Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Boxes We Live In

One of my favorite sayings, which was from my first Zen teacher, is “We all live in a box, and the walls of the box consist of who we think we are and what we think life should be.”

There are some heavy-duty spiritual implications in the quote that I’m mostly going to skip here. The important point is that the box is, in a way, a contrivance; a fantasy; a delusion. Ultimately, there is no box. Yet we live in it anyway, and stepping outside of it is unthinkable for most of us.

Civilization itself is a kind of meta-box, or net connecting all the boxes, created by our collective projections and conditionings. Civilization can be understood as an intricate net of assumptions and agreements that allow us to live together and deal with each other in complex ways. This net has been crafted from ancient times, and each generation has added a little more to it. We are conditioned from birth to accept civilization as it exists in our time, and it’s so “normal” to us we often are oblivious to what a complex and astonishing thing it has become. It’s like air to us; we take it for granted.

Remember also that we humans are social creatures, wired to form associations with other humans to survive. And I mean “wired” in a physiological sense. Infants and small children deprived of social contact have been found to have abnormal brain development. Adults isolated from other humans will develop all kinds of psychological problems. We literally need each other to be who we are.

But let’s get back to civilization. Modern civilization is elaborately integrated. The web grows tighter and tighter. Our “normal” life, maintaining the box we live in, depends increasingly on very complex interconnections with the other boxes even for basic things like food and shelter, never mind Internet connection.

As recently as 150 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for someone to build a cabin in the woods on unclaimed property and live off the land. It may have been a nasty, brutish, and short life by our standards, but it was within culturally accepted norms of the time. There may be a handful of people today who could still do that, but for the enormous majority it’s not an option. Even if they had the survival skills, which most don’t, there’s not enough wilderness left to accommodate all the disaffected people of the world. And, frankly, the box most of us live in wouldn’t allow for it, anyway.

These days, in developed nations anyway, life in the box requires connection to the power grid and clean running water brought to us from distant reservoirs. We depend on commerce to make food and clothing available. We depend on an intricate, and often capricious, legal and financial system to create shelters we can live in. We are required to find some means of adding value to the commercial and financial systems to that we can receive credits (money) to exchange for what we need and want. And we are drawn like ants to honey to new communication technologies, so that we can interconnect with each other to our heart’s content.

This is the box we live in. This is who we think we are and what we think life should be. Our dependencies on each other are not negated by money — I paid for this! Nobody gave it to me! Indeed, the paper we carry in our wallet or the numbers in our bank accounts have value only because they are integral parts of our system of inter- dependencies. Otherwise, they would be valueless. And if we were challenged to cobble our own shoes, build our own shelters, or grow our own food, most of us would make a botch of it.

This also is why Ayn Randism and the “John Galt” pledge are so ridiculous. We cannot live for ourselves alone; it is not possible, whether we like it or not. We either live for each other, or we are cut off from civilization, and we die. People who think they really are living for themselves alone are oblivious to reality. (They also tend to be assholes, but that’s another rant.)

(And, seriously, if living for yourself alone is so all-fired important to you, why bother to reach out to other people and ask them to sign a John Galt Pledge on the Web? What this tells us is that Randism is a kind of romantic fantasy, and if that’s the box you live in you want other people to buy into the fantasy and reinforce it. That’s very human, and also utterly absurd.)

So let’s look at what’s been going on with civilization in our lifetimes. Even as the net grows tighter, ancient ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries are growing blurry. We’re literally finding new ways to form tribal associations, and the old ways rapidly are losing their function and significance.

Nations still play important functions in civilization, and I don’t see the phenomenon of the nation-state dissolving anytime soon. But it may be indicative of something that nations don’t seem to declare war on each other any more. Armed conflicts are waged by extra-national movements these days. I think this indicates a significant shift in the role of the nation in human civilization, although exactly where this is taking us is hard to say.

The changes occurring to civilization, many of which are being driven by rapid technological advances, are challenging the integrity of many boxes. If the box you live in depends on clearly drawn racial divisions, for example, the blurring of racial boundaries is very distressing. And people experience challenges to the integrity of the boxes they live in as existential threats. So, while some of us embrace modernity, others of us are recoiling in horror.

And this takes us to fundamentalism. The scholar Karen Armstrong defines fundamentalism as a “militant religiosity” that is a “reaction against and a rejection of modern Western society.” I would turn that around a bit and say that religious fundamentalism is a kind of social pathology that expresses itself as religion. Although the pathology comes in a religious package, the pathology, not the religion, is the driving force. I say that because, time and time again, we see that any teachings of the religion being used as the container are ignored if they conflict with the pathology.

