An Enchanted World

Photo credit:  Scott Smith
Photo credit: Scott Smith

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that the world is more magical than I had believed as a child. For many people, I think the opposite happens. Adults tend to be more logical, cynical, and scientific thinking than children. Not to say that I’m never cynical, but once I started letting down some barriers in how I boxed in my view of the universe and the way it works, all I know how to describe it is enchanted.

Jesus once said that to experience the kingdom of God we had to become like little children. Having grown up in the church, I’ve heard various commentaries on this idea. But what I think it really comes down to is that children tend to live in the present moment, believe in the possibility of all things, are able to love without discrimination, and are able to find enjoyment in even little things. They don’t tend to take life seriously, and through that, they often get a much better return on happiness. They live well in a paradox: not taking life too seriously is a serious practice. Most importantly, children (those who are healthy and loved) do not live out of fear, but out of curiosity and imagination and wonder.

Much of my life has been motivated by fear. I take most of the responsibility for this, and some of it is just the product of the places and times I was raised in. For me, God was a static being who created for a specific purpose with a specific end goal in mind. Any veering off of that path by the created would end badly. And 99% of all people would end up in hell. That kind of fear belief was certainly enough to keep me on the straight and narrow well into my 20s.

But once I became brave enough to step outside of this limited, dismal faith container, and become more curious and less fearful, I started to see the world with new eyes. I was also able to search for answers in places and people that had previously been considered taboo.
These days, I see life as intriguing, exciting, and plot twisting. It is still painful at times, I can still get wicked depressed and neurotic, but I no longer feel like it is just a straight line path to the grave marked within a very defined set of parameters. I can question all the things I want to question without having to try and fit them within an archaic set of assumptions and religious beliefs, questions like:

1. How do personality, environment, genetics, etc work together to create one’s behavior? To what extent do we really have free will or free choice? (As a side note, pursuing this question very far will definitely make one feel like being more compassionate and less judgmental towards others).

2. Several years back, I dreamed about a dear friend of mine who lived a continent away, while he was teetering on the edge of life and death. How did I know that something was wrong when I hadn’t spoken to him in months? How are we spiritually tied to each other, especially those who are important to us? I’ve had other experiences where I knew something was about to happen….how does this work?

3. I don’t believe in a theistic God anymore, one that is a being who creates and mandates. I like Paul Tillich’s understanding of the Ground of Being – not personal, but not less than personal. This then intrigues me to wonder how this ground of being works…this God in all and through all. And so I’m learning to turn back to my Native American brothers and sisters, and other indigenous religions, who somehow are able to carry this idea of enchantment and pervasive life force more in the forefront than the rest of us.

4. Science has suggested that we may live in a multiverse, and many have suggested there are more dimensions. How does being play into this, and what type of curtain separates us from other dimensions and people who have passed on in death?

5. I’ve been reading some about consciousness evolvement (see Ken Wilbur) I am fascinated with the apparent evolution of consciousness in humankind. Where will we go from here? Will there come a time when mankind’s consciousness reaches mystic levels as a whole? What would that look like?

And the questions go on and on…I haven’t even mentioned art, and music, and so many other things.

I like to think of the world with an idea described in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe….there is “deep magic”. Magic that we don’t understand, but it is there nevertheless, pervading everything…maybe ‘grounding’ our being. And when we stop to let go of our rigid constructs, our static, superficial, oversimplistic notions of things, we catch glimpses of that magic and the interconnectedness of all things.

Unraveling the Complications

Photo credit: David Wicks
Photo credit: David Wicks

It’s a new year. And with every new year comes the attempts by thousands of people to rally and get themselves together. Most people I know, including myself, fail when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, usually because we have just given ourselves one more thing to do without first having taken away something.

I don’t even try to make resolutions in January anymore, because it is more or less an arbitrary date, and the middle of winter isn’t always the most practical time for me (or most healthy time mentally) to go changing things around drastically. Also, I’m horribly inconsistent about almost everything in life.

The word resolution conjures up ideas for me of failure. That is, if I in fact don’t succeed at this thing I resolved to do, I’ve just screwed up again. I don’t feel the need to add to my list of life failures.

But, when I rephrase in my mind the way I talk about what I want to in the next year, I feel more hopeful. I’m comparing what I want to change about myself or the way I do things with my meditation practice, specifically from a Zen point of view. In my limited understanding of Zen, meditation is not always about just holding the end result in mind. A Zen teacher told me that if you only sit zazen with the hope of becoming enlightened, then you’re missing alot of the point. And furthermore, if you don’t reach enlightenment any time soon, you’ll just be discouraged. Sometimes the goal in what you do needs to be the process itself.

