Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Success is... ?

What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.

Thomas Merton

I found this quote in the middle of an interesting post over at the blog Dharmas. I have long loved Merton's brilliant mind and hearty spirit, and feel that he was someone who both fully embodied his particular spiritual path (Catholicism), while also, in many ways, transcending it's limitations.

Anyway, he's right about success. However, I'd argue we can go even further with the point.

How often do we even know what success is in a given situation?

Penn State's football team won an awful lot of games under Coach Joe Paterno, and yet now it appears that the "winning culture" developed during those years also made it easier for former assistant Coach Sandusky to get away with sexually abusing children.

Wells Fargo recently reported record quarterly profits, while home evictions under their watch continue unabated.

I won an award during grad school for my poetry and creative essay writing, and still haven't published the vast majority of the work that garnered the attention.

And so it goes. Every "winning" situation seems to contain elements of its undoing. Everything we label successful is provisional, contextual, and impermanent.

The same can be said about failure.

Whatever label-hat you choose to wear in a given moment, don't let it sink in, and don't forget to live.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Holiday Generosity

"Remember the deep root of your being ...Give your life to the one who already owns your breath and your moments." Rumi - The Real Work

Even though it is cold outside, I can feel the stirring of energy within. A heat at the core, trying to break through to the extremities.

A few days ago, I joined Twitter. Like with many other things in my life, I stood on the sidelines watching what was happening for a long time before deciding the plunge in was what my life called for.

Some might say joining a social network online isn't a big deal. And I would agree. It isn't.

However, if you're trying to work from the place Rumi speaks about above, then such small decisions are reflections of larger, consciously built patterns, and not merely random impulses.

Truly giving your life over to the transforming world we live in requires a refinement born of both personal effort and allowing yourself to be exposed to the cold November winds, again and again.

All those leaves of your life that you clung to so tightly, hoping they'd stay green forever - you can let them go brown, let them be scattered and snowed upon.

If you want to be generous this holiday season, look no further than your own deep roots, and how you are offering them into the soil.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Continuous Buddhist Chanting

Here is a short description of the reasons behind a ten day continuous chanting service being held by the Malvern Pureland Sangha in the UK. Some folks in the "Western" Buddhist world tend to look down on this kind of thing, suggesting that seated meditation is required to "be a Buddhist." Personally, I feel that's a limited view, and would rather spread the joy of the diversity present in our ancient tradition.

Amida Buddha is the Buddha of infinite light and life, and by chanting we put ourselves in relationship with this 'ideal'. His sparkling golden qualities rub off on us, just as we become better people when we're in a relationship with anyone wise, ethical and loving.

But this theology, in some ways, is neither here nor there.

What's crucially important (and what feels impossibly difficult to explain) is that we are chanting to connect us to a kind of universal love. And we are chanting for the benefit of everyone.

We are reminding ourselves and other people that we are held by something much bigger and more complex than we can imagine. We are expressing our gratitude for this.

Please go read the rest of the post. A little further down, the author's words remind me of how silent meditation retreats can feel. It looks different, but perhaps heading in the same direction?

Mouths closed in noble silence. Mouths open in Buddha's name.

"Namo Amida Butsu"

May you all be well today.

*Update. I am now on Twitter. If you want to follow me, click the Twitter follow link on the sidebar.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Black Friday" Thoughts Revisited

The following is a post I wrote last year around this time. Most of it still rings true to me, and in light of the Occupy movement's focus on corporate power and greed, as well as my long term efforts to decolonize from the consumer mindset, I thought I'd share what I wrote last year again.

"Black Friday" is intimately tied into the "constant economic growth as necessity" narrative. The one that says we must be "good little consumers" who spend our money and buy stuff, regardless of whether it's needed or not, in order to keep the world turning. The more we individual and collectively make efforts to break free from this narrative, and it's attendant actions, the better.

I was going to skip the commentary on all that Black Friday, holiday shopping madness, but then I stumbled upon this post, and felt compelled to say something.

The author of the post suggests the following:

1. The buying frenzy and subsequent Christmas gift exchange excess are products of a consumerist culture.

2. That Americans, at least, don't have enough joyful holidays, and thus try to stuff all their celebration into this time of year.

3. That those of us who find the consumerist expressions of this season crass and devoid of meaning should suspend our judgment of those sucked into it.

