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November 12, 2016 - 1 comment.

Practical advice for the the apocalypse

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When I heard from a coworker here at Dharma Publishing that it looked like Trump was going to win, I was completely surprised. Clearly the polling system is broken, but the feeling was like being punched in the gut. Clinton was not my ideal candidate but I certainly didn't fear for our country's future with her at the wheel. Someone as consistently chaotic and ignorant as Donald Trump having access to 6,000 nuclear warheads was, and still is, an existentially terrifying thought.

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There are plenty of opinions on exactly why we're screwed and I don't want to add to that echo chamber. I thought Sam Harris did a pretty good job summarizing the very real danger we now face:

Now that the news has settled into my brain a bit, I figured it was time to process some of this through writing. I see many of my friends back in New York are participating in protests and speaking truth to power and that's incredible! Democracy at it's finest, speaking truth to power. I can't do much from my commune in the woods though.

So I thought it might be interesting to provide some thoughts from a perspective of what I've been practicing out here. Full disclosure I'm a beginner at all of this so any misinterpretations of teachings is on me.

Practicing compassion - for everyone. 

A powerful practice can be sitting and practicing compassion for those you feel the least amount of compassion for. In the book Hidden Mind of Freedom (good guidebook for meditating btw) Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche writes, "What seems to be purely compassionate may really be somewhat self-oriented, based on grasping. We like certain feelings and responses, so we tend to act in a way that stimulates them... Even experienced meditators may have traces of grasping. Only as we let go of it can compassion arise... Even the thought that each of us is capable of becoming compassionate, or of becoming compassion itself, can have a highly beneficial effect."

So the practice would be twofold - practice feeling compassion for those in communities who would be directly affected by some of these divisive policies. But also practice feeling compassion for Donald J. Trump - someone who is so ignorant of his own mind that (I am convinced) he doesn't have the ability to feel or care about the suffering of others. For me that is much more challenging and theoretically could yield more fruit.

Noticing the suffering of everyone

Compassion would be wishing to lessen the suffering of others, but noticing suffering is another good practice. Again the concern should be the organizations that are potentially being defunded, the minority groups that are seeing progress pull back like a receding wave.

But the fact is half of our country voted for this person - and however misguided they may have been I think it does speak to some suffering being felt by many Americans. I know my impulse is to look down my nose at the middle of the country and brand them racists - but I'm not sure that gets us very far. It is definitely worth pointing out that obvious racists overwhelmingly support this person, and that is terrifying - but it seems more likely that people are suffering, feeling scared and hopeless. It's relatively easy to manipulate fear and hopelessness over into anger at the "other" too.

By recognizing the suffering of those who seem inaccessible, ignorant, and plain wrong it will ultimately serve us more. As we welcome our first atheist president into office it may be worth remembering a little hippy named Jesus Christ:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This is the way to move toward healing, and no doubt it's hard to find now but I'm trying to start on that path a bit more in daily practice.

But also taking care of yourself

A common way to close practice is to dedicate the merit. Merit is a big term in Buddhism but one way to think of it is that, by virtue of practicing - just sitting and being still, noticing thoughts - we are becoming better people. We are less prone to being carried away by emotions and better equipped to handle situations just like the one we are in now.

What I'm trying to say is that taking care of yourself is crucial - it doesn't need to be meditation necessarily - if you need to cry, sleep a lot for a few days, exercise, scream into a pillow, do it.

Of course I'm going to make the argument for examination of mind. A shared and tumultuous event like this one is actually great practice to work with. There's an impermanence component - Barack Obama was an inclusive and erudite leader I could truly respect, and losing that can be devastating if you think it will last forever. There is a clear sense of anger and fear, two very clear emotions to work with and tease out in relation to thoughts as well.

Use anger to move but try not to be moved by anger

There's a zen koan that seems appropriate here:

The Governor asked a teacher: I have read in the scripture the following and I do not know what it means. "A boat driven by unfavorable winds drifts towards the land of the demons." Please explain it to me.

The teacher responded: What kind of idiot asks such a stupid question!

The Governor visibly stiffened and turned red with red.

The teacher then said: A boat driven by unfavorable winds drifts towards the land of the demons. The Governor's demeanor suddenly changed as he got some understanding.

I'm not saying anger is bad - there's plenty to be angry about here. And it's also not to say "take no action" - action will be badly needed over the next four years, I fear. But can you recognize anger and use it as fuel for appropriate action? In my case, social media can be useful but it is all too easy to allow myself to be pulled into a negative echo chamber that doesn't actually provide any new or useful information. To me this is a useless anger, and apart from the negative mental effects ultimately it's wasted time. Organizing, educating, demonstrating a clear and articulate outrage - these would be more useful qualities I would like to embody more.

