Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

The Cost of Enlightenment.

I guess this is sort of a corollary to yesterday’s post about commodification; talking about the “trend” of “enlightenment” (which is nearly as obnoxious as the trend of “using excessive quote marks,” I apologize). I had tea with a good friend of mine today – we’ve been yoga buddies for a while; first back in Providence at Eyes of the World, which is a very “let the white light enter your navel” kind of place and then here in Boston at Exhale.

I’ve fallen off the wagon with my yoga practice since moving to Boston. And I’ll admit that the main reason for it is my own hang-ups regarding taking classes. Of course, this has no bearing on the fact that I’m not doing any kind of practice at home – other than it’s harder to get into a routine without any sort of accountability and taking classes gets the ball rolling to continue working at home. Anyhow. My hang-ups around yoga in my neighborhood are a bit ridiculous.

Eyes of the World is a yoga studio in a sort of basement type space in an office building. There’s one eensy changing room with hand drawn posterboard signs about your karma and whatnot. It’s just one large-ish room that’s superheated. That’s it. And yet, somehow homey. The vibe is very much about moving your prana around as well as stretching your legs to places where you never imagined a leg could go. I really dig the greater vibrations of the universe, man.

There are many fewer vibrations at Exhale, and part of this is that it caters to a totally different crowd. Nowhere to be seen are the die-hard hippies who haven’t eaten red meat or shaved their body hair since the Reagan administration. No one is going to tell you that their chi feels blocked today, and they really need to work that out with some inverted poses. No, this is the designer yoga mat crowd who shut off their Blackberries two minutes before class begins and whisper about their children’s private school tuitions – sometimes leaving class early to get to a meeting. (PS: HOW CAN YOU DO THIS? Shavasana is just as important as the standing pose flow, if not more so. You have to commit to the class. This is not a drop-in experience.)

And what it ultimately comes down to is this: I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Boston, making it one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the US.  It is possible to walk past Cartier on the way from the T to my house (though I usually take a different route which is all of thirty seconds faster).  I see dog walkers and nannies, and very few actual residents. It is not uncommon for me to see hordes of women wearing $20,000 fur coats waiting for someone to pull the Benz around. It boggles my mind. Before living here, I lived in front of a crack den in Providence. Literally. My partner works in finance, and this location is awesome for him as he can walk to work (in the John Hancock Tower, of course). Our apartment is homey and not at all fancy or pretentious, but that is certainly the exception in this neighborhood.

I grew up in a lower middle class family going to a UU Church where I went to Sunday School in a shed. Seriously. I have a really, really hard time putting myself into a spiritual situation with people who earn millions of dollars. I can empathize with the truly poor and remind myself that the screaming Hispanic mothers on the bus to the grocery store back in my working-class neighborhood have Buddha-nature and are on the same cosmic journey and we’re all the same, we’re all floating in the same void.

I can’t seem to do this with the wealthy. I feel an involuntary knee-jerk kind of contempt for people who make regular appointments for spa treatments. I shudder when I see real fur in any situation. Anytime I see a luxury car, my first thought is to how much gas it wastes. And yet, these people are just people. While their problems are “First World Problems,” they’re working through their own karma just as much as everybody else. And I truly, truly have issues with this. That having money somehow inauthenticates the human experience. What kind of effed up reasoning is that?

I suppose it all comes down to the idea of the ascetic as holy and therefore, the inverse must be unholy. And certainly, greed is a corrupting force. But we’ve all got our issues. Just because I’m not greedy doesn’t mean I’m not judgmental and shallow (obviously). My lack of a savings account does not make me any spiritually better than someone with off-shore investments. I may choose to live by the seat of my pants, but the choice to seek a financially secure life is just as valid.

So says I living in an apartment that no way could I afford on my own taking pictures with a camera that also, no way could I have bought it for myself, blogging on a computer that is probably worth more than I am. Oh, I slay me.

