Monday, August 29, 2011

as it is

reflections on a vipassana 10-day intensive

imaginary facebook status update:
work out the terms of your own damned salvation
save yourself from your own misery

i wake up to 4am bell and walk out to dome of stars
every morning the moon is in a different place in the sky

WPEG radio
all peggy all the time
full slate of programming from gospel music to sutra chants to call-in talk shows
over days the volume diminishes

day 5: is this what silence sounds like?
as soon as the thought materializes the silence is gone

goenka's gravelly voice

he instructs me even in my sleep
in equanimous dreams

no keys phones pens notebooks money ID to carry around
how do we know who we are?
we cling to our water bottles
eager to make fetishes out of anything
guzzle water and burp through 1-hour sittings

1-hour sittings of strong determination
don't open legs or hands or eyes
my body eager for drama churns in empty-stomached digestion and hyperventilation
the dhamma hall full of sneezing and burping and the occasional fart

this too shall pass

avarice and addiction come out at lunch
food our only comfort
we weep in silent appreciation on day 8 when warm chocolate chip cookies are presented
just when we thought we were over our cravings

confession: breaking my vow to abstain from killing any being i swat 4 mosquitos over the 10 days
still trying to practice indifference
in adhitthana i feel one land on my neck
feel the sting and itching
then forget about it


every thought every emotion
manifests somewhere as a sensation
can i feel it?
where does it arise?
watch it come up and disappear
sensations arise to vanish
between sittings i watch bubbles come up through the algae in the pond
then pop

stop your ego-dependent psychoanalysis
the incessant inner narration
come back to sensation
come back to the body
only the body contains the truth
the body itself the healer

bring out your dead
a la monty python
i clean out all my closets and coffins
let it all pass

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Electoral Politics as Usual

As disappointing as the loss of Sandy Pasch to Alberta Darling may be, we are once again reminded that electoral politics is not on the side of the common good. The system has been corrupted to the point of serious dysfunction. Many would argue that it was never set up in the first place to serve the common good, thus the restrictions both historic and present on women, blacks, felons, not to mention the electoral college, voter ID bill, and many other restrictions.

How many times do we have to be abused before we pursue an alternative path? The first election to demoralize me was the 2000 Presidential election, decided by the Supreme Court. Then again the 2004 Presidential, and most recently with the "irregularities" in the Kloppenburg/Prosser election.

Not that we should abjure the responsibility of voting (although I completely understand why some marginalized people have given up on it completely), but that voting should be only one of a myriad other actions. Don't put all your food into a broken refrigerator. Everything will get spoiled. And don't spend thousands of dollars trying to fix that refrigerator. Instead, create alternative ways to preserve food without refrigeration.

So many friends invested all their hope into the recalls, and were left devastated in the wake, besieged with dozens of "if only's": If only I had given more money, if only I had spent another weekend canvassing, if only I could have convinced so-and-so to volunteer....

It's conceivable we could with tremendous effort and expense fix that damned refrigerator. But isn't our energy better spent elsewhere? What if we had spent the millions of dollars generated by the recalls and given it directly to the poor?

Because electoral politics is inextricably part of the system of white supremacy, to invest all our hope and energy in it is to support continued racism. As Jimmy Boggs points out, "Democracy to white people is fascism to black people." Democracy via electoral politics only works for a percentage of the population: the (shrinking) middle class and above. The poor and people of color have been excluded by both Democrats and Republicans throughout our history, and regardless of the party in charge, white supremacy has remained intact. Thus, the subtext of the "I Voted" sticker proudly worn on election day is, "I benefit from and uphold the system of white supremacy."

The fact is anyone benefiting from banks, media, stores, and elections upholds white supremacy. Our focus on electoral politics feeds our delusional conviction that equality is possible in our current system. As plummeting stocks and recent rebellions in Milwaukee, London, Philadelphia and elsewhere reveal, we have nothing close to justice in the USA nor abroad. Our global system of white supremacy maintains oppression and exploitation, and elected officials from both parties all too often vote in the interests of banks and multinational corporations, and are funded by them.

