Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter of Peace

All the US troops should be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Rather than celebrating this news, there's barely a whimper of acknowledgment at our decade of folly, blood, and torture. In New York there are no 'Welcome Home' rallies or parties. We are too busy concerned about the next crisis to look back. The holiday spirit of exhaustion sadness seeps into every political discussion.

When I first came to the city in the fall of 2002 war was in the air and the people rallied in the street. I was ambivalent toward the anti-war protest and the anti-peace politicians. I didn't want war, but on the other hand I felt on an instinctive level that I was watching a shadow puppet play. Is this really about stopping a war, or just about being on-record about something that's happening.' Why wasn't it a peace rally? Why was it anti-? 

I remember hearing New School'ers talk about going to the protest and asking me if I was going to go and I wanted to say 'yes, sure' but I was frozen. Deep down inside something kept saying 'you know you can't go. It's not going to work. Your entire being will rebel against this faux liberalism, this defeatism that's overtaken left-wing movements.'  So what ended up happening is I would offer these sheepish muddled excuses about why I didn't want a war, but also wouldn't go to an anti-War protest. I didn't have the wisdom to even argue. Didn't have the scriptural logicof it but just an internal logic was clicking through my mind.
When I was in middle school the Rodney King riots erupted after the not-guilty verdict. People were enraged. The administrators organized a gathering for students to vent their anger in the last two periods. I was 12, scared out of my mind but I asked to be excused from the rally. I would be the only Black person who didn't want to sit and a room and scream about the police while LA burned. People looked at me like I was crazy, an Uncle Tom, a sellout. But something deep inside said 'you can't go to this. It will just be anger. You have enough.' I was shoved down the stairs on my way to a holding room for those students refusing to take part in the rally. I still went, knees shaking. A part of my mind observed the insanity of anger on a macro and micro level . A few angry police officers beat up another person who looks like me. This triggers other people who look like me to get angry. But people who look like the police officer are angry and they let the cops go, which triggers many people who look like me to begin burning their own houses and neighborhoods. This spreads to hundreds of cities. People who look like me and then (mostly) people who don't look like me start burning, shooting, killing, stealing because of that initial act. Cascading waves spread to each city, then around the world on TV, in newspapers. And then on the other side of the country people who look like me shove me down the stairs because I don't want to share in their anger. So Black people express their anger at racism by shoving a Black student down, by burning Black businesses, and homes. It occurred to me 'but this is the way it's always been going for Blacks, Whites, all people.' This. is. insane.
I left my body and observed this, bookmarked it in my memory as a short, fat, asthmatic 12-year-old nerd gingerly walking (fearing my legs would collapse from under me) toward the holding room for people who didn't want to attend the school venting session. After school people exploded out of the auditorium, screaming and shouting, faces twisted in anger. Windows smashed, police were called, and a new cycle was formed: people who look like me battling people who looked like 'them' that began years ago in LA with a traffic stop. I and the other people in the holding room ran, fearing for our lives, fearing that we would get swept up in 'government-sponsored' hate session that now flowed out into the parking lots, streets, and buses of Miami.
That's when I realized there was that voice that would pop up occasionally and tell me, provide refuge. I don't know where the strength came from to move, to retreat, to run -shaking legs and all.

 That being said, I didn't insult people who went to the anti-War protest in 2002. I observed politely, quietly. I kept my head down and thought 'what's this all about?' One side screaming this, the other side screaming something else.

 Then a week later my friends were at a bar and we saw the crimson fires exploding over the skies of Baghdad. Shock and Awe. The war had begun and we were watching in a cozy little Manhattan bar drinking beer and listening to songs on the jukebox. How absurd, how obscene. The bar was neither joyous in celebration nor somber. People were respectful observing, wondering how we should feel. Unsettled but not knowing what to do except drink. There was a deep feeling in that moment, in that room that we were about to enter the rabbit hole, a deep puzzling enigma of violence, pity, greed, absurdity. More drinks, more music! Seven years later we are still trying emerge from that twisted puzzle and I don't know what to call what has happened. Shock and awe.

