Tuesday, December 10, 2013
A few years ago, I wrote a post about the greed of the Bikram yoga empire. In it, I also spoke about the guy's blatant sexism and sexualized teaching, both of which you'd think would be big enough red flags for folks. The response to the post was mixed, which has been the case for many stories I've seen about Bikram and his yoga program.
Now he's got a power abuse scandal on his hands. Students accusing him of rape, sexual coercion, and all sorts of rotten shit.
Some of the Bikram branded studios are breaking away from his corporation, which is a start. Perhaps this will also be the wake up call some of his devoted followers seem to desperately need.
But the thornier issues of guru/teacher worship, power dynamics in classes, creating an identity based solely around your spiritual practice, and turning spiritual/religious practices into capitalist products remain.
Bikram is just the latest in a long line of mostly male power abusing spiritual and religious leaders. It's a tired, old story that we humans just seem prone to repeating, despite all our best efforts to not do so.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
I've never been one to look to celebrities for great wisdom, or profound opportunities to learn something about life. However, they're still people. Living on this planet. Which means they need not be ignored, or treated as all fluff and emptiness.
Skewering pop culture icons is a favorite past time of hip spiritual types these days. It's usually a different flavor from the fire and brimstone condemnations of religious conservatives, but in the end, both groups tend to display an "above it all, holier than thou" attitude. Something I'd argue derives from a false sense of separation, as well as an allegiance to some form of "transcendence" from the muck of this world.
I say all this because I have been guilty of such hip skewering. And recognize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) superiority complex that lingered beneath those criticisms. It's a form of criticism that moves beyond examining particular people and social structures, and goes into the territory of "don't bother looking for wisdom or insight here. Because you won't find any." And by here I mean from this person, or this form of pop culture, or in such and such activity. No doubt, there are plenty of tried and true paths for humans to embark and wake up on. However, it's also the case that every last one of our paths to awakening is unique, with points of awareness and wisdom discovery coming from all sorts of unlikely places.
By now, many of you have probably seen the clip of comedian Louis CK talking about boredom with his young daughter. Specifically, in response to his daughter repeatedly saying she was bored, he says:
“I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”
It's not exactly the response of a heartfelt, gentle parent. I don't think I'd say it exactly that way myself. In fact, I kind of wonder if some of the extra bluster there is simply Louis playing it up to get us to laugh and pay attention to how we feel about such interactions with our children.
Anyway, fellow 21st Century Yoga author Matthew Remski doesn't care much for Louis CK's humor on this one. In fact, he basically rejects the idea that CK's comments are a point of spiritual wisdom.
his now-famous admonishment that his daughter shouldn’t be allowed to be bored is not a borderline-spiritual encouragement for her to seize the day. It’s a transference of anxiety. If we’re laughing, it’s to protect ourselves, as he does, from the most difficult question a child will ask: “What should we do now?” The truth is that nobody knows. If we wanted we could let that soften us, but that softness won’t make anyone laugh.
What to make of this? Even though I'm not a parent, I have had more than enough experience with children and their questions to agree with him that questions like "What should we/I do now?" when you don't have an answer can be anxiety producing. Uncomfortable. In part, I think, because the lack of a ready made answer blows through the idea of being the "all knowing adult." Which is great in one way, because it's an instant opening for co-creation between child and adult. On the other hand, it can leave both with a sense of confusion or even heightened fear. The child thinking, "If he/she doesn't know, then what do we do? Who can help us find the answer?" The adult thinking, "I'm useless here." Or "This kid is seeing through me now." Or "How long will it be before they reject me as trustworthy or as an 'authority figure' all together?" Which eventually could lead the adult to the same question as the child: who can help us find the answer?
However, is the laughter about protection? Or is it, at least for some folks, about recognition of the mucky challenge of that situation?
After making what I would call an unfounded character assumption about Louis CK, Remski goes on to offer this:
Let’s focus instead on the fact that his answer is both untrue and ineffectual. On the untrue side, every four year-old knows that the world is great, big, and vast. And no four year-old has seen none of it. In fact, her entire being is trembling at the threshold of the all of it. The four year-old has had plenty of time to navigate her internal worlds. She knows that stories, dreams and fantasies go on forever. So yes, Louis. She understands these things, and feels much more than she understands. “I’m bored” doesn’t mean “I’m uninterested”. It means “I don’t know who I should be. I feel empty and full. I feel confused and sad. What should I bother doing?”
