A few of my friends recently asked my opinion on how to practice detachment in light of what’s currently going on with our government, namely the repeal of the ACA. Letting go of our idea of how things should be is challenging, especially when we seem to be witnessing a rampant and exponential epidemic of ignorance in our elected officials. Choices, decisions, and legislation that benefit the few and strips healthcare from millions defies common sense, decency, and the solemn duty of our leaders to serve their constituents. Faced with such blatant unawareness, many feel betrayed and enraged while at the same time helpless in the face of a heartless machine that seems poised to destroy everything this country holds dear.

I too have felt these emotions, however, allowing ourselves to be victims of the melodrama won’t help us. We have to see the bigger picture; the long game of the evolution of consciousness and our nation. From this perspective, here are a few reminders that help me to detach from how I think things should be:

• Our country, as great as it is, is still a youngster when compared to many of the nations on the world stage. Every great nation goes through rough patches and elects jackasses to positions of power. They make fear-based decisions that favor short term rewards over long-term sustained well-being. We’re not above making horrendous mistakes. We’ve done it before, and this time we’ve picked a doosey of a jackass. What did we think was going to happen? It’s really no surprise. It’s like watching a teenager go through their awkward phase. It’s wince-worthy and painful to watch, but they’ve gotta go through it to reach adulthood. Yelling at a room full of teenagers to grow up doesn’t help them get there any faster. Sometimes all we can do it roll our eyes at the magnitude of their stupidity and know that things are going to come back to bite them in the end. This isn’t about comeuppance. It’s simply the recognition that whenever energy goes to one extreme, it eventually returns to a more balanced state.

• No karmic debt ever goes unpaid. In other words, the choices and actions taken by our leaders right now will have far reaching effects, many of which will undoubtedly be to their detriment. Not understanding the nature of cause and effect doesn’t mean jack when it comes time for the consequences to come back around. Karma is a force of nature that doesn’t need your belief in it to work. When you make self-serving decisions that harm millions of people, the scales will eventually balance themselves out. When you put the interests of your party above the interests of the nation, the consequences can be dire. Failing to consider the long term effects of a piece of legislation can have powerful, far reaching karmic implications that you will be accountable for in one form or another. Many of these elected officials are up for re-election in 2018; chances are good that their recent behavior will amount to political suicide of the highest order. And for those that either voted for this band of fools and their clueless leader or those that didn’t care enough to show up so they could sit back and watch the world burn, the ironic karmic payoff could well strip them of their healthcare.

• This may be the very wakeup call we need as a nation. As unpleasant as the current state is for aware, awake, critically thinking Americans, we have to admit that we get the leaders that reflect our collective consciousness. It’s time we faced the fact that there is an ugly underbelly of greed, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, bigotry, egoism, entitlement, inequality, and ignorance in this country and we have elected a leader (and majority party) that personifies and legitimizes those values. These foul and putrid qualities have crept out of the shadows for all to see. But this ultimately a good thing. When we shine the light on our filth, we initially recoil at the horror (as increasing numbers of Americans have done in recent months), but once the shock fades, we roll up our sleeves and get to the nasty work of taking out the trash. This was a necessary step. The shadow (collective unconscious garbage) has to be recognized before it can be purified. When enough of us see things for what they really are (rather than denying or being indifferent) things will have to change. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. For some, losing their healthcare while facing a life threatening illness may unfortunately be the necessary tipping point that helps take us to a critical mass. When that happens, change will come.

• This too shall pass. Knowing that everything in our material world is impermanent, it becomes a little easier to witness this stage in our evolution with detached involvement. Seen in its true light, this play of epic government stupidity will eventually pass away in one way or another. This is the ultimate undoing of the fundamentalist worldview – it goes against the laws of nature. Change, growth, progress, evolution; these are the hallmarks of the natural world. Anything that doesn’t grow, change, or adapt eventually becomes rigid, stagnant, and ultimately passes away. In the greater scheme of things, when facing the tidal wave of change, you can either dig your heels in and hope to ride out the changes, or learn to surf. In light of the exponentially rapid progress our modern world is making (in the form of technology, social progress, equality, etc.) it will eventually become too uncomfortable to maintain the old worldviews for very much longer. The old guard intuitively knows this, which is why they have dug themselves in so deep. This gives the illusion that that they are “winning”, when in actuality it is the last stand of a crumbling regime.

• Don’t lose heart. Those of us choosing the path of conscious growth, awareness, critical thinking, compassion, and evolution must not abandon our commitment to creating a better, more peaceful, just, forward thinking, and sustainable world for all. There has never been a time when the practices of yoga, meditation, martial arts, and other paths of self-transformation have been more important. Seek out the causes of your own ignorance, root out your shadow, stand up and speak for truth, kindness, equality, and strength in all its forms. Resist ignorance, call out hatred, fear, and oppression. Be the light, be the peace that you wish to see in the world. Be so strong that nothing can disrupt your peace. Live your values with conviction and passion. Believe that these higher values will always triumph over the darkness, no matter how bleak things may appear.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always. 

​ – Mahatma Gandhi

Thank You, Donald Trump

January 21, 2017

Today, as the world watched, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. I won’t try to hide the fact that I’ve opposed him as a candidate and as a president-elect from the very beginning. To me he stands as the antithesis of the values this country has come to represent. A demagogue who hasn’t the least interest in making this country great again other than in how it might benefit him personally. He represents what Carl Jung defined as the collective shadow – the personification of our nation’s hidden dark side that strives for self-importance, control and power.

Yet as the great spiritual teacher Ram Dass reminds us, every experience is ‘grist for the mill’, or to use a phrase from the Ninpo tradition, Shikin Haramitsu Dai-Ko-Myo; a powerful reminder that every experience we have can be used as a vehicle for our own transformation and enlightenment. Seen in this way, even our greatest adversaries, petty tyrants, and perceived enemies have potential lessons to teach us. These lessons come to us on two fronts. First, anyone we dislike or oppose is a reflection of our own inner world. All our relationships, be they with friends, family, or to a national leader are a mirror of the qualities that we carry within ourselves. In this case those traits that we may dislike about our new president are shadow aspects of ourselves that we aren’t willing to embrace, which is why we recoil so strongly from them in another. Until we own them both as individuals and as a society we will continue to see them manifest on the personal, social, and national level.

Secondly, on a more tangible level, our opponents give us the opportunity for object lessons in how not to be. They demonstrate those characteristics and traits that we are striving to avoid or overcome in our own lives. They present a clear example of what not to do. Every choice we make has consequences and every choice is a decision that either expands or contracts our awareness. The beauty of witnessing the sometimes appalling behavior of those we dislike is that it can reveal to us the real-time consequences that arise from words and actions. We can watch the results of their actions and learn from their mistakes to make better choices ourselves.

Therefore, in that light, I would like to express my gratitude to our incoming president:

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be unpretentious, genuine, and humble.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to embrace facts, evidence, and critically reasoned information.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be altruistic, noble, and self-sacrificing.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to cultivate peace, harmony, goodwill, and equality amongst all races and nationalities.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to treat disabled persons.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to speak to or treat women with a sense of respect and equality.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to discourage violence, animosity, and hatred.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be honest, transparent, and straightforward with the press and the American people.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to listen to constructive criticism with dignity and gratitude.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to behave on social media in an honest, educated, and mature manner.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to denounce hate groups and speech at every opportunity.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how to not to speak to or about our veterans or their families with the utmost respect and dignity.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to conduct yourself professionally and securely in matters of foreign policy and diplomacy.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to behave as an emotionally intelligent adult.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be a courteous steward of the planet we all share.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and learn from your mistakes in judgment.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to treat minorities and immigrants with respect and value.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be forthcoming with information regarding your businesses, taxes, or other dealings.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to maintain a cool, rational, and objective perspective on national and global events.

· Thank you, Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be fair and equitable in all your dealings.

· And lastly, Thank you Donald Trump for demonstrating how not to be a decent, compassionate, aware, honorable, gracious, and unassuming servant of this nation, its Constitution, its values, and its people.

While you may feel this list is unfair, overly sarcastic or cynical, it’s based on the actual speech and behavior Donald Trump has shown us throughout his campaign – whether on video, during interviews, or on social media. I’m not going to debate the legitimacy of these examples with you. They are what they are and can easily be accessed by those who wish to find them. Having selective attention and choosing not to see what is doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Regardless, I genuinely believe there are lessons to be learned here, lessons that we can all use in our lives to become better people. And for that, thank you Donald Trump for teaching us what we don’t want to be.