 The next morning there was a heavy blizzard that blanketed Manhattan in a hushing white coat. I went to my early morning class realizing I would be one of the few. The streets were silent and somber and mostly empty. Fresh snow was beginning to pile up in the inches. I trudged to an Alexander Class (posture and mindset). We were asked to engage in deep listening. I would listen to someone talk for a few minutes with all my body and mind. Not leaning forward, but maintaining a deep balance of listening and absorbing. We had to look each other in the eye and no touching.

 My Australian friend Jono began talking about his feelings, the silence of the morning, the weariness of the start of this war, his feelings about being alone in NYC during winter. I'll never forget the deepness of his emotion, of his mind when it was just allowed to flow. I didn't interrupt him and actually listened to someone (very rare in our society to do that, you know?) With that level of honesty and connection, I could listen to someone for hours talk about their life, the war, zucchini, anything! Because with that level of honesty someone could be talking about "Star Trek" and they'd really be talking about themselves, their mind, my mind. It wouldn't matter, right? With that level of honesty, stillness, and listening a space was created. Then I spoke about my fears, the war and my conflicting feelings, the need to do something.
We were both crying. Crying and crying but connected. That turned out to be my protest. In the quiet, cold, half-empty classroom in the middle of an early morning blizzard. The day after the bombs had started falling I knew this is what I should have been doing all along. I should have been listening with deep love and honesty. Looking into the eyes and listening, absorbing and trying to remove my hate.

 I'll never forget that. There was something very truthful about it. And like I said this was years before taking a Buddhist dharma class. I would always think 'how can I get back to that space, to that place in the peace, where true emotions flow and change begins to happen?'

 If we could all be trained, if I could take it with me more, instill it with me more, spread that peace, that deep abiding pool of compassion, love, and openness.

 Health care, Monsanto, Afghanistan, climate change, Tiger Woods. I'm tired of being outraged. It doesn't work. It's exhausting. It makes the whole world full of shouting, anger, violence, and unhappiness.

 My parents watch MSNBC and I'm hearing the words 'should be outraged...' and my mind goes numb. I laugh weakly and nod as I eat dinner 'yeah, I'm outraged. Whatever it is, I'm appalled. You have my bile, my bitterness, my outrage. Add it to the stew.' Take it away from me, please. Take my outrage at others, add it to some bottomless pot and take it out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and drop it. It would explode like some 1950s atomic bomb test. It would wipe out small islands, shake windows, send tsunami waves out for thousands of miles. And then vanish into thin air, shimmering waves of heat that would get absorbed. Or maybe my outrage would crash through the Pacific floor and strike the core of the earth. Opening up a hell mouth that would vomit up fire, forming a mountain of black marble. A stewing cauldron would be turned into a volcano bubbling up lava and ash. Creating new islands, new terra, new life from the cooling lava. Maybe that's how the world is created. From my ignorance. But ocean waves cool the lava, shape it, they outlast the heat. The great endless waves of compassion overwhelm the biggest volcano and turn all that hell into new earth. Paradise.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Hip Hop Minstrel Show

I was warned ahead of time of what I would see. I was sitting in my seat before the start of the show and my friend turned to me and said that the author likes to have White characters say 'hip hop' slang for laughs. I nodded and said 'yes, it's hip hop minstrel'ing. I've seen it before.' My friend's eyes flared up and he stared at me. "Oh my God! You're right.' It felt like I had revealed a whole new world or perspective to him.

The show started and, sure enough, the first 30 minutes were peppered with jokes derived from White cast members talking like Black rappers and thugs while swaggering around and wearing baggy clothes. Repeated peals of laughter exploded in the mostly White, older, upper-class audience as the jokes landed. Some of the jokes I laughed, some of the jokes I did not. Afterward my friend wanted to pick up with the conversation again and asked if I could go into more detail.

