26 April 2011

Health: Relationships and Social Obligations

In our formative years, we are subject to relationships with people we did not consciously choose. We are at the mercy of our families or guardians. Eventually, other relationships develop: teachers, babysitters, friends of our parents or guardians, etc. When we finally make it to school, we have autonomy for the first time in choosing our friends from amongst our peers. 

What criterion did we use to choose those first friends? Did we have interests in common? Did we share a similar sense of humor, cultural background or socio-economic status? Or did the people we count as friends simply make us feel good?

Soon, our relationships begin to grow more complex. The onset of puberty seems to mark a significant increase in confusing and often conflicting feelings about our friends, our families and other people in our lives. Many of our expectations become unspoken assumptions and we find ourselves crushed emotionally when others don't seem to share our sense of how relationships should work. We find ourselves having to negotiate our emerging sense of self, our values and our boundaries with what we were taught at home versus our own experiences.

As we enter adulthood, some of us may create families of our own along with an assortment of other kinds of relationships. We now have co-workers and colleagues, managers, landlords, financial advisors, and the strange, impersonal relationship with companies and service providers.

The issue that all these relationships have in common, regardless of the particular stage of life we are in, is the balance of power and obligation. When we are children, we have little, if any power over the people in our lives. We are subject to the authority of our parents, guardians, and eventually, other adults such as teachers and coaches. One of the beautiful freedoms of reaching the age of majority is that we can exercise much more personal agency in the choosing of people in our lives; but it can also be frightening to realize that degree of responsibility in choosing relationships wisely.

The overculture teaches us that some relationships remain sacrosanct, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Adult children are still shamed if they decline to remain in contact with a parent who is abusive. Frequently, being a "good" family member means coming to all holiday and family events bearing gifts, in spite of travel costs or other factors. Being a "good" friend often means supporting or giving lip service to behaviors you find self-destructive or offensive. Similarly, being a "good" family member means biting one's tongue when elderly relatives make sexist, homophobic, racist  or otherwise offensive comments or jokes.

Why do we feel obligated to continue these relationships? What are we getting out of tolerating the intolerable? Why do we continue to subject ourselves to people who make us heart sick?

The root of the problem is, I believe, fear. We fear being seen as ungrateful to our families of origin. We fear being seen as judgmental, self-righteous or arrogant. We fear loneliness. It takes great courage to stand up for yourself and eliminate destructive relationships. 

Ask yourself if you feel energized, inspired and loved by your friends and your family. Do you feel supported? Do you look forward to seeing them? If your relationships make you feel tired, drained or taken advantage of, you need to reconsider the relationship. In some cases, the relationship can be renegotiated - but it requires the other person or persons being open to changing the balance of power. Other relationships are best culled.

The people in your life - especially the people you choose to surround yourself with - won't be perfect, but they should make you feel good. They should share your core values and support your efforts to live your best life and make the most out of opportunities. They should foster an atmosphere of mutual caring, consideration and self-improvment. Life is complicated enough - your relationships should be a port in the storm, not another drama with which to deal.

Imagine how much less stressed out you would be if you spent your holidays doing what you really wanted to do and with people you really wanted for company. How much more full would your wallet and bank account be if you ceased buying gifts out of obligation and instead, gave gifts because it brought you joy to give someone you loved something they would cherish? How much more relaxing would your holidays be if you didn't have to drive or fly for hours? How much happier would you be if you spent your time socializing with people who "got" you? Whom you weren't merely tolerating out of obligation?

Spend some time thinking about the relationships in your life and notice how your body feels when you consider the people in your life. Does your chest constrict? Do you feel panicked or tired? Do you feel happy, or anticipatory, or do you feel anxious? The feelings typical of stress: quickened heartbeat, tightness, especially in the chest, anxiety, fatigue, shortness or shallowness of breath - are all indicators that the relationship to that person should be reconsidered. Be courageous - choose to surround yourself with quality people!

