Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

Today's article is a guest post from Gregg Krech. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take a weekend workshop with Gregg on Naikan, which is a powerful practice of self reflection and cultivating gratitude with roots in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings. The basic practice is deceptively simple. You focus on your interactions during the day, and take time to reflect on the answers to each of three questions.

What have I received from others?

What have I given to others?

What troubles and difficulties have I caused to others?

You can do this focusing on a single person, group of people (like family, friends, or co-workers), or you can bring in all your interactions during the day.

After that workshop, I did daily Naikan reflections for over a year and a half. Since then, I revive the practice whenever I feel like I've lost touch with the numerous gifts coming into my life, even during difficult times. My life has shifted as a result of this work, and I'm grateful to Gregg for having introduced us to it during that workshop, and also for his book on Naikan, which explores the topic more in depth.

I hope you enjoy Gregg's timely piece today. Given how challenging the holiday season can be for many folks, I think this exploration of an alternative set of "three poisons" is a helpful antidote.

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

by Gregg Krech

One of the most common messages in a holiday card is, “Happy Holidays.” We generally expect the holidays to be joyful and happy. We hear uplifting Christmas music and we have images of presents under Christmas trees, menorahs and Santa Claus. But the reality of the holiday season is a bit different. More of a mix of up and down moods and moments. Along with the Christmas music there are financial pressures. There are also crowded stores, heavy traffic, family infighting, and a certain amount of loneliness. When we find ourselves feeling depressed, overwhelmed or in despair, we think, “What’s wrong with me – it’s the holiday season? I’m supposed to feel good.” But we don’t – at least not all the time.

Let’s look at what I call the Three Poisons:




How do they affect our experience of the holiday season?

Any time we have high expectations (actually, any expectations at all) we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. What are your expectations going into the holidays?:

• Everybody in the family should get along with one another.
• I should give people I love lots of nice presents and I should also receive lots of nice presents.
• I should send out and receive holiday cards.
• There should be wonderful decorations and lovely white snow (Note: I live in Vermont).
• I should feel grateful and joyful and other people should be cheerful and pleasant.

These are just a few examples. See if you can discover your own underlying expectations. When you have a moment in which you feel disappointed or angry, can you investigate the expectation you have that hasn’t been met?

Realistically, we can’t simply tell ourselves to drop our expectations. We don’t have that kind of control over our minds and hearts. What we can do is to bring an awareness to how our expectations create disappointment, resentment and even anger. We can become conscious of how our expectations often poison our ability to simply enjoy what life places in our path. That awareness itself can help us to better accept situations that would otherwise push our buttons.

The second poison is control. Many of us use the holidays as a time for reconnecting with our families including those family members who would be doing so much better if they would just take our advice about how to fix their lives.

Of course they haven't in the past, but this might just be the time they're ready to listen and "see the light." As an alternative, why not leave our teacher/counselor hat in the closet and just concentrate on being a loving son/sister/cousin/parent. We can play this role quite well without ever giving advice. And if someone else is trying to fix your life, well, just listen, thank them for their concern, and perhaps ask them if they'd like to go outside and help feed the birds or make a snowman.

Expectations are often the precursor to control. We have an idea of how we want things to turn out and now it is up to us to orchestrate the situation to make sure that happens. There’s nothing wrong with trying to host a nice dinner or party, but we have to allow life to unfold in its own way. There is a term in Japanese – jiriki. It means self-power. Making a conscious effort and taking action can be valuable. But trying to control the outcome is a guaranteed formulae for stress, anxiety and, ultimately, disappointment.

So use the holiday season as an opportunity to practice acceptance – it’s an undervalued quality that most of us could benefit from.

Finally, there’s the third poison of mindlessness – specifically the kind of mindlessness that comes from rushing. The more we’re in a hurry, the more our minds tend to abandon the present moment and think about what hasn’t happened yet. So we need to find a way to anchor ourselves in the present, even on busy days when there’s so much to do. When I traveled with Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1980’s, he taught us to use the ringing of the phone or a red stoplight as a cue for pausing and coming back to our breath. You can use this strategy with any external cue, or create one yourself with an app on your phone. The idea is to have a regular system for pausing and reconnecting with what’s happening right now.

In Japanese Psychology we learn not only to reconnect with the present, but also to reconnect with the world around us instead of getting stuck in our heads. So another way to enrich your holiday experience is to practice using your senses. Touch and smell the world around you. Close your eyes and just listen. Taste your food instead of reading the news while you eat. Self-focused attention is associated with almost every psychological disorder, so use the holidays as a way of engaging with the world around you.

