Rookie Religious, Selfish Spiritualist

In talking about various lifestyles, it’s hard not to see commonalities between fashion and thought.  The twentieth century may be easily divided into its prevailing Western philosophies, each decade pigeonholed for its own flavor-of-the-month philosophical fad, such as Bertrand Russell in the Roaring Twenties, Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteen-fifties, or Jean-Paul Sartre in the nineteen-sixties, though others could suffice as well.  People tend to take their philosophical fads about life, the universe, and everything very seriously, and I can’t abide “seriously.”  I regard seriousness as an intellectual plague of the modern day.

The hardest people to prove wrong are usually laughing — and they’re usually laughing at themselves.  Even Shakespeare’s wise men were all court jesters, and I for one don’t blame them.  The funniest thing about humanity is its nearsighted self-importance, and laughing at people when they’re passionately convinced of themselves amuses hell out of me, like turning a vicious, snapping turtle on its back.

What follows amused me thoroughly to write, an indictment of three sorts whom I no longer naively expect to present consistent logic in casual conversation.  Each of them easily deserves their own post, but I like to examine a variety of topics, so this will have to do.  It should be noted (and I say this with an uncharacteristic twinge of tenderness in my voice) that I consider the following social groups fragile in one or more crucial ways, and I wouldn’t say these things to them unless they asked for it — or had the ability to stop reading.

New converts: more faith in their tee-shirts than you've got in gravity.

I. Socially Ambitious Spiritual Leaders

If there’s anything atheists and agnostics seem exceptionally good at, it’s automatic distrust.  The secular paradigm does not depend on faith as immediately as most religious perspectives do.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that when spiritual leaders run for office or hold massive conventions in sports arenas, atheists and agnostics refuse them “the benefit of a doubt.”  Since typical spiritualism and religion are against fame, large-scale material gain and power over one’s fellow man, it is often difficult for the secular world to trust spiritual leaders who appear on television, magazine covers, or the jumbotron digital screen at Anaheim Stadium.  Non-believers have no patience for spiritual leaders who ignore their own religious tenets.  Go figure.

Believers, though, they have no problem practicing George Orwell’s concept, doublethink.  Pat Robertson’s a great big jackass because he said horribly racist things to the media recently, but Jerry Falwell’s memory will remain untainted by his own shortcomings because they’ve been conveniently forgotten by people who desperately want to believe in their representatives.  Jimmy Swaggart’s biography, “Thrice-Born: the Rhetorical Comeback of Jimmy Swaggart,” says his public applauded the reasons he gave for his moral failings.  How’s that for accountability?  Spiritual leaders, it would appear, can abuse the public trust as much as they like without serious, lasting repercussions.  The only people who remember when they lie or steal or otherwise transgress their own moral standards are the same people who thought these leaders were crooks to begin with.

The historic Jimmy Swaggart apology. It's OK, big guy, we never really believed in hell, either.

There’s much paradox in large-scale spiritual leaders, anyhow.  Throughout history, hardly any of their burgeoning number have been founders of their particular brand of faith.  The majority have been little more than charismatic persons with evocative ideas and perspectives regarding preordained doctrine, which would be fine if that were all these leaders had to offer.  Once they’ve garnered sufficient attention, though, they tend to inflate their office like a wartime American president and commence making changes of all sorts and sizes, great and small, changes to the traditions of their faith, their practices, their creed, even their holy texts or ultimate doctrines themselves.  If the reader fails to see paradox in this, he or she will be kind to note that it is only upon these traditions, creeds, texts, and doctrines that the leaders attained their positions.  Fine joke, that.

If this argument seems dubious, one has only to consider the lists and lists, branches on branches of religious schisms and sects, denominations and cults.  Each of these represents an example of the above paragraph in action.  For instance, Martin Luther was not Christ, and yet. . .  Sai Baba was not Swami Vivekananda (let alone Ghandi, let alone Ramakrisna) and yet. . .  All that remains to be said is: don’t read Josh McDowell to understand the philosophy of Jesus Christ, read Jesus — and don’t read Alan Watts to grok Taoism, read the Tao-Te-Ching.  Socially ambitious religious leaders all either attain to power or have it heaped upon them, and anyone can tell you what affect power has on people.

