Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday Deal on Meditation

I should stop right there. Just writing the phrase “Black Friday Deal on Meditation” is so deeply ironic and condemning that it should be the entire blog post. So anyway, here is the Black Friday deal on Meditation – just click here and you can get a deal on my next workshop in Providence. Black Friday brings up many things in this culture, mostly a form of self-defeating judgment and self-flagellation that does little to interrupt the mad consumerism. But is it really all that bad?

Leading up to Thanksgiving and Black Friday you can find any number of articles, structured blogs and sheer rants on how the drive to buy and consume is destroying the meaning of the holiday. It really hasn’t. The meaning of the holiday has just adopted a modern application. Thanksgiving has always been about a celebration of abundance and expression of gratitude for making it through tough times. Every culture has some sort of celebration like it, some have several. They are tied to harvests and season changes. They celebrate family, not because family is so close knit and valued, but because family used to play a much different role in life. Family was the people you worked closest with. We married to form alliances and to strengthen business opportunities and had children to help share the work and to continue growing what we had started. Not until the industrial revolution did our work and family lives become separate and the whole idea of family as a source of love and emotional support evolve.

In America, our industry has transformed from creation to consumerism. There is nothing bad about that. It may not be philosophically ideal or elegant, but it is a reality. We are consumers and we excel in providing and consuming within the service industry. That our holidays are an expression of who we are should come as no surprise. The real surprise is why we are one of the few cultures to deem our present reality so awful and unacceptable – so worthy of punishment. Much of that stems from the bizarre duality that we are trying to live with, that of wanting to be supermen (or women) on all fronts of life rather than just be average people who are good at living their own lives. Each life that is lived should be a matter of choice that is consciously made. If you choose a life of material success, if material goods and money hold a place for what you value in your life – then so be it. Use them in that way. If you have chosen a life in which the value money and materialism is a placeholder for does not include emotions, then recognize it and honor it. Neither side should be trying to force the other into adopting their means of living.

But there is a peculiar thing that happens within us that scientists suspect is hardwired in our DNA when presented with lives that are outside of our own. We believe that whatever group we belong to is the best. Everyone else is wrong and we are right. It is why there is more recognition that working in focus groups to try and solve social problems is a self-defeating approach. Communitarianism will always exceed the most outrageous behavior of elitism because at the core of the community is the shared belief that only your people know what is good and are the best.

Which then brings up the question of how do you evolve culture in a way that community is inclusive of all so that no one is deemed worthy of being trounced on or abused? That is a huge part of what Kwame McKenzie’s work in Social Capital and Mental Health looked at. Social Capital is the concept of how we our worth is perceived as individuals (or marginalized communities) by a broader community. In America, our take on promoting Social Capital for marginalized communities has been to try and normalize differences. In Europe, the pendulum is beginning to swing to recognizing that our differences are important, can’t be normalized but that shared values and activities can increase Social Capital perceptions. In other words, you will never understand my experience as being someone with a mobility issue and most people will, by default, place me in a category of less value (as a candidate for jobs, influence or potential relationship), but if you discover that you and I share the same activity and interest – then suddenly, the balance begins to tip the other way. The emphasis is not on my having a right to do or go the same places you can because society should provide a means for me to minimize my difference, but that I share with you a portion of your life interest and values and society can then create opportunities for us to share what we have in common.
This approach to Social Capital does not deny the power of group identification, but instead incorporates it to increase social welfare. You still get to be the best and part of the best group, but your group begins to get a little bit bigger. Someday, it just might get big enough to include the whole world.

Let’s take Thanksgiving for example. Thanksgiving, in America, is defined by its excess in food and shopping. The crux of the day, the Thanksgiving dinner, is when it is expected that you eat more than you should of foods you probably would avoid any other time in life. It is also a time when there is a high interest in volunteering at soup kitchens etc. because “everyone should have a Thanksgiving dinner.” However, the plan slightly backfires. Rather than being a unifying and equalizing act that joins us together in a larger community, it serves to separate us even more. Ask anyone who is dependent on a community Thanksgiving dinner how they pick the one they go to and you will get an interesting education about how the worth of the dinner is defined. It is not in the food or the sharing or the Thanksgiving – it is in the ability to eat to excess should you want to. In other words, what is the defining factor of the community dinner is not the shared food, but the shared availability of excess. The homeless will turn away from a dinner if they know they are limited to 2 pieces of turkey. It is not because they have a sense of entitlement or are not hungry, but they have keyed into which of the dinners actually include them in the broader spectrum of American community, and which will keep them trapped in a horrific marginalized category. It is also why food pantries try to suggest brand label foods rather than generics. The generics may be just as good, but they isolate people further from the general populace.

