There is a Religious War Going On Most of Us Don’t Want

Our nation is involved in a religious war, one that most of us don’t want or are even aware of. However, we feel the pressure of it as an anxiety that arises when we hear, read or see news reports. It is not a war of Christians against Muslims or Jews. It is a war by fundamentalists against other fundamentalists, and fundamentalists against secularists and those who have different views on religion. The religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, warned us about this war years ago and we are now paying the price for not understanding her message.

 

Why call this a fundamentalist religious war? To answer this, think about what is meant by religion? This is a huge question and can be answered in many ways, but one way is to examine the roots of the word. Re means ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Ligion comes from ligare which is the root of ligament, to ‘bind’ or ‘tie.’ Yoga has a similar root, which means ‘to yoke.’ So religion is to tie back. But to what? To a set of beliefs and practices? To a shared vision of what is most important or sacred, or how to face what is most difficult? To how to live a sincere and meaningful life?

 

What is fundamentalism? It can be defined as an attempt to reach back to what is fundamental or original to a religion at its purest time. To get back to the beginning often means to tie back to a literal and “original” interpretation of scripture or to a mythical time⏤one that never existed except as a metaphor of longing. For many fundamentalists, it is the story, the interpretation, the words that make a religion unique, not the experience of transformation that might have been the root of the scripture, as illustrated by Buddha’s enlightenment or Moses and the burning bush. Since the word is sacred, anyone who speaks or acts against the literal interpretation, or even offers a different perspective, is committing a sin.

 

The leading fundamentalist religion in the US is often called Christian, and its adherents identify as Christians, but in reality I think the religion is economic. George Soros called it “free market fundamentalism.” I am probably taking his quote further than he intended. Soros was talking about those who adhere to the belief that only an unregulated market and uninhibited pursuit of self-interest can serve the common good and preserve civil liberties. The only way to be rational, according to this belief, is to be selfish and allow the “invisible hand of the market” to rule. For humans to regulate the “invisible” is to interfere with forces beyond our control.

 

This economic fundamentalism might be thought of as akin to a belief in other invisible or even supernatural forces, and might be a matter of faith, but is certainly not a rationally examined truth. It defies the preponderance of evidence. It is a religion whose priests are the wealthy and whose symbols are coins, stock, and property.

 

These fundamentalists hold up Adam Smith and Charles Darwin as two of their saintly authorities. Yet, Adam Smith said, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: …The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions [e.g. avarice], is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.” And: “…to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” And Darwin, the scientist most known for natural selection in evolution, wrote about the importance of moral sensitivity, love, mutuality in his second book, The Descent of Man, where he talks about the application of evolution theory to humans. In fact, the systems scientist and evolutionary theorist, David Loye did a data analysis of Descent. He found “survival of the fittest” mentioned 2 times, ‘competition’ 9 times, but ‘love’ mentioned once in the index but 95 times in the book, ‘mutual aid’ 24 times, ‘sympathy’ 61 times, ‘moral’ 90 times.

 

Deregulation has not led to a utopia where everyone’s selfishness leads to everyone’s freedom and increased wealth, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, to increasing inequity, poverty, immorality, and political chaos; to control of the political process by the financial sector, and an increasing monetization of everything— from people to the environment. As Mathieu Ricard points out in his extensively researched book, Altruism, research by scientists and several international organizations, including the UN, shows that the consequences of inequity are far reaching: “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.” The US is now one of the most unequal of nations.

 

The religious fundamentalist nature of this economic belief system helps explain the difficulty many people describe trying to talk to someone who believes in this religion, when they don’t. It helps explain why believers in Mr. T hold on to their belief despite extensive evidence to the contrary, and why his supporters feel liberals and radicals talk down to them.

 

To undermine a religious belief is to undermine what is central to one’s grasp of reality. And when one thinks and feels one is in a state of war, anyone who is not a supporter is an enemy. Understanding this mentality, of a religious war, and understanding the thinking and fear behind it, is one step toward transcending and ending it. Understanding our selves more completely and how to respond with more clarity and compassion is a beginning. But ignoring it is not a good option.

 

*There are two marches coming up you might want to participate in and support, in Washington, and in local cities. There’s a March for Science, on Earth Day, 4/22, and The People’s Climate March for Climate, Jobs and Justice, 4/29.

 

**Photo of the Lion’s Gate to Mycenae, Greece.

The Central Importance of A United Resistance and Decreasing the Concentration of Wealth and Inequity

Opposing the Republican minority-elected President cannot be simply a Democratic version of “the party of No.” It cannot be concerned just with revealing lies and resisting racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and all sorts of phobias like homophobia, Islamaphobia or xenophobia, etc. To fight racism, etc., we must first unite to resist the destruction of what’s left of democracy, free speech and the freedom of the press. We need more political equity. But to accomplish that, we must also work to improve economic equity and a sense of shared humanity. In a functioning democracy, these three work together.

