Love and Friendship/Abrahamic and other gods…

Asma Hasan begins her book Red, White, and Muslim with a quick note to the reader and the following quote from the Qur’ an:

It may be that God will grant love and friendship between you and those who you now hold as enemies.  For God has power over all things; and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

I love that Oft-Forgiving and Most Merciful are capitalized.   It is as if  these human qualities are alternative names for God themselves. I wonder how Western culture might be different if “we” worshipped Oft-Forgiving instead of Jesus and the Christian god (I have a hard time understanding the necessity of a crucifixion if REAL forgiveness is involved)?

I love the idea of the personification and embodiment of benevolent emotions in a god.  Pantheistic and Pagan religions and traditions do this almost by definition.  One of my favorite Buddhist deities is Avalokiteśvara.  This god (Boddhisatva–more like a deified saint)  hears the cries of sentient beings, and works tirelessly to help those who call upon his name.   Avalokiteśvara has 33 different manifestations (including both genders) and each of these manifestations exist to suit the mind of the various individuals with which the god interacts.   Avalokiteśvara is most often portrayed with multiple arms (with as many as a thousand) each willing and ready to dispense comfort and aid to those in need.

While I am rather suspicious of seemingly codependent “celestial bellhops” I do think that the idea of a god as an archetype/manifestation of human emotion has been quite helpful as a schema to help us order our understanding of ourselves and each other.  I also think that the deification of these human attributes has helped us foster and emulate altruistic ideals.  The Roman pagans seemed particularly adept at imagining these characters.  I suspect that an unfortunate side-affect of abrahamic monotheism is that while God is given different names that coincide with certain imagined attributes, these names are often overshadowed by the perceived awful omnipotence of the numinous.

Those of you who know me well know that I tend to be harshly critical of religious practice.  Some of you might misunderstand my criticism and believe that I am critical of all religion.  This is not the case.  Unlike my favorite curmudgeon atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens I believe that humanity should be grateful for our religious traditions and knowledge.   It is within the world’s religions that we find the stories that expose our historical state-of-mind.  Essentially our ancestor’s psychological meanderings and journeys are all contained within our religions.  It is in our holy books that we find hope for redemption, thrilling hopes, and our darkest fears.  However generally I remain quite aligned with Dawkins and Hitchens about the contemporary practice of religion being superfluous and even psychologically harmful. I believe that religion should be explored and discussed, valued and questioned, but NEVER practiced (my glib apologies to those of you who do).

Red, White, and Muslim is a beautiful book with an annoying proselytizing flavor.  Hasan’s passion is likeable and very accessible.  She adeptly portrays the humanity and beautiful commonness of the average muslim.  Her description of her American family is like that of any other.  Their is a welcoming familiarity in her description of her relatives and family events.  Additionally, her description of various Islamic sects is informative and rather orienting for an average American accustomed to a media that tends to .  Yet, despite an admirable effort the reader will most likely be disappointed (because Hasan is so like able) when she fails to convince us of the virtues of some of the more restrictive Islamic practices.  Hasan’s desire for Islam to be a feminist friendly practice is endearing but naive.  Her earnest explanation for the Qur’an’s mandate that daughters receive half of the inheritance that their sons receive is downright uncomfortable in it’s ridiculousness.  Still, her effort is appreciated and her informal language and descriptions are captivating.  The reader almost wants there to be veracity to her claims.

Red, White, and Muslim is a great read–especially for those of us who might be a bit uncomfortable with our own prejudices and ignorance about those who practice Islam.  I look forward to the day when more of us are able to call each other friend instead of enemy.  May whatever diety, philosophy or creed you follow grant you the wisdom to choose friendship over enmity.

