Friday, May 31, 2013

Buddhas Springing Forth

It's been quite busy around here lately. A few weeks ago, I had a book reading for 21st Century Yoga at a cool, local co-operative bookstore Boneshaker Books. The room was full and the conversation buzzing. Lots of discussion about mind/body separations in practice, the ways in which capitalism/colonialism have compartmentalized our lives, and the dangers of romanticizing cultures that are more collective in nature.

I have been working on a new website, and hope to get it up in the next week or so. It's been a bit of a learning process for me, and whatever I release into the world will be an in progress rough draft. I would love to hire a web designer to create a logo and develop a more interactive, dynamic website in the future. For now, though, I have to rely on my own skills and trial and error. A good practice for me in terms of letting go of outcomes and perfection narratives.

Last month, I was hired to teach a weekly meditation class at my old yoga studio, St. Paul Yoga Center. Of all the places I've taken yoga classes over the years, I most feel at home there. The vibe is grounded. The teachers are talented and focused on the practice and teachings. Tomorrow morning, my class begins. I'm calling it the Heart of Meditation, and here's the class description:

Come explore the ancient practice of meditation with us! It’s open to anyone interested in practicing meditation, and is a natural extension for yoga asana students. Each class features a short talk, group discussion, and a period of meditation. We work with a variety of approaches, and study teachings from both yogic and Buddhist traditions. Kindness to the self, and uncovering and living our truths are the guiding principles for our time together. Begin your meditation practice, or rejuvenate your existing one.

There are a few more things in the works that you'll probably hear about soon. Spring has sprung around here! Hope all is well with you, dear readers.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Earth Zen

*Image is from Sibley State Park in western Minnesota.

I've written plenty about war over the years, so today I'm offering my post from last May 27th, which includes the audio from a dharma talk I gave at zen center. And for anyone interested in the actual history of Memorial Day, please read this excellent article.


This morning, I gave my first Sunday morning talk at my home sangha, Clouds in Water Zen Center. When I was asked about six weeks ago if I'd consider speaking, it didn't take long for me to answer. The time felt right to step forth and offer something to the community. Of course, I have been heavily involved in other aspects of the sangha, including board leadership for half a decade now. But offering a teaching from what you have learned, however small an offering, is something different. And a humbling experience, if you have right relationship with it.

I chose too focus on the Earth. How the Buddha's story and so many of the teachings are all inclusive, endlessly reminding us to move past our human-centric obsessions. Buddha's awakening experience is entirely located in nature, his enlightenment confirmed and upheld by Earth itself. Modern Buddhism, especially convert practice, tends to de-emphasize the Earth and its creatures. In that way, although we are going against the grain by slowing down, listening deeply, and learning to let go of our numerous attachments, there's also an element of going along with the dominant culture as well. Namely, in echoing that cut off sense when it comes to our intimate relationship with the planet.

You can listen to and download the talk here.

I would like to add a few points that came out during the discussion following the talk. Multiple people spoke of their relationship to the media, and how important it has been for them to reduce or watch their intake of news. That sometimes, adding more stories about the awfulness present in the world is basically poisoning yourself. Creating an internal flood of overwhelm that destroys any ability to make changes and act beneficially.

Another issue that came up was how to practice meditation outside. One member said she sometimes gets distracted when sitting outside. I offered that it's always good to experiment with different approaches. Our head teacher suggested she try to open all of her sense gates. To just experience taking in everything through her eyes, ears, nose, etc. And I added that she could focus on one at a time, spending 5 minutes fully listening, and then moving on to another sense.

And finally, I gave some more information about the Whealthy Human Village Project, which I wrote about in this post.

May you enjoy the rest of this fine Sunday!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Imagining New Worlds Through the Old

Today, I'm linking to a piece I've worked on for several years that's featured at another one of my blogs. It's part fiction, part historical exploration dealing with multiple periods of "discovery." The draw of these eras of history continue to grow upon me, as I dig deeper into colonization and decolonization. A lot of the particular oppressions we face today were created not too many centuries ago. It's in the stories we tell, how we put them together and let them resonate through our actions, that shape the way we go. This little piece is about reclaiming the past, and also the imagination to move forward to perhaps a more liberated world. Here's the first paragraph. Enjoy!

