Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off the Mat at the RNC-DNC Yoga Activism Debate Revisited

Some weeks ago, the yoga service organization Off the Mat into the World stirred up a flurry of controversy for showing up at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with a team of eager volunteers to host The Huffington Oasis.

Their intention? To provide politicians and media delegates with “a refuge where they could come to reconnect with their bodies, minds and intentions,” and perhaps approach the “supercharged environment” of a political convention with more mindfulness and compassion. Sounds innocent enough, right? But the response they received from the yoga community was largely one of criticism and anger...

The above is from the introduction to an interview over at the Intent blog with Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly in response to criticism of the Oasis project. Having contributed my own piece to the discussion a little under a month ago, I wanted to offer some additional response to the interview, as well as other posts I've read in recent weeks.

One of the things I read under the surface of the interview is that Seane and the other leaders of their group are placing a lot of focus on the electoral process. It’s an “inside” approach, something that will never be very satisfying to people like me, who view grassroots action and activism as more important in the current conditions than trying to get X, Y, or Z elected and/or to vote for certain laws. But I can appreciate well thought out and targeted inside efforts that aim to address systemic issues, and disrupt the narratives of greed and injustice that drive so much of current policy making. What I see with OTM’s Oasis and Yoga Votes is some of the “right” language, but not nearly enough clear linking of what they are doing to addressing systemic injustice and oppression.

I actually think the non-partisan stance they have been trying to take is a positive. If this were simply a program to get yoga folks to vote for Democrats, I’d be all over it with criticisms because a) the two big parties are miserable is so many ways that regardless of some differences, they fail to represent (in my view) the needs of the majority of us and b) the sense of working together across party lines on issues that they are aiming at would be totally lost.

What frequently disappoints me about the yoga community (and spiritual communities as a whole) is the ways in which all forms of critical discussion are lumped into the category of judgment, and swept away as being "unyogic" somehow. The kind of rigor needed to suss out wisdom and right action tends to be overwhelmed by simplistic, overly rosy thinking in yoga circles. The Oasis project needs to be critically examined by those of us interested in linking yoga practices with social engagement precisely so that future projects can have clearer visions, and be more likely to create the kind of social change so many claim to desire.

On the other side of the coin, the nastiness amongst some of the critics is also a hindrance. My own original blog post on the topic included a few lines I could have written with less venom. For me, that venom comes from seeing so little respect for critical rigor amongst the general yoga community, and feeling marginalized. Perhaps others amongst the critics also feel this way, and are responding by lashing out at public figures like Seane Corn.

I appreciate her efforts to recognize and check those places within her that block her from connecting with the humanity of others. That's an excellent example for all of us. At the same time, optimism and compassion not grounded in wisdom and awareness of the real conditions on the ground leads to more misery in the end.

Overall, I think social movements and politically active people struggle with is figuring out ways to debate and provide critical feedback about issues without descending into personal attacks and us vs. them thinking. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that such us vs. them thinking has arisen in discussions about the Oasis Project and its affiliates.

How can these different sides come together in respect for the gifts each has? How can those with the tools of critical intelligence respect those with the optimism and positive energy?

I've been sitting with these questions for years, as I've see them unfold into oppositional sides again and again.

We need both, but these qualities seem to naturally spark fear and defensiveness. Seems to me that zeroing in on that fear and defensiveness, individually and in groups, is a key piece of work for humanity.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Release! 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice

I am pleased to announce that the yoga book I wrote an essay for is now out! Here is the skinny.

21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice
Edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey

Yoga may be rooted in ancient India, but it’s morphed into something new in North America today.

Precisely what that might be, however, is difficult to say. Yoga is taught everywhere from spas to prisons, and for everything from weight loss to spiritual transcendence. With its chameleon-like ability to adapt equally well to advertising, athletics, and ashrams, contemporary yoga is a fascinating phenomenon that invites investigation.

Written by experienced practitioners who are also teachers, therapists, activists, scholars, studio owners, and interfaith ministers, 21st Century Yoga is one of the first books to provide a multi-faceted examination of yoga as it actually exists in the U.S. and Canada today.