When you find yourself caught up in the ups and downs of the holidays, just enjoy the ride. The bouncing is good for your spiritual muscles. And if you find yourself out of breath – that’s wonderful. It means your attention is in the right place.

Gregg Krech has been studying and teaching Japanese Psychology for 27 years and is the author of several books including, The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (2014). He is currently conducting an online retreat for Tricycle magazine on the theme of Self-Reflection and Gratitude. In January, he will be teaching a distance learning program for the ToDo Institute called Living on Purpose as a way of launching the new year.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Letting Your Opinions Fly Like Birds

We humans tend to cherish our opinions. Sometimes, we'll do anything to either protect them or make them known in the world. It can get so bad that people will destroy relationships and even kill each other over their differences.

It doesn't have to be this way.

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

"Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming), Zen Master Seng Ts'an

Having no opinions at all about anything is the opposite of being strongly opinionated. And on the surface, it appears that these lines are directing us to have no opinions. Which really isn't a much better position.

However, that's not what the poet is advocating here.

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction. Or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, or propping up arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out. Recently, I was in a conversation about politics, and felt myself holding tightly to my particular opinion. I noticed how that tightness manifested in my shoulders and lower back, and how the guy I was talking with seemed to be mirroring me - tightening around his own opinion. So, I decided to pull back, and let go of the point I was trying to make. We continued to talk, and I fairly quickly experienced an uncoiling of that tightness as breath calmed, and my need to be right diminished.

This letting go didn't mean I gave up what I thought and went along with his view. It meant that I stopped trying to control the outcome of the conversation, and allowed our differences to be present in the same space.

How can you treat all opinions like this? Let them be birds, floating across the mind's landscape: accessible, able to be conveyed, but also free to pass on through at any time. If you do so, it's more likely that whatever truth contained within will be able to come forth and shine.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Buddhist Tensions: the Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Picking Flowers

If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike.
Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones.
Pluck the low branches, pull down the high.
Enjoy alike the spent blossoms, the tight buds.

Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822 / Vietnam)

Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong was a powerfully independent and outspoken woman living at a time when that was very rare. The energy and mastery of her poetry was so high that it helped elevate the status of Vietnamese to that of a literary language. Although her words are infused with Buddhist understandings and images, Ho Xuan Huong had a defiant, highly critical relationship with the Buddhism of her native Vietnam.

One of the tension points present in her work revolves around sex and sexuality. She was a frequent critic of the pious sounding Vietnamese monks who scoffed at women expressing themselves sexually, but then courted and slept with female devotees and concubines. In addition, she fiercely questioned the double standards of a patriarchal society where men did as they pleased when it came to romantic relationships, while women were confined to roles of dutiful quietude.

Ho Xuan Huong was anything but quiet about sexuality, as the following poem attests.


Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.

A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.

Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.

Spring games. Who hasn't known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.

Many of Ho Xuan Huong's poems read like expressions of freedom. Not longing for it, but actually living and breathing it. If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike. Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones. Literally, there's the experience of climbing up a hill or mountain. Where I'm living right now, there is a small mountain that the locals like to climb to get exercise and look out over the city in the valley below. I have climbed to the top multiple times. Every time, there has been a point where I consciously chose to be ok with having some aches and pains, and then - as if by magic - I experienced a jolt of renewed energy that helped me reach the summit. Metaphorically, the same lines of the poem can taken as a directive for life. If you want to reach your dreams, you have to let go of fretting and obsessing over every, little obstacle that appears along the way.

As many great poets do, Ho Xuan Huong captures beautifully the fleeting quality of our lives. Particularly that of high moments, and how a wrong decision while on top of the mountain can bring you tumbling down. In another poem laden with sexual images and tension, Huong offers both high level pleasure and a caution to not go too far.

The Jackfruit

I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching --
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands

Beyond pleasure, the richness of the natural world explodes from Huong's poems. Clearly in love with all the wonders of the waxing seasons, spring and summer, she readily invokes the beauty and vibrancy of each in her words.

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love's vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten

Here, Huong offers a poem that appears to be passive, but actually is active and full of tension. A gentle, somewhat melancholy start paired with a fierce, declarative ending. Talk of sadness coupled with the deepest expression of love itself.

Overall, she leaves us with an overriding message pointing directly to spiritual liberation. One that isn't separated from the seemingly mundane and material world around us. The pulpy jackfruit is love. The sad puddles are love. The hike to pick flowers is love.

