Thursday, September 30, 2010

Male Writes of Passage

There are many, myself included, who bemoan the lack of ritual in modern life. We've lost those rites of passage that have guided us like beacons through the darkness of centuries. How ironic then, that on my birthday, I taught a yoga class composed solely of men. It wasn't planned, yet it happened. In a decade and a half both practicing and teaching yoga, I've never attended a class that wasn't at least 80% women.

More interesting for me was that it was my Monday night meditation class, my most gentle class. In my asana classes, I would've presented a more dynamic 'yang' class to challenge these guys, but tonight I had to stay along the softer edges. And funny how this fact made me uncomfortable, having to lay myself open and present this less "masculine" energy to a roomful of men.

Where does this discomfort stem from? I am always more comfortable amongst women, able to be more myself. With men (aside from my closest friends), I still feel the need to show toughness, to be hard to a certain extent. This feeling to prove myself could be based in a poor relationship with my father. But poor relationships with fathers are so common these days that they could almost be considered rites of passage in themselves. While around men, I often catch myself trying to impress them in some way, most often relating tales of things I've accomplished.

My dual 'careers' could be considered by many to be soft, being both a writer and a yoga teacher. I consider myself to be pretty in touch with my feminine side, and make no apologies for that. So why do I still fall in the trap of measuring my masculinity in materialist terms: the aforementioned hardness and emphasizing my deeds. My generation in particular was the last that seemed to have decent male role models, before the days of the fallen hero that we read about every day in the sports pages, in the celebrity rags, and in the political coverage of the New York Times. Mine was probably the first generation who didn't want to become president when they grew up (thanks to Richard Milhouse), but how could one chose between the soft-talking Georgia man of peace, dubbed weak by his opponents, and his Movie Star successor who rode into DC with tough talk and nukes in his holsters? History sided with Cowboy Ronnie, who ushered in the beginning of an era where a man was measured by his ability to win. To win, that most American of afflictions, shaped our foreign policy and cultural zeitgeist from then on.

So, is to show softness a sign of weakness, or is it a sign of balance? I began my yoga as a counterpoint to my martial arts training, as a means toward better self-care. And even those alleged 'manly fighting arts' taught me to deal with my anger, to act rather than react, to flow like water through the hardness of stone. I have become a man who learned to walk in peace through the world. Or better yet, how to sit still. And to breathe.

On the turntable: Donald Byrd, "Black Byrd"
On the nighttable: Aldo Leopold, "Aldo Leopold's Southwest"

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Immaterial Witness

I live in Santa Fe. This means I live amidst a hodge-podge of religions as great as at any other place or time in history. After the indigenous earth religions of the natives came the Spanish Catholicism that attempted to eradicate it. The Third Wave brought the Anglo seekers of the original draft, those artists and writers of the early decades of the last century, who created the myth of the noble Indian, which motivated further waves of Anglos to follow. More recently came the hippies and the neo-hippies, who too came looking for that simple native spirituality, yet this round of pilgrims had one eye ever on the East, diluting the local brand with elements of Buddhism and the New Age. Most recently came Indians of a different genetic strand. There are currently a handful of vedic ashrams or ayurvedic schools in the area, with yoga schools thick on the ground. Living here I am exposed daily to a wide variety of people, all grounded (or in far too many cases, ungrounded) by some belief system or other.

Spirituality in 21st Century America is far different than what I've experienced in Asia. During my own training and travels, I have noticed no real separation at all between spirituality and daily life. The evidence is everywhere, no matter the country or culture or class. Spirituality is at once sacred and personal, and is at the same time secular and universal. They walk their talk. Or more appropriately, there is little talk at all, and why would there be, since it is like talking about how to breathe or how to eat? By contrast, expressions of personal emotion here in the US feel dramatized, but that's not really our fault considering all the way we're constantly spoon fed overblown emotions by the media.

