Category Archives: Spiritual Liberation

Learning Liberation

I believe there is a very old and shared dream of liberation, a vision for a world which we can imagine but find difficult to create.  To me this vision is defined by the good things which already exist in life, and the possibility that this good can grow.

My own experience of goodness is defined in stories.  As a child I shared my fear of death with my mother and saw tremendous empathy in her eyes that was so beautiful it transcended my fears.  I grew up struggling with wanting support from people that I never seemed to get, but then felt great fulfillment when I was able to give that support to others.  I have had my spirit shattered as I learned of how I benefit from war, poverty, and the systematic oppression of the majority of humanity; then my spirit has been reconfigured into greater wholeness once I committed to a better world.  I have felt true togetherness when crying on someone’s shoulder; and the healing that comes when we cry together. I have been inspired by the risks others have taken to make their behavior consistent with their values; by, for example, fighting global warming, dictatorship, or racial oppression.  I have felt my sense of the human family expand as I marched in solidarity over values of basic worth and dignity. In all this and more I see liberation in a formative state, the dream of what the world can be, struggling to be realized.

“Liberation” was not always the word I used to identify my dream.  As a child I named my desire “peace.”  I saw a lot of beauty as well as ugliness in the world and believed that it was our role as human beings to embrace the beautiful–things like compassion, friendship, and appreciation. In meditation I felt these good things and found a frequent sense of peace, of rightness with the world.  I believed that if we all could just discover this peace for ourselves then the world as a whole would be at peace, and that was what I wanted to live for.

When I was around ten this vision was challenged.  I saw my peers en masse start to say things like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m stupid,” and “I’m ugly.”  To me these statements were heartwrenching because I believed the opposite, and reeled at the idea that the people I loved would hate themselves.

I told my friends that I believed in them; that they were good, smart, worthy, etc.  But time and again I could see that my words were rejected.  Eventually I saw my friends entering new levels of competition over basic recognition and social respect.  To be recognized we had to dominate.  We had to prove who was the smartest; who was the most attractive; who was the strongest.  This competition increasingly involved putdowns and bullying.  I was a target.  I felt so much unnecessary pain and saw that same pain moving throughout the world as children degraded each other.

I had years of nightmares, suicidal thoughts, and trying to avoid the outside world.  But, despite this pain, I could still see the profoundness of life.  For years I had an inner battle between misery and the commitment to resist misery.  Eventually something shifted in me.  I remember a nightmare where I was chased by a monster (as I had been so many times before).  But unlike before I did not wake in a cold sweat, but turned around and killed that monster.  Then I brought it back to life.  Then I made a world of monsters who danced in simple joy.  Though it was all in my head I experienced liberation which went beyond the peace I had experienced before.  This was not just good feelings, but greater clarity over what was worth living for after winning a conflict between the life affirming and the life negating.  I had found some freedom from the weight of depression, and from the ubiquitous hatred that caused my depression.

Yet again it must be stated that this was liberation in a formative state.  It was personal triumph, but only a small change in a world that is much bigger than my head.  Over the years I still saw the same story repeated again and again of people I cared about hating themselves, and most of what I said to counter this had little affect. Eventually I realized that my beliefs held little weight because I was not respected as authority.  Someone with greater authority already told people that they did not measure up; and I began to see clearer who that authority was.

Girls would describe themselves as ugly while looking at fashion magazines.  I had a bully that stabbed me in the leg with pencils in order to “toughen me up” who was abused by his father.  Kids doubted their intelligence while adults told them that their entire future depended on them defeating each other in an endless competition for grades, recognition, and status. So many authorities had a tendency towards dehumanization, stripping us of inherent worth and treating us as tools.

When I learned more about history I could start seeing this even more clearly.  European elites created empires which conquered the world, subjugated its people, took their resources, destroyed their cultures, engulfed the planet in World Wars, and pushed workers into the worst conditions they could stomach in order to maximize the profit of a few.  The world of today has inherited all of this pain.  We have normalized the idea that it is the rightful place of authority to abuse, and the powerful of today continue to reap benefits from inequity.

In my moments of peace I have seen what life can be if we can find freedom from injustice.  But experiencing moments of peace is not enough to create this freedom. My happiness does not change the exploitation of humans.  As such it does not change the exploitation of me as a human, and my momentary peace can be nothing more than momentary.  To truly find greater freedom there must be resistance.  At the same time, I can resist injustice in a way that ultimately provides nothing better.  I can use my hurt as an excuse to hurt others, leading to no net improvements in the state of humanity.