Anyhow. I hope to get back into yoga practice this year. I’m looking for a studio in Boston with fewer Blackberry addicts and more white light entering my navel – or at least, some sort of balance.


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Commodification of Buddha.

Photo by Flickr user Kaptain Kobold

Photo by Flickr user Kaptain Kobold

I feel like January 2nd is a pretty good day to buy a calendar. I usually fail at keeping track of the day to day by the middle of the year, resorting to jotting things down in a small regular notebook, but at the beginning of the year I always like to have a shiny new calendar. It seems like without a calendar, the changing of the year just feels kind of… arbitrary. Anyhow, I went to buy mine today. I always prefer the engagement books to wall calendars so I can carry it around (otherwise, nothing will ever get written in/on it ever). I was at Barnes & Noble and the selection was, of course, limited to what had not already been sold out, but still there were two (two!) Buddhism-related calendars: the Dharma Diary and a Zen themed calendar.

I had seen the Dharma Diary before at a small independent bookseller here in Boston and thought it was beautiful, but hadn’t yet decided on buying a 2009 calendar at that point. I was rather surprised to see it again in a major chain retailer. It made me think of the commodification of Buddhism that these calendars were being sold alongside more “mainstream” items (your typical Picasso, O’Keefe, images of Paris, etc.) with “inspirational” quotes and such as some kind of promise of daily enlightenment. I thought of the article in Apartment Therapy a while back on the use of Buddha as a decorational element; how images of Buddha have become a sort of cultural shorthand for “inner peace.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this, as a Buddhist. On the one hand, I do feel strongly that the Buddha is available to everybody and should be accessible without any kind of secret handshake. On the other hand, the same sort of items that I see of the Buddha (i.e. Buddha lamps) would never be made, say, of Christ without tremendous uproar. Then again, the place of Buddha in Buddhism and Christ in Christianity are quite different: Buddha is not the son of G-d or indeed an inherently divine being. He is a holy figure, for sure, but he is not venerated for who he was born as, but what he accomplished. We all have Buddha-nature, but do we all have Christ-nature? That would be an interesting debate. Of course, there are comical representations of Jesus, but they are certainly fewer and further between than “Buddha in a Box” and their ilk.

In a sense, I feel a bit disgusted with the money-making that gets done by American companies pandering to the consumer desire to appear “worldly” and “enlightened” by owning images of the Buddha that have no greater significance. On the other hand, I am a total sucker and bought the Dharma Diary. What can I say? My inner Buddha-nature is no better than anyone else’s and really likes pretty calendars.

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William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac

William Burroughs & Jack Kerouac

Kerouac aficionado that I am, I was excited about the release of his collaboration with William Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. I got a chance to read it in the few minutes of downtime that I had over Christmas – it’s quite a fast read. It’s less “spiritual” than Kerouac’s other works, which may have something to do with the collaborative aspect of the novel (chapters alternate by author) or the subject matter (Lucien Carr’s murder of David Kammerer). In any case, there is a little gem of a discussion on art and the ideal society that I felt like sharing from a chapter written by Kerouac.

The radio was on to an afternoon soap opera, and a kindly old country doctor who had just helped a young couple out of a scrape was giving them advice about life, with an organ music background. “The thing that you must learn,” he was saying, “is that sometimes you have to do things in this life that you don’t quite like to do, but you have to do them all the same.”

Phillip was explaining about his theory. “I mean the circle of one’s spiritual life. You complete the cycle of experience, in an artistic sense, and by means of art, and that is your individual creative offering to the society.”

“You know,” reflected the country doctor, “I’ve been practicing here in Elmville for almost forty-five years now, and in all that time I’ve learned one thing about human beings.”

“Just how is such a society to be attained?” Cathcart wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” Phillip said. “This is the pre-ultimate society. Don’t ask me about the details.”

