What if the Industrial Prison Complex is the state we’re in?

What does the large scale industrial prison complex in the U.S.A reflect about who and how we are being? As a collective, we’ve created it and perpetuate it. This morning, this question was front of my mind. Earlier this year, I made a point of watching the HBO series that ran from 2002-2008, The Wire. The show takes place in drug-infested Baltimore, Maryland. Woven throughout each season is “The Game.” By the end of the five seasons, the show has introduced viewers to “The Game” as played – with a mixture of willingness and submission- by drug dealers, police, politicians, civil servants, educators and journalists. What if the game is really a prison, and we are all in it?

We have, in the USA, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many of our prisoners suffer from mental illness and/or substance addiction. A significant number of prisoners of both genders have been – before entering prison – subjected to intense abuse and serious trauma.

This morning I was thinking about what it says about our society that we have all these people locked up (more than 2 million people). They are locked up in places unlikely to restore their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. I was wondering if our industrial prison complex somehow mirrors a general disposition that is woven into USA culture – knowing that this is a very sweeping statement. I’m referring to a disposition rooted in anger, fear, the need to shame and blame and a tendency to be unforgiving.

And we – those coming from communities much less likely to have our folks end up in prison – look at all these prisoners and think they are our bad bunches. They are different from you and me. Yet, in the watching The Wire, I saw all sorts people from all sorts of backgrounds hustling, playing The Game in ways – even those with good intentions – that drew upon dishonesty, greed, the need for status, fear of who-knows-what. They blame others, they shame others, they seem intent on increasing their power by diminishing the power in others.

The Game. The Game is a prison and we’re in it, day-in and day-out. And from this prison we collectively create the literal bars of our national Industrial Prison Complex. What if the USA industrial prison complex reflects a collective reluctance to stand consciously in the anger, fear, the need to shame and blame and be unforgiving that dominate our relationships with our selves and each other? What if too many of us feel like if we try and leave The Game, our lives will fall apart and the thought is more scary and more oppressive to us than staying in The Game?

What if too many of us are like the prisoner who commits a petty crime immediately upon leaving jail, or even before he or she is released, in order to stay in prison? Why? Because they have been behind bars so long that it is familiar and comforting. They know the rules, they have routine, it is hard to imagine who or what will catch them if they start to stumble when they step outside the prison.

What if the USA industrial prison complex is a big, out-there-for-all-to-see, reminder of something alive within us – the people who comprise the society in which it exists?

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Love and Justice amidst the pain….

Well, it has been over a month since I’ve written here. March has been a hard month. I’ve been battling with sciatica – inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. Literally it is a pain in the butt. And the back of the legs. And sometimes the sides and front. I was told by a doctor and a physio-therapist I saw in India that physio-therapy should crack it and from then on in, I needs must be regular about keeping my core muscles strong.

I know this – this need to keep my core strong. I broke my back in 2003 and promised myself after a successful spinal fusion that I would always look after my back. Out of respect to my amazing body, the surgeon who fixed it, the NHS that airlifted me from the scene of the accident and gave me treatment without any paperwork – never mind the myriads of paperwork privatized insurance creates simply for getting blood tests here in the USA.   I promised myself that.

Only I broke the promise. I became aware of how much so in January 2014, when I was doing Elevate – a circus arts intensive with Wise Fool New Mexico. I saw that I wasn’t as flexible as I had been, after seven or so years of regular pilates, hikes in the hills and dance as a form of meditation. I remember getting mad at myself for breaking the promise, for letting me and my body down. For being in the state-I-was-in.

My fellow Elevators consistently told me: don’t be so hard on yourself, you are getting back in shape now and that is what matter. In other words – be kind and compassionate to yourself. At the same time, be firm. Getting muscles back to fitness requires discipline.

Fast forward to just over a year later. In the meantime, I took up cycling – something I had not done for years. I tried to go hiking regularly and walk for no other purpose than to walk for well-being. I started a habit of dancing meditation daily and a little bit of core-strengthening exercises at home everyday. And now here I am – debilitated by chronic pain and weak legs. I thought I was going in the opposite direction. What happened?

I won’t speculate on that here. I will instead point out that I feel I am in that same place I was in during Elevate:  being tasked with manifesting (displaying the qualities of) trust, acceptance and non-judgment when I am often finding myself feeling angry, frustrated and despondent. In the last three weeks, despite physio-therapy and core-strengthening work, the condition has worsened rather than improved.

Consequently, I’m having one of those moments where I find myself often wanting to be mad at the cards I’m being dealt. In my mind – perhaps fodder for another post – this happening now is very unfair. As I texted to a friend the other day, I think “the universe is shitting on me.”

My being angry and frustrated under the circumstances is understandable. Thing is, spending too much time with that anger and frustration doesn’t serve me well. It tenses my muscles, for starters – thus possibly exacerbating the condition. It makes me grumpy in my other relationships – with people, with physical space, with everything. This casts a cloud over everything and makes me even more angry and frustrated.

A vicious cycle.

