Rachel Neumann

Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness

Editor's note: With the election past, it's time to take a breath and celebrate what we've accomplished. It can also be a  time to roll up our sleeves and delve deeply into the work and joy of our continued struggle for a more just, equitable, and sustainable globe.  How do we best move forward?  In this excerpt from her just released book, Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness, Rachel Neumann tells the story of  her unique journey from  a skeptical, fast-talking lefty New Yorker to the editor of famed Buddhist writers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.  The story  is about   how she  slowly and reluctantly absorbed mindfulness practice to find a balance between political activism and  spiritual grounding, and discovered a new kind of joy in her life. Neumann, a former AlterNet editor,  explores the relationship between our daily actions, large political events, and meaningful social change.  Click here to buy a copy of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness.

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Bush personally stopped eavesdropping probe

There really is something in the Justice Department called the Office of Professional Responsibility, unfortunately, it seems to be on an extended margarita vacation. After all, it announced earlier this year it could not pursue an investigation into the blatantly illegal wiretapping of American citizens. Why couldn't it? According to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it's because the President wouldn't grant investigators "security clearance" to investigate.

It was pretty clear from the beginning that Bush had personally authorized the National Security Agency to monitor — without court warrants — the international communications of people on U.S. soil. But why no one from the Justice Department challenged that authorization, on the grounds of is blatant illegality, can only be explained by blatant cowardice.

But hey, it's all water under the bridge, right? Bush has realized that with this Congress, he can just get them to pass a new law that says he doesn't need any authorization to spy on U.S. citizens. So let me get this straight. If the President says so, then he can do whatever he wants. If Congress says so, the President can do whatever he wants. Funny thing is, if you look at the Office of Perfessional Responsibility's Website, it's clear they are a few attorneys short. They's got the job posting right here. Any takers?

Just two questions

If your child became an adolescent or teenager in the past two years, you can thank the Supreme Court and George W. Bush for the fact that your child has now taken thousands of more tests than ever before. Kids aren't just taking more written tests, although they are doing that (from Kindergarten on up, "No Child Left Behind" means every child tested within an inch of its life), they're also more than four times as likely as they were two years ago to take a drug test.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that random testing of student athletes and others in competitive extracurricular activities did not violate the students' privacy rights, the Bush administration has made testing middle- and high-school students a priority. In the 2005-06 school year, 373 public secondary schools got federal money for testing, up from 79 schools two years ago. And Bush has asked Congress to further increase the amount for drug testing, up to $15 million dollars in 2007. Some schools just test those involved in athletics, or school clubs. Others, such as the Nettle Creek School District in Indiana, want to randomly test all students.

Is any of this causing teenagers to uses less drugs? The results are confidential, and it seems like a lot of money to spend for something that no one knows if it works at all. Besides, even if teenagers are using less drugs during school hours, testing kids, and then "failing" those who test positive, is a pretty dumb way to get kids to engage in less risky behavior.

Risky behavior, according to the New York Times and the Department of Homeland Security, includes such things as going to the petting zoo in Woodland, Alabama and attending the Apple and Pork Festival in Clinton, Illinois. I could see how anything with the words Clinton and Pork in it could get some people riled up, but the petting zoo seems rather tame and the Mule Day Parade in Tennessee looks very charming. I guess I'm confused by the logic. If the Times leaking the story that the Feds are collecting bank records could get the Bush administration all up in arms that we're giving something away to terrorists, wouldn't leaking the location of the Apple and Pork Festival be just as harmful, if not more so? The stories, point, of course, is that the list needs to be updated and that, based on the current target list, those red and amber alerts mean as little as you suspected they did. Still, I think the real problem is that the Mule Day Parade could get a lot more crowded this coming year. After all, who wouldn't drive a ways for a chance to look at a genuine terrorist target? Perhaps they can institute random drug testing at the entrance to keep us all safe.

Belated anti-hybrid hype

Evan pretty much said what I was going to say about the homophobes who are somehow obsessed from keeping gays from getting married. (I'm not married, so I don't know, but my question to the married people out there: is it really that particularly special a thing that heterosexuals have to keep gays from doing it? And if it's related to love, isn't it still true that if you "give it away, you end up having more?") So instead, I'll just ask about something that's been bothering me ever since the Fourth of July.

