Thanksgiving 2015

I live in the United States of America, and today is the holiday of Thanksgiving in the USA. Like Christmas, it has been poisoned with commercialism. While this day is set aside for the giving of thanks and expressing gratitude, the day following has fallen victim to advertising campaigns that have stipulated that it is a day for grasping, greedy consumption. It is a day for assembling at the shrines of acquisition with a frenzy sufficient to trample anyone in one’s path, even unto death, that one might forget thankfulness in a rage of worldly want.

And so it goes for most people through to Christmas. The bombardment of advertising is with us all through the year: Valentine’s Day is for buying flowers and chocolate. St. Patrick’s is for buying green beer. Easter is for buying chocolate and eggs and that horrible fake grass that gets everywhere. Mother’s Day is for buying things for mothers. Father’s Day is for buying things for fathers. July 4th is for buying lots of meat and fireworks. August is for buying things for returning to school. September is for buying things in general, at Labor Day sales. October is for buying candy and costumes. But in November, the advertising takes on a sinister quality. It drives people to deadly frenzies and deep depressions. In a time that Christians have set aside to contemplate the birth of Jesus Christ and the message of love, compassion, and truth that he brought, we face the demeaning chants of mammon that overwhelm that message.

We hear and see evidence that we are worthless without making new purchases. We buy things that we don’t really want or need, but we do so and experience some form of psychic release and joy because of the imprint that advertising has burdened us with. Make no mistake: the advertising these days is a highly polished product, capable of infecting even the most stalwart of men that declares, “I’m not affected by advertising!” Yes, you are. It’s that effective. Legions of psychologists have constructed those ads to cause you to believe, with all your heart, in the lies of worldly consumption as salvation.

For the film, “Czech Dream” (Czech: Český sen), the filmmakers showed how easily a lie could be fashioned to the point of driving a mind to madness. They started by shaving their beards and getting some sharp clothes – provided free to them, if they but made an advertising mention for the product in their film. Next, they created an ad campaign for a store that would never exist. The advertisers refused to tell an outright lie, but the filmmakers got the advertisers to go with a negative campaign. “Don’t shop.” “Don’t buy.” “Don’t show up.” Those were the slogans of the campaign, which, legally, were not false advertising.

Next came the psychological touch to the construction of print ads. The filmmakers showed how the makers of the ads study the layout on the page so that they produce not only a document that informs, but that convinces the reader to desire an opportunity to pay for the goods advertised. Was there deception involved? Legally, no. But, ah, there’s that qualifier that the advertisers and psychologists hide behind as they create their propaganda! “Legally.” “Technically.” Words like those mean that, while there is no legally-defined illegal activity taking place to the best of the knowledge of the participants in the activity thereof, oh, yeah, it’s totally unethical and manipulative.

Honestly, I believe that one day, a host of outraged parents could engage in a class-action suit against Nickelodeon, Walt Disney, and, to a lesser extent, McDonald’s, for causing their children to become affected with ADHD and/or ADD. By brandishing the “kid-friendly” adjective, these agents fooled parents into trusting their children’s attention spans to their advertising onslaught, leading to minds made pliant and submissive to the whims of anything flashy. I saw this affecting my child and put a parent block on those channels. With only a few days of withdrawal, she was reading again. She was also no longer nagging me incessantly about how we needed to have a vacation in a Disney property or that we needed to purchase a DVD with a Nick or Disney label on it.

Turning off the advertising on television is only part of a solution. Sadly, I still live in a world of people that are awash in ads. The ads surround me on road signs, on the airwaves, and on whatever sneaks past my adblocker software. It’s a constant mental assault. There are even programs dedicated to the best ads, as if, somehow, the advertising itself is the content to view and not just the things we allow ourselves to endure in order to see non-advertising content. And there are ads, as well, in that content. “Product placement” is as pervasive as it is perverse.

The antidote to this advertising, in my experience, is true devotion and service. I find this in my religion, which teaches me of the constant need to express thanks and gratitude, to avoid the influences of the world, and to seek after the better things that God offers us. The time I spend in devotion and service gives me true joy. Those times give me precious memories with family and friends that are beyond the prices that the pure free-market libertarians want to put on everything, even the breaths that we take. No, there are things that have no way to be bought or sold. They are much more real than the material goods that pass through our fingers on their way to the garbage dump or resale shop.