And love is liberation. Available to all, regardless of who we are perceived to be (or not be) in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Study the Whole Self, Not the Marketed Self

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 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?

Dogen said we need to study the self to forget the self and be liberated by the whole of the universe. This is a great teaching ... and if you think that the self doesn't include the world around you, you're missing the boat. If you think the self doesn't include the racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, warfare, and violence done in the name of religion that we see going on every day, you're simply not studying the self.

I think a lot of Buddhist folks end up studying the "marketed self," as opposed to the whole self. The marketed self might be full of emotional warts and conflicted narratives, but it somehow is treated as a stand alone object, outside of the culture of the society it lives in. This is particularly the case for folks living fairly privileged lives. It's easy to ignore that the murder of black folks in the streets by police officers is just as much about you as the feelings you've held for 30 years about the challenges you had in your childhood.

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. Speaking up about white supremacy and systemic racism in white dominated Buddhist centers, for example, tends to create some upset and discomfort. People say things like "spiritual practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about being petty and judgmental. 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" and "true" isn't, and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it. And finally, it's about being willing to change and act in support of liberation for all, not just the privileged few.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Green Zen

Today's post comes from my herbal medicine blog at NGTHerbals. Here is an excerpt.

Sometime in the middle of the 8th century, a Zen hermit living in China penned a now famous poem entitled "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage." It begins with the following lines:

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.

Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds."

Whenever I work with the plants, I try and remember these words. The relaxed attitude about it all. The lack of fixation on certain things having value. The surrender to the fact that no matter what, there are always weeds. All around us, and inside our minds as well.

I try and remember, but more often than not I forget. Or loose track while I pick, pluck, and hack away, claiming the burdock roots for their liver health giving properties, while thrusting away the overgrown grape vines that have no clear use.

If we truly want to be healed and liberated, we need to bow down to the mystery of it all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Charleston, Terrorism, and the Future of America

Nothing short of an extended, ritual purification and reconciliation will do at this point. Removing and burning Confederate flags is only a starting point. We must burn the entire house of white supremacy to the ground. Every last root needs to be dug up, and held high to the sky until the sun of our hearts dries it to a crisp. All the laws, institutions, and national myths that uphold a largely white elite, and pit the rest of us against each other, must be taken down to the river of our tears and drowned forever.

Remembering, or perhaps learning for the first time, that the terrorism of Dylan Roof is the terrorism of Eric Casebolt is the terrorism of Darren Wilson is the terrorism of your white neighbor, white co-worker, white family member blaming black and brown folks for the ceaseless police violence against them is the terrorism of Monsanto the terrorism of Koch Industries the terrorism of Lockheed Martin the terrorism of Goldman Sachs the terrorism of Wells Fargo the terrorism of US Bank the terrorism of Corrections Corporation of America is the terrorism of Wall Street, J Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue is the terrorism of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the terrorism of a Calvinistic prison system is the terrorism of Pearson Education, CASAS, and the hegemony of standardized testing is the terrorism of endless privatizing of public lands is the terrorism of gentrification is the terrorism of Fox News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, ABC, CBS, the TImes, the Post, the Tribune, the USA Today is terrorism. Beneath the gloss, grit, and surface grime, we are terrorism.

And that's ultimately what we will be as a nation. Until we find a way to reconcile with each other and with the Earth that is our home, our subsistence, our very breath.

Those of us who benefit the most under the current system in particular are being called upon to turn away from the terrorism that built this place. To turn and keep our hearts and minds in the direction of justice for all those who suffer so mightily.

Let's remember that everyone's liberation is intimately tied together. Let's stoke the furnace of a love that moves mountains, even if it takes lifetimes to accomplish.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Systemic Racism, White American Buddhism, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Unless you've been totally asleep or hiding under a rock, you're probably aware of the unrest in Baltimore over the police murder of Freddie Grey. Odds are that some of you are upset about the property damage that happened during the peak of the protests, and are amongst those calling for peace, just as was the case last fall when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here's what I think. The United States is, by design, a nation of violence. It was born through the execution of genocide against Native populations, and was built in large part via theft and slave labor. Our domestic and foreign policy continues to be driven by endless forms of theft and violence, and people of color across the globe bear the brunt of it.

Under these conditions, we should be applauding the fact that the vast majority of protests in Baltimore and elsewhere across the nation in recent weeks have been non-violent. Furthermore, white Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners would do well to restrain themselves from finger wagging at people of color led social movements that aren't conforming to their ideas about "Right action."

I wrote the following in response to some comments on a post made by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on their Facebook page a few days ago.