4. That those sucked into the buying and giving frenzy are manifesting love in their own ways.

It all sounds well and good. I'm inclined to go along. Except...

Consider this section of the post:

We live in a consumer world, one where love is often shown through purchases, one where people want to express their deep love for their families by buying them flat-screen plasma TVs and ten-dollar Old Navy sweaters. It is love and that is the form love takes.

The frenzy comes from the fact that Americans don’t have enough holidays, don’t get to celebrate enough. As a pagan I have eight great high holidays a year, all equal in measure, all equally important and significant to the turns of time on this Earth. But most people have all of their main holiday joy packed in to one mad season which has to bear the holiday longings of an entire year. Please go easy on them. Recognize in them a light of love that is bent through the prism of a consumer world, one that not only mediates love for us but also gives us a common, sometimes cheesey language to express it in.

I agree with most of what the author is saying, and yet something is off. All this buying of stuff, often things people don't need or even want - "It is love and that is the form love takes." That strikes me as false. A kind of nice sounding gloss over of what's really happening.

The way I see it, one of the mechanisms of a consumerist culture is to instill inadequacy in people so that they will want more, and buy more. And I think over the years, this inadequacy runs so deep in many people that they feel compelled to give others something of monetary value - often large monetary value - in order to feel ok about the relationship. You want to have a happy spouse - you better give her an expensive ring. You want to have happy children, you better buy them the latest video game machine. You want to keep your friends around, you better buy them some fishing gear, or a new dress, or something worth something.

There's no doubt that people love each other, and want to express that. In fact, it's not even about giving gifts - which is beautiful when done wisely - it's this idea that what's happening at these door buster sales at Wal-Mart and Macy's is all about love. That's bullshit!

How often do you hear it from people towards the end of their lives - that what they want now, and maybe what they wish they had more of in the past, was more time with their loved ones. To tell stories, eat together, walk together, or just sit in silence together. All that stuff amounts to nothing in the end, and people know it deep down.

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first.

Recently, my father made some large bookshelves for my sister and her boyfriend (see above). With the new baby, and a need to make better use of their space, some good bookshelves meant a lot. And that my father actually made the bookshelves himself, taking the time and care to see that they'd fit the space and be functional, meant even more. This to me is an example of wise giving.

Going back to the article I linked to, here's a little more:

If you are looking for quiet this season, remember that quiet can be sought in your heart. It comes best from releasing judgement about how other people do their Yuletide: releasing judgement about the tack and the madness, but to see in everybody that same deep and utter ancient longing for light and warmth, and an impulse to give to others. For many of us, and I do say us, that raw impulse is translated through the media of consumerism, of the mall and the big box store. People work with what they have to work with. The understructure is still the same.

Yes. Releasing judgment of the individuals in your life is vital. That's a core part of a spiritual path in my opinion. However, I also believe that those of us who see the deep damage being done by excessive consumption - the economic yo-yoing, the human exploitation, and environmental destruction behind those TVs, Old Navy shirts, and whatnot - must learn how to express ourselves better with those who don't see it. We must be brave enough to share what we have learned, and share our wishes for the world, with our family, friends, and lovers, even if it causes confusion and upset in the short term. But most of all, we must take the gifts of our meditation practice, our sutra studies, our bowing, our chanting - we must take that and apply it to whatever we say and do around the holidays so that we can express the truths of our lives without placing unneeded an unwanted expectations on others. In other words, we can tell the grandmother who buys us a pile of junk every year about what we most want, and our dreams for the world around us, but we can't demand that she change. And if what we get is more junk from her, then we have the opportunity to accept that junk openly, knowing that we haven't held back.

In my view, a lot of this "not judging others" talk in spiritual communities located in consumerist cultures is tied to the very same inadequacy that drives others to compulsively shop. This "oh, don't judge" voice is often just a cloak spiritual types wear out of a hope that others will like them, see them as "good people." Sound familiar? Think about it. How often do you find yourself biting your tongue instead of saying something that might upset a loved one? And how often does that same comment get labeled a judgment, even if it might just be an observation? This is one of the places I think Marshall Rosenberg's work with Non-violent communication is helpful. Because my own experience has shown me that often when I'm biting my tongue it's driven not by loving patience and wise consideration of the other person, but by a fear that whatever I say will drive the other person away. Or make them see me as a "lesser person." It's no better, really, than impulsively buying them an expensive toy they don't need.

