Sunday, March 31, 2013

Bowing and Democracy

From a reader:

Something I've been meaning to ask you.  No offense meant, but what you write about politics and power and authority doesn't match with zen rituals. Not talking about the meditation, here, but the formalities.  All that bowing to people and teachers and silently "just doing it" doesn't seem democratic.  

Bowing is indispensable to democracy.

That's one of the major reasons democracy is so difficult.  That includes republican democracy.  That includes even the tightly constrained democratic power we Americans have in the United States, which is really a plutocracy under a two-party system dominated by capital. 

It was a major difficulty for Occupy Wall Street and its satellite "occupy" movements as well.  It is, I would argue, what poisoned Occupy Las Cruces early in its brief life. 

It's the reason democracy sometimes gets a bad rap for seeming chaotic and unproductive. 

People can't bow.

Argument and struggle are important.  And there are also times to bow.  They are all essential skills and it takes wisdom, patience, and practice to know which one to practice where. 

Even if we had an agreeable degree of democracy in our lives, a governance that served an entire people equally, we would still have to bow.  We bow to election results.  We bow to decisions by the judiciary.  We bow to laws and a constitution.  We bow to new information and data.  (Facts.)  The foundational concept in our Declaration of Independence, of "consent of the governed," implies bowing to a system of governance.

The ability to argue and to fight for one's interests is indispensable.  Equally indispensable is the ability to reconcile and grant legitimacy to a decision reached by the process.  This is, figuratively, what I mean by bowing. 

It doesn't mean surrender and it doesn't mean complacency or obeisance.  With respect to political struggle, it simply means the conclusion of a chapter and  the beginning of a new process.  We bow in one moment.

A measure of humility, even just the ability to let something go in this moment, can actually help sustain an activist's energy.  It prevents burnout.  I'm convinced of this.   Successful social movements by people who did not have power, have succeeded only by sustained optimism and energy after numerous disappointments and setbacks. Bitterness and cynicism do not fuel such movements.

And once in power, how do we exercise the freedom and privilege that have been achieved?  By arguing endlessly and refusing to compromise, ever?  

A little bit of humility is very helpful.  A bit of teflon on one's skin, enough to let the small stuff and occasional defeat roll off, helps a whole lot. 

One way I've had an opportunity to practice that is by living in zen centers.   Occasionally this has meant formalities such as bowing to respected teachers.  Did I lose personal autonomy by doing so?  Nah.  I've also shoved those teachers, argued with them face to face, and beaten them at volleyball.  It has also meant living communally, and bowing to the needs and comforts of my neighbors with respect to noise, cleanliness, and other matters.  It has meant, at times, relinquishing my personal opinion so that a situation could move forward, and bringing up my concerns at a different time and place.  (Which I did often.)

The time spent on formal retreats, which are held in strict silence with a regimented schedule and rules, help instill a sense of personal discipline that is quite helpful in life outside the monastery.  Democracy without personal discipline is a melee where no consensus can ever be reached, and people inevitably give up and walk away from the process.

And what they do after that is very dangerous. 

For instance, in this Bush-Obama period of American life, more and more I hear people say they would rather stockpile weapons, declare themselves "sovereign citizens," and withhold their consent to be governed because of rules and decisions they do not like.  This is a withdrawal from politics into a bunker mentality.  "I, my, me" with guns.  At a time when (in my opinion) we need most of all to come together around a few very serious and difficult crises that threaten our civilization, we are fragmenting, building walls, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

A different way is possible but it requires social skills that are not always celebrated, and even more seldomly practiced.  It requires a balance of skills.  Knowing when to argue, when to table a debate, when to apply pressure and when to ease up, and how to accept a decision that doesn't go your way but might benefit people as a whole, all require wisdom and humility.  

I would like to see more movies about people who do this, instead of one movie after another where a male hero visits explosive vengeance (usually as a vigilante) against wrongdoers interspersed with wisecracks, celebrating physical strength and armaments with no need for wisdom, diplomacy, or generosity.

I would like to see political rivals engage in honest debate and acknowledge each other with respect and generosity.  Displays of animus should be reserved and dignified, saved for people who really have behaved treasonously.  I would call it quite acceptable to stand and turn one's back on a government official who engaged in war crimes and did not have to answer for it.  

I would like to see more adult education in civics, social science, and labor history.

There are cynical reasons this does not happen.  There is a power structure in place that does not want to attract people like us into the political process.  It's an ugly arena, to be sure, and some of the doors are locked; but not all of them. 

It is still possible for wisdom and generosity to confront the ugliness of power.

Bowing helps.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Working the kinks out (A Response to the Beautiful Kind)

In the previous post, which went up on Thursday, we gave space to a guest blog by Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind.

The topic of the week around here has been fantasy and taboo.  For her contribution, Ms. Holliday wrote about an event in which she and several friends enacted a taboo fantasy in an environment of safety and voluntary consent.

While comments have mostly been positive (e.g. "I like how she defines the limit and difference between sexual play and doing actual harm to someone") with some bemusement, one reader responded with disgust: "I was filled with visceral revulsion reading about a woman whose sexual fantasy involves perpetuating violence against women by involving 8 men in a non-consensual act. This sort of thing encourages the treatment of both men and women as objects rather than persons."

The objection, as I understand the comment, is to the enactment of non-consent.  The non-consent, of course, was fictional.  In reality, these folks were all actors participating in a private theatrical act, role-playing a non-consensual situation.  They were not engaged in making art for an audience, of course; I don't think they viewed this as an artistic endeavor; yet people do engage in fantasy and role-play in non-public spaces.

Presumably, we can agree that a real rape did not take place here.  This was a "gang bang" with quotation marks around the phrase. Yet they did enact that fantasy.  I did not think I would be writing a post about acting, but there is something very familiar (and very ancient) in this reaction.   In traditional theatre, I have committed murder, I have kissed women (and men) who were not my girlfriend or wife, I have empathized with and played characters who did truly horrible things.  I have even simulated sex in front of an audience.  Yet I did not actually commit murder or adultery.  I am not personally accused of disregarding human life or infidelity.  And likewise, Kendra and her friends did not actually participate in a rape, commit actual violence, nor -- and here I refute the anonymous commenter -- did they actually treat one another as objects rather than persons.

So, to my mind we have established that we are talking about a truly non-violent event.  If I am not a murderer for what I've done on a stage, then these men are not rapists for what they did in private. 

Now we move on to the content of the fantasy.  Which is what our anonymous commenter found so reprehensible, and perhaps other readers as well. 

There are taboos within taboos here.

Fantasy itself, the content of our thoughts both conscious and subconscious, is a murky and disorderly continuum.  It never ends (except perhaps with brain death).  The stream is affected by social conditioning, the interventions of family and society.  Repressed material merely gets pushed down into the subconscious.  Meditators learn about this pretty quickly:  if you try to stop your thinking, it is apt to get worse.  Wanting to stop thinking IS a thought.  Zen meditation adopts a "leave it alone" approach to consciousness.  Surface thinking settles down by itself.  When it really settles down, the subconscious stuff -- ideas, memories, emotions for which there are no names, fears, desires, and more -- comes to the surface, and that's an "interesting" stage.  Sexual energy, a primal instinct that is largely taboo and repressed, is definitely part of this -- especially for those practicing in their prime sexual years.

Many of us pay a lot of money to therapists for a space where these thoughts can be expressed, exposed, released.  There are many kinds of therapy to help us do this.  There are meditation practices expressly for the purpose of noticing and then releasing this stuff.  The theatre, among other art forms, has served a similar function through the ages.  Plays have engaged societal issues, private relationships, and even struggled to express the confusing inner psychic territory of the human.  This requires actors to enact crimes and taboos.  In the process, the actors themselves become associated with repressed psycho-sexual feelings.  Plato didn't want actors or poets in his republic; and in the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha includes actors in his list of people to avoid.

Readers may disagree as to whether there is an analogy to katharsis (κάθαρσις) in their activity.  Either way, Kendra Holliday has experienced something very similar to what actors have had projected on them.  For people like her, it's called "slut shaming."  It is not okay for a woman to be explicitly interested in sex on her own terms and to act on that interest non-secretively; yet male-dominated pornography thrives, and influences the culture in ways that are not vehemently refuted except by a few.  The conditioning is negative and goes largely uncommented-upon.

Hence, her work around fostering a "sex positive" culture seems to be an effort to transform our relationship to our sexual feelings and fantasies, so what is hidden can be brought to the surface and released.  In her own words:

I find exploring taboo topics to be therapeutic and a way to face fears. It's horrific to hear in the media about acts such as men having sex with a passed out woman while a bunch of people stand around and gawk, but have I fantasized about it? Certainly. You can read about it here. Having sex with someone who is sleeping or unconscious is on the necrophilia fetish spectrum, one of the most highly verboten topics. Sure it's disturbing, but that's the whole point - no one fantasizes about washing the dishes or performing other mundane activities - it's necessary and healthy to acknowledge our dark side and work the kinks out.

So she created a safe space with some consenting adults she knew well enough, and they role-played a forbidden fantasy.

My own sexual taste is a lot more vanilla than this; but if I look past that difference I see something dignified in the event as Kendra describes it.  I don't see these people reduced to objects, I see people.

And I don't find what Kendra wrote about nearly as obscene as a culture that exploits repressed sexual feelings for commercial purposes.  Our culture does not even stop at sexualizing children in order to sell products or win beauty contests. We are manipulated and led around by the figurative hook in our nose.  This, to me, is obscene.  It is one of the major motivations I have for practicing zen and sharing it with anyone who is interested.

[Image:  Oh my god!  Call the police!  I have just murdered someone in front of a couple of hundred witnesses, and now the man on the right is trying to kill me!  Well, actually, we're just acting out a scene from the famous play Romeo and Juliet.]

Thursday, March 28, 2013

When Non-Consent is Erotic (A Guest Blog)

Okay, Burning House residents, let's clean up the room.  We have a guest!

[As promised in the previous post, this is a guest piece by Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind.  The Burning House invited her to write a piece about non-consent as an element of fantasy.  For context, please see the recent posts Sex and Avidya and Non-Consensual Improvisation.  Her piece is a call to openness and transparency about sexual feelings and desires.  I find myself wanting to ask more questions after reading this, but first thing's first: here is Kendra's piece.  If I have time to write a follow-up, it will be in a separate post.]

[Oh, and by the way: This is a piece about sexuality and includes explicit language.  I warned you, okay?  Take it away, Kendra.     --Alg]

*          *          *

When Non-Consent is Erotic: Welcome to Fantasy AND Reality 

by Kendra Holliday

Last Saturday night, I hosted a gang bang. MY gang bang. Eight men fucked me. Being surrounded by ruthless male energy has been a long-time fantasy of mine - to be used, pinned down, manhandled, surrounded by men bigger and stronger than me, all having their way with me, shoving their cocks in my mouth and pussy, cumming all over my body...

It happened, and it was awesome.

It was awesome because it was CONSENSUAL.

I was able to fulfill an outrageous objectifying kinky fantasy in a safe and contained setting. Rules were in place. Safer sex was practiced. Drinking was done responsibly. The men were all friends of mine. There was no sneaking around - everyone's partner knew about it and supported it - espcially MY partner - he organized and managed it. Most importantly, it was all done on my terms.

My friend Jade has lived out a similar fantasy, only even more extreme, involving abduction and humiliation. That was what she wanted.

Jade and I are sluts - that's how we roll. A slut = a person who is in touch with their sexuality. Even when that sexual exploration takes us to some deep, dark places.

Are YOU a slut?

Are YOU in touch with your sexuality, or does a cloak of guilt and shame hinder your every move and cause you to do things you later regret?

A book I recommend often is Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, by Michael J. Bader. In his book, Bader explains the difference between guilt and shame, where fantasies come from, and why people have aggressive and non-consensual sexual fantasies.

Rest assured, such fantasies are normal, and can be acted out in safe ways. I find exploring taboo topics to be therapeutic and a way to face fears. It's horrific to hear in the media about acts such as men having sex with a passed out woman while a bunch of people stand around and gawk, but have I fantasized about it? Certainly. You can read about it here. Having sex with someone who is sleeping or unconscious is on the necrophilia fetish spectrum, one of the most highly verboten topics. Sure it's disturbing, but that's the whole point - no one fantasizes about washing the dishes or performing other mundane activities - it's necessary and healthy to acknowledge our dark side and work the kinks out.

We ride roller coasters, indulge in spicy food, race on motorcycles, travel to exotic locations - why limit ourselves when it comes to sex?

Let's face it - we live in a patriarchal, sex-negative society. This breeds ignorance and fear. Patriarchy is fear of the feminine AND mature masculine. Women are repressed and men don't have a chance to fully mature, which leads to a terribly lopsided dynamic where men are constantly seeking out sex because women are told they are supposed to be above sex. As a result, men resort to being opportunistic and entitled, whereas women put themselves in risky situations and give off mixed signals, with both genders using drugs and alcohol as an excuse to break past the unrealistic social barriers. It's confusing and unhealthy for everyone!

There's an antidote to this sex-negativity and confusion - think outside the cage. Be open and honest. Accept others for who they are - including yourself. Operate on mutual respect. Work on self-actualization. Leave people better than you found them. Develop a sex-positive community in your area. This means offering safe spaces for people to discuss and explore their sexuality and be educated on sexual physical and mental health.

There's such a thing as responsible hedonism: As long as you take care of your duties and obligations, you can have as much fun as you want, provided you're not hurting others.

The eight men who fucked me last weekend got to act out an incredibly hot fantasy. They went into it nervous and unsure, but I think they were pleasantly surprised at how respectful a gang bang could be. (I'll be posting my perspective on my website soon, as well as theirs.) And who knows - maybe getting to roleplay with a fun-loving slut will offer them an outlet for their primal desires and teach them about what women want and how to better interact with them.

More people need to learn that sex doesn't need to be stolen - it can be given as a gift.

Replace the fear with love.

[Image:  A photo taken during Kendra's "gang bang."  Courtesy of The Beautiful Kind.]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Introducing our First Guest Blogger : The Beautiful Kind

In the previous two posts, (here and here) we have broached the subject of non-consent as an element of fantasy (erotic or otherwise).

As reported in the last post, I mentioned that I invited a guest blogger to write on this subject.  The Burning House is delighted to announce that she has, um, consented.  Her piece will appear on this blog later in the week.  The author is Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind.  She is, as described on The Beautiful Kind's web page, a "creative visionary and self-proclaimed slut."

I have been reading Kendra's blog since 2006, a time when she wrote thoughtfully and wittily on many subjects.  I watched her activity focus more on sexuality, relationships, erotic fantasy and role play, and more in that vein as her website gradually took its current form.   Although her website includes frank descriptions of sexual activities, including her own real-life explorations, I don't think the term "sex blogger" does justice to her creative work.  She is also an activist (a co-founder of Sex Positive St. Louis) working to bring sexuality more into common conversation, to reduce the shame and repression our culture upholds around sexuality.  I've teased her about being a journalist, but this is actually no joke: she is a journalist reporting from very important, and widely feared, territory in the human consciousness.

On a lark, I asked her if she would write a guest blog on the matter of non-consent in fantasy, and she cheerfully obliged.  I have no idea what she is going to write.  I might respond, I might not.  If I do, it will be in a separate post.

Personally, I am looking forward to yielding the floor to The Beautiful Kind and reading her thoughts on this topic.  

[Image: From The Beautiful Kind's website]

Monday, March 25, 2013

Non-Consensual Improvisation

Yesterday's post (Sex and Avidya) provoked a few thoughtful comments on my Facebook page, and I began thinking that a follow-up post on consent and non-consent in erotic fantasy would be of interest.  My next thought was, a woman's perspective might be more compelling than mine.  And I'm excited to tease you, dear reader, with the prospect of a guest blog this week by a female blogger I have followed for several years.  Her perspective on this matter will be far more interesting than mine, I promise.  She has at least tentatively agreed to write on the subject, in response to the post and comments.  I am very grateful, for she is a busy lady and doesn't know me from Adam.

In the meantime, the subject of fantasy involving transgression, dominance, or non-consensual interaction -- consenting, as it were, to a fantasy of non-consensual activity -- reminded me of an anecdote an actor friend shared with me. It was an incident that very nearly got him thrown out of drama school back in the day.  (And no, I'm not telling you who the actor is.)  His is an interesting story.

First, a little background for those who are not steeped in theatre practice.

Actors and directors often turn to improvisation while rehearsing a scripted scene.  The actors role-play the scripted situation, or something related to it, in order to have an unscripted experience.  This can yield spontaneous insight into the characters' relationship; or give the actors a chance to observe their emotions in fictitious situations; generate dialogue that is useful to the scene; even resolve questions about character motivation and plot.  This is not of interest to all actors and directors, and might not be suitable for every play or film, but improvisation is frequently a valued tool.  Particularly in theatre school.

In my own opinion, I think the value of improvisation is sometimes overstated -- in some cases, it is even a bit self-indulgent -- but in some cases it can be useful. 

And so my friend found himself working on an assigned scene that involved some scary emotional territory. My friend told me it involved a woman being confined against her will by a man.  The female actor in the scene wanted to improvise that situation so she had an opportunity to observe her own emotional reactions to being in that situation, without a script.  My friend agreed.

So they set up rehearsals where he would actually tie up the actress and menace her.  For safety, they established a "safe word," just as lovers who enjoy rough play, maybe a bit of bondage and pain, will establish a signal in case anyone feels concerned for their safety.  In other words, there is still some lever of control.

The conundrum, they found, is that they were trying to explore the sensation of NOT being safe, in a process that conscientiously preserved their safety.  They were still pretending to be unsafe, as opposed to actually experiencing the loss of control.  My friend's scene partner was not satisfied.  She insisted that they somehow contrive an improv situation in which she could really experience not being in control. My friend, a very creative actor, obliged.

Their improvisation went like this.  He picked her up and started driving her out of town.  She asked where they were going.  He told her to shut up.  He drove to a very remote, wooded area.  He led her on a walk.  Tied her up.   Once her arms were bound, with her consent, he surprised her by gagging her.  Once she had the gag in her mouth he sat close to her and said:  "Now that I've gagged you, you can't even say the safe word to stop me.  I can do whatever the fuck I want to you."

He then sat still and looked directly at her for several minutes.  Then he released her.

As you can imagine, his scene partner was terrified and he came very close to being thrown out of theatre school altogether once the story got around.  He was saved because the woman intervened on his behalf, arguing without irony that she had consented to this non-consensual experience.

My friend found a way to break the boundaries of personal safety and launch his scene partner into uncertain territory, so they could both experience not knowing what would happen next.  Still, their friendship was over.

I doubt this helped their scene much.  You don't need to do this sort of thing to play that scene truthfully.  If you are old enough to attend theatre school, you are old enough to have experienced terror and a loss of control, even if the situation was different than the scripted scene.  If you have enough imagination to improvise a scene, you have ample imagination to play the scripted scene. 

[Image:  I couldn't find a non-copyrighted image that really illustrated this post.  The best I could manage is a picture of me with a female student in a voice class in 2011.]

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sex and Avidya

This cute video has been making the rounds on social media.  A young lady is unconscious, collapsed onto a couch.  A young man tells the camera that she has passed out and says, "Guess what I'm gonna do to her?"  He then puts a pillow under her head, puts a blanket on her, and leaves a cup of water for her.  He then tells the camera, "Real men treat women with respect."  


It's a nice home-made video and yes, that's an important point, charmingly presented.  Commenters on social media tend to repeat the same remark over and over again: "Isn't it sad that a video like this is necessary?"

And yet when I watched the setup to the video, something clicked in my mind, and I did some internet searching. Sure enough, I found that on certain porn sites -- sites that feature short porn videos rated and reviewed by users -- there is clearly a market for videos depicting the fantasy of taking advantage of women while they are sleeping or intoxicated.  Non-consent is, in other words, an erotic fantasy for some.  For that matter, and ironically, there are women who consensually participate in fantasies of non-consensual group sex -- rape fantasy.  I won't psychoanalyze it here, but simply point out that for some of us there is something erotic about bypassing consent.  Transgression.  Conquest.  Maybe the fantasy of overcoming female rejection.  Another popular, and less violent, male fantasy represented in videos depicts a lady surprising her lover while he is asleep -- what is sometimes called the "Brentwood Hello."  Non-consensual at the beginning, but nobody objects.    To what extent are popular porn videos representative? 

Yes, I know.  "Honey, I was researching porn for my blog.  Honest."

"Uh huh."


The nice boy with the cute friend crashing on his couch is presenting a rare simple choice.  When it comes to sex and erotic feelings, the pitches don't always come so soft and over the plate.  Our hearts have lots of shadowy spaces, and there are great depths of often-unexplored feelings and impulses lying underneath sexual passion.

Just as the video above responds to the horrific case of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, some bloggers have taken a stab at writing about some of the issues underneath.  One of the major issues here is consent, and a few Buddhist bloggers (including me, I'm just slow) have been attempting to write about consent and sexual conduct from a Buddhist viewpoint.  The ID Project offers "Right Action as Consent," and Nathan Thompson writes, "Sex, Consent, and Buddhist Right Action."

Consent can be shadowy and ambiguous, too.  Even when it is clearly stated, even when it is "enthusiastic."  Nathan tells one such story from his own youth.

Two examples of my own:

A girlfriend to whom I felt quite devoted in my twenties returned to Providence after a long trip.  We had "welcome home" sex.  Her attention seemed to be divided, like something was on her mind, but she insisted all was well and our night together continued.  The following morning I learned what was up: she had a new lover, she was leaving.  Her consent had been divided for obvious reasons and I felt horribly violated on top of the grief over losing the relationship.

Years later, in Los Angeles, I attended a wedding with a lady I had recently started dating.  She had quite a bit to drink at this event and was far from home.  So I drove her to my apartment, which was closer by half.  I had to carry her indoors.  ("This is fun," she said as I hauled her up the hill to my Echo Park apartment.)  There was no furniture other than the fold-out bed I slept on, so I tucked her in and lay down on the opposite side.  In the middle of night, the lady partially woke up and, feeling aroused, proceeded to launch an amorous assault on me that was hard to resist.  Really.  It had been a long time for me and here she was and oooh la la. My sex drive was chomping at the bit, and my mind split in two: one voice insisting this would be fine, while my will said NO!  A person this drunk can't really consent to anything!

The two stories illustrate a point echoed by Nathan in his own reflections.  Consent can be an illusion manipulated by all sorts of sensations or emotions: guilt, loneliness, lust, drunken abandon, and much more.  Consent doesn't solve the problem.  As Nathan writes, "People consent to things that cause suffering all the time."  

This is not to minimize the importance of consent.  Here at the Burning House, we certainly agree with Caroline Contillo (who wrote the ID Project's article linked above) when she wrote, "To take a life, to take possessions, or to force sex upon another human being against their will is unwise and 'wrong' because it is selfish and creates suffering for all parties. Right Action is about using our intention and mindfulness to encourage a culture of consent."  A culture of consent is a beautiful idea.  In a sense, what the author is getting at is socializing the Four Noble Truths -- not as a Buddhist evangelism, but as a practical way of making awareness of illusion a conscious process we bring to all our interactions. Buddhism supplies a vocabulary for that.

To realize that, however, we need to dig a little deeper, and go underneath the matter of consent into the perennial issue raised by the Buddha at Sarnath: avidyā, the problem of nescience, or failing to recognize delusion or the process by which we make confused choices (consenting!) that lead to suffering.  It is usually translated as "ignorance" in English, but the problem with that word is that many people associate it with being called stupid.  Nescience sounds less "judgy" to my ear, while accurately describing the problem.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Ask

When I worked for fundraisers in Los Angeles, they sometimes referred to "The Ask."  That is, the part of the conversation where you request money or other assistance.

Wherever we find ourselves, we sometimes have to ask people for things.  My son asks me for treats, or for toys that have been taken away from him as punishment.  At work, I've been asking permission to borrow props to use in plays and other kinds of help.  In order to buy the house she loved, my wife had to walk into banks and ask for a loan.  In yesterday's mail, I received a letter from the Kwan Um School of Zen asking for $1,000 donations toward a monument for Zen Master Seung Sahn.  People who live on the streets (and don't have a thousand bucks to their names) seek help regularly, from institutions to businesses to strangers walking by.

The Buddha and his disciples practiced begging as a personal discipline.  Most of them came from privileged backgrounds, so it must have been a strange and vulnerable experience for them to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers, and open themselves up to rejection.  The thing about The Ask is, you might be told no.  You might be told to "get a job" or just ignored as if you weren't there.  You might even be spat upon.

One of the fundraisers for whom I worked was named Kathy.  Kathy spent a long time -- years -- developing personal relationships with regular donors.  She knew the names of their children and their grandchildren, where they were going to school.  She treated donors like honored friends, showed them respect and gratitude and personal interest.  It worked rather well.  She did not always solicit them, but when it came to The Ask, she would lighten it up with some humor.  She would say, "How about a million dollars?  That would be fine.  But not a penny more!"

After morning practice at Deming Zen Center today, Sherry told me about a man who had approached her on Spruce Street after yoga practice.  His version of The Ask was: "Hey, do you have a couple of twenties you could spare?"  When she laughed, he was offended.

It reminded me of Kathy's "big ask," which nearly always prompted laughter.

And yet there was one day -- and I actually overheard Kathy's part of this conversation, which took place over her telephone -- when Kathy made her usual request for a million dollars and the donor she was talking to said, "You know what?  Yes.  I'm ready to do that."  And she was serious.  Kathy asked for a million dollars and somebody said yes.

You never know.

[Image: the donation box at Deming Zen Center.  How about a million dollars?  But not a penny more, really.]

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Deming's theatres, old and new

Among Deming's landmark buildings and ruins are several old theatres.  There were live theatres and movie theatres, places that once catered to the military bases nearby and the military families that lived in town.  The new health clinic is in an old theatre cafe, that was in operation until the owner moved on to Albuquerque.

This building, on Pine Street near the interstate, is one of these places.  It was a theatre, and later a skating rink, and in recent years was the home to a dance school (the faded sign is still on the front) and then a church.  It has been empty for a while now.  A couple of prospective tenants have looked in, but rumor is a prior tenant ran out on a large electric bill and no one wants to settle it.

In 1924, William Jennings Bryan stumped here in support of the Democratic ticket running against President Coolidge.  He gave a two-hour speech.

Deming still enjoys live theatre and there have been groups putting up plays in the lecture hall at the refurbished train depot, or the Tumbleweed Theatre down in the village of Columbus.  There used to be plays staged at Morgan Hall, produced by the Deming Performing Arts Theatre, but that organization focuses more on presenting music.  The last play they produced was in 2009: a production of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol directed by yours truly. 

And in 2007, they built a brand-new outdoor theatre, with the capacity to seat a thousand, in Voiers Park.  For the most part it sits locked up behind chain link and barbed wire.  The city and I have been in talks about bringing in some appropriate shows so the theatre gets some use and some young artists I've met get a chance to practice their art in an outdoor venue.

Odd to be putting on the producer hat, but when there's a need...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

This moment is the real thing

A few days ago on this blog, I wrote about practice forms:

These rituals -- from the big ones that take place in formal settings, to the improvised tea ceremonies with disposable cups -- are opportunities to stop and rehearse a radical kind of respect and grace.

It would be good to revisit this briefly because the word to rehearse connotes, for some people anyway, a sense of preparation, something that is often unseen by public eyes, something that is a preparation for a final performance.  One could be forgiven for thinking then that I was suggesting, above, that practice forms are about rehearsing respect and grace for some future moment. 

But this is not a good way to use the word, because there is no such thing as "preparing for the real thing."  This moment is the real thing.

I've always appreciated the Italian word for rehearsal: una prova, from the verb provare, meaning to try.  When we practice, we are doing; let's give this scene a try right now.  At basketball practice, you are playing basketball. 

Rehearsal is not just a rehearsal; rehearsal is the practice in this moment, whether there is an audience or not.  This is it. 

[Image:  Rehearsing the recent production of Our Town in Las Cruces.]

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Actor mask

Those who sat zen retreats with the late Soen Roshi recall instances where he donned a Noh mask and danced about, eventually lowering the mask and saying, "I have removed my mask.  When will you remove yours?"

Good zen-theatre teaching.

It is time for updated headshots, and I am planning a trip to Albuquerque to work with Steve Snowden again.  It means a haircut and putting together some outfits and generally attending to one of my masks, the face I put on my work to advertise my services.

Most of the time, my work is put to use in telling one story or another.

Funny thing, though.  It's all the same story when you look deeply. 

[Image:  on set in 2010.  I'm either resting or preparing myself for a difficult scene, I don't remember.]

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Paying Homage, Rehearsing Respect

Some famous monk -- was it Thomas Merton?  Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh?  I cannot remember anymore -- once said that the very first thing he learned at the monastery was how to shut a door.

In my first years practicing with Zen Master Soeng Hyang, she was always calling my attention to how I left doors.  It was like a barometer of my mind.  When I wasn't sure whether it was better to leave a door open or shut, I would leave it ajar instead of taking responsibility for shutting it.  Or I would let doors slam behind me, startling other people in the room, because I was in such a hurry.  Or I would forget the door entirely, leaving the thing waving in its jamb like my own wavering attention.

I was reminded of those days during the run of Our Town in the new performing arts center at NMSU.  It's a wonderful, large theatre with doors leading from the wings into hallways that lead to the scene shop, green rooms, dressing rooms, and so on.  It can be nice to wait in the wings while offstage, so as to stay connected to the entire play and not just one's own part.  However, the wings can also be very crowded: there are crew members working, prop tables and cabinets, scenery, and so on.  So it also makes sense to get out of the way, and that means going through these doors while the performance takes place.

Opening and shutting these large metal doors silently requires one to stop, breathe, and handle the door with attention and care.  Simply pushing the panic bar and storming through will create a noise than can be heard on stage, and maybe even by the audience.  As part of my own backstage routine, I organically became a door opener, allowing others to pass discretely and quickly, and staying behind to ease the doors into the jamb and onto the cushioned strips before slowly releasing the handle.  It acquired a beautiful grace and rhythm.  This sense of grace and respect easily migrates to other things: how we treat our props, how we prepare to go onstage, and how we treat our fellow actors and the crew members.  Every instant of it is an opportunity to wake up a little bit more and appreciate what is happening just now.

We've heard zen masters use that word appreciate as in "Appreciate your life!"  but this kind of appreciation is not just aesthetic admiration; it is about caring.  This is why Buddhist ceremonies still move me, even the comparatively simple forms we use in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  This is why we bow towards the buddha statue when we walk into a dharma room; why a priest will, given the opportunity, offer some flowers to a buddha statue.  I think it is also why people who knew Soen Roshi still cherish (and share) memories of that priest who improvised tea ceremonies while waiting for airplanes, using styrofoam cups full of soda pop.  These rituals -- from the big ones that take place in formal settings, to the improvised tea ceremonies with disposable cups -- are opportunities to stop and rehearse a radical kind of respect and grace.

Sometimes, doing this actually feels rebellious in a world that exults speed and thoughtless consumption.

Some people are uncomfortable with Buddha statues and icons because they suspect we are engaging in idol worship.  The government of Iran has even banned Buddha statues as home decor, out of a concern for "cultural invasion."  (See a report from the Cleveland Leader here.)  There is a lack of understanding that paying homage is not the same thing as worship. Granted, under feudalism, to pay homage was specifically to express fealty to a lord.  In our day and age we can overtly pay honor and express care for our loved ones, for our rivals, for our community and our country, for the eco-system that sustains us, for the wholeness of life and any life form that manifests itself to us.  To me this seems like a different activity than worshipping a god or an emperor.  A statue is just a form; we can bow to trees, to a policeman, to the desert or an ocean.  It may feel silly, but do we stop and wonder why it feels silly?

The care we show to a door or a plate full of food or, yes, maybe a statue, just might be a barometer for how we are applying ourselves.

It just might be an opportunity to rehearse caring ever more deeply for the ten thousand things of this world.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

Making choices

"Desert Sage" is a weekly editorial appearing in the Deming Headlight.  On the second Thursday of each month, I write the column.  This piece appeared yesterday.


One of my Desert Sage colleagues recently shared a terrific story about personal responsibility. A basketball coach asks his young team if they had ever blamed a referee for losing a game, and every hand goes up. He then asks them if they had ever given a referee credit when they won, and no hand goes up.

That coach, now a retired educator, writes: “I have seen students overcome some incredible hurdles” and concludes that “any student in the United States can get a great education if they really want one… Let’s not blame poverty or language or anything else.”

This witty story makes a critical point about individual behavior. It is usually easier to take credit for success than to eat the blame for failure. If we merely blame others, we do not learn from our mistakes. This is a good lesson for a young basketball team on a regulation basketball court with fair minded referees and coaches that love their kids and teach them about sportsmanship, humility, and shared victory.

Now let’s suppose that the referees insist one of the teams play with hands tied behind their backs, while the other team plays freely under the normal rules. Or, perhaps, they refrigerate the court and ask one team to play bare-chested while distributing long-sleeved shirts to the other team. In such unequal circumstances, it might be possible for the hobbled team to overcome the odds and win. They would immediately be celebrated for their ingenuity and determination, defying the odds and overcoming adversity. Even in defeat, they would be lauded as heroes.

Woe to the person who asks, once the applause has subsided, why that team was hobbled in the first place. Get a load of that party-pooper undercutting the team’s valor and punishing success! Asking questions about the rules of the larger game -- the size of the court, and who is placing the hurdles where – remains a taboo in our country. As the late Catholic archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Social inequality does exist. It follows consistent, systematic patterns. It strongly influences personal behavior. Though many of us presume that our destinies are determined by choices – and there is truth to that – it leaves out the fact that we can only choose among the options that are available to us. In other words, opportunity matters, too; and opportunity is not evenly or fairly distributed.

Economists sometimes refer to this as the “choice-opportunity dichotomy,” and most of them live on the choice side, like much of our political discourse.

Many psychologists have studied the so-called “just world hypothesis,” a cognitive bias which assumes that reward follows virtue and good choices, whereas misfortune must be the outcome of bad choices and personal defects. One of these psychologists, Melvin J. Lerner, wrote: “People must assume that there are manageable procedures which are effective in producing the desired end states.”

It is far easier to assume that the playing field is basically level and people get what they deserve than to confront a world where people, including children, suffer for reasons beyond their control.

Fortunately for this debate, it is not really an “either-or” relationship. The choice-opportunity dichotomy is healed when we see choice and opportunity as integrated and mutually important.  Wherever we individuals find ourselves, we make our choices, but personal responsibility is not just about me. We are also responsible for the state of our basketball court. In the kind of country we aspire to be, we have a responsibility to address the imbalances of power and opportunity in our republic. We can attend school board meetings and vote in elections, perhaps even run as candidates. We can learn how our system works, participate wisely, and petition lawmakers and even businesses to make good choices. We can even organize social movements, inspired by historical efforts of the poor and working class to correct the imbalance of power in our country.

Our playing field is not level, and that determines the choices available to us. If we don’t like that, let’s choose to get smart, and get busy.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why drag your corpse?

Death will be so quick to swoop on you;
Gather merit till that moment comes!
Wait till then to banish laziness?
Then there'll be no time, what will you do?

"This I have not done.  And this I'm only starting.
And this -- I'm only halfway through..."
Then is the sudden coming of the Lord of Death,
And oh, the thought "Alas, I'm finished!"

Morning practice at Deming Zen Center is a quiet time.  I get there a little before seven o'clock, turn on the heat, and start a kettle for tea.  Occasionally somebody joins me.  This morning, I bowed alone.

My body is still strong but when I do prostrations I can feel the age in the feet, definitely the knees, fatigued muscles and joints.  Ten years ago, the 108 bows barely worked up a sweat.  Now it's a reminder that this body is changing -- and not just in the cosmetic sense where we see white hairs and wrinkled skin.  Truly, there is no youth and age, from the perspective of the dharma.  But this body has limits and at some point, so to speak, it will be time to turn it in.

Moreover, I have long had a peculiar sense that it might be sooner rather than later.  Not the sort of thing anyone wants to hear about, but there it is.   Maybe it is just some insecurity or misguided worry.  Anyway, it inspires me to practice and work, and not waste time or money on stupid things.

Myo Ji Sunim was known for her devotion to prostration practice.  When I lived at Cambridge Zen Center, she would visit a couple of times a year and lead 1,000 prostrations for anyone who wanted to participate.  It would take about two hours, and most of us were pretty young.  Sunim was considerably older, but she did all of the prostrations while chanting, and that kept us going when we began to think we were tired.  One day, at the end of a thousand bows, she looked around the room and said, "You are all young!  Practice hard and train yourselves while you're young!  I'm starting to get tired."

To drive her point home, she died rather suddenly in 2011.

The Bodhicaryavatara calls the opposite of perseverance "laziness," but this is a laziness much deeper than the fleeting resistance to getting off a comfortable sofa.  The laziness described in this scripture is a kind of depression or sinkhole.  We can sink into these spaces of comfort and distraction, craving sleep or comfort food or "a better social life."  This kind of laziness is not inactive:  going to the gym can keep you very busy and physically fit, but if we do it as a form of escape from life, then it is a kind of "laziness" from the perspective of the dharma.  When I feel an urge to buy a gym membership, it's usually due to vain thoughts about the state of my body; so I do some bows instead.  Vanity takes time and energy; and dwelling on it is laziness.  Dwelling on anything, for that matter.

Keep going. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Smoke Screen

We Americans -- well, a lot of us -- are strangely fascinated with monarchs.

Give us a royal wedding, even of ceremonial monarchs like the British royal family, and the press coverage explodes.  There is a vast and eager audience.  Ratings are high.  Live streams, live blogging, endless photographs, comparable to any presidential inaugural or a war or other events that actually bear directly on our lives.

I don't wish to begrudge anyone their interest in the royals or their enjoyment of the spectacle.  By all means, enjoy.  Speaking for myself it leaves me a little cold.  Great, those kids are getting married, I wish them happiness.  Great, so and so is now called king or crown prince or whatever, and whoosee is now in direct succession to be called king someday, and all of that.  Nice for them.  Thing is, I'm a democrat (small d, not the party affiliation).  Monarchs don't interest me much.  Especially ceremonial ones.  Get a job, you know?

We are also fascinated with the ritual of selecting a new pope.  Another ceremonial monarch, though he is also really and truly the head of the Roman Catholic church.  In practical terms, it's simply an election, although the winner is then anointed with an affected divinity.  (That's one reason the retirement of Benedict is so awkward.) The cardinals assemble in strict secrecy and vote a bunch of times until one person -- generally, one of the cardinals, of course -- gets enough votes to win.  "Habemus papam!"  they declare and the winner shows up on a balcony wearing Hugo Ball's hat and what look like bedspreads and curtains to me.  "Fratelle e sorelle!  I iz da pope!" 

