Global Beat Fusion: Visions of the World

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

The underlying themes of the following three documentaries represent some form of unity, an exploration at the foundation of indigenous cultures heading into the future with a solid understanding of what has brought them here. With any evolution, growing pains exist, and the directors and producers of these three fine films have done their best to show that while governments and popular media often present one side of a story, many others exist. The unity of Islam through musical means, the convergence of South Asian folk with modern technologies, and the plight of Saharan desert dwellers and their familial and social rites make up this trio of cinematic travels. Sit back and enjoy the ride, for there is much to be learned, and even more to be enjoyed.

Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam
“Because its bases are in every human mind already,” writes Idries Shah in his celebrated work, The Sufis, “Sufic development must inevitably find its expression everywhere.” Director Simon Broughton and host William Dalrymple explore Sufism, the “mystical” sect of Islam, in this fascinating documentary as ripe with music as it is with messages—namely, the underlying current of all spiritual faiths that bonds and unites humans. Given the diverse nature of the music covered in this brief film, one can expect Sufism to have an inherent flexibility. Indeed, it does.

Sufism is often frowned upon by the Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam, mostly due to the fact that they attempt to experience the divine, believing the universal energy to be attainable by everyone. Mohammed tapped into this, pointing the way for others to follow; he did not hoard that knowledge and claim that no one else could have it. We have an obvious parallel in a Christian society with followers of Jesus; recall that the Gnostics were derided for claiming God was available to all as well. Through their rituals of music and dance, the Sufis tap into the transcendent possibilities of existence.

It’s the polarization of not only Islam, but faiths in general that Broughton and Dalyrmple address, doing so beautifully in this informational and sonically rich undertaking. The music is what drives this film, which is fitting, because the Sufis believe that music is what drives us. The term “Sufi” has been well-circulated since Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi’s richly textured verses made him the largest-selling poet in America in the 1990s—no small feat for a man who was born in Afghanistan and spent most of his life in Turkey in the 13th century.

While the faithful claim that Islam is a religion, Sufis would say that Sufism is religion; it is the elemental thread upon which the wool (which is the meaning of the word “Sufi”) is woven. Music is a devotional force in praise of Allah, and from the opening minute of this film we are embraced by Pakistan’s Sain Zahoor, spinning cyclically while fiddling his ektara and singing praiseful lyrics. His voice is heartbreaking; the ghungroos, or ankle bracelets with bells, keep rhythm while he pounces.

Read the full review on PopMatters.


Hello Everybody!

30 01 2009

Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio
By Anthony J. Rudel
October 2008, 320 pages, $26.00

By Derek Beres

With the very opening line—“Milford, Kansas. Population 200—not counting animals.”—you know you’re in for quite a story. Indeed, radio personality Anthony Rudel recounts a pivotal time in American culture and media, one that seems so quaint and almost ironic, given the instantaneous nature of communications today. It’s like the old man sitting on the porch steps talking about, “Remember the day when we all sat around the Victrola and listened to the Babe call out his shots …”

Nostalgic, certainly, but as goes the cyclical nature of human life and societies, so Rudel’s in-depth history of the period in American history between 1922-1941 is timely. Extremely timely, in fact. While today we have bailouts, yesteryear there was the Depression, and the parallels—economic recession, journalistic integrity and fear-mongering, governmental uncertainty, big business disguised as religious fundamentalism, a world of advertisements dictating who we are and what we need to buy—conjure images we only need to peek outside our window to witness. Before we get there, we have another starting point: goat balls.

Well, goat tissue to be exact, but Rudel begins (and nearly ends) his journey with John Romulus Brinkley, a self-appointed doctor (read: quack) who treated thousands upon thousands of men with a “deflated tire” by inserting goat tissue into their genitals. The man turned his career as an ex-Vaudville salesman into a multi-million dollar business.

