Sunday, January 30, 2011

Smarter, More Thorough, Way Before Me, with a Book, DVD, Movie Deal, and DIY Kit

Man oh man it's a wave. A wave of purposeless female self-discovery. I guess I sort of knew this was happening - I did see Eat Pray Love in the theater with two lady friends, after which we drank a lot of wine and giggled at the adorable waiter. And I saw Julia and Julie or whatever, and I just finished The Happiness Project. I get this, definitely. I get the idea of manufacturing purpose for yourself, any purpose, any regimen, any accountability to any idea at all to feel like it matters to exist. As much as we complain about our obligations in an "is it Friday yet" kind of way, just like we call our spouses various versions of "ball and chain," some kind of obligation is the one thing we all need to matter to ourselves. And here's what I think - there's nothing to do. There ARE no obligations. For most people in the Western world, that is. No one has to farm their food or cut wood for their house or pump their water or help raise a barn - not that we'd know what to do if it came down to it anyway. With some important exceptions (surgeons, fire fighters, etc) our accountability is reduced to half-human obligations involving cash registers, telephones, and paperwork, so that we can return to our heated, pre-built, packaged-food refrigeration-centers we call home. If we're lucky, there is someone equally dejected by their own purposelessness there to vaguely commiserate with or resent, depending on your level of social skill and luck; bonus points if you're both in reasonably good shape. Indoor soccer leagues, bowling nights, self-made folk recordings, whatever, are all ways to hobby ourselves out of the nothingness. But maybe I'm just sort of passionless, generally speaking. I know, I know, I really dig yoga but I'm just making some sweeping statements here. Plus I have this feeling that loving yoga is an over-the-counter life pill to take to numb the nothingness; I'm fine with that and do truly get a lot out of it, but still, I am mostly just holding the hem of something that doesn't seem to be thrashing and drowning quite as much as everything else around me.

Boy it's weird to be even peripherally a part of the current cliche - although my life won't be marketed to other miserable females to make them feel "not alone" and all that. Ha ha, there is a book to be written about this purposelessness and the marketed cures for female purposelessness - it's the second wave of The Feminine Mystique, for sure. So many women with so much misery and zero sense of direction - and so much education! What's happening here? Well I guess first of all education is a joke. That's another topic for another time. Bleh.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sidetracked for a Moment

I recently said that I am a little tired/overwhelmed by the endless number of possible re-revelations available and that I’d like to remind myself to scale it back and take things one thing at a time. I’ve made a little side-trip on that simplification mission to read a few books recommended by friends.

The first book I just finished – it was a quick read – was Women Food and God by Geneen Roth. This appeared to me to be a self-help book that I would never in a million jillion years have sacrificed my pride to read, but I sort of had to. My friend “Ladypants,” whom I love and respect, had it on her couch when I went to visit her this week. And of course, even though I am waaaaay too good for self-help books, I actually really like them, and of course this book appeared to be about food and women and who doesn’t have at least some kind of dark and damaged relationship with food on some level? So I picked it up and asked her what it was about. She said it was basically about the title, but then she also said that by page five she was in tears, and that she read the book with a box of tissues and would just read and cry and read and cry. Compelling book review, Ladypants. Sold.

Okay first things first – I’ve been thinking about The Feminine Mystique and Betty Friedan’s articulation of the mass purposelessness of women in the 1950’s. I’ve been thinking about happiness and wondering what makes someone happy – is it working really hard to be content with what one has (a la Buddha and meditation?), or is it working really hard to shape and influence one’s reality in a way that is personal to your own sense of self and your own individual passions (a la The Feminine Mystique)? Am I describing the same thing in two different ways (and contentment does not foreclose meaningful change), or are these two approaches incompatible with each other (happiness and striving cannot co-exist)? One seems to require the elimination of self and ego and ambition, and the other requires the cultivating and refining of self and ego and ambition. And when do we know to endure drudgery and misery with a “contentment” state of mind and when to rail against drudgery and misery as a fruitless waste of our precious life and passion in a “save myself” state of mind? I can’t tell. And I am still in the process of re-writing my understanding of my own journey into a really draining career situation that I thought I was toughing out in a “contentment” kind of way which eventually gave way to quitting the job in a “save myself” way (that career situation was corporate lawyering).

So the first sort of case-study that Geneen Roth provides in the book is, you guessed it, a letter of desperation from a first-year litigation associate at a big law firm who goes home and eats every night to numb her pain. (I, by the way, gained 17 pounds in six months at my job by filling myself with cheesy starches and red wine every night to kill the pain.) Lordy lordy lordy. So what was the author’s prescription to this girl? Not so much about finding one's purpose - it was all about Live In The Moment. Observe the hallway lights and the glorious humanity of your “aggravating” situation. Feel the sensation of the emptiness you find so terrifying that you want to numb it with food every night; disentangled this emptiness for yourself and feel, observe, feel, observe.

Dude, QUIT YOUR JOB and find a better outlet for you energy. See, the author offered a sort of Buddha-esque solution, and I offer Betty Friedan, so we can see where my current inclinations lie.

I guess quitting her job is not really necessarily the answer though. Being a quitter is bad, right? – when push comes to shove you can’t just hide under the bed, like me. And sometimes people have to endure crap to get to somewhere good, right? Like dues-paying? Be broke and write off-off-Broadway for thirty years and then get to be head writer for Sex and the City like Michael Scott King. That’s a bad example, because ostensibly theatrical writing is a passion-based job and money wouldn't matter. I guess the law can be passion-based, too, and maybe the miserable chick was really dedicated to being a big lawyer someday but I don’t recognize that as a legitimate goal for anyone to pursue so there’s a problem with me getting her situation completely.

Okay whatever I don’t have a cogent conclusion to draw from this example except that for me, rolling with the drudgery and observing my own pain wasn't going to work while I was at that job – I had to quit, and I am having trouble telling the difference right now between what I should endure and what I should not endure according to which approach of viewing life.

