Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Love with Emptiness

Emptiness is the key. Last week I got really excited about coming across a fantastic description of emptiness. Thanks to scholar/translators like Geshe Michael Roach I was able to read a section from Levels of the Bodhisattva.After studying for years I'm still struck by all the beautiful and more intricate definitions of emptiness.


In the middle way it's also referred to as indivisibility. From the way I understood the beautiful texts in Asian Classics Institute, there's a fine line between concocting things and discounting. Constructs and anything that doesn't exist from its own side (which is everything) are concocting or formed. Whether formed as a whole (like thinking of the color 'blue') or formed in pieces (my identity). Discounting things is to believe that nothing is there and there is nothing'ness, which can't be true because any scientist knows you can't get 'something' from 'nothing.' And somewhere between those two extremes is the definition of that indivisibility.

In the text the definition was listed as such:

Indivisibility is that object which is incorporated in the nature of phenomena, which is free of the existence and lack of existence of the 2 [concocting and discounting]. And this kind of indivisibility is what we call the 'matchless' object of the path of the Middle Way, the way which avoids both the extremes.

Like a good proof, the definition sounds so elegant and simple to me. The nature of phenomena I'm guessing to mean the appearances of what goes on in the world: birth, sickness, aging, death, love, food, etc. All the phenomena of nature has indivisibility incorporated into its core. The potential of all phenomena is therefore limitless. Infinite possibilities. Angels can tap into that limitless'ness. And the only thing I share with Lord Buddha, Angels, and every single scrap in the world is that indivisibility. That is the only thing which will continue up to enlightenment and be remarkably the same by being limitless. When I learn I'm unraveling those karmas and decpetions to tap into the core. There is no ethics out there, which is why ethics are so important. Due to my experiences I'm forced to tap into that emptiness in countless ways. I experience the subtle shifts and movements in my life based upon the deeds done. And the entire thing encapsulates the open teachings. Everything matters b/c everything is limitless.

Indivisibility and karma are intrinsically glued. And so what I see isn't shifts out there, growing seeds, deaths, pain. What I'm seeing are shifts within me that get me to respond and create more ripples, which then create more shifts, more response. The deeds fuel themselves and create.

I've been re-reading that definition again and again on the subway, during breaks, in meetings. I'm trying to constantly remind myself of this indivisibility.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Talking about "Feeder"

I've known James Carter for a few years and we live in the same neighborhood. Yet it's rare to speak to other artists and writers these days. The premiere of Carter's play "Feeder" gave me the excuse to sit down with him before his show.


I had just run across town from the East Village Tompkin Square library to check-out "Secret History" a biography on Samuel Steward, an intellectual and 'sexual renegade' who chronicled his exploits with other men over several decades. On the L train back across to the West Side, I read the foreword to "Secret History" and the author's fascination with deviants and renegades. Steward fit into that mold as someone who was an artist, tattoo artist, professor, novelist, pornographer, and biographer among other things. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, this sort of man would certainly count as a renegade. These days, however, people chronicle their exploits on Facebook and vblogs. The shame of elicit sex and, therefore, much of the secretive thrill has also disappeared from most of my friends. There is no taboo, just human plumbing and wiring. But food is something quite different. I think food is something that garners shame in all cities, in all classes, races, and religions. Maybe that was why I wanted to sit down and talk.

"Feeder" is a great,  possibly even a brilliant, play that makes me uncomfortable. The genius is in the seat squirming. The audience is left to look in on a pair of people engaging in abrnormal levels of consumption. The one question I had in the back of my mind was with all that consumption must come abnormal levels of defecation, sweat, and fluids. I didn't ask that, though, because the bigger issue was about whether these people, these feeders, are renegades of sort.

 Carter said he definitely thought they could be considered outside the norm and, therefore, renegade in rejecting certain things about how we eat, think, and feel about our bodies. Then he said that the level of eating that goes into making someone gain 500-700 lbs is probably unhealthy. But isn't that what a renegade is, I asked? Sexual renegades like Steward engaged in sex at a probably unhealthy freakish amount that endangered their body and mind. Drug renegades like William Burroughs most certainly blasted their minds into pieces with abnromal use. In an age where the personal is political, isn't that a renegade? Is there such thing as a sensible revolutionary who goes to bed at 9:30 pm, eats healthy portions, maintains monogamy, and jogs 3 miles a day? Isn't that what's safe, normal, conservative? To be in the the arts or social politics and to engage in life at an extreme level probably means something mentally and physically is breaking down in search for a higher quest.

