XX. Finding Yourself

•June 3, 2012 • 2 Comments

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
~Mark Twain

“People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself.  But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” 

~Thomas Szasz

“Never mind searching for who you are.  Search for the person you aspire to be.”

~Robert Brault

What is it exactly that keeps us from realizing our greatest potential? What stands in our way, keeping happiness and success hidden when we most desire them? Why can’t we truly be the individuals that we so strongly wish to be? Take a look in the mirror. That person is your greatest asset and your most crippling liability. They and they alone have the  power to bring your dreams into reality. That person facing you in the reflection is your best friend and only hope for salvation. Maybe you should hear what they have to say.

In my previous post, I explained that happiness can only be experienced in the present moment of now, which in your brain lasts about 3 seconds, and I discussed several ways to cultivate happiness in the present moment, which is all you really have to work with. However, true happiness that endures over time can only be realized by stringing several moments of now together with a delicate craftsmanship that allows you to strengthen your relationship with the rest of the Universe. It’s less about making the world a better place and more about making your mind a better place.

To change your mental experience, you literally have to make physical changes in your own brain. Luckily for you, evolution has developed a way to do just that. When you ponder a thought, electrical impulses and chemical signals are traveling along a chain of firing neuron cells in your brain. This is called a neural pathway. When you think the same thought over and over, your are strengthening the bonds of that associated group of neurons, literally creating a well-worn path. This process allows thinking to be faster and more automatic, and it happens whether the thought is positive or negative, wrong or right, beneficial or harmful. If you want to challenge negative or incorrect thoughts, you have to literally forge a new neural pathway through the wilderness of your mind. You have to take the road less travelled, and it can be hard. But because of the way the brain works, if you change your thinking about something, you change that pathway. And the more your reinforce that new thinking, the stronger the links between the new associated brain cells will be.

So how do you determine which thoughts to challenge and which thoughts to keep? As it turns out, you have your own private spiritual teacher available and ready to assist you at any time. In fact they have always been there, waiting for you to simply ask the right questions. This guide is your higher self, but this higher self is not an entity or a divine connection with God or a soul. It is nothing more than a very powerful idea:

Imagine the highest ideal of the most awesome version of yourself that you could ever think of, and then simply ask yourself, “What would that person be doing in this current moment of now?” How is he or she dressed? How in shape are they? What is their profession, and how well does that person do his or her job? How much do they enjoy it? How confident are they? What kinds of foods do they eat? How does he or she act around others? What type of home do they live in? What are their friends like? What is their love life like, and how often are they having sex, and with whom? What does that person do with their free time? What are his or her hobbies? Where have they travelled, and what are they working to accomplish?  This highest ideal is your blueprint for how to be awesome, happy, and thriving. Whenever you are faced with a decision, ask yourself how the most awesome version of yourself would handle it, and then follow suit.

As you begin listening to that constant and patient inner voice guiding you on how to proceed to fulfill your ultimate potential, you will pass through 4 stages of awareness: 1) making the wrong decision and not realizing it (most people in the world are stuck in this stage); 2) making the wrong decision and realizing it; 3) consciously choosing to make the right decision; and 4) unconsciously choosing to making the right decision. This process strengthens as the neural pathways involved with making decisions become well-worn roads, and right thinking becomes more automatic over time. It all depends on your degree of mindfulness in the present moment. As you continue to make choices more in line with the example of your higher self and witness the positive results, this process will become easier and you will begin to trust yourself more.

Many times, changing your thoughts will mean you will have to do things that you find uncomfortable. When you step out of your comfort zone, your brain floods your body with fight-or-flight chemicals, which you interpret and experience as anxiety. How would the most awesome version of yourself handle this? They would be mindful of the brain’s chemistry, and step out of their comfort zone anyway. Remember, your body is just trying to keep you alive. Be grateful for your body and its protection. Don’t try to suppress negative emotions. Instead, as you would during your meditation practice, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, watching them flow by like the current of a river, gently letting them go and not being entangled with them. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your tense muscles. Feel centered and grounded. Gently remind your brain that the situation you are in, though intense and very important to you, is really very small in the entire scheme of things. You may have attached meaning to the moment, but none of it really matters when compared to the sum of all existence. You are simply a tiny spec of stardust doing what stardust happens to be doing here on planet Earth. Let the truth of this realization empower you with the freedom to do whatever needs to be done in the given moment, using wisdom, mindfulness and compassion as your roadmap and logic and reason as your guide. You absolutely have the power to make the moment yours.

Aligning your life with the ideals of your higher self involves many tasks that you will have to accomplish. This is what we are doing here on Earth as humans. Remember, you are a human, being. Even our name reminds us that we are a process in constant motion. Here’s some things to remember to help you on the journey of finding yourself:

* Since the Universe apparently did not come with its own meaning, it is up to you to find meaning for yourself. Set goals for yourself in line with that meaning, and work toward those goals in a meaningful way, every day. Set realistic goals for where you want to be in 6 months, 2 years, and 5 years from now.

* Develop your natural talents and use them  to serve others. Make a positive difference in the lives of others with your gifts, however humble or insignificant you may incorrectly conceive them to be. You are important no matter how hard you try not to be, and as I have said before, this world needs you if we are going to survive.

* Challenge inaccurate thought processes such as “all or none thinking” or “diminishing the positive”. Click here for an excellent article with many examples of these thought traps that we all succumb to and how to challenge them. Learning to challenge and change the faulty thinking that you have learned over your lifetime is crucial to overcoming your mental roadblocks.

* Celebrate every single success, no matter how minor or “insignificant”, and then, if possible, go about the business of figuring out how to do it better.

* Heal the wounds of your childhood and past. It is the instinct of a wounded animal to hide. So many of our mental and behavioral issues in the present moment come from earlier experiences, and you must address these wounds in order to realize your full potential. For some this takes years of hard work, but you can never move forward until you let yourself let go of the past.

* Get in touch with your body on a daily basis by experiencing the wonders and mental benefits of things like walking outside, receiving and giving a massage, dancing, eating great food, having great sex, exercising, and a getting a good night’s sleep. You ARE your body. Take care of it.

