30 December 2008

Of Prophets and Swindled Trees

re. what the gypsy said
...sometimes right, sometimes just
another path, another lesson:

the moss-laced branches, twisting
gently, pointing here and there
to this or that connection:

their information is valid, like this
communication from plants, from
nature through molecular media:

telling and showing a greater connection
of all, even the parts not visible
in this or that scene, remember:

now, when even the ice-wracked
scrubby trees are bowed down and bound
into the snow-heavy ground:

with a stark still beauty in the clear
passing light and sky-rippling black
pools of water, knowing:

that all paths turn back to the one
round wholeness, all scattered and wound
again into a whirling wonder

21 December 2008

New Year's Mantra

It's all practice
It's all performance
Every moment

03 December 2008

Bass Nectar Review

Raw power replaced finesse at times, but it wasn't all jump 'n pump. The audience cheered as loud when the beats were sick and twisted. The opening chords, if you could call them that, shook the floorboards and the air itself, never mind all the cells of the seven chakras at least …

Towards the end the drunk young guys outnumbered the gyrating young girlies by about 2 to 1, and you contacted sticky flesh from every direction. The intimacies grew in fervor while the layers peeled away. We were almost throbbing as one.

You said hello to the few hard-core celebrants you'd met on Friday at the Sunset Room, but there wasn't room for many words in that space of mega-vibrations, rippling whatever parts of your clothing weren't by now stuck to your own flesh or someone else's, or lying in a heap in a forgotten corner of the room, over by where you set the last third of your grapefruit juice before the staff removed it in a likely ploy to get you to buy another.

They say the ticket prices are so high there ($27) because everyone's on E and not buying alcohol. What do you expect from the T-generation? Sex, drugs, r&r. Just like yer own yout'. Walking past the high school last week just after the bell, your faithful snitch overheard two snatches of conversation: "… the muscles of her vagina …" and "… sixty hits of acid." The third would-be conversation was replaced by a guy (or was it a girl?) with earphones plugged in, supplying the rock.

Where was I? Oh, right: think Rock n' Roll on Steroids … Big Beat, Sick and Twisted … Way Below the Baseline.

23 November 2008

Tabla and Sarod

This ecstasy just won’t go away. In fact it’s building, building on itself and everything that has gone before. It is the coming of synchronicity as the norm, where you can’t get away from the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, no matter what you do or don’t do; yet in responding to the currents around you and within you naturally, like the 95% improvised classical Indian music concert tonight with tabla and sarod, you find that all choices are right, and the flow has carried you over 24 hours and more to your friend on the boat to give him the final push of recognition and acknowledgement of his own true genius, and in being there you recognize also the beauty of the bubble of the boat and its presence in the real world, i.e., the ocean ... and not only that but realizing that better than a swim in an artificial pool back in the city is a detour on the way home, to the summer swimming church where even today in late November the parking lot above the trail is full, and down by the water the sunny bluffs are taken with people sitting in homage, and there you find your spot before the shimmering silvery wavelets, and the luminous green moss, and the living rocks, and find your peace and stillness and knowing and oneness in presence of all this, and still it continues back up the trail on an ankle now suddenly free and healed, winged at heel ... on to town just in time for group practice, where again the immersion in music and waves has given you that frequency to hold, and it’s so big and so deep that everything is allowed, accepted into it, yet it’s also tight and focussed and dedicated enough to dance with clear measure in concert with the others, and of course now without effort, but simply attention and more knowing, and with that - but not too much - your eyes can close again for a moment and you can drift with it where it wants to go, and it drifts you where you want to go, which is everything in that ongoing flow ... so to the university where you zone out and refresh for ten minutes and then go to greet your friends there waiting, not only the two you were expecting but a handful more, and all saying midway between sets that we should have known to bring our other friends there, to share in that moment of joined creation.

Nothing New Under the Sun: A Musical Mystery Tour

22 November 2008

Relationship, Emotion, and Spiritual Practice

In the moment, this is spiritual practice. That is, it can be if I let it, if I intend so. It can be also relationship if you let it, if you receive this intention. In the moment there is no emotion but the moment of breathing. Are you at war with feeling? No, if you listen to the body. The body tells you what it needs. Really what it needs is relaxed breathing - fast, for exercise, or slow, for meditation. In relationship, there is also a matching of breath, a harmonizing of intention, a lifting of awareness from the single body to the dual body, to the all-body of love still greater than one or two.Still, your focus begins with one. One love, inside, from inside, healing first the wholeness of self, freeing the feelings of past hurt and success to flow into and out of present time through the breathing body, the very form of time. Did I say “healing success”? Yes, if success is the wound that takes a toll through stress and imbalance, compromising health for one-dimensional rewards. Pride used to be called a sin. Was that just church propaganda? It’s really just logic when the body’s inevitable demise is accounted for. The fall of pride is simply inescapable reality. Therefore to remain within the boundary of pride is to hide in denial. On the other hand a balance of pride and humility is only natural: a reflection of life’s urgency for full potential while the time is ripe.You come back to present feeling. Are you feeling lonely, unwanted, weak, depressed? These are all conditional, and can be breathed away into the past from which they originated, or the future which is so feared or misunderstood. Are you feeling gladness and joy, anticipation and relief? Fine, while realizing also that these things if dependent on temporary causes, will pass away with the changing winds of time. If rather independent, or arising from life itself - gladness for the fresh breeze off the ocean, joy at seeing friends in a few minutes, anticipation over the promise tomorrow holds, relief in the overcoming of obstacles - these feelings are not yours because of personal circumstances, but rather scents of life itself, lent to you for the savoring.The practice is the remembering, or the means of remembering, that there is more to life than your present feelings and preoccupations. Beyond your current emotional state is communion with others, sharing and harmonizing feelings you all have; and beyond and below this ground of relationship is the ground of being itself, which connects each of you not only to each other, but also to your more central self, the body breathing free, the soul liberated to larger life and the emotion of such liberation.