As I sat down to meditate this morning, I took a few minutes to reflect on the challenges of the past year and the potential opportunities that lie ahead in 2017.  I asked myself what would my intentions be, not simply for myself, but for the greater collective of our country and the world as we move forward into the future.  The answer came to me in the form of a passage from the Vedas, the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad that reads,

Lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. Peace, peace, peace to all.

This powerful passage can be thought of as a San Kalpa, or an intention with transformational power.  Indeed, contained within these few words is the prescription for enlightenment itself.

As I thought more on this intention, I asked myself, how could we embody this ideal and what would it mean to live this at the deepest level, both as individuals and as a society?  To that end, I identified what I believe to be the greatest challenges we face as a culture at this point in time:

  • Ignorance of our own nature
  • Intractable ideological ignorance and dogma
  • Rampant nationalism and tribal consciousness
  • Scientific Illiteracy
  • Racism, sexism, and inequality in all forms
  • The futility of war and violence
  • Attachment and the refusal to evolve

In no particular order, these 7 hangups have been and continue to be the biggest threats to our existence as a species.  Like it or not, we are standing at a fundamental turning point and if we don’t move past these hurdles, humanity will end up as a failed experiment.

Therefore, my intentions for 2017 both personally and collectively are as follows:

  1. To awaken to our true identity as members of a global community which are interdependent pieces of the whole of humanity. No man is an island; you cannot exist in a vacuum sealed away from the rest of humanity – we are interconnected in every way.  We are part of the environment and it is part of us.  What happens to one happens to all.  Our actions have consequences and we are all accountable for our choices.  Ultimately, we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not the other way around.  The material word we experience every day is only one small sliver of a much larger reality and it is our destiny to awaken to our true nature.  Like Neo in The Matrix, we have been living in a dream world.  Until we recognize that we are cells in the greater body of humanity as well as citizens of an infinite universe that we are barely beginning to understand, we will continue to harm ourselves and others in an endless wheel of illusion.
  1. To liberate ourselves from the shackles of fundamentalism and antiquated ideology. Dogmatic thinking, be it in religion, politics, or worldview has no place in our modern world.  Using fear or ignorance (lack of knowledge) to manipulate the behavior of others is not only a concept that should have died in the middle ages, but is also morally bankrupt.  We must awaken to the truth and not allow ourselves to be intimidated or controlled by centuries-old beliefs and outdated religious/political worldviews that only hold us back and perpetuates the control of others by the few in power.  We need to escape the comfort or our own beliefs and illusions to collectively recognize that we have elected a Charlatan-In-Chief, who despite having no military, foreign policy, diplomatic, constitutional, legislative, judicial, or executive experience; who has publicly mocked women, disabled people, attacked minorities, lied pathologically, and demonstrated bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia at every turn; whose election should be considered highly suspect if not illegal and potentially treasonous, to the highest office in the land.  We need to come to terms with our own cognitive dissonance that has allowed our old beliefs to somehow override what we know to be morally correct and aligned with factual evidence.  Clinging to such outdated and fear-based beliefs open the door to the worst kind of control and manipulation, an existential threat to our democracy and way of life that if we don’t collectively recognize and reject the results could be dire indeed.
  1. To transcend the extreme nationalism that continues to divide us as a people. The notion that we are morally superior to other countries is a sickness that only serves to divide us from potential allies and partners on the road to awakening and compassion.  The United States is a wonderful land of opportunities, ideas, diversity, and vision.  However, in the global landscape of history, we are a very young nation.  And we have enormous power.  Adolescence and strength can me a volatile mix.  Our power and strength must be tempered with wisdom and compassion.  We cannot fall into the trap of believing we have the right to control or make other nations more like us.  Nations, just like people evolve at their own unique pace.  Our global community must avoid the temptation of being caught up in an Us vs. Them mentality.  Naturally, we should protect ourselves from those that wish to do us harm, but we should never forget, that many, if not all of the hostilities humanity has faced through the centuries has been the result of an inflammatory tribal consciousness.  Any belief in the “exclusive rightness” or moral superiority of an individual or nation has historically not ended well.  Remember that seen from space, there are no national borders.  Borders are ultimately artificial lines of division that keep up separate from those not like us.  Until we begin to see humanity as one race, we will potentially see others as potential enemies.
  1. To embrace knowledge, critical reasoning, and scientific literacy as fundamental tools in the quest for the truth. We must be diligent in our pursuit of knowledge over ignorance.  Paradoxically, and despite our ever increasing technology, we seem to be backsliding into a cultural worldview that is deliberately choosing to reject critical thought, factual understanding and scientific evidence.  This anti-fact/anti-science position is not only harmful to understanding the truth, but it seriously undermines our future as a nation and a society.  Science is not some liberal or progressive conspiracy – scientific understanding is one of the most reliable tools we have to 1) understand exactly how the natural world works, 2) make predictions on that understanding, and 3) create modern efficiencies to improve our quality and length of life in countless ways.  And to be blunt, you simply can’t have it both ways.  If you accept the science that brought you flat screen televisions, Wi-Fi, the Internet, cell phones, medical technology, microwave ovens, the device you’re reading this on, and countless other modern conveniences, you don’t get to dismiss that same science when it makes discoveries about issues that may disagree with your beliefs on religious or political grounds. We don’t get to cherry-pick science or factual evidence to make ourselves comfortable.  The theory of evolution, the established age of the universe and the earth, the origins of life, and global warming are real, evidence-based discoveries that need to be taken seriously and not dismissed or cognitively dissonated because they disagree with your deeply held beliefs.  Science and facts are based on proven evidence and are true whether you want them to be or not, and I hate to be the one to tell you, but your personal opinion (whether based upon internet ‘research’ or long held belief) is not as valid as empirical evidence.  As a culture, we must learn to grasp the fundamentals of the scientific method, what constitutes scientific expertise, a scientific consensus, and general scientific literacy.  False news and ignorance of the facts serves to put us at serious disadvantage on the world stage and hold us back from the progress and forward thinking that has been the hallmark of the United States.  Idiocrasy should never be our destiny.
  1. To overcome racism, sexism, and all forms of inequality. It’s hard to believe that we have yet to get past the outdated, primitive, and insecure idea that someone is less worthy or deserving of basic human rights based solely upon the color of their skin, their sex, country of origin, religious beliefs, age, or sexual identification.  Let’s be clear, if your judgement of another is derived from one or more of these surface level qualities, you need to take a hard look at yourself and recognize that the world is as you are.  Those prejudices and beliefs about others are generated within you and as mature adults, it’s our responsibility to step up and grow out of the fear-based Archie Bunker, homophobic, islamophobic, misogynistic, white supremacist worldview.  If we continue to lump people together in stereotypical boxes, we deprive ourselves of the creative, intellectual, cross-cultural, diversity that makes our world stronger, not weaker.  We all need one another, just as all the cells in our bodies need each other.  Liver cells need brain cells; heart cells need stomach cells; retinal cells need spleen cells.  They all are part of a unified whole.  Each of us has a Dharma, or purpose that helps to uphold the whole of humanity.  As such, every person, (male, female, transgender) regardless of where they are from, color of their skin, ethnic background, or other differentiating attribute has the right to be treated with equal amounts of fairness, dignity, financial value in the workplace, right to heath care, and other basic human needs.  To diminish one weakens the whole.
  1. To rise above our fight or flight tendency toward violence and warfare. As a tool for lasting peace, war and violence never have and never will work.  Centuries of spilled blood stand as testament to the futility of trying to bring about a more civilized society through the use of force.  As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”  The notion of “Peace through superior firepower” is a myth perpetuated only by those who refuse to understand that the temporary “peace” attainted is achieved only through fear, which is just another form of violence.  As any wise martial artist will tell you, the best warrior is not the one with the most techniques or weapons, but the one who is who is most judicious and skillful in their use.  In feudal Japan the most honorable samurai realized that if they unsheathed their sword, bloodshed and loss of life would be the inevitable result.  In our modern age when our weapons have given us the ability to kill or maim dozens or millions, we cannot and must not allow ourselves to fall back upon the primitive, Bronze-Age mentality of killing others over ideological, religious, or geo-political disagreements.  Our very survival, our lives, and the lives of our children literally depend upon it.
  1. To embrace change and detachment. I strongly believe the reason we have become so deeply polarized in our political, religious, and ideological worldviews over the last several decades is due to our ability or lack thereof to embrace change and progress.  To clarify, we have to understand a central truth – evolution.  I’m not talking about natural selection or the theory of evolution (both based upon scientific evidence, see above) but the overriding concept of evolution as a prime mover for all life as we know it.  Everything evolves, grows, progresses.  We each grow and evolve physically – from infants, to adolescents, teen agers, adults, senior citizens; our sense of self, intelligence, awareness, emotions, grow and evolve; societies grow, change, transform.  Everything in nature is growing and evolving, and moving forward from a more closed and constricted state, to a more expanded one.  Wherever you look – your body, your relationships, our society, country, the world, it’s all changing and it’s always happening.  Now, with the addition of technology, that evolution has grown at an unprecedented rate.

