Sunday, February 15, 2009
The Atheist’s Way Virtual Book Review Tour begins this week. Please take a look and see what people are saying, pro or con, about their experience with the book. Here are the two tour stops this week:
Donna Druchanas on Wednesday at http://sheeptoshawl.com/blog/
Catherine on Thursday at http://poetrychook.blogspot.com
In The Atheist’s Way I dub certain religions like Buddhism and Taoism “the river religions” and argue that, like the god-based religions, they betray our common humanity by promoting metaphors, fairy tales, and dogma rooted in the same authoritarian energy that drives Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is no eightfold path, there are no noble truths, and there is no nirvana: there are only personal paths and personal truths and the necessity of personal meaning-making. The river religions, as attractive as they can seem, are detours from the path of personal meaning-making.
I am calling these religions the “river religions” to capture something of their root metaphor, that flavor or “flow” or “way,” and to underscore that they are indeed religions. Many people move from the god religions to the river religions because they want a recognized and non-offensive container to hold their spiritual enthusiasms, not quite realizing that every such container is a human-made device meant to promote fantasy (whether about Heaven or reincarnation) and grab power (whether in the hands of a Pope or a Zen Master).
This week I got a lovely email from a reader of The Atheist’s Way who, perhaps in conjunction with reading the book, had suddenly “seen through” the river religions. Barbara explained:
“I started visiting local Zen centers a few months ago, and have found tremendous improvement in my calmness, rationality and creativity with daily meditation sittings. However, I've been feeling more disappointed as I spend more time with the Zen centers. Yesterday I acknowledged why - it's because I don't believe. Period. I just don't believe in ‘religious stuff,’ not Catholicism like my father's family, not Episcopalianism like my best friend's church, not the radio-show Evangelicism my mother regrettably seems to favor, and thus, not in Buddhism either.
“I don't believe in reincarnation, or karma except as an abstract notion of ‘be a jerk, have a miserable life,’ or the benefits of prostrations, or that lineages of teachers are super special and worthy of prostration, or that the Buddhist ‘miracles’ are any more credible than the Christian ‘miracles.’ I do like the emphasis on mindfulness and compassion, and appreciate the Bodhisattva's Vow where the vow-taker promises to postpone enlightenment until all sentient creatures are free from suffering, but shouldn't mindfulness, compassion and generosity be commonly prized traits that don't need a religion to ground them?
“I think that 1) I'm a little disappointed that I'm an official 100% nonbeliever, since there might be some beautiful practices or comforts out there that I'll miss and 2) I'm disappointed that the tremendous benefits of meditation and the intellectually engaging parts of Zen still come wrapped with miracles, reincarnation and prostrations. But I'm unapologetically a nonbeliever, and that is fine. I'll keep meditating and I think we'll also go back to our local Unitarian church for socializing and networking, where you can be an atheist or deeply agnostic and that is OK. I'm in private law practice, where we are strongly encouraged to get out in the community and know people, and churches and temples are great ways to meet people: if you believe or can pretend to believe. But I see that the bottom line is that I must make my own meaning, with no dogma or snake oil; and that will be fine.”
If you have moved halfway from the god religions to the river religions, come all the way home now. Yes, there will be fewer networking and socializing opportunities—but there will also be fewer scrapes and bows. Leave the river religions behind and, rising from your cushion, stand up for what you believe. Comments welcome!—you can email me your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or post them at the blog where this newsletter also appears: http://theatheistsway.blogspot.com/
Have an excellent Sunday!
Posted by Eric Maisel at 8:24 AM
Sunday, February 1, 2009
This Sunday we continue our examination of the meaning difficulties that many people are currently experiencing. Today I’ll share Carla’s story. But first a few updates.
The next round of creativity coaching trainings begins the week of February 9th. For information on the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and the next Advanced Creativity Coaching Training, and for information on becoming a free client in the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and receiving free email-based creativity coaching, please visit:
Here is a ringing endorsement from someone who took both the Intro and Advanced trainings last year (they can be taken sequentially or simultaneously):
I'd like to thank you for all the wonderful coursework you provided me this past year. Your meaning and purpose message is important to our times and cultural growth as a universal community. The method you use to teach is an outstanding one and your personal style was a special gift to me. Even from Minneapolis I can feel your touch, sparking my creative life into action. Like so many, my creative life needed resuscitation. Your kindness is woven into all you do. Now I have a renewed purpose to create and potential income that is rewarding and something absolutely worth getting out of bed every day. So, for all you've done for me I say a very heartfelt- thank you!
A few spots remain in the March Deep Writing Workshop in London. For more information:
(If you would like to organize a Deep Writing Workshop in a European locale for 2010, let’s chat. I am particularly interested in presenting in Dublin and Edinburgh but I am open to any European locale. If you want to chat about this, drop me an email at email@example.com)
If you’re interested in the subject of making meaning, please take a look at The Atheist’s Way, which is now available from Amazon:
Last but not least, if you are thinking about taking the Meaning Coach Training that will begin in June (it will be the first of its kind), come on board soon. It is filling up. For more information:
Here, as the main event, is Carla’s “existential blues” piece. As the year progresses we will move toward discussing solutions but for now we are still focused on clearly understanding the problem. Carla explained:
I've had some blend of existential blues since my 20s, but the condition has recently worsened and gotten me closer to genuine introspection and honest investigation of meaning. I recall the blues in my 20s as vague and centered on questions of “what am I going to do with my life now," after leaving a field of study I loved and its career path, for reasons that ultimately turned out to be excellent ones (I don't want that life path back) and then after I started working in business, questions of “why are people in this office so boring? No one wants to study new things or write or draw in their free time; they talk about TV and their lawns a lot - where do these people come from?”
