Thursday, October 05, 2017

Mourning in a Culture that Denies Death

For years now, I have visually tracked the differences between Day of the Dead and Halloween. I started doing this one year, when I was traveling a lot to the Southwest, because I noticed there was a huge difference in the felt tone of visual representation of death in the two main cultures I was witnessing. I hadn't noticed Halloween decorations that directly - not their violence or oddness - because I grew up with them. More noticeable to me were the relatively new-to-me symbols and representations of Day of the Dead. After being immersed enough in those, turning back to Halloween felt like culture shock. Sickening culture shock. I started to photograph that.

1. Most of my life, I have hated Halloween. Resented it, even. As a kid, I occasionally liked costumes, but once I hit my teens and twenties, that no longer suited me. I take the "holiday" too seriously. I am irritated at the college girls dressing up in sexy versions of working costumes, annoyed with the massive consumption of alcohol and resulting noise and violence, and at best, find decorations amusing. It's helped a lot to have a way to photograph Halloween decorations, one that reveals the edge of how it seems to force our faces into horror and death, without ever dealing with it directly. This is actually what I think about the most with Halloween - how it represents white North American culture's avoidance of actually dealing with death. It leans into horror and humor without any nod to actual impermanence. Ugh.

I hate horror movies for the same reason. I've dealt with a lot of death in my life - though little of it has been violent, it must be said - and it feels almost offensive to me how I was not, as a teenager completely freaked out by death, able to share my feelings or be heard, but my peers and adults I knew would flock to horror movies and happily dress as ghosts, zombies, skeletons. How come there's so much focus on that and not on real loss?

I was into horror novels in my teens. I only realized a few years ago this was because I was looking for something more awful, more horrific than losing my dad when I was twelve to cancer after a multi-year battle. So when I'd see kids get a kick out of a horror flick, I'd cringe.

"Have you ever been haunted by your dead father?!" I wanted to scream at them.

The answer is: even if they were haunted by something, no one was talking about it. All metaphor or secret, as kids, as adults. That bugs the fuck out of me.

2. Day of the Dead is a holiday I can sink my teeth into. It is honest. It honors those we have lost, encourages us to discuss them and make connection with them. I am very, very careful about appropriation. I was not raised in any of the cultures which celebrate this holiday. But over time, I have collected experiences, images, and objects that help me lean into the reality of death around this time of year. Most of those come from Mexican culture. I've also been influence strongly by Tibetan Buddhist culture, which uses the reality of death constantly in liturgy and images to help fuel the fire of our practice, and remember to celebrate life as we are living it.

On Day of the Dead, there's room for celebration of someone's life, and for community with others who live and remember those we loved and lost. These were all things I missed as a teenager and person in her twenties mourning my elders. I felt alone. I felt isolated. I felt out of my element, and, at times, like a weirdo. As if I were in the wrong culture.

I am not claiming I should have been born in Mexico. Not at all. But something feels at home in Day of the Dead than in Halloween. I can bring my adult self to it, and I can bring my kid self, the one who felt so adrift for a decade, trying to find a place to both mourn and celebrate those she lost.

3. I have only realized recently how angry I am about this. Enraged, really. It is most accurately directed at whiteness. Whiteness, in the North American form I best know it, required - and requires - of me and mine to overlook impermanence. To leave behind any rituals acknowledging death and focus only on life, in a sick, confused way. When we discuss death, it should be in hushed tones, mocked, or exaggerated to horrific proportions (not just for Halloween; look at the way media deals with death on a daily basis).

In my experience, the "mainstream" white approach is to not discuss death, to use euphemisms and hint at things without stating them directly. To channel all our fear about death into an absurd day that involves extreme comedy, degraded social norms, candy, costumes, and scaring the shit out of each other in hyper unrealistic ways.

4. I'll be keeping an eye on all of this in October. Noticing my anger, tracing it, as I prepare to re-bury the ashes of the seven elders of our family who all died before I turned 22. As I insist on talking about death with myself and those I love, not to horrify, but to acknowledge. I'll be leaning into altars and shrines, candles and food offerings, blending my Tibetan Buddhist beliefs with Day of the Dead in a way that attempts to respect the fact that I was raised in neither.

The culture I was raised in doesn't mirror the truth my face was forced into by circumstance. No one in the communities I have practiced observing death with in a real way has been bothered by me dropping in and taking part. They don't want me to be alone in death. I don't want to be alone in death - not when I know full well I am not. This incidental isolation has done more damage to me than all the grief. This is what I need to return to when I feel the loss - we will all die. All of us. I find comfort in the universality of this, relief in the honesty. I wish more folks did. I wish they could.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Labor of Love

This last Monday was an American national holiday - Labor Day. For my writing classes this week, I had students write about the overlap between love and work - if it exists for them. It was powerful to experience such a wide-range of histories, hurt, joy, and intersectionality. I wanted to do a wrap-up of shorts to share all the wisdom and direct humanness I encountered where these topics overlap in a prompt.

