Thursday, July 31, 2014

Breathing Lessons – Learning to be in the Present thru Yoga

About four months ago, my wife and I began attending a yoga class on Monday nights. Once a week we bend and contort our bodies in ways that are both surprising and often painful. Yet I look forward to each Monday because no matter how I feel when I start class, I usually leave with a sense of inner calm that sustains me thru much of the week.

Like most people I suspect, I began practicing yoga out of curiosity and because I felt a need to do more stretching. So I was surprised when on the first night, the instructor said that the only thing he wanted me to focus on was my breathing; to put aside all thoughts of the day and focus solely on breathing in and out of my nose. Every week he repeats this advice several times to the class a night saying “focus first on your breathing and secondly on your stretch.” While at times he may slightly adjust a pose I am in, generally speaking he does not focus on form but on making sure everyone in the class stays aware and focused on their breathing.

Through these four months this focus on breathing has taught me something about living in the present. Like so many people I am often tortured by decisions, actions and mistakes of my past, and worried about challenges facing me in the future. However, in yoga, the past and future, while still very much with me, fade into the background, and the present is all that matters. When I focus on my breath, and I feel the agony of a particular stretch in my muscles, it is difficult to think about the stresses of the day or my “to-do list” for tomorrow. By design and necessity, I am right there in the moment feeling my breath go in and out while my muscles stretch in ways that at times can be agonizing. However, I have learned by focusing on the breath, even the pain seems less pressing, and therefore less demanding of my attention. So too the memories of the past and the fears of the future.

Over these four months while I have gotten a bit more limber, what I have really gained is the gift of living in the NOW, not allowing myself to be overwhelmed with stress, or worry or anxiety. This lesson has followed me out of the yoga studio into other aspects of my daily life. For instance, I have sometimes found myself in traffic slowed to a crawl, where there is nothing I can do to move faster. Instead of getting frustrated, I have tried on those few occasions to focus on my breath and just be in the moment, knowing that eventually traffic will start moving and I will get to my destination when I get there.

This process also informed a particularly strenuous bike ride I made a few weeks ago. My tendency has been when I come to a hill to attack it, giving it my all, pushing myself to the top; usually I arrive out of breath and exhausted. However, on this particular ride I came to a rather steep hill that was over a mile long, and it was clear very quickly that if I tried to attack this hill I would never make it. So I remembered my yoga training, focused on my breathing and concentrated only on the 10-20 yards in front of me. The pain in my legs was agonizing, but by focusing on the breath the pain was not overwhelming (I kept telling myself: “I have felt much more pain in yoga class!"), and sooner than I realized I was on the peak of the hill. By taking the hill in small bits focusing on what was in front of me, I made the long climb.

In the more mundane things of my everyday life, I find myself resisting the temptation to stray from the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is still out of reach. All I have control of is what is right in front of me. Surely what I do in the NOW might undo the pain of the past or prepare me for the challenge of the future, but what I control is the present; so that is where my focus must be.

For me this practice of living in the present in no way is an escape from responsibility or caring about the world around me, but actually is a way of being more available to the people in my life and issues in my world. I am still aware of needs with my extended family, my adult children and my wife. I am extremely aware of the challenges facing me on my job. As I write this, I am inwardly sickened by the continuing financial crisis facing the Philadelphia School District. The Hamas-Israeli war in Gaza, the tragic deaths of the airliner in Ukraine, and the continuing suffering in so many places around the world deeply sadden me. Like so many people I could feel powerless to do anything; however I have instead chosen to make myself present in whatever way possible to the people in my life and issues before me. The people in my life and the world-at-large do not need my anxiety, stressing out, and sadness, but they may be helped by my presence and my focused concern.

Every Monday night you will find me at the yoga studio, focusing on my breathing, learning how to be in the present. The yoga poses are not nearly as difficult nor as painful as they were at first, yet I continue to be stretched physically, emotionally and spiritually by the experience. Hopefully, as I continue the practice of yoga, I will be better able to be there in the moment with the people I care about and that concerns that tear at my heart; at least that is my desire.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Requesting Your Support to Bike for a Good Cause

Dear friends,

As many of you know over the past few years I have taken up cycling as a primary form of exercise. This coming September 20 I will do two things I have yet to do in my short cycling “career.” First, I will join hundreds of other cyclers in the Bike to the Bay Ride 75 miles from Dover, Delaware to Dewey Beach Delaware, and second I will be biking to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While the first makes it a challenge, the second makes it a worthwhile challenge.

