Sunday, June 29, 2008

Probably Not the Best Example of Loving Kindness

I called somebody a "stupid fucking asshole" on the way to yoga class this morning...there in the middle of the street--him in his car that had careened in front of me, shaking with indignation, yelling, acting like he was gonna run into me on purpose, though I'd had the right of, women, and children standing passively at the bus stop on the corner as I unleashed my invective, yoga mat slung over one shoulder.

Probably not the best example of loving kindness. Then, that well of rage, so easily tapped, might have something do with why I go to yoga class in the first place.

Joe Strummer sang

Let fury have the hour
Anger can be power
Know that you can use it

And that's true, up to a point, even if the number of oppressive regimes overthrown by punk rock seems to be securely locked at zero. I've been known to rage against people with positive attitudes, though it's generally only those who desperately want to have positive attitudes that are the problem; y'know, people who say "keep your bullshit negative attitudes away from me," without the least hint of irony. Smiling organic types who, if you're suffering, will tell you it's just your own bad karma, all your own fault for putting out negative energy--as if anything could be more negative than substituting rejection and judgement for kindness and empathy. Then, who knows, maybe all those people in Darfur need is just a good New Age seminar.

An American Tibetan Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron (yeah, I’m at least as dubious as you are about Westerners who become Buddhist nuns and change their names, though, as far as I know, she didn't drop nearly as much acid as Richard Alpert did before he became Ram Dass) (not that there’d be anything wrong with that if she had) wrote this about a Zen teacher named Bernard Glassman who works with the homeless: “he feels that moving into the areas of society that he had rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he had rejected.” Could it be that all self-righteousness is, in essence, a refusal to accept what we see in the mirror?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Things To Do While Drinking Coffee #1

(post made possible by the good graces of the High Point Cafe, West Mt. Airy, State of Deep Perplexity, U.S.A.)
...was reminiscing with somebody about high school a day or two ago...not actually reminiscing, more like referring...with none of that wistful emotional content reminiscing might imply...but then it turned into reminiscing when I remembered seeing 1983...on the Serious Moonlight Tour...which kicked, today, that in mind, I was listening to the Ziggy Stardust mp3 form...on an the car...thinking that shit holds up...though it may be as much or more simply a lingering residue of some kind of sardonic adolescent reverie...the way Bowie could make ya feel cool precisely because you were so hopelessly alienated and desperately miserable and despised by it seemed like every single one of your peers along with...everybody else...basically...i look at my watch it says nine twenty-five and I think oh god i’m still alive...keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe, put your rayguns to my be insulted by these fascists is so degrading...along with perhaps the hope that maybe it was all really just a big mistake...a routine cosmic error by which you inadvertently got born on the wrong planet, and...who knows?...maybe that could be corrected somehow...though probably not...which only makes the teenage romantic despair that much more of my all time favorite songs is “Strawberry Fields Forever”...which isn’t so much about countless wasted teenagers...or one-time wasted teenagers...will tell you...or about some specific place in Liverpool that had some specific importance in John Lennon’s specific life as countless music trivia nerds will tell you...what it’s about, I think, is having a place in the mind where you can go where everything’s cool...there’s a bunch of Lennon songs about that, actually...except this one takes it a step further...that is you can’t you know tune in but it’s alright, that is I think it’s not too acknowledge the one big problem with that place...which is not, actually, that it isn’t real...that’s part of the appeal, in fact, and precisely the reason there’s nothing to get hung about...but that you can only ever go there alone...and no matter how many times you say “let me take you down” to how many people, you can only ever be alone there...any real connection requires setting out from that safe comfortable space back out into everything you went there to escape, facing the slings and arrows of outrageous bullshit there something wrong, do you think, with somebody at 42 thinking so much about old rock lyrics...too much like that kid in junior high with the strikingly early facial hair and funky smelling jean jacket and the complete words to the Dark Side of the Moon album inscribed on his math book cover...and even taking the time and bandwidth to share this shit? Probably, but it’s far from the worst thing wrong with me...when I think of how my light is spent...and anyway, here’s a quote from Hokusai (who, as far as I know, never rhymed “fire” with “desire” or “all night” with “all right”):

I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was fifty, but really nothing I did before the age of seventy was of any value at all. At seventy-three I have at last caught every aspect of nature—birds, fish, animals, insects, trees, grasses, all. When I am eighty I shall have developed still further, and I will really master the secrets of art at ninety. When I reach a hundred my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained around the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life.