I'm fascinated by renegades because I am not one. It's better to watch. I don't smoke or use drugs, have no desire for drinking, prefer early bed times, and find the only thing more mundane than 'being naughty'  is reporting on it. Yet there is a circus aspect to watching people who possess discomforting features and traits. Somewhere in my deep subconscious is a 3-ring tent of bearded ladies, manic clowns, midget twins, fire breathers, strippers, sword swallowers, and fat women. I have no doubt about this because the circus scares me. Much like "Feeder" did, the circus makes me squirm in my seat and I know that the discomfort has to do mostly with being uncomfortable with who I think I am vs. who I might actually be.

Who I think I am is a poet, writer, philosopher, and dharma student. I think I'm a potential teacher of the dharma, an inspiration, a virtuoso. I would like to believe that I am horribly disfigured from my uniqueness and that this unicorn is so special no one could understand its true beauty.  Who I might actually be is just another circus gawker, a lover of tragedy and horror, another buck-toothed, horse-face country rube who slaps his knee when he laughs because he gets a kick out of the freaks because I am too scared to 'BE.' I squirm because I might not be so different from those that watch reality TV and the dirty old men who can still recall the days of peep shows.

Carter said that there is no need to go to the circus any more because we can get it streamed into our homes. And there in lies a deeper question about theatre and social spaces that are becoming extinct. There is a strange alienation which causes people to enact the circus at home and be very passive in public, almost diametrically opposed in amount to each other.  Vblogging the process of gaining 300 lbs is not something that the average person would tune into. And yet there are many blogs and videos online about feeders and the lovers of the 'incredibly well-fed.' The peep show is in our living rooms and in front of the computer. Exposure in private means less risk in public. The thrill is not in the experiencing, but getting home and reporting about it online, having a debate in a chat room, interacting with comfort and distance with the world. The vicious cycle leads to more isolation and then more privately-controlled exposure to counteract alienation. How can the circus or even theatre really exist in this type of world?

I went to a concert on Tuesday and found that I was one of the few people in the audience who was not joining the band on stage to play an instrument. My friends and I were actually there to hear the music. We had made a spontaneous decision and didn't consult with critics or guides. We saw a club and went inside. The food was excellent, the music was catchy blend of French neo-soul and hip hop bouncing back in forth between Brooklyn and Paris, the band was tight and smooth. The experience existed and I felt no desire to post about it on my Facebook page or take pictures of the food and band to prove 'what a good time' I was having. It was self-evident and wholly satisfying evening of adulthood in New York City. Therefore there was no need for public validation at what a great person I was or what a crazy adventure I had in Tribeca. In order to truly have a good time in public spaces one needs inner validation. Inner validation is achieved through watching oneself interact with the world on a daily basis outside of work and getting to and from the office.

If less and less people are unable to interact with real-time life without the crutches of Twitter and text, how can they stay still for 2 hours to watch theatre, go to a museum by themselves, check out the botanical garden? If we are less able to function in the world, then how can we have a citizen-based democracy or use the 4th estate of media and opinion to keep our government in check? If the silent majority have checked out, then who is left in the public space except deviants, exhibitionists, and theatre majors (overlapping categories, no doubt)? And if the exhibitionist is the only one left, then is there really any thrill in it? People don't expose themselves to trees, recite poetry to dirt, or stage plays for the clouds. They do it to create a space-time unity with others. Come see my play, go to my website, check out my vblog where I eat an entire turkey in one sitting, watch me cut myself, ingest bodily fluids, burn myself, cannibalize myself. Please eat me up!

The aspect of people exposing themselves for free to get validation is the very concept of writing. In writing, however, there is a refinement of this desire into order and viewpoints. From that seed sprouts theories, beliefs, philosophies, religion, art, history, mankind. It is in the refinement of that pleading desire for attention that takes something very basic and elevates it. And so public spaces were created to share in a common energy of a quiet library or a hip hop club blasting French neo-soul.

