Sunday, November 12, 2017

Back at the Gun Show

In case I forget to buy something.
I find myself in Texas this weekend.  I don't like to miss a chance to go to a swap meet of any variety, and of course, gun shows are a particularly rare variety.  Given the recent events in Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas I was curious how (or even if) things have changed since the last time I visited a gun show, which was last year, and put on by a different event manager in Dallas.  This one was at the Will Rogers Exhibition Center near the stockyards in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth's finest were at the door making sure everyone's firearms were unloaded.  I have to say, just as before, even though I was walking among tables after table after table of assault rifles and handguns, I fear no stray gunfire, because every gun has a brightly-colored zip-tie installed somewhere making it mechanically impossible to fire.

The assault rifles and paramilitary gear were especially plentiful, there were a number of vendors with long tables of various kinds of assault rifles interspersed with tactical (read: paramilitary) vests, holsters and carry-cases scattered throughout the show.  After all, it is the Christmas season.

In contrast, I saw relatively few hunting firearms, relatively little hunting camo, only a few hunting knives and little ammo appropriate for hunting.  It was far more populated by survivalist and paramilitary gear and supplies this year.

Bump-stocks were $200, but only one vendor was selling them who also, perhaps not coincidentally, was also the only vendor selling silencers, which were expensive and apparently require a ream of paperwork to purchase and own, which for a fee, they will handle for you "soup to nuts."  Also, the term "bump-stock" was nowhere to be found, they weren't actually labeled at all, except for the brand name, which in this case was "Slide-Fire."

The most striking change from my gun show visit in October 2016 was the utter dearth of political polemics.  There was no toilet paper with HRC's image, no "lock her up" t-shirts or bumper stickers.  The NRA was there, of course, but they were just signing up memberships, they did not have an array of vile polemic bumper stickers like I saw at their table last year.  However, they did have a mannequin dressed up in full paramilitary regalia, and it wasn't obvious if that was meant to sell anything other than they idea they were cool with that.

Of course, this isn't a political year, so it's understandable that the political stuff was gone, but I saw nothing with the word Trump (or MAGA) on it, no expressions of support for the administration in any form, just various standard expressions of support for veterans (this is the day after Veteran's Day, after all) and a few obtuse biblical citations mixed with God Save Our Country.

A 3x5 foot confederate flag was $10.  You could get a thick reference book about Confederate Officers (self-published) for $35.  Of course, everyone who had patches and stickers had a confederate flag version, expect one dark-skinned vendor of patches and stickers who just had military miscellanea amongst his selection.  I wonder if anyone else noticed this omission from his inventory.

I left with a leather belt hand-made by a vendor who makes western-style gun belts and holsters (think John Wayne), another magazine pouch to use as a cell-phone holster, a pocket knife, and a reference book for furniture makers.

I honestly get the feeling that the paramilitary gear and assault rifles were so prominent because there's a kind of unspoken subtext of fear that they are about to be heavily regulated, so if you want some buy it now.  Also, maybe it's just me, but I seem to have seen a lot of mixed-race couples at the show (not that common in Fort Worth) and a surprisingly large contingent of black women shopping together in small groups for handguns.

As unencumbered by stereotypes as I believe myself to be, it was still odd to see a middle-aged black woman discussing a 40 cal handgun with a white guy about my age. "Dah-ahmn," she said "this thing is big and heavy, but it feels good in my hands!" as she held it vaguely pointed in his direction.

I had to smile as I walked by.  I don't know why.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Mind At Home With Itself - by Byron Katie

This latest book from Byron Katie, founder of The Work, is a modern commentary on The Diamond Sutra, a central Buddhist scripture.  

The Diamond Sutra is so-called because the message cuts through anything standing in the way.  Diamonds cut anything.  The message of selflessness delivered by the Sutra, in the form of a conversation between the historical Buddha and one of his students, does in fact lay bare any concepts one might bring to bear.