21 November 2008

Personal and Transpersonal Emotions

Just after midnight. This journalist's deadline is extended, as you have come to expect from someone riding other waves and journeys. In this installment the issue of feelings arises. And I am here not just to do the usual tapdance around the subject with fine-sounding phrases.
Actually as I write I must say the urge to accomplish too fat birds with one stone - the expression of feelings and wider publication - forms a dual purpose with power: as I rise to the occasion with strength and inspiration. But then in the next breath I relax into the winter sleep, forgetting your presence on my doorstep. Have I not yet invited you in? When you say How are you, how am I (feeling, that is ...)?
At the moment I can identify ...
neutral ... but that's a cop-out.
sad ... but that's really just tired.
inspired ... by pipe dreams.
empowered ... but that's an illusion of egocentric politics.
content ... but that was earlier this evening.
happy ... depends how you define it.
I come back as I once did long ago to a kind of Buddhist understanding that most human emotions (start with the powerful ones like fear, greed, love, and joy) are usually attached to our desires and aversions; these distract us from truer, more lasting states of tranquility, which are available to us through spiritual practice and awareness.
On the other hand, Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart) came along when I needed her most, after a sudden marriage breakup, teaching me to make the best use of those emotions that were arising in that situation.
Back to present time: I'm skirting again - after even contradicting those emotions I so briefly affirmed. But here I am at least expressing. And if the flow of words is heady and ungrounded, so be the nature of my feeling, as it grows in power again at the very pace of thought and the music of the words playing their way on to the page.
It's kind of like blues vs. jazz -- with blues representing the more raw and direct expression of those human feelings most arising from attachment, and the jazz evolution finding, as it were, new kinds of emotion in the sheer possibilities allowed by freedom and transcendent form. Think B. B. King compared to John Coltrane or Miles Davis.
Besides, it's not me that is the subject of your interest; it's sharing concern about those things that move me. Politics? Well, there's your rage (my rage, actually). If I express that . . . ranting doesn't carry anyone very far. So I have to transform it, into research and networking, to the extent I can act on it all all. Otherwise there is denial; and distraction by myriad masks; yet I still give Buddhism top marks for putting it all in larger, all-embracing perspective.
Personal emotion has again to do with attachment, yet it is very real. For me to express such with you, however, when we have no intimate personal connection, would be inappropriate: it would be the one-sided rant, or like reading over the shoulder someone else's gushing report from summer camp. Or I could portray it (channel it, you might say, from my own experience as well as others') in the form of fiction, drama, or lest I forget, poetry (the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility --Wordsworth).
I guess I'll have to leave it at that for now, to catch some of the latter.
[later ...]
What Wordsworth expressed in his poetry were the kind of feelings I would call transpersonal: those feelings of communion with nature and with people who live as integral parts of the natural fabric. And in music, again (which is a form of natural energy) it is possible to access states of feeling that are beyond the realm of simply personal experience. In fact I would say that it is only when we are free from the grip of personal emotions such as lust and affection or anger and jealously, that we can be open enough to receive the transpersonal emotions such as compassion or righteous indignation (think Jesus vs. the moneylenders, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or more recently, Congressman Dennis Kucinich with his fiery speech to the 2008 Democratic Convention, "Wake up America"
You could say that a great blues artist such as B. B. King also is able to transcend the personal and tap into universal human emotions. In such a case it might be true that the impulse for a song comes from or is enriched by the depth of personal experience, yet in the performance of art that personal feeling is raised to a higher power by the power of music itself, by the invocation of a spirit of communion between artist and audience and also between nature and art. The joy we feel in the presence of a waterfall or crystal stream, or even red-leaf maple dewed with sun-jewels along a city sidewalk, surely transcends whatever issues and emotions we are facing in our personal lives. Such a transpersonal emotion is not an abstraction, however; it is the very essence of our feeling to be alive.