Given my background in both Zen and yoga, I chose to write about both of them.
Entitled "Bifurcated Spiritualities: Examining Mind/Body Splits in the North American Yoga and Zen Communities," the essay aims to consider ways in which fixations on the body play out for many yoga practitioners, with a corresponding mind fixation amongst many Zen practitioners. Another significant theme is the role of gender, and gender stereotypes, in both communities. And the ways in which all of this demonstrates the commonplace separation so many of us have with the planet takes up the bulk of the last third of the essay. Here is a teaser to introduce you to the flavor of the essay.

Since I have a fair amount of experience in Iyengar-based practice, I will consider his approach a little more closely. In Light on Life, Iyengar writes “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or has a weak body.” He goes on to explain that this “true meditation” isn’t just “sitting quietly:” it is a practice that leads us to “wisdom and awareness.” One of the ways Iyengar attempts to get around what appears to be a separation of practices is to repeatedly speak of how meditation is contained within all the other limbs of practice, including asana. Indeed, recognizing the interconnectedness of all the yogic limbs is a large part of the reason he has put so much precision and intensity into teaching asana over the years.

Many students, however, simply can’t experience that interconnectedness within the context of an asana-focused class. They are too busy taking in verbal cues, moving their bodies, and responding to physical adjustments. Furthermore, the entire way in which the practice is often framed – as being about exercise, health, or even wellness – adds another blockage. Even as someone who has long studied the spiritual teachings of yoga, my own experience in the classroom tends to be mixed. Sometimes, everything will settle enough to allow my mind to focus on the present. But other times, I am either trying to figure out what is being taught, or my mind is lost in thinking.

Like the other essays in the volume, mine is well researched, weaves in personal practice experience, and is the product of multiple revisions. In addition, the final section of my essay includes introductions to several "Mind/Body Bridge Practices" I have learned and practiced over the past decade.

I invite you all to go to our website, check out the rest of the material about the book, order a copy, and then send the link to your friends and family.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Power, Perception, and Zen Master Nanchuan's Cat

An old grad school classmate drilled into my mind and others a trinity on power from philosopher Michel Foucault. He said what people do to maintain power, and also often do in response to power abuse is to minimize, deny, and blame. Whenever a spiritual community scandal goes public, you'll see all of these in action. Blame the teacher. Blame the student. Minimize the actions of the teacher as "mere sex." Minimize the responsibility on both sides of the equation, as well as the collective responsibility of the wider Zen community. Deny the impact of teacher's action. Deny the validity of grievances of said teacher's students. Deny the agency of said students, suggesting they are nothing but helpless victims.

The list goes on and on. Foucault's trinity is a wonderful lens for considering such things.

But obviously, scandals are kind of rareified experiences, and so it's probably a lot more valuable to consider these issues in action in our every day lives.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.” Case 52, Blue Cliff Record

I suppose that was an unexpected turn. Well, I think it's useful to consider power in terms of perception. Because what we see, and don't see, has a large role in the way power is experienced in each of our lives. As well as collectively.

For those of you who aren't too familiar with Zhaozhou, he's well known for being a toned down, ordinary kind of guy. He wasn't a flashy teacher, nor was he given to pounding on students, shouting, or any of the other "tools" of some of the old Zen masters.

Back to power, one of the first stories about Zhaozhou I ever heard was Nanchuan's Cat, where his response to bickering in the hall, and subsequent cutting in half of a cat by Zen master Nanchuan, was to remove his sandals, place them on his head, and walk out silently.

As a cat lover, I have always gravitated back to that koan, partly out of a sense of sadness for the cat and the people involved who seem so entangled. And aren't we all entangled in something? Aren't we all caught up in clinging too hard to one side or another, sometimes to the point where someone ends up spilling blood?

After several years, I still don't know what to make of Nanchuan's act. At times, I've thought cutting the cat was just a metaphoric act, showing the ways in which humans cut the world into dualistic parts all the time. At other times, I have thought that he did kill the cat, and it was in order to help his students wake up. Still other times, I think he just acted rashly, and blew it.

Zhaozhou's response there always has felt more in line with the truth for some reason. He seems to deeply get the entanglements that are present in the situation, and placing his shoes on his head, considered a sign of mourning, show a respect for and perhaps also sadness for what has happened.

Where is power in all of this? Was Nanchuan's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or a mistake? Was Zhaozhou's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or something more along the lines of passiveness?

