Some Musings On Work And The Death Of The Soul

Some Musings On Work And The Death Of The Soul

How strange the idea of work is. How strange is it that we spend the majority of our waking hours at jobs we don't love, spending our time in ways we don't enjoy or control, making money for wealthier people than us,  in order to have a shelter and enough food to eat. And how strange it is that we worship entrepreneur billionaires as Gods because they control the capital, because they get to spend their time as they want and pay us to keep helping them get richer. 

Some of you may respond, "duh" this is how the world is. Yes, this is how the world is. But so much of this strikes me as not only odd but inhumane. Capitalism makes everything transactional. Decisions are not made from love or empathy but are cost-benefit analyses. And work, therefore, becomes transactional too. We are willing to put up with work that might bore us or we hate, because of how much it pays and the lifestyle it affords. And this turns everything into a numbers game. And this makes "productivity" a value that's worthwhile. 

This is reflected in people's opinions about their jobs. The most common attitude I hear towards work is "I don't love it, but it pays the bills." Sometimes people downright hate their jobs. It's rare to hear someone say their job is wonderful and reasserts the values they hold dear. Work becomes a burden, a burden that just happens to last for most of your life. It's not the horrors of chattel slavery of course. But there is something ignoble about how we've structured our society.

In this world, entertainment becomes the new opiate for the masses. Unable to connect to our work in meaningful ways, we search for ways out in our sports, our movies, our shows. Without them, we can no longer hide from our thoughts. Without them, we might start to see how our society has failed to give us what we crave: our humanity. And we less resemble individuals who are searching and growing and more reflect the world around us: vain and attention seeking but lonely and wanting desperately to connect. 

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The Crystal Cathedral and The End of White Protestant America

The Crystal Cathedral and The End of White Protestant America

In 1980, one of the most opulent and magnificent churches ever built opened in Garden Grove, Calif. Aptly named the Crystal Cathedral, it featured a shimmering glass exterior, which would glow bright red during a California sunset as if God himself lived inside of it. 

The cathedral was commissioned by Robert Schuller, one of the great megachurch pastors of his day. Schuller was hugely influential for his "power of positive thinking" brand of Protestant Christianity. Positive Christianity was an offshoot of the "Prosperity Gospel," a strand of Christianity which stated that material wealth and the teachings of Jesus go together like ice cream and pie. The largely white and people of Orange County ate up "the power of positive thinking" as their spending power increased, mostly because Schuller was reinforcing their lifestyles. Here was a man telling his congregation that positivity and making money were God's virtues. At the height of his powers in 1977, Schuller, whose congregation was at least 8,000 strong, commissioned the Crystal Cathedral for $18 million dollars.

Fast forward over 30 years later to 2011. Schuller is retired and his congregation is trending downward. And his organization has enormous debt for a series of real estate deals caused by the Great Recession of 2008. So Schuller's church does the unthinkable: they sell the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic Church.  

What happened in those 30 years? Well, as Robert Jones, the author of "The End of White Christian America" points out in his book, the demographics of the country and specifically, Orange County changed drastically. Orange County, which was once an entirely White county, had seen a large influx of Latinos and Asians in the 2000s who generally had no traditions in Protestant theology. 

The Latino population is the real key here as Latino countries almost always are Catholic. And Garden Grove was lacking in enough Catholic churches for these people. So a deal was struck with the struggling megachurch. The Catholic Church bought the Crystal Cathedral for a ridiculous $57.5 million dollars. 

 

The Perils Of Love and Pets

The Perils Of Love and Pets

Recently someone told me about their dog's death. There was an emotional crackle in their voice. They said it had come on suddenly. One day they took their dog to the Vet. Two hours later they got a call saying that the dog needed to be put down. And like that their dog was gone. They have a new dog now, but they hesitated initially to get him. They didn't know if they wanted to go through the pain again, knowing they would lose someone they loved in near future. But they decided it was worth it.   

I heard another story recently about a new cat owner, who was in their early 20s, who was feeling stressed out about the responsibility of taking care of a living thing. It was their first experience in the matter. The cat was unusually needy and needed a lot of petting and attention. And the cat scratched and bit when it was unhappy. "I feel like I'm not doing enough," this person said. "I want her (the cat) to feel loved," this person said through some tears.