White supremacy has infected the majority of white people living in the US to the point where they almost instinctively side with the mostly white ruling class. Otherwise known as the 1%.

Every last calm, rational, dare I say "peaceful" attempt by people of color and their allies to illuminate the endless ways in which the three interlocked poisons of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism is met with another triple treasure: minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

And when the heat turns up to the level of revolt, including property damage and injuries, it's always fierce verbal resistance from the white masses, a ratcheting up of the oppressiveness from the state, and even more minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

White Buddhists have a fondness for making appeals for non-violence, and yet far too few are actively working to dismantle white supremacy, and the oppressive economic and social systems that were built to keep it in place, keep us divided, and guarantee that the ruling class stays in place.

In meditation, we're often cued to watch for and unearth our habitual patterns. I have watched these patterns within the US Buddhist community and in the nation as whole unfold for a good generation now, but our history as a nation is built on this kind of call and response. There's never been a house that wasn't thoroughly divided, and riddled with the bullets of inequity, injustice, and systemic, cold blooded murders in the name of maintaining order. Whatever non-violent action has come in the past 500 years - and there has been much - has ALWAYS come against the odds, on land and air so saturated with violence that everything, right down to our water tables, is poisoned.

If you're feeling compelled to condemn the breaking of windows, the burning of buildings, "black on black crime," the injuring of police officers, etc - how about instead taking a pause, and doing some deep reflection on the legacy of this nation. On the endless cycles of violence here and abroad that have led us to today. On all the ways in which the white supremacy that Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and so many others were resisting in Baltimore well over a century ago is the same white supremacy the protesters are resisting today.

BPF's post contains an article from The Atlantic well worth the read.

I'd like to that it's vitally important to remember that the non-violent social movements that many of us uphold as models - such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement - took years, if not decades to develop. And along the way, there were uprisings that included property damage, injuries, and even deaths. Living in a society that does everything in its power to divide and oppress, and make war and violent conflict seem normal and inevitable, every generation needs to learn anew how to build sustained movements grounded in a diversity of non-violent tactics.

In addition, every new social movement is forced to counter the propaganda of the elite, which aims to render all tactics of liberation as violence. For example, many in the general public, especially amongst white folks, saw the freeway blocking or pop up lunch demonstrations in the months following the Ferguson uprising as illegitimate or somehow worthy of condemnation. Never mind that these are precisely the kind of non-violent tactics necessary to disrupt the narratives of white supremacy and get people talking about possible solutions.

When all other avenues of gaining attention and working to address grievances are shut down, is it any wonder that people sometimes resort to property destruction and physical conflict?

Like many of you, I long for a sustained social movement built on non-violence that leads us towards liberation for all. Let's make the effort to be allies to each other. Instead of assuming the worst of people that are out in the streets fighting for their rights, lets have a more generous understanding of what's going on. Which includes a knowing that there are already many individuals and groups within a movement like BlackLivesMatter working to build creative responses based in non-violent action. The mainstream media would have you believe otherwise, but then again, they're owned and operated by the very people that keep us divided and fighting amongst each other.

Yesterday, I was a part of our annual May Day march in Minneapolis (see photo), which this year merged with a rally and march for BlackLivesMatter. The crowd was highly diverse, and speaker after speaker pointed to the beautiful possibilities that could become reality if we come together, instead of remaining apart. It's time for a critical mass of white American Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners to step up, be supportive, and join the #BlackLivesMatter movement in whatever ways they can.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mansplaining Away Rape Culture: Waylon Lewis' "Strange" Partial Defense of Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury

Waylon Lewis of the popular spiritual webzine Elephant Journal has a history of ... ahem ... troubling behavior. In 2011, I wrote a post about racism on EJ, which Waylon sought to defend as humor. The same post and comments section goes into other problematic editorial choices, as well as pointing out how criticism tended to receive a combination of snarky and inflammatory responses from Waylon. That was 4 years ago, and for the most part, I haven't given Elephant Journal any attention. However, that post routinely falls in my top 5 weekly reads list, and new comments have come long after the original issue had died down.

This morning, my attention was drawn to a new controversy. For some odd reason, Waylon has chosen to make a video pleading with us to maintain an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude when it comes to the sexual assault and rape case against Mr. Hot Yoga Empire Dude. Aka Bikram Choudhury.

