Monday, February 16, 2009

Cancerous Logic

I'm in a consulting room with two doctors in their white coats. They tell me I have the rarest disease they have ever seen. No one else in the whole world has this disease. They show me maps of the world, I remember seeing turkey on one of those sepia-colored old timey maps. they show me x-rays. they say it's spreading, this disease.
I let myself cry, great big grateful sobs, partly out of sorrow, partly because finally someone has realized how special I am. And you say dreams don't have a sense of humor? Then the doctor, the one who looks like the professor at Cornell, leans in and tells me the disease is Logic.

I never really thought I was overburdened with Logic, to tell you the truth. But then, the other day I was vacuuming the Temple at the Integral Yoga Institute where I do work exchange for yoga classes, and I realized that I had to have some kind of linear order to make sure I covered every inch of the soft pigeon gray carpet, and the word Methodical came to mind. Which reminded me of what Murat had to say about an approach I suggested to sex recently. Which then made me think-- I'm pretty methodical, but some areas should not be approached like that. Like sex. Or writing. Or any creative activity really. Which makes sense cuz this is all the territory of Chakra numero dos, the Svadhistana.

Logic and Method are not the same thing, but they are similar. They imply linearity, an active approach that aims to solve a problem. There are no ambiguities, there is no room for negative capability of Keats-- which quote from the book I'm reading (the Golden Compass) goes like this:

She wasn't sure what she wanted to do, except that she knew that if she fooled around for long enough, without fertting, or nagging herself, she'd find out. She remembered quoting keats to Lyra, and Lyra's understanding at once that that was her own state of mind when she read the alethiometer.

Which alethiometer is an awesomely cool machine, by the way. It's the titular instrument, but works more like the I-Ching in telling the truth.

This permission to FOOL AROUND is what I have been needing for a very very long time. When I went to Oberlin I was so happy. One of my clearest memories is simply laying on the grass under those great oak and sweetgum trees as their golden leaves floated down on me. Oh I was fooling around then. Just sweet daydreams, laziness, just rip van winkling the day away. And I was so happy. And I got good writing done too, I daresay.

Perhaps this fooling around is the antidote to my *very unique* disease of logic.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Meditation Camp Part II

How strange the body.
How strange the throat. Like a drain where all the emotions get caught.
How strange the master.
How strange the mark.
How strange the names we give our lives.

I met the master on the first day of camp. Indeed! It was not Goenkaji, though he was our master, our teacher, no doubt about that. In fact, it had been sort of strange to slowly understand and get used to the set up. There were two teachers there, physically present, sitting crosslegged on the dais in front of the meditation hall, facing the students, silent and still as statues. Their main function was “occupying space” as one of my friends who’d been there before put it. I had thought that a weird thing to say, but it turns out it was true. Well, almost true. Their main function was occupying space and acting as a “finglonger” or button pusher for Goenkaji, for every teaching was recorded on video and every meditation was recorded on cd. So the teachers would come in, and the man (they were a couple) would push the button and then we’d all settle into our seats, some of us (if you were like me) making last minute adjustments in the hopes that this stance would not be too painful to last the whole hour.

Of course, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Because what I’m talking about it aditthan, or “strong determination” which starts on the 4th day and translates into passing 3 of the roughly 11 hours you spend meditating to be spent in complete stillness. So even if you have a throbbing pain, a cramp or an “intensified, gross sunsation” as Goenkaji puts it, you need to stay still and observe.

The aditthan sittings were, as you might imagine, the hardest part of the course, but also the most instructive. That is why I get ahead of myself. But first, let me tell you about the master.

So the first three days are spent learning anapana, which is an exercise to calm and still the brain. Basically you observe your breath. You observe the sensation inside your nostrils, on the edges of your nostrils, throughout the entire triangular area of your nose and upper lip. You observe the breath coming in, and the breath coming out-- the small wind it makes, whether it’s hot or cold, left nostril or right nostril, etc. You also observe any other sunsation that happens on this area of your face-- for instance, an itch. The whole point of the exercise is to concentrate the mind on these sunsations and TO NOT REACT to them. That’s key. You got to just observe. Don’t react.

