Above and Beyond
Hey, whatever turns you inward
How do you wrestle with questions of mind, body and spirit? Mainstream religions have had thousands of years to make their pitch, but some people just don’t buy it.
Not to worry. Unless there really is a heaven and hell, you’ve got just as good a chance as anyone else to achieve grace in this life or the next or the next. Here are just a few ways people are trying to get by.
For the Ethical Humanists, it’s the thought that counts because there may or may not be Somebody Up There who likes them.
For some people in constant pain, help from above isn’t as important as helping themselves with such tools as biofeedback.
For Spiritualists, voices from the past don’t haunt, but heal.
Your mind, your body, your spirit. Use ’em or lose ’em.
Universal Soldiers Play Follow the Leader
by Bill Jensen
The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island is where you go when you hold life sacred, want morality and crave a sense of community, but you just can’t accept the fact that it actually rained for 40 days and 40 nights. That when you die you come back again. That Nothingness is the path to Enlightenment. That God really doesn’t want you to eat pork.
The main room at the Garden City church is large and sparsely decorated. A podium stands in front of the stage before a semi-circle of plastic chairs. On a wall hangs an icon that looks like a hippie precursor to the Blair Witch symbol. The crowd on a Sunday is mostly older, white women. Some wear name tags. The before-service banter is typical church talk—old people comparing ailments, wondering who will show up this morning.
Then the music starts. Classical new age is pumped out of speakers hoisted above the stage. Arthur Dobrin stands at the podium listening to the tune, looking out at the crowd, which is mumbling like a school class before the teacher arrives. When the music ceases, the mumbling begins to wane, winding down and down as more and more people look up to the podium and see that Dobrin is ready to talk. It’s like church. Kinda.
Dobrin is not the president of the group. Nor is he a priest, pastor or reverend. The daily program lists him as “Leader.” When his wife gives me his phone number the day after the service, she notes that the prefix is “G-O-D.” Of course, everyone at Hofstra University, where Dobrin is a professor of humanities, has the same three-digit prefix.
He stands at the podium and begins with the shtick you usually hear at church. He greets everyone, comments on the weather, welcomes new members. After that, however, all notions of church-talk are gone. This is Ethical Humanism. God ain’t here. And neither are his buddies.
Founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, the son of a rabbi, Ethical Humanism has traditionally attracted intellectual, socially active folks. The Long Island chapter, founded in 1950, has connections to the Long Island Progressive Coalition and the Working Families Party. There’s a Sunday school for children that includes class units with titles like “Seeing Effects of Decisions” and “Earth Stewardship.” On Friday nights, the brick and glass building on Old Country Road turns into the Our Times Coffeehouse, with folk singers and poets performing.
What do Ethical Humanists believe? It can pretty much be boiled down to the Golden Rule if you “do unto” the universe the same way you “do unto” others. Take away the cross, the angels, the epic stories, the winding history—all the juicy parts of Christianity—and you get Ethical Humanism.
The rhetoric is all about respecting one another and the world. Life is to be embraced. Neighbors are to be loved. Every person is unique. Always be a student of the universe. These sentiments are peppered all over the pamphlets and small books hanging near the entrance of the building. To an outsider, it looks like a thousand different ways of saying the same thing.
“We are the prime example in the Western world of a non-theistic religion,” says Dobrin, 58, of Westbury. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home in Brooklyn and Queens, Dobrin became attracted to the movement in Africa during a stint with the Peace Corps.
Like other religious people, the Ethical Humanists mark life’s milestones—they celebrate weddings, confirmations and funerals. And there is a religious feeling.
“I have a connection to that which is much larger than I am,” says Dobrin, who has led the group since 1968. “In that respect, I am no different than the Hindus.” Hinduism doesn’t work for Dobrin because he has problems with the caste system.
But if you agree with the basic moral message of Christianity—love thy neighbor, give others shelter—wouldn’t you want to cover your bets? Why not just fake a little belief just in case you end up at the pearly gates shrugging your shoulders in front of a guy holding a big book?
“It never made sense,” Dobrin says of the image of an old guy sitting in heaven controlling the world. “I look at the story of Job. The story is really awful. God is in a bet with the devil to break the human spirit. But Job says there are great mysteries in the universe. And who knows what will happen? I’ll be part of the trees, part of the ground.”
Dobrin says about 15 percent of the church’s 300 members believe in God. But he is happy living life without the big fella. “To me, any phenomenon is subject to scientific method,” says Dobrin. “If God comes and shakes my hand, would I believe in God? Of course.”
