Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Systemic Racism, White American Buddhism, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement



Unless you've been totally asleep or hiding under a rock, you're probably aware of the unrest in Baltimore over the police murder of Freddie Grey. Odds are that some of you are upset about the property damage that happened during the peak of the protests, and are amongst those calling for peace, just as was the case last fall when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here's what I think. The United States is, by design, a nation of violence. It was born through the execution of genocide against Native populations, and was built in large part via theft and slave labor. Our domestic and foreign policy continues to be driven by endless forms of theft and violence, and people of color across the globe bear the brunt of it.

Under these conditions, we should be applauding the fact that the vast majority of protests in Baltimore and elsewhere across the nation in recent weeks have been non-violent. Furthermore, white Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners would do well to restrain themselves from finger wagging at people of color led social movements that aren't conforming to their ideas about "Right action."

I wrote the following in response to some comments on a post made by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on their Facebook page a few days ago.

White supremacy has infected the majority of white people living in the US to the point where they almost instinctively side with the mostly white ruling class. Otherwise known as the 1%.

Every last calm, rational, dare I say "peaceful" attempt by people of color and their allies to illuminate the endless ways in which the three interlocked poisons of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism is met with another triple treasure: minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

And when the heat turns up to the level of revolt, including property damage and injuries, it's always fierce verbal resistance from the white masses, a ratcheting up of the oppressiveness from the state, and even more minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

White Buddhists have a fondness for making appeals for non-violence, and yet far too few are actively working to dismantle white supremacy, and the oppressive economic and social systems that were built to keep it in place, keep us divided, and guarantee that the ruling class stays in place.

In meditation, we're often cued to watch for and unearth our habitual patterns. I have watched these patterns within the US Buddhist community and in the nation as whole unfold for a good generation now, but our history as a nation is built on this kind of call and response. There's never been a house that wasn't thoroughly divided, and riddled with the bullets of inequity, injustice, and systemic, cold blooded murders in the name of maintaining order. Whatever non-violent action has come in the past 500 years - and there has been much - has ALWAYS come against the odds, on land and air so saturated with violence that everything, right down to our water tables, is poisoned.

If you're feeling compelled to condemn the breaking of windows, the burning of buildings, "black on black crime," the injuring of police officers, etc - how about instead taking a pause, and doing some deep reflection on the legacy of this nation. On the endless cycles of violence here and abroad that have led us to today. On all the ways in which the white supremacy that Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and so many others were resisting in Baltimore well over a century ago is the same white supremacy the protesters are resisting today.

BPF's post contains an article from The Atlantic well worth the read.

I'd like to that it's vitally important to remember that the non-violent social movements that many of us uphold as models - such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement - took years, if not decades to develop. And along the way, there were uprisings that included property damage, injuries, and even deaths. Living in a society that does everything in its power to divide and oppress, and make war and violent conflict seem normal and inevitable, every generation needs to learn anew how to build sustained movements grounded in a diversity of non-violent tactics.

In addition, every new social movement is forced to counter the propaganda of the elite, which aims to render all tactics of liberation as violence. For example, many in the general public, especially amongst white folks, saw the freeway blocking or pop up lunch demonstrations in the months following the Ferguson uprising as illegitimate or somehow worthy of condemnation. Never mind that these are precisely the kind of non-violent tactics necessary to disrupt the narratives of white supremacy and get people talking about possible solutions.

When all other avenues of gaining attention and working to address grievances are shut down, is it any wonder that people sometimes resort to property destruction and physical conflict?

Like many of you, I long for a sustained social movement built on non-violence that leads us towards liberation for all. Let's make the effort to be allies to each other. Instead of assuming the worst of people that are out in the streets fighting for their rights, lets have a more generous understanding of what's going on. Which includes a knowing that there are already many individuals and groups within a movement like BlackLivesMatter working to build creative responses based in non-violent action. The mainstream media would have you believe otherwise, but then again, they're owned and operated by the very people that keep us divided and fighting amongst each other.

Yesterday, I was a part of our annual May Day march in Minneapolis (see photo), which this year merged with a rally and march for BlackLivesMatter. The crowd was highly diverse, and speaker after speaker pointed to the beautiful possibilities that could become reality if we come together, instead of remaining apart. It's time for a critical mass of white American Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners to step up, be supportive, and join the #BlackLivesMatter movement in whatever ways they can.




Monday, April 13, 2015

Mansplaining Away Rape Culture: Waylon Lewis' "Strange" Partial Defense of Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury



Waylon Lewis of the popular spiritual webzine Elephant Journal has a history of ... ahem ... troubling behavior. In 2011, I wrote a post about racism on EJ, which Waylon sought to defend as humor. The same post and comments section goes into other problematic editorial choices, as well as pointing out how criticism tended to receive a combination of snarky and inflammatory responses from Waylon. That was 4 years ago, and for the most part, I haven't given Elephant Journal any attention. However, that post routinely falls in my top 5 weekly reads list, and new comments have come long after the original issue had died down.