Although I make fun, it is an ingenious spectacle.  The secrecy of the proceedings is intriguing.  And all the latest technology of live streaming and satellite broadcasting are focused on -- that chimney!  People are actually opening a window on their browsers to look for white smoke (as opposed to black smoke, which means nobody has won yet). 

And in the excitement and pleasure of this ancient ritual cum modern media spectacle, is there not also a bit of a smokescreen going on for this organization?  I am not launching a critique of Catholicism here per se, at least I don't think so, but the institution itself.

One of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel today is Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, who was recently implicated (through church memos) of a damnable complicity in covering up and protecting priests who had repeatedly molested children.  It appears he is protected from prosecution only by statute of limitations.  In other words, the evidence was hidden long enough to protect him from legal repercussions.  This is really outrageous.  This is grounds for the tar and feathers.  It is remarkable this man can even show his face in public.

Eventually, there will be white smoke and several days of gushing coverage about who the new pope is and what name he chooses and how many languages he can speak and so on.  Again, I won't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of this show.   It leaves me a little cold.

What interests me more is whether or not this institution will be held to account, once and for all, by itself or perhaps by the Hague, for its complicity in an international criminal conspiracy to aid, abet, and cover up the systematic rape and other abuse of children.  It honestly amazes me that this is not at the very top of the news, every day.

If an actual state were behind this (which the Vatican sort of is, but not really anymore) there would be talk of international sanctions if not humanitarian intervention.

These  tough words for the Vatican and the Roman Catholic church should not be interpreted as an attack on anyone's religious faith.  This is about an institution.  This human organization is culpable in very serious, even monstrous, errors of judgment with subsequent harm to a great many people.  Whether it's a country, a corporation, or a church, this calls for accountability.  And that is for everyone's sake, from a tiny chapel in Deming to the curia and even to the opulent palace where the "pilgrim" Benedict lives in seclusion -- and diplomatic immunity. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

OUR TOWN closes and zzz-zzz-zzz....

Amid tears and exuberant whoops, Our Town, the inaugural production at New Mexico State's new performing arts center, gave its last show this afternoon. 

Meanwhile, midterms are underway -- and it seems more of my students are in trouble this term than last; another deadline for the Deming Headlight is creeping upon me; and I will be directing a production of Ted Tally's Terra Nova for No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces. 

Oh yes, and Tuesday I'm filming a bit part for an episode of NBC's Dead of Night. 

And yet, as something like spring struggles to assert itself through the gritty winds and cold drafts, it feels like some breathing room is trying to open up.  There are blog posts I would love to write and hope I'll get time to. the continuing performance art of responding to zen scandals, which in many cases seems to have become a unique form of attention-seeking behavior.

...the minimum wage debate in Las Cruces.

...a recent dialogue about morality with a Christian friend.

...the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which might be a very dangerous moment for Venezuela's sovereignty, and other commentaries on the passing of a political figure I have found fascinating and frustrating.  (And the recent media coverage in the U.S., which by and large is not fascinating but definitely frustrating.) 

...the increasingly open secret in U.S. news and entertainment media that the most popular "liberal" talking heads are rather pompous and surprisingly conservative.

No, I don't know if I'll get to all of these, but for the few of you appreciating this blog:  thank you, there will be increased activity again soon. 

[Image:  At the Spirit Winds cafe in Las Cruces.]

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Kerry doing the IMF's work

2 March 2013
Hon. John Kerry, Secretary
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC  20520

RE:  Egypt and the IMF

Dear Mr.  Secretary,

To paraphrase a much younger John Kerry: How do you ask a people to be the latest people to suffer and die – for an IMF loan?

These were the stakes as you arrived in Cairo, Egypt this weekend.  Today, violent street protests continued with injuries, possibly deaths, in Cairo, Mansoura, and Port Said.  Tomorrow you are to meet with President Mohammad Morsi and according to numerous reports you will be pressing him to agree to the terms of a $4.8 billion loan through the International Monetary Fund.  The sterile jargon used to describe those terms obscures the real consequences for the people of Egypt.  Nonetheless, they understand what this means for them and that is why they are on the streets.  You are not being greeted as a liberator, Mr. Secretary. 

We know what “structural adjustments” do to the poor and working class of these countries.  In return for its loans, the IMF demands an end to “subsidies” that provide the basic necessities of life to those who cannot pay for them: food, water, and energy.  We have seen the affects of these policies on public health and local economies: the spread of disease and price inflation, to say nothing of the costs of the riots that break out when people’s lives are threatened – the kind of unrest taking place in Egypt right now.  “Non-productive” budget expenditures, such as infrastructure and humanitarian programs, are cut in order to show balanced budgets.  Even measures such as federal minimum wages must be repealed, harming working people’s interests in deference to the IMF’s preference for liberalized markets and competition by multinational corporations.  We have seen local currencies devalued in order to make these countries more “competitive” by offering cheaper exports; for the same reason, we have seen customs barriers cut, to the detriment of local workers and industries as subsidized foreign products enter the market and outcompete local producers. 

I will not belabor my point as I am sure you are familiar with the terms the IMF demands for its loans.  We understand that the IMF is not an altruistic organization working on behalf of the struggling classes of developing nations.  It works on behalf of the international finance system, in particular the interests of globalized competitive capitalism. 

Today I think about that young man who testified beforethe Fulbright Committee in 1971 and spoke truth to power.  Now you are Secretary of State and on your first mission to the Arab world, you do so as an envoy of neoliberal capitalism.  The man who once convicted himself for participating in the destruction of civilian lives during warfare now presses nations to adopt policies that will harm people who are starving and weak. 

I think about that young man and I wonder if this is the work he envisioned himself doing in the world. 

With compassion,

[Image:  Kerry fulfilling the Bretton Woods mission, with the Egyptian president.  Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images]