Grandiose Little Me

I participated in a digital storytelling workshop yesterday, in preparation for next week’s group photo exhibition, and it made me very emotional in all sorts of ways: what surfaced included excitement, choking ambition, perfectionist tendencies, and desire for praise. I was yanked out of my contemplative little cell, faced with the world inhabited by other people – under the most benign circumstances – and shaken.

One of the things that struck me most was how actually uncomfortable I felt in this group setting. I worked as a teacher (i.e. leader) for a long time and found out that being on the other side was extremely difficult, especially since we were working on a group project. I want to say that I hate group projects, but hate is not the word. I just panic because I have no control over their results. No control! Even though I sit in the first row, trying to communicate to the teacher, in this case a sweet-tempered and witty young woman from Vancouver, that I indeed am the best. “How do I get your job?” is actually what I wanted to ask her, but didn’t. And while I realize how ridiculous my controlling impulses are, I want to see them clearly, without condemnation or justification.

The idea for the exhibition and workshop came from a young woman,  recently graduated from journalism at Concordia University, whose goal is initiating more citizen participation and involvement in public affairs. She searched for people coming from varied backgrounds, selected about a dozen, furnished us with single-use cameras and asked to document a day in our lives.

I followed her instructions to the letter (I am certainly well schooled), and even though I can shoot pretty well and own a decent camera, I stuck to the disposable one and to the project’s raw, documentary purpose. I used to play with disposable cameras years ago so I knew that the key to getting anything out of them was using flash all the time (except in sharp direct sunlight). Anyway, I told myself, the point is not to look good in this. The point is, in my case, to say something honest about living unemployed in Montreal.

At the workshop it turned out that most people’s pictures did not turn out well, or that they hadn’t even picked up their single-use cameras at all, so they worked with digital photographs. The day-in-a-lifetime frame was not respected by anyone but me, and so I felt a pang of irritation, thinking, man, if I made a slide show of the best pictures taken over my time in Montreal, I would blow your minds. I felt like I was being unfairly limited in my output just because I stuck to the rules. I also went for a very basic narrative of my day, including revelations such as “In the morning, I do yoga, and have breakfast. I like to cook and eat well, so the BIO label really gets me going.” Others mostly went for philosophical and poetical treatises on Montreal, in French – I was the only one doing it in English.

Then there was the audio recording. It was the first time I’d ever worked with iMovie and I couldn’t make it do all the things I wanted it to do… I almost punched the computer at some point, at the same thinking, whoah, whoah, what’s with all the anger? What is this? And I realized that I wanted it to be perfect, but I was given only 4 hours to write the story, select, edit, and time the pictures, and finally record the voiceover. The vision engrossed me completely and made me feel like I was actually fighting for something real. I had to remind myself that I was not there to make my name known, but to represent Montreal’s diversity. The project really was about humility, but even though I feigned this quality in my amateurish pictures, I couldn’t bring it to the creation process. To me, it was mostly ambition and stress and anger. Interesting, eh?

The end result is far from good. If I had more time, I’d change the narration in a few places, choose better soundtrack, add a few final strokes. I’d stick to the choice of photos though.

I am a bit apprehensive and worried about the exhibition, even though it is going to show at a university gallery, and is not about me, really. But when I think it will be available online later on, with my name tagged to it forever, I squirm. Here I am, showing off a bunch of pretty bad pictures with a dull, halting voiceover. But hey, I did it and I am glad.

Thing is, I actually like the punk rock aesthetic of these stills – they just seem out-of-place in this particular context.

Also, I know more about myself now. I’ve learnt about digital storytelling and iMovie. Nothing stands in the way of me making my own stories and not worrying about the context someone else may place them in. If I want to control it, I will, but didn’t I want to let go of control? There goes, that’s how it feels. I used to spend hours editing pictures, a long time ago when I was still shooting film, and I remembered it yesterday. Except in the past, nobody would rush me. Yesterday I was rushed and it made me impatient. Pictures are dear to me. I’m serious about them.

Then again, why so serious? Why was I so solemn about it all instead of relaxing my shoulders and having a bit of fun? I think it was partly because I found myself in an environment where I would actually want to work, and so I purposefully set myself up for a test. In the end, I don’t think I passed it – I tried too hard.