This morning, my attention was drawn to a new controversy. For some odd reason, Waylon has chosen to make a video pleading with us to maintain an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude when it comes to the sexual assault and rape case against Mr. Hot Yoga Empire Dude. Aka Bikram Choudhury.

Of all the people in the yoga world, Bikram is probably the last person in need of such "support." He's amongst the uber wealthy in this country. He's taken the privatization of ancient spiritual wisdom and practices to new heights. And, most importantly, there's an endless string of lawsuits and allegations against him going back well over a decade in some cases. Sure, it's technically true that Bikram is in a court of law innocent until proven guilty. However, throwing your weight behind someone with Bikram's track record is a dangerous proposition. Especially if you're another privileged male. The slide from well intentioned supporter to upholding the good ole boys club and patriarchal oppression is swift and almost inevitable.

But this video wasn't just a call to not indict Bikram prematurely. It was a powerhouse load of horseshit commentary on the nature of sexual assault and rape, as well as the supposed responsibilities of victims experiencing threaten, or potentially threatening conditions. Here are several rebuttal comments from women, as reported in the Wonkette article I cited above, that offer some insight into what I mean:

“Hey Waylon, I think it is a mistake to combine rape culture education awareness together with the Bikram case….I think you make a mistake to pit a feminist approach against a men’s group approach.”

“Placing the responsibility for preventing rape on women, and placing blame on women for not saying no, however gently, has been around for decades. It hasn’t prevented rape.”

“I fear that the way you approach these issues and this topic is confirming the reasons why women do not come forward….I hope that you can listen to this feedback, watch this video yourself, and start to have more awareness of yourself and these issues.”

“I just found it to be a regurgitation of society’s lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of this issue.”

“The way that you have attacked commenters who have had the courage to speak to the confusing and upsetting tone of this video is disturbing to me.”

“The video is a mass of contradictions and confused thinking about rape/sexual assault. Consensual sex is not sexual assault….Weirdly, despite your entire video lamenting acts of sexual assault, you appear not to know the difference.”

As a survivor of a sexual assault via a visiting male professor during my undergraduate days, I find so much of Waylon's take on these issues painfully ignorant and highly damaging. He's since apologized for producing an "offensive" video, but really, offensiveness is the least of my concerns. If Waylon were just some random yoga blogger dude offering such tropes as go report your concerns to the police and they'll take care of it and "just say no" I'd probably just shake my head and perhaps leave a brief comment with some educational links attached to it. However, for better or worse, Waylon runs a magazine with a fairly large following and has become a public figure of some standing in the American yoga and Buddhist communities. Which frankly is a big problem.

I'm guessing that this post will be dismissed by some in spiritual circles as being "personal," coming from "wrong speech," or lacking compassion. In my opinion, though, staying silent on such issues when you have to opportunity and ability to say something corrective is lacking compassion. Furthermore, as a man who is bone tired of the numerous ways in which patriarchy and colonialism have oppressed, damaged, and destroyed people of all genders, I feel that it's long past time for men to see it as normal to call out the bullshit of other men, and work towards creating a more liberated society for all.

So, Waylon and any other man tempted to defend his take on rape and sexual assault: YOU DON'T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! Please, go educate yourselves. You can find some eyeopening statistics and other information here to start with. I can tell you that I didn't say a word to anyone about my assault for a year and a half. I lived with feelings of guilt, shame and confusion that no one sans other survivors really can fully understand. Men are even less likely than women to report such incidents than women, but overall reporting rates are really low, and attitudes like your own only help to guarantee a continuation of that.

Furthermore, don't - in response to what I just wrote - offer "sorries" to me or other survivors for what we went through. Sorry does nothing to put an end to rape culture and the patriarchy that spawned it. Instead, do your homework and start asking what you can do to change the culture.

And whatever you do, stop putting out videos defending notorious male yoga gurus. Just stop. Bikram is more than well equipped to defend himself as it is. So much that even in the face of piles of damaging evidence, he might go free when the odds are he shouldn't.






Tuesday, April 7, 2015

We Are Becoming Strangers to Each Other


Photo credit: JessicaGale from morguefile.com

The other day, I was on a bus heading to work. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said, "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.

When reflecting on this scene, a few things come to mind. First off, the ways in which simple connecting and interacting with strangers or relative strangers is often sorely lacking in modern urban life. The invasion of technology, as well as multiple generations of people indoctrinated to fear their neighbors, or be suspicious of the actions of those they don’t know, has made something as basic as conversations between strangers a rarity. In addition, the disappearance of public space in many cities has eliminated the majority of opportunities to even have those conversations – to make connections with people who you probably would normally not connect with otherwise.

Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out how little public space is actually left for people to gather together downtown. Not only does the lack of public space lead to more segregated places, but it also creates severe limits on the ability of people to exercise basic rights, such as the right to petition the government and conduct public demonstrations about social issues.

At the same time, remaining public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me. However, since I’d spent the previous half an hour bombarded by the noise of cell phone conversations and music from ipods, I could barely follow what he was saying.

And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or a cigarette. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. As soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, seemingly regardless of background and needs. And I can’t claim to be all that much better. Sometimes, I try to interact or at least smile at people I meet on the street or on the bus. Other times, I avoid eye contact all together, hoping to avoid an expected request that I can’t, or don’t wish to fulfill.

How much of this is a regional, or national theme? I don’t know. It would be interesting to hear other folks’ experiences with these issues. Do you think it’s more difficult to have actual conversations with people in public places? Do you ever strike up conversations with strangers? Do you have any interesting stories related to this topic to share with the rest of us?


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yoga Culture and the Biomedical Centric Narrative


Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com

Having just completed this long response to a Facebook thread about yoga, the use of pharmaceuticals by yoga teachers, alternative medicine, and the problematic nature of "New Agey" responses to health and wellness issues, I decided it was worthy of a blog post. The original post by a yoga teacher who was shocked to learn of two long time yoga teachers that used meds to treat their depression was, after an apparent fluffy of negative responses, taken down. It was replaced by this apology, while the original piece was responded to by several yoga bloggers, including Matthew Remski and Charlotte Bell. While I appreciate many of the points both Matthew and Charlotte offer, I was struck by what I'd label a biomedical centric quality to their responses. Something that I also found in the discussion that ensued on Matthew's FB page, and which I feel needs to be unpacked in detail to avoid falling into an all too easy "good and evil" binary. Below is my attempt to do a bit of that unpacking.

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I've been following this discussion for a few days now, trying to figure out if I should say anything or not. I didn't get to read the original post, so I don't know what kind of claims the author made about pharmaceutical medications or Western bio-medicine in general. One thing I do find curious is - in this depression saturated continent of ours, where medications is a commonplace solution - how the author was "shocked" or even "surprised" that some yoga teachers are using pharmaceuticals to address depression or similar challenges. I honestly don't get the wow factor there.

One tendency I have noticed whenever these discussions about medicine come up is that the power and demands of the biomedical point of view are not often made explicit. For example, there's rarely any direct dialogue about the societal position of biomedicine as orthodox and state sanctioned. And how that positioning allows proponents to dismiss anything else at will without any damage to their credibility or standing. Taking a stand in favor of pharmaceutical intervention has little of the social risk that taking a stand in favor of an energy medicine approach to anxiety or depression does, for example. Or that the same positioning means that the terms of engagement will default to biomedicine's unless deliberate effort is made to question and open space for differing worldviews.

Here, I see many appeals to "experts" and a need for "expertise" and "evidence," without naming the fact that behind this is a demand for whatever is being considered medicine to give deference to biomedicine's criteria for determining validity. That the definition of depression, for example, needs to fall in line with how biomedicine sees it, and/or that any treatments being offered must be backed by scientific "proof," or be explainable using the language and structures of biomedicine. And that anyone who offers some potential treatment option needs to demonstrate a certain level of "competency" - as biomedicine defines competency - or else they'll be lopped off as New Age flakes or charlatans.

Again, I didn't get to read the original post before the author took it down, so I don't know if she made a lot of universalized claims against drug therapies in particular, or solely in favor of alternative approaches. Personally, while I'm not a fan of pharmaceuticals, I think all options should be available for people to choose from. And I wouldn't offer anything with a blanket statement that "THIS IS IT." So, if the author of the original post was operating from that attitude, then I totally get why so many folks reacted so strongly against her post.

At the same time, what I have witnessed over and over again in these kinds of conversations is a tendency for everything to slide under the control of a biomedical narrative. That those who question biomedical interventions are suspect until they prove otherwise. And that "alternative" medical modalities are only valid if at least some of what they offer can be explained or demonstratable under the biomedicine framework.

Along these lines, I actually would argue that the plethora of ill informed yoga folks who knee jerk reject all forms of biomedicine and biomedical approaches, and offer yogic soundbytes and superficial elements of other medicine systems in response to issues like depression are actually a product of this same narrative of inquiry. It takes a lot of effort, strength and persistence to nurture and offer a medicine worldview that isn't biomedicine in this society. Far easier is the path of least resistance, where you know you don't resonate with the dominant model, but make little or no effort to learn and then practice a different one.