By the way, the reason I call them sunsations is sort of an in-joke I had with myself the whole time. That’s how Goenkaji says sensations with his Indian/Burmese accent, and once I got to thinking of them as sunsations I couldn’t help but be transported into some bizarre TV commercial where a soft drink or shampoo was being peddled to me-- or even like a new brand of skittles.

Anyway, so the first day you wake up at 4 (as you will on all the following days) and promptly go back to sleep. Then you wake up at 4:20 again, with the sound of bells ringing next to your cabin, make a murky pot joke to yourself, thrown on your sweater, gloves, hat, scarf, grab your flashlight and make your way out to the meditation hall under a starlit sky. I remember this feeling from the one night I spent at Thich Nhat Han’s Plum Village Monastery in France. It’s great. Really, I really love being under the night sky, walking towards a warm space to meditate. I love the literal enlightenment that happens as you sit in that space for however many hours. At Plum Village the stained glass windows of the meditation hall were lit faintly but consistently by the time we opened our eyes for meditation, and before breakfast. Here, at North Fork, the sky never got quite bright, but we could see the stars mostly erased and a coat of light visible at the line of the mountains around us.

So you start your meditation at 4:30. Some folks chose to sleep in until breakfast, or meditate in their rooms. I wasn’t sure if this was optional, or if I should get on my high horse about their cheating ways, but what I did know is that this is the one part of the day that I wouldn’t miss.

Especially *also* since it made breakfast so much more fun. Attractive. Whatever words you may apply to one of two meals served at 6:30 in a place where the rest of the hours are spent enduring excruciating pain.

Haha, of course I exaggerate for effect.

... or do I?

I actually don’t remember the first day being too hard. The schedule itself never changed-- 4:30-6:30 meditation, 8-9 group meditation, 9-11 meditation in the hall or in your dorms, 11-12 breakfast, 12-1 rest, 1-2:30 meditate in hall or in your room, 2:30-3:30 group meditataion, 3:30-5 meditation in the hall or in your room, 5-6 teatime!, 6-7, group meditation, 7-8:30 MOVIETIME! (actually it’s a video of Goenkaji giving a Dharma talk but he’s quite charming and funny and it feels so good to do something other than meditate, and it feels so nice to have some human contact that I felt each day around 7 that I was about to go to a summer blockbuster). 8:30-9 more meditation, and 9-10 rest & lights out.

So, as you can see, pretty much dry toast the length of the day. Of course, I found ways to spice it up with my jokes and pithy observations but I’m not quite sure that was the point...

... And STILL I haven’t told you about meeting the master. But now I’m really ready.

The first day wasn’t that hard, though it sure was repetitive. But one thing that started happening is-- I started seeing faces during my meditation. This is a very odd thing for me, because I don’t usually get any kind of visuals while meditating. And, though I’ve only been doing Buddhist meditation practice for the past few months, I’ve been meditating in Savasana, post-yoga for the last 7 years. Even guided meditations, with their visualizations and stuff, are sort of hard for me. I can’t quite disengage my brain which asks-- well, am I going down these steps too fast-- should the walls be this color, am I controlling this too much? even while the teacher is telling us how to descend into our unconscious realms.

So it was quite a surprise when I saw my first face. And it was quite a face. In fact, it was a head. It was the severed, bloody head that Kali holds in one of her hands. Then, later on in the day, I saw some sort of (I want to say, in a bizarrely midwestern fashion) ethnic face. I think it might have been a mask, like an African mask or a Hittite statue or something. Then, I’m quite sure I had a brief flash of an Asian face. Now I’m the first to suspect myself of creating these visions (especially since there’s such a clearly discernible pattern here) but I know I didn’t consciously think them up. So, it’s actually the pattern that’s suspect, that I might have superimposed on the actual experience as one imposes order and consistency on to a dream when trying to remember or retell it.