In the face of such rapid change, we have two options 1) embrace the change, or 2) resist it.  One of these choices has a future.  The other only has a past.  In accepting that change and evolution are a force of nature, the notation of resisting is clearly problematic.  As eastern philosophy is clear to point out, nearly all human suffering comes about as a result of attachment. In an impermanent material world, change is a given and clinging to things that are transient is only a recipe for disaster, whether that thing is a relationship, worldview, or political ideology.  The tidal wave of change is looming on the horizon – will we dig our heels into the sand and brace for impact, desperately clinging to our outdated and old ways of doing things, living, and believing, or will we learn to surf and ride those waves of change into a new and brighter future?  Ultimately, we have very little choice in the matter.  We can let go or be dragged.  It is this subconscious realization that I believe is fueling the desperate resistance of the old guard’s refusal to budge on social, political, economic, scientific, and religious positions.  Indeed, we seem to be entering a period reversal of the progress that has been made thus far.  In the eyes of some I’m sure it seems like a desperate battle to hold on to how things have always been.  Be that as it may, we must find a way to become comfortable with the uncertainty of change and detach from the past so we can embrace a new future together.  Fighting change is fighting the power of the entire universe, and is a battle that cannot be won, nor should it be.  The future of a safe, happy, sustainable, awakened society will always be forward, not backward.

Looking forward into a new year of hope and optimism, I encourage you to embrace these intentions, and commit yourself to making the conscious journey from the unreal to the real, from darkness into light, and from death into immortality, bringing peace, peace, peace to all.

Namaste & Happy 2017!

Over the last 5 plus years while active on Facebook and my blog, I have made a concerted effort to minimize any posts regarding politics, religion, or ideology. I have worked to make uplifting and positive posts that I hope have made the landscape of social media a little more worthwhile. 

My intentions haven’t changed. However, in light of recent events in our nation, I feel a need to take a firmer position against ignorance, fear, anger, violence and the baser qualities of human nature that seem fixed on gaining a foothold in our government and communities. We cannot afford to say nothing in the face of this darkness. Subtle (and not so subtle) choices are being made that stand poised to have profoundly negative and oppressive effects on the people of this country for years to come.

This isn’t about Democrats vs. Republicans, or Conservatives vs. Liberals, Fundamentalists vs. Atheists. This is about awareness vs. ignorance. This is about an attack on the very ideals that have helped to make this country a pinnacle or human values, ideals, and achievement. Are we, are our children, is not the legacy our nation is founded on worth our voices speaking out against what we all know inherently to be in stark conflict with our values? I believe it is. I believe we all have a choice to make. Will we be neutral fence-sitters, with a passive “wait and see” attitude? Or will we let our voices be heard and stand up to be counted for what we all know to be right and true? 

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

               – Neil Peart

In the classic of Yoga literature, The Bhagavad Gita, the great warrior Arjuna faces a moral dilemma and is counseled by the wise Krishna. After a lengthy discourse on the philosophy of Yoga, Krishna tells Arjuna definitively, “Stand up, and fight for knowledge!” The fight he speaks of is metaphorical and reminds the reader to oppose ignorance and choose the path of awareness.

In that vein, I choose the path of knowledge and awareness. I will choose to oppose injustice, fear, ignorance, hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and violence. As a Yogi and Martial Artist, I feel an obligation to shine the light of higher awareness into the world in toward the goal of raising collective consciousness while helping to protect those weaker than myself.

If this choice or my subsequent posts makes you uncomfortable or if you disagree with my position, I heartily respect your right to disagree, unfollow, or unfriend me as you see fit. After the election season we’ve just been through, no one would blame you if you didn’t want to see anything remotely politically motivated for the next four years. However, I sadly don’t think we can afford to wait for the next election to speak or write or vote in defense of our values. We cannot be fence-sitters; the stakes are too high for us not to say or do anything. The time is now to ensure that the hard-won liberties we enjoy today won’t be buried by blind sweeping hand of ignorance. 

Namaste,

-Adam

Paris 11/13

November 14, 2015

  
In the wake of the deadly attacks in Paris this evening, I had hoped I would have had something profound and meaningful to say, some way to make sense of the senseless, to give hope to the hopelessness, and purpose to the helplessness I’m certain many of us are feeling right now. Unfortunately I don’t have any words of wisdom like those I often quote in my posts. Tonight I only have a heart broken by tragedy and grieving from the loss of life.

Despite that heartbreak, I vow not to be helpless, to feel paralyzed by and trapped by the cold emotions of fear, anger, and hatred. Because if we are to survive as a species, we must rise above these emotions and constricting mental states, for they are the same emotions that fuel the attackers. Clearly, these responses don’t work for establishing lasting peace in the world. They never have. And if we want a better world, we have to find a better way.

We must recognize that we are the result of millions of years of evolution, growth, and development and it’s long past time to start acting like it physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Deep down, no matter how much of a hard ass you might think you are, no one wants to live in a world filled with violence, pain, and suffering, perpetually stuck in the primitive survival mentality of the fight or flight response. Peace is our birthright. When will we, as human beings choose to claim it? 

While we must protect ourselves, the true and lasting change always comes from within. When we master ourselves, we stop our enemies not from a place of rage or vengeance, but from a place strength that says, “I will not let you inflict harm on others because it destroys the values and meaning of all we have achieved as a race; therefore, I will fight you with my last breath.” This is what it means to be a true warrior, an enlightened protector of the way of life we have worked so hard to achieve. To do otherwise is to fuel a cycle of violence that will never end.

So tonight I pray that we all seek the highest version of ourselves we can become, to not let these attacks fuel the monster of tribal hatred and rage, but rather to come together in solidarity as protectors of our way of life in a free and evolving society that stands for safety and peace for all sentient beings.

May peace prevail. Om Shanti.

Cognitive Dissonance

November 3, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable and stressful mental state experienced when our beliefs contradict the hard facts of objective reality. We all have beliefs. Beliefs about politics, religion, relationships, values, who we are, where we come from, the nature of reality, and the meaning of life. Being incredibly passionate about those beliefs however is no guarantee that they are not completely wrong. It’s that “completely wrong” experience that I’d like to talk about.

According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we strive for internal consistency in our belief system, and when we experience inconsistency or dissonance, we tend to become mentally uncomfortable. This mental discomfort serves a purpose – to motivate us to reduce the dissonance and avoid situations or information that is likely to increase it.

There are generally two ways we can reduce or eliminate our cognitive dissonance. We can either 1) modify or change our beliefs to become consistent with the facts, or 2) we can try to force or change the facts of objective reality to agree with our beliefs.

Of these two options, when experiencing cognitive dissonance, I’m sure most of us would like to think we would choose the first. Recognizing that our beliefs disagree with the facts of objective reality can be an unpleasant situation, but with psychological maturity comes a certain willingness to embrace the hard truths of the world despite it going against our personal beliefs and values. Most mentally and emotionally mature individuals will, albeit reluctantly, adjust their beliefs to come into harmony with the given facts of a situation.    

Surprisingly though, the second choice of ignoring or “changing” the facts over those of our personal beliefs seems to be gaining an increasing amount of traction in our modern world. Nowhere has this become more noticeable than in the political and religious arenas. Understandably, these two realms carry an enormous amount of psychological and sociological baggage and relate directly to a person’s sense of good and bad, right and wrong, the value and meaning of life, freedom, liberty, God, and the pursuit of happiness.

