Monday, April 28, 2008

culture and change

Last weekend Kassia picked up what appeared to be something like an activist's flashcard. On the front it reads, "Alternative popular culture." On the back it reads, "struggle to aquire, maintain or resist power using culture as the site of or for that struggle."

This reminded me of a group I ran into at the National Conference on Organized Resistance back in 2003, called SmartMeme. In their workshop they outlined the key points in the development of an activist campaign where, traditionally, mainstream media and other institutions take control of the situation by framing the issue and controling the language and issues. We looked at strategies for counter-acting that pattern.

"SmartMeme is about doing social change in a holistic way : shifting from issues to values, supplementing organization building with movement building, focusing on the intersections of story telling, relational organizing, communications, alliance building and creative new forms of civic engagement and action.

SmartMeme amplifies the impact of local and national non-profit and grassroots organizations with capacity-building partnerships, collaborations, and new strategy tools to change the stories that shape the dominant culture. We integrate the art of framing, the science of strategy, and the approach of grassroots organizing through our framework of story-based strategy." (from the smartMeme website)

I'm writing this as something of a follow up to my previous post. Somehow I'm finally starting to put the pieces together of this new culture that's emerging. To some extent it's a resistance culture. But it's primarily that in that in order to have the space to create the culture we want to live in we have to push on the boundaries of the dominant culture, because they're not leaving much room to work in. And this conflict is more about values, lifestyles, economics than it is about physical, or even formally political confrontation.

According to Wikipedia this idea is actually nothing new. "The phrase "culture war" is a translation of the German Kulturkampf, the name given to the struggle between the government of the German Empire under Otto von Bismarck against the power of the Catholic Church from 1871-1878.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1920s argued that the reason the proletarian revolution had not advanced in Europe as fast as many Marxists had expected it would was due to cultural hegemony. The theory of cultural hegemony states that a diverse culture can be dominated by one class because of that class's monopoly over the mass media and popular culture. Gramsci therefore argued for a culture war in which anti-capitalist elements seek to gain a dominant voice in mass media, education, and other mass organizations."

In my opinion, another reason that different political and social movements operating from a base of counter-culture creation have had limited impact is because there has been too much focus on ideology and rhetoric, as well as organizational structure and, as a movement develops, bureaucracy, and too little on the real point of the matter, which is to better the lives of those who are oppressed.

In my work, I hope to turn this around. I hope to work for the betterment of life circumstances for all, and to organize people and resources in a way that clearly makes their lives better. If it's not obvious, something's wrong. If there is energy wasted on bureaucracy and institution, something's wrong. If I can simply point to what's happening and say, "look we're helping people meet their own needs while meeting the needs of others through their own hard work and mutual support" it will be hard to argue with that.

Friday, April 25, 2008


"Portland is where the zeitgeist in America is," Thomas, another Twin Oaks refugee, said to me recently.
"The what?" I asked.
"It's a German word. It means 'spirit of the age.'"

Intuitively I understood what he meant. I also understood why I'm so attracted to Portland. I've always been attracted to the cutting edge, the newest, deepest understanding of, well, just about anything. And in particular, as I have begun to think more and more in terms of what I should do with my life to create the greatest possible good in the world, Portland's identity as the premier green city in the country is a big draw.

Identity isn't enough. There seems to be a reality backing it up. Brush at Tryon Life Community Farm said to me, "the city likes the attention and realizes that it's because of all these young radicals doing interesting things, but the city's not quite sure what to do with them. There are more and more coming, but there are also people who are attracted to Portland who are just going to live mainstream lifestyles. That's easier to plug in on. So we've got to give these radicals things to do that will also allow them to afford to live here."