In deciding to do or not do certain things in 2016, I’m approaching them as a practice instead of a vow to be fulfilled. Things that I will work at little bit by little bit. Just like when I meditate and my monkey mind takes over, I will come back gently to my practice and continue.

I have a few filters I’m currently using to help sort through and prioritize what I want to focus on this year.

1. My primary filter of 2016 for practice is to uncomplicate my life, or unravel the complications. I discovered this phrase recently in the Tao Te Ching, and it really spoke to me:

“We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others.” (Ch. 1)

Like many Americans, it is so easy for my life to get complicated, crazy, and full of activity. Some of this is out of my control, but I’m great at creating my own drama and problems. This year I would really like to continue my attempts to make life simple, pursue minimalism in practical areas, practice believing that there is enough in life, and rest from trying to climb so many of the ladders that society assumes we need to be climbing.

2. As part of unraveling complications, I’ve been working on discovering what I’m most passionate about in life, and what I’m most wired for, so that I can condense everything down to what is essential. What are the things that really make me get out of bed in the morning? What are the things that drag me down, are unhealthy for me, and suck the life out of me…it’s time to get rid of as many of these as possible.

3. This year I’m determined to work on not being motivated by guilt and fear. I hate to admit it, but so much of what I do in life is either motivated by guilt/fear, or followed by guilt/fear. Guilt/fear that I didn’t do a good enough job, guilt/fear that I suck as a parent, guilt that I binge-watched too many Bollywood movies, guilt that I haven’t figured out God in the last 12 months. Rational and irrational combined.

This is not a way to live. I want love and compassion to be my primary motivators. So, I plan to practice removing myself from situations where I feel compelled to act out of guilt or feel, even if others misunderstand or disagree with me.

4. Finally, a filter I’m using for the year is to keep decreasing my consumerism. It’s easy to get sucked in my advertising to buy more stuff, but all that stuff just complicates my life. And none of it every really increases my happiness.

When I’m not worrying about what I need to buy, feeling like I need something newer, or having to take care of and store junk I bought, I have so much more free time and emotional space to focus on things that really do make me happy and bring me peace. One simplifying tool I’ve toyed with in the past but am taking more seriously right now is Project 333. A small closet makes for a significant dip in laundry time and sparks creativity. In my household of five people, the potential for less laundry is a big motivator for me.

I’m hoping my filters can help me curate in my life what is most meaningful to me, so that I can look back at 2016, not thinking I just sped through it at a break-neck speed, but that I relished and lived it well.

“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first. . . . When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.”

Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty

Guns and a Modus Operandi of Fear

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I wonder if it is possible right now to be an American and stay out of the fray surrounding the gun control debates. I have no doubt the arguments are really just getting started, and gun control will be an issue for a long time to come.

Like everyone else, I have seen the back and forth rhetoric, the tit-for-tat dialogue on Facebook and other social media outlets. The worst part is that both sides demonize the other, creating a vortex of hate and condescension, pointing fingers, accusing….condemning.

I understand the love of guns for many Americans. I grew up in the South, where guns are ubiquitous and a distinct part of the culture, especially in rural communities. I understand that guns are used for more positive purposes, such as putting food on the table, and for sport. But I’ve also seen them kill people I know, through homicide, accident and suicide.

Ultimately, I don’t want to argue whether or not guns are inherently good or bad. That really isn’t the crux of the matter. The bulk of the problem, I firmly believe, is fear. Fear on both sides of this hotly polarized spectrum…..people fear giving up their guns and losing their perceived ability to protect themselves and their families from violent individuals and terrorists. And then, on the opposite side, fear of exacerbated violence by providing such an easy means for that violence.

What most saddens me, however, is that most of the fear comes from those who claim to have the answers to life. The majority of the people in my FB who are staunchly pro-gun also proclaim to be staunchly pro-Christian and pro-life. The political party vehemently opposed to gun control (yes, I’m generalizing a bit here, but I think it’s valid) also claims the majority of evangelicals and conservative Christians.

This dynamic is completely bewildering to me, but I think it condenses down to two points:
Either:

1. The Jesus narrative is not very compelling and is not, in the end, a trustworthy path to navigate life…perhaps an archaic relic that people hold on to because they don’t believe they have an alternative (or they fear God and are afraid to think outside the belief boxes of their childhoods)

Or:

2. People who claim to be followers of Jesus really don’t understand who he was at all, or have a firm grasp of his teachings.

The first option is one where everyone has to decided for himself or herself. But I don’t personally believe that Jesus needs to be tossed out on the trash heap. He was a revolutionary of peace, a staunch supporter of life…but REAL life…not a “let’s just survive” kind of life, but life chock full of meaning, and love, and seeing the big picture and our interconnectedness as a human family.