Similarly, Katie conducts dialogs in the book, sometimes with students, sometimes with the co-author, her husband Stephen Mitchell.  Katie's teaching, The Work, intertwines with the Diamond Sutra as they point to the same understanding.  That understanding is not something that can be taught to another or explained, it can only be realized.  So, the book, like the Sutra, finds itself circling back on itself rhetorically.

This understanding, central to peace of mind, is the cultivation of a mind that abides nowhere.  The forgotten self, the itless it.  This is the Is in Loving What Is.  Words fail, yet words brought me to my understanding.

This book is a valuable addition to this genre of modern Dharma.  It's readable.  It's interesting, cogent and deeply human.  I think is a valuable addition to the tools available to do self-inquiry.

Dogen said to study the self is to forget the self.  He didn't mean that in a careless way, he meant that to study the self is to see that it doesn't exist.  Suffering depends upon the existence of a self.

This Diamond realization will cut through any trace of self, and all that is left once the self disappears is gratitude, generosity and wisdom.  The greatest gift you can give to the world is your own direct access to this.

The method, The Work, is deceptively simple.  Do not deceive yourself.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dear Jemele


You told the truth.  Donald Trump says and does the things that white supremacists say and do. The policies that he supports, and the people he appoints, further the goals of white supremacy, both the explicit goals and the more insidious implicit supremacy of the moderate white liberals which so frustrated MLK.  Trump's actions and speech regarding race relations and law enforcement are despicable.

For your personal well-being only, I recommend you turn your attention to one of Malcolm X's wisest utterances:

"Don't be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn't do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn't know what you know today."
I am not suggesting Trump be let off the hook, or that there's any value in holding out hope that he will change, I am suggesting you abandon the notion that any human being is beyond redemption.

This is the truest rejection of white supremacy.

I adore the person whom I imagine you are from watching you on television, listening to your podcast, and reading your prose.  I am as certain as I can be without actually having met you that we would be friends, good friends.

Being a truth-teller is a hard road.  It will cost you power, money, fame, comfort and relationships.  Thank you for walking it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dear Hillary.

So, now, you're is on a book tour, and doing the car wash through the various interview platforms, and we once again are visiting Bernie v. Hillary.  I would like to bring to everyone's attention the fact that this conflict was a Russian strategy for sowing political disharmony in this country.  Here we go again.

I expect Russia will deploy it's assets to influence the 2018 elections in much the same way as in 2016, just with lessons learned.  It's not illegal for the Russian government to employ Americans.  Americans can manipulate social media.  It's legal for Americans to have pro-Russian opinions.  All they need do is take a step back, and I'm sure they've already done this.  Now that Sputnik and RT operations in the US are unraveling they can shift resources to more sophisticated delivery vehicles.

The great flaw in the American system has been exposed.  We will find out if it is a fatal flaw.  We relied upon the fact that anyone elected President would be of good basic character and would know and believe in the fundamental ideas of our form of government.  We thought a liar would lose.  We thought someone demonstrating a lack of a high-school level of civic education could never get the confidence of the electorate.  We all assumed emotional boy-men would wash out early in the process.  I assumed that right up until November 9, 2016.

It turns out, if you can get someone elected who is unprepared in every way, bereft of admirable character and emotionally childish the government is sufficiently self-correcting to grind to a halt, but it isn't quite up to the task of compelling people in power to give up that power to eject a problem chief executive.  There's no way to force Paul Ryan to live up to his sworn duty, he has to choose to do so.

Go ahead, Hillary.  Get the animus out of your system, it does make for good TV, and gets eyeballs on the book, but you don't need it.  Everyone who is going to buy a copy of this book already knows that right now.  I know this one isn't really your fault, but keep the volume low.  It's not important.

Bernie didn't support you because of what he believes.  He puts his beliefs ahead of everything in public life.  You didn't lose because of Bernie, or for a lack of Bernie.  You know that, you say it yourself.  He is who he is, just as you are who you are. 

