Life in London: Week 1

IMG_3444FINALLY I am in London. It is just as fantastic a place as I anticipated it to be and I’m thrilled to be here. This place is just brimming with opportunity and I can’t help but see myself here for awhile.

Arriving here about 6:30 AM on May 2nd, I was picked up and taken to my residence which took about an hour and the driver took me past a bunch of sights so I got to see a lot of the city right away. However, when I got to where I’m staying there was no one to let me in despite the program assuring me that there would in fact be someone. I ended up waiting an hour in the driver’s car, just sitting there with a phone that didn’t work in this country, no food, completely exhausted, and no idea when I would be let into my new home. The driver felt so bad for me, he gave me a Fanta he had surely bought for himself and tried to connect my phone to his phone’s hotspot but to no avail. He expressed multiple times how ridiculous it was that there wasn’t someone already waiting on me when we got there. A person finally arrived and let me in. This was not the first time (and definitely not the last time) the program had planned and communicated very poorly. But I didn’t give it too much energy because 1. I finally got to London after going through so much to get there and 2. I had no energy left to give.

And so began my London adventure… Continue reading


I’ve Seen the Ghost: A musing inspired by conversation with a kid about Ferguson

Yet again a child has served me such an eye-opening and long overdue lesson. This lesson resulted from the following conversation:

7 year old child: What are you reading?
Me: Oh, I’m just reading an article about Ferguson.
Kid: Oh Mike Brown. I know that.
Me: Well actually this one’s about the Ferguson Police and how they don’t treat certain people fairly.
Kid: Well it’s all over now. Mike Brown was wrong. The case is over and everyone is so relieved. Everyone was soooo tired of hearing about that!
Me: Well buddy, a lot of people feel that way because they don’t see the real problem here. If they really understood the bigger problem, this would have gone a lot differently.
Kid: Well I know Mike Brown went for his gun and if someone does that then they deserve to be shot!
Me: Dude… You weren’t there. We just can’t know for sure. And it’s far more complicated than it seems. Especially with guns.
Kid: What’s so complicated about it?
Me: There’s a bigger story here about how the police see black citizens… I think we should wait to talk about this more. Maybe wait until you’ve gotten older and had more history class and gotten more perspective…
Kid: Well I actually know everything about it already!
Me: Oh do you? Is that right??
Kid: Yeah!
Me: Okay, whatever then…

I ended the conversation. I had caught myself in the midst of an argument with a 7 year old child about the Ferguson case. A seven year old.

Then I realized– This is the exact argument I’ve had with so many grown adults. It’s like a script, so familiar I might as well been arguing with a bunch of giant 7 year olds this whole time.

First it starts with the adult arguing that Mike Brown deserved what he got, they use the “thug narrative.” Then they say that Darren Wilson was just doing his job, protecting his life, using the “hero narrative.”

Then, after I bring up the racial perspective, just like the 7 year old did, they ignore it because they don’t understand it. They don’t live it, they can’t empathize with it, so they simply trash it as a possibility. And then when I suggest that there just may possibly be something beyond their realm of understanding that they may need to open their minds a bit more to get a better grasp on, they say some form of: “I already know everything I need to know.” They shut it down, they seal it up, they close their minds to any other perspective. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And once again, I’ve wasted my breath.

After having this exchange with the 7 year old, I realized how truly futile it is to argue with people who have not yet realized white privilege. Whether it’s kids or adults, if they don’t see the effects of white privilege, they’re missing a huge chunk of the greater story of Ferguson, of our nation, and of institutionalized racism; and it’s simply impossible to see race as being a part of this story with that chunk missing.

This kid made me really open up to the evasive nature of racial bias. It’s almost like a ghostly presence. Like with ghosts, some can feel a presence stronger than ever, always there, looming and peering at them everywhere they go, while others simply never feel it and can’t see it so they deny its presence. With no physical evidence to take in themselves, they simply ignore whatever anyone else has to say in objection. White privilege is the blinder that keeps people from seeing the racial bias, the institution of racism which has always been and still very much is.