18 November 2008

Second Person Singular

Three Personal Readings seeded by the Mayan OraclePolarity: the fullness of ideas, plans, projects and projections, under natural influence; vs. the simple emptiness of reality, unclouded ... unecstatic except by a finer more subtle clarity, and moved deeper not by karmic fear but by opening to the way it is.On the side of the Dreamer and the Dreamed, you come to the knowing that this is a horizontal evolution, the single phase gathering charge to a series of sparks to come, a dreaming into play by dreaming your way full of your way, and yet empty. When this polarity is complete, and the fullness and the emptiness dance in clear union, within as without, the union is whole and thus ready for re-union with another such whole. Otherwise the imbalanced fullness/emptiness, whether too vain or too humble, too busy or too lazy, too pushy or too laid-back, presents a flawed match to another except by complementary co-dependence - where each seeks the primary union still and tries to fit the other into it. In the balanced re-union of two whole, internally balanced unions, is a higher order of duality dancing together.The above model might be criticized, however, as idealistically androgenous. A person with yin and yang 50/50 is perhaps not likely going to be as sexy as one who is “all man” or “all woman.” Yet maybe gender attraction doesn’t depend on a balance of fullness/emptiness, which has more to do with the spiritual side of yang/yin than the erotic side. What we might idealize is a partnership of two spiritually balanced, ego-neutral individuals who nevertheless are attracted to complementary physical and personality traits in one another.-----------------While you grow and balance and gather charge in this phase of singlehood, you recollect that you also received gifts and lessons along the way of previous phases of relationship, and in each case came to an end of the positive learning environment. Maybe it goes back to the problems above, regarding imperfect unions, the flawed attempt to complete with another what is not yet complete in oneself. In any case the experimental union finally dissolved or fractured, or you might say became transformed, in a kind of quantum leap to the next level of learning, in the next relationship or phase of singlehood.How is it assumed that the “jump” to the next classroom is vertical and not just through the garden gate, so to speak? And what is to say that we are moving at all? Maybe it is simply a succession of experiences and people coming to us, to cohabit the world we call ours.Again, in either case, I believe the learning is cumulative. We do repeat mistakes, and develop strange habits of bouncing between the same kinds of obstacles or kinds of mismatch, if we are slow learners who do not reflect and choose otherwise. Eventually we get what it is we need to survive each step, each test, each challenge and opportunity. Or we don’t survive, and that brings us to a whole new territory.Again, you might say this life has been just another larger phase, and after a time of grieving, and taking stock, and then paying dues or taking a vacation, you might try your luck again. Maybe as the other gender this time . . .--------------------------Between the polarity and the dreaming, when the stillness has cleared and the dreamer and the dream are one, shines the nurturing grace of Imix, the divine chalice and holy grail, the all-embracing Source. She doesn’t require these conditions of balance and equilibrium to offer her love and forgiveness. She gave life and she will receive it back again, without prejudice.So let polarity flash through the night; let the dreamers have their dream awhile. You will find your way home one day, dead or alive. Or she will come to you . . . if you are not too vain, busy, or pushy; too humble, lazy, or laid-back to receive her.--more second person singular--

11 November 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bank

... I fell into the trap set for me by the baby-boom sharks. They didn't really want me and My Generation to gobble up all that fat money in our growing pensions. No, sir. Better to prevent that sort of wealth-sharing before it gets really expensive. Blame it on the folks who couldn't pay their mortgages. Nip it in the bud, with a coy devaluation scheme called, "The Big Bank Bailout."...
"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered." - Thomas Jefferson, 1802

09 November 2008

From Savior to Same-Old

That didn’t last long . . .

It is a cruel irony that Obama’s first act, after the most uplifting progressive victory in America’s history, was to appoint as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Israeli citizen and currently “a super-Likudnik hawk, whose father was in the fascist Irgun in the late Forties, responsible for cold-blooded massacres of Palestinians....He favored the war in Iraq, and when he was chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 he made great efforts to knock out antiwar Democratic candidates” (source). "A further contemptuous message is widely rumored to be forthcoming -- the naming as 'Special Envoy for Middle East Peace' of Dennis Ross, the notorious Israel-Firster who, throughout the 12 years of the Bush the First and Clinton administrations, ensured that American policy toward the Palestinians did not deviate one millimeter from Israeli policy" (source).

Of course it has been tempting to overlook or pretend we didn't hear Obama repeatedly pledge unconditional support of Israel, increased war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a hard line towards Iran. Yes, the election was a massive victory for hope. But now it appears we were all being played to support an ongoing imperial agenda that persists in lionizing Israel and demonizing independent interests in the Middle East, all for the greater cause of controlling oil in the region.

... not to mention the even bigger picture of conflict with Russia and China - watch "The Men Behind Obama."

06 November 2008


Love means going slower
not just doing it for fun

or profit but for something

and then, not getting stuck in
that well either

but being in earth, of earth,
for earth

and her people. I would tell
the officer of death, “Breathe.”

Because not breathing
we all forget and get lost

in the shuffle of deck chairs
the stuff of conventional politics

and if rescued by pirates,
forgetting to breathe again

even after the rape,
even when there is nothing

left but slavery
we hope that in 144 years

we can be president

05 November 2008

Empire and Democracy

Now the challenge is to become the real democracy in the world that US leaders have been crowing about for decades while overthrowing democracies as a matter of policy, if they didn’t like their stance on business. At home the US government has developed the Orwellian face, offering one-way communication to its congress with threats and to its citizens through corporate media monopoly; squandering lives by the thousands and the treasury wholesale while calling war “liberation” and occupation “freedom”; and orchestrating the rape of the natural and monetary wealth of other nations around the world.

How strange it will be now to suddenly broadcast to the world hope instead of fear, good sense instead of subtrefuge, brave intelligence instead of willful ignorance. This “Barack Revolution” will surely give other global powers pause. Will this emperor effectively turn his country from a rapacious bogeyman to a humane republic? That might be too much to ask of a country founded and weaned on conquest, genocide, and slavery. Yet the magnitude of today’s leap from slavery conveys at least an awakening of a people to outward embrace, beyond narrow bounds of race, color, creed or even, we might imagine, nationality. Is America, so quickly united, so quickly ready also to open its arms to the diversity watching with cautious optimism from beyond its borders?

What message does this triumph of democracy and equality convey? Can it still be converted into a slick slogan for continued imperial expansion? Unlikely now, since the medium is the message, and the medium of this election victory proved something new in recent American politics: that the people sufficiently aroused to care will amount to a greater force than all the president’s men and henchmen - even those with two stolen elections already in their pocket who were gamely banking on just one more.