By the same token, I say that current “movement conservatism” is a social pathology expressing itself as political ideology. Conservatism has taken on many of the attributes scholars associate with fundamentalism, such as the view that they are engaged in a cosmic struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. They also “affirm their identity by selecting doctrines and practices from the past,” one of the markers of fundamentalism in this review of one of Armstrong’s books. They’re adopting rigid doctrines about taxes and monetary policy, often without even a glimmer of understanding how taxes and the monetary system work. They accept the doctrines of the tribe because those are the doctrines of the tribe. Oh, and freedom.

It’s getting uglier and uglier because many people are living in boxes that are utterly out of sync with the way civilization really works these days. Eventually this will fade, but not in our lifetimes. Until then, we’re going to have to put up with lots of people who are raving and fearful and irrationally thrashing about in all directions because the box they live in is threatened by modernity. So be it.

One of the things that strikes me, over and over again, about the reactionaries calling themselves conservatives these days is the degree to which they are utterly oblivious to the interconnections. You’ve got a Republican presidential ticket made up of two guys born into wealth and privilege who see themselves as self-made men, and don’t understand why everyone can’t be as successful as they are. You’ve got the baggers in Medicare-paid power scooters rallying against socialized medicine.

And then there’s the “you didn’t build that” flap. You can’t explain to the baggers that the President was talking about essential infrastructure. They deny that business needs infrastructure. Build a nail salon and they will come, I suppose. I actually ran into someone on a Web forum who refused to believe that business needs stuff like roads and utilities. They built Las Vegas in the desert, didn’t they?

This morning’s rant was touched off by a comment on this page. JETHRO212 wrote,

The ironic thing is, if you listen to the entire Obama “You didn’t build dat” thing, it gets way worse, if you listen to the whole thing he goes way off into it wouldn’t even be possible to have a business without Government.

But … it really isn’t possible to have a business, as we understand business, without government. Currency? Government. Without government, we’d resort to a barter system; we really would be taking chickens to the doctor. Contracts? Without a legal system, contracts are worthless. Legal system? Government. Someone robs your store, you call the police. Police? Government. Without government, the only people in business are mobs and pirates. Civilization itself was built on the premise that somebody is in charge and makes the rules. In recorded history there has never been a human society that didn’t have some kind of government, even if just a tribal chief who got the honor by beating up all the other chief candidates.

I have a fantasy that all the Ayn Rand enthusiasts who want to “go Galt” be given a big tract of land somewhere and allowed to take whatever power generators, tools, and means to produce food they can carry, and then they can be on their own. And as long as they stay on the “res,” and didn’t interact with the rest of society, they wouldn’t have to pay taxes. They also forfeit all government benefits, of course. But they could build whatever they wanted and be self-made men (and, trust me, most of ‘em would be men) all day long.

I’d give it two years, tops.

[Originally published on The Mahablog, September 19, 2012. To read more about the boxes we live in, see Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.]

Rituals? Really?

RRlogo2-copy.gifShortly after I began writing the Buddhism section of, a reader named “Ernie” contacted me to complain about rituals, among other things. He was interested in Buddhism, he said, but he was turned off by the rituals. When I explained that the rituals have a purpose and suggested he give them a try, he angrily replied, “Buddhism, like all other religions, has its rigid robots who know everything about their religion’s ritual and nothing about its heart.”

A person who insists that a centuries-old tradition change itself to accommodate him perhaps is not one to accuse others of rigidity. He also didn’t explain why “ritual” and “heart” are mutually exclusive. Ritual can touch the heart, in fact. if you put your heart into it.

I wrote in Rethinking Religion:

Across religious traditions, ceremonies and rituals function to create a sanctified space, and those who enter that space are dedicating themselves to fulfillment of the ultimate concern of their religion, whatever that is. The space is sanctified by the participants’ own reverence and devotion, and ritual objects such as chalices, crosses, incense and candles give physical presence to that reverence and devotion. …

…I’m not saying that rituals and ritual objects have magic power. I’m saying that rituals and ceremonies, when carried out with care and attention, can have a palpable psychological impact on the participants that really can expand awareness and change perspectives.