So just because I see it and I feel the ghostly presence of racial bias, just because my white privilege blinder is lifted and the ghost is all around me doesn’t mean everyone else can see it. All this time, I’ve been arguing about the presence of a ghost with people who don’t believe in ghosts. It’s been a waste! I should have known all along the only true way to believe in ghosts is to witness a ghostly experience. The only true way to believe in racial bias and our institution of racism is to be its witness.

But there’s yet the problem still– you can’t force a ghost to reveal itself. A person has to open themselves up to the idea of it before they can begin to see and feel its subtleties. Likewise, a person has to be open to the ideas that this society is not perfect and rid of its discriminatory nature. Then, if they’re white, they have to be open to the idea that there are experiences they just may not experience because they’re white– they have a certain privilege with their skin color. With that state of mind, the racial bias ghost will begin to reveal itself. It will be seen, it will be heard, it will be felt– and with much horror.

Gratefully enough, the Department of Justice finally witnessed the ghost. They may not have seen it looming within the shooting of Mike Brown, but they see it in the Ferguson Police. Despite all the indications that were ignored of the ghost’s presence throughout the case, despite all the denial and still no justice, at least the ghost was recognized somewhere. I hope this is the starting point for greater recognition and eradication of racial bias. One can only hope for that, there is simply no more persuasion involved.

I don’t know what to argue anymore. I will always know the ghost is there. I can’t make any non-believers see it the way I do, no matter how hard I try. All I know is that when I argue with people who can’t see, I might as well be arguing I saw Bigfoot while walking the dog the other day. This begs the raw question: How do we get people to believe in our haunting of racial bias when they have no reason to see or feel it for themselves? I just don’t have the answer… Yet. But as always, I’m working on it.

Growing Up Humanist in Christian Culture

One day at the gym while waiting for her turn on the trampoline, a 4 year old said to me, “God gave me my blue eyes.” Having heard both children and adults utter similar God-crediting phrases my entire life, I passively responded “Ah, did he.” The 5 year old standing behind her, who just happened to be the daughter of a Spanish teacher I had in high school, turned to me and asked, “Who’s God?” I froze. “Uhhhh…” I glanced down the trampoline and noticed it was nearly her turn.

Somehow I had to come up with a response in about two seconds for one of the most difficult questions a Humanist could answer in an overwhelmingly Christian society. I replied, “God is a person or a thing that some people believe in.” And without even a pause, just before hopping down the trampoline she said: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in gods.” I smiled at her and answered, “That’s cool.”

As it goes with children, I don’t know if she really meant what she said she believes or if she was just saying it to be different. I have no idea what sort of religious education she’s been exposed to, and I couldn’t remember any particular indication of faith from her mother when she was my teacher. But I know I gave that child something in that moment. I gave her validation of her beliefs. I did not judge, I did not question.

Thinking back on that exchange makes me think of my own childhood experiences surrounding my beliefs. My parents were both raised Catholic and both decided Catholicism, and Christianity in general, were really not something they could buy into. For awhile they were without religion. It wasn’t until I was about 5 years old when they had an educator assess my intelligence that they realized I needed some sort of education on religion. The educator showed me a page full of symbols. I was able to identify every symbol easily… all except for the cross.

Eventually they found the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The tagline is “A welcoming home for Humanists.” My younger brother and I began attending Sunday School there, and that’s when I started to form my own beliefs. The centerpiece for the curriculum at this Ethical Humanist Sunday School is the 12 Core Values. The core value I recall striking me the most was “I am free to question.” And question I did.

Like my parents, I found it hard to buy in to the Christian culture that surrounded me. I did try but I just could not believe in God, it didn’t feel right. To me, not believing in God felt very normal– but as I got older I realized that many people around me would consider myself the oddball.