I supported Bernie because we believe the same things.  You and I are close enough to work together on shared goals, but we don't believe the same things.  I am very grateful for your service to my country.  You were an excellent US Senator for my state during a very difficult time.  You served faithfully as Secretary of State, I simply don't know enough about foreign policy to say you did, or did not, do a good job.  I know you worked hard.

Thank you for that.  Also, thank you for doing the audio narration of the recorded version of your book.  The tone and inflection of an author's voice is very helpful for this kind of memoir.  I really appreciate that.

Be well.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Senator Sasse regularly reminds people that he has among the most conservative voting records in the US Senate.  I take his word for it.  Before coming to the Senate, he turned around a Liberal Arts college in Nebraska (Midland) as it's President.  It is largely his pleasure with that success that seems to motivate this ambitious and admirable book.

I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by the author, so I had the additional benefit of the inflection of his voice to imbue his writing with meaning.  He is sincere about his opinions.  I agree with many of those expressed in this book, particularly those about what builds character in adolescents.  In fact, early in this book I was cheering for it's success, making lists of friends with young children who I wanted to send it to.

He fails while he knows that he is failing.  He makes frequent mention of the need for lifelong learning, the need to constantly question one's own beliefs, and that's precisely what this book needs when he gets to theories of government and social order.  As he details his canon of great works that form the basis of a commonwealth of intellectual territory for a society there is a complete lack of scripture or literature from the East.

He continues, with sincerity, as if the only religious thought that matters is Abrahamism, turning a blind eye to the simple majority of the world's people, ignoring India, China, Africa and the non-Muslim portion of the Pacific Rim.  They simply don't merit mention, not even as his own unexplored territory.  He seems to believe these wells of human wisdom simply have nothing to offer.

So, this is when his narrative becomes cringeworthy, as he paints "socialism," a word he seems to spit out like bad fish, as a close relative of fascism, and counts some millions of lives which were ended by it.  By the same logic, one could argue that the "abolitionism" in this country slaughtered 620,000 of our nation's citizenry, and countless slaves, in the four short years that it held our nation's attention.

I was very sad, because I wanted to like this book, which he seems to have wanted to keep free of partisan polemics, become torpedoed by a myopic social analysis.  His view is mostly disabled by his lack of exposure to works like the Bhagavad Gita, The Tao Te Ching, Confucius, Sufi poetry and the like.  He is myopically Western and seems to have unwittingly bought in a kind of Abrahamic echo chamber, something he explicitly warns against in this very book.

Nevertheless, had he run in 2016, I would have voted for him over Hillary Clinton, even though HIllary and I are far more sympatico on policy.  The people of Nebraska are lucky to have him, and the country is lucky to have his level-headed conservative voice in the Senate.

As a Democratic Socialist, I *know* I have things to learn from Republican Conservatives.  I do not hold their philosophical notions directly responsible for the awful policy they sometimes produce.  Imperfect human beings make policy, one can take a perfectly good idea and execute it with greed, ignorance and ill-will.

I wish Senator Sasse promoted the idea that he is in possession of similar self-doubt.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Forgiveness at Kripalu with Byron Katie - Day 5

I wrote down eighteen things that Byron Katie said.  I did this whenever something rang particularly true or insightful for me.  As I review this list back in my apartment and far from the wonderland that is Kripalu I find a few of them I want to share with you as I close this series of posts about this experience.
"Victims are violent people."
This is deeply, truly, insightful.  Sit with it a bit, I think you can find your own explanation (if one is needed).  Be mindful when relying upon those who believe a story of victimhood.
"It is not done until it is done, and until it's done it's a thing."
This would make an excellent song lyric.  What this goes to is self-doubt, that is, trying to decide if you still have work to do on something you believe.  Katie gives an example from her own life when she demonstrates the work.  She has been over and over and over and over and over this situation.  She really seems to have long forgiven the person involved when she discusses it in retrospect.

