Friday, September 30, 2011

Abandoning Laziness

We can never be sure how long we will be in the bardo of the living. No one can say. When and where we will die is always uncertain. It is completely unpredictable. No matter how rich or clever you are, you can never know how much longer you have to live. Since we're not sure how long this life will last, Guru Padmasambhava advises us to abandon laziness.

Now is the time to increase appreciation and gratitude for our life situation, to arouse ourselves and make a joyful effort to realize great results. We should develop confidence in our way and be happy in our endeavors. Don't just assume that you are worthless and incapable. Don't let this opportunity slip by and have cause for regret. Learn to work effectively, happily, and with commitment.

Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
from a commentary on Zhi-Khro

I love the energy of these two paragraphs. The bold, joyful, and resolute sense about it. No hesitation. No wasted words trying to mitigate worries or possible offenses.

Even though I have done a lot with my life already, and have a long resume filled with "good works," I sometimes struggle with laziness.

When laziness is considered as a form of unneeded delay, then I see it as a frequent "friend" hanging about this house of my life. Unneeded delay can appear in almost any form. It might look like the stereotypical forms. The lounging about. The not doing anything. The putting in no effort. I'm that person sometimes. For many of these days, though, it might be in the form of busy, of doing something called work, or even of doing spiritual practices, if they are done to avoid something else. I'm that person sometimes as well.

Noticing this is helpful in my opinion. Noticing without berating yourself. And yet also noticing without going too soft on yourself.

A lot of modern spiritual teachings stop at the not berating yourself, which I think is a mistake. Because our world is so full of distractions now that a person can learn to drop off the inner judgment, but still get lost amongst the tide of non-essentials coming their way.

Zen folks like to talk about discipline, but I don't think that's quite it. Commitment, with joy, seems more true to my ears. May we all tap into this along our various paths.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feeding the "Me" Beast: Yoga and Body Harming

In an engaging post over at the ID project blog, yoga teacher J. Brown writes the following:

I remember a particular occasion when I was teaching one of my trademark power vinyasa classes. I was barking out my well prepared sequence and, instead of my usual attention to everyone’s alignment, I happened to be noticing the facial expressions of the people in my class.

They looked miserable. They were filled with struggle and strain, just doing their best to get through and not enjoying themselves much in the process. There was a distinct lack of joy.

Afterwards, several students came up to thank me and tell me how great the class was. It made me feel uncomfortable. Walking home, I kept thinking: “What am I doing?”

Fact is, I was proficient in the practice I was teaching but it was not really helping me feel well. I had a lot of chronic pain that I rarely admitted to, even to myself. I was convinced it meant “opening.” Shortly thereafter, I blew my knee out doing Baddhakonasana with a belt and an assist. For all my diligent studies and abilities, super yogi couldn’t walk.

Around that same time, a friend of mine attended a large yoga event in NYC with a venerable teacher, considered to be a living “master.” She was one of a very small percentage of the 600 participants to have the guru assist her in one of her poses, only to have her hamstring connector popped at his forceful hand. I remember seeing her several days later, she was still in considerable pain.

Experiences like this have often left me feeling horribly disenchanted with the yoga community. The issue of overly forceful assists aside, how can yoga teachers who espouse ahimsa not be held accountable for harm done under their auspices?

These are great examples of what happens when, in my opinion, achievement driven Americans are lead by more achievement driven Americans. Or teachers from other nations who go along with that achievement drive. As I have begun to do short bits of teaching yoga classes, and have had more extensive conversations with a few mentors and classmates, the issues around ahimsa (non-violence) to the body have become very bright for me. And I can't help but see the link between our consumer culture and the kinds of power yoga classes where people blow out knees, feel no joy, and are generally disconnected from their body, mind, and "spirit."

Instead of learning to incorporate the depth of yogic teachings and practices that undermine the desire to achieve, and to do things "perfectly," many teachers and studios choose (sometimes unconsciously) to run classes and programs that end up feeding the "me" beast. Obviously, some of this has to do with the plethora of poorly training teachers who barely had been practicing before they got the missionary yoga bug. And some of it is the insidiousness of capitalism worming its way too deeply into the decisions people make around structuring their classes and yoga organizations. But lately, I think this really stems back to that disconnect from the mind/body, from our buddha-nature if you will.

This disconnect or separation manifests individually and collectively, and thus for most of us, it takes both individual practice and collective practice to reconnect. Collective practice with the intention to reconnect, to see through the separation narratives that keep us from feeling the pulsing heart, the moving blood, the energy flowing through us moment after moment. It's not enough to just practice together, because if the majority of folks are just plugging into "disconnected narratives," then that's what will mostly be what comes out.

The body is a vehicle for enlightenment, but it also contains for us all the gunk we've collected over the years that runs counter to awakening. We often "move on" from the trauma of the past intellectually, only to discover months or years later a dull ache or nagging tension in the body that just won't go away. This is disconnect manifest on an individual level.

Entire communities can manifest this energetically, as J. Brown's class above demonstrated. Believing in a "no pain, no gain" kind of motto, class after class, he and his students chased after some elusive goal they thought could only be achieved by powering through and overriding every last signal their bodies were giving.

I've seen this in Zen communities as well, where students have "powered" themselves to sit endless hours of zazen, to the point where their minds are burned out from lack of sleep, and their bodies are riddled with chronic aches, pains, and injuries. In both Zen and yoga, there are teachings about building enough heat to burn through the mental blockages that keep us disconnected from our selves. And yet, I have come to believe that humans have struggled throughout history to find a balance between heat building and relaxing/nurturing. I frequently ponder the Buddha's breakdown after years of austere practices, and the simple, but very powerful return he made into what I would call balance. Just the simple acts of eating and drinking, of taking basic care of the body, that appear in the old Buddhist texts are reminders that racing towards enlightenment, or some other goal, isn't what this work is about.

It's fascinating to me to see that yoga's expression here in the U.S. has been so imbalanced towards the physical postures, and yet at the same time, there is such obvious disconnections between many practitioners and their own bodies. The right treatments are there, but it seems that the prescription too often has been written wrong, or illegible.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On the Death of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, died on Sunday night of cancer. She was 71.

A towering figure in Kenya, Maathai was renowned as a fearless social activist and an environmental crusader. Her Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, planted tens of millions of trees.

Maathai's death was confirmed in a statement on the movement's website.

"It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25 September 2011, at the Nairobi hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time."

I first read about this amazing woman's work maybe 10-12 years ago. She was not only a heroic figure in her native Kenya, but an inspiration to millions around the world. She was one of those unique people who was able to truly blend human rights efforts with environmental justice, to see the interconnectedness of it all.

Furthermore, she minced no words when it came to critiquing globalized capitalism, the great disparities between the "global north" and "global south," and also the ways in which those disparities lead to increased damage of the planet.

“We are very fond of blaming the poor for destroying the environment. But often it is the powerful, including governments, that are responsible.”

"The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs."

Personally, though, I found most attractive her ability to blend the social/political with the spiritual in a way that wasn't oppressive and demanding. Simple statements, like the following one, appear frequently in interviews with her, and her writings. And although the language is different from what I might use, I feel a resonance with what she says.

“All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.”

Blessings to Wangari for being who she was. May she continue to inspire for generations to come.

Thank You

Just wanted to send a thank you out to the reader who recently sent me a donation, supporting Dangerous Harvests. Given my lack of stable income currently, I feel especially grateful. Many bows. Nathan

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Summer Passing

Nothing remains
Of the house that I was born in--

Santoka, 1882-1940

*For more on the photo, go here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Buddhist Relationships - A Few Comments on Attachment

I received an interesting question from a reader, and thought I'd share my answer here.

How does one enter into and maintain a relationship without forming attachments? It's just one of the concepts of Buddhism that just don't seem to fit for me personally, either because I consider attachments to be very important for me, or it could just be that I misunderstand that particular concept. What are your thoughts?

This is the answer I wrote back to her.

I think there are a few ways to look at attachment when it comes to Buddhism. Part of the challenge is that many of the teachers and teachings that were brought to the U.S. were from monastic-based Buddhist practice, where renunciation and celibacy are centralized. Which causes some trouble for most of us who are living "regular" lives "in the world."

The Buddha, though, actually taught different teachings and practices geared towards monastics, and others toward lay folks. And since the Buddha's time, plenty of additional teachings and even entire schools of Buddhism have been focused on supporting lay folks.