If there were no vblogs and chat rooms, would 'feeding' exist as a fetish or would we just say they're food addicts? Certainly I have the tendency to look at anything abnormal or deviant and want to slap a psychological disorder on it and send in the doctors. But the very aspect of being watched, changes both the actor and the audience. If there is no one watching, is theatre just refined exhibitionism among a dwindling group of friends?

I was all over the place in our conversation and I think that was right. I feel all over the place with the issues brought up by "Feeder." We were all over the place in our conversation but I don't think we needed to be organized. There was a freedom to kicking around these ideas. There is a lightness to challenging big thoughts and to making mountains out of questions. Some times there are no answers. Just conversations with friends, observations on life, and the thrill of being.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Feeder: A Love Story and My Story

On Sunday I saw a preview of James Carter's "Feeder" with my friend at the HERE Arts Center. It's a two-person show about co-dependency, love, and food. The boyfriend is the feeder. He has a love of big women and begins dating a woman who he encourages to eat more and more food so she'll gain weight. The woman is the Feed'ee I guess. She has low self-esteem that gets validated by the feeder and numbed by junk food. The two live an idyllic existence of co-dependency until the woman's body starts to break down at around 700 lbs. She's telekidnapped by a talk show hosts and sent to a weight-loss facility for the sake of a show special. The show tracks back and forth between the present misery of their separation and flashbacks to the Feed'ee gaining weight as she dates the Feeder.

I felt both compelled and repulsed by "Feeder" and that's a compliment. I think that's the vibe Carter was going for in this story. I was repulsed by the level of gluttony and sickness. There were moments when I just wanted to leave because the descriptions of the food was so enormous that it made me sick to think about someone eating all that, and aware that there are people out there doing just that. As someone who had and still has issues with food, I come from a long line of foodaphiles. In the Black community we like to sweeten things by calling it soul food and comfort, but most of what fits in that category is quite disgusting and unhealthy. The past few years I've been a vegetarian and have never felt better. That has eliminated a lot of the junk from my diet and caused me to be more conscientious about what I'm eating. But there is still sweets, which is a constant threat against meditation and wellness.

I'm not as bad as I was in the past when it comes to sugar, but I still have a ways to go. As I've grown older, some of that compulsion has gone away and now been replaced by cravings for sour and spicy foods. I satiate this in a lot of stir fry vegetable dishes and steamed meals that I garnish with pickled preserves or exotic curries. Health-ier, simple, more protein, and vitamins. I feel amazing in comparison to my early twenties when I was constantly bloated, gassy, sluggish, and tired. When I sleep I really sleep. When I'm awake, I'm mostly awake. Along with being a vegetarian I'm staying away from more breads, cheeses, and eggs. Yesterday I had a sandwich on white bread and then white potatoes that came with the banana. Wow. Not good and it made me realize how infrequently I eat white bread.

My weaknesses are still pizza and fries. But to think about where I've been and now to think that I have occasional cravings for pizza and fries, then it's amazing. The change in my diet wasn't just calorie counting. It was a change in my reaction and use of food. It's strange that it took me so long to realize this, but food is just meant for energy. That's it. If I'm not using food for energy then something is amiss.

As a child I didn't really think about the purpose of food. I was too busy eating it. And in not thinking about the purpose, I began to create my own for food. Comfort, numbing, excitement, reward, punishment, escape. These became the purposes of food for me. I escaped into it and comforted myself. The nutrients and energy was secondary to the emotional love attached to food. It was a strange compulsion and I think my parents have the same issue.

I wasn't worth love and was scared of it from other people. Food was my lover. It didn't talk to me, reject me, or criticize. I just ingested it and felt taken care of by the scents and tastes. And never fully satisfied, I would ingest more and more.

