Posts in spirituality
After the Age of Anxiety

Image by Dove Dahlia

Consider that 100 years ago, pneumonia and influenza were the leading causes of death, the first of two world wars of mass violence had erupted, and The Dustbowl and Great Depression were on deck. It was still a dangerous world as it had been for many centuries prior, especially for minorities and women.

Today, according to many metrics, we are living in the safest time in human history. Crime, especially homicide, is in long term decline, and people are more likely to die of old age than from violence. Malnutrition is down from 50% 100 years ago to its lowest rate in history of 13%, and for the first time more people are obese than hungry. Similarly, infectious disease and extreme poverty are also markedly down worldwide, though there are poignant exceptions to all these positive safety trends.

However, these improved outward patterns do not seem compatible with the general population's internal experience. 40 million adults suffer from anxiety disorders in America and 25% of all teens are affected, making anxiety the most common mental illness characterized by extreme fear and worry.

So, why are we so anxious? Is anxiety really on the rise, as it appears and does modern society actually breed it? Or is it possible that when you remove the outer clear and present dangers of the past, we are left with our ancestors' internal legacy of fear?

Perhaps, this helps explain why scientists have been unsuccessful at significantly raising the level of worry about realistic existential threats in the future such as climate change or the overdue super-volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park. There is already plenty of worry in the mind and something like global warming is still too abstract. But those potential disasters may once again align the inner and outer human condition, effectively ending the age of anxiety, when anxiety is no longer framed as anxiety.

In any case, emotions are like ancient algorithms and the past few decades of safety is not enough time for evolution to re-program a more nuanced stress response to modern problems.

This points to two distinct possibilities for the chapter after this age of anxiety: a golden window of safety begins to close as scientifically predicted doom becomes more manifest, giving way to another age of fear and danger. Or, we develop an integrative understanding of anxiety along with the tools to speed up our emotional evolution, ushering in a welcome era of contentment and peace.

This episode include a deep dive into the latter scenario - a scenario that perhaps would be the necessary social reform to actually free up the mental space to solve those future threats.

“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.” -Alan Watts

Loneliness and the Trance of Busyness

Even with all the comfort that advances in technology have bestowed, it does not seem that people, in general, have time to relax and fully connect. Communication breakthroughs have been achieved with a double-edged sword. With so much of our lives uploaded to the internet and our brains downloaded to the external hard drives of smart phones, the demands and work and hustle and distractions never end resulting in a trance of busyness.

Hence, loneliness in America and throughout much of the world has risen to epidemic proportions.

A national survey by Cigna Health revealed that more than half of Americans feel lonely and researchers have found loneliness to be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day and worse than obesity, in terms of health risk and premature death.

Though we may go on increasing our contacts - studies show that with each passing decade, the average number of close friends that one could count on in crisis continues to decline.

Which age group is the most lonely? The elderly of World-War Eras? Baby-boomers? Millennials? Though they all suffer high levels of loneliness among their respective age segments, the answer is Generation Z.

This is the most alarming statistic and means that children are growing up in a new paradigm of psycho-social distance and mental health risk. Young people report that though they may be surrounded by others, no one knows them very well. What we are lacking is depth of connection and hopefully mindfulness, meditation and a modern path to spiritual fellowship can become the next public health revolution.

"I would rather have 2 half-dollars than 100 pennies." -a smart kid

Unlost in Transition

We have transitioned to a new year. It is a symbol of letting go of the old and embracing the new. Traditionally, it is a time to live our better intentions and establish healthier routines. On a larger scale, we are now in the process of transitioning to a new decade. What have we learned about ourselves? What do we envision not only this year but in the upcoming decade? It is an opportunity to pause and consider the steps to a more beautiful life and world.

"Transition" can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it refers to the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another. As a verb, it refers to causing such a process. Nature will script many transitions beyond our control - sometimes painfully. The nouns are set. If we willingly change and grow in the present - learning the art of transition each day - we will be ready. Ultimately, when our transitions are mindful, crossing over can be more of a celebration.

"To change with change is the changeless state." -Bruce Lee

Symbol on the Psyche

The lotus flower grows in murky ponds which is a metaphor for making life beautiful regardless of the circumstances. And its leaf sits on top of the water but does not get wet. I was amazed when I took a lotus leaf and dunked it in water and watched all the drops roll right off like little balls of mercury. So it grows in that water but is unaffected by it.