Liberation falls into neither pitfall of resistance without purpose nor self satisfaction without social conscience.  Liberation is instead the simultaneous resistance of injustice and embrace of peace that is both the means and the ends to a world which genuinely serves our needs.  This combined resistance of injustice and embrace of peace is a journey taken by both the individual and the many collectives which define the individual.  Ultimately liberation is a long process which requires both struggle and reflection on the meaning of our struggles.  Liberation must be learned, and learning liberation is the best thing I can think to do with my life.

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I am no better or worse than anyone else

Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables.  It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood.  As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else.  Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).

Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up.  As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was.  I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math.  We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy.  Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers.  And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores.  For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it.  In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them.  Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling.  I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers.  Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition.  I did want to be superior.

I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them.  I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them.  This includes things like,

  • Why are you wasting my time?
  • That thing she said was stupid
  • He is an idiot
  • I would never get myself in that situation
  • You are not as special as me, and also
  • racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets

These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me.  My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person.  As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more.  Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people.  Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened.  Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug.  I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior.  This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.

Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades).  As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus.  Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity.  Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money).  Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us.  In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs.  However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.

I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  The privileges afforded to me by my white skin, Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources.  For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work.  My father did not do this.  Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this.  Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women.  This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition.  I have more time to work and to play.  I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids.  I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power.  And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores.  This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.

Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties.  But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”).  But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see.  I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie.  I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles.  I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her).  Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.

Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this.  I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process.  But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well.  In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else.  This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.

*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male.  It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male.  In  other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity.  I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.

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Gun violence ain’t about the crazies. And crazy is a horrible word.

Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness.  He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”  Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill.  I believe this is a terrible idea.

“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept.  Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind.  But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use?  Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?”  Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?

“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity.  As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents.  This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”

crazy normal spectrum

The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.”  The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood).  All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.”  Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages.  To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”).  But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”

I was a bizarrely spiritual boy.  I meditated.  I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe).  I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were.  I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”  But the thing was…  in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street.  While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me.  I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later.  Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care.  I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable.  Others relate to my story.  Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective.  But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.

I was terrified of being crazy.  It haunted my dreams.  I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed.  Here are some examples of what this looks like:

  • “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
  • “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
  • “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”

This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch.  Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking.  Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best.  I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head.  Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.

It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too.  Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been.  It is healing.  And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”

I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated.  As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term.  Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined  and diagnosed by abnormal behavior.  In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal.  Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database).  And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world.  I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not.  This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society.  Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them).  Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically).  But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.

We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre.  If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common.  But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems.  When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses.  Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.

So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons.  Dismantle the military industrial complex!  While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA).  These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems.  In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves.  Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line.  And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:

We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut.  It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening.  Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology.  Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan?  Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch.  Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life?  Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself?  And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page.  I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.

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My Spiritual Passion for Social Justice: Speech at the Washington Ethical Society

This is a transcript of a speech I recently gave at the Washingtion Ethical Society (WES).  WES is a part of Ethical Culture which is basically a religious humanist community.  This means that people are humanist -their worldview is generally nontheistic; focused on human experience and human relationships and not so much on god.  But WES differs from secular humanism in that people have regular gathering times, religious services, and form a religious community which in many ways operates similarly to theistic congregations.  I was asked to give the following speech about my personal passion for social justice.  Enjoy!

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When I think about social justice at WES, what really resonates with me is the spiritual underpinning behind my passion.  I grew up not raised in a religion.  There were no holy books, no Sunday services, no community of faith.  Yet I had a lot of what are called “mystical experiences.”  I frequently felt a sense of oneness with the universe, a sense of sacred interconnectivity and higher truths.  This was a sense of love and beauty.  The world was beautiful and deserving of love.  I suppose that is my fundamental spiritual belief, which also translates into a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

My beliefs, my faith, my background, became a commitment to social justice once I realized that society as a whole did not follow loving principles, and all of us are hurt because of this.  I remember being a student in elementary school who was eager to learn about so many things, but I was continuously struck by the fact that the adults who oversaw me never thought to ask what I was truly curious about and what I truly cared for.  I became an anti-war activist when I saw that the invasion of Iraq was manufactured from dubious reasons, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who I believed deserved love and dignity.  In the working world I noticed a repeated tendency for people to be treated with respect or abuse depending on their pecking order in the hierarchy.  To me, all people deserved respect.  It wasn’t something you earned with your status or were denied because you failed to pull yourself up by the nonexistent proverbial bootstraps.

There are a lot of things I could talk about.  In the end I saw a dissonance between the world I lived in and what I knew in my heart was right –my spiritual commitment to love and dignity.  The beautiful thing about WES; it is one of the places where I can feel safe to live according to my heart.  We are all here to seek the highest.  Even better, we can seek the highest while not forcing ourselves to follow one version of what that means.