During a service, a woman goes up to the podium and reads a poem—so short in length that she feels the need to read it twice. Dobrin gets back up, makes a joke, the people laugh. Then, with no scripture to fall back on, no parables to read, no prayers to chant, Dobrin poses the weekly “question.” Today, it’s “What helps you decide between what is fact and what is fiction?” He fiddles with a remote, turning on more music to accompany the churning minds as they mull over the question.
After a few minutes, Rachel Coen, a representative of the media-watchdog group FAIR, goes up to the podium and begins the “platform” of the day. She talks about the consolidation of the media and the loss of stories about the common man in favor of those about business-imposed decisions. After 30 minutes of hearing how Ted Turner, Disney and Viacom are the devil—or at least as close you could come to being the devil in a Godless world—the floor is open for questions. An elderly woman raises her hand.
“The reason why I came here,” she says, “is because I want to know what I can do about the pornography on television. Victoria’s Secret makes beautiful lingerie. But the commercials are like pornography. I don’t want my husband watching pornography during primetime.”
What a conundrum. She’s referring to the Victoria’s Secret “Angel” campaign, of course. And there are no angels in Ethical Humanism.
The Sound and the Fury: Life Beyond Tinnitus
by Laura Conaway
By the time Ines Rodrigo walked into Dr. James Weisberg’s office at SUNY Stony Brook in April 1998, her ears had been ringing for five years.
Sounding like a kettle perpetually ready to come off the stove, the whistling began when Rodrigo lived in San Diego. “I thought maybe it was because I had a cold,” says Rodrigo, a genteel mother of two adult sons who now lives in West Sayville. “I let it go for a month and didn’t pay it any attention. But one day I noticed it was very, very loud and very strong.”
She went to see her doctor in California, who examined her ears and announced there was nothing physically wrong with them. Like some 50 million other people in the United States, Rodrigo had tinnitus, a chronic condition with no single known cause and no easy cures. Those who suffer it say that even in silent places they hear everything from ringing and roars to chirps and clicks. This inner cacophony can begin the instant they wake and not subside until the moment they fall sleep—if they’re lucky enough to drop off.
For some, tinnitus is merely an annoyance, but for others it’s constant torture that leads to insomnia, depression and anxiety. Rodrigo’s tinnitus came with panic attacks that made it difficult for her to do ordinary tasks like driving. Once it starts, tinnitus rarely goes away. When Rodrigo moved across the country to Long Island, the whistling came with her.
Doctors said the best they could do for her was to prescribe anti-depressants. Rodrigo refused to take drugs, because she didn’t want to deal with side effects and because she preferred to fight the condition on her own. Knowing she might never get rid of tinnitus, she set about learning how to live with it.
Her first real lessons came at the hands of Weisberg, a psychologist who specializes in helping people deal with chronic pain and lifelong afflictions like tinnitus. Weisberg says much of his work hinges on teaching people to control their fight-or-flight mechanism, the body’s natural response to fear or pain.
If you’re walking in the woods and you see a scary animal, your central nervous system sends up a signal that you need to either put up your dukes or hightail it out of there. With chronic pain or nagging conditions like tinnitus, Weisberg says, the trick is to realize you’re not actually in danger. “What we have to train people to do is to recognize that their pain at that moment, or their symptoms at that moment, are not life-threatening,” he says. “It’s not the grizzly bear.”
For someone like Rodrigo, taming the fight-or-flight reflex means learning to stay calm despite the constant whistling in her ears. Using a combination of soothing images and frequent biofeedback sessions with Weisberg, Rodrigo has learned how to lower her heart rate, regulate her breathing and reduce her muscle tension—techniques that lessen her awareness of the tinnitus. The sound doesn’t stop, but the irritation recedes. “Dr. Weisberg told me how to relax,” she says. “And with relaxation, that helps.”
On a recent Tuesday night, Weisberg hooked Rodrigo up to some gee-whiz sensors for a demonstration. The idea was for her to watch a computer monitor that would tell her how close she was to reaching her goal and receiving some positive reinforcement. If she relaxed enough, classical music would flow out of the speakers. If she strayed too far toward tension, the Bach would stop. “To me, the test is being able to do it under stress,” Weisberg says. “It’s wonderful to be able to do it in here, when the lights are low. But can you do it in a car, or on the grocery line? Can you do it on demand?”
Rodrigo can. Even with her son Xavier looking on and a photographer snapping away with a flash just inches from her face, Rodrigo slowed her heart rate. She eased her muscles. She breathed in gentle waves worthy of low tide.