22 April 2011

Happy Earth Day!

Use today to make a resolution for the next year - something to benefit the earth. Bonus points if it saves you money, and/or improves your health too!

20 April 2011

Money & Environment: Doing It Yourself

Creating solutions to everyday problems can be extremely gratifying. Making things yourself can also save money and reduce negative impact on the earth. Here are some things to consider when thinking of doing it yourself:

Do you have the tools to complete your project?
Some projects require special tools, or a complement of common tools that may be out of reach for the urban Pagan apartment-dweller. Are the tools' usefulness transferable to other projects? If the tools are particularly expensive or cumbersome, it might not be worth the cost to do-it-yourself. Also consider that you might be able to borrow or rent tools to complete your activity. For really expensive tools, consider a place like TechShop for professional tools.

Are the materials more costly than purchasing the finished project?
In some cases, buying the materials can be more expensive than purchasing the finished product. It isn't unusual to spend more at the fabric store for all the necessities to sew clothing than it is to buy it off the rack. If your aim is to save money, sometimes it is cheaper to buy the finished item.

Is it labor intensive or does it require specialized skills?
Many Pagans fantasize about making their own ritual knife or sword. However, blade making is a skill that requires lots of practice to develop. If you're committed to learning a highly technical skill, there is no reason why you couldn't go for it - only you know your own time constraints.
This is also where knowing your Real Salary can come in handy - is it worth your time to make something yourself? For instance, unless you're a hardcore foodie, making your own tortillas is a labor-intensive undertaking that probably won't give you the returns on investment of time that spending a few bucks at the local mercado would.

Is quality important?
In some cases, it will be really important that your finished project is of high quality. If you make a piece of furniture for instance, it will need to bear the weight of a human adult reasonably well. If you are building your own greenhouse, you'll want the windows to be well supported. If you make your own pottery, you'll want to make sure your glazes are lead-free and safe for food.

Are aesthetics important to you?
In many situations, unless you're willing to put in hours and hours of practice, your hand-made objects will look handmade. In other situations, function is more important than form. I have created some objects that are lamentably obvious in their hand-crafted appearance. If you prioritize the looks of an object, and you don't have the skills under your belt, it might be better to just buy it.

SF Bay Area folks - The Makers' Faire is coming!!! May 21 & 22 Lots of exhibits and presentations to inspire DIY projects - check it out.

18 April 2011

Environment: Ancestral Home

I love vampire novels for a variety of reasons, some of which are probably deserving of their own blog post. My current obsession are the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris. The heroine, Sookie Stackhouse is a lovable, down-to-earth character whose more virtuous personality traits keep her both in and out of trouble.

Within the pages of several of the books, the house that Sookie inherited from her grandmother is described in detail. It's an old farmhouse - in continuous possession of the Stackhouses for over 160 years. It was built by one of her ancestors (a great-great-great-great grandfather?) and added to over the decades by subsequent family members.

In one paragraph, Sookie describes her bedroom as she gets ready to retire for the evening. As she climbs into her grandmother's former bed, she discusses how her linens were embroidered by a great-aunt, her quilt sewn and an afgan knitted by other female forebears. She says very poignantly that though she lives alone, she goes to bed each night surrounded by her ancestors.

Part of me longs for that kind of connection to my family. I have a few heirlooms that have been bestowed upon me by grandmothers, aunts and my parents, but I could hardly say that I'm surrounded by things once used and loved by my ancestors. The ability to continue to maintain and use items that have been in the family for generations would be in many ways, the ultimate way to reduce your carbon footprint.

The other part of me finds that kind of connection to the past to be stifling and oppressive. I would feel obligated to preserve these everyday objects and turn my home into a museum instead of a comfortable sanctuary for myself. The few precious things I do have are carefully packed away and not used for fear that they may be broken or compromised in some way.