I'm writing this piece in the dining room of the Emma Goldman Finishing School, an egalitarian, income-sharing, urban commune of (currently) 10 adults and 3 kids. Emma's and Ganas on Staten Island, NYC, are the only urban intentional communities doing this level of resource sharing that I'm aware of. Why is this important? Economic justice. Egalitarian economics. Creating a system of mutual support to escape, or at least create a buffer against the mainstream, capitalist economy. It's not just about creating a groovy, comfortable situation for your little group. The way Emma's sees it, "[w]e work to create this future in the here and now by building alternative economic, political, and cultural infrastructure designed to oppose and replace the dominant system. We aim to create a home that embodies our shared values, provides a fun and supportive environment in which to live, and helps forge a dense network of relations with people and institutions outside of our community... Our home is a place of self-education, experimentation, and radical democracy - a community where the means and ends are one." (Emma Goldman Finishing School, Community Values: Root Document)

The reason why I'm more attracted to urban settings right now is because I think we need to create these systems on ever-increasing scales in order to counter the environmentally and socially destructive (I would go as far as to say suicidal) effects of the mainstream socio-economic system. According to The Endless City, a project by The Urban Age, 10% of the world's population lived in cities in 1900. Today, it's 50%. In 2050 the number is estimated to reach 75%. The anti-civilizationist Derrick Jensen argues that cities are inherently unsustainable. Whether or not that's true they're not going away any time soon, and must be made more sustainable. And sustainability is not just about ecology. It's about economics, politics, and human relationships.

Raine Eisler in her book The Real Wealth of Nations proposes an economic system that is based on caring and caregiving. This sees social relationships as integral, as fundamental, whereas classical economics only considers individuals in their roles as employers, employees, and consumers. She points out that the household economy, the unpaid community economy, and the environmental economy, which are all given little or no value in the dominant economic paradigm, are the foundation. How can we have a healthy economy without healthy people? How can we have healthy people without healthy communities? How can we have healthy communities without a healthy environment? And how can we have any of these without economic policies and practices that take this reality into account?

The economist Bernard Lietaer also points out the fallacy of an economic system that does not take relationships into consideration. He says, "different currency systems create different kinds of relationships... If I want to cooperate with you then I'll create a currency that actually creates cooperation... The economy of the future is going to be one of relationships, the choice of relationships will determine the type of currency we should be using." <>

Then there's social ecology. Social ecology "holds that present ecological problems are rooted in deep-seated social problems, particularly in dominatory hierarchical political and social systems. These have resulted in an uncritical acceptance of an overly competitive grow-or-die philosophy. It suggests that this cannot be resisted by individual action such as ethical consumerism but must be addressed by more nuanced ethical thinking and collective activity grounded in radical democratic ideals. The complexity of relationships between people and with nature is emphasised, along with the importance of establishing social structures that take account of this."

Annie Leonard, in her video The Story of Stuff points out that viable solutions are being developed for large scale systems: Green chemistry, zero waste, closed loop production, local living economies, ecopsychology, social ecology, deep ecology, permaculture, etc. Raine Eisler references her involvement with pioneers in chaos and complexity theory and how these theories provide scientific basis for this new brand of integrated-systems theories.

We now have what the counter-culture movement of the sixties lacked: a creditable and understandable base of academic and scientific work to support the practical application of our values and ideals. Mix this with a counter-culture that has been continuing to develop over the last several decades: aspects of eastern and new age philosophy as well as reclaimed christian and jewish philosophy, hip hop culture, anarchist-DIY culture, an explosion of underground music and art and the technology for independent mass-distribution, home gardening, community gardens, a steady increase in collective living situations...

But in my opinion the academic and scientific work has surpassed the practical application, which is dangerous. "The map is not the territory," as one of my teachers, Steven Young, says, and "practice and theory must go together," says, S. N. Goenka, another of my teachers. Theory without practice can become irrelevant, or simply useless.

Portland is where I see the most developed practical application of this body of theory. There's a strong, cohesive social culture supporting organizing and innovation, a solid coalition of NGO's with a mission of creating a "livable future" for all city residents, and a progressive, responsive city government. It's where the zeitgeist in America is.

It may be that I chose not to live there for more than a few months. But in that time I plan to learn as much as possible and be as deeply inspired as possible, so that where ever I go I will take this zeitgeist, the spirit of the age with me.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

the story of stuff


It's an amazingly well articulated and presented explanation of what's wrong with the current global socio-economic system, why it needs to change, and what we can do to change it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

brain science and meditation

A friend sent me this link recently and said the following:

"I watched this great video of a ted talk with Chad the other day, and I said to him, wow! Now we just need to figure out how to induce that sort of experience without the stroke part. He was like yeah, that's the basic concept of transcendental meditation and samati experiences and all that. And I think I finally got why you do silence retreats - but I mean really got it. I would probably be utterly bored, I'm very ADD, I like to find more engaging ways to turn off left brain chatter, but I understand the motivation much better than I did. It's a very direct path - silence through silence."