Finally, I'm guessing that to some degree or another, the hostility towards folks like the yoga teacher who wrote the original blog isn't really about medicine at all. But about expressed entitlement. Namely, that because person X was at some point anointed a teacher via teaching certificate or some other flimsy method of approval, that they feel "empowered" to "help others" with any problem or issue that arises. That said "yoga teacher" thinks they understand enough to do so, solely or mostly because they've finished some basic course of study, or read a book or whatever. To me, this sense of specialness - that being a yoga teacher means that you have some great level of wisdom and knowledge to "share" - is really the crux of many of the so called controversies in "yoga culture" today.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The spring breeze is our every breath


Photo credit: immaster from morguefile.com

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

Zen Master Ikkyu, 1394-1481

Many years, we here in Minnesota are still being swallowed up by winter clouds. This year, not so much. All around, the trees are budding. The lingering snow and ice is melting. And the air is filling with the songs of returning birds.

The same might be said of how people experience awakening, enlightenment. Most of the time, it seems to be some thing distant, buried under the snow of our sufferings and attachments. However, it need not be that way. Even in the worst winter storm, there is a spring breeze waiting to be discovered.

Ikkyu stands exactly where he is in this poem. There's not much desire for something to be radically different, just description and acceptance of what is. And also weariness. A weariness that isn't what it seems to be.

The spring breeze that isn't in the relative moment is fully alive in Ikkyu's heart/mind. In the poem, it breathes a love into everything that is, just as it is. And in doing so, he moves beyond being owned by that relative reality.

That weariness isn't of a man who's been beaten down by the world. As I see it, it's of a man who has grown tired of riding the emotional tides of life's endless changes.

Whatever comes, he's ready to embrace it.

I must remember that the budding trees will someday be rotting logs. I also must remember that the rotting logs contain budding trees.

The spring breeze is our every breath.









Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Diving into Freedom


Photo credit: Sheron2482 from morguefile.com

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte


Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out. Too much waiting for a pole to show up. Not enough just diving, taking the fears and calculations along for the ride.

But that's not the end of the story. Or even the whole story of what was. Liberation comes sometimes through recognizing the gaps in what you believe.

I've been only that scared and calculating little boy. Leaps have been made, small and large. Keep going there. Keep going there. Just like the breath in meditation. That's the path. That's the pool of freedom, ever ready for you to go swimming in.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Notes on the Yoga Industrial Complex


Photo credit: mantasmagorical from morguefile.com

This article came across my blog feed a few days ago. I read it, found myself nodding in places, and also resonating with some points in the comments section. Then I chose to let it sit, and see if it interested me enough to return to. It did, so here we are.

In 2011-12, I completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, following a good decade of yoga (and Zen) practice. I knew full well upon entering the program that there are too many "yoga teachers," and that the bulk of what passes for yoga in America these days is little more than a glorified exercise routine. However, after a year of witnessing from the inside, I came to the following conclusions:

1. The vast majority of yoga studios are built on models that discourage (by design) the development of a community of practitioners. Individual students might become friends or even "practice buddies," but the only "practice communities" I've ever witnessed in studios (where folks actually study and practice in a group over a sustained period of time)are the temporary ones in yoga teacher training programs.

2. Nearly universally, yoga teachers fall under the category of freelancers who work a series of temporary gigs. (Yes, some of those gigs might last several years if a person's classes keep attracting enough students, but for many, this isn't the case.)

3. Yoga teacher training programs are often more about the greens than about developing great teachers. If you pay the fees and finish the classes, you're awarded a certificate. The depth of your practice, wisdom, and/or actual ability to teach is mostly secondary.

4. Yoga teaching is treated as a "career," which is by definition creating a few problematic frames: a) a transactional sensibility where an expectation of financial gain is present b) a "productivity" sensibility where an expectation is present (amongst students and teachers) that certain goals will be met in short periods of time. (Such as students will learn x number of yoga postures in a given class or series of class, and have some level of achieved performance. Note: this kind of stuff is often not explicit or stated, but more an underlying, sometimes unconscious expectation.)

5. A "successful" yoga teacher under current standards is one that tends to have full classes, and/or classes with enough devoted students that they are both making some income, and also maintaining their "value" to the studio.

6. There's a lot of what I would call "Rugged Individualism" spirituality offered in yoga studios. There's not really a collective anything going on, even though numerous folks enter and exit the doors of a studio in a given day, week, month, year. There's rarely any talk or consideration of how systemic -isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc) impact any given person or group of people's spiritual lives and/or understanding of what it all means (or could mean.)

I offer this as a set of insights I have had since teacher training, which made me feel sympathetic to Jessica's situation in the post I linked to, even though I also agree with comments in the comments section pointing out entitlement and privilege in her words. More than anything, though, I think it's important to recognize that her situation didn't happen in a vacuum. There are numerous collective circumstances that have come together to make it both very difficult for yoga teachers to sustain their teaching (even if they "day jobs"), and also much more likely that whatever is offered as "yoga" will be a mere fraction of what yoga is as a spiritual discipline.