Saturday, April 28, 2012

Zen in Flux

At Zen Center this morning, our lay training group met to discuss what the purpose and focus of our group should be. It's been about two and half years since this experiment began, and although some things have changed, I really think the heart of our work has been to unearth models for doing/embodying Zen practice as lay people in the 21st century.

Given that the forms and many of the emphasized teachings we inherited from our Japanese ancestors were designed with monastics in mind, this has been kind of a koan for our sangha. None of us are quite sure what it is that this group is doing together. We are filled with questions about Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, and the rest of the Eightfold Path. We are often challenged by what "commitment" means when everyone is living diverse lives, with a diverse set of issues and needs. We aren't even sure what the word "training" means in a lay context.

I know this is also going on all over the Buddhist world these days. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of flux in general in our world right now. Perhaps it's just that the truth of never ending change is simply more manifest - literally in our faces. However, something about the speed of flux feels - on a deep level - different from even the recent past.

Anyway, I want to offer you all some of what we are calling the "purpose points" for our Lay Training Group. These are things we came up with this morning, but I see them as the fruit of decades worth of individual and collective practice. Everyone in the group has been a Zen student for a decade or more, which makes it all the more rich in my view.

At the same time, I'd say we are mucking around in a semi-dark cave. Grounded enough that we are able to hang with uncertainty. But also aware of the fact that in some ways, we don't know any more than a total beginner.

Here are some of the highlight "Purpose points," in no particular order.

1. Balance – Structure/open inquiry

2. Shared leadership of larger community

3. Focus on practice in daily life, sharing/exploring how to do "lay practice"

4. Embodying active listening

5. Intimacy

6. Repentance to each other

7. Community/connection/friendship

8. Ritual and organized dharma study

If anyone out there has experienced similar group processes in their spiritual community, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. And of course, all comments are welcome, regardless of whether you have similar experiences or not.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Anders Breivik Practices Meditation Too!

Perhaps you have heard that Anders Breivik, the xenophobic terrorist who murdered 77 people in Norway last summer, practiced meditation. While some out there might be temped to spin this story by suggesting that what he was doing was not meditation, I'm not inclined to do so. Given the kinds of horrorshow decisions made by Buddhist practitioners over the centuries, the fact that a mass murderer used a meditation practice as a method of detachment to prepare himself to kill isn't all that surprising.

Here are a few comments from Bodhipaksa's blog:

Traditionally, meditation is only one part of the spiritual path, and it’s accompanied with an ethical code that strongly emphasizes non-harm. Stripped of this traditional context, there’s no guarantee that meditation alone will make someone a better person.

It’s also possible to practice meditation in an unbalanced way that results in an unhealthy form of emotional detachment and a kind of emotional deadening. Sangharakshita, my own teacher, has mentioned seeing some early western practitioners of the Burmese Satipatthana Method becoming very detached from their emotions and from their physical experience. This seems to have arisen from their having misunderstood the nature of the meditation practices they’d undertaken (or perhaps they had a bad teacher or teachers).

I'd go further than this. Even with the ethical framework of the Buddhist precepts, and other teachings, there is still no guarantee that someone will "a better person." That isn't to say that the ethical teachings aren't helpful. From what I have seen and experienced, they can be life changers. But there really is no guarantee. Just ask anyone who has been in a sangha devastated by severe teacher misconduct.

At the same time, a story like Breivik's does raise many of the questions that come up with the secularization of spiritual practices like meditation. In particular for me, there is the struggle people have to let go of the view that something like meditation is a cure all. That even those who enter secular programs offering meditation somehow have picked up stories about enlightened figures, or have heard about people who supposedly cured major illnesses solely through meditation practices. And in the back of their minds, they think "that could be me too!"

I actually believe that a steady meditation practice can greatly benefit a person who has a major illness, but given all the causes and conditions present, it's never the meditation alone. And even old Soto Zen dogs like Dogen, who focused on meditation practice, didn't say that meditation is the only thing needed to become enlightened.

And so, what Anders Breivik did was take a practice and do it in isolation to meet his own ends. It's possible that he even technically followed the traditional instructions for said practice. (Learning to detach from the swings of emotional disturbances is part of Buddhist practice after all.) It could be said that while there's no guarantee that someone will become a more ethical person by practicing within a complete Buddhist framework, it's unlikely that someone who is otherwise living a destructive life will pull out of that through meditation alone.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Yoga Isn't Changing American Society

how can we truly be surprised that “yoga”, as it has been packaged and sold in the West has not made much of difference in the way things work or rather don’t work in America, at least within the confines of the “system“? Yoga is still very much a white person’s extra curricular endeavor in America. Or something that occasionally happens at The White House. Or something people do on Comcast ON-DEMAND. All this yoga, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is the healing of our collective relationship to Mother Earth.

Holistic healing is still very much a luxury in this country, with a few exceptions. It costs a lot of money to choose natural, homeopathic healing and food in this country, which is part of why everything is upside down and backwards. The easiest way to be healthy is to live simply and in accordance with the principals of Nature.