For this reason, I writing to ask you to support me in the effort to raise a minimum of $300  for research on this crippling disease, and services to those who suffer with it. Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling, disease of the central nervous system that interrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Millions of people are affected by MS and the challenges of living with its unpredictable symptoms, which range from numbness and tingling to blindness and paralysis.

You may donate in support of my efforts by going to my personal MS fundraising page at this link, or by sending a check to “National Multiple Sclerosis society” at 2205 Windsor Circle, Broomall, PA. 

I thank you in advance for your support, and for making this ride truly meaningful.



Monday, July 14, 2014

Consider the Children

Down the street from me live three children I would guess who are all under the age of 10. Often they ride up and down the sidewalk on their bikes and scooters. Whenever I walk by their house with my dog and they are out playing, they run over to pet the dog. They brighten my day because they remind me of what childhood should be, and yet isn’t for so many young people.

I have been thinking a lot lately about children and their struggle to survive. I am thinking of …
  • The thousands of Central American children who have traveled across Mexico to reunite with their families only to find an un-welcome at the Mexico-Texas border.
  • The three Israeli seminarians who were kidnapped and murdered and the Palestinians youth who were attacked by an mob of angry Israeli youth, all whose deaths have ignited yet another barrage of violence in Israel-Palestine which has killed more Israelis and over 100 Palestinians many of them children.
  • The thousands of Philadelphia students whose upcoming school year hangs in the balance because politicians are unwilling to fulfill their constitutional duties  to provide a “thorough and efficient” public school system for Pennsylvania students for fear of taxing their cronies in the gas and oil industries.
  • The four little children and their families who were killed, and others displaced, by a fire on Juye 5 that burned eight dilapidated homes in Southwest Philadelphia
  • Sherita Hamilton, whose name sits over my desk, a 19 year old girl shot to death in Philadelphia in October 2012 and who reminds of the daily carnage of youth maimed and murdered every day in this country.

Our American culture is often characterized as worshiping youth, but as I think about these young people and others like them, it occurs to me that we may worship youth in the abstract, but when it comes to real kids whose lives are threatened, we who have the means and the power to make a difference often treat them as expendable, whether its sending them off to war, or cutting back on funding for their schools, or refusing to take measures to reduce the prevalence of guns in their communities or sending them back at the border to a certain life of violence and poverty. The young suffer because of the intransigence, the arrogance and the greed of the old, and that concerns and saddens me.

In all these cases mentioned above the children are caught up in larger social, political and economic forces over which they have no control and in some cases are not even aware of. The children swarming across the Mexican border are in many cases fleeing gang violence and poverty in their home countries. The children in Israel-Palestine are caught in a land-based conflict that goes back decades if not centuries. The Philadelphia school children's education is being held hostage by politicians more interested in filling their campaign coffers than serving the people they supposedly represent. The children killed in gun violence and in horrible fires like the one in Southwest suffer because those with the power to make their neighborhoods safer fail to do so.

Youth is meant to be a time of freedom and exploration. The other day a colleague sent me a link to “30 Magical Photos of Children Playing Around the World." It reminded me of what youth should be. As you look at these photos, notice that children don’t require much: a space to play in, a box to kick like a soccer ball, and companions to share it with. Why is it so hard for us to help all children to experience this kind of joy-filled freedom?

Jesus said two things about children that are particularly poignant.

In Luke 18 he says: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” I have long believed (though the thought is not original or unique to me) that a society is best judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. In this case, we are to be judged by how we treat our children. By that measure we are failing miserably.

Then, in Matthew 11 he says: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. There is something we need to learn from children – about trust, curiosity, openness to others, and the joy of living. If we were less concerned about pursuing our own agendas, and protecting ourselves from the “other” (be it gender, race, culture, nationality, class, etc), we might bonds to build trust with those "others." We need to learn from children, honor them and provide safe haven for them.

I know in my apathy I can be complicit by my indifference and passivity on these issues. I can get so busy with the urgent demands of my life that I can forget what is most important. My world, our world, is not safe for many of the world’s children, and it should be. Obviously, the concern starts with the children in our families, and then to those like the three children on my street with whom we have contact. But it has to go beyond those two circles to the children who suffer, and for whom existence is a life and death struggle. There are obviously no easy answers, but that does not exempt us from working to provider a safer, more hospitable space for children.