True religion is not the cause of woe in the world. False religions do cause woe, but look at the causes of false religion: one sees grasping materialism, lusts for power, and desires for control at their roots. Those things are also the causes of many, many other woes in the world. Those things are mammon. Mammon is not some deity of old – it is the Hebrew word for “money.” One cannot serve both mammon and God. The priests of mammon know this, which is why they poison the year, and especially the religious holidays, with their propaganda. Even though service to mammon destroys humanity, it appeals to our lusts and allows them to be unbridled while blinding us to the consequences that surely follow. True religion asks us to restrain our wildness, and shows us the consequences of our actions. It then encourages us to do what is right, to do what is loving. It encourages us to seek after treasures not of the world, but the treasures of true love, for God is love.

I have never bought my wife a diamond ring, and I never will. My love for her is not of this world, so why would I want a token of the world to express it? No, I bought her a small Swiss cowbell as a token for our love. It has a meaning to us (as well as anyone else that has seen “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” or DDLJ). The bell can pass from this world, but the symbolism contained in it is eternal. It is not a sign of my earning potential or folly: it is a small material representation of a vast, infinite network of devotion.

Thanksgiving, at its heart, is about humbling oneself. It is about realizing that there is much to be grateful for, even in the worst of circumstances. It is for accepting that the material world will pass and all the things of the world with it, but that something greater yet endures. It is not nation, it is not corporation, and it is not even land or sea. That which yet endures, which is greater than all things, is love, for God is love.

My nation might plunge itself into a conflict which I know to be immoral and abominable: yet I will give thanks for my family and friends. I might be ridiculed for my fidelity towards something that I cannot prove exists: yet I will give praise to my God. I might be assailed with messages that tell me I am nothing without a certain worldly possession: yet I will find joy in knowing that I am a child of God, and that He is part of my family and friends.

There is much that can be done to fend off the impact of the servants and followers of mammon. We serve and follow love when we give service. We serve and follow love when we humble ourselves and give thanks. We serve and follow love when we can find the quiet stillness within each of us, that allows us the simple, yet eternal, pleasure of discovering our unity with God.

We can all find this quiet stillness, each in our own way and after our own journey to that place. The secret to finding it, however, is not in wrath, but in patience. We find it not with purchasing, but with giving. We approach it not with grasping consumption, but with loving compassion. Mammon is found through acts of violence. Love is found through acts of non-violence.

Therefore, I wish peace unto one and all this year. Find a quiet place and a quiet time, and discover that loving stillness within yourself and let it grow in its influence upon you.

Geopolitical Directions

It’s no secret that China and Russia are both in a state of heightened tensions with the USA. All three nations have engaged in activities to provoke each other: I will leave aside an accounting of which side does more to provoke the other. The fact that the tensions exist, and that they exist at this level, let us assume as a given.

Now, what the USA is doing with these tensions is what concerns me. Yesterday, I read comments from an admiral that we need to roughly double the number of aircraft carrier groups under US command to 21 to respond to higher global tensions. Today, I read about the USA testing a Trident ballistic missile – a submarine-launched missile that is designed to deliver a nuclear warhead – just off the coast of Los Angeles, a general discussing how the USA conducted war simulations about a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic States (and how the US/NATO forces were destroyed in the conventional exchange), and now I read that Ash Carter, the USA’s Secretary of Defense, gave a speech in which he implied that Russia is intending to potentially engage in a nuclear attack on the USA.

The fact that all of these stories have come out in just a matter of days – if not hours – shows to me that it’s clear that the USA intends to continue to escalate the tensions. These three stories are basically the justification for an escalation, which would include a vast expansion of military spending. But an escalation would also increase the risk of conventional war, which in turn would lead to an increase in the risk of a nuclear war, either limited or all-out.

The USA plans to deliver MANPAD anti-air missiles to Syrian rebels – even though those rebels often become al-Qaeda or ISIS forces – and those MANPADs can be used against Russian planes. Who would Russia hold responsible if one of is planes was shot down with a US-provided weapon? If the USA deploys troops in Syria to fight alongside rebels, who will the USA hold responsible if they are killed by Russian or Iranian forces?

