Saturday, May 4, 2013

Religion in the Modern Age

If I were teaching a bar/bat mitzvah age class with freedom to do my own thing, I would have them write down all the things they have been TOLD by other people or books or whatever about god/divinity. And then perhaps at the same time, perhaps after going through those, have them write down things THEY think about divinity, no matter what it is, even "there can't possibly be such a thing" or if there were, what qualities would it necessarily have (imaginary? subjective? good? neutral? etc.).

It is especially important to me to emphasize that the world is filled with people who will tell you What God Is And What God Isn't, and it's all bullshit. No one knows. It's about figuring that stuff out for oneself, figuring out if the word "god" is even RELEVANT anymore to the individual. What Matters To You? What Is Meaningful To You? Religion is supposed to be about giving meaning to what we know, and maybe pushing the boundaries of what we don't know with curiosity, but I don't believe it should be about defining and pretending we know what we don't know. That's why the religion vs. science debate is so ridiculous. If someone's religion/belief directly contradicts something empirically provable then the religion/belief is simply not tenable. If a religion/belief is framed in such a way that it CAN conflict with empirical data, then there's a problem already. The exception could be psychology since it deals directly with emotions and perceptions, and of course there is no One Right Way of pursuing psychology. From what I know at least, there's a LOT of different stuff out there from different people, that works well for some and not at all for others. And it all intersects with our current culture and norms, of course.

This idea that our very beliefs shift as our culture and norms shift is probably terrifying to someone who subscribes to an absolutist point of view of religion/belief. But of course that isn't even the biggest problem I have with absolutism in religion, since every religion I have ever studied (and I have a degree in it for what it's worth) only becomes absolutist in the hands and mouths of absolutist people. On paper (if there are writings) they never really are because religions are created by people, and they shift with people or they fail. Religions are concepts, institutions, traditions, communities which people create to fill a specific need, and when the need disappears or the expression changes, the religion changes or people find a new way to fill the transformed need. 

The discussion of what those needs can be, and how all this manifests in the current time, is one to be had when I have more time to verbalize my thoughts (and don't have piles of homework due). Suffice it to say that these are my obsevations and not perhaps the most well-spoken version of my observations, but I want to leave this here as a placeholder to come back to, as part of an ongoing babble into the internets.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

The following massive commentary contains spoilers for the movie (although is it really possible to spoil a fairy tale?) and is long.

Short version: This movie subverts the useless princess trope AND subverts the trope that being feminine/caring/beautiful is something inherently superficial or weak. THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME.
Read more »

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Prostitution, Pornography, and Cultural Narrative

( ETA: Regarding my inclusion of pornography below, I'm leaving that as I wrote it at the time but I highly recommend reading Stoya's blog. She is a porn star who is happy doing what she's doing and seems as far as I can tell to be a healthy wholesome person. She is certainly very well-spoken and can talk about things with experience and perspective that I wholly lack. )

This afternoon, I discovered Stella Marr's two blogs: Stella Marr: Call Girl Undercover and My Body the City: The Secret Life of a Callgirl.
She wrote an article (Pimps Posing as "Sex Worker Activists") about how so-called “sex workers activist” organizations/unions are in many if not all cases run by pimps themselves. (A pimp by any other still a pimp, someone selling another person. It is slavery, no matter what the justifications.)

Reading these things is shifting my perspective about a lot of things.

(Trigger/NSFW Warning: links to articles discussing prostitution, pornography, containing curse words. No unsafe images, and no images at all in my blog post.)

Read more »

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

A few thoughts on domestic violence

So today I saw this video of Patrick Stewart:

And read this written by Patrick Stewart:
Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence
As a child, the actor regularly saw his father hit his mother. Here he describes how the horrors of his childhood remained with him in his adult life.