One of the failures of modern spiritual movements has been an emphasis on unconditional love. First off, unconditional love comes with a terrifying responsibility (which I will get into sometime later). Secondly, rather than being equalizing and welcoming; it shuts people off and shunts them into isolation. Why? To truly love unconditionally is a high spiritual goal, but it immobilizes any communication or compassion. Unconditional love means that no one is different from anyone in anyway at any time. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that your differences are accepted, it means that they are deemed so unimportant as to be nonexistent. It is based on a very core set of values about life that have no room for any deviation or momentary distress. You cannot form care for a person if you love them unconditionally. It is a very high spiritual value, but there has to be a very real, human spiritual love that is conditional in order for anything to get done. Unconditional love can be what powers your experience of living, but not your action or efficacy. To love one’s neighbor as you love yourself requires conditions.

Right or wrong, like it or not, excess and branding is a part of the fabric of American community on a large scale. Is it important to change this? Why of course – I think so, and so does the community I belong to – because we are right (because it is my community). Some people would think elsewise. Is the solution to allow excess and branding for all? Or is it to bring the expectation for consumption and branding down a few notches across the board to make it accessible to everyone? The opinion on that will depend on who you ask.

The real solution is to look beyond what requires a placeholder to what is held in actuality. Right there the playing field is leveled. When money is removed from the equation, what then defines our broader society? Football? Not really. Baseball? No. There hasn’t been much work done on defining the values of the modern American society that is separate from consumerism. While consumerism is a defining characteristic of the society, it is a value placeholder. Understanding the value beneath is where we can begin to look at what we hold worthy of social capital. Or is there anything underneath?

Such questions on a Black Friday.

The battle rope came in (not purchased with a black Friday deal but I did get free shipping), so I am going to toss it around a bit and refocus on my day.

The Mad Kitten is ticked because I spaced and forgot to get the treats she likes. Now there is an example of simple definition of value. Does she love me unconditionally? I say not. If she did, she wouldn’t be some damn vindictive just because I forgot the kitty crack.

Oh yes, I am almost successfully out of my semi-retirement now as a poet and performer as well. This means the love and words site is back and a new video will be released by Christmas. Ironic, isn’t it?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Two Fresh Tears

My family is unusual, which means it is very common. I try not to read into the fact that I traveled to see them on the "Twinkling Tinkerbelle" and returned on "Two Fresh Tears." It makes me wonder about the people who run Peter Pan bus line - if they have personal issues, if someday it will not be enough for them to mess with the omens other people may see in their lives.
Before, I think I would have marveled at the omens of the names and wondered what their portent would be in my life. I would have spent much brain power on seeking the proof of my interpretation of their meaning while dismissing anything that didn't pay by the rules I made. I have grown older and wiser. I do my best to live in reality. This means that where before I would have seen omen, now I see metaphor. Tinkerbelle and Fresh Tears were apt bookends for the journey.