The first friend I ever had came from a devout Christian family. I can remember going to her house for dinner and having to pray every time before eating. I felt uncomfortable but sat with my head down out of respect. The more peers I met, the more I realized how pervasive this God thing really was. At first it was surprising and uncomfortable how casually people referenced God, in passing, speaking like he was just some guy everyone knew and had a relationship with.

People assumed I was a God fan just like them, assumed I was another Christian. I can’t remember a single instance in my childhood when I was asked about my beliefs outside the Ethical Society. And if I had been asked, I don’t know that I would have felt comfortable being honest about my beliefs. God was just so commonplace to the people around me that the possibility didn’t even occur to them that I might not be a subscriber to God. I didn’t want to be the person who rocked the boat, I had no idea how people would react. So I kept quiet about my beliefs.

The truth is nothing has changed since then. My experience as a child is exactly the same that it is now in terms of God culture. People still blindly assume I’m a Christian just like them. Except now, I take offense. Quietly, but offense all the same. Culture will be culture, and it will always pervade any government we have in place, but the very First Amendment on the list says that we can have freedom of religion. This means anyone should be able to hold whatever belief they want and feel protected.

That’s a beautiful and open state of mind which looks really good on paper, but it simply isn’t translated into a culture where 83% identifies as Christian.

With those statistics, I suppose any Christian could argue that their presumptions of my faith are justified. And that is, in fact, how many Christians operate. But how the hell is that American? It’s not an act of inclusion to go around assuming everyone is Christian because that’s the majority– it’s lazy. Here we (ideally) accept all faiths (or lack there of). So even though the majority is Christian, because of the First Amendment, everyone should be approaching everyone else with zero assumptions about their faith. But alas, culture imbues.

It does not surprise me that, now, 57% of Republicans want to make Christianity the national religion. This country has never been able to separate religion from politics, despite taking pride in that very separation. (Even the phrase “separation of Church and State” implies Christianity as the only religion to be mindful of separating!) With the way I’ve been treated as a “non-believer,” it’s really no surprise at all that the closed-minded Christians are finally being real with themselves; they don’t want a plurality of religions, they just want their religion only.

As if it wasn’t enough that over four fifths of this country is Christian. As if it wasn’t enough that “In God We Trust” is on every dollar bill. As if it wasn’t enough that “Under God” is in our pledge to the country. As if it wasn’t enough that women are denied birth control and abortions because of Christian ideology, that homosexuals and genderqueers are treated as lesser because of Christian ideology, that you really hold no significant political influence unless you openly endorse Christianity.

I’ve arrived at a place in life where I no longer judge people for what they believe, but I feel for all those people that Christianity excludes because that exclusion is felt exponentially with the mass indoctrination of our society.

I often think of Muslims and how horrible it must be to live here in a place with so much hostility and so little understanding of their faith. At least as a Humanist, when I am antagonized, it’s as an individual. But with Muslims, their entire culture is generalized and belittled. It’s insane to me that now, the same people who want a national religion of Christianity can turn around and alienate Middle Eastern countries for having Islam as a national religion. Not only do they alienate, but desire to point guns and drop bombs on them. That’s not American. That’s not even Christian. It’s maliciously hypocritical.

To this day, I still don’t feel I have much of a voice in this country as a Humanist. Yet bizarrely enough, many Christians feel threatened by Humanists like me. They think we’re out to get them, out to squelch their faith. Nope. Humanism is about inclusion of all people– all identities, including faith! If anything, Humanists are trying to find other ways to connect and engage with Christians that hate on Humanism. Still we are seen as dangerous, rebellious, faith-killers. It is quite ironic to see Christians express this, when all my life I’ve experienced the very same thing from them that they accuse Humanists of doing.

And the truth is, the Christians themselves who react so negatively to Humanists are the ones stepping into the realm of questioning their own faith. Humanists only open the door. It’s uncomfortable, to have your strong and sheltered faith shaken, so they seek to blame those who dare to open up such unnerving questioning– those damn Godless people.