Another interesting insight I got from Women Food and God was about searching for answers, and how seeking answers can be just another form of self-evasion:

“One month it’s about white foods. Then it’s about brain chemistry. Finding the right drug. The fat gene. Being addicted to sugar. Eating for our blood type. Alkaline- and acid-forming foods. Although attending to one or some of these issues might indeed ease our struggle, we use the hunt for answers to abdicate personal responsibility – and with it, any semblance of power – for our relationship with food.”

Well, if I could summarize my concerns about my life any more succinctly, I would. I wrote in THIS post that I am conscious of externalizing my problems – I am spending time learning and thinking blah blah blah in order to further postpone confronting the challenges of actual life. Buddhism as escapism. Education as escapism. Self improvement in general as escapism. It sounds tautological (because it is), but searching for what I am supposed to be doing is a great way to abdicate responsibility for what I am supposed to be doing . . . which is . . . what? Earning some money? Getting to know myself? Meditating? Starting an underground newspaper? Shouldn’t I be looking outside myself to test my relationship against things that may or may not be great for me to do/know/think/achieve, since how else am I going to know what to do with myself? But on the other hand, can I even know how to direct myself purposefully, and sincerely, without letting go of ambition, and of all the ways in which I wish I were different and all the work I keep doing (or failing to do) to make myself into someone I really like and respect, at last (gourmet chef, speak Portuguese, better clothes, get into Harvard, win an award)? Do I have to stop trying to be something in order to be something? Is this the intersection of Betty Friedan and Buddha?

Okay anyway if that made any sense you can let me know. The next book I’m going to be happily side-tracked with is “The Happiness Project.” Another friend mentioned it and it was at the library, and I loooove reading the same book as someone and then getting to talk about it, yay!!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Excuse me Professor Buddha, can we go over again why living in the moment is so great?

Regarding the past, I can definitely get down with letting go of being hounded by regrets and anger and stuff like that. Regarding the future, I can understand completely how fruitless it is to think any version of “I’ll be happy when . . . .” I can roll with happiness-as-gratitude-and-a-sense-of-ongoing-marvel and that feeling thankful for all that I have is very important. Etc. Also that thing that nun said about how it doesn’t really help peace on Earth to scream at other people to change their ways really made a lot of sense to me. AND on top of this I really get a lot out of sitting quietly and focusing on my breathing and hoping for peace on Earth, it’s pretty awesome. But really, why am I supposed to live in the moment again? What moment? This one? Hum of the fridge, sound of a dried leaf scratching a window, fall of shadows from the retractable overhead light. Yeah yeah, I am certainly capable of contemplative appreciation for the simple things etc. And I know I could die any second now for any one of a zillion random reasons, but if life is going to make any sense, I need my personal concept of a future to exist. In order to shower, to better myself, care about others in a real-life, secular humanist empathetic way, I need to keep tomorrow, and next week, and ten years from now in mind. Am I just taking this moment-living thing too literally? It's just that I hear this idea batted around an awful lot and if I’m supposed to define it for myself or something, well then, living in the moment includes a touch of future, because it has to in order to have any meaning. Betty Friedan wrote that “It is precisely this unique human capacity to transcend the present, to live one’s life by purposes stretching into the future---to live not at the mercy of the world, but as a builder and designer of that world---that is the distinction between animal and human behavior, or between the human being and the machine.” I see her point.

Where is the human progress in contentment and happiness? Friedan’s book (The Feminine Mystique, of course) is about how at a certain point in our culture, women were epidemically suppressing their potential and sense of self in order to “adjust” to society. This is why housewives ran screaming down the street in the middle of the night. Not because housewifing is dumb in and of itself, but because culturally we’re outgrowing the apron role as our only possibility – to have only one true option is a limitation and can’t be forced back in to those old clothes. Friedan wrote about this fifty years ago, and I feel like this is what I see not just in me but in everyone, all the time now – misery and confusion from trying to adjust to cultural circumstances that do not have the same shape as the true self: offices, huge grocery stores, cars, air conditioning, offices, offices, offices. Thoreau in “Economy” (in Walden) says that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and that “resignation is desperation confirmed.” He said this in reference to the relentless slaving and over-hoarding of his working contemporaries. Friedan then says 100 years later, about the oppression of women, “The adjusted, or cured ones who live without conflict or anxiety in the confined world of home have forfeited their own being; the others, the miserable, frustrated ones, still have some hope.” I do truly dig what you're saying about living in the moment, Buddha man, but can personal evolution really be a by-product of contentment? Should I not want personal evolution?

Okay here’s the other thing that is bothering me about Buddha stuff. I already am kind of bummed about the priestly hierarchy stuff – my friend said he abstains from a lot of this stuff since he really doesn’t want “bigger parents.” I agree. Also, why should a be-robed “master” seem to be important to me? He and/or his lifestyle certainly don’t represent the goal of practicing dharma to me (sort of in that way that a psychiatrist somehow represents the successful end of psychotherapy, at least from the point of view of the patient – but you’d never want to model your life after a shrink, they ALWAYS have the most f***ed up kids, have you noticed?). What the be-robed Buddha man represents to me is retreat from life into total abstraction and a career choice that just won't work for me. I know they mop floors and eat cookies or whatever and are supposed to be grounded, but they sure as hell aren’t trying to live among society in a way that I can understand – and isn’t this what they’re supposed to be helping? Regular folk? I really love that Iyengar rejected monk-hood, explicitly with the idea that yoga and enlightenment are paths meant to be compatible with checking the mail and walking the dog and going to work and paying the mechanic . . . oh that reminds me, one of the monks had a dog. I’m exaggerating the priestly thing a bit, probably.

But upon whom, please, should I be modeling my concept of myself?