When it comes to relationships, the way I understand it is that loving y partner, or children, or parents, etc. is intimately tied to letting go of your stories about who that person is or isn't, and learning how to be completely with them everyday as they are. I also believe it's learning how to loosen up the grip you might have around any expectations - about your partner, yourself, and the relationship itself.

Now, that doesn't mean that anything goes, but more that you do your best to drop off any behaviors or thought patterns that are overly needy or controlling, and learn to do or say what you need to without attachment to specific results.

In addition to this, I wrote a post in May about sexual desire that takes up attachment from a different angle.

If anyone has any additional thoughts, or if you have a completely different view, feel free to leave a comment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Troy Davis Case as an Example of the Complete Failure of the Death Penalty

On Wednesday, the state of Georgia will execute Troy Davis for the 1989 murder of police office Mark MacPhail. Since Davis was convicted in 1991, 7 of the prosecution’s 9 witnesses have recanted their statements, and have repeatedly given testimony to courts and to the media that their testimony was coerced. Additional witnesses have come forward implicating Sylvester “Redd” Coles, another person at the scene for the murder. Not only did Coles brag to others about the crime, but he was the first to finger Troy Davis for the murder. Three of the original jurors have also come forward with signed affidavits which indicate that they would not have voted for Troy Davis’ guilt had they known then what they know now. Finally, there is no physical evidence of any sort linking Davis to the crime.

I have never supported the death penalty. It's an archaic form of punishment that neither does what supporters argue it does (i.e. deter others from committing similar crimes), nor is it in any shape or form compassionate. I can imagine there's plenty of disagreement on this, even amongst Buddhists and yoga practitioners - but I believe that the continued use of the death penalty here in the U.S. is a travesty. And yet another way in which we don't come anywhere near the image of the "great nation and world leader" so many Americans believe in.

Furthermore, there are all sorts of highly problematic race issues with the way the death penalty is executed here. Consider that the vast majority of people on death row are there for killing white folks. And while African-Americans are approximately 12.5% of the U.S. population, they make up 35% of the executions since 1976. In my opinion, this is one of the not so hidden examples of the lingering legacy of the Jim Crow era.

As a Buddhist and yogi, I also find that the death penalty is built around a notion of fixed personalities. It suggests that once a person has committed a serious crime, such as murder, they are forever a murderer. That they cannot change. Something I think is absolute nonsense.

It's completely true that some folks probably will never be able to turn themselves around enough to return to "regular society." In states where the death penalty is off the table, inmates who committed horrific crimes often live the rest of their lives out behind bars. However, they still get the chance to wake up to the damage they've done. To see through the delusions that led them down a path of misery and hell making. To witness something much deeper than themselves as they were in the past.

The death penalty takes that opportunity away. And is, for those who are cost conscious, more expensive for taxpayers in the process. In my opinion, it's a failure all around, and needs to disappear.

Although the current news out of Georgia isn't good, if you want to call and express your support for Davis, or sign the petition, see info below.

To get involved, contact:
Gov. Deal of Georgia: 404-656-1776
State Board of Pardons and Paroles: 404-656-5651

Sign Amnesty International’s petition.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Spiritual Libertarians"

Our entire society, in the words of Generation X, has become very DIY. Do-it-yourself. The interesting thing about this term is that it started as an anti-consumerist phrase but it actually means you get to consume in the way you want. So there seems to be a strand of dharma, a huge strand of dharma, where we all want to become spiritual libertarians. We want to do the teachings in the way we do them. My teacher a lot of times says if you’re going to ask a teacher for advice you should actually do what they say. Chances are they’re going to tell you to do something you didn’t want to do in some small way. That’s what doing something good for you is, right? You have to do something that’s outside of the framework of your habitual apparatus, which means it doesn’t feel immediately good.

So I always think of this conundrum of our DIY consumerist culture, especially in the United States of America which is possibly the most libertarian society on Earth today in terms of freedom is that we all really proclaim our individual freedoms. And the way we express this freedom is by doing whatever everyone else is doing. So we don’t really want to submit ourselves to a community, which is the sangha, or a teacher, which is the Buddha principle, that’s beyond our ability to control what feels good in the present moment. And this is one of the big dangers of the superficiality. And I don’t mean superficiality in a bad way. I mean in the surface way of internet dharma, of podcast dharma, and Wikipedia dharma.

The above is a quote from Ethan Nichtern, from a talk he delivered at the recent Buddhist Geeks conference. Laying aside for now the various issues people had with that conference, I want to consider what Nichtern is speaking about.