What also dawned on me was that I did have a strong work ethic. Sometimes, when I look at job ads and see requirements such as “sense of organization, time management skills, self-starter,” I wonder if there is a place for me in the working world, because I often cannot bring myself to do the above. Not because I can’t, but because deep inside I don’t really want to, or because I feel that the job is demanding too much for purposes that have nothing to do with me, for some high organizational goal which I don’t actually support. But if I focus on a thing that fully matters – lo and behold, I come alive. It was a beautiful realization and it just confirmed that I need to keep on writing, filming, telling stories.

Yesterday exhausted me emotionally but also sowed the seed of something good for the future. I am grateful for having faced the repressed, frustrated artist in me with full force. Sure, I would like to start with a Pulitzer and a MOMA retrospective before getting one thing done and exposed to criticism and ridicule. I thought of what Brené Brown said about embracing one’s own imperfection and stepping forward. In 2010, she delivered a TEDx talk which became incredibly popular, and had this to say about what happened next:

“One of the things that I’ve learned, that I didn’t know before that talk exploded, is how hard I’d been working to keep my career small. And that was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I usually thought of myself as being pissed off because I couldn’t get my work out there enough. But really I think I was engineering that, because I was afraid of these things that actually happened, like the personal attacks.

For people to look at other folks who are trying to come up and share their work with the world, or their art, their ideas, their writing, their poetry, whatever, and say “You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit. When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable. That tightrope is what my talk is about, and I think that balance bar we carry is shame resilience. I think it’s the thing that keeps us steady. If we can understand that: I’m not the best comment, I’m not the best accolade I’ve received, and I’m not the worst. This is my work.”

Before drifting off last night, I watched a documentary on Krishnamurti, possibly the worst documentary I have ever seen. It starts interestingly enough, recounting the myth of his childhood and beginnings with the Theosophical Society (by which he was “discovered,” like America, like gravity), but the storyline ends with his dissolution of the society and start of an independent teaching “career.” Similarly, all the sources I can find offer more or less detailed accounts of his childhood and teenage years, and then BAM! enlightenment strikes under a Californian pepper tree and he stops being a person! He ascends to another level! The rest of the documentary are excerpts from his various public addresses and dialogues in India, the US, and Europe. He really says the same things over and over (I don’t get the impression that he read much himself) and insists that he does not want acolytes, but people follow him like sheep nevertheless. Just check the Krishnamurti Educational Center of Canada’s website, where he is depicted like a saint and seems venerated in a way he would surely bash. I found this funny exchange in the transcript of a 1967 public dialogue in Saanen:

 “Questioner: I am very conscious of my share of responsibility in this disintegrating world. The rich have even more responsibility for this disintegration. There are rich people who have listened to you, some of them for forty years; they are still more responsible. The presence in this tent of such persons represents a static force in contradiction to what you have been saying for forty years. There is an urgent need for each one of us to understand what you are saying, because of this disintegration. But whose role should it be to denounce vigorously the sabotage which this static force constitutes?

Krishnamurti: I don’t know why we are concerned with the rich or the poor, nor who is disintegrating or not disintegrating; whether somebody is using the speaker as a drug, to stimulate himself and therefore remains static, or those who take actual LSD and remain static. . . . Now I don’t see . . . why we are concerned with another. We are concerned first with what we are – you and I. Leave the others alone! Whether rich or poor, Communist or Socialist, Hindu or Buddhist – leave them alone! You and I are responsible! You who are listening and I who am talking. I am responsible. And whether you use me, the speaker, for your own amusement, enjoyment, as a drug – that’s your affair, it’s your misery. . . .

I believe the speaker has talked for more than forty years. It’s my tragedy, not yours. And it would be a tragedy to the speaker if he was expecting something out of it, expecting people to change, to bring about a different society, a different way of life. If I was expecting it I would be disappointed, I would be hurt, I would feel I had not done what I started out to do. It doesn’t affect me at all! Whether you change or don’t change, it’s up to you.”