We're in weird times and it's getting weirder. The final point would be about Sangha, or community. Whatever happens in the immediate future it's important to come together as much as we can and share, try to be as open and inclusive as possible. If that manifests as peaceful protest, organizing support for affected groups of people, or simply coming together in the spirit of art, culture and progress to help preserve what this incoming clown car of "politicians" hopes to dismantle is useful.

All that being said, if you want to sit out the next year or two in the woods of Northern California we're always looking for volunteers!

With love and hopefulness, peace out.

October 9, 2016 - No Comments!

Silent Peace Walk and Tripiṭaka Chanting Ceremony

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I recently had the opportunity to help volunteer with one of our sister organizations, Light of the Buddhadharma Foundation International (LBDFI), who was hosting a recitation of some of the Tipitaka over the course of a few days. The Tipitaka is a massive text, thousands of pages, written and chanted in Pali, which is like a more hipster version of Latin. I understood none of it but like most things around here I just tried my best to show up and be helpful, hoping something rubs off.

The word itself means "three baskets" - those baskets being:

  1. Vinaya - basically rules of conduct for monks, but also the reasons the Buddha gave for those rules of conduct.
  2. Sutta - discourses attributed to the Buddha and some of his close disciples
  3. Abhidamma - a framework of the discourses in the Sutta that give a psycho-philosophical way to understand the nature of reality, mind, and matter.

I had the opportunity to work with some of the lovely people from other organizations, drive some monks around town, eat great vegetarian food, and wander around Berkeley. All in all not a bad experience.

I also took some photos, below:

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Some more from the walk:

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This set contains one of my favorite shots, the movie theater with promotional text, the monks and the shopping cart setup in the entryway make for a lot of content in one shot:

 

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Finally some shots from around Dharma College, where I slept, and Berkeley's waterfront:

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August 20, 2016 - No Comments!

On Rabid Monkeys, Yoga and Mindfulness

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This week it was revealed that research scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have taken the Buddhist school's training your monkey mind concept to a new level by essentially trying to recreate the plot of 28 Days Later.

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But in the end, it turned out we were really the monsters. But also the actual monsters were monsters. 

By injecting the rabies virus into Cebus monkeys the researchers were able to trace an interaction between our adrenal medulla (located just above our kidneys) and the cerebral cortex. This is important because it's the first evidence that there is a direct connection between our body's reaction to stressful situations (the adrenal medulla secretes hormones like dopamine and epinephrine) and the mind.

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As in most things related to science, I just accept they're telling me the truth here. We could be made of Play Doh inside for all I know.

Basically it helps us cope with physical and emotional stress - when someone calls you a "Gross ginger with no soul" for example, it squirts out a little bit of smack into your belly to help you maintain your calm and not fuck up that person's day (which I absolutely will, so don't test me).

There are specific regions of the cerebral cortex that control the adrenal medulla, and this is the first time we're actually able to see what those regions are and how they relate. This matters because if we responded to stressful situations with a purely physical reaction we when a minor stressful situation arose we'd have an animalistic automatic action, kind of like the mini horses here at Ratna Ling do, which is to say, completely lose your shit and try to kick people for no good reason.

As one of the researchers, Dr. Strick put it:

"Because we have a cortex, we have options," said Dr. Strick. "If someone insults you, you don't have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides."

Baby if witty comebacks are a sign of a powerful cortex than I should be something something I don't know this isn't a comeback I've had too much time to think now stop pressuring me here look at these cute fucking bunnies:

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D'awwwww. 

What's interesting is these areas that activate are in the primary motor cortex, specifically the parts of the brain responsible for body posture and axial movement.

This is pretty big news for a couple of reasons:

  1. This may change the professional medical perspective on psychosomatic illnesses - there's now proof our mind can cause very real physical symptoms in the body.
  2. Training the body can have a verifiable impact on the mind, and vice versa.

From an article on the report by The Science Explorer:

This input to the adrenal medulla may explain why core body exercises are so helpful in modulating responses to stress. Calming practices such as Pilates, yoga, tai chi and even dancing in a small space all require proper skeletal alignment, coordination and flexibility.

Of additional note is these are the same regions of the brain that light up during mindfulness and meditation techniques. These are concepts that may make intuitive sense but this is a breakthrough study in that physical, biological evidence has been provided for the first time.

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One can also extrapolate this further. This article in Brainpickings breaks down the work of Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist recognized for his work in the field of trauma. His work is revolutionary in that he takes a holistic approach to treatment, integrating body work and body therapies alongside more traditional or accepted treatments, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

From his book:

The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communtherapeutic assumptions.

If stress is interpreted by the mind and passed down to the body, then it stands to reason that developing a clear line of communication between our body and mind would help us cope.

While van der Kolk deals primarily with more extreme levels of trauma and PTSD, this concept applies to all of us. The greatest tragedies in our lives are the ones we experience, even if we've been lucky enough to have a relatively privileged life. Not to mention the impact that another person in our space dealing with a trauma can have on the us, people around them.

