Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is "Western" Yoga Cultural Appropriation? A Few Notes on the Confounding, Conflicting Efforts to Decolonize Yoga


Photo credit: jllfitness from morguefile.com

Back in 2012, when I finished my yoga teacher training, I had already been practicing asana and meditation (the two most recognizable limbs of the yogic 8 fold path) for over a decade. Unlike many of those in my training class, yoga was a normalized part of my life. Something that had already sunk in enough to change me and also provoke a lot of questioning.

Several of my teacher training classmates went on to become regular asana teachers, some even before the completed their certificate. I, on the other hand, have gone on a different path, teaching meditation and a handful of asana classes, all the while living with a sense that I want to - need to - learn more, practice more, to truly shape what I have to offer.

In addition, there's the "Yoga Industrial Complex": this world of commodified, mostly asana practice that brings in piles of money while offering yoga as mild to moderate self improvement, as opposed to a path of liberation. Over the years, my opinion on all this has evolved to the point where I'm fine with offering elements of yoga to folks to improve physical and mental health, but still desiring to undermine the capitalist mentality that drives so much of what's offered as yoga, how it's offered, and by what motivations.

A dharma friend of mine sent me this blog post yesterday, which opens up yet another can of worms. Cultural appropriation. Decolonization. The history of yoga under colonialism.

This is contentious territory, no matter how you slice it. Millions of folks in the U.S. teach and practice something called yoga these days. Lots of white people in this group, but significant numbers of people of color as well. And that's just here. Yoga asana practice in particular has spread across the globe in the past century, to the point where even if "purists" wanted to stop it, they probably couldn't.

And yet, the battles over both what is yoga and who can (or can't) rightfully claim it wage on. I've waded in on these from time to time, but often find myself at a loss in both places. Trying to pin down what constitutes "yoga" - even if we focus solely on the various forms of yogic spiritual traditions - is a messy affair. The debates about ownership and cultural appropriation are muddy at best, and often riddled with contradictions. The Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga campaign, for example, is driven by upper caste Hindu-Americans who seek to frame yoga as universally "owned" by Indian Hinduism, all the while sweeping under the rug the elitist roots of the practice and the caste oppression that kept the majority of folks in India (regardless of religious background) from practicing yoga until very recently. In addition, HAF's position papers are filled with quotations from modern Indian yoga teachers who spent the majority of their careers deliberately teaching "Westerners." The fact that so many 19th, 20th, and 21st century Indian yoga teachers have dedicated at least part of their lives offering teachings to people from North America, Europe, and elsewhere muddies the water significantly on the cultural appropriation arguments. Which doesn't mean it's not worth considering, but it isn't the same discussion as, for example, when white Americans take a weekend workshop on indigenous shamanism and then claim to be shamans.

As such, when I came to this section in the original blog post I cited, I found myself feeling mixed. The author, a white yoga teacher from Vancouver, writes

No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.

On the one hand, I think she's hitting on the problematic nature of much of what constitutes "yoga" practice in the U.S. and elsewhere. That gut sense that something is profoundly "wrong" about it all is something I have sat with for a good decade now.

At the same time, chalking it up to solely, or mostly, about cultural appropriation by white folks doesn't really fly for me.

In an article responding to a wave of online commentary about the HAF campaign, Prachi Pantakar raises several issues that create a much more complex picture.

Among them is the origins of modern asana practice, which she argues is a blend of Euro-American body practices and teachings from the Yoga Sutras (and elsewhere I would add).

In addition, there's this:

It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.

Pantakar points out that SAAPYA, the group that the Vancouver yoga teacher cites as one of her influences, is offering a message that appears to be very progressive, but also needs to be unpacked.

Much of SAAPYA’s discourse uses the language of social justice and decolonization, though there seems to be a reluctance to distinguish themselves from HAF and its broader ideology.

Just to add another layer of complexity, Roopa Singh, a founder of SAAPYA, rejects Pantakar's portrayal of the organization in a rebuttal piece that also supports many of her other points.

Singh writes:

SAAPYA is not pro-violence, pro-Hindutva, in fact, it’s not a platform super interested in reclaiming yoga for desis who are Hindu. It’s about fighting segregation and the post-colonial whitewashing of yoga through amplifying voices from across the South Asian diaspora in the west. Press has chosen to describe this effort as a take back and such, but those aren’t my ways of describing it.

In reading through other material on the SAAPYA website, it strikes that they are collectively exploring what it means to decolonize yoga. Which is so, so needed.

I didn't get the sense that, for example, they're message is one of telling white people to stop teaching or practicing yoga. Or that yoga is the "property of Hindus." Or some other simplistic message.

Another reason why I didn't buy into the Vancouver author's stated reason for quitting teaching. In fact, I think her last paragraph points more to the truth of the matter.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

All of this resonates with me. In fact, it really does a good job of summing up many of the reasons why I haven't joined my fellow teacher training classmates in the ranks of studio yoga asana teachers. My original purpose in taking the teacher training in the first place was to be able to sharpen my skills so that I could bring them out of the mainstream. To my former ESL students and others in the recent immigrant communities for example. That isolation she speaks of was only heightened during my teacher training program, leading me to question the whole notion of yoga studios and their cultures. Over two years later, after a year and a half of teaching meditation in a yoga studio, not much has changed in that regard. We've had three meditation teachers try to establish classes in the time I have taught there, and I'm the only one left. And my class draws tiny numbers compared to the asana only classes. Much more could be said about studios, even ones like the one I teach at which do a good job of offering yoga as a spiritual practice in a longstanding tradition, but I'll save that for another post.

I'd be interested in hearing from others on all this. What does it mean to "decolonize" yoga? What do you think of arguments like those being put forth by HAF? What do you think of the white yoga teacher's reasons for quitting?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson



"Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century."

Since this is a blog about Buddhism among other things, I'll start with this statement. The majority, perhaps the vast majority of covert Buddhists sanghas in the US will have nothing to public to say about Ferguson. They will not deliberately open their doors, as East Bay Meditation Center is doing today, as a place of respite for the outraged, weary, and sad. They will not issue any public statements about racial injustice, the suppression of peaceful protests, or anything of the like. They will not offer dharma talks on Ferguson, state sanctioned violence, or the militarization of our police departments. They will not show up, in any significant numbers, at protests or solidary events. They most likely won't, in any real tangible manner, demonstrate that the above, quoted reality is a total travesty, and that the only way to stand behind and support our black brothers and sisters is to reject the status quo, and work together to build a more just, and truly peaceful society.

I want to be wrong about all this, but I probably won't be. It's just far too easy for white dominant Buddhist sanghas to minimize, deny, or ignore all this. We don't want to "take sides." We don't want to upset anyone. Politics have no place in the dharma. We don't know the whole story. The list goes on and on.

Part of me has compassion for the fact that this is the karma of hundreds of years of settler colonialist propaganda. That spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and even flat out prejudice and hatred in some cases can drive the words and actions of so many of my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

The other part of me says for fucks sake, wake up!

I watched the protests in Ferguson on livestream last night for a good hour and a half. Occasionally, I had flashbacks to protests I've been involved in over the past decade. But what they were dealing with was worse. More calculated and oppressive. Tear gas canisters flying everywhere. Military vehicles all over the place. Guns aimed in all directions. It looked like a total war zone.

Apparently, some mainstream media outlets made a huge deal out of a handful of fires. A couple of burning cop cars and buildings. There was plenty of noise made about protesters throwing rocks as well. It sounded way too much like Gaza. Looked way too damned much like Gaza!

We live in a nation built from the fruits of genocide, slavery, and widespread economic oppression. Our leaders support and wage wars across the globe. The United States is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Defending the "rule of law," means supporting greed, hatred, and ignorance. Choosing to hang out in the absolute realms, far too common for U.S. Buddhists, especially white ones, means being okay with the endless suffering around us, and within us.

We are a few days from Thanksgiving. A holiday that covers up a legacy of human genocide (that of our indigenous brothers and sisters), while committing one annually against an animal community (our turkey brothers and sisters). And lest this post get consumed by people defending meat eating, I'm not talking about the reverent taking of life to sustain one's own life. I'm talking about 45 million turkeys slaughtered annually, many of them raised in giant factory farms, all for a holiday that is sustained by a settler colonialist myth about the "beginnings" of the nation.
Forgive me for not feeling thankful for any of this.

A few days ago, a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police. That a boy that young is so readily seen as a "threat" so "dangerous" he must be shot speaks volumes about the state of our affairs. That Darren Wilson is free, but Marissa Alexander in prison and facing another possible 5 year sentence, demonstrates just how fucked up things are - and have been for a long, long time.

And yet, I'm guessing that the coming weeks will be similar to the previous few months when it comes to Ferguson and white majority Buddhist sanghas and practitioners. Mostly silence. And not the kind of silence that comes from meditation practice offering metta and prayers of support to the directly suffering, but more the kind of silence that comes from privilege and settler colonialist thinking.

