Thursday, April 17, 2014

You're a Mindfulness Teacher, Right?

The other day, I was in a meeting at the yoga center I teach meditation at, and the other meditation teacher and I were talking about student numbers. I said I had a few regulars in my class now, and he said "That's because you teach mindfulness, right?" I had a very odd reaction. Almost straight aversion. I responded that I teach a lot of practices, not just mindfulness. But the response was muddy at best, and I've been left with this curious feeling about it all.

I'm almost certain he wasn't thinking of Sati, the Pali word for Buddhist mindfulness, which is steeped in ethical considerations as well as development of attention skills. He was probably more thinking of the pop mindfulness that I've written so much about in recent years. At the same time, the classes I've been teaching haven't been highly focused on social ethics or connecting big picture issues. That's more one element among many. Nor could what I've been offering be reduced to mindfulness of any variety. Again, that's one element among others. My whole goal has been to offer a diversity of gates into meditation, and the classes has focused on everything from grief for recently lost pets to reflecting on our roles in supporting the health of the planet.

Anyway, as I was reading this article - yet another critique piece on the Wisdom 2.0 conference - I thought of this odd feeling I had being labeled a "mindfulness" teacher, and how corrupted that word seems to have become. To the point where part of me doesn't even want to claim it, because doing so without an explanation doesn't seem right anymore.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Updates from Zen Land

My writing here has dropped off a bit in recent months. However, I haven't been idle. It's actually been a big season of growth for me and those around me.

On Sunday, our sangha held a council to affirm a new head teacher. Our current head teacher will be moving into a "senior" role, where she'll be able to focus on what she wants to study and teach. The council was rather remarkable because it truly was an affirmation. People spoke movingly to the gifts our current teacher has brought to the community over the years, and also to their support and excitement for the new head teacher. I've been in plenty of meetings where people played nice in order to preserve some false sense of unity. There wasn't any of that here. No jealousy or suspicion. No hidden agendas being played out. Just wave after wave of goodness, which gives me hope for the other issues that lie ahead for us in the coming months, including finding a new building to move to.

Meanwhile, on my end, after about 15 years of study and self practice, I've decided to do something bigger with my herbal medicine knowledge. Today, I launched NGTHerbals, celebrating the power of plants, our interconnected planet, and offering handmade herbal tinctures steeped in my love for all things green. Please help me spread the word!

Here's a short selection from the first blog post over there. Don't worry, though. I'll need to find a new balance now, but I'm not quitting Dangerous Harvests. In the meantime, enjoy a bit of plant love!

"Dandelion, plantain, goldenrod, milk thistle, nettle. Behind the invasive species labels often slapped on them are a storehouse of health benefits. From the liver detoxifying power of Dandelion to the anti-inflammatory nature of Nettle, these weeds seemed to have it all.

And yet there was more to it than just the medicinal benefits. Like the way they taught me about my mind. How the nettle patch, for example, mirrored the way my critical thinking sometimes turned into heavy negativity and pessimism. Once I slip past the border, the negativity literally takes over, stinging parts of my body and leaving it tense and pained."

Friday, April 4, 2014

Monsanto, Monarchs, and the Meditation of Weeds

On the whole people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spend so much time exterminating. Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus

Photo credit: katmystiry from

I have a fondness for weeds. For the forgotten, dismissed, and marginalized. Anyone who visits my garden in mid-summer probably wonders if I’ve let it go. And it’s true. I don’t tend to it very much. The wild nettle patch is left to grow right next to the somewhat cultivated beans. Purslane wiggles its way between stalks of wavy squash. Lambs quarters lap up the sun that break through the canvas of tomatoes. During the early months, I do my best to give everything enough space. But once July rolls around, I mostly stay out of the way.

Last July, I saw a pair of monarchs in a field. The first I had seen all season. Summer nearly halfway over and not a single monarch! This is one of the consequences of colonialism and economies built on profit and endless growth. The loss of biodiversity. The erasure of the small, vulnerable, and unprofitable. I hope they make it, but we might be facing a near future with no monarchs at all.