During the first year and a half of the existence of this blog, I wrote a lot about what seemed to be an emerging "online Buddhist sangha." Numerous other blogs also took up the idea of a virtual sangha, considering the various pros and cons to such a "thing." It was, in other words, a pretty hot topic. The big three North American Buddhist mags expanded their online presence during this time, while also stirring up some controversy in the process, most notably Tricycle, with it's infamous "Dharma Wars" article.

Needless to say, things have appeared - at least to me - to have died down around the idea of "virtual sanghas" and "online Buddhism." Perhaps this is because it's become a bit more normalized, something that exists in an ever-changing form, but which amongst a swath of practitioners and dabblers anyway, is basically a given. Or perhaps, in some ways, the current limits of "going virtual" have been hit, thus limiting the amount of interest in such discussions. Perhaps enough disappointments have been had around the fickleness of the online world to have tempered the enthusiasm and nearly missionary zeal with which some folks once pushed the potential of "online practice." In any event, it just doesn't seem to be as "hot" of an issue as it once was.

Let's consider, though, Nichtern's term "spiritual libertarian" a little closer. I think he's on to something with it. However, I would actually argue that it's almost as easy to find this kind of attitude within "brick and mortar" Buddhist sanghas as it is to find online. Plenty of folks attend services, take classes, and do other forms of practice in sanghas without really doing anything else to demonstrate either a sense of responsibility to the sangha, or a willingness to let go of personal preferences.

I, myself, feel like a hybrid - having an independent streak around Zen practice (including frequent experimenting with forms and incorporating yoga), but also a long standing devotion and service to my home sangha. Although I sometimes question that "libertarian" streak, I have to say that I really can't imagine what my life and practice would be like without that devotion and service to the sangha. Especially over the past few years, as our sangha's head of the board of directors, I have had to let go of personal preferences, check the ego at the door, and develop a trust in dependent co-arising over and over again. Something I'm really not sure would have been possible if I had chosen a mostly DIY approach to practice.

In the meantime, I have noticed how difficult it seems to be to establish and maintain something resembling sangha online. Discussion boards wax and wane weekly. Niche communities have come and gone. Google+ is, it seems, a hot box currently - but for how long? The speed of innovation seems to add to the rootlessness that occurs online. Leaping to the hot new program or digital space is often given a priority over maintaining some kind of consistent community where people are currently at.

Treeleaf sangha seems to have had some success at keeping people around, and developing some sense of community amongst people scattered across the globe. However, I can imagine that even they would have something to say about the challenges and limitations of the online Buddhist world.

None of this is to say that the "project" of online practice and/or online sangha is a waste of time. I wouldn't be writing on here if I thought it was. Furthermore, I believe that Zen practice calls each of us to develop a certain kind of independence, but unlike the American notions, it's an independence tucked within interdependence. It's relational in other words, and requires a dance between form and emptiness, between loyalty to a larger sangha of "excellent friends" and an independence to fully discover/uncover yourself.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Yoga, Privilege, and Academia

People sometimes wonder how someone with the level of education I have has such an ambivalent relationship with/towards academia. Well, the following discussion demonstrates some of the reasons why.

Doctoral student Christie Barcelos posted this really interesting article on issues of exclusion in American yoga. If you read it, it's obvious that she has had first hand experience of feeling "out of place" in yoga classes. Unfortunately, you might say, her decision to primarily focus on how the covers of Yoga Journal might represent issues of classism, racism, and heterosexism might lend itself to easy criticism from folks who require a broader sense of proof that such things are actually occurring.

Here is a set of exchanges between myself and a research sociologist. Forgive the length. I believe it's worth reading in full.

Richard Hudak 19 hours ago

Yet the feature article of one recent issue of Yoga Journal was devoted to women's leadership. Has the practice become feminized in the West because alternatives are constrained? Does yoga offer women a place to distinguish themselves? Do we denigrate the vocation of K-12 teaching because it is feminized? Why denigrate a space where women do excel and are leaders? Are we really critiquing the cultural context in which Yoga Journal must have mass appeal for its growing audience?

Why focus on covers? What about content? Do we need to look beneath the surface? Do we need to look deeper than description to explanation?

There are all kinds of practitioners: some practice only at home, and others take classes with varying frequencies. There are all kinds of styles. Some are more conducive to a diversity of students and abilities than others.

