Saturday, January 2, 2016

Observations on returning to Philly/Facebook/etc. after a week in a Buddhist monastery

Oh my god, people are fucking crazy....
(That's about it, for now).


(Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh)
(Thanks to all the kind people at Blue Cliff Monastery)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Trail Difficult to Find Beyond this Point

I've never seen myself as a city mouse, used to think quite the opposite, in fact. My ideal was to get as far away from the noise, the pollution, the frenzied mass of raw humanity, as possible. Lengthy wilderness backpacking excursions seemed a kind of training for a time when any trips I took would be in the opposite direction, some untrammeled (except by me and maybe a few select friends) region my home.

I still see the appeal in that. Yet, I've come to realize that extremes of isolation aren't actually all that good for me. And, for a lifelong introvert, being way out in the country makes isolating oneself a little too easy.

Then, here in the northeast, so does wintertime. In February, a steady period of high temperatures in the low twenties or teens, lows in single digits, had finally convinced me to forsake the bike, find other ways of getting around town...or, y’know, stay in like a hermit when I didn’t actually have to be anywhere. It made for perfect timing for a visit to friends who'd had a baby, in the low desert metropolis of Arizona.

Full disclosure: they had the baby almost a year earlier, but I waited until it was twenty degrees in Philly and low eighties in the Sonoran desert, to fully enjoy the contrast between biking in a ski mask and standing barefoot on a rock to pluck a huge, juicy, red and yellow grapefruit from a backyard tree each morning for breakfast. Went with them to the botanical gardens, the zoo, and local parks with cacti and rock formations, watched the Oscars, and read their adorable little daughter extremely expurgated toddler versions of Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and Frankenstein.

Also rented a shiny silver Mustang—seriously, the people at the airport wanted me to have it, for the same price as whatever purely practical low-mpg Japanese compact I'd originally agreed on—and took off north one day by myself. Ten years I’d been away from the high desert and on the drive up, just seeing it out the window, remembered deep in the fascia just how desperately I love it, ipod plugged in to the dashboard, Gram and Emmylou singing twenty thousand roads I went down down down and they all led me straight back home to you.

(Meant to drive all the way to Flagstaff, where I lived for two years while getting my Master’s, to see another friend, on another day before I left, but the forecast was for snow up there, and I’d be seeing that soon enough). (This time, I was heading for my favorite spot in Arizona, an out of the way area known as the Wet Beaver Wilderness).

(Yeah, it’s really called that. You drive maybe an hour and a half to two hours north from Phoenix, forty five minutes to an hour south of Flagstaff to the Sedona exit—fifteen miles to Sedona, but go the opposite direction just a couple miles, then hike in about three and half or four above the creek, along some red rock cliffs inhabited by lizards and the occasional petroglyph, before taking a little unofficial spur trail just before the mail trail crosses the creek. Then, in maybe a couple hundred yards, you see “the crack”—yeah, it's really called that, too—an area of perfect red rock swimming pools surrounded by soft cliffs).
Got off the highway and went barely a mile before running into a road crew re-paving the road. When I first visited there, in maybe 1994, I think the road was all dirt. Now, they told it’d be half an hour before I could get through. It was only a mile or two to the trailhead, so I thought about parking and walking, but instead turned around and drove into Sedona. It’s been built up and commercialized a lot in the past decade or two (actually, as old-timers used to tell me, long before that, as well, which I have no doubt is true, but one's own nostalgic grumbling doesn't generally have that long a scope). Nowadays, you have to pay to park at a trailhead, but only if you’re gonna leave your car. So, I stayed at the car, looking up at the big red monoliths while enjoying some leftover pad Thai (homemade by my friends the night before, and surprisingly good cold). Half an hour later, I was pulling into the Dry Beaver Creek parking area, paved and a lot bigger than it used to be, but nearly empty, just then.

(According to an internet source, one thing that hasn't changed is that the lot's still a common site for break-ins. Back in ’96, I camped in there with some friends, communing with rippling water, sun, and strange dried fungi while, an hour north, the ceremony for my Master’s graduation was happening—I promised my mom I’d go to the PhD one, so she could come and see me in my mortar board and robe, and did, eight years later—only to come out and find someone had broken into my van, smashed a  $300 window for a nearly worthless Sony disc-man that skipped like crazy and the old Grateful Dead CD sitting in it. Can't say the experience wasn't worth it, though).