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Backyard Fun

This is the first year following our Urbanweeds debacle that I’ve felt like spending any time in the backyard.  So far it’s been pretty fun hanging out there.  Aesthetically we are making some slow progress–now if we can just get some sun…

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Personal Commandment 5: Wake Up

The curious thing about my personal commandments is that none of them are really all that stagnant. They are dynamic and constantly evolving.  This commandment in particular is a relatively new one for me. I have been honing and refining it as I have been reading Robert Rowland Smith’s book Breakfast with Socrates. In Smith’s somewhat overly formulaic book, he takes us on a breezy overview of western philosophy. In his third chapter, Smith introduces us to the mind of Nietzsche.

Since my college days I have been fascinated by the writings of Nietzsche. Originally I was drawn to the contrarian subversiveness of his writings.  His proclamation that “God is Dead” seemed deliciously wicked to me. I was reminded of and offered a different perception of Nietzsche’s nihilism during graduate school when I read Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.  Yalom introduces us to a Nietzsche whose ideas are disturbingly similar to someone suffering from a Major Depressive or Dysthymic disorder.

I keep a copy of a compilation of Nietzsche’s writings on the top shelf of my desk at work.  Only my most well-read clients ever comment on my little ironic and somewhat disconcerting private joke.  I generally don’t utilize Nietzsche’s ideas as a guide for my practice.  Rather, the presence of his book is my own personal reminder that brilliance and insight can still be found right in the middle of profound mental illness.

Smith’s book reminded my of my favorite and simplest of all Nietzsche’s challenges: “Make your reality your ideal.” Live today for today.  Make the most of it.  Ditch the fantasy of another world or a heaven to save you from yourself and your mistakes.  Live as if this is the only chance you get, invest in your life, WAKE UP and live!

I suspect that even my most conservative Christian friends might find some wisdom in the idea that we should be as responsible as possible for our own choices on a daily basis.  So often I sit with clients who have romantic notions of how their life might be better “if only” some aspect were different.  “If only” they weighed less; “if only” they were loved more; “if only” they made more money.  It is these very fantasies that keep them trapped in a perpetual purgatorial sleep.  They wish to be “delivered” from their miseries.  But these fantasies of being magically “delivered” are a terrible hindrance to what we can accomplish here, today.

So I choose to be awake.  I choose to experience the pain and inevitable suffering of being alive, I choose to experience ecstasy, disappointment, rejection, aging, tragedy, sexual rapture, sickness, health, disgust, love, and all the myriad of other emotions that this life has to offer me.  I choose to be awake.  I choose to live this life and not disregard and gamble it away for the sake of a potential mythical alternative.

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Love Stories

Last night I watched Chris & Don: A Love Story which is a beautiful documentary exploring the 33 year relationship between author Christopher Isherwood and his lover, portrait artist Don Bachardy.  I have been a fan of Isherwood’s work for as long as I can remember being interested in any author.  As an adolescent I was enamored by Cabaret, shortly after I came out Isherwood’s autobiography Christopher and His Kind became something of a personal bible for me.  I found Isherwood’s descriptions of his experiences, longings, and gay life not just familiar but comforting and affirming.  Isherwood taught me to be proud and unapologetic about who I am.

I cried the first time I read Isherwood’s A Single Man.  I cried again when I watched Colin Firth’s performance in the movie adaptation.  I cried a third time when Firth won his Oscar.  Each of my tears was bursting with concentrated gratitude for Isherwood’s art and life which has helped me find and claim so much meaning in my own.

Chris & Don is uncomfortable at times.  Older men coupled with younger beauties is common to all men (gay or straight).  Less common is a 30 year age span.  Yet as this love story unfolds we are given access to a beautiful lifelong symbiotic relationship. Bachardy’s description of his daily drawings of a cancer ridden Isherwood near his last days are simultaneously horrific and inspiring.

Isherwood led a rich and very full life.  It is easy to see why his writings are so compelling when given a glimpse of the complicated yet rich and loving relationships that both he and Bachardy he enjoyed.

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Meet Dexter

Recently I referred a new friend to this blog and realized (with some small amount of shame) that I haven’t posted an entry this year. Overall my year has been a good one. I spent a month of it in Buenos Aires, I turned 40 and perhaps more importantly, on June 25, 2011 we adopted Dexter.