How do you maintain your connection to your ancestors? Do you still use your great-grandmother's potato ricer? A shawl crocheted by an aunt? Your mother's pyrex dishes with the blue flowers? Your great-grandfather's tools? Your grandfather's pocket watch? or has everything in your home been purchased new (or new-to-you)?

15 April 2011

Environment: Paper Clutter

Today, I am going through stacks and stacks of papers collected over the years: tax returns, old receipts, manuals for appliances I sold or donated ages ago, term papers, college essays, old invoices... I find that clearing out the paper clutter is much easier than the "stuff" crammed into our bursting-at-the-seams houses and storage units simply because I don't have any emotional attachment to an old Starbucks receipt.

Here are some ideas for knowing what to keep, what to shred, what to toss and what you should try to find in digital format...

1. Financial Paperwork

  • I have used Quicken for so long that I'm not sure I know how to use the old-fashioned check registers any longer.  Switch to Quicken or other reputable personal financial organizing software. Be sure to backup your data frequently.
  • Go green, stop paper waste (and the higher risk of identity theft) by switching to e-Statements from your bank or credit union.
  • Continue on the green fiscal policy and switch your monthly bills to e-Statements.
  • Pay bills online.
  • Save tax returns for up to 7 years; shred the old ones.
  • Use your personal finance software to create budgets, or import the data into Excel for more data manipulation options.

2. Manuals & Receipts
When I buy something, particularly if it is an electrical appliance, I keep the receipt. If I can find the owner's manual online, I will download the file (often a .pdf file) to my computer for future reference and then recycle the paper manual. If I can't find a digital version of the owner's manual, I attach the receipt for the item to the front cover and keep it in a special file. If anything goes wrong, I have all the information I need at my fingertips.

Recently, I had to exchange a slow cooker I purchased on sale at Williams-Sonoma many years ago. When I brought it in, the ladies at the cash register were surprised to see it, but they could only offer me a fraction of what I paid for it as store credit without the receipt. Not to be daunted, I produced the receipt which was shockingly almost 8 years old. I received store credit equal to the full amount of my purchase price. Moral of the story - it does pay to hang on to some paperwork!

3. School Papers: Essays, Term Papers and Theses
Unless there are particularly significant messages written on returned papers, digitize these papers and toss 'em. I have a grand total of one paper I wrote in a creative writing class; the professor wrote me a particularly ironic and amusing note without ever realizing that he was doing so. I save it to remind myself that I can paint some detailed pictures with words.

4. Old Invoices, Receipts
If it's paid, toss it. Unless the receipt is for a serviceable or uniquely valuable item, toss it.

5. Reference Materials
Chances are, this is the first time you've looked at this stuff in years. Equally probable - it's likely the last time you'll look at it in years. We get so much information with the ease of the internet - recycle old reference materials after scanning and saving the useful bits.

Be ruthless! The shredder is your friend!

13 April 2011

Money, Health & Environment: Perfectionism

Something I heard growing up was the old saying, "Don't bother to do it if you're just going to do it half-assed!" I'm sure most of us have heard something similar, as I'm sure we all struggle with the perfectionism that it suggests. Perfectionism is paralyzing - creating layers of excuses as to why we can't do something we profess to desire.

I first really noticed my perfectionism when I started to practice yoga. I delayed taking my first class because I wanted to make sure I had all the "right" stuff: the best yoga mat, the cutest clothes, the most unique bag and all the other goodies: straps, blocks and blankets. Then I spent hours reading about different styles of yoga, the history of the practice and the philosophy. I told myself that I was being smart by being so well-prepared; in reality, I was just stalling. Then it became an issue of having enough money; I wanted to take the beginner's track at the Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco (which, as wonderful as it is, it is very pricey) - another stall on the path. I had convinced myself that everything had to be "perfect" before I could practice - amazingly, I finally did begin.

