moment,
feel the touch of god.

I am aware of my expansive vastness,
My tiny smallness,
And the sacrament before me,
this paper wafer transubstantiated body politic of christ,
this marker-ink wine, the black blood of the people, chosen, choosing.

This is the difference a vote makes, no other.
I know the math:
the chances I’ll die in a traffic accident driving to the polls
are about one hundred thousand times greater
than the chance that any candidate I vote for will win by one vote.
Determining an outcome cannot be the reason I take this communion.
A vote is a prayer, and changes things the same way: by changing the one who does it.

I cast my ballot bread crumb upon the waters, causing no one’s victory or defeat, merely
Joining with something larger,
Participating in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of myself into the shared soul of
130 million voters,
6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.


What Putting Community First Looks Like

For the Amish, success is defined as
“the ability to work at home, spend time with their family, cooperate with neighbors and relatives, produce much of their own food, and have time for religious and community events.” (Peterson 35)
For them success means community connection through which everyone is taken care of.

In terms of energy consumption, Amish farms are very efficient. In terms of labor hours, Amish farms are inefficient. That’s the way the Amish want it. Many people working many hours side-by-side builds community. The reason they stay away from most new technology is not that they have theological objections to human inventiveness after 1700 -- rather, they reject that technology which careful review indicates would fragment community.
“The dominant culture in the United States, including those practicing conventional agriculture, assumes without question that increasing efficiency, in terms of per person production, is always good. Amish people begin with different assumptions. They like the fact,...that they need every available family member, and often neighbors as well, to harvest their crops.” (Peterson 39)
Homebuilt gas-powered ice cutter to make ice
for non-electric icebox
Thus, they resist a lot of new technology, but not all of it. On an Amish farm you’re likely to see a motorized hay baler being pulled by horses. There might even be a cell phone -- kept in the barn where it won't disrupt family life. They don’t want technology to save them too much labor, because the shared labor pulls them together as a family and a community. As Steven Stoll put it:
“Anything that undermines their ability to cohere as a community of neighbors and linked families, anything that isolates them in their work or places production for profit ahead of the collective process, is prohibited.”
In this way, they are able to be
“far ahead of mainstream U.S....[society] in their attention to the needs and wants of their most vulnerable members.” (Peterson 112)
John Hostetler’s textbook, Amish Society, notes:
“The Amish view personal property, expressed in farms and family dwellings, as a form of stewardship, but they carefully avoid any ostentatious display of wealth. The fruits of their labor are used to perpetuate community life through sharing, hospitality, stewardship, and underwriting the cost of an expanding population.” (74)
If utopian means so idealistic as to be out of touch with reality, then, asks my friend, University of Florida professor Anna Peterson:
“Which model is more utopian: the Amish Gemeinde or the American dream of affluence, freedom from want, and endless consumption, which so few people actually achieve. When it is attained, this material success not only fails to buy happiness but also demands excessive consumption of natural resources and habitats and frequently relies on the exploitation of poorly paid and treated workers in the United States or overseas who produce and sell what is consumed. Mainstream observers often dismiss the Amish as na├»ve idealists, unable to face the real world. However, their expectations are more realistic in their context that those of most North American, and their social institutions are more able to help them realize their dreams.” (40)
Of course, there’s still the matter of the theology – many of their beliefs correspond to fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. There’s still the bit about the patriarchy, and the no post-middle-school education.

Could we have the simple, sustainable way of living, with real community ties that ensure everyone is taken care of, and still have a more liberal approach to religion, a more egalitarian approach to gender roles, and advanced educations? I don’t know. Not very easily.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Next: Part 4: "'Their lesson could not be more important.'"
Previous: Part 2: "Original Position"
Beginning: Part 1: "But apart from that..."

Peterson, Anna L. Seeds of the Kingdom. 2005.
Stoll, Steven. “Postmodern Farming, Quietly Flourishing,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 9, 2002 Jun 21.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society, 4th Ed. 1993.


Original Position

We’re all kind of set in our ways.

You know how to be the person you are. You've spent years developing the skills for navigating the kind of life you now have. You’ve had a lot of practice at it. Changing it would be difficult.