What are the alternatives to our dependence on electoral politics? This is a profound question addressing every single aspect of our lives. I'm building housing cooperatives. What else?
- Stop shopping. Make it, trade it, grow it, forage it.
- Band together with your neighbors to grow food, potluck, share childcare and eldercare, car-share, and keep trouble away so the police are unnecessary.
- Move your money to a local credit union.
- Stop driving. Walk or bike. If you have to use fossil fuels, carpool or bus it.
- Stop consumption of media: TV, radio, internet, phone, newspapers. All mainstream media is owned and operated through the system of white supremacy. Even much alternative media is funded by the same sources, and depends on fossil fuels for transmission. Reduce your consumption by having one or more days a week with everything turned off. Soon you won't want to turn back on.
- Learn how to be healthy. Stop going to the doctor. Learn homeopathics, naturopathy, yoga, nutritional healing, meditation, etc.
- Quit your job. I'm serious. Then you can stop or at least reduce coffee consumption, stop eating out, stop buying clothes, reduce your stress and medical bills, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and have time to do the stuff above.

A ridiculous if not impossible list? That's why we are stuck and at the mercy of our elected officials. But they will not save us, our health insurance, or our retirement accounts. Even a temporary "save" will soon come crashing down, for we no longer have the global resources to sustain a 20th century lifestyle. We have to band together and save ourselves, step by step.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Terribly Ironic Friends: Reconciling Cognitive Dissonance Through Art

I had a group of friends in college, virtually all white men, who were, and still are, as far as I can tell, terribly ironic, sarcastic, clever, irreverent guys. They made fun of everything. Bascially they were my drinking buddies. On some level, I'm still drawn to people like that: it's the Jon Stewart syndrome. But it's been decades since I've gone out drinking, and now I recognize this attitude as something more than fun, but rather as an attempt to reconcile cognitive dissonance through irony and humor.

My ironic friends are educated enough and moral enough to recognize their unearned privileges. They never use the term "white supremacy" and rarely discuss or recognize race. They have gripes with capitalism but accept it as inevitable. But deep down, my ironic friends feel conflicted about the suffering of others: crippling poverty, failing schools, foreclosures, prisons, endless war.... And they're smart enough to connect the dots and understand that the extreme disparities between rich and poor are due to a global system of oppression, intended and designed to benefit a few. They understand that this global system is one of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. They oppose this system, yet recognize they benefit from it. Yikes!

So Irony and Art come in. We use these practices to let just enough air out of the white supremacist/patriarchal/capitalist bubble to relieve our anxiety and allow us to sleep at night, but don't release enough air to actually burst it. We stand outside the bubble and question it, poke it, make fun of it, and talktalktalk about it, but don't actually change it. In this way, art and humor become palliatives, Marx's opiate for the masses, which is why we can't get enough of Stewart and Colbert.

So instead, can we actually use art and humor to change our lives and our behaviors? Can we use art for the revolution? Instead of retreating into the palliative of art, we have to make our lives the work of art itself. It's not enough to create art, to BE an artist. That's so 20th century. We actually have to LIVE it.

How do we daily live outside the white supremacist/capitalist paradigm? How do we daily refrain from buying anything produced through exploitation, using unrenewable energy, ingesting corporate media, supporting big pharma, depending on corrupt banking systems, and participating in racism/classism/sexism/heterosexism/ageism? These are the only ways to overcome cognitive dissonance. Irony is only a first step, a harmless little poke to the bubble of white supremacy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Revolutionary Diary, Entry 3

A while back, a friend made an observation that we have a natural resistance to things that are good for us. She was referring to people who know they would feel better doing yoga, but they just can't get themselves to do it. I'm thinking about this in light of Grace's first chapter in her new book, "Growing Our Souls."

The observation points out that deep down, most of us know what we need to be healthy. We see this in healthy animals who know what to eat and when. It's a physical rather than intellectual knowledge, this feeling of "hmmm, I need something crunchy and green," or "I've overworked my legs today, I need to raise them up," etc.