There's an interesting concept in Kum Nye yoga that, when we are young, and acts of openness, creativity or vulnerability aren't reciprocated we respond by instinctively "protecting" ourselves. Usually by shrinking away, erecting a wall or withdrawing in order to not experience that feeling of rejection again. Untreated or unaddressed this creates a "blockage" or psycho-physical knot in our mind-body system that can manifest in all sorts of unpleasant and subconscious fashions.

Maybe you go to show your parents a drawing you made, they're busy stressing over a tax issue that has nothing to do with you and brush you off. That one instance, which is really no one's "fault" can lead to a walling off of that creative ability, and can manifest not only in a reluctance to draw or display creative acts but can also create a general negative attitude toward sharing, being open in relationships, social situations etc.

This is a small example of what is potentially a much larger psychic event in your life. Kum Nye yoga in particular attempts to address it by working to relax the body, which then allows these "knotted" or dense areas to release and start flowing again. It becomes harder to explain at this point because it's actually best experienced, but this relaxation can sometimes display itself physically as euphoria, nausea, crying, nodding off. Usually though you just feel pretty good. Kum Nye is not the only way to release these knots but it's an interesting way of thinking that I haven't seen specifically addressed or brought up with in any of the 30+ different yoga teachers/styles I've tried over the past ten years.

And it doesn't really need to be talked about, because just by doing the practice you're establishing that mind-body link. On a purely physical level, with this study we now know that just by working on your core (or probably putting the body through any number of axial movements or postures), whether that's doing planks in Pilates, squatting during Crossfit, or holding side angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana, or, Why I Can't Teach Yoga the Names Are Too Goddamn Long) you're developing your mind and altering how it responds to stresses in general.

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Namaste, bitches.

It's more about having some kind of body discipline, and how you integrate that with your mind that I think is important. I loved training in martial arts for that reason, and it's why I run to the river and back here at Ratna Ling, playing with my impulses and inner nature uphill the entire way back. It's not just a release of endorphins (though that is part of why it feels good afterward for sure) but there's a mental dialogue happening, a negotiation with the self and the mind to push on and keep going that I can then take into my daily life, work and relationships. The mind tells a story about the body, and during physical movement and strenuous positions you have an opportunity to notice the story and reshape it into a form that better suits your life.

So the bottom line is - just move your body through space and sometimes pick up heavy shit. That will make you a better, happier person. For sure. Science says so now.

Personally I find exploring this mind body connection endlessly fascinating, and through Kum Nye practice and study I'm learning more about how the Tibetan Buddhist systems approach and deal with it.

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By the by I'm not pro-injecting-rabies-into-monkeys, but in the grand scheme of things learning how our mind functions is probably a more worthwhile endeavor than testing eye shadow. But the rabies virus is apparently very good at displaying neurons and how they connect, so it was the only choice. And it's a strange coincidence that we're learning about our monkey mind (as a metaphor for our out-of-control thought patterns and automatic responses) by viewing an actual monkey mind. With rabies.

Just food for thought!

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Till next time, fellow primates.

August 13, 2016 - No Comments!

Catching light from space

June 19, 2016 - No Comments!

Stream.it or Transparency in Streaming

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Full concept design at the bottom of the post.

As an occasional maker of noise and someone who's worked with Spotify on many occasions, I've spent a good amount of time thinking about how streaming services work, what the models for success (or lack thereof) might be and the challenges for artists and listeners.

It's obviously a difficult problem - our consumption of art has been fundamentally changed by the internet, and there's no going back. That said a lot of artists have issues with the way financial models work. I hope technology will eventually cut out labels and facilitate a more direct-to-artist model but that may be a while.

Random thought for today is below - what if there were an option to see exactly where your money went when you listened to music? There are probably legal issues behind not disclosing this information but I would find it interesting.

It's illustrated here as a service on it's own but it could be integrated into an existing service like Spotify, Google Play, etc. as well. In terms of this prototype you'd be able to unlock unlimited listens if you spent a certain amount (roughly the cost of an album or iTunes purchase ~$9.99). The user could also get bonus stats and maybe special offers, perhaps promoting independent artists - or alternately monetization via the Justin Bieber's of the world 🙂

Either way, transparency is going to be the next big step taken in streaming services, if I had to hazard a guess. This would be a good first step and (I think) interesting / useful for users as well. Ciao!

For further reading:

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3048607/what-major-music-streaming-services-pay-artists-visualized

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/may/11/spotify-financial-results-streaming-music-profitable

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/10GaK_83jGXxEwTQsI-q4BK9t70XcTNilyzsyfwYLahw/edit#gid=1344397561

 

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May 25, 2016 - 2 comments

My Cheat Code for Meditation

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Today at 6:00am I started teaching my first Kum Nye class at Ratna Ling. So, I’m writing about it. In the interest of brevity I’m going to describe how I came to understand it. Hopefully I’ll be able to expand on some of the experiences and learnings I’ve had a result in further posts.

