on a quiet walk through james madison park after dropping a heavy piece of news

Soundtrack:  Ride, “Leave Them All Behind”

After I made my last post, I decided to go out for a walk to James Madison Park for some exercise and to think quietly to myself.

It’s the last warm day of the year.

So much is happening.

It might be a joyous month.  It might be a difficult month.

I see giant splashes of yellow in the trees arching over Butler Street as I cross into the park.

I stare out over Lake Mendota. My good friend Lake Mendota, who has listened to many conversations going on in my head over the last several years.  It is 73 degrees out.  The fall colors are at their peak.  Across the lake I see rolling hills of red, yellow, orange and green. 

Looking out to the north and west I see dark clouds moving slowly our way, indicating the possibility of rain.  The clouds are dark but I see no lightning, and I do see streaks of sunshine coming through.  As the clouds grow closer, I see bright fiery colors where those streaks of sunshine are as the sun behind them begins its descent.  I feel a cool breeze that tells me the weather is about to change.

The seagulls congregate on the grass, but then scatter with each jogger and pedestrian that  comes through.  The ducks are floating in the water–a little group here, a little group there, and it almost appears that they are watching the approaching clouds as well.  They seem very calm.

I feel peace. 

the mask crumbles

Soundtrack:  Slowdive, “Waves”

Since the beginning of this blog, I have tried to sing the praises of Sukyo Mahikari, the spiritual path that I’ve called my own for eleven years.  One of my purposes in starting this blog has been to try to put out something positive about Mahikari on the Web. Part of the reason is that there have been many disgruntled former members posting negative things about the organization, and little effort by Mahikari members to put out alternative viewpoints. Also, I wanted to put my writing ability to service on behalf of what I believe in most strongly.  

I have had many positive experiences with the spiritual path over the last eleven years—some of which have been posted on this blog. I have fond memories of the Light-giving open houses I used to hold out of my apartment in Chicago, of the trips I took to Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota to visit group members (and the time a group member and I spontaneously started a Light-giving open house in a bar outside Stevens Point, WI at 10:30 p.m.) of the trip I took to the Autumn Grand Ceremony in in Takayama, Japan back in November 2000, and a wide array of other spiritual experiences that have colored my eleven years in this organization.

But what I’ve posted about Mahikari is only half the story. It was only half of me talking.  

The truth is that the other half of me has had some very serious issues with the organization for quite some time now.  I’m not going to go into details—I see no point in condemning an organization that, despite its flaws, has definitely helped me grow spiritually over the last eleven years.  But those flaws do include things that go against my core values.  I thought for years that the organization would change—there were some signs that it might, but I finally came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t.

I’ve never really been afraid to say within the organization what I honestly think. Several kanbu within Mahikari are well aware of most of my concerns with the organization.  But in the blogosphere, I’ve been publicly concealing my concerns about Mahikari because I’ve felt that the best and most appropriate way to address them is within the organization. After all, my primary goal has been to build and promote the organization.

But no longer.  I am leaving Mahikari.

An astute observer of this website may have noticed a few weeks ago that I removed the page that talked about my reasons for being involved in Mahikari, and later I removed links to the Mahikari organization websites.  I started the blog in part to promote Mahikari, but try as I could, I found it hard to write about that spiritual path.  I think what I was really was doing, even from the beginning nearly two years ago, was to try to rekindle a fire that was dying and perhaps already dead.  I wanted to write and express myself, but more and more, I found that I couldn’t talk about Mahikari anymore, to close friends or to anyone.

I just can’t hide this fact from my readers anymore.  I have probably written literally thousands of pages in my journals sorting out my feelings about the organization. What has been on this blog has been only a small portion of me, and I’ve been remarkably silent, especially in the last few weeks.  The reality is that a lot of things have been going on with me, a lot of things that I consider to be exciting and revolutionary.  Walls are crumbling within me and it feels very liberating.

As these changes progressed within me, I began, a couple of months ago, to open some books on the Baha’i Faith that have been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly two decades. I seriously considered the Baha’i Faith at the end of the 80’s, but for various reasons chose not to go in that direction. But now I’ve started going to the Madison Baha’i Center to participate in the devotionals and some study classes.  We’ll see what comes of it.  

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that since I’ve started seriously considering this change, my prayers have become more genuine and whole-hearted. At one point my prayers were ritualistic and literally on automatic pilot. Occasionally I would even fall asleep while praying. Now I am no longer going through the motions in my prayers, and it’s gotten to the point where I look forward to them every morning and evening.  