I am not sure what bears the honor of being dubbed "meaningful coincidence," but I am starting to think that as we become more aware and focused on an aspect of our individual lives, we begin to see and hear it all around us. Immaturity takes the view that it is meaningful coincidence. I say immaturity because meaningful coincidence is based on the self assigned role of being the center or the universe. I have noticed that since the accident I have become markedly intolerant of those arrogant enough to assume themselves equal to God and the most important thing in all of existence. I think more it is that our shifting inner awareness changes what we focus on and take in. It is not that "suddenly everyone is talking about" whatever you are concerned with, it is that because it is your concern, you are more apt to notice who else is interested in it. Most likely, it was always there being noticed by someone else.
The role of meaningful coincidence lies not in personal direction from the heavens, but from the acquisition of a small part of the communal mind. That is my current take on it. I believe there are outside and inexplicable circumstances that may be created to get you somewhere in hopes you wake up and notice all the other people there too; but I think it inconceivable for one person to be dubbed catalyst. Jesus, had no one noticed him; would have still been God's son. Buddha says it is not the teacher that teaches the dhamma, but the student who becomes aware of it. Mohammed is not Allah; he was quite clear about that.
My family has all arrived at the same place, in the same year, but I am fairly certain it was on quite different buses. We are all at the point of awareness that, “It doesn’t matter what you do or believe, we all wind up in the same place.” By this I mean that we all have become sharply aware of our mortality and limited time left. It has given to us an odd sense of ease with each other and openness. Not, mind you, to look backward and seek explanations of anything in the past – although some of that does happen – but to look forward. It also made me realize something that I had been slowly edging around for the past few years.
If I want to see who I am, I only have to look at where I came from. In my family, I can see everything that I cherish as good about myself, all the things I judge bad, and examples of what I would like to bring to my life and what I hope never arrives. This is a new place to be. Generally, we tend to first blame, then avoid, then are satisfied with drawing boundaries of difference, settle into a kind of tense tolerance then bemoan the lack of resolution when death occurs. It is different to be in a place where you begin to see your family as people. People who have influenced you just as much as you have influenced them.
Cheng Yen said that there is a way in which you can tell if your practice is diseased; it is by looking at your family and friends. He was speaking about the necessity of having a teacher that you were in steady contact with to help guide you in meditation and spiritual practice so you didn’t use it to re-enforce wrong mindedness, selfishness and mental disorder. He cautioned to look at your family and friends – the ones you have kept for the longest – to see the effect that your commitment and practice had on them. It should, he says, have inspired them to pursue their own, if not your path. If, however, you have spent years in meditation and study, have gone on endless retreats and the effect is that your friends and family think you are odd – chances are that your practice is ill. Spirituality, even if it is not agreed upon in the specifics, should always serve as an inspiration in some form or another. One should not look at one’s peers as you are always beginning from a point of confirmation bias.
So I looked at my family in a different way this trip. I didn’t look to see how I inspired them; fortunately, I have seen a positive effect from my own life on their willingness to try meditation and to take on their own spiritual pursuits. I looked to see if I could find out how they inspired me.
And you know what? I found more ways than I thought possible. As contentious and awful as our relationships have been sometimes, I realized that they have each had a positive and beneficial influence on me and I had a feeling of respect for each of them. Respect, I will admit, was something I don’t think I even entertained when it came to thinking about family. In the past it has been a great deal more about who gets what blame.
I came home to discover that the mad kitten did not enjoy my few days away. She took down all the curtains and rods, wouldn’t look at me when I came in, and when I tried to go to sleep she went in the other room and paraded around and bitched. I even stopped at the café on the way home to get a small piece of ham to try and make peace.
Today, she finally deigned to climb in my lap and I think things are back to normal.
She is about to get introduced to the concept of diet food. I play GO. GO is played on a grid of 19x19 lines. It is a good sized board. It is a great game and a good way to measure your cat. It also would appear to be what I needed to see my fat cat laid out on to really see that she needs to drop a few pounds for her health.
She is…amply compensated for her presence in my life, too compensated. I will have to chase her fine furry self up and down the hallway more often in the morning too.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It's not pretty, but its there

I have had cockroaches on my mind a lot of late. It’s been a running theme and it has been interesting the different types of cockroaches I have been thinking about. There are the beautiful and mythical jeweled cockroaches of the Yucatan –

Which have a poignant story behind them of a princess denied her true love that is transformed by curse into the insect; she captures him and attaches him by a small leash to her clothing so they will never be apart. They are given as tokens of affection.

Then there is this –


Robo Roach.

The robotics kit for kids that allows them to insert electrodes into a roaches head after breaking off their antennae so they can control the roaches still living body using the robotic pack they have also glued to their body (having sanded off the natural protective coating first. This kit is causing an absolute uproar among many, except the US based company that made it who fails to see that perhaps this may not be appropriate for children.

The interesting thing is the argument of why the company says that allowing children to harm this insect and turn it into a remote control toy is OK. They say that by 2030, over 20% of all people will suffer from a neurological disease and by letting kids play with this kit; it will inspire them to go on and cure these diseases. In a time where computer modeling and gaming has reached a height of realism, the use of a live animal as a toy to potentially inspire future scientific and medical careers seems a little suspect. In the US, we are experiencing a rise in behaviors from the underage set that have a shared characteristic of lacking any sense of consideration for the impact of their actions on another’s life. The global issue of bullying has these elements as well. It reminds me of the old science play kits that actually had radioactive elements in them; the science often is ignorant of the impact on society because it is enamored of what it can do.