I soon realized that this perfectionism spilled over into many other areas of my life. If I couldn't pay off a debt in one fell swoop, I would give up, thinking that it was no use trying since I couldn't do it "perfectly". If I tried a new hobby or wanted to learn a new skill, I would quickly stop my efforts if once again, I failed to have miraculous and prodigious talent.

Recently, I've been seeing several reviews for a book titled Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. The premise of the book, and several other recent titles, is that really successful people are not child prodigies or natural talents. Rather, successful people committed to practice regularly - hours and hours of practice over several years - to become extraordinary experts. Even in the face of adversity and rejection, their commitment to practice has made them triumphant.

Today, I've accepted that maybe I'll never be able to lift my body into urdhva dhanurasana, but I don't need to wait for the perfect yoga mat or to be able to afford unlimited classes with the "best' teachers. I only need my commitment to continue daily practice and seek the wisdom of my Self.

I still struggle with my perfectionism, which is really a fear of failure taken to extreme denial - but I find I recognize it sooner and can battle it better. Some questions I ask myself: How is your ego being challenged? Why do you fear failure? Do you think other people will laugh at you if you fail? Will they lose respect for you? We use perfectionism as a way to never do anything or take risks. I have found that most people are too wrapped up in their own experience to even notice that you are taking personal risks and courting failure. The truth is, you will fail. Probably many times. It's not the end of the world and is essential to our learning process. Why is failure so scary to you? What is really at stake if you should fail? What does it cost you if you never try?

Are you a perfectionist? What are you putting off until the conditions are "perfect"? What have you denied yourself in the name of being better prepared, ready for or well-researched?

11 April 2011

Environment: Home Decor

Beauty is important to me, essential even. I find beauty to be nourishment for my soul, yet my aesthetics are rather eclectic. I love the intricate, nature-inspired work of art nouveau and the rich, detailed pieces of Waterhouse and other Neoclassicists and Pre-Raphaelites. I also love the stark beauty of desert landscapes and the postminimalists. One of my favorite artists as a teen was Patrick Nagel; his extreme stylism and streamlined images evoke ancient Egyptian art.

My tastes, especially in home decoration, lean sharply toward the clean lines and uncluttered minimalism of Scandinavian design. I abhor tchotchkes and knick-knacks. I seldom decorate for the holidays. I favor live plants over cut flowers. Despite the lack of decoration, I have left an indelible mark on my surroundings. Somehow, my home is deeply personalized and beautiful.

I have a close girlfriend who is a wonderful decorator. Her home is always beautiful - it is filled with beautiful things. During various holidays, her home is always festive and decorated with items associated with that particular time of the year. She enjoys bringing out the decorations she's collected over the years and everyone who visits her home enjoys seeing them.

I tend to think of decorating, especially for holidays, as a big hassle. Everything has to be drug out of the garage, closet or attic, organized, put out and hung up and after a few weeks, the process is repeated in reverse. I find no joy in the prospect of decorating, so I don't bother. Perhaps I'm too practical or utilitarian for decorating to be a part of my household affairs. Others however, love to decorate and happily spend hours putting colored lights, ornaments, flowers, ribbons, and other decorative items around their home, arranged just so to showcase their delights.

08 April 2011

Money: Getting Our Attention

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine - a Ceremonial Magician - said to me that our Gods have many methods of gaining our attention; the most popular way was to 'mess with our money'. Over the years, I have heard similar statements from other Pagans of varying paths. The bottom line is - if our Gods are unhappy with us, they will cut off our allowance like a punishing parent.

This doesn't sit well with me. Why would I spend my time developing a relationship with deity who would vindictively harm my financial well-being if I had somehow offended her or him?

My first problem with the idea of financial punishment is that it is petty. I can conceive of no way to reconcile what I know of the divine with this characterization of mean-spirited spitefulness. My Gods have been a source of comfort, beauty, wisdom and protection. I can't imagine them toying with my cash flow to make a point.