When I saw the Gibbons quote above, I immediately thought of Monsanto and monarchs. How our own government quietly legislates the means for planetary demise. All the while telling us that this about food production and feeding the hungry.

The hungry. Yes, we are hungry. But most of us don’t even know why. The loss of connection to the very land we live on. The failure to recognize that many of the plants we call “weeds” have been used for centuries as food, medicine, and so much more. Perhaps the nettle tea I drank last night is prompting this post. Or maybe it’s the fresh dandelion greens I snack on regularly while I “tend” to the garden.

In my view, we cannot speak of things such as “decolonization” without remembering the weeds, and all the ways in which our lives have been tied together throughout history. My love of dandelions, for example, is also linked to the knowledge that they were one of the plants brought by my settler ancestors. My love of all things herbal medicine is tempered by the fact that white folks and privileged others continue to colonize and denature indigenous plant wisdom and healing practices. And my love of milkweed is propelled by a desire to keep the monarchs alive.

Truly loving weeds is a practice in discomfort. Not unlike spending time in meditation, or other spiritual practices. Self and other rub together again and again. For every joyful story that arises, there’s also the sting of other stories, historical and present day, that remind us our our disconnections. Lost selves. Failures to see into the true nature of things, and act accordingly.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Economics of Male Grief

It's been a bit quiet over here lately. I've been writing about topics that didn't naturally fit here, and also doing a lot of behind the scenes work at zen center. I also planted a flat of seeds, and hope that it warms up enough in the next few weeks to get the garden going. Lots of waiting and needing to be patient.

I have a new post over at Life as a Human webzine. It focuses on male grief and economics. Here's a short selection from it.

"Although it’s probably the case that socialization at school and other places put it into my head that crying isn’t okay for men, the day that solidified it for me was my grandfather’s funeral.

I was 13 years old. As one of the pallbearers, I stood at the end of the line, watching the casket coming out of the hearse. Suddenly, I felt weak in my legs and turned away, just at the time when I should have been reaching up. My uncle screamed something nasty at me, jolting me back into place, to do my “job.” I think I didn’t forgive him for years for that.

Later that day, my grandmother came around and told all of us “Don’t cry. You’re grandfather wouldn’t want you to cry.” She was trying to support us, but this is often how grandma’s support has been – kind of off. Anyway, her words that day, as well as my uncle’s, stuck with me, leading the charge of all the other comments and views I’d heard saying that men don’t cry, that we best be “tough,” no matter what."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Continuing the Discussion on Corporate Mindfulness and the Wisdom 2.0 Conference

Photo credit: EmmiP from

Today, I would like to highlight part of an ongoing discussion happening over at Turning Wheel Media about corporate mindfulness and the recent protests at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Instead of writing a full post, I want to offer parts of recent exchanges between three commenters: myself, Katie Loncke, and Mario Pedroso. Please visit the original post to read the rest of the exchanges. It's a really good discussion!

Mario Pedroso:

"Google, like all of us, is a symptom and cause of Capitalism and other systems of injustice. We are all forced to participate and therefore perpetuate. It doesn’t mean we are evil, we are all trying to survive in a system that inherently deprives us of our fullest potential.

Action is necessary, and it has to happen simultaneously with change of hearts and minds. If action only leads us to become more entrenched in our camps (good activist, evil capitalist) we do more harm than good. If our actions are born from the desire to challenge patterns of suffering, we must see the humanity in all beings. G-Dog, Jesuit priest Father Greg, points to this beautiful when he refuses to look at gang members in East L.A. as merely being murderers and thugs, but connects with God’s presence within each, even those some may demonize and fear the most.

It’s important to hold people/corporations accountable, and sometimes we have to take strong actions to do so, but ultimately if we don’t engage hearts and minds as well, we will never overcome the separation and division that underlies our capacity to perpetuate oppression."