Way back when, in another lifetime, my career had a start in designing multi-player gaming worlds. This was back when you still had to know UNIX to roam the net and gaming was mostly done by MUDs and standalone DOS based programs. It was the beginning of the GUI (graphical user interface) that was so exciting because it promised to allow people with absolutely no understanding of how a computer or the Internet works access and control over it. The conferences surrounding the technology were very exciting – there were virtual worlds and multi user environments and pre-cursors to the Google glasses being shown. There was also a small voice rising of concern that perhaps we were falling in love with what the technology could do without considering if the technology should be allowed to do it. The question, of course, was about the rise of violence in gaming and how the use of graphics began to shift gaming from an adult entertainment to one that would invariably attract children. It represented a shift from a puzzle solving game format to one that focused on point gaining.

The problem has never been that violence in games (or scientific toy kits) is inappropriate for children; it is that the violence is designed from an adult contextual understanding and then presented to children with the expectation that they will be able to understand it from a mature contextual point.  The recent study about depictions of gun violence in PG-13 and R movies and how it corresponds to a rise in the willingness of children who view an image of a gun to act in more hostile manners shows that while an adult may understand a gun in a story, a child doesn’t. We also know that the area of the brain that is capable of understanding and considering cause and effect is not even fully developed until your early twenties so the argument of children understanding the difference between play and real life, cause and consequence is strained at best.

The expectation that a child will make the leap from burning off a cockroach's antennae and pushing electrodes in its brain to saving the world from neurological disorders is something that cannot happen. The child that grows up to create innovations in neurological treatments will be one that will arrive there whether they are playing with play-doh or kitting out a bug with invasive electronics. What the robo roach does is allow an adult invention of how technology can be used to be put into real time use without much thought or consideration of its impact on the roach or the person. Outside of the context of a neurological lab, there is no justification for this except for entertainment, and what kind of person is entertained by harming anything?

But the world is a very strange place in which the right to do something just because you can is taken as more important than the right to choose not to do something because of recognition of its impact. I have a little petri dish lab that I watch this play out in on a weekly basis, it is called the parking lot in front of Dunkin Donuts. When I go, early in the morning, to sit and try and orient myself before going down to run the Wellness program, I get to see a variety of behavior. Because I go often, and at the same time, I get a chance to see the same people doing the same thing.

There is a woman – young – who roars up and invariably chooses the handicap parking space. There are usually parking spaces on either side that are free but she pulls into the space sort of half way and gets out with the engine still running, and glares at anyone watching before stumping in to get her coffee. The handicap space, I should mention, isn’t the one that is usually available and is most convenient to the door. For some reason, she chooses to park there – I suspect because she isn’t supposed to and yet she can. She is not handicapped in any way, shape or form.

Interestingly enough, I got a chance to see her run into a few of her friends at the place today. They all share the same style, clothes and body orientation. They had all stood out in their own way for simple failures of consideration – one ignored the start of the line, another let the door slam in someone’s face whose hands were full. The woman in question roared into the handicap space and got out and they had a loud conversation about shopping for clothes.

Consideration is the hallmark of social maturity. It means that just because you feel something, or want something, or have a reaction to something – that you pause before acting and consider the impact it may have on the environment and people around you that may neither benefit nor harm you – but will have an effect on them. Consideration is where community begins.

 I very often go on and on about negative group identities (and am sure I will again) but at its core is a restriction on who is deserving of consideration. My students often complain that it takes a lot of work to live with consideration, it’s a constant process of stopping yourself and checking the potentials; and I tell them yes, there is no point when it gets easy. But as you practice, parts of it become intuitive. When you reach those moments, suddenly you begin to understand what it really means to be awake and alive. There are few words to explain it, but if you have ever touched it for a moment you know what I mean. Those few moments, however, also reveal how much more work and diligence needs to be done too.

 Life is complicated and it is hard. Life is work. It should be. Otherwise we are all here just keeping ourselves moronically busy until we die and what is the purpose of that? The flip side of that question is to what purpose is it to work at these things if you die anyway? That answer is surprisingly easy but it requires a shift in context that has become much devalued over the past few centuries. Given the rise of mental and physical disorders over the same period of time, it may behoove us to examine the concept again. But more on that later (the tease). The prevalence is not attributable solely to our increased ability to diagnose disorder, but our increased ability to create it.