The second problem I have with this train of thought is that it isn't effective communication. If our Gods are trying to get our attention or change behavior, jeopardizing one's ability to eat and keep a roof over their heads isn't going to elicit stronger feelings or behaviors of a spiritual nature. If anything, it keeps people scrambling to meet their needs for survival and tied up with bureaucracy. I can't think of a worse way to get someone's attention.

Perhaps I am naive, but even Aristotle recognized that "happiness seems to require a modicum of external prosperity." I can't think of an ancient culture that did not have a God or Goddess of prosperity and wealth. I like to think that the divine wants us to prosper, to have the things we need; then we are free to have leisure and contemplate the cosmos and our place in it and our relationship to the Gods.

06 April 2011

Money: Pagans, Careers & Finances (Part 1)

Money remains a taboo subject of discussion in our culture. Most of us would rather discuss politics, religion or even sex than reveal our thoughts and personal practices around our finances. Good or bad, our finances are tightly bound up with our identities and feelings of worth - to expose our financial affairs is to open ourselves to scrutiny: our habits, our vices, our weaknesses and strengths, our status. Although they are separate issues, our self-esteem and our net worth seem to be inextricably linked.

In the first few weeks of business school, as all of us eager and idealistic students got to know each other, it was clear that many of us had altruistic aims. Many of my colleagues worked for non-profit organizations and were hoping to not only further their careers with an MBA, they hoped to promote the ideals of their organizations.

My first professor noted our general liberality and idealism with an indulgent smile. He told us all that we should be aware that as our careers progressed, and the more money and assets we collected, our views would likely become more conservative. It struck me as grim and cynical, but I suppose most people can afford to be idealistic and liberal when they don't have much to lose.

When I look around the Pagan community, I notice that many of us don't seem to be interested in the traditionally lucrative career paths, favoring instead the humanities and arts. Although we seem to be lifelong learners, few of us are able to transfer these skills into money-making opportunities. When I read the results of the first Pagan census, I noticed that the computer sciences were among the most popular career choices, followed closely by nursing and social work. There were very few attorneys and accountants and no physicians.

Perhaps, as my professor suggested, we Pagans are afraid that affluence will cost us our ideals and maybe even our values. We seem to be both suspicious and envious of those who prosper. We possibly assume that the prosperous among us are less devout, less connected to the community or have maybe even sacrificed spiritual attainment on the altar of financial security. Do we fear the loss of leisure time to a demanding career? Or maybe the increased scrutiny of outsiders correlated to enhanced job titles and salaries?

I'd love to hear from my Pagan readers - have you foregone a promotion or a more lucrative career track in favor of your spirituality? How would you characterize your relationship to money? Do you feel you have enough? or can you barely make ends meet?

04 April 2011

Money: Debt

I admit it, I despise debt. Some financial advisors say that some kinds of debts are better than others, and that may be true. Regardless of the character of debt, I still hate it. Whether you have credit card debt, a mortgage, or student loans - you are still tied much more firmly to a job you may hate, just so you can make your payments. Becoming debt-free gives you so much more freedom and latitude to explore options previously unavailable to you.

Other authors, bloggers and financial advisors have all said what there is to say about getting out of debt. I recommend any of the following sources for strategies for getting out of debt:

Your Money or Your Life
Dave Ramsey's Financial Makeover
Man vs. Debt
Get Rich Slowly

I follow a combination of the advice from the aforementioned sources. In short:

  • Sell everything that isn't essential. Use the proceeds to pay down your debt.
  • Prioritize your debts; usually by the highest interest rate, but some debts may have other terms that might make them higher priority. 
  • Throw as much money as possible at the priority debt, while maintaining minimum payments to your other debts. When one debt is eliminated, continue this process until they are all paid off.
  • Get a second job. Take odd jobs. Whatever it takes to increase your cash to use toward paying down your debts.
  • Eliminate all your "extras" - no more stops at the cafe, no more meals out, no more movies. Nothing. Nada. Use every cent you can towards paying off your debts.
  • Cut costs in other areas to free up funds to throw at your debts. No one needs cable television - you are paying to be advertised to! Turn off lights, lower the thermostat, dry your clothes on a line or rack, drive less - anything to reduce your expenses and save money.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Yes, life will suck for awhile. Temporary suckage is far better than a lifetime of enslavement to credit cards, loans, mortgages and personal debts. Like Dave Ramsey says, "Live like no one else, so you can live like no one else."
  • Eliminate temptations and surround yourself with support. Some people aren't going to be happy that you are no longer going out to lunch, going to happy hour, or doing other things that cost money. Stop catalog mailings - you don't need the temptation to whip out the credit card and spend money you don't have!
  • Don't go to the mall and avoid window shopping - envy develops when you are bombarded with things you can't have or afford to buy. 

Good luck! Getting out of debt is hard work, but it absolutely essential if you want a life of financial independence and peace of mind.

Quick note to my readers: I'm going to devote this entire week to discussing money. However, on Wednesday, I'm going to get away from the technical (I think I might be boring you all!) and spend some more time on the issues around money and the Pagan community. While I think these technical items need to be taught and addressed, I want to build a Pagan-specific framework for discussing money and our values around finances.

01 April 2011

Health: Yoga, Embodiment and Avidya

Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived. False identity results when we regard mental activity as the very source of perception. Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness. Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past connected with particular objects and situations. Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

-Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 2:5-9
(translation by TKV Desikachar)

With a nod to the Theosophical movement and the works of Aleister Crowley, modern Pagans have been influenced by the philosophy and spirituality of the East (well...since I'm in California, wouldn't that make it the West?). Many of our spiritual practices come from Hinduism and Buddhism - meditation, chanting (mantra) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Yoga has also become a staple in Pagan practice as it provides a unique opportunity to align body, breath, mind and spirit.

The yoga sutras speak of a human affliction - avidya. The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom, or the deep knowledge of the True Self gained through practice and experience. The prefix a modifies the word to mean lacking or without. The word avidya then points to an ignorance of the True Self.

False identity can also present itself as a denial of identity. Many of us are very attached to the notion that we are not our bodies. Recognition of one's mortality can cause deep anxiety so we tend to identify with our personality or spirit in an attempt to only embrace the eternal. Unfortunately, we miss the second half of the equation: we are not only our bodies, but our bodies are part of the whole of ourselves.

Some mistakenly believe that you cannot be spiritual and be embodied simultaneously. Astral travel, pathworking, and trance are all various methods to cast the consciousness out into the world, but when our work is done, we return to a functioning, breathing body. Our body is still part of our spiritual experiences, no matter how hard we try to ignore or minimize it.

Some are so addicted to the feelings of happiness that the body can provide - the taste of sweet wine, a lover's touch, the earthy-sweet melt of chocolate, the soar of emotion when viewing inspiring art and the pull to dance to great music. The temptation is to continue to experience only these pleasurable physical feelings to the neglect of what the body may need. For others, perhaps their bodies were a source of shame. Maybe they were uncoordinated or ridiculed for their appearance. Maybe they experienced pain, injury or illness in such a way as to believe they had been betrayed by their body. Dissociation is a reasonable response to these experiences and we frequently cover or numb these unwanted sensations with a variety of drugs.

The first sutra of the second chapter (of the yoga sutra) tells us: The practice of Yoga must reduce both physical and mental impurities. It must develop our capacity for self-examination and help us to understand that, in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.

Is this not the aim of the magician? The alchemist? Inscribed above a doorway to the temple of Apollo at Delphi was the phrase temet nosce - know thyself. We cannot truly know the whole of ourselves without integrating our bodies and fully inhabiting them. How many of us can truly listen to our own body? How many are so familiar with their physicality that they can accurately interpret their body's signals? While we long to commune with the divine, we must also ground deeply and be fully embodied - only then will we have the proper relationship to ourselves and knowledge of the True Self possible.