Katie Loncke:

"Marlo, thank you for this — such an important dialogue to have. I think we agree more than not! And thanks for your example of the work with gangs; that’s powerful stuff in a social climate that demonizes and criminalizes poor men (and women, and trans folks) of color.

On our shared views, I agree than in one sense political movements for justice are born out of political consciousness. It’s essential to keep working at the level of consciousness raising, critical thinking, education: which we could call hearts-and-minds. (There’s a whole other conversation to be had here about historical materialist views of the world, versus idealist views of the world — we don’t necessarily have to go into that but I love that conversation too and just wanna flag it.)

But while agreeing on the importance of ideological work, a very general agreement, what I want to avoid is the idea that we can slowly perfect society by creating compassionate capitalists. As Assata Shakur said,

'Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people that were oppressing them.'

Instead of appealing to capitalists to be kinder, can we question why we need capitalism in the first place?

Joshua Eaton also put this well in a response to his recent article criticizing the corporate commodification of mindfulness:

'Let me set the record straight: I don’t think elites shouldn’t practice Buddhism or meditate. I think they shouldn’t be elites.'

Part of what I hear you saying, which I agree with (and please correct me if I’m wrong), is that we expect that most of the elite wouldn’t cede their outsize power willingly — hence the reference to guns and force for unseating them. And that’s such an important question: what are our options? Is it our responsibility to try to patiently educate elites into redistributing power and resources, in order to minimize the force that would be required for such a redistribution? OR does this ignore the tremendous amounts of violence and force that are *inherent* and *ongoing* in our current systems of capitalism and injustice? Whose timeline are we on, here? Who are we trying to make comfortable?"

Mario Pedroso:

"Hey Katie,

First off, thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply. It’s true that we are mostly in agreement. I’m super grateful that these dialogues are happening more and more in the online sphere. I’ve been having them in my own small ways in my Sangha. I love what Josh Korda (Mindfulness is Not Enough), yourself, and others have been posting more constructive dialogues that seek to bring issues like ethics, justice, and right lively-hood into the more secularized spheres of Mindfulness. Another good example:

I think we are seeking, here and beyond, to integrate the materialist and idealist spheres, no? And I agree, to quote another fierce sister, Audre Lord: ““For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Yet, and this may be naive, while I don’t believe mindful capitalists will solve the problems we face, I’d rather they be mindful, to whatever extent they are, than not. To some degree, I believe that mindfulness takes us for a ride, and where we end is not where we intended on going. In other words, Mindfulness is not the master’s tool, it’s a powerful spiritual practice, and what comes out of practicing it may not be what we expect. (but shhhh let’s not spoil it)

In the meantime, I won’t hold my breath. But I also think, and I know you agree, that there are bigger fish to fry than getting mad at the upper middle class for using mindfulness. Let’s show them how much better it gets! Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom. And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being."

Nathan Thompson:

"'And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being. '”

Mario, this is the crux of challenge for me these days. I’m more inclined to agree with someone like Zizek that corporate mindfulness is just another prop to keep folks from totally falling apart in environments that are hostile to their very humanness. After over a decade and a half volunteering, working, and even leading in various non-profit settings, I started to overwhelmingly sense that so much of what I was doing was helping folks cope with injustice, and/or navigate our horrorshow economic and social systems. Whether it was counseling abused children from broken homes, or teaching English to recent immigrants – everything was framed in terms of helping folks function, adjust, be productive, etc. within the current systems. Which doesn’t mean that nothing beneficial happened, nor that all my work was a waste of time. But I’m hard pressed to see something like corporate mindfulness as anything other than a coping mechanism.

The fact that the response to the protest from the folks on the stage at the Wisdom 2.0 conference was to individualize the whole thing speaks volumes. Turning a complex set of issues into an exercise of being aware of your feelings around conflict basically neuters thoughts and reflections about social ethics. I personally think its dangerous to assume that anyone who practices some form of mindful awareness will naturally become more aware of (and perhaps willing to act on) social injustices and systems of oppression.

