Friday, December 21, 2007

Religion vs. Spirituality



It is a common perspective. Certainly, I've viewed the world from this perspective for much of my adult life. If someone were to ask me, "are you a religious person?". I might say, "No, though I consider myself somewhat spiritual." What the heck does that mean, anyway?

And why, do I find myself coming back time and again, to castigating most religions -- or at least their dogmas? I guess it is the anti-consumer in me. I really don't like being "sold" anything. I don't like someone telling me what it is I need. I'd rather just figure it out for myself. Maybe that's what leads one to the contemplative side of the religious world.

I came across this video clip (be forewarned, it is about 15 minutes long), that seems to get at this issue. It blends one of my favorite spiritual thinkers (Ken Wilber) with a more traditional religious contemplative (Father Thomas Keating). Check it out and see what you think.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Greatest Danger Before You


I received this in the mail today. E-mail of course ;-) It is from Nipun Mehta of charityfocus.org, and is his "thought for the week". It just seemed to be worth sharing with others. Have a read and see what you think.

The Greatest Danger Before You (by Granny D)

In the end -- and it will end -- your life will seem to have sped by like a fleeting dream. Much of your story will be the age-old but ever joyful human experience: romance, family, satisfying work, and happy completion. I wish you a great fountain of successes. You will also be provided with all the failures and tragedies necessary to deepen and widen your soul -- sufficient, I hope, to make you wise and forgiving of all human frailties. I pray that these necessary troubles will never long crush your optimism nor your love for this magical life.

The greatest danger before you is this: you live in an age when people would package and standardize your life for you -- steal it from you and sell it back to you at a price. That price is very high.

You have already been selected for this program. You have its credit cards and designer labels already expensively around you. In the months ahead, you will find yourselves working long hours, too exhausted for community life or even good friendships -- too compromised to take a stand against the abuses of the system you serve. A great treadmill has been devised for you, and its operators do not care much if it wears you out or kills you. A system is in place to steal your life from you, if you will let it. Don't let it.

Read, study, meditate and think for yourself. Let your most serious education now commence, if it has not already done so. Refine and hold your own values, and pay the high price necessary to live those values. Decide what is important to you, and hold your ground against all temptations and tortures. From the pink granite of your own values, build a fortress against the world's ethical compromises, or you will soon be among those dead of eye who stand next to you in elevators but who are not alive. Don't let them steal your life. This is the only warning you will receive.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

WTFO?


People who know me understand that Big Pharma is not on my Christmas list. I am not the type of person that gets too worked up (these days) about the various dramas going on out there in the real world, and that I believe tend to be over-sensationalized by our media (the OTHER group that's not getting a card from me).

But when I read this NY Times article this morning, I was taken aback.

The thrust of the story is that there is a legal rebate program, where drug companies pay doctors to use their products. But that wasn't the point of the story. The point was that in so doing, they might be using excessive dosages that are proving to be unsafe.

But wait a minute here. Can we back up the truck? Why is there a legal rebate program in the first place?
Federal laws bar drug companies from paying doctors to prescribe medicines that are given in pill form and purchased by patients from pharmacies. But companies can rebate part of the price that doctors pay for drugs, like the anemia medicines, which they dispense in their offices as part of treatment. The anemia drugs are injected or given intravenously in physicians’ offices or dialysis centers. Doctors receive the rebates after they buy the drugs from the companies. But they also receive reimbursement from Medicare or private insurers for the drugs, often at a markup over the doctors’ purchase price.

Medicare has changed its payment structure since 2003 to reduce the markup, but private insurers still often pay more. Combined with those insurance reimbursements, the rebates enable many doctors to profit substantially on the medicines they buy and then give to patients.

The rebates are related to the amount of drugs that doctors buy, and physicians that agree to use one company’s drugs exclusively typically receive higher rebates.
Does this make any sense? So apparently, we have the same thing going on in our hospitals and with Big Pharma, that we have in fast food restaurants and soda machines around the country -- negotiated prices for exclusive use of a specific brand (e.g., Coke vs Pepsi), and increased payments with larger usage patterns.