It is June 1905. The eminent physicist Max Planck has just finished lunch and is now sitting down to read his mail. Outside, blue jays yelling, marking their territory. All around them, a heavy rain, carrying away the gravel roads, yet again. Inside, dust, books, and the smell of day old smoke. The volume of mail: high. The prospects for sun before the day is out: low.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Ghosts of Empire

Out walking this morning, I noticed the effort people put forth in cities to contain the growing environment. The streets that slice across and cover large swaths of the land. The sidewalks that mirror the roads. The alleyways that linger behind our homes and businesses, attempting to hold creeping weeds at bay. Trees circled by grates and other holding devices. Lawns of imported, uniform grass mowed flat and inconspicuous. And for whatever breaks through all of that - weed wackers, poisons, more asphalt, the occasional hands of mostly elderly folks living alone, perhaps forgotten, with too much time on their hands.

I think of lines from Shitou's Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage: "When it was completed, fresh weeds appear. Now it's been lived in covered by weeds."

Somehow, most of us have forgotten this. Maybe never knew it all at - consciously at least.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, American artist Thomas Cole painted a series of paintings charting the rise and fall of Empire. I remember first discovering them during a traveling show of 19th century American landscapes several years ago, and being in awe of the grandness of the images.

Now, though, they feel like ghosts taunting us "modern Americans," living as we do in a crumbling empire.

Elementary school comes to mind. Discussions of what the world might look like after nuclear war. The horror that multiple generations of children have had to think about such things happening.

What would last? Rats. Cockroaches. Twisted up trees perhaps. It's hard to have a real sense of what nuclear bombs can do when you are nine years old, but you're mind is open to possibilities in a way adult minds' rarely are. So, things get strange, very strange. Like elephants with rat heads flying through fields of black smoke.

Perhaps today's children are more worried about terrorists destroying their homes, or some generalized form of environmental collapse. Nuclear war still lingers, but isn't the only major specter haunting us. I've heard people use various Buddhist terms to describe this day and age, but more and more, the Hungry Ghost Realm seems most appropriate.

More lines from Shitou spring forth: "Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?" Isn't this the whole basis of the modern, settler colonialist world so many of us live in today? Aren't we all called upon to be proud arrangers and enticers, regardless of the consequences?

The pockmarked, synthetic, damaged, and obliterated landscapes we live in reflect exactly this. What it comes down to is that most of us really can't handle the weeds that always appear, no matter what we do to keep them away. I used to obsess about clarity. Wanting a mind that could basically see the future, including where those weeds might appear, how I should deal with them.

Just another form of intolerance and resistance to the wildness that is our true nature. When the empire was completed, fresh weeds appeared. Now it's been lived in, covered by weeds.

Let it go. Let it go.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Happy Spirituality

Awhile back, I witnessed an interesting exchange between a male yoga teacher and two female yoga students. The teacher was expressing caution around women doing inversions while menstruating. He cited a long history of teachers agreeing on this point, waving his hands in the air, as if for extra emphasis. One woman raised her hand, and at the same time said, "Almost all of those teachers were men. How long have women been practicing yoga?" This was followed by another woman who basically disagreed with the teacher, citing potential health benefits and personal narratives of her students and friends.

There was some back and forth. At one point during the discussion, the first woman who spoke said, point blank, "I'm just expressing my disagreement with you, is that ok?"

After a few minutes of this, the teacher requested that they drop it and that we move on with the class.

It struck me that the teacher wasn't too comfortable with this kind of conflict. Perhaps he worried about loosing control of the class. I also think there was some sexism going on. Listening to a man insist that he knew better than the women in the room about their own bodies was pretty cringe worthy; I had a hard time looking at him the same after that. However, I think something else was at play here as well. Namely, doing whatever you can to maintain that harmonious, peaceful "yoga environment" that people have come to expect.