That glum force of resistant conservatism, of course, is the first and ultimate obstacle to true global friendship in democracy, because they want no part of it still. In fact they’re probably more scared and distrustful than ever. And I can hardly blame them. Because after all, now the other “bad guys” out there (there must be some, perhaps not even trained or labeled that way by BushCo) will be wondering, “Okay, if America now goes, like, truly democratic, what kind of message does that send to the people that we want to keep down in our own situation?” I’m no foreign policy expert (think Sarah Palin) but Saudi Arabia and China come to mind.

Of course this whole ironic reversal of roles in the world vis a vis authoritarian rule vs. true democracy presupposes one important thing: a disengagement from the interlocking corporate interests which have all but taken over government to this point, at least in America and its client states. Even the supposedly independent states like Thailand or Nigeria have their own versions of this corruption of power by the heavily vested wealth of business interests. In America it has reached an extreme marriage of convenience and of contrivance, to the point that only a massive electoral mandate as we have just witnessed might rise to the occasion to start undoing these undemocratic bonds.

For America the addict of power and wealth, illusion and denial, it is a long road to recovery. Let us rejoice in the first step.

See also: An Open Letter to the Democratic Party after September 11

Alternative News - sources, articles, reviews, recommended links

07 October 2008

The Coup Has Taken Place in America

Breaking News, October 2008: The Coup Has Taken Place in Americavideo interview with Naomi Wolf

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier - just so long as I'm the dictator." -- George W. Bush


US Martial Law threatened, declared in Congress

The Battle Plan II: Sarah 'Evita' Palin, the Muse of the Coming Police State--by Naomi Wolf

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. - No Free Press, No Free Elections

The Bush Doctrine & The 9/11 Commission Report:Both Authored by Philip Zelikow - by David Ray Griffin

Comic Relief: The VP Debate Goes Saturday Night Live

Surviving Democracy: Reviewing Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine - by Stephen Lendman

Why Has John McCain Blocked Info on MIAs?- by Sydney H. Schanberg, The Nation

Zeitgeist: Addendum - released October 2, 2008

03 May 2008

Bringing it Home

Miksang and More ...

When I have returned back home from winter travels to exotic lands, usually the camera goes back in the closet, and my journalistic streak goes into a prolonged funk. Without fresh inspiration from the outer world, what can the inner creative spirit latch onto?

In past years I solved the journal dilemma by simply putting in the time as a daily discipline. Filling the space with words ... which afterwards I could edit and prune, hoping to glean a rose (or tulip) among the briars. A more direct approach is to be sparse from the point of intention, as with haiku.

In this enterprise I begin - as it is said in the Buddhist art of Miksang photography - to create more space between and among the forms, thus breathing into and from the emptiness ... letting the fullness of life flow like water and air among the earth and fire of daily effort.

Taking pictures in Beacon Hill Park, during an outdoor photography workshop in the Miksang (“good eye”) approach to “Dharma art” (as taught by Chogyam Trungpa, and in this case by Charles Blackhall) I felt as if on holiday here in the natural heart of my own city, “wandering aimlessly” through the park, along the beach, around Cook St. Village.

Following that amble through the passing paradise of the “backyard” moment on a classic spring day, my camera is back in the closet and I sit with a somewhat dutiful comportment at my keyboard to share this not-really-traveling slice of life to a travel-habituated audience. Yet the depth of my single experience here - putting on fresh eyes in a familiar land - lingers, pausing my breath.

Now, yes, with the onus of taxes behind me and equally undeniable yet patient death asleep on the far horizon, I breathe free and clear in the present time, awaiting nothing more than the continued slow progress of spring. A winter solstice orange dries imperceptibly on my desktop, studded with cloves and turned cinnamon-brown: awaiting the solstice fire. In the meantime, slow birdsong, misty sky, a further slowing of breath to live stillness.

view more at

Miksang Photo Gallery

Video: Zen Dawn Meditation

07 April 2008

The Long Way Home

The long departure has begun. This trip will, if all goes well, end with me arriving home some 70 hours after leaving a guesthouse in Pokhara around 7:00 yesterday morning. That trip by bus to Kathmandu was supposed to take 6 hours but took 12, and it could have been more had my daughter and I stayed on the bus through the traffic jam in the outskirts of the capital beyond the final 3 hours, when we jumped ship in the company of a young Nepali man and his Spanish companion.

My daughter Nashira, thanks to her recent 8-month stint in India, had understood some of the man’s conversation in Hindi with another passenger who had got on nearer the beginning of the jam with some dozen other refugees from another bus that had caught fire from overheating. The gist of the situation was that we were likely to be stuck for an unspecified number of further hours before reaching our destination. The alternative was walking for twenty minutes or so, joining the steady stream of pedestrians who were bypassing the columns of stalled trucks and busses, to a point beyond the jam where we could take a taxi for the final half-hour of our journey. We set out like trekkers with our backpacks over the rubbly dirt trail - no matter that the dust and mud and trash composed the sidewalk and street of a major city.

Earlier in the trip the trouble began when, halfway from Pokhara on a mountain curve, the front of the bus clipped the rear wheel of a motorcycle going the other way, passing too close. We heard a sickening bump and the bus came to a stop. As it happened the helmeted motorcyclist came out of it unhurt except for a scratch over his eye. But a lengthy harangue ensued, whereby blame was cast back and forth between the drivers of bus and motorbike, adjudicated by a growing crowd of motorists who had been stopped by the accident. Eventually police arrived on the scene, and taking the cyclist on board the bus, we proceeded to a nearby farm with a canopied table where the principals could hold their conclave at greater length, attended by the usual circle of interested onlookers.

