Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I'll Take That Milky Way, Good Sir

Tonight I was at my film class which is almost four hours long and goes through traditional dinner times. In this course, we begin with a screening or two, have a break, and then have a discussion until 10pm. Naturally, during the break people go get coffee if they didn't have it already or eat some food. I had half a turkey sandwich, a lemon-lime seltzer, and some pretzels left over from lunch. Toward the end of the break, my eagle eyes picked up three mini Milky Ways on the table the professor uses as his desk or station. I thought, "when did those get there?" When Proffie came back into the room, he was just as surprised as I was to find candy there. It turns out that another student had leftovers and didn't want them, so she put them on the desk for anyone to take. He was about to speak, so he did not take one but offered them to everyone else.

And no one moved. Not one person in a pretty crowded classroom.

I thought to myself, "I love Milky Ways. Why shouldn't I have one?" From my position toward the front of the room, I reached out to the table, took one and ate it. Besides fulfilling my desires, I thought this move would give other students permission to take the remaining two, which I would have been happy to take myself if I were so damn self-sacrificing.

The Milky Way was amazing. It definitely made slogging through early Antonioni more bearable. It was a few seconds of delight.

And yet nobody followed suit. The other two fun-size bars just sat there, neglected.

Why did no one eat the other Milky Ways? Well, on an individual level, there is no way of knowing exactly. I can't speak for everyone (or anyone). I'm sure there was a variety of motivations in the classroom. Maybe some people were just not hungry. Maybe some people don't enjoy the deep pleasures of chocolate with caramel. Maybe others felt they were too far back in the room go to get them.

Academic environments are also strange in that there is a sense of decorum people don't want to break but no one has articulated exactly what it is. At my department's lecture series, they serve Chardonnay and Perrier in plastic cups. The tone of the event is indecisive. Tonight a fellow spent time worrying about what seat he should take so as not to usurp what he expected would be the visiting lecturer's position. Then she chose to stand at the front of the room instead of sitting toward the back (actually at the head of the table) as is more common. Everyone is tensely guessing what is appropriate to do while laughing a bit and pretending to be relaxed.  As strange as the academic environment can be, and trust me, I could elaborate on this point, this probably wasn't the main issue here because the professor invited people to have the candy. The chocolatey goodness was unambiguously approved for us.

So why didn't most people have any? At a broad level, I think it relates to myths about food consumption. It is gluttonous, unrefined, inappropriate to show an interest in food, especially fattening, decadent food like a Milky Way. I was once chastised as a young child for showing too much enthusiasm as I asked someone about a type of food I had never seen before. You're not supposed to want to eat, besides your coffee and possible bag of nuts during the break. I think there is a largely unconscious desire among many people to prove cultural refinement and discipline by abstaining from food. In addition, taking a small candy bar would involve moving to the front of the room and back for most people. Making yourself visible in relation to food is also not generally considered acceptable. In an academic environment, it might seem that you are supposed to draw attention to yourself through the mental, through sophisticated comments, rather than through the corporeal and the carnal, the act of getting up for a chocolate and sitting back down again.

I try to live as freely as I can. I wish I were better at it, but fat activism is one of the most powerful ways I know to live more freely in the body I have. I knew that I could worry about disturbing people or seeming gluttonous or immature or drawing attention to myself for the wrong reasons by take the Milky Way. But I didn't care. I feel enough confidence in my body to know that I'm not a terrible person for having chocolate or for being fat. As a fat activist, I work to see how attitudes about food can enslave and oppress on the one hand and how they can liberate on the other. And in this case I was able to choose a liberating option for me, to just have what I wanted. I still participated in class. I was still a "sophisticated" "intellectual" person who had come prepared and motivated. And I also had some fucking god damn chocolate.