* Get your relationships in order. Treat yourself and others with compassion. Be assertive yet understanding with those that you share this planet with. If you are in an abusive relationship, get out. Now. You’re worth far better, I promise. Find out why you put yourself in these situations, be mindful of that in the present moment, and make relationship decisions that are more in line with your higher self.

* Develop your spiritual relationship with the Universe. Experience the natural world; get out and get dirty. Be grateful for something– anything– several times a day. Take nothing for granted. Try to find beauty in every moment.

* Don’t take yourself or anything else too seriously. Embrace the absurd. Laugh at the world and life itself. Laugh often, laugh deeply, and laugh with people that you love.

* Remember that we’re all in this thing together, and everyone struggles with the very same things as you do for the very same reasons. We have the same thoughts and feel the same feelings. We are the same, you and I, and we are all literally one. Let this guide your compassion as you reach out to others.

“This above all, to thine own self be true.” Embrace that, and finding yourself will be as easy as looking in the mirror. Your higher self has always been there, waiting to be expressed out into reality. This is the opportunity you have been given. This is your gift to the Universe, and this is how you will save the world…..

Prev: Finding Happiness                                     Next: Save the World

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XIX. Finding Happiness

•May 6, 2012 • 10 Comments

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

— Aristotle

Everything can be used as an invitation to meditation. A smile, a face in the subway, the sight of a small flower growing in the crack of cement pavement, a fall of rich cloth in a shop window, the way the sun lights up flower pots on a windowsill. Be alert for any sign of beauty or grace. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments, to “the news that is always arriving out of silence.” Slowly, you will become a master of your own bliss, a chemist of your own joy, with all sorts of remedies always at hand to elevate, cheer, illuminate, and inspire your every breath and movement.  — Sogyal Rinpoche

Happiness. Isn’t that the ultimate goal, the underlying driving hope that propels us all forward through the unknown? Do we not wander the earth, risking all that we are and what we have become for the chance to experience a few fleeting moments of it? What is this elusive condition that pushes us toward our dreams and darkens our nightmares with its absence? Modern science and ancient wisdom have now come together to show us the clearest picture yet of just what happiness is and how we can find it in our lives. Want to know the secret to happiness? Here’s the good news: it’s not a secret, and you probably already know the answer. The downside? Like anything worth having in this life, you’ll have to work hard to get it.

First, why do we suffer or feel happy? You can thank your brain for that. The human brain evolved over millions of years, and to this day it still contains the more ancient parts that we share with our simpler cousins. In your head from the spinal cord forward and up you have a reptilian brain, a squirrel brain and a primate brain. You perceive the world with 2 different hemispheres. Your decisions are a mixture of the conscious and unconscious.  All of these divisional compartments cooperate as well as conflict with each other to keep you alive.

For example, if you’re walking along a path and see a stick that resembles a snake, light bouncing off the stick enters your eyes and is processed as an image in the occipital cortex. This information is then sent to the ancient hippocampus, for evaluation as a threat or a reward, and also to the newly evolved pre-frontal cortex, where the information is given more sophisticated (but time-consuming) analysis. The hippocampus will find curvy shapes on its list of potential dangers and will trigger your amygdala to go off like an alarm, flooding your bloodstream with anxiety-producing hormones (which you experience as fear). Your fight-or-flight process causes you to jump back and perhaps yell (communicating danger to others). This incredible automatic process happens in less than a second. By this time, your pre-frontal cortex has fully analyzed the image of the object, searched your stored memories and determines that you are in no danger from the stick. Feel-good chemicals flood through your body, triggering relief.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for potential threats to avoid or rewards to pursue, keeping you alive. Your body is in a constant flux of neuro-chemical experiences. You even have a “second brain” of nerves and hormones in and around your stomach that regulates your mood (ever had a “gut-feeling” about something?). When you have a positive experience, like winning a game, accomplishing a goal, laughing with friends or having sex, your body produces feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. When you have a negative experience, like failing at a task, being made fun of, or stubbing your toe, your body produces norepinephrine, cortisol, or simply dramatically decreases feel-good chemicals. Your brain’s perception of the presence and absence of these chemicals combined with the electrical impulses of your thoughts produce the sensations of pleasure, pain and emotion.

Love is a particularly strong positive emotion that involves parts of the brain that process pleasure as well as parts that are associated with drug addiction. You are literally addicted to the chemical high you feel when you are with someone you love. Being separated from someone you love can cause horrible painful withdrawal symptoms. Evolution was amazingly effective when it came to getting us to want to form deep, lasting bonds for procreation and well-being.

Emotional conditions in any given moment are recorded along with basic information about what’s going on at the time to form memories. If you recall a stored memory later, your brain will recreate a rough simulation of the experience, including releasing the same chemicals that were present at the time. Your brain rates and records every experience as good, bad, or neutral. To help keep you alive, unfortunately, your brain has a bias toward the negative. Your brain will see curvy sticks as snakes most of the time to help you survive long enough to pass on your genetics. When recalling memories, it also accentuates negative experiences more than positive. As it turns out, however, most experiences are actually neutral to slightly positive rather than negative. Obsessing about the past with an extreme negative bias is called depression. Obsessing about the future with an extreme negative bias is called anxiety. Anxious and depressing thoughts arise because of the fact that you are a divided self, with many parts working for and against each other. Your brain, although it is an incredible and brilliant biological machine, actually works more like a committee than a single person when it comes to making decisions and recording memories, and it’s not always good at either.

Another source of suffering comes from the strategies that your brain has evolved to help you survive. Your brain incorrectly sees you as being separate from your body and separate from everything else in the Universe. It tries in vain to maintain stability in a Universe that is constantly changing. It causes you to spend all of your time chasing after rewards and avoiding threats. This is what the Buddha called craving, the origin of suffering. What’s more, most of this process of seeing the world and reacting to it happens on an unconscious level. Your conscious mind is like a rider sitting on top of the wild elephant that is your unconscious mind, trying to control where the both of you will go. This is why you can know that something is wrong but then do it anyway. In a struggle of wills, the elephant wins every time. A key to happiness is teaching the rider and the elephant how to work well together. How do we go about this? The key is knowing that you only have this moment to do anything.

