Friday, June 28, 2013

An Ode To Trolls

In somewhat of a departure from the norm here, for those of you who like poetry, with a bit of litany and ranting, check out my new poem. It's inspired by an essay in the current edition of Harper's magazine. An essay that laments the perceived rotten state of American poetry, and which has riled up poets, including myself. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Holistic Spiritual Practice

I think a lot of American Buddhist converts are infatuated with human reason. Even though Buddhist teachings point us beyond our own thoughts and understandings, we're so comfortable in the realm of reason that we think it is the answer to all of our "problems." That if we just think things out better, analyze things a little more rationally, we'll break through the confusion and emotionalism, and figure it all out.

Here's a small segment of a post by Ajahn Sumedho on the blog Buddhism Now:

If we are intellectual, we are always up in the head, thinking about everything. Emotionally we might not be developed at all-throw temper tantrums, scream and yell when we do not get our own way. We can talk about Sophocles and Aristotle, have magnificent discussions about the great German philosophers and about Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Buddha, and then somebody does not give us what we want and we throw a tantrum! It is all up in the head; there is no emotional stability.

On the other hand, I've met my share of yoga practitioners, as well as some in Buddhist circles, who think thinking is something to be rejected outright. For them, the infatuation may be with the emotional world. Or things more intangible like intuition or "spiritual experience" of some sort.

I think these imbalances represent a lack of integration. Both on an individual level, and also collective level. Yoga in the U.S. is, on the whole, pretty one dimensional. Not too much community. A lot of body-centrism. And only small pockets of folks going beyond the simplest of yogic philosophical teachings. American convert Buddhism, likewise, is struggling to flower in a more mature, holistic manner. Care for social issues and the suffering of "the masses" is still a secondary focus, if a concern at all in many communities. Restrictive definitions of "deep practice" are common, as are watering down efforts to help keep folks "comfortable."

It will be interesting to see what another generation brings to all of this. Some signs are hopeful, others are just more samsara going round and round.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activism II

I received a couple of comments on yesterday's post that I'd like to give extended answers to.

Was Once wrote:

"I have found that almost everything has it's lifespan, and now I have stepped back (some) to let my natural compassionate self to blossom. It will all fall down or not, but I see the end of my life and it felt like wisdom finally pulled in."

There's an ebb and flow of activity from what I have seen and experienced. Sometimes, you really need to turn inward and focus on yourself, where you are at. In the midst of activity and action, it's easy to loose touch with the buddha-nature energy that illuminates our greed, hatred and ignorance. And if you've been practicing for a long time, it's easy to think you've "done enough," forgetting that the path is vast and endless. Or get seduced by the idea that "you," specifically, must "do it all" in order to be worthy.

In general, this is one of the big challenges for the activist community (or folks committed to service in places like homeless shelters, hospices, etc.) Many have put spiritual or religious practice aside, or rejected it outright, including things like secular forms of meditation. And others who are spiritual or religious simply get caught up in the swirl of constant activity. There's always something to do. Developing the awareness necessary to see when you need to step back, or when to move on, isn't emphasized in these groups for a variety of reasons. And as a result, too many end up burning out, becoming highly reactionary, or totally in crisis. It's a pattern I'd like to make a dent in.

Anonymous wrote:

" if you live in a country where people are so ingrained with the politics of their fathers, and the generations before, that they will take up violence on account of a ‘cause’ and with very little consideration, or inner awareness this focus on the individual is a necessary, and essential, building block, for creating change."

It's necessary, but not sufficient. Let's face it, though, his primary audience are folks in post industrial nations. He's not speaking to people living under dictatorships, in war-torn countries, or other highly volatile situations. That doesn't mean that his writings and talks haven't spread to some in these places, but they aren't the people regularly attending his lectures, buying up every last thing with his name on it, and filling his pockets with cash. When I wrote yesterday that he's marketed as a "non-threatening guru," part of what I meant by that is that he doesn't challenge the economic and social status quo. The CEO of Walmart or Exxon can find some inner peace through his writings, and perhaps learn to treat his family and employees a little better, without ever looking at how damaging the business practices of his company are. Or how damaging some of the larger structures and laws that uphold our economy are to both humans and the planet as a whole.