A few people spoke to the work that is inherent in loving itself - a wonderful twist on the given prompt. Marriage is work, having children is work - not just the laundry and bills, but the work of loving itself - relationship building and repair and sustaining. Not to mention the work of loving or even simply caring for the self, which, for most of us in a capitalist society, is an epic full-time job. When we already work for money, these kinds of unlabeled labors can cripple our ability to function.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hope, Fear, Fantasy, and Caring

Lately I've been thinking a lot about hope and fear. In Chogyam Trungpa's teachings, again interpreted from very old and deeply studied Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, hope and fear are actually very closely related. Not even two sides of the same coin, they both basically contain wisdom and neurosis. Hope is not better than fear, fear is not worse than hope. Generally, we give hope big applause, mixing it in with optimism, expectation, and setting goals. And we avoid fear like the plague (avoiding fear itself is a plague of suffering), conflating it with dread, failure, and death.

Being in a pretty groundless state lately (can you tell? I haven't posted to this blog in over a month!), I've been watching as I use hope to avoid fear. When I get afraid, I can see hope wagging her tail like an eager puppy. I've also been watching the edge of hope and when it turns into fantasy. None of this feels any more comfortable than being afraid, but it feels like at least I am DOING something. At least I am not getting caught in fear and sinking, right? Not really.

All following quote from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron:
We’re all addicted to hope—hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Turning Forty

Birthday wish list from a student for me on my fortieth birthday.
Tomorrow, I turn forty. I have looked forward to this day for awhile, actually. something feels clarifying, balancing to me about turning forty. For a long time, I have felt like "an old soul" in a young body. Early loss as well as early gains (like becoming a dharma teacher at 26!) have made my life seem a bit more advanced than those around me, even if I am no wiser or more advanced a person than my peers. Not fundamentally. But somehow I feel my age has caught up a bit to where I am, as I humble and realize how much there still is to learn, while also appreciating all the felt understanding my complex life so far has helped me access earlier.

The above photo is a student's gift to me. I used the last week of classes in a series to ask my students - all but 2 out of 28 are past forty, most of them well past forty - to write about turning forty. I heard many wonderful stories, and learned many wonderful things, all of which resonated with what I already anticipate or have been experiencing approaching forty.

The overall feeling was a combination of "giving less of a shit what others think" while also "feeling more compassion for self and others." This is a great combination, and one I am happy to take with me.

My nephew (4 months old) and myself this week.

I got a few personal addresses, too, folks directly wishing me lots of love. And one of my students then took care of our cats while we were out of town, and left me the above list. I treasure it. It reminds me of what I already know and all there is still to know. By "know" I mean crossing the gap between intellectually knowing - there's a lot I intellectually know, especially about emotional/psychological/mind things - and felt sense knowing, or knowing in my body, instinctively.

So long as I reach first for neurotic habits and what classic Buddhism calls "unvirtuous" actions (nothing to do with Christian virtue - simply an expression recognizing what causes benefit and what doesn't - non virtuous doesn't cause benefit), there's more to develop. Most of us are there - in the awkward place where we "know" but don't yet have integrated all the knowledge. I think of this as the gap between knowing and wisdom. Many people have told me I have a lot of wisdom for my age - I've been told that a long time - however, I really simply have a lot of knowledge. Wisdom is slower coming, really. It takes a long time to learn in a way that stays in the body, helps the body reveal its own wisdom.

Or maybe it doesn't. Being with my four-month-old nephew, my wife, Ilana, joked that perhaps babies actually know it all until age one, when they conveniently forget it all. Certainly Elyas seemed completely wise, in a deep, felt sense way - perhaps because he is actually pre-intellect?

Regardless, something is syncing up between my age, what I "know," and what I have some wisdom about. Feels about time. For a long time I've felt older inside than I appear outside, and now, I can see myself aging, bit by bit, outside as well. As folks in their 20's begin to look at my skeptically, I feel some loss, but mostly gain. Finally. I am a bit synchronized.

I will leave you with a passage from Sakyong Mipham that I have been contemplating lately. On surface level it seems cheeky and funny, but it feels quite profound to me. What is young? What is old? These are easy questions to quip answers to, but actually, they are unanswerable (which, you will see from my previous post, are my favorite kind of questions lately).

I RECENTLY REACHED AGE FORTY, a turning point in most people’s lives. Before that birthday, people would routinely describe me as a “young lama” or a “young teacher.” They were always exclaiming, “You’re so young!” But when I turned forty, something surprising happened. They started saying, “Oh, you’re getting old.” One day I was young, and the next day I was old. One day I had all the time in the world, and the next, time was running out. I thought, “What happened to the in-between period when I could just be an ordinary adult?”-from Ruling Your World

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Importance of Unanswerable Questions

Recently, I've been wondering what makes something contemplative. Having just finished the second book on Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography with my teacher, John McQuade, and having just finished a round of contemplative writing weekly courses, I am poised at a spot of post-immersion and contemplating what it means to contemplate.