“Human beings,” said the country doctor, pausing to puff on his pipe,  “are essentially good. Now wait” – and he interrupted the young and bitter hero of the story – “I know what you’re going to say. But son, I’m an old man. I’ve lived a lot more than you have. You’re only starting out on the road of life, and you might listen to what I have to say. Maybe I’m just an old codger, but –”

“There are artists in the pre-ultimate society,” Phillip said, “who are contemporary models of the ultimate artist-citizen. I guess that as more and more people become artists, the nearer is realized the ultimate artistic society.”

While a lot of the Beat generations idolization of the “artist” is overly idealistic, I agree with the statement made here that the more people develop artistic lives, the closer we’ll be as a society to something closer to Utopia. Not that I believe that Utopia is totally possible, but one of the ways we, as people, can strive towards living better and living better together is to value the artistic element possessed by all of us. We are all capable of art, we are all capable of expressing ourselves artistically – an expression beyond language, beyond opinion. The more we indulge in such expression and the more we value such expression, the more the political differences between us become just that – political. Yes, art can make tremendous political statements on all ends of the spectrum, but making such statements artistically is a step towards a peaceful, non-violent society where all voices are valued.

Yes, I’m a huge idealist. I know.

This statement also relates to feelings that bother me when I read about photography on the internet and the ease of “getting into” photography; the sentiment “Everyone is a photographer these days” is somehow a pejorative, which I just don’t get. Yes! We are all photographers! We are all capable of capturing the world as we see it through the lens! What a wonderful thing! How does this devalue photography in any way to make it easily available to anyone? Shouldn’t we value each person’s artistic path and vision? Isn’t the photographic journey something to be shared, not some secret club where you are only allowed to touch a camera after you’ve learned the secret handshake?

I went to art school, which was certainly not an experience that I would describe as “happy,” but I do find myself lamenting the lack of joy in the art world. (Perhaps this is why I have kept myself on the fringes of it since graduation, rather than flinging myself in headlong.) Portrait photography, while often beautiful, is mostly focused on “real” photos which tend to be rather emotionally harsh. The only emotion I haven’t seen portrayed in months of following photo blogs regularly is joy. I’ve seen sorrow, I’ve seen confusion, I’ve seen nostalgia, I’ve seen pain – I have not seen joy.

When we as a society can express both our pains and our joys artistically, we’ll be that much closer to experiencing our pains and our joys together.

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New Year’s Resolution.

As you can probably see by the fact that I’ve updated as much today as I did in the past two months, I’ve resolved to be more connected to my life. I went through some health problems this fall where I just didn’t sleep, and the biggest impact that I noticed was on my connection to my own life – it was like I was floating through it, drifting by from day to day, never actually weighted down to anything. It sounds peaceful describing it like that, but really it was as if my whole life was a fog and I had nothing to grab onto. I’ve noticed a lot since my health has been getting better that there was, over a six month period, a decline in my ability to focus on anything – projects half done everywhere, books half read, always wandering around with my camera but never taking photos, taking photos but never posting them, voicemails unanswered, etc. I found myself only capable of the bare minimum in terms of living my life.

And now that my health has improved, I’ve resolved to reconnect. Be more present. Be more aware. Be more active. In art, in life, in everything.

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I’ve been trying to think about this for a week or so to try about what would be the best way to frame this so I don’t come off as a complete kook, but there I go, kook or not.

We tend to notice the most with kids the “bad” influences that are plentiful: violence, bad language, hyper sexualized characterized, reinforcing stereotypes, etc. On the other hand, “good” influences are largely ignored. This week with the little girl I nanny for, I watched a video that was absolutely buddha-ful. Seriously, the Buddhist message: accepting each individual as part of a greater family despite outward appearance, appreciation for the present moment in a limited life span, life as a great – but impermanent – gift.

And what masterpiece of cinema was this? The story of Siddhartha? Princess Barbie goes to Buddha Island? Oh no.

