Friday, August 31, 2012

What does your chair have to say?

I didn't watch the Republican convention. I'm not a fan of political theater. But when my interwebs lit up with questions about Clint Eastwood, I watched the video of his appearance there. I am a fan of the bizarre.

In case you have not heard, Eastwood made what is being called an unscripted appearance before the convention in which he addressed an empty chair as if President Obama were sitting in it.

And he reacted as if President Obama were speaking to him from the empty chair.

I confess, I didn't watch the whole video. I found the aggressive energy disturbing. I quit shortly after Eastwood acted as if the chair had told Romney to fuck himself. (At one point, he interrupted his "conversation" with "Mr. Obama" and asked, "what do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. I can't tell him to do that to himself."

Full transcript of Eastwood's remarks

Eastwood spoke Thursday night. By Friday morning, the critiques were rolling in.

And while I find it interesting and find my response to it of personal interest, I don't know that a whole lot of critique is necessary. Whaddya expect from Dirty Harry? High-minded political discourse? It reminded me of a moment in "The Commitments" where the elderly father starts thinking that his poop is talking to him. In the book it was a sign of his advancing dementia.

Unfortunately, a lot of us have chairs that talk to us, but our chairs are internal. They provide a spot for the inner critic, the voices of correction, the wounded children, the committee of judges whose refrains play over and over in our heads. The beings in the chairs tell us we're not good, we're not smart enough, we're not XX enough. That's where Mara sits -- or where the temptations and doubt that Mara sends to make us question our buddhahood park their asses while they hurl insults.

One of the things we do through Buddhist meditation and study is to question who -- or what -- is in the chair. Our internal usher asks to see their tickets, only to find out that they booked the seats for a show in 1994 but have continued to attempt to undermine our confidence by bringing up how the one we loved didn't love us back. Or in the right way. Or in the way we thought we needed because we were still thinking about a show from 1991.

Through meditation, our internal usher gets stronger and wiser. We see the thoughts or memories that sit in our chairs and talk nasty to us. We question their presence. And finally we say, "I think you need to leave. You served a purpose at one time, but that time is gone. I'm not that person anymore and what you say is not helpful to the person I am becoming. Your ticket has expired." And you escort them out. Maybe they sneak back, but now you recognize them and move them out more quickly.

Watching Eastwood I thought about how much our perception of how a person is speaking to us is colored by what we expect to hear, how much we project the speaker's emotion onto the person who's speaking.

I know Eastwood is an actor. I understand that this was political theater. But I think it was illustrative of human interaction.

What do the empty chairs in your mind say to you? Is it as hostile and strange as what Eastwood's empty chair said to him?

(Photo of Eastwood: by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Chairs at

Bottom photo: Barack Obama's Facebook page Friday.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nobody can take away my inner freedom

All you can deprive me of is “so-called” freedom. This is the only kind that exists in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom. It lives in the word, it will go on living thanks to openness [glasnost], when this will be read and heard by thousands of people. This freedom goes on living with every person who is not indifferent, who hears us in this country. With everyone who found shards of the trial in themselves, like in previous times they found them in Franz Kafka and Guy Debord. I believe that I have honesty and openness, I thirst for the truth; and these things will make all of us just a little bit more free. We will see this yet.

Closing statement of Maria Alyokhina, one of three members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot delivered their closing statements at the Moscow Khamovniki District Court. Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were first arrested on March 3, a day before the controversial re-election of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, they had committed their crime on February 21, when five members of Pussy Riot staged a guerrilla performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. For less than a minute, the women danced, singing “Our Lady, Chase Putin Out!” and crossing themselves until they were apprehended by security guards. If found guilty, they face three years in prison.
Translated by Marijeta Bozovic, Maksim Hanukai, and Sasha Senderovich

Friday, August 24, 2012

Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?

When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism, I always say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he saved my life. When that marriage fell apart, I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off. Instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go. . . .
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation— harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.
Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere. All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?” Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

-- Pema Chodron

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Raising consciousness

Is it ironic that radical feminism opened the door to seeing the interconnectedness of all existence?

Studying second-wave feminism introduced me to the idea that my life existed in a larger context than ... well, my life. If "the personal is political" and the states of mind and conditions I experience are also experienced by others, I'm not isolated by my experiences; they connect me to others.

"The first step is to accept our plight as a common plight, to see other women as reflections of ourselves, without obscuring, of course, the very real differences intelligence, temperament, age, education, and background create. ... Women involved in this struggle together will come to respect, love, and develop deep and abiding friendships with each other." -- The Florida Paper, Fall 1968.

I wasn't there when this was happening; it was history.  And by then, the inquiry had widened to include women in other cultures, to encompass economics, psychology, art, how we use resources, what we value, how we express ourselves, how we judge ourselves and others.

If women were restricted to certain roles/mind states/means of expression, men were equally limited to the remaining ones. If men were supposed to act or feel only certain ways, they were prohibited from acting or feeling in other ways that were reserved for women. When, really, all beings have limitless potential if they move beyond what defines them.

ALL beings -- without any labels related to gender identity or sexual preference -- want to be happy and safe, and want their loved ones and those they feel connected to be happy and safe. If I don't put arbitrary limits on what I think you can do, then you don't have to keep me in a box so that I don't threaten you. If we remove the labels that separate us, we are connected to everyone and everything.

Consciousness-raising is an ongoing process.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Contemplate this:

This is Mars. This is a photo taken by the Mars rover. Curiosity, of the surface of the planet and sent back here. (photo credit: NASA-JPL)

This is Mars, as seen from Earth in June 2003, through an 8-inch telescope.

And here is a picture of Earth from Mars, helpfully marked up.

Rest with the idea that it is possible to see Earth and Mars from each place. That each is a tiny dot of light in a sky that is filled with tiny dots of light.

Resist your mind's effort to add a story about how much it cost, to label it as worthwhile or a waste, to compare the mundane photos to a sci-fi fantasy of the Red Planet.

Just rest your mind in space. Notice feelings that come up -- excitement, fear, disgust, curiosity -- but try not to get carried away. Rest in that space.

Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.

If we were children we might climb,

Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.

Out of confusion, as the way is,

And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.

That, then, is loveliness, we said,

Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.

Being but men, we walked into the trees.

--Dylan Thomas

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ben Bernanke wants to know if you're happy

Want to know if you're happy? There's an app for that.

It could be useful information -- and not just for your own amusement. No less than Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke wants to know.

The Associated Press reports that Bernanke told economists this week that gauging happiness can be as important for measuring economic progress as determining whether inflation is low or unemployment high. Economics isn’t just about money and material benefits, Bernanke said. It is also about understanding and promoting “the enhancement of well-being.”

Bernanke and Fed policymakers rely on reports on hiring, consumer spending and other economic data when making high-stakes decisions about the $15 trillion U.S. economy. The Fed’s dual mandate is to maintain low inflation and full employment.

“We should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being,” Bernanke said Monday in a video-taped speech shown to a conference of economists and statisticians in Cambridge, Mass. After all, promoting well-being is “the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

Here's where the confused vajra copy editor perks up. While the news reports have all remarked on Bernanke's interest in Americans' happiness, he uses the term "well being," which actually is closer to what Buddhism considers a positive state.

We put a LOT of emphasis on happiness. I have a shelf of Buddhist books with happiness in the title, and I've seen a number of teachers referred to as "the happiest man alive," among them Mathieu Richard, Ajahn Amaro, and Yonge Mingur Rinpoche. Ponlop Rinpoche said that when Tibetan Buddhist teachers gather, they tell jokes.

But they have a non-western understanding of what happiness is. Happiness, in Buddhist terms, is a sense of ease in the world -- outer and inner. They are aware of suffering, but they aren't caught in it. There's no anxiety clinging to the hem of their robes, no grasping for something else.

Matthieu Ricard, in his book "Happiness," defines happiness as "a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind." It's more a sense of well-being -- of being well despite circumstances and conditions -- than what westerners call happiness. We think of happiness as all giggles and glitter, neon yellow smiley faces with no space for sadness or grief. All good all the time.

For westerners, happiness is seen as something we deserve -- it's written into our Declaration of Independence that we have the right to pursue it. Because it's not something we inherently manifest; it's something we have to chase after and hunt down. And when we catch it, it quickly slips away.

Or we suspect that it has. Because other people look happier. Especially the people in advertisements. And if we had what they had, we'd be having that much fun. We're like hamsters on a wheel, thinking that if we run fast enough we'll get to happiness. Instead we become exhausted and discouraged.

Which is why we need an app to measure whether we're happy.

Or maybe we don't. I'd sent my most app-happy friend a link to an article about an app used by Harvard researchers to study happiness.

She replied: I don't need an app to tell me I'm generally happy. Although I think I
will download it for, ahem, scientific research purposes.

She went on to say that she'd recently watch "Happy," a movie, with her spouse, who asked if there was anything that would make her happier. "I told him that all I'd need is to meditate
more. ... It has made me happier."

Bernanke's talked before about the economics of happiness.

“As your parents always said, money doesn’t buy happiness,” Bernanke said in a May 2010 commencement address at the University of South Carolina, noting that research has found that once basic material needs are met, more wealth doesn’t necessarily make people happier.

In his latest remarks, Bernanke turned to the more practical — and difficult — task of measuring a subjective emotion. So far, most efforts have involved surveys in which people are asked about whether they are happy and what contributes to their happiness. Those surveys have found some consistent answers: physical and mental health, the strength of family and community ties, a sense of control over one’s life, and opportunities for leisure activity. Bernanke on Monday laid out a few other questions: How secure do Americans feel in their jobs? How confident are Americans in their future job prospects? How prepared are families for financial shocks?

Bernanke’s own definition of happiness might baffle some, AP reporter Chrisopher S. Rugaber writes, although not most Buddhists. He called it a “short-term state of awareness that depends on a person’s perceptions of one’s immediate reality, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes.”

In other words, happiness is an impermanent state that depends on the mind's perceptions of external circumstances.

Well-being, however, is closer to Ricard's definition of happiness as "an optimal state of being."

He continues: Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since, while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.