Hmm. Well, this is the very guidance that all paths lack, isn’t it? I mean we already all know that we cannot take our identities from the generation before us – would anyone like to be his or her parents? I didn’t think so. For a long period of life the whole point of parents is to have someone’s image to reject in order to form your own identity. But where is the example being set that I want to follow? I don’t think it exists, and that’s what’s so unnerving. There is no shape in the world exactly my size that I can fit myself into; we have all outgrown everything that can be known because it is already over; there is only the unknown – the future. Who and how we are is constantly evolving because we cannot be content to repeat what we have outgrown – I mean, maybe there is no “now.” We need the future and discontent to have identities, and identity is what gives us our future and sense of discontent – and I know ego and identity are all supposed to be bullsh*t and the very cause of my suffering but I’m not convinced.

Monday, January 24, 2011

One More Thing re: Crying

Two posts ago I mentioned that a lady in the coffee shop was crying and I called it "public theater." I am reminded that I not only have two thumbs, but also cried at yoga training a few months ago. Ah how quickly I forget. I am reminding myself, therefore, not to be so impatient and judgmental.

Feeling Conflicted (as usual) About Revelatory Insights

It seems like I am always hearing about people's next, next, and then next best and profound realization about life. I get tired of this. There is always a book I have never heard of, a swami I've never heard of, a retreat to the mountains I've never heard of, or some obscure little extra credit corner of spiritual and revelatory life that is providing someone with the new perspective they are finally ready to hear (tee-pees! Amazonian Shamanism! Kundalini energy!). Bleh. Even just the saying "when the student is ready the teacher appears" is kind of snobbish - "well look at me, I'm ready!" It could just as easily say "when the human is desperate, the free market will fill the hole for anywhere from 20 to 3,000 dollars." I mean, I'm pretty skeptical that new-insight people are enjoying entry into new aspects of self-inquiry as a result of their mastery of previously studied disciplines. And it's tough to take seriously the "next thing" seekers when everything else in their lives seems to have been taken so lightly that it can be abandoned for something "better." I mean I'm not trying to hate on personal evolution - our progress should be continual/cumulative in life and I certainly don't think we should ever consider ourselves to be "done" becoming who we are, but there's a line, no?

On the other hand: I like this stuff a little bit. I like to read books about things that are supposed to be useful to my perspective on myself and the world and everything like that. I even like to tell my friends about handy little ways of looking at the world that have been useful for me, and I'm sure I have been at least a touch sanctimonious about it a few times (I am thinking of one blog post in particular that I re-read and then cringed at myself about; there is no prize to readers who know which one I mean). And I love love love to hear what other people are thinking about with stuff like this. Also I am sensing a shift in myself away from the sect of Buddhism I have been looking into and more toward the India-centric yoga-related schools of meditation and stuff - at least in my inquiry stage (man I'm feeling jaded about Buddha - dharma is cool, but karma can suck it, and so can the priestly hierarchy and the glamorous temple and the unending, supplicating prayers). So am I a dabbling dilettante? A potential guru-hopping "new truth finder?" Probably. What to do about this?

Well, sticking with something is maybe a good start. I mean, sometimes I don't want to read anymore books about this stuff. I have enough books as it is, and I haven't exactly integrated them fully into my life in terms of insight and application. In a case of actual irony, I am thinking about this partly thanks to the insightful books I just read that my friend lent me. But really, to just keep reading on and on and on is the same thing as Sharpening Pencils. It's hard enough to hold on to new insights as they are arising. It's another thing to apply them to life and let them affect you enough to mean anything. In Buddha class this comes up sometimes - intellectual insights are nothing without putting it into practice, and the metaphor is that it's like having the prescription for the right medicine, and believing that since it is on your bathroom sink you're cured. You have to actually take the medicine. Knowing something is useless without acting upon it. In some way, being in a constant stake of seeking is yet another way to postpone meaningful life progress.

So anyway I feel like I have to boil down my plan for my relationship to yoga a little bit so that I don't end up in the ever-seeking stage dilettantish amateurism they way I have for everything in my whole life so far. For now, I have in front of me: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is the main yoga source text; my own physical and mental yoga practice; and muscular anatomy to learn. That's plenty. Can't go picking up book after workshop for the rest of time. Sigh, well, I have one new book right now on women and yoga which I'm going to read but I feel okay about that one because I feel like I can file it under anatomy. But seriously let's keep things manageable, here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Few Additional Observations

There is a chick in the coffee shop where I am right now crying on the phone, and I'm pretending not to notice, which basically means I am not looking directly at her. What is this about? Take this little bit of public theater someplace else, lady. Is that horrible? Probably. I'm probably cursing myself with a future public-drama moment that I find embarrassing and impossible to move to another location at that moment. I guess sh*t happens and sometimes you cry on the phone in a coffee shop and that's kind of how life is. I am trying to feel a little compassion here, but it's really hard.

In other news, I was thinking about the thing I said a few posts ago about how I sometimes don't like telling people that I am a lawyer, because it complicates their impression of me and I think adds a little - okay wait a minute the crying lady just hung up in anger and said she is going to the hospital. My compassion is expanding because of the potentially tragic element in this scenario. She is calling a cab. I don't know what to feel about this. Emergencies and crises are intimate - my instinct here is toward providing her with a little pretend privacy in the form of not looking at her. Okay she's in the bathroom now. Sheesh.

Well here's what I was going to say about lawyering: I am aware that it sounds impressive to people to have worked as a lawyer in Manhattan for a few years. People do not realize that this is NOT that impressive, and it's hard to convince them that it is not really such a big deal, but sometimes people look at me like I pooped at Yale and didn't even think twice about it. This is definitely not the case. But the impact of this past lawyer life to the outsider is to provide extra credibility to my current choices, which, objectively speaking, are pretty lame. I live in a tiny apartment with cruddy carpeting in a tiny little "city", I have zero job/career ideas, make no money, and I'm taking a yoga teacher training class. But since I already had, and then rejected, what some people see as a professionally glamorous career path, my current state of existence isn't just the desperate searching of someone with nothing else going for her, but the calculated and mindful undertaking of someone who Sees Life As It Is. And nothing could be further from the truth - I have no idea what I'm doing, I am desperately searching for something, I am very conscious that spiritual inquiry and never-ending-learning are ways to merely expand my distraction enough to fill the time available while I excuse myself from meeting the challenges of actual life, because that is at least a little better than just pacing and pacing and pacing until the end of time like some 1950's housewife. Yes I am still reading The Feminine Mystique and yes it is basically killing me softly with its song.