This Fox News-fueled rage supported by unbridled paranoia of those who don’t believe in God makes it damn near impossible for me to be heard saying: “This is what I’ve experienced from you all along. You never even asked what I believed in. You just assumed I am what you are. So after years of keeping my head down and my beliefs quiet, I’m finally speaking up. And now you feel attacked. How am I to ever live my life honestly when you’re automatically offended whenever someone doesn’t buy into what you’re selling? It’s a personal choice. Let us choose.”

All I want is to live in a culture that respects my beliefs. I’m not asking everyone to believe what I believe, nor am I asking anyone else to change. I just want my personal choice respected, as I respected the choice of the 5 year old girl who told me she believed in multiple gods. I want my ability to believe validated. Is that really so much to ask for?

5 Spiritual Qualities We Can Learn from Children

5spiritualqualities post photoOkay, kids can be pretty frustrating to deal with at times. Their constant need for attention, the emotional tantrums, their lack of accountability. Alright… They suck. But there are plenty of adults that suck just as much. Children just haven’t been conditioned and molded into the rules and roles of society for us to know if they’re a bad adult yet. However, children devoid of our institutions, particularly young children, have a spiritual quality about them that’s hard to find in even the most seasoned Pastors and Gurus. I’ve broken these spiritual aspects into five different qualities:

  1. A questioning curiosity: The genuine desire to understand

    Children have little to no reservation of asking when they don’t understand something. They’re constantly opening up to what they haven’t learned about before. They are sponges soaking up the world, wanting to understand everything. When adults question, it can be seen as rebellious– “doubters” trying to rock the boat. It’s sometimes even seen as threatening when people are uncomfortable having what they know and accept seen through doubtful eyes.But isn’t it much better to want to understand than to not understand and jump to judgment? (Which we so often do.) How often do you hear adults say “I just don’t understand ________”? You fill in the blank. But when we say that, we’re not saying it with the intention or desire to understand. We’re saying it to distance ourselves and pass judgment on whatever it is that we don’t understand.

    Children actually want to understand, and that’s why they ask. Doubt and questioning is healthy, and it keeps us in touch with ourselves. We don’t know everything, we never will know everything, and we know practically nothing about ourselves. Questioning opens us up to more possibilities– ideas and mindsets where our mind has never been before. An inquisitive mind is a healthy mind. Try questioning something you’ve grown very comfortable with.

  2. Presence in the moment: Full attention in the here and now

    Have you ever watched a kid get totally absorbed into or even lose themselves in what they’re doing? Whether it’s drawing, legos, playing with dolls, dancing, laughing? Or maybe you’ve seen a kid stress over his incomprehension of time: “Mommy how much longer do we have to be here? 5 minutes? But that’s forever!”Until children begin to learn how we tell time, they live their lives without a concept of it. The only moment they know and can be sure of is right now. So they often throw themselves into that moment totally. And when they’re made to wait within our concept of time, it feels like an eternity to them. To them, 5 minutes might as well be 5 years. Our measurements of time are all arbitrary anyway.

    But when adults are seen as present in the moment, they can be seen as immature or irresponsible, not keeping the future in mind, or not managing their time well. So in turn we develop a preoccupation with the past and future. We’re almost never thinking of the moment we’re in. It’s a curse and a blessing that our minds can time travel, but we allow ourselves to time travel far too often.

    Children can really help us to practice being present in the now– because it’s true that the only moment that really exists is here and now. Putting yourself totally into the only moment that exists is pure living. One of the simplest ways to connect to the present moment is to be conscious of your breathing. Try it!