So why do we resist these things that are good for us? Perhaps we also have a deep-seated resistance to change, which is connected to instability, which is connected to survival. I would surmise that the higher our level of privilege, the more we resist change, for we could compromise our very privilege.

This is the disservice unions in the late 20th century have wrought: replicating the system of privileges which they were created to resist. Unions, dependent on an economy based on exploitation and abuse, contributed to a growing middle class which has despoiled the earth, and made us unfit for survival in a post-oil world.

To do what is good for us will require us to renounce our privileges. The goal of leveling the playing field by "bringing people up" is a 20th century concept. Now we all must come "down" to the same level. Yvette Mitchell pointed out last night that "privilege is a disease." Unfortunately it's a disease few want to be cured of, ie an addiction. Growing our souls means overcoming the resistance to do what is good for us. What do you do to overcome that resistance?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Revolutionary Diary, Day 2

In this interview, a Palestinian American anthropologist describes her privileges in Israel, and she says she appreciates where she can go etc, but also these privileges make her very uncomfortable.

As awake and aware revolutionaries, are there any privileges that do NOT make us uncomfortable? Is it possible to accept privileges without what I think of as a nagging, divine discomfort? Can you think of any privileges you have that you are indeed comfortable with? It seems like much of the political rhetoric of national pride is a weak attempt at justifying American privilege, thus continuing our delusion of American exceptionalism.

At the same, we are deeply attached, and even addicted to our privileges, and we long to keep them. Transition Milwaukee is discussing whether a 12-Step group for those trying to break away from a fossil fuel lifestyle might be appropriate.

On another note, in my iCalendar, I changed the category of "political events" to "community building." Thus the GLB study group is now a "community building" event. I have been deleting emails from Obama, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid, and others. My focus is on Eight Limbs Housing Coop, gardening and foraging, yoga and singing and certain podcasts to grow my soul, community-building events like hosting potlucks, and naming and renouncing (to my capacity) my privileges.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Revolutionary Diary

[Last night we had our first study group for Grace Lee Boggs's new book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Action for the 21st Century. It was an extremely productive session, bursting with ideas and questions. As an accompaniment to the discussion, I will blog a bit between meetings.]

In the 21st century we will no longer be defined by work. There simply are not enough jobs to go around, and few resources left to exploit to grow our economy to create more jobs. What does this mean as we try to get our physical needs met? How do we survive without a paycheck? GLB emphasizes that marginalization brings liberation. Can we be liberated from our jobs and still live?

God knows millions in America are in deadening, stressful, energy-draining jobs. Are all jobs by definition hegemonic? What about unpaid jobs? GLB continually asks "what does it mean to be human?" Part of being human, I think, is contributing to the common good through labor, whether growing food, raising children, making baskets, building shelter, creating art .... Can we fulfill such responsibilities of being human without oppression or hegemony? This takes sensitivity, an inner drive, seeing the big picture, trust... what else?

How do we proceed through our daily responsibilities while engaging in the revolutionary struggle? For instance, I have to order tshirts today for Riverwest Yogashala members. Why do I need to do this and how does this strengthen or detract from the necessary revolution?
- I contracted with members of RY that they would receive a member shirt. This is a gesture of thanks and exchange for supporting us.
- Why is membership encouraged? To help RY pay for its free and reduced classes and make yoga accessible to all.
- I'm ordering organic cotton shirts from a local print shop. Is even growing organic cotton harmful to the environment? What is the toll on the land? Where is it grown and what are the conditions for workers? How are the shirts produced and by whom? How do the shirts arrive here? What is involved in the printing process and how does it affect the workers and the environment? Finally, do any of our members really need another shirt?
- As GLB says, we need to grow our souls. Is this shirt more soulful because it has a Sanskrit excerpt from Patanjali's yoga sutras? Does this make it a work of art? Are some works of art more useful for the revolution than others?

On another matter, I am sitting at my laptop this morning, blogging, instead of doing pranayama. I am using fossil fuel to charge my computer. My laptop contains precious metals which are causing wars in the Congo and elsewhere. Is the internet inherently oppressive and corrupt because it depends on commerce, is exploitive and addictive, and violates privacy? Does blogging accomplish anything for the revolution?