Well, I’m here and it has been nearly twenty minutes since I sat down to write this and I can’t write anymore because it is too painful to sit.

So, what’s my point? I think we are all guaranteed that life will at times give us what we think we don’t deserve, what seems unfair, what hurts, what creates suffering. And I guess these days I’m meditating on the way that my relationship with the suffering itself matters. I might not be responsible for the cause and for awhile I might not have any clue how to remedy the situation. The one thing I have control over is how I choose to react and respond to this – to a sense of powerlessness and injustice and to the anger and rage that goes with it.

It isn’t easy, but I’m trying to respond with the practice of love. This means discipline – which I think of as justice-at-the-personal-level: holding myself accountable. This in turn means letting myself be mad without clinging to it. It means doing necessary exercises, in watching my posture, in eating healthy and in doing all that I can to heal. It means being aware of how I’m being with others – it is easy when suffering with chronic pain to take it out on people around me, to be testy and grumpy and impatient. It means being aware AND taking care to be kind and patient with others – rather than simply going around being grumpy and apologizing for it, using the sciatica as an excuse.

I guess, all in all, I’m meditating on what it means to practice love while experiencing pain, while feeling powerless and plagued by injustice. Obviously, this is all very micro, very personal – yet, I suspect I’m learning lessons for the macro, for the collective and the communal…in due time, I’ll let you know if that’s the case.

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Lost and found all at the same time…

I haven’t posted in over a month. I was in India and London and I found or made little time for being on-line, except to share pictures with family here in the USA via FaceBook. I’m glad for it. I hadn’t been to India in ten years and it was a time to re-connect with family. Despite language barriers with some members – I don’t speak our mother tongue – I left India feeling that stronger bonds had been forged even with relatives with whom I could not do much more than smile, hold hands and shed tears over the language gap that fell between us. I was in India to celebrate the wedding of a cousin’s son. I was also there mourning loss from connections not formed and lives not led because I had grown up assimilated into USA Anglo culture.

I wrote about this last year in I am angry – acknowledging the price of assimilation.

This trip to India, I was fascinated by how I started weaving new narratives around my assimilation experience.

One new narrative emerged around religion, culture and ritual. I come from a very religious family. In some ways, it is extraordinary that all three of us (my brother, sister and I) grew up as assimilated as we did given in particular how steeped both sides of our family are in scripture and ritual. My father, for example, is incredibly well versed in the traditions of our family practice of what is now called Hinduism (but is more accurately called Sanatana Dharma).

Until recently, I have tended to focus on the loss that goes with not being rooted in our religion and culture. Sure, we had pujas – religious ceremonies – in our house, but we-the-children didn’t inherit or claim the practices as our own.

My cousin’s son’s wedding included endless rituals. My uncle explained many of them to me. Early on, we were in the groom’s family room at the wedding hall and my uncle mentioned how one icon represented our ancestors. You see, he told me, we call them in to be here with us for guidance and blessing and at the end we will ask them to leave. He said this after he explained to me the ways in which we also were calling in the elements (ether, air, water, fire and earth) and the planetary forces into the wedding ceremony.

When I heard all this I wanted to laugh out loud. At once, I saw so clearly the absurdity and the profound universality of a journey I had been taking to find just these sorts of rituals and relationships. That is to say, little brown skinned me with roots in one of the oldest cultures in the planet had become a new age, hippy-ish wanderer grasping on to the traditions of indigenous cultures in what we now call the Americas. At one point, I said to my cousins that it was extraordinary to be watching my family members perform rituals that go back thousands of years. My cousin’s son – age 28 – corrected me with ‘hundreds of thousands of years.’

Ancient spiritual ties that I was searching for were right under my nose all along.

Yet, I didn’t tune into them. As I look back, I see that I often came very close. I had the calling, but the not the courage – the word that comes to mind – to follow hunches that wanted to nudge me, for example, to live in India for a year to learn the language and culture of my family (I ended up doing a meagre 2 months when I was thirty). The ‘almost-but-not-quite’ efforts to root myself in my Indian and Vedic heritage is fodder for another post, perhaps.  One of my main points here is that at the same time I mourned the loss of my roots, I smirked at how – like many White people – I became a searcher, grasping at the traditions of others to fill the void.

The point doesn’t end there, though.  Underneath the smirk, lay satisfaction. Talking with one cousin, I found myself stepping into a narrative that tells a story of how I – uprooted and lost – eventually rooted myself through a mish-mash of experiences in different traditions and working with multiple communities of people. Hats off in particular to the School of Movement Medicine, which I used to describe affectionately as hosting a practice where “White people go tribal” (I know, I know, White people have their own tribes…yet, people knew what I meant when I said this and when I say ‘White’ I was including my coconut self). Through my work with the School and other practices, I brought to consciousness inside me a connection with our ancestors, our elements and our spirit.

Maybe that’s the overarching point of all this, of my journey to date: different tribes have their rituals and their inheritances which seem unique to them, but all of it distills down to commonality. Our ancestors, elements and spirit – we share these. No me, no my or mine.