Recently, I commented on a sangha friend's Facebook page that we should move Thanksgiving to another time of year, and reshape the holiday fully around gratitude. Divorce it from it's genocidal past, and perhaps also from it's genocidal present (i.e. turkey murder). As the author of the post I'm writing about said, we Americans need more holidays of joy. Re-framing Thanksgiving could be one way to offer people a chance to express love without piles of material gifts. Some already use it in this way.

Now if only I could figure out a way to liberate all those turkeys...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ayn Rand Meets Yoga?

Some folks in the North American yoga community are quite unhappy with yoga clothing company Lululemon's current advertising campaign referencing Ayn Rand, a darling amongst a certain cross section of conservatives. Here is one of a number of posts on the blog Yoga Dork about this issue.

I don't have a lot of time today, but this is one of the points I made on the original post.

the fact that a a company like Lululemon has become so synonymous with yoga practice that it’s silly bags are actually in need of commentary demonstrates how far much of the modern yoga world has sunk. I long for the day when this company and it’s overpriced products is a barely remembered footnote amongst yoga practitioners. But I doubt that will be anytime soon, given how strongly a foothold consumerism has over us all.

Another point that might be useful to make is that it's foolish to expect a corporation in this day and age to uphold yogic values, even if they claim to do so. Certainly, a small percentage of larger companies are making a good faith effort to be more responsible to their communities and the planet, but I'd place a big emphasis on the word "small."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beware of the Consumer Driven Mentality

This Yoga Journal article has some interesting stuff in it. I've always liked the idea of envisioning yourself as already awakened, and doing things in your daily life from that place. However, I'd like to take up the following paragraph to consider a little more closely.

This all-or-nothing notion of enlightenment is deeply rooted, and insidious. I often get questions from students who experience an expansion of consciousness and then worry, "But if I keep doing this, will I have to give up my family? Will I lose my personality?" If we think pursuing high states of consciousness means giving up other aspects of life, it won't seem like an attractive option. On the flip side, we may be attracted to the idea of enlightenment yet imagine it to be a way of bypassing ordinary challenges and irritations, and then we may get discouraged if we don't experience an immediate transformation, or get frustrated when we aren't lifted miraculously beyond the everyday demands of work and family relationships.

While I agree with the insidiousness of that all-or-nothing view many folks have around enlightenment, I find the downplaying of renunciation troubling. Although I think Sally Kempton is mostly pointing to not having to give up your most important relationships, or all your possessions, it's really easy to mistake that caution for a declaration that we can basically have it all. It takes effort to break through the consumer driven mentality so many of us are surrounded by and internalized, and as such, it's important for writers and spiritual teachers to take that mentality head on, to assume that it may still be present in the audience members, be they serious students or simply interested parties.

The way I see it, even if you maintain certain relationships, careers, and whatnot, the more committed you become to living a spiritual path, the more likely it is that you'll shed parts of your life that once might have been cherished. In other words, renunciation - either deliberately or more naturally unfolding, will be a part of your life, and it's important to figure out ways to speak about that without sounding dour and/or severe.

When I look at my own life, there are definitely things that have diminished or disappeared completely. And while some of these changes are normal shifts that can happen to anyone, some it is clearly a result of spiritual commitment. Entertainment, like music concerts and sporting events, play a much less central role in my life these days. Friends that were once central figures in my life are no longer so. I don't watch TV anymore; I go shopping much less than I did in the past. I used to be fairly obsessed with "looking good," and more recently appearing "Zen-like" - neither of which have such a major hold on me anymore.

However, more than any of that, I believe that commitment to a spiritual path often leads to a slow abandonment of selfishness and self-cherishing. That is, if you learn to be honest with yourself, and apply the teachings you're studying in a deliberate, sometimes ruthless manner on a consistent basis.

There are other ways you could read Kempton's paragraph above, I simply wanted to highlight what I feel is a commonplace lack of challenging the basic, collective conditioning that hinders so many of us. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Meditator Arrested During Occupy Oakland Raid

The Occupy Movement has now hit home in a fierce manner for those of us in the broad meditation community. Whatever your thoughts about Occupy, the man in the image above was not only arrested while bearing witness during the Occupy Oakland protests, but is now facing deportation. Fellow Buddhist blogger Katie Loncke, who is a part of the Occupy Oakland group, posted the following link, which offers more details about Pancho's case, and also ways you can support him if you so choose to.