But suppose you could do it over. Suppose you were a small child again, young enough to easily learn whatever lifestyle you were surrounded by. Suppose you were being given up for adoption, and there are two possibilities:

Option 1: You are adopted by an Amish family and grow up Amish.

Option 2: You are adopted by a middle-class American family into a lifestyle of dizzying and insatiable consumption, social alienation and isolation, stress, depression, constantly rushed, rarely fulfilled, disconnected from family, barely knowing your own neighbors, blinded by myriad structural distractions from ever noticing the suffering of those oppressed by the systems that support your lifestyle, and burning through resources like there’s no tomorrow, which, at average US rates of pollution and resource depletion, there might not be.

Put that way, now which would you choose?

Do you value environmental protections and sustainability? Amish agriculture is extremely energy efficient. They use organic fertilizers that come from their own horses and cows. In dairy production,
“even the most efficient modern farms require 65% more energy per kilogram of milk”
than an Amish dairy farm (Peterson 31).

Modern tilling disrupts the topsoil, and leads to more run-off, depleting the soil and polluting the water. No-till methods are spreading, but
“Amish hose plowing, it turns out, is better for the soil than [even] new no-till methods.”
Because their farms are small compared to the vast monoculture farms of contemporary agribusiness, with crop rotation they can keep soil nutrients replenished and keep down pests. The Amish rarely use soil insecticides. Studies show that, yes, some Amish farms are ecologically questionable. But by and large
“there are real reasons to view Amish farming as a model for sustainable agriculture.”
Their farms are comparatively small. They use little fossil fuel. The Amish do not accept government subsidies, so they don’t have to follow policies that encourage monocropping. They reject many of the newer farm technologies that help put other farmers into debt. The result is that Amish
“profits are higher per acre and per animal than conventional farms, and their debts and expenses are much lower.” (Peterson 30)
The severe farm crisis of the 1980s never hit Amish farmers. While farm foreclosures were wiping out thousands of farmers, the Amish were doing just fine.

Rhonda Yoder’s 1990 study of Amish agriculture in Iowa concludes:
“In the midst of enormous economic instability, growing environmental dilemmas, and social upheaval (thousands of Iowa residents moving out of the state, countless farmers being forced out of farming and rural communities faced with decay), the Old Order Amish farmers and their communities were thriving. This type of success -- keeping farm families on the farm, building the fertility of the soil for the benefit of future generations and earning a living on small holdings – was a reality often dismissed as irrelevant in an era when agricultural leaders believed a farmer must ‘get big or get out.’ The Amish example defied this popular belief and demonstrated a viable alternative.” (Yoder 1)
Put that way, now which would you choose?

Do you value social justice? Do you support ways to meet the needs of everyone and to care for the least well-off? In Amish communities,
“families take care of older and disabled members at home, never in institutions.... Amish [rules] prohibit both public insurance such as social security and private insurance policies because these would reduce members’ mutual dependence. For members, the community is its own insurance, and in times of need no one falls through the cracks.” (Peterson 37)
There are some Amish who are wealthier than others, though overall the inequality is much less that in US society generally: the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is much, much smaller. Indeed,
“the community has an informal claim on a wealthy Amishman’s resources. He is also protected from an all-out competition with other well-to-do families in purchasing and displaying the usual array of material status symbols. Prestige is also culturally tied in to the welfare of the community so that personal reputation can only reach fulfillment in the service of the kin and church community. The religious support for both cultural practices is strong teaching against high mindedness or pride and a conscious cultivation of the virtue of humility.” (Stoltzfus 312)
They’re off the grid. They’re farming sustainably. They’re taking care of everyone.

Are they happy? It’s harder to measure that. What we can say is that they are succeeding, by their own standards of success.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Next: Part 3: "What Putting Community First Looks Like"
Previous: Part 1: "But apart from that..."

Peterson, Anna. Seeds of the Kingdom. 2005.
Stoltzfus, Victor. "Reward and Sanction: The Adaptive Continuity of Amish Life," Mennonite Quarterly Review 51, no. 4, October 1977.
Yoder, Rhonda Lou. "Amish Agriculture in Iowa: Indigenous Knowledge for Sustainable Small Farm Systems," Studies in Technology and Social Change, no. 15, Iowa State University, 1990.