Scientists have determined that the psychological moment of “now” lasts about 3 seconds, or about the length of one breath. That’s all you have to work with. The past is gone, the future isn’t yet here. Each new moment of now gives you a chance to make things right. You have the power to choose. Every moment is a gift. In each new breath you are literally a different person physically–your brain has physically changed; many of your body’s cells have died and others have been born. Here’s the catch: you can start anew in every moment of now, but you have to work with the conditions that the past versions of you left behind. Consequently, what you do in this moment will affect the experiences of the future versions of you yet to come. Therefore, forgive your past selves for their mistakes, and honor them by learning from their suffering and striving to do better. Also be good to your future selves. They’re counting on you. You have to be your own best friend. Be kind to yourself. If you can’t do that, at least be in your own corner.

So how do we get through the next 3 seconds? That’s really what life as a human being is all about. Here’s a few proven techniques to help cultivate happiness in the moment of now:

— Address your basic hierarchy of needs. At a minimum, you need food, water, shelter, personal space, sleep, sex and companionship.

— Money helps, but only to the extent that you have the freedom to address your basic needs and wants without worry. Research shows that beyond that, happiness levels off or even decreases with increasing wealth.

— Factors in your living and working environment such as scenery, noise, crime, length of commute, neighbors, co-workers, family and friends contribute greatly to your happiness or suffering. The amount of control and influence you have in life also affects your happiness. Work to change what you can and accept what you can’t.

— Since your breath is so tied to the moment of now, regulating it can make huge changes in your physical experience. In fact, most people tend to hold their breath or breathe very shallow in a stressful moment. This reduces the amount of oxygen getting to your brain, making things worse. When you’re stressed, take a few deep breaths. Seriously. It works.

— It’s amazing how much of a stressful experience really comes down to tightness in certain muscle groups (preparation for fight-or flight). Learn basic relaxation techniques to direct your body to calm down. I process stress in my shoulders, stomach and thighs. I find that relaxing these muscles while breathing deeply greatly improves my mood.

— What you put into your body and how you take care of your body directly affect your level of happiness in a HUGE way. Eat healthy. Exercise. Seriously. It works. No getting around this one, folks.

–Smile, even when you don’t feel like it. It sends signals to your brain that actually improve your mood.

–Remember that your brain naturally has a negative bias. Accurately assess each moment, and accentuate the positive when it occurs. Try to see the beauty and wonder in every moment. Keep in mind that most experiences are positive or at least neutral.

— When there’s no getting around the negativity of a particular moment, recall memories of people you love and who love you. Bring to mind times that you were awesome and on your game to aid you in a present moment of fear, and recall happy memories to comfort you in times of sadness. This automatically releases chemicals associated with these memories that will make you feel better and more confident.

— Meditate for at least 10 minutes every day to promote mindfulness. Simply sit quietly, being aware of your breath and watching the river of your thoughts go by without being attached to them. When you get caught up in a thought wormhole, gently bring your awareness back to your breathing and watching your thoughts impartially.

— Training your mind in this way will allow you to react to the present moment in all situations with calmness. You will increasingly be able to interpret each moment more realistically as opposed to overreacting emotionally. You will be able to distance yourself from pain and embrace pleasure without craving after it.

— Learn as much as you can about yourself and the Universe around you. This will give you greater confidence and understanding to better handle any situation that arises.

— Be compassionate with yourself and others. Make sure to schedule time every day to do things that you enjoy doing to increase your happiness. Also seek opportunities to help someone else increase their happiness. Guess what? Acting compassionately in this way increases the amount of happiness that you both experience.

— Basically be awesome at everything you do. The more you work to improve your skills and  your reactions to situations, the more happiness you will experience in the present moment.

Cultivating happiness in the present moment of now takes a lot of work, but it is totally worth the effort. If you do the things that I have described, I promise that you will begin to find more happiness. That’s just how it works. The Buddhists have known this for thousands of years, and modern science has officially confirmed how this process works physically in the brain. For further reading, I highly recommend Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson and The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, two incredibly informative books that I borrowed heavily from for this post.

But getting through the next three seconds is just the beginning. Real lasting happiness is developed when you  maintain and carry that personal happiness forth into the world through your interactions with others. It all depends on what you choose to contribute with your life. More on that in the next post. For now, you have 3 seconds.

How will you choose to spend them?

Prev: The Meaning of Life                                     Next: Finding Yourself

XVIII. The Meaning of Life

•March 11, 2012 • 25 Comments
What is the meaning of life

The meaning of life, what is it, and why?

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Every person who breaths air and roams the Earth for long enough will eventually feel an “itch” in the back of their mind. For some, that itch becomes a burning question. For others, it becomes a life-long journey. At some point in our lives, we all stop to ponder, “What is the meaning of life?”

So what do we “mean” by the “meaning of life”? Ponder the question that your are pondering for long enough, and we find that what we are searching for is an over-arching answer to many questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What should we be doing? For what purpose? Is there a point to all of this?

It is easy to see why we would ask such questions, as the evolution and survival of our species has hinged on our ability to explain the hows and whys of our world, to look for pattern, cause and effect. Due to the incredible abilities of our brains, we look at objects and events in the world and see that “this causes that, and here is why”, so it is only natural that we would look at ourselves and the Universe at large and ask….from whence did we come, and why? I addressed the first part of this question extensively in my previous blog post, but what if the second part is a question without an answer? What if there IS no why, which suggests a someone or a something to give it a reason and purpose? What if there is only ‘what is’?

As a secular Humanist, I do not believe that there is any objective meaning to be found. I don’t believe there is a preconceived plan, or a purpose, or a point to the Universe or Life itself that we are here to discern or discover. I don’t believe there is a God to judge us, or a soul to guide us, or a universal mystical force that is waiting for each of us to ask just the right question or repeat just the right mantra or sit in just the right pose so that it may release the knowledge of enlightenment. I believe that we are here as a natural result of the evolution of stardust, which is here as the natural result of universal forces and “laws”, that are they themselves a natural result of the formation of the universe. Beyond that I am ignorant, but I can look around at the world and the Universe and conclude that it was most likely not designed, so I can only guess that the Universe arose naturally from something else. Some would say that is the realm where God exists, and that may be so. But if that is true, I have concluded that He is apparently no longer a part of the process, for I have found no evidence of Him or his plan in this time and place. For the record, I do not believe that any God exists anywhere, and I have made my peace with that.