As for option 2, I honestly have to stop and scratch my head when I hear things that people who claim to be devout Jesus followers say, and the hate at which they direct it at others. It makes me wonder why anyone on the outside of the Church looking in would want to have anything to do with Christianity.

When did Jesus ever defend himself? As in, defend his personal ‘self’ against people trying to harm him? Sure, he would engage in intense discussions, but he never raised a hand against anyone to protect his body (lest someone bring up the story of him chasing out the moneychangers from the temple courts with a whip).

When did he ever advocate his followers taking up arms to protect themselves from the Romans or anyone else? (As far as Jesus saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword…I think the thoughtful person would agree that this was hyperbole to make a point…otherwise he would have been violent in his everyday life, carrying his own weapons and telling his followers to do so).

When did Jesus ever tell his followers to live in fear because of what people might do to them? (In fact, I think he said specifically not to fear what people can do to the body, but rather fear what can be done to the soul).

In fact, let’s just boil it down to this….when did Jesus ever advocate hateful speech, or slander, or castigating those who were different or not living in ways that we might agree with? The ONLY people Jesus ever rebuked were those who were, out of selfish or arrogant motives, keeping others from coming to him, or intentionally marginalizing them.

Some Christians tell me that what Jesus taught was great and all, but some of his ideals just aren’t practical today. Pacifism is a nice notion, but unrealistic. Extravagant love towards each other is a dream, and we’d still better plan on keeping those guns to kill others before they kill us.

If these things are true, and Jesus’ words are indeed not timeless and not worth living by, then WHY THE HELL would we trust him in the timeless beyond death?

We all need to sit down and rethink our modus operandi….what is really motivating us in life? Is it really love, or is it fear covered up with a white, capitalistic, boundary driven Jesus that never existed?

If we are doing our best to operate out of love, let’s keep evaluating any places in our lives that need to brought up to speed. If we recognize that we are living out of fear….that’s a good starting point. But fear is such an unappealing ethic to live by, and if God is truly as awesome as Christians claim to believe, then we need to do everything in our power to strive for a higher ethic. Recognize that you’re afraid, do deep soul searching, maybe get some therapy (because therapy never hurt anyone), keep connecting with God, and see where it all takes you.

Nobody wants to have our families hurt or endangered…I think that’s a no brainer that shouldn’t even be argued. But I firmly, firmly believe that just attempting to protect in reactionary ways out of fear will not produce the meaning-filled lives we all desire. Rather, when we are proactive in love, believing Jesus’ words to our core, the tide will continue to turn in a positive direction.

The Generosity of Being

generosity of being
In our “doing brings success” American culture, have we lost sight of the value we each inherently bring to the table just by being us?

When I was growing up, emphasis in almost every area of my life was placed on what I did or didn’t do. This ethic was not imposed on me just by my family, but by most of the institutions around me. Nor was it usually put upon me cruelly, but rather because everyone seemed to assume that this way of thinking really was true.

I also don’t see myself as unique. The majority of people I know act as though they believe they must prove themselves…to each other, to employers, to God. We must give more, we must work harder, we must attain “x” goal. Then we will be OK, we will be successful, we will be found approved.

The place that I most felt this pressure to do was from the Church. I spent half of my youth feeling guilty for not having more proselytizing scalps on my belt by bringing people to Jesus, for not doing more for the impoverished and less privileged of the world, for (by no fault of my own), being born in a first world country.

All around me then, and now, I hear Give, give give!. And I see others around me, frantically trying to do more, give more, please others…usually out of guilt or assumed obligation. I offer many kudos to these people, who really dig deep and make great sacrifices to be generous to others. But, in the end, their giving and generosity is frequently offered out of anxiety and fear, rather than free choice and un-manipulated love.

This weekend I heard a sermon on the different ways Christians can be generous. The speaker debunked the age old tradition that a 10% tithe is everything and God must be frowning upon us if we don’t skim the cream of our paycheck right away and send it straight to the local church. This is huge, I think, because it offers people so much freedom..it doesn’t rule them out if they need that money to pay a bill or think they will be castigated by God for not legalistically abiding by Old Testament dogma.

However, I think we need to take this so much further…to what I’ll call the generosity of being. So many of us, including me, have lost sight of the gift each of us is just for being alive. We tend to consider ourselves worthless, lazy, or slackers if we just focus on being who we really are at our core, and then acting/giving out of that. We have also forgotten that sometimes what others need most from us is just for us to “be” with them, not necessarily do or give something to them.

When we learn to be content with who we are in our deepest nature, and give out of what we are passionate about and talented at, we end up offering so much more to the world than when we understand giving and doing in prescribed ways. Only when we give out of these places can we do it with real love and in ways that won’t be guilt induced.