As I end, I want to be clear that I am not trying to read the mind of everyone with whom I was in class. I am not saying that people were "wrong" not to have the candy. It is completely fine for people just not to want it. I'm not interested in saying what people "should" do but in analyzing what happens. The point is to speak more broadly, more systemically. I like to concentrate on the structural and not the personal. We're all affected by cultural norms and I am guessing that harmful cultural attitudes about food were, probably unconsciously, affecting quite a few of my classmates. The point is not reading my peers' minds but just noticing the unspoken norms and restrictions in the room with us. And I easily could have been affected in turn because I am a fat woman in a room with thin people. I could have stayed away from the chocolate out of embarrassment; what if the thin people judge me for eating something caloric and non-nutritious? I could have been too shy and oppressed to go for it. But I saw the restrictive ideologies in the room with us and I didn't feed them. Instead I fed myself.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ideology and Weight-Loss -- It's (Not) Personal

...Subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
-- Shakespeare, Richard II

Ah, weight-loss. Some of my Facebook fat-o-sphere friends have made some great comments about the problems with weight loss, particularly the amazing fat activist pioneer, creator of the Yay! scale and author of Fat!So?, Marilyn Wann. All the fantastic women -- and the men! -- of fat activism are inspirations for me, but Marilyn deserves to be singled out. Her quotation summarizes my position on the issue:

I just basically consider it unethical to encourage any human being to undertake a weight-loss goal.
Many comments follow such a daring and revolutionary sentiment. Some of these comments are better-informed than others. Instead of concentrating on the overall meaning of the quote, on its insistence that diet culture and basic morality are antithetical to one another, on its assertion that the body does not need to be made smaller to be acceptable or even healthier, people seem to spend a lot of time searching for any circumstance in which weight-loss is "okay." Some insist that people have the human right to lose weight if they choose to do so, and if weight-loss is a personal choice that does not come from a larger pressure, that this choice, like other personal choices, is worthy of encouragement and even support.

Guess what? I don't think so.

Such an argument implies that the personal is beyond reproach -- that if I (think I) do it "for me" and not for diet companies or beauty standards or pressuring relatives, it can't possibly be problematic. I argue that this is untrue because the personal is not such a neutral, ideology-free zone. It is in seemingly personal choices, philosophies etc. where harmful ideologies often run rampant, where they are not scrutinized or balanced by any kind of critique. For one thing, personal preferences do affect the broader community; the personal does not exist in a vacuum. Let's say the apocalypse happened and most members of the fat activist community dieted together and they all lost hundreds of pounds. As a fat person looking at all of this weight-loss in a supposedly fat positive community, would your "personal" choice really be to stay at the weight you are? Of course not.

While I created an improbable hypothetical situation, in a way it's not far from reality. A lot of fat girls and women like me are watching friends, relatives, media personalities, etc. lose weight (temporarily) and discuss the pleasures of losing weight and being thin. It's going to seem like there is no option not to be attempting weight-loss. It's going to seem like losing weight is the only way to be happy, moral, attractive, capable, and even worthy of existing at the most basic level. I'm not sure why under these circumstances -- under our circumstances -- anyone would make the personal choice not to lose weight. There is no innocence in Western culture around weight. One can't lose weight for the hell of it. Unless weight-loss is the byproduct of something else -- you have a health issue or new medication, you get really involved in a new sport or discipline that shapes your body, you do psychological work on your eating and feel less compelled to binge -- it is being forced on you by this culture; it is a result of the enormous pressure on fat people to alter their condition.

And this is the insidiousness of the seemingly personal: our culture compels us to lose weight and convinces us that it's what we want! For French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser (who has been one of my strange obsessions for the past year), this is how ideology works. Ideology is paradoxical in order to be effective. He writes, "it is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are 'obviousnesses') obviousnesses as obviousnesses" (in "Mapping Ideology," ed. Slavoj Zizek, p. 129). Or: "one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says 'I am ideological'" (p. 131). In other words, ideology operates by concealing itself, by convincing you that it is the only reasonable way to understand things. This way, it isn't forced upon you. You have supposedly chosen it, when in fact it has chosen you. (In Soviet Russia...)  Ideology is that which "we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out... 'That's obvious!' 'That's right!' 'That's true!'" (p. 129).