He was one of radio’s early pioneers, using his charismatic and emotional voice to sell Midwestern women elixirs they didn’t know they needed to cure problems they didn’t know they had, and turned the sleepy town of Milford into a pharmaceutical wonderland … for a time. Like all good things that aren’t real (and even those that are), they must end. And so it did for Brinkley, on 26 May 1942, dying while reading his Bible. His former fortune a mere sliver of what it was, with his attempts at sidestepping American regulation by building a radio tower in Mexico eventually failing him.

This is not a story about Brinkley, though his rags-to-riches tale about a career and bank account made in radio is not unique. Rudel recalls some pretty amazing tales, like the atheist-turned-evangelical Aimee Semple McPherson, who turned a million dollar church into a national business before supposedly running away with another woman’s husband while claiming to be kidnapped in the desert. Yes, radio had a big part to play in her life, just as it did for the Scopes monkey trial, in which Tennesseans upheld (and probably still uphold) that any teaching that denies creationism is punishable by law.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

Elevating Common Sense

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

I found Dennis Overbye’s recent essay in the NY Times poignant and interesting, for numerous reasons. The piece revolved around a large sigh that the author took after Barack Obama’s presidential takeover, especially regarding his promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” Commenting on the longstanding “struggle” between science and religion — almost exclusively instigated by the fundamentalist religious community, which somehow believes that science attempts to debunk the validity of religion — Overbye’s feelings are condensed when he writes, “Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.”

This is an important observation. Living in a country where some three-fourths of home-schooled children are evangelical Christians — the implications of this include the use of creationist “science” textbooks — I find it ironic that this community is also largely patriotic, espousing the necessity and beauty of the democratic system. As Overbye writes, “If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.”

What is created in fundamentalist communities is a neurosis, not a quest for truth; that search is negated by the “truth” of God, Jesus, etc. By design, science is democratic, with its system of checks and balances, the hypotheses that cannot become laws without validation from the community, from rigorous testing, and testing, and testing. This form of communal debate demands attention to detail and an unwavering discipline from its adherents. Simply stating that, “Jesus Christ/God is the truth, because,” is not only fundamentally flawed, it’s downright silly. Such assertions have nothing to do with democracy; if anything, this mindset is totalitarian and implies dictatorship.

Fundamentalism is not reserved for the Christian community; I’ve come across it in yoga circles as well. One example in New York City is the push of certain studios to convert their students into vegans. Apparently not only is the flesh and muscle of animals sadistically devoured by our carnivorous race, but the fruits of these animals’ labor are apparently rotten to boot. Go figure. Of all the Ayurvedic texts that I’ve read, and the amazing Ayurvedic doctor I consult with, I’ve only been told about the wonders of dairy. Now, I certainly cannot argue that factory farming techniques, both meat-based and vegetable-based, involves horrific practices, but to label an entire food source evil? Especially when the “sources” being quoted from were written during the same times when both meat (yoga has not always been a vegetarian discipline by any means) and dairy were being consumed?

Obviously, we’re discussing a minority opinion, and truth is, it will most likely remain that way. While vegetarianism, especially among teens, is on the rise, the scales have to be balanced. Our social quest for more (plant fencerow to fencerow!) has resulted in the unfortunate triple rotations of crops and the unforgivable caging and steroid pumping and forced eating habits of animals. Yet what I’ve always loved about the yogic discipline is its democratic nature: to teach what you know, to learn and incorporate what is true to you, to have compassion for all living beings, including—especially—those you don’t agree with. (And compassion is not thinking, “Oh, one day that ignorant person will learn the truth.” That’s called pity.)

The old school yogis who wrote the texts that today we consider biblical were indeed on the quest for truth, and knew it was not easy. Read a proper translation of Patanjali and tell me there are seven easy steps to anything. Every teaching is irrelevant unless it is practiced and put into motion. And if it doesn’t work, it will be refuted: the beauty of the democratic system, when functioning properly. Yoga has always been a science, and as Overbye observed, “If we are not practicing good science, we probably aren’t practicing good democracy.”