Here is the letter I am sending to public officials in California. May we all be liberated in this life.

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I am writing in support of Francisco "Pancho" Ramos-Stierle, who was arrested while doing meditation during the recent raids on Occupy Oakland. He is currently facing deportation, and I am requesting that you step in and stop this action.

While I do not live in your district, I have friends who do. They know Pancho, and recognize his value to the community. This man is not a threat to our nation, nor is he a hardened criminal. He was an astrophysics major at UC Berkeley. He has been active in humanitarian causes for years, as well as violence prevention work in Fruitvale neighborhood. Furthermore, he is promoter of the benefits of meditation, and active non-violence, and was peacefully demonstrating both at the time of his arrest.

Our nation needs more people like Pancho. In fact, I'd argue we're desperate for more folks willing to teach and practice non-violence in our communities.

Please step up and support this man. Stop ICE's attempts to deport him. Be part of the change our hearts are calling for, longing for. It's time.


Nathan Thompson

*Update: Pancho is now free, thanks to everyone who wrote in, called, and rallied in support of him. Check out the article I posted in the comments section for more details.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street - Training Ground in Garbage Removal

I was touched by the reflectiveness of a post by Genju over at 108 Zen Books about, among other things, the Occupy Wall Street movement. She writes:

letting go. That was pretty dominant in the two weeks past if only as a realization that I can be releasing my death grip on all manner of fixations, metaphors of Self, and craven desires and what is apparent to the eye or ear could be as simple as a “yes” or “no.”

I practiced this noticing on our (now) annual trip to NYC where we met up with friends, one of whom was running the NYC Marathon. In the days before the race, we toured around the city and as Chaplains we felt it was important to head down to Occupy Wall Street to bear witness to the beginnings of this very powerful shift in societal awareness – as confusing as the process may seem at times. Personally, I still don’t quite know what I feel about it all but I was intent on bringing myself to that place of discomfort and watch the “yes” and “no” surface over and over again. Since the beginning of the Occupy movement, I’ve felt a huge level of discomfort, edging on the hyper-vigilance you might feel if you think you’re being blamed for enjoying unearned assets. I’m beginning to hate those websites that tell you’re part of the 1% or the 99%. (I’m neither unless you consider a global or restricted range as a measure of income.) I dislike now feeling the need to justify what I have, what I bought, what I pictures I upload to Facebook, what trips I take, and what my groceries cost.

I resonate with her discomfort. All the judgments about being wealthy, being poor, and the rest were there before Occupy began, but now it's so much more out in the open, which can definitely be unnerving. As an active member of our Occupy group here in Minnesota, I've been called numerous names over the last month. I and my fellow Occupiers have often been dismissed as lazy, privileged bums, never mind that the majority of us have either spent years struggling to make ends meet, or are completely broke and homeless.

Various "personal responsibility" narratives get trotted out over and over again by public officials, members of the mainstream media, and others, all operating on the basic assumption that if people just worked harder, followed the rules, and kept their shopping impulses under control, they'd be fine. Never mind that in many cases, working hard and following the rules has led folks to the unemployment line, or the underemployment line. Never mind that the entire economy is built on people not controlling their shopping impulses. Never mind ...

Occupy has been a great training ground for letting go of all that noise. Of not internalizing garbage, and also trying not to exude garbage as well. Furthermore, it's an endless schooling on the workings of greed, hatred, and ignorance. I was a part of a conversation the other day which turned way ignorant for a few minutes as two men, one a middled-aged white man and the other a young Native American man, spoke about how Somali immigrants were being handed everything under the sun tax-free. As this shift in the conversation happen, I felt myself getting really pissed, and almost let that enter the conversation. Instead, I decided to just shut up and wait until something else came to my mind.

Finally, it dawned on me that this is the age old pattern of poor people against poor people. Of hatred and ignorance keeping those often suffering most divided.

And so I said to these guys "In my experience, almost none of what you are saying is true. The vast majority of recent immigrants are struggling as much or even more than you are. However, regardless of what you think of that, this is a classic case of the poor pitted against the poor. And it's exactly why nothing seems to change because we sit and fight against each other over small things, instead of come together over all that we share."