These proceedings eventually drew to some unknown conclusion, and the bus was able to continue down the highway ... not without some further delays, however, here and there as traffic was stalled by parades of trucks and busses packed to the rooftops with crowds of red-clad youth supporting one of the two Communist parties (one Maoist and one more moderate) currently vying for power in the country’s first democratic election scheduled in a week’s time. At times our bus merged into the parade itself, and we felt visible as supporters as if by osmosis; at other times the marching youth pounded on the sides of the bus as we passed - it was uncertain whether out of exuberance or mounting defiance.

Earlier on our trek among the Himalayan peaks, we had met a couple of UN officials stationed in country to help defuse the violence surrounding this historic occasion. The New Zealand delegate was here following stints in previous hotspots Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. Here in Nepal there had been, in addition to the simmering Maoist insurgency in parts of the country, daily attacks on competing parties, threats of revolution if victory was not won at the polls, and a host of assorted other conflicts set to break out after the election. It was a good time, we were assured, to be leaving the country. When I asked the New Zealander where his next posting would be, he smiled wearily and said hopefully, “New York.”

But could we leave? The streets and alleys of Kathmandu, like the mountain highways between cities, were roughly one-lane affairs even when paved. These single lanes had to accommodate not only two-way traffic of cars, buses, and trucks, but motorcycles weaving through them in even greater numbers, as well as bicycle-rickshaws, ordinary bicycles, and pedestrian traffic. People seemed to prefer walking on both sides of the pavement, or right in the middle, and blindly crossing at will, as if oblivious to the motorized madness that swirled past on all sides. Add to this human free-for-all the odd lazy water buffalo, frisky goats, black dogs in the night, random chickens, and everywhere a peasant of town or country bearing a great load on their back with a Sherpa-style head strap, bent to the task of centuries.

Our taxi driver for the final leg to the hotel that evening - like his brave comrade the following morning for the trip to the airport - was indeed able to navigate us somehow with sustained momentum through this chaos of streets. But after the accident with the motorcyclist, our innocence was no longer sustainable, and every near-miss (with a fresh challenge every foot of the way) was a real injury waiting to happen. Meanwhile at 10 A.M. the riot police, wielding long batons and clad in padded Ninja armor, were assembling on the street corners of the capital, awaiting street demonstrations that were already planned in reaction to some knifing incidents at election rallies the night before.

At the airport things were tamer, and more secure from our point of view, yet still strangely uncertain. There were no boarding announcements, no identifiable departure gates or flight numbers; just a generalized massing of people in exodus, eerily familiar to the previous evening’s populist migration on foot past the stalled dinosaurs of a passing age. It seemed that all departing passengers, several hundred in number, were to await our deliverance in a single holding room looking out onto the tarmac. At the appearance and unintelligible utterance of a blue-clad woman near the front, half of those in the room leaped to their feet and rushed at a side door. I got up, hugged my daughter good-bye, and joined them. Asserting my way bodily toward the door with my boarding pass, I was informed by the woman in blue that this flight was not mine; I would have to wait in a smaller room in front of the holding area. There a mere hundred of us waited another twenty minutes in palpable anxiety - the anxiety of simply not knowing by any familiar or visible sign how or when our fate - actual departure - would be accomplished. Finally when a transit bus next appeared outside our room, people rose and headed for the door: the simple action of departure serving to signify itself.

Nepal: People Watching

Standing by the side of the road

watching the world go by

shopkeepers, an old man cross-legged

a group of five teen boys

a woman in sari and shawl

what are they waiting for -

why are they looking at me -

passing in the tourist bus -

also doing nothing

but watching people

not working, not in meditation

not really waiting for anything

just watching the world go by

Trekking: flashback

(guest blogger: Nashira Birch)

I know that everyone "absolutely loves" Nepal, so I feel unoriginal in saying it, but Nepal truly is an incredible place. The landscape, I think it goes without saying, is as stunning as it is diverse. The culture and people are also incredibly diverse and stunning, as well as calm and welcoming. Sometimes I forget that I'm not in India because Nepal is so similar in so many ways, and India has become such a big part of my reality.... But Nepal is kind of like an India in which someone has turned down the intensity meter. Clearly, in the mountains and villages where most of my Nepal experience has taken place, the contrast to Jaipur's chaotic intensity would stand out, but I feel even in the most intense parts of Kathmandu people generally seem laid-back, relaxed, and happy. Luckily for me, Nepali is very similar to Hindi, which has helped in meeting people (having them laugh that I speak Hindi, which most people here learn from television) and finding our way. It is an interesting time to be in Nepal, however, and there is a lot more going on than the postcards tell you.

After a few postponed election dates due to political instabilities, a historically significant election is fast approaching (countdown: 8 days). Even far into the hills, communist party sickles and hammers adorn rocks, walls, and small flags and marches. Now, in the small city of Pokhara, every political party is "politicking" (in my dad's words), with slow-moving vehicles blaring music, loudspeaker announcements and slogans, flags, banners, and even a lively motorcycle brigade. UN vehicles meander the streets, trying to ensure everything goes smoothly over the next month or so (apparently it will take more than three weeks for the results to be released). Anyway, the hiking: My dad and I "headed for the hills," as he put it, pretty much as soon as we could, and our lungs were thankful for the move from Kathmandu (Delhi may be one of the most polluted cities in the world, but they have gone strides beyond Kathmandu in terms of their use of clean energy and control of vehicle pollution). We did half of the Annapurna circuit trek, climbing through the most stunning and diverse landscapes (and moonscapes), I have ever been witness to. Every day held new surprises, new ecosystems, new views, new stunning peaks suddenly appearing above the clouds. We started our hike though steep hills terraced by rice, barley, and maize fields and scattered with small villages of stone houses. We climbed at least 3000 stone steps up over 2 days, and at least that many down again the next day. I thought I was young and healthy enough to overcome my lack of exercise over the past year ... my knees, however, having not seen so much as a hill in the past year of living in the desert, had different ideas.... Luckily, we landed in a village built around hot springs on the river.