  3. Pride in their struggles and scars: Survivors not victims

    Rather than wallow in what bad things have happened to them, children take pride in their past sufferings. The struggle endured is an affirmation of their strength. And kids sure can take a beating.I work at a gymnastics academy and one night while working the front desk, a girl came in with her mother wearing a cast on her leg. They approached her coach and the mom explained she had a stress fracture in her ankle so she wouldn’t be able to practice for a few weeks. The child was beaming. A stress fracture isn’t an injury that happens all at once, it happens after repeated stress on a bone. It’s also known as a hairline fracture and the pain creeps up on you as the bone cracks. Yet this child, although unable to do gymnastics, was so proud because she was still fine despite her injury. All kids know that injuries make you look tough and cool. And it’s true!

    But as adults you hide scars and struggles in order to be seen as strong and give the perception that you’re not struggling. To wear those scars with pride can be seen as immature or discourteous, and very needy for attention. When in reality, our struggles and how we handle them are give us a sense of purpose. And when we hide our struggles, we often see ourselves as a victim rather than a survivor.

    That little girl with the stress fracture in no way considered herself a victim. She was not only accepting of her injury, but proud. What a fantastic attitude to hold about yourself! It’s as if to say “Yeah, I got hurt. But I’m tough and strong and this is nothing I can’t handle.” That confidence in the face of suffering is what I admire most in children. Some children are stronger than we are. Try to keep the resilient strength of children in mind the next time you get hurt.

  4. Genuine compassion: The great capacity to love and forgive

    Why does a hug from a child feel so good? It’s because it’s so genuine. There’s no calculated thought that goes into it. Those feelings overcome them and feel right so they go with it. Sometimes this quality in adults can be interpreted as desperate or weak. Sometimes it’s suspected there’s an ulterior motive– like trying to get into someone’s pants or otherwise manipulate a person into getting what they want. In the adult world, people must somehow be deserving of these genuine, selfless, giving feelings.Children’s concepts of “deservedness” are not so selfish. The kids I’ve worked with at the gym often touch me, despite me hardly knowing them or having built any relationship with them. Children I’m only meeting for the first time have said to me, “You’re really pretty and I like your name a lot,” and, “I really like you, you’re my favorite. Can I sit with you?” and one of my favorites, “Um, excuse me, I really want you to be my babysitter.” Those words can cheer up my day more so than many kind words from an adult. Because I know they mean it 100%. It comes from the heart.

    One 5 year old boy surprises me every time I see him at the gym– which isn’t often, once a month maybe— because he is so elated to see me each time. He gets this big grin on his face and does that cute dance kids do when their excitement overcomes them. Then he runs and gives me a big hug, telling me he’s so glad to see me. He treats me like an old friend that can pick up right where we left off the last time we parted. And I’ve interacted with this child maybe six times total. He just really digs my vibes, man.

    That feels so good. We have very little basis for a relationship yet he puts full effort into making sure that we do have one in the our limited window of interaction. To me, that’s strength. He has so much love and compassion that he extends it when possible.

    Adults really must draw from this because once you have such genuine compassion extended to you, you want to spread it. It’s infectious. And it makes you such a happier person. I encourage all adults to see the world through compassionate eyes.

  5. Imaginative creativity: Stepping outside of the box

    Because their minds have not yet been molded into the structure of convention, children do not put boundaries on their imagination. They are not yet burdened by the responsibility to be a contributing member of society so they are not so limited. Their minds run free and wild. As a result, children are so creative, so silly, and so playful.They seek to create enjoyment for themselves in every possible way, and thus the flow of their ingenuity allows for endless entertainment. They are not afraid to let loose. Judgment isn’t even on their radar. They’ll sing and dance, build and make art– sometimes quite badly I might add, but they don’t care. They’re doing it for themselves, not for anyone else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve babysat a child that insists every four lines she draws on a page is a regular Rembrandt quality piece. But who am I to tell her she’s wrong when she’s never created such a work of art with her own hand before?

    As adults, letting the imagination go can be seen as spacey, immature, foolish, nonsensical, not serious enough, too silly, or irresponsible. In the adult world you must be serious, logical, and reasoned in order to be respected. There’s little room for creativity and imagination.