Now, there are many things that we don’t yet know, and I fully embrace this as the Great Mystery that we are all tackling together. There is no doubt that what we understand today will change in the future, which will, in turn, change what we consider to be meaningful.

So the question becomes not “What is the meaning of life?” but rather “What is the meaning of MY life?” which I see as a far more valuable question, and perhaps THE most important question that everyone must face.

I do believe in personal meaning. I believe it is up to each individual to figure out what the accident of their life means to them, and what they wish to choose to do with the time and space they have been allotted. I see no meaning in life, other than what we attribute to it, but I do see life as a precious gift. Here we are! How wonderful that is! How unlikely! How absurd! How beautiful!

So the question really becomes, “What are you going to do today, and what does that mean to you?” Can you see the limitless possibilities in that question? And it puts the responsibility directly on each of us individually, as it should be. So how do we find meaning and come to terms with a Universe that doesn’t know or care that we exist? We build a relationship with it.

A “New” Kind of Spirituality

To answer the question of “what are you going to do today?”, you first have to have a goal. I would like to put up for consideration that the ultimate goal of humanity could be for each of us to create a shared experience of the greatest amount of happiness possible with the least amount of suffering possible, while working with the most accurate knowledge of natural laws possible in order to create harmony between ourselves and our environment. I see this as a noble and honorable description of what meaning could be in our lives, both personally and as a society. Please keep in mind that I do not see this as a commandment from above, nor do I believe that anything we do really “matters” in a Universal sense–the Universe has existed for billions of years without us and it will continue to exist for billions of years after we are gone. This is just my suggestion for a goal, because the fact remains that we are here, and we have to do something. Why do I care so much about meaning? Because every decision that every person makes is based on their worldview. If society wants a better world, individuals must develop a better worldview based on their individual values. Those values are shaped by meaning.

In order to achieve this goal of happiness and harmony, I argue that we must be wise, we must be aware, and we must be compassionate. (You may recognize these ideas from Buddhism, a religion that I don’t subscribe to, but, like Christianity, it is a philosophy that has many important concepts at its core.)

For one to be wise, you must have accurate knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in your daily decisions. This is why I see education as the foundation for a positive, spiritual life. The more you understand about yourself and the Universe that you are a part of, the more responsible you can be in your daily interactions. For instance, I believe that if everyone in the world knew how and to what extent the burning of carbon fuels and the accumulation of garbage destroys our environment, it would cease to be an issue. If everyone understood the concepts of evolution, we would have a greater understanding of where we have been and could make more educated decisions about where we would like to go from here. Although I hated school for every year that I had to endure it, I now spend a part of every day educating myself, and I can only describe the moments of great clarity and epiphany that I have experienced upon learning something new as “spiritual” experiences, not as in relating to a tangible spirit or soul, but as in an awareness of my true essence and the essence of all things.

For one to be aware, you must be mindful of the complexity of your environment and how every decision you make affects all other parts of that environment. This is the Butterfly Effect. This is The Matrix. Mindfulness is an attentive awareness of the reality of things in the present moment, coupled with a clear comprehension (developed through education and wisdom) of whatever is taking place. By practicing and developing mindfulness, you can simultaneously perceive the matrix of the universe and your singular place in it. I believe that if everyone in the world were mindful, their decisions would be based on knowledge and wisdom rather than hate and fear. Each and every moment could be viewed as a precious gift, perceived through the full spectrum of the beauty, pain, absurdity and wonder of our existence. Think of the possibilities of the world we could develop together, if we only had this shared awareness. This kind of awareness can only lead to compassion.

For one to be compassionate, you must realize that all conscious creatures experience suffering. Developing true compassion allows you to see that all beings can suffer pain, loss, confusion, anger and fear just as you do. When you fully take this in to your awareness and understanding, it becomes harder and harder to be cruel, and it becomes easier and easier to love, and to help others, and to work to ease and extinguish suffering in the world with every ounce of your being as much as possible. This is what Jesus was trying to get across to his followers with the Golden Rule, and the Buddha with his teachings. I believe that if everyone in the world truly understood our capacity to cause suffering in the lives of others, there would be no need for war, there would be no need for rape, there would be no need for hateful violence among our species. There would only be room for compassion, and that compassion could fill each and every one of us with joy and satisfaction.

So what do these 3 principles look like in our daily lives? The culmination and application of these ideas is what I consider to be my spirituality. For example, every morning I wake up and drink my first cup of coffee as I look out the window at a live oak tree. I stand in silence and wait to see movement…the preening of a bluejay’s wing, the flicker of a squirrel’s tail. I look at the branching pattern of the tree and realize that it is the same pattern that river systems make, and it is the same pattern that my lungs and arteries make. I think about the bacteria that exist in and on all of us, and how we couldn’t exist without them, and they without us. I stop to think about how the bluejay, the squirrel, the tree, the bacteria and I all share a common ancestor, that we all evolved here together, that we are literally distant cousins with shared genetics. I realize that the coffee I am drinking is made with water that quenched the thirst of dinosaurs (and I often chuckle at the fact that I am drinking recycled dinosaur pee!).

Then I move my awareness to realize that we are all made up of atoms, even the rocks and the soil, and I remember that we are all here because a star died and exploded 5 billion years ago. Everything I can see, including myself, is the same. It is all stardust. This fills me with enormous wonder and gratitude, and I silently thank the Universe for allowing me to exist, even though I know it doesn’t hear me. Then I realize that there are billions of people who are not as lucky as me, who woke up today without a home to stand in, perhaps in the midst of war, without a tree to look at, with no clean water to drink or food to eat, perhaps waking in the fear that today will be the day that they and their family will be shot or blown apart. If I can, I allow the enormity of this fact to completely fill my awareness, I allow my emotions to wash over me, and sometimes, as even now as I write this, I am moved to tears. The gratitude that I feel for my own situation grows, as does my compassion for my fellow human beings, and I start my day with the conviction that I will do something, anything, to try and ease the suffering that I see all around me, in whatever small way I can.

Every day I work to expand this type of spiritual awareness farther, into every moment of my life as much as possible. This is how I am developing my relationship with the Universe. If I could, I would share this experience with every single person in the world, for I can only see goodness coming from it. Perhaps I am too idealistic. Perhaps my ideas will never change the world. But I know that MY life has changed for the better since developing this awareness, so I stand as an example of 1.