In the past, I have seen Zhaoshou's actions in both koans as a reflection of what seems to be a knowing that both asses and horses cross to the "other side." This "other side" being nirvana, awakened and liberated life. Like the end of the Heart Sutra - "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha" or gone, gone, completely gone across to the other side. And the "asses" and "horses" you might take to be the delusional and the awakened, which if you believe Zhaoshou both "go across the bridge" to nirvana. But while the monk in the koan asking Zhaoshou about the stone bridge thinks there is a location to "go to" to reach nirvana, Zhaoshou's answer seems to be an indicator that trying to find a some location, or bridge, or magic entry point is off the mark.

Now, I have returned to asking questions of the koans.

I think, though, that a wise - even liberated - understanding of power is the ability to see both "the stone bridge" (the absolute) and "the log bridge" (our relative, everyday stories and lives) and to take care of both. And considering power isn't just about Zen teachers, or political leaders: it's about how each of us conducts our lives in the world, understanding that our actions do have an impact, however tiny it might be. It's an understanding that cause and effect doesn't disappear if you see into the nature of things, and that humility, compassion, and taking care of the stories in our lives are lifelong processes.

*Photo is of my mother's cat BJ

Friday, September 14, 2012

Haunted Dharma

When I came upon this tree awhile back, I couldn't help but stop and take a few pictures of it. With its bare limbs raised in the air, and almost everything around it dead as well, it's the perfect image of our repetitive, habit driven minds.

Chan Master Sengcan, in his great dharma poem Xinxinming, wrote "When you try to stop activity, your very efforts fill you with activity."

So, we have a quandary, don't you think? There's the mind dipping back into the past over and over again, bringing forth the same old muck, same old ways of acting and believing. And then there's this line, reminding us that suppression only brings more activity - and I'd say haunted activity at that.

Take a haunted house. How the spirit of someone that lived there, or spent time there in the past, now clings to the walls and floorboards, unable to let go of whatever it was that had happened there. Having no peace itself, the ghost fills the entire house, and everyone in it with dis-ease. It's a miserable existence, being trapped between incarnations, and also caught between the desire for liberation and the itchiness of recreating old misery.

In a way, all of us are like this at least some of the time. Some old event or dysfunctional way of acting or thinking arises and, instead of breathing into it and letting it be as it is, we pour ourselves into it, until we become like a forest filled with dead trees.

I aspire to be the forest in all of it's manifestations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Despair Isn't All About "You"

Note: I first offered this post about a year and a half ago. It feels accurate for today, and so here it goes again.

I don't have a lot to say today. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy that I really like:

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

I honestly find myself sometimes really pissed at how much of this reductionism occurs in spiritual circles. It actually brings up anger for me. Whatever people's current positions are on things like nuclear power, one thing I see a lot of is despair. And it's ridiculous to reduce this to some individual psychological attachment or maladjustment, but you can bet this is going on. Maybe you're doing it yourself, or your teachers or students are doing it. Maybe the book or article you are reading is doing it.

In any case, I'd like to offer the following. Instead of thinking things like "oh, this is ego clinging" or "if only I weren't so attached to what's occurring on the planet" - why not just let all of that go. Let every last explanation for what's coming up go. And just be with what is, recognizing that whatever is occurring on the planet is us too. It's all functioning together. And maybe if we listen more closely to the despair and whatever else is coming, we'll know better what our next steps need to be.

Peace to you all.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Stop Wasting Your Life! But how?

"I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your days and nights in vain."

Last lines of the Sandokai
What does it mean to not waste your life? How do we do it, not pass our days and nights in vain?

Over the past few years, I have been much more intimate with "don't know" than in the past. Sometimes, it feels like I'm drifting along, which my little mind associates with "wasting life." Other times, it makes total sense. I really didn't know what all was going in the past either; I just thought I did. It's easy enough when you have a lot of the "normal" markers (like a steady job, home to take care of, etc.) in an adult life to forget about not knowing. And to assume that what you are doing is "not a waste," or not a total waste anyway. When you strip away a lot of those normal markers, however, you start to see that your stories might not be terribly accurate.

I'm really getting a sense these days as to why so many of us do everything in our power to resist liberation. In the depths of our hearts, we want to be in touch with our boundlessness. But even small shifts towards that, like letting go of some of the conventional things that once defined you (or so you thought anyway) brings with it a palpable fear, confusion, and desire to get back some stable ground.

A friend of mine, who has been struggling to make a few key decisions in her life, recently said something like "I don't want to live the rest of my life doing the same things." But then she goes back to doing so, for now (that's what we all think, for now).

Like my friend, I have done the "for now" return many times.