And the next face was certainly not of my conjuring. Toward the later part of the day I was sitting on my cushion, trying dilligently to follow my breath, when all of a sudden I found myself looking into a huge eye. No, that’s not quite correct. I found myself being looked AT by a huge eye. Seeing the eye was startling enough, but to sense that it was actually looking back at me was, in a word, uncanny. I shivered and got goosebumps, and in the split second before that this is what happened: The eye looked at me, I got WAY scared but then almost immediately I decided to look BACK at it (this is my dream-training of many years-- don’t run away from what’s scary) and then, I can almost swear to you with a clear conscience that the eye crinkled with amusement.

Then I got the goosebumps.

It was such a singularly strange experience, so vivid and so bizarre, that I can’t help but think this was the eye of the master. There was someone, something, there. Might have been a different side of myself. Dunno. But since vipassana is open to the idea of other “beings” than the ones we know (there are like 9 worlds, it’s very complicated and I don’t get it, I mean, I don’t get if it’s supposed to be literal but since at the end of practice you wish for the happiness of “all beings” I suspect there is some belief in other beings than the ones we know about or can see. And of course, it makes total sense to me, instinctually, that there should be all kinds of beings out there that we don’t know). In fact, I’m most tempted to view my experience as something akin to an ant or a snail or something coming face to face with a little boy or girl. What does the ant understand of the experience?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Meditation Camp Part I

My student told me to go. And I was ready for a teacher.
It was located in the Sierra Foothills. A modest cluster of cabins where the students lodge, and three central buildings: the men’s dining hall, the women’s dining hall, and the meditation hall, which I eventually came to think of as the spaceship.

The method is called Vipassana. It’s a form of meditation (the word means insight) that the Buddha Gautama is supposed to have himself practiced. Vipassana is practiced more in South East Asia, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The teacher of this course is named S.N. Goenka and he hails from Burma.

We were there to learn vipassana but you do not plunge straight into Vipassana. No. There are a lot of steps you need to go through. First, you get settled into your routine at the camp. The program lasts 10 days and is conducted in Noble Silence which means no speaking at all and no touching anyone and no looking in their eyes either. No gesticulations, no communication. The purpose of all these prohibitions is to make you get as close as you can to a Solitary retreat.

Of course, in practice, this is not so. You still stand in line with people for breakfast and lunch, you still recognize their shoes on the wooden racks outside the meditation hall, you still assign them names and life stories and generally manage to have relationships with them. Or, at least, I did. I had a crush on about 3 girls at any given time, one small feud that happened midway through, and numerous in-jokes about everyone else. Yes, my friends, the active, monkey, outward mind will glom on to whatever miniscule amount of information it has and squeeze the most out of it.

Actually, I was just talking about this with Heather. She was saying we’re social creatures and it’s normal for us to want to be with other people and therefore, to be outwardly inclined. I agree. And this is one thing I have trouble with-- reconciling Buddhism’s teachings with a non-monastic lifestyle. I know I’m not alone in this; Danielle has told me she has similar concerns, and my pops, some years ago, when I declared that I was thinking about becoming a nun said, very thoughtfully, while taking a spoonful of flan at the Divan Patisserie in Istanbul’s Baghdad Avenue: Yalnizlik Allah’a mahsustur. Which translates into: Solitude is God’s alone. He seemed to be repeating something he had learned, maybe long ago, but the fact that he said it so simply, without looking at me or trying to convince me in any way, made more of an impression on me than anything else.

Anyhows, so the camp is meant to create a monastic atmosphere, in fact, more of a hermetic atmosphere. Monastic it is, no matter the silence. The first night you get there you vow to take the 5 precepts which are simple enough: no killing, no stealing, no lying (easy when you don’t talk!), no sexual misconduct (easy when you don’t have sex!) and no intoxicants. This, Goenkaji explains to us over the video, is what’s called sila in Pali (an ancient and dead language that the Buddha spoke that we use in our lessons). It means morality. Any solid practice of vipassana needs to be based on flawless sila. So a monastic lifestyle makes this easy for the practitioners and, in fact, the vows are called “taking refuge” in the five precepts. So, like an umbrella, or a tent, you take shelter in perfect morality, at least in the action-sense. Your thoughts could still be awful and terrible, but at least you’re not acting them out.

