Art and Culture

Baksheesh and Brahman

I spent a few hours this weekend reading Joseph Campbell’s  Baksheesh and Brahman, which is Campbell’s journals from a year in India from 1954-55 (I’m now about a third of the way through).  Campbell writes that he went to India to find Brahman and instead found politics.  He approached his visit from the perspective of a mythologist.  In contrast to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who went to India to find God, Joseph Campbell went to observe religious practices.  Although the journals evidence his own perspective and prejudices, he makes cogent observations on the difference between religiosity and spirituality (not all that dissimilar to the distinctions made in the Bhagavad Gita about the difference between rigidly practicing ritual and truly believing).  He also makes very interesting and still timely and cogent comparisons between the relationship of Hinduism and to the then rather new Indian nationalism and American Protestantism to democracy.

Ultimately, though, it is evident that this year was important for Campbell’s life path and work, as it was for the Beats, and has been for many of my friends who have gone, though not for all.  I think about going to India.  It will be when I have several weeks and don’t have a venerable and ancient cat who cannot be left behind for a long stretch of time.  In the meantime, reading of such journeys can stimulate thought and can be applied to other aspects of my life, though reading and studying (especially in the yoga tradition), is never a substitute for experience.  Just reading of spiritual experiences, but not doing the practices to open the door to one’s own experience is like reading cooking or gardening books, but never going into the kitchen or the garden.


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A Personal God (Ishta Devata)

My earliest exposure to eastern mysticism was through Salinger and the Beats, which I read avidly in high school and even junior high.   The Beats were hipper and smarter than I could ever hope to be (and they weren’t so good to the women, but that’s another avenue to discuss and explore), but I could check out the Beats call to the east.  One of the reasons I found the Beats use of the eastern imagery so compelling, was that I wasn’t expected to believe, I was just expected to understand how the imagery could open me up to new experiences and understandings of the deeper self and how it fits into the web of being.

I just finished reading Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand, The Beats in India, which is an unsentimental, not particularly flattering, but most interesting account of the Beats and their time spent in India and how it influenced their work.  This particular passage resonated with one of the issues that I wrestle with as study yoga and its underpinning philosophy and its relationship to my personal experience of “spirit”:   “Mr. Jain explained to Allen [Ginsberg] that all gods are unreal, but most Hindus choose one and use the image of that god (either a picture or a statue) to focus on during prayers, to quiet the mind and soak the heart in the gentle vibes it radiated.  Or, after taking your measure, your guru might assign you a god.  Apparently, there was a personal god for everyone, Allen [Ginsberg] reported to Jack [Keroac], tailored to your temperament, desires, or inclinations.”

Have you found that the characteristics or image presented by one of the pantheon resonates more deeply with you than the others?

Other interesting books about the Beats experiences in India:  Indian Journals, Allen Ginsberg, Passage Through India, Gary Snyder

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Buy a Coffee Mug (and never forget)

buy-a-coffee-mug-and-never-forgetI didn’t buy a coffee mug, but I did take the picture.  If only remembering was as easy as buying a souvenir.  Memory, though, it much more ephemeral.  I’ll remember this day.  Sometimes I will deliberately recall it.  Sometimes, images will come unbidden as something triggers a memory, just as the solicitation by a friend last week to support an orphanage in Peru brought back the thought of 9/11.  I had been in Peru at the retreat center that supports the orphanage when the planes hit the World Trade Center.  I hope for news tomorrow of the imminent closing of Guantanamo to start reshaping our relationship to 9/11.

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Privilege and Periphery

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At about 10:30 am, I left my house and walked over to the Capitol.  I knew that by leaving the house at that hour, instead of at 7am, I would be outside the fence, but I instead practiced in the morning and opened myself to the sense of amazement and hope filling my city.

My friends who were inside the fence either are press or have other jobs that got them an invitation or they arrived at 5am to volunteer. I look forward to hearing their stories and seeing their pictures.

It felt urgent to be present for this occasion.  One of the things that made it especially poignant is that where I went was on my walk to work.  I forget, sometimes, the import of the capitol and the Mall because they are so much a part of my daily geography.