II. Golden Years Relapse and AA Christians

Anyone can tell you that many elderly humans return to God (big G).  Alcoholics and druggies do, too, and in fact are ushered to it by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.  It isn’t bad math or inconsistent logic, if one looks at it.  Many religions offer amnesty in the form of baptisms, confessionals, or amoralism, and promise eternal life and love for virtually nothing in return; when faced with oblivion — well, one almost has to err on the side of a possible paradise rather than risk eternal suffering.  Of course, many non-believers see no risks or possibilities whatever, so they go about their business and simply snuff it at some point or other, tilled and ready to fertilize the daffodils.  Golden-years converts and addict converts, they revert to what took some of them decades of soul-searching and introspect to escape, namely, the same damned worldview they had when they were still being punished by their parents.  What a fucking way to go.

Rev. Oh Beng Khee, a friendly pastor who converts 25-40 seniors over lunch every weekend. Would you like fries with that?

The main frustration comes from their immediate desire to proselytize and witness to non-believers or believers of other faiths.  There’s nothing for one’s confidence in a doubtful matter like convincing someone else that it’s true.  Try it!  You’ll like it.  It’s a sad shame that so many of the world’s most beautiful systems of thought have no standard at all governing the earnestness of their converts, because there’s narry a congregation in the world without a solid percentage of confused persons, people having no business at all swearing oaths, speaking prayers, and outwardly worshiping symbols and icons with serious doubt in their minds all the while.  That sort of thing is definitely not good for everyone else in the congregation who stakes his or her own faith on the support of so many other steadfast believers.  If a fella learns to operate Windows XP on Monday, ought he to be given a job in information technology on Friday?  Do your beliefs a favor, you golden-years and A.A. converts: keep your gods to yourself until your faith outlives your reputation.

III. Spiritualists and Neo-Hippies

So-called spiritual people do not call themselves religious, and do not abide anyone else calling them religious, kindof like a Frenchman insisting that he be called a Parisian.  Religions control people, they say; spiritualism, though, frees minds like in a Bob Marley song.  Self-proclaimed spiritual people say that religions siphon money from believers, and that offerings and donations do not reach the poor and disadvantaged when they come from churches.  Of course, if the money were given to Hari Krisna dancers, “Save Tibet,” or the aforementioned Sai Baba, it’s global change in pocket change.  This is one example of dualistic spiritualist thought, but a mere one of hundreds, and the differences betwixt spiritualism and mainstream religion have more to do with the size of the congregation than with anything else.  But you knew that, already.

Sai Baba. You have no idea how globally popular this motherfucker is -- but if you've ever purchased a box of incense sticks, it was probably Sai Baba brand. Not kidding.

One annoying difference (or similarity) is the spiritual persons’ habit of maintaining a salad-bowl paradigm.  Today’s new-age and spiritual believers do not have a consistent set of beliefs, but rather pick and choose as though the fundamental principles of the universe were a produce section in the local supermarket.  While this may well be true of the universe and its principles, little effort is taken on the part of many spiritualists to reconcile one belief with another, so that while tarot cards might predict a fine day, Y Ching sticks may proclaim tumult while astrology declared perfect balance throughout the cosmos, and the modern spiritualist will find a way to accept the resulting conclusion — an admittedly shallow example, but a suitable one for our purposes.

Perhaps worst of all, few spiritualists really give a fuck about the authenticity of their beliefs.  The easiest American instance of this is the widespread abuse of the Hindu concept of karma.  Since spiritualism’s rise to flower-child popularity, the word karma has been used to describe a sort of cosmic vengeance which, were one to drop a brick on someone else’s head, would bring ten bricks down on one’s own.  This is a gross misinterpretation likely born from the Western need for a holy fist of heavenly justice.  Karma in the Hindu traditions is the effect of this life on the next life.  It is inextricable from the concept of reincarnation.  The effects of this life on this life are called dharma, and are much closer to the scientific concept of cause-and-effect than anything else, which pretty much takes all the magic and mysticism out of it — much like a large portion of other twisted metaphysical and hermetic philosophies.  The closest spiritualists in America typically get to understanding (or caring to understand) this crucial distinction, however, is a giggly aha! moment when the title of the mediocre sitcom, “Dharma and Greg,” comes to mind.