But to paraphrase a quote by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the universe is under no obligation to conform to your beliefs about it. In other words, if your beliefs are totally wrong, the rest of the world is not required to conform to those erroneous beliefs. The world does not exist to agree with your worldview. Quite to the contrary, the world, universe, laws of nature, facts of the matter, or however you want to conceptualize the rigid rod of reality, simply is. The onus for change is upon us, not the world at large when we are in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Despite this rather common sense understanding, as a nation, we are largely awash in a flat out refusal to accept the facts that may run counter to our beliefs. Scientific literacy is at an all-time low, fact checking goes completely ignored, and large groups of people stubbornly cling to ideologies and belief systems that have neither evidence nor reason to support them. Issues such as the denial of climate change or evolutionary theory; President Obama’s religious affiliation; or the literal and historical accuracy of the Bible are all topics of contention that are apparently so self-evident to their believers that they require no proof whatsoever to be considered accurate. In the minds of such people facts and evidence literally do not matter.  

If you don’t find this shocking, you should. Of all our mental attributes, critical thinking is one of the most powerful tools we have for rooting out the causes of our own ignorance. But when we bypass or turn off our critical thinking simply because the answers it gives us are uncomfortable, we’re ignoring the signals our cognitive dissonance is sending us and leading ourselves down the path of self-delusion.

Here’s an example of this mindset that comes from the martial arts. For decades, or even centuries, students of the martial arts were trained by their instructor in a given style and were taught that their art was the most effective means of self-defense and realistic combative skill. As is often the case in the martial arts, newer students fall into the groupthink of the class and accept what they are taught without question. Lessons were learned, practiced, and handed down from teacher to student, perpetuating the belief in the style’s effectiveness. However, with no actual testing of the art’s functionality in true combat, the students are left believing in their art’s ability on faith alone.

Such was the case for countless martial artists throughout the decades until one fateful night in 1993 at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. During that event martial artists from multiple styles pitted their arts and skills against each other in a litmus test of effectiveness in actual combat. There were few if any rules in that early event. No weight classes, no time limits, no illegal strikes. It was as close to the brutal reality of a street fight as one could get without risking serious injury or death. What happened? Royce Gracie, a small, relatively unknown Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt dominated and forced the submission of each of his opponents. Not only that, he did the same in 3 subsequent UFC events, answering once and for all the question of what does and doesn’t work in actual combat. Where were the deadly one strike, one kill techniques? The lethal pressure point attacks, the dirty fighting techniques, the “secret methods” that were too dangerous for all but the most skilled masters? Interestingly, those techniques and the promises of their effectiveness against an actual resisting opponent suddenly turned into nothing more than armchair pontification.

UFCs 1-4 sent the martial arts community into a tailspin of cognitive dissonance. Long held beliefs about the supposed “deadly effectiveness” of martial arts styles were in jeopardy. What were you to do as a marital artist caught up in this dissonance? Well, you could either 1) recognize what happened, accept it, and choose to update your belief system to integrate the new information; in this case the absolute necessity in training in the grappling arts and the fundamental understanding that a very high percentage of actual fights end up on the ground. Or 2) you could stubbornly resist these very obvious, demonstrable facts and carry on as if nothing had happened, continuing to believe in the deadly power of your techniques and martial philosophy so as to not have to face the uncomfortable fact that your training may be incomplete.

I’ve had an experience that loosely parallels what I’ve described above – I recently started studying Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (the same art Royce used to dominate in the UFCs). You should know that I’ve been studying or training in the martial arts since I was 18. I’ve trained in several arts, earned a black belt in one, an instructor’s certification in another, and felt that overall, I had a good understanding and a significant level of skill when it came to the martial arts. However, from my first time rolling (free sparring with a resisting opponent), I became rapidly re-acquainted with cognitive dissonance. Although I had some ground fighting training in the past, this was a huge game-changer. It’s one thing to say, “If I run up against a guy who wants to hurt me, I’ll do ‘such and such’”, but it’s something entirely different to have that guy (who outweighs you by an easy 75 pounds) posted with a knee on your belly making you seriously contemplate whether to crap or go blind. Very, very little of my previous training prepared me for this – the techniques, the conditioning, the emotional content. And this is what sets this art apart – the brutal closeness to actual combat it simulates. As I’ve come to realize, without a training method in which your opponent is actually trying his hardest to submit you as you are trying to submit him, you are to a certain extent, engaging in a fantasy.  

This cognitive dissonance continues to rear its head whenever I start thinking I have an idea of what I’m doing. It usually takes the form of a higher belt student crushing me during a three minute roll, but in the end it’s teaching me a valuable lesson: the world doesn’t care what you think. What works is what works, I can either accept it and integrate this knowledge into my slow climb to self-mastery, or I can quit and go back to my old comfortable delusions. Believe me, I’ve thought about quitting and justifying it by telling myself that “this isn’t what I was looking for”, but that would just be a disguise for me sticking my head in the sand and pretending I was something I wasn’t.

I’d like to think that this post sums up why I’m so keen on the teachings of Bruce Lee and his art of Jeet Kune Do*. Bruce was all about confronting his own illusions and inspiring others to do the same. He knew that cognitive dissonance, while a crappy feeling, is a means to explore, expose, and root out the causes of our own ignorance. His art and philosophy was a very practical one. It says, do what works, ignore what doesn’t, and find your own way. He knew the facts don’t lie and we have to stand ever vigilant against the self-deception we indulge in order to avoid having to change our beliefs.

I’ll button up this post with two quotes that seem appropriate:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

– John Adams

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

* Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a component of the Jeet Kune Do I practice and it provides a set of attributes vital to the overall JKD matrix.

  

In Defense of Deepak

June 9, 2015

I’ve been associated with the Chopra Center for nearly 20 years. I’ve read the majority of Deepak Chopra’s and David Simon’s work, attended numerous programs, worked as a Chopra Center volunteer, and become a certified instructor of meditation, yoga, and Ayurvedic lifestyle and wellness. During that time I’ve watched Deepak and David’s focus shift and evolve from perfect health, to living an abundant and fulfilling life, to the path to love, to the philosophy and practice of yoga, to harnessing the power of synchronicity to bridging the gap between science and spirituality. Through all this Deepak has had his share of critics and detractors. Such is the result of being in the public eye while attempting to translate the world’s wisdom traditions into a modern context. People naturally resist and fear what they don’t understand and haven’t experienced themselves. Over the last several years though, that resistance seems to have become increasingly hostile.

Disagreement is part of the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with a spirited debate over opposing viewpoints. However it’s something completely different to attack, insult, mock and criticize someone for their views. Most of this criticism has come from the scientific community who take exception to Deepak’s views on science, spirituality, and the connection between the two. Personally, I find their animosity toward Deepak to be puzzling in that he’s an MD with a thoroughgoing scientific background who regularly interacts and engages with highly respected members of the scientific community in an attempt to better understand how modern science can shed light on the wisdom teachings of the East.  

One of those wisdom traditions is Vedanta, which in India is known as the Science of Spirituality. Although putting those two words together in a sentence may seem cringeworthy to the Western Scientific mind, this model for spiritual inquiry actually very closely resembles the scientific method. It begins with a hypothesis (Consciousness is the foundation of the universe) and this leads to specific experiments that can validate or invalidate the hypothesis (The four paths to unity or Yogas which provide experiential knowledge of that unity). If the experiments appear to validate the hypothesis, then one asks his or her peers to duplicate the results and provide additional evidence for the hypothesis. The key here is having your own experience. When I teach my students about meditation, yoga, and Vedanta, I always make sure to tell them, I can’t prove that any of what I tell you is true…but you can. You have to go out and have your own experience to find out for yourself if what I’ve taught you is valid. Run your own experiment. Your life is the laboratory. But realize if you’re not willing to run the experiment, you’re in no position to criticize it.

While this scientific model of spiritual exploration has proven successful for countless seekers throughout the ages, (myself included), it still does little to convince the critics. That’s because the problem with this method, if you want to call it one, is that it’s experiential. As one of my meditation teachers once said, “The only bad thing about meditation is that you have to do it.” Let’s be honest, of Deepak’s critics, from the well-known scientific community, to the hostile media personalities, to the unknown internet keyboard warrior, they all have at least one thing in common – they will most likely never attend a Chopra Center event, read one of Deepak’s books with the open-minded intention of truly understanding it, or most importantly, invest the time and energy involved in practicing the mind-body teachings that can lead to both the self-transformation and self-validation of a spiritual worldview. As such, this is a particularly safe position for Deepak’s critics to be in. They can accuse him of being a woo-woo, snake oil salesman and new age charlatan while simultaneously avoiding the heavy lifting of actually practicing what Deepak teaches.

