Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Wishing to be Tense (Spirituality, Religion and Philosophy Entry 3)

During a scene in my favorite TV show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a British character, in a time of crisis, asks for coffee rather than his usual tea.  The friend working with him asks why.  Giles responds:  “Tea is soothing, I wish to be tense.”
When I’m stressed at work or at home (but it’s usually at work), I sometimes say this to myself.  It reminds me to stop choosing to be tense, or at least to recognize that’s what I’m doing.  As someone who struggled with anxiety in the past, part of me rejects the idea that I can just choose to be calm if I want to.  The reality is, sometimes in a particular moment, all my skills for staying calm leave me.  I can appear calm, I can get things done despite feeling anxious, but inside serious tension reigns.  Still, over the years, I’ve gotten better at taking a moment to shift my focus.  It might be reminding myself that repeating how little time I have, or how much I have to do, or tensing my muscles, will not, in fact, help me get things done faster or better.  It might be substituting “How can I do a great job and get done on time?” for “What if I never get this done?”  It might be taking ten minutes to walk outside, despite the feeling that I must spend every second on the task at hand.
I heard someone on the radio talking about human beings’ tendency to feel tense or anxious in evolutionary terms.  The speaker said that in the time of cavemen (and women presumably) people who tended to be anxious probably had a better survival rate than those who were peaceful, because a caveman sitting on rock meditating was a lot more likely to get eaten by a tiger.  (One could argue that’s not so, because mediation can result in heightened awareness, not checking out of the world, but I got the idea.)  The rush of adrenalin that goes with the fight or flight response, and wariness and vigilance regarding possible physical danger, were no doubt huge helps to our ancestors.  In today’s world, when many people experience stress in situations where neither fleeing nor physical fighting is the answer, that adrenalin rush obviously can work against us.  If it goes on too long, it can make it harder to think, just the way a little caffeine can sharpen our focus but too much can make it impossible to focus.
My best one-minute way to become more calm, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron, is a quick breathing exercise.  I breathe in, counting slowly to two.  (I used the one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand method.)  I breathe out to the count of two.  Breathe in for two counts again, then breathe out to the count of four.  Each time, the in breath is two, but the out breath count increases by two until I reach ten counts of breathing out.  I find this is almost guaranteed to calm my thoughts, relax my body, and help me feel more focused and less stressed.  The premise is that when people tense, they often don’t fully empty their lungs, even if they take deep breaths in.  So the steadily increasing exhale sends the body and brain the signal that things are okay, it’s all right relax. 
I’m sure some of the wishing to be tense stems from cultural pressure.  Our culture tends to admire people who work too much, are always busy, and say they are highly stressed.  As a whole, we seem to believe that is what makes people successful.  This raises any number of questions, including about how we define success and why, for another post.  For now, though, I’ll just heat my cup of tea and breathe.

Lisa M. Lilly

Author of The Awakening

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Women and the Church (Spirituality, Religion, and Philosophy, Entry 2)

Like a lot of Catholic teenagers, I started skipping mass in high school.  I’d disappear for an hour on Saturday or Sunday at the appropriate time, but instead of going to church I headed to the park or to work out or to read.  I didn’t disagree with the church’s teachings.  I just didn’t see the point of mass.  Sitting, standing, reciting (usually mumbling) the same words with everyone glancing at their watches.  Ironically, now that I’m not a believer, I find great beauty in the ritual.  I attended mass in Florence a few years back and though I don’t speak Italian, I knew when to sit and stand, I knew most of the time exactly what the congregation and priest were saying.  For so many people all over the world to engage in the same movements, speak the same words, ponder the same passages of writing, struck me as incredibly powerful.
So mass didn’t really turn me away from Catholicism.  But in college, a friend who was gay asked me how I could still be Catholic given the Church’s treatment of women.  He still believed most of the Church’s tenets, but no longer attended mass, supported the Church, or considered himself Catholic because the official view is he was a sinner because he is gay. 
Until that conversation, it had truly never hit me that I supported an institution that blatantly discriminated against women.  It was so ingrained in how I grew up. 
Suddenly, I began asking myself questions.  Such as would I contribute money to any other organization with an official policy that I could never lead it solely because I am a woman?  If there were other means of transportation, would I pay to ride a bus where the driver made me sit at the back because I am female?  Every week in mass, the Church asked its entire congregation, including the roughly fifty percent who were female, to donate money.  I wondered:  what if all the women and girls all over the world stop donating until they get an equal role in every aspect of the Church?  That might prompt some change.

Lisa M. Lilly

Author of The Awakening

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Abraham's Willingness to Sacrifice Isaac (Spirituality, Religion, and Philosophy Entry 1)

The story of Abraham and Isaac always bothered me.  Abraham was ready to kill his son because a being he believed was God told him to.  That always seemed wrong to me.  If killing is wrong, how does it become okay just because at that particular moment God said it was okay?  And how did Abraham know that was God?  It would seem like if God is asking you to do something wrong, the first thing you might wonder is if the entity talking to you is really God.
We talked about this in my writer’s group once, in connection with a scene I’d written, and one of the guys said that in the Old Testament God didn’t give people the ten commandments yet at the time of Abraham.  So Thou Shalt Not Kill was not a commandment yet.  That seemed like a poor way to get out of the moral dilemma.  It might give Abraham an excuse, but not God.  I grew up being taught that God existed for all time, that God basically had no time, had always been, would always be.  So surely the rules didn’t change?  Just because in the human world God hadn’t handed down the stone tablets yet didn’t mean that before that time, killing, committing adultery, and lying were all just fine, did it?
And then there is the question of whether God is the source of what is good and bad or whether there is an objective standard.  Or a greater source, so to speak.  Even when I was a believer, it didn’t seem to me to mean much if someone did what he or she thought was right out of fear of hell or hope of heaven.  I guess it’s better than doing things you believe are wrong, but it doesn’t make a person a moral person, just a practical one.  It seems to me there is more value in doing what is right because it’s right.
Going back to Abraham, I always thought the test ought to have been whether Abraham stuck with what was right regardless that someone he thought was God was telling him otherwise. 
An interesting book on this topic is Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth by Carol Delaney.

Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening