Vipassana Meditation: a Short Guide

I’ve been practicing a certain type of meditation for more than two years now, and it has brought countless benefits into my life. I’m writing this post to answer the most frequent questions that people ask me about this practice, so here goes.

What is meditation?

There are many types of meditation. The one I practice is called “vipassana”, which is a Pali word that means “to see things as they really are”. Practicing vipassana allows you to experience impermanence on the level of your bodily sensations. Simply put, it helps you experience how everything comes and goes, moment to moment. Knowing this on the deepest experiential level allows you to “let go”, “be with the moment”, and all that stuff you read in self-help books.

Are you saying self-help books are useless?

The thing is, you won’t become happy by listening to someone talking about it, or by reading this blog post, or by reciting wise words someone else came up with. Reaching “happiness” takes rigorous effort and continuous practice. It takes will power and discipline. Of course the words help, for that is how you absorb the information, and information empowers you. But ultimately, you need to put the words into action regularly and continuously in the direction that these words point to. Otherwise, they are just words, and you will not benefit from them.

Well, I don’t need some technique to help me!

If you need to better your health, don’t you consult a doctor – or at least, Google? To better your physique, a sports coach; to better your diet, a dietitian. All these experts provide techniques on how to better that specific aspect of your life. A meditation teacher gives you a technique that trains your mind, which is the primary source of suffering and misery.

I’m neither suffering nor am I miserable. I’m already happy the way I am.

It’s great that you’re already happy – don’t you want to become happier? 🙂

Fine, but you’re talking about Buddhism. I’m a Muslim/Christian/Atheist/Skeptic.

Vipassana was taught by the Buddha, that is a fact. But I like to insist that what he taught is simply a mental exercise. That’s it. He was not interested in starting an organized religion. He was interested in liberating people from suffering.

There’s nothing religious or sectarian about vipassana. It’s like doing sports, except that the benefits are far superior. It’s like riding a bike: hard at first, but once you “get it”, there’s no turning back, you’ll know how to do it and you’ll enjoy doing it.

How did you learn it?

Ironically, I picked up a self-help book which, to be fair, had some interesting insight into the impermanence of thought, and how one should try to observe those thought patterns and drop them. But it was extremely lacking in any practical techniques. Thankfully, someone recommended another book which was all about the technique itself. It was (relatively) smooth sailing from there, since the technique is simple, and all you have to do is keep practicing.

I mention a number of resources for reading more about vipassana meditation at the end of this post.

How do I start?

Before you can practice vipassana meditation, there are two prerequisites. The first is living a moral life. The traditional five rules to living a moral life are:

1. Don’t kill
2. Don’t lie
3. Don’t steal
4. Don’t engage in sexual misconduct (rape, infidelity, or any other sexual act which hurts you or other people)
5. Don’t take intoxicants.

That means: be kind (to yourself, first and foremost), forgive (yourself, first and foremost), and exercise control over your addictions (whether they are drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, other people, talking about other people, sex, work, etc).

And the second prerequisite?

It’s learning how to stabilize your mind, ie, gain the power of concentration. This is the basic tool which will allow you to practice vipassana effectively.

There are many concentration exercises. This is the one I practice:

1. Sit down in any posture with a straight neck and back. Be still. Don’t move. But if you really need to change your posture after a while, go ahead. Then go back to being still.
2. Focus your entire attention on the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip.
3. Be aware of your natural breath coming in and out. Don’t try to alter the breath, just observe it.
4. Don’t “follow” the breath, ie, don’t move your attention; keep your attention fixed on the area below the nostrils, above the upper lip, and watch the breath come and go in that limited area.

– Do this for at least 30 minutes everyday.
– Of course, thoughts will distract you from your mission, so whenever that happens, gently come back to awareness of the breath (remember, be kind and forgive yourself if you’re not good at it right from the start).
– If you find that you’re not staying with the breath at all, not even for a few seconds per sitting, then do some slightly hard, intentional breathing and observe that. You can definitely notice the breath coming in and out when you intentionally do it. Do that for a minute or two, then go back to natural breath.

Tip: You need to commit. You need to practice daily. Everyday, set an alarm to go off in 30 minutes, and promise yourself that you won’t end your practice until the alarm rings. Otherwise, there is no benefit.

