Not Religion

I just came back from a week at Tassajara, a Zen Buddhist monastery, and when I was there I casually referred to Zen Buddhism as a “religion” a few times – to which, other people often responded “oh, I never really considered Zen a religion.”  Wikipedia refers to Buddhism as a “religion” within the first five words of the article, which at least points to the fact that most non-Buddhists probably consider Buddhism to be a religion. However, I suspect many Buddhists do not. I also suspect many Buddhists do not consider themselves Buddhists, which makes them a lot like bisexuals.

According to the Dharma talk I went to (given by Greg Fain,) if I’m remembering correctly, “Buddhism” is really a Western translation of something that reads more like “the Buddha way” in Chinese or Japanese. The “ism” is a Western concept, perhaps an indicator of the framework we’re using when we talk about belief systems. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist – I just go to the Zen center and meditate one two times a week.

How would a similar statement read, “I don’t consider myself a Christian, I just go to Church and pray two or three times a week?” Would you consider that person Christian? Do most of the people who go to Church on Sundays think of themselves as Christian? I think so. Do most Christians consider Christianity a religion? Again, I suspect that they do.

One of the big differences between Christianity and Buddhism is that Christianity seems to be defined by what you believe. If you don’t go to Church, but believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, then you still count as Christian. The Western Zen centers I’ve been to have tended to say something more like “why not just start meditating, and see what happens?” There has never been a request to believe any of their metaphysical ideology, or even a solid description of what that metaphysical ideology may be.

While we’re on the topic of fruitlessly categorizing religions, where would “science” fall? Some people call science a religion, but like Buddhists, I suspect many scientists do not consider science a religion. And, perhaps unlike most Buddhists, I think most scientists would be offended by the idea that science is a religion. And, although I’m all for offending scientists, I personally don’t believe science as correctly understood is really a religion, but science as implemented in our society is practically a religion.

If we change “believing in a metaphysical ideology” to be “believing in things a higher authority tells you to without calling on your personal experience” then science is a religion. Practically, for most people. Sure, some of my friends at MIT replicated some of the classical physics experiments – and I, myself, have personally seen the double slit experiment thus providing personal evidence for the wave/particle duality of light. Yet, most of the scientific things I believe, I believe without personally examining the evidence. I believe it because someone I consider reliable told me it was true.

And, in a way, that’s the way it has to be. Unless you have a big mirror, and can bogard two mountains to measure the speed of light for yourself, you’re going to have to take someone’s word for it.

However, the danger comes in dropping science into a culture that’s basically primed for Christianity. Christianity is still the most prominent religion in the west, and it definitely was – say – 200 years ago, and Christianity as implemented was essentially a perpetual appeal to higher power. I mean, maybe not *real* Christianity (I have no idea what the experience of Christianity is like for Christian nuns) but practical Christianity as exists in the world. People use it to prove themselves right, by appealing to a higher authority (God, if you get all the way to the top) the same way many people use science now. Not *real* scientists, of course, not the people who actually ran the experiments and are likely aware of the fallibility, and limitations in what they have discovered.

Consider, for example, the entire vaccine/anti-vaccine debate that’s happening as more parents choose not to vaccinate their kids. I don’t really care which side people come down on this debate because we’re all going to die anyway*, but the fascinating thing is that both sides are intent on *clothing* their arguments in the *appearance* of science, or appealing to scientific authority.

Check out this article on Jenny McCarthy on hollywoodlife. Actually, you probably shouldn’t, but checkout a few choice quotes:

despite all the medical research and recommendations by the World Health Organization

Even though she doesn’t have a medical degree or any medical training

Jenny clearly feels that she and other parents know better than doctors

There is an appeal to scientific/medical authority with no real attempt was made to actually disseminate information about vaccines. Conversely, on the other side of the argument “Studies Prove Without a Doubt That Unvaccinated Children are Healthier.” (Pro-tip, basically nothing can be proven “beyond doubt.”) This article digs up quotes from some scientific study done in the 90s to prove its points.

Thing is, scientific papers are sort of like the Bible – you can really dig up a section that supports your point of view on anything if you want. Yet, most people seem deeply disconnected from anything approaching actual science, which is, essentially, being open minded. Having an opinion, then hand selecting evidence to support it is not “science” even if it looks like it. You have to start with a hypothesis, do a fair test, and then check if your results supported your hypothesis. To be fair, it’s actually really hard to do science. Most scientists don’t even do it right. And, that’s ok – but, there is no authority. No one *knows* – there is no safe path, no way to do it “right.”

You are always open to being wrong, and no *one*, no *ideology* can save you from that. And, as long as that’s where our energy is focused, we’re always going to be wasting time to some degree.

That doesn’t mean science is useless – I am using a machine to type this right post now that owes its entire, complex creation to science. I’m just trying to point out that, as a culture, we tend use science and religion similarly, to either justify beliefs we already have, or to get someone else to tell us what to think.