My passion is nurtured by the people and places where compassion, connection, love, respect, honesty, humility, listening, and generosity are valued.  Real community is built by the things we do for each other that make life worth living.  A commitment to social justice is a desire to nurture, protect, and expand such community.  It also means resisting the parts of the world which destroy what is worth preserving.  It means occupying wall street, desegregating lunch counters, protecting the natural environment, putting our voices and bodies on the line for the right to vote, putting our voices and bodies on the line for all our rights and the rights of our neighbors.

There is a cost to such passion.  The abusive world knows how to strike back.  I have been arrested, assaulted, kicked out of class, and fired because my passion for social justice would not allow me to quietly accept the hurt I saw people putting onto each other.  Despite the costs, every day I find myself feeling more free, powerful, and whole.   I suppose it is the sense of growing wholeness that most fuels my social justice passion.  I get something out of it.  I have something to live for which is consistent with human dignity and seeking the highest.

Ironically however, the more whole I feel the more meaningless my wholeness seems.  My life is sacred, but it is very short and very small.  I have spent a lot of time meditating on my own personal growth and liberation.  Now I have come to want something more.  It is collective liberation I care about; it is the healing of all who have been hurt; it is the transformation of society.  This to me represents a deeper vision of social justice which is constructed by all the loving people in all their safe spaces.  It says a lot that WES has been the safest religious community for me.  My hope is that we can still do more to engage with the world in a healing way, and strengthen the life-affirming bonds which hold us all together.

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My Journey Towards Nonviolence

In the wake of discussions about violence related to the occupy movement, I want to share my own story of how I came to endorse nonviolence.

As a boy I believed in the necessity of violence. Raised on GI Joe and Star Wars, I was presented with the view that good people had to kill bad people for peace and justice to reign. With action figures and video game controllers clentched in my hands, I acted this story out time and again.  It was a simple tale of right and wrong, yet I came to sense a flaw. If killing people was an evil action (as I was also raised to believe), how can people be good if they also kill?

This criticism became heightened once I realized that war was different from how it was portrayed in boyish fantasy. When the first Gulf War happened, the media talked about Saddam Hussein inflating the number of civilians killed by American troops. Around me I heard “well, civilians are always killed in war, but its not that many.” I thought, “not that many? What if it was my father or mother or neighbor or me?”  It seemed intensely cruel to offhandedly dismiss any human life, be it ten people or a thousand, Americans or Iraqis, soldiers or civilians.

Then I understood, we tended not to see war victims as human.  Instead of “person murdered” we say “casualty of war.”  “Casual” is right in the phrase, as though it is easy and everyday.  We learn to dehumanize and become dehumanized.  And I realized this was a necessary condition for violence. Violence is a degradation of our sense of human worth, and war represents an extreme example of this. As a person believing in my own worth and the worth of others, I could see that violence was perhaps the definition of evil.

Sill, I was so used to the idea that social change came through violence. This is what the history books taught. I had heard of Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent Indian Independence movement, but I had difficulty conceptualizing it. Violence was simple. You kill the people in your way and then they are no longer there. Once they are gone you can do what you want. How could people “stop being in your way” without the use of violence? Then I had a realization. There will always be people in the way. Even when power is violently seized, opposition, insurgents, etc. still exist. Social change, violent or otherwise, is never about removing opposition, but about advancing the influence of one regime compared to another. It is about shifting the balance of power. Killing people can shift the balance of power; so can spreading a message, building organizations, raising money, riling people up to act boldly for what they believe in, committing direct action to undermine the institutions that oppress, etc.

In fact, even if a movement is violent, most of the work in building that movement must be done nonviolently. Once we realize this, it isn’t hard to entertain the idea that a movement which has nonviolently built its power could also nonviolently exert that power to make changes in society. Historically this is backed by the cases of Indian Independence, South African resistance to apartheid, US civil rights, the Arab Spring, and many more examples.

But to me the biggest argument for nonviolence is this, if we wish to create a world that does not violate human worth and dignity, how can we do this by using a tool (violence) which inherently violates the worth and dignity of people? In the end I think revolution for a humanizing future must be based on acting against violence in both our society and ourselves.  Whether it is a military elite finding power through war, a financial elite making money off of economic collapse, a business elite looking to maximize profit through lowering the resources of workers, an employer in a middle class office who won’t hire a working class black man, a husband abusing his wife because he desires unnatural compliance, an everyday person not recognizing how her privilege is connected to suffering, or an everyday person simply lashing out in frustration- peace and social justice requires resisting violence in order to restore our holistic humanity.

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