Friday, September 28, 2012

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Ego

We are living from the center of a deep cavern. Call out your name and the walls always echo back “I.”

During the teenage years the human ego is hammered into form like sheet metal. This is a troublesome time. Every word becomes a clank of iron, every morning is a strike to someplace deep within the ribcage, everything hurts. The word personal takes on distinct color and texture. Like blue glass, how easily it can shatter.

Say ego over and over in a nasal voice, dragging out the eeee, and it will sound like a siren, like a warning, an opportunity to grow alert. EEEEGOEEEGOEEEGO. For extra points, stretch your arms out like airplane wings and run around your house in circles.
Watch animal egos on National Geographic: fuchsia bowerbirds dance for mates, rams’ horns lock bone to bone, alpha dogs bear their slick teeth. 

The female ego is much craftier—she deals in pushup bras and skinny jeans, glossed in Sephora and wrapped in a half-smile, full lips bearing bleached teeth that will speak words like knives.

Until recently, my Facebook picture was of me in a yoga pose, an arm balance with Nevada mountains, red and heaping, in the backdrop. It’s your typical “modern yogic” Facebook photo: the body is wrangled into an inversion or arm balance (that looks like a break dancing move, as a friend commented), gazing sagely off-camera, taken outdoors (favorite yogic settings are the beach at sunset or mountains) as if to exhibit a oneness with nature and therefore the universe, as if to impress all my Facebook “friends” with how super Zen and super fit I am, because Zen and fit are synonymous in yoga culture, totally, in my ass-huggin' $80 Lulus, y'all.

My picture was less yogic and more egic. It was not taken whilst in the midst of sweet meditative bliss. Fuck, it was taken specifically to post on Facebook. (Does it get more egic than that?) But a picture of me sitting quietly on the floor with my eyes closed is not nearly as cool, right?

Song of Myself, or How to Sing Your Ego: Stand tall and, in an operatic voice, bellow with a rise and fall: Me me me me me me me me meeeeee. Extra points for wearing a monocle and cummerbund.

A gleaming, salivating eye like a cleave of garnet, that blood jewel. That evil eye.

King of Sabotage, thwarter of inner peace, Buddha’s biggest, most badass contender underneath the bodhi tree.

For the Self-Help section: The i-dentity is both our way of seeing and what we end up seeing, too. We are the protagonists of our own minds, as our daily dramas unspool before us.

When I am in a rush in traffic, I get mad at the cars driving, godforbid, the speed limit. I go crazy. This is my ego flaring up, insisting that my plans are somehow more important than anyone else’s. The selfish kernel in my solar plexus.

I can smell your ego from here. It has the sharp smell of salt brine, the sick smell of whiskey. You’ve insulted me, and you’ve hurt my ego; I’m insulted. My skin smells of brine and whiskey, now, too.

Ego: I have declared war. A peacable one. I will send you out breath by breath. In great waves you will leave my house, I will open the windows and you will fly out in the gust of wind as my ribcage expands and contracts.

It’s nothing personal.

We are living at the center of a cavern. Not alone. Our egos and body and hearts are like tiny drop of water in the welled water of the cavern. When a rare few call out their names, they hear the echo back, “Us.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Put It In Your Mouth

The above reference to the 1996 song by Akinyele actually has nothing to do with this post. Because if I titled this “Vegans are Sexy!” you’d probably keep scrolling through Facebook to look at pictures of acquaintances’ lunches/children/inspiring quote graphics.

What you put in your mouth is important. (Insert joke here. Oh, god, now insert ‘insertion’ joke here?)

Thing is, what most of us shove down our slobbering pie-holes is killing us. (Here we go, vegan rant time!) 

It’s true though. I’m trying to SAVE YOUR LIFE here, asshole.

I know you love meat. You say you can’t live without it. Nomnomnom, goes postmodern caveman.
Postmodern caveman.

I'm not saying you need to go completely vegan (though veg diets save massive amounts of fossil fuels and water every year, considering how much it takes to produce animal meat, not to mention all the animals' lives it saves). I'm saying keep an open mind. Put more greens on your plate. Grab an apple instead of a cupcake. (Or eat a vegan cupcake!)