This seems like a no win scenario for Deepak. His opponents viciously attack his dedication and passion for creating a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world and show no real interest in exploring the path he has laid down in his books, lectures, and workshops. The fact that he works and co-authors books with amazing scientists like Leonard Mlodinow, Rudolph Tanzi, and Stuart Hameroff appears to account for nothing with his opponents. As such, it seems difficult to fathom why Deepak would continue to interact or debate with such a hostile audience. In fact, I asked him this very question during a retreat a few years ago. It was shortly after a now well-known public debate between Deepak and some of his more contentious opponents that had ultimately turned into something of a science versus spirituality throw-down. I asked, If part of living a spiritual life is to practice defenselessness, and knowing that knowledge and understanding changes in different states of consciousness, and your opponents are not only unwilling but also unable to understand this worldview, why would you want to continue to engage with them; what could you hope to accomplish?

Deepak answered by saying that while on the surface it might seem to be a contentious situation, it was all ultimately all just Leela, a Sanskrit word that describes the play of the universe. As such, the conflict between Deepak and his opponents was part of a divine drama in which the One spirit divides itself into opposite factions to engage in imaginary conflict, much in the same ways children play cops and robbers. Ultimately Deepak and his critics are just opposite sides of the same coin, debating about who gets to be face up.

I can’t say I embrace that notion as fully as Deepak does, but after practicing these teachings and watching them change my life, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll admit, I don’t always understand where he’s going with some of the things he says or does, but I do recognize that he’s trying to help make the world a better place and from where I stand, I believe he’s succeeding. Besides, who says I or anyone else is meant to fully “get” Deepak Chopra? In the documentary Decoding Deepak, Gotham Chopra, Deepak’s son asks himself who his father really is apart from the fame, the books, and seminars and admits that he really doesn’t know. If Deepak’s own son can’t define his father, who are we to do any better, and should we even try?

Regarding Deepak’s critics, I’m sure they will always be there. Deepak’s willingness to openly speak about the bridge he’s trying to build between science and spirituality makes him an easy target for his opponents. But one attribute that Deepak excels at is detachment. While he does get into some heated exchanges from time to time, he seems to say what he feels without any attachment to the outcome. One of the characteristics of the soul is that it is independent of the good or bad opinion of others. The Deepak I’ve watched over the years seems to have that trait down pat. I think it’s also telling to remember the paradox of judgment is that it often says more about the one passing judgment than their intended victim. When Deepak’s critics let loose with seething contempt and vitriol in an attack against his views, his finances, or personal life, it speaks volumes about the person behind such attacks. It reminds me of a story told about the Buddha:

One day, as the Buddha was walking through a village, he was approached by a young man who began insulting him. “You have no right teaching others. You are stupid and a fake.”

The Buddha was not upset by this attack. Instead, he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, but they refuse the gift, who does the gift belong to?”

The young man, surprised by the question replied, “It would belong to me.”

The Buddha smiled and replied, “That is correct. It is the same with your anger. If you offer me anger and I do not accept it and do not get insulted, then the anger still belongs to you. You are the one who is unhappy, not me. You have hurt yourself not another.”

Ultimately, while I titled this article In Defense of Deepak, I honestly don’t think Deepak needs defending. For those of us who follow his work or that of the Chopra Center though, it might be helpful to remember that the test of any teacher or body of knowledge lies in the results you see in your life. Bruce Lee, one of my personal heroes, reminds us to absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add specifically that which is your own. In my experience, I have absorbed innumerable useful teachings from Deepak Chopra and the Chopra Center. I have sifted through and let go of those things that aren’t appropriate to me and I strive to add to and modify what I learn in the most beneficial way for my life. I encourage you to do the same.

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Hopefully we have all had the opportunity to spend time in the company of friends and family, enjoyed a delicious meal, and celebrated all that we have to be grateful for. Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful occasion to embrace some of the values we hold most dear; things that can be often taken for granted in the swirl of our daily existence. But with Thanksgiving behind us, we now find ourselves caught on the cusp of the Christmas shopping season and its focal singularity, Black Friday.

If you don’t know the historical perspective, the term Black Friday had its origins in 1960s Philadelphia when police officers would use the term to describe the terrible traffic jams which annually occurred in Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was meant as a derogatory expression in the hopes that the public would find the long lines, traffic, mayhem, and general ruthless shopping environment distasteful and therefore something to be avoided. Despite the intentions to contrary, the term took off in a big way and was later co-opted by businesses trying to get their profits into the ‘black’ near the end of the calendar year. Sometime after the mid-1980s corporate America jumped on the bandwagon and behold, a modern shopping phenomenon was born.

More vibrant and thriving than ever before, Black Friday has taken on a life of its own. As the busiest shopping day of the year, it creates an unprecedented amount of momentum in our culture with newspaper ads and commercials running weeks prior to the actual event. Entire websites are dedicated to helping the buyer locate the best deals and consumers strategically organize their shopping excursions with more detail and ruthless determinism than a military campaign. It truly is a one-of-a-kind all American original institution.

But taking a deeper look at what Black Friday really signifies can tell us a lot about ourselves as a people. The world is your mirror, and Black Friday is no exception. Hidden within this yearly shopping extravaganza are some key messages that can be important to reflect upon. I’m not trying to bash Black Friday and those who indulge in its holiday splendor as much as shine some light on its hidden messages, what we can learn from them, and if they are ultimately a benefit to us as individuals and as a society.

First, we must be honest and recognize the first of two underlying prime movers of Black Friday, materialism. Materialism, as a worldview basically holds that matter and its interactions is the primary, fundamental stuff and substance of the universe. But as it relates to a deeper understanding of human nature, materialism is also the underlying notion that possessing more things leads to greater happiness. This conclusion certainly makes a certain amount of sense from a materialistic standpoint: if the world is made of physical things and stuff, then having more of the stuff that I need and want will lead to more happiness.

Unfortunately, for the die-hard materialist, the world isn’t made up of “stuff.” I won’t even attempt a quantum physics explanation of how everything in the material universe is actually just energy and information; just know that the consensus in the scientific community is clear – all the stuff we think is so hard and tangible is really just waves of information and energy moving at dizzying speeds giving us the illusion of solidity. But if that isn’t enough, just consider all the evidence to support a non-materialistic way of looking at the world. Thoughts, emotions, moods, values, inspiration, intentions, creativity, your personality, sense of “I”, or your soul; these aren’t material, but you know them to be a real part of your existence. Sure, these states might be associated to specific brain chemicals or hormones, but in and of themselves, they aren’t physical. And in when you think about it, what would you rather base your life and behavior upon, physical, impermanent matter that decays and rots away with the passage of time, or the non-material qualities that we intrinsically feel are at the heart of existence? I believe most people would lean toward the latter. Think about it, to call someone materialistic is often considered a serious affront because it implies a shallowness of being and an attachment to material things over more timeless values.

So what does this say about Black Friday? Well, simply put, like it or not, Black Friday is all about materialism. It would have you believe that owning more of the stuff that doesn’t ultimately lead to happiness is of the utmost importance. It’s a “thing-based” event (as if this wasn’t obvious). But what it says about us is that as participants in Black Friday we’re in a certain sense casting our vote for a stuff-based way of looking at the world. If this wasn’t the case, would countless shoppers be willing to mow down their competitors over an article of clothing or appliance one day after celebrating all they have to be thankful for? If those values truly reigned supreme, would Black Friday be able to sustain itself the way it has over the last few decades?

The Second prime mover behind Black Friday is consumerism. Consumerism is an economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Consumerism needs a materialistic worldview to thrive, because once we become convinced that having more stuff = greater happiness, it’s a simple matter to persuade us to continually buy more and more things. Now I know that there are things we all need for our survival, however consumerism truly flourishes not so much around the things we need, but around the things we want. As a culture, we have become buyers of stuff, often mindless buyers of stuff. We love to buy things. There’s a certain pleasure received from buying things, no doubt caused by a hit of dopamine in our brain’s pleasure centers, that makes us somehow feel more fulfilled. This is a natural response to the fulfillment of a desire, but the problem arises when through repetition, this behavior crosses the line into an addiction. I would guess a great many of us are addicted to the consumerism “fix” that leads to buying things just to buy things. It can be a double-edged sword in that a certain degree of consumerism help keep the economy going, however when it runs rampant (as in our culture) we face an ever increasing buildup of needless and unnecessary junk produced for the sole purpose of fueling the consumer machine.