I wanted to hide my feelings about Mahikari until I was sure, absolutely sure of my decision to leave.  Right now I am quite sure. I also accept that I will never be absolutely sure about anything.  I am re-opening a door I closed eighteen years ago and I’m discovering new treasure inside. I had very good reasons for closing that door at the end of 1989 just as I have very good reasons for opening that door at the end of 2007.  As such, I can’t completely rule out Mahikari or any other path in the future, either.  But my reasons for leaving Mahikari are very sound, and I have little doubt in my mind that it’s the right thing to do.

If you are considering Mahikari as a spiritual path, I can’t tell whether you should get involved or not—that’s a personal choice. I did grow spiritually through my involvement in the organization. I would, however, suggest that any visitor to a Mahikari center or who receives light energy from a Mahikari member should pay close attention to what s/he sees and hears.  Ask a lot of questions.  Then ask more questions.  And if Mahikari members start to get uncomfortable with your questions, politely ask even more of them.

In the meantime, I am not going to join other ex-members in slamming the organization.  I am leaving Mahikari with many fond memories. But those are all in the past.

And now it’s time for me to move on…

a war on obesity or a war on obese people?

Can Big Brother succeed where Weight Watchers, Nutri-Systems, the Atkins Diet and Dr. Phil have failed? Or is a new scapegoat for spiraling health care costs being created?

When there seems to be excessive focus on a particular subject in the news, when people seem altogether too quick to talk about a certain “trend” or “epidemic,” a part of me has learned to ask, “What agenda is being advanced and who benefits?”

A few months ago, I began to notice CNN airing a lot of stories about different aspects of “the obesity epidemic.” I found amusing the repeated loops of CNN’s stock video showing ample mid-sections of various people walking down the street.

But my amusement turned to a more uneasy feeling a few weeks ago when a study talking about obesity being “contagious” was aired on CNN and other mainstream media outlets. The study claimed that people in social networks with obese people were more likely to become obese themselves. The researchers had merely pored through old data of a completely different study to draw an association. They associated A with B, but could not identify the causative factor between A and B. Instead, they introduced some rather wild speculation, suggesting that the “disease” that was “spreading” between people was social acceptance of obesity.  Anyone who remembers seventh-grade science class would know that it is necessary to determine whether A causes B, B causes A, or whether other factors, like C, D and/or E, might be causing both A and B at the same time.(For an excellent article debunking the theory, click here.)

Journalism used to be a profession in which tough questions were asked of anyone making broad assertions. The City News Bureau in Chicago was famous for the adage, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Media acquiescence in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq showed how deficient that characteristic is in modern American journalism. Few in the news media were asking the Bush administration, “Why Iraq? Why is this suddenly important now? What has changed? And what does this have to do with the ‘War on Terrorism?'” And the degree to which the mainstream media uncritically printed and aired the story on obesity being “contagious” shows me that little has changed.

An article by Gary Tauber in New York Times’ magazine, “Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?” (9/16/2007)  shows the methodology of these studies, saying that, “the investigators monitor disease rates and lifestyle factors (diet, physical activity, prescription drug use, exposure to pollutants, etc.) in or between large populations “¦They then try to infer conclusions – i.e., hypotheses – about what caused the disease variations observed. Because these studies can generate an enormous number of speculations about the causes or prevention of chronic diseases, they provide the fodder for much of the health news that appears in the media.”

He goes on further to say that “they can distinguish associations between two events “¦But they cannot inherently determine causation – the conclusion that one event causes the other”¦ As a result, observational studies can only provide what researchers call hypothesis-generating evidence – what a defense attorney would call circumstantial evidence.” This is exactly what I was saying about the “obesity is contagious” study a few weeks ago. Yet, Tauber points out that “they have come to play a significant role in generating public-health recommendations as well.”

Not scared yet? Recently I read two more articles referencing “obesity epidemic,” that further scared me.

Kate Harding’s blog highlights a situation in Washington D.C. where a youth is closely monitored by authorities and frequently taken away from his home because he is obese.  Sandy Swarcz, a medical professional who writes the excellent blog “Junkfood Science,” has been following reports out of Britain about children being taken from their families and put into the care of the state because of their weight. According to the Daily Mail, doctors at the British Medical Association’s conference last June put forward a motion that parents of obese children under the age of twelve be targeted under child protection laws. The motion failed to carry. And consider this chilling quote: Dr Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Taking children into care for this reason should never be necessary. What we should be doing is monitoring children from birth so we can detect any deviations from the norm at an early stage and action can be taken”¦But if the parents refuse to collaborate and the child becomes obese, I consider that a form of child abuse and taking them into care may be the last resort.”

A recnet article in the Wisconsin State-Journal just last week, “Worker’s fume about employers’ nosiness,” (can’t link–Madison.com’s search engine is not user-friendly) talked about how workplaces are refusing to hire or penalize people for smoking and exceeding certain blood pressure, body mass and blood glucose levels. According to the article, Clarian Health in Indianapolis charges penalties if employees smoke (even outside the workplace!) or exceed specified levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and other measurements, with penalties potentially reaching $30 per paycheck. Michigan-based Weyco fired four employees in 2005 who used tobacco-another tried to quit smoking, failed, and left the company because she said she “saw the writing on the wall.”

