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.



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brief Meditation on an Increasingly Deranged Planet


Photo credit: snowbear from morguefile.com

This has been bubbling up for me today. Noticing how warm this January has been, after record cold last January. Thinking about our ancestors. How they looked to the patterns of the natural world for wisdom. And then a knowing that so few of us do this today, followed by a feeling that even if the majority of us return to these patterns, what if what we are picking up is at least partly deranged?

A few weeks ago, I was in Iowa. It was warm there too, and on one of the lakes outside of Des Moines, hundreds (maybe even a few thousand) geese had landed. Were squawking at each other. Circling. Waiting. Whatever they were doing there, it seemed off. Geese usually fly to the border states and Mexico in the winter. They don't winter in Iowa. But given the signals they've been getting, perhaps Iowa felt right the first week of January.

If this is the new normal, we might have to go beyond simply "going back to nature" so to speak. Aligning ourselves with a natural world that is deranged, in large part because of ignorant human activity, isn't going to bring about the healing that we seek. Our attention skills need to be honed to the point that they allow us to witness the deranged, and see through it to the dynamic "homeostasis" behind the curtain. If we seek to build/create in alignment with our ecosystems, we're going to have to learn how it organizes to thrive, rather than simply mimic what is currently present. Like riding the breath in meditation until it settles deep in the heart of the body/mind, so to is the practice of returning to true unity with/in our Earthly home.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The World Inevitably Exposes Our False Identities


Photo credit: Penywise from morguefile.com

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? I have been reflecting on this whole "exposure" process lately. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

I think there is a place for hiding in, for holding on to those identities, those parts of yourself that aren't completely right, integrated, alive.

And yet, at the same time, it's foolish to either stay there very long, or believe that you can stay there very long.

Winter comes to all of our identities, and everything that we do.
And spring brings in what's next.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Continued Exoticization of #Asians and #Buddhism in America: On Brad Warner's CNN Interview About #NYPD Officer Liu's Funeraln



The recent funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu offered, among other things, a clear window into race relations here in the United States. Occurring in the middle of the current police "slow down," the funeral also was used as another opportunity for members of the more conservative wing of the NYPD to protest NYC Mayor DeBlasio's fairly mild reform agenda. With plummeting arrest rates, and no real rise in public safety concerns in New York, the NYPD's actions demonstrate the highly bloated quality of the department. Indeed, some of the very issues being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter protests - the hyper-excessive arrest rates for black and brown folks, the Broken Windows policy, and the general state-sanctioned violence of police forces - are being shown for what they truly are: racist, classist oppression.

Meanwhile, this morning I saw the video above floating around my Facebook feed and I had a moment of "huh," followed by a sigh. The choice by CNN of Zen teacher Brad Warner as the face and voice for Buddhism in the US, and in particular, the one to speak about the rituals at Officer Liu's funeral, speaks volumes.

1. The Asian as perpetual outsider narrative is totally upheld here. Not only does the mainstream media choose a white male to represent Buddhism, but they also cast the funeral of a Chinese-American officer as "exotic" enough to require explaining to their audience.

2. The ignoring of, and/or deliberate suppression of, Asian-American Buddhism narrative is upheld. Numerous Asian-American Buddhist teachers and community leaders could have been selected to do this interview, but they weren't. Furthermore, the robust Chinese-American community as a whole is ignored here, not deemed worthy enough even after several generations on the continent of narrating the story of one of their own.

3. The narrative of celebrity worship. While Brad Warner is barely known outside of Buddhist circles, he's something of a celebrity amongst convert Buddhists. And while Brad's a sincere practitioner and serious student of the dharma, the public persona he's developed, and which his almost cult-like following has propped up, easily comes off as superficial and rebellious in a boyish, teenaged sort of manner.

4. Which serves to uphold the narrative that Buddhism is either trivial or not really something to be taken seriously by the rest of Americans. I have a feeling that Brad's choice to don the robes he rarely uses for this interview was in part coming from an understanding of this issue. He probably knew that the punk rocker turned rebel Zen priest image just wouldn't cut it for national TV news.

Here's the thing. I'm guessing Brad simply responded to the call from CNN and did his best to offer folks watching some insight into Buddhism. I think he did pretty good actually of giving some Buddhist basics in a forum that's horribly prone to superficial sound bytes. In fact, he sounded heartfelt and caring as well, something that often gets downplayed or erased in these interviews. So, understand that this post isn't about bashing Brad; it's about the complexities of systemic racism, and also the dynamics behind marginalizing minority religions and spiritual traditions in a still overwhelmingly Christian nation.

Your thoughts?