"When we go green, we go all the way," because, you know, you have to sit in full-lotus position to recycle a fucking can. Makes me want to burn a mound of styrofoam in the nearest Whole Foods supermarket, right next to the flax seed and patchouli oil.

That’s a fantastic image of modern spiritualists, in fact: imagine a group of people dressed like fashionable, anachronistic hippies, smiling at their recognition of a word they don’t have any compunction to really comprehend.  Oh, also?  Also make them shake their head ‘no’ while smiling.  That’s the spiritualist version of disagreement.  They’re as peaceful as Ghandi and as passive as apple pie, so they have to wait until their detractors have left the conversation to agree with one another about how much they disagreed with what that last guy said.  They could have to enjoin real conflict otherwise, and that just wouldn’t be natural.

*     *     *

What leads people to spontaneously become acolytes of a new system of beliefs?  Is it an immediate and crucial yearning for not just one dire answer, but a network of interlacing answers?  Is it a need to belong, a desire for a ready-made society of comrades united toward a common cause?  Nobody can say without being equally presumptuous, but there is a thread of similarity that connects these tenderfoot believers which is hard to ignore, one which their members would likely not bother to refute, and that is the vulnerability present in the spirit of each, the meek, affrighted lamb attempting to appear a lion by proudly waving its humble timidity like a glorious banner of courage.  Terror must abate — it must — and everyone hides under the covers under certain circumstances.

I’m afraid, too, afraid of men with guns, afraid of car accidents, afraid of both heights and spiders. . .  But I try to remind myself that these fears are usually irrational and childish.  I try not to massage my oft-bruised ego with salves of irrational, childish behavior like bandwagon belief systems, not that there’s anything wrong with being childish — so long as one doesn’t take oneself seriously, of course.  So what’s my problem?  What the fuck is it I want from people?

Consistency, sucka.  I want some goddamn consistency.

I want loudmouthed Christians to study their fucking books — all of them, apocryphal or not.  I want neo-hippies to study a little Hinduism if they’re going to start talking pop-culture reincarnation, want them to show genuine interest in all the yogas, karma, raja, jnana, and bhakti, too,  rather than presuming they learned all there is to know from a hatha yoga session at 24-Hr Fitness.  The cults of Kali, for instance.  There’s a side of Hinduism I doubt the Beatles would have endorsed.  I want grandparents who find God again (big G) to keep their dignity and pass on the altar call for the first few visits on Sunday.

But most of all, I just want people to re-evaluate their silly confidence in their best guesses at the secret of life.  We don’t know.  We don’t know.

Hey.  We don’t know.

With All My Cheerful Tidings,


Stumble It!

Hippocrates and Dionysus Fistfight In Heaven

I lost faith in doctors when I was thirteen or fourteen.  I had gone to my physician for a checkup I needed in order to compete on my swim team, and he looked up at me with consternation upon seeing a scab on my leg where, a couple nights before, I had heated a knife and sliced out a dime-sized cluster of warts, these ugly little growths I’d felt self-conscious of all my life.

“What is this?” he asked.

I told him.

“Ho!” he said.  I’d never heard a Vietnamese man say ‘ho!’ before. “That was very heroic of you — but we have stuff for that.”

His tone gave me the impression that he was insulted, but I didn’t understand it at the time.  I bet he thought about how contaminated my surgical conditions had likely been, and how lucky I was to not have gotten an infection.  I bet he thought about how clean and modern and painless and simple it would have been for me to just dial up the hospital, wait on hold, make my appointment, clear my schedule, keep the appointment, wait in the lobby, get the bastards removed with dry ice or nitrogen or whatever they’re using now, and finally pay for whatever fees and salves I would then have to pay for.

Or, I could heat my pocketknife over my bedside candle one night while I was reading in bed, slice the fuckers off, and go to sleep.

Yeah.  I stand by my decision.  Well done, teen me.  In case you’re wondering, there’s no scar and they never came back.

Doctors: can't live without 'em; can't shoot 'em.