It’s been about 18 years since I’ve had a puppy. I’ve forgotten how much they gnaw, bite, pee, poop, cry, whine, and beg. I’d also forgotten how fun they are to snuggle and all the attention that they get as you walk down the street.

Dexter pretending that he is a perfect puppy.

Dexter has a bit more energy than most pups I’ve known. At 14 weeks he already goes to doggie daycare (yes fellow dog owners this is early but also vet approved) mostly because he seems to need more stimulation and socialization than we can provide (how ironic that I may have a behaviorally challenged–e.g. ADHD–dog). When we pick him up from daycare the staff will usually make a comment about how “active” Dexter was during the day.

Dexter can be simultaneously frustrating and hilarious. Yesterday we had a friend over in the afternoon. I put out some baby carrots, cut peppers and ranch dressing for us to gnaw on as we chatted. After about three minutes Dexter launched himself (in ONE leap) onto the coffee table and got four good licks of Ranch dressing down before we could stop him. He KNEW he wasn’t supposed to do this and he made sure he could accomplish his little feat before he started.

Then there are times, like right now, when Dexter sleeps sweetly resting his head on my feet as he pretends that he is already the perfect pet that he will one day become.

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Exercise and Mental Hygiene

Yet another re-blog from my professional site over at Seattlecounselor.org.

Over the years I have noticed a correlation between my most anxious and depressed clients and their levels of exercise. In general, it seems that the more depressed or anxious a client is, the less exercise they get. While it’s likely that depression and anxiety interfere with the desire to exercise, it’s also often one of the most effective ways to ameliorate these intense feeling states.

Even a moderate amount of casual walking (e.g. a mile a day) can have a positive effect on the amount of “feel good” hormones like seretonin, endorphine, and adrenaline that are available to our brains. In addition to relatively immediate benefits to our mood, we know that there are multiple other benefits to be gained from regular exercise.

The idea of a mind/body connection isn’t new to most of us. Still, we frequently find excuses to skip our regular (or not so regular) workout routine. Life happens, and we find ourselves side-tracked by work, friends, kids, hobbies, and various random distractions.

We need to remember that exercise is crucial to both our physical and mental health. One of my favorite questions for my clients is whether or not they have showered, brushed their teeth, and applied deodorant that day. I tend to get ever so slightly uncomfortable–and occasionally indignant–responses in the affirmative. These activities help us to be physically healthy. I believe that regular exercise is as important for mental health as these other activities are for physical and social health — yet we routinely neglect exercise more often, simply because the detrimental effects aren’t always as immediate as bad breath or body odor. I wonder what we would think if we could directly track our lack of exercise on our feelings, moods, interactions with others, and even our relationships?

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The benefits of journaling…

The following is reposted from my professional site over at Seattlecounselor.org–a bit ironic considering my lack of blog entries in Q4 2010. Happy New Year all!

One of the key elements of wellness is developing self-awareness. Many of us are prone to anxiety and the hidden traps that sometimes accompany anxiety. One of these traps is perseveration. Sometimes individuals who struggle with anxiety repeat or focus on the same thought or worry over and over again.

One of my favorite ways to challenge “internalized perseveration” is to ask my clients to journal. The art of journaling provides the individual with a tangible way to capture a troubling “rogue” thought that keeps running around in your brain (bumping into other more useful thoughts and generally making a nuisance of themselves). I often utilize imagery from the Harry Potter movies with my clients. I compare the process of journaling to that of wizard Dumbledore taking his magical wand and pulling a memory out of his head and depositing the memory in the “pensieve” where it can be kept, relived, and reviewed at the memory holder’s convenience.

New to journaling? Try these exercises as a way to start your journal. Are you a pro at journaling? Why not think about adding a new element to your journaling such as creating a journaling scrapbook, photos or even starting a blog so that you can share your thoughts with others.

Regardless of how you choose to “capture” your rogue thoughts the process of journaling can be a great adjunct activity to almost any formal therapeutic work you might be engaged in.

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