You are also an example of 1. What will you do today….and what does that mean to you?

With love and compassion,

~Chris

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XVII. Why Are We Here?

•February 20, 2012 • 79 Comments

This is your story- the entire history of your many incarnations- and it is a beautiful story. The details of this story have changed over time, and they will most assuredly change in the future as we learn more and more about ourselves and the Universe around us. But this is the best information we have at the moment, and our observations and calculations seem to say that we are getting remarkably close to a detailed and accurate understanding of All That Is. Here’s what we think we know at this point:

Around 13.7 billion years ago, all matter in the Universe was condensed into pure energy in an immensely hot and dense space smaller than an atom. We’re not exactly sure what came before that or how this energy came to be, but we have ideas, and we are working to find the answers even now (it has even been mathematically proven that something could have, in fact, arisen from nothing, although it depends on your definition of nothing). This tiny, incredibly hot and dense ball of energy suddenly expanded from something smaller than the nucleus of an atom to something the size of a baseball in less than a trillionth of a second. In just under 2 minutes, the Universe has expanded to something the size of our solar system, and it only got bigger from there. It’s still expanding, even today. All of the forces and laws of physics and nature, as well as the first subatomic particles, were created in these first few seconds of Time. Minutes later, the first simple atoms of Hydrogen and Helium formed. The radiation from this expansion is still around and flying straight through your body even now. If you have seen “snow” static on a television screen, then you have seen this radiation, as 1% of that static was due to radiation from the Big Bang.

Between a few thousand years and a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, atoms in the great cloudy mess of Hydrogen and Helium gravitated toward each other in massive amounts and ignited, and the the first stars lit the heavens. For the first time, the Universe produced visible light.

A few hundred million years after the first stars ignited, gravity caused the first galaxies to form from the ocean of newly created matter.

Sometime between 9 billion and 13.6 billion years ago, the matter that makes up your body found itself in the newly formed Milky Way spiral galaxy. The red circle in the rendering of our galaxy below encompasses all of the stars and constellations that we can now see from our home planet with the naked eye.

Stars are formed when hydrogen and helium gravitate together and become so hot that the hydrogen atoms fuse together and become more helium. After the star ignites, this process continues for billions of years. (This nuclear fusion is basically the opposite of the process that humans use to create power in reactors and atomic bombs, which is called fission.) This energy of nuclear fusion, produced in our own Sun even now, is responsible for all of life on Earth. As really big stars get older, they deplete almost all of their hydrogen, and the core becomes so hot that helium and remaining hydrogen fuse together to form lithium. This begins a chain reaction of fusion that causes even bigger and bigger atoms to combine until the heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen and iron are formed. At this point, the star becomes incredibly unstable and collapses in on itself and becomes a supernova, violently exploding and sending all of its guts out into the space around it.

The stars that formed our solar system were supernovae that died and exploded around 5 billion years ago. The molecules of oxygen that these stars sent out into the cosmos are the same molecules that you are breathing in now. The iron that they spewed forth is the very same iron found in metal and in your blood. And mind-blowing as it is, the atoms in your left hand are more than likely from a completely different star than the atoms in your right. The following picture shows the Crab Nebula, which was a supernova star that exploded in the year 1054.

 

The stardust of supernovae form clouds of dust, where hydrogen atoms come together and form helium, and new stars are born all over again. The picture below shows a region of new star growth in the Carina Nebula.

Sometimes, heavier elements in a dust cloud will begin to orbit around a new star. Clouds of gas form, and chunks of debris constantly and violently slam into each other in the dust field and eventually form planets and moons. Our own solar system formed around 4.6 billion years ago.

The earth and its moon formed around this same time. The atoms that would eventually become you ended up on this early molten planet.

Eventually, the Earth began to cool and the constant bombardment of meteorites and comets, as well as processes within the Earth itself brought liquid water to the planet.

Developments in the field of abiogenesis have helped us conceptualize how biological life formed from inorganic matter through natural processes. Experiments in the laboratory have shown that amino acids, nucleotides and saccharides, all the basic building blocks of life, could have formed in Earth’s early conditions. There is also the possibility that these building blocks or something more complex was deposited on Earth via meteorites. Of course, if life did arise on other planets and made its way here, it would have to have either come from another planetary source itself, or it originated independently on its home planet.

All life on Earth evolved from a common ancestor that had a lipid cell wall, the ability to metabolize, and the ability to replicate. These physical components and processes took billions of years to eventually come together in the forms that gave rise to all life. Our very earliest ancestors probably looked something like the picture below.

Natural selection began working on these early organisms, which remained as simple cells for 3.8 billion years. Then, life changed dramatically when one form of life began to photosynthesize carbon dioxide into oxygen (these were the ancestors of today’s plants). Oxygen was toxic to many forms of life at that time, so this resulted in the death of many, many organisms. 3 billion years later, simple cells became more complex, and 2 billion years after that the first multicellular life formed on Earth. 600 million years ago, the first simple animals began to take over the planet. Around 420 million years ago, our early ancestors left the oceans and moved onto land.

The atoms that made up these organisms are still around today, and they are in the computer in front of you and in the hand that holds the mouse. You have atoms in your body right now that were also in the bodies of dinosaurs. You are drinking the same water now that the first forms of life developed in. You are breathing in the very same oxygen that the first plants released into the atmosphere. You are literally the result and recombination of everything that has come before you, going all the way back to the Big Bang. There is no difference between you and me and the rest of the Universe. All cliches aside, we are literally all one. You can never, ever be alone.

Between 85 and 55 million years ago, the first primates evolved. Humans, gorillas and chimps all share a recent common ancestor, and we began evolving independently between 4 and 8 million years ago. After that point, our lineage went through many changes and phases. Our species, Homo sapiens, is only about 250,000 years old.

Between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, our early ancestors began migrating out of Africa and began to explore and populate the world. At this point, we only had the basic tools that we could carry with us. In the history of the Earth since life began, we have survived 6 major extinctions, 5 major ice ages, and countless natural disasters. It’s simply amazing and awe-inspiring to think about how curious, courageous and resilient our ancestors must have been. We all come from incredibly brave pioneer stock.