Doesn't this sound familiar? "Of course being fat is unhealthy! There's no way to be healthy at that weight -- look at them!" "People want to lose weight to feel better about themselves!" It is ideology because it does not seem like it, because it convinces us of its truth over and over. We read about the "obesity epidemic" and say "of course" because we already believed it, because we are subjects in (subjects of, subjected to) a culture that already believes it and, like God -- for Althusser the ultimate ideological construction -- it creates us in its image. Ideology names us, or as our theorist puts it, it "hails or interpellates" us "as concrete subjects" (p. 130). Althusser famously uses the example of a policeman seeing someone on the street (a much more loaded example now than it was then, might I add, and yet, perhaps all the more appropriate). The policeman or anyone really says, "hey! you there!" And you recognize yourself as the person who has been called, who was already that. You're the "fatty" for instance, the defective one, the one who needs to change.

More simply, social forces and interactions "call" you; they shape the way that you are seen and see yourself. For Althusser there is no subject outside of these social interactions; you're subject to your subjecthood. What seems the most free -- your individual subjectivity -- is actually the most constrained, and this is how ideology stays in place. Althusser says it here: "the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection 'all by himself'" (p. 135).

Ideology, then, creates you as a subject (subjected to it) who believes in it, who fits into an Ideological State Apparatus like a political party, a school, a church, a family, or, oh I don't know, a diet program, a dieting culture... In other words, a person "wants" to lose weight because he is hailed or interpellated as a fat (bad) person in a thin-centric culture, because he adopts the codes and goals of this culture "all by himself." By this logic there is no such thing as losing weight (or doing much of anything) "for yourself" because you are called to do it by a system that inscribes you as a bourgeois American Dream-loving subject that knows that if you just work hard enough you can make yourself acceptable. And of course you did that by yourself and for yourself. Or not.

Althusser also points out that "all Ideological State Apparatuses, whatever they are, contribute to the same result: the reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation." So because you "choose" to lose weight, you contribute to diet apparatuses -- Weight Watchers, Slimfast, Atkins, the "War on Obesity," the general belief that one "should" weight a certain amount, the idea of "good foods" vs. "bad foods," any and all of that. And by contributing to diet apparatuses, you keep them in business; the ideology underpinning them strengthens the exploitative relations that allow them to exist in the first place.

What can we do about all this crap? Well, I'm not totally sure, but I have a few ideas. We can work on being aware of it and be honest that we are part of it. I catch myself having certain ideas about both fat and skinny people that appall me. And as a fat activist, I do hold out more hope for human agency than Althusser does, even though his arguments against it are persuasive to me and have their use. I think it is possible to create and align ourselves with a different ideology, a countercultural one that is more accepting of different body sizes. I think Althusser warns us, rightly, that our position as fat activists is as ideological as any other. But that doesn't mean it's not legitimate. It's a position that creates a kinder and fairer world, one where rhetoric supports us in enjoying our bodies and caring for them as they are rather than condemning them. That sounds pretty good to me.

The excellent fat poet Kathy Barron has a very good blog post on similar topics. She takes on the "it's a personal choice" argument very effectively without invoking needlessly complicated theory. Check it out!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Live and Let Die

First, I'd like to get some of my self-doubting out. I've LOVED getting such kind responses to my writing here, on Facebook, and at Offbeat Bride, but I've noticed feeling pressure to make every post "that good." And I don't think it's going to be. I have a list of post ideas and they are not as personal as the last post I did. They're not going to grab people in the same way.

Like other fat bloggers, there are certain issues I want to discuss, modes of argumentation I want to take apart, and so the tone of this just-a-little-baby blog is going to vary. I have a variety of plans for the kinds of things I want to do here, and we'll see what sticks, what settles. I'm open to kind and loving feedback! *deep breath* Good to get it out.


I've never been an activist through standard means. I don't do protests or get behind someone's campaign, for instance. I don't pass out tracts, though I will admit that when some of my not-so-body- positive relatives have birthdays they do receive copies of Linda Bacon's Health At Every Size and I have given HAES materials to doctors and nurses even when they have not fat shamed me. (Hey, I brought the stuff, they might as well have it, right?) I'm not interested in being effective on a large scale. I like to do what is meaningful and fulfilling to me, and that's enough. Part of that is carving out my own little space in the Fat-o-Sphere, but there's a bit more...