I don't know about you, but my hope/expectation was always to get the minimum amount of drugs pumped into me, and to have the selected drug reflect the best thinking of the medical community, and not be profit motivated or corporately incentivised.

Now I'm not that naive, and I have also always had some aversion to Western medicine in general for being too prescription-happy, and not holistic enough in concept. But to imagine there is a legal program that lets rebates be paid to doctors that provide financial incentive to select one drug brand over another, and to use more rather than less medication, strikes me as something of an outrage. Am I missing something here?
Dr. Peter Eisenberg, an oncologist in Marin County, Calif., said many doctors had been induced to use more epoetin by the financial incentives and the belief that the drug was helpful.

“The deal was so good,” he said. “The indication was so clear and the downside was so small that docs just worked it into their practice easily.

“Now it’s much scarier than that,” he said. “We could really be doing harm.”
Frankly, I'm saddened that the only way this is a reportable "story" is that there are harmful effects now being detected. The fundamental practice itself is just rife with conflict of interest. So where shall I place my blame for this -- FDA or Congress? Somewhere else? Let me know what you think.

(Oh, and the picture? Yes, that is a giant spider sculpture in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, Japan, and yes, it is carrying "eggs", and yes, that is just about what I think of when I think of Big Pharma ;-)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Prayer



So, tell me, how is your commute? This snapshot is from a drive heading out of New Dehli on India’s national highway (OBTW, this is in the morning, going the opposite direction of most commuters ;-). In this particular photo, you cannot see the pedestrians, camel-drawn wagons, sacred cows wandering off the median strip, and occasional vehicle coming at you in your lane, but trust me, they are part of the commute too.

What’s my point? Only that everything is relative, of course. What you bemoan against, another would shout “hallelujah” for. And vice versa, of course.

And so, that leads me to this alternative “prayer”. I can't remember where I found this, and it did not come with any acknowledgement of the author. If you are tired of your usual prayers, or perhaps praying is not your thing, give this one a read and see what you think. Perhaps help open your eyes and your heart, and maybe even help you with gratitude. And that sounds like enough to me.

The Prayer
(author unknown)

Help us remember
that the jerk who cut us off in traffic
last night is a single mother who
worked nine hours that day and
is rushing home to cook dinner,
help with homework,
do the laundry and spend a
few precious moments
with her children.

Help us to remember that the
pierced, tattooed, disinterested
young man who can't make
change correctly is a worried
19-year-old college student,
balancing his apprehension
over final exams with his
fear of not getting his
student loans for next semester.

Remind us,
that the scary looking bum,
begging for money in the same
spot every day (who really ought
to get a job!) is a slave to addictions
that we can only imagine in our
worst nightmares.

Help us to remember that the
old couple walking annoyingly
slow through the store aisles
and blocking our shopping
progress are savoring this
moment, knowing that,
based on the biopsy report
she got back last week, this
will be the last year that they
go shopping together.

Remind us each day that,
of all the gifts we receive,
the greatest gift is love.
It is not enough to share
that love with those
we hold dear.

Open our hearts not to
just those who are
close to us,
but to all humanity.
Let us be slow to judge
and quick to forgive,
show patience,
empathy and
love.

Or perhaps you'd like a shorter version ...

"If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." ~~ Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Global Warming - take 2 (lengthy)



Earlier I posted a entry about a global warming debate that had been going on between some friends via e-mail. Well, in the spirit of all good natured warfare, let's kick it up a notch.

One of the friends (the "global warming is not caused by humans" proponent), found this documentary running on British television. It's an hour long, and I do recomment you view it. The rest of this post will comment on the movie, and try to make some additional points about this debate. So if you want to take this in order, you will need to have a nice cup of tea and watch the video first.

Anyways ...

I sent my thoughts back to the friend that had recommended viewing this movie. For it largely had validated his intuition about the global warming "myth". At his suggestion, here are my thoughts, then, shared more broadly for those that might be interested ...

First, thanks for sending me the link and encouraging me to view it. It is a well-done piece of work, and it provides the needed “balance”. I’ll come back to that balance later.

The story here corresponds with much of my intuition, as it does with yours from what you’ve said. For me, the intuition comes from the realization that we are but bit-players in this evolutionary process called life. But our egos assume we are the driving force, top o’ the heap, created in God’s image, and able to dominate and rule our dominion. I don’t find that to be a healthy attitude. Also doesn’t fit real well with humility.