The way that discussion played out was a disappointment. Since the teacher insisted that he was essentially right on the matter, I seriously doubt the women who challenged him felt heard at all. And no doubt it impacted others in the room who hadn't spoken up, but perhaps were wondering about either that particular issue, or something else. In addition, the manner of shifting the class away from the conflict gave the impression that the discussion was mostly a distraction from the "real learning" that was supposed to be taking place. Finally, there was the effort immediately following the shift away from the conversation to return everyone to a calm and happy place, as if to override what had just happened.

Now, I feel some compassion for teachers that rush to shift uncomfortable dynamics. I have been there before myself, struggling to respond to something unexpected and volatile appearing in a class. I remember a time when I was teaching adult ESL when a particularly outspoken Muslim student starting putting down those of other spiritual/religious backgrounds. She even went as far as to chastise her fellow Muslim students, who mostly stood up for their classmates and for openness and sharing across differences. I found myself wondering how to stay loyal to my own desire for an active, participatory classroom, and yet also make sure that one or a handful of voices didn't dominate and alienate others. In some ways, this situation was an ESL teacher's dream. Over half the class actively using English to talk about their lives and share opinions. On the other hand, there was a distinct upset quality that lingered long after we had moved on to other things.

Although I did a fairly good job of facilitating space for different students to speak during that class, it was really the students themselves who chose to reach out to each other, and keep things respectful. Even with the woman who was berating them. In fact, our collective tolerance of her actually seemed to shift her views some. Towards the end of class, she was actually speaking positively about other students' beliefs and backgrounds, something I hadn't heard from her before.

At the end of the day, good teaching is always a bit risky. It requires a balance of maintaining your power as a teacher, and giving space to the students in the room to step into their own power. Even if that creates some conflicts along the way.

Monday, May 6, 2013

American Yoga's Meditation Challenge

In about a month, I will begin teaching a weekly meditation class at one of our local yoga centers. The director of the center, one of my old yoga teachers, was excited to add me to the schedule, and said that it was about time that they had a class specifically devoted to meditation and study of the teachings. As such, I found this post rather telling of the state of much of North American yoga, particularly around the issue of meditation practice.

The author of the article, J. Brown, has written a lot of thought provoking stuff about yoga standards, consumerism, and other issues in modern practice. I usually find his articles well written and full of great points. This current piece seems pretty muddled to me. A mixture of disdain and respect for meditation, and also confusion.

Early in the piece, Brown correctly posits that the few minutes of tacked on meditation at the end of yoga asana classes doesn't really do the practice justice. From there, he goes on to offer the following:

When we are told that meditation will alleviate everything from emotional imbalance to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and will bring about everything from increased fertility to a knowledge of our true selves and maybe even enlightenment, its kind of hard to not be seeking for those things when we are sitting uncomfortably waiting for the allotted time to be done. And if we are seeking for something, whatever it may be, then we ensure its absence.

Listening to Deepak Chopra give a guided visualization about our inter-connectedness to nature and universal consciousness is a beautiful thing that likely has a positive affect for many. But this is not meditation. Nor is observing breath, chanting mantras, performing physical postures or sitting still. These sorts of techniques are intended to be a vehicle for concentrating the mind and easing the body, whereby some conditions are encouraged that tend towards an experience of meditation. But these techniques are not meditation in and of themselves.

Setting aside Deepak Chopra (and please, let's set him aside), I tend to agree with Brown that the way meditation practice is often presented in yoga settings - and even in some Buddhist settings - is something of a cure all. People get lots of gaining ideas about meditation as it is. Seriously, a dozen years of Zen practice and reminders from teachers and fellow students haven't eliminated all sense of "getting something" from my mind. There are still plenty of times when the only thing that gets me to sit still for a little bit is the thought that it might "help me." Or "liberate me." So, clearly it can be a problem when you have teachers repeatedly telling you that your meditation practice is almost guaranteed to lower your blood pressure, make your relationships better, and maybe even liberate you from all suffering.