I recount these anecdotes because I've been thinking about the perils of loving some person or an animal. Love is often painful. An underlying assumption with any meaningful relationship is that loss will happen. Maybe the other person or pet will die. Maybe you will. Maybe you'll move away. Maybe you'll have a fight. Maybe your best friend gets married and you don't get to talk or see them often. Loss is inherent in everything we do. Nothing can stop the vicissitudes of life.  

And there are the other pains of loving someone. People are flawed. People can be difficult. People can hurt you. And there is often a burden and guilt that comes along with loving someone. You are in some way responsible for them and their happiness, especially if they are your children, partner or pet. And to fail at making them happy is to confront the pain that you aren't good enough, that you have failed in your duties as a caretaker. And there are times when none of us feel good enough as we are. 

How We Are Losing The Battle To Keep Carbon In The Ground

How We Are Losing The Battle To Keep Carbon In The Ground

The burning of fossil fuels, including, oil, gas, and coal, has been the world's primary energy source since the Industrial Revolution. But that same action has created the world's greatest existential crisis: Climate Change.

The scientific consensus tells us that if the world raises it's temperature by 2 degree Celsius than the human population will suffer catastrophic effects because of changes in the climate. In order to do that, however, it's generally agreed upon that we must keep at least 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground to even have a chance at avoiding the catastrophic effects. 

Yet the opposite is happening. Oil companies keep spending money to extract fossil fuels from the ground at alarming rates. There is the $54 billion Chevron Barrow Island project for example, which its website claims "proves that with the right management, industry and the environment can co-exist." It is expected to continue producing natural gas for at least 30 years. That's time we just don't have. 

Or take the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the oil reserves in the world, which turns bitumen into oil through a highly pollutive process.  The Tar Sands are supposed to produce oil for the next 40 years at least. 

A Retrospective On 2017 And Some Thoughts About 2018

A Retrospective On 2017 And Some Thoughts About 2018

It's grey here in Vancouver. Grey skies spilling grey rain on to grey asphalt streets. Grey jackets with grey people with blank expressions on their grey faces. The grey wind makes me shiver with each passing gust. It is less a winter wonderland, more the despairing winter of The Waste Land. 

But all this greyness gives me time to reflect on the year that has passed. So much has happened. In one sense the world feels like it's falling apart. Climate Change runs amok. The champions of greed and avarice seem to be winning as people continue to suffer. Nuclear war may be upon us soon. And Deepak Chopra is getting rich. 

But personally, this year has been one of great growth. I've managed to keep up a blog consistently, which is no small achievement. I've started my own psychotherapy practice that is doing well if not outright thriving. I have healthy relationships, including romantic, friendships and family. I am also in better shape than I've ever been.  I moved into my own place, which is a luxury most people in New York City cannot afford. And I feel less anxious and more connected to my everyday life than I have maybe ever. In short, I am content in a way I have never been. 

Visiting Home

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I'm currently at San Jose Airport now to head to Seattle and Vancouver for a few days. This year, I went to visit my parents as I do every year around the holidays. I don't get to see them much anymore. Living in New York makes it impossible to visit except for maybe twice a year. 

This year felt especially hard for me. Watching my parents get old is especially tough. My father, in particular, has turned into an old man. He lives with pain and constant arthritis. He walks slowly. His hand shakes. His hearing is going. His eyesight is poor. It can feel heartbreaking to watch.

We had a conversation last night that was especially poignant, I thought. He talked about knowing he will die soon and about passing on his legacy to my brother and I. He talked about some of the connections he had made in recent years that have sustained him. But he admitted that he accepted his death but that it scared him. How could it not? He wanted nothing more than for me to get married before he left the earth. 

And then this morning, my mom seemed heartbroken by the prospect of me leaving and only visiting for a few days. Again, it was hard for me to watch as she nearly teared up.  I seem to live with a lot of guilt. Or maybe it's a lot of empathy. I can feel the deepness of a person's pain acutely. And it made me wish for a brief second that I lived in California still, that I had not chosen the "selfish" path and moved away to find my own life. 

I don't know what to do with these feelings besides accepting them as they are. Life is often sad. People get older. I'll get older and older. It's just the way things are. It's not easy or particularly fair. But that doesn't stop it from happening. 