Looking more deeply into yoga philosophy we realize the religious underpinnings do exhibit greater tolerance for LGBT than other religions. One need look no further than the tale of Ila, recounted in several places and in several ways, for a transgender hero. More generally, in some traditions, in the realm of the sacred, the feminine principle is the active one (Parvati) and the masculine is more passive (Shiva).

Yoga for the People attempts to offer bare bones, style-agnostic, fashion-simple and sliding scale classes for the masses.

I match neither the sex nor income most of the people described by the market survey, though admittedly I match them on education. I have always found my way, particularly in a style that is at once uniquely American and ancient. The benefits to my well-being have overcome what might otherwise be obstacles to my participation. I think we need to look underneath the magazine covers.

Nathan 17 hours ago in reply to Richard Hudak

I write about classism, racism, and heterosexism in American Zen and yoga communities on my blog. http://dangerousharvests.blogs...

Although some of the points you make are very valid, including the diversity of kinds of yoga practices going on out there, it's still the case that race, class, gender and sexuality are major markers in American yoga. Finding something like the tale of Ila isn't terribly easy for a newcomer, and I can't recall in all my years of classes ever hearing a teacher or student bring it up. Furthermore, when you consider not only the average studio class, but also DVDs, magazines like Yoga Journal, books, etc., the predominant intended audience is middle and upper class, heterosexual, and probably white. It's not just access that is an issue. It's also how yoga practice is presented, and the kinds of things that are, and aren't discussed. For example, how often do you hear yoga teachers speak about ways to practice with the difficulties of facing racism, sexism, or other oppressions?

The many yoga traditions are quite expansive enough to handle such issues, and support people in facing them head on, but that has to be done in a more direct manner in my opinion. Just talking about bliss and happiness doesn't cut it.
1 person liked this.

Richard Hudak 16 hours ago in reply to Nathan

I think what's necessary is some decent naturalistic inquiry, that is, fieldwork and intensive interviewing, to understand the lived experience of practitioners. I don't think we can just slap together a marketing survey and some Yoga Journal covers and make a blanket statement about Yoga's exclusivity. I think the fact that it is trendy (again) makes it an easy target for this kind of critique.

Stefanie Syman's "The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America" (2010) demonstrates how particular characteristics of yoga on these shores have waxed and waned over time. Currently there seems to be an alignment between the current constellation of characteristics and the post-industrial values identified by Inglehart (e.g., quality of life). Nothing about yoga precludes the articulation of other post-industrial values (e.g, status of women).

I think there have been movements of personal change which have prevented the articulation of private troubles as public issues. I have argued that this was true of 1980s-era Twelve Step movements for "adult children of alcoholics." While I would put a finer point on it than this, in the interests of time suffice it to say I don't find yoga's narratives of personal change to be as rigid.

Nathan 1 hour ago in reply to Richard Hudak

You know, I agree with you that just focusing on something like Yoga Journal isn't going to get at what's happening on the ground. Furthermore, I already said that yoga is expansive enough to address the kinds of issues I pointed to above.

However, I'm speaking from personal experience, experiences shared with me by friends and others who know I'm into yoga, and also numerous experiences that have been shared on blog posts about attending classes by men, women of color, poor people, and sexual minorities. And while the author of the post here used Yoga Journal as a prime indicator, what I'm saying is that her conclusions seems pretty damn accurate from what I have experienced and heard others experience.

Richard Hudak 1 hour ago in reply to Nathan

And therein lies the problem. I have personal experiences of yoga, too, but as this is a sociology blog, and I am also a sociologist, it is not enough for me to say that this post lacks experiential commensurability.

Nathan 0 minutes ago in reply to Richard Hudak

That's a fair criticism, however I'm not sure how to receive it. I struggle with finding the right balance with these kinds of issues because on the one hand, making blanket statements with little evidence or only a few personal examples is greatly problematic, but on the other hand, requiring massive research studies that demonstrate some kind of broad trends is also questionable. Maybe such work could get funded, and maybe not so much. However, beyond that, there's a long legacy amongst privileged folks of demanding nearly impossible amounts of "proof" of bias and/or prejudice from those who are or say they are oppressed - often doing so knowing full well that the work required to obtain that proof will take a hell of a lot of time, money, and/or resources that may or may not be available. I see it as a stall tactic at best, and as a part of maintaining the status quo power structure at worst.