As it relates to Black Friday, consumerism is the engine that keeps this shopping phenomenon alive and well. It sends a clear message that we are consumption addicts and that, given the right mix of availability and low prices, we will be slaves to the corporate giants that supply our distorted sense of demand. Yes, you already have a 65 inch flat screen LCD Television, but if you wait in line beginning at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving night you can get another 65 inch TV for 1/3 its original price. Do you need it? No, but look at how much money you “save” by buying this one when it’s dirt cheap! This is the type of logic that fuels our consumer-based mentality. More after all, is more, which of course is better than less…

Third, the hype surrounding Black Friday often turns us into puppets of the advertising media and the products they promote. Advertising is rarely what it appears to be. There is always an agenda behind every product being promoted or discounted and as much as we’d like to believe the advertisers have our best interests at heart, what they’re usually concerned about is just one thing – making money. To do so they will use every tactic at their disposal to get you to purchase their product. I’m not trying to make advertising sound like a sinister conspiracy, but I think it’s important to realize that the advertising media isn’t trying to inform you of a product as much as it is attempting to manipulate your behavior. Now you might say “I have free will, no one tells me what to buy,” but take a look in your refrigerator or closet. How many name brands do you see? Now ask yourself if you bought those items because you knew they were the highest quality, or because of an association to that product you formed through advertising. We all do it, and it doesn’t mean we’re mindless zombies just because we buy a popular, well-advertised brand. But the more visibility that item has online, in print, or on television, the greater the chances are you’ll become familiar with it and lean toward it over another less-known brand.

Some brands go to great lengths to grab our attention and create targeted campaigns to associate certain images, concepts, or beliefs to their products. Once we form an association, not unlike Pavlov’s Dog, we have an automatic and often unconscious response to that stimulus. Our attention gets hooked and for many of us the hype and glitz bypasses our critically thinking intellect and heads right for the emotional centers of our brain where it’s much more likely to take root and motivate you to take action.

What does this mean on Black Friday? Consider that long before the big day we are inundated with the flyers, ads, commercials, and targeted emails, all of which are designed to prime the emotional pump and create a powerful psychological momentum towards saving huge sums of money on Black Friday. They tactfully feed into the our materialistic and consumer-driven mentality, ramping up our need to have and buy more while directing our attention to those large ticket items that will have the biggest impact on their business. Further, notice that the advertisements primarily come from large retailers with huge advertising budgets. Smaller outlets have little chance of competing against a wall of advertisements generated by the corporate giants. As shoppers, we can easily (and unwittingly) get caught up in the media and advertising hype of Black Friday and become convinced that we need to buy more of what we don’t need. The collective pull guided by the advertising industry can be a powerful force, and without awareness we may unconsciously end up doing its bidding, for better or worse.

Finally, the popularity of Black Friday clearly demonstrates that we are an object-referral society. Object-referral means that your sense of self, of who you are is influenced by what is happening outside your Self. Situations, circumstances, people and things govern who you believer yourself to be and therefore have the greatest amount of control over your happiness and wellbeing. Object-referral is constantly seeking the approval of others and behavior is always in anticipation of a response. In object-referral, your internal reference point is the ego which thrives on approval, strives to control, and is sustained by power. It’s the sense of I, me, and mine that perpetually asks, “What’s in it for me?”

The opposite of object-referral is self-referral, meaning that your internal reference point is your soul rather than the objects of your experience. It is a spirit and consciousness based way of approaching life and asks, “How can I help?”

We only need to take a cursory look around at our society to realize that object-referral reigns supreme. It is the mentality that drives the sense of individual accomplishment, of ‘us versus them’, of ‘looking out for number one’, and getting what’s mine before someone else does.

This becomes especially revealing in light of Black Friday. Black Friday isn’t about the generous and grateful values we espoused just one day earlier. It’s about every shopper for themselves, of grabbing the prize before someone else does, of the means justifying the ends. One needs only a short visit to YouTube to see countless posts of security-cam footage during the mad rush when eager shoppers nearly crash through a doorway like a sea of humanity surging to the electronics department to witness object-referral in action. Helping others isn’t on the agenda on this day; it’s about me and mine.

Now I hear the protests: But I’m shopping to give my child (husband, parent) a wonderful Christmas or Chanukah. That may be, but what values are we upholding when we live by a win at all costs mentality, even if it’s for the best of intentions? Are we telling ourselves that our purchases are more important than those of others? And if so, is the example you set one you would have your loved ones follow? No doubt, these can be uncomfortable and difficult questions. Just the same, I think they’re important to ask. If we are only willing to hold to our values when it’s convenient, then what does that say about us as people?

As you can see by now, the spectacle of Black Friday tells us quite a bit about ourselves, and in all honesty, I can’t say it paints a pretty picture. I know many people actually enjoy shopping on Black Friday and It wasn’t my intention to offend those shoppers in this essay. I do believe however it’s important to examine what we do and why we do it, as well as what we can learn from those questions. Do I think we should get rid of Black Friday? Would it help pull our culture back from the cliff of runaway materialistic consumerism? Perhaps. Regardless, I believe it’s vitally important to recognize that Black Friday is the byproduct of our collective consciousness. Black Friday became what it is because we allowed it to happen. If we don’t like our creation, perhaps we should hold a different vision.

I’ll admit it; I get most of my news from the internet. Either from news websites or a handful of respected select sources on social media, I basically pick and choose the news that I want to read and/or be exposed to. I left televised news broadcasts years ago and only tune into them these days when there’s an event that is breaking faster than online channels can keep up with. The reason for my departure was simple – televised news had become, and largely still is a source of wholesale negativity. Here’s a sure –fire recipe for fear, depression, anxiety, anger, indignation, melodrama, hopelessness, and desperation; 1) get comfortable in your favorite couch or chair, 2) watch the evening news, 3) repeat for 2 weeks.

I want to be a positive person and put my attention on uplifting stories and experiences that give me hope for the human race. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Pollyanna. I know the world can be a rough, violent, and nasty place. But that doesn’t mean we have to invite that nastiness into our living rooms every night. Just do a little armchair reading on the neurological and psychological effects of absorbing large amounts of negative images, sounds, and other stimulus from the environment and you’ll understand why it’s so important to minimize your exposure to this type of emotional toxicity.

So, in addition to the books I read, I stick to online outlets for my news and information about what’s going on in the world. Does it paint a complete or a perfect picture of absolute truth? Of course not, but it gives me the information I feel is necessary to form what I hope is a well-informed perspective.

The reason I mention this is that as I sift through the articles, stories, and headlines, the one glaring difference between televised or print media and that of the online world is the presence of the comment section. In the old world of media information, outside of occasional letters to the editor, opinion polls, or a man on the street type interview, the average information consumer was silent. Not the case on the internet. As the internet has continued to evolve, it is no longer a one-way repository of information to be accessed and consumed by the public. Now, in addition to its role of unlimited information warehouse, the internet has become a public cybernetic forum in which everyone has a voice and an opinion. And this is a big change in the way we have been communicating about politics, religion, values, and countless other subjects.

The comment forum is in many ways a bold new frontier in which readers (or viewers in the case of video) of online material are free to add their own two cents. This can be a very good thing in that it gives a voice to people that would perhaps otherwise not be heard. However, as a fair, just, and unbiased vehicle allowing others to share their support or opposition to a particular point of view, it’s not always without challenges. No doubt a comment section helps to support our freedom of speech and gives us an outlet to voice our concerns, change minds, and sway public opinion. And while I’m not here to debate such logic, I do want to point out a few of the effects of this apparently innocuous cause.

First, as a frequently anonymous forum, comment sections allow the commentator the freedom to say whatever they want with little if any concerns over how their comments reflect on them as individuals. In everyday face to face, telephone, or email communications, we have a set of filters that help us abide by social convention, maintain good working or social relationships, and basically behave politely and courteously. In an anonymous comment section, those rules often go out the door and we see a much more primal side of human nature come to the surface. The comment section is the domain of the ego unbridled and people join the ongoing conversation for one of two reasons – to either take the side of the article or story or to attack it, plain and simple.