As we made our way along this river up the valley over the coming week, we hiked through the deepest valley in the world, and meandered along the narrow alleyways and prayer wheels of windswept medieval villages huddled into the hillside and topped by Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist-Hindu-fusion temples. The 6000, 7000, and 8000-meter peaks that appeared during the clear morning hours towered above us as we made our way toward Tibet through what was now a moonscape of bald hills and river beds and driving winds. It turns out the upper part of this valley (the Upper Mustang), which nestles its way into Tibet, costs $700 US just to enter for 10 days. We turned around here, and made our way back down the valley.

We are now resting in Pokhara in between espressos and Tibetan soup and thunderstorms, waiting for our journey back to Kathmandu, and re-entering the deja vu that, it would seem, is the traveler’s bubble everywhere in the backpacker world (not to say the trail was completely devoid of this: I definitely - guiltily - had a Mexican enchilada about 5 days in!). You have your German bakeries, your banana pancakes, your Israeli salads, your endless strips of shops selling the same souvenirs, the same travelling pants (if you've been anywhere in Asia, you know the ones I’m talking about ... the MC Hammer ones), and the same Buddha miniatures. In Nepal, you also have endless shops chock full of North Face rip-offs. In India, the travelers go from place to place, almost never leaving this bubble. In a sense, sometimes I feel like people have only left home for the travelling culture, not for the Indian culture.

photo gallery: Nepal Himalaya Trek (Annapurna Circuit)

08 March 2008

Black Moon Culture

Children of the Machine

A hundred devotees sat motionless on the sand watching, as if on reality-TV, the spectacle of young Thai men playing skiprope with fire, a 15-foot length of flaming sisal. Thump-thump-a-thump-thump went the pounding "music" in the dark; the dayglo constructions overhead offering the only variety from the relentless beat of the machine. Most of the crowd were men, young travelers from Western lands who shared buckets of Red Bull and local whiskey with their shadow-eyed Thai escorts of the night, or with me in exchange for a few eager taps on my djembe.

It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, with the group of us who started out in the Be-Bob bar. Be-Bob was not the usual kind of casual misspelling; it was an intentionally clever description of its proprietor, a Thai in his mid-twenties who in his own gentle and gracious way, offered to this corner of the world a kind of personal altar to Bob Marley. Day and night the old standards played, "Redemption Song" and "No Woman No Cry," sometimes accompanied by Mang and friends on guitar or drum, but never out of the looping playlist for long. It was a haven artfully constructed from local rocks and tree limbs, festooned with vines and strings of coral and featuring the burbling sounds of a recreated forest spring. A few feet out the door lay the swath of new road construction, daily heaving with its trucks and bulldozers and graders as the access is prepared for the 200-million-baht, 50-bungalow resort going up on the nearby end of the beach.

A couple of days earlier I had wondered about attending the Black Moon dance party at Ban Tai, just to get a taste of the phenomenon -- at least its new moon variant -- that attracted so many partygoers to that opposite end of the island. But it seemed a bit far to go, with a pricey taxi ride and no certain return in the late night; and techno music was not really my thing. Meanwhile after a casual jam at the Be-Bob, Mang had the inspiration to throw a party on this same night, which seemed a good, rootsy alternative to the Ban Tai beach scene. He printed up some flyers with the additionally clever come-on, "Be There - Be Bob." His friends would show up with a piece of metal roofing to fold into a makeshift barbecue, and the usual fare of drinks and smokeables would be on hand to ease guests into cozy conviviality.

So it went ... me arriving with djembe in hand fresh from kirtan, already uplifted into seventh-chakra bliss by the vibrations of the beehive-kiva sound temple at the yoga center up the hill. I joined a party of somewhat familiar fellow travelers, seven of us from seven countries. Scattered tales of Jamaica and Amsterdam, Laos and India ... but soon the idea arose: who's up for a trip to Ban Tai? Some waffled. Sandrine flipped a coin: heads, she'll go. Tempted by the opportunity and a group taxi fare, I yet demurred. The complimentary barbecue food, tasty fish and plates heaped with salad, was just starting to arrive at our table, and the intended jam session was yet to begin. Mang sat pensive and alone -- perhaps a trifle discombobulated -- behind the bar, watching his only party guests consider an early exit. "Don't worry," we half-sang to one another; "Everything's gonna be all right ..." At that moment disembodied Bob joined us for the chorus.

I felt in a sense obligated to honor the personal invitation that had been extended to me, along with the promise of semi-public performance; but on the other hand the party was, so far at least, nearly empty but for the group of tourists about to walk out the door. At the last instant I changed my mind, grabbed my drum, and joined them, promising Mang to come back and jam again another night. As I walked through the door Bob, always on cue, sang a serenade: "You're running, you're running, you're running away ..."