    The kid in me really comes out when I spend time alone with children. I sing and dance with them, I play pretend, I make up words and say things my friends would call stupid. But kids accept that– it’s fun!! If you can create lasting memories with your imagination, why limit it? Our minds can be limitless. So let them be.

Kids really can show us how to be our truest Self. All of these qualities listed above are natural things we’re born with. However the conditioning of society wears them down as we grow older and we forget the importance of being inquisitive, present, proud of our struggles, genuinely compassionate, and creative.

We’re forced into the seriousness of being an adult and playing our identity in society, then we feel disconnected and try to find ourselves through spiritual means. We have all these religions and gurus that try to guide us, but children can really teach us what we struggle to seek. They represent what we are before we’re conditioned by our illusory institutions and roles.

Those things we as responsible adults think are so important and need to take precedence are often what hold us back from connecting to that child within us. That child you used to be is still there, it’s still you. She or he is just buried beneath all these unneeded preoccupations we’ve determined are just “part of growing up and being an adult.” Ask yourself: What do you lose when you grow up? Are we really growing or just filling our roles as adults?

Charlie Hebdo: Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom to Preach

Since the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, there has been more controversy than anyone can fully absorb. This was no insignificant attack. It had an enormous emotional effect on France. A French friend of mine likened the attack to a smaller scale 9/11. To have well-known voices of satire taken away forever by bullets when you least expected it– that’s traumatizing, and Americans can certainly relate to that sentiment.

After the shootings in the offices of Charlie Hebdo on January 7, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” caught like wildfire and echoed around the world. The intent of the phrase is to stand in unity with Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech. However, it gets complicated, particularly for those who find their religion at the butt of the joke, and for those who feel like their freedom to speak is nullified by oppression of their culture.

Charlie’s response to the attack was another cartoon of Muhammad weeping and holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign with “Tout est Pardonne” or “All is Forgiven” written above. This edition ran out of copies in mere hours after its release due to its popularity.

Freedom of speech vs freedom of religion… Conflict of interest?

In response to these attacks, Pope Francis says there’s a limit to religious expression when it insults someone’s faith. Nasser Lajili, a Muslim City Councilor in Gennevilliers, agrees with the Pope, saying “freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan). But let’s be clear here: that still doesn’t justify the attacks. Just because someone talks shit on your religion does not ever give you the right to kill them. And you don’t need to crack open any religious text to know that– it’s a human thing. It’s morality. It’s ethics.

However you simply cannot ignore the sentiments of the Muslim community here. There are around 5 million Muslims in France and they don’t necessarily feel that they are Charlie at all. Mohamed Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris, describes the everyday humiliation of Muslims in France:

“‘You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in, you go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it” (Washington Post, French Muslims feel deeply torn by viral ‘I am Charlie’ slogan).

I can’t say that I know the struggle of feeling like religion is all I have, but I do know what it feels like not being heard or that my voice just isn’t valued as much as others. As a woman, I similarly have a hard time laughing about rape jokes. Sometimes it feels like all I have is my bodily autonomy and when people joke about the forceful loss of that autonomy so casually and as if they’re entitled to say those things– yeah, it’s pretty impossible to find it funny. So it’s not difficult for me to empathize with that sentiment– when the only thing you feel empowered by is ridiculed by people who have no idea what it’s like for you.

But as a Humanist forced to live in a Christian dominant society, I still sympathize with the right to free expression. So much of these religions are hypocritical. A lot of religious expression, particularly prosthelization, insults my right to freedom FROM religion. Not only my freedom from religion, but a lot of these religions do not afford respect to me as a female, particularly Islam. So why should freedom of speech stop at insulting a faith when there are so many other insults that are acceptable in religious context AND under freedom of speech– racism, sexism, homophobia, the list goes on. If we in the West find it acceptable to sexually harass women on the streets or refer to a random black man walking down the street as a thug, then we certainly hold a double standard when it comes to talking about someone’s faith. You can insult a person’s race, a person’s gender, a person’s sexuality, but when it comes to faith– oh no, you can’t, because faith is too sacred!