How do I know that my concentration is improving?

The criteria is how long you can remain aware of the breath coming in and out in a single stretch of time. So, if you can remain aware of the breath for 10 seconds at a time without major distractions, keep going! Try to go for a minute at a stretch. If you can do a minute, try for 10 minutes without any interruption, and so on.

I can be aware of the breath, but thoughts keep trying to distract me! And there’s an itch in my armpit that doesn’t want to go away. And I’m hungry, I need to go eat!

That’s why I said “remain aware of the breath without major distractions“.  In the beginning stages, there will always be distractions. There’s always something going on either in your head or on your body. A silly thought, an annoying itch you can’t scratch (because you can’t move during your sitting, remember?), or a stomach growl that reminds you of yummy food. But that’s what the whole thing is all about! You’ve go to fight those urges and stick to the breath. It’s a mental exercise to establish will power and concentration.

So there will be distractions, but your job is to put those distractions “in the background”, and keep the center of attention on the breath.

Tip: you will notice how most distractions during your concentration exercise are thoughts about things you regret or fear or desire or worry about. That’s why living a moral life (the first prerequisite) is so important, since living “the good life” will make you regret less, fear less, desire less, and worry less. Hence, it will allow you to gain concentration more.

Cut to the chase already, how do I practice Vipassana?!

The specific vipassana meditation technique that I practice can only be learnt by taking a 10-day course at one of the meditation centers around the world. Having a qualified teacher to guide you (which I am not) is crucial to learning the technique properly. So if you’re really into it and you want to give it an honest shot, take a 10-day course.

Sorry! I guess you were expecting a less ambiguous answer!

It’s OK, I forgive you. But can’t I at least read about it?

Sure you can. But remember, reading is not the same as practicing. Here are the resources I came across while exploring vipassana:

An all-inclusive introduction, videos, and Q&A: http://www.dhamma.org/

A great introductory book that explains meditation simply in both theory and practice: http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/mindfulness_in_plain_english.php

A no-nonsense, very technical book that covers almost everything you need to know about mastering what the Buddha taught (a bit advanced, for serious readers only): http://integrateddaniel.info/book/

How can I join a 10-day course?

Go here and look for “Worldwide Course Schedules”. The courses are purely donation-based, so all you have to do is show up and commit to finishing the 10 days. Once you’ve completed the course, you can choose to donate if you found the technique helpful.

Tip: If you spend 3-6 months practicing morality and concentration before going to the 10-day course, you will benefit so much more during the course when you start practicing vipassana.

Wait, so is this all about “enlightenment”? Nirvana?

Nirvana, which translates roughly to “enlightenment”, is to realize impermanence at the deepest level, thereby releasing yourself from the bondage of suffering, and cultivating deep compassion for all beings. It’s a shift in your very being that comes after practicing meditation for a duration of time.

Isn’t that just for prophets and saints?

Nope. The thing is, anyone can do it. It’s possible. There are thousands of people out there who have reached it, and so can you.

If you’re someone who looks up to people like Jesus, Mohammed, or any other saintly beings – you admire their wisdom, strength, and kindness; you cherish them as role models; you try your best to follow in their steps – then meditation will certainly help you do that better than ever before.

If you’re someone who is not sure what life is all about, doesn’t see any purpose to it all, or feels like “it’s all a bunch of bull”, then meditation will teach you to appreciate the bull anyway 🙂

If you’re someone who’s already happy and doesn’t feel the need for any self-improvement, good for you! Please let me know how you do it.

In short, vipassana meditation is an incredible tool for “living life to the fullest”. For me, it’s the ultimate tool. It could be for you too.

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Conflagration of Oblivion

I wrote this upon arriving to Zhuhai, China for the second time, on Monday, January 8, 2007. In retrospect, it’s still a powerful statement.

In the end, you glance to the sky and you realize that the Earth is a speck of dust in an endless bowl of sand. You try to zoom out to the farthest reaches of the universe, crossing systems and galaxies in the eye of your mind, and when you think you’ve reached the very borders of existence, you arrive at your own self: a being with nothing but this life, blessed with a watchful mortality that smiles and asks “now?” every once in a while, but sighs in disappointment as you decide to venture once again into this strange, strange world, where you have something as blissful as the boston cream doughnut, yet people still insist on slitting each others’ throats because of “political differences”.