This returning doesn't define either of us, but it does make me think that the mind is so desperate for things to be stable and predictable, even if it's causing a crap load of suffering.

In living in a more stripped down way over the past two years, I have been trying to break through whatever it is that makes that "for now" so attractive. Attachment. Fear. Stories about success and failure. Desiring that things are stable and predictable.

It's a long list; I'm not through it all yet, and may never be in this lifetime.

What does it mean to not waste your life? How do we do it, not pass our days and nights in vain?

Keeping questions like these close, refreshed daily. That's the best answer I have to offer right now.

How about you?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Off the Mat Goes Off The Deep End With Yoga at the RNC and DNC

Someday, I might use my yoga teaching certificate, and I'll continue to practice and write about the practice. But stories like this one, covering yoga "activist" organization Off the Mat's jumping off the deep end, are exactly why I want nothing to do with the mainstream American yoga world.

The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post. The Oasis offered up massages, yoga classes, organic food and smoothies for RNC delegates and media.

OTM stated their intention in an Elephant Journal article: “The Oasis was designed to provide the politicians, media, etc. a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment….”

This week, they'll be doing the same thing at the DNC. Way to be bipartisan!

Mainstream yoga enthusiasts, who are mostly white and economically privileged, have a way of believing that anything that spreads "the message" of yoga is of benefit to the world. It's such a naive evangelical viewpoint that I find myself wondering if these folks are basically the liberal flip side to conservative, literalist Christians.

A few things about conventions. First off, they are basically meaningless coronations these days. Circuses designed to feed the populace with a bunch of feel good nonsense about their Presidential candidate, and feel bad nonsense about the other party's Presidential candidate. The voting for the party platform is essentially delegates rubber stamping what the elite already approved. Notice that anyone who attempts to buck the agenda in any manner (like those Ron Paul folks) are promptly shunned and marginalized in favor of "party unity." Nothing really important happens at these affairs, and so even the idea of offering a space for people to "reconnect" so that they can make "good choices" is empty. Because the average delegate's choices don't matter in the long run. The biggest thing for them is perhaps getting connected politically and gaining a job or some other position within the party.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of people outside these conventions every 4 years trying desperately to be heard. Because more and more, the issues that impact everyday people and the planet are completely marginalized, ignored, or maligned by both the Democrats and Republicans. I was one of the protesters at the RNC in 2008. The convention was a mere 9 blocks away from my apartment, close enough that I had helicopters flying overhead 24/7 for a week. We could have used some yoga practice. Massage. Healthy food. Anything to help us deal with the 3000+ police in riot gear and military vehicles staring us down and watching our every move. Our messages - widely diverse, and sometimes from opposing sides - were real. Full of life. Not the bullshit lies and propaganda being offered inside the conventions, and shuttled out to the masses by every mainstream media outlet imaginable. The military veterans against the wars, and those supporting them- both could have used some grounding, breathing, and something to eat and drink. The peace activists. The Poor People's movement activists. The environmentalists. The civil liberties activists. The homeless folks. Hell, even the people who were randomly passing by, the watchers - even they could have used some kind of support in that kind of hostile environment.

However, I have no illusions that a few days offering yoga or meditation or organic food is going to spark a revolution. Create the kind of systemic change this country, this world really is in need of. Suggesting that such an offering is anything other than a short term soothing balm is to trivialize practice. To trivialize what takes decades to bring about in individuals committed to the practice. What OTM and Huffington Post are doing is basically offering some pampering to people who are already being pampered. Because they are needed in order to make the circus look real and legitimate.

Furthermore, and this is something that yoga evangelists frequently miss, there is an assumption behind OTM's efforts that convention delegates, media folks, and even the candidates themselves are in need of "learning" about "the gifts" of yoga. When the reality is that some of them already practice yoga, meditation, Christian centering prayer, mindfulness, or any number of other things that help them stay balanced and grounded. And others in situations like a political convention won't pay attention or give a shit about such practices no matter how many fancy asanas are trotted out to entertain them with.

The way I see it, if you are going to do activism, go for the systemic roots. And if you are going to do service, find people who are actually in need. Lord knows that's really not a difficult task. How OTM and Huffington managed to bungle both is an understandable consequence of unexamined, privileged narratives, but still a little surprising in magnitude all the same. Perhaps this can be of service to other groups though of what not to do. There's always that lesson, if nothing else.