The fact is, Assad *is* the legitimate ruler of Syria, full stop. Assad has requested Russian aid in eliminating *all* rebels against his regime, not just those that belong to a particular group. The UN has criticized the USA for its actions in Syria, and rightly so. By supporting the rebel movements against Assad, the USA has brought forth the entity known as ISIS. ISIS then established a murderous regime that tore into the civilian populations of Iraq and Syria – and the civilian population of Syria included all the refugees from Iraq that that nation hosted. Now, those millions from Iraq and Syria are flowing into Europe, threatening to unleash a massive wave of European xenophobia. Several leaders there, including German ones, have already referenced concentration camps in public speeches.

But the USA continues to poke and probe and prod in Syria because if Assad goes, then so goes Iran’s potential pipeline to the Mediterranean and in goes Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s pipeline. If Syria wasn’t a transit country hostile to US interests, Assad could be as horrible as anyone else in the world and get away with it. Don’t believe me? Look at what Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both US allies, are doing to their people. Saudi Arabia beheads more people than ISIS and the head of Turkey is engaging in a genocidal civil war so that he can rewrite that nation’s constitution to give him dictatorial powers. Syria is all about the oil, and that is why the USA is risking a wider conflict with Russia.

Russia’s economic survival is on the line, so it will defend Assad. Syria has always been Russia’s most dependable ally in the region. Think of Syria as the Russian Israel. If massive waves of Palestinians were threatening to wipe out the Netanyahu government in Israel, you would almost count on US divisions showing up to save the day, if they were requested. We would insist upon our right to aid an allied government deal with its internal crisis and then politely ask other nations to stay out. That’s what Russia is doing in Syria, and the USA is ignoring those requests to stay out. This can lead to trouble.

In the South China Sea, China has claimed a large area of water as part of its territory. Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines also claim those waters, or parts of them. Since claims for waters are based upon nearby land, China went ahead and built some land in shallow waters, and then made its claims based upon those lands. China then built naval and air bases on those lands, just to get the point across that it really intended to claim those waters. The US response? Sail a military vessel into China’s territorial claims.

The Chinese are very, very sensitive about their waters. When a British naval vessel sailed up the Yangtze River in 1949 to prevent the Communists from forcing a crossing of that river during the Chinese Civil War, the Communists informed the British ship to turn around, as the British no longer had rights of navigation on the Yangtze River. Those rights had been established in the wake of the two Opium Wars of the 1800s in what were called “The Unequal Treaties.” The British vessel’s presence in Chinese territorial waters was highly offensive, but the Communists nevertheless gave the British the chance to do the legal thing and withdraw.

When the British refused to withdraw, the Communists opened fire and incapacitated the ship. After several hours of shelling, the British ship surrendered. The Communists had defended the honor of the nation.

Since then, the Communists went on to be simply “China”, and took lands that it felt were rightfully theirs. Xinjiang and Tibet were both areas that Chinese emperors had once ruled over, so China sought for their return to its rule. It engaged in an unofficial war with the USSR over islands in the Amur River. It took land in Kashmir and Assam from India in 1962. About the only nation to successfully rebuff a Chinese invasion has been Vietnam, but the Chinese have still tried several times to take land from Vietnam that it views as being properly part of China.

Interestingly, neither China nor Russia has ever completely invaded a country to take it over. Their goals have always been limited and, once they secured their desired territory, they halted. Granted, the Russian record starts only in 1991 with the disbandment of the USSR, but its adventures in Georgia and Ukraine have been limited. For its part, China fought the US in the Korean War only to preserve the government of North Korea, which the South Korean leaders had threatened to invade and eliminate. China holds the view that its objective in the Korean War was attained so, therefore, it won.

But back to the matter of waters and territory: China has made its claim and has told the USA that it will not always allow its ships to sail through its waters unchallenged. But, because of matters both of oil and out of commitment to its ally, Philippines, the USA will continue to make those challenges. What will happen if the Chinese order their batteries to fire after a US vessel refuses to withdraw? Will the US vessel return fire, or will it be a paper tiger? And if it returns fire, will the Chinese escalate further by formally occupying the Senkaku Islands, thereby provoking a wider conflict with Japan?

Given the US provocations in words and actions, particularly those involving nuclear weapons, I do wonder aloud if we are about to enter a war and, when the war goes badly for one side or another, a field commander will decide to use one of the tactical nuclear weapons under his control, opening up the question of whether or not a general, strategic exchange then commences.