In Greg’s Dharma talk, he said one of the things that a lot of people new to meditation want to know is what to think. What should I be doing with my brain, when I meditate? I think that’s a big part of our current Western cultural heritage – even though we have, to some degree, in some parts of society, dropped our “Christianity,” the type of structures it lends itself to still permeate throughout, and those structures permeate deep into our minds. When I go meditate, even though I have been an atheist or agnostic most of my life, and even though both my parents are atheist/agnostic, I cannot escape the deep structures of Christianity. Even to call it Christianity is itself likely wrong – Christianity is probably an expression of a pre-existing cultural tendency that is without name.

Don’t believe me? Check out this Last Psychiatrist article, he’s really smart, AND a psychiatrist, so maybe you can believe him instead.


*fwiw, if I had kids, I’d vaccinate them, and ideally send them to a school that mandated vaccines – but, I respect the right of people not to vaccinate. On isolated hippy communes. Far away from me.

Nazis and Meditation

If you were beamed back into the body of a young, Aryan man in 1930s Germany, and you could send yourself one message, what would that message be? Also, for fun, it’s not allowed to be place/time specific. It has to be a message that you could apply anywhere, any time.

Because, for whatever it’s worth, I think  you *should* apply this message to yourself – right here, right now. You think it was obvious to the Germans in 1930 they were starting down a path more fucked up than incest? Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re not going to be on the oppressed side of the next holocaust. Well, maybe – can we ever really separate the oppressed from the oppressor? I suppose a bunch of dead Jews would say “yes,” but I still think it’s complicated.

Anyway, what was your message?

I struggled with this question for a while. Sure, there’s “don’t kill anyone,” but is murder really the only way we can oppress people? (Also, how does this square with my tax dollars funding drones? I may actually be fucking this one up, but I’m not even sure what steps I could take to stop paying taxes. Go to prison, maybe? Sorry Afghani babies, I’d rather you die than go to prison. Now we’ve established that, we can probably establish that if I were in the SS and knew I’d get shot for not killing Jews, I’d probably kill some Jews. But wait, back to Afghanistan, even if I *didn’t* pay my taxes, the government would still fund a similar number of drones – my money deficit would just come out of the education budget. I’m safe! Except, if I was in the SS and didn’t shoot the Jew in front of me, Hans would probably step in and do it for me. So, would I lose my life just so *I* wouldn’t be the one to kill that jewish child? She’s still going to die – why waste my life on a meaningless gesture? Oh my god, it’s so hard not to kill anyone.)

Anyway, I digress. I abandoned the “don’t kill anyone” option as too easy, despite the fact that I have not actually been able to achieve it, and tried to get a more generally applicable answer. To that end, I read Rudolph Höss’ autobiography trying to figure out what he did wrong, more generally than killing one million people.

The main answer I came away with was he ignored his inner feelings. Apparently, people asked him if he ever felt any remorse watching all those families walk into the gas chambers. He said of course he did, but he had to do his duty. He had to be hard, to steal himself against emotional weakness.

In fact, it was reading that book that convinced me that emotional expression was *not* a weakness. Since then any versions of the phrase “suck it up” have become abhorrent to me – borderline immoral. To ignore your inner sense, to do things you don’t like doing because other people think it’s a good idea, is usually a horrible idea.

Unfortunately, I’m also a programmer. I often don’t even *know* what my inner sense is telling, let alone have the strength to follow something as insubstantial as my feelings when pitted against societal institutions. Meditation has helped me somewhat – when my insides go quiet, I can more easily see what is underneath. But, it’s hard.

Doing the right thing is scary, often insane seeming. Even when I’m just disagreeing with someone, I often feel like a lunatic. For instance, all the liberal/conservative back and forth never addresses what I see as the underlying problem: one side never allows the other side enough dignity to change their opinion while saving face, so we can never achieve a reasonable answer. All opinions get more and more entrenched with continued arguing. Consequently, every single “YOU ARE SO WRONG” article someone posts on Facebook nearly always acts *against* its cause. But, I don’t even know how to *say* this without causing whoever I am talking to to double down into their established beliefs. So I usually say nothing, but I keep wondering – am I crazy? Are they? Why would *everyone* do this if it didn’t work? Do people care more about being right than actually convincing others of their point of view?

But, you know, the Holocaust. It happened.

Everyone is crazy. How can you not be? Only you know the answer to that.

The Value of Boredom

Sometimes when I meditate, especially if it’s for more than about 20 minutes, my mind starts thinking “oh my god, I am so BORED.”

“bored bored bored BORED bored BORED BoRED BOrED!”

“When is this over?” “This sucks – is it possible to die of being bored? Is something terrible about to happen to me, some horrible boredom induced brain injury?”

I can sit for a while – or walk, or whatever, while just thinking without getting bored. When I daydream, I don’t get bored. When I write, I don’t get bored. But, when I meditate I do. The way I meditate, however, is very similar to daydreaming. The only difference is, instead of attaching to a thought when I have it, I refocus on my breathing. So, internally it sort of goes like this.