And I had some thoughts:

Until our society empowers people to feel entitled to justice...until the most common reaction to abuse is to speak out, speak up and LISTEN to those who do...we will continue to wring our hands and wish for a better world. The better world starts with us, with raising our children and expecting our peers to listen, to treat everyone with respect, not just decrying victimization, but empowering those who are victims to speak out for themselves, and empowering those who hurt others to seek help and believe in their own ability to do the right thing.

Not everyone who hurts others is a sociopath without empathy. It all starts somewhere, and I think it's fair to say that right now many people would rather live with hurtful, even violent tendencies rather than try to get help because we subtly train them to compromise themselves in exchange for not being considered "crazy." We as a society, in our media, talk about so many psychological issues as if they are diseases, and treat people who are mentally imbalanced as though they are either vying for attention or a time-bomb ready to blow up in our faces. There is not, as far as I know, a pathogen which creates domestic violence. There is, though, a prevalent social climate which finds excuses for the inexcusable and which can train children to manipulate the emotions of others while remaining blind to their own.

I grew up in a family free of violence, free even of most drama. And that foundation has helped me to overcome issues in my own life, some pretty deeply entrenched issues that at one point almost sent me into a downward spiral. I can only imagine how hard it is for those brave people who overcome issues far more problematic than mine who were even trained as children to see those things as "normal." When you grow up and one or both of your parents emotionally manipulates you, and you struggle free of their influence, it is an act of incredible strength. For those people who are overcoming issues of domestic violence, bigotry, sexism...I am always seeking out ways to help and spread information which could help such people. Because I believe that we have to try to help, or else nothing ever changes.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Question for Joss Whedon.

In Angel season 3 episode 6, "Billy," [SPOILERS ahead, for readers who care] at the end, Angel keeps Cordelia from killing Billy. Why is that? He spends all this effort teaching her to defend herself, but when push comes to shove, she isn't allowed to kill? I have wracked my brain trying to think about what possible motivation there could have been for this, but I cannot find one aside from perhaps a contrived way to let Lilah be the one who does it. But having Lilah shoot Billy doesn't raise up a flag for strong women. It sends the message that "evil" women kill people, but that "good" women shouldn't have to. (Demons don't count, I think it's fair to say. Killing people and killing demons is treated pretty differently throughout both Angel and Buffy. Faith killed a human by accident who was far from a good guy and she of all people completely lost her shit.) The only reason he gives is that he "can't let her do it" despite the pretty salient point that Cordelia mentions which is that Billy isn't dangerous to her in the same way he would be to Angel. And ultimately, Angel proves to be immune. But he couldn't possibly have known that going into things. He had never seen an example of anyone consciously controlling themselves once Billy had laid his mojo on them, so there is no way he could have known what to expect or whether he could have handled it.

So put quite simply: Why did Angel prevent Cordelia from killing Billy? She had him dead to rights, and to let her kill him would be an expression of companionship and respect. To prevent her from it only seems to indicate that he believed that it was his right to kill scumbags himself, that it was something Cordelia needed protecting from, despite that she was the one who suffered on his account, through the torture-visions and even living through the death of one of Billy's victims. She hesitated, but I think she would have done it, and could have. If anyone "deserved" the "right" to kill Billy, you'd think it would be Cordelia, but instead she had to stand there and worry that Angel was about to go super evil (only her constantly voiced biggest fear) and attack her instead of Billy. That doesn't sound like protection; it sounds like taking an unnecessary risk for selfish reasons, or at best for scriptwriting convenience.

I have no idea if this question will ever be addressed, but I am extremely curious what the thought process was behind this stuff because I'm sure there was a reason for it. I just can't for the life of me puzzle it out.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Late Night Conversations™: Letting Go

[edited slightly to be more readable]

Not Me:
Coincidentally, this is one of the reasons I've always been shy about the idea of pushing boundaries, pushing limits. I should think the best environment for letting go is one that is at all levels completely safe and comfortable, where you can know without question, or hesitation, where you can really feel that you won't ever be put in a place where you don't want to be, so you can surrender that need to protect yourself more comfortably. Do you have thoughts about that?

