The Tension That Supports

31 08 2008

By Derek Beres

In The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s illuminating memoir (in which she details her transformation from being a nun to one of the world’s most renowned religious historians), she writes, “Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.”

A few pages earlier, she had mentioned that she would never be suited for the demanding meditative disciplines of traditional yoga practice, but could find freedom in her studies, as well as her general attitude and behavior. (Mythologist Joseph Campbell once stated that his yoga was underlining sentences in books.) Of course, this is jnana yoga — the discipline of philosophy, or the yoga of knowledge. She takes the knowledge that the Buddha realized — that compassion is the highest quality to develop — and applies it to her own life and work.

This philosophy is not unknown to the bhakti yogi, who in his or her devotional practice applies compassion to all relationships. As a philosophy on paper, or taught in the yoga studio, this makes perfect sense. The hard part is realizing it when you’re not in a yoga studio, or reading a blog, or studying scripture. The challenge comes when you’re called to put compassion into practice at exactly the moment you’d rather do anything but — like, for me, every time I’m bumped and pushed on a subway car.

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The Democratic National Convention Vs. Burning Man

29 08 2008

By Jill Ettinger

In a recent episode of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert jokingly replaced pictures of the Democratic National Convention with Burning Man footage: naked people writhing in mud, flamboyant costumes, lewd dancers. The images seemed to be the complete opposite of the DNC’s yes-we-can obsessed audience, as liberal as they may be. But the separation between these two seemingly different groups is perhaps more accurately, just a fragmentation of one school of thought. In fact, this year’s theme at Burning Man is “The American Dream.”

Roughly the same number of people are attending the DNC in Denver, Colorado, as there are people trekking out to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada this week. Those DNC attendees only had to arrange travel and lodging accommodations in Denver – a pretty standard and fairly painless process. Those people choosing to spend a week at Burning Man had to account for everything – bedding, bathing, drinking water, food, etc. Burning Man is a completely self-reliant event in extremely harsh conditions. Attendees need to be prepared for blinding dust storms as well as dehydration and heat exhaustion. Most Americans are clearly not up for this type of challenge.

Though it may seem that the only way to support change in our country (especially during an election year) is through rigid flag waving and allegiance-pledging hyper patriotism, the neo-tribal-freak-fringe Burning Man culture offers a (more) steadfast commitment to catalyzing our national identity through among many things, it’s moniker of Radical Self Expression.

Who we are as a collective is made up of who we are as individuals. That obviously means something different to each of us. Yet we so often define ourselves by others definitions. Beliefs are scripted not from the heart but from the fragile, susceptive pressure points in our egos. Fear masks as confidence and our cataclysmic pursuits of status, money and righteousness lead us on paths of self-preservation, casualties of our own devices. We’re lost, and sometimes never found.

That is unless we’re fortunate enough to have a reality-shattering experience. Some Born Again’s claim to have this. Anyone that’s ingested enough psychedelic drugs has; victims of traumatic near-death experiences often claim it; most Burning Man attendees find it in new ways each time they go out to the desert. What separates these types of experience from say, “finding Jesus,” is (usually) the humbling inward impetus of the genuine experience. The dogma urging spewed out by organized religion correlates to the fact that most ‘hallelujah’ moments are forced through an individual’s overwhelming need to feel Something (read: Anything). A transformative drug trip, trauma, or weeklong desert excursion (which often includes drugs and near death experiences) can catalyze an individual into a deeper connection with the world around him by going through the Fear. Religion on the other hand, takes us into the fear and stays there: Fear of being incomplete without God’s love. Fear of offending the almighty. Fear of breaking the rules. Fear of living in a world with others who worship another God. Democracy of late is working the same way. Despite his blogging daughter’s attempts to make voting Ancient Republican the hippest thing besides Denny’s new late-night menu, even if you’re only half paying attention, McCain’s Skeletor “Evil Lord of Destruction” resemblance is uncanny. An option he is clearly not. But should we fear him?

Think of yourself (and everyone else) as the Dalai Lama, right around the time the elders decided he was the Enlightened Master. His Holiness was still only a child, and though the words of the monks may have rung true, he had to negotiate his urges to be a child, to find that stillness to become the person he is today. Maybe there can only be one Dalai Lama, but there can certainly be millions of self-aware individuals. Blind patriotism is easy, even as a pro-choice-anti-war Democrat. If the bottom line for any of us is faith in leaders rather than in ourselves, we will not come to find the world we dream of has arrived when we wake on November 5th.