Yet, she told us that every time she uses it as an example, going back to her thoughts about this situation in her mind as she works the process, she learns something new about herself.  We all witnessed her having a new personal revelation about this situation during this event.

Her story concerns events in her life that happened decades ago, I am avoiding going into details here because she requests that public sharing of information about what happens during the events be minimal (a boundary I may have already strayed across in earlier essays, before I knew it was there, but oh well), but I did witness a genuinely new self-revelation on her part during her demonstrations of the work using this example.

So, it's still a thing for her, even after putting the situation through this process countless times.  It's not done.

You know when something is done.  Trust the quiet and gentle voice which tell will tell you so.
"I don't trust this mind, but I trust what comes up for me when I sit in silence."
This was a personal revelation for me.  I don't trust my mind, I don't actually have a lot of confidence in my opinion about most things.  I long ago recognized that I am pulled to believe something is true with far too little evidence that it is actually true.

I came to the event knowing that.  I didn't know what to do instead.  How do I find my wisdom if I can't trust what I think?  This quote is important guidance.

Ask an experienced meditator and they will probably confess that one of the unexpected benefits of meditation practice is that things will occur to you as you quiet your mind which otherwise aren't being heard over the monkey-mind chatter the rest of the day.  For me, these are most often things that I have forgotten about, or need to attend to.

Now I see that I don't necessarily need to be in a quiet room staring at a wall to access this well of wisdom within me.  As with most things, I just need to get out of my own way here, quiet my mind for a bit, and let things happen.  This is very helpful to me.
Student: "I love you!"
Katie: "I love that this is happening for you!"
The room erupted in laughter when she delivered this line, but it wasn't derisive or shaming laughter, and the student laughed heartily along with us.  It's a great response to this situation of having someone say these three words, which mean something different to everyone who uses them, when one can't genuinely reply the same (perhaps because the words mean something different) way.  I have found myself in this quandary from time to time.

She responding from a genuine and truthful place, that's the answer.  I don't what specific words I will use the next time I am faced with this quandary, but I do know how I will respond.

At the close of the time I spent working with Katie one-on-one, she said "It was really a privilege to do the work with you." She kissed my cheek and gently held me for a bit.  I felt loved in that moment, but I think if she told me the same three words she tells her grandchildren our exchange would not have felt as genuine.

I responded the same way. "It was a privilege working with you, thank you."  I felt as if I was the most important person in the room when she worked with me.  I don't mean I was high on some idea, we were strangers to each other.  I mean I had her attention, she was listening to me, she was thinking about what I said, and her responses were carefully considered,

When working with the entire group, there were several occasions when she seemed to not hear a question and instead talk about something else she had on her mind as a response.  In one case, even after several tries, she didn't really answer a question, and when she moved on she thanked the student for the patience shown to her.  It seemed to me that she understood she wasn't understanding and accepted that as the reality in that moment.

I understood what the student was really asking, and it was a question I had as well.  I think I wasn't the only person in the room who felt that way, because when the student described being confused by her answer the entire room erupted in laughter.  We were all confused!

Katie is beautifully human.  She doesn't always get it right.  I noticed that I trusted her a little more because of the way she was as she never heard this student's question.  Even when she missed something, she did it in a genuine and human fashion and I felt closer to her because of it.  That surprised me.  I'm taking that as a lesson for myself.

On this final day we did exercises specifically targeted at forgiveness, and she made very effective use of music during the session.  Very popular songs were used, you've heard them many times, so have I.  Beyond that, I have studied these songs as a singer and guitarist attempting to add them to my repertoire.    I know these songs, I have heard them over and over for decades.  They are chart-toppers, iconic cultural touchstones.

I never heard them the way I heard them today, and that was because of her timing and context for using them.  That surprised me.