Since college, I’ve heard that in religious organizations like churches, 20% of the people tend to do 80% of the work. I’ve personally experienced this to be true, but I think there’s good reason for it. Many of the tasks and roles are prescribed, not usually thinking outside the box, and while part of the 20% is genuinely excited about the endeavors, the rest of the population is struggling to be passionate about helping out. I doubt seriously that it all comes down to the masses just being takers, as I have heard some say. It’s hard to offer your time to something unless it is a authentic extension of who you are.

I wonder what it would look like if we all stopped worrying about how others think we should be giving, and what others think we should be doing, and started giving out of the places where we are full in our souls, instead of empty – and knowing that when we are nearing empty it’s OK to stop and recharge without needing to feel guilty. What would it look like if we also stopped worrying about doing things all the time, and concerned ourselves with really being there for others?

I can recall a story that a trauma expert once told. He had been crossing the street and was hit by a car. As he lay on the road waiting for the paramedics, a woman at the scene asked him, as he was going into shock, what he needed. He responded that he just needed her to “be” with him, and hold his hand while he was going through this experience. The woman stayed with him, not doing anything other than just being with him, until the ambulance took him away. He credits her with helping to keep him from developing post traumatic symptoms by helping him stay present, and helping him go through his pain with someone, not by himself.

Who could you be generous to just by “being” with them for a while? Alternatively, do you have something to give to others that rises up from with in you as an expression of who you are at your core, rather than just what society or an organization suggests is proper and useful?

Spirituality and Candy Crush Saga

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I’ve decided that my spiritual journey is very much like Candy Crush Saga.

I started playing Candy Crush over a year ago, and quickly became addicted as so many other iPhone users have. My ludic loop is engaged each time I play, and I long just..to get…to the next…level.

Because, on a subconscious plane in my mind, I believe that the next level will bring me satisfaction; I will somehow gain something I didn’t have before. But all of us who play Candy Crush know this never happens. In fact, when we scroll up to see how many more levels we have to progress through to “win”, the Candy Crush path winds along endlessly.

Now, segue to the spiritual journey. As a youngster, I always believed that somehow God and the spiritual life came to us packaged as a linear journey, much like Candy Crush. As we matured, we would reach milestones and gain more credibility, intimacy with God, and spiritual power, and become less penetrable to the devices of evil that intended to harm or thwart us.

It didn’t take long into my adulthood for this picture of spirituality to become cloudy. The very short linear path of life I held to at the time, and the answers that had always placated me before, no longer seemed to work for me.

As I pushed against the boundaries and faith parameters that I grew up with, I began to move outward. Until recently, I didn’t realize that I was again trying to move in a linear direction. My Western American mindset has been convinced that if I just use my intellect to study and gain more knowledge, I would reach my final goal of understanding God and the meaning of life.

This linear path away from my childhood faith seemed to work for a while. I would learn something new and hit a new “level”, feeling a similar euphoric feeling like when I win at Candy Crush. But there was always the next level to conquer, the next amount of knowledge to be attained. The quickest way to proceed through each milestone is to gather knowledge as quickly as possible. I’ve read book after book after book, and listened to podcasts, and YouTube videos, and gone to seminars. And I’ve progressed through many of my milestones with lightning speed.

But I stopped to look up recently, and realized…the end still isn’t in sight. I don’t know what it will look like to “win” this journey. I’ve exhausted myself trying to answer every metaphysical question that has plagued me and each time I get an answer, two more questions spring up.

Yesterday I went to a Christian-Buddhist Zen retreat. We spent a few hours meditating. Or at least, I tried. Copious amounts of my meditation time were spent dozing. And waiting for something, I wasn’t sure what. However, I’ve done enough meditation to know I shouldn’t expect enlightenment in one day. But, I looked forward to the Q&A that would follow, at the end of the retreat. I could finally ask two of my big questions, and my distressed mind’s craving for answers would be satiated.

Nope, it was another Candy Crush level. I came away pissed off with the answers I didn’t get. (I should have known better before asking…Zen masters are notorious for answering questions with paradoxes or seemingly nonsensical sayings.) But, I couldn’t help myself and asked anyway, thinking maybe I’d hit a key milestone in my Candy Crush-esque spiritual journey. Instead, I was basically told I was overthinking everything.

As chagrined as I feel with my spiritual journey, I think maybe I’ve hit a major milestone in starting to realize that there ARE NO milestones. The point of the journey is the journey. There is always more knowledge to be gained, but it won’t fill the hole in our souls. And if it did, we would all be screwed because we have limits to how much knowledge we can acquire in a lifetime.