I responded thus:

Yeah, that's it, that's why I meditate, practicing the right brain experience of oneness and compassion. It brings such peace within myself. It is on some level a purely selfish pursuit, but it is in our self-interest to help others and make the world a better place. The more I love myself the more I love others the more I love myself the more... the happier I am the happier others are the happier I am the happier...

The thing about meditation, some kinds anyway, is that even though you're doing nothing you're not really doing nothing. Keeping the mind quite, calm, and focused is possibly the most challenging thing anyone can ever attempt. Partly this is because we are all filled with so much pain and suffering, and by bringing ourselves into the present moment we become aware of that reality and experience it fully. But the only way through it is to experience it, with awareness and equanimity. But somehow, for some reason I don't fully understand, that's where we learn love and compassion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the trouble with labels

Our society has a two dimensional view of relationship. If you're not single you're either on the marriage track or your dating, which these days, I've been told, means being in a monogamous relationship with an indefinite lifespan and an implicit consideration of marriage. Consequently, the terminology for defining relationships is far too simple to accommodate the complexity that some of us weirdo's out here engage in.

Over the last month, as Kassia and I have traveled across the country and up the west coast, we've been noticing that we're different from other couples. We're not a unit or a package. We don't take for granted that our relationship will continue to exist in a particular form, or at all, for any length of time. Our lives are very intertwined right now but we don't assume that will persist.

From very early on Kassia and I set some clear intentions for our relationship. We agreed that we didn't want to get into a pattern of trying to change each other. We wanted to accept each other for who we were and allow our relationship to evolve accordingly. At the same time we agreed that one of the main purposes of our relationship was to support each other in becoming more of who we want to be, which was in part a recognition that we will continue to grow and change. Later that expanded to the intention to support each other in doing our work in the world.

We recently reaffirmed that as the priority. Our lives are driven by what we're doing with our lives. Our relationship is viable so long as we can support each other in that, and ideally find areas to collaborate. It helps immensely that we share a very similar meditation practice (two hours a day of vipassina.) It reinforces this shared philosophy, provides us with a common language for understanding and working with our relationship, and helps us continue to grow and evolve, and gain deeper understanding and clarity about ourselves, each other, life, the universe, and everything.

This differentiates us from couples who hold their identity as a couple as equal if not superior to their individual identities. We are each seeking to follow our own path. At the same time we're open to what that might look like, seeking to follow fundamental principles and ideals as opposed to specific visions. For example, for myself, I say that my goal is to make the best use of my life to make the world a better place. That could manifest in many different ways, some of which would keep us together, others that wouldn't. That goal may ultimately lead me back to Twin Oaks to be with Willow, which would mean the end, or at least a monumental transformation of our relationship.

This presents us with a certain challenge in knowing what to call each other. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that I have this whole other family with a child - a set of relationships that is even more difficult to sum up in a word or two. Kassia and I have gone through a myriad of agreements over the last 2 years regarding our openness to other sexual/romantic relationships. Anyone who knows even a sliver of that experience, or knows about my family or any of the other people with whom either of us have been involved , and who isn't familiar with intentional community and polyamory, tends to be a bit befuddled by our relationship.

About 10 days ago we arrived in Chico and stayed with Dale (my father) at his cohousing community. Dale and I took a walk a couple days after we there. He asked how things were with Kassia and I. He couldn't quite tell where we were at in our relationship, but observed that we seemed like we were just good friends traveling together who's lives were on similar tracks. He also said that we seemed like we were really enjoying each other. We asked another member of the cohousing cmty to borrow a bike. He checked with his teenage son if we could borrow his, saying, "can Sky's friend borrow your bike?" We got a ride to Eugene with a member of Tryon Life Community Farm, where we're subletting a room in May. On the way up another member of Tryon called. "Guess who's in the car with me? Sky! Yeah, he and his, uh, friend Kassia."