Leaving the rental car unlocked and empty but for the winter coat and thick shirt I'd left in the backseat at the airport, I headed into the high desert, on foot, entering the Wet Beaver Wilderness through a metal gate a mile or two in. If I’d recalled my love for the high desert viscerally from the car, to actually be out walking in it—hiking, something I don’t do nearly as much these days as I used to, and hadn’t much at all recently—was a true revelation. Back home, low-grade, seasonal depression had been edging gradually into the deeper, nastier kind. But here, in this environment so harsh that only the prickliest life can manage to thrive, hot sun reflecting magically off the slick rock, I somehow felt a peculiar renewal—prana chi kundalini life-force happiness—in an almost magical connection to something temporarily forgotten but, as it turned out, far from lost.

Once at those storied rocks and pools, I climbed around a bit, then, yogi I’ve become since those rambling semi-hippie graduate student days when I roamed here, sat to meditate for the better part of an hour.

As a semi-responsible yoga teacher, I try to be careful not to give the wrong idea about things like meditation and mindfulness—talking about, y’know, those blissed-out kinds of mental states—satori sadhana peak experiences whatever—that, yeah, might manifest for us sometimes, but not usually, and can’t be counted on...and I'm told aren’t really the point anyway...not to mention that I've certainly experienced the oh shit I guess I'm not really enlightened hangover...the feeling that mystical awakening played with my affections and then wouldn't return my phone calls...more than it’s much better to focus on the average and ordinary, the ever-returning-to-the-breath-and-being-cool-with-that. And yet, they’re the awesome when they come—rejuvenating, ecstatic, trippy, and all the more special on a good day out in the desert.

So, at the risk of sounding like a not-so-cynical yogi, let's just say that's what was happening.

Feeling inspired to extend my hike, rather than just retracing the three or four miles back to the car, I head for the quite-literal heights, across the creek and up the Weir Trail—another steep steady mile and half above a steep side canyon to the Mogollon Rim, spotting hidden waterfalls deep below and feeling an almost embarrassing love of life with every step, as if living the words of my one-time idol Jack Kerouac—who, yeah, I know, could be kind of a misogynistic drunken jerk—pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.

And, there at the top, at the very edge of the Colorado plateau, where high desert ends and an alpine zone begins and you can see desert below and the San Francisco peaks in the distance, just where the trail flattens out, I found a sign reading: Trail Difficult to Find Beyond This Point.

And ain’t that just the way it is?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Be Where You Are, Philly Edition

As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.
(actually from Jack Kornfield, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book)

The past keeps knock knock knockin’ on my door
And I don’t want to hear it any more...
Lou Reed

The  greatest events—are not our noisiest, but our stillest hours.

...been feelin’ discontented with the city again....even this morning and afternoon, sittin’ reading a really interesting book I just got yesterday by Karl Ove Knausgaard with coffee and a smoothie...happy, for the most part, with that...but wishing I could be doing it in a little shack with big windows on an autumnal ridge, or by the ocean...any to one place, then, where the author talks about art, specifically Rembrandt, his brushstrokes and themes....with no pictures in the book, really wanted to look at a Rembrandt, myself, try to see what he was describing....not even thinking about Googling for some pixelated reproduction of a photograph of a painting, decided to get on my bike and ride over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see a real one....and, on the way there, thought: yeah, there really are some cool things about living in the big city...
*top image: Head of Christ, Rembrandt van Rijn, Philadelphia Museum of Art*

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prose Poems, Ramblings, & Mala Beads

Prayer is nothing but poetry that achieves the destruction of its reciter.*

...Matt Remski thinks a helluva lot about mālā beads...hell, he thinks a helluva lot about a whole lotta stuff...but mālā beads more than most...,turns out he’s a recovering Catholic...redeemed through pain, not through joy, as Jim Carroll put well as rehabilitating himself from various more coercive forms of Buddhism and yoga...and has written down some of those thoughts in a thin volume called, with nods to Baudelaire as well as a number of spiritual traditions, Rosary {or les fleurs du mālā}...