Let me comment on a few of the show’s themes as I recall them.

On the role of mass media. Yes, I agree that the mass media has done a lot to hype global warming. And I must confess I am a bit curious about one fact. You know my theory is that the mass media is all about conflict for conflict’s sake. Heck, they will even create conflict where none exists if needed in writing a story. But here is a situation where they could pit group against group. I’m not sure why they haven’t done that. Perhaps it is just too early. And perhaps they are still quite comfortable pitting “environmentalists” against “big business”, “capitalism”, and “progress”.

On undeveloped countries being the victims. Well, I have to tell you, I think this is a disingenuous message. I think it is there to give pro-development forces virtue and righteousness. In the (admittedly small amount of the) greenhouse debate that I’ve heard, I’ve not heard any serious suggestions of trying to hold back developing nations. Indeed, you could say that one of the prime arguments that the US and AUS made against the Kyoto Protocol was that it did nothing to restrict developing nations, who were likely to dramatically increase production of greenhouse gases in the future, and hence fuel their development, at the same time we’d be limiting our own growth and cost-effectiveness. In short, we opted out because it is we who were being more disadvantaged by the accord.

I found this (rough) quote particular interesting: "Africa has coal, and Africa has oil, but the UN is campaigning that rather than use these cheap sources of electricity, they should use solar or wind."

To me, the wealthy nations have shirked their responsibilities to lead the alternative energy movement, precisely because we are exploiting the finite fossil fuel energy sources. Responsible policies would have (and still can) produce more cost effective and viable energy sources than the limited (and increasingly costly) fossil fuels. These are complex trade-offs. Do you remember acid rain? Smog warnings? Are they not real to you? Do you believe our dependence on foreign oil plays no role in our Mid-east politics? The canary in the mineshaft came in 1972 (Arab Oil Embargo) and how have we done developing alternative energy policies? Do you think we have the technological prowess to have done that in the past 35 years? It is one area I am not so humble on our intellectual abilities. And I say shame on our policies and our politics for not making that happen.

On the point that human contribution is a negligible (and irrelevant) part of climate change. I think the key question to ask yourself then is “so what”? Assume this argument is 100% correct. Should I therefore be doing anything different tomorrow? IMHO if you answer “no” to that query, then you are just as guilty as the Global Warming mongers of misleading the public. Why? Because humans (and particularly Americans) are living non-sustainable lives. IMHO non-sustainable is irresponsible. We need to make prudent choices. About the use of natural resources (since when did they become ours?) About the use of fossil fuels (limited supply and pollution contribution). About the use of nuclear power (lengthy half-lives and no viable disposal strategy). About consumption, or better, over-consumption (Madison Avenue). Etc. Etc.

On anti-capitalism and anti-modernity. I happen to agree with [my friend's] premise that we have probably gathered a bunch of former anarchists and Marxists into the Global Warming camp that have as their primary belief that progress for the sake of progress is a bad thing. And that wealth for the sake of wealth is a bad thing. And that the divide between the haves and the have-nots is a bad thing. And hence, the argument has become a populist one, and a political one, rather than one based primarily on science.

But you know what? I’m not anti-Marxist nor anti-Capitalist. I’m not anti-anarchist nor anti-modernity. I’m not anti-poverty, nor anti-wealth. There are many important lessons we can learn from the fears and realities of each “side”. This takes me back to balance. Balance is more important, and more helpful, than choosing sides. Balance will help shape your individual decisions, and hopefully help to make them wise ones. In the end, decisions that are taken from the spirit of reducing suffering to all sentient beings will be wiser than the alternatives, certainly in the long run. And if we must consider anything to avoid selfishness, it must be the long run.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the movie. It reminds me once again how little we really understand about our world and by extension, this wondrous universe we are blessed to be a part of. It will be interesting to see if the science of this story holds up. Very neat theory that climate change is based on solar wind that diverts cosmic rays that form clouds that provide our climate.