Rodrigo says the benefits of biofeedback and imaging stick with her in daily life. The whistling now is often no more than a hiss, quiet enough to be an almost innocuous background noise, she says. She seldom gets panic attacks anymore, which has made her feel more confident about getting involved with her local church and helping at a school for disabled adults. As scientists are beginning to experiment with new ways of treating tinnitus, Rodrigo has already conquered hers—or at least signed a peace treaty with it.
“For me, it was only two choices—either to relax and be calm, or to take medication,” she says. “I pushed myself to live with this. Now it’s a very minute noise.”
Grateful for the Dead
Knock, knock. Who’s there? The Spiritualists.
by Ambrose Clancy
At the door leading into the church’s main hall, with organ music groaning beyond, Reverend Virginia Berg, a plump, friendly, pleasantly dotty woman in her 60s, greets each member of the Sanctuary of Infinite Spirit. Each member, that is, whom you can see.
The congregation, a branch of the Spiritualist Church that meets at the Smithtown Masonic Lodge, seems to be composed of about 40 average-looking Long Islanders. But that’s not counting past adherents of the faith, like Arthur Conan Doyle and William Butler Yeats. They may have left the building, but they’re still around to these folks, who believe in having conversations with the dead. Not a bad concept, considering that every religion depends on mystery and poetry.
To an outsider, Berg explains her religion: “We’re not Christians, but our services are similar to what you find in a Protestant church. We don’t believe that Jesus was our savior. We believe in karma, what goes around comes around.”
Spiritualism was founded in the middle of the 19th century, so does that mean it was New Age before New Age was cool? Berg laughs and says, “New Age is off center. We feel our church is stronger than that, stronger even than all the other churches started in the 1850s, of which many were founded in upstate New York. All in one area, which I find interesting.”
After about 60 years of séances, floating tables, strange knocking sounds and non-medical healings, their religion was finally defined at Chicago in 1914 by the National Spiritualist Association. (The Smithtown group is a member of the organization, sending representatives to the annual convention this past October in Virginia Beach.) They decided their church was “the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.” It was a genuine craze around the turn of the century here and in the British Isles, where Doyle and Yeats communed with something beyond.
No one should mock these people when mainstream religions depend on a belief in virgin birth and God having a son, or are convinced that an obscure desert tribe was chosen by the Deity who contracted only with them, or that the way to heaven is to lay off caffeine and booze and practice polygamy. The Spiritualists are entitled to be as fruitcake as everyone else.
In the wide, low-ceilinged room, the congregants sit against the walls while Reverend Virginia presides along with Associate Pastor Nancy Lloyd in black robes, at a stage with a lectern and American flag. Where Reverend Virginia is all smiles and sweetness, Reverend Nancy is small, iron-haired and grim. Of these 40 parishioners, only seven are men and one is a child. There are some cheery hymns and a sermon by Reverend Virginia, with attempts at humor, about fear and faith. The elderly organist, Miss Betty Ooms, climbs behind her big instrument and accidentally hits a low buzzing note. She smiles mischievously.
Some announcements are read. “After services we’ll all go for a Chinese buffet in that restaurant—what’s the name of it? In the shopping center in Islandia. We have our own room—all you can eat for $10.”
Then the healings take place. Lights fade to yellow flickers, six folding chairs in a diamond formation are set up and healers stand behind seated people. Wind-chime music floats through the hall. The healers wave their hands around the seated heal-ees. One healer, a tall, broad-shouldered woman with a manic expression, is really working, pulling unseen things out of an old woman and flinging them away. Across the room a young woman is weeping as a friend comforts her.
The lights go up, and people, one by one, walk to the foot of the stage and ask individual members, “May I come to you?” They then give the person advice or counsel that they’d heard from the Other Side. It’s striking how so many of the dead have such banal concerns. “Watch that snow-shoveling this winter, Peter.” “Adam, I’ve heard something…today is the first day of the rest of your life.” “Pat, I see an envelope coming.”
Alice Probst, 53, a severe-looking woman, says to me, “May I come to you?” “Delighted,” I say.
She tells me: “You remind me of an animal. A gerbil in a cage. There’s too much on your plate, you’re running in the wheel. They have cages with tunnels now. There is a way out.” Thanks, Alice.
Later, I ask her, was it my scribbling notes in the dark that made her think I was gerbil-like? “No,” she says. “Vibrations.” Fair enough, Alice. My vibes make me see you as a tree sloth. How’s that?
Reverend Nancy is on the steps out back having a smoke, still in her black robe. When a cemetery across the road is commented on for its beauty, she says, in a gravelly voice, “Beautiful, sure. But there’s no one there, you know.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 1999