This episode explores the deeper meaning of significant symbols from cultures around the world and various spiritual traditions and how to find symbols in daily life to guide our mindfulness practice.

"A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride...When people see it they know it means dignity." -Cesar Chavez

Human Kind: Being Both
human kind

Beautiful people are not always good, but good people are always beautiful. This claim is supported by a recent social psychology study in which three groups of subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of the same faces of strangers. Group 1 was given negative descriptors about the people they were looking at - like mean, cruel, etc. Group 2 was told nothing. Group 3 received positive descriptors of the same strangers - kind, honest, etc. Group 3 found the faces to be the most physically attractive, followed by Group 2 and then 1.

Knowing something about another's personality can actually change the way the brain perceives their physical features. According to evolutionary theory, our assessment of the fitness value of a potential social partner is a hybrid of physical and non-physical characteristics.

Science also suggests that kindness forms a virtuous feedback loop. Kindness generates happiness, and happiness motivates people to be kind. But there is a catch - intention matters. It does not work if you do something kind for others for the sake of becoming happy or gaining something in return. This is known as "strategic kindness" and only yields pleasure as opposed to "altruistic kindness" which means without the desire for a reward and leads to real happiness. fMRI studies reveal that separate regions of the brain are activated for each kind of kind, putting the "true" back in altruism.

Most spiritual traditions emphasize love for all and to be of service to others. The needed energy and enthusiasm arise quite naturally as a result of meditation and leading a more contemplative life.

"To a wise one, the whole earth is open - because the true country of a virtuous soul is the entire universe." –Democritus

Endangered Aesthetics and the Future of Beauty

Surveys reveal that audiences cannot tell the difference between musical compositions written by humans and those by artificial intelligence and often rate the AI compositions as more "inspiring" and "soulful."

However, there are some timeless principles for how to appreciate beauty, such as those elucidated by the heavily Buddhist-influenced yet culturally endangered Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi. Perhaps the outlook is more critical than the outcome. By mindfully tuning to the reality that nothing is perfect, nothing is complete and nothing lasts - we can experience more freedom, acceptance and a deeper sense of spiritual wonder for the unfolding of the drama of it all.

”Technology has flooded the world with music. We used to have to pay for music or make it ourselves. Playing, hearing and experiencing it was exceptional - a rare special experience. Now, hearing it is ubiquitous and silence is the rarity we pay for and savor.” –David Byrne

The Last Taboo
the last taboo

Death is the great mystery surrounding existence, and the nature of belief about the beyond forms the core of each religious philosophy.

But imagine if we could replay the unfolding of the universe and the emergence of life on this planet never included a physical death in the equation - would there have even been religion?

It seems the ephemeral aspect of the human body is what ultimately creates the spark of spiritual seeking in the mind. However, it remains as difficult as ever to have meaningful conversation with others about the subject. Studies suggest that less than 20% of adults dare to attempt to discuss "end-of-life" preferences with family members.

75% of Americans die in the hospital or nursing home. Additionally, medicare spends as much as $200 billion annually on care during the last two months of life. This represents a significant chunk of total health expenditures in America. It is estimated that no more than 30% of this spending leads to any real benefit for the patients. Contrast this with the fact that 88% of people on Earth believe in an afterlife. That we could be more emotionally prepared as a society is an understatement.

Ordinarily, to talk about death would seem too dark for many but there is a difference between a healthy awareness of our own mortality and an obsession about it. It is difficult to fathom how alienating it must be for those directly and privately dealing with dying or loss while the community-at-large appears fully engaged in what philosopher Ernest Becker described in "The Denial of Death" as their "immortality project."

Surveys show that millennials are the least religious generation in human history. The need for new and open-minded discussion is apparent. Surely, meditative insight now into this one certainty that connects us all - need not be dark but rather enlightening. Just think of the kindness and clarity of purpose that could manifest and how petty hangups and bitterness could be more easily released along with so much needless suffering by bringing into focus what is most essential.

"Fear of death follows from the fear of life. One who lives fully is prepared to die." -Mark Twain