So you see where I am going.... Please contribute your thoughts here or in person at our next meeting, 28 July, at People's Books, 2122 E Locust, 7pm. Discussing Intro and Chapter 1 next week.

Monday, January 10, 2011


To celebrate the relief of completing my last yoga assessment in Atlanta this weekend, I decided to sojourn to the King Center. I wanted to lay my eyes upon the landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, see the King archives, and more.

I got on MARTA in Midtown, and watched the passengers shift from white to black as I transferred to the east-west lines. When I exited at King Center station, I walked into a cavernous, run-down station in a neighborhood alongside the interstate, and we know what interstates do to do neighborhoods. I’ve seen it in Buffalo, Detroit, and Milwaukee where I live now. Wealthy neighborhoods don’t have highways running through the middle of them, but they often break up working-class communities and create urban decay. In contrast to the lively, well-kept Midtown neighborhood where I was renting an apartment, the ¾ mile walk to the King Center was desolate, marked by vacant lots, houses needing some stimulus, and a mega-church.

As I experience all over the nation, the 2 people I passed on my walk, both African American, met my eyes and nodded hello. Rarely do white people do this. Instead, typically they assiduously avoid eye contact. Anyone else experience this? In my Milwaukee neighborhood, on the east side of Holton (primarily white), we don’t say hello, and on the west side of Holton (primarily black) we do: a topic for another essay.

I felt a surge of complex emotions as I spotted Ebenezer and became teary, recalling all its historic events and sermons. The entire region had been turned into a campus honoring MLK, with sculptures, a rose garden, community center, crypts for MLK and Coretta Scott King, an eternal fire, and a reflecting pool.

However, after spending an hour or so in the museum, I felt quite agitated and exasperated. It seemed that the radical message of Dr. King had been co-opted by foundations, the middle class, and the dominant culture. I sat down on a bench to jot some notes. An African American woman about my age sat down next to me, casually asking, “How are you doing?” Instead of exchanging pleasantries, I poured out my heart to her.

I shared my frustration with her and tried to briefly explain my impressions. All the exhibits were about historic racism, and largely focused on racist acts of individuals. Exhibits like these give the wrong impression that racism is part of our past, and that since Jim Crow is over, white supremacy is also over. Displaying images of hooded KKK members implies that white supremacists comprise a fringe group, and not that it’s a mainstream political/economical/educational/social/cultural system that continues to dominate our country to this day. I was angry that the language of systemic, institutional racism/white supremacy was not used at all in the Center. I felt there needed to be an exhibit of why Dr. King’s work is still necessary today, as evidenced by our failing public schools, overflowing prisons, rising poverty, unemployment, and more.

My patient benchmate listened and completely assented. Then she quickly let it go, and told me she was here with a children’s gospel choir from Savannah, who was going to sing at the capitol the next day. We went on to some pleasant small talk, and bid farewell.

The Center, in fact, was bustling with children and teenagers, many of them enjoying each other more than the exhibits, joking and goofing like normal kids. In this light I was particularly interested in a 15-minute film about the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement, a film funded by Coca-Cola. The famous opening quote about children not being judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, had some disturbing resonances in this context.

The fact of the matter is, white children and adults are constantly judged by the color of their skin. The color of your skin makes an impression at job interviews, getting an apartment, school admissions, how authority figures like teachers and police officers perceive and treat you, and how store clerks and neighbors and others respond to you. White people routinely benefit from the color of their skin as evidenced by statistics on every measurement, from social to economic.

What King really meant was,
“May black children NOT be judged harshly for the color of their skin,”
which implies,
“May race be invisible so as not to hurt my children,”
which prompts conservative whites to say,
“Now race doesn’t matter anymore, Dr. King’s message has come true,”
as a justification to cut social programs and render white privilege even more invisible.

I’m afraid Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy has become a message of color-blindness rather than a message of radical social transformation to uplift the oppressed.