We need these connections. I’ll be truthful, I’m a bit envious of the roots people in my family have, especially the younger generations who are doing a wondrous job of fusing the ancient with the modern. Ritual brings connection and comfort. Getting up in the morning and starting one’s day by going to the prayer room or the altar in the corner of the kitchen and connecting with all that was and all that is can be a beautiful, nourishing experience.

As far as I can tell, this is precisely what many new age seekers are doing – drawing upon anything and everything to create comforting rituals that have interconnectedness at their heart. Coming from an ancient tradition that is often a source to which new age seekers are drawn, I used to scoff at such seekers. However, of course, I’m guilty of what I charge.

I stay in a room in a house in New Mexico where I’ve created a sacred altar. Sometimes I feel sad when I look at it – I recall my parents’ altar – one that has deep roots but no longer feels like part of my inheritance. I wouldn’t know how to worship at it. My altar is a hodge-podge: crystals, shells and objects acquired through invented new age ceremony and objects rooted in ancient traditions.

At the same time as feeling the sadness, I take joy in this altar and in other practices I’ve created for myself through my connections with others and with a variety of traditions. These practices are enabling me to be connected to ancestors, elements and spirit. They provide me with comfort. They might not be as powerful energetically as ancient vedic rituals performed according to custom, but they do have power.

One cousin  went so far as to suggest that I am indeed very powerful these days, having created connection to ancestors, elements and spirit within my self and not being reliant on externalities and specific inherited rituals.

Maybe.

I don’t feel comfortable assessing how powerful I am or not, but I do know that my sanity is currently tied to my newly found capacity to root my creativity and power in ancestral ties, the elements and spirit, as well as in love and justice. This rooting has allowed me to overturn an oppressive regime of being led by fear, loathing and  punishment.

I see people not of Vedic-India ancestry grabbing bits and pieces of the science, philosophy and ritual out of context. I sometimes want to be critical of them, because what they are doing does seem out of context and I often assume it (rightly or wrongly) to be ignorant. For example, rooms of people chanting mantras without understanding the true meaning of the words, with much mispronunciation and without understanding their history and origins.

At the same time, I am aware that because of my upbringing I end up relating to it all in much the same way as the ‘foreigners’. Now, after this trip to India, I am starting to think that what really matters is the end result – whatever the origin of spirit-rituals I may use, do my practices result in my being inspired, feeling grounded and using creativity and power to step up against injustice and co-create beloved community?

As my twenty-eight year old, newly married cousin pointed out to me during one of our late night chats about our family: “You say that you lost our ways, but it seems to me that you are deep in them – you’ve just arrived at it from a different path.” Well, this isn’t a verbatim quote, but it is the gist of what he observed and what I, too, had come to see while I was in India.

What once was a story solely of loss and longing is now also a story of wholeness and connection. Hallelujah for that!

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Picture from my cousin’s son’s wedding, of the groom’s family room at the wedding hall (Feb 2015, Bangalore India)

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Where might I find the village?

I haven’t posted for nearly two months. My father had a massive heart attack on 10th November and then triple bypass on 14 November. He is 83 years old and had aged a lot in the year before the heart attack. Some of you will be familiar with this – that time when you see one of your parents and think “Wow. You’ve gone to the next age!” My last post was about cultivating kindness and beloved community. These past months have taken me deeper into these practices.

Major medical incidents such as my father’s heart attack can push a family to its edges. These past months, my parents, two siblings and I have been to the depths of hell and the heights of beauty. Physical and emotional suffering woven into the literal and figurative opening of hearts – not just my father’s.

Five weeks after the heart attack, I left my parents’ house for some rest and relaxation. For me this meant spending time where there is sunshine and blue sky, hiking up a mountain, being with friends, playing with an adorable puppy, potlucks, dancing and sleeping through the night.

My mind more able to give thought taking in the big picture, I reflected on our family situation.  I have often heard it said that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Now I feel certain that it takes a village to care for our elders.

What a strange culture we have created here in the United States. Broken down into nuclear families, as our parents get older we – their children – are faced with the question of their care. I have a friend whose grandmother never wanted to burden anyone with her care. When the time seemed right, she moved to a community of elders where she lived independently, in her own home. I think she was in her late 80s when she did this. When the time seemed right, she shifted within the same community to assisted living. Finally, when the time seemed right, still in that community, she went into hospice where she died.

Her family visited frequently. This arrangement worked well for her.

My parents are from India. They come from a tradition where elderly parents anticipate living with one of their children. The two most likely scenarios are living with the eldest son and his family or living with an unmarried daughter. I see that some Indian-origin families here in the USA are creating homes that are set up for joint households. We haven’t done that in our family.

Now my parents are in their late 70s and early 80s. They still live in the house where I grew up – the suburbs of Chicago. They would like to stay here – it is familiar, what they know. I’m aware that the community of friends they once had has dispersed – Indian couples their age have gone to live with their children in different states across the USA. The neighbors in the street have also dispersed – only a few of the original families remain.