I get this question a lot: What is the contemplative aspect of these practices? Is it that we only write about or photograph content that "seems contemplative"? That's too restrictive a definition, and if people are hoping to illustrate a feeling of contemplative-ness in either words or pictures, they quickly find out that is a misconception in these two forms. Does it mean calligraphy, flower-arranging, in terms of forms? No, we can even do contemplative, angry, Jackson Pollock-like painting, if it is does from direct experience and perception.

So there is one answer, from my tradition(s): contemplative practices slow us down enough to connect with what is actually happening, and create from that place. In Shambhala Art teachings we call it "Square One" - the open unknown before we create ideas or concepts. Returning to that in writing, photography, calligraphy - or dance, painting - even in conversation, is essential for maintaining the open-minded and -hearted quality of contemplative practice.

My co-author, John McQuade, expressed it this way in our upcoming book, The Heart of Photography (due out July 1):
This direct contact with visual reality and the experience of harmonization of eye and mind is the first contemplative connection: to be there, with the “there,” through the there. This sounds abstract, but it could not be more sensuous and direct. You actually experience what you experience as you experience it. 
In addition to this open state, or in complement to it, is the importance of unanswered - and unanswerable - questions. Often newer writing students think contemplative writing must be "philosophical" - e.g. ask a lot of questions, ponder big things. In some ways, that is off - you could be following your mind and writing down a lot of purported answers and opinions, and that would be very contemplative, in the first sense of the word described above in these traditions. But in other senses, that is right on. The key is being with not knowing. Being contemplative doesn't just mean asking, "Does God exist?" - it means being willing to not have an answer. Being contemplative doesn't just mean wondering about the meaning of life, it means knowing it is likely not fully knowable. It turns out the way in to these big questions is through little questions, at least as one of my teachers, John McQuade, and my co-author, also expressed:
(C)ontemplative practices are meant to help us find ways into these big questions. Contemplative practices are little ways, like rocks in the stream, crossing from one side to the other. Rock by rock, step by step, we cross over. These little ways do not provide direct answers to these questions, but they do provide a path for us to engage them...            Generally, contemplatives do not ask big questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” Instead, they investigate little inquiries, such as “What is color as color?” through felt experiences that explore questions like “How does color as color feel? How does it manifest? How is our experience of color? What difference does color make to a situation?” and so forth.

How is it that engaging the small leads to a felt understanding of the large? We cannot answer huge questions with our tiny minds - it turns out the color of things, the shape, the texture - whether expressed in words or images, movements or touch - actually is a drop from the larger, an excerpt with all the full meaning of the large questions:

This contemplative engagement is not religious or philosophical. It is working directly with your ordinary, everyday experience, to release you from stress and help you open to everyday appreciation. Bit by bit, on the rock path through the river, we cross over from claustrophobic habit to natural freshness, from stress to delight, from the thing world to the phenomenal world, from conventional world to ordinary magic, from confusion to insight and wisdom.
Keep an eye on our website for updates on how to pre-order/order your own copy of our new book, Heart of Photography. And in the meantime, you can find copies of our first book Looking and Seeing on Amazon, or, even better, buy direct from us on CreateSpace.

Keep asking questions you don't have answers for, by connecting with the daily details while keeping your heart and mind wide open to the unknown.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Grief Changes

I’ve been thinking about grief lately, as March 15 marked the 27th anniversary of my dad’s death. This year, though I was tender – as I often am – I didn’t shut down as strongly. And whenever I do get caught up in the intense pain of the loss, I can finally find relief in Maitri practice (loving-kindness/metta/unconditional friendliness). For many years, the practice made basic sense to me but didn’t seem to budge my most fundamental struggles. Over time, however, my heart has opened up enough to want to be relieved of the suffering of believing I am alone in my loss, and so bringing to mind others who have felt grief like this gives space around my feelings, and a salve of support.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Receiving Generosity

Over the last few months, over 100 people gave to my Karuna Training Graduate Program fund. It was an act of giving based on little received in return - literally little - a 17-syllable haiku thank you. Their generosity has been gratitude for all I have given, or for the sake of giving, rather than reward. I was – and am - grateful. But I also experienced discomfort, a revealing of my own funky ego beliefs around money, giving, and receiving.

While everyone has given to me in love-filled ways in the last few months, I have not always received with clarity. I wanted to share some of the underbelly aspects of my experience. These have nothing to do with others’ generosities and everything to do with my hyper-independent identity, difficulty in asking and receiving help, and working with entitlement and privilege.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


I've fallen behind on blogging, especially here. I started a momentum of writing about my weekly writing classes after they were done, and lost that momentum. That happens. I am working with my Return community on that a lot - coming back, returning to our intentions, even when we drift off.

I am returning. I return today with a cough.

It's not an awful cough, not by my standards. As someone who has had pleurisy, bronchitis, pretty much everything but pneumonia when it comes to viral and bacterial lung crap over the course of her young life, this is really not much. The tail end of a head cold, a bit of an itch in the back of my throat. Mostly dry, not wet, not super loud.

But any kind of cough makes people notice you.