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Master Of … Excuse Me?

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

I’ll admit it: I often read yoga-based magazines just as much for the advertisements as the articles. I like to keep track of what is being sold in the community and, more importantly, how it’s being sold. More often than not, I do it for amusement. I find it fascinating, the way that a discipline has been transformed into numerous commodities, all identified as “necessary,” or at least “beneficial” to one’s practice. Come to think of it, even a yoga mat isn’t necessary to practice yoga. What is, however, is a bit of faith, a lot of patience, and even more integrity.

It’s that last quality that I often see sacrificed when reading about how any number of teachers promote themselves. When I read that some event or person will “change my life,” it brings up two thoughts. First, anything has the capability of changing one’s life, as the words “change” and “life” are in many regards synonymous. Secondly, the way I see ads presented, it’s almost a negation of the life you currently live, as if all the experiences you’ve had up to this point — that of said teacher or event — have been “leading” you to now. It’s misleading and worse, dangerous. It’s dishonest.

This is not to say events do not change lives, that people do not change lives; they do. My life has been “changed” due to yoga, but I cannot pinpoint one specific person or event that did so. Rather, it’s been a constant dedication to the discipline, and an entire cast of characters that has helped do so. Think of Indra’s net: a perpetual garland of jewels all shining and reflecting each other, so that within one jewel, every other jewel can be seen, and so on. It’s the perfect metaphor for the yoga community at large.

By far the most disturbing advertisements I’ve seen are those using the term “yoga master.” How exactly does one “master” a discipline that is transient and continual, that is constantly being woven by the everyday experiences of all of our lives? Is that even possible? Now, certainly there are practitioners who have achieved elevated states of consciousness, and truly helped shift students’ perspectives — enlightenment is possible. In my own practice, I’ve come across one person — Dharma Mittra — who would come closest to having the word “master” affixed before his name. Yet something inside tells me that if he were truly a master, he’d never have need for that word.

(Note: my time with him has been limited, perhaps a dozen classes; I make no claims of understanding how he actually perceives this topic.)

The concept of guru worship has always eluded me; again, a guru is a light-bearer, and if the light is cast with the shadow of egoism, it cannot shine that brightly. It’s one thing for a student to call their teacher a master, or a guru; it’s quite another for the teacher to believe it, even use the title in his or her marketing efforts. At times, it feels like yoga teachers can be compared to a sitar student who studies with Ravi Shankar for three months and then affixes the title “Ustad” to their name.

We are all teachers, we are all students; these titles, too, are transient and exchangeable. If a teacher stops believing himself or herself to be a student, to have “mastered” an unending and enduring discipline, there are plenty of texts to consult to be set straight, plenty of teachers to learn from. Sometimes one needs to step down from the soapbox and stare at the rest of us eye level, so like Indra we can all be reflected within each other.

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McYoga – No, I’m Serious

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

While an exact start time for the yoga practice is impossible to discern, it is generally understood to have become culturally important sometime around 800-1000 BCE. While there were a number of different schools, the physical movements were first associated with warriors, who used the techniques as a means for attaining clarity both outside and during battle, as well as offering philosophical guidance. (Remember, one of yoga’s earliest champions, Arjuna, was an archer about to slay his cousins.) And, despite popular conception in American yoga studios today, yogis were in no way vegetarians; some may have been, but that movement was more a political and social tool entering group consciousness centuries later, due first to scarcity and later to Muslim invasion.

I bring this up to dispel the vegetarian myth — the romanticized notion that the “original” yogis never ate meat. This simply isn’t true. The Buddha ate meat; today, the Dalai Lama eats meat, albeit for health reasons. While ahimsa has long been an integral part of the yogic discipline, we have to be careful of how and where we apply that word. Like most any concept, it has different meanings during different times and in different cultures. Still, we must also recognize when the practice of yoga is being used for union, as the word implies, and when it is just another marketing tool for a company or person to use.

