Learning how to trust myself

Learning how to trust myself

One of the hurdles in my personal growth has been learning to trust my own mind and my own memories. This is particularly difficult with anxiety because of the way my mind tries to jump from thing to thing while I am hardly even aware of what is happening. I’ve been though hurried and anxious days at work where I could barely remember what I did that morning much less exactly what I said to a client on the phone last week. It was that bad, and my tricky memory would get me into hot water — especially when I was held to promises that I didn’t remember actually making.

I have always had some difficulty trusting my memories and my reasoning and my feelings because of my anxiety, and also because of the way I was taught to judge thoughts and feelings. If I didn’t feel or think what I thought I was supposed to be feeling or thinking I would deny it and pretend otherwise. As if I could make myself not really angry because I’m not supposed to be angry. I was far into adulthood before I could really sit and admit to myself that yes, I feel anxious (even though I perhaps can’t logically put a reason to it), or that I’m angry (but what if I’m wrong to be angry about this?), or that I have a bad feeling about someone is saying though I can’t quite wrap my mind around the reasons why.

Once when I was a teenager I went to a Christian concert with my parents and with a couple of girls who lived next door who I was friends with. At one point, the older of the two neighbor girls talked about some situation in her life where she needed to make a decision and was not sure what to do. Mom said at the moment something to the effect of she should trust herself to do the right thing. (I don’t remember the exact words but that was the gist.) But afterwards, after the conversation, Mom expressed concern that she forgot to warn her that demons or the devil might try to mess with her thinking. I don’t remember much about the concert, or about what issue my friend was dealing with, but that conversation stuck with me.

I’ve spend time agonizing about trusting my thoughts and feelings. The Bible says the heart is untrustworthy, and that mattered to me when I was a Christian. And how could you know if your thoughts are even your own or if it’s the devil whispering in your ear? And then there is the idea that our minds and souls are corrupted by sin so therefore we need to subdue our thoughts and bring them into conformity with what God supposedly wants. (2 Corinthians 10:5, if you are curious) The whole concept is crazy making — at least the way it was presented to me.

I’ve found the healthy alternative to handle my thoughts and feelings is to apply a bit of mindfulness. I’ve started waking up before my child each morning (when possible) and finding some time to sit quietly with a cup of coffee before I start the day. No music, no TV, just the coffee, the ambient morning sounds, and my own thoughts and feelings. I take the time to inventory how I feel — physically and emotionally — and what is going though my mind. I’ve learned, finally, to sit and recognize when I am feeling tense, or angry, or content, or anxious, and not argue with it or try to chase it away. It’s not good or bad, it just is. I want to feel and I want to just be aware of how I feel and maybe get to the root of what is causing it. Listening to your feelings is good, because they may tell you something your mind hasn’t caught up with yet. Just knowing and recognizing when I am irritable helps me not to take it out on my child or my spouse. And it has gone a long way to helping me know my own mind and trust myself.

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An Atheist with a Religion?

An Atheist with a Religion?

So then, I took the plunge and joined my Unitarian Universalist church. I signed the book, went to new member orientation, made a financial pledge, and signed up for volunteer opportunities. I’ve decided that this is how I want to raise my daughter.

I am also co-organizer for Louisville Atheists & Freethinkers, and co-hosting on the Blasphemy in the Bluegrass podcast and participating with other local atheist organizations.

I have developed a rather weird relationship with religion, one that doesn’t get talked about much in the public discussion between atheists and believers. That is, being an atheist and identifying as an atheist but also having a church and a religion. What makes that even possible is the one big overlap between the atheist community and the UU church: they both full of heretics, and generally proud of it. A heretic being someone who decides for themself what they believe rather than accepting the word of an authority.

A Google search for “Unitarian universalist atheist” usually brings up a handful of posts about why atheists should not join Unitarian Universalist churches. So I’m pretty aware that there are voices in the atheist community who do not agree with me. At an earlier stage of my life, when I first encountered the UU’s I agreed with them. Their arguments usually focus on some disparaging things a former president of the UUA said about secular humanism. But the thing is, I haven’t encountered those attitudes in my own congregation. The other thing is that it is OK to disagree with the leadership here. For the first time in my life I can listen to a sermon and not feel deep shame and self-doubt if the minister says something that makes me uncomfortable. I just take a deep breath and acknowledge that I don’t think that is right and then continue listening calmly. If it’s important enough to me I can bring it up later. I could say it’s part of my spirituality right now to practice listening and resist giving into the temptation to have a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction. (I can split hairs on what ‘spirituality’ means later. :-p)

I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.

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Skepticism and Seeking …

Skepticism and Seeking …

I’m finding myself getting less hard-core skeptical than I used to be. On Monday, I’m helping a friend practice her tarot reading skills by getting her to do a reading for me (she asked for volunteers on Facebook.) Am I worried because it’s woo and has no basis in scientific fact? I used to be afraid of anything ‘woo’ but now I am honestly convinced it is fine as long as you remember that it is not scientific fact. The problems happen when people think woo can replace science, or that it is science. That’s when you have people dying of things like treatable cancers because they were bamboozled into some bullshit ‘natural’ remedy.

But things that are recognized correctly as metaphor and symbolism and ritual? I am up for that. I think.