I went with friends and my small child to the Alameda Fourth of July parade, which is your basic small town parade with veterans and saxaphones and old cars and waving elected officials and, sadly, not very many costumes. After waving our anti-war flags at the NRA and various other contigents, we got to the progressive section of the parade, where the Women in Pink and Impeach Bush bus were strolling by, followed by about twenty middle-to-upper-class folks driving by in their hybrids, all with signs that proudly stated their gas mileage. "I get fifty miles per gallon!" One sign said, to our slightly lackluster cheers.

I thought of my own car, over 10 years old, that probably doesn't get even half that. And I'm pregnant and transporting a small child a large distance, so biking isn't an option. Because of where I work, sadly, neither is public transportation.

But isn't it still environmentally better than going out and buying a new fancy hybrid, even if, hypothetically, I could afford one? The Washington Post recently asked if it was "moral" to drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. But if it's an old one, and the whole family fits, isn't it more moral than getting some corporate job, if you even can land one, to be able to make more money to buy an expensive new hybrid? And shouldn't changes in fuel emissions be a national priority, not a personal consumer choice, since we all have to breathe the air and put on the extra sunscreen? And does all the cheering for hybrids actually lessen the imperative to get all cars to use alternative fuels or have some kind of converters?

I'm not against hybrids. My mom has one and, because she can use the car pool lane by herself now, is much more likely to be on time to babysit. But is my mom in her new hybrid really saving more gas than an old jalopy filled with five people? And if so, isn't the situation dire enough that we should declare a moratorium on all non-hybrid driving and let everyone trade in their old cars for new ones, free of charge. Or, if it's clogged roads that are a big part of the problem and the whole car-trade thing is just too far-fetched, I'd be fine if my medium-sized city just got some decent affordable public transportation.

Right-handed gay fetuses

I've never liked the political language of "choice," whether it's applied to sexuality, reproductive rights, or the work world. It's always struck me as too airy and artificial a concept, isolated from the sociological, economical, biological mess of life. And a new study by scientists at Brock University in Ontario finds that, in relation to male homosexuality, "choice" doesn't have that much to do with it.

In 1997, a study showed that whether a man's chance of being gay increases by a third with each elder male brother he has. But the original study didn't speculate whether this was because of social-cultural factors in the house or biological factors. This new study looked specifically at the influence of genetically related male siblings (as opposed to those connected through adoption or marriage) and also looked at whether it mattered if the siblings were raised in the same house. The study found that only biological siblings influence the chances of the younger male sibling being gay, and that they influence it even if they haven't been raised in the same house as the younger sibling. In other words, the gayness starts in the womb, or maybe in the zygote.

There's no similar correlation for homosexuality in women. Also, in an odd related finding the correlation between gayness and elder brothers seems to be true for right-handed males. Other research had previously uncovered that both men and women who are left-handed are slightly more likely to be gay.

Who knows what other factors are yet to be discovered: perhaps a link between a pregnant woman's craving for rice pudding and the chances of her unborn daughter becoming a lesbian? Are pregnant women with cats more likely to have lesbians and pregnant women with dogs more likely to give birth to gay male babies?

And if we really explore it, perhaps other correlations exist. As the first-born Jewish girl, was there some chemical in the womb that predicated I'd fall in love with a goy farm boy?

All I'm saying is, this study is a good opportunity with those many with lingering homophobia to get over it. Will it make a difference? Unlikely. As one anti-gay group said when presented with the new evidence: We don't believe that there's any biological basis for homosexuality. 'We feel the causes are complex but are deeply rooted in early childhood development.''

Buy My Baby

Just the other day, I was naive enough to worry about blatant advertising for make-up in young adult novels, but that was before a friend told me aboutBuyJake.com. For ten thousand dollars, you can get your company's name tattoed on the toddler's forehead for a month. For a year, the cost is a hundred thousand dollars. Questions? Talk to his publicist.

The woman who made $4,000 by advertising space on her belly on Ebay is one thing. It's cringe-inducing, but it's her body and if she want to sell it I suppose she can. In fact, it's she's become part of a trend with a number of bellies available on Ebay. A woman in New Zealand is even starting a business called Bump It Up that specifically connects advertisers with pregnant women who need money and would be willing to sell their belly space.

But selling your children's bodies, even your children's forehead, is another thing altogether. Even if there's still quite a bit of debate about when personhood begins, almost everyone agrees that once a baby is out and toddling around it is most definitely it's own person. A person with a rapidly growing brain who doesn't need the words "Golden Casino" tattoed on his forehead, even if it's only temporary.