So what the hell does that have to with anything? And wasn’t Van Gogh, anyway, the first rock star, in that glorified self-destructive kind of way? No, Keats doesn’t count—I mean, it’s not like he chose to die of t.b...and, despite what Shelley wrote about him, read famously by Mick Jagger at the free concert in Hyde Park in tribute to Brian Jones found floating in his swimming pool two days earlier while Hell’s Angels auditioned for the stabbing death of sixties idealism among the assembled London throng, even his good looking corpse likely meant a big fat missing-out on inspiration rather than any kind of romantic fulfillment of it...and, all in all, much as it’d be nice to have my teens and twenties back, truth be told it’d only be worth it if I could hold on to the mind I’ve got now....

Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Mind on Drugs

A few years ago, I lived in this rickety old house broken into apartments right around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts in Rochester. One day I was sitting on the front porch and this crazy old woman who lived upstairs came out and started talking to me. She asked what I was doing. I said grading papers. She asked if I was a teacher. I said yeah. After a while, I thought it’d only be polite to ask what she did as well. She gave her psychiatric history, described her heroin addiction, her schizophrenia, her son who robbed banks while she waited in the car, and her experiences with Buddhism. “I reached enlightenment in 1977,” she said, “but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Having your mind empty can be painful.” I suspected she might be mistaking the effects of anti-psychotic medication for nirvana, but who am I to say?

Truth be told, there was actually this one time when.........
..................................................I saw God................
...................................really................................ was at this Allman Brothers gig................. Telluride...................................................
......waaaaay up in the fuckin’ Rocky Mountains............. was like sooooooooooooo fucking amaaaazing...........
.......................................but I’m not gonna tell that story here.

One thing I’ll say about the yoga thing, though, is that it definitely can supply a cool, clear, and reasonably consistent buzz. At times, in fact, I’ve wondered if it might be just another addictive behavior. But, as a good friend said, for those with a tendency to self-medicate, being addicted to something healthy is a good thing.

In an earlier post I went on a bit of a rant about the tendency to prescribe drugs like Ritalin and Adderall to what would appear to be the growing legion of kids affected by ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). In the past, I’ve been called on this kind of remark, and told about people who were unable to read a page or sit down for half an hour before they were put on these drugs, and now they can. Am I saying they should be denied the medication that’s improved their lives? No, I’m not. I am, however, suggesting that such cases are a small subsection of the rapidly exploding total, and that, in many cases, the problem might be the educational system, not the kids. Allow me to provide a bit of autobiography. They tried to get me on Ritalin twice when I was growing up, as a way of dealing with my apparent inability to pay attention in math class (or for that matter, any class that failed to grab my interest, i.e. almost all of them). I refused and, fortunately, my parents didn’t push the matter. Was my poor attention span a problem? Yes. In fact, my grades were lousy throughout grade school, and I probably would've been held back more than once except that the teachers seemed to agree that I could’ve passed if I’d tried, and that forcing me to repeat would only make things worse for everybody involved. In the later years of high school, I did a bit better and, having taken a year off and written a personal essay describing my trials and tribulations and heroic overcoming of the same, I made it to college. It wasn’t until graduate school, though, that I really began to excel. I won’t say that I floated through two Master’s degrees and a PhD without a care, but I didn’t seem to have any more trouble than anybody else. Lectures rarely held my attention and, as always, I had to have music playing to study but, as courses were all discussion based, and the vast majority of work was self-directed, that wasn’t much of a problem. All in all, it was a whole hell of a lot easier than grade school. Do I sound like a learning-disabled person? Or might it be that I was struggling with an educational system which itself has a severe disability in terms of understanding that some minds work differently than others and allowing those minds room to flower? Alas, from what I hear, things have only gotten worse since I left high school, and any hope for change has been positively knee-capped by “No Child Left Behind.” Can there be any doubt that, as reliance on standardized testing continues to grow, the attention deficit epidemic and resulting drugging of America's youth will as well?

Hatred by any other name...smells

From Blogger’s Content Policy: “Users may not publish material that promotes hate toward groups based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity.” This is not a problem, as I wasn’t planning on promoting hate toward anyone anyway. Nonetheless....