I think that the idea you describe is partly (partly, mind you) an illusion. No matter how well-meaning others are, and no matter how much they love you, they will sometimes push you too far, or in the wrong direction, or say something wrong. In that sense, there is no such thing as a completely safe environment. I have said things which unintentionally set you off before, but you feel no less safe with me.

The point being that safety is not really about being safe. Surrendering that need to protect yourself comes when you feel comfortable enough with your ability to communicate your needs. Because the whole point of lowering those barriers isn't that there is some guarantee you won't be hurt. It's the slow (as slow as it needs to be) process of realizing that hurt happens and what's important is that we are with people who listen to us when we say "hey, that hurt," people who will respond to our needs, try to help us and help themselves.

So I guess what I'm saying is that yes, in part one should of course do one's best to safeguard the environment in which one does this sort of work. But there is a cliff of uncertainty no matter what, and I posit that instead of only coming up to the edge and stopping and remaining completely safe, one should, when one is ready, bungee jump. Because that is how we grow.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I watched the Sherlock season finale and now I find myself desperately craving chocolate. Is that what it means to be human, to feel so deeply even though your mind knows that there is no real reason for it? Is that why we are storytellers and poets? We cannot help but feel, and attempts to suppress it bring most people sorrow.

It probably doesn't help that I just finished the book Foreigner which is literally all about a man trying to translate between two completely different sentient species: human and atevi...who don't have emotions in the way that humans do. And the main character spends pretty much the entire book trying to understand not only what it feels like to be an atevi, but also reflecting and seeking out what it feels like to be a human. What are we, really? Why do we feel the things we feel? What is feeling?

Sometimes it all swirls up and overtakes me and I wish I could curl up by a fire somewhere and lose myself in happy stories and never have to feel sad or afraid. But then, I wonder. Is it really so bad, to feel pain and sorrow? We are trained practically from birth to process sadness as 'bad' and happiness as 'good.' But many of my experiences in life have led me to question that foundational assumption. To be clear, I do not think that just feeling itself is enough, that sad and happy are the same. I still think that my objective in life is to seek happiness. But, in what may or may not be an unusual way of seeing things, I believe that sadness doesn't cancel out my happiness, and that in order to continue to pursue happiness I actually have to feel sadness sometimes.

Sadness fills me with compassion, sadness breaks down the walls of my inner self and opens me up to the sadness and pain of the universe. Sadness is not what creates shells around people, rather people build walls around themselves to try to keep out the sadness. But I think it's within all of us, walls or not. And if we brick ourselves up we're just locking ourselves in a room with our own fears. If I open myself up, and let myself feel sad, I gain new understandings about myself, and the world. If I tell myself not to be afraid of the intensity of my feelings, to let go the need to be in control of my emotions...I'm free of myself.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two poems & thoughts jotted down

I was going through a bunch of poems I've collected, and re-reading this one it seems to me that one of the concepts Yeats is evoking is that of the meaning-generality from the Tibetan Buddhist ontology. In particular the lines: "I would have touched it like a child /But knew my finger could but have touched /Cold stone and water." This goes along with the last verse, which could possibly be a description of the meaning-generality of the same waterfall from the perspective of the woman with him.

Also the implications of the "law of heaven" he invokes seem to question reality in a way that is not dissimilar to the things I have been studying in my Tibetan Buddhist Reason & Debate class. There's a lot to more unpack there, but I'll leave it for now. Oh, and another poem I found below this one...

Towards Break of Day by William Butler Yeats

Was it the double of my dream
The woman that by me lay
Dreamed, or did we halve a dream
Under the first cold gleam of day?

I thought 'there is a waterfall
Upon Ben Bulban side,
That all my childhood counted dear;
Were I to travel far and wide
I could not find a thing so dear.'
My memories had magnified
So many times childish delight.