But it reinforces to me the absurdity of becoming attached to “positions” and “opinions”. The references to religion ring true to me. Think of what we have done to our fellow man with the simple word “heretic”. One belief killing another belief — the human cost ignored as rounding error in the transaction.

If we are but ignorant beings, tricked from the womb into the fabric of maya, what possible value can battling beliefs possibly have. Let us take notice of that absurdity, and use it to propel us toward an awakening. And through such a path, gain the wisdom to deal with these issues without emotion, and with compassion for all sides.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What's wrong with this picture?



OK, I know I am going to run afoul of the free-market capitalists out there (and I suspect that is most Americans, perhaps most of the world).

But I was just reading an article about Victoria Hale and her non-profit pharmaceutical company known as the Institute for OneWorld Health.

The purpose of her company is to produce drugs for treatable diseases in developing countries. Drugs that are viewed by Big Pharma as not having much profit potential. Now let me disarm the critics first by acknowledging that this company was started by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (with Bill the icon of capitalism). And second let me note that the business model, as it were, seems to rely on gaining access to the drug R&D as a tax break for Big Pharma.

But could we not focus for the moment on the mechanics? Can we step back just a bit and see what is wrong with this picture? For one minute, drop your business guard, let go of your cultural indoctrination, and ask yourself if this represents your priorities.

We've created a world where Big Pharma decides what drugs to manufacture not based on how many lives can be potentially saved, but on how much money can be made.

Oh, I can already hear you out there. "Of course they do, how do you expect them to pay for the R&D". "Come on -- be a realist, what do you expect them to do?"

Well, for one I am certainly happy to read about Victoria Hale. But as "good" as that news is, it actually made me pause even more. Scraps off the table, still in their financial interest, to save lives. Of course this story repeats itself endlessly. I made reference before to the book and movie "The Constant Gardener" which is an intriguing LeCarre plotline and message that just ends up under your skin (at least it did mine).

So what? What do I suggest?

I really don't know. This problem, like the world itself, is so complex and intertwined.

But I think the first step to address this problem, like the world itself, is to awaken to the underlying reality. And then ask ourselves, given this realization, what intentions should we set for ourselves, and how will those scale in the world at large.

And everyone's answer will be different. I'll offer my thanks to Victoria Hale for looking inward when confronted by the reality that she saw, and taking action to help save lives. That is a noble purpose.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The carnival and the chatter



I’m sitting in an airport terminal. Generally not a bad thing — it gives me time to read, or write, or relax.

Except, of course, for the incessant TV blaring out the “bad” news of the day. What a burden. Poisoness to the soul.

At home, one can take action and just turn of the TV (or better, never bother to turn it on).

But in a public space — the airport, a bar, a waiting lounge — someone has decided for you that this is what you want to hear. Or more likely, they have some sort of business deal that requires them to have it on, turned into a specific channel. That way you get news you don’t need to hear, surrounded by advertisements for things you just don’t need.

Oh, the drama of it all. I just a novice at this enlightenment stuff — it’s still very hard for me to tune out the background chatter.

But there is good news. Ah, the good news is that I see more clearly, each day, the futility and misdirection of paying attention to such chatter. It is but a distraction from real insight, real appreciation of the world, how it works, and what is meaningful.

Like the hawkers at the carnival, they try to draw you in to their show, and in the process extract some of your cash. And my recommendation would be that while you are awakening — pass them by. They will not serve you well, and they do not have your interests at heart. They themselves are fully captured by the carnival. Captive to the loud noise and freakish attractions.

Go instead into yourself, and consider things that really matter. Commune in nature and gain insights into the real world, not the sideshows.

But what of these constant bombardments? Surely you can not escape them entirely. And surely they add color and possibly even zest to life itself. Yes, and once you have awakened, you will be able to experience the carnival called life with equanimity and detachment. You will be able to experience these attractions (really ‘dis’tractions), and not be unwittingly captivated by them.

So for now, as you awaken, pass them by, tune them out, turn them off, and dwell in the everpresent silence within, and be at peace.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Global Warming?



Want to make a hit at your next party? Just mention casually over a cocktail that global warming is all a crock. That'll liven things up!

I've been copied on some e-mail traffic among friends (at least, they were friends) and the conversation has devolved into diatribe. I'd like to say this is a healthy debate, getting both side's arguments out on the table. And I suppose it could be.