There was an immediate shift in the conversation at that point, one that I serious doubt would have happened if I had just torn into these guys.

These kinds of interactions are happening all over the place right now. Strangers, or relative strangers, attempting to speak their minds about complex social issues, and having the opportunity to learn how to listen, pause, and find a common thread between the views being shared. It's messy. Unnerving at times. Some people just can't handle sustained engagement, but I see others really making the effort.

This could be a tipping point towards a more just and engaged society. Perhaps world even. I'm well aware that it all could end and go back to some slightly altered variation of the current "normal," but life isn't worth living if you don't dream big, huge even. So, I'm opting to stand in possibility, to plant whatever seeds I can towards a dream that may or may not come.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The "Bad" Meditator

When I'm in the yoga world, it's not uncommon for someone to say, upon hearing about my Zen practice, "Oh, I'm terrible at meditation" or "It's too hard for me." Sometimes, I hear the same thing as well from newcomers on Sunday mornings down at the zen center.

However, as Algernon says in a recent post, there isn't really such a thing as a "bad meditator.

We are difficult because even when we are drawn to meditation, when we feel some tug to sit down and wash off our minds by doing some very simple awareness practice, holding hands with our pulse, ahhh the difficulty arises: "I'm a terrible meditator. My attention goes everywhere. My thinking is out of control."

Translation: I don't waaaaaannnnaaaaa!!

Sometimes it feels like going to the dentist, and sometimes it feels like soaking in a hot tub. But that isn't really the meditation - that's coming from you and me.

I think there are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like that cause people trouble. Such as the view that your mind should always be quiet, or that you are supposed to force all thoughts into silence. In addition, a lot of folks have conjured up an image of the perfect location and environment to do meditation in and then, when such a place isn't available, they decide they can't do it. Furthermore, perhaps they believe the bullshit folks like Zen teacher Brad Warner espouse, suggesting that zazen only happens in certain postures, and can't be "done in a chair." (I agree with Brad, by the way, that meditation is an embodied practice, and that thinking you can do it any old posture doesn't fly. I just don't get his anti-chair position, and in general, am an advocate for more flexibility around form.)

Beyond all of that, though, there's the strong sense of compartmentalization that many of us do with our spiritual lives. Meditation practice is often viewed as something done in such and such a place, time, and manner.

Whereas I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of the Occupy protests, in public restrooms, amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also practice in the places many consider "normal" - like on my meditation cushion at home, or in my zen center. But overall, I remain focused on breaking down walls and barriers - infusing practice into my everyday life, and everyday life into my practice.

I encourage you all to do the same. Happy Friday!

*Photo from the blog Meditation Matters.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Continuous Openness

"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.

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. To forget our efforts to put a claim on solid ground. Basically, to stop wasting our time and energy on that which is futile, so that we may live more fully and alive everyday.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yoga Standards

There has been a lot of online kerfuffling (yes, I made that word up), over the seemingly sudden departure of three senior Anusara yoga teachers from the ranks of the Anusara certified. Now, I know very little about Anusara, so I don't really have anything to say about the merit or lack of merit of what these folks are teaching. Nor do I really have any interest in trying to unearth some seedy details that might lead us all to some sort of scandal.

It seems to me only natural that after a certain amount of time and practice, some students will evolve beyond the forms and methods they were given by their teachers. This tends to be encouraged in Zen circles. In fact, most of the old Zen koans are, in part, demonstrations of transcending the roles of student/teacher, and of moving beyond one's training. Entire new schools of practice have developed precisely because someone stepped beyond the bounds, and illuminated spiritual life in a different manner. Hell, Anusara itself is founder John Friend's offering of a different direction, which manifested from the years of practice and teaching he has done.

So instead, this post will focus on the broader issues raised in this comment by John Friend from the following interview, which seems to be making the rounds:

There is a licensing of the Anusara yoga name for teachers who met a certain level of standard in their teaching. The essential reason for any licensing of a tradename is to help maintain integrity and quality control in the marketplace. Anyone taking a class from a certified Anusara yoga teacher anywhere in the world can expect a certain high standard. Because of licensing the name of Anusara over the last 14 years, it has greatly helped to give students confidence in the name on a global level.