My parents have asked me – single, freelance daughter than I am – to come live with them indefinitely. I see this as an understandable request – though it isn’t without complexity and I haven’t responded with an immediate and simple “YES!”

When I think about the idea in depth, I find myself concluding that children and parents living together isn’t a solution in and of itself. When elders have become isolated (as mine have), putting total responsibility on their care to one or two of their children is asking a lot – in my opinion.

If I were to move here to the Chicagoland area, my sister lives nearby. So, that would mean two children to share responsibility for elder care. Though better than one, I think two daughters (one married) living near each other to care for our parents would still be a daunting responsibility, in the absence of strong wider community.  We have a brother who lives in DC with his wife. They, too, would be part of our core community – albeit from a distance – taking responsibility for elder care. Again, this seems to be placing an unrealistic amount of responsibility on grown children.

If there comes a point when my parents are living with me or even nearby to me – whether in the house they’ve lived in for decades or somewhere new – I would want to ensure that I have strong roots in community. And that I could integrate my parents into this community. What I am imagining is a scenario where, while the bottom line for their care might come down to me, in effect they and I are all being cared for by a community that consists of much more than the my parents, my siblings and I and professional service providers, e.g. doctors.

Perhaps naively, I am sometimes imagining a scenario where I am living with my parents – only it is very different from the present situation. We are in a community where we know the majority of our neighbors, where my parents have friends and can walk down a colorful, vibrant street and feel safe, known and welcomed. They only need shoes on their feet to walk, however slowly, to a nearby coffee shop or grocery story. The neighborhood is multigenerational. Our house/apartment has  a constant flow of people of all ages streaming through it.

My mother knits beautifully. My father gardens beautifully. I’ve not taken to either myself -but maybe someone else on the street relishes in learning tricks of the trade from them. Or maybe I do take up the spade, and with help from others and my dad directing from a chair, I cultivate a fruit and vegetable garden. If we aren’t living near my sister, maybe when I travel, neighbors are happy to check in on my parents or a friend stays over – a friend who has been to the house so many times that there is trust and camaraderie between them and my parents.

Ahh, but this is all very idyllic you say. People are too busy with just trying to care for their own families without helping others out. Maybe. What if this isn’t about one family helping out another? What if I am imagining a different paradigm rooted in mutuality rather than tit- for-tat, rooted in interdependence rather than independence? What if I am imagining community rooted in cultivating all of our resources to care for one another as though we are, in fact, extended family-regardless of blood and marriage ties?

I once met a woman who lives in a rural English village. When her husband was hit with a long term illness, she didn’t have to cook for one year. For one year, without her asking, people in her village supplied her and her husband with meals.

I get the impression our situation isn’t unique. Sure, some aspects of it are very particular to our individual and group dynamics. But as I talk to my peers – those of us in our 40s and 50s with elderly parents – I find that many aspects of my family situation are shared by others.

It takes a village to raise a child.

It takes a village to care for our elders.

Right now I feel like asking: Can someone please tell me, where might I find the village?

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Be a rebel, be kind

I’m thinking a lot these days about kindness. Pancho Ramos-Stierle from Casa de Paz writes in his email signature “If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” To people who have their minds focused on dismantling oppressive and deadly systems and institutions, this directive might seem fluffy or naive. Especially, if it is understood to be steering us to be kind even to those people we are encouraged or disposed to think of as enemies or bad guys. Thing is, being unkind is dehumanizing. And a lot of injustices have their roots in a stripping people of their humanity and their status of being human. To be kind is to be a rebel against tyranny and oppression because it is an act of restoring (giving health and strength to) our humanity and what it is to be human.

Humanity is an odd word. I get the impression a lot of people use it to mean being human, of the human species. In the 15th century, it did come to mean that. In the 14th century it came into the english language referring to kindness and graciousness. I have a sense that that its origins presume that the essence of human nature is to be kind.

I like playing around with this notion and stretching it into the idea that when I am being unkind I am diminishing my humanity – reducing my essence. The image that comes to mind is Darth Vader who gradually turned into a machine, losing what it is to be human. Obi-Wan Kenobi actually says: “He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.”

I’m also diminishing the humanity of the person on the receiving end of my unkindness.  I’m making them somehow less than I, in terms of their value as a human being and worthiness of respect and kindness.

In a piece recently published by OpenDemocracy, Wise Fools for Love?, I explain how Wise Fool New Mexico artists I know define social justice as “creating a space for each person’s humanity to thrive….a space that allows people to feel their own empowerment.”

Simple kindnesses definitely play a role in nourishing people to feel their own empowerment and capacity to thrive. My 83 year old father had a massive heart attack two weeks ago. My family has been spending a lot of time in hospital. Since his surgery over a week ago, we’ve made sure one of us is there with him at all time.