The Most Important Search

The search for truth is something which I have been engaged in all my life. It is also something which has led me to study science, history, scriptures, and all manner of things, that I might be able to put together an idea in my mind of what is truth. I believe that all truth emerges from a common, perfect source and that all truth can eventually be reconciled with all other truth. I know that truth can suffer from the limitations of bias, but that there can be truthful experiences that have no bias to them in their purity and clarity.

I know that there is a God. I can’t prove that to anyone else. All my proofs are internal experiences, but they are proofs nonetheless. From that knowledge, I arrange all the rest of my learning and experiences around that pillar, hoping for further light and knowledge needed to fill in the gaps, to remove the biases, and to reconcile with what I think to be true with what I know to be true.

There is what I wish, in my limited, mortal folly, to be true. There is what, if it were true, would make for fewer struggles in my life. But truth is not a matter of wishing or convenience. When I discover a truth, I must change my life to conform to that knowledge, for I do not want to deny truth with my thoughts, actions, or beliefs.

In that, the search for truth is, at the same time, a process of self-purification. I have to be tolerant in my process. When I see things in others that prick my heart and remind me of my own struggles in that respect, I have to be patient and allow that, for them, wherever they may be in their search for truth – if even they are actively looking – they have not yet decided to be as I wish to be. My struggles are not necessarily their struggles, and I have to be tolerant and patient, especially if I am called upon to explain why I do this or why I do not do that.

My search is not a static one. At no point can I say, “Here is all truth and in knowing this, I need seek after no more learning.” I have my own manner of approaching God, but I can learn from others who have their own manners of approaching God. I am, at heart, a pluralist. I believe that I am on the right path, but I allow that I can still receive navigation signals to guide me further.

There are, to be sure, signals that deliberately try to mislead me. Discerning between those and the signals of truth is a massive, internal struggle. Yet, I must be patient and tolerant. I must forgive those that, in their incomplete knowledge and error, have decided that worldly gain is the greatest thing to attain in this life and that dishonesty is justified in the getting of that gain. I must forgive them because one of the truths that I have learned is that I cannot continue on my search for truth if I have not forgiven all.

Like forgiveness, there are many things that I must get right in my life if I expect to be able to continue successfully to search for truth. I don’t have to get them all right all at once, but the more right I have them, the better order I have in my life, the more efficiently I make progress towards my goal of finding that complete, wonderful truth.

I have always invited all I know to join me in my search, even if they do not walk exactly in the path that I have taken. While I am saddened when I see my invitation to go unanswered, I delight when I see someone show progress in living the kind of tolerant, patient, forgiving, faithful, disciplined, and compassionate life that is necessary in order to be able to best search for and find truth.

What Makes It Beautiful?

As I make ready to leave Hyderabad, I have to reflect on the beauty of the city. For it is not cleanliness or skillfulness of craftsmanship that makes a thing truly beautiful. It is devotion, it is love, it is dedication. That makes something or someone truly beautiful. Eyes do not always see beauty: it is felt in the heart, it pierces the soul.

Today I went to Birla Mandir here in Hyderabad. The asphalt burned my bare feet – I have a blister – but those things will heal and I will still have the beautiful memory of the place. And why? Because of the devotion that I felt there.

Although I do not share an identical faith with the people who worshiped there, I do share a yearning for contact with a power greater than me. Finding that connection is not only done in prayer and fasting, but acts of devotion that extend and reach out to other people. When we touch lives for good, we have a chance to make the world more beautiful.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, it is taught that there are three ways to live life: with inertia, with passion, or with true disciplined devotion. Inertia is the basest of those ways: one does nothing, live passes over and flows around. The inert person is useless to others, for he takes no action.

Passion is better than inertia, but it lacks discipline. One may crusade to do what is right, with great stridency, but one’s laws are not perfect laws. Passion can lead to excess, which can lead to pain for others. Passions can lead to harm.

But disciplined devotion – dharma – means that one lives actively, but within bounds set by one who is wiser and more knowledgeable than one’s self. The bounds require at times to restrain one’s passions. The bounds require at times action when one would rather not take action. The bounds require that one be not as one is naturally, but to be a person that lives above that level and who strives to bring peace, joy, and love into the world through compassionate service.

As I walked through the Birla Mandir with my friends, I thought of these things. And though I may not approach God in the same manner as they do, I do cherish that teaching of the Gita, as it is something that is true. It is something that, if I apply to my life, will make me a more perfect person.