The near obsession these days with "standards" is deeply troubling to me. While there have always been teachers and groups who have broken off and formed their own variations on the theme, this focus on standardization, uniform curriculum, and the rest - in part driven by groups like Yoga Alliance, but in greater part driven by what I view as a trend in education towards a focus on maximizing results and measurable outputs above all else. I'm near the end of a 230 hour yoga teacher training program which has been a good experience in many respects, but leaves me seriously questioning whether this kind of model develops anything remotely close to excellent teachers. In some ways, when I look around at my fellow students, I see some people who already are gifted and have honed themselves enough through practice to offer something to others. Others seem barely able to do their own personal practice, let alone teach. And still others simply don't have the skills to teach, even if they might be wise in other ways. Yet, in the end, anyone who finishes will have that certificate and be regarded in higher esteem by the general public, regardless of their abilities and understanding.

Honestly, even if Anusara training is more rigorous than the average teacher training program, I really don't see these kinds of issues disappearing. Simply put, the more teachers and teaching candidates you have around, the harder it is to maintain quality control and integrity. And within a capitalist framework, where there's both implicit and explicit pressure to "produce" - in order to stay afloat financially, but also as a means of demonstrating success - it's likely that methods designed to support quantity of teachers over quality of teachers will be employed. My own studio's teacher training program, which I feel is of fairly good quality, has expanded probably twofold in numbers of candidates over the past few years. And why? Because people really like what they hear from others, and the studio is attracted to the financial stability from all that money the training brings in.

This is all so much different, for the most part, from what it's like in Zen communities. Buddhist teachers tend to be steeped in years of practice before anyone calls them a teacher. Most of them have also spent years studying with the same teacher, or small number of teachers, usually within a larger community of practitioners, at least for some significant stretch of time. And while we have plenty of scandals and our share of mediocre teachers, there seems to be more checks and balances available to, at the very least, support and aid any given teacher's spiritual growth.

In other words, if someone is designated as a Zen teacher and has a connection with a specific teacher lineage, it's reasonable to assume that this person has been practicing for awhile. They have some experience to share, and perhaps some wisdom as well. This is true even for lay teachers and most novice priests in training. You can't just plunk down a few thousand dollars, say you've been practicing Zen for X number of months or years, and after several months or a few years, be suddenly deemed "certified" to teach.

Obviously, a fair amount of this issue in yoga is tied to the muddled nature of what is being marketed as "yoga" these days. Everything from busting a move in a gym to deep level tantric meditation practices can be found under the label yoga, and because of that, there are a plethora of teachers, coming from a plethora of teacher trainings. The whole standards push has been a response to this muddled environment, but to be honest, I think it offers more of a false sense of security and trust than anything else.

Which isn't to say the trainings are worthless - like I've said in other posts, I have learned a lot in my training program. But it's hard for me to imagine what it might be like had I done this 10 years ago, when I was an excited yoga newbie like a few of my classmates. Occasionally, people with little formal experience are just blessed with the ability to plunge in and then offer gifts to others. But for the vast majority, nothing beats experience and practice.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yoga Teacher Fired for Wanting to Teach Yoga

Here is an example of the challenges that yoga teachers committed to the full path can face in North American studios:

Last night, I was fired from my job at Black Swan Yoga for a fundamental difference of opinion. I was ambushed, lured there to discuss my "schedule" and then tag-teamed by a pair with a yoga sutra tattooed on one and a chakra tattooed on the other. (Oh, the irony!) Together, they released me from my duties for standing by my published opinion that asana exists independent of the yoga. I say intention matters. Apparently, they disagree.

One needn't look far to find the basis of my argument. It's right there in the second sutra: "Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind (Yoga Sutra I.2)." Beyond that, I know it from experience. I have, many times in my life, practiced asana without the yoga to address discomfort in the body. I think it's safe to say I'm not the only one. Asana is what draws people to the yoga, asana prepares the mind; as my teacher says, "asana makes the ground fertile" for the real yoga to take place, but asana in itself, without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise. Just gymnastics.

I can imagine myself in her shoes, and no doubt, this blog is littered with posts critical of "exercise yoga," capitalistic studio models, and the lack of meditation practice amongst North American yoga students. Odds are, if a yoga studio was focused on having teachers who all agree on "philosophy," they either wouldn't hire me, or would can me as soon as they found the link to DH.

What I found interesting, though, was how the teacher above spoke of asana (postures). She specifically argues that asana practice, "without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise."