Last year when Hawina, Willow and I were at the cohousing cmty in Chico we had a similar difficulty finding easy labels. Hawina and I had all but officially ended our romantic/sexual relationship. Now, and at that point, I still thought of Hawina as a partner. Over the last couple years I've half-jokingly called us domestic partners. But calling someone your partner carries a romantic/sexual, long-term-committed connotation. The long-term-committed part was and is still true, but as deeply bonded friends and co-parents. We're family. We're not exactly split up, nor are we divorced as we were never married. At this point you could say we're separated, or that I'm separated from the rest of my family. But the bond and identity Pax, Hawina, Willow, and I share as a family, ironically, has never been stronger.

When we were in Chico, often the easiest way to identify Hawina was as "Willow's mother." You can imagine the subtle awkwardness that phrasing illicits. A different awkwardness would be involved in saying, "this is my domestic partner Hawina." Similarly there would be plenty of room for misunderstanding if I qualified my partnership with Kassia by calling her my "life partner," which I've done in the past, meaning that we are partners in life, not for life. Of course, people who remember meeting Hawina and Willow didn't quite know what to make of Kassia even when I call her my partner. And often it is just too complicated to explain to people to whom I don't really have much connection.

As we've been moving towards this period of travel and re-location Kassia and I have been mostly referring to each other as "my partner," because this seems the closest to reality and the easiest to understand. It is still very over-simplified, and we both at times avoid going into details about the larger picture because we just don't want to take the time and energy, esp. with people who may be shocked or even offended. But ultimately it doesn't really matter. Neither of us are very interested in proselytizing at this point, nor are we particularly concerned with finding an appropriate package for our relationship - that would seem antithetical to our guiding philosophy.

Since Kassia and I have been together our practice has been to develop a deep intimacy and involvement with each other while maintaining an attitude of non-attachment. We're good allies. At some point it occurred to me that the label companions fit our relationship best. More recently I had the idea that we were a team. I was tickled at the possibility of coming up with a team name, mascot, etc. That idea incorporated the possibility that we might find other people to join our team (which could also manifest in a variety of forms.)

In one of my favorite tarot decks, the Zen Osho Tarot, there is a card called "friendliness" that captures the essence of what I'm getting at (the two of cups in traditional tarot, also thought of as the minor arcana version of the major arcana's "the lovers.")

The creator of the deck, Ma Deva Padma, shares these words:

"The branches of these two flowering trees are intertwined, and their fallen petals blend together on the ground in their beautiful colors. It is as if heaven and earth are bridged by love. But they stand individually, each rooted in the soil in their own connection with the earth. In this way they represent the essence of true friends, mature, easy with each other, natural. There is no urgency about their connection, no neediness, no desire to change the other into something else."

I feel immensely appreciative of Kassia and our relationship. I've been developing a lot of kooky ideas about relationships for over 10 years now. Having a solidly collaborative partner for a living experiment in intentional relationship has been an incredibly edifying and beautiful experience, and I know any relationships I have in the future, any kind of relationships, will be healthier and happier for sharing this dance with her.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


On our mad dash across the country Kassia and I took a slight detour to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This is where she grew up and where her mother and step-father still live. In early March there was still 3 ft of snow on the ground. But for just a three day visit the novelty didn't wear off, and there was a stillness and silence from the snow that I relished (especially after two manic days of driving from Virginia.)

Part of our visit to the great, frozen north was for Kassia to organize her worldly belongings. She left Twin Oaks with 4 or 5 boxes and bags - more than was feasible to carry during our travels between there and Portland. These 4 or 5 joined about 15 more that she'd been gradually sending home over the last 8 years.

It was an immensity of stuff. When all had been brought up from the basement, out from the car, and laid across the living room floor, well, there wasn't much floor left. Miraculously, between Kassia, her mother, and I we managed to cull through and repack this mountain of personal materials in one day.

Kassia's step-father, Dana, shared with us a perfect poem for the occasion. A poem of his creation, it summed up the experience perfectly. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to share it. Dana wrote to me, "I am a little concerned that once I let it up on the web that it is gone forever and I'll never make the million dollars I expect to make on my poems someday. I suppose as long as I am credited and I'll put copyright on the bottom, as if that will do any good. I haven't distributed it anywhere yet, but I have thought about it."

So, the world debut of a poem I think we can all intimately relate to.