After I realized that the church of my parents was unacceptable to me, I went searching for other churches. I visited a few Catholic services, Baptist, and a church of unnamed denomination near my home where they spoke in tongues. I slipped out during the opening prayer because I was freaked out, and never went back. I went to a Buddhist meditation circle on Sunday mornings for a while, though by that point I identified solely as an atheist. I enjoyed that and learned a lot and gained new perspectives, but after a while that was not for me either. I had doubts about it after I went to a New Year’s meditation retreat that I found though that group. While I enjoyed the still and quiet and reflection, I did not enjoy trying to sit still in a cross-legged position for an hour or so at a time. One of the organizers read a teaching that was something about a man who was tempted by a prostitute. It ended up saying that he should visualize her body as it would end up eventually — as a rotting corpse — and that seriously bothered me. It was a morbid denial of pleasure — a denial of everything physical or temporary really. And that seems very odd because the style of Buddhism I was used to emphasizes living in the present. I even read books on how one could practice secular Buddhism, but after a relatively brief period of being sure I had found THE WAY I decided it was not for me.

I’ve written previously in my blog about my experiences with yoga as well.

I also tried out the Unitarian church in downtown Louisville for a couple of years. At the time I went there, I was mostly looking for a community where I could own my atheism without being judged or preached at. There were one or two people who, when I told them I was an atheist, felt the need to explain to me what they believed and why. I hung out with the pagan group that meets at the church for a while, but after a while the talk about things like astrology clashed too strongly with my scientific skeptical mind. There was just too much of superstition and claims that clashed with scientific fact for me to stomach.

As my post opener implies, I am rethinking some of my previous attitudes. Can there be a place for things like astrology and tarot as long as one recognizes the difference between scientific fact and symbolism and imagery? I’m putting the “seeker” hat back on for a time to see what I can find out. I’ll be looking back into the Unitarian Universalist church to see if it may be a better fit for this point in my life.

It helps that they have childcare too.

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blaming lovelessness on atheism?

I’ve purchased a book called “all about love” by bell hooks (the lowercase in intentional by the author). I was mostly enjoying it up until the chapter on spirituality where she seems to basically blame the lack of love and emotional fulfillment in modern society on “secular individualism” and “materialism.” I think she says some things that make sense here about the need to step away from consumerism as a means of fulfilling our emotional needs. But it also seems like she is saying all “true” spirituality is love, and the opposite is secularism/consumerism/atheism/nihilism. And that chafes on me very badly. It makes me not to read this book any more. 🙁

Example quotes:
“A culture that is dead to love can only be resurrected by spiritual awakening. On the surface it appears that our nation has gone too so far down the road of secular individualism, worshiping the twin gods of money and power, that there seems to be no place for spiritual life… The crisis of American life does not seem to be generated by a lack of interest in spirituality. However, this interest is constantly co-opted by the powerful forces of materialism and hedonistic consumerism.”

“Organized religion has failed to satisfy spiritual hunger because it has accommodated secular demands, interpreting spiritual life in ways that uphold the values of a production-centered commodity culture.”

I don’t think she actually means to say atheism and secular philosophies are nihilist and void of love and meaning. I think she’s just using the terms to contrast with her own version of “true religion,” saying that the problem of lovelessness in our society have been caused by secular ideas and can only be fixed by a true “spiritual awakening.” Believe anything you want, be spiritual,  just don’t be secular!

Maybe it’s just an unavoidable consequence of a belief that “God is love.”

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Living the Life of Reason

Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

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Reasonable Living and Intentional Community

Why do people go to church?

Of course, since my background is Christian I will write in “church” terms, but the same applies to the people who meet together in any type of religion, whether Nazarene, Catholic, Mormon or Hindu or Muslim or anything else. The same principles apply regardless of the specific beliefs.

We’ve all heard many times over that humans are social beings. We need each other and we need some sort of rule set and cultural framework to structure our lives. We like to “hang out” with people who think the way we do, for better or worse. It has been my observation that churches and other such organizations exist not out of the commands or needs of any God or gods but rather to fit the needs for human beings for belonging and social structure. After all, what do a large part of church activities have to do with theology? What do basketball courts, walking tracks and youth trips to amusement parks have to do with religion? They are attractions, side benefits to membership (or potential membership) that are used to draw people in with the hopes that they will join and stay and buy into the theology.

Unfortunately, the community benefits of churches and religious organizations come at a serious cost to those who do not buy into the theological baggage that comes with it. Constant messages saying that you are a sinner, that you should believe. The idea that you are incomplete and sick and doomed to failure unless you can believe something no matter how absurd and impossible. Being around people who tell you these things, implicitly or explicitly, can wear one down incredibly even if you are certain you are right. And the believers in a church environment usually don’t get it. Even if they sincerely love and accept you as an atheist, their insistence that “God loves you anyway” and “you are still welcome here” amounts to nothing more than a massive (and massively absurd) guilt trip. It’s not that we think we are too dirty and “sinful” to be accepted by your God. It’s that we really don’t think your God is real at all.

So what is a community-craving atheist to do? Some people are thick-skinned and nonconformist enough to put up with the negative messages about non-belief from the religious with no problem. But the rest us need the sort of community that churches and religious organizations have monopolized for so long.

In order to meet this need, one of the more recent offerings of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group is a weekly Sunday morning small group meeting called Reasonable Living. It was founded and is lead by a former Baptist minister, and we (half-jokingly) refer to the meetings as our “secular Sunday School.” We have been meeting for the past few months, and on some weeks we have almost outgrown our meeting area. In the meetings, the topics of discussion are ideas like how do we balance societal responsibility with personal responsibility, what is the role of an individual in society, how we deal with life and death issues. Studies have usually been modeled around a book, and for the past several weeks we have been studying “Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.” It’s a great opportunity to discuss some interesting topics and sharpen your own thinking. If you are in the Louisville area and are interested in discussing the secular life, come and join us!

(Cross-posted at LouisvilleAtheists.com)

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