As a hater of all things Good Manners, I do have a badass streak in me and so I like to make what I consider to be fat positive micro-interventions into my environment. For instance, I gave the middle finger to an issue of People magazine devoted to drastic weight loss (even more than usual). Then I posted the photo to Facebook. Observe:

Then at a dental appointment I found more weight-loss-centered magazines. I responded to them in this manner:

Finally, when Hubby and I were visiting family on the West coast earlier this month, we came across a Weight Watchers in a strip mall. I wanted to express myself about the value of such places and the photograph I posted was the following:

Most responses I got were very positive. I got some shares, too. But I got one less encouraging comment on the anti Weight Watchers photo that was really interesting. It was "live and let live." In other words, I should let them do their thing and do my own thing without expressing any form of aggression or distaste. I disagree. My only regret is that SuperCuts was in the line of fire. I like getting my hair cut at those places. But I rest easy knowing that SuperCuts took a slight hit for a good reason.

Let me just say that I do not feel critical of the person who made the comment. She's a really nice woman who has been kind to me in real life. So I'm not interested in a personal critique, but rather in a structural and systemic one. The point is not who said it but what assumptions are embedded in it. One is the idea that it is somehow inappropriate or wrong to express aggression, especially for a young woman. I certainly grew up with ideas about what sweet, gentle, refined young ladies do. (Hint: not a lot of eating. Or opinion-having. Or middle-finger-giving.) On one level, I was encouraged to be a critical thinker, but some adults in my life would also express frustration if I was "too strong" about my points. This is, of course, ridiculous. I can be as strong as I want.

And what is wrong with this picture? I am not singling out anyone for ridicule. I genuinely do not believe in that. It is clear that I am pointing at the sign. I am critical of the diet culture that Virgie Tovar so eloquently condemns, of Weight Watchers telling women what to weigh, how to be, how not to take up space in the world. I'm critical of institutions, Weight Watchers among them, that profit from the misery of women. Weight Watchers makes money because the institution is all about not letting people like me live, so why should I let them off the hook? If they basically want me to be half my size, why shouldn't I give them the finger?

It is because I am supposed to be a "Good Fatty." I'm relatively new to the Fat-o-Sphere and its terminology but in my understanding Good Fatties give in to societal pressure against them: they dress in a "flattering" way to conceal their large figures, and they exercise and diet to lose weight, just as they are "supposed" to do. The Good Fatty wants to be thin and apologizes for not being so. The Good Fatty is held to a higher and more debilitating standard than thin people are. Thin people are not required to count points or avoid carbs or conceal their bodies or exercise more than they want to. It is fat people who are supposed to put themselves through the ringer until they become thin (and then gain it back, and then try again, and then shorten their lives from the weight cycling).

In this case, the Good Fatty is supposed to be a bigger and more self-loathing version of the Sweet Young Lady. Even if other people, or, more insidiously, companies, institutions, states, countries are oppressing her, she should just let them live. People can attack her right to happiness as much as they want and she is supposed to be polite. When I was little adults in my life told me not to "talk back." I was supposed to accept my miserable place in the hierarchy; I was a child, below the adults who got to talk and make the rules. Here I am supposed to accept my place as a subhuman fatty in need of change. I am supposed to accept that soul-crushing authority and not respond to it with my actual feelings, with my own, full, fat humanity.

Guess what -- I refuse. I'm not a Good Fatty or a Sweet Girl. I'm loud, silly, weird, and take up space. I love to swear and dance around waving my middle finger in the air. I claim my agency in the world. That doesn't mean I can stop Weight Watchers from existing -- unfortunately -- but I can use imagery, technology, and social media to talk back.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Wedding, My Body

"I ain't the same scared kid I used to be." -- Bon Jovi

I remember being ten and getting ready for a family wedding. I would be wearing a fancy dress with a bolero jacket tailored to fit me. The idea that I could pick what I wore was a foreign one to me and to my family. I was the tomboy on the monkey bars who had trouble parting with her sweat pants, even when they got holes in the knees -- how would I know what to choose for a formal event? So it was chosen for me. The dress was cream-colored and I was given firm instructions not to stain it. (Somehow the fact that I was not likely to wear a dress like this again eluded everybody.) Staining had been an issue for me as a kid. As a fast, enthusiastic eater, I managed to get some kind of sauce on nearly every shirt I owned. The fact that this did not seem happen to every child my age -- even my younger friends could make it through meals with their shirts unharmed -- drove me to shame.