Getting Rid of Stuff

Stuff gotten rid of is stuff fulfilled.
Stuff is what we’ve got too much of.
It’s refreshing to purge possession
Of things saved
Ten or twenty years,
Or more!
Hardly or never looked at again.

Things for which their worth
Has long since been extracted.
Things to do with...
“What was her name, anyway?”
Things for which significance
Diminished --
If any significance existed at all.

Because stuff becomes heavier with time
Complicating our lives,
Weighing us down
And slowing our momentum
Into the new we are meant for.

Physical stuff congests us,
Constantly tempting us to keep,
As if we can keep anything.
As if we can keep the feeling itself
That object once gave us,
And make time stand still.

Oh let’s feel the freedom,
The relief from owning stuff.
The burden lifted.
Nothing is so simple,
So beautiful as nothing.

Yes, next to not keeping stuff,
Getting rid of stuff is second best.
A humbling admission of days gone by.
A delayed and sad sort of satisfaction.

D. Richter (b 1948)
Copyright 2003

Friday, April 4, 2008

thoughts from a feminist man

In February a woman at Twin Oaks engaged the community in a discussion on feminism. I facilitated the two meetings that happened on the topic, which meant I kept my personal thoughts to myself ;0) But before I left I decided to write my thoughts and share them with the cmty.

I have mixed feelings about identifying myself as feminist, similar to my ambivalence around calling myself an anarchist, pagan, or polyamorous. Feminism means many things to many people, and for the most part I prefer to avoid having people project their judgments and associations onto me. But in some cases claiming that kind of identity is important. In this situation the cmty had heard a lot from mild to moderately charged feminist women, and a lot from confused and defensive men, and very little from men speaking from an empowered, feminist perspective. It felt important to me to break up the gender split that seemed to be developing.


How I dismantle and perpetuate sexism and traditional gender roles:

While these statements use unqualified and hypothetical phrasing each one was born of my personal experience. Said another way, I do all of these sometimes and do none of them all the time. I chose this phrasing because the lists are meant to describe my experience as well as reflect the experience of others. In reading this I hope you will either recognize these behaviors in yourself or others or will recognize corresponding or complimentary behaviors in yourself or others.

As a man, I dismantle sexism and traditional gender roles when...

...I pass someone else (esp. a woman) on the street or in a work area, and one of us must step aside, and I don't assume I have the right-of-way.

...I'm speaking to more than one person and make sure to look at all people an equal amount of the time while speaking.

...someone is speaking to me and a woman, and the person speaking is speaking to me more than the woman, and I repeatedly glance at the woman while the person is speaking to encourage them to speak to both of us.

...I don't assume that my idea is the best or that what I have to say is more important than what others have to say.

...I don't assume that other people don't have the ideas or information that I have.

...I make sure not to take more than my share of the air-time, even if this means sitting in silence.

...I spend time listening to others before speaking, and when I leave space for others to say things that I might have said.

...I encourage Willow to express all his feelings.

...I am cuddly and affectionate with Willow.

...someone asks me a question to which I don't know the answer or have no information on the topic, and I say "I don't know."

...I seek emotional support from other men.

...a woman tells me about an experience of sexism she's had and I just listen and learn.

...I let myself be small and scared, and when I let myself be held.

...I pay attention to the impacts of my words and actions, acknowledge any negative impacts, and make commitments to myself to shift my behavior.

...I feel my feelings and express them in constructive ways.

...I slow down and try to understand what's going on around me rather than trying to exert influence or control.

As a man, I perpetuate sexism and traditional gender roles when...

...I act like I've got it all under control and will take care of everything.

...I make it sound like I know what I'm talking about even when I don't, or that I'm sure about something when I'm not.

...I seek intimacy primarily from sexual/romantic relationships with women.

...I prioritize sexual/romantic relationships over platonic relationships.

...a woman is having difficulty with a task involving physical strength or dexterity, or that is technically complex, and I try to help without asking if help is wanted (rarely do I do this with men.)

...I unconsciously infuse my interactions with women with sexual energy.

...I assess a social situation in terms of which women I might be able to have sex with and which men might get in the way of that.

...I give Willow a hard time for feeling scared to do something.

...I engage in escapist behavior to avoid feeling my feelings.

...I side with women against other men.