In this time, I consciously chose to make an effort to be actively kind to everyone – hospital staff, other patients and their families. With staff, I focused on asking everyone’s names – even if I would only be seeing them for a few seconds – and how their day was going. If we had time for a bit of banter, I would do it. Find out the meaning of a name, for example. Or guess where they are from.

With other families, I offered to get water or coffee or simply to tell them where they could find it. I inquired about the progress of their family member. With other patients, I would say hello and perhaps comment on the color of their robe or what a lovely smile they have.

You might think that this was me being instrumental – be kind to the people who are involved in taking care of my father so they treat him well. Sure, there is something in that. The bigger context though was that for a short period, I was directly in community with these folks. And wherever I am, I want to cultivate beloved community. To me this entails compassion balanced by accountability (aka – justice). It also entails showing through my interactions that I want to see everyone’s humanity thrive.

In a short time, I created warm connections with people. As a result, in a very stressful time for my family and amidst people who have very stressful jobs, we had moments of laughter and tenderness. I do believe I made it clear to the people serving my family – be it the doctor or the person emptying the trash – that I valued them all as human beings. People with names, with smiles, with tough days, with good days, with mistakes, with different talents and abilities.

I do believe I let other patients know that I saw them – I acknowledged their presence in this community.

Hello! What’s your name? Good to meet you. Thank you. Where are you from? How is your day going? Nice yellow socks. Can I buy you a cup of coffee, I’m going to get some for myself?

In a world where people can so easily become invisible, such small kindnesses are rebellious. They are a way of seeing and listening rather than ignoring and blocking out. A way of  saying “Hey, we are in this together, you and I.” A way of restoring (creating health or strength) humanity to my self and others.

 

 

 

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Beloved Community – Responding to the ugliness of injustice with beauty-full expression

Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

What does it look like in practice when power, love and justice come together?

On Wednesday, 22 October, I attended an art intervention outside Santa Fe First Judicial District Court Building. The action was in conjunction with a National Day of Protest to STOP Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.  Concerned Citizens for Community Safety, supported byWise Fool NM and the Peñasco Theatre Collective, organized the event.

In the press release for the intervention, the organizers locate the heart of the matter with the question:  “We have to ask and answer the question of what kind of community we want to live in?” Any community could answer this question in so many ways. Concerned Citizens for Community Safety are emphasizing the importance of creating communities that are rooted in collaborative public policies, mutual respect, restorative justice and a high standard of accountability for elected leaders.

Though it was not stated in the press release, I get the distinct impression that Concerned Citizens also want to live in communities rooted in beauty and play.

The art intervention was to protest specifically the recent grand jury decision of ‘justifiable homicide’ in the case of Española, New Mexico Police Officer Jeremy Apodaca killing sixteen year old Victor Villalpando on June 8, 2014. Artists created expressions through physical theatre, dance, poetry, spoken word, cardboard-based art and puppetry.

As well as protesting the grand jury decision with regard’s to Victor’s death, the intervention explicitly named over a hundred victims (under the age of 30) of lethal police violence. People present at the intervention were invited to write messages to the police on the back of cardboard cut out guns that would be delivered to the police in Española.

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Cardboard cut out guns with messages for the police, at an art intervention in Santa Fe, organized by Concerned Citizens for Community Safety, 22 October 2014 – in conjunction with a National Day of Protest to STOP police brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.

I found this intervention restorative – generating health and strength. It gave everyone present the opportunity to express rage, grief, fear and bewilderment in response to the ugliness of unjustifiable, deadly violence. We weren’t left there, however. The song  “Let the Sunshine In” blasted. Led by group of young performers, we were invited to dance to honor and celebrate life. From my perspective, throughout the event, an undercurrent flowed. It carried hope for, and commitment to, creating a different, brighter future. It carried a commitment to Beloved Community. 

Love.

We sometimes easily forget that practices of accountability, mutuality, restorative justice and participatory policymaking are all forms of love. This kind of love is anything but sentimental and anemic.

Power.

At one level, with the decision of the court and the persistence of violent policing, people are feeling powerless. Power means the capacity to act or strength.  At another level, people are feeling powerful. I don’t know about you, but to me, standing up in a public space and speaking out against injustice through self-created forms of imaginative expression embodies power.

What does it look like in practice when power, love,  justice come together? It looks like the beauty-full art intervention I witnessed and participated in on 22 October 2014, in front of the Santa Fe First Judicial District Court Building.

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Photo of performers and a giant puppet (in the image of the teenager Victor Villalpando, who was killed by an Española, NM police officer on 8 June 2014) in a scene created by Concerned Citizens for Community Safety as part of an art intervention in conjunction with the National Day of Protest to STOP Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation – 22 Oct 2014.

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Time to Stand Still, Listen and Connect

I’m back in red nose world, a.k.a. theatrical clowning. I’m taking classes with Sarah Jane Moody at Wise Fool New Mexico. In last week’s class, we were put in pairs to do a little performance. Our task at hand was to fold a sheet that was laying on the floor. Our efforts to complete the task are the show.  The idea is to take the audience on a playful journey with the task at hand. While it was not essential to get the sheet folded, doing so would give rise to much satisfaction for the audience. For my partner and I, the journey was a tough one. We both felt lost. What happened? In terms of my contribution to the situation, I think I was constrained by muddled and unclear connections. At the heart of this muddle, was a loss of connection with my self.