I fell asleep musing about change, again, after reading and reading and reading and watching so much of what others have done and thought and invented. At night, all I dreamt about were very mundane things: a friend, a young mother, talking to me about her baby’s allergies; buying furniture; taking a bus, making phone calls, trying to be lovable. I woke up late, tired and sad. Snow storms over Montreal. I am writing.

Seeds of knowledge, seeds of life

I don’t have much time this morning so this will be just a quick note. Last night – some more Krishnamurti in a “public dialogue” on aggression and violence. I don’t think it’s much of a dialogue if one side happens to be Krishnamurti. One participant, exasperated, says at a certain point, “In all the questions during the last hour, it appears that none of us is as serious as you are. That makes it rather hopeless.” To which the teacher answers, “It’s up to you, Sirs! You mean to say you are not interested in war?”, eliciting an honest reaction: “…not the way you are.” I searched for the Alan Watts-Krishnamurti connection and found out that 1) Alan was in awe of Jiddu; 2) he occasionally criticised him in his irreverent, non-fact-checked way. I listened to a charming interview Watts did with Laura Huxley (apparently Aldous and Krishna-ji were chums) and I also found out that Bruce Lee read Krishnamurti (and Watts), and that his notion of truth as a “pathless land” influenced Lee’s philosophy of “using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation.” I melted a little. Which reminds me of a kung fu teacher I met last Saturday, but that’s a story I want to explore elsewhere.

Yesterday was also the day of listening to Vandana Shiva and signing the declaration on seed freedom. My fingers are itching to get green. I so love activists who embody this female archetype of earth and nurture and renewal. It gives me butterflies and a sense of rootedness.

Wise Old Men, Wise Old Women

I don’t think I will go through everything that is available on the J. Krishnamurti website (it is so vast!), but I’ll stick with it for some time still. In the concluding talk of his 1967 series, Love and Loneliness, he offers a kind of closure, promising a way out of the crazy, self-destructive mind and world:

“To be aware of thought, of feeling, never to correct it, never to say it is right or wrong, never to justify it, but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching and moving with that thought, with that feeling, you begin to understand and to be aware of the whole nature of thought and feeling. Out of this awareness comes silence, not simulated, not controlled, not put together by thought.”

This is true meditation, according to Krishnamurti, who at the same time brusquely rejects all other contemplative practices (involving sound, visualization, etc.) as phony. I wonder: does this rejection not lead to further division and thus conflict? I would rather believe that any path leading to a worthy goal (such as peace) would be commendable, but Krishnamurti seems to question the very idea of “taking a path” and insists on everybody assuming absolute authority over their own existence:

“We cannot depend on anybody, there is no guide, there is no teacher, there is no authority, there is only oneself and one’s relationship with another and the world, there is nothing else. When one realizes that, faces that, either it brings great despair from which comes cynicism, bitterness and all the rest of it, or in facing it, one realizes that one is totally responsible for oneself and for the world, nobody else; when one faces that, all self-pity goes.”

What follows is that “each individual human being is responsible for all the misery, for the wars, for the hunger, for the brutalities and . . . enormous violence that exists in the world,” and so each one of us must bring about a revolution in ourselves if we ever want to end this vicious cycle.

I want to retort, shut up Krishnamurti, I did not commit atrocities in my life, but I know that essentially he is right. If we are one, then each individual is also humanity, and so contains in herself the seeds of all good and evil. Thus the need to cultivate virtue… except it sounds so puritan and cold that I am taken aback. The idea of watching oneself carefully all the time, being aware of each thought, each motive, and the consequences of each action – and hoping for grace which may or may not descend – gives me shivers. Then I turn to the belly-laughing Alan Watts, who likes to say, “Don’t worry so much; it’s only a game.” But as I was listening to “Out of Your Mind” the other day, it struck me how lightheaded Watts sometimes was. Speaking of world poverty, for instance, he affirmed that humanity is at such an advanced stage of development that, thanks to robots and machines, hunger and deprivation will soon be absolutely eliminated. And then what, he asks, what will a modern man do? When all the sick and poor are taken care of? Imagine having that dilemma for real. Sure, he was a product of his times, and that was a common belief in the sixties, but it only goes to show how detached the overspiritualized people can be.