Sandrine confided that she always had trouble making decisions. Sometimes she would call a friend for advice; usually she would resort to the coin-flip method. That often entailed more than one result: two out of three, or even up to ten tries, to "increase the probabilities." I shared that during my recent Vipassana retreat (at a monastery just up the hill from the town of Ban Tai) I had put this very question of nagging doubt and indecision to the teacher. He had a couple of ready answers. "When in doubt, don't do. Then the task is to ask a friend. If still in doubt, flip a coin." Evidently Sandrine was already tapped into this timeless spiritual wisdom. I recalled the past year's deep dark film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, with the coin flip a device used by the psychopathic killer to doom his victims by their own choice. This resonance was further enriched by the fact that our Irish friend for the night's road trip was named Cormac.

By the time we reached the taxi stand there were four of us still committed to the journey. But now the taxi driver, taking his ease with friends between the shops in the calm night air, changed his mind, shaking his head as he looked at us as if in dour judgment of our collective cultural (or was it anti-cultural?) folly. No matter; we found another taxi stand, and waited there sipping what was advertised in red block letters on the wall as "Sexy Beer."

Once deposited under the broad banner of "Black Moon Culture," we were confronted with a 300-baht entrance fee, unanticipated but unavoidable now that we'd arrived. The scene past the gate was uninspiring: vendors with rainbow wands beside large boards filled with dayglo figures they would paint on body parts. Long booths selling incongruous drinks such as red plastic beach buckets brimming with Jack Daniels. Herds of aimless, faceless people visible only as a pattern of black and white, punctuated by flashing wands of rainbow light. The ever-insistent, never-uplifting deadbeat pulse of the beat, beat, beat.

Where and when had I felt something like this malaise before? Ah, yes ... the Hinsdale, Illinois Youth Center, when I was seventeen and looking for something to do on a Friday night.

Eventually people danced. Cormac wandered for two hours looking for his girlfriend who had disappeared in the company of another friend. Sandrine sipped whiskey and coke and talked wistfully of her bungalow and book, Krishnamurti. Even so she was content enough with her decision to go for "the adventure," and so was I. You never know unless you try. "Better to act," my teacher had said, "than sit on the fence." I drank a second beer, sat in the sand astride my drum and tried to play along with the bassy airwaves, refusing an offer of Ecstasy. But the beer didn't quite do it. The drumming couldn't really be heard. We joined the dancers. With a little effort and time you could kind of get sucked into the tsunami of sound. After a while that too was boring; we decided it was enough and we should look for a taxi ride home. Cormac gave up on trying to find his girlfriend.

The taxis were doing a brisk business at 3:30 A.M., and we quickly found a ride back to Haad Salad, packed in the back of a pickup with five or six others headed to assorted destinations. The tipsy Swedish blonde sitting across from me could hardly keep her flying fingers off my djembe; but whenever she paused for a moment, the French woman next to me immediately urged me to keep playing. Perhaps after all the spirit of Bob was still with us: "jammin till the break of day ..."

It was 4:30 by the time I reached my bungalow. The decision to turn off the 6:00 meditation bell-alarm was a no-brainer. Sleep when it came was not steady or deep, as the leftover pulse of the beat machine refused to go away ... having entered the very structure of my cells, reprogramming my DNA. Joining the others, in the inexorable drift toward black moon culture, now I, too, had become a child of the machine.

Fast-forward: 9:30 A.M.

"I woke up this morning, and wrote down this song ..."


more percussion compositions by Nowick Gray

digital/live mix also featuring E. Neptune and A. Foebus

02 March 2008

Achievement and Practice

Ten days after a ten-day silent meditation retreat which focussed on the practice of Vipassana -- insight, mindfulness -- the lessons are still sinking in. At first on re-entering the "real world," the shock to the senses was overwhelming. With resumed action and echoing speech vying for airtime with frogs, crickets, sprinklers, motorbikes, trucks, heavy equipment, hammers, neighbor's voices, roosters, wild birds, boat engines ... it has been difficult to keep the mind calm in sitting meditation. But I have kept my resolution to keep sitting every morning, and the overall calmness of my mental state is now increasing.

I was afraid that I would slip all too quickly back into long habits of chosen activity: writing, computer networking, music engagements, restless wanderings ... and indeed I have been inspired to delve into detailed schedules and outlines for all of my old unfinished and ongoing projects. I have made similar resolutions with new inspiration at various times in the past. Always within a week or two the inspiration fades; unpredictable life crowds in like jungle growth; and in despair I give up all my discipline to "the flow."

This time I feel it is going to be different; my resolution is firmer, more grounded in the practice established in the "Buddhist boot camp." The emphasis on mindful meditation practice in all the primary postures and motions of life -- sitting, standing, walking, eating, breathing -- has taught me to view all of life as "practice," a view that is fundamentally different than my former view of the importance of achievement.

Music practice is a prime example. Previously I have found it extremely difficult to maintain any disciplined regularity to my music practice. It always seemed like "work"; and work it was, designed and engaged in so as to achieve better proficiency. Renting a studio space with set hours helped a lot, because I was forced by "efficiency" to make full use of the allotted rental time. But at home -- finally moving into a place where I can practice freely -- the time I could be practicing inevitably dwindles into distraction: Do I have new email? How long is the sun going to be shining outside? I'm hungry right now and better eat ...

The same is true of my eternal backlog of tasks -- lists upon archived lists -- in the area of writing, editing, publishing, networking, promotion. Always I have been inspired by the breadth of work I could do, but debilitated by the lack of focus and determination to choose and see projects through to conclusion. I think that underlying both the verbal and musical fields of activity, I have been chronically hampered by a gnawing, existential doubt: what is it all for?