 

Last week, the Republican administration took things to a new level. The President spoke to Congress about “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” He spoke about Black History Month and ending threats to Jewish Community Centers. He spoke as if he cared about supporting “the torch of truth, liberty, and justice.” This was scary because even I wanted to hear such words from his mouth, words calling for real unity and caring. He is seemingly getting coached on how to sound reasonable while his choices and history scream otherwise. This is the same person who appointed Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General, and Steve Bannon, former head of the alt-right Breitbart News, to be his general adviser. According to an NPR program during the campaign:

 

“The views of the alt-right are widely seen as anti-Semitic and white supremacist…. They see political correctness really as the greatest threat to their liberty,” Nicole Hemmer, University of Virginia professor and author of a forthcoming book Messengers of the Right, explained on Morning Edition. “So, they believe saying racist or anti-Semitic things — it’s is not an act of hate, but an act of freedom.”

 

This is a President who called the media “the enemy of the people.” Who said protestors were not in genuine disagreement with his policies but were being paid to disrupt town hall meetings. Republican governors and legislators have followed this lead by calling for severe punishments for protestors. This administration is not about protecting America or securing jobs for people. It is about ending democracy and increasing their personal wealth. The DNC, as well as those who hate the DNC and are still fighting the Hillary vs Bernie fight, need to remember this or risk being irrelevant or worse. If we don’t unite, our very right to disagree without dire consequences will be taken from us. In fact, the very air that sustains our life might be taken from us.

 

Yet, to resist this administration successfully will mean insisting on increasing economic equity. This is the second concern. We must learn from the Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders movements, which spoke to a great majority of Americans, even to some of those who supported Mr. T. (Listen to Bernie Sander’s response to Mr. T’s address to Congress.) Most Americans desire an economy that works for all and provides jobs for the unemployed and the not satisfactorily employed. Mr. T did speak of jobs. But he did not address working conditions, guaranteed health care, and a pension, as part of a good job. He did not acknowledge the crucial role public schools can play in “leveling the playing field” and in preparing children not only for work but for all of life. All these issues are related. It is not just a job people want, but to be treated as a valuable being, with a right to meaningful work. This I think speaks to most everyone. And we need to add the right to give our children a habitable planet with a climate that readily sustains life, human, animal and insect.

 

The US, according to a report cited in Fortune Magazine in 2015, is the richest nation in the world but the most inequitable of the 55 nations studied (including European nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Columbia and Russia, etc.). If you didn’t know this, read on. If you look at the US economy, the richest 1% own 40% of the wealth. (I will be using many figures from Mathieu Ricard’s book, Altruism, published in 2015. Ricard is a Ph.d. in genetics and Buddhist teacher. His figures are well documented and seem in line with other reliable sources.) Twenty-five years ago, the top 1% owned 13% of the nation’s wealth. In 2015, Oxfam said that by the following year, 1% of the richest people worldwide will control over 50% of the world’s wealth.

 

Ricard points out that in 1880-90, J. P. Morgan said “he would never agree to invest in a company where the directors were paid over 6 times the average wage.” In 2011, the bosses were paid 253 times more. Over the last 30 years, 90% of Americans saw their incomes increase by only 15%. For the wealthiest 1%, the increase was 150%. Between 2002 and 2007, the top 1% scored over “65% of national income gains.”

 

What are the consequences of such inequality and concentration of wealth? According to Ricard and the International Monetary Fund, income inequality “slows growth and triggers financial crises.” Quoting directly from the IMF summary report (See IMF, 2015): “We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down…” as opposed to what many Republicans claim. Instead, concentrating wealth undermines the economy. For example, one million people with a decent income will buy more products and stimulate the economy more than one person with a billion dollars—unless he or she gives it all away to public schools or spends it on improving mass transit or such, or starts a worker managed business, for example, where the workers get a fair share of the income created and the climate isn’t undermined by its products.

 

The Citizens United decision, the worsening political situation in the US, as illustrated by 8 years of Republican Congressional refusal to compromise during the Obama administration, and the election by less than 26% of eligible voters of this Republican President (only 52% voted and Mr. T. received less than half of those), are all direct results of increasing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Mr. T is trying even now to reduce even further the input of Democrats and any who oppose him. When was the last moment in American history that the vast majority of citizens were so excluded from the formal political process? Was it before the 19th amendment was passed granting women’s suffrage? Or was it before the civil war, before the 13th amendment was passed ending slavery? Or was it before the revolution, when the colonies were ruled by a monarch? Is this the time of greatness the Republicans say they yearn for?

 

The price the US pays for this inequality is immense. Ricard provides data from scientific research and several international organizations, including the UN, which show that “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.”

