AUDIO: Reading poetry to Rotarians (23 June 2016)

Photo by Radio's Don Bedell

Photo by Radio’s Don Bedell

Today I did a 15-minute poetry reading at the Downtown State College Rotary Club. Thanks very much to Jason Browne for inviting me, and to the club members for their gracious attention. You can listen to the entire reading using the player above, or download the mp3 using the link.

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A Meditation Confession

On December 17, 2015, I stopped meditating.

Screenshot_2016-06-21-17-16-01I’d been meditating at least 20 minutes a day for more than three years without missing a day, and in an on-and-off way for many more years than that. In fact, I tracked my meditation on an app called Meditation Helper. It has a little widget (pictured) that helped me remember to meditate and held me accountable for doing it every day because I didn’t want to reset the “longest streak” count to zero. As you can see, I was at 1,209 consecutive days when I missed one day and stopped completely. I was so shocked that I’d missed that day that it was like the wind went out of my meditative sails. That was more than six months ago.

In those intervening months, I haven’t considered myself less of a Buddhist, though I’ve felt a combination of guilt and sadness over not getting to the cushion. In March, slightly less than four months after I stopped meditating, I started walking every day, which has made a big difference and has, in some ways, become like meditation.

During this hiatus, I’ve read a few very valuable Buddhist books. One was Don’t Be A Jerk by Brad Warner, a wonderful look at the work of Dogen. I’m about halfway through the latest book by Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism, a brilliant and inspiring look at secular Buddhism and the Pali canon. A few days ago, I read Lodro Rinzler’s brief Sit Like A Buddha, which, while aimed at new meditators, still contained a perspective I found refreshing. I’m also reading Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Heart Path of the Warrior, a classic text of almost-Buddhism that, like Batchelor’s book, is very secular in its approach. These books helped me engage with my practice even when I wasn’t actively sitting each day. Are books a substitute for meditation? No. But they can help refuel your tank when it’s been depleted.

Two days ago I started sitting again. I’m using the same app, though I’m having second thoughts about it. I wonder whether it might be healthier just to set an alarm on my phone but not track the consecutive days. In any case, I’m glad to be back on the cushion.

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AUDIO: I’m so tired of all of this

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This morning on The Morning Mixtape, I’m struggling to be upbeat in light of the hatred on display every day in our world. Here’s some audio from the show.

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Two bulldozers with one stone: altering my activism

onasia_environmental_exhibition-550x369I’ve been thinking recently about the types of activism I’ve been involved in over the past 25 years. For the most part I gravitate toward social and economic justice issues, and anti-war work. I’ve done very little, if any, environmental activism.

Now, however, the more I look around at the world we’re living in, and the more I think about the planet on which my children will grow up and perhaps raise their own families, the more I’m convinced that there’s no greater need than to mitigate the effects of global warming.

I’m not talking about saving the planet. To quote one of my gurus, George Carlin: “The planet is fine. The people are fucked.” He was right. The planet will be here long after humans are gone. Nor am I trying to save the trees or the whales or the bottle-butted blue-nosed snorklewhammer. Instead, my desire to do more is motivated by two things, one selfish and one less so:

1. I’d like to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink and healthy food to eat.

2. I believe in the principle of ahimsa, which means to do as little harm as possible.

Yes, I’d like there to be beautiful vistas and massive forests and rolling oceans and, you know, the Solomon Islands and all that. But really, it’s those two principles – self-preservation (and the protection of my children’s future) and the idea of doing as little harm as possible – that are motivating me.

Recently I’ve been reading Edward Abbey. I finished Desert Solitaire a couple weeks ago, and I’m reading The Monkey Wrench Gang now. It’s hard to read Abbey and not feel compelled to get out there and cause trouble in the name of stopping our continued destruction of our habitat. Plus I naturally tend toward direct action rather than lobbying or making phone calls. I believe in the words of Mario Savio:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

I mentioned that I gravitate toward social justice and economic justice work. As it turns out, a benefit of working to change the way we live and the impact we have on our environment is that our most destructive behaviors tend to harm not only the environment, but also the people who do the work and the people impacted by that work.

At the root of all of this, in my opinion, is our unsustainable system of corporate capitalism and plutocracy. This means that working on environmental issues can very directly involve striking at the heart of our capitalist system. Two bulldozers with one stone, so to speak.