The first real cold and a touch of snow. The eZip handles fine but the batteries don’t like the cold. I have to work on that. I just had a brief conversation with the guys from the chopshop next door and they agree that battery operated socks may be the way to go with the batteries because of space issues. The mad kitten has shifted into winter mode which consists of the consumption of treats and the draping of herself in inconvenient ways to promote communal napping. She is more successful than not and I have to get myself back on schedule.

Before I forget, the Zen Oasis app is now available. This came out of the work from the Responsive Wellness program at MHCA/OASIS. It is not perfect, but it is there and it is evolving. It has a bit of everything from meditation timers to games to a link out to the AI wonder, “Eliza.” It was built using appsbar and as I transition my skills over to the java family, I will continue customizing it. The secret wonder will be “The Good World,” which has a placeholder in the app now, but won’t be available until later this spring. Technically it is supposed to work on all platforms and should automatically update itself as I continue refining and adding things. You can find it in the Google Play store under Zen OASIS, it is free. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


I have 3 fish who try to convince everyone I don't feed them, a disgruntled and overweight cat, and a small flock of 150 birds who can recognize me from three blocks away and mug me for cooked rice...and would appear that I have kittens.

On Sunday, at 7pm, Dragon Mountain looked like this:


I had been steadily trying to take down a section of wall to expand the main practice room, but not only were there live wires in the wall but I also made the slightly moronic decision to buy what can only be described as a Tinkerbelle saw. In my defense, it has been very well made and comes with lots of fabulous attachments I can use for my other projects. By day 4, however, I realized its 3 inch half-moon vibrating wall blade would have me still cutting the wall out in spring.

So I called a friend and got a honking righteous circular saw and whipped that wall down in no time. It still took several hours because I had to carefully break it down in sections and shift the wires out of the way, but by 7pm it was down.

Feeling rather self-congratulatory and with my ears still buzzing (after the first 20 minutes I stopped for a break and realized I couldn't see the fish through the sawdust in the water and the cat and I were wheezing so I got a mask and was wearing glasses and gloves but had no ear plugs), I went outside for a well-earned coffee and a pipe before beginning the job of cleaning. 

Remember, it looked like this:

My morning meditation starts at 6am so somehow, all of that had to be made right.

I stood outside in the bracing chill and smoked my pipe for a bit before noticing that several eyes were upon me. There was a small family of cats - two adults and 3 kittens - outside poking around. One of the kittens got curious about the white of the rice that the birds hadn't finished on the ground and went over to it. On discovering it was food, that kitten all but ate the pavement.

The others came over and joined in, although the adults hid in the bush. I resisted my impulse for a minute and then went inside to get them food and water. I have noticed that my disgruntled fat cat never bats an eye if I take some of her food outside, but try to walk out the door with a treat and she is on it.
I came out with two platters and set them down. It took about 2 seconds for the kittens to race to the food, the adults hung back for a bit and watched before eating. I smoked and thought, and smoked and thought until the platters were clean and they started playing.

There is an art and balance to giving. I wish I could tell you what it is. If you had asked me last year, I could have pontificated on the subject. Now, I know there are no rules except to give without thinking. That means if you have to think about it for any reason, don't do it because you may be taking things from yourself that you don't have to spare.

Those things may not be material or money; it could simply be that you aren't in the space to offer compassion and charity. That sounds like an awful thing to say and goes against the concept of "faking it till you make it" but underlying intention is what gives a gift the power that it can have. We don't talk much anymore about how influential our intentions and motivations are, but the wrong one in the right place can turn a good thing cancerous.

Someone at MCHA/OASIS asked me the other day how they could handle giving. This is someone on SSI and very limited means, and they felt bad when they couldn't give and then felt worse when they gave and people told them they shouldn't. I told them that they should only give when they knew they could bear the pain of giving.

Too often we think just because someone has something we don't that we are entitled to their charity and we receive help like it is our right. It isn't a right, it is a relationship of support and respect between the giver and receiver that acknowledges that suffering caused by both giving and need.

The kittens should be trapped and brought to a shelter, but they are hungry now. The kittens should be trapped and brought to a shelter, but they are also a part of a feral community of cats who tend to do just fine. There is quite a difference between an abandoned domesticated animal and a wild one, we forget that. Like the birds, a gift of food is appreciated, but not expected. If it doesn't appear, they go somewhere else. They may be hungry in the getting to, but should things work out they will get there.

By 6am, the main room was ready.