I was determined to "do things right" this time for such a formal and meaningful occasion. I wanted to look nice while still keeping up with the other kids there, all of whom were taller, thinner, and faster than me. As usual. I was accustomed to being the fat one in a class of sticks, stunned that everyone could be so much smaller than I was, seemingly without effort. "Oh you're not fat, sweetie," adults would say to me, "just pudgy." As if that was somehow better, cuter, something I'd get rid of in time. I didn't understand why I was different, and I had the good fortune of never being teased or bullied for it by my peers, but I knew about my difference and its unacceptability.

I was the one kid who, when the door to the playground would only open slightly one day before recess, could not fit through it. I was the kid with the big thighs in tennis class, the one who would cry about my legs when I looked down at them in the shower. I was the ten-year-old dieting with my mom, eating steamed chicken breasts and half a banana while the thin kids ate pizza and candy bars. I knew who I was. By the end of the wedding celebrations, the bottom of my cream-colored dress was riddled with grass stains. I remember my parents arguing about the importance of this error, but whatever they resolved, I got a familiar message that day, the message that my body and I weren't good together, that I didn't look and move like the rest or wear fancy things as well as I should. I was just wrong inside and out.

Things continued this way. I felt like athletic kids -- especially tall, sports-oriented boys who would never look at me -- owned bodies. They "were good" at having a body; they did it right and were well-regarded as a result. I felt that I was good at having a mind, as I excelled in most subjects at school, but my body was both deficient and removed from my true self, from my intelligence, my wit, my scathing criticisms of everyone else I knew. For physical education my high school had fitness classes in which students would run around a circular track every other day. With my own peculiar mixture of confusion, disdain, and envy, I would watch these boys run past me repeatedly. I was always on some kind of protein-based diet, trying to avoid the starches or carbs that I really wanted to eat. Even my intake of carrots had to be limited as carrots contain a substantial amount of sugar. At least I could snack on celery sticks dipped in low-fat French dressing as much as I wanted. I even tried a juice cleanse. It tasted like orange juice, very sweet, not terrible, but I would get so hungry on my non-eating days that I just gave it up. When I was tired of dieting after high school, I went to the other extreme: I ate everything I wanted, beyond the point of fullness, gorging my body and then ignoring it. At least I wasn't depriving it. I didn't know what else to do.

The anxiety and alienation I lived with became too much for me as I hit my senior year of college. When I got rejected from graduate schools, I spent long periods crying in my dorm room, questioning if I even wanted to live. But I did want to live -- just differently. I started to explore meditation. I could sit with my addled mind and fat body without being completely invested in my judgments of them. I started to do meditation retreats -- I even took time off from the pressure of graduate school to do more of them. I could walk slowly in a dark room and feel unbridled joy in the movement of my legs and the feeling of my feet hitting the floor. Then I'd go to dinner and enjoy the spaghetti. Moving and nourishing my body didn't have to be incorrect; those activities could feel pleasant. I didn't have to worry about those athletic boys anymore; they went to college, too, lived their own life away from mine. I could just be fine on my own terms.

And somewhere in the midst of all this growth and exploration I found fat activism. Until then I harbored mostly secret criticisms of diet culture and the so-called "obesity epidemic." I felt attacked and intimidated by those things, by my cousin's exclamations of "growing girl!" whenever I returned from the buffet table with food on my plate, by my mother's parade of diets and my father's willingness to do them with her (besides the occasional ice cream and bag of chips). I felt oppressed by these things and that there was no way out except to ignore them and plunge into my meditation practice and graduate work.

But as I found fat activism, threads of my life seemed to come together. I could understand and honor the alienation I experienced as a fat, dieting child. I could use the critical thinking and knowledge of French theory I was honing in college and graduate school to deconstruct and undermine the diet culture in which I lived. And I could use my meditation practice to see beyond cultural judgments about size and savor my own embodiment. With fat activism, and a deeply supportive fiancé, I could bring my interests together into a celebration of myself, body and soul.