That, of course, is the problem with all worldly achievement, in the light of our eventual death. A practice of deep and repeated insight and mindfulness cuts through the veil of denial to confront us squarely with the meaninglessness of our ego-driven priorities. But that does not mean we are left with nothing, dangling helplessly, hopelessly in the void. We are left with the tool that got us to this state of realization: the practice.

In the week's company of a slow-walking friend, I had to keep practicing my slow, measured steps, with time left over to watch the breath. No time lost, no time gained: no time. Establishing a comfortable habit with the sitting practice, I extend the form to musical scales and rhythm exercises. Am I improving? Will I be a polished performer? These are secondary questions, not immediately relevant to the importance of the task. The task is to trust the practice. In itself it has value as a tool for engaging in the artful and mindful practice of living. And if continued, it will, like the sitting practice that inspires it, have secondary benefits in the form of a more successful life -- even in worldly terms.

That is the irony of spiritual practice. To be effective it entails giving up all worldly concerns and priorities. Then, being effective, it results in clearer, stronger, more effective functioning in the world, indeed in more worldly success. That success in turn cannot be gloated upon as a stolen, secret reward. Death still claims the last word. But in the meantime we can add, moment by moment, a subtle reward to our efforts, our spiritual work: the happiness of knowing what is simply true, step by step, day by day, note by note, word by word, breath by breath.

The practice continues.

21 February 2008


Notes from a 10-day silent meditation retreat


Haiku Smuggled out of Silent Retreat


swaying in the breeze:

bamboo and coconut palm

me, watching the breath




4:00 wakeup

4:45 sitting

5:30 yoga

6:35 sitting

7:05 breakfast

8:15 working

9:00 walking

9:30 talk

10:15 sit/stand

10:30 walking

11:00 lunch

1:00 walking

1:45 stand/sit

2:45 walking

3:30 sitting

4:15 sit/stand

4:30 walking

5:15 dinner

6:15 sitting

6:45 stand/walk

7:15 talk

8:15 sit/sleep

Vipassana is like . . .

  1. heavy-duty brainwashing for a mind set on permanent press
  2. going to the mother ship for a true human implant
  3. workshop for tools to hack the dominant paradigm
  4. mental asylum for normal people
  5. reformat and install new operating system
  6. training for human puppies: Sit. Stay.
  7. being reborn, learning to breathe, sit, stand, walk
  8. discovering timelessness within the structure of time
  9. boot camp for the revolution that starts within
  10. downloading code for an upgraded language of intelligence

Back to Reality

The assault to the senses is immediate as I walk from the monastery road onto the main road through Ban Tai. Taxi trucks, motorbikes, SUVs rumbling by. Signs and shops, drying fish, burning coconuts, the bustle of everyday activity ... it’s all perfectly normal, if you live there everyday; but I’ve just spent 10 days on the hill in silent seclusion with thirty other meditators and resident Thail monks. Our days have been punctuated by the slow resonant sound of the bells ringing time to awake or work or sit. The view of the island is from a high rock, where everything appears in minature, sounds and sights by distance into a peaceful blur.

The next morning, I awake in my bungalow back at Hat Salad, having slept in - three hours longer than usual - until 7:45. I resolve to keep my practice going by doing some yoga; but by the time I settle into a sitting posture for the first meditation “on my own,” the sensory assault of “the real world” has resumed full force. It’s still muted light inside with my door and shutters closed, but the sounds I cannot block out: hammers at work on the concrete road construction site; the humming groans of heavy machinery; and now a loud sprinkler beginning just behind the bungalow. Still I manage to sit peacefully for half an hour, with the aid of earplugs that still permit me to hear the programmed end of session rung from my BlackBerry with the “Qi Gong” tone.

I go to breakfast at my favorite beachside restaurant, but again the silence I have grown so fond of at the retreat is bombarded by the sounds of hammering on renovations just behind me; pounding of waves from an unusually active surf during this day of the full moon; and constant conversation from a couple sitting at the neighboring table. It is easy to shut one’s eyes from a rush of detail and color; to avoid taste and even to minimize touch. But to shut out the press of sounds or invasive odors is nearly impossible, as our human brains are wired like the minds of dogs to become immersed in these sensations.



An apology:

In a recent blog I made a “crude and unapologetic” characterization of Americans as “obnoxious” in their role as modern conquistadors. One American friend responded with honest feelings of hurt from my overgeneralized remarks, and during my meditation retreat I had further opportunity to reflect on the unbeneficial effects of such speech. In painting with such a broad brush, it seems I put my foot in the bucket and lost my balance; and the result, instead of eloquence, was simply a smear.

A more accurate and objective statement might read as follows: Relishing their success with a reckless pursuit of materialism, some Americans take a shameless (one might say, crude and unapologetic) pride in their accomplishments and status as dominators.

Still the question arises: what is the benefit of sketching such a characterization? If the statement is true, how can it help someone to hear it?

It always helps to know the truth, however painful or uncomfortable it may be at first. Another principle is also important, however: to blend understanding with compassion. All humans are fallible; and all have also redeeming qualities and potential. Even if some actions - whether imperial militarism or careless speech - are hurtful to others, there is benefit in looking deeper to see the causes and remedies of such actions.

The problem of modern technological media is the same as the problem of modern technological warfare: we are removed and insulated from the results of our actions. I thank my readers for giving me any feedback as to the effects of my words. And I wish that any in positions of power and influence - a factor that could apply in general to citizens of affluent North America - will be open to understanding how our choices have actual impacts on the lives of others.