For if we all approach God with sincere intent, we will one day all arrive at the same place. If we all live our lives with devotion, compassion, and love, all bound up in the discipline of a higher rule, we will make the earth a place where more people will have sincere intent. We will make the earth a place where it will be easier to find God.

And that world, I assure you, will be a beautiful place.

Paradise Biryani

Not a paid endorsement. That being said, they served up *7* cups of rice – *1.5* liters of rice – cooked very well with plenty of sauces. It was delicious, but I hit my “cheap and best” value mark after getting the eggs and about 2 cups of rice. My friend Andy had the chicken biryani, and there was about a half of a chicken in there, easily. I loved it, but next time I eat there, I will plan ahead on how I’m going to do it.

And for 140 rupees – just less than $2 US – this was a fantastic bargain. For it to be so good for so cheap, it’s amazing. And I will nosh on it again. It’s got a killer good blend of herbs and spices, like all great local hero fast food should have. The biryani in the 5-star restaurant at the hotel was better, sure, but this stuff is a *very* close second. If you’re down to your last 200 rupees and wonder what you’ll eat for the next 2 days in Hyderabad, the answer is simple: Paradise Biryani. You’ll live like a king off of that big ol’ bag of deeeeee-licious rice!

Video evidence of how big this pile of rice is:

In Memoriam, Dear Children…

There are times when the cosmos seems to be an idiot: blind, thrashing, killing innocents indiscriminately. My heart mourns for the family of a dear friend, who has suffered the loss of a child, as my family endured in 2001. Such anguish, such grief, such violence… the cold feeling of death penetrates the body and it feels no hunger that can be satisfied. It endures a sadness without end. It experiences a wound without closure. The shock passes over, the pain lingers long, and though one becomes accustomed to the pain, one never truly ceases to feel it, not entirely.

Even so, God is Love, and healing may still be found, though bitter experience may still make it hard to find. Healing may still be found.

God rest thy soul, good child. Thy light was dimmed too soon, but it shall burn brightly in a day yet to come.

God rest thy souls, friends and survivors. The search for meaning is difficult, even impossible at times, but meaning can be found. One must never abandon hope.

God rest thy souls, mothers and fathers; sisters and brothers. These are the sharpest tears you will ever shed. Your eyes will be cut raw with their passing. Even so, in the days to come, never abandon hope. Never abandon faith. Never abandon the pure love of Christ.

The sun eventually rises anew, and in that dawn, there is the hope, the promise of a new life and an ending to the pain.

Never lose that hope. Never.

The day will come again when Jarom Webb and Zoe Hastings will smile and laugh again. Until that day comes, never lose that hope.


First Full Day in Hyderabad

Since everyone had the day off, my work colleagues in Hyderabad took me and my fellow American traveler to Charminar, Mekkah Masjid, and Golconda Fort. I’ve posted those pictures on my Facebook page, so I’ll leave those sights to those pictures. Here, I want to talk about my non-photographic impressions.

First, the smells of India. Yes, there are spots where the sewage is noticeable, but those have been very few. Instead, the overwhelming aroma is of spices and fragrant incense. Everywhere I’ve been, I could smell the perfumes of spice in the air. It’s wonderful. I’ll never be able to enter an Indian market again without remembering the bazaar in Hyderabad.

Next, the tastes. I’m at a hotel with an amazing restaurant, and I’m tasting things I never dreamed possible. It’s a different palate, sure, but again, the spices penetrate the mind and heart and win me over, every time. I have to be careful what I put on my plate, because I will clean it, totally. And while I could order French toast or waffles for breakfast, I want to try the Indian offerings while I’m here. So far, it’s been amazing, and I don’t see any break in the action. I’ll be adventurous, and order something different each day. Today was upma with sambar. Out of this world. It’s like grits with masala.

Now, the sounds. Horns all the time on the streets. Peacock calls on occasion. Hindi, Urdu, and Telugu whizzing past my ears, with me being able to pick up scraps of the Hindi and Urdu. Bargaining. Sharp rebukes. Kindnesses. Grace and gratitude, it’s all here. I’ve slept very well in my quiet room, but the noise of the city is its heartbeat.

You might gather that I’m loving my trip here. You would be correct in that observation. Now I need to start my second full day here…