Here's a chain of thoughts and stats on the subject in bullet points, because bullet points beg to be taken seriously. Plus, there is scientific evidence to support many of these bullet points, and I know how much you love science:

·         One of the most widely promulgated findings from Dr. T Collin Campbell’s groundbreaker The China Study is that an increase in meat eating directly correlates to an increase in chronic disease. Animal proteins can promote cancer growth. The fact is your nutrition directly interacts with the ways your cells operate.
·       Herro, hamburger? Herro heart disease. Herro diabetes. Herro obesity.
·         On the flipside, people who eat mostly plant-based foods tend to be much healthier and avoid chronic disease. Plants pack powerful nutrients. There is absolutely no denying this. Eating fresh, organic fruits and vegetables is good for you.
·         We know this, but why do we still trick ourselves into thinking it’s perfectly fine to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, a chicken sandwich for lunch (it’s grilled!), and spaghetti and meatballs for dinner? There is lettuce and tomato on the sandwich, you say. Fuck that, I say. You can do better for yourself.
·       Eating bacon cheeseburgers and hot dogs and steaks is stitched into America’s cultural identity. This is a hard thing to shake. We believe that because something has been done in the past it holds an intrinsic value. The short story The Lottery will teach you that this not true, or hell , even The Hunger Games. Speaking of hunger, the meat your grandparents were eating forty years ago is FAR, FAR DIFFERENT than the chunks of meat wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam at Publix. Our country’s agricultural practices have moved, as a whole, from small family-owned farms to factory farmed enterprises, which host a whole slew of issues, from genetically modified chickens to horrifying conditions for these living, breathing animals. (There is a lot of insightful info on this subject. For extra credit, watch Vegucated, Food Inc. and other documentaries that expose the food industry.)
·         The American diet of mostly processed foods is not doing your health, your figure, or your wallet any favors. Sure, zapping a cheap Lean Cuisine in the microwave may seem like a convenient meal solution, but not when you’re racking up medical bills to unclog your arteries or irradiate your cancer-stricken cells.  
No, that's not the Tace Bell breakfast burrito. It's your artery! Weee!
·        Preservatives in your food mean that food can’t properly break down in your body, and you can’t receive the full nutrients. Think about it this way: preservatives “encase” your food so it can stay fresh on supermarket shelves longer (this of course is cost efficient for the supermarket), but that “casing” doesn’t just evaporate once you swallow it. Some research suggests sugars in preserved foods rot inside you, since they can’t be absorbed naturally.
·       What’s that, you don’t like how salads taste? You don’t like grilled zucchini? Try it for a week. Our tastebuds, our palates, amazingly, can change and adapt. Remember your first sip of beer or vodka? Well, maybe some of your fell in love at first chug, but probably not. You probably winced. And now look at you, you lovely, raging alcoholic.
·        These thoughts barely scratch any surfaces on this topic.

Now you really might be thinking, oh god, another vegan diatribe. But maybe not, since you’ve gotten this far. And so I shall reward you, my dear omnivorous friends and animal-loving vegans alike, with some sweet musical inspiration from Akinyele, of the 1996 persuasion. It's a great veggie-eating soundtrack. (MOM, DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS! I love you. Thanks for reading my silly little bloggies.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I think god just called me a moron.

I was trying to find a parking spot on the USF campus, which is like trying to find pants I can afford at Lululemon. Wedged in a tight lane on a gravel, pot-holed lot, I got into an awkward driving kerfuffle. As an SUV pulled out I waved the driver forward, which he didn’t like. As he drove by he rolled his window down and said, “Just wait a minute, you moron.”

Every single day in this fair country of ours, millions of middle fingers get jabbed skyward in bursts of highway hotheadedness. Strings of vibrant fuck-you-mother-fuckering-shit-sharks get screamed into the steering wheel. Terrible violence results from some of these moments of anger. And so, some guy calling me a moron may be the Sesame Street version of road rage. Still, considering I’m about as sensitive as a hangnail, the insult bore into me.

I was dumbfounded when he said it, the open mouth of his car window less than three feet from mine, the clear, shockingly articulate sound of his voice as moron sailed across the space between us. He didn’t look at me as he spoke, and drove off right afterward. I wouldn’t have said anything back anyway, I was too stunned. The two syllables sucker-punched me. Mor-on.

Even though I was insulted—a ubiquitous, nondescript insult at that—by a complete stranger, it hurt. I told you, I’m sensitive. I cry during Battlestar Gallactica and at Snow White & The Huntsman, both when a ginger dwarf died (spoiler alert, whoops) and at Kristen Stewart’s bad acting. And so I cried, loudly, into my steering wheel in the USF parking lot. I was rattled, as if ball-peen hammers were clanking up and down my ribcage.
Captain Adama makes me cry.

Then, enter l’esprit des escalier: I envisioned ten different insults I could have, damnit should have, hurled back into his car, made him as upset as he made me. Asshole! Pathetic! Or even better, I dreamed myself up with some cool-headed, wise remark to make him feel guilty about his weak quickening into anger. WWBD: What would Buddha do?