These practices are frighteningly intrusive and involve an unprecedented invasion of privacy. Worse, they punish people for a condition whose cause is not necessarily clear and whose cure is even less clear.

The diet industry would like to have you believe that they have the cure for obesity, if only people would obediently follow their programs. The fact of the matter is that there is wide disagreement on what causes people to gain weight and what causes people to lose weight.

I experienced this personally when I discovered after nine years of being a vegetarian that wheat was making me gain lots and lots of weight. I cut wheat completely out of my diet and, without making any other changes, I lost 30 pounds in three months. But then I began to develop sensitivities to other grains, and I gained back the weight and more. In 2001 I joined a health club and went to the gym three times a week for an hour workout each. At the end of the year I gained twenty more pounds and noticed that I was becoming more sensitive to soy. In the last two years, I’ve had no exercise program and have minimized, but not eliminated wheat and other grains, and my weight has been stable.

So Weight Watchers, Dr. Phil, and my new friend Big Brother, what does that tell you about me? Do you really think you have the answer for me? By the way, I have been eating three eggs every morning for about a decade now and my cholesterol level is 170. Okay you fancy-pants nutritionists: what do you really know about what my body needs and how it operates?

This new intrusion into the private lives of people is not going to cause many people to lose weight. Indeed, I believe the opposite will be true. Desperate people will take desperate measures to prevent themselves from being penalized, and try diets that may make their situation worse, as diets often do. Stress is often a cause of weight gain-I’ve seen that in my life-and the added stress caused by these external threats will only hurt, not harm.

Meanwhile, the food industry will increasingly give us more and more processed foods, so-called healthy cereals and “nutrition bars” with lots and lots of sugar, and pesticide-laden and genetically-engineered produce. Weight Watchers and Nutri-System will make a lot of money off the “obesity epidemic.” (I’ve noticed Nutri-System, in particular, advertise heavily on CNN just as the number of stories on the “obesity epidemic have gone up.” Coincidence?) And we’ll hear yet more and more stories about the “war on obesity.” But they won’t be fighting this “war” for our health.

Another recent new story is more comical than disturbing-after the movie “Sicko” was released Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said, “Michael Moore is an example of why the health care system costs more in this country,” and then went on to describe how his own health care costs dropped dramatically after he shed more than 100 pounds over a period of several years. Yet in light of the other stories, I find myself wondering this might be part of a concerted effort to create a scapegoat for spiraling health care costs.

I would like to think that people have nothing to worry about. I would like to think that maybe I’m overreacting.  And I can’t rule out the possibility that at some point, somewhere, some kind of intervention may be needed.  But it really worries me that greater and greater levels of government and private-sector intrusion are being justified for smaller and smaller problems.  I really have to wonder–where is this increased intrusiveness going to stop?

toward a (achoo! cough, cough) “touchable world”

Soundtrack in my head:  Broadcast, “Come On Let’s Go”

Yesterday, I crossed a line I never thought I would cross.  I bought a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

The reality is that I seem to be more susceptible to colds than I used to be.  I was feeling quite ill at work yesterday, though I felt significantly better today.  This time last week, I was also feeling more under the weather than usual.  And I also had colds in late August and early September.  All of them were minor, none were serious enough to keep me from work, though there were a few times I would have liked to go home early.

It would be easy to attribute my newfound susceptibility to my lifestyle changes over the past few years.  Six years ago I was living by myself and working as the sole employee of a small not-for-profit organization in an office by myself.  I got a cold less than once a year, but it’s a wonder that normal social graces didn’t entirely disappear.  Since then, however, my life has swung to the opposite end of the pendulum, in that I now live in a co-op house with twelve other people and I work in a cubicle maze where there are 100-200 people on my floor.
Oddly enough, though, I didn’t start getting colds more often until this year, despite living in my co-op house for 4 1/2 years and working at my current job for 3 1/2 years.  Perhaps it might be attributable to a bout of pneumonia I had last Christmas that developed from an unexpectedly severe allergic reaction.  Perhaps there are other reasons.

I’m trying not to be a germophobe. I don’t want to look at every doorknob and hand rail with suspicion. I don’t want to touch everything with a tissue and run away every time someone near me clears his/her throat.   If you want to make yourself paranoid, Purell gives you 99 reasons to be on their website. 

But I guess I can’t be too laissez-faire about it either.  Nevertheless, if you see me holding up a Purell bottle and looking at you through it like they do on the commercials,  I give you permission to throw a glass of cold water at me.  Just don’t drink from the glass, first…