“Kum Nye is a system of physical exercises based on traditional Tibetan healing practices.”
-Kum Nye - Tibetan Yoga

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The Kum Nye book, you can buy it here.

Now ‘yoga’ is a tricky word here. I tend to associate it first with tight Lululemon pants and teachers who give instructions like they’re speaking to a weak-willed child with sensitive hearing. But it can also be a very powerful physical and spiritual discipline - and one that I’ve actually gotten quite a lot of good from in my life. The issue is that in the West we’ve definitively emphasized the physical, fitness component. We're very good at getting results! However the idea of fitness and control of the body has come to dominate the more spiritual, meditative and traditional aspects of the practice. There’s also the commercialization that comes with anything massively successful like yoga.

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There’s not anything necessarily wrong with the Western interpretation of yoga - but that's where the split arises with Kum Nye, because it’s not really like that type of yoga. You won’t get toned abs and triceps if you only do Kum Nye. My flexibility has increased but that’s not the point either. In fact for a while the Kum Nye luminaries resisted calling it yoga at all, I think because of those commercial & fitness connotations. Kum Nye was originally described as a method of relaxing the body for meditative practice, which has been more accurate in my experience.

The definition of the word ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit it means ‘union’. My first instructor Matt described as ‘yoke’ - yoking the mind to the body, like an ox to a cart. In this way, linking the mind with the body, in the body- then the term yoga actually makes good sense as I understand Kum Nye.

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A Kum Nye practice session is typically relatively slow movements and postures held for a long time. I would argue it’s closer in nature to Tai Chi in terms of physical dynamism than it is Hatha or Vinyasa yoga. As a rough example- one exercise, called Heart Gold Thread, involves standing with your arms out to both sides at shoulder height and simply holding that position for around ten minutes. Once you’re done, you sit and feel. You might do that and one other exercise in a class, maybe slowly floating your arms overhead then touching the toes to relax - and that may be it. The rest of the time is spent sitting, feeling, and noticing what happens in the body.

What I personally found so wonderful about this practice is it really prepped my physical body for meditation. That was the the light-from-the-sky “aha!” moment for me - previously I never ‘got’ meditation. By the time I got around to trying it the word it was so loaded with preconceived notions and perceptions that I thought there was no way into it. The concept of meditation itself seemed at once boring, intimidating, weak, and far too much work to endure. When I tried I would immediately get fidgety, start thinking about breakfast or lunch or a relationship and at the end of 15 minutes end up hating the entire idea of meditative practice.

But, once I started doing these exercises to stimulate feeling in the body (and if you stand with your arms at shoulder height for 30 minutes and feel nothing please come speak to me) I found it was relatively easy to anchor my mind into those feelings. It’s like I had found a cheat code for meditation - rather than just sitting and trying not to think, I had a thing to do. An activity for the mind to drop into, specifically my body and the feelings these exercises generate.

I’m not going to evangelize the exercises themselves over others, because my understanding of physiology is on the level with a four-year old, but I will evangelize the approach to meditation Kum Nye is able to provide. By giving equal opportunity to sitting and bringing the mind into union with the body as it does physical movement and postures, Kum Nye was able to bridge the gap of yoga from an exercise discipline into a more meditative and spiritual practice.

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Alex Grey is a great visionary artist, and adept at representing the subtle body energy system we work with in meditative and Kum Nye practice.

And said meditative, spiritual practice hasn’t brought me any sort of final peace. The questions I face now are arguably more terrifying than before. They have more import, more weight, more heft. And somehow at the same time there’s a lightness to the work here, a playfulness within the serious nature and tradition. Every action in life means a great deal, and the result of every action in life is also a chance to learn and try to do better.

Meditation has opened a lot of doors and happiness, and Kum Nye allowed me to actually start walking down that path - I owe a lot to the practice.

Kum Nye is the reason I came out here to Ratna Ling - and I was introduced to Kum Nye by Matt Breit, who was an instructor out here for several years. So I’ve pushed to become an instructor here, because it’s helped me make monumental progress spiritually and teaching feels like the right, natural next thing to do. Cycles roll and patterns unfold.

I’m still learning as well - there are three books in the series of Kum Nye practice and I’m working through the second one now, Joy of Being. The focus is shifting to mind more, how to use it and work with it as opposed to body. So I’m excited about that! I’m also working through some Power Kum Nye videos, hopefully I can share some of that with you all soon. Let me know if you have any Kum Nye questions and I'll try my best not to butcher them. Ciao for now!

May 4, 2016 - 1 comment.