I spent a lot of time in the past, reimagining the whole scene over and over again, replaying each detail. And it kept me tangled up in anxiety.

Did I mention I was going to campus to meditate with a couple friends?

A mentor, brilliant writer, and friend of mine organized a meditation group to meet once a week in an unused classroom for an hour. After tearfest 2012 in my Nissan, I went to the meditation meetup in a windowless room. I tried to calm the heat rising through my body, the word moron pulsing through me. I wasn’t a moron! I like to read books! I even use the word ubiquitous in my blog posts! Didn’t this total stranger know that, damnit? Fuck you, stranger! I hope you get into a car accident on your way home. Shit, did I just say that?

Tears ran down my face during meditation. Then some shaking happened.

This is one of the many things meditation is good for. Feeling things through or, in my case, crying them through.

And during meditation , I remembered a piece of wisdom I’d heard from a recorded Alan Watts lecture (that badass, self-proclaimed ‘philosophical entertainer’ from the 60s). To paraphrase, he
retold the story of a Zen master who saw god in everyone he met. I don’t mean god in the Judeo-Christian sense, of course. Clearly we are not all white dudes with long white beards. But according to this Zen master’s philosophy, if we are all manifestations of some collective consciousness, then every single person—from the bag boy at the grocery store to your momma—is part of this dynamic energy. And so the Zen master would laugh and end up saying to himself on many days, “My, god, how you’ve come up today.” How god-energy-universe-whatever reveals itself to us is often quite difficult, because life is difficult.

Another teacher of mine once said we have the most to learn from the difficult people in our lives, not our loved ones. It is these annoying coworkers, these demanding bosses, these vicious strangers who let us practice our compassion.

Real nice in theory, I know. Quite different in practice, when the stranger has just insulted you (me). My teacher Kelsang Chokyan, a Buddhist monk, says when we ask for more tolerance, more patience, more compassion, we are given challenging situations. This is the way we learn. And so, to god driving the SUV, thanks. You may just have made me a little more aware of the mechanics of my mind and heart.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

in the early morning light

Tampa Bay looks like a sheet of aluminum foil that’s been crinkled up and then smoothed out again. It’s got a stern gleam.

I stand on the rocks at the edge of Davis Island beach and watch the fissures of small waves painted gray-silver. I’ve never seen the water like this, because I’ve never been up to breathe nature at 8am before (I just taught a 7am yoga class).

Many say morning is a most auspicious time, the time of day when everything is still precious, tacked in possibility, before the ripe noonday heat sears everything. And then, the sun opens from cloud cover and the bay sweeps transparent; the silver sheen is washed away to reveal the rocks and crab holes at the shallow bottom.

The beach is pretty empty at this early hour, except for a city crew emptying the public garbage bins. One guy tells his coworker, “This is the shittiest job in the world.” She shrugs, ties a plastic bag, hurls it in the back of their pickup truck with the City of Tampa logo on the side. As I stroll along the shoreline, I notice an old guy in the distance playing the ukulele. He’s got to be at least late sixties, wearing the old dude uniform of khakis and orthopedic sneakers.

It’s late November, and windy, which pushes the water to the ragged shore where I stand in my sneakers and sweats. That sound, that gentle lapping—it’s as if nature were whispering Remember me? I can heal you, but in the distance Tampa’s downtown cranks and grinds with the waking city.

The factories on the edge of town hurl like giant, dumb mechanical gods. Across the bay the Big Bend Power Station chugs warm, clean water in to a canal where hundreds of manatees gather to warm their bodies every winter. It’s actually quite lovely and fascinating, this intersection of nature and machination.

Do the steel pilings, earth movers, bollards and swinging cranes anger me, when I think of the environmental sacrifices in the name of industrial development? Sure. Do I live in a cushy society that benefits from all that metallic purl and heave? Sure do. Boy, am I feeling conflicted and postmodern on the beach. Ukulele notes pluck the wind over the waves. At once the grinding noise of the city quiets, and music fills the beach.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hot Yoga, Indeed.

Male Friend: “I’d be interested in taking a yoga class, but I dunno, I feel kinda weird, ya know?”
Me: “Come on! There are lots of hot chicks in spandex bending over. Why wouldn’t you go?”

Why do I instantly advertize yoga’s sex appeal, not the real benefits of the practice, such as stress reduction, lower blood pressure, stronger muscles, mental clarity? Maybe because there is something undoubtedly beautiful and graceful about yoga, even sexy—I mean, there certainly is a lot of bending over.