The key pleasure from minstrel shows was and is still about taking Black culture at its most grotesque and extreme and to reproduce for objectified laughter. Black culture at its most parodied involves violent slapstick, overly-sexualized stories, buffoonish criminality, and the malapropism of language. Those are the parameters of minstrel'ing to me and I think most would agree to those borders. No new revelations in that. What I don't understand is how come people can't connect our current culture's obsession to the past? America is the birthplace of minstrel shows and just because people aren't smearing shoe polish on their face doesn't mean we aren't still using the archetypes.

I don't mean to suggest that every time a non-Black character utters an hip hop slang or ebonics term for a laugh that it's a minstrel act. It would be a dreary world if the thought police didn't allow White characters to explore other cultures and vice versa through jokes, love, and conflict. But hip hop minstreling is the lazy, shorthand for 'otherness.' It is when a 'White character' seeks so-called freedom from the limitations of his or her tribe by adopting hip hop ebonics and clothing in a slapdash way that highlights animistic and degrading stereotypes. And it's done so for the purpose of laughter 'at' the other rather than 'with' them.

In hip hop minstrel'ing it's very important that the comedy feels like a finger-pointing to something ridiculous, savage, and denigrating. The audience then feels a certain superiority in laughing at the character who is highlighting the 'other.' But really the character is only serving as a display case for what we're really laughing at which is hip hop, urban youth, and Black life. Unable to do that directly because of social stigmas, hip hop minstrel'ing allows for the laughter of privilege 'at' the un-privileged other through the use of a White body. Since it would feel uncomfortable and self-conscious for a mostly privileged audience to be laughing directly at the shenanigans of 'darkies,' they dress one of their own up as a 'darkie' and mimic the dipping swagger, clownish clothing, and braggart slang revolving around violence and sexual satisfaction.

The story arc often works in two directions: either we begin with a seemingly 'uncool' character who is tutored into the minstrel act by a Black culture gatekeeper or the minstrel character starts off the story in full drag before 'discovering' his true roots and going back to being 'just a White guy.' In both scenarios there is usually a run-in with a Black character at some point who tests their 'minstrel skills' in a battle of slang, dance, or showmanship. Often the minstrel is put into a Black setting in which they must 'oohgaboo' and 'bugaboo' there way out of their difficult situation. When they succeed they are confirmed and validated by a Black character who welcomes them into the family. Or they fail and are destroyed. Either way the hip hop minstrel takes off the proverbial shoe polish at the end. He is wiser in his 'whiteness' and 'normalcy' for having temporarily experimented with the other.

The hip hop minstrel returns to the privilege status with an affectionate wink to the audience, as if to say 'what was I thinking?!?' We laugh and nod our heads, feeling confirmed and relieved. The reformed man may, in the future,  don the ministrel act again when it suits him but it plays no part in his emotional life and development. The mask was just 'a curious phase' or a useful gadget in his Batman tool belt.

Hip hop minstrel is not limited to just non-Black characters. Upper-class and rich Black people may also indulge in 'the act' as a learning tool in their privilege. Often the character walks away with a new-found respect for 'them.'

It's not necessary for me to name countless shows, movies, skits in which hip hop minstrel'ing plays out. Besides, there is nothing gained in pointing an accusatory finger. But perhaps if we were more away of hip hop minstrel'ing we wouldn't allow it to succeed. We would demand more from our comedians, writers, and performers than poor mimicry and ape'ing. If that happened then the arts could actually explore our society in ways which enrich and expand our lives instead of calcifying of judgments of others. It would be a great day for hip hop and America if we asked for more.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Massinissa: Hannibal's friend and foe.

I knew of the great Hannibal Barca, but had no idea who Massinissa was until tonight. I went to see "Massinissa" at the Poets Den Theatre in East Harlem and got to relive my love of Roman and Carthagian history. As a child I loved studying great civilizations from the Phoenicians to the Zulus, great societies are often marked by their spiritual and military contributions. The Carthagian were one of my favorite studies because of the Barca family. Hamilcar was the famous statesman and warrior. Much like Phillip of Macedonia being out shined (and probably assassinated) by his son Alexander the Great, Hamilcar has taken a backseat his son, Hannibal. 