I spent significant time at my zen center over the past 3 days. I love my sangha, and often feel proud of how far we have come over the years, even on such difficult issues as systemic racism and oppression. And yet, even so, I'm honestly not sure I can go for refuge there on a day like today. I'm just not sure there's space for the mixture of outrage, sadness, and a desire to do more than just sit, although I need - so many of us really - need that too.

This afternoon, I will head to one of our local solidarity demonstrations. It isn't nearly enough, and at every one of these someone speaks to how it's just that: not enough. But until more answers forward arise, we have to do something, say something.

I pray for more awakening, more liberation, to penetrate the hearts and minds of this nation. May the wood of the empire rot, and a new house be built that lets all of us, all beings, thrive.














Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Winter Herbal Meditation



Last weekend, we set our clocks back, and early sunsets ensued. This weekend, the temperature has dropped. Way down. Below freezing at night, and barely above during the day. Even though it's only the second week of November, winter has essentially set in.

For plant lovers, this can be a tough time of year, especially for those of us living in Northern climates. Without access to a greenhouse or some other large, indoor environment, we're left with a few windowsills to fill with pots. Knowing full well that despite our best effort, what we potted in October won't be what's left in the window in April.

And yet, there's something calming about this time of year. The darkness invites a slowing down that our hyper-speed culture rejects the rest of the time. The browns and greys that fill the landscape call out for us to see beyond the surface, to imagine beyond the image we have of being alive. Just because the trees have dropped their leaves doesn't mean they are dead. Just because this year's Yarrow patch is gone doesn't mean that it is gone.

Herbalism seems to attract a lot of literalists in a certain sense. Seeking solutions to the body's various health issues, it's understandable that this would be the case.

However, health is more than a material experience, and plants are so much more than demulcents, anti-inflammatories, and adaptogens.

Don't get me wrong. I love talking and learning about these things. It's commonplace that I get asked about beneficial herbs for various illnesses and conditions and, as a way of introduction to a plant, I offer it's specific, material gifts in response.

You're dealing with low grade depression. Maybe you could try Lemon Balm.

Your throat feels scratchy and you're worried about getting a cold, Elderberry might snuff it out.

But there's so much more to the story. There's so much more to our own stories.

I have overwintered Lemon Balm plants for several years now. What I've noticed is that they always grow to a certain height and volume, and then the leaves start to dry out around the edges. It doesn't seem to matter how much I water them, how large of a pot I offer them, or how rich the soil is that I offer them.

If I sheer off the growth, they slowly grow back during the darkest months.

If I let it go too long, they die.

Bountiful lemon balms almost smile at you with their bright and shiny leaves. They stand tall and proud, filling the air around them with a light, lemony scent. At their height, they bolt towards the sky and burst forth dozens of tiny, white flowers.

There is a slow build up, and then a reach towards infinity. Given just enough of the right conditions, they'll make greatness ensue. However, if the conditions aren't right, they either stay in check or wilt.

For the living, the winter months are mostly about building up and staying in check.

For the dying, regardless of the time of year, everything is wilting.

The difference is often subtle. There doesn't seem to be enough soil, so the roots stop growing, give up on seeking nutrients.

No amount of ingested lemon balm plant material will heal a person whose roots have totally stopped, and completely given up on seeking nutrients. It may kick start the body's engine, but it's only through re-cultivating the personal soil and learning how to stand tall and proud again that a depressed person will truly thrive.

Learning to see beyond the material world is a way to experience true health. Health beyond the immediate body symptoms or emotional ups and downs. The plants can be a guide for us. Watch them, take their medicine. And be well.

* This post originally appeared here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Buddha Transfigures


Photo credit: noesis from morguefile.com

Transfigure is an interesting word.

to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to : transform outwardly and usually for the better

In a way, it sounds like another attempt to lie. To deceive. When I saw that definition, an imagine of a friend of mine sitting with a plastic smile on her face during an event she didn't want to attend arose immediately. That smile was about hiding; she told me as much.

But when I reflect on transfigure further, it brings to mind the ritual of placing one's robe on before meditation. The rakusu, the kesa - they symbolize the buddha within, and the way of being a buddha in the "outer" world. (Outer and inner are really just distinctions of the relative world.) Placing the rakusu on my head, I chant the following, and then unfold it and place it around my neck.

How great, this robe of liberation
a formless field of merit,
wrapping ourselves in Buddha's teachings
we free all living beings.

The rakusu is just a piece of sewn cloth, and yet if you look at that verse, it's also a transfiguring. Ordinary being to Buddha. With nothing excluded.

In my life currently, I don't particularly like

the slow speed at which my new professional life is unfolding
the often not knowing what exactly needs to be done next
the awkwardness of being a non-driver in car-centric culture
the desire for light in this mostly dark time of year
the conflict avoidance I still give into sometimes
the attachment to political views and anger that sometimes comes from it
the way fears can keep you from taking the important leaps

but putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

And I can put that rakusu on in every moment if I choose to - but more often than not, I simply don't choose to. The physical object need not be there to evoke the spirit of it.

How do you work with delinquent qualities? Certainly, many of you reading this blog could say meditation, but what a pat answer that would be. All of this I've seen about the rakusu is from my meditation practice, from putting it on my neck over and over again. But it's not just that. Caring for the details of life is an intimate, original practice, different each and every time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Did you hear the one about the Dalai Lama and Lululemon?

Seriously, it's no joke. In an era of ever-expanding capitalist reach, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is teaming up with a corporation well known for its sexism, sizism, and sweatshop labor practices.

Lululemon and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education are partnering to “promote mindfulness…to foster heart-mind wellbeing in children and youth.”

Heart-mind well-being refers to ”creating a balance between educating the mind and educating the heart” by encouraging children to develop social and emotional skills, as per the description on the Dalai Lama Center’s website. Thanks to this new partnership with Lululemon and the 250,000 Canadian dollars ($221,900) they’ll provide annually for the next three years (that’s almost a quarter of a million dollars every year), the center’s heart-mind education initiative can be expanded and further research can be done on the connection between the heart and mind, so that more kids will be more mindful, compassionate and able to resolve conflicts more peacefully, for example.

I can already hear the spiritual noise train arriving on track 29. What about 'form is emptiness, emptiness is form'? Why are you bringing politics into all this? Why are you hating on Lululemon again? Why are you hating on the Dalai Lama? WHAT ... ABOUT ... THE CHILDREN?!!!!

Spare me. I'm tired of corporate apologetics, idol worship, and the use of dharmic teachings in the service of maintaining colonialism and the capitalism it spawned. This deal has all the hallmarks of the non-profit industrial complex on it, and really, it's pretty sad that the Dalai Lama Center leadership thinks that an expensive clothing company is the kind of outfit that ready, willing, and most importantly able to spread "mindfulness ... and heart-mind wellbeing in children and youth." I mean, the company's target audience isn't even children and youth. If they want to go this route, perhaps joining up with Lego, Microsoft, Nintendo, or some other such corporation might be in order.

Note that the Dalai Lama Center's press release contains not only the NASDAQ tag for Lululemon (in case folks want to invest in stock?), but also a paragraph long description of the company that appears to be cut and pasted from Lululemon's marketing copy.

What does the Dalai Lama Center have to say about the sexism, sizism, classism, and oppressive labor practices of the corporation they're partnering with? Do they intend to also promote mindful awareness of the systemic causes that allow folks like the on again off again leader of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, to essentially get away with comments about pronouncements about women's thighs and jokes about Japanese mispronunciations of Lululemon? Or, since this is supposedly all about the children, will they speak out loudly against Chip Wilson's support of "Third World child labor"? Sure, Wilson is finally gone after a long power struggle, but concretely addressing his views (and their corporate practices) in the context of the global capitalist workplace would put some teeth into this project.

Finally, I have to say that if Lululemon truly wanted to be a leader in promoting mindfulness and compassion in the lives of tomorrow's leaders, they'd invest a hell of a lot more than $750,000. For a corporation bringing in nearly $2 billion annually, that's essentially pocket change. And also a small price to pay for a marketing campaign to restore the company's long tarnished image.










Thursday, October 9, 2014

the basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention


Photo credit: hrustall from morguefile.com

I was on the bus this morning and I saw a woman hurrying across the street in front of us. She was clearly anxious and as she passed the large, wide front bus window, I noticed a ball of tension rising within me. Looking at her struggling, I felt a resistance, a not wanting to "deal" with her appearance in my life.

And it hit me - this was the confused mix of compassion and control I often respond to the human-filled environment with. I felt whatever she was experiencing trying to enter me, and I both wanted to heal it, and banish it at the same time. While desiring to heal or help someone is a compassionate feeling, it often tied to a self centered desire to significantly reduce the amount of time you have to spend witnessing another person's suffering. Wanting to banish suffering can also be a noble impulse, but too often this impulse is tied to violence and/or hatred.

"Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up."

We are called to learn how to see ourselves, and others, completely - moment after moment. That turning "the light o shine within" allows us to act in the world, as opposed to react to it.

Shitou (author of the above) , lived a lot of his life in intimacy with the planet as it was. The ancestral trees, grasses, medicine plants, waters, mountains - these were as much his teachers as any human, if not more. At the same time, familial and cultural human ancestors probably played a large role in his life. Another reason perhaps why it took only two poems to cement his place amongst the great Buddhist teachers. He didn't need a lot of words because he had taken everything in, and wasn't controlled by it, but could engage with it fully.

Things are probably more complicated for a lot of us living now, but at the same time, there are these lines from the Sandokai:

"In the light there is darkness, but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light."

Bumping up against human stress and suffering might be more concentrated now, but still is not all that different from twelve hundred years ago. The stress and suffering of the planet is probably much more in our faces now, but decay and death have always been with us.

At the same time, we don't have the luxury to just copy what the various ancestors did. Or we can, but it won't bring the liberation we say we're seeking.

In responding to changing weather conditions, soil conditions, sunlight and moonlight conditions, each generation of trees grows somewhat differently from the previous ones. And yet, through the seeds, their ancestral lineage remains fully intact.

The basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention is being able to see ourselves, and others, completely - moment after moment. And then acting from that clear seeing.



Friday, September 26, 2014

Che Guevara, Buddhism, and Jumping to Conclusions

What the hell does Che Guevara, the infamous Cuban revolutionary, have to do with Buddhism? I'm guess it's probably never been on the radar for most of you, and I'm also imagining that the very mention of the name sparks powerful reactions for some of you. Freedom fighter. Compassionate doctor. Communist troublemaker. Armed terrorist. Maybe one or more of these phrase fit how you place him. Certainly, the man has been romanticized on the one hand by people on the left who sport t-shirts with his image, and/or have seen movies like "The Motorcycle Diaries" or who have read his writings about the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and the dream of a unified American continent (north and south). Whatever the chosen image, he almost always seems to be larger than life.

As part of my continued exploration of Latin American Buddhism, I'm reviewing some articles from the Spring 2001 issue of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Thanks to the Jizo Chronicles for the reminder about this issue of Turning Wheel, which I had, long forgotten, tucked away in my closet.

Lourdes Arguelles, in her guest editorial, writes of a humid Cuban day in late 1959 when she, as a high school student, was sitting on the steps of the University of La Habana, reading a book of Pablo Neruda's poetry. She says she was waiting to march in one of the many demonstrations that occurred at that time in Cuba when she looked up and say Che Guevara standing next to her and her friends. He asked what she was reading, and after some approval of Neruda on his part, she said she, for some reason asked him "Someone once told me that Neruda had lived in Asia and was interested in the Buddha. Do you know if he has anything written about that?"

Arguelles goes on to say she really didn't know why she had asked him that, of all things, and how her friends wondered, in amazement, why she spoke of the Buddha of all things to this powerful political figure. And then she writes that a few weeks later, her father, who worked closely with Guevara at the time, arrived home one day with a package. It was another book of poetry, with a letter in it that said "Che said to tell you he looked very hard for what you wanted but couldn't find it. He sends you another book of Neruda poems for your collection." What's totally interesting to me is that her father knew nothing of the earlier exchange; he simply brought the message and book home to his daughter.

Now, maybe this is just a nice story, you might say. In fact, some of you might think it's propaganda to support a more positive image of the man. Whatever you think of Guevara, it's worth noting that this story is a great example of how people - especially well known people - are usually much more than we see. The human mind tends to compartmentalize well-known people, or even people we know, by ignoring the whole picture, or assuming there's nothing beyond what we know.

This iconic figure who sought an end to capitalism and injustice globally, and who also relied heavily on violence measures to do so, was also just another person in the world. This simple act of kindness on Che's part, never mentioned in the biographies and love-ographies or hate-ograpies, brings him back down to earth. It's also the case that we could probably easily find stories about the guy making mundane mistakes, which again would temper the dramatic, larger than life character he has become.

It seems to me that it is our job, as Buddhist practitioners, to drop off all pre-conceived stories about both those in our lives, and about those who lived in the past, and to be ready and open to be surprised. This story of Arguelles provided a moment of surprise, an opportunity to shake the story I had about Guevara as solely a sometimes inspirational, sometimes destructive revolutionary. Maybe he had no interest whatsoever in the Buddha and his teachings; that's irrelevant. What is relevant is that he took the time for this young woman, even if that effort was at least partly motivated by ties to her father or to desires that she would support his politics. She wasn't anyone important, so even if his motives were tainted in the ways I just suggested, it really didn't benefit him much. So I see this as an act of caring. Someone asked him about a writer he loved, and he tried to find something else out about that writer for the other. As a writer who loves many other writers, both living and dead, I completely get this act. I've done it myself, without any belief that I would gain by locating information about writer X.

Maybe this is a somewhat naive take on this situation, but I really don't get the sense that Arguelles is lying about her story. She finishes up her introduction to the issue of Turning Wheel saying that even though she has rejected Che's "modernizing and violent insurrection philosophy" and that his efforts brought "grief" to her life and the lives of countless others, she nevertheless dedicated the issue to his memory.

He clearly left a powerful impression on her as a teenager, with that simple act of kindness. And I offer this to you now as an effort to shake those images you have of whomever you have deemed "evil" or "horrible beyond repair." We are never solely our worst acts, or our best acts even. Our actions in total are the ground upon which we stand. May we remember that every day, for the rest of our lives.

And just for your reading pleasure, here's a favorite poem of mine from Neruda entitled "Ode to the Lemon." Enjoy!


Ode To The Lemon
by Pablo Neruda

From blossoms
released
by the moonlight,
from an
aroma of exasperated
love,
steeped in fragrance,
yellowness
drifted from the lemon tree,
and from its plantarium
lemons descended to the earth.

Tender yield!
The coasts,
the markets glowed
with light, with
unrefined gold;
we opened
two halves
of a miracle,
congealed acid
trickled
from the hemispheres
of a star,
the most intense liqueur
of nature,
unique, vivid,
concentrated,
born of the cool, fresh
lemon,
of its fragrant house,
its acid, secret symmetry.

Knives
sliced a small
cathedral
in the lemon,
the concealed apse, opened,
revealed acid stained glass,
drops
oozed topaz,
altars,
cool architecture.

So, when you hold
the hemisphere
of a cut lemon
above your plate,
you spill
a universe of gold,
a
yellow goblet
of miracles,
a fragrant nipple
of the earth's breast,
a ray of light that was made fruit,
the minute fire of a planet.

*Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on Dangerous Harvests on 11/29/09

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mainstream American Yoga Avoids Suffering


After co-teaching a workshop on yoga and other movement practices in our social movements, I have been watching folks talk online about Yoga Journal and the state of American yoga these days. There's a lot that can be said in this regard, from the continued influence of colonialist narratives, to the heavy commodification of the practice. However, today I'd like to focus on this:

Much of the modern American yoga world avoids suffering.

Thinking that people are already challenged enough, yoga teachers, studios, and the like spin everything towards bliss, or its poorer cousin comfort.

Which seems to be a balm for the mundane stress of office jobs, traffic, or dealing with upset children, but leaves people absolutely stranded when something like loosing a parent happens. Or how to process the ongoing imperialist war machine. Or how to face, and possibly effectively challenge systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia. Or how to be and act in ways that resist eco-cide, and promote eco-centricism on an individual and societal scale. In other words, how to be a liberated being in the world.

For several years now, I have regularly said this verse at or near bedtime from the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

These four lines have been more useful to me than a thousand yoga platitudes. But they also are, if you actually put them into practice, challenging words to swallow. When I bitch and moan and fuss about the "little cares," I'm forgetting them. When I fake being happy, or dismiss something bothering me as "nothing," I'm forgetting them. When I indulge in easy hatred towards the folks in power positions that are creating so much hell in the world, I'm forgetting that buddhanature is boundless, and that my liberation is bound up with everyone elses'.

Over the years, I have worked with perhaps four or five excellent yoga teachers. All of them gave suffering a fair shake; all of them understood the balance between challenging people to face their lives as they are, and also to be kind to yourself and relax; and the majority of them saw the teachings not just as individual tools, but also as gateways into understanding and acting in the world around us. In this, working on a political campaign or being part of a collective effort to develop new alternatives was just as worthy of a dharma talk as facing emotional challenges, or becoming more intimate with the breath or some other object of meditation. Along these lines, taking up Warrior Pose (see teaching image above) can more easily be seen as a training ground for cultivating the strength to stay grounded in the midst of a protest, or picket line, or heated meeting with a public official.

As I see it, American Yoga is not devoid of bodhisattvas - to use Buddhist language - it's just flooded with people who are essentially trading in the destructive addictions our our society people use to cope, with something that is more beneficial, but ultimately is still just a coping mechanism.