The audio visual we had in my spot just north of the Capitol (turned out to be next to the cannons for the salute) was a couple of ipods with speakers and boom boxes, rather than the big, fancy rock concert screens, but we were in fact physically closer than most on the Mall.  Some of us were just happy to be there together celebrating and being less densely packed into the crowd.  Some, so used to being marginalized by society — being able to see privilege and insider status, but have it be completely out of reach — grumbled that they might as well have stayed home as they witnessed even those with tickets not getting through the security lines towards the end.

But every one was hushed, even in the crowd, even without a view, for the oath of office and for the President’s speech.  It was a privilege to stand with these neighbors and fellow citizens.  It was an honor to see grown men unashamed to let their eyes fill with tears as they witnessed what they never saw they would see in the Nation’s Capitol, in their town, an African-American President.

I am filled with hope, not because I think there will be almost instantaneous and miraculous “change,” but because we have just witnessed an enormous step in a better direction.

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Aerial View

If I had been born a different person and chosen an entirely different career path (say a secret service agent), I might have had a view like this today.  Would it have been worth it?  So interesting to watch the dance of intention and fate.  This, by the way, is the view from the cafeteria at the Department of Labor, so I can have it any other day.  If you look closely, you can see where the podium was set up in front of the capitol.  The pictures in the next post are mostly from the park just north of the capitol — so they would be just outside of this shot on the left.a-secret-service-view

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“Yes We Can”

Yesterday’s inaugural concert spurred all sorts of memories from me.  When I was a child, we went a number of times to the Clearwater Revival Festival and other folk festivals where Pete Seeger was a headline.  He is just ten years older than my Dad, and though my parents were not among those who became famous, they were hanging around the Village and my Dad was doing activist things at the same time.  James Taylor’s “Shower the People” was a favorite when I was in junior high school.  There was a boy from camp who played the guitar who I remember saying that “a little James Taylor goes a long way [towards getting a girl’s attention].”  Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellenkamp, U2, Bob Marley, Aaron Copeland, and the great oldies (played at the concert and listed as Obama’s top ten ipod songs), are part of the music of my high school, college, and law school years.

Not needing music or advertising to help me decide to vote, I didn’t pay much attention to how music was being used in the campaign.  But here was the music, and it was mostly my music, too.  The concert was very clever, designed to appeal to black and white, young and old, and populist — they were careful to have the performers whose oevre might not appeal to an older or younger crowd stick to songs with mass appeal.

Interestingly, it gave me an insight to those conservative guys from the middle of the country who said they liked W because he was the kind of guy they could hang with and have a beer.  The concert was a concert I might have attended when I was in high school or college or law school.  I had an insight about what it feels like to feel comfortable with the education and background of the President, but only up to a point.  I enjoyed this trip down memory lane, but it did not impact my politics or how I would view the Presidency.  There is a fine line between relating and agreeing, appreciating and accepting without question.

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Slumdog Millionaire

I’d been thinking about going based on the subject matter and the reviews.  Studying and practicing yoga from such a Western perspective, I think it is important for me to understand more deeply how much and what of our culture India is embracing, while we embrace its philosophy and aesthetics and use it to supply us with cheap labor.  I am conscious that yoga has come to me through the filter of British colonialism (that is one of the many reasons for the name “Rose Garden Yoga”).

I was worried about whether I could sit through the violent images, but I was talking to my sister last weekend, and she had it on the top of her list, so I decided to go after all.  The movie deserves its superlative reviews.  Don’t be misled, though, by the reviews that say it is ultimately a fairytale.  Although it is a story of compassion and loyalty, of the quirks of fate, memory, and the solace of philosophy, it contains candid depictions of abject suffering, unbearable poverty, and unspeakable cruelty.  It raises pointed questions about when violence is warranted in the face of injustice or for mere survival. It is certainly thought provoking and eye opening.  Most of the thoughts I’ll wait to share with those who have seen the movie.

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