It was Charlotte’s Web. Just listen to this song and tell me if you are not one “baby step” closer to enlightenment.

Another popular children’s show espouses the view that all people sing with the same song, the same voice, and we sing in harmony.

I just thought to offer up some proof that the media is not, as claimed, saturating our kids with immoral influences. There are wonderful things for children to watch to teach about their own inner “buddha nature” and that of everyone on earth – they just tend to blend into the background for their subtlety. Perhaps I’m just biased a bit because one of the most played records in my own hippie childhood was “Free to Be You and Me.

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I suppose I’ve more than made up for my lag in shooting with the umpteen hundred photos (ok, 90, but not all of them were uploaded to Flickr) that I took today.  My parents were in town and my mama and I went to the MFA, which is always a wonderful place to have a camera.  I really feel that my camera helps me to view the art, that by framing it and capturing it with the lens, I’m paying more attention to it than I do just walking by.

Anyhow, while we were having tea afterwards, my mama and I were discussing spirituality and religion and Buddhism – like we do. (Honestly, I have these sort of intense talks with my mama on a near weekly basis.) And my mama shared with me a story from my childhood that is pretty remarkable, both in my insight and my mother’s realization that I was far more spiritually attuned than most children. (She said at this particular moment, I was her little Bodhisattva. And yes, I was raised in a Buddhist home, even though my mother is now Catholic.)

The story goes that one day my mother was particularly fed up with some existential crisis, and she turned to me – aged 3, at most – and asked me “So, Sonja, what is the purpose of life?”

And I looked at her with this very mature look, the sort of look that isn’t condescending but just indicates “I can’t believe that you don’t know this, it is so obvious.” And I very simply stated, verbatim:

“The purpose of life is to live it.”

Good job, self! I have always believed this to be true and it’s interesting to know that this sense of life as being a series of present moments to be inhabited is something that I’ve felt for, well, my whole life.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about really heavy stuff I’ve said as a kid (“I’m going to believe in Santa until I’m 9.” – said at age  4, and pretty deep for a kid, the implication that belief is a choice.), but this is by far my favorite.

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Due to a smattering of less-than-pleasant events in the personal and professional lives of myself and my partner, I was idly wondering to myself – “Gee, I wonder if something is in retrograde.” My darling K alerted me to the fact that Mercury is indeed in retrograde.

Now, believe what you will about astrology. It may or may not be total bunk, I’m not trying to present this as 100% True Facts over here, but it is a “science” that dates back thousands of years in which the central premise is that everything affects everything else. And that, that I believe is totally true. The laws of karma indicate that all of our attitudes and actions create an overall effect on our lives that governs future actions and attitudes, thus perpetuating itself.  Buddhism as a philosophy is based on trying to become mindful enough to break the cycle of karma and reaching a state of Enlightenment in which we exist apart from the outside world and instead become one with all of it.

Well, until then, things like the economy collapsing and scheduling SNAFUs do indeed affect us, and they affect us in a big way. And right now, the pattern of Very Bad Things going on in general is well-described by the description of Mercury retrograde. I know that in my personal life, communications, travel, and appointment SNAFUs have been the rule for the past week or so. It’s been a general nightmare trying to get *anything* done, to the point where I’ve actually been forced to make cancellations on plans that had been in the works for over a month because everything is just falling apart around the edges.

And clearly, on a larger scale, the economy is, in the words of John McCain, “going to crater.” Perhaps we would be wise to remember that during retrograde: “Mercury’s retro phase tends to bring unforeseen changes and blockages, but the aggravation and frustration that many of us experience during these periods is often due to our own inability to roll with the punches.”

Rolling with the punches is exactly what I personally am trying to do. Remembering that all I can control is this moment and even then, the best thing in my power is to just connect and let it be. Even as everything around me is swirling around threatening to take me to Oz in a twister, it’s time to take a deep breath and just stop.

Also: I’ll be under the bed until this all calms down on October 15, if you need me.

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