I’m With Stupa

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Hi friends! First, a quick update on the woodpecker situation from last time. Couple weeks ago I started noticing brown dust around my sink. I was confused for a few days, because I would clean it up and then it would reappear whenever I came back at night. The amount kept increasing until finally I looked up and realized the color matched the ceiling. Surprise! Carpenter ants, or termites. Either way, prime woodpecker food. AKA the circle of life with a touch of karma biting me directly in the ass. My current plan is to hope both parties find my taste in music a repellant and just leave, because tenting my cabin to spray is a whole thing I don't want to deal with at the moment. Besides, sawdust in your toothpaste is basically the Tom's of Maine brand promise.

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A quick search also just turned up that Tom's of Maine is a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive. Are not even our ineffective hippy deodorants and chalky flavorless toothpastes safe from corporate takeover?

Recently I've been spending a few hours each day working on several components of Ratna Ling's ever-expanding longevity stupa garden. And by that I mean my lovely Latvian coworker Andi assigns me some piece I can't mess up too badly by being inept with most tools.

Quick explainer from an ignorant person!

As I understand it in Buddhist tradition stupas are sacred monuments and are generally considered places of meditation (and maybe worship, but Buddhists tend to shy away from religion-y words). They have different meanings based on the location and can be dedicated to specific deities or represent different theories. I've heard it described as a sitting Buddha with the base representing the folded legs, the head toward the top with enlightenment representations above that - but I've also seen examples where different elements are represented by the different segments, earth, fire, air, etc. I'm still learning, so if this is woefully inaccurate forgive me and also get off your high horse.

/explainer from ignorant person!

One might put the remains of Buddhist monks and nuns in the base of it, but the stupas we're making use what are called 'empowerments'. These are sacred Tibetan texts printed by DP's friends next door at the Yeshe De Text Preservation Project that don't make the grade to be shipped over to India. When you're printing (I think actually literally) tons of books the machines make some mistakes and you end up with incomplete, misprinted or torn books.

This is a quick video about the World Peace Ceremony in Bodhgaya the Yeshe De folks work for:

Because these texts are sacred, tradition warrants you either burn them or use them for something. Can't throw 'em out. So empowerments are a good way to use them - by placing these incomplete yet still theoretically energetic and powerful books into the base of the stupa it transfers some of that energy into the monument and is also a good recycle/reuse method.

Plus in 200 years after the Trump supporters have wiped out North America someone could find this stupa, bust it open and find some sweet, sweet Buddhist knowledge. Assuming they knew Tibetan and weren't a zombie, or knew someone who knew Tibetan or were a zombie who knew Tibetan.

The process isn't too complex, we use these heavy rubber molds and pour cement into them, and then spend an ungodly amount of time patching and sanding them until the pieces are totally smooth or until Andi runs out of patience after I've managed to make it uneven for the 13th time in a row.

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The stupa proving grounds, rubber molds are the white things.

The cement mixing requires sustained focus and repetitive strenuous energy. The first day I didn't wear any protective gear like a macho dumbass and was coughing and itchy for days afterward. I used my bare hands to pull the cement out of the mixer at one point, which even at the time I realized was incredibly stupid and yet somehow, I powered through my internal voice of reason.

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It's hot, loud, and heavy work - each cement bag weighs sixty pounds and you could go through 80-90 of those in one day sometimes. I prefer not to count the number of times I ripped, dropped, or spilled a bag while hauling it over the lip of the mixer. Thankfully I usually had two spry younglings to help me haul the buckets out and manage the load. My main task was to make sure the consistency was correct. Too little water in the mixer and it's clumpy and you can't get the nice little pebbles on top, everyone gets bad karma and you lose. Too much water in the mixer and the concrete cracks once it dries, everyone gets worse karma and you still lose.

The patching and sanding is much more meditative and artisanal work. I hesitate to call it craftsmanship because that's something skilled people do, but I think just "ship" would cover it without being overblown. The concrete molds have been used a few times and are by no means perfect, so they come out with a ton of tiny holes, like sacred swiss cheese. You have to patch all those holes with magic patching dust that mixes with water. Add it to the list of things I know how to use but have no idea how they actually work. I just assume it's some kind of magic, like electricity and combustion engines.

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Ardex, great for patching not so great for cereal topping.

It's really interesting to work with focus and attention in relation to both activities. The patchwork, sanding and chiseling is more aesthetically gratifying because it's pretty to look at almost immediately, and getting nice smooth surfaces just feels nice. It's all very delicate, precious and careful work. It's detail-oriented to the max, almost maddening in scope and equally fulfilling at the end.

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But the cement mixing process feels like... a process. You get to wear crazy rubber gloves, a respirator and do your best backcountry meth-cooker impression, ruin some clothes, sweat a bunch and at the end you get a giant heavy chunk of nicely shaped spiritually charged rock. It's the far more metal of the two experiences.

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Pictured: spry young Belgian imported worker.

It's been wonderful to work outside after spending most of the past three decades staring a computer monitor. Seriously when I die I feel like a majority of my life review will be loading screens. Northern California weather is unbelievable too. It just goes from pleasantly cool to pleasantly sunny and back to pleasantly cool again.