Democrats and any non-Republican American might want to be thinking about how they are going to affect change if Obama wins, and especially if he doesn’t. Will we accept another Republican President by burying our heads in the sand or burying deeper into making more peace with the strange world we find ourselves living in? Regardless of sex, race, or qualifications, the 2008 Presidential Election is about Americans voting for Themselves.

An amazing thing happens when 50,000 people spend a week together in a severe desert environment. It’s a profound camaraderie that makes the DNC pep rally feel like an insult to our human potential. We can be – and already Are – so much more than we let ourselves be in this country. If we want this nation to move into a new era, maybe a Colorado stadium just isn’t big enough for the transformation. Maybe we all do need to trek out to a giant empty river bed in the desert, get naked and roll around in the mud. Either way, why the hell wouldn’t we?

[Note: I would myself be at Burning Man this year, but I am attending a wedding the same week.]

The Dusty Foot Philospher Kicks Up America

29 08 2008

By Derek Beres

It’s rare that I can say that I’m walking to see a Radiohead show. In fact, the last time I attended any show without the assistance of a car, subway, or bus was in 2001, when Liberty State Park hosted its last concert: Radiohead. Seven years later and the state reopened the land—a beautiful park edged on the cusp of Jersey City, overlooking Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Bayonne, as well as offering the closest view to the Statue of Liberty—for the inaugural All Points West festival.

Seven years seems to be my cycle with the boys from Oxfordshire. In 1994 I saw them open for Belly at Rutgers; in 2001, they blew away 25,000 fans; again in ‘08, to 30,000. The year 2001 also marked my introduction to a Somalia-born refugee poet/emcee named K’Naan, also on the bill at All Points West, on a compilation called Building Bridges produced by the great Senegalese musician, Yossou N’Dour. It was a fundraiser for African refugees, and featured two tracks by K’Naan, the global-minded “This Is My World” and the sweet tribute to the female half of our species, “Drain My Grey Away”.

Rooted in Toronto, K’Naan has made quite an impact on the Canadian music scene. When I first saw him perform in Winnipeg, he stood on stage, drum in hand, a full band accentuating his philosophical lyricism with an urban edge, focused on the two instruments that comprise and compose the totality of African storytelling: the voice and the drum. When his first American release compiled a number of older songs from his Canadian My Life Is a Movie earlier this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher was eagerly embraced by hip-hop fans seeking something that feeds the world, lyrically, and does not simply rely on beats and inane verses to carry the music through.

“When you have music that has some message in it, a lot of the time people wonder if it works,” K’Naan told me after his one-hour set at the festival. “Audiences are predominantly the same anywhere—they’re just people. It’s how you say what you’re saying that counts. It’s also a responsibility. If you have music with a message, you still have to make it beautiful enough so that people appreciate it regardless of the message. It’s not saying something first that counts.”

Read the full article on PopMatters.

Calm As a Mountain

25 08 2008

In his seminal work, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts tells a story of a friend who owned a tea plantation. The man decided to pay his workers double, seeing the impoverished conditions they were living in. Once he started doing so, the workers only showed up half the time, leaving his plants in a dire condition. The man asked friends in business what to do, and they offered him economic solutions. Watts concluded by writing, “No one seemed to understand that those workers valued time for goofing off more than money.”

A number of my students began practicing yoga to counteract the high levels of stress they deal with at their jobs. Indeed, I suffered from the same situation, until I made teaching my job. It was then I found out that service, economics, and fun can all work together, that there need not be a rift between who we are and what we do. In fact, that rift is a very large reason we are stressed in the first place — by the unhappiness of treating work as something done for money, and not for the sake of work itself.

You hear it all the time: “This is what I do for money, not who I am.” It begins with the process of “more,” or, as an old friend paraphrasing Watts said, to take the “in order to” out of our lives. For example: we go to school in order to get a job in order to buy a house in order to own property and save for retirement in order to retire peacefully… only when we retire, we find that we’ve missed life each step of the way, because during each step we were waiting for the next step.