Is “Je Suis Charlie” an equivalent to white privileged expression?

If a similar satirical press published a similar cartoon of Christ on the cross, how would people respond? It can’t be ignored that we as Westerners clearly value some religious sacredness above others. There’s a strong correlation behind what the race and ethnicity of the practicers of these religions are and the weight we give to their sacred space. It seems the darker your skin color, the lesser the value of your religious practice. There’s white privilege even within faith. However, if freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else, then many Muslims can’t say much without being largely hypocritical– their religious culture is one of the most oppressive to women in the world.

On the other hand, maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but Christian culture is also oppressive, particularly in the US. We’ve managed for decades to enforce that “In God We Trust” be printed on all our dollar bills, that “Under God” be recited in our pledge of allegiance to the country, and that politicians are more likely to be elected if they’re Christian. I went to a City Council meeting in Ballwin, Missouri last Fall because there was an effort to pass an ordinance requiring “In God We Trust” be printed on all their city signs. I was simply shocked listening to the highly religious citizens make the argument that 1. the phrase is deeply traditional and 2. it is NOT a religious phrase. (That second argument is just delusion of reference). Fortunately, the ordinance didn’t pass, but listening to so many grown adults reveal how indoctrinated and possessed their political opinions were by religious propaganda was deeply bothersome. These are examples of institutional occurrences of oppression by religion, but it should also be mentioned that there are plenty of Christian extremist groups that terrorize folks just as much as Islamic extremist groups, maybe even more. You just don’t hear about them in mainstream media due to the plague of white-washed journalism. But I digress…

Still maybe Muslim culture is far more oppressive than the West would prefer, but they still deserve to be valued as humans and as voices. There’s been all these extremist Muslim attacks in just the past couple of years alone– the Boston Marathon bombing, the siege in Sydney, the Peshawar school attack, Charlie Hebdo and subsequent attacks around France, multiple attacks by Boko Haram, and many, many more… but why? Why does this keep happening? I’m sure a Fox News correspondent would tell you it’s because all Muslims are jihadist, West-hating murderers, but have you ever considered that perhaps these attacks are a huge cry out to be heard? That perhaps these attacks are a last-ditch reaction to the severe undervaluing of voices of an entire religious culture of people? That perhaps these attacks are a result of a boiling frustration felt by those who aren’t stable enough to put those feelings into healthy perspective?

If we in the West are going to insist on upholding the freedom of speech, then there needs to be a prerequisite to elevate ALL voices– or else the freedom to speak is moot. What’s the point of being able to freely express yourself if nobody is going to listen to or value what you have to say? Or that some people’s expression will be valued while others’ won’t?

What about the French black Comedian, Dieudonné, that was arrested for his comments on Facebook about the Charlie Hebdo attack? What about that guy that worked for Charlie Hebdo that was fired on the grounds that his cartoons were anti-Semitic? And what about Boko Haram? Why is Charlie getting a way more comprehensive response and news coverage when Boko Haram has killed more than 5,000 citizens between July 2009 and June 2014 in Nigeria and some neighboring countries? Where do we draw the line? Because there sure seems to be a lot of discriminatory line drawing when it comes to free speech.

Having the freedom of speech is important, but it’s moot unless we value ALL voices. There’s an attached responsibility that comes with the freedom of speech to listen. You don’t have to believe or agree with what anyone says ever, but living in democratic societies means living in a marketplace of ideas, where ALL ideas should be given a chance, no matter how ridiculously unrealistic or oppressive some of them can be. Opening up to a larger, more diverse marketplace of ideas will also help us learn to better communicate and express our own ideas with mindfulness and sensitivity. Empathy goes a long way.