So what I'm getting at is that telling people I was a Manhattan lawyer is yet another exercise in vanity.

Also coffee shop crisis lady has regained her grip on existence and seems to be wrapping it up hysteria-wise. That's good, I was a little worried.

Taught my Yoga Trainee Class Yesterday

So yesterday I taught a class at the yoga studio for two of my fellow trainees and one of the teachers. Man oh man I was a mess for a little while beforehand. I wanted to be really impressive but of course you can't just become someone with ten years of yoga teaching experience in 4 months. And I had something all prepared to say in the beginning of the class and I got flustered and it didn't come out the way that I wanted it to, and I was pretty worried about sounding stupid, which I might have. Note to self: write it out in complete sentences and bring it with you to class.

The other thing about it was that I didn't have any music - this is a whole additional dimension that I just wasn't ready to incorporate. Plus they have ipod hook ups at the studio and yo no tiene un "ipod." The silence had a mixed effect - on the one hand, I like silence when I am practicing because sometimes it really distracts me; silence helps you go within a little better, I think. On the other hand, golly gee a little music goes a long way in carrying the vibe along in the room - I noticed that my voice and its timbre were a little more serious than I think of myself being, and so that was kind of the vibe I was making, I'm sure. But I could have added a little levity to the experience with some happy tunes. I went to another trainee's class yesterday and she had really fun, sassy pop and jazz music playing, and it just went really well with her whole vibe and vision and it has restored a little of my interest in having music to go along with the experience.

The feedback I got from the teacher and my two fellow students was a little mixed - the class was sort of lacking in back bends, which means that a more advanced student might not feel all that "complete" upon leaving the class - exploring a full range of physical movement is good for that all-over "yoga-ed" feeling. This was good advice, and my class was hampered in this respect by my own limitations with back bending (exxxtreme limitations!) and by my own class planning - I spent a little too much time on the stading poses and by the time we were done I saw that we kind of had to wrap it up, and I really wanted the class to be exactly one hour and thirty minutes, no fudging. Also maybe the class could have been harder, they said - they were wondering when we were really going to go for it, but then they felt that the challenge and difficulty of the class wasn't necessarily in the lots and lots of movement sense, but more in the precision sense. If that's true then that's awesome.

Some stuff I see will come with time, like fluidity of speech, and general confidence, and all that stuff - and I just have to keep doing more and more yoga at home and become really familiar with what I want to communicate, and things will only get better, I just have to practice. I can't wait to practice on my friends on Sunday!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Not. Ready. For Boozin'.

Man oh man, you know the thing that happens when you pull a muscle and you leave it alone for part of the day but later on you can't help yourself from testing to see if bending it around still hurts? You just have to test the edges of the injury, and this totally makes it worse?

Well I thought I could have a little wine with dinner, and that is false. That was the incorrect conclusion. I should not have had any wine with dinner. I didn't even have very much and I am foggy and headachey and it's not my favorite. The impact of booze on my body is a torn muscle that I must let rest. Wine can suck it. I'm so pissed at wine. I can basically do one Guinness over the course of about 3 hours and that feels great and that's it. Wine, no. No no no.

But I had a super great time! I went with my friend to dinner with her friends, and her friends are funny, boisterous Europeans - bordering on rowdy - who made us blackened string beans and an Asian-style soup with vegetables and sticky toffee pudding. They were good fun and excellent hosts - which also means my wine glass was topped off at every opportunity. It's like some hosts have magical gumby arms that reach behind or above you and you don't even realize you have more booze until you go to take a sip. Sigh. We talked trash about their bosses and the usual stuff like that, and then we got around to me.

Well what did I do? It's never quite as simple as saying I'm studying to be a yoga teacher, since nobody comes out of the life-box studying yoga. Sometimes I don't want to provide any context. Somehow getting into the whole lawyer thing complicates everything, and makes my life sound more glamorous than it is, and I feel a little conflicted about giving the impression that I have any abilities or clue about existing. But anyway we talked about what I'm doing and what I want to do and whether I know what I'm supposed to do, and I got some sassy advice from a tipsy French lady along the lines of "you clearly have no clue about anything but that is fine, keep going, you might not think so but it's actually going pretty well."

So that's good. It's nice to get a little fresh perspective on yourself sometimes from strangers. It was fun. And the headache will go away.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Some New Buddha Books

So I have been reading a few new Buddha books that my friend lent to me. One of them combines yoga and Buddhism into an approach the author has given his own sort of proprietary title, which I will omit here because I'm not crazy about his whole thing. The book is useful in a historical/comparative way. Someone was going to systematize and label this yoga/Buddha synthesis eventually, so anyway that's out there. I am a little resistant to fully embracing this book's message because I took a class once with this author several years ago and I didn't like it/the author. Oopsies I'm letting cult of personality influence my receptivity to information! Oh well.

The second book I'm really pumped about - Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Bachelor. I've read a bit of it so far and it's offering a nice contextual/historical perspective on the religion-ification of Buddha's teachings. This book is right on time for me as I am feeling a little bummed out by the shiny glamor and obvious expense of the temple I went to, as well as the priestliness of the whole thing.

One thing is sort of bothering me so far, though - in "Beliefs," the author says that "The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life." Well, there are at least two facts in operation here - the presumption of existing anguish, and the desire or expectation that this anguish should, for whatever reason, cease. In the law we might call these the ipse dixit(s) - the things asserted but never proven. Usually an ipse dixit is the cause of many many specious arguments. Maybe here is where I am a little stuck lately; it's pretty hard to deny that there is massive suffering in the world and in our minds. That this anguish exists is not really disputed, and we all feel it plenty so we don't really question it - and as a further precondition of awakening, we need to see and feel the anguish to realize its cessation. But isn't there another way of looking at it? I know Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on suffering so much, and I definitely feel that. It's a problem.