...I put pressure on my lover(s) to be sexual.

...I damage an inanimate object during an interpersonal conflict as a way of getting attention or gaining power.

...I fail to take into account the larger social context of sexism and gender issues during conflicts with women (even if they are in a more powerful position at the time.)

...I don't allow women, or other men to be more powerful than me.

Reflections on my gender socialization:

I remember being 6 years old, standing on the playground next to another boy. "You're standing like a girl," he said. "Huh?" I responded. I looked down. My right foot was pointed forward, my left cocked to the side with my knee bent. "That's how girls stand. Boys stand with both their feet forward." He said it good-naturedly enough, clearly trying to help me out. And I looked around - he was right. I started standing "like a boy."

When I was 8 years old two male friends of mine and I experimented sexually with each other. As we walked back to our apartment complex one of them said, "I hope this doesn't mean we're gay." My stomach lurched. I was almost sure it meant we were gay, and I was terrified at the prospect. Two of my father's best friends were a gay couple. I'd never felt negatively towards gays, but I knew how other people felt about them. I was already made fun of a lot at school.

When I was 9 years old we moved and I went to a new school. "What do you do at recess here?" I asked one boy during my first recess there. At my previous school, with my old friends, we would bring various toys to school and play elaborate games around the roots of the giant trees bordering one side of the school field. "We play sports." "Is that it?" "Yeah." He said it like there wasn't anything else one would do. I started playing sports.

All through junior high it was all I could do to keep myself out of the way of the violent interactions of other boys in my school. Miraculously, I think by staying quiet, looking stoic, and simply being larger than most other kids, I never got beat up, but I watched quite a few boys who looked more nerdy and who had slighter frames become the focus of some very unpleasant attention.

Also in junior high was when I realized that I was suppose to be having sex. Or, at least, I was suppose to be talking about how I was having sex. And I wasn't suppose to be masturbating - that was bad, for some reason I never quite figured out.

When I was 18 years old a chiropractor pointed out how most men, myself included at the time, tend to walk like toy soldiers. He pointed out that twisting the lower back and swinging the hips as one walks is much better for the body. So he had me walk across the room and moved my hips for me as I walked. I continued practicing. I started receiving comments about how my gait appeared feminine or queer. But mostly these were actually said as compliments or appreciations, and I found myself beginning to feel my body more.

Thoughts on the creation of an empowered, non-misogynistic male identity:

Very early in life it was pointed out to me that neither did I want to conform to traditional male gender roles, nor did I want to embrace the wishy-washy, insecure version of masculinity (a SNAG, or sensitive new age guy) that formed in reaction to feminism (this approach has seemed satisfying to neither feminist women nor to the men trying to please them.) And I certainly didn't want to become an unintentional, confused mixture of the two, which is what I saw and continue to see in many men in alternative cultures. I wanted to be powerful, but not in a way that took power from or over others, and role models seemed to be in scarce supply.

How do I empower myself in a way that empowers others, and vice versa? I think most men have the idea that they're not suppose to be angry or aggressive. I think learning how to express those feelings in constructive ways (i.e. not at others, and not in ways that fuel resentment, bitterness or animosity) is important. But there's a deeper level. Taking the energy behind those emotions and expressing it in creative, passionate, positive ways that make the world a better place. And I'm not talking about the angry anarchist activist. I'm talking about having a vision of how you want the world to look, and how people behave and treat each other in that world, and living into it, making it happen by being it. This applies to a lot more than sexism or gender identity.

Recently Ivy asked me, "have you ever felt like you had to apologize for your maleness at Twin Oaks?" My first response was "no." Then I said, "I don't think I'm a good person to ask." Why? I've spent a lot of time feeling guilty about being a man in world where men commit so much violence towards women, as well as other men (yes, there are instances of violence and oppression by women towards men, but few in comparison to the reverse, and nothing as systemic and institutionalized over the course of millennia.) I've spent plenty of time fearing and hating myself and other men. No one could have made me feel worse about myself than I made myself feel. But I got through it. How? Basically I realized that feeling bad wasn't doing anyone any good. What I needed to do was acknowledge my behavior, determine how I wanted to do things differently, and persistently practice the new behavior. I've come along way, I know I'm doing my best, and I know I'm continually trying to do better. I feel good about who I am. I may do things that I see the need to apologize for, but I see no reason to apologize for who I am.