Being able to cope without destroying yourself is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism? What if, in being able to cope more, you're also aiding the continuation of the systems of oppression and suffering that brought on much of the very misery you sought relief from in the first place?

The best medicine goes straight to the roots, taking out that which feeds all the surface-level disorders. Sometimes, it acts swiftly; other times, it slowly seeps in, like Shantideva's words above have for me.

In any case, perhaps American yoga can take a cue from the Buddha and turn more directly towards suffering, individually and collectively. This won't solve the myriad of issues with the American yoga scene, but in my book, it would be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Buddhist Peace Fellowship National Gathering is This Weekend!



I'm heading to Oakland this evening to attend the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's National Gathering. There, I'll be co-teaching a workshop on Movement for Right Action, yoga and other movement practices for social activists. Will give a report when I return.



Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Gift Economy: Shifting Paradigms (Guest Post)


Photo credit: cohdra from morguefile.com

Today's piece is a guest repost from Janet Brent. I have been reading Janet's blog for a few years now, and have found her experiments in new ways of working and living to be vibrant and engaging. I contacted Janet about the Indiegogo campaign my girlfriend and I are currently running, and she was happy to share an article about our health care vision with her readers.

In return, I'm excited to offer you all a glimpse into an experiment Janet is doing this summer. She's operating her business as a gift economy to see what it's like to live and work in this way. Giving her skills, talents, and effort to those who need them, she opens the door for whatever gifts people receiving those services will offer in return.

This is exactly the opposite of the scarcity mentality that global capitalism drives through us at a young age, tethering our hearts and minds to an endless chase to stay afloat, or maintain what we have. The separation that Buddha and other great teachers speak to on a spiritual level is codified in our economic system, and so in order to liberate ourselves and our communities from its oppressive weight, we need to experiment, and pay attention to our minds and hearts in the process. So that we can create new ways of living and working together.

Here's Janet's current contribution to this.


I am typing this outside on the auspicious full moon on Friday the 13th. I glance in front of me as the moon slowly rises, peeking its way above the trees that are covering its full view. I have already done a release ritual that involved burning a list of things I want to ‘let go’ of and a prosperity meditation. These seemed appropriate on today’s Friday the 13th full moon. Whether you believe in it or not, creating meaning in meaninglessness is part of the magic of life, and ritual and intention give things we can’t grasp a sort of tangibleness.

Today I’d like to talk about the gift economy. Shifting the way we work and create into the new economy. A new paradigm. It’s part of the shift.

I am currently operating 100% of my business in the gift economy, and it’s a ‘scary’ leap. Even though a lot of my friend’s and mentor’s advise to reconsider, I am doing this in full force. I will give it a full three months, until the end of summer to see if it works. If not, I can consider it an experiment, and move on.
What exactly is the gift economy? What does it stand for?

Remember Napster? Remember how it changed the music industry? It’s kind of like that.

Remember how Radiohead gave their music album, In Rainbows entirely for free and empowered fans to ‘pay back/give back’ whatever price that felt good to them? It was a success.

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” -Thom Yorke, Radiohead

A Disruptive Business Model

The gift economy is a disruptive business model. I saw a Facebook meme once with a picture of a full on garden in the front lawn of a suburban house with the caption “Rebellion – It’s not what you think.” It’s kind of like that. Rebellion can be peaceful. It’s choosing a different way of life in spite of “normal” way of life happening all around you. It’s boldly choosing to be the change and creating the type of world you want to be a part of. Living it.

I am part of the shift. A new economy, from consumption culture to creation culture. Not all who operate in the ‘New Economy’ work in the gift, but the gift is part of the new paradigm.

I give my design services to you as a gift and in exchange, I trust that you will gift me back a fair value. This could look like a fair money exchange, a barter/trade of services, and/or bringing me word of mouth referrals.
Why work and create in the gift?

The gift economy represents a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance and isolation to community.

– Charles Eisenstein

The gift economy empowers you, a prospective client, to choose the price that feels good to you, and to give me value that makes us both feel good about the exchange.

Truthfully, I’ve been operating much on the gift economy for a long time, but never had the words to describe it. I’m open to negotiation, barter and trade, and I gift back my earnings to a non-profit.

Q: Why did you decide to work in the gift economy?
A: I’ve always been interested and intrigued with it, but never had the ‘guts’ to go all out or make it an official “thing”. Then I started paying attention to my friend, Tom Morkes’ work with a pay what you want model, and from there found out about Adrian Hoppel, a web designer/developer leading the way. It all resonated with me so much that on impulse, I decided to start using the gift economy business model as well. It’s been working with me so far, and now I’m even part of Adrian’s design/developer team! I’ve always been interested in this softer shift towards the ‘divine feminine’. Business IS changing and more and more women are choosing to work for themselves. The gift just feels good to me. I hope it will feel good to you too.

Q: Do you just not like money? How do you survive??
A: While it’s true my relationship with money has been a long path towards releasing blocks and learning how to get out of ‘poverty consciousness’, and I’m still working on mending my relationship to money so that I can create financial freedom, I absolutely LOVE money and want more of it! I have ambitious goals to become a six figure business Goddess. I just happen to think the gift economy (and the type of creators/messengers who will be attracted to it) is the right vehicle to get me there. If I’m wrong, after this three month experiment is “over”, I can always change my mind.

I live my life in a very ‘disruptive’ way from status-quo as is. I don’t pay rent, and I slow travel the world living entirely off of a suitcase. For two years, I lived in an informal dwelling (AKA slum) in Manila and only paid $50/month for a decent sized studio. Technically, I don’t have a home. It frees me up from normal payments that people have (rent, gas, cell phone, cable, etc.). Despite the travel, it actually keeps my lifestyle and expenses lower than most and I am able to bootstrap in this way, building my business and doubling my income each year (albeit, coming from humble beginnings of less than $500/month; you’ve got to start somewhere!).

Q: What if people take advantage of you and pay you peanuts, or nothing at all?
A: This is the scary part. This is why most people hesitate to take the leap, even if gift economy appeals to them. This is why most people look at me like I’m crazy, and tell me to reconsider. The thing is, gift economy, when done right, doesn’t mean “take advantage of me”. One of my current clients tells me he is a fan of the fair economy. That’s what gift economy is and should be. It’s not to take advantage of. Gift economy is a mutually agreed upon relationship. If I do not feel you will offer me a fair value for my services, I can simply choose not to work with you. The gift economy is based on trust. Trust that you will gift me a fair amount, or a fair exchange. It is entirely fair. If you want to pay me through bartered services and I feel your services don’t give me much value, I can always say no. Part of business, in general, is choosing whether a prospective client is the right fit or not. The same is true for gift economy. I’m not at the mercy of everyone’s requests. I can choose to say no.

Q: I’m nervous. How do I know what a ‘fair price’ is to even pay you? I know nothing about graphic/web design/branding services and what typical prices are.
A: This is a great question, and it gives me the challenge of educating you, as a prospective client, before agreeing to work together (or not). I will keep track of my hours, tell you how much my services are valued at (price point), and give you price analysis, from low-end to high-end, of typical going rates in the industry. I understand this may give me more initial work in the preliminary stage, but I’m willing to do this. Essentially, I’ll give you a proposal (like a ‘normal’ design business model) of all this information in a PDF, as well as an overview of what I can do for you.

Does this sound good to you?

If you’re interested in working with me through the gift economy, or just interested in having a conversation, I’m also gifting free, no strings attached, 30 minute clarity conversations to help you grow your business. Just fill out my questionnaire and I’ll get back to you with a scheduler link!

Here’s what Charlene, my most recent clarity conversation, had to say:

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me yesterday – you gave me some really valuable advice and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Thank you again just SOOO much and I can’t wait to come back to you for my website design!

Be helpful, and give value. It works. So far, the gift economy is working for me. Maybe it will work for you!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Help Bring Dreams of a Health Care Revolution into Reality




As you may have noticed, I haven't had a ton of new content on DH this summer. I've been hard at work launching a new herbal medicine practice, leading weekly meditation classes, gardening, among other things. Now, along with my girlfriend, I have the opportunity to attend the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's National Conference, where I will co-lead a session on yoga, movement, and Right Action with Oakland based Buddhist teacher Mushim Patricia Ikeda. I'm seeking your support to make the trip out to Oakland, and also to help us launch our long term vision into the world.

Our Vision

Mary and Nathan dream of developing a community based, wellness center that operates on the principle of whole person health (body, mind, and spirit), and primarily serves individuals and communities that experience social and/or economic barriers under the current system. We aim to create an environment that in, and of itself, fosters wellbeing and healing. Our desire is to uphold traditional medicines and wisdom, while also exploring ways elements of modern, science based medicine can provide additional support. We also seek to create a model that breaks down the traditional top-down hierarchy between health care practitioners and patients, and which also utilizes the arts (writing, photography, painting, etc.) and community building (amongst patients and beyond immediate patients) as key components of healing. In addition, we see the center as a potential hub for health care activism, both in terms of advocating for needed reforms to the current mainstream health care system, as well as providing models for systemic change and transformation.