The thing is I'm not suggesting that folks like Tolle need to be as deliberate and descriptive as I am about social and political issues, and their intersection with spiritual practice. But when you have an entire collection of writings where little or no time is given to how we might consider those intersections, and see the public realm as a clear area of practice, something is off. Furthermore, Tolle basically tells folks that if they just take care of their inner lives, it will all be good. And that this is the evolutionary plan, something inevitable that they're just plugging into.

I think Tolle places too much faith in our capacity to overcome a hell of a lot of social conditioning on our own, and that millions and millions of people doing this will somehow break through all the collective conditioning and structures that currently oppress us. He fails to recognize or acknowledge that even our greatest spiritual/social heroes - Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. - still had issues with social conditioning that impacted their work. Awakening didn't wipe out internalized sexism, for example. It took multiple lobbying efforts to get the Buddha to allow women into the original sangha, and I'm not convinced they ever held truly equal standing under his watch. The original Buddhist sangha was basically doing on a smaller scale what Tolle sees as the key to our evolution as a species and yet women had to beg to gain base level acceptance.

So, while I don't expect someone like Tolle to brilliantly break down capitalism, or advocate for radical action, I do think it's entirely fair to do what I've done in these past few posts. Because this guy has an influence on some of the very people who have the most power and influence in our societies today. And even a little movement from him towards supporting collective social action and directly challenging systems of oppression could go a long way.

*Dragon Float from May Day Festival, Minneapolis 2012.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activists: Or What's Love Got to Do With It?

Fellow 21st Century Yoga contributer Be Scofield has a provocative, new essay out on the limitations of Eckhart Tolle's spiritual writings, particularly when it comes to addressing systemic social issues. Some folks just roll their eyes when they see the name Tolle, but I think if you want to understand the modern, American spiritual landscape, you gotta pay a bit of attention to his work. Before we go on to look at a few points in Be's essay, I want to state where I stand on Tolle.

First off, I don't think he's a charlatan. The guy seems to me to have some clear insight into how our minds work, and the ways in which humans get trapped by their thinking and habit patterns. In addition, he has figured out how to bring together elements of different religious traditions in a way that speaks across them and beyond them. I'd say this is a positive, especially in terms of spreading insights to the masses. I also like the guy's general optimism about humanity's potential, and that he sees practices like meditation as being a means towards awakening on a larger, collective scale.

On the flip side, like Be, I disagree with Tolle's sense that "inner work" alone will somehow solve the systemic misery that plagues so many in this world. Having read a fair amount of his writing, and listened to some of his talks, I find his general approach to be far too individualistic in focus for my taste. Not only is social and political action downplayed or dismissed outright, but you rarely hear talk about communities, serving others, or anything else associated with being together in groups. Just as is true of a lot of American convert Buddhism, in Tolle's writing you can't help but notice how heavily individual psychology and psychological theories color what's being said.

Beyond all that, there's the fierce, capitalist machine behind Tolle's work to content with. Nearly everything this guy touches these days is being turned into a product intended for "your awakening," and I don't get the sense that he has any problem with that. In fact, I think the packaging of Tolle as a non-threatening spiritual guru has not only lead to wildly higher sales and spreading of his message, but also wholesale rejection of his work by those like myself actively resisting capitalism, colonialism, and the commodifcation of spiritual practice.