But why then, do we Americans talk so much shit about our feelings but rarely focus on what's valid, on what's real? Self-expression sounds scripted, like in a bad TV show. I naturally find myself making comparisons with the Japanese, who are as impenetrable as the concrete that they're so busy girding their nation with: a cultural and historic hardening and protecting from the inside out. By contrast, American emotions run as wild and unpredictable as a river. The approach to spirituality is interesting, frequently talked-up and emphasized as a sort of adventure. Which strikes me as odd considering that spirituality's purpose is to dam that unpredictable river of the emotions. Long ago, Trungpa Rinpoche downplayed this as spiritual materialism. In Japan, I found most people just turned up at a retreat and silently did their thing, uncomplaining about the omnipresent pain, physical or psychic. In the US, it's like it didn't happen unless we promote it. We wear our spirituality like a coat, putting it on and taking it off with every slight change in the weather. The worst are those who talk up others' spirituality, spouting aphorisms or stories of long-dead sages, as if we haven't already heard them. I often want to say to them, firmly but politely, "Just do your practice and cut the Zen talk already!"

On the turntable: Krishna Das, "Heart as Big as the World"
On the nighttable: Jack Kutz, "Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Papers: Stanley Crawford

"If you read it on paper, it's already out of date."

--The River in Winter

On the turntable: The Allman Bros. "Fillmore Concerts"

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spurning Japanese

The grass is always greener, right?. With the coming of autumn comes the usual introspection. I'm missing Japan pretty badly at the moment. My life here, while rewarding, is far busier than I'm used to. And though difficult at times, I recognize that this return to the US is important, big-picture wise.

A few months before the move, Miki and I climbed up Daimonji. As we looked out over Kyoto, she suddenly asked, what if we didn't go? And I went cold, physically uncomfortable with the idea of staying in that city any longer.

A large part of that reaction had to do with how the local government (and I use the term loosely) presents the ancient capital. This summer, they surprised me with their capacity for shortsighted stupidity, going through with the construction of an aquarium for the 'benefit of Chinese tourists.' As I write this, the Chinese are in a rage and are canceling their travel plans by the thousands. The Heians may or may not be turning in their graves, but we can now see that the graves themselves are.

A fellow devotee to Ninkasi, Micheal has taken a sober approach in helping spearhead a movement in stopping this senseless project, one that went ahead despite overwhelming public protest. Check his Deep Kyoto for more information...

The petition site is here.

On the turntable: Neil Young, "Fork in the Road"

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Children of Water

Fall in Kyoto has much to offer. Multi-colored maple leaves strewn across stone like little lost gloves. Dango eaten beneath the full autumnal moon. Festive student carnivals played out in game and song.

This fall, there is even more. On October 1st, a band I used to play with, Morphic Jukebox, will play a short set prior to the screening of a film in which I had a hand in, "Children of Water."
It's as if I never left...

Details here at Deep Kyoto

On the turntable: Neil Young, "Dreamin' Man 92" (I'm here too, in the audience...)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Papers: Henry David Thoreau

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

On the turntable: "Putumayo Presents Puerto Rico"

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Losing Nicole

I found out yesterday that a close friend has died. I found out in a bizarre way, on Facebook. In a passing glance, I noticed that a friend had referred in the past tense to someone named Nicole. I thought at first that some celeb had died, but then, as a chill passed over me, I clicked over to Nicole's page, and saw the message from her mom, posted 10 days before. A first for me, notification of a friend's death via social network.

While I knew about the cancer, I hadn't realized it was terminal. Last I'd heard, she'd seemed OK, in her usual good spirits. I went back through her postings, to see when she'd written last. I scrolled past all the birthday greetings, including mine, greetings that went unanswered. Her last post was back in mid-July, a photograph of her sitting on a bench, her face lit by the summer sun. She looks happy, if a little thin, with a straw hat that partially shades her face. Present is the smile we were all blessed with. One of the last things she'd written was not long before that, a response to my wondering if she were in Canada. She said she was, then as if an afterthought, she replied again, this time the single word: "Permanently." I'm haunted by this 'permanently.'