We should be finishing these over the next couple of weeks and I'll post some photos once we're all done! Ciao.

April 11, 2016 - 4 comments

Ratna Ling, Week 1

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Hello my friends!

I've recently made a glacial shift in my life, joining a yearlong work/study program in Northern California at Ratna Ling.

Since I've been here for one full week now I figured it made sense to give an update on my experience so far. Basically, it's been lovely! In turns I've been engaged, deeply interested, motivated, and in awe of the people and surroundings here. There's a lot more to say about it, but let's start by breaking down a day, shall we?

5:45am - Alarm goes off, roll out of my (bunk) bed. I've found that going to bed in sweatpants makes the process of getting moving that much easier. I was decidedly not a "morning person" but that's honestly bullshit, you can readjust your schedule to get up early within a couple of days pretty easily.

I have a really sweet roommate, Eben, who greeted me into our room with some welcome notes and even rearranged some furniture in the room to make it more comfortable for two people to live in. He wakes up at the same time and we drag ourselves to morning Kum Nye yoga class in the Meditation Hall from 6-7am.

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It's a beautiful space, we're not allowed to share photos of it (sacred and holy areas require discretion, transmission of knowledge is guarded and not for everyone) but it has high vaulted wooden ceilings and is adorned with photos of Tibetan masters of the Nyingma lineage, prayer wheels, and gorgeous Buddhist artwork. It's a perfect space for stretching, connecting with the body, and breathing to start the day. This time of year we begin class in darkness, and finish as the sun comes up, which is especially energizing.

7:00am - Breakfast is just a quick walk from the Meditation Hall across the garden pond. There's a fully stocked restaurant-grade kitchen that volunteers are given free reign over. You just need to stay out of the way of the team preparing meals for retreat guests, but so far I've had amazing smoothies, granola with fresh fruit, and one time leftover coconut merengue pie (don't judge). There's never a shortage of coffee and tea, and you get to enjoy it in the dining hall, with some great views of the surrounding grounds.

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8:00am - All 25 volunteer staff meet at the Stupa for the morning circle, where we chant a mantra to dedicate merit for our daily work. This is followed by announcements, a short reading from Tibetan Buddhist texts and usually a few jokes, and then we start work.

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8:15 - Work begins. The first half of my day is spent at Dharma Publishing, where we kick off with a morning meeting to sort out tasks and responsibilities for the day. One thing I was struck by at Dharma Publishing was the level of autonomy and independence given to all the volunteers. There is very little semblance of traditional hierarchy as we understand it in the west, each volunteer is considered valuable and no idea is discounted outright.

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That independence also means that it's up to you to make those ideas a reality. It's a small team and so far I've helped lay foundation and mix cement for new Stupas, crop and pack sacred artwork for the shipping team, research analytics and metrics for the website sales to make strategic recommendations, and begin a reimagining of one of the organizations digital properties to engage younger audiences.

The team is generally pretty young, multinational (Brazil, Argentina, Latvia, Holland) and very motivated. All proceeds from sales go directly to preserving Tibetan culture, which is being gravely threatened with extinction by China. I'm reminded of this just by looking around, there are Tibetan prayer flags and artwork everywhere, which is and inspiring and sometimes surreal environment to work in.

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12:30pm - Lunch break! The food is vegetarian, which I am not - but it is delicious and over the week I've adjusted to it. I generally feel lighter and more energetic during my day, less lethargic. Although I probably need to cut down on the bread a bit :/

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Lunch is also a great opportunity to socialize with the other volunteers. Everyone has an interesting back story about how they came here, where they came from, and why they're here. I was really surprised by how friendly and welcoming every single person here has been. There's a mix of all ages, some kids fresh out of college and some octogenarians who've been with the Nyingma organization for decades. Groundskeepers, gardeners, warehouse managers, yoga teachers, and forklift operators all converge and break bread, share conversation, laughs and stories. It's really pretty spectacular.

1:30pm - Work resumes, with the second half of my day being spent with the team at the Yeshe De text preservation project. This is a book binding and shipping warehouse. It's no joke, there are four warehouses filled with hundreds of palettes of Tibetan and Western texts. They handle all of the orders that come in through Dharma Publishing while simultaneously using those proceeds to print and bind thousands of Tibetan texts that are given away in India every year at the World Peace Ceremony.

A good summary of the World Peace Ceremony and the Yeshe De project can be found here. Besides helping to preserve the culture of Tibet, this massive project has led to an influx of texts that were normally so rare they were considered off-limits and precious - now laypeople and nuns are able to read and process these texts for the first time. It's led to a resurgence of literacy and a revitalizing of culture among the Tibetan community in India and the surrounding areas.

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The bindery workers are really funny and kind, it's repetitive and strenuous work (boxing up books for four hours a day has left some marks on my wrists with sore hands for sure) but they keep a light, joyful atmosphere. It's been interesting to work with sacred texts, and it's a rare opportunity normally afforded only to ordained Buddhist monks and nuns.