Men don't just oppress women. Men oppress other men. And the men who oppress other men were oppressed by other men. Many men are emotional cripples. Men are taught to hate and fear each other. Men are taught that they are only worth what they can accomplish and provide.

Many men are so starved for intimacy and connection. Men are taught that the only way to get intimacy is through sexual/romantic relationships with women. It's very easy for emotional dependency to develop, which can lead to obsessive/possessive behavior, resentment, domineering behavior, violence, etc.

If there is nothing else that's been important for me to learn on my path it's to have compassion for men, including myself. Men don't just victimize women and other men, they are victims of their own behavior. This doesn't mean they aren't responsible for their behavior - they most certainly are. They must muster the courage to face the oppressor within themselves, and the fear and pain that lies underneath. And they must do this with the support of other men. Women can help, but they cannot be expected to help nor can they really understand and be there for men in the way that other men can. Women figured this out decades ago. It's time for men to step up.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

facing my weaknesses

Ten days is a long time. It's a really long time. It's hard to realize just how long a time it is. Really, one day is a long time. An hour is a long time. A minute is a long time. A veritable eternity when you're doing nothing.

I just spent ten days doing another meditation course. 12 hrs of sitting meditation a day for 10 days. It's not exactly doing nothing. It's actually incredibly unpleasant a lot of the time. Somehow it's easier when it's unpleasant though. The meditation becomes more active and the time passes quicker. But I make it through one sit, and then come back for the next one, and I stand next to my cushions for a second and think to myself, "oh my god, I'm going to do this again? and again, and again and again..."

It's unpleasant, physically and mentally, though at a certain depth the distinction between the two completely breaks down. On my last course, after having sat through 4 other courses, my tail bone started hurting. I'd never had trouble with my tail bone. The back pain has never gone away, though on my fourth course I stopped having pains my legs. But those pains never really felt like they were really connected to my physical structure. They felt more like amorphous, fluctuating blobs, almost alive, like wriggling amoebas. But the pain in my tail bone felt "real," like something pressing hard against it. But if it was real why hadn't it come up till now? From the get-go on this course the pain in my tail bone was back. So on day 3 I went and talked to the assistant teacher about it. "It might be physical, and it might just be part of your mental reactions, it's hard to know," he said. "Experiment with it, try different positions, work with it, go back to the breath if you need to." It was reassuring to talk with him. And the next sit I had no pain in my tail bone. For the rest of the course it came up occasionally, sometimes strongly, sometimes less so, sometimes not at all. Weird.

I was wracked with anxiety for most of the first two and a half days of this course. I thought about Willow a lot during the day, and was haunted by dreams of him at night. I cried a lot. I was in a lot of pain and discomfort while sitting. My whole body ached and I just couldn't sit still. The usual thoughts ran through my head: "I can't do this." "There's something wrong with me." "I should be doing better than this."

Things improved after I talked with the assistant teacher. He encouraged me to change my posture more, and reassured me that as long as I was doing my best to continuously bring my attention back to my respiration and sensations I was doing my job. He encouraged me to notice, "oh, this is self-doubt, this is anxiety." "It's common for long-term students to sometimes think, oh it's my 10th course, or 15th course, or second long course, I should be further along." I felt better. Mostly I'd gone to him for reassurance and perspective anyway.

I felt very humbled. This was my 6th course. I generally think getting through one course is a miracle for anyone. But I still get caught in the "I should be doing better" thought pattern. This crazy part of me keeps thinking that I'm about to reach enlightenment, if only I can do a little better (and boy does the anxiety hit me when I think I'm failing.)

It's clear as ever that I've taken a mere few steps down a very, very, very long path. It was very obvious to me how weak minded and neurotic I am. Luckily I was seeing it with a deep sense of compassion.

In some ways I am a very open and expressive person. But I hold some tall, strong walls up around myself. I'm afraid that if people see me for who I really am they will run screaming. I hold myself apart from people. I'm afraid of them, that they'll think I'm weird, that they'll reject me. Sometimes I just hide. Sometimes I cover it up with arrogance and superiority. Oh, and I'm cocky. I'd gotten this feedback from a couple people recently and denied it. But no, they were right: "Oh yeah, this is my 6th course, I've got this meditation shit down, no problem." Hmm, right.