But I've seen this type of debate before. It seems that global warming is modernity's new religion. Either you believe, or you are branded a heretic. And by staking out one's position, and shoring up one's defenses (and constituents), we are simply drawing battle lines, and in the end, I think missing the whole point.

To carry the analogy further, the missed point in the religious debates was spirituality. Left battered and helpless on the doorstep of righteousness.

In this current debate, what is lost is the middle ground, and practical action that can and should be taken.

Free hand of capitalism, with no constraints on one side. Result — depleted natural resources, short-term focus, environmental degradation, monopolistic practices stifling alternative energy innovation (unless they can profit), etc.

Big Government and heavy taxation, with redistribution of wealth on the other. Result — inefficient markets, resulting uncompetitiveness, disincentivizing risk taking, and eventually congress or other bureaucracies picking the winners and losers of the business world, etc.

Nether extreme is a healthy place to be, IMHO.

I like many of the attributes of free market capitalism, but it needs to account for all of the “costs”. Then the efficient market can find those most creative at balancing all of the variables that we are talking about here. Environmental impact. Exploitation of limited, natural resources. Etc.

You can see it will require a wise combination of business and legislation to make this work, not only in the United States, but across the globe (since, after all, we are talking about global implications, global resources, and global ecosystems).

If we stop trying to divide ourselves into camps based on philosophical, political, and ideological grounds, and instead start to suggest the healthy compromises that will make the system and the markets truly accountable, we may get somewhere.

Otherwise, just a lot of fireworks. Which are fun to watch, but after the show, all you have is a cloud of haze, and a somewhat putrid smell in the air.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Wired like Medusa

A good friend sent me this WSJ article: How Thinking Can Change the Brain. It makes the point that your brain can be fundamentally altered by your mind, your thoughts, if you will. Rather than the other way around.

That's nice. But I sent my friend this reply, which is based upon some of my current reading, and it seems to resonate within me:

Ken Wilber has some thoughts on this type of investigation. Good to do, but don’t expect to understand consciousness from it.

In his book “A Brief History of Everything”, Wilber makes a distinction between the surface of things, and their depth. Understanding the brain from this materialistic/empirical examination would be gaining insight into its “surface”. But understanding the mind, and even more so, the spirit that perhaps moves the mind, cannot be seen in this way.

“... he can know what every atom of by brain is doing, and he still won’t know a single thought in my mind. This is really extraordinary. ..."

“... The interior dimension can only be accessed by communication and interpretation, by “dialogue” and “dialogical” approaches, which are not staring at exterior but sharing of interiors. Not objective by intersubjective. Not surfaces but depths.”

“You can point to the brain ... but you cannot simply point to envy, or pride, or consciousness, or value, or intention, or desire. Where is desire? Point to it. You can’t really ... because it’s largely an interior dimension ... This doesn’t mean it isn’t real!”

He goes on to explain how the Enlightenment — for all of its good — placed all of the West’s focus on this materialistic/empirical approach. For example, if someone is depressed, the “lab technician” approach would be to determine a lack of serotonin in the brain, and prescribe some Prozac. Never mind that the depression was caused by a lack of values, a lack of meaning to one’s life, perhaps an existential angst that resulted in the physiological manifestation of a lack of serotonin. And of course, you can take all of the Prozac that you like, and it may make you feel better, but it won’t give you meaning to your life.

I think he is on to something — this integral approach. And as a result, I am now less interested for science to “prove” the unique aspects that come about through meditation. Why not just do it yourself and see? Why not just interact and talk with others that are very experienced in mediation to help guide you and interpret the results. Who cares of I’m generating gamma rays or alpha rays? What meaning is there in any of that?

Just a thought. Thanks for the article. The part I found interesting was this acknowledgment: "This positive state is a skill that can be trained” Had the author said “learned” rather than “trained” I would have been more impressed. He continues to see his “patient/subject” as just one more lab animal to be studied, objectively, empirically, and monologically. Sigh. Maybe he should try talking to them.

Monday, January 15, 2007

On the necessity of conflict


OK, now here is an unpopular position. Life is conflict. Let’s deconstruct that.

