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The Wrath of God

Someone I know posted the following quote on Facebook today along with the comment “I couldn’t agree more”

“If God doesn’t punish America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Evangelist Billy Graham.

For those who are not familiar with my history, I have a background in religion and philosophy (I trained to be a pastor) and, even though I am no longer a Christian, I know enough about it to write knowledgeably about this.

I have a few thoughts about the above quote about and why I couldn’t agree less with it. The most obvious problem with the quote is its foundation on a belief in an invisible and all-powerful being who controls the universe and has a beef to pick with humanity when they don’t follow his capricious whims. Let’s go ahead and assume that this assumption is correct and that there really is a God who controls the universe. If God does exist, why would anyone in their right mind ever want to treat him with anything other than disdain? If he really is in control then he is the cause of all suffering and pain and sorrow that surround us every day. A lot of people who believe in him try to get around this fact and use a lot of sophisticated arguments about why people suffer and why there is so much sickness and poverty and pain in the world but none of these arguments hold up when pressed. If God exists and he is in any way involved in the course of human existence, he is ultimately responsible for whatever happens and humanity, his creation, should  hold him accountable for all of the pain and misery that surround us. Humanity should not have to cower in fear, waiting for God to get angry and smite something in his wrath. If the above statement were true, then God really is like a drunken parent who forces their child to live in constant fear and uncertainty about what might set off a severe punishment. If God is real, he should already be apologizing to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Secondly, this attitude assumes that certain people know what God thinks about something and that they can speak for him. People who hold themselves up as qualified to speak for the almighty have, time and again, proven themselves to be dangerous and delusional. Believing that God is angry and that he should destroy every living creature in a country is dangerous thinking. It puts the person making the claim on an equal footing with God and declares them worthy of passing judgement on the rest of humanity for whatever perceived grievance that person has against whatever group deemed worthy of punishment. When a person makes a statement like this, they are claiming to be as smart and as justified as God himself in passing judgement on something. From a Christian perspective, this is a huge mistake. Jesus himself said, “Do not judge or you, too, will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) and went on to make it very obvious that those who follow him were to not stand in judgement of others (by the way, judging others was what the religious leaders of his day did and Jesus was calling them out on their bad behavior). It seems unwise to me that someone who claims to follow Jesus would choose to act in such an un-Christlike way.

Third, this attitude entirely dismisses the Christian belief in grace and forgiveness. The entire message of Christianity is that Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, came to earth and was crucified, died and resurrected on the third day as an atoning sacrifice for humanity. God’s grace and forgiveness is central to the faith of someone who claims to be a Christian and statements like the one above fly in the face of that central tenet. Attitudes like the one above are prevalent among most people I know who call themselves Christians and it was my desire to not be associated with that kind of attitude that contributed to me to examining my beliefs in God and Christianity in the first place. Eventually, I realized that God is not real and that those who claimed to follow him were, in reality, following superstitions and myths designed to control the behavior of people through fear and hope in some sort of afterlife or paradise.

There are many people out there who sincerely believe that God is angry and that he wants to punish those he is angry with. They look at events that happen around them and read their belief of a coming judgement into those events. It’s sloppy thinking and even worse theology. I would encourage them to rethink their understanding of God. If he is real, would you really want to affiliate yourself with someone like that?

It Contains No Fruit

Edit: I wrote this a few weeks ago and I’m not sure why it didn’t publish. Oh well, better late than never.

I just saw a very sad, yet funny, news story about a new product about to hit store shelves here in the U.S. It’s called FruitWater and is a product of the Coca-Cola corporation. These are the same people who gave us Vitaminwater, a product that is closer to soda than water. I thought the story was funny because of the following piece of information.

Unlike the zero-calorie version of Vitaminwater, which is made with the natural sweetener stevia, Fruitwater will be sweetened with the artificial sweetener sucralose, best known as Splenda. It will not contain any fruit juice but the bottle notes that the drink is “enhanced with nutrients,” a reference to its B vitamins, magnesium and zinc.

Did you catch that? “It will not contain any fruit juice…“. That’s where my brain started to turn itself inside out. They are calling it Fruit Water but not bothering to put fruit in it. Why not call it ToiletWater but not put water from real toilets in it? After all, the logic should work both ways, right? Or, they could call it HeroinWater but not put actual drugs in it. I’m sure that would make it appealing to a certain demographic of young people with disposable incomes. Since being truthful about what you are selling is obviously not important, they should really do whatever they can to sell as many bottles as possible.

The Coca-Cola company creates many products that are among the main causes of obesity in America and across the globe, and now they’re trying to find a way to get people to keep buying their products. Even as those consumers learn the truth about the harmful effects drinking too much soda can really have on their bodies and their quality of life.