I freely admit I’m addicted to Candy Crush in an unhealthy way. Neuroscientist game designers have successfully played on my brain’s addictive capacities. But I think it is very analogous to how I, and many other people, approach life. We believe if we just get there, we will be content, happy, successful. But getting there is a never ending journey. We need to focus on being here, right where we are, right now.

So tomorrow I will wake up, attempt to sit zazen, and attempt to ignore that annoying little addicted voice in my head that tells me to read one more book, and play one more game of Candy Crush.

Lauren Ornelas and the Food Empowerment Project

lauren ornelasThis week I had the opportunity to chat with Lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, located in Cotati, CA. A long time vegan, animal right activist, and supporter of environmental justice initiatives, Lauren started FEP with the goal of taking change beyond individual food choices, working for the global empowerment and protection of all beings. She and her staff of volunteers have worked to influence corporations away from using child slavery produced West African chocolate, set up school supply drives for children of farm workers in California, and support the efforts of numerous other organizations to fight against injustice. I also was excited to discover early on in our conversation that Lauren is a fellow native Texan, having grown up San Antonio. Here is part of our conversation:

Me: Can you talk about how you became interested in veganism and advocacy?

Lauren: I went vegetarian when I was young. At a certain point, I was like, I’m just not going to eat animals anymore. I got in touch with an animal rights group when I was in high school and that’s when I learned about veganism. I learned what happens in the pig, egg and cow industries, and I just decided I didn’t want to participate in that anymore. During that time I was also involved in the anti-apartheid movement, and I did animal rights for a long time.

Me: Where did you get the idea for the Food Empowerment Program?

Lauren: When I spoke at the World Social Forum in Caracus, Venezuela, I realized I wanted to run a group where all the issues were combined….where I could talk about human issues and animal issues together.

Me: What was the process involved for starting FEP?

Lauren: I had already established myself in the animal movement from 1987 until I started the group in 2006. The Food Empowerment Project got started with the chocolate issue, saying what we heard from everyone else, which was basically eat fair-trade or organic chocolate, and you’re not supporting what’s happening in Western Africa. But we had to do our own research on everything we worked on, and we found out we couldn’t recommend [those guidelines] anymore. There were already problems in those industries and we ended up having to create our own list and standard to try to make sure you’re not supporting what’s happening there.

In the beginning, all we did was support other groups. By learning from these groups, we were able to start some of our own efforts, like the school supply drive that we did for the children of farm workers. It took time; I knew what to do as far as veganism and farm animals, but the other issues had to develop as I learned so I could do things better and try to be more effective.

Me: For veganism and protecting farm animals, how are your efforts focused? Grassroots efforts? Lobbying?

Lauren: For veganism, it’s three-pronged in a sense – all of the information we have, all of the talks I give, everything we do, talks about animals, sentient beings, and individuals who feel pain. In terms of on-hands work, we are out every month in front of a slaughterhouse that kills chickens, doing general outreach. We also have newsletter called Food Chain, which we mail out to people who are interested in going vegan or who have just gone vegan. Every issues contains information about animals being raised and killed for food, labor issues, environmental issues, recipes, support Q & A, and additional information.

Me: OK, let’s continue on with you telling us some of the other things FEP is doing.

Lauren: For the chocolate issues, again, general outreach, but we also have a list of chocolates we do and don’t recommend based on where [the companies] source their chocolate. People can use this as a tool to help them shop. We contact companies and update the list once a month. We also had a campaign to get Clif Bar to disclose the country of origin for their chocolates…it took us about three years. We want people to use their ethics when they buy chocolate, but we also want to make sure that we’re nudging the corporation. We’ve had corporations change suppliers and make sure they’re not sourcing from West Africa.

FEP is small, so we have to pick and choose what corporate campaign targets we do at one time. We will eventually pick another company that is not being transparent about where they are sourcing their chocolate, and then go after that one.

For our farmworkers, we support corporate campaigns, legislation, regulatory changes. We are also part of a coalition to change what is called the 50 Mile Rule in California, which forces farm workers who were living in labor camps to move out of the labor camp when the picking season is over and move fifty miles away which prevents their children from finishing their year of school. We’ve done the school supply drives, and a food drive for farm workers. After delivering over three hundred backpacks and thousands of school supplies this year, we’ve heard back that these supplies were really needed. So from here on out, we’ll probably just being doing the school supply drives.

In communities of color and low income communities, we go out to survey access to healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, frozen, canned, and fresh, as well as meat and dairy alternatives. We make an assessment on the area’s availability and compare high income and low income communities to see if there’s a difference. In San Jose, we did focus groups to find out what the community wanted, to determine what the community’s needs were.