When we did feedback after the scene, our teacher observed that my clown – Matilda – kept rejecting the offers being made by the other clown character (who doesn’t have a name, yet). One time, for example, my clown partner wanted to play with Matilda’s ponytail and Matilda kept blocking her. And like this, my partner would make offers of connection and Matilda-who-is-also-I would block them.

Sometimes, such resistance isn’t a block. In a way, saying “no” to the offer is a form of saying “yes” because it gives rise to a playful tension that is entertaining.  More often than not, however, resistance is a block. For example, a character says “Let’s go to the park” another character can say “Yes, and…” and then build on it. This is accepting an offer. Blocking the offer is when “Let’s go to the park” is met with “No, I don’t feel like it.”

The scene finally drew to a close with my partner’s clown character being totally frustrated  as a reaction to uncooperative Matilda. Some folks in the audience were entertained by the on-going tension. My partner felt lost as a result of it.

So did I.

When I reflected upon our dynamic, I was intrigued that I hadn’t been aware I had been in a constant state of resistance. In the first instance, with the ponytail, I thought I was being playful – holding ground that Matilda’s hair was not to be messed with by others. After that, I was simply muddled. I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing, let alone whether it manifest acceptance or resistance.

What was the nature of this muddle?

I lost my sense of relationship. I didn’t have a heartfelt sense of the nature of  my relationships with my self, my partner, the audience and the object. Lost and befuddled in my heart and mind, listening to my partner was an after thought. How could I listen and tune in to her when I had tuned out from my self?

On stage, listening isn’t a matter of simply hearing words. Often no words are spoken. It is about paying attention to what kind of connection or relationship is existing in any given moment. It is about seeing offers and accepting them in ways that give rise to playfulness. Listening is about hearing when the audience laughs or sensing that the audience is waiting for the tension to be broken.

Listening is a tuning into my environment. It is also a tuning into what I am feeling and thinking. In this scene, I wasn’t able to listen to myself;  I was disconnected from my own thoughts and feelings.

Now, perhaps you are feeling a bit muddled. What am I trying to convey to you through all this muddle and disconnect?

Essentially, at one level, I think my partner and I had a communication breakdown. We ended up doing a little dance, moving this way and that while feeling lost and unsatisfied. At the root of this dis-satisfaction and navigational error was a lack of clarity on the nature of our connection. Were we in a fight? What was Matilda (my clown character) feeling? Because I didn’t know my self, I couldn’t express it – so my partner couldn’t know either.

And I’m wondering how often our relationships are like this – how often are we doing these awkward dances where we feel frustrated and lost? I’m speculating that when I’m in such a situation, the thing to do might be to go still and check in with my self. What’s going on? What am I feeling? What is important to me right now?

Where this muddling seems to have taken me is to this question: In our culture dominated by busy-ness and ceaseless doing, how much disconnect are we creating in our relationships with one another because we are lost and unclear in our connections and relationships with our selves?

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Talking about freedom rather than change

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately. The word and this idea of social change. What does it mean to be a social change activist? Not very much, it seems. I say this wondering what is social change? I used to be satisfied that social change refers to changing how we live together. That rings hollow to me now. I’m no longer intent on giving rise to change. Instead, I’m intent on giving rise to freedom.

I exist, therefore I change. Life is like that. From one second to the next, everything is changing. Energy shifts, atoms appear and disappear. To say that I am creating change seems silly to me right now because whether or not I will it, change is constantly happening. Much of it is not consciously generated. Of course, living together differently requires changes; changes to our beliefs, assumptions and stories.

In my experience, changes in these realms happen in different ways, through disciplined practices of acceptance, inquiry, surrender and conscious creativity. And while, at different stages, some people might say “You’ve changed, Veena” At a fundamental level, I don’t believe it is true. That is, I am who I have always been: a mass of energy in constant motion. The wiring has changed, but the overall make up is the same. Masks have been taken off or have dissolved. Light has opened up darkness. From the darkness has emerged truth and this truth expands freedom.

I venture to believe that my shackles and your shackles are the same. I have been carrying beliefs, assumptions and stories that keep wounds open, give rise to pain and suffering. Haven’t you experienced this in one way or another?

When I am wounded and led by anger, fear and sadness, I often create beliefs, assumptions and stories that weave themselves into my relationships. They take forms which might include defensiveness, aggressiveness, distrust, distancing and manipulating my power (capacity to act) in order to constrain others.

In this way, I put shackles on my self – on my self who is compassionate, kind, caring, tender and eager to be in useful service to the world. Sometimes I give rise to a vicious circle. I sense I am constrained and then I get angry about being constrained and my creativity and power simply become more deeply rooted in fear and loathing.