 

Is it any wonder that there can’t be a democracy if 1% of the people own so much of the wealth? The rich can buy power, occupy the media, and intervene in the judiciary. Just look at Betsy DeVos, who contributed thousands to the coffers of Republican Senators—but did those Senators who were paid by DeVos recuse themselves, or were even asked by fellow Senators to recuse themselves, from voting for her nomination to Education Secretary? Conservatives argue that the rich have the freedom to use their wealth. But what happens when one person’s freedom prohibits that of another, or of many, many others?

 

For too many people, the acquisition of wealth is fast becoming the primary value of life. Other people are no longer thought of as fellow breathing, feeling beings; other species and the world itself⏤all are thusly reduced to being valued only in terms of the wealth they can be used to produce. Compassion, respect—these just interfere with what’s “truly important.” Long term or big picture issues—not important except to the degree they guarantee increased wealth. This is the third area of concern, our sense of a shared humanity and a judiciary that could preserve equity and justice in the law.

 

It is mainly for this reason people feel threatened, Democrat or Republican, Leftist or Conservative. So many of us value family, love, companionship, compassion, fairness, the beauty of the earth, a sense of meaning in life, maybe a sense of a spiritual or religious dimension. The importance of all these values is now threatened. The acquisition of immense wealth is becoming the religion of the rich, turning the rich into a great threat to the lives of the vast majority of Americans, and to the overwhelming majority of people worldwide.

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.

Without Empathy and Feeling, Thinking Suffers

All too often, people forget or fail to understand how feeling, particularly feeling empathy, is necessary for clear thinking. Empathy aids thinking in two ways. It allows you to more fully understand a person or phenomena, as in “putting yourself in the shoes of another.” And to think clearly, you must think with less bias and distortion from your own likes and dislikes; empathy can actually counteract this distortion.

 

To think, you need relevant information and ways to organize, “view,” and explain that information. But information remains just random words unless you connect to it. You need feeling to derive meaning and you need to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” in order to understand what standing in their shoes is like. You can’t understand a time in history unless you imaginatively, with feeling, put yourself there. In a similar way, you can’t really understand a mathematical formula or scientific theory unless you can use it and conceptualize the consequences of applying it. And to do that, you need to think from the perspective on the world that the formula or theory implies. If you are to answer questions and solve problems regarding the world around you, you need to “open to” others and your world, as well as see the world from their perspective. You need this “felt relationship.”

 

This “felt relationship” is empathy and compassion (and imagination). Psychologist Paul Ekman describes three forms of empathy. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or care for, the other. A sociopath might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other. Compassion takes this further, to the point where caring and feeling propel action. Compassion is the felt awareness of interdependence with others and caring enough to act in response to that felt awareness.

 

James Austin, a clinical neurologist and Zen meditator, discusses how, when you practice empathy and compassion, you use more “selfless” pathways in the brain. This provides a natural counter-balance to the distortion of likes and dislikes. When you perceive a blackberry bush, for example, you need to see it both from its’ position relative to you (which uses dorsal, top-down brain pathways) and see the bush itself in relation to other bushes and trees (ventral, bottom-up pathways). This ventral pathway asks “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” in comparison to the dorsal asking, “How does it relate to me?” Even at this basic level of perception, you need both perspectives.

 

We need to value, “feel for,” both perspectives. But much of our society teaches only the value of “self-knowing.” Self is defined only as what distinguishes and separates us from others. The result, according to many researchers, is a one-sided and isolated sense and concept of self and increasing narcissism. Even President Obama, in several speeches, warned that our society is developing an empathy deficit disorder. This one-sided knowing, and intellectual and emotional attachment to a concept of an isolated sense of self, leads people to defensively react to any appearance of a threat, even one not to the bodily self and world, but only to the concept of a separated self. This can undermine the sense of society as a relationship of all its members. It is one reason why schools must include not just an education in reasoning and memory, but feeling and empathy. When the conceptual framework of a culture devalues empathy and an understanding of the role of feeling, we’re in trouble.

 

Many students come to class and argue that empathy and compassion don’t really exist. They say that humans act compassionately only out of self-interest. Some teachers argue the same. Acting with compassion and empathy is in your self-interest. It helps immune response and improves emotional well-being. According to James Austin, it also leads to more effortless learning, especially when sustained attention is required. But all of these goodies are undermined if the outwardly appearing act of compassion or altruism is done with self-interest in mind. The intention to act with the other’s welfare in mind is what leads to the positive rewards.

 

So, what can schools do? Teachers can model empathy. Mathieu Ricard, biologist, author, and Buddhist monk, cites a great deal of research to show that when teachers practice and act with empathy and compassion and establish a personal relationship with students, student learning improves, violence and absenteeism goes down.

 

Teachers need to point out that when you disagree with others, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might look down on your “opponents” and think you know something they don’t. If only they knew what you knew, they would “repent.” In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.