Our species has changed the very face of the world remarkably and dramatically ever since then, arguably more than any other species that has ever existed. Just look at how the world looks at night now. From the time we first began to gather together around ancient fires to our modern discovery of electricity, we have been fighting off the darkness for ages.

So, now that we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century, what lies ahead? Likely millions and perhaps billions of years of more evolution, even if our particular species is not a part of it. Sometime between 4 and 5 billion years from today, our now middle aged Sun will deplete its hydrogen and swell to 250 times its current size, becoming a red giant that will incinerate and envelop the Earth. Our star is too small to form a supernova, but eventually it will explode and shrink into a white dwarf, which will then slowly fade out over billions of years.

But do not be afraid, and do not worry. There is an entire immense Universe to explore if we can make it off this rock before it burns or we kill ourselves. Thanks to advanced telescopes on Earth and in space, we now know that galaxies are they themselves clumped together into clusters, and these clusters are clumped into superclusters. These superclusters are organized into stringlike structures called filaments. The picture below shows a simulation of this large scale structure of the Universe. The bar of measurement shown is 31.25 megaparsecs in length, meaning that if you were traveling at the speed of light, it would take you 103 million years to get from one end of the bar to the other. It simply boggles the mind.

The following amazing video takes you from the scale of an atom to the grand scale of the Universe. I warn you, it is not for the faint of heart. Enjoy and take in the enormity of what and where you are.

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XVI. There Is No Spoon

•February 6, 2012 • 21 Comments

Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

– The Matrix

Seeing the Wachowski Brothers’ film The Matrix changed my life. I have definitely taken the Red Pill many times when it comes to life’s mysteries. I guess in a way, I’m handing out Red Pills myself. Now, don’t get me wrong, having the super-human abilities in the Matrix would be awesome, but I don’t believe they are possible. And although I cannot prove that it is not the case, I don’t believe that we are under someone else’s control in a computer simulation, giant experiment, or dream within a dream. But I find the metaphor of life being an illusion in many ways to be exceptionally fascinating and useful. Once again, it’s about unlearning what you have learned. The last few posts have been about loosing your illusions. Let’s go ahead and loose a few more.

For instance, let’s take “there is no spoon.” A spoon, like all matter, is made up of molecules of particular elements stuck together in particular configurations based on the attractions of their electrons (remember high school chemistry?). These molecules are made up of atoms, which are themselves made up of smaller electrons and neutrons and protons…and a lot of empty space. If the nucleus of an atom was blown up to the size of a marble, the atom would be the size of a major domed football stadium, with the electrons at nearly microscopic size flying around in the nosebleed section. There really IS no spoon. It’s mostly empty space! And so is everything else in our world, including you and me.

Some other fascinating facts that you may not know or may have taken for granted include:

*Outer Space is mostly empty space, and most places where matter has congregated are inhospitable to life. Space is really, really big. Please, please take 1 minute and 55 seconds to watch this video. I promise it’s worth it. It will absolutely blow your mind.

*If the entire history of the Universe up to this moment were compressed into the length of one year, with the Big Bang occurring at the first second of January 1st, the first galaxies would then begin to cluster together around February. The Earth, our home, would form and begin cooling in our Solar System around September, and life wouldn’t appear on our planet until sometime in December. All of human history would be contained in the last 10 seconds of the last hour of the last day of that year, on December 31. We literally just arrived at the party.

*All life on planet Earth descended from a common ancestor that lived between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. That means that we are literally genetic flesh and blood cousins with every single species on the planet, including chimpanzees, speckled trout, mockingbirds, Saint Augustine grass, oak trees, mold and e. coli.

*99% of all the species that have ever existed on this planet have become extinct. We are their genetic offspring. We are the direct descendants of ancient fish, amphibians, reptiles, and apes. We are here because we are survivors, just like every other species alive today that has made it this far in the game.

*Everyone alive today, including you and me, and everyone that has ever lived on this planet are the flesh and  blood genetic descendants of a small group of humans that lived in southern Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. These brave explorers migrated out of Africa over thousands of generations and tens of thousands of years, changing and evolving as they went and spread out throughout the globe, developing into all the different races and cultures alive today. We are literally all family. All races are one. We are literally all Africans.

*Everything in the world- including you and me, all the plants and animals and all of the products we use- everything, is made up of nothing more than soil, water, and gas from the atmosphere. Our entire ecological existence depends on a few inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains. It takes 500 years to form just 1 inch of soil, and, if unprotected, acres of it can be lost in one storm event. Even if you lost just an acre of soil the thickness of a dime, that amount would total 5 tons.

*There are 10 times more bacteria and fungal cells in and on your body than there are human cells in your entire body. You are mostly made up of that which you are not. You are literally a living, breathing, walking, talking ecosystem of invisible organisms.  Your body systems would not function without these beneficial and protective life forms, nor would they be able to exist without you. We evolved together.

*All of the atoms that make up the world, including the water, soil, plants, animals, you and me were created in the belly of a star. We are literally alive because, billions of years ago, a star died and exploded. The planet Earth is nothing more than a spherical chunk of molten stardust that has cooled on the surface while a primal fire still rages beneath in the mantel.

*You are literally made of stardust, and the atoms in your left hand most likely came from an entirely different star than the atoms in your right.

I could have taken the Blue Pill, as many do, and retreated into the sleepy haze of shallow thought. But I took the metaphorical Red Pill, and I’m glad I did. “I took the road less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.”

What will you choose?

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XV. The Problem of Good and Evil

•February 4, 2012 • 17 Comments

If God exists, and he created everything, then that means he created Evil. The Bible, if you believe it to be the word of God, even backs this up: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). If God does exist and he created the Universe, then he had the chance to NOT include evil, but did it anyway. Therefore he also created the painful life and death struggle that all species on planet Earth have to suffer through. Ouch. Real douche-bag move there, God. Most religious people make themselves feel better about all of this by claiming that, if we do the things that the ancient Holy books tell us to and suffer through this life, we will be rewarded by God with something much better in the Hereafter. Again, great system you came up with there, Big Guy.

This is just one of the many reasons that I don’t believe in God. He Himself cannot be moral and the books written in His name teach horrible lessons on morality, even condoning and commanding actions of pure evil…but that’s only if you consider murder, torture, stealing, plundering, rape and animal cruelty evil.