Maybe, I could say I’m a root changer. Wanting to replace the roots of fear and loathing with roots of love and justice. Wanting radical – of the roots – change.

Ultimately, though, the intention of changing roots is to give rise to freedom. I am in an on-going process of liberating my self; freeing my self to step fully into my potential as a human being committed to a daily practice of cultivating love and justice.

I, you, the person over there – we are all in a state of constant change. How freely we move, that is what varies. Moment by moment we make choices – consciously or unconsciously. The more conscious we are, the more free we are in our choices. We can choose to alleviate suffering, to honor and respect one another and the planet, to create nourishing rather than toxic relationships.

What shackles are constraining your freedom?

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Justice: correcting everything that stands against love

I recently published a paper – [R]evolution Road – travelling the terrains of creativity, power and love – where I define [r]evolution as a daily practicing of consciously rooting our creativity and power in love, as a means of evolving our relationships with our selves, each other and the planet. I make a reference to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” I have a sense that I’ve just stepped into a deeper understanding of this MLK statement. 

We are a planet full of violent, toxic communities. We, the people, created and keep creating these communities. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves, each other and the planet?

I think MLK was saying that our relationships with power, justice and love are off-kilter. All over the place, people are seeking power without love. All over the place, people claiming to be loving are standing idly by in the face of injustices. All over the place, people are reaching for justice without love and in the process giving rise to greater injustices.

In western cultures, going back to the Romans, justice is represented by a goddess. She carries a sword for vengeance. She carries scales for considering competing claims. She represents divine law. If I worship a vengeful God (or Goddess) then so-called divine law becomes vengeance-based, no? 

MLK steered us to remember to give justice a heart, a heart that justice will consistently seek to protect and honor. This practice of “correcting everything that stands against love” is an art. In the name of protecting love, we can find ourselves standing against it. In the name of love, we can be vengeful. In the name of love, we can practice hate. Lost in a haze of fear, we can lose sight of love altogether. 

I recently attended an intensive workshop, Cultivating Women’s Leadership. We explored the importance of balancing the masculine and the feminine. We distilled feminine into compassion. We distilled masculine into accountability. Compassion refers to being receptive and open, to understanding and connection, to using our power (the capacity to act) to be nurturing and restorative.

The key, it seems, is not to get carried away with this acceptance, to ensure that acceptance doesn’t turn into passivity. Otherwise love becomes, as MLK says, sentimental and anemic. Accountability refers to taking responsibility by owning our actions and firmly insisting others do the same. Motivated by love we might forgive. Motivated by accountability we might firmly (but not violently) force people to own up to what they have done. Motivated by accountability, we might give an apology and find concrete ways to repair damage we have done, if possible. For some damages and hurt, no adequate reparation exists. 

Compassion is one way of talking about love. Accountability is one way of talking about justice. The two are inextricably entwined. MLK asked us to root our power in both love and justice, in compassion and accountability, in the feminine and masculine.

With this in mind, I’ve inserted justice into my definition of [r]evolution – a daily practicing of consciously rooting our creativity and power in love and justice, as a means of evolving our relationships with our selves, each other and the planet. 

So what? I’ve changed a definition. Well, at one level it is just wordplay. And wordplay for myself, at that. I try to use [r]evolution as my compass for how I live my life. Re-articulating what I mean by [r]evolution is me fine-tuning my compass.

This fine-tuning, however, has got me thinking about the world around me. 

I’m thinking, for example, about the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In particular, I’m thinking about Kazu Haga’s piece, Honoring the Anger in Ferguson. Haga’s writing brings me straight back to MLK’s directive about power, love and justice. This directive calls on us to stand firmly in the truth of what exists in our hearts – including rage, pain and grief.

We must not try and diminish this truth, as people do when they say “Calm down, calm down!!”  I think of this as standing in the fire. Rooting our power in love and justice calls on us to stand in the fire and to bear witness what we see in the fire. It further calls upon us to take action in a way that holds ourselves and others accountable. To be truly powerful, MLK was steering us to root this accountability in love, so that we don’t respond to abuse with abuse, harm with harm.

How do we steadfastly confront people who are standing against love?  What does it mean to you, in practice, to root your creativity and power in love and justice? What can you – or any of us – do to honor the anger in Ferguson? What can we – any and all of us – do to stand up for both justice and love, in response to police violence and abuse of power anywhere in the US?  

 

 

 

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Reflections on how a circus intensive made me stronger…

A few days ago, I wrote about BUST and CWL (Cultivating Women’s Leadership) in relation to fueling the fires of beloved community.  BUST is a six week non-residential circus intensive for women only, with all classes and the final performance taking place at Wise Fool New Mexico. BUST is a group of women getting together and learning circus skills. I’m guessing that when people think BUST, they think fun, physical and cool (well it is, isn’t it?). Though the blurb about it on the Wise Fool NM website mentions building trust and community, I’m not so sure it is self-evident how that works. How does a program like BUST play a valuable role in giving women the opportunity to experience and strengthen our capacity to create not just any kind of community, but beloved community?