Those are the words of Holly Westergren, who used to run the wild ride of a blog Namaste, Bitches. I had something of a love/hate relationship with her blog, mostly because I could never decide whether she was cutting through the bullshit, or simply being a different flavor of yoga snob. Regardless, I love the flavor of her offering above, although I also found myself wanting to write a response to it as well.

Let's start with the first sentence. For most of its history, yoga was the practice of an elite few. The major teachings were kept secret, and the masses were kept away. In all the reading I have done, I have yet to find anything close to a social change ethic, or guidelines for a just society, in the teachings. While sutras in the Buddhist Pali Canon regularly talk of social relations, community structures, and the like, yoga teachings are primarily - from what I have seen - focused on individuals.

In that sense, it makes a lot of sense that "yoga has not made much of a difference" in the oppressive structures of American society. It hasn't really in India either, despite several thousand years of existence there. This doesn't dismiss the impact yoga has had on the lives of countless individuals. That can't be taken away from anyone. But yoga as a catalyst for social change hasn't been a very common theme.

"All this yoga, and we’re not getting to the root of the problem, which is the healing of our collective relationship to Mother Earth." Right. Exactly. In fact, I would argue that the Earth has been cut out of the vast majority of our religious and spiritual practices. Or has been added in like a condiment through fluffy songs, naive appeals, and heady rhetoric.

The thing is, how can those of us in the Global North countries heal that deep disconnection with the planet when we have done next to everything to separate our physical selves from it? Urban dwellers walking on concrete, driving cars, living in houses with every last crack closed off, doing our spiritual practices in pristine spaces equally closed off? Given how our economy has become structured, the bulk of rural dwellers aren't that much better off. Driving long distances into sealed off workplaces and then returning home near or after dark, only to wake up and do it all again the next day.

I'm not terribly impressed with the ecology inside of cars. Or modern buildings.

Lately, I have had fantasies of taking jackhammers to sidewalks, streets, and paved over inner city parks. Efficiency and profit are terrible mistresses, but frankly we've given ourselves over to them, forgetting our vows to the one we have been married to all along.

As a child, I remember playing in the lilac bushes that surrounded the yard of our house. Drinking in the aroma every spring; taking refugee in the canopy every summer. That was the love that ushers forth from interdependence.

It's always there, but so often we don't see it, feel it, at all. It's as if all those yoga postures and rounds of meditation haven't broken down the damn of disassociation. There are cracks all over the place though, to the point where perhaps I will witness the flood in my lifetime.

We can't, and really shouldn't want, to go back in time to what romantically might be called "simpler times." But we must bring forward the wisdom of those days, to the point where it doesn't matter if someone is doing yoga, or Zen, or praying to God.

Getting to the root really is about roots. And soil. And stones. And water.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Marketing the Self

Genju, over at 108 Zen Books, has a post about experiences at a recent mindfulness conference she attended. The following stood out for me:

in various encounters, the rumble of territorial markings became audible. Well surely I couldn’t have filtered out the human tendency to want, to crave, to feel unsafe and therefore to bare fangs, set boundaries, and draw lines. Apparently, I did. I do. This is where the practice of simply noting is a good one; it helps negotiate through the conversations that circle the marketing of the self and poorly masked rhetorical questions. I mean noting that in myself as well because certainly there were many, many times when I caught myself falling into being the product rather than the person.

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery, high fullutent language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. They say things like "Zen practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about simple judgment. This isn't about damning those trademarked teachers to hell. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing much of what we see as "normal" isn't, and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it.

As Genju points out, simply noting that this is occurring is a major step towards breaking the pattern. Every time you see through the story, it's influence on you becomes weaker. What I am suggesting here, though, is that we need to recognize the main dish, and also the side dishes as well. They all play a role in keeping each of us oppressed.

We need to re-learn the sources of true nourishment. And the first step is simply seeing how so much around us is not that. How so much in our minds is not that.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Embracing Change

I seem to be in the middle of giving birth to a vision. It's built upon the merger of my spiritual practices and the social activism and community service work I have long been involved in.

Last week, I shared the fundraising campaign I am doing to support my current work in the community. Since then, I have found myself envisioning something bigger. Something that isn't quite formed yet, but feels vital and alive.

Today, I started a new page on Facebook that I hope will become a digital community for people interested in doing social change work in new, more creative ways than simply working for non-profits or volunteering in their off hours.

Are you driven by social justice? Passionate about the health of the planet? Has your spiritual path led you to community service or activist work? Do you want to move beyond the practices and constraints of the 9-5 workplace?

If you answered "YES" to any of these questions, then the Community Changemaker Collective is a place for you. Here, you'll find like-minded people decided making their communities better places to live. You'll find writings, weblinks, and other resources to inspire you. You'll also find discussion, story sharing, and support.

Join the revolution! Together, we can build a better world, one community at a time.

Here is the link to the new community page. If you are on Facebook, and are interested in seeing what unfolds, I invite you to like the page, comment on posts, and add your own. Furthermore, share it with your friends and family as well.

*Image is Frida Kahlo's The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me, and Senor Xolotl. 1949.