My dear friend in England insists the world would be a better place without religion and I think he and John Lennon are right. What good is religion when it perpetuates such poor ethics and continual prejudice? And I thought y’all left the judging to God anyway…

But in a dystopian and oppressive world where society can be so damn unaccepting, still many depend on religion to give them the hope they need, and the acceptance, to keep going. And we need to remember that, be sensitive to it. We need to be aware of how we personally value certain voices over others. Because voices are lives, and every life matters.

Resources about Charlie Hebdo:

Breath is Everything

Western thinking really causes us to have problems with ourselves. We’re conditioned from birth to structure our entire beings into our measurements of time and space. We think we have to keep moving, moving, moving all the time because there’s something really unfaceable about just sitting and being. To cease all our movement, including our continuous jumping from thought to thought, seems impossible to some.

Breath is what will guide you in quieting your mind. Breath is everything. Have you ever started feeling angry or upset and then noticed your breath was more uneven, or shorter? Our breaths are a large indicator of what’s going on deep within our minds. And because we have the ability to control our breath, we have the ability to connect with what’s deeper, and with practice, we can change.

The first time I realized the significance of breath was one night when a friend let the demons get the best of her after smoking a bit too much. She got trapped in her own head, or so she felt. She was near tears. In sheer panic. Unable to speak. Her eyes sent strong feelings of hopeless despair shooting through me. It seemed as if she was possessed. After setting her in a place to sleep, I tried to go to bed in the room next door. But her continued moaning terrified me. My heart was beating so fast and so loudly in my ears that I could not sleep.

I called a friend over to help me because I wasn’t sure what to do and I myself was beginning to panic. No one could comfort her or calm her down. After over an hour of trying anything to help her, both my friend and I had somehow absorbed her panic and we were both freaking out. I had never had a panic attack before but my friend had, and she said this terrifying and unexplainable trepidation was similar to past panic attacks. I felt it too. We were both hyperventilating, both of our hearts were pounding, and we were shaking uncontrollably. The same terror had somehow seeped into us.

Nothing seemed to calm us, not even moving to a different part of the house where we couldn’t hear her moaning. This friend I was panicking with was normally someone I confided in during hard times, and here she was losing her peace of mind just as swiftly as I was. Having no other idea what to do, I laid next to her and told her to match my breathing as best as she could. I tried my best to take long deep inhales and exhales. At first both of us were having difficulty breathing with any steadiness because of how much we were shaking. But as we continued to breathe, it got steadier and gradually we began to calm down. Eventually we were both calm enough to finally fall asleep.

I was amazed. Both of us had been possessed by this seemingly contagious terror that we’d seen in my petrified friend’s eyes, something that I had no reasonable explanation for happening, and we had finally calmed ourselves just by consciously changing our breathing. Breath was what saved us that night. And I wish I could have known its power earlier in the evening to help the panicking friend (who ended up being okay the next morning).

Breath is our life force. Most of the time we’re just breathing to stay alive. We do it unconsciously everyday. Putting your awareness on the breath allows you to experience things as they come, in the moment. It allows you to be at attention to meet the very moment of life you’re in. Whether it’s in meditation, or whether we’re doing everyday activities, it’s possible for us to breathe consciously. Here is a video of a cute cartoon brain with some more scientific explanations of the benefits of conscious breathing:

And in the case of facing relentless feelings of terror, or any other thoughts or emotions that arise, we can use breathing to bring us back to ourselves. After all, thoughts and emotions are impermanent. They will pass, just like clouds in the sky. Therefore they cannot be part of us. Observe the breath and you observe yourself.

With more conscious breathing we discover the subtleties of our bodies and minds. It’s like putting a magnifying glass over a specimen, and you are that specimen. Try to observe your breath for just one minute– one mindful moment. The more you practice, the more you notice.

Here are some other resources about the science of breath:

And here is a resource about a specific type of breathing meditation called Anapana Sati, highly emphasized by the Buddha in his original teachings: