The battle between the self-centered and benevolent sides of our ego

Oh, how easy it is to get lost in your own mind, caught in worries, and in your own insecurities. To be locked in a never-ending cycle of what if, why me, and life isn’t fair. We tend to be stuck in a tunnel view of life at times. It is so easy to fall into the trap of seeing things as always about ourselves or that the world is against us. I think everyone deals with such thoughts and feelings from time to time, and that is okay I think. But being constantly stuck in that train of thought is unhealthy and it keeps us from moving forward and from enjoying life.

Life is about everyone and everything around us, we are not the center of the universe though it is easy to feel like the center of things. I believe it is human nature to be somewhat self-centered, It is part of the self-preservation mechanism within us all. I do not think it is even possible to be totally selfless, though I do think we can reach a pretty high percentage of being such. But then again there are known mental illnesses such as the martyr syndrome and so on that may make one appear more so selfless and other mental illnesses that can cause the opposite effect.

I think people should regularly check themselves, see how they treat others, and how they react to being treated by others as well. Since how one person acts and treats others influences all those around them in one fashion or another, then we should try to be a force for good in society. We should try to lead by example, and treat others, and ourselves in a kind and compassionate manner. If more people focused on how they treated others around them, the less toxic people and environments we all would have to encounter. Being toxic and/or self-entitled is damaging to society and in the long run, will only eat away at the person being toxic and/or self-entitled.

A percentage of toxic and self-entitled people may be suffering some sort of emotional or mental illness, and we should remember that. It is best to avoid those people if you can not get through to them and set boundaries for them when it comes to your relationship. Do not allow the toxic behavior of others to bait you into being toxic yourself, you have to hold the high ground and lead by example. It is so easy to fall prey to being baited into a word battle with toxic people. They seem to enjoy causing turmoil and thrive in the toxic atmosphere.

It is not easy to try and be a good-hearted individual, to think of others as much if not more than yourself. But then anything worthwhile takes a lot of effort, and it does not only help you emotionally and mentally, but it also helps those around you. To love, have compassion for others, and be charitable are very important and are quite therapeutic in the end. When we help others we are also helping ourselves, it causes our body to produce chemicals that make us feel happy or content. The human body and brain are geared towards pleasure as a reward, reason why humans are so prone to addiction, But that’s a topic for another post.

In the end, it boils down to the battle between the self-centered and benevolent sides of our ego. When they are in balance all is good, when it tips one way or another there are complications. Either we will put ourselves before and above all others causing harm to others eventually or we will put others above ourselves to such an extent that we will neglect our own well-being. It is all about balance, and what balance is right for you as an individual.

Just some thoughts for you, not bad for me before my first cup of coffee lol.

Blessings and happiness to all

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Dealing with low self-esteem

Here are some steps that may help to improve low self-esteem:

  1. Challenge negative thoughts: Start by identifying negative self-talk and replace it with positive, more realistic affirmations.
  2. Practice self-care: Engage in activities that bring you joy and help you feel good about yourself.
  3. Set achievable goals: Accomplishing small tasks can boost confidence and help improve self-esteem.
  4. Surround yourself with positive people: Seek out supportive friends and family members who will encourage and motivate you.
  5. Seek professional help: A therapist can help you understand the root causes of low self-esteem and develop effective coping strategies.

Remember, improving self-esteem is a process and it may take time to see results, but with persistence and patience, it is possible to feel better about yourself.

Causes of low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  1. Childhood experiences: Traumatic or negative experiences during childhood can affect a person’s self-esteem.
  2. Perfectionism: Holding oneself to unrealistic standards and constantly feeling like you fall short can lead to low self-esteem.
  3. Social comparison: Constantly comparing oneself to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
  4. Mental health conditions: Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can affect self-esteem.
  5. Relationships: Negative relationships, such as abuse or bullying, can lower self-esteem.
  6. Physical appearance: Society’s emphasis on physical appearance can lead to low self-esteem in people who feel they don’t meet certain standards.
  7. Life events: Significant events, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or job loss, can lead to low self-esteem.

It’s important to understand that low self-esteem is a complex issue and there can be many different causes. A combination of factors may contribute to low self-esteem in an individual.

Meditation and Self Esteem

Meditation can be a helpful tool in improving self-esteem by:

  1. Reducing stress and anxiety: By calming the mind, meditation can help reduce the negative impact of stress and anxiety on self-esteem.
  2. Increasing self-awareness: Meditation can help increase self-awareness and help you identify negative thought patterns that may contribute to low self-esteem.
  3. Boosting positive emotions: Regular meditation practice can help cultivate feelings of calm, peace, and joy, which can counteract negative emotions that may contribute to low self-esteem.
  4. Improving self-compassion: Meditation can help increase self-compassion by promoting a kind and non-judgmental attitude towards oneself.
  5. Enhancing focus and concentration: Meditation can improve cognitive abilities such as focus and concentration, leading to improved self-confidence and self-esteem.

It’s important to remember that meditation is just one tool that can help improve self-esteem, and it may take time and consistent practice to see results. It’s also important to seek out additional resources, such as therapy or support groups, if necessary.

Visualization and Self-esteem

Visualization is a technique that involves creating mental images to help achieve a desired outcome. It can be a helpful tool in improving self-esteem by:

  1. Boosting confidence: Visualizing yourself successfully accomplishing a task can help increase self-confidence and improve self-esteem.
  2. Changing negative thought patterns: Visualizing a positive outcome can help replace negative thoughts and beliefs with positive, empowering ones.
  3. Building resilience: Visualizing yourself overcoming obstacles and challenges can help build resilience and improve self-esteem.
  4. Improving self-image: Visualizing yourself as confident and capable can help improve your self-image and increase self-esteem.
  5. Enhancing motivation: Visualizing your desired outcome can help increase motivation and drive to achieve your goals, which can help improve self-esteem.

Visualization is a tool that can be used in conjunction with other self-esteem-building techniques, such as positive affirmations, self-care, and goal setting. It’s important to remember that visualization is just one tool and consistent effort and practice may be needed to see results.

Diet and self-esteem

Diet can have an impact on self-esteem by affecting physical and mental health. Here are some ways diet can impact self-esteem:

  1. Physical appearance: A well-balanced diet that provides essential nutrients can improve physical appearance, leading to increased self-esteem.
  2. Energy levels: A balanced diet that provides sufficient nutrients can help improve energy levels, which can enhance feelings of well-being and boost self-esteem.
  3. Mental health: Certain nutrients, such as Omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins, are important for brain health and can impact mental health, including self-esteem.
  4. Body image: Negative body image can impact self-esteem, and an unhealthy relationship with food, such as disordered eating, can exacerbate these feelings.

It’s important to note that a healthy diet is just one aspect of overall physical and mental well-being, and it’s important to address any underlying issues contributing to low self-esteem through additional self-care practices and seeking professional help if needed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, low self-esteem can have a significant impact on one’s life and well-being. Improving self-esteem requires a holistic approach, including a combination of self-care practices, goal setting, and seeking support from others. Meditation, visualization, and diet can all play a role in improving self-esteem, but it’s important to remember that each individual’s experience and the journey is unique. If low self-esteem persists or interferes with daily life, it’s recommended to seek help from a mental health professional.

Here are some books that can be helpful for individuals looking to improve their self-esteem:

  1. “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden
  2. “Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem” by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg
  3. “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Susan Jeffers
  4. “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky
  5. “The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt” by Russ Harris

It’s important to remember that self-help books can be a useful tool, but they should not replace professional help for individuals experiencing persistent low self-esteem or other mental health issues. It’s always a good idea to consult a mental health professional for personalized advice and treatment.

Dove’s Thoughts 1-24-23

Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule”. Love is the energy behind what we call forgiveness, and is one of the most important keys to ridding ourselves of hatred and anger. The Qur’an has the verse “The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah… (Qur’an, 42:40)”. Forgiveness is found in almost every great religious text.  In the new testament of the Christian bible “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13, NIV)

It seems that forgiveness is something important in religion, but it is also important to philosophers, poets, and great thinkers throughout history. The following are just some of what has been said/written about the subject of forgiveness.

  • Confucius ~ “Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass.”
  • Voltaire ~ “We are all full of weakness and errors; let us mutually pardon each other our follies – it is the first law of nature.”
  • Paramhansa Yogananda ~ “Today I forgive all those who have ever offended me. I give my love to all thirsty hearts, both to those who love me and to those who do not love me.”
  • Epictetus ~“When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”
  • Friedrich Nietzsche ~ “And if your friend does evil to you, say to him, ”I forgive you for what you did to me, but how can I forgive you for what you did to yourself?”
  • Horace ~ “It is right for him who asks forgiveness for his offenses to grant it to others.”

So forgiveness is something important, it is the key to freeing yourself and others from past mistakes and all the pain and suffering those mistakes have caused. It is just as important to the forgiven as it is to the forgiver. Forgiveness may not always be easy, but in the end, it is well worth the effort. Holding on to a grudge, all the pain and suffering attached to it does no good for either side in the long run.

Ray’s Thoughts 1-23-23

anonymous ethnic man strolling on ocean beach

Too Much Violence in our country and around the world, lately we have been seeing killings at dance clubs and it seems to be target attacks on minorities or one sort or another. It seems hate has rooted itself in a percentage of the population, it seems bigotry, elitism, and terrorism are becoming too commonplace in recent years. Too many trying to justify hate and violence through belief systems and idealisms.

I never thought I would live to see a time in which there would be so many hate-driven mass shootings/killings in America. How anyone could take the lives of others so easily, why has it gotten to the point that so many have no concept of how valuable life is. Racism is still alive and hate seems to be on the rise around the world. It is sad that after all these years, all the suffering that people had to go through racism still has such a hold on a small but dangerous percentage of the population.

We all are a part of the same species, a species that has done some miraculous things, but we are a species that is stuck in a tribal-like mentality though we claim to be living in modern society. It is really shameful that a percentage of the human race still gives in to fear, hate, and tribal mentality. One would think that we would be beyond such early human instincts and social structures this far down the timeline. When will we as a species get to the point where we see that we all are the same species and that hate and fear are the enemies, not each other.

I guess the fear and hate will continue to grow as long as we keep enforcing the bad practices of using the labels made to describe our differences as a way to separate ourselves from others. Seems too much focus is put on such things as our nationality, race, political beliefs, and one’s religion. We should be focusing on the commonality within the human race. We all need certain necessities to survive, and we all desire to be happy and healthy. We all also desire a better quality of life for ourselves and our children. And I would believe we all would love to live in a world where we wouldn’t have to live with fear or hate. In the end, there is far more we have in common with each other than what is different.

The dawn of AI has come, and its implications for education couldn’t be more significant

Ground Picture/Shutterstock

Vitomir Kovanovic, University of South Australia

The release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot has given us a glimpse into the future of teaching and learning alongside artificial intelligence.

Educators immediately pointed out the chatbot’s ability to generate meaningful responses to questions from assessments and exams. And it’s often not possible to attribute these responses to a particular source – making it difficult to detect plagiarism.

Concerns didn’t go unnoticed. Shortly after ChatGPT’s release, OpenAI announced it was developing a “digital watermark” to embed into the chatbot’s responses. This kind of watermark is embedded as a digital signal that can identify the content as being AI-generated, and which (in theory) should be difficult to remove.

But as experts have pointed it, people will likely find workarounds. And it won’t be long before other AI models just as capable as ChatGPT pop up. What will this mean for our educational spaces?

It’s safe to say we can expect some challenging years ahead.

But first, what is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is powered by GPT3, a large language model (LLM) trained on an enormous amount of text data — about 500 billion words to be precise. Large language models work by predicting the next most-likely word when given a list of input words (usually phrased as a question).

The model is trained using many billions of parameters that can represent the complexity of the world. By inputting real-world data, the algorithm readjusts its parameters until it can produce human-like responses to a range of questions. For example:

How many eggs can fit into a grain of rice?

It is not possible for eggs to fit into a grain of rice, as a grain of rice is much smaller in size than an egg. A grain of rice is a small, round seed that is typically less than a millimetre in diameter, whereas an egg is a much larger object that typically measures several centimetres in length and width […]

Although it’s not foolproof, ChatGPT’s capabilities both shock and inspire. It can write songs, programming code, and simulate entire job interview sessions. It even passed the Amazon Web Services Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, which typically takes 2-6 months to prepare for.

Perhaps what’s most alarming is the technology is still in its early stages. The millions of users exploring ChatGPT’s uses are simultaneously providing more data for OpenAI to improve the chatbot.

The next version of the model, GPT4, will have about 100 trillion parameters – about 500 times more than GPT3. This is approaching the number of neural connections in the human brain.

How will AI affect education?

The power of AI systems is placing a huge question mark over our education and assessment practices.

Assessment in schools and universities is mostly based on students providing some product of their learning to be marked, often an essay or written assignment. With AI models, these “products” can be produced to a higher standard, in less time and with very little effort from a student.

In other words, the product a student provides may no longer provide genuine evidence of their achievement of the course outcomes.

And it’s not just a problem for written assessments. A study published in February showed OpenAI’s GPT3 language model significantly outperformed most students in introductory programming courses. According to the authors, this raises “an emergent existential threat to the teaching and learning of introductory programming”.

The model can also generate screenplays and theatre scripts, while AI image generators such as DALL-E can produce high-quality art.

How should we respond?

Moving forward, we’ll need to think of ways AI can be used to support teaching and learning, rather than disrupt it. Here are three ways to do this.

1. Integrate AI into classrooms and lecture halls

History has shown time and again that educational institutions can adapt to new technologies. In the 1970s the rise of portable calculators had maths educators concerned about the future of their subject – but it’s safe to say maths survived.

Just as Wikipedia and Google didn’t spell the end of assessments, neither will AI. In fact, new technologes lead to novel and innovative ways of doing work. The same will apply to learning and teaching with AI.

Rather than being a tool to prohibit, AI models should be meaningfully integrated into teaching and learning.

2. Judge students on critical thought

One thing an AI model can’t emulate is the process of learning, and the mental aerobics this involves.

The design of assessments could shift from assessing just the final product, to assessing the entire process that led a student to it. The focus is then placed squarely on a student’s critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills.

Students could freely use AI to complete the task and still be marked on their own merit.

3. Assess things that matter

Instead of switching to in-class examination to prohibit the use of AI (which some may be tempted to do), educators can design assessments that focus on what students need to know to be successful in the future. AI, it seems, will be one of these things.

AI models will increasingly have uses across sectors as the technology is scaled up. If students will use AI in their future workplaces, why not test them on it now?

The dawn of AI

Vladimir Lenin, leader of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, supposedly said:

There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.

This statement has come to roost in the field of artificial intelligence. AI is forcing us to rethink education. But if we embrace it, it could empower students and teachers.

Vitomir Kovanovic, Senior Lecturer in Learning Analytics, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dove’s Thoughts 12-12-2022

person sitting outdoors

Why all the stigma around mental health? Why do people have to be so cruel to those that just need a little help? We all need a little help now and then (even if some folks won’t ever admit it). There is no shame in admitting you need help and asking for it is the best thing to do. Life can be quite challenging at times, and our hearts and minds can be somewhat fragile at times as well. Getting help shows courage and demonstrates you have the strength to do what is needed to move forward in your life.

We face so much negativity in life, and a good part of it is during our youth, during the years we are developing our emotional and mental makeup and forming our personality as well. School years can be both the most wonderful and also the most dangerous time for us as individuals. During those years we form social bonds and face opposition from others in the form of bullying and social stereotyping. This is when we tend to gain many emotional and mental scars and problems. If we do not learn to overcome them eventually they just get worse as we age.

With all the suicides and gun violence and other forms of violence on the rise, it should be very apparent there is a need for more extensive mental health programs for all ages. Parents and teachers alike should be more observant and responsive to signs of depression, being bullied, and psychotic behavior. If we can catch a lot of the problems early we may avert the negative outcome that many may have to experience later in their lives. More has to be done both on the local and federal levels to make mental health services easier and more affordable to access so we can get a handle on this mental health problem our nation is facing.

Just remember the next time you see someone who needs help don’t just laugh at them or ignore them, instead try to help them find the help they need.

Wilma Mankiller, first female principal chief of Cherokee Nation, led with compassion and continues to inspire today

Wilma Mankiller served in the top leadership role of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995. Peter Turnley/Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Julie Reed, Penn State

If you fish in your pocket or purse for a U.S. quarter today, there’s a chance you’ll see Wilma Mankiller’s face. She was the Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief, and she inspired generations of Cherokees and young Native people like me.

In 2022, Mankiller was one of the first women honored by appearing on a series of quarters, along with renowned poet and activist Maya Angelou and physicist and astronaut Sally Ride. Mankiller’s quarter, issued in the summer of 2022, marks the first time that a Native American woman has been featured on a U.S. coin since Sacagawea appeared on the golden dollar in 2000.

As a historian of Native American history, I credit my professional career to Mankiller, whom I heard speak at Salem Women’s College when I was an undergraduate student there. I had never seen a non-Native audience listen so intently to a woman who looked like my father’s ancestors and grew up in rural Oklahoma, as he did. Like many young Cherokee people, I was raised outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.

Following her lecture, I tore through her autobiography, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.” In her book and through her life’s work, Mankiller introduced a generation of people not just to Cherokee history but also to a model of Native women’s leadership, leading by listening to the voices from her community and supporting the programs they sought.

Early life

Mankiller’s life resembled many Native people’s lives in the 20th century before she assumed the role of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985.

She was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at an Indian hospital in 1945. She grew up on land secured by Cherokee people over three generations of shifting U.S. federal Indian policies, each with devastating results: the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the Treaty of 1866 and the Curtis Act in 1898.

Mankiller’s family relocated to San Francisco in the 1950s after Congress passed the termination and relocation policy, seeking to break up and relocate Native American tribes to assimilate them. In San Francisco she met Indigenous people from diverse communities.

woman with thick brown hair sitting at a desk in a classroom and outstretching her arm
Mankiller’s duties as chief included attending the Arkansas Riverbed Authority meetings to discuss multiple Native communities’ access to water. Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP Images

She came of age in San Francisco during the Red Power Movement, which was marked by Indigenous people’s activism across the country and aimed to draw attention to broken treaty promises, widespread dispossession and police brutality. She and her siblings supported the occupation of Alcatraz, a takeover by Native activists that lasted 18 months.

She married young, had children and willed herself through a college education. She divorced and returned home to Oklahoma in 1976 as a single parent with two daughters. Mankiller’s family history, like that of so many Native Americans in this country, cannot be told or understood without understanding changes in federal Indian policy, which often dictated where Native people lived and the economic opportunities available to them.

What she means to Cherokee people

Mankiller’s life was similar to those of many families who remained in Oklahoma on allotments or within Cherokee communities after Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Until the age of 11, she grew up in Adair County, which was about 46% Cherokee in the 2020 census.

When she returned to Oklahoma from California in the late 1970s to work for the Cherokee Nation, she prioritized and supported a community-driven project that brought running water to the Bell community. Bell, a rural community in Adair County, is still home to large pockets of Cherokee people. This effort was later dramatized in the 2013 film “The Cherokee Word for Water.” Mankiller’s commitment to improving the lives of Cherokee people was central to her work, even before she became chief.

Her rise to the position of principal chief in 1985 coincided with a moment when the efforts of civil rights activists, Black nationalists, Red Power and women’s rights activists of the previous decades were bearing fruit. She represented and modeled what people like Gloria Steinem, with whom Mankiller formed an enduring friendship, hoped to see more people achieve in the larger U.S.

A tall white man with thick gray hair places medal around neck of shorter woman with cropped brown hair
President Clinton awards Wilma Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Mankiller’s impact extended beyond Cherokee people. In a nod to her accomplishments, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Mankiller understood that she represented how far women leaders had come and the hope we might still arrive where we need to be.

I still remember learning of her death from pancreatic cancer in April 2010 when I was a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, not far from Salem College where she first inspired me. I, like many others I imagine, wept for her, enormously proud of all she had achieved.

The Cherokee value of gadugi

Mankiller’s transition to chief wasn’t easy. People initially questioned a woman’s ability to lead the tribe. If there was any doubt of Mankiller’s capabilities as a leader when she took over as chief in 1985, in her second election to office six years later, she received almost 83% of the vote.

She gained support by exemplifying gadugi – a Cherokee word that means working together collectively for the benefit of the whole community. She drew upon her culture, history and tribal identity as a leader, and she raised her daughters Gina and Felicia Olaya to do the same. Though neither held office, both have worked for and supported the Cherokee Nation throughout their lives.

During her time as chief, Mankiller provided a foundation for the continued growth of the Cherokee Nation. Enrollment in Cherokee Nation doubled under her leadership. She championed education and secured a US$9 million vocational center. A 1991 Parade Magazine profile described her leadership style as quiet but strong.

At her mother’s memorial, Gina, who died in October 2022, said that her mother taught her family “how to laugh, how to dance, to appreciate Motown music, to be a humble servant to our people, to love one another unequivocally and to cherish each and every moment we spent together as a family.”

Mankiller articulated what generations of Cherokee people knew – that Indigenous people are capable of generating the solutions to the problems they face. As chief, she focused on issues that benefited some of the most vulnerable Cherokee people, such as rural development, housing, employment and education. Mankiller listened to community members to determine the way forward. I believe her legacy, now enshrined on a quarter, will continue to inspire new generations of people seeking to make a difference in the world.

Julie Reed, Associate Professor in History, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dove’s Thoughts 12-7-2020: Holidays and life.

It is the holiday season yet again, it seems as I get older it gets a bit tougher to get through it without reflecting on the times I had with friends and family that had passed away. Only this year I lost three friends and two family members. Very recently lost a former employer and friend with another friend that I have known for some time online in active worlds (3d community).

Though I feel sadness, I also feel blessed that I have gotten to know and share time with those I lost. We feel sad because of the loss we endure, and the absence of those we care about in our lives. However, they live on in our memories as well as in the memories of those who were in their lives. Some think it is hard to be joyous when you have lost so much, I say it is hard not to be Joyous of what we had and that which we still have and shall receive in the future to come. I remember how blessed I was to have those people in my life.

I wish everybody a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, and a happy holiday season. Know the blessings you have and remember the blessings that have passed your way in life. Embrace the people you love and celebrate each day with vigor, my friends. Remember those that went on before us and live for them and cherish their memories and pass on the wisdom they may have shared with you as well. Count your blessings, and forget the negative things that only get in the way of being happy in life.

Yoga versus democracy? What survey data says about spiritual Americans’ political behavior

For some, yoga is a spiritual practice that may substitute for religion. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Evan Stewart, UMass Boston and Jaime Kucinskas, Hamilton College

As the United States gets less religious, is it also getting more selfish?

Historically, religious Americans have been civically engaged. Through churches and other faith-based organizations, congregants volunteer, engage in local and national civic organizations and pursue political goals.

Todaythe rise of a politically potent religious right over the past 50 years notwithstanding – fewer Americans identify with formal religions. Gallup found that 47% of Americans reported church membership in 2020, down from 70% in the 1990s; nearly a quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, other kinds of meaningful practice are on the rise, from meditation and yoga to new secular rituals like Sunday assemblies “without God.” Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of American adults who meditated rose from 4.1% to 14.2%, according to a 2018 CDC report. The number of those who practiced yoga jumped from 9.5% to 14.3%. Not everyone considers these practices “spiritual,” but many do pursue them as an alternative to religious engagement.

Some critics question whether this new focus on mindfulness and self-care is making Americans more self-centered. They suggest religiously disengaged Americans are channeling their energies into themselves and their careers rather than into civic pursuits that may benefit the public.

As sociologists who study religion and public life, we wanted to answer that question. We used survey data to compare how these two groups of spiritual and religious Americans vote, volunteer and otherwise get involved in their communities.

Spiritually selfish or religiously alienated?

Our research began with the assumption that moving from organized religious practices to spiritual practices could have one of two effects on greater American society.