I tend to agree. So often, we "westerners" separate body and mind practices, even when we aren't deliberately trying to. This particular teacher seems to have a unified vision - especially if you read the rest of her post. Many others don't, and either keep the meditative limbs of yoga separate from the asana, or simply cut them off all together, in the manner that Black Swan Yoga apparently does. Even well respected teachers like Iyengar argue in favor of a focus on asana and pranayama practice - for years sometimes - before students should dive into meditation. In other words, they are practiced separately - until one is "ready," and then they are practiced together. Having read enough of Iyengar's writings, I'm not clear if this is a fixed position he holds, but it's something I have seen in repeated articles and books by him.

The body-mind practice split is something that most spiritual/religious traditions face, in part due to human ambivalence towards our place on the planet. A strand of hatred/aversion toward, or disassociation from, the material manifestations on earth can probably be found in most ancient spiritual traditions, including yoga. Add upon that the long standing mind-body split found in Western philosophy, which has influenced how we view our relationship with/to our planet, and you have a heap of trouble.

In terms of this discussion, that "trouble" manifests through our uneasy relationship with our own bodies. On the one hand, the worship of the "young, strong, and healthy body" that drives many yoga classes, even those with a holistic, spiritual approach. On another hand, the fear/shame/hatred of bodies that "don't hold together," get sick, and eventually die. I'd argue that this second set of issues also drives much of yoga practice in North America, in synergy with that worship mentality.

Now, it's really the case that these kinds of struggles are the fodder of spiritual life. So, in some ways, it's a given that this kind of stuff is going to show up. However, the way I see it, a lot of this stuff remains either unconscious or is treated solely in terms of individual practitioners. You hear stories about yogis with extreme eating disorders for example, but how often are those extremes linked together with the broader "body issues" I mention in the previous paragraph? And then moved from an individual level to a community of practitioners level? In other words, considering both the possibility that yoga studios and classes are filled with people who have various forms of mind-body separation, and that the ways in which yoga practice is being marketed and taught might be either maintaining, or even increasing in some cases, those mind-body separations.

That's a lot to chew on, so I'll stop there for now. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts or other comments.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Community of Excellent Friends

Convert Buddhists have under-emphasized sangha (or community of excellent friends, as one of my dharma sisters frequently says). There are many reasons for this, and I have written about the ones I know about on this blog in the past. For those of us in the United States, there often seems to an extra layer of hindrance to building sangha that comes from the mainstream cultural emphasis on individualistic pursuits and privatized everything as priority.

But enough of the macro-level narratives. Today, I want to share a few stories of sangha actually functioning. Of a group transcending whatever hindrances are there. These are simple stories. Nothing earth shattering.

On Sunday, we had our monthly board meeting. Having just had board elections the previous month, a new member arrived to the group to experience her first meeting. Her dharma name is Gentle Dragon, and for a few years now, her and I often exchange dragon's roars whenever we see each other. Seriously, we roar out loud at each other. It's fun. It keeps us both light. And it's kind of become a way we recognize and support each other.

Anyway, as the meeting opened, I looked over at her and gave a roar. She roared back. And then, the thought came to me to bring everyone else in. So I called the meeting to order, and made the first item of business a group roar.

Here are two other stories with a different flavor. This morning, I had a meeting with our Executive Director to plan a talking circle about our current financial status. There are a lot of big, long range issues on the plate for the sangha right now, and while part of the meeting was planning, part of it was simply sharing our own questions and ideas about how things are going. Our Executive Director is also dealing with the challenges of having an ill family member, and our meeting ended with some sharing about that and a big hug.

And then a little while ago, I opened my e-mail and found that another dharma sister, who works with me on the board, just gave Dangerous Harvests a donation. On the donation e-mail, she wrote:

"I love your blog, Nathan. It helps me to lessen how static I can become."

This from one of the major players in creating our sangha's development and strategic plan over the last year or so, and also someone I consider to be one of those excellent friends on the path.

It's fairly easy to find stories of spiritual communities gone awry. Of sex and power scandals. Of people failing to not only get along, but to truly embrace each other. So, I offer these experiences as a small counterpoint. As a small taste of what it can be like to be apart of a community of excellent friends.

May you all be well today.

* photo is from our Segaki Day/ Hungry Ghost Carnival 2011