I really like this taking refuge business, I must say. I just love that it’s an idea, so that means it’s always available. Maybe this is the essence of any religious longing-- the need for a constant refuge. Unlike a person or any circumstance or anything outside of you, the idea is always there. God is always there. Something-- something is always there. Always ready. Whatever happens you can take refuge in there, in this ever present place (of course, even then, it’s hard to put into practice. Just because something or someone is always available doesn’t mean you’re always willing to go to it, even though you might be in dire need). But anyway, I like that the phrase "taking refuge" physicalizes this very vague but strong psychic urge.

So we took our refuge on our first night, after a brief dinner and an "orientation" which seemed like just announcements and logistics. This made me terribly impatient. I wanted to know what we were going to do, I wanted to get started on my task. After orientation we had a little break and then met up outside the meditation hall-- the girls on one side of the building, the boys on the other. We were waiting to be called in and shown to our assigned spots. At first everyone was chatting and then we all quieted down. I'll never forget that feeling of standing around among the madrone trees, bundled up in the Sierra chill, with the stars fresh above us, waiting to be admitted into this building, this mysterious practice. Friends who had come together were saying goodbye to each other and hugging. It was so strange and so exciting. And once someone's name was called they would take their shoes off and just disappear inside. I took a deep breath of air, itching to find out for myself what was inside.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Boys don't cry

Just saw Boys Don't Cry for the first time. I'd been avoiding it for a long time since the only thing anyone seemed to say about it was that it was "really good" and "really heavy/depressing/sad". So I thought, I'd wait til the right time. Well, apparently it was tonight, after my free Chan (that's the Chinese version of Zen) meditation class at the monastery down the block. See, in Berkeley you can say things like that: "I'm just gonna run to the monastery, I'll be right back." In Oakland it's the liquor store. Anyway Heather, my roomie, has HBO and it was 10 o'clock and I'd been just yesterday asking my coworker Steve if he could recommend any really good movies and when he started listing comedies I even said "it doesn't have to be funny, it just has to be really good."

So it was the right time.

Especially considering my whole circle of friends is almost all dykes here.

What I'm surprised at is how much the movie is about class. No one ever really talks about that. Well, maybe if they ever get beyond the "really depressing" part of the commentary, but I never thought to ask because I thought the depressing thing was that this cross-dressing woman got killed because of her ways. I didn't know how much it was just as much because she was in a really poor and depressed community out in Nebraska.

The movie makes me scared of & hateful of men in general, but more it makes me scared of poverty and ignorance. It even made me reconsider my partying ways and romanticization of poverty/white trash culture. Not that I know much about it. What I do know is that I made many friends out here in Oakland who come from a white trash background, who pump their chests and brag/joke about it when I hang out with them. But these are all people who have gotten out, who have educated themselves, who were eager to leave that environment. I am so sheltered, it's really easy for me to misunderstand the reality and the complexity of such a background. Of course there are people in there who love, people who hurt, people who have just as much capacity and potential as people from different backgrounds. The difference seems to be that they have so much more baggage, so much more drama, so much more volatility in their lives. This, of course, I base all on a movie.

* * *

This morning, Jack, the son of my neighbors from upstairs, was waiting to leave for school. He's 7 and he's adopted. His biological mother is in prison and his father's whereabouts is unknown. It was a gorgeous sunny Berkeley morning, and he was waiting for Heather to take him to school on Walk & Roll day, where kids only bike or walk to school. Heather was trying to fix the chin strap for her helmet and Jack and I were standing on the porch. "Did you ever touch this?" he asked, pointing to the potted cactus that stands on a little table on the porch. Underneath it is an ashtray filled with my cigarette butts. First I thought he meant the butts, then I realized he meant the cactus. No, I said, I know what they feel like.