Of all the people in the yoga world, Bikram is probably the last person in need of such "support." He's amongst the uber wealthy in this country. He's taken the privatization of ancient spiritual wisdom and practices to new heights. And, most importantly, there's an endless string of lawsuits and allegations against him going back well over a decade in some cases. Sure, it's technically true that Bikram is in a court of law innocent until proven guilty. However, throwing your weight behind someone with Bikram's track record is a dangerous proposition. Especially if you're another privileged male. The slide from well intentioned supporter to upholding the good ole boys club and patriarchal oppression is swift and almost inevitable.

But this video wasn't just a call to not indict Bikram prematurely. It was a powerhouse load of horseshit commentary on the nature of sexual assault and rape, as well as the supposed responsibilities of victims experiencing threaten, or potentially threatening conditions. Here are several rebuttal comments from women, as reported in the Wonkette article I cited above, that offer some insight into what I mean:

“Hey Waylon, I think it is a mistake to combine rape culture education awareness together with the Bikram case….I think you make a mistake to pit a feminist approach against a men’s group approach.”

“Placing the responsibility for preventing rape on women, and placing blame on women for not saying no, however gently, has been around for decades. It hasn’t prevented rape.”

“I fear that the way you approach these issues and this topic is confirming the reasons why women do not come forward….I hope that you can listen to this feedback, watch this video yourself, and start to have more awareness of yourself and these issues.”

“I just found it to be a regurgitation of society’s lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of this issue.”

“The way that you have attacked commenters who have had the courage to speak to the confusing and upsetting tone of this video is disturbing to me.”

“The video is a mass of contradictions and confused thinking about rape/sexual assault. Consensual sex is not sexual assault….Weirdly, despite your entire video lamenting acts of sexual assault, you appear not to know the difference.”

As a survivor of a sexual assault via a visiting male professor during my undergraduate days, I find so much of Waylon's take on these issues painfully ignorant and highly damaging. He's since apologized for producing an "offensive" video, but really, offensiveness is the least of my concerns. If Waylon were just some random yoga blogger dude offering such tropes as go report your concerns to the police and they'll take care of it and "just say no" I'd probably just shake my head and perhaps leave a brief comment with some educational links attached to it. However, for better or worse, Waylon runs a magazine with a fairly large following and has become a public figure of some standing in the American yoga and Buddhist communities. Which frankly is a big problem.

I'm guessing that this post will be dismissed by some in spiritual circles as being "personal," coming from "wrong speech," or lacking compassion. In my opinion, though, staying silent on such issues when you have to opportunity and ability to say something corrective is lacking compassion. Furthermore, as a man who is bone tired of the numerous ways in which patriarchy and colonialism have oppressed, damaged, and destroyed people of all genders, I feel that it's long past time for men to see it as normal to call out the bullshit of other men, and work towards creating a more liberated society for all.

So, Waylon and any other man tempted to defend his take on rape and sexual assault: YOU DON'T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! Please, go educate yourselves. You can find some eyeopening statistics and other information here to start with. I can tell you that I didn't say a word to anyone about my assault for a year and a half. I lived with feelings of guilt, shame and confusion that no one sans other survivors really can fully understand. Men are even less likely than women to report such incidents than women, but overall reporting rates are really low, and attitudes like your own only help to guarantee a continuation of that.

Furthermore, don't - in response to what I just wrote - offer "sorries" to me or other survivors for what we went through. Sorry does nothing to put an end to rape culture and the patriarchy that spawned it. Instead, do your homework and start asking what you can do to change the culture.

And whatever you do, stop putting out videos defending notorious male yoga gurus. Just stop. Bikram is more than well equipped to defend himself as it is. So much that even in the face of piles of damaging evidence, he might go free when the odds are he shouldn't.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

We Are Becoming Strangers to Each Other

The other day, I was on a bus heading to work. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said, "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.

When reflecting on this scene, a few things come to mind. First off, the ways in which simple connecting and interacting with strangers or relative strangers is often sorely lacking in modern urban life. The invasion of technology, as well as multiple generations of people indoctrinated to fear their neighbors, or be suspicious of the actions of those they don’t know, has made something as basic as conversations between strangers a rarity. In addition, the disappearance of public space in many cities has eliminated the majority of opportunities to even have those conversations – to make connections with people who you probably would normally not connect with otherwise.

Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out how little public space is actually left for people to gather together downtown. Not only does the lack of public space lead to more segregated places, but it also creates severe limits on the ability of people to exercise basic rights, such as the right to petition the government and conduct public demonstrations about social issues.

At the same time, remaining public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me. However, since I’d spent the previous half an hour bombarded by the noise of cell phone conversations and music from ipods, I could barely follow what he was saying.