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is "Western" Yoga Cultural Appropriation? A Few Notes on the Confounding, Conflicting Efforts to Decolonize Yoga


Photo credit: jllfitness from morguefile.com

Back in 2012, when I finished my yoga teacher training, I had already been practicing asana and meditation (the two most recognizable limbs of the yogic 8 fold path) for over a decade. Unlike many of those in my training class, yoga was a normalized part of my life. Something that had already sunk in enough to change me and also provoke a lot of questioning.

Several of my teacher training classmates went on to become regular asana teachers, some even before the completed their certificate. I, on the other hand, have gone on a different path, teaching meditation and a handful of asana classes, all the while living with a sense that I want to - need to - learn more, practice more, to truly shape what I have to offer.

In addition, there's the "Yoga Industrial Complex": this world of commodified, mostly asana practice that brings in piles of money while offering yoga as mild to moderate self improvement, as opposed to a path of liberation. Over the years, my opinion on all this has evolved to the point where I'm fine with offering elements of yoga to folks to improve physical and mental health, but still desiring to undermine the capitalist mentality that drives so much of what's offered as yoga, how it's offered, and by what motivations.

A dharma friend of mine sent me this blog post yesterday, which opens up yet another can of worms. Cultural appropriation. Decolonization. The history of yoga under colonialism.

This is contentious territory, no matter how you slice it. Millions of folks in the U.S. teach and practice something called yoga these days. Lots of white people in this group, but significant numbers of people of color as well. And that's just here. Yoga asana practice in particular has spread across the globe in the past century, to the point where even if "purists" wanted to stop it, they probably couldn't.

And yet, the battles over both what is yoga and who can (or can't) rightfully claim it wage on. I've waded in on these from time to time, but often find myself at a loss in both places. Trying to pin down what constitutes "yoga" - even if we focus solely on the various forms of yogic spiritual traditions - is a messy affair. The debates about ownership and cultural appropriation are muddy at best, and often riddled with contradictions. The Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga campaign, for example, is driven by upper caste Hindu-Americans who seek to frame yoga as universally "owned" by Indian Hinduism, all the while sweeping under the rug the elitist roots of the practice and the caste oppression that kept the majority of folks in India (regardless of religious background) from practicing yoga until very recently. In addition, HAF's position papers are filled with quotations from modern Indian yoga teachers who spent the majority of their careers deliberately teaching "Westerners." The fact that so many 19th, 20th, and 21st century Indian yoga teachers have dedicated at least part of their lives offering teachings to people from North America, Europe, and elsewhere muddies the water significantly on the cultural appropriation arguments. Which doesn't mean it's not worth considering, but it isn't the same discussion as, for example, when white Americans take a weekend workshop on indigenous shamanism and then claim to be shamans.

As such, when I came to this section in the original blog post I cited, I found myself feeling mixed. The author, a white yoga teacher from Vancouver, writes

No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.

On the one hand, I think she's hitting on the problematic nature of much of what constitutes "yoga" practice in the U.S. and elsewhere. That gut sense that something is profoundly "wrong" about it all is something I have sat with for a good decade now.

At the same time, chalking it up to solely, or mostly, about cultural appropriation by white folks doesn't really fly for me.

In an article responding to a wave of online commentary about the HAF campaign, Prachi Pantakar raises several issues that create a much more complex picture.

Among them is the origins of modern asana practice, which she argues is a blend of Euro-American body practices and teachings from the Yoga Sutras (and elsewhere I would add).

In addition, there's this:

It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.

Pantakar points out that SAAPYA, the group that the Vancouver yoga teacher cites as one of her influences, is offering a message that appears to be very progressive, but also needs to be unpacked.

Much of SAAPYA’s discourse uses the language of social justice and decolonization, though there seems to be a reluctance to distinguish themselves from HAF and its broader ideology.

Just to add another layer of complexity, Roopa Singh, a founder of SAAPYA, rejects Pantakar's portrayal of the organization in a rebuttal piece that also supports many of her other points.

Singh writes:

SAAPYA is not pro-violence, pro-Hindutva, in fact, it’s not a platform super interested in reclaiming yoga for desis who are Hindu. It’s about fighting segregation and the post-colonial whitewashing of yoga through amplifying voices from across the South Asian diaspora in the west. Press has chosen to describe this effort as a take back and such, but those aren’t my ways of describing it.

In reading through other material on the SAAPYA website, it strikes that they are collectively exploring what it means to decolonize yoga. Which is so, so needed.

I didn't get the sense that, for example, they're message is one of telling white people to stop teaching or practicing yoga. Or that yoga is the "property of Hindus." Or some other simplistic message.