Color-blindness is race-negating rather than race-affirming. Rather than celebrating our differences, people of color are literally being white-washed. This makes complete sense if we are being hurt for our differences. Although Asians are sometimes upheld as successful examples of the American dream, in reality, this is a result of strict immigration limitations, in which only doctors and professionals were given access. Now that we have more working-class Asian Americans, including refugees, our statistics more closely reflect the strains of all marginalized groups.

Recently a Filipina friend was admiring a t-shirt I was wearing. I told her I had more shirts like it that I had brought back from India, and that I would bring her one. The following week, I presented her with a half dozen shirts for her to choose from, ranging in colors and designs. She was immediately attracted to a shirt with the figure of Ganesh, the elephant god of beginnings who removes obstacles and bestows good luck. But she rejected it because the shirt was a bright, vibrant yellow.

How many times have Asian women been advised not to wear yellow because it brings out our sallow, olive skin tones? We’re supposed to look more like the dominant ideal: white and rosy. “Yellow is a beautiful color,” I told her. “It’s good to be yellow!” I insisted, feeling a little like Kermit the Frog. “Yellow skin is beautiful! Wear the yellow shirt!”

A white friend who was in the room went on to comment on her yellowish skin as well and we looked at her slightly puzzled, but she explained that next to her husband who was kind of pinkish, she was much more olive, and she seemed rather proud of herself. My Filipina friend tried on the shirt and took it after all, but not only until her skin color had been affirmed as beautiful by the white person in the room. We are still under the thumb of the dominant culture of white supremacy.

This is just a small example of how presumed colorblindness as a function of white supremacy damages us. More serious damage can be seen daily in schools, in the media, the legal system, and most recently in the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.

The emphasis of the film and the exhibits at the King Center was on personal indignities, like the rude store clerk, rather than widespread, socially sanctioned oppression. It strikes me that poor whites resort to physical attacks when they have no other tools to defend white supremacy. Bankers, teachers, judges, and government officials have multiple means other than physical violence to defend the status quo. They are not morally superior to working-class whites when it comes to racism, they can just be less overt.

Later on my King Center tour, I perused the archival rooms of the Kings and Gandhi. The Kings’ room had all the marks of middle class life and high accomplishment: Dr. King’s elegant shoes, a photo of him tuxedoed and Mrs. King in a ballgown at the Nobel laureates ceremony, photos of his house.

The Gandhi room, by contrast, was marked by simplicity: images of Gandhi at the spinning wheel; his personal artifacts of wooden bowl, spoon, and sandals. Gandhi understood that as a spiritual and political leader, his power lay in his identification with the poor. He recognized the need for solidarity, and he renounced his economic and class status in order to serve the nation.

King was headed in this direction, especially in his later years, recognizing that the real problem in the nation was poverty, created by militarism, and fueled by racism. He became an increasing threat to the nation as he organized the Poor People’s March on Washington. Our government was able to contain the damage of the Civil Rights Movement to some degree, but uplifting the poor meant an attack on capitalism itself, which is as sacred as anything gets in the USA.

I’m further concerned that King’s message has been about idealizing, embracing, and uplifting a few to, the middle class, instead of dismantling the crippling system of capitalism. Certainly, better distribution of resources is central in uplifting the oppressed, but an emphasis on building wealth takes the focus from society and systems, to individual success which does not alter white supremacy. King’s message is one that particularly assuages the liberal class. Liberals can feel good that civil rights legislation passed, Jim Crow ended, and blacks and whites can go to school and work together. And white supremacy is still in place.

Personally, I believe the trajectory of King’s life indicates that he would have embraced Gandhi’s, and of course Jesus’s, principles even further, regarding the poor, had he lived beyond his 39 years. It’s up to us now, to complete the work he started. What does the Kingian legacy mean? The holiday is just a token. We need to reform our schools, make our government leaders listen to us, invest in local communities, eradicate poverty, and end wars. Are we willing, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to lay our lives on the line? Can we put our self-interest, careers, and comfort aside to continue his work? May we fearlessly confront systems of oppression. May we speak truth to power. May Dr. King not have died in vain.