I know the answer already, but I have to ask, why is this legal? It’s certainly unethical and unmoral but it is not illegal here in America. The most we can hope for is that people spread the word and let others know that this is a bottle of artificially sweetened swill that contains little to no beneficial ingredients. If you see it in the store, just pass over it and find something that really is a good choice.

Avoid this!

Notice something about the bottle? It looks very much like a vitaminwater package, just a different shape to the container. I guess the psychologists that Coca-Cola employs to make sure that you want to buy their products really like this design. The heavy emphasis on the word “fruit” and a design meant to highlight an appealing color while attempting to look almost like a medical product are all carefully crafted components in what, I’m sure, will be a resounding success. I think I’m just going to stick to regular water. It doesn’t contain fruit either but at least I know what’s in it.

Back in November I started writing a novel. It was based off a story that I’d been thinking about since 2009. I decided to participate in National Novel Writer’s Month with the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. I surpassed that goal and ended up at 60,083 words and had the majority of the story written. It wasn’t finished, though, so I kept going. I took a lot of December off but got back into the swing of things and finished it the other night with a word count of 91,911 words. The story is 253 pages long and I’m actually happy with the way it turned out.

Throughout the process of writing, it always amazed me how if often felt like meditation. There were occasions where my mind was completely focused on writing and the words flowed out of my mind and onto the screen while I got to read them for the first time as the story wrote itself in front of me. The experience of maintaining a singular focus and putting aside distracting thoughts—and consequently losing ones sense of self-as-separate being from the universe—that I experienced while writing is only comparable to what I have found in meditation.

Writing, like meditation, is most rewarding when done daily. Both are practices that take few resources to do and both require a concerted effort and commitment to do them. While I go into the task of writing with a goal in mind, I find that I make the best progress on it when I don’t grasp at the goal or focus on it to the exclusion of the actual job of writing. When one sits down to write, the mind is distracted and wanders and must be brought gently back to the task at hand. Consistently returning to the same place, the same task, the same focus, strengthens the mind over time and one begins to have less distractions and fewer interruptions and the act of writing becomes more organic and enjoyable. Just like with meditation.

I find that writing also inspires a desire to do more writing, just as meditation inspires me to meditate further. Completing a novel has been such a rewarding experience that I’m already planning the next one and will start it as part of Camp NaNoWriMo next month. I’m only planning 30,000 words this time though because I foresee this as being a very busy month but I think it’s an attainable goal.

If you’re interested, more information can be found about Camp NaNoWriMo and my next book by clicking the image below. Full disclosure, this will take you to a sponsorship page.

badge-sponsored

Surprises

You know that feeling you get when you’re thinking about characters for your next novel and you suddenly get a flash of inspiration for how two characters are connected that you would never have thought of on your own (though you obviously just did)? I love that feeling.

Form Is Emptiness

The other day, I was reading an article on Buddhism Now about life as a monk in a Korean Zen monastery. I found this article interesting because I practice in a Korean school of Zen so there was a bit of familiarity with the descriptions that the monk wrote about. One part of the article really struck me as interesting when he mentioned feeling “full of emptiness”. This is a seemingly contradictory ide: how could one be full of something that is, by definition, empty? However, I found myself nodding in agreement and feeling a glimpse of recognition in his words.

In the past month, I moved about 90 minutes away from where I had been. It’s a temporary move but for now I am not able to attend meditation with my normal Zen Center. Instead, I have been practicing with the Portsmouth Buddhist Center and have been sitting with them on Sunday mornings. It is interesting to spend time with a different school of Buddhism and to see how those differences influence the practice of a particular school. In this case, on Sunday mornings, the meditation lasts for close to one hour without any type of break or transition from seated to walking meditation as it does in my school. This has had the effect of allowing me to have some different experiences on the meditation cushion even though my personal practice is the same (they do a mild “guided meditation” there but I do not follow it and instead, just sit).

The other day, I was sitting still, feeling the cool air against my face and allowing my thoughts to arise as they would and keep an otherwise clear mind. Lo and behold, after about thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I began to feel “full of emptiness”. I was aware of my body and the various pulls and tightness of the muscles in my legs and I was conscious of the cushion underneath me. However, my body was no longer felt like the place where I keep my “self”. The border between me and “not me” had begun to blur as a feeling of oneness with the cushion, the floor, the people in the room and the building we were in began to gently take over. My mind was calm and clear and my senses were no longer impeding my perception. I felt full and empty at the same time.

As often happens on the meditation cushion, once the realization that this was happening came into my mind, it collapsed and I was back to feeling the way I did before the experience. For a few minutes though, I believe I was experiencing samadhi. It has happened a few times before and, I’m sure, it will happen again. The trick is to not go in expecting it when I sit because trying to chase after a goal is a sure way to “fail” when you meditate.