Maybe I think that another way to see the eventual end of suffering is to see that there is no suffering, really. I'm not sure where this is headed, I have to think it through a little bit.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Compassion and Abstraction

That is to say, compassion is an abstraction. In Buddhism the practitioner is asked to focus intently on the object of his/her meditation, and eventually to hold the feeling of compassion for all living beings in the mind in order to generate the spontaneous wish to relieve their suffering and to achieve enlightenment in order to do so. I find it hard to hold this idea in my head. I find it hard to fully comprehend a broad compassion. I find it hard to concentrate on one tiny instance of compassionate feeling, even, because it is extremely upsetting to focus on others’ suffering. It is much nicer instead to think of anything else.

I am still thinking about how I don’t like to watch upsetting movies. The two hour roller coaster is so fatiguing, and I feel so manipulated by it, and so spent. I am supposed to be trying to maintain equanimity in my life and in my mind, and going to the movies is the opposite of equanimity. It is purposefully discombobulating, the intentional upsetting of one’s balance for entertainment. I keep wondering whether this can ever be productive, ever.

And I do get upset – I was really upset by the movie I just saw with my friend in which the main character recounts some pretty upsetting things about his childhood, and I was watching my physical reaction to the scene. My stomach felt that anxiety feeling, I was angry and sad for his bad experience, I felt protective of the character as an adult even though the bad time was all over and there was nothing more to do about it, and I felt that feeling of wanting to hold someone and make all their pain go away. And I know this is what the Buddha teacher is talking about. That we have all had this experience of wishing we could take on the suffering of someone we love for them so they wouldn’t have to feel it. Whether it’s a little kid who had a terrible time during recess that day, or a friend going through a break up, or someone was rude to your mom in a coffee shop or someone is sick and dying – whatever it is, there have been moments in our lives in which we have wished for the power to make it all feel better or disappear or never have happened at all. And as far as I understand it, that unbearable feeling of seeing people we love upset or in pain is what we use to fuel our determination to reach enlightenment. I resent being upset by my own compassionate impulses when I go to the movies, and it makes me never want to go to the movies, at least not for emotionally trying films. Crappy romances, sure thing, no problem. Emotionally substantive? No thanks. No wonder it’s so hard for me to keep compassion in my mind for the benefit of world peace if I can’t bear it at the movies. Of course I don’t want to imagine suffering on purpose and focus on it really really hard. Every day I’d have to make myself cry as motivation for working toward enlightenment. I don’t really want to do that right now. I guess I’ll bring it up at the next Buddha club meeting and see what the guy says.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Keeping Stuff Around

I have a book somewhere around here someplace that I am keeping for no reason. I keep a lot of books around for no reason, if I think about it even a little bit. But this particular book is a copy of Pride and Prejudice. It’s a paperback copy of the book that I bought in England in 1996 as part of a class I was taking on Austen’s P&P and Mansfield Park. It has a price tag sticker on the cover for 5 British pounds. I studied both books for basically a whole school year, so the book is well finger-trod – the pages are pretty soft, and it wasn’t the world’s best paperback copy to begin with, so it might even be shedding pages away from the binding by now. It has oodles of pseudo-intellectual markings in it from a whole year of churning over it page by page as a teenager. It’s safe to say I will not read this particular copy of P&P again, since the loosening of the binding would make the book sort of inconvenient to enjoy, and the note-taking of that teenager would distract me and probably embarrass me in front of myself a little.

Why do I have this book? Am I acting in some kind of self-archivist role here by holding on to this thing, as though future generations of Martha studiers will draw conclusions from the book about the pivotal, most substantive moments of my life in an attempt to recreate my life path? What I mean to say is that nothing like this will ever happen, ever. If that book makes it with me to my death, it will be put in a box and sent to the Salvation Army, or probably thrown away, since it’s not really useful for anyone anymore. Or at most, some guilty next-generation relative will take it home and keep it in a box or on a shelf where it will continue to inform and delight no one.

Why oh why do I have this book? And I’m definitely not going to throw it away, let me be clear about that. I suppose it is a remembrance? Is it then just like a snap shot of something that I use to remember that certain events in my life actually happened? Is it a little memory jogger that helps to place me in space-time within the linear narrative of my life story? I suppose I am an archivist of myself, aren’t I? But to what end? Something about that book makes me feel interesting to myself. I did something a long time ago and it’s fun to remember it sometimes. This seems like kind of a lame, self-indulgent reason to keep crap around (vanity!). I mean, I’m not going to forget that once upon a time I went to England and read a book. And if I do forget, what of it? So do I keep is as proof? As evidence of my own interesting-ness to myself? To others?

I have sooooo many books hanging around in various parents’ garages and spare rooms. Tons and tons of comic books, too. The comics books are a special case, though. These are not library-card items. The fantasy attached to the comic books is that since they are clearly awesome, someday my offspring will be old enough to read them and they will have the same happy experience of the comics’ awesomeness, and I will be really happy that we both will have enjoyed them, and won’t that be awesome. This is my literal hope for those comic books. Also that I like to read and re-read them. I’ve probably read most of them at least 4 times each, and there is really a huge number of them. Yep, I keep them so that 15 to 20 years from now I might get someone who doesn’t, and may never exist, to read them too.

In my future there is a big accumulation of crap belonging to previous generations. None of it is organized. None of it does anything for me except in a strange, far-off, anecdotal sense that requires an older person from my life to contextualize. I would like to lengthen my memory of my own family, I think that’s important. I asked various branches of the family for family trees a long time ago but they have not been forthcoming. I’m sort of annoyed about that, actually. Where’s my freakin’ family tree? You people have all this crap and numerous stemware and china sets (complete service for 24, sweetheart! Oh but don’t use it it’s too valuable, fragile, and sentimental) and rusty 1800’s ice skates that I’m supposed to treasure and I have no context for them. Get it together, people. I’m planning the yard sale right now.