... a lot of what is trotted out as mindfulness these days isn’t complete. It’s very similar to what’s happened to yoga. Instead of a profound spiritual path, a single element – asana – has been pulled out, and then reduced to something that is mostly about exercise and stress reduction.

So, like you, I’d like to think that capitalists being more mindful is a positive. But is that actually happening as a result of these programs? I honestly don’t know, but there’s really no good evidence to suggest that corporate leaders are really acting more ethical because of practicing what they call mindfulness. The best that might be said at this point is that some leaders have better relationships with their employees. They care a little more for each other while continuing to exploit and destroy the planet. (Sorry if that sounds crass, but that’s kind of what it boils down to in my mind.)

'Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom.'

Here’s what I think. You’re right in one way. Getting too fixated on corporate mindfulness isn’t terribly helpful. On the other hand, it can be a gateway into understanding the broader systems. Specifically by illuminating the way mindfulness is being used, and how it functions within corporate settings, people can come to see what the broader systems are about. How they warp everything in the name of power over and profits.

I guess I wonder how we might both support some efforts to help people cope, while also remaining radical enough to keep challenging systems of oppression and create true, more beneficial societies?

When I see all the energy put into trying to maintain food stamps programs or to get modest gains in the minimum wage, I feel so damned torn. Because it seems like we’re just sucked down the rabbit hole of doing whatever we can to cope – or even be allowed to cope. We’re basically playing their game. The elite’s game. How do we shift the frame, and operate from a grassroots power base that is diverse enough to handle all the needed prongs?"


A few things to note here. One of the difficulties with this discussion on the whole is that the underlying philosophies people are entering it with frequently clash, making it even more difficult to tease out the particulars when it comes to corporate mindfulness. Consider that all three of us above essentially reject the capitalism economic system, a starting point which allows for a certain kind of dialogue to unfold. Whereas, when I see a more mixed crowd discussing corporate mindfulness, it's much more likely that the whole discussion gets lost in things like battles over whether corporations are "good" or "bad," or whether or not mindfulness can be a "great change agent" force in the corporate world. It strikes me that if the conversation were limited to folks who are either ok with capitalism or fully support capitalism, then perhaps discussions might unfold around the efficacy of programs in relieving stress, improving relationships between leadership and workers, and perhaps doing research that might "prove" or "not prove" that mindfulness improves business ethics.

I think both of the philosophically similar based discussions can offer useful information. Whereas, with more mixed discussions, it's vital that some of us learn to recognize the mixed quality and perhaps figure out ways to engage from that knowing so that new ideas and experiences can arise.

In the meantime, I tend to think that the corporate mindfulness trend will continue to gain steam, even as those of us who are in opposition to it become more clear about our reasoning for doing so. The titanic of the American Empire is slowly sinking, regardless of what side you're on in this discussion. Many people are suffering and desperate. And the elite are desperate to keep the gravy train going for another generation or two at least. Until they're dead anyway.

In my view, the planet is calling us forth right now to step beyond our limited, often trapped in binaries frameworks. It's not enough to just be pro-mindfulness or anti-mindfulness for example. We need to collectively move beyond that place, not to some middle ground between the two poles, but to some entirely new Middle Way.

What do you think?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Zen Flow

Photo credit: taliesin from

Here are a few lines from Master Sengcan's dharma poem "Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming).

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction - or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, propping up sham arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out in my opinion. As in hold tightly. Sometimes death grip tightly.

When I first read this line, I thought it meant don't have any opinions about anything. Which reminds me of a former sangha member who ran for Mayor several years ago. He went door to door talking to people about his campaign. When they'd ask him what he stood for, he said "I don't have an agenda, other than what the people tell me." When they'd press further about specific plans, he'd say "I don't have any fixed plans. I'm listening to the people first." Needless to say, he didn't get many votes.