I would have touched it like a child
But knew my finger could but have touched
Cold stone and water. I grew wild
Even accusing heaven because
It had set down among its laws:
Nothing that we love over-much
Is ponderable to our touch.

I dreamed towards break of day,
The cold blown spray in my nostril.
But she that beside me lay
Had watched in bitterer sleep
The marvellous stag of Arthur,
That lofty white stag, leap
From mountain steep to steep.


I think I need to read the following poem about 100 more times, but my initial reaction was to think about emptiness, or selflessness. It has a Taoist feel to it in some respects, but I think especially in light of the end that it might almost be a visualization of a conception of selflessness in the Buddhist sense.

What Any Lover Learns by Archibald MacLeish

Water is heavy silver over stone.
Water is heavy silver over stone's
Refusal. It does not fall. It fills. It flows
Every crevice, every fault of the stone,
Every hollow. River does not run.
River presses its heavy silver self
Down into stone and stone refuses.

What runs,
Swirling and leaping into sun, is stone's
Refusal of the river, not the river.

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Friday, September 30, 2011

What Is Real?

Oh to be free and alone by land or sea
And what does it mean to be free?
To experience the vastness
The interconnectedness of all things?
To feel no pressure to conform to illusion
To be in touch with what is truly real
And what is real?

The dirt beneath my feet and in my hair and on my skin
The trees and grass I pass through on my way
The stars that wheel around in never-ending cycles
The dance of living things that has existed before each petty social agenda
And will in some form outlive them all
What is real?

Is it real to feel things for no tangible reason?
Is it real to love, to laugh?
What’s funny to one person is offensive to another
What is real?

Is it real to get upset for no good reason?
Is it real to cry, to lament?
What’s sad from one side of time is rationalized from the other
What is real?

And what is merely consciousness
Or is it something mere
Is perception any less a player in the cosmic game
Is it the referee, making the calls
Or perhaps perception is the game itself
And our senses are the refs
And our friends the fans
And our emotions and values and choices are the players
Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose
But as long as we enjoy the game
When the game ends we can say we truly lived

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A reflection.

Another Kallah, another two year cycle of spirituality comes full circle.

I have drifted significantly in the last two years, spiritually in particular. I have learned many things, some of them lessons I needed to learn, and some of them lessons I probably should have avoided with some applied common sense. Some were hard, and some were even harder. I have started to really See people, to See the events and dynamics around me in a way I hadn't before because I allowed myself to be too affected by rose-colored glasses. Some optimism is, I truly believe, an absolute necessity. But for optimism to be effective, you have to apply it to the real world. Not the world of potential, or the possible world, or the world you want things to be but they aren't quite there yet. I'm not sure of a way that this lesson can be taught verbally...I learned it in a very Zen way, actually. I was shocked into a state of higher awareness when I found out that someone I trusted and liked was not the person I thought he was. That the darkness I saw beneath the surface had far more hold than I believed, even unto beating up his girlfriend. They have reconciled since then, for better or for worse, but the lessons I learned were unforgettable, not just from this one event, but from observing and interacting with my environment after reaching this new awareness.

Three Lessons

First, that people give hints about the conditions of their insides. Just because you only see a tiny bit of insecurity, or cruelty, or immaturity, does not mean what you see is the totality. People are icebergs, and if you see a little, you cannot assume there isn't a lot. You can't assume there IS a lot either. But it is that uncertainty that should guide my consciousness. Often, you just don't know about people. And that should require more caution and observation before trust is earned, not less.

Second, that certain behaviors and perspectives are toxic, and there is nothing wrong with eliminating people from your social dance card who perpetuate toxicity in any form. Life is too short to be spending time and energy on people who reward loyalty with divisiveness, or friendly intentions with betrayals. And what's sad is that this lesson probably speaks to every single person who will ever read this. We have all experienced this. Sometimes it is a parent, a sibling, a friend, a lover...anyone in your life can betray you. Your responsibility to yourself is to make every possible effort to choose your friends and lovers carefully. I am learning to minimize my risks through social triage.