What you can do to help

Go to our campaign to learn more.

Gift a gift of any amount in support of our trip to the BPF Conference.

Share our link in your social networks, and tell them how you're inspired by the vision, and/or about your experience as a reader of Dangerous Harvests over the years.

Add us to your meditation practice, sending us and our work metta and well wishes.

Thank you all for reading DH over the years. I'm excited about the opportunities to come, and also to bring new writing to life here, and elsewhere.

*Photo is of the Nettle patch in my garden. Nettle is a common weed that also is a powerful herbal medicine. You can learn more about it here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The #Buddhist Precept of Not Stealing in a Colonized World

I wrote this post a few years back, but it still resonates.


I have been spending a lot of time contemplating, and talking with others about, how commodified our lives have become. It seems like nearly "owned" by someone, in need of being bought or payed for by others. It's insidious, and deeply problematic in my opinion.

Yesterday, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine, and I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about the way in which I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.

The reality is that while most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute "private property." When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.

In the past, I have attempted to ask permission to harvest berries, as well as a few apples from the trees in a neighbor's yard (most of which, again, fall to the ground untouched). These requests for a small bit of sharing have tended to be met with puzzlement. Who is this guy and why should I give him my fruit?

As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. But in a society so colonized and commodified, to the point where even some simple counseling to support mental health has been turned into a product for sale, what is stealing?

How can the man I spoke to about those apple trees, who does next to nothing to aid the growth of the trees, and lets the lion's share of the produce go to waste, claim ownership over them? Frankly, how can anyone claim ownership over the life of a tree or a berry bush?

I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the fruit that is covered in pesticides is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks.

However, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees - especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.

I am fortunate to have a garden behind my mother's place, where I have slowly planted a few berry bushes, including a raspberry bush that's beginning to produce fruit. Furthermore, some of my friends and are are starting to do neighborhood networking around planting community fruit trees and bushes, as well as cultivating the idea of fruit sharing from plants in private yards and gardens. All of this is in the beginning stages, and hasn't produced much "fruit" yet, but I do believe it will in the future.

And yet, I keep going back to this issue of stealing and not stealing. Something as natural a human activity as picking berries is probably considered theft by a large percentage of people in this country - and many others no doubt. It strikes me as a form of insanity, controlling access to something so basic. And I'm convinced that we will more collectively be faced with the deeper implications of this as things like water privatization impact wide swaths of the population - people used to having easy access to something which is of life and death importance.

Recently, I read a declaration written by indigenous peoples in response to the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil last week. It's a powerful document, one I find myself aligned with in so many ways. For those of us living in post-industrial nations like the U.S., it's a deep indictment of much of what we consider "normal." Odds are, a lot of American readers will simply dismiss it as utopian fluff, or "unrealistic." I can imagine plenty will find it an affront worthy of outrage. How dare these people blame me for their problems, and for the destruction of the Earth? Can't they see that we have some great solutions to the climate crisis?

Here is a selection from the document that demonstrates both the tenacity and also, in my opinion, the optimism of these people - whom I consider brothers and sisters:

We will continue to unite as Indigenous Peoples and build a strong solidarity and partnership among ourselves, local communities and non-indigenous genuine advocates of our issues. This solidarity will advance the global campaign for Indigenous Peoples rights to land, life and resources and in the achievement of our self-determination and liberation.

We will continue to challenge and resist colonialist and capitalist development models that promote the domination of nature, incessant economic growth, limitless profit-seeking resource extraction, unsustainable consumption and production and the unregulated commodities and financial markets. Humans are an integral part of the natural world and all human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which must be respected and observed by development.

We invite all of civil society to protect and promote our rights and worldviews and respect natural law, our spiritualities and cultures and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity, and collectivity. Caring and sharing, among other values, are crucial in bringing about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. In this context, we call for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.

I don't know what it's going to take to right the climate ship. It's a gigantic question that we all much sit with everyday. But I do know that something seems deeply flawed about the idea that picking berries, or apples, constitutes theft. Perhaps in a very narrow, literal way it is the case. But there is something life denying about that kind of view.

No one owns the berries, nor the bushes they grow on. Just ask the birds and animals that go snacking on them when you're not looking.

*Photo is of the golden raspberry bush in my garden.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Seeking Peace


Photo credit: Penywise from morguefile.com

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.


I chanted these lines from Shantideva daily for about four years, and still bring up them up from time to time.

Those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking relief from all of this. Seeking something they call "peace" and "calm." But how many of us really understand what peace and calm actually are?

It's easy to mistake a kind of relaxed dullness for peace and calm. Some think things like television, video games, comfort eating or drinking, and other such commonplace activities will bring them peace and calm. Others reject such notions, and try to avoid those activities all together, thinking that a certain "purity" will bring peace and calm. Of course, neither way "works."

I had a period of the latter during my early years of Zen practice. In some ways, I think the extreme of cutting out and avoiding all together many commonplace activities was helpful. A form of renunciation needed to gain clarity. However, it wasn't true renunciation, because I was still attached to "not doing" those activities. My identity of being a Zen student seemed tied to it in some ways in fact. Not eating meat. Not watching TV. Not drinking a drop of alcohol for a period. Never playing video games and similar "distractions."

Avoidance based renunciation is useful for breaking old habits, however in the end, it becomes a cage. It also ends up being a way to stall or push away the little cares of life. You can hide out in your meditation practice. Hide out in your view that you are a "good Zen student." And you can rationalize away whatever problems that arise, blaming others or dismissing them as not existing at all.

Those who are mostly lost in comforts and dullness, and those who live in ivory Zen towers, are easily thrown off balance when adversity arises. And this is often when learning to "put up" with little cares can slowly lead one to the peace and calm that is our birthright.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

Degenerate Zen


Photo credit: Ladyheart from morguefile.com

Having taught weekly meditation classes for over a year now, one of the repeated themes that comes up is that of the "bad meditator." It's rare that a month goes by without hearing someone say something about not being "good" at meditating, or having tried it "once," but found that their minds were really noisy, or that they couldn't sit still.

There are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like, and most of them are hindrances. You're not doing it right if you're mind is full of thoughts. The "goal" is to force all thoughts into silence. You have to sit in full lotus or half lotus. Meditating on chairs isn't meditation. If I can't find a perfectly quiet room to meditate in, I can't do it. The list goes on and on.

I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of protests, and in public restrooms amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations while walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also do the normalized formal practice on my meditation cushion at home, at zen center, and in my classes at the yoga center.

And sometimes, I do none of the above.

One of the problems with meditation culture in general, and Soto Zen in particular, is a fixation on one practice. As if it's the only gateway to awakening. Or even the "best" one. I personally think it's an excellent gateway, but that's about as far as I'll go.

Meditation has been a good friend for most of my adult life, always ready to hang out and just be, regardless of how I am. But I have other spiritual friends, and actually, I think we all do, even if we've given in to the notion that whatever practice is the one and only for us.

The dharma name I was given is Tokugo, which translates to "Devotion to enlightenment." Not "to zazen" or "to Zen," but to awakening itself.

I sometimes wonder how the old Zen masters really lived. Not the carectures that have been handed down to us, but the actual people. I'm guessing they weren't really like what we think they were.

The Buddha predicted the eventually decay of the teachings, and lately I've been wondering if we aren't living in the degenerate age he spoke about. There's obviously high levels of social corruption and oppression present in the world today. However, the past was no where near perfect either. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that we have become more efficient as a species, globalizing many of the hells that once were localized.

When I think of all the noise and distractions in the world today, it's hard not to wonder if even issues like "the bad meditator" narrative aren't indicative of causes and conditions of a degenerate age, where the dharmas of awakening are easily overshadowed. At the same time, I'm open to the idea that Joanna Macy and others are putting forth that we are in the middle of a "Great Turning" that is transforming the way we are in the world towards a more awakened, shared experience.

Perhaps both sides of the coin are true together. Devotion seems to keep calling me in that curious direction.










Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Pain of Living a Bifurcated Spiritual Life


This morning I was thinking about some of the issues I wrote about in an essay published a few years back. For today's post, here's a selection from that piece.

I have practiced yoga in some beautiful, almost immaculate studio spaces over the past several years. And I’ve often felt gratitude for the care that’s put in to the upkeep of these places. The same thing can be said of Clouds in Water Zen Center, with its pristine meditation halls and gathering spaces. At the same time, however, it’s become increasingly clear to me how such practice environments reflect the ways in which so many of us are split off from the very earth we are made of. The nearly pristine floors. The rationally ordered props and altars. The air conditioning in the summer. The centralized heating in the winter. The severe lack of wildness.

