Thursday, March 29, 2007

Spanda Ballet

Last Friday morning, I was driving a little too fast down Riverside Drive. An LAPD officer on a motorcycle was waiting near the intersection of Fletcher Drive. He pulled me over and wrote me up. While he ran my license, I called the office and explained why I would likely be a few minutes late.

This happened one week after the entire staff of my company watched The Secret.

When I arrived at the office that difficult morning, my boss greeted me exuberantly, saying, "Law of Attraction, Algernon!"

"Laws of the State of California, Thyonne!"

She laughed. "You attracted that to yourself!"

To which I said, "I attracted it to myself because I was speeding."

"You were probably thinking about getting pulled over!"

"I thought about it when the policeman drove behind me flashing his lights."

"See, you made that possibility, and brought it right to you."

"I made the possibility by breaking the speed limit."

She shook her head sadly. I wasn't getting it.

* * *
"The law of attraction" is not a law; it's not even a theory. The expert commentators that appear in the video claim that attracting things to yourself with your thoughts is as real and consistent as gravity. These claims are not measured by any scientific process. It is a notion that comes to us through eastern religion. It's New Age theology. Instead of calling it a "law of attraction," they could simply refer to this "secret" as Spanda - what the idea was originally called in Hindu philosophy.

Forgive me for my limited understanding of Hindu philosophy, and Shaivism in particular, but here's where the idea comes from: The Creator of the universe has a certain primal energy that is marked with the constant flux of emergence and submergence. This energy is constantly in motion as the goddess Siva. The way this teaching goes, things appear to be coming and going all the time - they just APPEAR to be. So the appearance of emergence and submergence is created by thinking. The world of our experience, then, is like a reflection in a mirror - created by thinking. You individual consciousness has the same creative power as the Creator of the Universe.

This idea is 4,000 years old. Despite what is claimed in The Secret - available for purchase on DVD or as a pay-per-view internet show, making a handsome companion to the best-selling book - it hasn't been exactly a secret. The video claims that "the secret" has been suppressed throughout much of human history, across civilizations, by the wealthier classes. They provide no historical information about this - they just say it.

Moving on, the producers say that an important aspect of the secret - which all those bad rich and powerful people failed to grasp - is that it should be shared openly with all of humanity.

Which is why the DVD is now available for sale along with the best-selling book.

Well, my secret is available to you for free. All you have to do is walk over here and pull my finger.

* * *

One of the "teachers" who appears in The Secret is Joe Vitale.

This guy is an internet marketer, a man who gets rich by telling people they can get rich, who gives voice to some of the more controversial claims in the video, particularly about disease. It is one thing to tell people that through the power of their thinking, they can stop bills from arriving in the mail and "attract" checks instead. It is one thing to tell people that the universe is a mail-order catalogue, and you can attract any experience you want for yourself.

It is quite another to assert that you cannot contract a disease unless you believe you can. What about those first AIDS cases, Joe? Those five gay men in Los Angeles who presented with a strange pneumonia in 1981? Nobody had any concept about "AIDS" or the HIV retrovirus back then. Did they visualize a retrovirus no one had ever head of, or did they visualize pneumonia? How did they contract it?

I'll tell you how, Joe, but it's a little graphic.

Joe says the Law of Attraction always works - no exceptions. If that is true, I am going to put it right to work, and here is what possibility I dream of realizing:

Would you care to join me?

Let's visualize Joe Vitale sitting in a room. He is surrounded by aging Holocaust survivors. These are people who survived the unspeakable death camps. I visualize a gentleman describing to Joe how he was separated from his family, imprisoned and tortured, on the point of death at Birkenau when the camp was liberated, who never did find his family again. And the gentleman finishes by asking: "Tell me, Mr. Vitale - how did I attract that to myself?"

I am having trouble visualizing Joe Vitale's answer to that question.

Indeed, I have trouble visualizing how Joe Vitale lives with himself. Perhaps he employs a similar cognitive bias used to defend his claims about "the law of attraction," his slick and profitable repackaging of the spanda karikas.

* * *

The world comes to us through six gates of perception: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Our world is an experience. The experience is a creation of thinking.

That Friday morning, I was thinking, "I am running late. I need to be there on time. I need to drive faster than this." I gave myself permission to break the law and exceed the speed limit. A police officer saw me doing that, and he did his job.

Though our world is made by thinking, we are not in a position to choose reality. By putting ourselves in that position, we meddle in forces we are not equipped to understand, and the end result is suffering.

In closing, here is a story about Huang Po, a ninth-century Zen Master. Legend has it that Huang Po took a walk through a valley with a man who did a lot of magical practice. They arrived at a deep riverbed. The wonder-worker smiled and walked across the water, right on the surface and from the other side of the river, urged the Zen Master to do the same. Instead, Huang Po shouted at him: "If I knew you were that kind of fellow, I would have broken your legs."

Care to take a walk through the valley with me, Joe? There's a river I'd like to show you.

* * *

Lest I be too hard on Joe Vitale, a guy who's just trying to make a buck in a media-driven capitalist economy, I return to myself and my own spiritual arrogance.

Truth be told, I've tried walking on water plenty of times, and have been equally deserving of Huang Po's treatment.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Soen Yu, Soen Me

Barnsdall Art Park felt good Wednesday night. It was cool and the air felt washed by some recent rains. The park is on a hill in the Hollywood/Los Feliz area, up in the sky surrounded by hills populated with little houses.

Up here, we do Tai Chi once a week under the night sky.
Chris led us through some warmups and a series of demanding kicks. "We need to do more aerobic stuff," Chris said to me. "Soon we'll be old."

