And as the semi-official state religion of today?

Church and synagogue attendance and membership are declining as the population turns gray, but that doesn’t mean many younger Americans aren’t worshiping something. It just might be an unacknowledged idol rather than the God of the Bible.

So what is the idol? One befitting the state, or secular society, rather than what’s more strictly defined as religion?

~*~

The first clue might come it that nemesis for Sunday school programs – soccer and softball leagues, which schedule many of their games and practice sessions on Sunday mornings. (Parental visitation in divorce decisions further affect the youth religious training.) It’s fair to ask just what values are the sports programs are giving our children.

Sports, of course, points to professional athletics, and if you tune into any of the radio sports talk shows, you can get a taste of the ways the players and games are worshiped by adult males. Just listen to the passion and attention. It’s fair to bet few of them have engaged spirituality with such devotion.

Beyond that, consider how much of their identity arises from their chosen team. Where I live, it’s not uncommon for an obituary to list a person as an avid Red Sox or New England Patriots fan (or Celtics or Bruins). Sometimes the following even extends to a favorite sportscaster.

Many of the teams, we should note, play in arenas and stadiums built with taxpayer money or similar concessions.

Sports also points to the cult of physical fitness – people who can find five hours a week to spend at the gym but not an hour a week for worship. Sunday mornings often turn into fundraising walks or races, too.

~*~

Another, but more passive cult idolizes celebrities. Generally, the figures are venerated for their physical beauty or sexual magnetism, which are parlayed into the entertainment or fashion business. Some professional athletes cross over into celebrity status, while a perplexing few more are simply born rich and have no talent at all other than being celebrities, kind of like royalty without the responsibilities. No scientist, surgeon, teacher, corporate executive, senator, governor, or other working leader can match the recognition a typical celebrity possesses.

For much of the envious public, following their contortions occupies a lot of time and brain space.

The whole scene looks to me like a modern-day cyber-Parthenon full of semi-mortals.

~*~

Less obvious is the way art has become a semi-official state religion in America, now that state and federal funding exists. There’s long been the recognition of the fine arts as an adjunct to wealth, for whatever reasons. Many sense an abstract “goodness” in the products of art – chamber music, art museums, Shakespeare festivals, opera, poetry, the “book” that so many people dream of writing – even if the artist himself/herself remains (often with good reason!) somewhat suspect, a shady character. Perhaps that’s why these big institutions stand between us and the rest of ourselves, as artists and audiences.

Something abstractly “good” even when they themselves admit they don’t know much about the field. Contrast that to the lesser state religions in America: collegiate and professional athletics, Hollywood movies, and rock concerts, wherein no one actually advocates any common wealth.

I raise this to point out the materialism we, even as starving artists, are enmeshed in – one way or another.  It is so easy to hold the artist up in some idealized light – or the product itself – as the object of worship, totally forgetting to turn to the source of all. The dilemma of the news photographer: Should he rescue the victim and lose the opportunity of taking a great photograph? Or remain instead “professional” and observe the world as an outsider? This holds for all artists: at one point are we being selfish in our pursuits? At what point is our solitude essential for the well-being of all?

Gets complicated, doesn’t it.

Cleaning out the pantry

Our Eat Vegan Before 6:00 approach to Advent, adapted from Mark Bittman’s book, has led us to a refreshing side activity. We’re trying to use up a lot of items we already have in our pantry rather than shopping for more.

We’re digging out a lot of legumes and grains and beans that got pushed to the back, for one thing, as well as home-canned fruits and vegetables, for another.

This “use it up” strategy is actually fun, extending to other parts of the household. It’s boosting efforts at decluttering. Do we still need this or that? Do we know somebody who can use it? Does it go into our yard sale now planned for May?

To be honest, we still have a long way to go. Guess I’ll just have to use more jam on my toast in the morning.

You don’t have to take it as gospel

Despite of having read all of the Bible – and wrestled with many of its passages – I had never read it straight through until a few years ago. (Rather, it had been piecemeal. Seeing it in the larger structure presents some unique hurdles and troubling assumptions, as well as an evolving comprehension of the Holy One and faithfulness. )

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been retracing that experience with a new post each week at my As Light Is Sown blog. My reflections, as you might expect, are quite unorthodox, and in the books of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament), they’ve been augmented by heartfelt insights and confessions by some wonderful Jewish poets and novelists – not  the stuff commonly encountered in Christian circles. You don’t have to be a believer to be engage with these stories. Think of them like Shakespearean or Greek drama, if you will, filled with human drama.

It’s a much different approach than reading it as law, one filled with more punishments than rewards. No, this is essentially about life itself.

I’d love for you to join in the series – and look forward, especially, to your reactions and comments.

Living into the Kingdom

It really is a revolutionary concept, presented toward the end of the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

To invoke God’s kingdom on earth as well as in heavenly spiritual expanses takes us way beyond nationalities, social status, even economics. It transcends our experience in everyday relationships. It’s a call for justice and peace, especially.