In some ways, it was kind of amazing that he went into the community offering to be a mirror for the rest of us. Politicians always claim to represent "everyone," but they never do. Primarily because it's impossible, but also because the vast majority of them are beholden in some manner or another to special interest elites. Whatever mirroring of everyday folks they do is mostly extra, carrots in exchange for votes and/or doing something to appease their uneasy consciences.

Anyway, one of the themes I see in Master Sengcan's poem is flow. Being able to flow in the absolute and relative realms. Not getting caught by either emptiness or concrete things and experiences.

So, having opinions, even strong ones, isn't the issue. But is there flow and openness? Are you able to enter into situations, express yourself clearly, do what needs to be done, and then move on?

Of course "moving on" sometimes involves repetition or slight revision. Conversations about race and racism tend to be like that for example. But even there, in the heat of all that karmic collective muck, you can find spaciousness. Not easy, but it's possible.

"With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating..."

What is the single stroke? What is the truth of this moment? We don't need to withhold ourselves to be mirrors for each other.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Mindfulness Wars

Over at American Buddhist Perspective, Justin offers a goodbreakdown of recent articles in response to the brief protest that occurred at the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference. Odds are the "mindfulness wars" are only beginning to heat up, as more and more areas of the military industrial complex adopt mindfulness programs. While Justin's post offers excellent insight into some of the highly thorny issues coming up when mindfulness enters the world of big business, the ending offers at least a mildly optimistic tone, citing research suggesting mindfulness alone can increase ethical behavior.

First off, let's consider the source of two of the three studies: the University of Chicago and the Wharton School of UPenn. The former is home to the Milton Friedman Institute, while the latter is one of the highest ranked business schools in the world, with numerous alumni leading Fortune 1000 corporations around the globe. On the one hand, it makes sense that they would be doing research on mindfulness in the workplace. On the other hand, these are places with a vested interest in maintaining our current economic system, including many of it's numerous abuses.

I would really like to see some significant research from universities and other organizations that aren't driven by highly pro-capitalist models. In addition, what I find problematic about much of the research on mindfulness that I ave seen is that it tends to focus on individual benefits and changes in intrapersonal and/or interpersonal dynamics. It's fairly easy to find articles on psychological and therapeutic benefits, and I'm guessing that folks who get upset with the wholesale rejection of secular mindfulness by some Buddhists (and others) are thinking in part from this place. And the fact that mindfulness programs clearly do seem to offer folks stress relief, healing or significant improvement of depression, anxiety, and similar conditions. In addition, there seems to more and more articles and perhaps research on the improvement of intrapersonal and/or interpersonal dynamics in groups such as large workplaces. I frequently see appeals from secular mindfulness proponents that point to better boss/employee relationships, as well as less hostile work environments in general. Which, if it's true that mindfulness programs are doing this, is certainly a positive in my book.

However, none of this readily translates into systemic social change. Just because the corporate workplace is filled with more caring and less stressed people doesn't mean they'll be more likely (in my view) to act (individually or collectively) in ways that significantly reduce manufactured economic inequality, environmental destruction, and numerous other issues. Not when the main, even sole purpose of corporations is to make profits for the elite.

What incentive does a corporation like Google have to actively address (from their own sense of conscience) something like gentrification? Why would they bother to do anything unless public pressure threatened to cave their financial bottom line?

Google has been at the forefront of corporate mindfulness programming for a good decade now, not only influencing programming incorporate Silicon Valley, but numerous other places. And yet, Google's ethical track record is fairly lousy. From avoiding taxes to exploiting the digital commons in Africa, Google isn't exactly demonstrating the supposed social ethics of a mindfulness-based business.

Overall, I think this discussion needs to move beyond the mindfulness produced "zombies" and "mindful sniper" examples that keep being brought up by folks on both sides of the table. These extreme, individualistic memes are highly charged distractions that keep us from taking a deeper look at the interdependent systems that mindfulness programs are plugging into, and how the oppressive forces within those systems impact whatever programs are being offered, regardless of how good the intentions are.