I left this event a different man than the one who arrived for it.  Thank you for reading about my experience.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Forgiveness at Kripalu with Byron Katie - Day 4

Sorry for the poor quality of the edited photo, but I was moved to give of a glimpse of what this all looks like.  We are in a hall that resembles a church chapel, Byron Katie is on the stage in a chair, wearing a microphone, and there's a live CC camera on her which projects a larger image on that screen behind her.

I sit near the back because the front of the room is all people sitting on the floor on cushions.   I sat that way for meditation practice for years and I never really found how to do that for much more than twenty minutes without having circulation problems in my lower legs.

Fortunately, zen practice is rarely longer than 40 minutes without having an opportunity to stand, so I made it work for a few years, but I finally gave up and sit meditation in a chair.  Since we are sitting for three hours at a time for this work, I sit in a chair.

Katie Byron has an iPad on the table next to her, and there's a person off to the side in the room taking dictation for her so she can refer to what people said as she lectures.  Much of the work is going over simple declarative statements made at the beginning of the process.  I have found, along with everyone else, that as you progress through this process it is very hard to remember these seed sentences.  Apparently, that fact doesn't improve with practice, she needs notes.

It's clear now that she is following a structured curriculum, but she does it in a way that it seems like she is just in dialog with the audience.  There are two or three people running around with microphones, and the protocol is to raise your hand, be recognized, stand and wait for someone to hand you a microphone before you say anything.

Her teaching style is Socratic.  She opens each session with an invitation for questions.  She seems to trust that the questions will lead to the items she has on the curriculum and it seems to work.  Today we really focused on forgiveness specifically.  She "lectures" in this way for about half of the three hour session then she asks everyone to pair up with a partner for the work for the other half of the session.

The first day we paired up by just turning to people close by.  As the program has progressed, she began to intentionally pair people who feel more experienced with people who feel less experienced.  She invites the people who regard themselves as experienced to stand and then she invites the people who regard themselves as less experienced to point to someone standing.  She has also done this in reverse, that is, having people who feel less experienced stand and ask the more experienced to point to them.

Sometimes this means I got paired with someone right next to me, other times it meant I got paired with someone across the room.  I am one of those who regard myself as more experienced, but really the experience I am drawing upon is as a meditator, as a psychotherapy client, and finally from the hours and hours of experience I have had listening to her doing the work with others on podcasts.

Meditation is the most important of those skills.  Why?  Because a quiet mind (and being able to recognize a quiet mind in others) is almost essential to getting anywhere with the work.  Ten years of zen practice have taught me to sit still, including cultivation of a (relatively) still mind.  In the work, one must be able to sit still with a horrifying thought like "I wanted my husband to hit me."

Just as with meditation practice, sitting with a thought doesn't mean I agree with it or approve of it.  I don't agree with everyone in my Buddhist sangha, for example, I can still sit in meditation with a Trump supporter, for example, while otherwise wanting to strangle their stupid little neck.  So I can sit with a thought like "I wanted my parents to be unfair" without believing or accepting that it's true.

This is what I am finding is my most valuable new skill.  I've learned that "trying on" thoughts is like trying on shoes.  One can't really know that a shoe fits by looking at it.  One has to put it on and walk around a bit before knowing if it fits.  Similarly. one can't really know if there's any valuable information in a thought if one outright, prima facie, rejects it.  One has to be with it like I can be with a Trump supporter in the zendo.  Give it space to exist in an open mind for a bit of time and trust that realization of any useful information in it will arise (or not) on it's own.  If there's nothing there, on to the next thought, just like you move on from trying on shoes that don't fit.

This process demands stillness and I feel that I have a significant advantage over people who do not meditate because stilling my mind is routine for me.  I do it every day.  I have a lot of practice.  I can bring my mind to stillness whether I'm excited, upset, sleepy, distracted, or in an unfamiliar environment.  I almost feel as if people should have some experience with meditation before attempting the work, but clearly there are many who don't and do fine.