Throughout most of its history, yoga has been practice either outdoors, or within the simplest of structures, designed mostly to protect people from the extremes. And whereas Zen has been long practiced in monastic buildings, monks and nuns traditionally spent much of their day outdoors, gathering materials for cooking, traversing the villages, and even meditating along the roads and in the fields. Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered off in today’s tamed environments. It’s really easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth.

Simply put, humans have become too alienated from our own planet. It’s notable that yogic practices developed around the time this alienation seemed to be forming. Buddhism came later, with Zen forming as an offshoot some 1500-1600 years ago. For all the benefits we have received from agriculture, as well as the development of cities and societies, much has also been lost. The litany of abuse people have unleashed upon the earth, especially in recent centuries, is clearly a sign of deep disconnections, so deep that for some that they might destroy the entire planet in the long term, if it meant big material profits in the short term.

Probably from the beginning, this disconnection has been tied to the oppression of women. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin suggests that we have been living in a “bifurcated system” where the natural world has been turned into something in need of “mastery and domination.” In this system, emotions, vulnerability and tenderness have become “forms of submission.” In the process, women have been socialized “to be more connected with the body than are men, for whom this connection represents a threat.” Even the very ways in which we conceptualize and relate to the Earth have been greatly distorted, and used “to justify the social construction of gender.”

Perhaps those early yogis and Buddhists intuitively felt some of this separation occurring. Maybe they were offering a way for people to re-pattern themselves amidst the unhealthy current around them. Given that yoga, and to a somewhat lesser degree Buddhism, remained primarily the domain of men of elite social status until recent centuries, however it’s obvious that some of that separation had already penetrated quite deeply.

*Photo of Thistles by author.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tree Zen


Photo credit: mrmac04 from morguefile.com

I don't often find myself in agreement with The Zennist, but his current post strikes a chord for me. In particular, the first paragraph:

One of the dangers of over humanizing Zen, which is an attempt to locate truth in our human experiences, is that we may end up identifying our human experiences with truth. This may further lead us to the inescapable truth (a human truth) that our human life, at its most fundamental level, is meaningless (i.e., there is no ultimate reality). This means also that our human experience can have relative meaning but not final meaning. Stated otherwise, this is Protagorian relativism, that is, “Man is the measure of all things.”

Over the years, I have noticed how the non-human world is diminished in modern Zen. It often seems like merely a backdrop for human awakening, or reduced to a "place" - "nature" - where we humans "go" to let go of our worries and perhaps find some inspiration. Exploring the commonplace narratives of the human mind around the non-human world, including "nature as a resource" or nature as "brutish, nasty realm," just isn't on the plate. Beyond this, though, there's the duality at the core that seems almost threatening to consider. Namely, the human/non-human divide.

What if Zen Master Joshu's response in the old koan was mainly about pointing away from human-centric thinking? Let's go further than that. What if Joshu was demonstrating being so wide open that he and the tree could speak with each other, communicate their respective wisdoms across the relative body divide?

Many of us moderns balk at such irrational stuff. listening to trees. Talking with trees. Learning from trees not what we think they teach us, but something else entirely, something our minds can't conjure up. That kind of thing seems to be nothing more than "magical thinking," the stuff of our "ignorant" ancestors.

Well, I'll be honest. I think much of modern religion, including Zen and other Buddhist schools, is dependent upon a suppression of our direct kinship with the planet. No matter if we're speaking of gaining the keys to God's kingdom or those who can become enlightened, it's always humans on the top with everything else below - usually far, far below.

Now, on the one hand, given that we are humans, it's understandable that we would think we are the top dog. The smartest and most awakened. On the other hand, there are numerous examples throughout history, and even today, of cultures that reject such notions, cultures with spiritualities built fully on dynamic kinship, where something like having regular conversations with trees or bees is quite normal. And where a recognition of wisdom cuts across the human/non-human body divide.

The fact is that plants were here on earth before us. And many insect and animals were also here before us in some form or another. We're in so many ways the new kids on the block, and it shows. Who else would poison and destroy its own nest in order to acquire power, fame, and/or material items? Who else would be so foolish as to think they can outwit the entire planet, and even beyond?

What if the Zen koans are so "tough" for most of us precisely because they speak to experience beyond the human-centric trappings we've built around them?



Thursday, June 5, 2014

Buddhism in an Age of Manufactured Impermanence


Beautiful iris. Soon this photograph will be all that is left. Some might say the same of the Earth itself. That because nothing lasts, we shouldn't care that much if fracking has become a worldwide activity, or species extinction is happening at an alarmingly fast pace these days, or that the rainforests that many of these disappearing species live in are also disappearing, being shredded for profit. It's all inevitable, some say. I even here this kind of thing from some Buddhist practitioners, using the absolute side of the teachings to justify not attending to the care the relative side is calling us to do, especially when it comes to the non-human life on this planet.

Greed and utilitarianism seem to compete on a moment by moment basis with the recognition that the poisoned water is us. That the murdered pelicans are us. That the oil soaked land cannot possibly be separated from the marrow in our bones.


This majestic oak tree has thrived in a park near my house for longer than most of the residents in St. Paul, myself included, have been alive. Someday, like everything else, it too will die. Will it die of natural causes, or will humans take its life for some mundane or sinister purpose?

Modern civilization seems to be in the business of manufacturing impermanence. We create purposely defective products. We kill far, far more than we need to sustain ourselves. In the name of security, we blow up and poison everyone and everything in sight that is deemed a "threat." In this worldview, dandelions are terrorists. Children murdered in warzones are collateral damage. Endless hours and dollars are expended on creating technology whose sole purpose is to kill, eliminate, obliterate.

In the climate we live in, the impermanence teachings of the Buddha ancestors feel pretty impotent after a certain point. They might be of great help in creating a certain freedom of the mind. However, when applied too much to the social/world context, they become little more than reinforcement for the nihilism that's behind all the murder and destruction. It doesn't really matter that the teachings themselves are not at all nihilistic. The subtleties are too easily swamped, the raft too easily sunk.

Here's another thing. There's not enough love of the non-human world in much of modern Buddhism. Especially Empire Buddhism - that which thrives part in parcel with colonialism and the capitalist economies it spawned. Sure, we talk about love sometimes. But almost always with a healthy dose of non-attachment as a side dish, or even main dish. It's as if we do not trust the process of learning and awakening that comes with the maturation of love. Instead of living through the needed ferociousness of passionate attachment during love's formative years, too many of us opt either to be detached wallflowers or stunted puppies who endlessly miss the opportunities to grow out of infantile attachments that can't possibly help us to serve the world.

Ironically, I think it's time for some manufactured impermanence. Only instead of directing it at all the things that sustain life, let's direct it at all the things that destroy life.

For Empire Buddhism, this might mean burning down some of the cozy huts and being willing to step into an attachment to the well-being of the planet that we accept is desperately needed, even if it's a hindrance to "individual" enlightenment. It may also mean a need to tip the scales away from focusing on the impermanence teachings. Or to reconsider how to offer these teachings in a more targeted way, so that their profundity doesn't just become another cliche in service of destruction. One way to begin to address this is to stop seeking balance. Perhaps emphasizing impermanence when speaking about mind states, for example, but emphasizing protective love when speaking about social concerns and the planet.


What good are the bodhisattva teachings if we aren't willing to wildly apply them to the very Earth that gives each us our breath? Doesn't it strike you that without a planetary focus, all our efforts to help other humans won't amount to too much more than rearranging chairs on the Titanic?

Do not take that last question as minimizing human service and support of other humans. That, too, is always needed. And no doubt for many, it will be the main, if not sole focus of their efforts in life.

What I'm saying is that on a collective level, it's necessary, but not sufficient anymore. We no longer can be a self absorbed species, endlessly living out a collective adolescence. That is, we can't continue doing so without serious, most likely dire consequences as a result.







Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Zen Failure?


Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com

"In China and Japan there are many stories of teachers who attained enlightenment suddenly like this: 'Umph!' [laughs and snaps his fingers] You may think it was sudden, but it was actually the result of many years of practice and of failing many times. Dogen Zenji's famous words concerning this are "Hitting the mark is the result of ninety-nine failures." The last arrow hit the mark, but only after ninety-nine failures. So failure is actually ok."

Shunryu Suzuki, 1904-1971

Although I just dug up this quote from an old post I wrote several years back, it's message has been on my mind a fair amount lately. Last weekend, the board at Zen center, sans myself, made the decision to choose another candidate for our Executive Director position. Having served the sangha in a variety of capacities, including as chairman of the board for the past 4 1/2 years, I thought I had a really good shot at being hired for the position. Needless to say, I was really disappointed when I wasn't chosen. Given the precarious state of my finances, the decision also leaves me hanging on the edge that I've become so familiar with.