Seriously what am I going to do with all the faux-historical stuff that I’m going to end up with someday? I ‘m just going to throw it away, donate it, or give it to the local historical society and then replace it with my own bizarre stuff. That’s what’s going to happen. Man, I’m not even interested in the effort required to evaluate and sell potentially valuable items. I can even get myself pre-worried about the future about this issue. What do you think, Buddha, is this worrying a waste of time? Yes. Yes it is.

But back to the important question: what is this compulsion to self-archive? Some stuff I love. I love photos of my parents when they were young. I love photos of them with us as babies and toddlers. I can’t think of anything else that I’m pumped about ephemera-wise. Old clothes? Nah. Nobody in my life has vintage Valentino my size and there will never be anywhere to wear something like that, Lord knows. I’d probably just rather sell it, anyway. Thoreau calls stuff an animal trap – we drag it around, clamped down on our tails – animals will chew off their own legs to be free . . . . well anyway stuff suxx and it’s awesome, I’m highly conflicted about it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hi, Sweetie, How Was Buddha Sleepover Camp? Fine. Make Any Friends? I Guess.

So I went to a big Buddhist temple in Western New York for a night. I went to three meditation teaching things, had some monk/nun-made vegetarian food, and slept in the women's dorm with some other Buddha learner chicks. It was very nice and the people were very nice and the grounds were very nice with some very nice walking trails and it was all extremely nice. So here's the other stuff:

First things first: this was a big step up from talking about meditating in a guy's deli in New Paltz on Wednesday nights. Community class is casual and practical and not intimidating at all. At the temple it's a little different, or at least it's too much for me - we're talking serious varsity Buddhism here, as far as I can tell. The people in the robes, the beads (whatever those are for), the bowing on the ground, the glamorous and cavernous temple with shiny Buddhas everywhere, the singing prayers in the meditation sessions (and I'm not crazy about the tune they set the prayers to, by the way). I feel like I muddied the waters a little bit, or least was sort of in danger of muddying the waters. The delight of Buddhism for me right now is its manageability, its portability. Here is the stuff that I can handle right now: just focus on your breathing, concentrate on that one thing to the exclusion of all else as best you can (while remaining relaxed), and try to direct your effort to something good like world peace and not something mean or negative. This is a habit I can take home and work on. The teachings on the retreat are significantly more complicated for me, even though they boil down to the same thing eventually, I think. It just seemed like there's about a zillion Buddhas to thank for their teachings, and each of them has different useful symbolism to them, and there are symbolic gestures in the prayers like making prayer shapes with your hands and then moving it to four different points on your body at certain moments in the prayers, and three bows on the floor that everyone makes before the meditation teaching begins. I don't know, feels complicated. I got some useful imagery out of it I think, but I have to just focus on the most simple part of it before I go learning a million new things that are supposed to help me. Plus one meeting a week has been enough to keep me thinking for a while - at the temple I went to three sessions in 24 hours. I just couldn't process it all in any meaningful way. I was fatigued.

Second: I did get something nice out this (besides my comfort with my own beginner level), and that's that I don't care about the hyper-reasoning or rationales that have been distracting me with Buddhism, such as whether it is impossible to make decisions without relying on a good/bad paradigm of life, whether training your mind to be selective in its thoughts isn't just a way to say Repress Your Dark Side To Be Happy - I think being so overwhelmed with the Super Buddha information made me feel a little less critical of it, paradoxically. I think I am starting to believe that I can't change emotional and spiritual problems intellectually, and a few different sources have told me the same thing in the last few weeks so the point has been taking root in my mind - Iyengar in Light on Life says that you must address your emotional health emotionally; and also in psychotherapy there is apparently such a thing as "intellectual resistance" to progress - we want to talk ourselves out of or into certain ways of feeling, and it's not really that productive (I read this in Friedan's The Feminine Mystique this week, what a rad book that is!). This is still pretty abstract for me but I'm liking where it's going.

Third: another nice thing I got out of this - I feel a little better about hiding from the world these days. I feel occasional waves of guilt about not using my law powers for good because it's too stressful for me. There was this one nun at the temple who heard me talking to someone about whether meditating and yoga are actually "doing" anything "good" for the world, and she laughed a bit, and chimed in. She said she wasn't laughing at me of course, but that her path to Buddhism really started when she found herself at a peace rally in a state of terrible rage. She said she felt that she was not really contributing to peace in the sense that she, too, was ready to kill and shout and destroy in order to get other people to change their behavior. That she was yelling and fighting to get someone else to work on world on peace, and it wasn't really going anywhere. She parroted what other people had said to her about meditation, along the lines of "if you want to help the world why don't you protest, picket, write letters, etc," but that she decided that she could really only work on herself. Someone also said that Buddhism is pretty much in favor of whatever you want to do as long as you're not hurting yourself (or others ostensibly), and stress is, well, extremely harmful for me and my health. But I'm still struggling with this whole problem, in the sense that spirituality seems like escapism to me sometimes, and that enduring the aggressiveness of social advocacy is really important, and that I should contribute somehow. I'm really glad that I can vote, and the only reason I can vote is because some insistent lady folks went to jail and took a few punches for me (yes this is more from The Feminine Mystique). What if they had all just meditated for change? I don't know. But I do feel like I have a positive framework for at least justifying/rationalizing my hermit-like behavior a little bit.

Fourth: made a friend! I had a really nice chit chat with someone from Canada who was really into Buddhism, and I got a really useful mini-lecture on Buddhist history and some nice feedback on searching for a path and what that means and that it's okay to shop around for a spiritual path, and all that stuff. We won't keep in touch or anything but it was a nice little two-hour friendship that made me feel pretty good about my personal struggle and that it's okay not to really know what's going on for now. I don't really know what's going on with my life direction and spiritual existence, and that's what's going on with my life direction and spiritual existence. It's sort of nice.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Went to Buddha Class, Can’t Wait to Make New Friends!