I remember years ago seeing a poster that basically said children learn by what they see rather than by what they hear from the adults in their lives. What are the children in our lives seeing as to how they and their peers are regarded in this society? We need to consider the children. The responses to these and other crises are complex and come at great cost. However, if these children were our children would we respond differently. According to Jesus, they are our children. How will we respond.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Addressing Guns at the Level of Culture

Three years ago on a sabbatical, I spent some time studying the gun culture. I read a few books by sociologists who had interviewed gun enthusiasts and spent a fair amount of time on the websites of organizations like the NRA and the Gun Owners of America. (One thing I did not do, which I intend to do in the near future, is attend a gun show and talk to folks; I have to admit the prospect is a bit unnerving).
 At the same time I have paid attention to the people most outspoken in favor relaxing restrictions on guns, and why they think that is so important. A couple weeks ago I attended a gun violence prevention rally and a small group of pro-gun counter-demonstrators were waving American flags and signs while their long guns were conspicuously strapped over their backs. They looked pathetically ridiculous to me, but they were dead serious, and in the next day’s news they were displayed nearly as prominently as the gun violence prevention advocates; for good or ill they have the media’s attention.

Then  I thought about my June 6 posting (“It Starts with the Guns, Stupid!”), which attracted 4-5 pro gun advocates who berated my position that guns should be more fully regulated (expanded background checks, one handgun a month limits, mandated reporting of lost or stolen guns) so as to discourage straw purchasers. I got comments like the following:
  •             owning a gun is a protected right in America. You don't have to agree...but so long as it is protected, requiring finger printing for that right is not only unconstitutional…”

  •  -        So if you do rid America of firearms what do you recommend for people to use for self-defense? Should I be limited to pepper spray when attacked by a thug 20-30 years younger than me? Who put you in charge to decide what self defense method is the best for me?

  •  -       Gun control means that whomever has the guns is in control. Who do you want that to be?

  •  -        So one gun a month is an acceptable infringement of the 2nd Amendment? Then I guess you also support a one comment a month in order to exercise the 1st Amendment? Or a one time a month application of the 4th Amendment if hassled by the Cops? Or a once a month use of the 5th Amendment?

Despite several attempts to say I wasn't against legal gun ownership, these critics took my comments to mean I covertly wanted to rid all guns from all persons. Statistics and facts about the relationship between the prevalence of guns and gun-related injuries and fatalities were not persuasive.  In the end the only things I could get them to agree with was (1) they had a basic mistrust of the government and so opposed any sort of government regulation and (2) they believed that violence is inevitable so they felt a need to arm themselves in self-defense.

Now, I grant you I don’t endorse this way of thinking, but I have come to the conclusion that any effective strategy to reduce the prevalence of guns in our society needs to address the issue at the level of culture.  In a recent NY Times Op Ed Brendan Nyhan wrote about “When Facts and Beliefs Collide.” While he was speaking about global warming debate (more specifically why certain climate change detractors aren't convinced by scientific facts), I think his insights apply equally to the issue of guns. He writes “The deeper problem is that citizens participate in public life precisely because they believe the issues at stake relate to their values and ideals…”

When Nyhan speaks of values and ideals, he is talking about what makes human beings unique and about the power of culture. Culture is what gives people a sense of meaning and belonging, who I am and who I belong to.  People will go to the mat for their values and ideals. Values and ideals are the origin of some of the world’s greatest good (Think: King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and most incredible evil (Think: Hitler’s “Final Solution”). People will often allow their reason and common sense to be guided by values and ideals, and they interpret their reality through the lens of those values and ideals. That’s why, as Nyhan points out, people with strong values and ideals are not swayed by facts, logic or reason. They have no need of them because their culture has already given them their truth.

For pro-gun advocates, the Second Amendment is the center of their truth. The right to bear arms is an all-encompassing ideal that shades everything they believe. They believe that if every home had a gun in it, we would all be safer. From who or what I am not sure, since everyone would have the ability to shoot each other, but that is their belief. When I heard young woman who I deeply respect say that to me recently, I nearly fell off my chair. For me a gun in every home is frightening, to her it was safety.