Having been possessed by Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Kṛṣṇa, rage, the destruction of idols, the empty dawn, so many books, the weight of my love’s foot upon mine, I wonder: what rosary could string these holy crises together?

...honestly, was a bit leery about it, at first...coming from a liberal and largely secular Quaker background, ceremony, spiritual hierarchies, sacred objects, and incantations have always struck me as best....even if that didn’t prevent me from buying a beaded necklace or two at a roadside stand in the Navajo Nation on the way to the Grand Canyon at nineteen...(always figured wearing beads was like long hair without the long hair...and combined with long hair?...the 80’s neo-hippie girls at Grateful Dead shows were gonna hafta wanna share their Indian blankets with me)...(but they didn’t)...(so much for the power o’ fuckin’ beads)...

A double helix can be formed by twining a rosary and a mālā together. It seems to be in the nature of the human genome to blur the boundaries between east and west.

...later, much later, three and a half years ago, having gotten into the yoga thing...if never, like Remski, the whole appropriated-Hinduism-with-a-paternalistic-guru thing...while doing teacher training at Kripalu, was given mālā** beads in a highly ceremonial fashion...and learned a mantra to recite with them... Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya...and recited it...a lot, in fact...if never quite figuring out what it meant for me...felt, at least, that it tied me, in a sense, as if on a string, to the people with whom I’d spent that very special month.....(wore it every day until a night-time pool party that summer, when I took it off when changing into a bathing suit...and, later, while a buncha of drunken hipsters were doing the kinds of tricks in the pool any responsible adult would’ve yelled at them to get out of the pool for if they’d been kids, deciding I didn’t really want to be there at that horrible second when bacchanalian revelry turned to blood on the edge of the pool and drunken tears and ambulance sirens, took off)...(though, as it turned out, nobody got hurt)...(and I never saw my beads again)......

...the mālā is a non-denominational tool possessing enormous flexibility and power because it is symbolically void. It can hold and accelerate and multiply the power of countless aphorisms, deities, or seed syllables issuing from thousands of contrasting streams of Eastern rhapsody.

...been poring through the book over the past week or two while simultaneously re-reading Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Manuel Puig, making yet another valiant effort at getting all the way through Sprach Zarathustra, drinking beer, and waiting none-too-patiently for to finally deliver my copy of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage...making Remski, perhaps, a bead in a mālā already containing Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Puig, Nietzsche, beer, the internet, and Murakami...better him than me...

Baby’s first rosary consists of two felt balls attached to the ends of a length of twine. He dangles it over the cat, prefiguring how he himself will be teased by beautiful ideas.

...stylistically, I’m kinda doing a really lazy approximation of what Remski does, here...along with my usual thing...y’know, the rambling and ellipses n’ all that...which, let’s face it, is also pretty lazy and self-indulgent, too....hell, I’m a yoga blogger...making a claim to uniqueness by, just now and then, doing something other than complaining about how everybody else is doing it wrong...(though, yeah, there were a couple pretty snarky remarks up there...if not nearly as bad as the ones I deleted)...(kinda like my own little anti-guru bead)...(see what I did there?)...

True maturity might involve making a mālā with no guru bead. No bead more important than any other. No bead that conceals the beginning and end of the string.
...the book is itself self-consciously fashioned as a kind of mālā...incorporating poetry and prose, prose-poetry, math and numerology, sex and violence, mysticism and neuroanatomy, child- and fatherhood, the earthy and the ethereal, earnest and joke, as well as the various liminal spaces Remski would no doubt call the string connecting all of these....sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about...but that’s not a bad thing...nor is it apart from the book’s overall intent and theme, as I understand it....which involves expanding rather than contracting set already-overloaded signifiers and the thin strings that bind them free...without breaking........(I think)...

