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"

1 comment:

  1. f-ing-a, great description of this phenomenon. This has become so annoying for me because I myself have always been subject to the pitfalls of this kind of American spirituality, and now that I want to get to know myself better, I am constantly leading myself astray with some bullshit zen conversation. It's like everyone is just masturbating on each other. Right now I'm reading "Wherever You Go There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn which was recommended to me from a friend, and I've been a bit hesitant and skeptical as I'm weary of the zen-generalizations (zeneralizations(?)) that it looks like it may be subject to. But last night I read something really interesting concerning practicing sitting. If you start a personal practice of sitting, keep it to yourself for a while, there's no need to bring it up with everyone you come across.


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