I’d rather chew on my doughnut, thankyouverymuch.

Friends, hope you are leading a fulfilling life full of both the magical and the shitty. Chinese proverb say, “One cannot experience happiness without a little poopy on the doormat every once in a while.” Yes, I welcome any unholy events which may arise unknowing, so we may drink together and dance around the conflagration of oblivion. Neither child nor god will be spared!

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Dubai: Beauty behind a Fence

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Thursday, April 14: From Beirut to Dubai.

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Brother picked us up. While in car, Baba talks about how much Dubai has expanded. This is to occur a few more times Smile

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Received by Ammo Nasser and the family in Emirates Hills. Lovely to see the whole Al Salah (or El-Salah, depending on preference) family together.

Everyone seems interested about this meditation retreat I went to. I explain the procedure, technique, and results. People are impressed, but seem reluctant to go through it themselves. “A path towards eternal happiness? WHERE?! Oh, 10 days of keeping my mouth shut? Ah, not for me”. Oh well.

Went back to Bro’s, where I will spend most nights.

Friday, April 15: Gym with the Bro. First workout in a long time. Then relaxed in rooftop pool. Dubai is like a mistress of comfort. Siren of Luxury.

Wedding Time! I made a music CD with caricature drawings of bride and groom, and gave it to the bride (my cousin Rasha). Wish I took a picture of it before dispatching!

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The Jawhara Hall is grand. The wedding, extravagant. The food, opulent. The Palestinian Dabkeh dancers, loveable. The people, beautiful.

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Saturday, April 16: Lunch in Dubai Mall. Then another humongous dinner with the family. It was in this beautiful newly opened Turkish-run palace called Zaabeel Sarai.

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Said goodbye to bride and groom, as they’re going to Vietnam for honeymoon!

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Sunday, April 17: At beach with Mum. Public beaches rock.

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Monday, April 18: Spent the whole day at bro’s building. Gym, rooftop pool, shower, snack, internet, meditate, nap, TV, dinner, sleep.

Tuesday, April 19: I love metros. Dubai in April may be walked.

Spent the night at my uncle’s, with Teta. Over 90 and still funny, still witty, still in the game.

(My photo with Teta taken by Auntie Wafaa. Waiting for that photo!)

Wednesday, April 20: Walked around the Corniche at Emirates Hills. Nature, artificially placed. Still, it’s nature. Placed there for our entertainment. Still, it’s nature. Inaccessible to most – beauty behind a fence. Still, it’s nature.

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Big hug to all the laborers of Dubai. They build the scrapers. They cook the food. They drive the taxis. They clean the streets. They make it all happen with a smile.

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Humongous family dinner at Auntie Huda’s. Best mansaf ever. Ever. Also took pictures of my cousin Nadine’s artwork for future reference on a project I’m working on.

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Thursday, April 21: Went to Mall of the Emirates, where they have Shake Shack (best burgers ever. Ever.) and an indoor ski slope. Malls suck. But one can still find beauty there.

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Night out at People, a very posh club at the top of a pyramid in Dubai. Danced with a drunk British girl – how totally unexpected! (sarcasm)

Friday, April 22: Lunch in Rawi Pakistani restaurant. Best butter chicken ever. Ever.

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Saw Dubai fountain. Those water streams were really dancing to the music. Beautiful.

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Saturday, April 23: Night out with Suz and Ali (my cousin and her fiance) before my plane leaves at 6 AM. Good talk on meditation and life and religion.

Had to take a pee at front lawn of Suz’s building while we wait for my taxi to arrive. My special way of saying goodbye to Dubai.

Lighting at hotel elevator was scary. Took a photo. Zombified in Dubai – almost.

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Bottomless Black Pits

Or, How to Deal with Loss

A friend of mine was speaking of loss. At a young age, he lost a person very close to him, and looking back as objectively as possible, it was that event that made him believe in the spiritual realm. He just couldn’t accept that this person was just gone. How can this person just be erased from existence when their presence is so felt, so real, even after his final escape? “To live in hearts left behind is not to die”.