I’m not saying anything new, nor I have reached a definitive answer about the direction of my activism. But I do think it’s time for me to change what I’m doing, and start focusing on either stopping the destruction or, if it’s too late for that, on figuring out how to live in the very different world that will emerge. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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What I Read In April

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I thoroughly enjoyed my April reading. I finally caught up on back issues of The Sun, Barrelhouse and The Baffler. I also finally read Edward Abbey’s brilliant Desert Solitaire. I’m a big fan of Sparrow, so I was excited to get to read his new book ahead of its release in May. I’m still reading the wonderful manga series Lone Wolf & Cub. And finally I read (and was underwhelmed by) a couple new comics. How about you?

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The Narrowness Of Our Thinking, or, A Message To Zort 137

The Narrowness Of Our Thinking, or, A Message To Zort 137

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As I, like you, surf the waves of this interminable election season, I am once again disappointed at the relative nearness of the horizon for which even the most progressive candidates are aiming. Yes, we have a socialist running for president, and yes, he seems to be doing fairly well (though nearly guaranteed to lose). But even the Great Septuagenarian Avenger can’t or won’t say what needs to be said about the system in which my children will grow to an increasingly despairing adulthood.

As a people, we have narrowed the scope of our thinking and limited the range of our compassion until any crumb dropped from the master’s table seems like manna from the heaven we mostly don’t believe in anymore. We’ve fallen so far that even the ideas of a patrician such as FDR seem like the radical ravings of a revolutionary compared with what we’ll now accept as progress.

Companies don’t send hundreds of thousands of jobs to distant lands (like Canada) because they otherwise stand to lose money. They offshore the work to make even more obscene profits than the merely profane profits they’d make if they kept those jobs here at home. The idea of ever-increasing profit is no longer even questioned. It’s taken as a given, like sunrises, death, and private health insurance. It’s been so long since the charter of any corporation was revoked – an act which, in these days of corporate personhood, is murder – that most citizens don’t even realize that’s an option. Corporations are here to stay, they must be profitable, and they may use any means necessary to achieve that end. The recent release of the Panama Papers is shocking only for the utter lack of surprise contained in those pages. We might have a few proper names that we previously lacked, but we certainly have no new information about the way our system works.

There is more than enough food to feed every person in the world. There is more than enough money to clothe and house and educate every person in the world. We have the technology and the resources to cure – or at least ameliorate the symptoms of – most illnesses. We know the kinds of food people should eat to remain healthy, and we know how to grow them with relatively little harm to the planet on which we live. These are not opinions. They are facts. That they seem like science fiction is only because we’ve lost the ability to think beyond … well, beyond. Here in The West, we’re raised to consume, taught to obey, and steered away from thoughts that might rock this leaky dinghy on which we’ve staked our meager survival. In the global south, the fight for survival is so clear and present that there aren’t extra hours in the day to imagine a world better than this, and even fewer hours with which to act upon such daydreams in any case.

Any sane observer of this planet – the aliens, say, that we have to hope won’t show up to marvel at our ineptitude – could only conclude that we are so hateful and lacking in compassion that we choose to let children starve while we build bigger weapons, bigger cars, bigger factory farms. Because otherwise how could the human race let this much suffering happen? The argument against the Biblical god is that He couldn’t possibly be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, because babies die of malnutrition and innocent children are beaten to death. But using that same logic, it becomes harder and harder to believe in the existence of humanity. Perhaps we’ve been replaced, without our knowledge, by seven billion perfect copies with the hearts taken out.

In these debauched and dismaying times, it’s incumbent upon all of us to work to lessen the suffering of our fellow travelers on this spaceship. That’s an inescapable truth. But that lessening suffering is the apex of our hopes is the surest sign that this experiment – human life on earth – has failed. When the aliens do, inevitably, arrive, the best we can hope for is that we’re already gone. Zort 137 and its comrades can land, take a few selfies in front of moss-covered mounds that used to be skyscrapers, then head back onto the spaceways to meet up with other creatures who spent more time focusing on improving the lives of everyone than on poisoning and bludgeoning and short-changing and enslaving as many of their fellow beings as possible.

Zort 137, if you’re reading this, we’re not sorry. Most of us never really even realized we were doing it.

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