Two nights ago was Buddha class in a deli in New Paltz. It was really nice. A bunch of people came, like about ten or so, and the guy was really nice and gave a good talk about meditation and how it is really useful. Speaking of which, I am probably going to Buddha sleepover camp a few hours away from here next week for two nights, or one night and two days. I’m a little nervous about it, in sort of silly ways like will there be tea? How much bathroom privacy will I get? These things impact my desire to leave the house quite a bit.

I hung around a little to talk to the Buddha guy about Buddha stuff, and it was nice to get some stuff off my chest – what’s the difference between suppressing thoughts and “choosing” whether to think about them? What about the buying groceries thing, isn’t that impossible if you don’t see anything as good or bad anymore? I don’t get the whole “emptiness” thing yet, what’s the deal? Anyway he was really friendly and said he’s looking forward to talking about Buddha stuff more in the coming weeks, and boy oh boy will I be there in the front row with my hand raised. He did call me “cerebral” which I took in a flattering way, which is vanity, and totally not okay with Buddha, but oh well. One thing at a time.

And I’m working on my class write-up for the class I need to teach for my certification, and it’s pretty engaging, but also sort of difficult. I think I’m making the class too hard, putting too much stuff in it. I’ll try it out a few different ways and see how it goes.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I Never Do My Hip (the body part) Exercises

So my low back pain is the result of two main, big things in my life.

One: doing yoga with my ego instead of my bodily intelligence. I just want to do some of that stuff so bad even though it kind of hurts!! Or what I’ll do it convince myself that my discomfort is a “roll with it and you’ll make it better” kind of discomfort instead of a “back the hell off or you’ll make it worse” kind of discomfort. In this way I treat yoga as my personal forum for vanity and denial. Nice! Totally working on that, though. I went to yoga today and tried to back way off of the stuff that makes my back cranky but I didn’t hold back enough, and my back hurts now. Key-riced-all-my-tea.

Two: my low back pain is pretty much caused by my hip problems. I have a hip thing, and it’s been there for a while, and basically I ignore it until I can’t, and then I get some attention or make some life changes, and hopefully I get a little relief, and then I go back to ignoring it. Every time I talk to anyone about my hips – generally either the orthopedist, the physical therapist, or the chiropractor, I get the same exact advice in the form of exercises to do. These exercises are basically Pilates – lots of abdominal work and leg lifts. I have heard this exact advice probably seven times from seven professionals in the last ten years; I have even literally been told to “do Pilates.” These exercises are good for my hip because stuff is both too loose and too tight up in there and strengthening it is good for the rotation of my pelvic bowl which then helps align my sacrum blah blah blah blah blah blah. For some reason which is not clear to me, I basically never ever do these exercises. I figure that between lots of walking and lots of yoga I am in pretty good shape and these dinky lame-o exercises aren’t doing anything extra for me, and besides, those doctors just regurgitate whatever they had to memorize for a test once and they don’t know ME, they don’t understand MY experience (so why do I go? I foolishly want to hear something totally miraculous someday, that’s why). But at long last, I think I am finally capable of saying that I am wrong about this. Hopefully this means I will do the freakin’ exercises. (If you are a friend of mine who has heard me say that I should really do my hip exercises, I want you to know that I think I might mean it now, and I won’t say it again, because I’m pretty sure it’s utterly exasperating to hear me complain about it. Sorry about that.)

This forces me to confront something that I do not like to acknowledge: yoga is not my ally in all things. That’s what the latest professional told me recently, that certain parts of yoga are not necessarily my ally in my hip/back issues. I hate this information. I want so badly for yoga to be a complete system that I just need to stick to, with enough variety in my poses to hit all major parts of the body, and I’ll be perfectly comfortable and have zero pain. I feel like I could just figure out the right prescription of yoga poses and I’d be fine! Yoga yoga yoga! With that other stuff, it’s like there’s something that just feels so freakin’ pedestrian about doing my hip exercises, not holistic or magical at all. And it feels like I’m not doing “real” yoga when I just throw the hip exercises into my routine. Isn’t that ridiculous? How do I feel about Yogilates (I think this is a real thing with a trademark and everything)? I used to think it is the corruption and dilution of yoga, all this combining and brand-naming and multidisciplinary made-up nonsense. But I am also probably wrong about this too (all knowledge is broadening, not narrowing, I recall me saying that sometime - also I was recently publicly wondering about how strictly one needs to adhere to a discipline to consider oneself a follower, and deciding that I can take whatever I want from anything - why do I view yoga asana differently - mystery! at least I haven't claimed to be a really consistent person). It’s just that there’s already so much to know about yoga all by itself. But I have to do something else, too? Feels unfair.

Here’s some more embarrassing information. I did some hip exercises last night and they were hard. Clearly whatever I’m doing in yoga isn’t making me so rock solidly strong that I am too diesel for these hip exercises. And here’s something else: I like Pilates. I actually have a DVD that I don’t really look at, but anyway I took Pilates a couple days a week for about a year (this was a few years ago) and I really got a lot out of it physical-comfort-wise. Ugh, so, I know what to do for my hip and back, I know I can even enjoy it, and I know it actually does help me. So what’s my problem? I don’t know. I just feel like I have enough to think about without the stupid hip pain making my back hurt. I asked the chiropractor about going to get acupuncture, to see what she thought about it, and she said sure why not – but then she said that she’d also like to see me being a little more active in caring for my hips. So embarassing that I want a quick fix for a problem I’ve had for over ten years, I mean how stupid am I!? So it’s tough nuts time for me, time to do a little Pilates for my hip every day, bleh.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

All Set with Art. Therefore, I am Useless to Humanity.