And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or a cigarette. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. As soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, seemingly regardless of background and needs. And I can’t claim to be all that much better. Sometimes, I try to interact or at least smile at people I meet on the street or on the bus. Other times, I avoid eye contact all together, hoping to avoid an expected request that I can’t, or don’t wish to fulfill.

How much of this is a regional, or national theme? I don’t know. It would be interesting to hear other folks’ experiences with these issues. Do you think it’s more difficult to have actual conversations with people in public places? Do you ever strike up conversations with strangers? Do you have any interesting stories related to this topic to share with the rest of us?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yoga Culture and the Biomedical Centric Narrative

Having just completed this long response to a Facebook thread about yoga, the use of pharmaceuticals by yoga teachers, alternative medicine, and the problematic nature of "New Agey" responses to health and wellness issues, I decided it was worthy of a blog post. The original post by a yoga teacher who was shocked to learn of two long time yoga teachers that used meds to treat their depression was, after an apparent fluffy of negative responses, taken down. It was replaced by this apology, while the original piece was responded to by several yoga bloggers, including Matthew Remski and Charlotte Bell. While I appreciate many of the points both Matthew and Charlotte offer, I was struck by what I'd label a biomedical centric quality to their responses. Something that I also found in the discussion that ensued on Matthew's FB page, and which I feel needs to be unpacked in detail to avoid falling into an all too easy "good and evil" binary. Below is my attempt to do a bit of that unpacking.


I've been following this discussion for a few days now, trying to figure out if I should say anything or not. I didn't get to read the original post, so I don't know what kind of claims the author made about pharmaceutical medications or Western bio-medicine in general. One thing I do find curious is - in this depression saturated continent of ours, where medications is a commonplace solution - how the author was "shocked" or even "surprised" that some yoga teachers are using pharmaceuticals to address depression or similar challenges. I honestly don't get the wow factor there.

One tendency I have noticed whenever these discussions about medicine come up is that the power and demands of the biomedical point of view are not often made explicit. For example, there's rarely any direct dialogue about the societal position of biomedicine as orthodox and state sanctioned. And how that positioning allows proponents to dismiss anything else at will without any damage to their credibility or standing. Taking a stand in favor of pharmaceutical intervention has little of the social risk that taking a stand in favor of an energy medicine approach to anxiety or depression does, for example. Or that the same positioning means that the terms of engagement will default to biomedicine's unless deliberate effort is made to question and open space for differing worldviews.

Here, I see many appeals to "experts" and a need for "expertise" and "evidence," without naming the fact that behind this is a demand for whatever is being considered medicine to give deference to biomedicine's criteria for determining validity. That the definition of depression, for example, needs to fall in line with how biomedicine sees it, and/or that any treatments being offered must be backed by scientific "proof," or be explainable using the language and structures of biomedicine. And that anyone who offers some potential treatment option needs to demonstrate a certain level of "competency" - as biomedicine defines competency - or else they'll be lopped off as New Age flakes or charlatans.

Again, I didn't get to read the original post before the author took it down, so I don't know if she made a lot of universalized claims against drug therapies in particular, or solely in favor of alternative approaches. Personally, while I'm not a fan of pharmaceuticals, I think all options should be available for people to choose from. And I wouldn't offer anything with a blanket statement that "THIS IS IT." So, if the author of the original post was operating from that attitude, then I totally get why so many folks reacted so strongly against her post.

At the same time, what I have witnessed over and over again in these kinds of conversations is a tendency for everything to slide under the control of a biomedical narrative. That those who question biomedical interventions are suspect until they prove otherwise. And that "alternative" medical modalities are only valid if at least some of what they offer can be explained or demonstratable under the biomedicine framework.

Along these lines, I actually would argue that the plethora of ill informed yoga folks who knee jerk reject all forms of biomedicine and biomedical approaches, and offer yogic soundbytes and superficial elements of other medicine systems in response to issues like depression are actually a product of this same narrative of inquiry. It takes a lot of effort, strength and persistence to nurture and offer a medicine worldview that isn't biomedicine in this society. Far easier is the path of least resistance, where you know you don't resonate with the dominant model, but make little or no effort to learn and then practice a different one.

