Sunday, December 29, 2013

Below Zero Zen


Photo credit: bhjoco from morguefile.com

The dark days of winter are fierce here in Minnesota. Yesterday, temperatures above freezing. Today, it's over 40 degrees colder and dropping.

Life can feel like this weather. Fluctuating rapidly. Without the ability to feel the deep, universal pulse within yourself, and all around, these changes will burn you in one way or another.

It's vitally important to explore the rough edges that appear in your life. To not automatically default into a view that says feeling depressed or sad or upset means you're faulty or broken somehow. Yes, some of us fall too deeply into despair or rage, for example, and need intensive help of some sort. However, this modern world is littered with psychologists and spiritual programs emphasizing self improvement and "feeling good" in various forms.

Wanting a happy life is totally fine. Cultivating joy and gratitude in whatever small and great ways you can is recommended.

Yet, truly living this life means embracing it all. Letting everything flow through you. Not saying yes to what looks good, and saying no that which feels broken or scares the hell out of you.

Even the freezing cold. The sun setting at 5pm. This, too, is you. And tomorrow it will be gone.



Friday, December 20, 2013

For the Love of Zen Diamonds



"All existence is like a dream, a phantasm, a reflection. Even though you are seeing it and touching it, it has no actual substance. I'll give you a concrete example. An electric news screen ... When you look at it from afar, it certainly seems like those letters are flowing, but when you go up close and look at it, it is just some light bulbs going on and off, and there is not a single flowing letter." Hakuun Yasutani, on Dogen's Genjokoan.

The first sentence in the quote is a reference to the final words of the Diamond Sutra, also known as the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion Sutra. Among other things, it's a deep calling to wake up to the impermanence of this life, and to cut through the view that you, and everything else, has a solid, unchanging self.

Think of how a diamond can cut glass, how strong it is after all those years in the earth being formed. And then, think of using your mind like a diamond whenever a story arises about something in your life, anything really - but especially those stories that hook you into troubling places. You know, the ones that go something like "I did X, and so I'm a terrible person" or "I did Y, so I'm the best person ever." Or some other variation. It doesn't even need to be about yourself particularly. Many of us have strong stories about politics, or religion, or some other topic. You can use your diamond mind on those too, cutting through the muck to express the heart of the matter.

In the same chapter of Yasutani's commentary, he writes "One must realize that in a single day one passes through this change about six and half billion times." In other words, there is constant arising and falling away of life - and every label we put on whatever is happening can't capture it.

But this doesn't mean words are useless, that there's no meaning, and that we should just give up because it's all impermanent anyway. No, we need to think, to speak, to act, to live.

The commentary above is calling us to develop a continuous openness to our lives and the world around us. To drop off our seemingly endless efforts to find and claim some sustainable bit of solid ground.



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rape and Sexual Harrasment Claims Filed Against Yoga "Guru" Bikram



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

Louis CK's "Boredom" Routine Meets the "Mindful" Parent



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

Zen Desire


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.