The idea of kingdom is, of course, unfathomable for Americans, as is a dictatorship or any other form of authoritarian rule. We can try to translate it as commonwealth, dominion, realm, or sphere, each with its own limitations. The Blessed Community comes closest for me.

Some of us take this seriously. What steps can we take to bring this closer? How do we honor the creation we’ve been given? How does governing by love rather than fear really appear?

It’s something we can take baby steps toward in our families and local congregations. It’s not always easy, but we need practice.

I find it a more engaging approach to following Jesus than the question, “Are you saved?”

Especially with the kicker, “as your personal lord and savior.”

I believe the concept of Living into the Kingdom is more essential than the Resurrection.

Yes, that is startling, even as I write it.

But it is also of the here-and-now.

How are you Living into the Kingdom?

Sustaining the teaching — and the teacher

Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.

He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.

As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:

I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.

The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:

For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.

But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:

More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.

As for her aunt Pia?

Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.

And then Cassia has more pressing matters:

Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.

Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.

The mountain?

There’s no avoiding it.

~*~

In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.

How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?

~*~

Tibetan Buddhist double-dorje emblem. To me, it looks almost Greek Orthodox.

~*~

Maybe this is backwards, but the cover can change the story

This self-publishing field means an author is typically deeply involved in all parts of the project rather than just the writing itself.

In my Smashwords releases, I initially hired a book designer to do the covers, but my current releases have all been created by me. (Someday, I really would like to have an artist design the front, but for now, I’m sticking to photos or existing stock artwork. We’re on a strict budget.)

Still, finding an appropriate image can be a challenge.

Has anyone else had this experience? You come across a picture that clicks and select it – and then you go back into your manuscript to make the visual fit better with the text?

For me, that happened with the portrait I settled on for Promise – the model gave me a clearer vision of my character Jaya. (That novel’s now part of Nearly Canaan.)

More recently, with Yoga Bootcamp, the handstand dog reminded me to keep the story lighthearted and humorous in my final revision. Did my decision to nickname the swami Big Pumpkin and Elvis come after the pooch was on board? I don’t recall now, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Do tell me about your favorite book cover. Does it influence how you see the story? If you’re a writer, has the art on your book led to revisions?

~*~

By the way, I do hate it when the character on the cover is shown, say, as a blonde but is described in the story as a brunette. That sort of thing.

And don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

Looking for more fiction revolving around yoga

My Yoga Bootcamp novel, and its earlier incarnation, Ashram, seem to sit in a rather slim niche on the bookshelf. There’s simply not a lot of fiction reflecting the experience. Devan Malore’s The Churning is among the exceptions.

Most of the books I’m finding are nonfiction, often dry doctrinaire texts from the perspective of a particular lineage. For that matter, relatively little is about the physical exercises, or hatha yoga.

With the fiction I have found, a handful books have yoga as central to the events, and each one is different. Not all of them head off to India, either. Some have a strong element of fantasy, while others are about living in the everyday world, often humorously. Well, and then there’s romance. I still think there’s more to be told, given the popularity of the practice.

For the particulars of what I’ve read, go to the reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page.

Got any related books to recommend?

Learning more about the Buddha and strands of his legacy

In my four Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, Cassia’s father is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar as well as a noted photographer. There’s even a rumor he was accidentally reincarnated in Iowa rather than in the Himalayas.

In my survey of other ebooks at Smashwords, I’ve found a range of helpful books on Buddhism. Most are of the nonfiction variety, but some tell of personal experience more than textbook classifications. A few even go for flip, self-deprecating humor. Especially illuminating are the ones by Westerners who have long practice to draw on.

Of the lines of teaching, my bias has long been toward Zen, with its spare aesthetic, and Tibetan, which is far more liturgical, esoteric, and colorful. In fact, the more I investigate, the more I’m convinced that Tibetan is a lot like Greek Orthodox Christianity (as I intuitively assumed when drafting my first novel). Zen, meanwhile, is more like Quaker Christianity – something others have also noted.

Without getting technical, what I’ve found most informative in my recent readings is the much different nature of the Buddhism that headed from India into Indochina rather than the branch that headed north in China and then on to Tibet, on one side, or Japan, on the other.

It’s quite a rich mix. To see what I’ve found, turn to the book reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page.

Got any related books to recommend?

One way I kept my unconventional sanity

I relied on writing poetry and fiction in my spare time as a discipline to counteract the conventions of newspaper editing, my professional career.

The job could feel quite dulling of any aesthetic awareness, and quite confining.

Still, some of the qualities between my vocation and avocation overlap, including an insistence on factual observation.

And now I’m free to focus more fully on my literary aspirations. Surprisingly, my focus has been on the fiction, rather than poetry. Could it be that without that dual tension of before, I can now steer a route between them?

How do you stay mentally sharp?

 

My wellspring in poetics

For me, poetry springs from quietude and meditation. I began to resonate with what I was reading and then started writing poems seriously only after I had taken up yoga and eventually moved to the ashram. My Quaker practice in the decades since has sustained the practice, even while working in chaotic newsrooms or dealing with passionate relationships.

If you’re “into” poetry, either as a poet or reader, what’s the prompting for your own interest?