After feeling deeply alone for most of my life, here I was at twenty-six, madly in love. I was getting married to the silliest and kindest man I'd ever met, not an unattainable athlete but a cute computer guy, a Pokémon-obsessed comic and video game nerd who loves giving me hugs. And yet every time I thought about a wedding dress, I saw myself as that "pudgy" dieting ten year old who didn't know how to have a body properly and couldn't take care of her clothes. I saw that kid who was disappointed in herself and scared of other people, who felt apart from and desperately angry at the world.

I wasn't willing to get married like that. I was done forcing myself to be otherwise. I'm still that tomboy on the monkey bars. I don't stain my shirts as much, but it happens sometimes, and I no longer worry about it. I'm still fat -- in fact, I'm fatter than I've ever been, and I'm happier, too. People tell me they feel better in their bodies after losing weight, but I feel better being heavier. At five foot one, I rock extra large shirts and size 20 pants. I am in a doctoral program with women and a some men half my size, and instead of being insecure, I feel amused and special. I didn't want to be a demure bride, the slim, sweet young lady I always failed to be. My wedding outfit, I decided, would be like the rest of the quirky ceremony I was creating: it would buck tradition and follow my own and my future husband's desires. To honor that sensitive tomboy that in me, there would be no dress, no high heels, and not so much white.

I bought a pair of flowing royal blue pants from a plus size website, size 2x, and had a cleaner shorten them for me. For the top, I did end up choosing white, because I found a beautiful fabric at a little Indian shop where they would make clothing large enough for me. I stood with my arms raised as Sarla measured every part of me to make me a custom tunic for the big day. Instead of worrying about my thick upper arms or feeling pressure to go sleeveless when I am not crazy about that fashion, I told Sarla at a fitting that the arms were too tight and that I would like more spacious sleeves. The next week, I had them. After four fittings, the tunic was done. I wore blue polish on my fingernails and toes to match my electric blue pants, and when I was outside, I just wore sneakers. My outfit was comfortable and reflected by personality and agency. Who knew such a thing could even happen?

I got married at my meditation center, across from a statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. She is someone I have found in myself over the last few years. We had a ping pong party after the wedding ceremony where I surprised my new husband with cake pops in the shape of his favorite Pokémon, Mewtwo. During the party, I noticed that I had stained my white tunic. I have no idea how it happened and nobody cared.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What I Would Like

Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
-- Shakespeare, Richard II

I would like to live in a world where we don't feel the need to use shock tactics, in art or anywhere else, to talk about oppression based on racial, gender, power, and monetary inequities. I would rather not stare at a mammy sphinx made out of sugar. I would like to sit upon the ground and talk with people about how we've suffered. I want to hear other peoples' stories and to be heard myself. I want there to be space for difference -- I know that I have not dealt with the specific suffering of non-white ethnic groups, of homosexual, bisexual and trans people, of lower middle class, working class people, people living at and below the poverty line. At the same time, I want there to be space for similarity -- according to Theravada Buddhism, we are all "brothers and sisters in suffering." I want to sit down with a group and appreciate that, as people do when they meditate together, as people do when they come together at Shalom retreats and share their biographies.

I want a circle that can be like the earth, which accommodates everyone and everything. If all of us are granted this compassionate zone, maybe we could all apologize to one another, not because we are at fault, but to give each other the apologies that we deserve. If we are willing to suffer together, we can imagine restitution together. I think this collective imagining, outside of any real world outcome, is intrinsically healing. I don't want to be lectured to, yelled at, castigated for what my white ancestors have done, for what they weren't able to see. If that's morality, I would take a cue from some of the hippies and drop out of it. If morality, though, involves hearing one another, caring that we all suffer, and letting ourselves do whatever we need to do when we don't have the space to care about that, I am all for it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Insight Required

Gen Med, my awesome young adult meditation group, has been discussing a depressing NYT article on the supposed non-benefits of meditation by Tony Schwartz. I responded to our group in the following way, and I think it makes a good blog post. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