Starting a business is like becoming a parent in a few little ways. It keeps you up at night. You devote your money to it. If it needs something, you have to be there.

Between this and my very hectic job at APCH, I've been very tired. To help myself out, I've been doing a lot of soen yu practice. Soen yu is a kind of chi gong that was invented by Zen Master Seung Sahn in the 1980's. It's a simple and idiot-proof method of connecting to the dantien (the central energy point below the navel) and drawing energy up from the earth.

Last weekend, we were taking some photographs for the Theatre Dojo website, and I had to be doing some kind of activity. So I sat down and did a little soen yu. Chris snapped away and asked me questions about it while he took pictures.

Then came our Tai Chi class on Wednesday night, up in the park.

One of the neat things about the Theatre Dojo faculty is that we are all students of one another. We've each got a hold of a different part of the elephant. Jen teaches us yoga. Andrew has given us some private aikido instruction. Chris is an excellent Tai Chi and Push-Hands teacher: teaching the internal martial art and also applying its interactive aspect.

By practicing tai chi with a partner, as in "push hands" combat, one practices listening. As Chris explains it, push hands is a dialogue. It is also a friendly competition as the partners listen to one another's body language and look for an opening through which to knock the other person off their center of gravity.

Chris has been working with me on a couple of body habits that come up as I try this practice. It is so funny to notice how much baggage has been stored into the body's muscles and behavior.
Finally, Chris said, "Okay, we're going to do push hands and I'm just going to knock you down a lot so you learn what to watch out for."

And that's just what he did. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Down I went. The more effort I put into pushing, the more I gave him to send me off in a different direction - sometimes with as little as two fingers. Meanwhile, he is fluid as a weeble. In a previous entry on this blog, I described him as like a flag flapping in the wind.

After a lot of this, it occured to me: "Stop trying to do push hands. Do soen yu." So I opened the door and took a seat deep in my belly, sat down in there and breathed deep that good air.

Suddenly Chris was on the ground. He found this hilarious. His facial expression was a mixture of "What the hell?" and "Good!" Pretty soon, he was putting me back on the ground again, but I got him a couple of times.

He asked me what I was doing differently, and I ended up showing him soen yu , which we practiced together sitting on a wall, lit by the moon and some sparse streetlights, overlooking Los Feliz and the Hollywood hills.

Ananda, one of the Buddha's disciples, asked the Buddha, "Is it true that good spiritual friends comprise fully half of the good life?"

Buddha replied, "No, Ananda. Good spiritual friends are the whole of the good life. Take refuge in sangha (community)."

This is why we started the business in the first place: to make a practice community and assist in each other's awakening, to bring the combination of our tools together and make something beneficial for our country and our world. We have no idea how many people will join us, but that's our purpose.

It felt good. At a time when I have become disconnected from my local Zen Center, and with my teacher living 3,000 miles away, I sometimes forget the kind of homecoming that takes place when you sit down and practice with friends.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Algernon performs in "The Truth" on April 19

This is a monthly event taking place at the Bang Comedy Theatre in L.A.'s Fairfax district. The April edition, on April 19, will feature Algernon among the storytellers. Come on out!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why We Sit Zen at Theatre Dojo

Why do we sit zen at Theatre Dojo?

In Japanese, the word for 'stage' literally means 'body of dancing.' The sense is that the empty space is the body, and actors are waves on its surface. The theatre space serves as a clear mirror on which a story or a non-linear form of expression is made accessible while stimulating the spectator's own creative awareness.

In Zen meditation, simple awareness is recognized as a person's original state of mind and their true nature, over which waves of conditioned habits and desires appear to cover up our original clarity and harmony with our world. This "loss" is yet another illusion: our conditioning is a hindrance only to the extent that we identify with our surface personality and its desires.

In Zen training, students practice a discipline of seated meditation every day, allowing the 'waves' to settle by themselves as they relax into their bodies' true center and release habitual thinking. We forgive our shortcomings and recognize that the whole world is the product of our thinking 'filters.'

A Dojo-trained actor has access to their entire self. No character and no human fantasy can be a stranger to you, because you contain the entire universe. You can play Hamlet or a cartoon character or a chorister in an avant garde play, because it is all you. And you are rather wonderful.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


There is a website called LinkedIn which presents itself as a professional networking site - a networking site without the drama and garbage of MySpace. More text, less graphics. No blogs or personals ads with girls leering at you from the margins of the screen. For the most part, it's like swapping business cards.

There is, however, one interactive feature for conversation. It's simply called "Answers," in which people can post questions and the rest of the usership (I think I coined that word) can respond. Most of the categories are business-related, but some are more open.

For instance, this question was posted in the "Ethics" category:

Why did God create Man?
Answer using common sense and logic and not religious beliefs.

More than twenty people took a crack at it. Many of the responses took issue with the premise of the question - if you bring "God" into it, you're already talking about religious beliefs. Fair enough. Some of the responses were jokes. Some of them engaged the question. Check them out, if you like.

Here was my attempt:

If we take religious belief away from this question, what we are left with is, "Why are we here?"

There does not seem to be a lack of answers to that question. At any rate, human beings don't seem to be in a state of paralysis over the question. We've kept busy expanding our population, building higher and higher buildings, inventing things like combustion engines and electric can openers and iPods.

Not enough?

Well, we've also got lots of religions! We've got "one true God" religions, we have "no God but Mind" religions, we've got "Goddesses are everywhere" religions, we've got death cult religions and liberation theology and spiritual practices to awaken the heart...

...not enough?

Well, there's philosophy... games? life?

...haute cuisine?

Lots of answers, lots of interests, lots of pursuits. If they aren't adding up, then maybe it's not about having an answer. What happens if you hold the question and let it burn up your heart?