Thursday, August 27, 2015

Four Elements

My prison penpal asked about the four elements common among folk systems all over the world. I used an example to explain.

One of my favorite things to do with my teacher is grappling, wrestling to immobilize the other on the ground. I'm a beginner, but I enjoy the whole-body challenge of moving like Water. Water feels soft; it always finds its lowest point through the smallest opening, sometimes even rising by adhesion through a bit of fabric. The smallest hole can empty a vessel of water, even break it in the process. So in grappling I am learning to be soft and liquid, seeking any open space at every moment.

Simultaneously an opponent seeks to restrict my movements, so often I have to be like Earth, committing to a motion to escape. This can feel scary when I don't want to hurt my partner or myself, and too much Earth can get me stuck opposing a closed way. That wastes energy, Fire, and leaves me exhausted and weak.

Air can help me: a feeling of spaciousness in focus. Usually when I am pinned down it's hard to breathe and uncomfortable, but if I give up panic and slow my struggle, I conserve Fire for making that small "hole" when it becomes possible.

To succeed, in grappling or living in general, one must use all four elements skillfully and interchangeably. They are, after all, a construct in the oneness of being. When one is able to be as much a part of the present situation as a wave is part of the ocean, skillful action flows easily from being, without division into elements.

May all creatures find ease in every situation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Response to Pope Francis's Encyclical

I'm excited to write today about Pope Francis's rallying cry for stewardship of the planet and resounding admonishment of consumerism and greed. This is the first time I've heard a high-profile leader point out that those who suffer the most from climate change are those least responsible for it. In fact, the wealthiest nations and families have enriched themselves by depriving colonized and enslaved peoples of resources and freedom for many generations. The pope states that the former owe reparations for impoverishing the planet.

There are some moving and revealing quotes here*. He acknowledges our free will to choose to cultivate either goodness or suffering and clearly directs that the church "must above all protect mankind from self-destruction." The choice is ours, and he urges us to use our best intelligence, including insights offered by science. His is an encouraging perspective on the collaboration of science and religion.

Here is an Argentine who, in working in slums in Buenos Aires, cultivated deep commitment to end suffering, especially of the poor. Despite the traditional structure of the Vatican his progressive work has grown, rousing opposition among Catholic conservatives. High-profile assassinations, including those of Martin Luther King and President James A. Garfield, have been motivated by threats to class inequality. I am convinced Pope Francis and his advisers are well aware of this, and genuinely perform according to a profound sense of duty and virtue.

We need all religious leaders, communities, oppressed peoples, and privileged peoples to get on board with the Encyclical. Let's receive this message of kindness and concern and broadcast it into our lives a millionfold.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Embodied" for audience and orchestra

I recently submitted a text score to a traditional orchestra for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. The art is not in the proposed performance but in the review of the score by its "panel of prominent composers." The call for submissions specifies "works with electronic elements will be considered on a case-by-case basis." It's 2015, people!

So I call for musicians onstage to be separated by gender identity; partway through, all the white players exit, leaving their instruments and setting fire to kindling beneath a trough of water at the stage's edge. I instruct sections of the orchestra to play (passages of individual choice) or silence by gesturing from the audience. I interpret the audience through my body. This is hierarchy, racism, sexism, body essentialism, and climate change balled up in one dangerous, noisy motion.

The icing on the cake was a required recommendation letter "from a composition teacher or music professional" -- as of composers survive by being in school or racking up performance expenses. Here's an excerpt from mine, by Dan Schwartz, a percussionist coworker at the Exploratorium:

"As a professional multi-instrumentalist who has performed everywhere from Tanglewood to IRCAM to the Slut Dungeon, I have never felt more connected to or exhilarated by a single piece of music than when destroying a telephone during a performance of one of Li’s works. Cracking the shell, the interface, excited my salivary glands. Memories of the last time I had lobster. The fumes. The steam. The exhilaration of dropping it live into the boiling pot. Then prying out the buttons with a flat-head screwdriver. The splitting crack as sockets released their organs. [...] When we are thrown into a situation where we are allowed to realize our one shared desire: to go [expletive removed] ourselves. Omphalos."