Chogyam Trungpa, Malcolm X and Spiritual Materalism

Chogyam Trungpa, Malcolm X and Spiritual Materalism

Chogyam Trungpa is surely one of the more polarizing and controversial figures in the recent Buddhism zeitgeist. He was definitely an alcoholic. He slept with many of his students, many of which were married. He might have had a serious cocaine habit, according to John Steinbeck IV. And according to the poet, W.S. Merwin, he made everyone strip naked at a Halloween party against their will. These are hardly the actions of what I might call a moral person. 

But at the same time, he is widely respected as one of the great spiritual teachers of his age by many people who I admire. Pema Chodron was one of his disciples considers him an enlightened being. He started the only Buddhist college, Naropa University in Boulder. And he had a number of celebrity students, including Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsburg. 

I've read two of his books and see his genius and insight into modern life. I can't condone most of his actions, of course, but there's value in spiritual wisdom, despite the messenger, I think. 

 

Deepak Chopra Is Selling $350 Meditation Glasses. Deepak Chopra Is A Fraud

Deepak Chopra Is Selling $350 Meditation Glasses. Deepak Chopra Is A Fraud

I've always had an uneasy relationship with commerce and spirituality. (I even feel weird putting ads on this website, even though it's really just to try and pay for the costs of hosting this website). But I do think there is much value in mindfulness meditation and the spread of meditation centers and apps; these things probably help many in our age of anxiety and late capitalism. 

But when I see an article about  "Luxury Meditation Class" in the Flatiron District, or how everyone in Google meditates to essentially be more productive,  my first reaction is to throw up a little in my mouth and then get angry. (From that article, "Johanna Sistek, a trademark lawyer, says the emotional skills she refined in the class help her focus on her many tasks, despite a fire hose of professional demands. Like most of her colleagues, she still faces “instant deadlines” but says they no longer freak her out." This might be the worst thing I've ever read). 

Why does this upset me so? Well, Buddhism is first and foremost about ending suffering. Not just your own suffering but the suffering of all sentient beings. And a Buddhist accomplishes this by following the Eightfold Path.  Meditation is a part of the Eightfold Path, but it is only a small part of it. So much of the Eightfold Path is about morality, including Right Livelihood, which tells us that we cannot choose careers that exploit, and Right Action, which tells we must abstain from killing, sexual misconduct and creating suffering in other people directly. 

And meditating to become productive or lessen your anxiety has so little to do with any morality or ending suffering. It's about lessening your anxiety so you can continue to be productive and a good consumer. An $18 dollar meditation class or Google's meditation centers does little to address any real morality or change in the world. In fact, it's just the opposite: It just reinforces neoliberalism through and through. 

The Search For Connection

The Search For Connection

Lately, the common theme in all my sessions is connection. Or more accurately the lack of it in people's lives. It strikes me as salient how many people do not feel seen or heard or valued in their lives. Or do not have anything to connect to that is bigger themselves. 

This strikes me as a problem of modernism. As we get older, we tend to see our friends less as the responsibilities of adulthood-- work and money and family-- take hold. The sense of community in youth or even in college is gone. And the connections we used to get from our partners can start to wane as well as we get busier and busier. And then suddenly, loneliness starts to creep in. And with loneliness, depression, and despair.  People are far more unhappy that you would think. And no one seems to be the real adult we imagine we should be. 

And it's not as if many people get that connection from their work either. Among the people I see in therapy, I'd say about 80% are indifferent to their work or outright hate it. A lot of us, it seems, are just going through the motions to get a paycheck. 

Climate Change and Self Interest

Climate Change and Self Interest

 I'm reading Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything" currently.  I'm enjoying it quite a bit, although it's quite depressing since it main theme is we, as a species, are creating an existential crisis in climate change because we have no interest in dismantling the unregulated capitalism that caused it. 

As the planet heats up the consequences are likely to be disastrous for the nearly 7 billion people living on earth. (If you want to read a particularly apocalyptic article, I suggest this long NY Magazine article from July.) So why isn't anyone doing more about it all? Why is the United States reversing the Paris Agreement?  

The answer lies in an economic principle: self-interest. This was first discussed by the father of economics, Adam Smith, 

"Self-interest refers to actions that elicit the most personal benefit. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, explains that the best economic benefit for all can usually be accomplished when individuals act in their own self-interest. His explanation of the invisible hand reveals that when dozens or even thousands act in their own self-interest, goods and services are created that benefit consumers and producers."