Let’s just say I was mildly surprised when one day a few weeks ago I walked out to dump my garbage. In my building, residents sometimes leave things in the hallway by the back entrance, in case anyone should take an interest in them. A few bookcases I recently left were gone in minutes; very often you will find kitchen items and books scattered on the ground. A pile of magazines was lying there, and right on top was something that immediately caught my eye: a McDonalds “15 minute workouts: Yoga” DVD.

Now, I’ve already had my issues with a company like The Baker marketing one of their products as Yoga Bread. I’m not sure exactly what is yogic about cranberries and pumpkin seeds, outside of the advertising aspect. While one has to admit that McDonalds has attempted to become “healthier” — what else could they do with documentaries like Super-Size Me become so culturally relevant — seeing a commercial for an Asian Salad (with orange-glazed grilled chicken) as the selling point for their “balanced eating” initiative left a bad taste in my mouth.

People who are actually health conscious realize that certain “vegetarian” foods are not necessarily great for you. Iceberg lettuce, the most popular type of green sold in this country, boasts a nutrition value of right around zero; romaine is not exactly rocketing up the charts either, especially if its been double- or triple-crop rotated, as is often the case due to factory farming. The same goes for tomatoes, one of the most unfortunate victims of rotations that nearly deplete the fruit of any value to our bodies. At the moment, I’m guessing that McDonalds is not being supplied by their local farmers’ markets for their produce, meaning this value-less food is making its way into their customers’ bellies.

Before I wax too philosophical on this point, however, let’s just pause and consider one thing: it’s McDonalds. Whether or not yoga was originally a vegetarian discipline, and whether or not it needs to be one now, is beside the point. The yogis I know who are serious about their discipline and do eat meat understand that purchasing local, free-range game is closer to practicing ahimsa than stockpiling chickens and cows in isolated shacks and pens, and then serving them for dinner. It does not surprise me that on this DVD, the trainer is virtual — I cannot imagine an actual yoga instructor taking this gig, no matter how much the pay.

At the very least, live up to what you are. People might not like it, but at least you’re being honest. It’s when you try to be what you are not, and simply ride the trends of the day, that you do serious damage, both to your own credibility, as well as to people who might actually benefit from learning what the discipline of yoga is about.

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Making Use of Time

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

In The Best American Science Writing 2008, there is a rather moving New York Times article by Amy Harmon, “Facing Life With a Lethal Gene.” The medical feature traces the consequences of a decision made by Katharine Moser, who at age 23 decided to be genetically tested to find out whether or not she would be stricken with Huntington’s disease later in her life. Her grandfather suffered for three decades before passing on; with one test, she would find out whether or not such a fate awaited her.

As it turns out, it does. As you can imagine, such a situation makes one question the nature of existence. By the age of 50 (and possibly as early as 37), Moser will begin a slow deterioration marked by forgetfulness and, over time, loss of control of many muscle movements. The article brings into question the nature of knowledge: is it better to know that one will be afflicted with such an illness, or put it aside and live one’s life? There is no simple answer to this very complex question, though it brings up a scenario all of us must face.

While the knowledge of an impending disease is a frightening prospect for anyone, the fact remains that every one of us will die. This brings up an even more pressing question, one that Moser herself confronted the moment she found out the results: how are we to spend the time we have while alive?

Every day we have a decision, and that is what to make of our day. In reality, we can’t look further than that, and it is often the anxiety of the future that weighs heavily upon us. While we each have that choice, the passing of a year is a communal ritual to remind us of the preciousness of time, making this the perfect week to meditate on such a topic.

Being someone who engages in physical activity every day, at times I come across people who tell me things like, “I’d like to work out more often, but I don’t have the time,” or, “If I had the time, I’d eat more healthfully.” And I always reply with the same answer: if you don’t have the time, who does? Who is it so in control of your time that you no longer have any say in it?