I’ve written a number of posts to share my reflections about my journey through BUST: What does it take to support each other to rise and shine?

Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour

Ugly is as Ugly does…

A Balancing Act – the art of caring for self while caring for others

When does self-care turn into self-indulgence?

From Fear-Full to Fear-less Still Being

Letting go of shame-full beliefs

The Art of Creating Healthy and Nurturing Community

So, what has my BUST experience taught me or affirmed for me with regards to what it takes to create beloved community? Based on what I’ve written to date, I’d say that  beloved community seems to take self-awareness; conscious action to be nurturing; a commitment to finding balance between the needs of “I” and the needs of “we”; the practice of responding to the ‘ugly’ with beauty and love; a willingness to be vulnerable; and the holding of a safe space.

Creating beloved community also requires a belief and trust in magic – some people might call this belief “faith.”

What else does it take? In the CWL training, the facilitators made a distinction between being kind and being nice. I valued this. Why? Because being nice is being nice – it is saying nice things to someone. At its root, the practice of being nice can be a way of covering up fear of conflict, fear of confrontation, fear of telling the truth. The end result is a dishonesty that prevents relationships from evolving into higher levels.

Being kind is more complicated.Being kind entails being truthful.  I tell you honestly how I experienced a situation. This doesn’t mean it is THE truth of it – but it is my truth at that time. Thing is, what I have to say might leave you feeling uncomfortable because my experience of what you said or did wasn’t a very positive one for me. What’s seems crucial to me these days is understanding that being kind, telling our truth, entails an important element of responsibility.

I once had a conversation with a BUSTer who had been having a challenging experience with it all. She didn’t feel safe, she had a lot of triggers being pushed and at one point was a bit fed up. In any community this can happen. Someone just isn’t feeling the love, as it were.

I know that when I have felt unloved, not held or insecure and unsafe, I have lashed out at the people around me. I’ve gotten angry. The anger is real. It feels like truth at the time. In that mode of being, I have often woven stories to show how it is that a community is failing to support me and possibly even harming me.

The thing is, under those circumstances, keeping quiet can just lead to pent up resentment that eventually leads to an explosion. I know this, because I’ve exploded before. A question arises: When we aren’t feeling the love, what’s the best way to express ourselves – to express what seems true for us at the time?

Authenticity – speaking and living one’s truth – is increasingly becoming a buzzword in certain communities. I hear it all the time in Santa Fe. When we were chatting, this BUSTer and I agreed that sometimes authenticity is used as excuse for someone to be an asshole.

That is to say, just because I feel wronged in some way, does not justify my lashing out at others. Does not justify hurling out judgement-laden, aggressive accusations. Let’s face it – when we go in that mode, it tends to become challenging for people to respond to us from a place of love. Instead, we often all slip into defensive-aggressive modes that take us away from beloved community.

How can I speak my truth in a way that is kind (rather than hateful or vengeful)? It might be critical (and thus, not nice) and it certainly could be angry (kindness and anger don’t have to be mutually exclusive).

How do I do that? I take responsibility.

Responsibility to express anger both honestly and with loving-kindness. Responsibility to respond to anger – even when it is not expressed in a loving way – honestly and lovingly. Often, both are easier said then done.

Practice. Practice in taking responsibility for how I go about stepping into my truth and expressing my self – including my disappointments, frustrations and needs. Practice. Practice in taking responsibility to listen lovingly to others when they are expressing their selves. Practice. Practice in firmly setting boundaries (in and of itself an act of loving-kindness) when someone else is expressing their truth in harmful ways.

When an organization like Wise Fool NM creates a circle of women (or teenage girls, as it does with Teen BUST), it is offering up a space where people are asked to make a conscious commitment to doing what it takes to create beloved community.

Like circus arts, creating beloved community is not for the faint-hearted. Consciously created spaces, like BUST, play vital and valuable roles in giving us practice-time so that we can strengthen the necessary muscles required to lift our selves and each other into our higher selves on a regular basis.

This summer in BUST, some of us (teachers and students) were pushed to our edges. Our beloved community included dynamics that asked a lot from the collective in terms of how deeply we were prepared to go into a practice of love and loving-kindness.  For many of us,  we aspire for a program like BUST to be a liberating space from the oppression of our everyday lives. Challenging interpersonal dynamics can give rise to disappointment and frustration.

In the end, though, I think we collectively rose to the occasion – including people who had been struggling with their experiences of the community. We came together and gave three playful, energetic performances. Throughout these performances, we held each other through ups and downs. I like to think that despite the challenging times, we all came out of BUST with stronger, more developed muscles for lifting up our selves and each other. Muscles that we can then use in the so-called real world.

In the different communities you inhabit, what kind of opportunities do you have dedicate time and energy to strengthen your muscles for creating beloved community? Sure, we all could be doing this day-in and day-out. Yet, this question refers to time-limited dedicated spaces where the majority of people are consciously committed to doing this work individually, collectively and intensively. Well, what opportunities do you have for such strength-building?

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