(Zero is a perfect bead, into which all calculation and meaning disappears)









* all quotations (in italics, set apart from the rambling, are from Remski’s book, unless otherwise attributed) (I also stole the lovely pic at the top from his website)

** can I tell ya what a pain in the butt it is quoting Matthew Remski with all his fancy schmancy letter symbols? So, I'm gonna write mālā in just that way, with the pretentious little lines over the a's every chance I get...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Facebook, Junk Food, Suffering, Compassion, and Robin Williams

The hole I dig is bottomless but nothing else can set me free...
Robert Pollard, I Am a Scientist

It is true we love life; not because we are wont to live, but because we are wont to love.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Sprach Zarathustra
...a friend posted something on Facebook about how baffling it is to see people...middle-class, educated...who should know better in this day and age...eating at McDonalds...I told him I could’s the same way I feel about cigarettes, and people who don’t exercise beyond the effort required to walk to the car or find the remote....but that a lotta people I know feel the same way when they see people eating pizza...(which my friend passionately loves)...(real pizza...not that soy crap)...

Dairy and gluten and grease, oh my!
Dorothy Gale, The Yoga Teacher of Oz

 ...of course, thinking about it much at all makes me realize how little room I have to judge...(to paraphrase Bob Dylan, if the full extent of my unmindful consumption could be seen, the granola crowd’d probably put my head in some kinda earnest, self-righteous, painfully passive-aggressive equivalent of a guillotine)...especially since, with a PhD and a decade or so in the crunchy, life-affirming yoga world, I know, like, waaaay better...

 If I don’t know I don’t know
 ....................................I think I know
If I don’t know I know
                                     I think I don’t know
R.D. Laing, Knots

 ...really, I said, what I think it comes down to is that life is hard....(realizing, in retrospect that I might’ve been unconsciously plagiarizing something Kurt Vonnegut wrote about why we keep destroying our environment even though we know better)...(or maybe it was somebody else, and I’m still unconsciously plagiarizing)...(and so the list of my sins of consciousness or the lack thereof continues to grow)...

...I mean...I’m more than aware that a handful of raw organic kale grown in the backyard garden I’m too lazy to cultivate, in an extremely rural region where with a minimal quantity of carcinogens and other toxins in the rain and groundwater, would be a far better choice on just about every truly conscious kinda level than a cupcake or a beer...and yet, I’m probably gonna both eat the cupcake and drink the beer, anyway, for the sheer momentary pleasure of it...(though I will put a handful of store-bought-and-probably-not-organic-‘cause-that-shit’s-too-expensive kale in my daily smoothie)....just like I won’t spend nearly as much  time meditating as I do getting into idiotic arguments with relative strangers on-line...

...with so many sinkin’ now you gotta keep thinkin’ you can make it through these waves:
acid booze and ass, needles guns and grass, lotsa laughs...
Joni Mitchell

 ...and that’s because, deep down, to be painfully honest, no matter how many positive Buddhist quotes I might like to recite while people are holding poses for five minutes at a time in Yin class about the wonder and sheer illimitable awesomeness of the present moment, it doesn’t seem worth it...with so much despair lurking in the recesses of mind and body, those little things that help us through through the minutes of the day, things we love, even if they don’t benefit us in the long run, can't be so easily forsaken...

...Thoreau wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation...(and Pink Floyd, somehow, a hundred years later, appropriated that and called it the English way)....Freud’s death instinct...mean, grumpy old thanatos...often powerful as the life instinct, more upbeat and personable eros...sometimes matter how many ridiculous positive affirmations we in the yoga crowd try to force-feed ourselves when we’re not trying to blame it all on being modern and western and thus trying to shed our modern western skins...(without realizing, of course, that there’s really nothing more modern or western than the romanticism that causes us to think that becoming ancient and the far away other will cure us of our despair)...(and now, it seems, I’m pointing the finger of self-righteous judgment in the opposite direction)....(I’ll stop)...(but not quite yet)...
...(here, without further ado, is my own painfully pissed off and horribly self-righteous Facebook post from a week ago, following the news of Robin Williams, dead of chronic despair: If there's one aspect of the yoga world that I absolutely loathe, it's how many people there are—including teachers, yoga bloggers with tens of thousands of "likes," and major revered gurus--who seem to think they're experts on depression even though they clearly know absolutely nothing about it—thinking it's synonymous with being bummed out and can be fixed with positive affirmations or an "attitude adjustment" (clearly unaware that depression might be defined as the inability to take on a positive attitude), or that it's synonymous with sadness, and thus, is something we all experience from time to time and should be seen as a natural and beautiful part of life. No, it isn't. And if you don't know that, you should keep your mouth shut on the subject, no matter how many people fawn on you and tell you how wise and spiritual you are.....harsh, but, if nothing else, it’s my own blood in which I’m writing)...