The fact is that we pretty much all consider those acts Evil. Humans have a common knowledge and culture of morality that has been evolving for thousands of years and is continuing to evolve even now and will continue to do so in the future. It all basically comes down to suffering. We each know from our own experience that suffering, whether mental or physical, is painful and an unpleasant experience. We consider people who intentionally cause suffering on other conscious creatures to be Evil, and those acts of caused suffering to be Evil acts. It is a perplexing and unfortunate fact that this morality, at least in humans, can be extremely flexible depending on the situation and the circumstances. Scientists have shown in highly publicized research studies that good people will do evil things given the influences of authority and peer pressure. We have seen this countless times outside of the lab though, not only in men like Hitler, but in the good men under his regime who somehow committed horrible atrocities, or the millions of people in the world who choose to rob, oppress, or kill to survive on a daily basis.

But nonetheless, our sense of morality and ethics is improving. Less than two hundred years ago slave labor was perfectly acceptable to most people. Less than a hundred years ago, it was perfectly moral to treat the decedents of these slaves with cruel oppression. Less than 50 years ago, it was perfectly natural to regard women as being inferior to men. We are learning. Statistics even show that the body count of wars has been on a steady decline for a long time, although wars still rage on and our weapons are becoming even more deadly by the minute. We are getting better, but we have a long way to go. Why is it so hard and a constant struggle to be Good? What is this temptation and proclivity that we all have towards evil thoughts and deeds? Where does Evil come from?

I present 5 general sources of “evil”:

1) Faulty Wiring. Due to either genetic predisposition or physical trauma in life, sometimes brains go haywire and make people do crazy, violent things. Sometimes even the stress of life itself can trigger psychotic behavior in otherwise functioning adults. Flawed thinking also comes into play here, where a person’s thoughts can become so distorted that they see evil acts as rational and justified.

2) Basic Instinct. We developed the instincts of being territorial, violent, aggressive and wary, and these instincts have helped us to survive up to the present moment. But unfortunately these instincts can be overemphasized or counterproductive in far too many situations. The bottom line is that we have developed and evolved in a world of scarce resources. This is THE basic reason for all wars, struggles and conflicts. This mentality presents itself through beliefs like “this is MINE, not yours, because I need it to survive.” “ME and MY people are the same. You are different.”  “This is OUR land, not yours.” “MY god is better than your god, or MY god is the ONLY god.” These beliefs lead to acts of evil committed by people who are just trying to survive in a world they perceive to be “us against them”.

3) Childhood. Let’s face it. All parents screw up their kids in some way. Most parents try to do the right things, but many parents lack the knowledge or resources to care for their children responsibly. What’s worse is that some parents simply don’t care. What’s evil is that some parents intentionally abuse their children, both physically and emotionally (almost always continuing the cycle of abuse inherited from their parents). Abuse or lack of proper care in childhood has created some of the world’s most evil people, and has made the lives of many more completely miserable.

4) Peer Pressure. Never underestimate the power of the mob, authority figures, propaganda or your friends to convince people to do evil things. Of course the ones doing the pressuring were either pressured themselves or flawed in their thinking, perhaps from the negative influences of faulty wiring, childhood or religion, for example.

5) Desperate Times. They call for desperate measures. Millions and millions of people all over the world feel that they are forced to steal and murder just to feed and protect their families. Would you kill to keep your family safe? Does that make you an evil person, or is the system that causes and contributes to these acts of desperation itself flawed or evil? I believe the responsibility falls on both the individual and the social constructs.

If my claim is that immoral and evil acts all basically materialize based on flawed thinking, you have probably guessed that I do not believe that there is such a thing as “Absolute Evil”, nor do I believe that Evil is the result of the misunderstood fictional character of “Satan”, nor do I believe that any “God” has anything to do with it.

But if I don’t believe in Absolute Evil, how can I believe in Absolute Good? Well, I don’t believe in either. Such notions are impossible. Morality simply cannot be imposed from an outside source or from the top down. Trickle-down Economics didn’t work, and neither does “Trickle-down Ethics”.

Humans  just do what they do and we ascribe these labels of Good and Evil to them. But if we are asking questions about how to best treat each other and what we should be doing with our lives, and if Evil is the intentional application of suffering, then I propose that ideas of “Good” should be based on minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness and thriving. This could be done, I propose, by working to eliminate the 5 sources of evil that I mentioned earlier through education and dialogue. Now of course one person’s happiness can directly cause another person’s suffering, so what in the hell do we do with that? The fact is, this is an extremely complicated problem, which is why I reject religion and its harmful and simplistic notions of morality. As a Humanist, I believe that we CAN work together to figure this out, but I don’t see how we can do that if people are still killing, condemning and judging each other in the name of imaginary Gods.

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XIV. What Happens When We Die?

•January 30, 2012 • 12 Comments

“The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions, and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seem to me to be empty and devoid of meaning.” 

– Albert Einstein

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

– Mark Twain

We are born from darkness, and to darkness we return. For all those who feel the twitches of life, this is guaranteed. The late Christopher Hitchens said that the knowledge of one’s own mortality is “realizing that you are expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks.” He also likened life to being at a party where, one day, you shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed that you have to leave. What’s more, not only do you have to leave, but the party will still be going on without you! Humans invented the idea of a soul, an immortal vessel that could carry the hopes and dreams of this life to the next, to sooth their anxieties about the inevitable: one day, we and everyone we know will all die.

The idea of a soul has been around and evolving for thousands of years. Like the idea of God and the religions that accompany it, the soul was a crude first attempt at explaining the inner workings of our mental realm. But if a soul did exist, what could it possibly be useful for? It could have no vision-processing nerves and organs so it couldn’t possibly see. It could have no auditory organs so it wouldn’t be able to hear. It could have no brain so it wouldn’t even be able to process these senses, or store memories, hold knowledge or contain personality traits for that matter. Everything about your personality, from your history of memories to your preferences to the way you interact with others and the way you process thoughts and feelings can all be traced to functions in your brain. When a medical patient suffers a stroke or an accident, or if they develop a tumor or brain disease, for instance, they may loose the ability to recognize faces, or the ability to recognize their own body parts as belonging to them. With other types of brain damage, the patient looses all memory of who they are, or in some cases a totally new and different personality replaces the old one. There is not an undamaged soul somewhere inside of them that can’t express itself correctly. Change the brain and you change everything about the person.