On the ineffectual side, the answer pretends to kindle the girl’s wonderment, but it actually burns the tenderness of her question. She’s asking a question about how to manage emptiness, and his answer is to overwhelm her with stuff. Instead of letting it be an open moment in which the parent can share in the revelation of uncertainty that the child makes new for him, Louis crams irritated gumption and panicked work-ethic down her throat, guilting her with what she already knows but was too innocent to accept, guilting her for naming a condition to which we dare not confess, guilting her for being so rude as to ask for help. We laugh because he releases the valve on our own guilt over doing the same thing.
My initial response to this is that Remski over estimates the "knowing" of a young child. Personally, I'm not convinced that every child, or even most children, fit the vision he's putting forth. It feels like an adult projection on children. The whole children are adults in small bodies kind of thing. Regardless of whether that's accurate or not, I think it's more useful to come from a place of not knowing here.
CK assumes that boredom means uninterested. Remski assumes the child knows and understands a whole lot about the world and is interested, but confused. Both are assumptions. Assuming the latter might be more expansive and helpful, but it still creates a limited story around the situation that limits the possible responses. Sometimes, children are flat out uninterested in the current situation. If you say otherwise, you've totally forgotten your own childhood.
The problem is that adults are far too prone to coming from a place of knowing in general with children. Because we're supposed to know. Because they usually expect us to know. And because our social structures reinforce the idea that the only right way to interact with children is to be the authority, the leader, the one who knows.
What I see in these pair of responses (from Louis CK and Matthew Remski) are the flip sides of the "adult as knower" coin. One is the gruff, no nonsense side and the other is the soft, tender side.
Where is not knowing in all of this? How might it look different (even just a little bit) if entered into without managed scripts?
As a side note, the feeling tone I get from Louis CK's comments is kind of hostile towards children. Whereas Remski's comments feel hostile towards adults. He goes on to speak about how adults often shift their own self criticism and doubts on to their children. Which is totally true. And yet, his commentary feels devoid of compassion for the struggles of parenting (or being an adult role model) adults face everyday. There's also a particular skewering of Louis CK that in my view seems almost a desire for us - the readership - to see him as an untrustworthy narrator. Someone we'd never look to for wisdom, and also someone who is probably a poor parent to boot.
The way I see it, the brilliance in some of Louis CK's commentary about parenting is that he deliberately unearths all the contradictory, mucky thoughts that adults feel when with children. Especially children who ask lots of questions that have no clear or ready answers. Questions we've been struggling with our entire lives. Sure, if it's true that he's saying all of this stuff to his daughter, that wouldn't be too great. However, I'm not convinced that his comedy stick is a verbatim blow by blow account of his interactions with his daughter. It feels like a compressed version of those moments when the well of energy, caring, and compassion have dried up. And no matter how much you want to be the "best" parent or role model, you just can't offer much. So, a little of that inner crap spills out. Maybe the words sound good, but the tone is standoffish or curt. Or maybe the tone is right, but the words aren't so helpful.
I agree with Remski that Louis CK only offers one side of boredom to us. However, his response to the whole thing feels like a rejection of adult struggles, and also perhaps a subtle rejection of adulthood (beyond being a mentor/parent to children) itself. He writes:
We have to let our children be bored, so they can explore safely the endless horizons of time, and softly confront the abyss. If we take their lead, we can also let ourselves be bored, but not with resignation or apathy. We can be comfortably bored with the endless Big Red Dog, the counting of spaces on board-games.
On the one hand, yes - we can totally share boredom with children. Without trying to come up with some great answer or resolution for it all. And furthermore, there has to be space for kids to get bored and not know what to do in the first place, something the hyper scheduled world we more and more seem to inhabit is failing us - all of us, children and adults alike.
And yet, boredom need not always be shared. In my view, there's a bit of the sacrifice mentality behind these words, and this article as a whole. As if an adult is always selfish or guilty of poor role modeling if they opt to not read the Big Red Dog for the 1000th time today. Or if they respond to "I'm bored" for the 50th time by saying something a little like what Louis CK did. With much younger children, there's definitely less room for this without also doing some harm, even if unintentional. But part of learning how to deal with issues like boredom involves having the space and time alone to face the unknown of it all. And also learning, little by little, that adults have lives beyond you. That you aren't the only person in their world in need of something, even if they are your parent. And that they, too, have needs, which sometimes conflict with yours.