The money for all this advertising goes into a savings account for Jake for when he's bigger. In fact, as the parents write, via Jake's voice, on his "blog": "My Mom does not need and is not going to use a dime of my money." But the problem with it isn't the money involved, it's the impmrinting to that young child that everything, even you, are for sale.

Police say No to the Feds

U.S. Customs and Immigration has been travelling the U.S., asking local police departments to do the Feds' job and track down undocumented workers. But police, mayors, and city councils of some of the counrty's biggest cities are saying no. In fact, a national group representing 57 big-city police chiefs warned this month that local enforcement of federal immigration laws would "undermine trust and cooperation" among immigrants.
Perhaps they're remembering that their mandate is to help stop actual crimes in process and help the community instead of harassing people who may be victims of violent crimes.

According to a front page USA Today story, Police chiefs, mayors and city councils are ordering local cops not to get involved in the federal crack down.

"Vulnerable people have always needed to see the police as being there to protect and serve, and that can't happen when the first words out of a cop's mouth are, 'I need to see your papers,' " Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt also had some words of common sense: "We have spent many years ... getting special communities to talk to us, to report crime, to be witnesses. If we stop individuals (to ask about immigration status), we would lose all of that."

Mayor Rybak also asked federal agents to stop wearing vests labeled "police." The agents have not altered their wardrobes. And the Minneapolis City Council voted in 2003 to prevent police from asking about immigration status or enforcing immigration laws. Chicago passed a similiar resoultion this year.

Of course, some police chiefs have been only too happy to help in the crack down. Leading the charge are th state police in Alabama and Florida, the Arizona corrections department (thanks to the very scary Sherrif Arpaio) and sheriff's departments in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties in California and Mecklenburg County, N.C.

If only all the refugees looked like celebrities

I thought I would be writing something cynical today about how all the hype and focus on refugees for just one day of the year wasn't going to make much of a difference, but after scanning the major news media and not finding a single top headline about refugees, I realized I'd have to write something about them being ignored 365 days instead of just 364.

Apparently, even having celebrities having refugee children isn't enough to get them much attention.

Which is too bad for the nine million people, the majority of them children, with no safe place to go.

Amnesty International has a good list of the facts behind the refugee statistics and AlertNet points out that one of the main reasons girls in these refugee camps don't go to school isn't just ideological, it's practical: no separate bathrooms, no female teachers, and no means to get the required school clothes.

Perhaps part of the problem is that talking about refugees requires us to talk about Palestine and Darfur. It requires talking about solutions that include either, ideally, repatriation into their countries of origin if they are safe enough, integration into whatever country they are in, or asylum and resettlement to a third country. Ironically, it is often other very poor countries that are most likely to offer asylum. Last year, the U.S. took in 54,800 refugees. Given our own problems resettling New Orleans residents, and the hysteria over immigration, I wonder if the numbers for 2006 will be even less.

Nike is doing its part, it says, by sending refugees 40,000 footballs. Perhaps we can send them some fashion designers as well and then refugees will start getting the attention they need, and maybe even some toilets.

To bleed or not to bleed

While the religious right debates the ethics of contraceptives and politicians take a sledgehammer to reproductive rights, some women are taking control of their own bodies by choosing not to menstruate at all.

Some doctors think that, if you're not planning on getting pregnant, "there's not a lot of point to having periods." So says Dr. Leslie Miller, a University of Washington researcher and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

But while I'm all for women controlling their own reproduction and would even agree with professor Linda Gordon that "the period is "way over-romanticized," something about the idea of completing getting rid of the natural cycle strikes me as wrong. It's not just that there isn't enough research, any really, on the long-term affects of stopping your period. It also just seems like there's got to be a way where we strike a balance between overromanticizing women's biology as destiny and believing that we should take every technological "choice" simply because it's possible.

Making sense of Moussaoui

What do you do with a problem like Moussaoui? A fanatical guy who really would like to blow things up, but didn't, actually, blow anything up.

Well, if you're the United States government, you bungle it, dismissing evidence available before 9/11 that would have possibly stopped the attacks and then, after the attacks, arresting Moussaoui, and holding him without charges for over two years while you try and create a case out of not much at all.

But if your "a jury of his peers," more or less, in this case, you get it right. Sentencing him to life in prison for his attempts to commit major crimes, but not actually sentencing him to death when the guy didn't actually do anything.* Dahlia Lithwick puts it like this:

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