To quote neurologist Sam Harris, “Science is not in principle committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife or that the mind is identical to the brain…If it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can – by virtue of ‘ectoplasm’ or something else we don’t understand – be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world if we discover it…What we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain, and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, [but] you damage the whole thing at death, [and] we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognizing grandma and speaking English?!”

Some people argue that there must be a “ghost in the machine” that controls what your body does or that there must be some sort of “energy cloud” that powers the whole thing. However, scientists can now track our intentions and emotions down to electrical and chemical impulses produced by our body’s cells. One part of my brain calculates the probability of me throwing a rock to be a desirable action, another part makes the necessary physics calculations and sends them to my muscles, and another part of my brain witnesses it all happening and analyses the chemical response of my emotions. Now describing it in those terms doesn’t make it any less beautiful and amazing that I can hurl a piece of matter through the air with great accuracy, but in no way is it necessary to attribute any part of that with the notion of a soul. And the energy required to do all of this comes from my cells metabolizing the food I eat to produce the energy of movement, as guided by my brain.

Others point to near-death experiences as proof for the existence of a soul. Scientists have been able to recreate and study near-death experiences in the lab. The phenomena that people experience, including seeing a bright light, a tunnel, hallucinating about heaven, hell, family members or the operating room around them, past memory reflection, and a sense of being one with “god” or “a connectedness to all things” are all amazing experiences and can be life-changing, but they all have perfectly rational explanations that involve neurochemistry in the brain during the moments before death. And remember, these are called NEAR-death experiences for a reason.

The truth is that no one knows for sure what happens when we die and don’t come back. But I am familiar with the story that science tells us, and it gives me great comfort. More about that in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that I don’t believe that anything happens when you die, except that you die, and the material that was your body is broken down and returned into the environment, where it is recycled into new forms, both living and non-living. I believe that consciousness ends when we die. Though I grieve when loved ones are lost to death like anyone else, the thought that nothing lives on after death does not sadden or frighten me. I only see it as a continual process that we are all a part of.

The New Age Movement, a loose consortium of philosophies that has taken advantage of far more people than it has helped, incorporates the tenants of reincarnation from Eastern traditions with the idea of a sort of “soul school” where your soul supposedly goes through countless different lifetimes learning pre-prescribed “lessons” according to a pre-determined path, sometimes volunteering to be handicapped, mentally ill, raised in poverty, or a victim of abuse, forgetting this whole system each time that we reincarnate so that we can fully experience life’s “training ground”. Souls are said to choose to be together in certain lifetimes, sometimes over and over, to work on “karmic” issues or accomplish goals that are somehow set up by and important to the greater Universe, Gaya, Godhead, Buddha Essence or God Intelligence that we are all a part of. What would this system accomplish? Who designed it, and why?

I find it interesting that many people leave the dogma of the Church behind, only to exchange it for the same needless dogma in a different form. If you don’t believe that your soul needs to be saved, then why do you believe that it needs a lesson plan? If you don’t need God, why do you make the Universe a god? What is this constant need for humans to feel that they are somehow unworthy, imperfect, fundamentally flawed, lesser than, and separate? Those who believe in souls and soul transcendence are often the same people who get swept up in global conspiracies, alien encounters, abductions and anal probes, astral projection, demons, angels, ghosts, past life regression, astrology, tarot cards, palm-reading, fortune-telling, mind-reading, faith healing, aura photography, chakra cleansing, chasing the “secret” and healing with crystals. For the record there is no evidence that any of these beliefs have a basis in reality either. Click here to watch an awesome video by skeptic author Michael Shermer about why people believe weird things.

So if we cannot confirm nor deny with absolute certainty the existence of a soul unless we are carried by one beyond death, and if the idea brings hope and rich experiences to people, who am I to try to convince anyone that it doesn’t exist? Look, I admit that believing in a soul is a lot less harmful than believing in a God or a Religion, but if the truth of your existence is important to you, and if everyone in the world has to be on the same page in order to save it, it’s time to leave this idea behind. The belief in an eternal soul naturally leads to questions of a Creator, and what purpose that Creator may have for his Creation. What ideas does the Soul Creation Process have about morality and what we should be doing here? This is flirting with submission to a parental figure who claims influence and ownership over you all over again, and I see that as a problem.

For instance, if you have an abusive soulmate, why would you divorce them when you should clearly stay with them to work out your karma? And if something bad happens to you, it’s your soul’s karma, a deserved punishment, perhaps from lifetimes ago even. And just as is the problem with those who eagerly await the Messiah’s return, why should we bother trying to save this planet, if our souls can just travel to another world and leave this rock behind? Similarly, why should you have to get it right in this lifetime, when you have as many “redo” chances as you need ahead of you? Or if you believe that your “inner voice” is actually your soul speaking to you, what if it tells you to do something harmful? Should you listen? Do you see how even the idea of a soul can be harmful and limiting to the doors of your perception?

And yet we all, those of us who believe in souls and those that do not, understand what is meant when someone says, “He plays guitar with soul,” or “You can see her soul in her artwork,” or even “He is an old soul.” “I need some time to soul search.” “What is my soul’s ultimate desire?” “When we made love, our souls combined into one.” “When I am in the mountains, I feel that my soul is at one with Nature.” “His soul is now at rest.” These statements make sense even in light of my beliefs, without having to envision a ghost-like smokey apparition hiding somewhere beneath my skin.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in a soul, but I do consider myself at times to be soulful. I look at the “soul” of a human, or a dog, or a river, or a planet, as a metaphor for the combined essence of all of its qualities and characteristics. Your soul is what you express, what you create, what you give to others, how you see and interact with the world, how the world sees you, what you are like when no one is looking, what you leave behind. No frivolous dogma about death and dependence is needed for you to experience moments with great depth of “soul”, as long as you let your “true soul” shine through.

So come on Mary…Don’t fear the Reaper.

Instead be grateful, be joyful, be soulful, that you are a part of All That Is and that you are here to witness it all happening.

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