At the same time, Brown's concerns only represent one side of the "gaining mind" stuff. The other side is this. Gaining mind thoughts can, and often do, propel people to keep going. To stay with it, even when things get difficult. They can be delusions as skillful means. Which doesn't mean that one should keep wanting something from practice forever, but I tend to think that you have to burn through a certain amount of this gaining mind before you're able to let such thoughts go and come to practice - whatever practice it is - without a need to get anything or go anywhere.

Brown's definition of meditation throughout the piece is kind of muddy. Is it about uncovering the truth? Liberation? Mindfulness? Stress reduction? Something else? One thing I notice a lot these days is how often mindfulness is treated as the totality and end all of meditation practices. When it's really just one small segment of a myriad of practices found throughout both Buddhist teachings and yogic teachings.

Anyway, Brown goes on:

If the student is striving in practice, inadvertently or not, then this will most certainly find its way into any seated repose. And attempting to meditate as an activity, rather than understanding it to be the natural result of mindful practice, imposes a sense of lacking when there is none.

Meditation is a description of what happens as a consequence of healthy choices, not a prescription for bringing them about. When we have an intimate relationship with our actual lives, it simply occurs. Stop meditating. Learn to take pleasure in a regular practice that soothes the system and the rest is coming.

This really isn't a new idea. I remember reading something similar in at least one of B.K.S. Iyengar's books. It stems from the idea that asana practice, the postures that the majority of Americans think is "Yoga," are what anyone should do and master first before moving on to the more subtle yogic practices, including pranayama and meditation. Iyengar, Jois, and other mid-late 20th century teachers that raised the popularity of modern yoga practice in America responded to the highly stressed, and poorly focused students they encountered by focusing on progression through stages, beginning with the postures. And for many, that beginning has been the end point as well. In large part, I'd argue, because asana practice is treated as "complete" in and of itself. And it easily sells, whereas the more subtle practices aren't as "sexy."

As I wrote in my essay from the volume 21st Century Yoga: Politics, Culture, and Practice, there's an almost opposite cutting off of the body present amongst many convert American Buddhist practitioners. Even though nearly every majority ancestral teacher, from the Buddha to Dogen on down talks at length about body awareness, posture, and the breath, it's still pretty easy to find Buddhist students lost in intellectualism and thoughts, sometimes to the point of injuring themselves while doing seated meditation. Whereas the body seems to matter too much to the average yoga student, the body doesn't matter enough for the average convert Buddhist.

One thing I have learned from all these years of Zen practice is that meditation doesn't really "just come." There needs to be some effort put in. Sometimes, very little, and sometimes a lot. And sometimes, practice does seem effortless. But I don't really agree with Brown's notion that doing asana will naturally lead to meditation. I've met yoga teachers with one, even two decades of asana practice who have barely touched - in any intentional manner - the other limbs of yoga practice. It's all about the postures. Or mostly about the postures. Some think meditation is too hard. Others dismiss it as "pretentious, "religious," or any number of other absurd judgments.

What you might find surprising is that I actually think that Iyengar and the others weren't necessarily wrong in focusing primarily on the postures with beginning students. In fact, I tend to think that the average Buddhist student in America could benefit from learning and practicing small sequences of postures, and that deliberate physical movements of any form would probably be better than struggling like mad to sit still in zazen with a highly agitated and confused mind. Zen students do "work practice" in the middle of retreats, for example, which in my view is a nod to the myriad of ways that monastics throughout history have had regular labor incorporated into their days by necessity.

Moving beyond the level of survival and needing to secure the basics creates all sorts of opportunities to make artificial divisions, and loose a sense of wholeness. Lately, I've been thinking that it makes a lot of sense that meditation practice is so popular amongst Americans, even if it proves to be difficult for the vast majority of us. Sitting around is a habit. Not moving much is a habit. We aren't too good at stillness, and our minds are a mess, but hell if we aren't skilled in sitting down.

What do you think?