Along those lines, let's take a look at a few paragraphs from Be's essay:

In A New Earth Tolle goes so far as to claim all of the atrocities associated with Communism could have been avoided had their been a shift in their “inner reality, their state of consciousness.” Again, his absolutism in regards to the power of internal transformation is quite extreme. If communists would have only stilled their minds, connected to their bodies and dis-identified with their false egoic self he believes countless lives would have been saved. It’s important to understand that when Tolle is referring to shifting inner consciousness, he is specifically talking about stilling the mind, not shifting inner social or political consciousness. Of course the issues are far more complex than Tolle presents. No simple solution like cultivating presence, stillness or embodiment would have changed a profoundly complicated socio-political experience that spanned vast territory and numerous decades. Furthermore, he falsely believes that spiritual awakening supports his social and political positions.

Tolle is suggesting that what communists needed and what environmental polluters need is internal spiritual transformation – not education, training, relationship building, diversity training, political understanding, environmental awareness or anything else. Why? Because Tolle believes in an all-knowing divine power that once channeled knows exactly what to do. This universal intelligence is unfolding and working through humans. If only environmental polluters and communists were to connect with God the world would be a much better place. For those who successfully do, they are contributing to more joy, peace, creativity and happiness on the planet. Spirit is unfolding in a direction and it supports Tolle’s social and political agenda and reflects his social location as a wealthy, heterosexual, white male with $4 million in the bank and a Jaguar in his driveway.

Social positioning, and specifically a lack of critical consciousness around his position in society, are major players in Tolle's philosophy. It's so much easier for folks from privileged backgrounds to focus on "inner" transformation, and to dismiss addressing systemic social issues. Not only do they benefit from the status quo, but they're are less likely to see how the status quo creates suffering in their own lives, let alone anyone else's. Be's absolutely right to point out this failure in Tolle's work to critically examine social positions, and how they're plugged into systems built on patterns of injustice and deliberate oppression.

However, I have to say that the qualities Tolle focuses on folks cultivating - being present now, joy, stillness, and general awareness - are pretty lacking amongst social activists as a whole. There's decidedly too much ego, reactivity, and unexamined motives driving individuals within political and social movements, and also the collective actions of the groups they belong to or associate with. Instead of figuring out how to place the outrage, sadness, and fears into the furnace, where they might be transformed into wisdom and wise action, too often social movements either explode or sputter into the ground through power grabs, ego battles, and undigested patterns of greed, anger and hatred.

Which leads me to where I disagree with Be. Be writes:

The reason, of course, that environmental experts don’t recommend mind-body practices like meditation or yoga in order to stop worldwide pollution is because they are entirely unrelated.

This is just the opposite extreme to what Tolle's arguing, no more or less dualistic in my opinion. And while I don't think everyone involved in social justice movements needs to suddenly become a yogi or meditator, it sure wouldn't hurt for more folks practicing these things to be a part of such movements. And furthermore, that a general culture of cultivating qualities like compassion and awareness be normalized amongst activists, regardless of the forms taken to bring about those qualities.

The systems developed under colonialism, and patriarchy before it, rendered a myriad of things separate in social consciousness and practice. Foremost amongst these being the creation of the categories "spiritual" and "secular," and then the slow depositing of various activities and ways of thinking into either box. Perhaps that period of separation was helpful at some point in human history, but it's clearly become little more than a driver of oppression and misery. And when I say that, I'm not saying that everyone should be "spiritual" or something. What I'm saying is that the categories have become calcified, to the point where the vast majority of folks fail to see them as expedient means at most.

What am I talking about here, you may be asking? I'll try an offer some concrete examples. Take a person's view of the environment, specifically those who aren't concerned about exploitation, global warming, or human impacts on the planet. Or who have some concern, but whose greed or ignorance override that concern.

Person X

Claims the identity of secular, and rejects religion and all forms of spirituality. Elevates human reason above all other qualities a person might possess. Sees the point of life to fulfill your needs and desires. Might have some concerns about his children's future, for example, but is mostly focused on how to have a "good life now." (One of Tolle's limitations, by the way, is his obsession on "the now" and failure to temper that with something like a seven generations approach to viewing and acting in the world.) Enjoys "nature, but feels humans are "better" or "smarter" somehow.