Anyway, who isn’t. I know I am. I don’t believe in objectivity, and I know that universality tastes different to everyone. All the wise men say essentially the same thing, albeit in different words, using different examples, appealing to different facets of their listeners’ personalities. When I leech onto their words and try to follow with too much intensity, I miss the message, just as I fail to grasp it by way of criticism. My critique is partly motivated by the fear of being naive, gullible, and easily manipulated, and partly by the confidence of being smart enough to see through them. And yet I keep coming back for more, instead of effin’ taking the cue and following my own lead. How fascinating is that. How addictive.

To counterbalance the voices of wise old men, I am reading Marion Woodman’s “Addiction to Perfection.” I discovered this Canadian psychologist and writer thanks to a documentary film, “Dancing in the Flames” and loved her immediately – she makes for a great mother figure. The book was first published in 1982 and deals mainly with eating disorders from a Jungian perspective.Woodman’s insights on addiction and dysfunction, especially in women, is extraordinary. Identifying the drive for perfection (bodily as much as spiritual) as a deadly threat to sanity, she writes:

“The further I move into the white radiance on one side, the blacker the energy that is unconsciously constellating behind my back: the more I force myself to perfect my ideal image of myself, the more overflowing toilet bowls I’m going to have in my dreams. . . . As human creatures, not gods, we must go for the grey, the steady solid line that makes its serpentine way only slightly to left and right down the middle course between the opposites.” (15)

Again, the path emerges. Woodman does not promise her analysands a dissolution in the ocean of bliss – it is what they often pursued prior to admitting that they needed help – but feeling one’s own way through life, which also means heeding the needs of one’s own body, needs that find sneaky, often destructive ways of expressing themselves if they are denied.

A younger Canadian author, Matthew Remski, questions the extremities of spirituality from another angle. Inquiring into the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the ancient foundational text of Yoga) and its value for contemporary yogis, he asks in a recent interview:

“Do we really believe that our ultimate goal as human beings is to ascend into the splendid isolation (kaivalya) of pure consciousness? Do we really want to maintain good hygiene so that we can discover how disgusting our bodies are? Do we think that meditation can allow us to be bodysnatchers? It’s ‘no,’ I think, to all of these. So why has this text been translated and commented upon uncritically as an object of faith for the last 150 years with vanishingly little regard for the paradigm it is encountering currently? Why is an ascetic meditation manual advocating anti-social goals at the heart of the modern postural movement, as if it has anything specific to say about asana? Why is it held as a textbook to salvation, when it can’t even come close to addressing the complexities of neoliberal narcissism or radical climate change?”

So many questions! I love it even as I proclaim the end of intellect. And I can’t deny it.

What is it that is aware?

“What is it that is aware?” is a question I’ve been turning under my tongue for over ten years now, without ever arriving at a reasonably satisfying answer. When I’d first heard it from an annoyingly admirable man, it was meant to encapsulate the essence of zen Buddhism and higher consciousness, and so it seduced me instantaneously. I kept it as a poetic souvenir and my life’s koan. It returned to me last night.

Over the past few months I have been binging on spiritual texts of all sorts, ranging from self-help, through mythology, anthropology, Jungian psychology and neuroscience to spiritual writings par excellence. Interestingly enough, I still haven’t touched the Bible, but yes it’s on the list.

I have also been trying to develop rituals that would help me write regularly. This blog is an attempt at one such productive habit. Every morning, I want to devote one to two hours to noting down my thoughts on what I had read the previous day, to track my own mental processes. I have some misgivings about this idea, and fears too, naturally, but here I am, more ready than not.

Currently on the agenda are transcripts of J. Krishnamurti‘s public talks, delivered in Saanen, Switzerland, in the summer of 1967, under the collective title “On Love and Loneliness.” In contrast to Alan Watts, another teacher popular at the time, Krishnamurti is no spiritual entertainer. He demands utter seriousness on the part of his audience, and often sounds impatient. There is no charm to his persona (a quality that Alan Watts oozes), and he may sometimes seem irritated at the inability of listeners to grasp his ideas, which he claims are not opinions, beliefs or judgments. He seems convinced to have found the truth, but also to know that truth is incommunicable, which is why his teaching method involves guiding listeners through stages of logical reasoning. He frequently insists on having everybody follow his line of argument with full concentration (or leave the tent), and stresses that not just listening, but full mental engagement is essential. The goal is to arrive at an understanding which is universal and yet absolutely, earnestly individual and particular.