For a few days, I also experienced some stories that might be called "failure narratives." Thoughts that maybe if I had done a little better at the interview, things might have turned out differently. Or, on the flip side, seeing the board's decision as a failure to consider the long term picture, as opposed to immediate needs. Whatever truth elements are present in stories like this, they don't really satisfy the cravings beneath. The desire to have things go the way I wanted. The desire to be right. The desire to have my efforts be rewarded. The list goes on and on.

What is failure? And what is success anyway? Even the confirmation of enlightenment the old monks and nuns experienced didn't mean the end of pain or even suffering completely. "Success" for newly awakened ones simply meant a new beginning that didn't erase the old, but instead enfolded it within a much broader field, transforming the previously stuck into flow.

My arrow was pointed at a specific job at zen center, but there was so much that was out of my control. Failure narratives assume a kind of control that wasn't there, just as had I gotten the position, to say I was "successful" really wouldn't accurate either.

I've had some pretty miserable moments in the past week, and it's good to acknowledge recognizing the ultimate truth in things doesn't always bring instant liberation. Which makes me think that there are some really juicy stories missing from all those pithy koans and biographies of the Zen ancestors.

Dropping off body and mind probably included some wailing and grieving and even a bit of outrage I can imagine. Not just beforehand, but during and even afterward.

Yesterday, I was plucking dandelions to make medicine with. Anyone who has gotten beyond the commonplace hatred of these weeds Americans have knows that they're really bitter plants. Good for digestion and liver health, and all sorts of other things. But still real bitter to the taste buds.

Over the years of consuming bitters like dandelions, I've come to appreciate the flavor. Even find a certain joy in it. Although it's more difficult to locate that in things like not being chosen to step into a new leadership role in my sangha, I have found some appreciation still. Having given the process my all, I know what it's like to give fully and not receive what you wanted in return. (Obviously, this isn't the first time I experienced this, but it was a really clear example in this case.) I also feel the deep abiding okayness of the world, of "my" world, regardless of outcomes and regardless of how I feel about it all in any given moment.

Success and failure, gain and loss. It seems our job in life is to keep aiming and re-aiming our arrows, regardless of what comes our way.







Thursday, May 15, 2014

Boko Haram, the 969 Movement, and Owning the Evil Humans Produce



After posting an article dissecting the current responses to the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, and the ongoing imperialist agenda in Africa by the US and NATO allies, a friend of mine left a comment on my Facebook page that included the following lines:

"These men aren't Muslims. Let's be clear on this."

I started writing a response to her, but then realized it was getting long, so I'll offer it here as a blog post instead.

There has been a similar debate amongst Buddhists around the globe in response to the hatred driven violence of a group in Burma called the 969 Movement. I wrote this article last summer, and it's gotten worse over there since then, as the movement's influence has spread.

While I think these folks have gone off the rail, and have completely distorted Buddhist teachings to support their agenda, they're still Buddhists. Saying they aren't not only erases their identity, but also allows a false sense of separation from the evil they're producing.

So many Buddhists can't imagine that their religion/spiritual path could be so horribly co-opted and used to justify horrific actions and hatred, but this is only the most current example of a long history of such behavior in different nations. I think it's better to own all of this, recognize that nothing is beyond corruption, and join public calls to clean house. It's a subtle distinction perhaps. I want what the 969 Movement is doing to end, and those who won't stop to be stopped, even if it means they're disrobed, jailed, and tossed out of the Buddhist order (many of the leaders are monks). The difference is the starting point for me is their chosen identity, one which has often been lifelong, however wrong they've gone. What drove these Buddhist people to join this movement and believe the leaders of it? Why are they now turning on neighbors they've lived peacefully with for decades? These are the kinds of questions I have asked.

While I readily agree that the men in Boko Haram do not at all represent what Islam is about, I disagree that they are not Muslims. Especially if they have spent much or all of their lives as Muslims, and haven't just converted to join the fight. Which doesn't seem to be the pattern here. One of the biggest challenges is that this is so much more about poverty, human exploitation, sexism, fallout from colonialism, and fossil fuel power games than about religion. Many of the perpetrators were/are also victims of the elites in control of Boko Haram, and those dying and suffering from their actions are a cross section of Christians, Muslims, and folks with other backgrounds. Instead of saying they aren't Muslim, I ask "What drives these young Muslim men to join this group, and become murderers and oppressors? In addition to calls for this ending, how can we in the world community help diminish the likelihood of this happening again?

It may seem like semantics here, but I actually think it's crucial that these kinds of situations do not be treated as the actions of some small, evil "other." They are us, these folks who perpetrate the worst of atrocities in the name of whatever religion or philosophy they claim supports their actions. Nothing, however sacred and life-giving it may be, is beyond the realm of corruption and co-option. Owning up to this, and claiming the people who act so horribly as part of our communities, is the path towards peace and liberation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Zen Herbalism


Photo credit: schmitee from morguefile.com

Today's post comes from the blog for my new venture: NGTHerbals. Here is an excerpt.

Sometime in the middle of the 8th century, a Zen hermit living in China penned a now famous poem entitled "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage." It begins with the following lines:

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.

Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds."

Whenever I work with the plants, I try and remember these words. The relaxed attitude about it all. The lack of fixation on certain things having value. The surrender to the fact that no matter what, there are always weeds.

I try and remember, but more often than not I forget. Or loose track while I pick, pluck, and hack away, claiming the burdock roots for their liver health giving properties, while thrusting away the overgrown grape vines that have no clear use.

If we truly want to be healed by the plants, it's not enough to just covet those that will probably heal us. I'm convinced that to heal fully, we need to bow down to the mystery of it all.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Children, Families, and American Zen


Photo credit: rupertjefferies from morguefile.com

This morning, three of our high school students at zen center gave the dharma talk. Each of them grew up in the Youth Practice program we have, and are now preparing to take jukai along with the adult group this fall. It brought to mind this old post I wrote for Buddhist Geeks a few years ago that considered children and teens (or often the lack there of) in American convert Buddhist communities.

Here's one of the points I made in the post, an issue I feel my own sangha has gone to great strides to not fall into.

2. Uber-Individualism—Buddhists in the “West,” especially convert Buddhists, struggle with building long lasting, sustainable communities. Children and teens aren’t always welcome, let alone considered vital members of the sangha. But beyond Buddhism, community in general is quite challenged in places like the U.S. Whereas in the past, friends, neighbors, and community elders were all to some degree or another considered part of the extended parenting family, today for most children, these people are often viewed with suspicion. Teachers, spiritual leaders, and other community leaders are also viewed as much with suspicion as being potentially good influences on children. Now, certainly there are valid reasons for some of this suspicion, and I think it’s quite important for parents to be careful and minimize risks, but how much of the breakdown in community in general is due to obsession with the nuclear family, and an excessive focus on individuality?

Several years ago, I taught the 2nd and 3rd grade class in our program, and all three of the high schoolers that spoke today were in those classes with me. It speaks volumes that not only were they able to come before us this morning to offer what they have learned on the path, but also that we - the rest of the sangha - provided that space and sought to uphold them as we do our teachers.

Integrations like this haven't always been easy or smooth, but it's been worth it. We aren't the only ones doing this sort of thing, but it's still rare amongst convert communities.

I hope many other lay sanghas follow suit.

And Happy Mother's Day to you all!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lululemon, "Yogic" Reform, and First World Privilege



There's been a lot of talk amongst the online yoga blogging community about a recent panel discussion with the new leadership of the multinational yoga apparel corporation Lululemon. I've always seen Lululemon's prominence in the North American yoga world as a clear sign of how heavily capitalism has impacted yoga here. The fact that so many "yoga people" identify with this single company in some manner or another, says volumes, as does the reality that whatever moves the company has made in recent years attract copious amounts of attention from yoga practitioners (positive or critical) in ways that no other specific organization does.

One of the panelists, Carol Horton, wrote this response piece, in which she offered 4 possible reform directions the new leadership of Lululemon could take to become a more socially responsible corporation. And by extension, it seems to me, one that represents "yogic values" in the North American yoga community and beyond. Carol was one of the editors of 21st Century Yoga, a volume I wrote an essay for, and was happy to be a part of - and thankful for Carol and co-editor Roseanne Harvey's vision and work to make it a reality.

This particular post by Carol, though, with it's positivity about Lululemon's choice to participate in a discussion and also the possible solutions offered, just didn't sit well with me. In my first response, I wrote the following:

Carol, I can’t see what Lulu is doing as anything other than a PR repair campaign. As much as it would be nice to think that they actually intend to a beacon of change in the corporate world, the fact is that they’re still arranged in the traditional corporate manner, and are at the ultimate demand of their shareholders’ wishes. Being embedded within a global system that is, by design, about squeezing profits out of anything and everything in the world, these companies talk big, but never deliver precisely because they refuse to actually change how they are organized in the world. Using capitalist structures to transform capitalist created social problems isn’t gonna happen. The main reason Lulu was there, in my view, was to use you all as market research, so they can change just enough of what they’re doing to keep folks happy. To be honest, the very fact that the North American yoga community puts so much attention and energy towards a corporation, either to defend it or to get it to act more yogic, says volumes.