So many people long for peace, or at least the absence of war. We wish to avoid the meaningless death of innocents. We ask to spare the children — what could they have possibly done to deserve this?

But what is life? It is evolution. And what is evolution? It is random genetic mutation, manifest into some quantum change, followed by adaptation to the environment, followed by natural selection — a weeding out of the less well-adapted beings, and thereby, a diminution and eventual pruning of some experimental branches, and the strengthening and growth of others. Over eons.

It is conflict that provides this selection process. Now this conflict can take many forms. Consider nature. It can take the form of inter- or intra-species struggle for food. It can take the form of famine or pestilence. It can take the form of natural catastrophes. Sometimes, you can see the selection process working, when an individual is not strong enough to survive. Other times it seems capricious and perhaps even unfair. But that is our ego labeling that which just is.

Consider the absence of conflict. Some see paradise. A return to the Garden of Eden, or the arrival of Heaven on earth. I see death. I see stagnation. I see the corrupting influence of gluttony, sloth, and apathy. Can you really be sure you would continue to advance, either consciously or physiologically if you were not challenged? And what causes this challenge, on a societal scale? Conflict (or competition — they are the same thing). So this "push" forward, if you will, is actually caused by conflict, not by peace.

So do not pray for an end to conflict. Pray for wisdom. Do not pray for avoidance of tragedy. Pray for compassion, love, and gratitude. For when you see conflict and tragedy, know that you see life, in all of its complexity and elegance; its simplicity and its beauty. To wish for a world without conflict is like wishing for a sun that never sets, a sky that never rains, animals that never eat, or humans that never die. Think for a moment and you can imagine the immediate catastrophe that would befall such an earth.


Instead embrace life (small “l”) while discovering Life (big “L”). See the beauty in the flow; the purpose of the process. The give and take. The gain and loss. The hope and fear. The joy and sorrow. Life cannot be another way. We are but humble actors in a grand play, and our progress — our evolution — may come from awakening to the noble truths that surround life as it is. Life is conflict. Life is suffering. (Some wise guy said that about 2500 years ago; we appear to be slow learners; not a good sign for our own evolution ;-) Awaken to that reality. Accept it and detach from your egoic desires. And from that Authentic Self — offer Love and Compassion to all sentient beings. While they struggle to awaken themselves. And yes, while they kill.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Integrity


I found this abridged quote somewhere on the ‘net, but can no longer find the source. At least I can attribute the thoughts to the correct individual. In what follows, Mark Gerzon does a nice job tying together the loose ends that make up our individuality, and on what it means to have integrity. I encourage you to consider his views:
Integrity Grows From A Humbling Realization, Mark Gerzon

"The purpose of life is ... to know oneself. We cannot do so unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi.

I have never seen a conflict in which everyone could see the whole. On the contrary, I have only experienced conflicts in which some, and usually all, of the "part-ies" were identified with the "part." They were, literally, "partisan."

This is the basic human condition, the natural worldview of organisms that are born, live and die as seemingly separate entities. When our bodies shout "Me first!" -- we listen. We are wired to survive, and to put our survival before others (an instinct which can be trumped by only one other: protecting our offspring). As a natural extension of our survival instinct, we tend to care more about the welfare of those near and dear to us than those who are, by whatever definition, far away. Our language provides convenient words for each: the first we call "us;" the latter, "them."

The challenge of integrity -- or integral vision, which literally means "seeing" or "holding" the whole -- is to balance this very natural allegiance to the part ("partisan") with an allegiance to what it is but a part of. [...]

This intention toward integrity -- from the Latin integer, meaning "undivided, untouched whole -- is our first, critical step toward transforming conflict. Because of our commitment to "hold" or to "see" the whole conflict, we can become part of the solution to the conflict rather than just adding our energy to it. [...]

Integrity grows out of the humbling realization that there are many ways of seeing the world, and that we cannot take our worldviews for granted. Doing so blinds us to the possibility that our worldviews may be incomplete, skewed or -- to oversimplify -- "wrong." If this is so, then no matter how noble our intentions may be ("freeing the people," "creating jobs," "protecting human rights," etc.), everything we do will backfire.


--Mark Gerzon