I've said it before and I'll say it again and probably again later, and again after that: I really, really, don’t like upsetting movies. Or shows. Or art. I don’t want to look at violence, rape scenes, gruesome injuries, humiliation, or anything else like this. I don’t understand watching movies like this. I am bringing this up because a few nights ago I watched the first half of The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover (or something like that), which is supposed to be an Excellent Film. I’m not sure I know what an Excellent Film is. If upsetting = excellent then I guess this movie is great. It opens with a man being violently stripped naked and smeared in dog poop. He is later hosed off in a chair while he cries. Oh but the costumes are by Jean Paul Gautier!! Fabulous! The people’s outfits change colors with the rooms! Neat! There’s a whole poop-food-sex thing that is probably profound! Doesn’t the waste and decadence wonderfully juxtapose the filth and violence!? Romantic nudity surrounded by dead ducks! Bleh meh no who cares. (Helen Mirren is magical, though, that’s indisputable.)

Anyway man alive I’ve got enough to think about just trying to live in the world without “entertaining” myself with distressing imagery. You know that movie Kids? I saw the first 5 minutes and had to leave the room. I will never see Boys Don’t Cry, or The Sopranos, or the Godfather movies, or anything else like that. I’m still trying to purge my mind of other upsetting movies I’ve seen because they are supposedly Excellent Films. Deerhunter. Carrie. Pulp Fiction. It’s too much. No thanks.

So here is the problem with this problem: my inability to withstand even artistic portrayals of oppression and violence and subjugation doesn’t bode well for my ability to stand up against actual oppression and violence and subjugation. It actually sort of points out to me how little negativity I can handle, and how useless to the world this makes me. I don’t volunteer, I don’t give anyone free legal services (which I should probably do), I don’t have any statistics about Darfur ready to go for anyone who wants to listen, and I look away from the homeless on the street. I am like this because it is too upsetting, too hard to actively work against it. Plus, talk about taking a Dixie cup to the ocean – start bailing! Futile. I once gave some change to a man who knocked on my car window in Troy and he said “thank god there’s still good people in the world.” I hated him for saying that. And I put that hate right on top of my impatience and pity. You think giving you change makes me good? That NOT giving you change would be bad? Or do you think that I need to be congratulated in some way by you for my act of change-giving? I gave him change out of a desire to avoid him freaking out on my car and scaring me or attacking me. I gave him change out of a vague fear of his potential violence. I gave him change because I am a judgmental coward who does everything she can to shrink and hide from human suffering and just wants to protect herself from a desperate, and therefore in my mind, potentially volatile person. Also because I had change.

Sometimes in yoga a teacher will say how we’re doing the best thing we can do for the world by practicing yoga. That our effort, and dedication of our yoga practice to peace, and the very time spent doing yoga is helping the world on some vibrational level. Is this crap? I’m not sure. Sounds kind of like crap. I would love to believe this, though. I would definitely feel great if I believed that doing yoga is the best thing I can do for the world, even better than moving rubble in Haiti or canvassing for Greenpeace or protesting for equal rights. I don’t even write to my congressperson. No worries, you do yoga, keep up the good work! Call the Nobel committee! What I know is that I feel better when I do yoga. I feel less upset. I feel less bothered by my own petty grievances. But can I feel better about how horribly people suffer around the world because I do yoga? What does the teacher mean by this? That doing yoga is better than starting Planned Parenthood? Better than inoculating orphans?

I would like to be of service to actual causes, but this is only because I know it is The Right Thing to Do, and I would really like to Do the Right Thing. But it’s not because I really want to, and that’s because it’s too hard. How do I do this if I can’t handle the stress and negativity, if I can’t even look it in the face, if I can’t even look at its representation by artists?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year, Homeslices

I'm having fun with my new standing date to practice my yoga-talking on my friends on Sunday mornings. We've done two so far. It's pretty great, since it's at a friend's mom's house, and the mom is way into having people over and made us buttery pastries one week and popovers with jam the next week. So we have a little yoga session in an empty room with a little faux gas fireplace thingy, and I burn a little sage and turn the heat up, and we get cozy and yoga and then have coffee and treats. Could anything make me feel more lucky to exist in this time and place? Not much. A free pony? Meh.

The teaching practice is very informative. My current two lab mice are pretty athletic and coordinated and flexible and incredibly game for anything, so in that sense I have it easy with them. Also I think maybe it's tough to speak up and tell me it's not going great, but I think I'm getting other indicators about what is and isn't working outside of needing them to tell me explicitly. E.g., if I say something and it doesn't produce in them the movement I am trying to evoke, well, that's bad. And the first week I came up short on time, and the second week I did way too much stuff and they were really beat and went over a little. And I was pretty sore, too, so I think we overdid it.

The temptation to say EVERYthing I have EVER thought of EVER is tough to resist. It's incredible to have a rapt audience in this way. The ego temptation is pretty severe. I want to blow hearts and break minds with the bestest things I've ever thought of. Ah but this isn't the point, I know, I know. So trying to provide guidance for people to have their own experience, not MY experience, is pretty hard. Also I really want to talk about all this stuff with someone, so having people who are interested in it to listen to it is exciting.

Buddha class is this Wednesday and I have a coupon for a bring-a-friend-for-free, and I'm thinking about who might want to go with me. Man oh man do I want someone to talk about everything with sometimes. I just need to find someone who is willing to read all the same books at the same time and also be into yoga and also want to talk to me. But this is harder than I think it should be. I have a few ideas of people to make into my friends who are into stuff. It's going to take some courting, though. I'm not such a good courter - I come off a little over eager. Gotta play it cool. There's other stuff I can do, though. Buddha class has talking in it, and a yoga place nearby has a Bhagavad Gita discussion thing, but it costs money. We'll see.

More on the lower back problem: it started hurting again, so I got a massage from my friend (barter, yay!), and today I went to a massage-chiropractor person, and maybe next week I'm going to go to an acupuncturist too. Machine-gun approach, baby. Gonna fix this thing. Then I'll be broke but whatever.