And as the yogic tradition is enmeshed in Western culture, it shifts and adapts (many, including myself, might say this is a detriment). In a way, Americanizing yoga seems to dilute the pure spiritual nature of the practice. Gyms are lined with mirrors so students spend the whole class checking themselves out, and comparing themselves to others. Many American yogis often buy overpriced yoga clothes and all manner of yoga paraphernalia, from no-slip towels to lavender-scented eye pads. Are we buying our way to nirvana?

For some yoga is not just a path to inner peace, it’s a path to flat abs and tight buns. In fact, this blog was prompted because I just saw a Yahoo! article titled “The Great Sex Yoga Workout.” Ladies, you can do kegels while in bridge pose! At this point, I’d assert that we’re not doing yoga anymore…we’re working out, which is perfectly fine. But to me it ain’t yoga. The intention has shifted from having good holistic health to just having good sex. And then again, who am I to be dictating or judging anyone’s intentions?

So I’m wrestling with the idea that yoga is sexy, because this feels inherently wrong. Maybe that’s my Catholic upbringing. Even so, shouldn’t yoga transcend that first chakra sexual energy into a more aware, centered sensibility (say, third eye chakra)? Of course yoga also fosters self-acceptance, body awareness, compassion for oneself and others. These benefits can (and should) permeate other areas of life, including the bedroom. But I don’t think it should be the whole purpose. On the other hand, sex sells. And the yoga market is exploding at the seams of its lululemon nylon pants.

Even the American Sex Guru is using yoga to peddle skin. In 2009, Hugh Heffner’s Playboy website featured a video of a playmate doing yoga. Naked. (No, I haven’t seen the full video. But am I interested to see it? Um, yeah, yeah I am.) Elephant Journal featured some interesting thoughts on the very subject I’m grappling with. Check it out here, plus a preview of the cleavage yogini in uttanasana. Link:

But naked yoga isn’t a new thing. In this discipline stripping down for some sun salutations isn’t supposed to be arousing. It’s supposed to be liberating. Practitioners aren’t focused on sex, they’re focused on accepting and celebrating their bodies and others without judgment…or an erection. These classes happen in studios and clubs in a safe, encouraging atmosphere. While I haven’t tried it, this style seems to have its intention in the right place. But there I go again making judgments. Guess I need to do more yoga. With my sweatpants on.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Art of ZenTravel

There is a quiet mob fomenting at the Southwest Airlines terminal. Zone A passengers are lined up by their designated poles, shuffling bags and secretly scoping out one another’s boarding passes to make sure no one is trying to sneak into a lower number section within the Zone, and therefore getting on the plane sooner, and therefore getting a seat. Meanwhile, Zone B through D passengers hover nervously, ready to sprint to the gate at the slightest flick of the attendant’s microphone.

As if flying weren’t nerve-wracking enough, Southwest Airlines has brilliantly decided to herd customers onto their planes cattle-style, first come first serve. This adds a palpable panic to the air. Will the newlyweds be able to sit next to each other on their connecting flight to Turks and Caicos? Will granny get her aisle seat? Southwest makes us sweat.

Finally on the plane, baggage stowed, seatbelt clicked, awkward/polite nods to seat neighbors completed, I can try to meditate.

Plane rides are the perfect opportunities to meditate because the practice involves sitting straight and still. This is often the biggest obstacle for me at home, where I have so many other options, like a couch, or a Facebook account, for instance. But on a plane I’m already strapped in to a prime meditation posture (seat upright and in the locked position).

Reason #2 air travel is also great for meditation: even though I love traveling and plan to scope out every inch of this fabulous, insane planet of ours, I get a bit shaky at takeoff. What can I say, I’ve been scarred by Final Destination. (The first FD…you know that horrible first plane crash scene I’m talking about--shit scared me so that for years I had to check every tray table as soon as I sat down. I nearly ran off a plane once when my tray table latch was painted red instead of the ubiquitous beige.)

As the metal phallic object I’ve entrusted my little life to is hurling down the tarmac, I get suddenly Catholic. I get suddenly any religion, whichever one will have me at 5,000 feet and climbing. I use The Secret. Happy thoughts: I survive this flight, I envision myself landing, I see my bags chug down the baggage claim carousel, of course they haven’t lost my bags, and so forth. I try to focus on my breath. I deeply inhale the stale recirculated air. A man three rows behind me sneezes violently. Some kid screams. I exhale. Positive, happy, healthy thoughts!

Then the sensation of liftoff: the scoop in my stomach, the centrifugal force, the rush of engine, the lack of control I have over everything happening. It’s frightening and strangely exhilarating. God I hope the pilot isn’t drunk.