Can anything possibly be more irritating than somebody like Ann Coulter saying “of course I’m not allowed to say [fill in hateful utterance] because it’s not politically correct”? Notice that she did say it, even within the act of claiming she’s not allowed to? Notice also that she and her many cohorts on talk radio and Fox News have made incredibly lucrative careers out of such cheap demagoguery, all the while insisting it’s not permitted? Overall, sentiments along the lines of “man, I can’t even burn a cross or beat up gays without being criticized anymore” leave my well of empathy rather dry. And yet, it's striking to see how successfully “political correctness” has been co-opted by wealthy bigots seeking to present themselves as rebels against an oppressive liberal elite.

Watching the ongoing presidential race, I'm fascinated (and horrified) by the verbal contortions some people go through to get the point across that Barack Obama is “not one of us.” Get this: “Obama” rhymes with “Osama!” And that means he’s just like the guy behind 9/11! Okay, and, "Bush" rhymes with "Tush" and, as so many tasteless comedians have pointed out, it's also a common term for pubic hair, and, combined with a vice president named “Dick”...never mind. More damning, anyway, is the middle name: Hussein! It doesn’t take a songwriter’s facility with rhyme to get that one! Especially since he never uses it! He’s hiding it, just like Saddam hid in that basement! There’s no getting around this one! Except...if conservatives consider middle names so revealing, what’s their problem with William Jefferson Clinton? I mean...would they want to impeach one of our Founding Fathers? Repeal the Declaration of Independence? Give the Louisiana Purchase back to those surrender monkeys in France? They must really hate America! Or, perhaps, they’re simply desperate for means to imply the “n word” without actually coming out and saying it.

Ultimately, it seems that how prejudice is expressed, or the emotional content of that expression, tends to be given more weight than its potential effects. Suppose a drunk guy staggers into the room and starts calling people “bitches” and “faggots,” responding loudly and belligerently to anyone who doesn’t share his particular viewpoint. Almost everybody will agree that this person is a bigot and an asshole and that his stated opinions and attitudes need not be respected. Now suppose another guy walks in, sober and pious, holding up his Holy Book and announcing that, according to his God, women should be completely subordinate to men, gays and lesbians should be put to death, and anyone who doesn't believe in his book and follow its laws deserves to be tortured eternally. In such a case, many will politely disagree, but terms like “intolerance” will most likely be reserved for anyone who fails to respect this person’s deeply held faith. But can there be any doubt which of the two is more dangerous?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yoga For Cynics, an Introduction

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Walt Whitman

That said...what the hell is “Yoga For Cynics” supposed to mean?

A couple years ago, I thought of creating a blog with the stipulation that all posts would be written under the influence of at least half a six-pack. Though the Web cried out forlornly for more drunken rants, that one, somehow, never made it past the “ask somebody how to set up a blog” stage. Some time later, I managed to put a different one on-line with a few posts which turned out to be...sober rants, angst without the died unmourned. More recently, having, somewhat improbably, gotten seriously into that mellow, positive downward facing dog thing, I came up with an idea for a magazine article called “Yoga for Cynics.” That never actually materialized either. However, in a moment of mystical rapture—or perhaps merely heavy caffeination—the inspiration came for...another blog!

That paragraph didn’t really answer the question, did it? This one will try harder, perhaps even going so far as to organize its ideas in a clear, outline-like fashion (this blog is gonna be disciplined! Far more yoga-like than cynical in that respect. Maybe), like so: a) the yoga aspect will (hopefully) provide a much needed balance to the cynical aspect, and b) a couple months ago I went on this week-long yoga retreat to a place called Maya Tulum, in Mexico (organized by legendary yoga teacher Jennifer Schelter) (who seriously kicks ass) (in a positive, nurturing kinda way) ( There I encountered this amazing writer/performer/teacher/holy lunatic named Ann Randolph (, who inspired the idea of writing posts in twelve minute bursts, holding back nothing (though I’m not actually doing that with this post) (and probably won’t with some others) (most likely I’ll also cheat by thinking before and editing afterwards) (hell, it’s my damn blog). Anyway, we’re talking about free flowing inspiration from the core of one’s being and...well, actually we’re probably only partially talking about that, but it certainly seems like a cool idea. Let’s see how it goes....