Finally, I'm guessing that to some degree or another, the hostility towards folks like the yoga teacher who wrote the original blog isn't really about medicine at all. But about expressed entitlement. Namely, that because person X was at some point anointed a teacher via teaching certificate or some other flimsy method of approval, that they feel "empowered" to "help others" with any problem or issue that arises. That said "yoga teacher" thinks they understand enough to do so, solely or mostly because they've finished some basic course of study, or read a book or whatever. To me, this sense of specialness - that being a yoga teacher means that you have some great level of wisdom and knowledge to "share" - is really the crux of many of the so called controversies in "yoga culture" today.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The spring breeze is our every breath

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

Zen Master Ikkyu, 1394-1481

Many years, we here in Minnesota are still being swallowed up by winter clouds. This year, not so much. All around, the trees are budding. The lingering snow and ice is melting. And the air is filling with the songs of returning birds.

The same might be said of how people experience awakening, enlightenment. Most of the time, it seems to be some thing distant, buried under the snow of our sufferings and attachments. However, it need not be that way. Even in the worst winter storm, there is a spring breeze waiting to be discovered.

Ikkyu stands exactly where he is in this poem. There's not much desire for something to be radically different, just description and acceptance of what is. And also weariness. A weariness that isn't what it seems to be.

The spring breeze that isn't in the relative moment is fully alive in Ikkyu's heart/mind. In the poem, it breathes a love into everything that is, just as it is. And in doing so, he moves beyond being owned by that relative reality.

That weariness isn't of a man who's been beaten down by the world. As I see it, it's of a man who has grown tired of riding the emotional tides of life's endless changes.

Whatever comes, he's ready to embrace it.

I must remember that the budding trees will someday be rotting logs. I also must remember that the rotting logs contain budding trees.

The spring breeze is our every breath.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Diving into Freedom

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte

Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out. Too much waiting for a pole to show up. Not enough just diving, taking the fears and calculations along for the ride.

But that's not the end of the story. Or even the whole story of what was. Liberation comes sometimes through recognizing the gaps in what you believe.

I've been only that scared and calculating little boy. Leaps have been made, small and large. Keep going there. Keep going there. Just like the breath in meditation. That's the path. That's the pool of freedom, ever ready for you to go swimming in.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Notes on the Yoga Industrial Complex

This article came across my blog feed a few days ago. I read it, found myself nodding in places, and also resonating with some points in the comments section. Then I chose to let it sit, and see if it interested me enough to return to. It did, so here we are.

In 2011-12, I completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training, following a good decade of yoga (and Zen) practice. I knew full well upon entering the program that there are too many "yoga teachers," and that the bulk of what passes for yoga in America these days is little more than a glorified exercise routine. However, after a year of witnessing from the inside, I came to the following conclusions:

1. The vast majority of yoga studios are built on models that discourage (by design) the development of a community of practitioners. Individual students might become friends or even "practice buddies," but the only "practice communities" I've ever witnessed in studios (where folks actually study and practice in a group over a sustained period of time)are the temporary ones in yoga teacher training programs.

2. Nearly universally, yoga teachers fall under the category of freelancers who work a series of temporary gigs. (Yes, some of those gigs might last several years if a person's classes keep attracting enough students, but for many, this isn't the case.)

3. Yoga teacher training programs are often more about the greens than about developing great teachers. If you pay the fees and finish the classes, you're awarded a certificate. The depth of your practice, wisdom, and/or actual ability to teach is mostly secondary.

4. Yoga teaching is treated as a "career," which is by definition creating a few problematic frames: a) a transactional sensibility where an expectation of financial gain is present b) a "productivity" sensibility where an expectation is present (amongst students and teachers) that certain goals will be met in short periods of time. (Such as students will learn x number of yoga postures in a given class or series of class, and have some level of achieved performance. Note: this kind of stuff is often not explicit or stated, but more an underlying, sometimes unconscious expectation.)

5. A "successful" yoga teacher under current standards is one that tends to have full classes, and/or classes with enough devoted students that they are both making some income, and also maintaining their "value" to the studio.

6. There's a lot of what I would call "Rugged Individualism" spirituality offered in yoga studios. There's not really a collective anything going on, even though numerous folks enter and exit the doors of a studio in a given day, week, month, year. There's rarely any talk or consideration of how systemic -isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc) impact any given person or group of people's spiritual lives and/or understanding of what it all means (or could mean.)

I offer this as a set of insights I have had since teacher training, which made me feel sympathetic to Jessica's situation in the post I linked to, even though I also agree with comments in the comments section pointing out entitlement and privilege in her words. More than anything, though, I think it's important to recognize that her situation didn't happen in a vacuum. There are numerous collective circumstances that have come together to make it both very difficult for yoga teachers to sustain their teaching (even if they "day jobs"), and also much more likely that whatever is offered as "yoga" will be a mere fraction of what yoga is as a spiritual discipline.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brief Meditation on an Increasingly Deranged Planet

This has been bubbling up for me today. Noticing how warm this January has been, after record cold last January. Thinking about our ancestors. How they looked to the patterns of the natural world for wisdom. And then a knowing that so few of us do this today, followed by a feeling that even if the majority of us return to these patterns, what if what we are picking up is at least partly deranged?