* * *

The movie made me crave a cigarette the whole time I was watching. The actors must have smoked a pack each. You know how it is with watching people smoke-- even if you don't smoke it makes you feel like having one. But, as I said, the movie also made me disgusted with that lifestyle, the easy rapport of beer and cigarettes and pot around the clock. So I thought about abstaining, but when I started writing this blog I stepped outside for a pall mall nonetheless. When I got done I put it out in the little ashtray. Just as I was stashing the ashtray under the little table, I leaned with my other hand, the one with which I was holding the laptop and my cup of water, against the cactus by mistake. It was not heavily enough to make me cry out or drop the computer or anything. But I felt the sting of the thorns. Just for a moment, I felt the sting.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Demagoguery and the Debate

It's hard to believe the way the Iraq issue is being handled in the presidential race. I just watched the debate and it seems McCain's strategy was to equate any mention of withdrawal with "defeat", thereby appealing to the competitiveness of his audience, to Americans' obsession with being a "winner" or a "loser." "What a game American politics is" says Heather, remote in hand, switching from CBS to MSNBC, sitting literally on the edge of her seat, putting her spectacles on and off. But is politics really a game?

And if it is, and if war is a game, then the U.S. can at least ADMIT that it's in Iraq not because of oil, or WMD or any goddamn democratic idealism but simply out of Ego. Whenever people now say "Oh, but we can't leave Iraq now," I just want to say (and only tonight did I really realize how angry it made me): What the Fuck Do You Care about Iraq? If the U.S. government or U.S. citizens cared anything about Iraq they would have withdrawn as soon as possible. Or would do it, as soon as possible. So I don't buy this self-deluding bullshit about let's stay in Iraq to make sure it's okay.

And, I think, neither does anyone else. Because, as the main spokesperson and supporter of the war, McCain and the Republican rhetoric focuses exclusively on the undesirability and Nonexistence of "defeat" in Iraq. In this way the similarities with Vietnam are frightening. You can't acknowledge the fact of defeat, you can't utter these words, even though it is an actual factual reality because it strikes too lethal a blow to American self-delusion, to Americans' egos, because it gets too close to the archetypal American personality's Neurosis.

So tonight I saw how obviously and repugnantly American idealism was coupled with American competitiveness to lull this nation into staying in Iraq. A friend of mine who works at an arts institution said, of her efforts to shmooze rich folks for contributions "I'm really good at serving them their own shit on a plate." Buon Appetito, America.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace is dead

He killed himself on Friday. I can't believe it people. I can't believe it. I can't believe it I can't believe it. He was such a good writer. So brilliant and sensitive, so gifted in both mathematics and language, all these sos and sos. S.O.S. S.O.S. It brings up all kinds of thoughts-- was this inevitable? Is there anything that could have helped him, including himself? I mean, someone like that, you would think there is nothing you can tell him that he doesn't know. And not just cleverness-wise, but also in terms of insight. Check out the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon college a few years ago. There is so much there, so much knowledge of being human, of what is necessary to be human, both hard-earned and natural insight.

He was a great writer and a respected professor. He had every resource available to him. I know he'd been under medication for a long time and his depression was getting more and more severe. I read a quote from his parents that said he just couldn't stand it anymore. It sounded almost sympathetic, and that clues us into the extent of the misery he must have been experiencing. But god. It just makes me so sad. No one is infallible. Depression is truly a disease. Or is it? I mean, didn't he try everything? He must have tried other things like buddhism or yoga or the non-academic sciences of the soul. He must have, right? Someone so intelligent could not have failed to look into these other ways. So how is it that nothing helped? I don't know i don't know. It definitely makes me think the old-school thought of depression as something that can be overcome by sheer will or something is bullshit. I don't know if DFW was manic-depressive. Probably.

Oh man.

oh man. oh man. It is a huge loss for us. And it's scarier to think someone like that could be so lost to himself.

BUt what does "someone like that" mean? How do I know what he was like? I don't. And even his wife, his mom, his dad, probably are not a whole lot closer to what it was like to BE him. To be inside his head. And that is the great mystery and paradox of this life, of this consciousness. NO ONE CAN SEE INSIDE YOU.

Think about the autonomy! Think about the freedom! Think about the privacy.

No one knows what goes on inside you.