The unity of all being, love as universal power, thought as source of attachment and misery, attentiveness to the present moment, and the necessity to quiet the mind are recurrent themes in Krishnamurti’s teachings. When listed in this manner, they could be attributed to any Buddhist guru, mindfulness coach, or New Age enthusiast, but Krishnamurti is no feel-good preacher. His dismissal of lowly forms of human activity, such as sex or entertainment, reminded me of Marion Woodman‘s characterization of the archetypally male energy:

“[T]he spiritual feminine is always grounded in the natural instincts so that no matter how spiritualized it becomes, it is always on the side of life. In this it is different from the overspiritualized masculine (in man or woman) which tends to seduce us into the sleep that ends ‘the heartache . . . that flesh is heir to.'” (Addiction to Perfection)

Granted, Krishnamurti’s vision of truth evokes anything but sopor, but it does seem rather heavy and ascetic in its disregard for instinct, drive and liveliness.

But what did I read last night? In the ninth talk on love and loneliness I found reiterated the question that has pursued me for so long: “Who is it that is aware?”

Advice given to meditation novices goes somewhat like this: to quiet the mind, do not try to suppress the thoughts that arise, but rather gently acknowledge and push them away, much like you would a balloon floating your way. Watch from the outside, see them as a product of your frantic ego that forever wants, and remembers, and plans, and attracts, and distracts, and rejects what is. Create an observer that brings benevolent awareness to ego’s selfish antics. It is not easy to achieve, but when it works, it brings calm and contentment. Krishnamurti, however, points to the paradox of dividing one’s own consciousness into the observer and the observed. For if the observer is outside the observed, where does it place her in the realm of consciousness? Says the teacher:

When we say we are aware, we generally mean the image becomes aware of itself in relation to the other image – which is part of awareness, but we have gone much farther than that. And we say that when there is this image there is a centre which observes, there is a division and hence a conflict. Where there is conflict there is no awareness at all. To be free from conflict one has to become aware and do so without creating another centre which is aware of the image that I have created about myself or about another. So, is there an awareness without the centre, of this whole of consciousness, with its boundaries, its limitations, its content?

I love this intimation of heaven, or oneness, or ocean of consciousness that belongs to no one in particular but always is, a promise of belonging. I dream of this awareness without a centre, a dissolution that is pure existence, which cannot be reached the way I keep trying to reach it, that is through mind.

I asked my aunt the other day how she understood “surrender,” which is one of the basic ideas in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. She has been member of AA for many long years now and regularly sponsors (offers guidance to) inductees. She said, “It means admitting that alcohol is a power greater than myself, and that rationalizing only took me that far.” Apparently, the smarter, the more intellectual a person is, the harder it is for her to surrender. Highbrows may memorize the whole book, quote from it profusely in the meeting, and hit the booze right after. Their power for self-deception is as vast as their vocabulary. They often want to reform the organization, or to boss over it; they may claim they’ve understood it better than anyone since and so they proffer sophisticated criticisms with their own twist on the issue – but they do not make space for truth in their hearts. “Surrender” means shutting up, listening, and admitting that we are essentially no different, no better from others. That we are all one. It means humility and not striving to impress and achieve. It is the most difficult thing for the kicking and screaming ego, for the intellectual alcoholic, for me.

I am on a quest to understand something that escapes my grasp, and even if this is not the the right way, I will pursue it for a while still, just because I feel that I must. I admit that I binge on spiritual writings to fill my bottomless curiosity, hunger, thirst, and that I am still a smart ass. I will keep on writing and flexing for as long as it takes. Perhaps one day I will find a way of acting from the place of surrender. Bear with me. I will not take advice and I will go wherever I want to, because I don’t feel the difference between being lost and exploring.