There are varying degrees of loss that occupy a wide spectrum. After a night out with a group of friends, you say goodbye. The moment you are left alone, there is that subtle feeling of discomfort, that ever so slight heartache. You walk home, eyes chasing the nightly path leading to bed, while mind goes through the funniest moments of the evening, in an attempt to chase away that discomfort. As soon as the good moments are gone, they are transformed into memories which we can access and feel good about: a warm blanket for our now cold-lonely hearts. Passersby uncomfortably watch you giggling to yourself, politely diverting from your trajectory for fear of their own safety.

On the other end of that spectrum, there is the blowing crash of death. Tears run down so profusely that at some point, you are sick of it. But you cannot stop. You sit there watching yourself cry. “This is getting ridiculous. When will it stop?” In Roman times, mourners collected their tears in vials and placed them in the grave of the mourned. It was their way of coping: the sadness had to be buried with the corpse. Life had to go on.

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia”. Milan Kundera wrote this in his “Unbearable Lightness of Being”, and it marks true: to watch your homeland fade away as you cross the border to a strange wilderness; to sit with your father as cancer dissolves his once vibrant body into yellow flesh; to hear the announcement of a relationship’s end, after you’ve woven so many hopes and dreams into its fabric. What you thought was a resilient fort melts into a blob of sand, and a sea of tears flattens it into nothingness. Even resilient forts are dubious sandcastles, given enough time.

We even avoid taking risks for fear of a future loss – what is commonly referred to as anxiety. Loss makes us hurt, makes us fall into a bottomless black pit, and we need a tree branch sprouting from its edges. Anything to grab, anything to hold, so we can be saved from this torment.

What are the ways of dealing with this precarious state of affairs? How can we deal with this bottomless black pit? Human cultures try to accept loss as a part of life. “Death is Truth” the Arab saying goes, as well as “What is past is dead.” However, Arab culture, as well as American culture, still console loss with faith, and seek refuge in coming futures or other worlds where everything and everyone shall be resurrected: “We shall return victorious”; “His spirit lives on in heaven”; and “She’ll change her mind” – a flying carpet (or electric escalator) that they find in the dark, after hitting rock bottom.

The French rock band Noir Desir sings in “Le Vent Nous Portera”:

This perfume of our dead years –
What can knock at your door?
An infinity of destinies:
We lay some down but what remains?
The wind will take it away.

The French deal with their bottomless black pit differently: there is a beauty to loss, a beauty even more riveting than that of finding love. The pain itself is beautiful, and we must savor it, experience it till the last drop. To the French, this bottomless black pit is a bottomless black heaven, and we welcome its muddy floor with open arms as it slams into our smiling face.

Buddhism finds that impermanence is the main characteristic of this universe, of our very own personal experience, day to day, moment to moment. Impermanence, loss, or death – whatever we call it – simply is. It’s happening every second all around us, and there is no escape from its pain. However, we can train ourselves to accept this pain with equanimity and compassion, to cease resisting it, thereby ending the suffering that our mind produces from pain. To the Buddhist, there is no spoon… er, I mean, bottomless black pit. The pain is there, of course, but the bottomless black pit, i.e., the emotional and thought baggage that comes with it, is just an illusion which can be transcended.

I hope I didn’t stereotype too much. All cultures share a common ground, and I wanted to pick out the most prominent aspects of each culture. It doesn’t mean it’s absolute truth. Whichever way you chose to deal with your loss, I hope that it is working out for you.

I promised a couple of bold yet fragile adventurers that I would write a post before the end of the year. This post’s raison d’etre is their constant nagging. Better late than never.


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War is Over!

Last May, the Western world celebrated 65 years of peace since the end of World Word II. Death and destruction everywhere else. Hmmm…

When I was in Amsterdam last May, tripping on mushrooms, I was fortunate enough to witness the commemoration of the end of WWII at the city’s National Square. It was greatly dramatic and touching: the sad military orchestral music, the people standing in deep contemplation, and the great obelisk in the middle being furnished with flowers and candid prayer. I’m glad Europeans (and to a lesser extent, Americans) regard war as a very terrible thing. Unfortunately, I thought, they only apply that standard on their own territory, leaving the weapons industry to fuel all conflict in the “non-Western” world.