A few weeks ago, I was in Iowa. It was warm there too, and on one of the lakes outside of Des Moines, hundreds (maybe even a few thousand) geese had landed. Were squawking at each other. Circling. Waiting. Whatever they were doing there, it seemed off. Geese usually fly to the border states and Mexico in the winter. They don't winter in Iowa. But given the signals they've been getting, perhaps Iowa felt right the first week of January.

If this is the new normal, we might have to go beyond simply "going back to nature" so to speak. Aligning ourselves with a natural world that is deranged, in large part because of ignorant human activity, isn't going to bring about the healing that we seek. Our attention skills need to be honed to the point that they allow us to witness the deranged, and see through it to the dynamic "homeostasis" behind the curtain. If we seek to build/create in alignment with our ecosystems, we're going to have to learn how it organizes to thrive, rather than simply mimic what is currently present. Like riding the breath in meditation until it settles deep in the heart of the body/mind, so to is the practice of returning to true unity with/in our Earthly home.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The World Inevitably Exposes Our False Identities

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? I have been reflecting on this whole "exposure" process lately. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

I think there is a place for hiding in, for holding on to those identities, those parts of yourself that aren't completely right, integrated, alive.

And yet, at the same time, it's foolish to either stay there very long, or believe that you can stay there very long.

Winter comes to all of our identities, and everything that we do.
And spring brings in what's next.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Continued Exoticization of #Asians and #Buddhism in America: On Brad Warner's CNN Interview About #NYPD Officer Liu's Funeraln

The recent funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu offered, among other things, a clear window into race relations here in the United States. Occurring in the middle of the current police "slow down," the funeral also was used as another opportunity for members of the more conservative wing of the NYPD to protest NYC Mayor DeBlasio's fairly mild reform agenda. With plummeting arrest rates, and no real rise in public safety concerns in New York, the NYPD's actions demonstrate the highly bloated quality of the department. Indeed, some of the very issues being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter protests - the hyper-excessive arrest rates for black and brown folks, the Broken Windows policy, and the general state-sanctioned violence of police forces - are being shown for what they truly are: racist, classist oppression.

Meanwhile, this morning I saw the video above floating around my Facebook feed and I had a moment of "huh," followed by a sigh. The choice by CNN of Zen teacher Brad Warner as the face and voice for Buddhism in the US, and in particular, the one to speak about the rituals at Officer Liu's funeral, speaks volumes.

1. The Asian as perpetual outsider narrative is totally upheld here. Not only does the mainstream media choose a white male to represent Buddhism, but they also cast the funeral of a Chinese-American officer as "exotic" enough to require explaining to their audience.

2. The ignoring of, and/or deliberate suppression of, Asian-American Buddhism narrative is upheld. Numerous Asian-American Buddhist teachers and community leaders could have been selected to do this interview, but they weren't. Furthermore, the robust Chinese-American community as a whole is ignored here, not deemed worthy enough even after several generations on the continent of narrating the story of one of their own.

3. The narrative of celebrity worship. While Brad Warner is barely known outside of Buddhist circles, he's something of a celebrity amongst convert Buddhists. And while Brad's a sincere practitioner and serious student of the dharma, the public persona he's developed, and which his almost cult-like following has propped up, easily comes off as superficial and rebellious in a boyish, teenaged sort of manner.

4. Which serves to uphold the narrative that Buddhism is either trivial or not really something to be taken seriously by the rest of Americans. I have a feeling that Brad's choice to don the robes he rarely uses for this interview was in part coming from an understanding of this issue. He probably knew that the punk rocker turned rebel Zen priest image just wouldn't cut it for national TV news.

Here's the thing. I'm guessing Brad simply responded to the call from CNN and did his best to offer folks watching some insight into Buddhism. I think he did pretty good actually of giving some Buddhist basics in a forum that's horribly prone to superficial sound bytes. In fact, he sounded heartfelt and caring as well, something that often gets downplayed or erased in these interviews. So, understand that this post isn't about bashing Brad; it's about the complexities of systemic racism, and also the dynamics behind marginalizing minority religions and spiritual traditions in a still overwhelmingly Christian nation.

Your thoughts?