In short I was the Feeder and the Feed'ee. I was feeding myself and -as a result- imprisoning my body and my life. Fortunately I did have a saving grace: my love of sports. Tennis, football, basketball, wrestling, volleyball, I always had a natural connection to activity. At a certain point it was sports or food. And in my teenage years sports won out. I became quite lean and muscular. All-state athlete, dancer, mover. And from sports, I began exploring the energy behind it: sex. In college I made the transition and now I needed to be somewhat appealing to a partner. I couldn't just indulge in my first love because I craved the interaction of competitive sports, weight lifting, as well as sex. The gay community is very ruthless when it comes to body image, so a certain level that fascism kept me in check. I critiqued my body, deprived myself of food, not because I had figured out its purpose. I deprived myself in order to get the reward in other men.

And then from sex, I discovered spirituality. Imagine that. From the depths of my compulsion I stumbled into Venerable Lobsang Chunzom. In our first one-on-one meeting she read my mind and was commenting on sexual purity. It was done in a very gentle manner and I was scared. Could she see it on me? I had been good that week, been relatively clean. Did I smell of it or was it something in what I said or did? I'll never know. But I began taking in the suggestions, all done with laser-point skill. I began keeping a vow book, meditating, studying and then at certain point I faced another crossroad: sex or spirituality. I couldn't go on substituting sex for when I felt emotions and keep a steady meditation practice. Slowly I made the transition away from sex as a drug to mask emotions. And now it comes full circle. From food, to sports, to sex, to spirituality, all of it was done from something lacking. But they don't have to contradict each other or fight. The three S's can work together.

I dance at Alvin Ailey and love the physical aspect of losing myself in the drums and movement. To me that is both athletic and deeply sensual. Spiritually I'm mindful of what I eat, where my lustful mind wanders, and what I do with my body. Underneath it all was not feeling love and trying to feed the hungry mouth.

I'm thinking about all this as I watch "Feeder." This was my attraction and repulsion with the story. I related to it all too well. It scared me and intrigued me. There are no easy endings when it comes to the feeding. The only thing I can do is to ask myself why I'm feeding. The feeding of food, of love, of dance, of art. Is it to give me energy and life? Am I feeding in a conscious way that sweetens my mind? Or am I feeding to stop thinking, to stay numb, to escape?

At the end of "Feeder" the couple breaks up. Their relationship wasn't sustainable because it wasn't based in love. In dysfunction, the dynamic is built to fail. The parts don't fit. There is an inequality in which one side will eventually overwhelm and consume the other. In this case, the Feed'ee had to choose between her life and her co-dependent lover. If she would have chosen the lover, she would have lost her body and life. When she choose herself, the lover couldn't continue to passively entrap her through feeding. His desires were killing her. My own desires were killing me because they were based in dysfunction and compulsion. They were meant to overwhelm and consume me. But for today, I have pulled back from the brink. I am no longer letting myself be fed by dysfunctional needs. And the dysfunction can not sustain itself unless it's also fed.

Animals feed. Mindlessly and in a primal gluttony. I have the chance today to eat, to enjoy, to love.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Defense of Scientology (WHAT?!?)

I found a copy of The New Yorker on a subway bench and began flipping through it to discover a massive investigative piece of Scientology. I made my way to a party and a few of my friends were talking about this story and I've run into a few more people who have been shocked by reporter Lawrence Wright. The article's entrypoint is director Paul Haggis's defection from Scientology due to their perceived support of the gay marriage ban in California. Wright then goes on to track all the horror stories of Scientology, the defectors, the requests that people isolate from their family, the abuse within the ranks.

I read the article and found myself beginning to develop a very strong negative response to Scientology. Later on I found myself thinking negatively about the leaders of Scientology. Then at a dinner party I said a few words, in an almost-backhanded way about Scientology. The second the words left my mouth I felt incredibly stupid. Definitely breaking bodhisattva vows, in the most stupid and obvious way.

I have no idea about Scientology, nor do I seek to investigate. But if a faith or philosophy is helping people, then I should leave it ALONE. This is something I should know better by now. And this is why I stay away from most reporting and stories about religions.

The aspects of Scientology apparently helped some of these artist become very successful and has sent positive effects out into the world. There's no point in destroying something I don't know, any every benefit to praise the positive effects it has had for millions.

The ignorance has to stop and it stops with me.