After my realization and subsequent collapse of the experience, I was left with the lines from the heart sutra that “Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” stuck in my head. They seemed much more real to me in that moment than ever before because the distinction between them had so recently been obliterated. I was back in a land of dichotomies and differentiations and saw just how troubling making distinctions between “me” and “not me” can really be. A sense of oneness must be cultivated if one is to have compassion for every sentient being. After the hour was up, I got up from my cushion, stretched my legs and went back to my car to drive home through the snow. Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother me too much since I knew, for at least a short while, that the weather was not some other thing that I was opposed to. There was no “me” to oppose it.

On Junk Food

I just finished reading a very interesting and infuriating article that I highly recommend you read. It is by Michael Moss and is an adaptation of his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article focuses on the way that food companies design and market foods to appeal to the consumer and to make sure they eat as much as possible as frequently as possible. It examines the way that the food companies intentionally manipulate their recipes to ensure that their customers can’t help but come back for more. In other words, how they design their products just like a drug. As someone for whom junk food has been a nearly constant companion for 35+ years, I can assure you that, yes, these foods are addictive and that breaking that addiction is incredibly hard. I’ll let the article speak for itself and encourage you to check it out. There are a few things that did strike me as interesting and I thought were worth commenting on from the perspective of a Buddhist and as someone who has suffered because of the way these foods are carefully crafted to encourage a consumer to eat more.

One of the food scientists that Mr. Moss interviewed is Howard Moskowitz. He was responsible for revolutionizing things like spaghetti sauce, Dr. Pepper and the MRE’s that are served to members of the Army. His approach is thoroughly grounded in research and experimentation. His models plot hundreds of data points in order to identify a range of configurations for these foods that people will enjoy and want more of. His work has influenced the entire processed food industry and it changed the way that the food companies formulate and package their products. When confronted with the negative impact that his research has had on the lives of millions of people, he had a very interesting defense.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

When I read this line, I had to stop for a few moments and take a few deep breaths. I have to ask, when did being a moral creature become a luxury? I understand the pain of struggling to survive. I grew up in a home that, while not in poverty, was certainly not affluent. Free lunches and food stamps were a part of my life growing up and I have struggled as an adult to provide for my family. It is hard to do, but at no time did I ever consider maintaining my morals to be a luxury. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Action  and Right Livelihood. These two components encourage us to end suffering in ourselves and in others by acting in a way that will not harm others and by choosing a profession that does not bring harm to another being. Mr. Moskowitz did not approach his career or work with this kind of mindset and, in so doing, millions of people have suffered from obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke and early death or been effected by a loved one who did. Here we see the way that the actions of one person have had long term negative ramifications for more people than one could hope to count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark example of just how important living according to the principles of the Eightfold Path are in relieving or preventing of suffering.

Frito-Lay spent $30 million a year to develop snacks that would appeal to changes in consumer tastes. According to the article, Frito-Lay learned that

Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.

In response, they developed snacks that would be more appealing as meal replacements. They worked with scientists, marketers and psychologists to design new snacks to appeal to consumers who were in a hurry. New flavors added to current product lines were designed to maximize “bliss” so that eating these new snacks would become a regular thing rather than an occasional thing. They created products that encouraged people to forget about regular meals and, as has been examined in other places (herehere and here) encouraged the decline in cooking and food preparation skills.

In this case, I believe that a lack of right mindfulness, right effort and right concentration on the part of our society as a whole allowed the food companies to replace cooking with convenience. We have lost the aptitude to take time for making simple things in exchange for constant movement and stimulation. Having foods that are easy to heat and serve or to open up and dig into make the effort of cooking superfluous.  Why make spaghetti sauce when you can open a jar and heat it up? I’m at the top of the “guilty” list for this kind of behavior and I have the physique to prove it. I went to culinary school and I find great enjoyment in cooking and preparing food but I still reach for the box or the jar or the can in order to save time. Here’s a basic recipe that I have used before to make tomato sauce. It’s very low in sugar because of the natural sweetness of the carrots and considerably lower in sodium than any pre-made sauce you can buy. The tomato paste is the closest thing to a prepared food item in the list and it is not really necessary and (at 1 teaspoon) is really just a flavoring agent and not a significant source of salt or fat. I prefer to use fresh parsley, basil and garlic but, if you are working on a time crunch, those ingredients can be found in “convenience” versions (pre-chopped, dried, etc.). This sauce takes 45 minutes to make, assuming that chopping the onion, carrot and celery takes you a long time. It’s possible to make this in large batches and set it aside in the freezer for future use. It’s also a fairly simple sauce and is the base sauce for a lot of other really delicious and nutritious options. The foods we eat don’t have to be from cans or boxes or bags, but we have to be willing to put forth the right effort to make sure we are not falling prey to the food giants any longer.