Alongside Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, the Carthagian general stands as a man whose victories and defeats single-handedly changed the course of human history. If Hannibal would have gotten the necessary supplies and support, he could have defeated the burgeoning Roman Republic and shifted the growth of power back to Africa and the Phoenician's multicultural societies. Hannibal had a very skilled military brother, Hasdrubal who helped keep the reigns on Spain for most of the Second Punic War. What I didn't know is that he had tremendous help from a Numidian named Massinissa. And it was that shadowy figure who was responsible for turning the Second Punic War to the decisive advantage of the Romans. 

Massinissa was a poor Numidian taken in by Hannibal and the prestigious military academy. He was trained and led an army at the age of 17 to defeat one of Rome's allies in Africa, the King of Syphax and his Algerian empire. Incredible to imagine a young, fatherless 17-year-old lieutenant going into battle against a feared and clever king. And winning. With a major Roman ally neutralized, Hannibal was then able to focus on his campaign into the Italian peninsula. When Hannibal was storming up and down 'the boot' it was Massinissa who kept Spain safe. And when the war began to turn, it was Massinissa who betrayed Hannibal and defected to the Romans. Thus Massinissa is a historical Brutus, Benedict Arnold, the archetype of serpentine friend. 

Scipio Africanus gets the credit for the coup de grace blow to Carthage at the Battle of Zuma. But what is underreported is that riding at his side was Massinissa with his own viciously effective cavalry that played a decisive role in ending the Second Punic War. But the victor gets to write the story and Massinissa was once again pushed out of the picture. Nobleman Scipio Africanus performed the 'seemingly' miraculous accomplishment of beating Hannibal. 

But there is a difference in this analysis. Massinissa was not Carthagian. He was considered lower-class and an outsider. Massinissa made clear that he had a desire to have his own kingdom and that would never happen with a Carthagian victory. He would continue to be considered the darker and more savage foreigner to the elitist Carthagian ruling class. In some ways, Massinissa becomes a sympathetic traitor who was rewarded and punished. Demanding a proof of loyalty, the Romans demanded Massinissa surrender over his new bride who was related to Syphax. Massinissa sent her poison and she killed herself rather than be dishonored. But once the sacrifice was made, the ambitious Numidian was rewarded with his own kingdom. For the rest of his life he carefully expanded his small kingdom by eating into Carthage land, always with the approval of the Romans who were seeking ways to reduce the power of their chief rival. 

History doesn't look kindly on Massinissa. He's seen as duplicitous and seeking small gains as the expense of historical fortune. But it was not his history, nor his people. Take Wings and Soar's production of "Massinissa" sheds light on this unique and thrilling story. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Killing the Black Body

Herschel Walker's brilliant bio-documentary ESPN's 30-for-30 series is a personal inspiration. He was fat asthmatic kid who was picked on by white kids and beaten up regularly in his town. I felt the same way growing up and struggled with my weight and asthma. Walker literally turned himself into a Superman through push-ups btw commercial breaks. It was hard not to cheer for him when you watch the old footage of him destroying defenders, walking over linebackers. But the superhero dynamic always has a flipside: they're loners, angry, and just as troubled. I think as a boys we like that dynamic of being a Superhero and w/o Black men rolemodels that is the only one to follow. Walker ended up suicidal and destroying his marriages and he admits he was so angry no one could be around him. The only thing which changed him was having a son and thinking 'I don't want this for him.'