The work IS a kind of focused meditation, but you will have to take my word for that (or read up on it in Byron Katie's books or website) because I'm not sure how to explain it beyond this.

I had two different partners today, but unlike yesterday, neither of them internationally known spiritual teachers.  The morning person was less experienced than the evening person, but both sessions were really, really significant and powerful for me and for my partners.  Today, I came to terms with an issue I have been struggling with for 27 years, too personal to blog about, but I will be taking action on this problem on Friday morning, my first chance to do so.  I now know exactly what I want to do, why, and why I haven't done anything about this for the last 27 years.

No kidding.

The other issue concerned a very troublesome resentment connected to my professional life I have harbored like favored child for about five years.  I also have a plan to deal with it (and the person connected to it) head on, but that will have to wait until I get back to work on Monday.

I will be leaving Kripalu tomorrow a different man than I was when I arrived.

My afternoon partner and I had a long discussion about how to discuss this event with others.  We both agree that the descriptions that come to mind sound tired and cliche':  "I changed my life.  My thinking has been completely transformed.  This is the most amazing thing I have ever done" etc.  Ack, gag me with a spoon.  No one's going to hear things that sound like promotional blurbs for a multi-level marketing seminar.

But, that's the truth, so we decided we just have to live with it.  Personally, I'm just only going to discuss it in detail with people who genuinely ask (or people who click to read this blog).  Casual inquires will be met with casual responses like "I had a great time.  I found it very valuable.  I learned a lot."  All true, but those statements utterly fail to adequately describe what happened to me.

One thing that truly, deeply shocks me is that this event has caused me to once again consider termination of psychotherapy.  About three years ago I put the question on the table for myself and seriously contemplated it.  I no longer have the symptoms I began therapy to address (compulsive overeating).  I am no longer dangerously undermining my life with unexamined habits.  My therapist and I have long acknowledged that I don't "need" therapy.

I chose to continue therapy beyond that point because I find value in my relationship with my therapist.  She knows me very, very well.  Her advice is consistently on-point.  I can rely on her to listen to me and tell me what she honestly thinks, particularly if she thinks I will find her input hard to hear.  She is quite knowledgeable and experienced in both listening and giving advice.  She is sincerely interested in my life and my desire for self-knowledge.

Most importantly, I know that if I get seriously confused or in trouble with something going on my life someday that she will be helpful.  I was afraid that if I let her go I would someday again face something I can't handle alone.  She is a reliable partner in my life-long journey of self-discovery.

But, I recognize that two of the breakthroughs I had in the last two days concern issues that I have been stuck on in therapy for many, many years.  I'm not sure how, and perhaps I will finish up with her by exploring this, but we've made relatively little progress on these two issues despite affirmatively working on them for years.  This suggests that she may be colluding with me on keeping me stuck, which also keeps me in therapy.

I don't mean to suggest she has that motive, not at all.  I expect when I share the events of this week with her she will be completely supportive once she recognizes that all this is genuine.  However, I used to be afraid that I might not be able to handle something in the future (presently unknown) if my therapist wasn't available.

No more.  I am now fearless in that regard.  That's absolutely incredible, one of those things for which I can't find adequate words to describe.

I don't have all my answers, I have not handled everything that bothers me, but I have a practice now.  I have a way to understand myself, and the fear of giving up my psychotherapist has vanished.  Poof!  I didn't even really realize it was there until it was gone.  Since it was precisely that fear that kept me in therapy, I am again considering termination of it.

That is 100% utterly and completely unexpected.  I did not even have that issue on my mind, in fact, I believed the opposite.  I believed that was a solidly closed question.  No longer.  I don't know what I'm going to do, but before I got here, the issue was closed for me, i.e., as long as I can afford psychotherapy, I would unquestioningly continue to do it.

Now, that seems disingenuous, not an authentic reflection of who I am.