Her 6 week absence on Facebook is now writ huge. I'm ashamed that I'd hardly noticed, yet a person's frequency of posts can be so nebulous. We can easily nuance things in any way we like. But, I can't help but wonder if anyone wondered about this silence. Did they know that she was nearing the end of her life? As I myself thought she was fine, I have to ask whether she herself knew.

In thinking back over my time in Tottori, I'm surprised at how many of my memories include Nicole. It's like she quietly instilled herself into my life to become one of my better friends. If you asked me who I was closest to, I might come up with other names first, but it dawns on me now that Nicole would definitely be somewhere near the top of that list. And I'm not alone in feeling that her ever-present joy and penchant for slightly awkward mischief made her so much fun to be around. And I'm surely not alone in how incredibly devastated I feel right now.

I remember teaching her to play drums, a skill that never seemed to take hold, but the rhythm presented itself in other forms, as a DJ and as our sometime on-stage percussionist. I remember our multiple music swaps and book recommendations. I remember the difficulty she had in adapting her boobs to yoga poses. I remember her compassion when I was divorcing and leaving Yonago behind.

And if I'm not mistaken, I believe she still owes me 20,000 yen.

Don't worry about it sweetie, you've always given me so much more.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday papers: Leonardo da Vinci

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."

On the turntable: CSN&Y, "So Far"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Resurrection Day

Shortly after leaving the Zen Center, I went down to Belen to attend Easter mass with my mom. I hadn't been in a church for close to a decade, and I was surprised how much my attitude towards it has changed. Mostly, that has been influenced by own openness to spirituality. Ten years ago, I was a firm believer in the Japanese concept of "jiriki,' or self-power. This was apparent in the paths I walked, as a martial artist and a practitioner of yoga and zen. It was only after my son died, during that 'lost year' when my soul was open and stripped bare, that I found myself in numerous situations where I felt guided, and had experiences that even today I can't explain. I began to accept that while I was free to play the game of life according to my own strategies, the game board itself had been set up for me. Over the subsequent years, I began to identify the richness of a spiritual world, in particular as it relates to place.

So it was in the little Spanish church in the little village of Tome on that Easter weekend. As I entered the church, I bowed deeply, then bent over to take off my shoes. The residue from a month in the zen center was apparently still upon me. Hands in shasshu, I slid into an empty pew, the seat wooden and hard with a back at nearly a right angle. While self-flagellation is now frowned upon by the modern church, those little touches of discipline still remain. These seats would allow no sleeping, and little relaxing. Then the music started up, hymns sung in Spanish. I always found it funny how not only the churchgoers but the musicians themselves sing these verses in what is almost a mumble, as if embarrassed. One of the hymns had me humming along, as the melody was similar to Bob Marley tune, with that trad Mexican-style of picking on the downbeat.

As for the mass, I was surprised by how much of the ritual I'd forgotten, despite years of indoctrination. One change new to me was the collection system. When I'd been young, it used to be a small basket that was passed around. (When taking this from the hands of a neighboring stranger, I'd always wanted to say, "No thank you," but never had the guts to actually make this joke.) Today, two man came down aisle by aisle, their baskets at the end of a long pole. As they'd lean in so as to reach the innermost seats, they 'd smoothly thrust their arms forward as if shooting pool.

Most expectedly, I found myself remembering the Lord's Prayer, reciting it as automatically as I now chant the Heart Sutra. The rest of the mass went on as it always has. I really enjoy the priest here, with his common-sense approach to spirituality, and unwillingness to get caught up in the more radical dogma, as expressed in those right-to-life signs out on the front lawn. (When I met him a couple years ago and relayed the story of Miki confusing a confessional for a bathroom, he threw back his head in laughter.) During the sermon, he compassionately acknowledged an apparently epileptic young man having a seizure in one of the pews, yet continued on in order to keep the flock on focus. This seizure was evidence of my jaded view of Catholicism; how it maintains its strongest presence in countries with the most poor and disenfranchised, where the population has little but their faith. While thinking this, I looked over at the woman in the pew in front of me, sitting there attached to her oxygen tank. From the perspective of Great Faith, how does she relate to a God who would put her through such a trial?