I'm aware that you probably disagree with me, or perhaps that my examples and those of others, including the author, don't constitute enough for you and other probably to agree with any statements we are making. That's fine. I'm not in a position to do the kind of research and fieldwork necessary to support my statements in the way that sociologists might desire. Neither are most of the yoga practitioners who are experiencing the kinds of issues we're talking about. Therein, for me, lies one of the major issues. Unless someone who is linked to a large, well funded organization or set of organizations chooses to conduct this kind of research, it's probably not going to happen. And even if it does happen, it still can be ignored and dismissed.

*Post-script - I'll be honest. Over the years, I have grown more and more weary of what I call the "academic gaze." Specifically, the myriad of ways in which well educated people distance themselves from everyday realities, even the very realities they claim to be spending their lives studying. Not only does this kind of distancing tend to reinforce status quo power structures, as I spoke of above, but it also tends to reinforce distancing itself as a process. Standing back and getting some sort of "objective" view to make claims about the truths of the world is elevated above everything else, something I can't swallow anymore, if I ever did.

What I also find totally fascinating is how those academics who choose to blend personal and anecdotal experiences within their research, writings, and studies that also use more broad-based scientific practices are often deemed tainted or invalid. In fact, personal and anecdotal experience itself is often rejected as a form of analysis and critique, even though sometimes it's the main form of information currently available. Or perhaps is the only form of information that's really possible to gather, at least as of now.

There's much more I could say here, but I'll stop for now, and allow for others to chime in.

*Photo is from the blog Radical Montreal, which describes itself as "Rejecting capitalism and overconsumption with DIY lifestyle. Connecting community and activism. Living cheaply and eating well. Challenging preconceptions and social norms and having fun. Radical events and living in Montreal, Canada."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"That's So Zen"

It kind of amazes me how commonplace the phrase "that's so Zen" has become. Even people who believe Buddhism is the devil's work seem to be saying it these days. Of course, when people say such a thing, they're basically speaking about some kind of ease, flow, or blissed out state. And I always feel like those saying it have some vague, hazy memory of pot smoking or some other drug trip in mind.

Anyway, after a day full of little hassles and basically being impatient, my computer shut down last night for a short time, and I threw a cussing fit in my apartment. Nothing serious. Just a string of F-enheimers and a few bitter thoughts about various subjects that had been floating around in my mind.

However, after calming down, and getting the computer back on track, I thought "this is Zen too, people!" As I write that, I snicker at the attachment to "what Zen is" coming forth from such a statement. It really doesn't matter in the end if millions of people think Zen is akin to the feeling they had sitting in some dude's basement back in college. Obviously, there's a place for those of us who practice to speak out about such nonsense. That work is valid. But again, in the end, it's not that big of a deal.

However, one thing that did strike me last night is how easy it is to slide into shame around anger and other intense, "negative" expressions. How the line "you're not much of a Zen student, are you?" crossed my mind during that outburst, hoping I'd hook onto it. Which maybe I did shortly, but it's taste just bores me these days, so whatever snacking I did on it was very short lived.

Even though us Zennies laugh at, or get frustrated with, pop culture takes on what we are about, we have our own versions of "that's so Zen." And to the degree we believe in them, and let them hook us, we're that much further away from liberation's door.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Witnessing Death

I was biking downhill into our downtown yesterday, on my way to pick up a book about Dogen from another member of our sangha, when I saw something odd out of the corner of my eye. As I slowed down, I watched as a pigeon jerked and then plunged to the street below. Stunned, I stopped and continued to stare for a moment as it flopped around in the middle of the passing traffic.

The cars began to thin, and I felt myself lean towards the street, contemplating a rescue. However, there was never quite an opening to run out to the bird, and anyway, it wasn't long before the flopping stopped, along with any other movement. Still, I waited. Maybe it's trying to protect itself, I thought. Somehow, the cars kept missing it, even though I doubt they all were paying that close of attention to the road.

After another few minutes of stillness, I realized that I had just witnessed the pigeon's death. There had been nothing else, really, that I could have done in that moment.

Pigeons are common birds. Probably overpopulated in many urban areas like ours. They are equal parts hated and ignored, with a dash of caring coming from mostly children who still have a curiosity about all living creatures, and who enjoy offering bread crumbs in city parks and along the river shore.