One that that struck me is that he quotes teachers very selectively. Jack Kornfield does talk about the dangers of spiritual bypassing, as Tony Schwartz shows, but he also believes in the effectiveness of a spiritual path, a "path with heart." Schwartz seemed to be using that quotation to show that even meditation teachers consider what they do to be largely ineffective when Kornfield doesn't say that and writes copiously on how to use spiritual teachings to help you in ordinary life. Schwartz might do well to read him! He also quotes Catherine Ingram, who left the Buddhist path, but is still a spiritual teacher who does "dharma dialogues" and retreats, which I've been to. I think she has a complex relationship to Buddhist practice, but she definitely works to bring spirituality into daily life in a way that is not at the expense of meditation. She just likes to be less structured about it, as Schwartz's quote shows. He uses these teachers' statements in a misleading way. These teachers have a lot of spiritual faith, in practice both on and maybe especially off the cushion, and Schwartz gives no sense of that.

Another thing that struck me, and I think we've talked about it, is that he creates more of a separation between meditation on the cushion and mindfulness in daily life than there really is. Even the title of his article conveys this -- "more mindfulness, less meditation" -- as if they are not interrelated practices. In my experience, cultivating mindfulness on the cushion is a training ground for bringing mindfulness into daily life, and I think that is one of the points of sitting. It is not always easy to bring meditative insights into daily life, but the two forms are connected, the way that laypeople support monastics and monastics offer their vision of the dharma to laypeople -- there is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship between the cushion and the world, at least as I understand it. And as [Group Leader's name omitted] pointed out, that involves more than just sitting -- listening to dharma talks, reading dharma books, hanging out with sangha, even being part of other spiritual communities -- all of that helps enormously. I have been doing psychotherapy pretty intensively with experienced meditation practitioners for a bit more than four years now. I've had the chance to see that the combination of Buddhist practice and therapeutic reflection is extremely effective, I would say more effective than either one of these by itself, but that observation does not discredit meditation practice. Sometimes I bring insights I had on the cushion into therapy sessions. Sometimes therapy helps me identify a particular repetitive thought pattern when I'm sitting, because if I've discussed that thought pattern in therapy before it is easier for me to see it as mental conditioning, as a preoccupation rather than the truth, and so I can be less identified with it. 

I don't understand the idea that meditation does not create transformation. I don't understand what you wrote, [Group Leader's name omitted], about the Buddha saying that it doesn't. Meditation is how he got enlightened. Practice is the only way to work with greed, hatred, and delusion at an experiential level, so it must be transformative, and that is what I've experienced. I would say that meditation does not work in isolation (what does?) but it absolutely transforms the mind and heart. If Schwartz has not experienced that, I would encourage him to speak to a spiritual teacher and alter his practice. He's missing something. 

I would go so far as to say that transformation is the point, and it happens. But I think it doesn't happen the way we want as fast as we want. Maybe that's what Schwartz is dealing with. I know it's something I grapple with a lot in my own practice. Sometimes the transformation of practice is just noticing what is going on in more detail. Sometimes behavior doesn't change, right away or for a while. Some of my patterns have gone from incredibly difficult to deal with to now being somewhat repetitive bummers. I get upset they're not gone, but I try to remind myself that practice has its effect by helping these patterns be less debilitating, helping me live more freshly and freely. I also think that spiritual practice isn't linear. Sometimes certain wounds hurt over and over, and that's just the nature of it. Practice has a lot of beneficial effects, the chief one being awakening, eventually. I may get hard on myself and lose faith in myself, but I have a lot of faith in the path.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Both Sides Now: Musings on Quality and Value

I'm really tired but I'm holding an intention to write in this blog close to once a day.

So I asked my lovely future hubby Fusion Warrior what I should write about. He said that I need to write about Mewtwo's birthday. I told him I have little to say about this but he wasn't open to that statement. So in case you were wondering, Mewtwo is the greatest Pokémon ever. He is kind of like a purple cat but has psychic powers of destructive intensity. February 6, now yesterday, is his birthday. Naturally, Fusion got a cake and took a picture of it on our Mewtwo shrine which is bigger than my Buddhist shrine. As my colleague said today, we have our priorities right. I would like to make it clear that I share in Fusion's celebration of the greatest Pokémon ever. His birthday should be a national holiday with parades in the street. Fusion replied, "that sounds about right."

Now to a different subject...why after such a long absence am I choosing to write here much more frequently?

Because I want to teach myself that my words matter.