In assessing modern medicine, I keep Andre Gide in mind.  Gide wrote a book called The Immoralist (among other great works) in which he castigates the relevance and inherent paradoxes of morality, and I quite liked it in my early twenties.  He used to hang around with Oscar Wilde, too, whom I greatly revere, and they used to exchange axioms and epigrams together.  Most readers will recognize his most famous one, the witticism which I use to remind myself of my principles in judging many things, and particularly medicine: “Believe those who are seeking the truth.  Doubt those who find it.”  The suitability will not be immediately clear, so allow me to explain.

In math, science, architecture, the arts et cetera, no respectable professional will say that the absolute answer has been found to any question in his or her field.  This reluctance results from the extremely rational fear of the next expert proving the assertion incorrect by the simple application of a different perspective.  Until recently, physical science considered material things solid; now these things are known to be particles in a mostly empty void like stars in space.  This new understanding changed many things in math and natural sciences, and many people were made fools overnight.

What allowed some scientists to keep their dignity was their reticence in assuming an answer.  Answers are funny things.  They presume to be splinters of an overarching, all-inclusive and ultimate truth, but while a so-called ultimate truth would need to be timeless, answers are too specific for elasticity or longevity and are changed out for more-contemporary answers all the time.

Ha ha, yeah. . .  Answers.

Andre Gide, cavalier of righteousness and earnest living. I swear, sometimes I wonder if all the cool people during the Victorian era were homosexual.

Gide’s “truth” is the same thing.  He knew that the answer, truth, or whatever you like could be perfectly suitable to one question or another, but understood also that a truth transcending all problems, for all circumstances, from every perspective, and for all time to be very, very unlikely.  I see medicine as modernity’s various truths or answers to its questions about health.  I see medical problems changing with the times, morphing in response to ever-changing atmospheres and causes, answers transforming to match reincarnating problems.  Illnesses have always come from different causes but with the same symptoms, or different symptoms from the same causes, and medicine has done its best to keep abreast of it all, by god.  Medicine’s best is an educated guess in many, many cases however, and it’s healthy to remember so.

Another healthy thing to remember is, you can trust yourself.  I believe that if you’re not too lazy or too proud to do a little research, the best doctor in any sufficiently common case is you.  Very nearly all people are on some regimen, diet, or health plan of their own device at all times already, anyhow.  Self-medication is ubiquitous.  Everybody’s prescribed a massage for themselves to relieve a cramped leg, or applied pressure to stop bleeding, or performed oral surgery on a loose tooth (yanked it) and everyone who reads this has everything they need to do the research necessary to cross-reference different medications and treatments.  All the same, some people go to the doctor when they get a headache; others refrain from visiting a trained professional so obstinately that, once the ambulance arrives, EMTs chastise them for having brought themselves to the brink of death.  There must be a balance, one would think.

Me?  I don’t suppose there ought to be a balance, myself — at least, not if “balance” means going to the doctor half the time.   The body is not a feeble thing by nature.  It can be made weak, but it isn’t designed to be weak.  Humanity has survived for approximately four-hundred-thousand years, says archeology, which means that global climate shifts, meteor bombardment, diseases, predators, war, famine, and even poor judgment have failed to kill us thus far.  If there’s anything I like to have faith in, it’s the magnificence of the human body.

The mind, however. . .  I’m not sure I’d trust it to babysit my child — but I digress.  The body is built to last, anyhow.

The human body: 400,000 years and still kicking, kicking our way across the bubbling surface of our glorified primordial soup. Michelangelo, by the way.

Still, some people go to the doctor for “checkups,” which apparently are intended to catch problems before they become serious, an idea which sounds pretty good at the outset.  Consider though the obvious relationship between checkups and hypochondria: hypochondriacs believe they have symptoms of an ailment which a doctor says does not exist; people who go for checkups believe they may have phantom symptoms only a doctor can say do exist.  A good doctor will be incensed at this comparison, and he or she should be, because he or she knows how much training and studying goes into a medical degree, how much diligence and care goes into his or her work.  An unscrupulous, lazy, or perhaps merely money-minded doctor will scoff, too, but for very different reasons which are easily surmised.  Checkups are not harmful if one has a good doctor, though.  It’s just like taking your car to the garage for a professional once-around — if the professional knows the car well, then it should come out at least as healthy as it went in.

