Sunday, January 31, 2010

To Be the Other

“People live in bubbles unaware of each other. Each side has its narrative, each side has its dreams and sees the other as threatening those dreams. But if you enter the other’s bubble, you see his dreams, his inner world and his values. Our idea was to make the audience experience what it meant to be the other.”

~ Yaron Shani, discussing Ajami, the film that he and Scandar Copti co-directed, from “One Conflict, Many Views, No Actors,” by Ethan Bronner, New York Times (1/31/10).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Belonging, Blooming, and Beginning Again

If worries were stones that could be polished by rolling around repeatedly in our minds, one of the shiniest rocks in my tumbler would have to be wondering where I really belong. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas I was convinced I was being excluded from a much more Technicolor city. In New Mexico I quickly grew bored of the piercingly blue skies and yearned for thunderstorms. Ohio seemed to choose me instead of the other way around. I don't strongly identify with many of the aspects of my life and personality that make easy answers to casual questions about who I am or what I do.

Year-End Retreat 2009, Rancho Palos Verdes

All this becomes especially distressing when I'm convinced that everyone else not only knows for certain where they belong but have also managed to get there. It reminds me of the paradox that throws so many people off about meditation: the way it appears on the outside doesn’t give a very reliable indication of what it feels like on the inside.

I recently had the extravagantly good fortune to practice mindfulness intensively in an idyllic setting near the ocean, with Birds of Paradise thriving in early January, and a few peacocks adding spontaneous local color. Yet I found myself wondering if I really belonged there — even as a visitor.

Year-End Retreat 2009, Rancho Palos VerdesAs much sincere intention as I put into weeding out unrealistic assumptions about life, I've managed to hold onto the notion that some perfect fit exists for each of us. I don't want to blame this on Hollywood or religion or advertising — aren't they all just responding to the strong craving for narrative which seems to be hardwired into our nervous systems? It’s that same inherited impulse toward security and the sense that each of us is actually the main character in this one long reality show.

Practicing mindfulness over time can lead to a direct and deepening awareness that nothing is unchanging. Could this apply to my perpetual desire to belong? What if there really is no satisfying it in the same way we never seem to reach the point of having the right amount of money or time?

What if instead of finding out exactly where I belong, I put my energy into belonging where I find myself at any given moment? This means making ourselves at home scraping snow from the windshield, listening to the hold music, drinking coffee, sitting through another boring meeting, watching a great movie, waiting to see the doctor, washing our hands, and dropping off the recyclables. To really bloom where we find ourselves planted begins with settling in, soaking up whatever our roots can reach, and celebrating the sprouting as well as the whole climb toward blooming.

What would it feel like to at least attempt to notice and accept all the many points along the way — the pleasant episodes as well as the unpleasant ones? If we can practice embracing the hundreds of different places we find ourselves each day (physically, mentally, emotionally), then we're well on our way to belonging wherever we go.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

To Trust Uncertain Things

"What this play, [Hecuba], says that is so disturbing is that the condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn't prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances. In circumstances for which you are not yourself to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life, that it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed, that we're more and more like a plant than a jewel — something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility."

~ Martha Nussbaum, discussing the idea from her book, The Fragility of Goodness, with Bill Moyers back in 1988.

Dealing with Distress

Here is a excellent four-step plan for dealing with distress from Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan.

1. Know when you're not in pain.
2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.
3. Do not feed the monsters.
4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

Read more about these steps on the Huffington Post.

barack_obama Meng was one of Google’s earliest software engineers and now serves as Head of the School of Personal Growth for Google University. One of his projects is the Search Inside Yourself program which is based on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Norman Fischer has taught for the program and I just read a tweet from Meng indicating that my mindfulness teacher, Shinzen Young, is visiting Google today.

Balanced by Sadness

Loy Krathong, Pai, Thailand (November 2004)

“There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.”

~ Carl Jung


[Thanks Alex!]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are We Just Going to Wait it Out?

Wait It Out
by Imogen Heap, from Ellipse

Everybody says time heals everything.
But what of the wretched hollow?
The endless in-between?
Are we just going to wait it out?

And sit here cold?
Well, We'll be long gone by then.
And lackluster in dust we lay
Around old magazines.
Fluorescent lighting sets the scene
for all we could and should be being
in the one life that we've got.

How to Listen

Excerpt from Anne Tyler’s new novel, Noah’s Compass:

At St. Dyfrig once, invited to view a poem on the English department’s computer, he had clicked on How to listen and been disappointed to find mere technical instructions for playing the audio version. What he had been hoping for was advice on how to listen to poetry—and, by extension, how to listen, really listen, to what was being said all around him. It seemed he lacked some basic skill for that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Elementary Course

Year-End Retreat 2009, Rancho Palos VerdesMysticism for Beginners
by Adam Zagajewski, from Mysticism for Beginners

The day was mild, the light was generous.
The German on the café terrace
held a small book on his lap.
I caught sight of the title:
Mysticism for Beginners.
Suddenly I understood that the swallows
patrolling the streets of Montepulciano
with their shrill whistles,
and the hushed talk of timid travelers
from Eastern, so-called Central Europe,
and the white herons standing—yesterday? the day before?—
like nuns in fields of rice,
and the dusk, slow and systematic,
erasing the outlines of medieval houses,
and olive trees on little hills,
abandoned to the wind and heat,
and the head of the Unknown Princess
that I saw and admired in the Louvre,
and stained-glass windows like butterfly wings
sprinkled with pollen,
and the little nightingale practicing
its speech beside the highway,
and any journey, any kind of trip,
are only mysticism for beginners,
the elementary course, prelude
to a test that’s been

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of Half

From “What Could You Live Without?” by Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times (January 23, 2009):

The Power of HalfMr. Salwen and his wife, Joan, had always assumed that their kids would be better off in a bigger house. But after they downsized, there was much less space to retreat to, so the family members spent more time around each other. A smaller house unexpectedly turned out to be a more family-friendly house.

“We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness,” Mr. Salwen told me, adding, “I can’t figure out why everybody wouldn’t want that deal.”

Those Ideas Still Remain

The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left  by Ed Husain “… it must be said that al-Qaeda is just a name. It's really a mindset that we must be tackling: literalist, rejectionist, Islamist worldview. And not necessarily al-Qaeda as an organization because that can become defunct, but those ideas still remain. So it's not a war on terror as the American government has gone out of its way to suggest, but it's actually a battle of ideas.”

~ Ed Husain, in conversation with Krista Tippett from “Reflections of a Former Extremist,” Speaking of Faith (January 14, 2010)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Experiencing Things Directly

Tao Lin “The improvising is something that I nurtured in bed mostly, where if I wanted to describe a feeling, I would just do this thing where I’d force my brain to exist without preconceptions. And then, usually if I did that enough, I would just think of something — a new way to describe a feeling. And then in my newest book (Shoplifting from American Apparel), I deliberately didn’t do any of that…My detachment is more kind of trying to advocate to myself a way of living life that is kind of pre-language, just like experiencing things directly.”

~ Tao Lin, speaking with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (December 3, 2009)

*     *     *

ugly fish poem, part one
by Tao Lin, from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

i have licked the ashen barnacles of the low ports of melbourne 

low in elevation (when viewed from the highway)

i have swam with the handsome redfish of the small piers of melbourne

i have been to jetty park near cape canaveral, mackeral, jewfish,

the little mermaid, and journeyed deep into the rocks, at my own peril,

to stare at the handsome feet of young caucasian humans

i have felt a love of life that i believe is good 

and i have felt it alone; i have always felt alienated from my peers

i am an alone ugly fish

the concrete manifestation of my emotional center is a skinned red onion covered

by local newspapers under a boardwalk at cocoa beach

i know many terms but speak only in concrete specifics

from afar i have appreciated the manatee for its round body

from within i have appreciated the manatee for its veganism

my favorite poets include mary oliver and alice notley

i am a playful companion, a tactful friend

and compassionate lover; a mutant sturgeon sniffs a seahorse with a nose located on its stomach

i have lain on the ocean floor alone at night on my birthday 

and felt very aroused and ugly 

i have willfully and simultaneously subjected myself to multiple irreconcilable philosophies 

i have held my body with my little fins

on the fourth of july 

and made excruciating screams of despair

i have my grotesque appearance and my small mind to accomplish these many tasks

i have made small noises of despair in the presence of those i respect most

i have suffered unseen in the nooks of jetty park

and i have swam unseen 

and i have swam fast; any speed that exists i have swam at that speed; i have been wild with loneliness 

and felt the generosity of loneliness

i have seen a hammerhead shark strike a manatee then flee in confusion

i have seen a manatee strike a baby hammerhead shark repeatedly

until a small brown-gray paste floats away

i have seen a blue whale scream in joy then wake from a dream

i have seen a giant tuna swim upside-down with lust into a concrete wall

in frustration, and i know how it feels, 

as i have felt the center for international studies of subatomic particles inside of me 

and swam with it in the foamy waters of cape canaveral

i have tasted the still-frozen midsections of bulk shrimp and fought away other shrimp with my fins

conversely i have tasted the artificially flavored centers of soy meats

i am almost nine years old

i have seen the decapitated heads of pigfish 

drop into the ocean: their faces were shiny

thank you for reading so far

i'll finish the rest of this poem very soon

i hope you like me so far

Remain Warm among Ice

From Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville:

The Fossil Whale, Frank Stella For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then — except after explanation — that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo native in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

[Check out Kurt Anderson’s Peabody Award winning episode of 360 in which he sails into the icy waters in search of Melville’s white whale with the help of Laurie Anderson, Stanley Crouch, David Ives, Elizabeth Schultz, Tony Kushner, Frank Stella, and Ray Bradbury.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Life Passions

Bertrand-Russell "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."

~ Bertrand Russell


[Thanks Alex!]

Pray without Ceasing

Year-End Retreat 2009, Rancho Palos Verdes

Pray for Peace
by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you're hungry, pray. If you're tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else's legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas—

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

[Thanks Jonathan Carroll!]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What’s Essential in Life

Bob Shumaker, a former POW in Vietnam, describes how he and his fellow prisoners developed a social network that was crucial to their surviving three years in solitary confinement. They succeeded by creating a tap code that allowed them to communicate through their cell walls. "Being a prisoner really focuses on what's essential in life and there are a lot of things we can do without and still be happy. The key lessons from Bob Shumaker's story are that inside almost all of us is the capacity to overcome the most horrific of stress in our life and even ultimately learn from that stress and thrive and grow as a person."

~ from Rethinking Happiness, an episode of the PBS program This Emotional Life

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Golden Rule

“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves…We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

The Charter for Compassion

Karen Armstrong’s TED Talk presentation

Catching Up

The Letter From Home
by Nancyrose Houston, from American Life in Poetry

The dogs barked, the dogs scratched, the dogs got wet, the
dogs shook, the dogs circled, the dogs slept, the dogs ate,
the dogs barked; the rain fell down, the leaves fell down, the
eggs fell down and cracked on the floor; the dust settled,
the wood floors were scratched, the cabinets sat without
doors, the trim without paint, the stuff piled up; I loaded the
dishwasher, I unloaded the dishwasher, I raked the leaves,
I did the laundry, I took out the garbage, I took out the
recycling, I took out the yard waste. There was a bed, it was
soft, there was a blanket, it was warm, there were dreams,
they were good. The corn grew, the eggplant grew, the
tomatoes grew, the lettuce grew, the strawberries grew, the
blackberries grew; the tea kettle screamed, the computer
keys clicked, the radio roared, the TV spoke. “Will they ever
come home?” “Can’t I take a break?” “How do others keep
their house clean?” “Will I remember this day in fifty years?”
The sweet tea slipped down my throat, the brownies melted
in my mouth. My mother cooked, the apple tree bloomed, the
lilac bloomed, the mimosa bloomed, I bloomed.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Waiting on a Different Time Scale

From “A Test of Patience,” by Mats Bigert, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 34, Summer 2009:

Pitch Drop Experiment The Pitch Drop Experiment was initiated in 1927 by Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, to demonstrate for his ­students that some substances that appear to be solid are actually fluid. A heated sample of pitch, a naturally occurring petroleum substance, was poured into a funnel-shaped glass container and sealed. After three years, the sample had apparently coagulated and it was time to kick-start what is now the longest-running, and what must surely be one of the slowest, laboratory experiments in history. Parnell unsealed the funnel and the pitch was free to flow. After a couple of years, a drop began to form, but it took eight years for it finally to fall, the student audience of the experiment having long since graduated. The experiment continued, nevertheless, since it required no maintenance, and every eight or so years, a little baby drop left the nest of mama pitch for the growing expanse of papa pitch below. Eventually, after the eighth, and most recent, drop fell on 28 November 2000, the viscosity of pitch was finally calculated to be roughly one hundred billion times that of water.

To date, no one has ever witnessed an actual drop fall and there is no visual documentation of the dramatic event. The closest anyone has ever come was in April 1979 when Professor John Mainstone, who now maintains the experiment, came­ to work on a Sunday afternoon. He noted that the pitch drop was just about to touch down, but he did not have time to stay and watch. On returning the following morning, Mainstone saw, much to his chagrin, that the drop had fallen. Even modern technology has been foiled in its attempt to capture direct evidence of the pitch’s clandestine maneuvers; a video camera placed to monitor the experiment happened to fail at the very moment the eighth drop fell.






Experiment set up



The stem was cut


December 1938

1st drop fell


February 1947

2nd drop fell


April 1954

3rd drop fell


May 1962

4th drop fell


August 1970

5th drop fell


April 1979

6th drop fell


July 1988

7th drop fell


28 November 2000

8th drop fell


Creating Something that Disappears at the Moment It is Produced

From “Making Art Out of an Encounter,” by Arthur Lubow, New York Times, January 15, 2010:

Tino Sehgal As a youth, [Tino] Sehgal was attracted to the study of dance (how people move) and political economy (how society works). His father, now retired, was an I.B.M. manager from India, his mother a German native and homemaker. Sehgal was born in London and raised primarily in Dusseldorf, Paris and a town close to Stuttgart; he has a younger sister, who grew up to become a philosopher specializing in Alfred North Whitehead. Their father talked with them in English, their mother in German. Sehgal speaks fluent English with a faint German inflection.

When he was an adolescent, Sehgal says, a direct encounter with the political process disenchanted him permanently from parliamentary politics. Friends asked him to speak at a hearing in favor of a transportation initiative in Stuttgart. “I remember seeing the minister of transportation dive and dodge,” he says. “All he could do was administer what the public opinion was, or else he would be voted out in the next election.” If electoral politics could not produce fundamental change, why bother with it? “It’s much more interesting to change the values,” he says. “I was never interested again in parliamentary politics. I became interested in culture.”

This political awakening strengthened his attraction to dance. Aside from its physical appeal, dance, in his eyes, had the virtue of creating something that disappeared at the moment it was produced. “My work comes out of my experiment with myself,” he says. “As a person in the first world, you’re quite heavy as a person in what you use up. Can I actually solve this for myself? Can I have something to do, keep myself interested and not be somebody who is situated outside society, and can I do this without transforming lots of material?”

Saturday, January 16, 2010



Neither Daylight Nor Darkness

Year-End Retreat 2009, Rancho Palos Verdes

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

~ T.S. Eliot, from "Burnt Norton," the first poem of his Four Quartets