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Genetic druGs Gets Contagious

19 08 2008

By Derek Beres

Four records and numerous singles into the mix, Berlin’s Genetic druGs drops what may be his most groove-oriented album to date. While he has always been intent on the unification of global cultures through sound-blasting the airwaves with the planet’s tunes on his Multi-Kulti radio show – the depths and range of craftsmanship displayed on Contagious is truly commendable.

The album cover says it all- the word “contagious” in eight languages, including the dead-but-revived slang of Sanskrit. He includes this script due to the participation of the Mantra Singers from Mangalore’s Tiger Temple, who provide an excellent vocal track on the drum’n’bassy “Lakshmi Mantra.” druGs hangs toward India a bit, featuring Oikyotaan and Katrick Das Baul on “Din Duniyaar Maalik,” which adds a hyper beat to the watery drums of the Baul tradition. The singing on that song, like most of the record, is excellent.

The India experience is complete on the Jew’s harp-led “The Radhakrishna Experience,” which features a high-pitched singer named Rani Chitrakar. The melody on this devotional track is perhaps the most meditative of the bunch; it is a tasteful, inspired song. The twangy resonance of the mouth harp is a great companion for the percussive rhythm and Chitrakar’s higher-toned voice; the resonating guitar effects halfway through give it a hallucinogenic vibe.

Read the full review on EthnoTechno.

Yoga: Teaching or TVing?

16 08 2008
Used under creative commons license from flickr user Eric_Lon

Used under creative commons license from flickr user Eric_Lon

by Derek Beres

The other day one of my students mentioned that he saw a yoga class advertised as having “no chanting, or any of that spiritual stuff.” I have come across such protestations from the anti-foo-foo crowd before, or at least from cautious marketers trying to capture a corner of the growing population that wants a physical workout without that other “stuff.”

As an instructor, I admittedly avoid talking about “spirituality.” It’s too abstract for me; yoga is a foundational tool for building awareness, so my talks tend to lean towards psychology and behavior, not concepts that may or may not be true. When you separate spirit from matter, you’re admitting defeat in the comprehension of union.

Overall, a fundamental connection to the intention of the practice should be adhered to. While self-realization may not have been the initial goal—yoga was most likely the invention of warriors quieting their mind for battle, and as it evolved it became more of a vehicle for community—when it merged with the Samkhya tradition, yoga was all about turning the mirror unto and into one’s self.

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The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken

11 08 2008

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in the United States
Jeffrey W. Robbins & Neal Magee, editors
Continuum, April 2008, 237 pages, $19.95

By Derek Beres

When George W. Bush cited Jesus Christ as being the most influential political philosopher that he identified with in a 1999 Republican primary debate, a significant turn in media attention to religious matters took place. To question how far religion and politics has ever truly been separated in America is too much a stretch for this—or any—single book. Yet with pre-millennial blues and, subsequently, 9/11 dominating our press, the role religion plays in the US (and, by extension, the world) has been broadcast widely and loudly over the last nine years.

The sleeping giant that has awoken is, of course, religion, here focused on the Christian right and evangelical movements. Yet this collection of essays is not necessarily “for” or “against” our religious choices; most of the authors do an excellent job at playing both scholar and devil’s advocate when taking into consideration the society-at-large, and how we are meant to prosper or suffer by the politics of religion (and vice-versa). As is made out early in the text, this is not a book that has been split by the usual media coverage of religion, taking the sides of the fundamentalist factions or the burgeoning atheism movement that has grown in its wake.

In fact, Sam Harris is only mentioned once in passing, while authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not appear. To the contrary, documentaries like Jesus Camp and other critiques of fundamentalist fury pass unmentioned, while megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen are barely discussed. Instead we have weighty looks at consumerist capitalism and prophetic evangelicalism, the history of the Civil War, and how the theories of Jacques Lacan can accurately describe the current situation from an early childhood developmental perspective.

Using Thomas Paine’s ironic rise and fall from public grace as a steppingstone to show why democracy is a process and not a manufactured product, pressed and ready for wearing, Jeffrey W. Robbins submits an elucidating essay that considers how the democratic struggle that began with the Revolutionary War continues today. He calls to our attention that religion, like politics, is often in the hands of the translator, and when that translation is in the interest of the person instead of the prophecy, something is amiss. This sentiment is echoed throughout the pages of this collection in various forms.

Read the full review in PopMatters.