I think as Black men in America we have historically over-identified with the body in all aspects. And this has typically resulted in some harmful causes 1) we underdevelop our emotions and meditation and prayer ability 2) we underdevelop our spiritual connections which is why churches aren't filled with six-pac ab brothers. They're filled with women, grandmothers, and kids 3) we overdevelop our sense of temporal physical things: money, body, and women which makes us unhappy, neurotic and paranoid of losing the things which always fade (check rap music's obsession with these things. the best rappers like Tupac, Biggie, Wayne, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake all constantly run back in forth between ballin' and how unhappy and paranoid they are) and 4) we compete for temporal status symbols which will never make us happy w/ underdeveloped emotions, spiritual connections and community understanding. This creates a violent lash effect against each other, since we see ourselves so heavily as 'bodied beings' instead of 'spiritual beings embodied."

when we were brought over in this country, that is exactly what was desired. A pure relation to the body and very strong disconnection to any intellectual or spiritual development. We were rewarded for working our body and punished for trying to learn how to read. Our spirituality was tolerated as long as it was corrupted enough with broken families, alcohol, and violent divisiveness to not get us anywhere. Our spirituality thus became a docile taming mechanism of the mind which forced black men to focus even more heavily on body-based development. You look at urban Asian kids working their family's biz or Jewish kids forced to go to Hebrew school (after normal school) and then Black kids hit the basketball court. Who's really winning in this scenario?

There's nothing wrong with working out and it does help the mind ( I love yoga and the gym). The trap is when worship falls over into vanity. Having lots of money enables us to help more ppl but that's now why we have a Fortune 500 list. We have that to worship money. Strong body helps w/ strong mind but I would say that's not why ppl want the Shake Weight or 6-pac abs.

 I'm biased being Buddhist w/ middle way path. The body is very useful, but only as a vehicle to get somewhere. Once one gets to the proverbial other side of the river, you leave the canoe on the shore. Carrying it around saying 'look at how great this thing is, I put 20-inch spinning rims on my canoe' slows one down on the journey. So build a beautiful vehicle that is comfortable, easy to use, and gets you where you want to go in style. But then we all have to leave it on the shore. So how much time would I really invest in putting rims on my canoe if I knew that I was leaving it behind once my voyage was complete?

I'm not dismissing athletics. I was an all-state athlete in football and wrestling, got scholarship offers, etc. My parents also encouraged me to play violin, viola, and become a championship debater (did all of that). Now I enjoy yoga, west african dance, and Tibetan philosophy. Rhodes Scholars are ppl who excel both academically and athletically in line with the Ancient Greek concept of scholar being involved in healthy sports for the body and mind. But as Black men it feels heavily imbalanced. That's why there's ageism: b/c we overvalue the body. This isn't going to be corrected by having 60-year-old men look like 20-year-olds. Ageism is corrected at the roots of our obsessions at the risk of spiritual pursuits. Look at the page the article was written on and is there any question what is the cause of ageism? Obsession with body image leads to this fear and failure which is why Black culture in America has athletic Supermen AND rampant diabetes and obesity. It's a culture so body obsessed that we become polarized as we get later on in life. There is a stable, well-built, (6-pac ab) middle that can be achieved.

It's nice to have a flexible strong body, but it's still a body. It will fail 100% of the time. But we worship the very thing which will always let us down at the expense of developing the one thing which is eternal. Body, money, and power identification are the big lies. They never last and only increase suffering when they begin to fail. Invest in getting the mind of a 20-year-old: strong, flexible, creative, and free.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Psychic kinesis (PK)

This book "Holographic Universe" is stunning. I'm halfway through it and author Michael Talbot along with many physicist confirm the higher-level of reality expressed in Buddhism and science.

The Princeton Institute which studies physic abnormalities and consciousness (P.E.A.R) catalogues all these things which don't fit according to standard physics. The cases number in the thousands.

In one case scientist got in contact with verifiable hypnotists who could hypnotize each other and sync up in their illusions. The hypno-duo found themselves both on the same surreal beautiful beach walking along. When the woman asked 'take my hand' the guy then realized that he hadn't made the illusion (or rik chi) of a hand yet. So he conjured one instantly. They reported that often when they were in this world they were just a face or disembodied self. The theory is that this is as real as our 'usual life,' but that our minds our so trained in conjuring up the body that we do so instantly and constantly. Buddhist philosophy of mental images matches this perfectly by saying there is only mental images layered on stop of stuff. If the mental images are removed there isn't "necessarily" something there.