We’re continuing our work in Vallejo, where we have found a corporation that has been detrimental to the health of the community. We are currently in communication with the corporation, and will decide soon if we need to start some type of corporate campaign against them.

Me: On FEP’s website, you talk about negligent companies pushing low quality foods into low income areas. Can you talk about this? How are these companies “pushing?”

Lauren: Well, a couple of ways. First, fast food and liquor stores are more prevalent in lower income communities. Fast food is known for their commercials trying to entice children. But they’ve also been reaching out more to communities of color and doing specific commercials geared toward these communities, like on Univision. That’s what we’re talking about, where they are deliberately pushing themselves into these communities.

In East LA, they’ve tried to put a moratorium on fast food, [the companies] fight those. In San Jose, they put a moratorium on some of the liquor stores. The companies try to fight these efforts…sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not.

Me: FEP supports higher living wages for farm workers. What do you do to help create this change?

Lauren: We support living wage campaigns to bring wages up to $15/hr. In terms of social media, we will always try to support every living wage campaign. We support the Coalition of Immokalee workers who are trying to get Wendy’s and Publix to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes that they pick. Recently we also helped the Sakuma farm workers in Washington who were trying to get Driscoll Berries to pay them and give them their wages, to give them breaks. We were out in front of Costco trying to get their customers to encourage Costco to take a stand for the farmworkers. We help take the lead of any group that is being organized by farmworkers rather than start our own group.

Me: What about FEP makes you really proud?

Lauren: Because of our work, people are so much more aware now looking at their food choices. We hear from small businesses saying that people asked them about chocolate they sell. Or companies contacting us saying ‘Hi, one of our customers asked us to reach out to you. How do we get on your chocolate list?’

During the school supply drive of 2013 we collected about 41 backpacks. This year we collected 367.

The word of our work is growing, the importance of these issues is growing, and it is a pretty direct correlation between our work and how we’ve grown and how we’re able to spread the word. In terms of a tangible victory, getting Clif Bar to disclose country of origin was huge, because it took us three years to get there. I used the tools I know as a campaigns person on how to get them to do it. That was really rewarding.

To have accomplished all we have with volunteers is impressive and shows how many people really care about these issues and want to plug in with an organization where they can work on it.

Me: What are your big picture ideas for branching out in the future?

Lauren: I think that we want to reach out to the Latino population more specifically, the Chicano population on healthier eating, and veganism. As well, to take a look at other farming industries, non-animal agriculture, and try and create substantial changes there.

Me: You talk about sentient beings. Is there a spiritual foundation for your work?

Lauren: Everything for me is about justice, about innocent beings who don’t have to die. I’m not religious, but St.Francis and St. Clare of Assissi are probably two people that I have an immense amount of respect for. St.Francis is the animal saint, and St. Clare was focused most on helping the poor. They are two individuals that explain best if you are for compassion and justice you look out for others, both human and non-human.

Me: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Food Empowerment Project?

Lauren: We strongly believe that people’s choices can make a difference. Their individual actions can be made to represent their ethics and individual beliefs. To use their food choices as a tool for change, but not forget that we need their collective voices to join in with other campaigns. So that change isn’t just individual change, but change on a global scale. To make sure that everyone in the food industry is treated with dignity and respect, and are paid what they deserve.

Me: What do you tell the person who feels like they are only one person, and don’t know where to start on this path?

Lauren: I try to encourage people to look at these things as an opportunity to help create positive change in the world. We eat several times a day, so we have that ability to create positive change and make a difference several times a day. Going vegan is obviously a big thing, but also making sure if they are buying chocolate or whatever foods that they are buying isn’t coming from slavery. Its 2015 and we’re still worrying about slavery and child labor? It’s obscene! There are some things that people just really need to act immediately on. If people saw it, and knew what was going on, I just have a hard time believing that they would be OK with it.

The FEP is trying to reach those people who really are serious about looking at their food choices as a tool to create change and want to do more beyond what they are putting in their grocery bag, making sure they are carrying out a sense of justice in a more wide way.

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Listen to Lauren speak at TEDx or check out the Food Empowerment Project Website for more information and opportunities to get involved!

Maybe We Are All A Little Insane. After All, We’re Human.

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There is a popular saying that drives me a little bonkers:

“Insanity-doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Albert Einstein is attributed with this quote, and while it is an incredibly overused cliche, there seems to be little evidence that he actually ever said it.

I get annoyed by this saying because it assumes that we are intentionally choosing to repeat our behaviors rather than pursuing new options. Sometimes, yes, we push in the same direction, knowing full well what end we will arrive at. However, human beings are complicated creatures, influenced by a myriad of factors, so this reductionary label is useless. We cannot assume that a person who makes choice A under X circumstances is completely free and capable of making choice B under those same circumstances.