There was a call for two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of all the wars that ravaged through Europe in the past two centuries. And there I was, wearing my red and white Koufieh, military snow jacket, my Arab face, and rugged 10-day old beard, bursting with laughter right in the middle of the National Square of Amsterdam. “The war is over?! Hahahahahaha!”

The absurdity was just glaringly, viciously hilarious. The war is not over, it has been “relocated”. Democracy and peace have not triumphed; they’ve been raped and subdued to serve the White Man’s whims. Democracy for Us, subjugated dictatorships for The Others, so we can control their resources and keep selling cars and malls and diamonds and gold-flaked vodka. Peace in Our land, war and military bases in Theirs— divide and conquer, no opposition to Our might!

And yet, no one objected to my horrendously inappropriate laughter! There were uncomfortable stares, of course, but I felt safe in the warm blanket of Western democracy that let me laugh and let me object without objection. The kind people of Holland did not seek conflict, for they were commemorating its alleged end.

Why can’t we have the same democracy? Why can’t we have the same peace? My mushroom trip got more intense, and these two questions incarnated into electrifying pulses that traveled through my body. I stopped laughing and I gawked, mouth open, up at the sky. With the wind’s harsh whisper in my ears, the sun shone through dark grey clouds, and I felt I was being carried up. My eyes rolled up into their sockets, and with mixed feelings of joy and fear, I felt my spirit stepping up onto the toes of beautiful Revelation.

A horrific shriek snapped at my ears. I opened my eyes, just to make sure that it wasn’t me who was screaming. The crowds from the other end of the square were panicking, running in every direction, running towards me! Someone fell and got trampled on, and bikes were crashing on the stone-paved street, there was shouting everywhere. Was I hallucinating? No, this was real. I stood there and looked at them in bewilderment, and raised my hands to make them stop. “Calm down,” I kept repeating soothingly, “Calm down.” Security forces on horseback rushed to the source of the commotion, and people eventually slowed their pace.

A spokesperson came up to the podium and called upon the crowd to calm down (stealing my ideas, eh?). A wave of clapping and thankful sighs swept the crowd, and everything was back to normal. What the hell happened?! A little while later I met a pretty blonde Dutch girl wearing a stark green coat. To me, she looked like an elfish cherub sent from God. Given my Koufieh and smart Arab looks, she was curious what I was doing here. “Just enjoying Amsterdam,” I said, with a huge smile on my face. “So what happened? Why were people running?” I asked, the smile apparently not going anywhere. She explained that it was nothing. A man screamed and fainted (probably on mushrooms!), and people thought they were under terrorist attack. Yes, they thought they were being attacked by terrorists who hate democracy and hate peace. “People are afraid,” my green cherub said. “They found a bomb in New York yesterday by the South Park studios. They’re airing an episode about Mohammad today. People thought that the terrorists would attack here too.”

Now I was laughing even harder. Even my Dutch cherub joined in: “Hahaha. It’s really silly, right? Hahaha!” You bet your angelic butt it is!

We live on the same planet, and as much as “The West” would like to wash their hands off the rest of the world, Karma, as the saying goes, is a bitch. I had witnessed an epic drama of paradoxical complexity, in which the celebration of “democracy and peace” was subconsciously decimated by the very same celebrators to reveal a black shroud of fear that ruled over their lives. It was the Fear of the Other…. the Fear of Me!

Afterword: My psychedelic trip was coming to an end. The charming houses lining the streets stopped wobbling like jelly carton boxes. The pavement stones no longer drew circles around me, and the clouds no longer twirled and danced to the command of my magic index finger. I was back to “reality”.

This article is coming to an end too. I hope you enjoyed it. I would like to share with you this documentary on the history of Palestine, which answers— though partially— the inherently funny question “Why do they hate us?” Unfortunately, language inadvertently divides the universe into subject and object, them and us, and it is quite hard to explain how the world is actually one, and the political boundaries we draw on this Earth are only a reflection of the psychological fears that we carry in our minds.