And yet, even a pigeon deserves our love and compassion. Even a pigeon can teach us to pay attention to the preciousness of our lives.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Disintegration of Clarity

When one's character begins to fall under suspicion and disfavor, how swift, then, is the work of disintegration and destruction.

Mark Twain

I really like this quote, although I would maybe replace "character" with mind, or something along those lines, since character implies something a little too fixed or at least continuous for my taste. Anyway, it's petty easy to see how, when your mind is covered over by worry, suspicion, or any other powerful emotion or story - there's definitely a disintegration that occurs. Not only don't you see things as they are, but you also tend to see things that actually aren't. In other words, your clarity into life as it is right now disintegrates.

Consider worry, and it's attendants over-thinking, over-doing, and over-planning. At their roots is really a failure to have trust in the ok-ness of the present moment. That no matter what, at some level, everything is truly ok just as it is. Which is not about having some naive, rosy view of life, nor about letting destructive words and actions go unchecked. It is about the bone deep recognition of the sacredness of all beings - of the buddha-nature being expressed continuously, everywhere.

So, I've been working with all of this recently. Noticing the appearance of anxiety and worry about a few specific issues in my life. Mostly related to, ironically, my zen center and my yoga practice as it is and might be in the future. Feeling the bubbling up of tension in my chest and stomach. The rising stories that want to spin out and sometimes do. Remembering to return to the breath, stopping and doing a few yoga poses, or calling up the Jizo mantra - an old friend in practice. Experiencing the fading tension and noise in the mind. Moving on.

Kind of amazing to think of how much "internal drama" must be going on in this world full of people we live in.

* Image is of Salvador Dali's "The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On Dogen's "Death Poem"

Fifty-four years lighting up the sky.
A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds.
Entire body looks for nothing.
Living, I plunge into Yellow Springs.

Zen Master Dogen, (1200-1253)

Four of us from zen center got together yesterday to start a little Dogen study group. It's funny how life flips about. Several months ago (can't recall quite when), I wrote a few posts questioning the "obsession" many Zennies have for Dogen's writing, and now I'm gonna focus on his work again. Actually, it seems like ever since I wrote those posts, he's been appearing in readings and conversations, sometimes in the oddest ways. For example, I recall lying in corpse pose during a yoga class awhile back, and hearing the teacher recite one of Dogen's poems for us to reflect on. There was this interesting moment of spiritual convergence there, which sort of sealed the yoga teacher training deal for me.

Anyway, I continue to stand by the sentiment expressed during those posts that people need to be willing to question Dogen, to not think the guy was somehow infallible. Last night, for example, I read the first lines of one of the talks in the Shobogenzo-Zuimonki, which basically said that monastics are light years ahead of lay practitioners. Gag! There's a pretty heavy monastic bias in many of these little talks, probably in part due to the fact that they were given during the early years of his monastic leadership.

But when you read Dogen's death poem, cited at the beginning of this post, all separation is dropped away. Even life and death itself. What's amazing to me about this poem is how direct, energetic, and even fierce it is, given that it's the writing of a man about to die. He's going into death as if life and death are one continuous experience.

During our little study group, one of the things we talked about was experiencing fully through the body itself. How so often, we remain in our heads, failing to let life run through us. Even as longtime Zen students.

And when you take in Dogen's poem, it's seems to me that he's fully there, even as the physical body is falling apart, on it's way back into the earth from which it came from.

There's an aliveness to this little poem that feels totally calm and at peace all the same. That somehow energetic fierceness can be expressed completely without being tipped over in the process. I find this very attractive.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Zen of Desire

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

I have been thinking this morning about delay. Specifically, how delay is felt, experienced, and the desire behind it. When things don't come to us when we want them to, or expected them to, we call it a delay. We say we are in waiting, putting labels on this particular bracket of experience.

But what is it, really? How is it that yesterday was "on-time," but today is "a delay"?

Nothing changed. And everything changed. But regardless, the shift from on-time to delay is all about the quality of desire. Something was desired to occur at a certain time. It didn't. And now the quality of desire has shifted.