Third, and possibly most important, is compassion. All of the above lessons are as dust and sand unless you simultaneously apply compassion and understanding. If I stop spending time with someone and then think in my head (or say to other people), "That person is such a jerk; they don't deserve nice things" then I am also being a jerk. Obviously when we are hurt by someone, there is a certain amount of venting and release of pain that has to happen, in safe and trustworthy contexts. But if several months down the line I'm still harping on the same people for being horrible, worthless people, then I need to take a step back and look hard at myself and my motivations for saying such a thing. Every person has their own story, their own perspective. Reasons for doing what they're doing. And even if their reasons don't make sense to me, I am not the one who is utilizing them. Figuring out where someone is coming from, why they act the way they do, is an absolutely essential part of coming into communication and healing with someone. Sometimes, this is not possible. Sometimes, the person does not themselves know why they do what they do; they act without deeper consideration. Sometimes instead of healing communication between two people, all you get are scars. But without that initial drive to understand, to understand without judgment or imprecation, all you get is bitterness. As Yeats said, "Gaze no more in the bitter glass...for all things turn to bareness...thy tender eyes grow all unkind /gaze no more in the bitter glass."

Aside from improving my vision and perception of the world and people around me, and adjusting my priorities in accordance with my refined principles, I am coming to really feel like I'm carving out my place spiritually. My future is now, almost. By the end of this year I will be done with undergrad, and hopefully starting next year I will begin my Cantorial training. Spiritual leadership. Music. Lighting the way for others and myself as best I can. Becoming a vehicle for the ideals and philosophies that I feel are the connecting lines between all us dots. I was awaiting this Kallah conference with some anticipation... I have felt for months that I am on the verge of some sort of breakthrough. I have been getting bombarded with the signs of it too, déjà vu all the time, and dreaming vividly every time I fall asleep. My brain is in overdrive, processing things subconsciously, figuring things out, creating new spaces and places for me to explore consciously. I hope.

My relationship is going really, really well. And when I say well, I mean that each of us has truly begun to affect and improve and support and strengthen the others. My weakness is your strength, and your strength my weakness sort of a thing. With some overlap, of course. I have managed to work through the vast majority of my commitment issues, trust issues, and fears and uncertainties about my capacity for love and commitment. I have become more grounded into myself, seen new parts of myself, both positive and negative. And I have come to love all the parts of myself that I find. To me, that is the only answer.

We are just what we are. It is who we become that we can influence by our choices and our practices and our convictions. We each live in our own Now, and that Now cannot be changed. It's our Now. But, by acknowledging humbly the things about our Now that we would like to adjust, we can work each moment to create new practices and new habits. We can form ourselves into the person that we want to become. And that person is still us, taken in the context of the whole picture. Just because right now I have a problem with, say, a short temper doesn't mean that THAT is who I will always be, and I should just hate myself for being so terrible and uncontrolled. It means that I am dissatisfied with my Now. That I need to begin practicing patience perhaps by counting to ten before speaking when annoyed, or whatever works. There is no reason to hate myself because I am also the person who successfully moves beyond such problems.

We are not discrete particles divided up into seconds, minutes, hours, years. The me of two years ago is just as much ME as the me right now. What reason, then, would I have to hate myself knowing how much potential I have?! I have come so far, and fought so hard, and worked so much at making myself into the best person I can be. I will not ever be perfect. And I don't want to be perfect! I want to be in full communication with my potential, to be constantly working toward whatever new goals I set for myself, to be aware of how my perspective shifts with lessons and experiences gained throughout my life.

In this moment, I have friends I adore. I have family, both old and also a new family I am creating for myself. A love, another love, and a child too, who will become the nexus of my world, my base of operations, the foundation of everything else that I achieve. In this moment, even though there is much uncertainty and even fear, there is also the surety of knowing that I write my own story. In this moment, this deep breath before the next plunge, life looks good.

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