If that’s not enough, there’s also c) the basic concept of the unwritten article, which may not end up having a hell of a lot to do with the blog. Nonetheless, it probably would’ve been something along the lines of: as “spiritual paths,” “means of attaining inner peace” or “traditional/holistic/post-hippie alternatives to taking truckloads of psychopharmaceuticals to keep from diving off a cliff” go, yoga is ideally suited for those who can’t write “spiritual paths,” etc. without putting said terms in quotes yet still feeling kind of embarrassed for using them in the first place. This has something to do with that “mind, body, spirit” thing your yoga-obsessed cousin’s always going on about in trying to get you to eat her macrobiotic vegan okra muffins.

Alright, so, obviously, that “spirit” part’s gonna a sticking point for the skeptic, since, contrary to the solemn intonations of that guy you know who dresses in bright pastels, has the world’s smallest ponytail, plays the didgeridoo, talks about his crystals as if they were children, uses “healing” as an adjective, and claims to have been Native American in a previous life, concepts like “spiritual energy, the “immortal soul,” and the very notion of “enlightenment” remain highly questionable. Hell, even Ram Dass said that anyone who claims to be enlightened probably isn’t (then, I don’t exactly trust Ram Dass, either). And that’s not even getting into the really metaphysical stuff like reincarnation, karma, discorporating into a floating glowing being of pure love, or, of course, the big G. Sure, there’s that great history of spiritual traditions followed by wise men throughout the world’s societies, but isn’t that at least balanced out by the bloody history of organized religion? James Baldwin wrote, “if a concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” Some might say that this would entail dumping much of the world’s “life of the spirit.” (By the same token, Pat Robertson’s denunciation of yoga as Hindu idol worship does give it a certain appeal in a spiting-the-religious-right kind of way) (though, on second thought, spite might not be the best motivation for doing yoga).

So, then, there’s “the mind”—also a ludicrously vexed concept, and one that remains so poorly understood that many of today’s respected mental health professionals actually think it’s a good idea to pump Adderall and Ritalin and god knows what else into any kid intelligent or creative enough to be bored silly by an educational curriculum based on standardized test preparation. Nonetheless, the notion that contemplative practices can be useful in dealing with depression, anxiety, addiction and so on has been steadily gaining ground (Yoga for Depression is a really good, accessible book on the subject by Amy Weintraub, who, I might mention, was extremely kind and gentle in waking me up every time I started snoring doing those yoga nidra things at Kripalu) (the program started at 6:00 AM for chrissake...). Still, despite what people in your local coffee sangha might say, many of those who get their information from empirical research rather than channeling the spirits of druidic warrior goddesses are still pretty dubious on the subject (though, admittedly, medical researchers channeling the spirits of pharmaceutical companies providing their funding can produce dubious results as well). So, ultimately, while meditation, tai chi, and yoga are certainly a step closer to rational acceptability than past life regression or praying to the Holy Virgin, they still might not be close enough to make those of inherently doubtful dispositions want to do headstands.

Which brings us to the somewhat obvious reason so many people are doing reverse triangle at your local strip mall: the physical benefits, including the justly celebrated, round-and-firm-as-a-pair-of-ripe-grapefruit “yoga butt.” Much of what goes on within this recent craze might, of course, be characterized as the yoga equivalent of that “smooth jazz” crap they play on the radio—often virtuosic if completely lacking in substance. But does this, necessarily, damn the agnostic to a Kenny G. approach to yoga? I’m more inclined toward what might be called a John Coltrane/Miles Davis version—requiring a reasonably open mind and willingness to at least try and calm the mind and ponder whether the “spirit” actually exists as something more than a mass of badly confused cells in the brain while doing a hundred and eight sun salutations. Should none of that ultimately work out, it won’t change the fact that I’ve saved my knees, overcome chronic tension headaches, and generally become more studly (though, y’know, that won’t matter so much once I’ve overcome the ego).

That said, this blog probably won’t have much to do with asanas (that’s the physical postures of yoga, for those of you who get irritated rather than feeling mystical energy crawling up your spine when you see Sanskrit). That’s also a good thing. Not long ago, this woman I was kinda sorta involved with said she was curious about yoga and wanted me to teach her some. I told her I’m still working on not hurting myself by overstretching my hamstrings. Hell, I’m still not even sure what hamstrings are.

In the end, whether this blog actually has anything to do with yoga or not is for the reader to decide. I’m just gonna write it.