It's also a good opportunity to work with the body, and find mindfulness in physical labor and routine activities. Plus, who doesn't want to help these little guys?

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6pm - We close the work day by chanting and reciting prayer to dedicate the merit of our work for the day - to all sentient beings and anyone in particular in your life who needs it. Once in a while we'll all sit on palettes and stacks of cardboard boxes in a circle and pass around a book, reading passages to the group before closing up shop.

6:15pm-9pm - From here on our you're kind of on your own. So far I've been grabbing a plate of food the kitchen staff prepares and stashing it in the fridge to attend some classes. Typically there's a class in philosophy, history, or art followed by an evening Kum Nye yoga session. The instructors are world-class, and despite being tired after a long day of work I'm always engaged with the teachings. I find time to eat somewhere in there, with a bit more socializing in the common room followed by collapsing into my bed.

There's more to say, but that's a good start for now! I just finished a twelve mile trail run to the coast, and after jumping into the frigid ocean and meditating for a bit on the beach I'm ready for a nap. Morris the cat is way ahead of me:

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More to come! Om Ah Hum.

-Ryan

March 31, 2016 - No Comments!

How Learning Jiu Jitsu Can Help Your Career

You'll never believe these three simple tricks to stay calm!

  1. Join a Jiu Jitsu class.
  2. Get choked, like a lot.
  3. Try telling me that project review Tuesday with the CMO is really that big a deal.

BJJ promotes the concept that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant by using proper technique, leverage, and most notably, taking the fight to the ground, and then applying joint-locks and chokeholds to defeat the opponent. BJJ training can be used for sport grappling tournaments (gi and no-gi) and mixed martial arts (MMA) competition or self-defense.”

— https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_jiu-jitsu

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If you ever decide to take Jiu Jitsu (which you should) you will soon learn that a lot of it is accepting someone could seriously harm you and subsequently your giving in.

You're going to get choked to the point of (almost) passing out. Don't worry, it's safe and it's turns out it's actually pretty good for you.

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A new study at the University of South Florida (so take that one with a Florida-sized grain of salt) is exploring Jiu Jitsu as a means of treating PTSD in returning US Military Vets. That makes sense, as an activity it promotes fitness, releases endorphines and relieves stress.

The applications learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (or BJJ) and martial arts in my own life have been more pedestrian in nature but invaluable nonetheless. The "runner's high", "yoga bliss", or the "climbing coma" are all well-known altered states of consciousness (ok I made that last one up).

But no form of exercise has been more effective at providing clarity on matters interpersonal and business than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The pure act of going through a simulated life and death struggle for an hour or two will seriously alter the lens you view life through. Other martial arts come close, but this is the safest and overall most healthy option to experience adversity and opposition in a very real way.

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Very important note, Ronin Athletics is where I learned my initial steady physical practice. They're the best in NYC in my opinion, if you're looking for kind hearted, knowledgeable people to guide you through the process of discovering your physical self. The gym's proprietor, Christian Montes, is a born educator who constantly surprises me. Dude recently started running super marathons, and that's hard even if you're a regular marathon runner. Imagine the focus that takes!

Christian cultivated a mentality of hard work combined wit

There are so many people I love there (I started listing you all and had a panic attack fuck you! I love you) that it's sad I don't live that all day every day. It's just so damn hard to make a living in the arts, even if the art is martial.

I promise you will find your mind glancing back to a situation you were in earlier during the week while shrugging off a confrontation, or finding yourself totally relaxed during what would normally be an anxiety-inducing presentation or public speaking event. Be mindful, it doesn't matter.

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This isn't to say there's no risk in Jiu Jitsu - I'm still recovering from hip surgeries that were likely caused by my martial arts habits. You'll have to keep yourself safe, know your limits and train smart.

People have written books, created religions on the life lessons of martial arts, the benefits of learning self defense, and the importance of discipline and generating obstacles to overcome for self-improvement. This was for a good reason - and I'll be a student of the martial arts as long as it continues to surprise and teach me. I think meditation and martial arts should be a required subject in school instead of gym, but that's a subject for another post. Ossss motherfuckers! I love you, be awesome and try to kick my ass.

March 31, 2016 - No Comments!

Flash Fiction Content – Entry #3

Entry #3 for NYC Midnight's Flash Fiction Contest

Genre: Science Fiction
Setting: Public Fountain
Object: Paper Airplane

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First!

Five friends in Brooklyn decide to give the local thrift store a whirl. A magic item ruins an otherwise most excellent Sunday afternoon.

***

Walking down Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, Elvis turned to Clementine, eying the Japanese Koi swimming up her arms, notes that she looked especially retro-chill today.

Clementine glances down to her sensibly-heeled Flapper shoes, muttering “Thank you honey-bear.”

Levi rolls his eyes, hooking one thumb behind the strap on his overalls, “How quaint.”