All of which brings me back to culture. Guns and violence are deeply embedded in the American social psyche; in some quarters they are central to what it means to be a man, a husband, a father.  Our heroes, our favorite movies, our favorite TV shows, our sports – center around the use of violence to solve problems, and often that violence involves guns. Guns are the ultimate expression of individualism; one can protect his (usually it is a he) loved ones without need of help from others. For many the gun culture is a source of camaraderie, much like old Army buddies gathering for reunions. And let’s not forget, it is a huge business. God, family, patriotism, manhood, freedom – all get wrapped up with the right to bear arms. Values, ideals, beliefs – these are the stuff of culture.

Somehow we must find a way to engage the pro-gun folks on this level – the level of their values, beliefs and ideals. What that looks like and how that is done, I am not sure. However, there was a time when smoking was considerate sophisticated and cool; now it is seen as pathetic and pitiable. Culture changed around tobacco; it can change around guns.

It has too or we will never break the polarization that exists. Simply focusing on facts will not win the day. Political victories in this age of big money seem few and far between. High profiling shootings, not to mention the nightly tragedies in many urban communities have not created a sense of urgency. I am not suggesting we ignore the facts, or stop pursuing political avenues or turn fatalistic toward the daily carnage. However, I am suggesting that unless we can engage American pro-gun culture on the level of ideals, beliefs and values, we will never prevail.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A Fully Funded Formula for Public Education: A Moral and Spiritual Issue

Governor Tom Corbett (on left) provided Exhibit A  for why the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania needs to pass a full and fair funding formula for public education in Pennsylvania. Earlier this week, state legislators from Philadelphia, plus the mayor, the superintendent and members of the School Reform Commission (SRC) petitioned the legislature to give the city the right to assess a cigarette tax, the revenues of which would provide needed finances for the schools. The governor responded by offering them a deal: vote for a revision in pensions for state workers (something even members of his own Republican party did not support) in exchange for the cigarette tax. by  trying to play hard ball politics the governor showed his true hand by pitting pensioners and union members against  school children, so he would not have to assess higher taxes on his corporate cronies in the shale gas industry.

Groups such POWER and PCCY have been urging the passage of full, fair funding formula. In its study of how public education funding is decided across the country, the Education Law Center
found that Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the country that do not have some sort of legally binding formula for determining how public education is funded. Furthermore, they found that Pennsylvania places a greater than average burden on local communities to raise property taxes to fund their schools. The result of this combination means that there are huge disparities between wealthy and poor communities as to the amount of money that is raised to support public schools. Moreover, when it comes for the state to “make  up the difference” decisions are made on the basis of political power and favoritism, rather than which districts have the greatest need. So not only is the amount of funding from the state for education woefully inadequate, what money is disbursed is done so without reference to need, but rather to political favoritism.

In those states that do have a formula for education funding, several factors are considered,  such as poverty rates, special needs children, the number of ESL students, the number of students in foster care, the number of children with disabilities and the like.  Because there is a legally binding formula, decisions are made on the basis of need, not cronyism. However, not only must there be a formula, there must be adequate funding. The state is woefully short in this area too. The governor and the legislature will boast that they have increased education funding, but if one is only paying half the bill, that may keep the bill collectors at bay for a while, but sooner or later the bill becomes due.

The bill for adequate and fair funding for public education is way overdue. The Philadelphia school system is about to collapse with overcrowded understaffed schools with too few auxiliary staff to keep the schools healthy and safe for students and teachers. The cigarette tax will only help Philadelphia reach last year’s level of funding, which itself was woefully inadequate. By trying to play hardball with school funding the governor shows just how closed minded and callous he is. By proposing a budget that does not begin to meet the needs of school districts across the state, the legislature shows just how blind and callous they are to the real needs of the people.  

When injustice and callousness becomes so ingrained that people have no conscience about what they are doing, they display what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.” Many a preacher on stewardship Sunday has reminded parishioners that one’s budget and checkbook offer a statement as to the state of one’s soul and the quality of one’s morality. By that standard the governor and the legislature have gone just about as low on the scale as they can go. It is time for Pennsylvania to enact a fully funded formula for public education and give the children of the Commonwealth the quality of education they are guaranteed by the state constitution. The issue is not simply about politics or money; it is about how we will regard and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst, in this case school children. In that sense a full, fair funding formula is a deeply moral and spiritual issue for political leaders and the communities they are called to serve.

[This blog entry has been sent to Governor Corbett, as well as Sen. Ted Erickson and Rep. William Adolph, my representatives. Rep. Adolph is also head of the House Appropriations Committee which determines the budget. This blog has also been submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer for consideration on the editorial page]