Thanks, Dan. We wish we could be with the panel as they read our work. Distributive performance art forbids it, alas.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Park review: Lime Ridge Open Space in Concord, CA

I've continued exploring alternate entry points to Mount Diablo. For now, Lime Ridge Open Space is not one of them. A Mount Diablo advocacy group bought the land between the two parks in 2006 but has kept it fenced off to date. What's taking so long to open the gate?

Transit: The park is a pleasant bike ride from Walnut Creek BART station. Take the Ygnacio Canal Trail east from John Muir Medical Center, a low-use, smooth paved trail through residential areas accompanied by fragrant flowers and mallard ducks. From the bike trail there's a quarter-mile low grade climb to the trailhead, but traffic was light on a Saturday and I reached 24 mph according to radar on the way down.

The Park: Lime Ridge itself is quite delightful, despite being next to a golf course and shooting range. The rocky land is crisscrossed by informal bike trails. Sloppily-signed park trails circumscribe the many ridges and hills. Refer to the map at the trailhead because the hills block line of vision and I dead ended at the park's edge several times. I encountered only a couple bikers at great distance and a few hikers -- very light use for a Saturday.

The light-colored sedimentary rock accumulated from Sierra Nevada runoff 45 million years ago (mya) and was uplifted with Mount Diablo. The layered ridges result from this geologically slow lifting action with erosion of softer rocks. That linked site claims there are still hot springs there which add limestone and dolomite to the rock crevices, completing the ingredients for marble such as prized Italian Travertine. In this case they didn't bake in the pressure cooking part of the Earth's crust, so marble didn't form.

Wildlife: Wildflowers were in bloom in a rainbow of blue dicks, orange poppies, deep purple lupine, and pink. Smell the tiny pineapple weed at the trailhead -- they are a chamomile relative. I napped under a wonderful old oak tree, cushioned by leaf litter, then wildcrafted a big bag of stinging nettle for dinner and tea. Yum, thanks!

I saw my first California Horned Lizard when it scuttled away, then stopped to peer back at me with its tiny eye. There were plenty of other lizards, mesmerizing birdsongs, California quail, and butterflies and dragonflies. Pollinators will soon mob the buckeye trees, whose flower clusters are just budding now. A park sign warns of big predators but I was only there midday.

Preparation: Most of the park is quite exposed, so bring sunblock and a hat, and expect to get grit in your mouth. Because of the looping pattern of the trails, novice hikers should time themselves carefully. There was a port-a-potty in good condition at the trailhead with wash station.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Buddhism strengthens science practices

I've been leading a weekly meditation circle at the Exploratorium for staff. A participant asked me some probing questions about what the practice means to me today, and I'll share my reflections here.

Most people convert to Buddhism (and probably most religions) during a difficult period of their life when they need spiritual guidance for survival. I was lucky in that my need for it had been constant, growing up with atheist parents removed from their community, and my life was looking up in 2012. I had just crawled out of poverty and isolation and was gaining agency.

At East Bay Meditation Center weekly sitting meditation comes with an hour of Buddhist teaching, where I learned that in native religious practice, sitting was like the finish on wood furniture; teachings on how to end all suffering are like the steps from selecting a tree to cutting and planing and carpentry. To try to improve our selves and lives through meditation alone is like going into the woods to make a chair, armed with only sandpaper and varnish.

Meditation tools and practice have helped me identify difficulties as they arise and have enabled me to slow down. In times of stress and run-away thinking I return my attention to body sensations and the present moment. The calming effect is nearly instantaneous. To move forward, discerning opportunities to act in the best possible way comes with studying the teachings and applying them in living the way a scientist applies knowledge to solve a mystery.

The metaphor ends there. A scientist who has never tried sitting meditation related to me his concentration while working on a problem to Tibetan meditation. Though we use the same word, concentration, I would argue that sitting versus working on a problem are opposites. In the latter, one escapes from the present moment to do a task while in the former, one immerses oneself in it to do nothing. There is no worse fear than the fear inside oneself; no worse desolation than that of being in one's own mind. To know and to befriend them is to win power over forces that, in moments of real difficulty, lead us to suffering and causing suffering.