Another reason why I didn't buy into the Vancouver author's stated reason for quitting teaching. In fact, I think her last paragraph points more to the truth of the matter.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

All of this resonates with me. In fact, it really does a good job of summing up many of the reasons why I haven't joined my fellow teacher training classmates in the ranks of studio yoga asana teachers. My original purpose in taking the teacher training in the first place was to be able to sharpen my skills so that I could bring them out of the mainstream. To my former ESL students and others in the recent immigrant communities for example. That isolation she speaks of was only heightened during my teacher training program, leading me to question the whole notion of yoga studios and their cultures. Over two years later, after a year and a half of teaching meditation in a yoga studio, not much has changed in that regard. We've had three meditation teachers try to establish classes in the time I have taught there, and I'm the only one left. And my class draws tiny numbers compared to the asana only classes. Much more could be said about studios, even ones like the one I teach at which do a good job of offering yoga as a spiritual practice in a longstanding tradition, but I'll save that for another post.

I'd be interested in hearing from others on all this. What does it mean to "decolonize" yoga? What do you think of arguments like those being put forth by HAF? What do you think of the white yoga teacher's reasons for quitting?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson



"Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century."

Since this is a blog about Buddhism among other things, I'll start with this statement. The majority, perhaps the vast majority of covert Buddhists sanghas in the US will have nothing to public to say about Ferguson. They will not deliberately open their doors, as East Bay Meditation Center is doing today, as a place of respite for the outraged, weary, and sad. They will not issue any public statements about racial injustice, the suppression of peaceful protests, or anything of the like. They will not offer dharma talks on Ferguson, state sanctioned violence, or the militarization of our police departments. They will not show up, in any significant numbers, at protests or solidary events. They most likely won't, in any real tangible manner, demonstrate that the above, quoted reality is a total travesty, and that the only way to stand behind and support our black brothers and sisters is to reject the status quo, and work together to build a more just, and truly peaceful society.

I want to be wrong about all this, but I probably won't be. It's just far too easy for white dominant Buddhist sanghas to minimize, deny, or ignore all this. We don't want to "take sides." We don't want to upset anyone. Politics have no place in the dharma. We don't know the whole story. The list goes on and on.

Part of me has compassion for the fact that this is the karma of hundreds of years of settler colonialist propaganda. That spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and even flat out prejudice and hatred in some cases can drive the words and actions of so many of my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

The other part of me says for fucks sake, wake up!

I watched the protests in Ferguson on livestream last night for a good hour and a half. Occasionally, I had flashbacks to protests I've been involved in over the past decade. But what they were dealing with was worse. More calculated and oppressive. Tear gas canisters flying everywhere. Military vehicles all over the place. Guns aimed in all directions. It looked like a total war zone.

Apparently, some mainstream media outlets made a huge deal out of a handful of fires. A couple of burning cop cars and buildings. There was plenty of noise made about protesters throwing rocks as well. It sounded way too much like Gaza. Looked way too damned much like Gaza!

We live in a nation built from the fruits of genocide, slavery, and widespread economic oppression. Our leaders support and wage wars across the globe. The United States is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Defending the "rule of law," means supporting greed, hatred, and ignorance. Choosing to hang out in the absolute realms, far too common for U.S. Buddhists, especially white ones, means being okay with the endless suffering around us, and within us.

We are a few days from Thanksgiving. A holiday that covers up a legacy of human genocide (that of our indigenous brothers and sisters), while committing one annually against an animal community (our turkey brothers and sisters). And lest this post get consumed by people defending meat eating, I'm not talking about the reverent taking of life to sustain one's own life. I'm talking about 45 million turkeys slaughtered annually, many of them raised in giant factory farms, all for a holiday that is sustained by a settler colonialist myth about the "beginnings" of the nation.
Forgive me for not feeling thankful for any of this.

A few days ago, a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police. That a boy that young is so readily seen as a "threat" so "dangerous" he must be shot speaks volumes about the state of our affairs. That Darren Wilson is free, but Marissa Alexander in prison and facing another possible 5 year sentence, demonstrates just how fucked up things are - and have been for a long, long time.

And yet, I'm guessing that the coming weeks will be similar to the previous few months when it comes to Ferguson and white majority Buddhist sanghas and practitioners. Mostly silence. And not the kind of silence that comes from meditation practice offering metta and prayers of support to the directly suffering, but more the kind of silence that comes from privilege and settler colonialist thinking.

I spent significant time at my zen center over the past 3 days. I love my sangha, and often feel proud of how far we have come over the years, even on such difficult issues as systemic racism and oppression. And yet, even so, I'm honestly not sure I can go for refuge there on a day like today. I'm just not sure there's space for the mixture of outrage, sadness, and a desire to do more than just sit, although I need - so many of us really - need that too.

This afternoon, I will head to one of our local solidarity demonstrations. It isn't nearly enough, and at every one of these someone speaks to how it's just that: not enough. But until more answers forward arise, we have to do something, say something.

I pray for more awakening, more liberation, to penetrate the hearts and minds of this nation. May the wood of the empire rot, and a new house be built that lets all of us, all beings, thrive.