Person Y

Claims the identity of Christian. Views the planet as a God given resource to be used to fulfill human needs and desires. Believes the afterlife in heaven is where "the good life" truly is, and that life on Earth is mostly about being trials and tests by God. As such, she isn't really concerned about the future of the planet, or even her children/grandchildren because what's important is their salvation, not the preservation of the Earth.

Person Z

Claims the identity of spiritual/not religious. Sees the popularization of meditation, yoga, and other "consciousness" practices as the key to a better life for all. Any concerns about the future of the planet are turned into a messianic approach to spreading the "good news" of yoga, meditation, shamanism, and the like. Pays little attention to politics and systemic social issues, seeing all that as being "lower vibration" stuff.

The main point behind these rough, incomplete sketches is the sense that solidifying around the deepest level separation of spiritual/secular can lead to some disastrous consequences for (in this case) the planet. And it's not just about folks on the extreme messing it up for everyone else. Each of has this dualism playing out in our lives because it's in the cultural water, and pretty much all of us taken a drink to some degree or another. So you may not be an oil tycoon profiting off the tar sands, but odds are your daily actions are still negatively impacting the planet in some manner or another.

Which brings us to love. And our collective struggle to understand and embody it in it's various forms. Be writes:

Love isn’t progressive, socialist or limited to any political position. People of all ideological persuasions fall in love, make love, experience love and act in love. Is global transformation really based on raising the “love” vibration on the planet? After all, Glenn Beck’s latest gathering was called “Restoring Love.” There was lots of “love” amongst Protestant and Catholic Christians in Nazi Germany. Love for spouses, children, families and God. People were kind, caring and compassionate to members of their own kind while turning a blind eye or supporting to the horrific crimes of the state. What frequency did their love vibrate on and how did it matter in the larger scheme of things? Love is not the sole property of either progressives or conservatives. If both a pro-choice and a pro-life activist group based all of their methods, techniques and actions in love who would win?

One of Be's biggest concerns in this piece, and in others I have seen, is the view that cultivating certain qualities and/or doing certain spiritual practices are THE means needed to get to a more progressive, inclusive society for all. I share that concern, and agree that practices like yoga can be used by anyone without having a transformational impact on their politics and social views, and that simply cultivating qualities like presence or basic compassion aren't nearly enough to liberate the world from systems of oppression and injustice.

But love. Love has the capacity to blow through separations of all sorts. To break through and heal the kinds of thinking that create solidified divisions in the first place. It's not limited to, nor even necessarily represented by, the forms Be presents in the statement above. It's easy to get cynical about something like the power of love to liberate folks from systems of oppression, just as it's easy to get suckered by some limited form of love (like love of family or country) as the recipe for a better world.

If anything, the intersection of social justice and love is a koan, one we might take devote ourselves to, even if we never gain any final resolution.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Buddhas and Social Action

“In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”

- Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by TKV Desikachar

This passage zeros in on the relational quality of yoga. And just as is the case with Buddhist teachings on our relationships with others, there is a strong emphasis on equanimity here - the kind most of us struggle to locate in our everyday lives.

Given my own predisposition to serving in the world, and to doing what I can to help right injustices, what I find so wonderful about a teaching like this is that it's a reminder that the most powerful place one can come from is built on a foundation of joy and equanimity.

In Buddhism, a similar teaching is found in the four divine abodes, where lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the foundations from which all that is good in life springs forth.

For me, the biggest challenge is to remain "undisturbed" by the errors of others, especially when those errors are greatly destructive, oppressive, and highly productive of misery. This is a frequent difficulty when doing social activist. Sometimes I begin from a place of not being disturbed, but then am overwhelmed by the disturbed experiences of others around me. The initial outrage towards injustice frequently turns into collective forms of being disturbed. In fact, it's almost expected that folks demonize those committing serious crimes and offenses, and to use that energy to fuel their actions. Something I think is dangerous, and often destructive, even when "we" are in the right.