The fact is, we all have certain behaviors we do repetitively, hoping that the results might be different. But despite our frustration or disliking of the outcome, we try the same route once more.

How much change are we really capable of? Sure, there are small changes in life we can make that stick – deciding to drink only one brand of coffee over another, driving new routes to school and work, finally learning how to separate our colors from whites when we do the laundry. But in the grand scheme of things, even if we wanted to change major issues in our lives, do we all have unlimited capability to do so?

A friend of mine suggests that we are all dealt a metaphorical deck of cards when we are born. We have some agency in what order we play each card, but in the end, we can’t play cards that we don’t have, and the order our cards are played dramatically affects our outcomes.

On one hand, scientists have found that our brains can be incredibly moldable, a flexibility referred to as neural plasticity. This happens when nerve cells and pathways in the brain change because of behaviors, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and environment.

On the other hand, brains tend to use the neuronal pathways that are already engraved and have existed for a long time. It’s alot easier to travel down a road with defined ruts rather than forge a new one. Hence, the idea of people “getting stuck in their ways.” When you behave and react the same ways with perpetuated beliefs over the long haul, turning around and going another direction can require a big shakeup in your mind, literally or metaphorically.

In many people, real lasting positive change occurs following a major life event – a catastrophe, illness, a huge failure – something big and out of the ordinary. It’s as though these types of events can “wake” people up into more self-awareness. On the flip side, these events could also lead to trauma, which effectively have the potential to shut people down emotionally, stunting growth and change rather than encouraging it.

Research has shown that people can literally change their brain structure by changing the way they think…or don’t think. By intentionally replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, or through practices like mindfulness and meditation, many people feel less compelled to respond in reactionary ways to whatever they encounter, both externally or internally. But these methods are hard work, and require a person practicing them to have some level of insight to begin with, some measure of self awareness.

If a person responds in the only way they know how, because of the way they were raised, their environment, and their cognitive and emotional intelligence, are they really insane if they don’t KNOW to try something different?

I think perhaps our cliche needs to be reworded, and we should all attempt to muster up a little more compassion for each other. My preference: Ignorance or lack of wakefulness or…simply being human…causes people to do something again and again, expecting different results.

Learning to Sit With Suffering

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The Suffering That Comes With Mental Illness
I was listening the other day to Rob Bell’s latest podcast episode. If you haven’t subscribed to it, I recommend you check out the Robcast . He’s got a lot of good stuff to say, and behind his words you can hear many of the great mystics and thinkers.
This particular podcast episode was about making room for the immensities, specifically the immensity of suffering. His goal was to talk about how to really feel suffering, how you make room for it, and then how you transcend it. The podcast referred to suffering in general, but Rob’s words really helped me articulate a lot of what I’ve been thinking about suffering in the presence of mental illness.
By God’s grace, the fight against mental illness related stigma is gaining strength. There is still much, much work to be done, however. And I’ve realized that there some American principles at play in the way we address mental illness in our country that people need to evaluate.
There are obviously a lot of really great things about the American ethic. I think overall, we value hard work, integrity, and taking responsibility. Nevertheless, these values, in the absence of a true wisdom narrative in our culture, can also be very myopic when it comes to dealing with and treating people who have brain disease.
Our culture is one of quick fixes, instant gratification, black and white thinking. Especially in recent decades, our understanding of suffering is quite different than in years past. But most importantly, we as a country have not been taught how to properly deal with suffering. Rather, we are shown techniques how to distract ourselves, work harder, rely on our willpower, and refuse any meaningful avenues for help in favor of maintaining our individualism.
In our dualistic thinking, we believe suffering is just bad, to be avoided at all costs. Being uncomfortable, feeling at a loss, being weak….these are not believed to promote any good. And so, these beliefs are passed on into the addressing and treatment of mental illness.
How does this play out in real life? I’m going to offer some generalizations that I’ve observed and also experienced. Of course, these aren’t true in every single circumstance, but I believe they are still very common.
1. A person is suspected by another to have a mental disorder. Family members/friends then urge, cajole, I daresay PESTER the person to go to the doctor and get on meds or just go get some therapy.
2. When a person has begun taking medication, yet life doesn’t get better quickly, loved ones and those around the person tend to get irritated and impatient. There is a real stigma that occurs here, that patients and loved ones are not warned about, that I will talk more about in another post.
3. People tend to lose interest in helping a patient through the long haul of mental illness, or they resign a person to be on medication for the rest of their life.
4. Brain disease is complicated. Some people try to reduce mental illness to problems of the abstract mind, while others try to reduce it to mere neurology. Like in other areas of life, I’m becoming convinced that our brain/mind is a paradox, and “both, and” scenario. This kind of thing drives us nuts, when two seemingly opposed things can be true at once. Most of us don’t have the patience or discipline to sit within this tension and be OK with the confusing nature of the stuff north of our necks.
Based on these thoughts, how then do we approach mental illness? I could give a lot of superficial answers, but I really think what it comes down to is that we need to learn, as Rob Bell says, to make room for suffering. We need to learn to sit with our suffering without involuntarily reacting to it by rushing off trying to fix everything NOW. Certainly there are acute psychological and neurological conditions that need to be dealt with, but so much of mental illness can be approached more calmly.
A reality in life is that people don’t grow spiritually or emotionally without suffering. We don’t like it, but it’s true. We can fly around like maniacs trying to avoid our suffering, but it’s pretty clear what happens when a nation does that. America is obese for this very reason of trying to avoid pain. This is a contributing factor to so many addictions, from electronic devices to alcoholism to over spending, etc. In the same way, trying to avoid the unpleasant symptoms by just running straight to pharmaceuticals hoping that they will suddenly make everything better….everyone involved here is set up for failure.
So let me be clear here: I am not anti-medicaton AT ALL, nor am I anti-therapy, or anti anything else. Rather, I’m saying let’s make room in mental illness to not have to have everything figured out right away, to stop the reflex action of just frantically trying to get rid of the disorder, and learn to sit with our reality, not judging it as good or bad, but as something that just IS.