Spiritual practice could lead people to focus on more selfish or self-interested pursuits, such as their own personal development and career progress, to the detriment of U.S. society and democracy.

This is the argument sociologist Carolyn Chen pursues in her new book “Work, Pray, Code,” about how meditators in Silicon Valley are re-imagining Buddhist practices as productivity tools. As one employee described a company mindfulness program, it helped her “self-manage” and “not get triggered.” While these skills made her happier and gave her “the clarity to handle the complex problems of the company,” Chen shows how they also teach employees to put work first, sacrificing other kinds of social connection.

Bringing spiritual practice into the office may give workers deeper purpose and meaning, but Chen says it can have some unintended consequences.

When workplaces fulfill workers’ most personal needs – providing not only meals and laundry but also recreational activities, spiritual coaches and mindfulness sessions – skilled workers end up spending most of their time at work. They invest in their company’s social capital rather than building ties with their neighbors, religious congregations and other civic groups. They are less likely to frequent local businesses.

Chen suggests that this disinvestment in community can ultimately lead to cuts in public services and weaken democracy.

Alternatively, our research posited, spiritual practices may serve as a substitute for religion. This explanation may hold especially true among Americans disaffected by the rightward lurch that now divides many congregations, exacerbating cultural fissures around race, gender and sexual orientation.

“They loved to tell me my sexuality doesn’t define me,” one 25-year-old former evangelical, Christian Ethan Stalker, told the Religion News Service in 2021 in describing his former church. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualize me as a gay person and … dismissed who I am as a complex human being. That was a huge problem for me.”

A sign reads 'Catholics vote pro-life', written in red, white and blue.
An anti-abortion message outside St. Anthony Church, in Brooksville, Fla., in 2020. Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Engaged on all fronts

To answer our research question about spirituality and civic engagement, we used a new nationally representative survey of Americans studied in 2020.

We examined the political behaviors of people who engaged in activities such as yoga, meditation, making art, walking in nature, praying and attending religious services. The political activities we measured included voting, volunteering, contacting representatives, protesting and donating to political campaigns.

We then compared those behaviors, distinguishing between people who see these activities as spiritual and those who see the same activities as religious.

Our new study, published in the journal American Sociological Review, finds that spiritual practitioners are just as likely to engage in political activities as the religious.

After we controlled for demographic factors such as age, race and gender, frequent spiritual practitioners were about 30% more likely than nonpractitioners to report doing at least one political activity in the past year. Likewise, devoted religious practitioners were also about 30% more likely to report one of these political behaviors than respondents who do not practice religion.

In other words, we found heightened political engagement among both the religious and spiritual, compared with other people.

Our findings bolster similar conclusions made recently by sociologist Brian Steensland and his colleagues in another study on spiritual people and civic involvement.

Uncovering the spiritual as a political force

The spiritual practitioners we identified seemed particularly likely to be disaffected by the rightward turn in some congregations in recent years. On average, Democrats, women and people who identified as lesbian, gay and bisexual reported more frequent spiritual practices.

A woman wearing a headset microphone leads a class of women, all holding their palms in front of their chests. The instructor has her eyes closed.
A mindfulness-focused weekly dance class at a recreation center in Littleton, Colo., in 2017. Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

We suspect these groups are engaging in American politics in innovative ways, such as through online groups and retreats that re-imagine spiritual community and democratic engagement.

Our research recognizes progressive spiritual practitioners as a growing but largely unrecognized, underestimated and misunderstood political force.

In his influential book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggests American religious disaffiliation is part of a larger trend of overall civic decline. Americans have been disengaging for decades from all kinds of civic groups, from bowling leagues and unions to parent-teacher organizations.

Our study gives good reason to reassess what being an “engaged citizen” means in the 21st century. People may change what they do on a Sunday morning, but checking out of church doesn’t necessarily imply checking out of the political process.