From a basic psychological perspective, we want to belong and feel like we are part of a group, so if we like the article’s premise, we read the comments or join the conversation so we can enjoy strength in numbers and feel better about our common beliefs. Likewise, if we disagree, we comment and seek other like-minded dissenters.

This is all well and good. However, in comment environments the best laid intentions can often pave a road of toxic mayhem. The ego’s persistent need to be right combined with the anonymity, freedom, and unaccountability of this atmosphere can very often turn the comment section into a battleground of cynicism, sarcasm, anger, vitriol, rage, and even hate speech. In the same way that people can be much more aggressive behind the wheel of an automobile than if they were on foot, online commenters are often willing to say (or write) things they would absolutely never say in person. The ‘must be right at all costs’ mentality creates blanket negativity that really doesn’t solve anything, and in the case of a particularly incendiary story or issue, may actually contribute to the problem. Making matters worse are the internet trolls who seem to take a strange delight in inflaming conflict and stirring the pot simply to raise the ire of their fellow commentators. They may not even have a dog in the fight so to speak, but relish in deliberately poking and prodding others in order to get a reaction.

This isn’t to say that comment sections are inherently “bad”; but they can certainly be a highly flammable milieu, capable of generating a great deal of negativity.

This brings me to the second point I’d like to make about comment sections: everyone’s an expert.

Due to the nature of expressing personal opinions, people tend to speak their minds with a great deal of conviction in their beliefs. They become very passionate about what they feel is is right or wrong, good or bad and are willing to proclaim it with absolute certainty. There’s just one problem; it’s just an opinion. Everyone has opinions, personal viewpoints and perspectives. It’s part of the human condition. However, having an opinion doesn’t mean it’s the absolute, objective, irrefutable truth. It’s merely one viewpoint amongst countless others, all of which believe that they are equally valid.

Furthermore, having an opinion doesn’t make one an expert on that topic. This is a really, really important point. In a very interesting article titled The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School, makes a very compelling argument that, we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. This ‘collapse’ has contributed to the mindset that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s, and this is simply, not the case.

There is a very clear line between true expertise and simply having an opinion. Having a strong opinion isn’t the same as knowing something, either as the product of thoroughgoing study (as in holding an advanced degree) or through direct experience. This doesn’t mean that your opinion doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Nichols calls attention to what’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which in essence says, the less you actually know about something, the more confidence you have in what you think you know. This effect is ironically and painfully evident when you consider ongoing “debates” around issues such as climate change, evolution, or separation of church and state.

Countless comment sections throughout the internet and social media attest to the blurring of the opinion-expertise boundary. No matter the topic, everyone is the smartest person in the room, espousing their interpretation, their personal opinion as if it were the one and only Truth. Once again, this is not meant to go against our right to free speech, nor am I saying that expert opinions are the only ones that count. They do however, carry more weight in a discussion, as they should. When considering a given topic, I believe our inclination should be to value the expert opinion over that of the layman. This isn’t to say the expert can’t be wrong, but based on their deeper understanding of the topic, an expert’s perspective is going to be of more merit than the average Joe.

Unfortunately, this typically isn’t the case in most comment sections. Everyone has something to say and very few of those commentators are actual experts. They vehemently argue and defend their position, not realizing the wisdom in Dale Carnegie’s words when he said; A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In closing, I don’t want to dump on comment sections or make it sound like they’re a horrible idea. I think they can serve a purpose and can at times stimulate some worthwhile dialogue, provided you know your fellow commentators and proceed in the spirit of a healthy debate or discussion. At the same time, they are not without risk. It can be disheartening to read an uplifting story about something you believe in, and in turning to the comments section in hoping to see how others may have been similarly inspired or uplifted, you only discover loads of negative and trolling feedback. Thus, my personal recommendation is to proceed with caution. And if you don’t have something to say that’s constructive or helpful, be quiet. Recognize that if you want to retain your peace of mind and remain positive, sometimes it’s better to avoid the comments section altogether. But if you do indulge in either reading or commenting yourself, hopefully you don’t take it too seriously or personally. Everyone has an opinion, and we all know what body part they’re often compared to…

And yes, this essay is just an opinion as well 😉

The Long, Slow, Goodbye

August 11, 2014

My mother has Dementia.

Or Alzheimer’s. Her doctors have never given us a diagnosis with 100% certainty. What it’s called really doesn’t matter though. What we do know without doubt is that my mother’s memory has been slipping away progressively and alarmingly for the last 5-7 years, and in all likelihood, the process has been going on for much longer than that. The disease is slowly strip-mining away her memories, personality, intellect, and any other mental quality with which she would define herself as an individual. She looks like herself, sounds like herself (apart from the largely incoherent nature of her speech), and has most of her lifelong mannerisms and quirks, but the mother I knew now really exists only in my memory.

Very few of my friends are aware of this situation or the heartbreak and turmoil this disease has put my family through. My father has certainly had it the roughest. My parents are boomers and were married young, raised two sons, had successful teaching careers, and have never been apart from each other for more than a couple days during their entire marriage. This disease however, has slowly robbed my father of his best friend, companion, and wife of fifty years. Not all at once though. Dementia picks away little things, one by one, with seemingly infinite patience until one day those little things add up to a big whopper, such as when my mother asked my father if they had attended my wedding 8 years ago. (In case you are wondering, yes they had).

Not only has it broken his heart, but it’s forced him into the role of her 24-7 caregiver, a job he could never have been prepared for. When a couple gets married and they recite the “Through sickness and in health” part of their vows, few imagine having to make good on that pledge to such a degree. Despite that, my father has been an amazing and compassionate caregiver for my mother as her condition progresses. In our somewhat unconscious denial of the severity of my mother’s disease, I think my father, my brother and I imagined that he could go on indefinitely providing support for her. Such is the nature of this situation, you want to believe everything is normal and that we can always make it work so we can maintain our own level of comfort.

That’s a dirty lie.

If you know of any Alzheimer’s or Dementia caregivers or read up on the subject, you’ll know the experience is incredibly taxing and can take years off the caregiver’s life, due largely to the amount of chronic stress they are under day in and day out. This was the effect upon my father, a man now 75 and a veteran of not one, but two heart bypass surgeries. My brother and I could see the wear and tear showing on him and realized that something needed to change, not just for Mom, but for Dad as well. So about a year ago, he accepted the help of a part time caregiver who would come to the house a few days a week to help out with Mom. For a while this leveled the playing field and gave my father a respite. But in time the disease upped the ante. New challenges, changes in my mother’s behavior, and the ever pressing concern and uncertainty about the future and what next steps should be considered.

All the while, I (and perhaps my brother as well) tried to go about business and usual, often avoiding thinking too hard about what the future would hold because, honestly it was just too painful. Nobody wants to consider that their mother is going to forget them sometime in the not so distant future. But despite the largely automatic and unconscious adjustment to the “new normal” I would reset to after each visit with my parents or update from my father, the situation was never far from the front burner. It was always there, reminding me of the uncertainty, the impermanence and frailty of our human existence. The byproduct of which was a tangible level of emotional toxicity in the form of anger. Not anger at someone or something, not even the disease that was taking my mother away from us, no; this was free-floating anger that seemed to settle on whatever turked my canister that day. I felt I was doing a semi-decent job keeping the anger in check, but it was still eating me up inside. As is typical for me, I turned a portion of my anger toward myself and it split off into its step brother – guilt. I was awash with guilt. Guilt for living so far away from my parents in Florida. Guilt for not being able to help my father more. Guilt for not more aggressively encouraging my parents to eat healthier, get more exercise, and meditate (all of which I believed may have slowed the manifestation or progression of the illness). Worst of all, guilt for not knowing what to do. Anger, guilt, helplessness. I felt like I was doing shots of that cocktail on a daily basis. It’s only now, with a certain degree of awareness and hindsight that I can see the insidious way the disease was messing with my head and heart.

Thus was my mental/emotional state for my most recent trip to visit my parents, a trip during which Dad and I would visit the assisted living facility that we hoped would accept my mother as a resident and patient. I flew home to Pennsylvania not looking terribly forward to the experience. I typically love to go home and stay in the house I grew up in nestled in a country valley surrounded by 92 acres of rolling Pennsylvania hills, but this was different. After a recent visit of his own, my brother recommended for me to get up to see Mom and Dad as soon as possible so I could adjust and accept my Mom’s current state as well as provide some desperately needed emotional support for my father.