I would like to thank Tamz for asking me the questions that inspired me to write this blog, and the Joneses for their constant nagging to write another post, and Lyev for being my “guardian lion” in Amsterdam. Mwah.

A kind word to Westerners: Colonialism is not over, it has just taken more cunning forms. Your governments still rule outside of their borders! So make sure you know what their foreign policies are. Anyway, watch the documentary, go to Amsterdam, and eat some shrooms. Maybe then…

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Back to School

Religion aims to teach, but gets a life lesson instead

I recently watched this TV commercial by a company called “New Moment New Ideas”. The commercial was commissioned by the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, Ministry of Education and Science. The commercial falls under a social campaign aimed at promoting education. The conclusion of the commercial says “Religion is knowledge, too – bringing religion back to school.”

The advertisement puts an old, pessimistic, aggressive, God-hating professor head-to-head with a smart, calm, angelic God-loving boy – the ultimate caricatures of “good” and “evil” pitted in a battle of wits! Of course, the boy wins the battle, and the aforementioned slogan is stamped into our retinas. After watching the commercial, some people might think “That so made sense! I was so touched! We must bring religion back to school!” However, let us run over a few basic fun facts then see what happens.

First of all, I must admit that studying religion and its history is a crucial aspect of education; this falls under the category of studying any form of civilization or social order. Such a class is normally labeled “Civilizations” or “Social Studies” or “History”. However, the ad seems to call for something else entirely: to integrate the religious institution and its doctrines into the school curriculum. Hence, our argumentative journey continues.

The ad is so devious in making us think that the events are true, and that the boy is none other than Einstein! However, a quick Google search shows that these events are pure myth. Indeed, the events in the video are a figment of someone’s imagination and that confrontation between “Einstein” the boy and the teacher never happened. Anyone remotely familiar with Einstein’s life knows that he was an agnostic (some say a pantheist), and never held up any form of institutionalized religion in good favor.

Now, let us look more closely at the boy’s argument. The boy uses the proven existence of physical elements like light and heat to prove that darkness and cold don’t exist, which is physically true. But one cannot follow the same logic in order to prove that evil is the lack of goodness; goodness is not a physical element! We could have just as easily said that goodness is the product of the lack of evil, given a different dramatic episode in a different school. And that’s how the cookie crumbles.

Even worse was the argument postulated by the professor to deduce that God is evil. No self-respecting teacher, atheist or not, would offer such a lame argument! But this particular teacher is made to be emotional, angry, and dark, as if all non-religious people were born of Satan and feed on their own crankiness. It seems the director chose not to integrate the myriad Positivist and Humanist philosophers into his caricature of an atheist teacher. On the other hand, all religious people, like the boy, are serene, logical, and loving.

So now we have established that this commercial is by far the worst piece of propaganda in a long time. It abuses the legacy of a great man to win us over with false facts, petty logic, stereotypical characters, and clichéd drama. But let us say that this commercial was simply a very bad representation of the original statement: religion should be put back in school. How about it? Should religion really be indoctrinated into our children’s hearts and minds from an early age? To that, I can only say this:  Human kindness is not a registered franchise of religion; it can exist and can be taught without the added baggage of religion. However, if one is to follow a religion, it has to be a personal choice. It is unethical and unkind to brainwash our children into choosing one.

“But we know which religion is the right religion to teach our kids! Ours!” I can hear them exclaim already. Yes, your religion’s history of bloody expansion and unyielding control is certainly a testament to that. “But our Godly religion has nothing to do with those bloody human practices you speak of!” As if religion is somewhere up in the sky, waving to us from its heavenly abode. Religion is man-made. Whether it is ordained by God or not, it is the people that form a religion. We can make all kinds of excuses for why religion is not bad, and why it is the people who are bad. But my argument is: religion makes it so easy for people to be bad in the name of God. We can only look at human history for blinding proof of this.

I propose an alternative to religion…simply, humanism: wanting to be good for the sake of goodness, without fear of hell, lust for heaven, or surrender to overpowering gods. To have passion for life and compassion for humanity is enough. To have dignity and strength is enough. The idea of God, the all-seeing judge, the all-powerful father, the all-good forgiver, becomes a burden that we can easily cast away.

Let us bring our humanity back to school. Let us bring it back to our lives.

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