 

You can directly develop compassion through meditation practices. You can also start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. So, hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor and this will leave room for others to enter.

 

When you feel an emotional response to what another person says, or you are unclear about what was actually said, ask: “Can you repeat what you said and clarify what you meant? What was your line of reasoning?” One of the most valuable lessons hopefully taught in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. When you face a viewpoint that is different from your own, take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.

 

So, when you run into what you perceive as a threatening idea, or when you don’t understand someone, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with, not a lifeless concept. Feel the fact that the person might be feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Empathy and feeling will contribute to clear thinking. And you and the other person will then meet.

 

 

You Don’t Teach Mindfulness, You Share It.

Bringing mindfulness practice into a classroom is one of the most productive and helpful things you as a teacher could do for your students and yourself. There is so much that mindfulness can teach you, about your own mind, about the relationship between your mind and the environment around you, you and others. So don’t even think of mindfulness as something you are teaching students. Instead, think of it as sharing something you enjoy and find beneficial. Think about it as something which facilitates a positive educational relationship between you and your students.

 

When you lead students in the practice, make leading your practice. Only introduce in the classroom what you yourself have digested. That way you lead not from something you have read about or memorized but from your own awareness in the moment. You open yourself to your own mind in order to be in touch with what the students are experiencing. You face your thoughts, feelings, sensations, fears, joys to show students that it can be done. And by entering the classroom with the mindfulness you have developed in your own practice, you illustrate the benefits of practice.

 

So you can’t lead students in mindfulness unless you practice it on your own. As my Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If you don’t want to practice mindfulness yet, you can still start the class with silence or progressive relaxation and imagery. Sometimes, I ask students to listen to a singing bowl and determine how long they can hear its fading song.

 

Only if you are familiar with the inner landscape revealed by mindfulness can you lead students through it. If you don’t practice, students will know it. Just be honest with students when answering questions. If you don’t know something, say so.

 

When I first started introducing mindfulness to my classes, I never led a practice until students asked me to do it. I always talked first about research on the benefits of mindfulness and how it had benefitted me. I told stories about proficient meditators. I wanted to make it personal, real, exciting. One story was about the man many neuroscientists and magazines called “the happiest man alive,” Mathieu Ricard. Ricard holds a doctorate in Biology and is a Tibetan monk. A few of my students and I heard him speak at a conference on education and thought that he was one of the most incisive speakers we had ever heard. The result of all this was that students almost pleaded with me to give them instruction and time to practice.

 

In magazines and books on mindfulness, experts talk about practicing because it decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus, attention, and emotional clarity. But there is a hidden danger here. The answer to the question, “Why practice mindfulness?” is not to reduce stress, etc.. Practice mindfulness in order to practice mindfulness. Practice mindfulness because when you’re mindful you’re more fully awake in your own life. If you practice in order to reduce stress, what happens when, in your practice, you feel stressed? Or you feel frightened? Or bored? You then turn away. You feel like your experience was bad and that you were unsuccessful. No. If you feel your stress, but aren’t controlled by it, you were very successful. When you feel sensations and thoughts associated with stress as something you can study and learn from but don’t have to respond to, then you can let them go. When you notice your habitual response to a situation or sensation, then you can free yourself from the habit. You feel capable of handling whatever arises.

 

When you practice, thoughts, insights, fear and joy all come to you. The object of mindfulness, as I said, is to be aware of all this. This requires that you value that awareness. When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I sometimes get insights into my blog or what I might teach. I value the blog and my teaching, so I get the urge to write down the insight. I fear losing it. But when I begin to write, I am no longer aware of my awareness. I am also no longer in the mindset that fostered my insight. By grasping onto the thought as if it were a valued intellectual possession, I lose the insight-mind and replace it with a grasping mind.

 

Some teachers who practice mindfulness feel uncomfortable sharing it with students. They have this image of what a mindfulness teacher should be. This image has feelings attached to it, maybe feelings of not being good enough. Treat this image and the attached feelings in the same way that I have to treat my urge to write everything down. Just notice it and let it go. The image and feelings are just a construct that came into your mind only so you could notice how you were thinking and let it go.

 

Lead mindfulness practice as if it were a gift, not just from you to your students but to you from the students, the school and your profession. Then you will inspire your students. Mindfulness will grow. If you try to lead what you don’t value enough to practice, why should the students value it? Mindfulness will disappear. It will become just another good intentioned educational technique that people never committed to enough to make it transformational. Make it transformational for yourself. Commit to the practice and you and your students will benefit greatly.

 

A note: As I re-read this blog, I feel the influence of Hidy Ochiai in every aspect of it. A good teacher’s influence is ubiquitous. It hits us in unanticipated ways. In this case it made me deeper and kinder. Thank you, Sensei.