Although it may not have been the case, in Ikkyu's poem, I sense a bit of longing for spring. Both the literal spring and, also, the spring of waking up to some part of his life he continues to miss. When winter was full on, it probably seemed pointless to desire spring. Maybe there was a slow burning wanting, the kind that keeps people warm enough, and keeps us returning to meditation, self-reflection, and studying of sacred texts. But when the winds are so cold that they burn your cheeks, something like spring, the unfolding of a new chapter in your life, or enlightenment - all that seems really far off.

However, when it appears to be closer, when the buds have popped out on the trees all around you, the quality of longing changes. It intensifies really. Sometimes a hell of a lot.

One of the paradoxes of Zen practice as I see it is that we rely on desire and we let it go, cut it off even. It's the juice that brings us through and also that which holds us back from waking up completely.

Delay is nothing but the quality of desire changing.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mindful Community Building

What we let fear do to us. The list is endless, isn't it? Petteri has an excellent post on the topic, of which I'd like to take up the following:

I read a bit of news reporting a few months ago where they had interviewed three people, one born in the 1950's, one in the 1970's, and one in the 1990's, in a certain part of Helsinki. They'd asked them to map out the physical territory they roamed as children below the age of 12. The 1950's kid was all over the place, shooting rats at the harbor with a BB gun, climbing the rocky vacant lots in Kallio, getting into scraps with the kids from the neighboring neighborhood, taking long walks to Seurasaari, and so on. The 1970's kid's map covered the general quarter of the town pretty well, but had none of the 1950's kid's expeditions. The 1990's kid went to school, some friends houses nearby, and was driven by his parents to do sports and other hobbies. His map had a few disconnected spots on it.

It's really similar here in the States. And there are many reasons behind this shift. A heavy emphasis on the privatized, nuclear family model as the "best" way to raise children. A huge increase in reporting about child abductions and like situations, to the point where people think there's a bad guy lurking behind every tree, waiting to take their kids. Another factor is the increased reliance on cars and other motor vehicles, to the point where our towns and cities are constructed to compliment motor vehicles, and often at the expense of safe places to play, bike, and recreate.

Petteri goes on to say that while Helsinki is a safer city now than it was in the 1950's, people live as if the opposite were true. Which is something I've seen here as well.

And like Petteri, I also feel that there are various fears underlying these attitudes, some maybe legitimate, but also some completely concocted and reinforced socially.

However, I can't help but think about, for example, the ways in which how we choose to structure communities impacts our heart/minds. Or how we choose to group ourselves, such as our family structures, and how that also impacts our heart/minds.

Actually, when I read Petteri's post, the first thing that came to mind is something I have thought about off and on for years.

How do we mindfully build communities? How can we shift both physical and social structures in order to live together in a more awakened way?

Because having more and more people living in securitized, suburban-styled places where the only safe way to move in and out is by car is a recipe for disaster. And while there are signs of different models of community development gaining traction, it's amazing how much fuss putting a single bike lane on a city street causes, or how much resistance there is to efforts to create a park out of a stretch of a shoddy freeway access road (both things I've seen here in St. Paul, Minnesota). Because so many people have structured their lives around driving quickly between various points, that still seems to trump nearly everything else, even in this age of higher gas prices and assumptions that the oil age is slowly (or even quickly) on it's way out.

Over the years, I have watched the planning processes unfold for a series of inner city bike trails, for a light-rail train network, and for creating more "green space" within our two cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul). And while some great strides have been made, I have noticed that even the planners are at odds with themselves. On the one hand, sharing the visions they have for what probably would be a healthier, more integrated community, and on the other hand, saying and doing anything and everything to appeased the pissed off people that show up complaining about reduced speed limits, reduced car parking, and any general loss of ease in getting around quickly.

And yet, as someone who has never been a car driver, I look at wonder when people claim to "know their community." How can you truly know your community when you spend the majority of your time whizzing through it in a plastic and metal bubble? When you don't even know your neighbor's name?

Again, I know this doesn't describe everyone. I can even think of counter-examples in my own community here, like the highly connected block where my mother lives. I also think of all the community gardens that have sprung up in the past decade, sometimes bringing together large parts of entire neighborhoods. However, these examples haven't really translated for the most part into how we collectively handle the larger communities we live in. Big business, the whims of building contractors, and car-centric design still rule most of the day, even in fairly progressive places. It's like there are these little enclaves tucked away here and there within a sea of people living in the same space, but sharing little if anything else.

Which just leads me back to the question: how do we mindfully build communities?