I made it home as soon as I could and for the most part; the trip was typical of my previous visits, but this time I really allowed myself to soak in the extent to which my mother’s condition had progressed and witness the toll it had taken on my father. We took it easy, spent lots of time sitting on the front porch or taking minor excursions out of the house to keep my mother occupied. My Dad and I talked a lot – about the symptoms of the disease, the overwhelm he was feeling, the uncertainty about what each new day would bring. All this we could discuss with my mother at his side, since she was in a world of her own and no longer had the ability to follow a conversation in any rational sense. Despite the pain, it was a very healing time for both my Dad and I. We grew closer in ways we had never been before, and for that I am deeply grateful.

During this visit another toxic emotional state began to pay me a visit: fear. I was after all, my mother’s son. What if her condition was genetic? Could this happen to me? Had I been having trouble remembering things lately, or was it just the stress and mental static of the situation making it hard for me to think clearly? Despite being the most health conscious person I knew with my my vegetarian diet, daily meditation practice, regular yoga, strength training and martial arts workouts, I was suddenly terrified that I too could experience what was happening to my mother, but this time from the inside out. Fortunately, I was able to talk myself down off that ledge, at least for the time being. This trip wasn’t about my selfish fears or worries. I needed to be present for my Mom and Dad. This fear did however help to cultivate an important shift in my awareness by helping me to empathize with my Mom, if even just a little, and understand how horrible this disease must be for its victim, especially if you know it’s happening to you. What a nightmare.

On the Sunday of my long weekend visit, we toured the assisted living facility in which we were in the process of applying for. It was a beautiful and modern place, filled with a loving staff, pleasant accommodations, and regular activities scheduled on the half hour to give the residents the very fixed and active routine so important to Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients. All of this was a challenge to take in, but the kicker was when my Mom was encouraged to join into one of the group activities. The residents were in the large common area watching a senior’s exercise video set to music from long ago. Within seconds, and I mean seconds, my mother was studiously watching the video and moving in sync with the instructor on the screen all to the tune of “Bicycle Built for Two.” My Dad and I stood in the rear of the room and watched how well my mother fit into this environment…and we promptly went to pieces in each other’s arms.

This was a good thing, though. As Mom enjoyed the exercise class with the other residents, it gave Dad and me the change to sneak away to chat with the facility administrator and ask all the questions we needed answered. We left feeling emotionally wiped out, but safe in the knowledge that this was the right thing to do for both Mom and Dad. And this was the right place. It’s not what anyone ever wants to think about – putting one of their parents into even the nicest of assisted care facilities. We all want to believe that our parents will always be able to take care of themselves in their own homes the way they always did when we were children. Sadly, the reality isn’t always the case. Placement such as we were planning for my Mom wasn’t what anyone truly wanted, but under the circumstances, it was the happiest ending we could hope for amidst the rubble left in the wake of this disease.

This decision would also bring about additional changes that were hard to anticipate. My Dad would be on his own. In the past 50 years, my Dad has never been on his own. Granted, the last few years, he’s been functioning more and more as an independent entity, my Mom might be perpetually at his side, but in most ways he’s been alone. But now he would be physically alone as well, and this would be a BIG change. The facility administrator recommended that the family members of new residents stay away for one to two weeks to help in the acclimation process. How well would my Dad handle this time alone? Would he have the opportunity to rest and recover from the 5 years of nonstop caregiving he had been providing for my Mom, or would it tear him apart? So many questions. But once again, we all realized this was the right thing to do and some bridges can’t get crossed until you get to them.

As I type this I’m siting in my old bedroom on the day I’m due to fly home to Florida. The words above are what’s been baking in my mind over the last 24 hours and I’ve felt the need to write them down. This experience, and I say that knowing it is far from over, has been the hardest thing my family has ever been through. However, as I’ve come to learn through my life, perception is reality and the way we choose to look at and interpret a situation has great power over how it will influence us. I’ve worked hard to find something positive in this situation, and while I can’t promise my insights are life changing or profound, they are mine, and are for me, completely valid.

First, as a student of Yoga and meditation, I can’t imagine how I would have made it to this point without these practices to help me stay grounded and connected to my spirit. Situations like this test you to the very core of your being, and if you have a place of stillness to return to, to let go of the stress, the emotional toxicity and heartbreak, to have a point of self referral that doesn’t change when your whole world is topsy-turvy, it can be extraordinarily helpful and healing. In addition, one of the key principles of the Yoga philosophy is that of the impermanence of the world in which we live. No matter how we might try and deny it, everything changes and transforms. Friends and family grow old and die as will we. This isn’t meant to be morbid, it’s simply the way things are. If we can become comfortable with this impermanent nature of our lives, we can cherish our time together and not take it for granted. It’s also important for us in recognizing the difference between pain and suffering. In life, pain is a part of existence, but stuffing is optional. Does it hurt that my mother doesn’t really know who I am any more? Yes, it does. But I know that agonizing over it again and again robs me of the joy life has to give me in the present moment. Though not always easy, I try to feel the pain, process it, release it and move on. I’m not an expert, but it’s a work in progress and it helps. This philosophy also helps me to have some closure with the ongoing grieving process as the result of the slow-motion loss of my Mom. A materialist might believe that my Mom’s mind and who she’s been is utterly gone, never to return. The worldview of Yoga however, holds that our mind isn’t in our body or brain; our brain is simply the instrument with which we download our soul. For me, my Mom’s true self hasn’t been destroyed, rather, the instrument has been damaged, preventing the signal from coming through. She’s still there, just in a way we can’t reach right now.

This experience, as any emotionally traumatic experience can, has shifted my perspective toward what is really important in life. As I look at the world through the media or Facebook (to which I’ll admit, I have often become more than a little attached to) I see so much nonsense. Utter nonsense. Whether it’s politics or celebrities, countless surveys or polls, or hyped up stories to hook our attention and generate meaningless melodrama, it’s all so far from what’s really important in life. Ultimately what matters is our loved ones, family friends and those we care about. Wasting precious time in meaningless, trivial online nonsense only robs you of peace of mind and the true present. Let it go. Go spend time with those you care about. Live a life worth remembering, rather than commenting on what everyone else is doing.

Take care of yourself. Health and Wellbeing are precious commodities that should be cultivated and respected. Make the most of the time you have by our enhancing your mind, body and spirit. Take responsibility for your health rather than outsourcing it to another. Over 75% of all illnesses are lifestyle related and therefore largely preventable. Do I know that my mother’s condition could have been prevented with lifestyle changes? Absolutely not. I won’t even go there because no one can know that. But what I do believe is that we should do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and fit so we can be with the ones we love for as long as possible. Creating a healthy body, mind, and spirit is not an activity to put off for a rainy day. Get off the couch, stop eating garbage, manage your stress, and LIVE!

Lastly, for me it was important to remember the words of Winston Churchill who said, “When going through hell, keep going.” My Dad and I both reflected on how there’s no instruction manual for dealing with this. Fellow caregivers offer much in the form of encouragement, suggestion, and camaraderie but like life itself, it’s essentially a pathless path. We read, we try new strategies to help my Mom, we accept and surrender to the things we can’t change. But in the end, the only way out is through it. But the important lesson for both my Dad and anyone else going through something similar is to remember above all else, you are not alone. Others have been through this and can help. Friends and family and a support network is vital. Strength in numbers, shared collective consciousness, whatever you want to call it, helps to give strength to the weak and hope to the hopeless. With them by your side, either physically emotionally or in spirit, keep going.

As such I am so grateful to all those who have reached out to help or just listened to me get some of this off my chest, including you if you’re reading this. But in particular my gratitude goes out to my wife, my brother and sister-in-law, and a host of dear friends who have never been far during this tough time. Thank you all.

In the end we’ll make this transition as a family and as best we know how; with love, compassion, and understanding. We (my Dad, brother, and me) have a wonderful support system of friends and relatives and we are fortunately in complete agreement as to what’s in my parents’ best interest. As I mentioned earlier, writing this down has been its own form of therapy for me. But there will undoubtably be new challenges to overcome as this experience changes us. If sending prayers, intentions, or healing thoughts are your thing, we’ll be happy to be on the receiving end.

Thanks for your concern.

Namaste,
-Adam

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