This is where the trail divides in the wood.  It may be said that these concerns about doctors are neurotic or phobic, but it can not be said that I’ve indicted the medical industry unfairly, or even to the extent to which it has already been convicted.  I choose to cross-examine the patients, rather.  After all, they alone made the choice to pay someone else to do the research and suggest a mode of treatment.  Much unnecessary woe can be avoided with responsibility and a little self-reliance.

Consider the question of pills again, please.  How many people are on an anti-anxiety medication?  Anti-anxiety meds have side effects ranging from awful to magnificently horrendous, with nausea, depression, impaired thinking and impaired judgment on the mild side, and mania, rage, vivid hallucinations and violent behavior on the other.  How many of these people tried working out daily first?  How many tried meditation or California-style yoga?  How many prescribed a nice quiet read on the beach for themselves?  Or — and sorry if this is blasphemous — but how about a cigarette and a beer?

Hippocrates is wanted for questioning in connection with the unexplained disappearance of several shipments of drugs. Authorities suspect the ancient philosopher may be attempting to offset his responsibility for having authored the oath ironically uttered by their inventors.

The history of humans using beer to relax cannot be overstated.  Benzodiazepines (the most widely used anti-anxiety medications) were introduced in the year nineteen-sixty.  That’s fifty years ago at the time of this writing.  The reader will smile to understand that beer has been used to combat anxiety for six-thousand years.  It’s practically the first thing mankind invented after the drum.  And tobacco?  Hell, even psychiatrists will prescribe cigarettes under certain circumstances.  It wouldn’t do to die of cancer, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that a shorter, calmer life is presumably preferable to a longer one spent in nausea and depression and punctuated with bouts of impaired judgment and thinking.  If some doctor were to walk up to me and offer me a red pill in one hand and a blue pill in the other, saying, “Here, son, you look a little upset,” I’d say, “Thanks but no thanks, doc.  I’d be much obliged if you could draw me a pint and spare a smoke, though.”

What can I say?  I like my medicines tested — very thoroughly tested.  I don’t trust lab coats much, certainly not like I trust a six-thousand-year-old track record.  Beer may not be the healthiest remedy, but it’s clearly the most honest one.

The reader will understand that I’m talking with my tongue in my cheek, sure, but what I intend to say should be agreeable enough: one ought to take a moment or two to reflect on older, more obvious solutions to problems for which people automatically seek doctors.  Many of today’s treatments are tomorrow’s charlatanery.  If the colloquial terms charlatan or snake oil mean nothing to you, you probably know one and have purchased the other from him.  Beer and cigarettes might sound sinful, but even the pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing “bennies” admit that the judgment and thinking of their patients is hindered.  How many of these people are there?  Forty years’ worth of patients!  And how many people with anxiety, exactly?  Only forty million. Makes you think about the actions of the American public a little differently, doesn’t it?  Imagine forty million people walking around, nauseous, depressed, unable to think or make proper decisions — oh, and let’s not forget the rage and violence, either.

What’s sinful now?

Dionysus has a taste of wine with his good friend, Pan, in attendance. These gods were not known to suffer from anxiety.

Pharmaceutical companies say they’ve got a pill to fix “X” problem so long as one can afford to take it daily, but the pill won’t work forever unless its function is a basic one like thinning blood (aspirin) or killing bacteria (penicillin).  Even these two time-honored medical traditions will be impotent against the issues of the year 3000, I’d wager.  Beer and cigarettes?  You bet they’ll be comforting the overworked and underpaid until the sun marries the moon and all the cows actually come home.

So the next time you’re feeling as though a metropolis of responsibility and woe were pressing you into the dirt, and you forget that you’re a surviving hero of four-hundred-thousand years worth of genetic and social fine tuning, consider putting your feet up with a cold one and a cool smoke before you reach for the psych meds.  Humanity still seems alright after all those suds and tobaccy.  Ain’t nobody can tell you what the benzodiazepine eaters are going to look like in six-thousand years.

Cheers, and Happy New Year, Friends!


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