I may be wrong in reading it this way, but Remski's commentary sounds like the flip to the opposite extreme of adult children whose parents frequently sounded like Louis CK's comedy routine. The distant, dismissive, authoritarian, gruff parent, is replaced by the soft, self sacrificing, doting, parent who idealizes their child, in large part out of fear of "damaging" them in some way or another.
Odds are I will get some flack - either written or unwritten in some reader's minds - for writing so much about this as a non-parent, but I'm convinced that both of these extremes are pretty damned common in our society, and neither is leading to more enlightened children, nor healthy, fulfilled parents and adult role model figures.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
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
I have been thinking this morning about delay. Specifically, how delay is felt, experienced, and the desire behind it. When things don't come to us when we want them to, or expected them to, we call it a delay. We say we are in waiting, putting a future focus on what's happening now. And often, in the process, stepping out of the now all together.
Something was desired to occur at a certain time. It didn't. Now what?
When faced with that now what, we tend to experience a taking over by desire. Instead of using our desire energy to move through life, we become owned by it. Controlled by it.
Although it may not have been the case, in Ikkyu's poem, I sense a bit of longing for spring. Both for the literal spring and, also, the spring of waking up to some part of his life he continues to miss.
When desire owns us, everything seems to be colored by lack.
When desire is a tool used by us, there's no lack of abundance.
Being in waiting for something can live in either of those fields. You can wait for spring without being controlled by it.
But that's easier said than done. Those winter clouds too often feel ominous to me. Even when there's no storm in sight.
May this be the winter of burning through the hut's flimsy walls.
Monday, November 25, 2013
I woke up this morning feeling a little "under the weather." Not quite sick, but not quite right either. When I went to bed last night, my apartment was warm. Waking, it was cold. This is how it goes, living in an old building with a middling heating system and a slightly cheap landlord.
It's not winter yet, but the past few days have felt like winter. Winter in Minnesota is a long slog, so much so that every moment which breaks through the icy grip on us is a moment worth celebrating.
However, many ways in which we Minnesotans tend to reject the dark, harshly cold days of January for example, are similar to how humans choose to reject whatever experiences and emotions they don't wish to experience.
In other words, our tough doggedness comes with a side of bitching and moaning.
I remember a story about Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi, during the early days of Hokyoji, a retreat center in southern Minnesota. He was doing zazen outside with a small group of students and it was cold, very cold. Someone asked Roshi how he was taking it, the cold I mean, and he responded something like "When it's cold, just be cold. When it's hot, just be hot." I can imagine this guy sitting in his robes with his teeth chattering as he said this. It's a pretty funny image, and also a quality example of not adding on to one's experience.
Talking about the weather is a common point of connection here in the land of 10,000+ (frozen) lakes. We use it as a gateway to bonding, an almost fool proof mechanism to bring ease between even the most dissimilar of people. But I think most of that talking is just adding on, and in many cases, in ways that promote rejection of what's present.
How to engage "weather conversations" differently?
Today, no answers. Just one frosty breath after another.
*Photo: Minnesota snow storm. December 2010.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com
I originally wrote this post a few years ago, but find it's message still very relevant. Enjoy!
I walked into a coffee shop I hang out at a bit in downtown St. Paul. Among the folks in there was what I've come to term "the family." Over the last ten years or so, I've found myself in the company of this couple and their increasing number of children on dozens of occasions.
The scene is always the same. The children, in various states of unkemptness, run wild, while the man, older and dominant in a quiet sort of way, pontificates to his younger wife about some Bible passage. He frequently takes shots at all organized churches, and includes them among Satan's work. Meanwhile, for a long time, I wondered if the children were even getting home schooled, given how little they seemed to be able to read, write, or interact socially.
So, there they were doing there thing today. I sat down, and the guy sitting behind me starts leaving a message on the phone about a Bible study session. For a moment, I thought "Man, you're surrounded," then let it drop.