While I think it would take a major effort for me to lose such a cynical stance to organized religion, I did feel a profound shift, from the feeling a decade earlier of crushing repression, to one of welcome. I think that I found much joy and peace in the community that had gathered for this holiday. Heading home, I managed to walk out the doors without bowing, carrying a strange desire to reconnect.

On the turntable: Frank Zappa, "Sheik Yerbouti"

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Belabored Day

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?"

--The oft-omitted sixth verse of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land"

On the turntable: ELP, "Trilogy"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Perseids Faith

Once again I can't sleep, laying there, thoughts running through my head. Nothing worrisome or stressful, simply a series of ideas moving through like a news-ticker. It happens far more now that I am in New Mexico, perhaps caused by the altitude, sleeping closer to a sky alive with lightning or moonlight. I wonder how these atmospheric conditions interact with the electrical activity of my brain.

So I sat out in the living room, looking at the stars filling most of the large bay windows. A few of them skidded past as if streaking the glass itself. Oh, right, tonight is the first night of a meteor shower. Maybe that's why I can't sleep.

And the thoughts continued. I've been so busy here, working over 40 hours a week after a decade working fewer than 15. I no longer have the time to write, to read, to hike, to cook a meal eaten before a DVD. The summer has moved past with little3 acknowledgement.

Spatially too, I feel compressed. We live in a beautiful casita north of town, surrounded by mountains and trees and wildlife. But I miss walking and biking around town. It is tough being tied to an automobile. When we decided to live out here, we justified it by saying that even if we live a minute away from the plaza, we'd still have to drive for shopping and to dine with friends. But everytime I visit someone, I envy their proximity to bike paths and cafes. I especially envy one friend who takes nightly strolls to the plaza to watch the live music there.

I sit in my chair, the clock ticking toward morning. Gradually, my thoughts slow, and my mind is taken more with what I see before me. And it hits me. How can I feel hemmed in when I surrounded by so much space, by the desert, by the stars? I realize now that the reason for my anxiety has been my attempting the impossible task of trying to fit new life into old patterns. Why not instead open up to the new possibilities?

Back when I was twenty-two, I spent the better part of the winter reading the biographies of those writers and artists who intrigued me. I found that in many cases, I was more taken with their lives than with the works themselves. And it was then that I decided that I would make my life my art. And from that moment began my restless seeking, and roaming, and study. Nearly every moment of my time in Japan felt under the pressure to do everything I possibly could there, to accept every opportunity. And I admittedly did a helluva lot. And it was rewarding.

Now back in the States, I don't have that sense of "I gotta do this, and I gotta do this, then I wanna do this." But as the months have passed and I've tried to settle, to establish balance, I've tricked myself into a life out of balance. I should know better, since experience has taught me that this balance is illusion anyway. What really exists is flow. But now I'm fighting the current.

While I was living and practicing at Upaya, I knew this. The very first week there, I was overwhelmed by how good it felt to simply sit, and I promised myself that I would pass a calendar year without leaving the state, and stay connect to the here and now. And as I sit watching the sky I remember this feeling of presence. What follows is a shift in my vow to live my life as art. I will seek instead the value and joy of being present in the moment instead of trying to do it all. I'll seek quality rather than quantity. If I have less time to do the things that define me, they'll have more power if fully delved into.

I recognize now that I've spent too much time expecting relationships to function on auto-pilot, since I was ever moving on to the next book or trip or happening. Which goes some length at explaining why I'm so crap about keeping in touch. When I was younger I thought it was cool to never look back, just forward. Later it was frightening to look back, since to reflect on something was to own it, and to own something sets us up for its loss. It reminds me -- in a very roundabout way -- of something I heard David Lee Roth once say. Something like, "While driving, I always have one eye on the road and one eye on the rearview mirror to see how good I look getting there." Good ol' Diamond Dave, always living in the present.

On the turntable: The Eagles, "Desperado"
On the nighttable: Lynn Cline, "Literary Pilgrims"