Modernity has become very anti-ritual, for some reason. Like my correspondent “Ernie,” the very idea of participating in ritual is unacceptable to many. This may spring from a fear of loss of autonomy or individuality; to participate in group ritual is to relinquish doing one’s own thing, even for just a little while. Or, we may shrink from ritual because we think they are superstitious; we chant some words and perfume the air with incense and perhaps unseen spirits will listen to us. But there are a lot of ways to think about ritual.

Part of the reason I wrote Rethinking Religion was to open up the definition of “religion” so that it applies to traditions other than the Big Three of monotheism — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In thinking about what all traditions considered “religions” have in common, it seemed to me that the One Constant Thing is that they are all about connecting to or realizing something beyond the individual, finite self. The something might be God, although not necessarily. The practice might involve prayer and worship, although not necessarily. And, yes, the discipline or practice probably is framed by doctrine that cannot be verified objectively but which might be personally verified in one way or another. But merely believing in the doctrine is not the point. Religion is also something that we do, and how we live and experience ourselves and our lives.

Rituals are also about making something visible or tangible that is invisible or intangible. A wedding ceremony is a tangible expression of a couple’s love and commitment, for example. Rituals can help us express and share joy and sorrow, grief and hope, in a nonverbal way. Mindfully practiced, a ritual can bring the teachings of a religious tradition “into the body,” as we say in Zen, making the religion something more than some ideas or beliefs we carry around in our heads. The physical activity of ritual brings the religious tradition into your body and life in subtle, subconscious ways.

Rituals are not necessarily religious. I was thinking about ritual after attending the recent funeral of my brother, a retired U.S. Army officer, complete with an honor guard and three-volley salute. To me, this part of the ritual spoke of continuity — that my brother was part of a tradition that extended into the past and will continue into the future. There are rituals expressing patriotism and loyalty to sports teams. Again, rituals are a way to make tangible one’s connection to something larger than oneself.

Alice_par_John_Tenniel_04In modern times much of Christianity de-ritualized worship services. In some Protestant denominations little is expected of the congregants other than to sing the hymns, hear the sermon, and occasionally  bow their heads. I saw a video of communion inside one of the big Christian megachurches and found the entire spectacle annoying, from the congregants who received the bread and grape juice on trays and consumed them as if they were party hors d’œuvres to the schmaltzy organ music that oozed over the proceedings like pancake syrup. The minister’s wife talked nonstop through a microphone, reassuring the congregants that by receiving communion they would also receive God’s blessings and various other benefits.

But the congregants just sat there. There was no expression of devotion or commitment to their religion’s ultimate concerns. There was no mindful expression of the mystery of life and death or (important to Christians) the sacrifice of Christ. It was a transaction; drink the magic potion and become one of God’s Chosen People.

At Patheos, a student of religion at Boston University named Connor Wood wrote of the importance of ritual to religion. His use of the word index is puzzling to me, but I think he’s using index in the sense of measure or indicator. He argues that while words are purely symbolic, indexes are inseparable from the thing indicated. And rituals are indexes. Modern internet culture, however, is purely symbolic and disembodied, and people of that culture are more than ever baffled by the idea of ritual.

Remember that indexes are efficient; simply showing up for temple each week conveys much more information than words realistically could. But words are also rational. Logical arguments require language, not actions. And so our culture, which highly values logic, elevates reasoning and language over bodily habits, a preference rooted in historical Protestant emphasis on Scripture over rituals. Rationalism trumps efficiency.

This Protestant anti-ritual attitude is staggeringly amplified in Internet culture, the most de-ritualized social space in history. We can’t see each other; others can’t see us. There’s no way for social conventions that involve the whole body to take root. And so the way we communicate online is almost purely abstract and discursive, and thus extremely symbolic.

Religion divorced from the body becomes something entirely abstract and symbolic, and the symbolism itself is increasingly detached from anything but ideas. Like “Ernie,” who felt attracted to Buddhism but was outraged at the idea of practicing it,  we forget the simple truth that religion is about experience, in particular our experience of living and dying. It is about trust in things we may not understand intellectually. It is about dropping away the hard shell of self and becoming vulnerable — to God, or enlightenment, or whatever your tradition calls its ultimate concern.

When religion becomes just about ideas or beliefs, is it still religion? How may intellectual theory cause us to transcend the self? Where is the commitment, the sacrifice, in mere loyalty to belief? Indeed, what seems to happen more often than not is that religion becomes fused with ego and becomes just an attribute of the self. Through ritual, religion becomes fully embodied, and we learn how to experience it, not just how to think about it.