“Shut up Levi.” Elvis punctuated his words with his cane sometimes, as he did now. People felt he had more gravitas when there was a striking sound to accompany syllables.

Walking behind them, hand in hand, Homer and Violet could feel the tension building between the two men.

Elvis and Levi had been in a polyamorous relationship together with Clementine for about a year, until a fight had broken out over Levi not replenishing the group’s almond milk often enough. Clementine had chosen Elvis, citing his authenticity, having spent two years as a subsistence farmer with a collective in Buffalo.

“I saw the Pinback reunion last week at Knitting Factory,” Violet interjected, trying to change the subject, “They were alright I guess. Better before everyone knew them for sure. They still had meaning, you know?”

Homer’s huge tangle of a beard bobbed in approval, “Yeah they were better before.” Homer was sensitive about his weight, and found that when he was agreeable people were less likely to talk to him about the hazards of unhealthy eating.

They were on their way to Beacon’s Closet, a vintage clothing store right next to the bespoke olive oil shop that Levi owned. Or rather, the bespoke olive oil shop that Levi’s family owned, as Elvis often liked to point out. People loved that Elvis raised his pinky in an effete manner when he would say this at house parties.

Homer was telling them about the brewing operation running out of his Sunset Park basement. “See the trick is if you use vegetables restaurants throw out you can ferment all kinds of things on the cheap. Shit, I’ve made pepper beer, pineapple beer…”

Inside the shop, crowded with racks of clothes that stank of rejection and old cotton, the teller briefly glanced up and went back to reading Kindling Quarterly. Elvis assumed that was meant to be ironic reading. Then he saw the bundle of sticks next to her and gave a solemn, thoughtful nod.

The store was narrow, low ceilings and pale yellow lighting. Rifling through the racks of old clothes, shoes, sunglasses and hats was a pastime for this group. A sacred space where they could feel pride at being so thrifty. Plus it was a constant conversation topic. People love it when shoes have a good story.

Levi saw it first, drifted forward as though gripped by a dream. His mouth slacked open, slurring a dampened sing-along to the Arcade Fire song currently leaking out of the store’s sound system.

Elvis, failing to command Clementine’s opinion on a cravat that had the most delightful pattern of tiny cat heads, turned to Levi.

“I think this is the bee’s knees, whaddya think Lev? Lev? Levi? Levi!” Elvis followed Levi’s eyes and direction toward the object, bathed in flesh and rose light, appearing to rotate on its perch.

It was a wool newsboy cap, perfectly balanced on an aluminum-foil stand. Grey checked pattern, with the brim slightly tufted where it had been tugged and worn. Probably in some Chinese factory, thought Elvis.

Elvis didn’t find the idea of Levi getting something he enjoyed copacetic, and fancied himself to be the kind of Stand-Up-Guy who took deliberate action on things he didn’t find particularly copacetic. People liked that about Elvis.

And that’s why Elvis quickly strode in front of Levi, snatching the cap off of the cheap foil stand and affixing it to his head in one fluid motion. As he was pulling it upward Elvis did notice some odd markings, symbols he didn’t recognize lining the inside of the cap. China, he thought.

Elvis doffed his new cap, bowing before Levi. “Looks like I’ve got myself some new glad rags for tonight’s dance, eh partner?”

Levi’s shock at being interrupted shifted as the room filled with a steady, low, vibrating rumble. Violet and Clementine looked over as Levi began to point, shout and gibber uncontrollably.

They stood and watched as Elvis was surrounded in a column of swirling black and purple particles. He pressed his hand against the inside of this cylinder, pulling it back quickly as if burned. Elvis became more and more faint, until finally he wasn’t there.

And just like that, Elvis disappeared from all their lives forever.

Clementine cried for a while, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and drinking a lot of Homer’s latest cactus based home-brew. She started dating Levi again about two months after that day in the thrift shop.

Homer found some success with his beer. He married Victoria and they were very happy for about a year. Tragically Homer died when a tank brewing fermented puffer-fish husks exploded.

Victoria is now dating Levi and Clementine, the three of them living in a commune/urban gardening center in Bushwick.

For whatever reason no one really considered Elvis’ disappearance to be that strange. There was no security camera footage of the event, and only a few eyewitnesses. Papers ended up saying they were weirdos, “Hipsters” who probably snorted cocaine.

***

Elvis opened his eyes to take in a cloud of dust and Ford Model-A’s rolling by. A pile of newspapers loosely bundled in twine hit the ground, kicking dirt from the road onto his vintage black & white oxford dress shoes.

He stood, knocking dirt off his pants with the cap and staring around in a resplendent daze. Everything was sepia toned and jittery - like an old film. He tried waving his hands in front of his face, flipped them around to rub his eyes. Nothing changed.

Suddenly it dawned on him - he had traveled back in time. Finally, Elvis thought. I’m first.