Evan Stewart, Assistant Professor of Sociology, UMass Boston and Jaime Kucinskas, Associate Professor of Sociology, Hamilton College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What is inflammation? Two immunologists explain how the body responds to everything from stings to vaccination and why it sometimes goes wrong

Insect bites or stings, like the one on this person’s hand, are a manifestation of inflammation. Suthep Wongkhad/EyeEm via Getty Images

Prakash Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina and Mitzi Nagarkatti, University of South Carolina

When your body fights off an infection, you develop a fever. If you have arthritis, your joints will hurt. If a bee stings your hand, your hand will swell up and become stiff. These are all manifestations of inflammation occurring in the body.

We are two immunologists who study how the immune system reacts during infections, vaccination and autoimmune diseases where the body starts attacking itself.

While inflammation is commonly associated with the pain of an injury or the many diseases it can cause, it is an important part of the normal immune response. The problems arise when this normally helpful function overreacts or overstays its welcome.

An image showing many small white cells swarming a larger sphere.
Inflammation is a process in which antibody-producing cells – like the large beige cell on the left of this image – rush to the site of an infection to attack an invader, such as the flu virus in yellow. Juan Gaertner/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

What is inflammation?

Generally speaking, the term inflammation refers to all activities of the immune system that occur where the body is trying to fight off potential or real infections, clear toxic molecules or recover from physical injury. There are five classic physical signs of acute inflammation: heat, pain, redness, swelling and loss of function. Low-grade inflammation might not even produce noticeable symptoms, but the underlying cellular process is the same.

Take a bee sting, for example. The immune system is like a military unit with a wide range of tools in its arsenal. After sensing the toxins, bacteria and physical damage from the sting, the immune system deploys various types of immune cells to the site of the sting. These include T cells, B cells, macrophages and neutrophils, among other cells.

The B cells produce antibodies. Those antibodies can kill any bacteria in the wound and neutralize toxins from the sting. Macrophages and neutrophils engulf bacteria and destroy them. T cells don’t produce antibodies, but kill any virus-infected cell to prevent viral spread.

Additionally, these immune cells produce hundreds of types of molecules called cytokines – otherwise known as mediators – that help fight threats and repair harm to the body. But just like in a military attack, inflammation comes with collateral damage.

The mediators that help kill bacteria also kill some healthy cells. Other similar mediating molecules cause blood vessels to leak, leading to accumulation of fluid and influx of more immune cells.

This collateral damage is the reason you develop swelling, redness and pain around a bee sting or after getting a flu shot. Once the immune system clears an infection or foreign invader – whether the toxin in a bee sting or a chemical from the environment – different parts of the inflammatory response take over and help repair the damaged tissue.

After a few days, your body will neutralize the poison from the sting, eliminate any bacteria that got inside and heal any tissue that was harmed.

A diagram of a man showing two airways, one open and the other more constricted.
Asthma is caused by inflammation that leads to swelling and a narrowing of airways in the lungs, as seen in the right cutaway in this image. BruceBlaus/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Inflammation as a cause of disease

Inflammation is a double-edged sword. It is critical for fighting infections and repairing damaged tissue, but when inflammation occurs for the wrong reasons or becomes chronic, the damage it causes can be harmful.

Allergies, for example, develop when the immune system mistakenly recognizes innocuous substances – like peanuts or pollen – as dangerous. The harm can be minor, like itchy skin, or dangerous if someone’s throat closes up.

Chronic inflammation damages tissues over time and can lead to many noninfectious clinical disorders, including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, obesity, diabetes and some types of cancers.

The immune system can sometimes mistake one’s own organs and tissues for invaders, leading to inflammation throughout the body or in specific areas. This self-targeted inflammation is what causes the symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as lupus and arthritis.

Another cause of chronic inflammation that researchers like us are currently studying is defects in the mechanisms that curtail inflammation after the body clears an infection.

While inflammation mostly plays out at a cellular level in the body, it is far from a simple mechanism that happens in isolation. Stress, diet and nutrition, as well as genetic and environmental factors, have all been shown to regulate inflammation in some way.

There is still a lot to be learned about what leads to harmful forms of inflammation, but a healthy diet and avoiding stress can go a long way toward helping maintain the delicate balance between a strong immune response and harmful chronic inflammation.

Prakash Nagarkatti, Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of South Carolina and Mitzi Nagarkatti, Professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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