Being in service to others can bring with it similar challenges. You not only often have to deal with the immediate suffering of those you are serving, but frequently this escalates into recognizing forms of collective injustice and oppression. When I was teaching ESL, I had students dealing with slumlords, cruel immigration officials, confounding state and federal bureaucracies, and so much more. It wasn't just the struggles of my particular students that I faced, but also a recognition of how many others were in a similar position because of various poorly constructed and/or deliberately oppressive systems.

It's important to note that "undisturbed" doesn't mean untouched, or unfeeling. It's really a quality of not being flipped over by, troubled by, or excessively excited by something, all of which make it very difficult to have clear perceptions and to do intelligent, beneficial action.

Shutting down and becoming numb in the face of suffering isn't hitting the mark, nor is being disturbed in the ways I spoke of.

That's where cultivating the qualities mentioned in Yoga Sutra 1.33 or the Buddhist Divine Abodes comes in. We aren't doing spiritual practices like meditation or sutra study for ourselves. It's really about how we are in the world, interacting with others and the planet. Even when we are sitting still and not interacting in the normal sense of the word, there's still something going on. Something that sends ripples far beyond ourselves.

It's seems to me that bringing that quality, the stillness and movement within stillness, to what we are doing in the world can shift us towards beneficial action. Social activism and service work are often governed by beliefs about what's right and what's wrong. But it's important to hold that somewhat lightly, and to remain open to the new and unexpected of a given moment, collective movement, or exchange between people.

In this way, the truth that liberates can be liberated to do it's work on us.

*Photo is from May Day March 2012.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bicycle Zen

Like. Don't like. Neutral.

These are the three base-level feelings we experience about everything in our lives. Peel off the skin of any emotional response and you'll find these at work.

If we learn to let these three just come and go, a lot of trouble can be avoided. Easier said than done of course.

A simple example from my own life might help illustrate this. As a lifelong bicyclist in a city, I have had my struggles with cars and traffic. Bicycling in the city isn't terribly easy. Planning and design work almost always privileges motorized vehicles over bikes and pedestrians - at least here in the U.S. Even when things are well marked and it appears to be "safe" for bikers, you can still run into inattentive or angry drivers that would rather you weren't there.

For many years, I biked with a deep resentment towards motorized vehicles. It didn't matter if they were actually doing anything dangerous or not in any given moment. Someone might offer me a chance to cross ahead of them, for example, and I'd think they were trying to shoo me through quickly. That shooing quickly snowballed into "these folks don't respect me at all." Which usually spun into "bikers are second class citizens." Although there's still some truth to the last statement, the stories aren't at all helpful while actually biking. But I'd get hooked by them, and it all stemmed from an initial "don't like" that came up again and again.

About three years ago, I began cutting through the thoughts and emotional reactions that developed in response to this don't like by chanting the Jizo Bodhisattva chant while riding. Jizo is kind of an archetypal Buddhist figure that is said to protect travelers, children, the dead, and vows among other things. Chozen Bays Roshi of Great Vow Monastery wrote a fabulous book about Jizo several years ago that I was fortunate to study soon after it was published. As soon as I learned about it, I knew Jizo would be a companion on my spiritual journey.

Biking with Jizo has become a norm for me. Although I have to confess that I haven't been so diligent in recent months and it's starting to show. However, more often than not, I experience the like, don't like, and neutral more clearly. Without a lot of getting lost in elaboration. Stinky alley. Don't like. Fall leaves. Like. Dog in a yard. Neutral. End of story.

Do I still get pissed and reactive towards motorized vehicles at times? Sure. However, such experiences sometimes colored my entire day in the past, and now usually burn off within minutes. And when I think about it, it really comes back to this point of being able to see, and experience, these three base-level feeling tones without getting lost in emotional and thought elaborations.

What's your experience with all of this?