As far as your 4 visions, my gut sense is that I’d rather see corporations die off than become even more enmeshed as the hubs of our social action and activities. Take #4 for instance. Would a large corporation like Lulu be willing to support community efforts without needing to promote their brand, or use those efforts to market how “great” they are in the community? In other words, how likely is it that a sponsored yoga program in a lower income neighborhood, for example, would be string free, or mostly string free? Would they be willing to forgo the “look at us helping the poor people photos” and the piles of data collecting to “demonstrate” to the world how much “good” we’re doing? I’ve worked in non-profit settings on the other end of sponsored programs (corporate and foundation), and more often than not, there are so many strings attached that not only significantly limit what can happen on the ground, but also require that groups with limited financial means must hire people specifically to tackle all the busywork called for to help with maintaining the donor’s public image. At the end of the day, it’s less about truly giving, than being seen as “a giver” who “cares.” The only real way to change that dynamic is for these companies to do the work without any expectation of “being seen,” or being able to market or brand in any shape or form.

In response to several comments by different authors, including mine, Carol responded with this:

One thing that people need to think about is whether they care at all about the differences in how some corporations are run versus others. For example, does it matter to you that Costco is known for its relatively good labor practices, whereas Walmart is not? You can say it doesn’t matter because until the whole system is transformed, it’s all no good. But in the meantime, there are a lot of workers who care very much if they have a more or less decent wage, working conditions, etc.

Closer to the Lululemon issue, consider the difference between Patagonia and Lululemon when it comes to environmental and labor issues. Just from what’s available online, I’d say that Patagonia is far ahead. If consumer pressure could move Lululemon up to the point where Patagonia is, I would consider that quite worthwhile to support. Again, it’s not transforming neoliberalism etc., but, who among us has the power to do that? So there are some very pragmatic issues to consider here.

It seems like political views in the yoga community (at least as it shows up online) fall into three camps: 1) leftists who are very theoretical and dismissive of practical everyday issues as insufficient to effect enough change to matter, 2) libertarians who don’t believe in policies , regulation, labor standards etc. because individual choice and market forces are all that needed and legitimate, and 3) the vast majority who are deeply apolitical and don’t have the slightest interest in any of these issues. So the level of engagement that this Lululemon stuff demands falls through the cracks. There are just not a lot of people who want to engage with these questions in this community. Which is somewhat disappointing, but also understandable in many ways.

In closing, I’ll just add that from being involved in the development of the NY YJ conference event, it seems clear that it was an Off the Mat-driven development and that it was not engineered by Lululemon’s PR department. In fact, I was VERY surprised that they agreed to it. And, I think that it was a really good event if for no other reason than it set a precedent for being able to bring up issues such as the relationship between yoga advertising, body image, and identity, and the social location of yoga in our highly unequal society in a way that’s never been done before. So, I am appreciative of the fact that the company supported that – and that they’re willing to do more. It’s hard for me to see what’s really in it for them, and still think they may want to pull out of the future events.

Now, I think her 3 categories are fairly representative of the broader North American yoga world. Although she left out a forth one, which it seems to me might be the one that best fits where she's at right now. Here's what I'll offer in response.

First off, this post - partly a reply to yours - offers some of the reasons I'm skeptical of all this reform work around Lulu. In particular, consider these lines:

"I am concerned that Lululemon might be looking for their own marketing technique of “commodity activism” using OTM and the face of Corn to sell products to a yoga community, but might simultaneously be exploiting or marginalizing groups globally all under the comodification of social justice and community outreach, branding Lululemon as the apparel of “yoga activists.” Horton suggests that we all do our research on Lululemon and make up our own minds about their practices. What I found is that over 70% of the manufacturing of Lululemon is made in developing countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam – a large percentage of the workers being women and children, and Lulu is netting $340 million (2012) in annual revenue off the backs of women, children, and predominantly poor people of color. So, let’s say Lulu begins using more people of color in their marketing to attempt to make yoga look inclusive. On the surface, like the Nike commercial, one could argue that this is a good thing. But, there is too much of a hypocrisy for me if those same products being modeled by North American women are being manufactured through the exploitation of people of color in the global south. Even more dangerous, what if Lulu takes the suggestion offered by Horton in her 4th point, that their already existing ambassador and community outreach programs take more specific steps to work in communities that are at-risk or don’t have access to mainstream yoga studios? It would seem contradictory to me to have Lulu ambassadors in the global north going into at-risk communities teaching yoga (which also reminds me of some very dangerous versions of paternalistic volunteerism) when impoverished and exploited workers in the global south are working every day in dangerous conditions to make the clothes these teachers would likely be wearing."

Far, far too often what happens when corporations become involved in social justice issues is that they reinforce the dominant narratives, even when some people gain some material benefits. And in particular, Dr. Kauer's points about First World benefits at the expense of the Global South are very sobering, and also difficult to address under current corporate structures.

My main point is not to outright reject any effort to make corporate reforms like some of the things Costco has done. In fact, I readily support your first two reform points ("yoga body image" and labor/environmental standards). What I'm speaking to, though, is to recognize that even what they do is woefully incomplete, and that one of the targets people in the yoga world who really care about this is needs to be at the structures of corporations themselves. And be willing to include and uphold big picture, systemic change visions, even if they seem completely out of reach in out lifetimes.

We need to stop being naive enough to believe that a simple change in leadership in a multinational in the current system is going to bring about drastic transformation. Even if the new CEO really desires to make Lulu a truly beneficial social change agent, the very structures of corporations and our economic system as a whole place severe limits on that possibility. We also need to recognize that giving up the dreams of justice in favor of solely taking whatever table scraps the elite offers is really just a road to misery. Because the elite of tomorrow will still have the power to take away whatever the elite of today give the rest of us. Witness all the social programs and buffers that have been stripped away in the U.S. over the past 3 decades, with a similar pattern slowly unfolding in Canada under the Harper Administration.

The radical visions need to be part of the active effort picture, even when short term gains are being pushed for and made.

Since you've offered a 3 prong split description of the yoga community, I'll offer a two pronged one of the left activist world.

The first group are those who nearly always opt for the practical, doable, achievable, even if they know in their heart of hearts that sometimes this means betraying their deepest desires and intentions. Anyone who supports the Democratic Party on a regular basis falls into this category, but I've also witnessed this behavior amongst more radical leftists who reject the Dems, but will only involve themselves in issue campaigns with specific, short term goals and aims.

The second group are those who reject most or all reform efforts, and are only focused on long term, grand scale systemic change efforts. They'll join efforts to pressure specific politicians or corporations on specific issues, but for the most part, they view the current system as oppressive and non-redemptive. Some are also involved in creating "new society" on a small scale in their communities, while others are mostly battling against the current systems.

Now, I tend to fall into the second group, but I think this split needs to be bridged. Because as it is, we spend far too much time fighting each other and dismissing each others' frameworks as completely wrongheaded. When the reality is that we need both practical, achievable goals, and also radical, long term systemic change work. And the thinking and visioning around all of it needs to be much deeper, and much more daring and intelligent.

I'll be honest. I'm highly skeptical that a community like the North American yoga community (as it mostly stands) will make any major effort in the near term to move beyond essentially cheering on minor corporate and political reforms. Why do I say this? Because the the majority of "our" community are direct beneficiaries of neoliberalism and the colonialist mindset that created it. Which is why most can afford to be apolitical or loosely political (like voting during elections). And amongst those who are more politically active, the lure of pushing solely for reform-based outcomes is far too seductive. Because doing anything more would mean risking the social position and privilege they currently enjoy.

Notice how when significant efforts to enforce Native treaty rights and overturn settler-colonial patterns occur, for example, how the majority of "allies" suddenly become opponents. They'll support charity programs, education programs, affirmative action programs, etc., so long as none of it directly impacts their privileged status in any shape or form. Even something as simple as changing a racist sports team mascot name becomes a heated battleground uniting liberals and conservatives across the racial spectrum in an effort to keep their team's "traditions" alive.

Along those lines, it's fairly easy to see a company like Lulu making some reforms either as a result of direct pressure from yoga folks, and/or as a public relations campaign, and that will be that. Yoga folks will applaud their efforts, elevate them as a corporate beacon, and the bulk of the activism around the company will disappear. With those who seek to continue with more systemic efforts being dismissed or publicly shamed. It's already far too common to find the "don't be a downer, Lululemon is awesome" kind of responses amongst yoga folks.

Since this is already a long post, I'll end it here. I invite your comments and considerations.

*Photo of collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, in which over 1100 workers died, and over 2500 others were injured. Several prominent North American appear companies had clothing manufactured in this sweatshop. While Lululemon was not one of them, some of their products are manufactured by workers under similar conditions in Bangladesh.