Over the years, I've struggled to not run a litany of judgments through my mind about that couple and their kids. Until a month ago, I'd never said a single word to any of them. Then the wife turned to me, as I was working on a blog post, and said "Aren't you that guy who goes to that Buddhist place?" I said I was and she looked at me, paused, and then said "I always found it funny that people would worship a guy who isn't a God." I smiled because it probably is funny from the outside, what we Buddhists are doing.
I'd forgotten that exchange this morning as I sat down and opened my laptop. As the couple gathered their children and started to leave, I was reading a post on someone else's blog. For some reason, I looked up just as the wife said "I'm wondering if ..." (short pause) "if you'd ever consider being challenged on you views?" Now, in the past, I probably would have been interested in such a debate. To prove that I could stand up as a Buddhist, even if the discussion went nowhere. However, as she said those words, I just thought "Life's too short for this." So, instead of engaging, I just said "I don't think it would be worth our time." And she nodded, stepped back, and said "Everyone has free will." And walked out.
The guy behind me, who was reading a passage in the Book of Romans (he'd said as much in the phone message he left), says "Do you know that woman?"
"Barely," I said, not knowing how else to explain this odd connection we'd had over the years.
"What was that all about?" he said. And I sat for a moment, wondering if telling him what it was about would just open up the same issue I had just cut off.
"We could have a long discussion about it, but it probably wouldn't be worth it."
He laughed a little at that, and said something about how that had been an odd exchange between her and I. I agreed, and then he went back to his Bible, and I to my blog. Which is where I am now, no less worn for wear.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Photo credit: chelle from morguefile.com
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love alone.
These lines are from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, one of the best known collections of teachings from the Theravadan Buddhist canon. A few thousand years later, they are still completely relevant and contemporary.
After my parents divorced, my mother met a man that triggered a lot of hatred within my teenage mind. He could be highly controlling and demanding at times. I still remember him lingering over my should as I washed dishes, waiting until I was finished so he could inspect for spots, and make me wash them again. I hated him then, and for years afterward, whenever his name came up in conversation, or his image came into my thoughts, a tirade of miserable commentary poured out.
It took a dream I had a few months ago to finally break free of any lingering rage and hatred I had towards this man. Some fifteen years after I last saw him. He came to me in the dream seeking to hear my side of the story. Of the suffering I had experienced. And so I told him what I could, while we wound around the city in different forms of transit, until I suddenly woke up and immediately realized something had shifted completely.
In this way, he was a great teacher for me - someone I never want to see again, but who gave me the opportunity to experience a hatred deep enough to understand the damage hatred causes. None of my childhood "enemies" did this really; nor anyone else since.
The thing about the Dhammapada quote above is that people often want to leap from one end to the other. Don't you think? Instead of doing the difficult work of experiencing the pain and roughness of what's present, we want to have that shit over with so we can go on appearing more and more bodhisattva-like in the world. It just doesn't work that way though.
This is why we have to do continuous practice. Making the effort, and letting go of gaining any benefit from that effort. This is the way, and what working with teachings like the verses from the Dhammapada is all about.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Photo credit: taliesin from morguefile.com
This "holiday" today originally was called Armistice Day, marking the end of the hell that was World War I. After at least 20 million deaths, and entire nations left in rubble, it was supposed to be a reminder of the call "Never again!" from survivors. Including many leaders of the day. It wasn't about abstractions like "heroism," "freedom," "patriotism," or even "service." It was about remembering the millions of humans murdered in a conflict that WWI veteran Harry Patch described in these terms "if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it." Even though the nature of Armistice Day shifted quickly towards honoring military veterans, I choose to honor the original spirit. The end of war. The weariness of ever going there again. The desire for peace to remain, however fragile it may be. I think it says a lot about a country, what it's people choose to honor and celebrate. We're entirely too fond of celebrating war and those who participate in it, colonialist notions of "freedom," genocidal "heroes" like Columbus, and events tied to the colonizer form of Christianity. And the major holidays like Valentine's Day and Halloween, which aren't intimately tied to those narratives, are driven by consumerism. Regardless of what good folks make out of all this, it says a lot about how the U.S. is in the world, and where our collective energies are still going to in large degree. And so, in honoring the original spirit of Armistice Day, I call out to that place in each of us that is peace incarnate. That recognizes kinship with all beings, across arbitrary lines and divisions of any kind. What a day like this truly should honor, so that we might all come back to ourselves, put an end the petty battles and greed driven land grabs before they put an end to us.