At the same time the metaphor penetrates deeper (dualism is a wonderful core concept of many Asian philosophies). The Buddha's first teaching is to understand the existence of suffering and its causes. It is an act of perceiving reality for what it is -- the timeless goal of science. I have used meditation techniques of inquiry and friendly curiosity to strip away cultural norms that obscure truth. For example, in sitting we usually encounter physical discomfort; curiosity leads me to get to know my body minutely and without judgment, and to discern injury from temporary sensations that pass with time or with gentle after-sit movement. The cultural norm of aversion from certain sensations, automatically labeled discomfort, is unhelpful and prevents knowing the body.

I regularly see cultural norms obscure the way for science. Studies separate results from men and women without questioning how those categories are made: dominant sex hormone? how boys and girls are socialized? stereotype perception and feedback? Overconfident, privileged men jump to jargon-laden conclusions and exclusions. These are misuses of science.

Like the teachings of the Buddha, science is at once certain and humble; it is certain of the reliable nature of curiosity and investigation and humble to rely on the curiosity and investigation of every individual human being. New truth only becomes available when we relax our grip on the truth we already have. Now I advance with friendly curiosity and constant mindfulness of the need for humble investigation.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Responding to hateful actions with grace

This weekend I had a tiny enlightening experience. Sitting in my room over a busy intersection I heard unintelligible yelling that went on for so long I looked out the window. There was regular car traffic and a young woman walking on the sidewalk across the street. Three teen boys were waiting for a ride or something under my window and one of them was yelling, presumably harassing the woman. She was not responding. Without hesitation I leaned out (wearing a white ribbed men's tank top) and asked loudly if they (boys) were okay. They looked up, alarmed, and replied in the affirmative. Inside I told a housemate about it and she cried, "Not on my street!" and went to watch them from the porch. There were no more incidents.

I think in this case I incorporated the all-smiles-and-curiosity tone I use at work and my adult male privilege to recall the innate moral compass of youth entangled in social posturing. My body just did it with very little cerebral guidance. My habit was to shrink back and be horrified in silence. 

My housemate hit it on the head. I am now an acting member of a community that maintains a new norm where hateful actions are never acceptable and individuals are reminded kindly but firmly of their own capacity to choose right actions. We stand together. I feel such gratitude for the communities that have empowered me to use my power and privilege to fight oppression and break down unearned privilege.
As if that alone weren't enough to demonstrate the power of a few committed individuals, I experienced a walking meditation with about 30 men of color through the heart of downtown Oakland. We walked, two by two, concentrating on our feet, gazing gently forward, focused internally. We crossed streets and passed parents with strollers, loitering youth, and much traffic. I felt so protected and powerful in that group. We radiated pure heart. 

Our navigators afterward reported many looks of astonishment and even inquiries about what we were doing and how much it cost! Kudos to the Men of Color Deep Refuge group that organized this support group style daylong.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

No Self meets Climate Change

The biggest mistake is to believe oneself separate from all beings and one's life separate from all life.

My teen brother, witnessing my sacrifices of sense pleasures (such as disinterest in treats packaged in plastic), decries the futility of one person's choices in the face of global misconduct. What such a protest fails to account for is the body of reforms, work begun by our ancestors, whose benefits we now enjoy. At the same time scale our work will be continued by generations to come.

I make one exception in the current body of work whose consequences could set back the pace of progress in our lifetime: climate change. Already climate disruptions disproportionately kill people of color and historically colonized people. When agricultural disruption impacts food supply the first to suffer will be the poorest -- again disproportionately people of color.

Yesterday I saw a joyful, creative show of support for responsible energy policy in downtown Oakland. Missing was awareness that the consequences of wimpy policy change and market regulation are racist.

My one-a-day this month will be to identify two self-sacrifices, one I do and one I miss, that reduce my carbon footprint. I will send it to an elected representative and post it on social media. We have to unite against racism with the urgency of the extinction of peoples, cultures, and living systems.