We answer to ourselves, ourselves only. To our own conscience. That is the ultimate judge, the ultimate god. But maybe we can get to know our god. Get to know how our conscience is formed (how much of it is the superego, paternal authority figure, etc),and if any of it is simply irreducibly There. The little voice inside you, your soul, etc. I don't know what any of those really mean but one option is to engage our sense of right & wrong in a dialogue. We do this all the time of course, with various frequencies depending on the person, but maybe a more conscious dialogue. A written one perhaps, with a particular situation from our life as a jumping off point. Alternately (or supplementarily) the Buddhists would recommend that we not engage in a dialogue but step back and observe the edicts of our inner judge and any reactions/responses we have to these. For me, observation is hard because I always think of it as a reporting position. As in-- okay, I'm in the field, collecting data on the mating behavior of these gorillas (which describes my mind quite well) and now that I have the findings-- who do I go to?

A scientist of the mind. I like that. Especially since Jane Goodall is one of my heroes.

And so was DFW. Maybe that's why it's sad. When your hero kills himself.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Crones and Drones

So I just saw "The Women" starring most of the female actresses in Hollywood. There's Meg Ryan (flappy-floppy as ever), Annette Bening (where Diane Keaton should be), Jada Pinkett-Smith and Debra Messing. Even Bette Midler shows up as a (who else?) loudmouthed multiple divorcee. I'd planned to see the original George Cukor film first but circumstances dictated otherwise. Therefore, I can't offer an informed comparison between the two just yet. Nonetheless, I want to record my initial reactions hot off the movie seat.

It's telling that the last words of this version of "The Women" are: "It's a boy." This is a reason for joy, an ultimate fulfillment in the storyline for one of the characters. And though there are NO MEN in the movie, the patriarchal, old boys' style of thinking (manifest in the shameless commercialism and googly-eyed admiration of all things high-society NYC) permeates the movie like musk. From the first shot of the movie, you know there's nothing new to expect. A camera tracks fast over a blue body of water to reveal... the Manhattan skyline! It doesn't help that the first shots of the movie are straight-up product placements as an unidentified female protagonist struts into Saks Fifth Avenue and surveys the store through Terminator-like vision, pinpointing items of desire Prada Shoes --Must Have! Cartier Perfume...New Line!. The woman is revealed to be Annette Bening whose body language is a direct imitation of Samantha from Sex and the City and whose next encounter reveals the other side of the movie--- false female empowerment. As she strides through the store she is interrupted by a sales girl who asks her if she wants a facelift in a bottle. This is my face. Deal with it. Says Bening, tossing her head saucily.

And yet soon enough we see Candice Bergen (who is pretty fucking good I must say) in a post-facelift relaxation room looking for all the world like a burn victim and telling her daughter that she had to get one-- "Haven't you noticed? There are no sixty year old women in New York. I was the only one." It's funny but as her daughter admits, she will be in her place in another 20 years. So it's just a matter of time before we must stop asking the world to deal with our aging faces.

To make things worse, Bening is the high-powered editor in chief of some women's magazine who is having crises of conscience about the messages they are giving women. WHAAA? This whole movie is like a video-stream of Cosmo magazine. Not only is the hand-wringing about the models not being real people hypocritical, but it's also tired and cliche. Speaking of which, the writing in the movie is predictable to eye-muscle-fatigue-inducing levels. When Meg Ryan tells her mom she has no idea what it feels like to be betrayed old Candice (bless her sporting heart) heaves a deep sigh and says: "Let me take a guess... You feel you've been struck right in the stomach." No WAY! "You feel like you're in a dream... you know the one.. where you're falling and you can't stop." Get OUT Candice Bergen! Oh man, I bet YOU were betrayed too once! It all makes so much sense now.

Meg Ryan is "a good person. You know, I give money to homeless people. I recycle." Both these quotes had an invaluable third to strenghten their triptych of association, but I don't remember what. Suffice it to say, you've heard it before.

So I feel disappointed. I don't know what I was expecting. But this makes me feel depressed. Oh yes, when Meg Ryan takes a hit off of a joint she says-- you'll never guess! "I haven't done this since freshman year in college." Which is interesting ultimately because that's the level of maturation that any of these women have. That's the level of thought that this movie is aimed at. Which is not to diss college freshwommmyns, many of whom, I know from being their teacher, are way more articulate and composed. Add to all of these the fact that the women of the women are all your two-dimensional Sex and the city stereotypes, you find yourself nodding in beleaguered approval to people all over the world who announce "It's a Boy!" with something more than parental joy.