Rolf Gates calls yoga “a refuge from our need to control.” It makes sense: we try to arrange our lives in neat, perfect angles. Get the decent job, buy the nice car, the comfortable home, maintain circle of witty and attractive friends, whatever. But things don’t always go our way, and many of us haven’t learned how to cope with that very well. I haven’t anyway (if you have, I’d sure love to know your techniques). Even in yoga and meditation, we try to control the experience. I need a nice, quiet space to sink into a blissful, super-zennified mood.

This is clearly not flight 287 to Phoenix.

But one of my meditation instructors also says that the conditions to meditate will never be perfect. In fact, it’s better to be still in the midst of the chaos rather than when I’m already calm, when the sage incense is already burning. If I can find an iota of stillness on this flight, then maybe I can find stillness at home, too.

At cruising altitude, a little boy behind me looks out the window.

“How cool, I can’t believe I wasn’t looking before,” he says to his mom.

I look out, too. It’s weird and beautiful, the earth carved up and spliced into life. I sit and watch. The plane slips through a patch of clouds like an anhinga through water, white flashes against my small oval window. There it is; the moment. Just breathing, being right now on flight 287 to Phoenix. Until the turbulence. Then I force some deep breaths and pray to every deity I can remember.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One thing’s for sure: I’m a fraud.

When Gandhi made up his mind about something, that was that. Take meat. One day he figured it was no longer such a good idea, so he immediately cut all meat out of his diet. When he found out his clothes were manufactured by British companies he stopped wearing or buying them. Hence the loincloth. Gandhi’s mind became a solid wood-carved bowl, his intentions clear inside, not getting muddled or distracted. Gandhi wasn’t one to waffle.

Here’s my mind in a recent yoga class:
(looking at a guy two rows in front of me)
Look at this schmuck. I bet he thinks he’s a super yogi. Yeah, buddy, you do two more pushups instead of an updog during vinyasa, we get it, you’re like, behemoth strong. Don’t think I don’t see right through those low lunges in warrior II. You’re showing off and I’m not buying it. Prick. Fuck this guy. Trying so hard, I bet he’s not getting any of the mental benefits of yoga. How can he find inner peace when he’s peacocking all over his mat? Fuck this guy.

That’s one reason why I’m a fraud.

Today I drove to Target, all by myself in my mid-size sedan, turning into the four-story parking garage in a NASCAR-style swarm of other shoppers driving alone in their sedans.

That’s another reason.

When I watch documentaries one of two things happen: I cry like it’s The Notebook or the New Jersey comes out in me and I yell at the TV, telling this politician or the corrupt EPA to go fuck themselves. I’m usually so fired up after these movies that the heft of everything wrong compresses my ribcage and I want to scream and fix it and I don’t know how so I usually zip online and fill out a few email petitions and that satiates me for a while, until the next flick.

The latest one was Fuel, a really well done one about energy consumption and how running my sedan on McDonald’s leftover cooking oil can save this jacked up little planet of ours. My boyfriend and I swore to try and get a biofuel pump at our local gas station, but the past two weeks I’ve been filling up with the regular old devil’s juice. But not at BP—does that count for something?

Sometimes I want to give away everything I own and go to the Himalayas and meditate, even though I’ve got a hunch New Jersey will follow me to Tibet. Sometimes I think, what the hell are you doing with your life, Melissa, you slothful, selfish chump? Go help the people in India, or Japan, or Haiti, or anywhere. Go! Now!

But I stay in Tampa, in a nice apartment, adjacent to a main strip of nightspots and eateries. And I kind of hate that I kind of like it.

I say I’ll join the Peace Corps. some day. Those last two words scare me. I’m worried I’m lying to myself. It’s too soon to tell.

Is it possible to be a beer-chugging vegetarian (with an occasional bite of a chicken sandwich, usually precipitated by aforementioned beer chugging)? Can I come to terms with the fact that sometimes my mind is tranquil while most other times it’s a backfiring switchboard, smoking and sparking with wires coiled tight? Can I strike a balance?

Gandhi had a little Jersey in him. He was sarcastic and hot tempered. But also humble and fiercely compassionate.

Maybe being a fraud isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s all I can ask for right now, and instead of fighting my duality I should embrace it. Maybe this whole split personality thing I feel—one minute zen goddess, the next one a jealous bitch—is keeping me on my toes, making me investigate my mental switchboard, taking a mechanic’s eye to rewire where necessary.

Whether I’m chained to a cypress tree or telling bad jokes at the local watering hole, the other half of me is always there, and for now I’m ok with that.