....ultimately, I think it all points to the incredible necessity for compassion...for all of all of our junk-food eating, time-wasting, un-compassionate, judgmental, self-righteous, sometimes flat-out nasty glory....because of all that, in fact...because we have pain and because we all do what we do, however unmindful, however counterproductive, to make ourselves feel better...right here, right now...

Friday, July 4, 2014

4th of July, Somewhere in Philly

...I live a couple of miles from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Roots play the Wawa-sponsored biggest free concert in America (about 600 thousand people last time I went) in front of the Art Museum steps every 4th of July....the residents of my building, a narrow row house converted to four apartments, are all Chinese, except for me, while most people on my street are Muslims from North Africa, the Middle East, and Bangladesh, mixed in with African Americans, who make up the majority of the population of West Philly, along with a large community of lesbians and transgendered people, vegetarians, wealthy college students, hipsters, yogis....just walking around the block, one hears a striking variety of languages and accents, sees all kinds of clothing, along with a mosque, an old stone church, and a head shop that closes for prayers......the kind of place that would make some cry out in despair...this is supposed to be AMERICA!!!!...I want my COUNTRY back!!!!!.....probably some of those folks live around here, too...everybody else does.....and that, I think, is the way it oughtta be...a country struggling, failing far more often than not, but still struggling, to live up to an ideal that founding fathers, themselves heavily invested in slavery and ethnic cleansing, put forth all those years ago, just a couple miles away....

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Awakening: Compassion, Contentment, Etc.

...saw a group of young guys...looked like college kids...a block or two down Sansom Street from where I live...standing on a corner taking pictures of themselves and laughing...a second look showed what was so funny....a homeless man lying unconscious on the sidewalk, and they, arrayed in their brightly colored polo shirts, tennis shorts, and unexamined privilege, taking selfies with him...

...from my bike, across the intersection, I wanted to yell you stupid assholes!!!!...just to let them know that somebody passing by didn't think they were nearly so clever as they just maybe make them think about what might be wrong with finding amusement in the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves...possibly thereby awakening apparently dormant compassion in an admittedly roundabout and perhaps contradictory way...but didn't...

...wondered what someone more enlightened than I might've said....not that it was doubt, there could be all kinds of gentle ways to start a meaningful dialogue, and I'm sure that if Thich Nhat Hanh or Nelson Mandela had been there, that's just what they would have done... order to do that, myself, I realized, I'd have to awaken my own sense of compassion...for them...and as it was, couldn't think of any way of doing that short of knocking their heads together...

...maybe the point here is that sometimes you need to work on yourself's own angry, cynical, yet still strangely idealistic self that can't stand the thought of people finding fun in an unconscious homeless person, even though worse things happen every minute...and one might in the moment like to make worse things happen to them...

Sunday morning, and I'm falling...
Lou Reed, Sunday Morning

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning
...I just dunno...right at this moment, I'm trying to practice contentment...sitting here on a late Sunday morning in the threadbare but ever-comfortable Ikea chair in a filthy apartment in my (clean) underwear, listening to some really really good music, reading and writing stupid shit on Facebook, and alternating between a tall glass of room-temperature water with lemon (the yoga crowd says it's good for me) and some tasty hot coffee (in Sanskrit, they call it prana), having been too lazy from the past couple days' bike rides to get up and ride across town for morning sangha practice...grateful there's nothing much that absolutely has to be done today except to figure out what I'm teaching in my 7 pm Yin Yoga class this evening...and pay some end-of-the-month bills...but eyeing the three books I've started reading in the past couple days (not even mentioning the novel I'm ever-so-slowly writing)...kinda wishing I had a smart, sensitive, beautiful girlfriend with whom to share an endless lazy brunch, but....recognizing that it's all okay...really not bad...not bad at all...pretty good, in fact...practicing that...