How To Hire a House Cleaner When You’re Mental

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I finally broke down and hired a cleaning service to clean my house every couple of weeks.
I’m feeling really relieved, not just because my house is cleaner without me having to try and get all the work done around everything else going on, but because I was finally able to make the decision to actually hire them.

The downside to having an introspective, melancholic, ADD personality is that it’s really hard to make decisions without considering every possible effect. Who would have thought the ramifications of hiring a cleaning service would be so potentially dire? Not sure how I’m getting there? Here, allow me to lay out my thought process and why it took me a couple of months to finally pull the trigger.

Like all moms, I love a clean house. But there are two issues here: I’m not one of those people who gets joy out of cleaning. Those people have bizarre genetic mutations or something. Two, my goal in life was never to be a domestic housekeeper. Not that they are bad, it’s just not for me. However, with three boys and homeschooling, my house can get ravaged in only a few minutes. So, do I continue to despise cleaning and just fit it in here and there when I can, or hire someone to help me?

But, if I hire someone, does that mean I’m implying that menial labor is beneath me? I certainly don’t feel condescending towards that kind of work. If I work from home and stay at home to educate my kids, am I obligated by some unseen directive to personally clean my house since I’m the one in it most of the time? Hey, but wait a second! I’m a feminist! Just because I’m a female and happen to be in my house alot does NOT mean that I’m solely responsible for it’s upkeep. Hints of 1950s housewife guilt try to creep in and I keep slapping them away. I am in an egalitarian marriage, I insist to myself. We divide labor according to ability and fairness, not according to traditional gender roles.

OK, but what about the money it costs to hire a biweekly cleaning service. There are people starving around the world who attempt to live on less than a couple dollars a day yet I want to spend several hundred dollars a month so that I don’t have to do the house cleaning. Is that really selfish? Should I not pay for services that I can afford out of solidarity for those who can’t? Does that mean I should only eat a handful of rice everyday since that’s all that some people have? But wait a second. The money I spend on house cleaning isn’t vanishing off into some void. It’s going into someone’s pocket as an income. Meaning they can eat, and live, and do all the things they want with their money. So, I’m really just contributing my money back to boost the economy.

I only have so much time during the day. I have so many other things I want to spend that precious time on than scrubbing my toilets. Oh, but now I’m hearing voices in my head telling me that I should use practices like scrubbing the toilet to become more mindful, and live in the present moment. But I want to live in the present moment doing something more interesting. Am I lazy? Or to shallow? Elitist?

Oh, but geez…what about the global impact of me having someone clean my house? People have to drive to my house to clean it, which obviously affects their carbon footprint. Is that drive to my house every two weeks a significant addition to greenhouse gases? Am I being environmentally irresponsible by using resources to outsource what I could typically do myself? Oh, and so much for sustainability and self sufficient living. Those homesteaders in Vermont that Mike and I admire aren’t hiring maid services. Crap! I’m just buying into the system!

By now my brain is exhausted, because with my ADD, I’ve cycled through these thoughts again and again. And, my house is still messy because I wasted alot of time trying to make a decision. I finally decided to hire the house cleaner. Not even so much for the cleanliness of my house, but for my own mental sanity.