Passion and business are recurring threads for me in the areas of meaning and despair. I always wanted to write and create and do esoteric research (not generally lucrative work) but for better or worse ended up following my parents' desires for me and working in business (comfortable work). The best and worst moments of my college days involve arts and business. The best was sprawling on my dorm bed translating Virgil for Intensive Latin class and getting it! I got it! I got the nuances, meanings, artistry of translation word choices! I was part of creation and art and the heavens parted for a moment - I loved it! The worst was walking across the "Diag" and seeing the business students in their blue overcoats and suits. I saw them and felt like dirt. As much as I loved what I was doing, my family and wider society had already let me know that my interests were useless, frivolous, flaky. The BBA and MBAs in their blue coats, though, they'd go off to something tangible - marketing toilet paper or toothpaste, something that paid. I didn't want their jobs but I did want their probable security and known place to go.
My current existential blues most often arrive in the form of exhaustion, and occasionally as despair. The exhaustion strikes most often when I'm thinking about doing creative work or tired after a day at work (in my business career work) and I can't bear to write, pick up a book or listen to music. It makes me say, “Leave me alone. Why bother?”
I've had long stretches like this. Last year I could not write or even stand to try to read or listen to music for months. I'd visit the book store with my husband and trail after him, picking up and putting back down books, declaring each unreadable on the grounds of type size too small, book too heavy or book looking impossible to think about opening. I slept a lot and looked out of a lot of windows at birds or weather. This would seem like a deep depression, though throughout it, I never missed a day at work, project deadline or bill payment due date and every day was clean, scented and groomed in a suit. It was, perhaps, a deep depression of limited scope that left the rest of my life on course.
The fits of existential despair, a more active visitation of my blues, move beyond the territory of “who cares? what's the point?” to arrive as thunderstruck moments in which I am absolutely convinced that I'll die at my office desk, never accomplish anything I truly care for, and might as well be the walking dead in a business suit. These moments make me less sleepy than inclined to throw all of my professional books out of my office window, on fire, and run down the office park road towards the highway, never to return.
Both forms of existential despair come from the same fear – that I might never achieve anything deeply meaningful to me (while I am doing well in my business career, it is not work that stirs my passion or lets me experience "flow"), and that my deepest loves for arts, creative work and contemplative practices are meaningless and selfish matters of self-entertainment and solitary pleasure. The existential blues can arrive after I've been out of balance - too much creative work and I feel frivolous, too much day-job work and I feel like a worn-out machine cog. A mixture of daily wage-earning work and creative work seems to be mentally healthiest for me, but even then, the blues still come.
Today my blues are focused on how to best survive day-job work and daily inanities while trying to find a way to incorporate my creative passions in a life that is meaningful to me. Do I give up on creating and just consume and enjoy? Isn't that selfish? I want to create - but what if I can't create anything that is good enough to make the mark that Bach, Beethoven, Eliot, Yeats, Milosz, Herbert did? What am I worth if I can see truth and beauty but not create them, or apply them beyond my own consumption? It would be easier to stop thinking trying and passively live a comfortable life away from creation, but I don't want to give up.
As much as I doubt my own ability to create and leave meaning behind, I believe passionately that the "softer," non-law/finance/business things like arts and contemplative practices can have tremendous meaning, value and an impact on the world. When I listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of the Bach cantata "Ich Habe Genug", I feel the presence of something sacred and healing. When I listen to the Borodin Quartet's 1960s-1970s recordings of Shostakovich's string quartets, especially Op. 68 Quartet in A Major with its haunting, lumbering waltz (a staggering Russian bear?) and the last chords that are the sound of light and hope breaking through gloom, I better understand the pain and absurdity Shostakovich wanted to expose.
Yesterday, before I finished the last set of edits to this essay, I was reading Czeslaw Milosz's "A Song on the End of the World" in my car at the oil change shop. I brought it in a stack of things I'd been wanting to read and too busy at work to get to, and was so impressed that I re-read it three times. What an amazing, gorgeous, true poem. What a powerful final image, the old man who could be a prophet but is not, binding his tomatoes and knowing "No other end of the world will there be." I got it, I felt it, and for a moment, I was enlightened. How can I ever rise to create at this level myself?
I believe "soft" creators like the ones I've just praised have made greater marks than most "hard" businesspeople in touching others and changing, even if slightly, the tilt of our world. Were I any one of them I hope I'd feel secure in my achievement. However, as the person I am for most of my waking hours, a suburban professional and "aspiring" everything else, I'm a bundle of doubts. Is my time spent on art worthy? What must it prove to be worthy? Money and fame aren't perfect correlations to value, but what does it say if work earns no money or exposure? And where does a frustrated creator go from there?
I wonder if I'd feel otherwise if it did not seem on many days as though I'm the only one in my world tilting against "normal" life, as defined by my profession's "work, work, work and make more money at work" mentality. I have several frustrated artists in my family, but none ever pushed forward or tried hard enough to finish anything, and all shared the same “sit down, have a drink, have a smoke, work too hard and you'll wear yourself out” mentality. My coworkers think the arts are frivolous, and I never hear the end of “classical music isn't worth anything, it has to keep fundraising to survive – you don't see 50 Cent asking for government handouts.”
I just don't know. I want to create, to touch if only briefly truth and beauty and communicate them, I want to leave something meaningful that lasts longer than a memorandum or settlement agreement at work. But how and when? And is this always worth it? I just don't know. I just don't want to give up yet.
If you would like to share your “existential difficulty” story, drop me an email (to firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll send you along some prompts and guidelines.
Have an excellent Sunday!
Posted by Eric Maisel at 10:35 AM