INGREDIENTS
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

METHOD
1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shred them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

I Want To Eat The World

Since I started writing this blog, I have never hidden the fact that one reason I overeat is because of depression. I have blogged about depression many times (at least sixteen according to my tag list) and I still find new ways to say something about it. For me, getting my depression treated is the single best tool to combat my weight and ensure that I live a healthy lifestyle. Obviously, it is not the only thing I focus on in order to live a healthy life, but without dealing with the depression, nothing else I do will be effective. In fact, if I don’t deal with the depression, I’m not willing to do anything else.

Learning to recognize depression when it hits has been one of the hardest things I have done in learning to live differently. Depression is not just a feeling of sadness or feeling “down”. Feelings like that happen to everyone, it’s a part of life. There is a lot more to depression than just feelings—it’s a collection of issues that range from mild to severe. Any one of them, on their own, aren’t enough to equal depression, but if you have a number of them, it should be a matter of concern and be addressed, preferably with the assistance of a professional.

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. I have personally felt this one very strongly. When I start to feel this way, I immediately begin to look for other signs. On a side note, the Buddhist idea of impermanence has really helped me combat this feeling.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. If you have little or no interest in things you used to enjoy doing, this is another symptom. In my case, I find myself doing things that I used to enjoy except they feel empty or unfulfilling. I spin my wheels doing things over and over without a reaction.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month—is another red flag. Obviously, this is one that I deal with a lot. I sometimes wish I had the problem of not eating when depressed but, in all honesty, it’s just as unhealthy as eating too much.
  • Sleep changes. Not being able to sleep or oversleeping are both symptoms to watch out for. In my case, sleep is always an option when I am depressed. I know other people who lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and feeling miserable.
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your threshold of frustration is low, your temper is short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves. I’ve been fortunate that this hasn’t been too bad for me. I do tend to get more irritable when I’m dealing with depression but I’m so cynical that it’s not much of a difference from when I’m not depressed.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. When small tasks become exhausting or take longer to complete, it is matter for concern. Especially if you experience other issues on this list. I know that for me, this seems to tie in to the ability to sleep for extended periods of time.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt: you harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. This is another one that I suffer from to an extreme. When coupled with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, it is a recipe for disaster. Struggling with just those two items from this list should be all the reason you need to seek help from someone.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things. Obviously, this is more than just the occasional feeling of being scatterbrained or forgetful.

Another thing I notice about myself when I’m depressed is an overwhelming desire to eat. For me, this is the precursor to the appetite or weight changes. The last time I was dealing with depression, I had a dream that I went to New York City and ate every bit of food from every restaurant there. For those of you keeping score, that’s over 3500 restaurants worth of food. It was an interesting dream to say the least.

The interplay of all of the various components that make up depression have interested me since I started to think about them. As I think of how I feel and how those feelings give rise to other thoughts and actions, I notice just how easy it is to get stuck in a downward spiral of depression and despair. These feelings feed off one another and each gains strength from the others. Feelings of helplessness feed feelings of self loathing. My brain tries to compensate by craving food to make me happy. However, a loss of ability to derive pleasure from things prevents this from working and this amplifies my feelings of frustration and irritability. I eat more and, while it doesn’t make me feel better, it does make me tired and my energy levels plummet. All this feeds back into a feeling of hopelessness and I’m left wondering if the merry-go-round will ever stop.

It has taken me a lot of time to see all of this and learn how depression effects me. There have been hours spent in meditation where I have had nothing other than my mind to keep me company. Through meditation, I have learned how my mind works and I have grown to understand what makes it tick. Meditation is one way that I have found to combat the effects of depression on my thoughts. This, for me, is a side benefit of meditation and, while I do not sit with a goal of fighting depression in mind, I’m not going to dismiss if it happens.

The other thing I have done to combat depression is to go on an anti-depressant medication. Finding the right one can be a delicate balancing act and is a decision to be made between a patient and a doctor but, if you feel you may be suffering from depression, I would recommend talking to someone about the possibility of a course of medical therapy to augment dealing with depression and its effects.

If you are fortunate enough to not deal with depression, I hope that reading the above offering provides some insight into what depression is like and how it impacts those who suffer from it. If you do suffer from depression, I hope that reading the above will help you see that things are not hopeless but that they can be better. Depression is not a permanent state. The entire concept of “permanent” is an illusion but a powerful one. When one is stuck in the midst of depression, it feels as if there is no other alternative and the fact that others don’t feel the same way feels like a lie.

If you identified with the list above and you are not being treated for depression, I would urge you to speak to a professional who understands depression to get further evaluation to see if you may be effected by it. Getting out of the rut that depression puts us in is the first, and truthfully hardest, step. Once you overcome that initial obstacle, it does get easier. Additionally, I would suggest finding a sangha or a meditation cushion and start to allow your mind to learn to be calm and clear. Depression muddies the water of our thoughts and meditation is a wonderful tool for allowing it to settle back to clarity. It has worked wonders for me.