In another case I psychic was invited to a house party of scientists to perform tricks. He hypnotized a willing participant and told him that when he awakes he will not see his daughter. Then his daughter was placed in front of him. When he awoke from his instructions he was smiling as if everything was normal and couldn't see his daughter standing a few inches in front of him. Literally he saw through her. The psychic then placed his watch behind the daughter's back and asked the participant to read the inscription. The participant read the inscription effortless even though there was a so-called body in front of him. Which lead to the belief that we don't see with our eyes. How could we if someone can -with moderate hypnosis- completely see through a person, unless the person standing there was a mental image. If the mental image is ignored or wiped clean from the mind then there isn't anything there and it's like staring at a watch that's being held in empty space, hence him reading the inscription without a problem.

A month ago I was meeting with an old-time TV writer about a project. He wasn't very into this sort of musing about psychics but he said he was working on a show in the 1970s in NYC that was going to have a famous psychic on it. Before the meeting, he wanted to have the psychic guess a number in his pocket. So he wrote down his address and phone number, added everything up on a sheet of paper, folded the sheet and placed it in his jacket pocket. So he goes to the meeting and forgets about the slip of paper in his jacket. By the way, he didn't tell his producers he was going to do this. As the meeting is closing, the psychic casually says 'he has a number.' The producers look confused, 'what?!?' The psychic looks over at the writer and repeats 'you have a number that you want me to guess.' The TV writer nods and says 'that's right.' So the psychic takes out a piece of paper and writes the number down which is the exact total of the writer's sheet. Either this psychic is effortlessly able to sync up with other minds and/or he too has eliminated certain dun chi in his mind related to objects and can -at will- dismiss the dun chi of a jacket or the dun chi of another mind in front of him. What's interesting is that the TV writer didn't prompt him and had also forgotten about the number, so it's not like it was on his surface mind.

This suggests that if I eliminate or soften certain dun chi through meditation that it is possible to read minds, see through 'solid objects' and see emptiness. And if one person can do it- and this book suggests that millions can and do- then everyone can do it. It's exhilarating and frightening to think of the real possibilities when we blend this quantum psychics info and documented testing with the ancient wisdom of mental images (chi and jedrak) in Buddhism.

In another case scientists at Princeton's PEAR created a REG or random event generator which was a binary coin flipper of producing either a 1 or 0. The motor for the REG was the most random thing in the world: radioactive decay compound that, depending on how it degenerating at any moment, would trigger a 1 or 0. The more times you flip a coin the more likely it ends up 50/50 so it should be about 50% 1's and 50% 0's if you keep running a REG. And the results held that up. Then they placed a person in front of the REG and had them try to just direct the machine with consciousness to get a larger amount of 1's or 0's. They found that every single person was effective in significantly shifting the REG through just focus. They call it psychokinesis or PK. Some people were better at PK than others and would get even bigger results in consciously making a shift. But everyone was able to shift the REG. In another REG they created a pinball device with metal balls that would flow down a obstacle course of pegs. Once again, each participant was able to significantly shift the course of cascading pinballs through just awareness and focus.

It suggests that the steadier my mind is the easier I'm able to tap into PK in order to sync up with a great job, partner, or just making it to the train on time. We've all had streaks where we are just making right on time to the subway or just a feeling of synching up with a random machine or system (cell phones or train schedules). Conversely we've all felt out of sync of moments where we're jinx'ed with a particular technology. So this PK suggests it's not only with other minds but with so-called inanimate objects.

Very interesting stuff. This morning re-listened to Geshe Michael's youtube clips about how to see emptiness (through analyzing mental images). It all eerily fits together.

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