On day 3 of the course, once I calmed down I began to observe my mind more: oh, that's self-doubt. Oh, that's anxiety. Oh, that's a comparing thought, an evaluating thought, a judging thought. Wow, there was a lot of those last three! Clearer than ever I got to see how hyperactive my tendencies to judge, evaluate, and compare are, especially between myself and others, always trying to asses how I measure up to others.

I also recognized how cowardly and conflict-avoidant I can be. I thought about how I've spent the last 4 months avoiding communication with a good friend because I think he might be mad at me. I really have no idea whether he is or not, but I've been too afraid to ask and face it, and have spent months worrying about it.

It was powerful to face how fidgety I get, not just when meditating, but all the time, especially when I'm trying to sleep. I'm so afraid of pain and discomfort and will shift my body to avoid it before it's even started. And as usual I drove myself crazy with anticipation, constantly thinking, "oh my god, still X more days..." It didn't matter how close to the end I was. Hours away the anxiety was still there: "oh my god, I still have X more hours..."

But again, what was most striking to me about all this was looking at how much energy I spend trying to make myself seem like I'm fine, I've got it all together, no worries, no problems. I deny my weaknesses. I hide them. But boy are they ever there.

I need to practice being small and weak with people. Not in a way that obligates them to take care of me, but that inspires them to hold a space of love and compassion for me, and to allow themselves to be small and weak in turn. Well, I'll let this be a start, pretending like I'm not still hiding behind an electronic screen.

I am so confused and anxious right now. During the course I realized how unsure I still am about my decision to leave Twin Oaks and Willow. Now that the course is done I find myself terrified to spend time with people and tell them about what's going on. I don't want to face the grief, nor do I want to face the embarrassment and shame I feel about leaving Willow, and I especially don't want to face any judgement they might have towards me.

I have no idea how my absence is impacting Willow. His life at Twin Oaks is so rich and so full of people who love him. I'm sure he wants me there. Coming out of the course I had an email from him asking me when I was coming back (ouch.) But how strong is that desire, and how is it actually affecting him? I have no idea.

It's clear to me how much it's affecting me. There's something so unambiguously satisfying about caring for a child, having their trust and confidence. Being a good parent is undoubtedly important work to make the world a better place. Is there really anything more worthwhile? I think about things I'm missing watching him grow up. He's so cute and smart. Challenging myself to stay emotionally accessible and creatively engaged with him has been profound.

It's not just him pulling me back. It would be so much easier to go back to Twin Oaks. It's a big scary world out here, and that's a small, well known world, filled with people who love and appreciate me, where I can be a big fish. All my self-doubt and insecurity is tell me to go back.

I don't want to listen to my fears. Last fall I was so in touch with this exciting path and the opportunities for pursuing it. I'm not really in that place right now. I'm sure things will look and feel different once I've returned to Portland and spent some time re-exploring possibilities there.

At the same time, if what I want to do is make the best use of my life to make the world a better place, why do I think I will be any more successful in that in Portland than at Twin Oaks? Sure, the results will look different, but who am I to judge which would be better?

I don't know what will happen, but I know I need to be exploring this path. I refuse to live life wondering what I might have been able to accomplish or how it would have been if I'd only taken the chance. And I know I don't need to make a decision yet, but it's still torturing me right now. I'm tired of my life being up in the air. I'm tired of not being able to commit. I'm tired of making people wait and wonder what I'm going to do, tired of people not being able to count on me or invest in me. And I'm tired of the grief and fear.

At the end of the meditation course, after the vow of silence was over, I was telling a fellow student about my situation. "Wow, it must be nice to not have anything you have to do," he said. "Yeah," I said. "I just have my whole life to recreate." He laughed.

Only it's so much more complicated than that. Splitting my attention, however unevenly, across a continent doesn't strike me as simple or easy task. Can I do it? Can I handle being apart from Willow? Are my dreams and ambitious really possible? I have no idea, and so far each day post-meditation course has been another day of working to keep my head above the anxious sea.

At this point my inclination would be to put some kind of positive, philosophical spin on the whole thing. I'm going to refrain.