“I wonder what we’re having for dinner today”


“I hope it’s not just reheated leftovers from last night, I didn’t really like that meal very much.”


“If it were up to me, we’d go grocery shopping instead of eating that again.”

***Some sort of wordless realization I have been following a train of thought***

***Draw attention back to my breathing***



“I’m hungry”

***Draw attention back to my breathing***




If I were not meditating, I would follow that entire train of thought to some conclusion. Perhaps, I would imagine myself cooking up some fantastic feast, or I would end up daydreaming about the tastiest things I had ever eaten. I don’t find that boring. But, focusing on my breathing?

To be clear, I don’t think the words “inhale” and “exhale.” Well – ok, sometimes I do (or, sometimes I think other words like *accept*, *release*) but sometimes, I’m just focused on the physical sensation of inhaling and exhaling. And it’s then, when my mind has been wordless for a while, that it’ll start going “bored.”

Actually, honestly, I’m sort of scared of that zone. The “bored” zone. I haven’t sat zazen longer than 20 minutes in a while, because I’m scared of it. I should probably go talk to one of the instructors at the zen center about that – I think I will in the New Year. It’s strange, you know – because boredom seems sort of benign, but actually, it’s kind of like a big voice screaming “STOP DOING THIS!”

Other times I get bored are when I’m laying around watching TV, or studying information I’m not interested in. There’s an edge of fear to it, but what is that edge? What am I afraid of when I’m watching TV, or studying, or meditating? Why is my mind telling me to stop? Is its fear justified?

I even feel bored writing this post. Maybe you’re bored reading it?

So…. boring……..



Have you ever been accused of having too much ego, or being too egocentric? I certainly have! Many times.

And, you know, the people who told me that were right in a way. The times I have been the most depressed, for lack of a better word, heavily correlated with the times I spent the most energy introspecting, thinking about myself, and ruminating on everything I did wrong. Unfortunately, after being accused on being egocentric, I simply ruminated too much on how egocentric I was. To try not to be be egocentric starting with the idea “I am egocentric, and this is bad” is, unfortunately, by its very nature deeply egocentric. It is very focused on who “I” am, and who “I” want to be.

Also, accepting someone else’s evaluation of this can be dangerous. Sometimes, when people say “you are being too egocentric” what they actually mean is “you are being too inconvenient.” Often, for instance, oppressed groups of people are encouraged not to feel angry about their oppression. I took a class in non-violent communication with a black woman, who was careful about expressing frustration because she didn’t want to be another “angry black woman.” But, black women in America have plenty to feel angry about! And, it is possible to use pseudo-spiritual language to oppress people even more. “You have too much ego, you care so much for these little slights when clearly someone just made a slip of the tongue when talking to you. You will be happier if you just let go of some of this anger, and don’t stress out about every little comment someone makes.”

(On a side note, I *hate* the idea of “letting go” of anger.)

I disagree that a black woman who represses her anger is letting go of ego, however. I think a black woman who endured a racist remark, and hid her anger, would be embracing her ego. Not that that’s “bad” per se – sometimes it’s necessary – but she would not be expressing what she feels, in the effort to maintain a good image either to herself, or to others. To be or nor to be an “angry black woman” – both paths are full of ego. However, people who don’t like to face the repercussions of their own racism, or sexism, will gladly tell black women not to be “angry,” and if they can clothe it in hippie, new age-y type language to give it more credibility, so much the better.

In fact, I don’t think it is very useful for someone else to tell you you have too much ego, because to attack it directly like that is to play right into the ego. “I don’t want to be an egocentric person,” is a trap from which we cannot escape. The very desire itself stems from ego.

Perhaps a better question is, “What have you wanted to do, but been able to, because you were preoccupied with your self image?”

One answer for me is dance! I love dancing, but I care so much about what other people think of me, I will sometimes not do it. Even when I’m alone in my room, I’ll start to dance, and then sometimes stop because I am ashamed at how “badly” I dance. Even though there is no one else there, to think of myself as a “bad dancer” is so painful I will avoid thinking about it by avoiding dancing.

Another answer is meditate. Often, when I am meditating I get up with thoughts that approach something like “I can see so much!” Sometimes it’s not so much a thought, as a feeling of excitement, that stems from a sense of “this means something about me.” It throws me out of wherever I was, and starts me down a path of thinking about myself.

And, in a way, that’s ok. There is a lot of culture there, that I’m carrying. I exist in this facebook world of self promotion, and I don’t want to just cut it off or cut it out of me. It’s how I relate to my friends, it’s how I connect with the people around me. It’s part of what will enable me to understand pain other people are going through.  It’s important, but it interferes with some things I’m trying to do. I don’t really have a good solution. My current plan is to keep trying to do the things I’m trying to do (to dance, to meditate) with the hope that eventually, I’ll just get bored. I’ll stop being interested in thinking about what this means “about me,” and just do them.