Stories like that of Katharine Moser are reminders that sometimes some of us really won’t have control of our time as we may like. But it is an inspiring piece, and she is an inspired figure, for she refuses to lose the time she has. (You can find out more about her by reading the article.) This is a resolution applicable to us, all the time — to be engaged with and in control of every moment of our lives. Nobody can make use of our time better than we can, so best to use it to the best of our abilities.

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A Passing in Time

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

Religion begins with death.

During my four years of study in the religion department at Rutgers during the mid-‘90s, this sentiment was repeated over and again, regardless of the country, race, or god being presented. The religious question — there are many, I suppose, but the major one, as in where do we go when we die — is framed around the fact of death. From that starting point, humans have devised as many scenarios as possible, to alleviate some of the pressures of transience, to make us feel important in an, at times, unforgiving world.

That question, for quite some time in many cultures, was framed as a continuity, the way that dead fruits become fertilizer and spread seed for the next generation of plants. Perhaps human beings, these thinkers thought, do the same thing. Indeed, if we think of the religious figures of the past who have come to influence us today, this is indeed very plausible. Words outlive flesh.

While reading the philosopher John Berger’s most recent book, Hold Everything Dear, the question of death is prominent in this fine collection of essays. In one: “Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egoism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.”

I’ve long contemplated this issue, and it seems to me that judging by our actions, it is not death that frightens us — it is life. It is life and, more precisely, the quest for everlasting youth that drives us to slice open our skin and stick plastic pieces next to organs and tissue that have no use for plastic; that lets us believe that injecting a toxic substance discovered in mishandled meats creases out the wrinkles in our brow; that comforts us by stating that an omnipotent figure has chosen the few hundred or thousand or twelve-by-twelve thousands of us to live in everlasting bliss while the rest reside in the flames of perpetual waiting.

As Guy Garcia wrote in his most recent book, The Decline of Men, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that of all breasts reduction surgeries in 2006, 70% were on boys aged thirteen to nineteen. This is not a fear of death; it is the fear of the living, that the creator we believe created did not create well enough, and so we must take things into our own hands. It is a feeling that we are not the carbon copy of the Photoshopped figures we see in advertisements, and must be, or we are failing something. Or something is failing us.

I agree with part of that sentiment, leaving out the creator part. We do indeed create our reality. Not that I’m one to hold up a microscope to society and refer to millennia-old books for verification; that would simply be silly. But there is something to be learned from history, and I take this idea from the cultures of Mexico, Morocco (as well as many African countries), Jamaica, and beyond: death is a celebration.

While standing at my grandfather’s funeral two years ago, I noticed that while there was certainly a sadness about the loss of that man, what was really affecting the crowd was that everyone present would one day be on the other side of that coffin. Someone else’s death is a reminder that this is the true path of humanity: it is a rite of passage to an unnamable, unexplored terrain. I do not take refuge in the churchly liturgy presented at that and other funerals; instead, I heed Seneca’s words: “Unlike life, death cannot be taken away from man, and therefore we may consider it as the gift of God.”

Celebrating death is a skeleton key to unlocking the ritual of life. When you live each moment fully, there is no need for concern of an ending. We are present, in the moment, existing to our potential at all times. Death has no place in that moment, even if it surrounds us. It’s a part of life, not separate from it.

This is hard to find, though, for someone like my grandmother, who after her husband’s death went to live in a retirement home, where the staff told her children not to visit anymore because it caused them too much trouble to “calm her down” after they left. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing how it treat its dead; you can learn even more by noticing how it treat its aging. My grandmother will live out her final years surrounded by people she has just met, and who care about her as much as her money allows them to. This is not living.

Death is not an option for any of us. How we live is. By turning a blind eye to death, by doing everything possible to deny it — anti-aging creams anyone? — and refusing to recognize it as a part of and not separate from existence, we do ourselves and our world a great disservice. By celebrating the dead, the aging (once known as the wise), we celebrate life, and begin to comprehend what the passage of time really means.

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