I feel very torn on this topic. I've always valued my own words to some degree. As an academic in training I spend a lot of my time writing research papers. But in that case my words are sanctioned -- they're for a "better purpose," my learning and my take on some school subject in art history or at times film. What about when my words are just for me, not a clever argument but simply expressive of my own experience of life from moment to moment?

Ideologically I take a democratic and even idealistic attitude here. Everyone's words are worthwhile -- well, maybe not a member of the Tea Party's, but...close enough. I think the internet is a great place for sharing where everybody and nobody gets to be an author. Jonathan Crary, in his reactionary and not entirely sane way, may refer to blogs as "the death of the political" (this from the guy who thinks we can only be social by sleeping and waiting our turn in line as if we're in preschool) but I think they're Barthes' wet dream. It doesn't matter if people read your blog or if it's "good." The point is that you don't have to worry about oppressive, hampering notions like "quality." I am using quotations not to be pretentious in a postmodern fashion but because I think that quality, while being an influential principle in human thought, is ultimately nonexistent. It's just an idea that hurts people, that maintains stratification and alienation. Ideally, we could all express ourselves within a few ethical limits and it would all be of value. Artists have been breaking down this harmful construct from a variety of angles for at least a century and a half. And then people judge how well they do that. Quality is an agreed-upon insubstantiality like money. It's something to work with, but just as a twenty dollar bill is piece of paper, quality has no reality independent of peoples' prejudices. As Shakespeare, revered as the greatest playwright who ever lived, wrote, "nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Quality never goes away, and it was never there to begin with.

But quality is still something I worry about. I would like my papers to be as interesting, persuasive and well-written as I can get them. And that is what one does in a doctoral program. I want to grow in my area. (Shit, now I am having thoughts about Greenberg and mastering one's "area of competence." Shit shit shit...) I want to "do good." I think that's understandable. But that's a kind of training. I also worry that my thoughts are "stupid" and I "suck." I would like to just trust my thoughts, not in the sense of them being excellent or even accurate since for Buddhists most if not all thoughts are delusion, but I just want to feel like my thoughts matter, that it's okay to just have them and write them down. I want to be free to explore my internal universe without shame. I want to be open to my thinking and writing processes because those are interesting things and I use them.

One reason why blogging could be valuable is because everyone is a special snowflake, because everyone has something unique to offer. I do not believe this. I have a lot of reservations about the idea of uniqueness. I cannot find proof that everyone is "different" or why that is somehow a positive, helpful idea, a justification for liking or appreciating things. Maybe my thoughts are totally derivative. Not only are we, as humans, derivative in the most fundamental sense -- our derivation from our parents gives us existence -- I think we like it more than we care to admit. Otherwise no one would watch TV...

So I can't, in good conscience, value my words for being "unique" or for being "mine," as if a separate self were real anyway. But that doesn't mean I don't matter or have nothing to offer. The opposite is true. I think I can value my thoughts and words for being a part of expression, just for doing their thing, for arising based on causes and conditions.

It's a struggle for me. I want to allow my thoughts, emotions, written meanderings, arguments to be whatever they are with no strings attached. But there is something in me that always feels like I am coming up short. I don't want those fears to run my life but I also can't deny them. Those fears, too, are something that exist, that don't want to be hurt for not measuring up to their siblings, happiness and joy. They, too, want their place in the sun. And they have it. I like the way Pete Seeger puts it in his addendum to Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now:"

Daughter, daughter, don't you know
you're not the first to feel just so.
Let me say before I go
it's worth it anyway.

Someday we may all be surprised,
we'll wake and open up our eyes
and then we all will realize
the whole world feels this way.

We've all been living upside down
and turned around with love unfound
until we turn and face the sun
yes, all of us, every one.

I like this basic okayness in the midst of instability, the insubstantiality of quality and value of all things in the midst of concerns and categories and criteria about quality and value. I was talking to a friend about feeling like I'm flowing out of control in a river, like when you fall in and are drowning, and I try to grab on to something like a rock or tree branch to get my bearings in the rapid, frightening stream. She replied, "it's all the river." It's all scary and it's all okay. I think this is what Pete, as he approached his fiftieth year, was offering to young Joni.