War, Love, Yoga, Art, Tribes & Kindness

Sebastian Junger starts his brief new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, with accounts of the kindness of strangers. Tribe is thought-provoking. Reading it reminded me of a lot of experiences and other books.

I recalled the TRIBES team-building curriculum schools adopted in the 1990s. In addition to reading and writing, we spent time in conversation, building interpersonal skills among the children through structured practice.

While teaching Language Arts at Martinez Junior High School, I worked in a team, a sort of tribe, with my math, science, and social studies colleagues. We met weekly to plan lessons that reinforced concepts across our subject areas and to troubleshoot with students who’d hit rocky patches academically or socially. The counselor assigned to us interfaced with parents. Students thrived. The environment was one of pulling together to understand what and how the world works and pooling resources.

Reading Junger’s passages on his own experience in war zones and the effects of war on service members, I recalled books I’ve studied and taught that provided opportunities to discuss the individual in society: the incomparable Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane; and, Black Boy by Richard Wright.

These books and others underscore how art makes sense of life.

“Friendship Quilt” by Flora G. Guerra, American, 1935/1942, National Gallery of Art

One year, not long ago, I was hired to teach high school English late in September after the assigned teacher quit for an administrative position in the district office.

The room was in chaos–coffee dregs moldering in mugs, personal photos tacked to the bulletin board by the teacher’s desk, random thumb drives, barrettes, dried up markers, piles of ungraded papers scattered on shelves, in drawers, on windowsills.

The students were in the middle of Lorraine Hansberry’s wonderful “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’d taught the play before at another site and found it to be an effective catalyst for discussion about aspirations, race, class, family, neighborhoods, gender, education, honesty, forgiveness and just plain change.

Seeking to find out what the students had been discussing, I asked, “What’s the play about? What’s a theme?”

“Money,” they said and laughed. “It’s about how you can’t be happy unless you have money.”

Does a person’s jaw really fall then they’re surprised?

Mine must have because they laughed some more. “That’s what the teacher said.”

“Well,” I replied. “There might be another way of looking at this.”

That night I puzzled out a graphic organizer (we love those in teaching!) and had it ready on the whiteboard when the students filed in the next day. I wish I’d kept a copy. It was designed like one of those graphics that are the rage in glossy magazines these days to get you from point A to point B along a board game-like route, making decisions along the way.

The students talked their ways through the graphic. Where did they end up? Some identified a possible theme in the play as “parents and kids,” others as “dreams,” others as “loyalty,” and, ultimately, most saw a theme could be “love.”

Thinking about this gets me thinking about yoga. Everything does these days–gets me thinking about yoga.

“Friendship Quilt” by Florence Treason, American, c. 1937, National Gallery of Art

Yoga is the practice of love.

This doesn’t mean you have to pop up in downward facing dog right now and smile. It means recognizing that harmony is wholeness and wholeness is union, which is roughly what “yoga” means. The state of the union. The state of union. Union requires, if not love, sympathy and compassion.

Literature depicts and captures the universal human condition. Oneness.

We’re all in this together.

Junger points out that nomadic people only own what they can carry. For nomads, acquiring external markers of wealth proves impractical, whereas inequalities of wealth become quickly evident in settled societies.

He says American society is at war with itself, hurling contempt at fellow citizens.

Citing this vitriolic rhetoric that clutters American society today, Junger asks in Tribe,

So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make [war] veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different–you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another and not on the things that unite us?”

Reading Junger’s book feels like engaging in a stimulating dinner conversation with smart friends, touching upon a range of topics in an attempt to understand people and how they organize into tribes and civilizations. I’m curious about this topic, too, so I’m glad I borrowed the book from the library.

I’ve written at length on this blog and in my stories, poems and essays about my lifelong investigation into the meaning of belonging. I’m working now on a little book, Home Practice, about how yoga study and teaching brought me figuratively home to myself and literally home to the place where I was reared.

Lastly, I think of an old poem I wrote around 1996 that was collected in the little chapbook artist friends made for me, We Have Trees. Like almost everyone’s early poems, it grew directly out of life experience and is as true as can be.

Hold Still

1.
Kindness is as kindness does,
a woman in the laundromat
tells me.

2.
In my life I’ve had kindnesses.
Twice my windshield wipers broke,
once in a North Carolina blizzard
and once during a Kentucky thunderstorm.
Both times strangers fixed them for me
for free
so I could see to carry on.

3.
A lady said Better get in, reaching
for the passenger door. It was raining
that night, too, and I was walking shocked,
barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me
to a dry place with orange couches.
I remember that.
She likely saved my life.

4.
Has kindness been done to you?
I can’t believe in angels quite
but I see butterflies.
Kindnesses alight like butterflies
midday on bare arms
delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.

present images/past experiences

Two things I read last week served as prongs of a tuning fork to remind me of an essay from a couple of years ago.

  1. The Washington Post story on biologist Nalini Nadkarni’s Nature Imagery Project describes how Nadkarni “forge[s] an oasis in the dungeon” by bringing the outside in.
  2. Patti Smith’s M Train shows how writers accrue experiences as images and how those images become raw material for our work.  She explains,

Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.

She recalls,

A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.

 


After the abolishment of California’s Arts-in-Corrections funding in 2009, inmates facilitated their own arts groups, relying on volunteers to infuse fresh ideas. From 2010-2013, I volunteered as a poetry teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom Prison). The maximum-security facility housed about 3,000 men at the time I worked there.

Patti Smith holds a feather.

Offering up experiences within the framework of writing, the guys and I learned from each other about perspective, environment, language, rhythm, time, friendship, justice, illness, empathy and responsibility. 

In that stark setting, we drew from memory for images to turn into phrases. When asked to construct metaphors using animals or natural imagery, the students were often stuck. Their experience of animals beyond a neighborhood cat or dog was limited. Most had never visited a wildlife park or even a zoo.

Having grown up under street lights, they’d never seen a dark sky brightened with stars. 

I’d filed my essay away in the cloud; I’ll share it now. This is what I wrote after my final visit.

One afternoon, in a small group gathered at New Folsom Prison to discuss writing, a young man lifted the lid on his stockpot of stories.

At 20, he was three years “down.” In those last few teenage years, by listening and paying attention he’d  gathered a writer’s skills, developing in English and Spanish a storyteller’s sense for detail, dialogue and pacing. I suggested he could write in both languages, maybe for people who have no way to tell their own stories; he could bear witness to events.

“I never thought of it that way before,” he said.

Through the room’s window on the hallway, he watched his younger brother being led in chains by officers past a gate. That brother’s twin, he said, was in another state prison. “We’ve disappointed our mom.”

They grew up with their mother (their father lived close by, but not with them) in a small Central Valley town bound on four sides by orchards. The town’s children had a pond for swimming–when it wasn’t emptied by irrigation–and a community center where he hung out with the kids, even after he was inducted into a gang.

“One time,” he told us, “the center was having a drawing contest for the little kids, something about our town.” One boy drew the bird that symbolizes the United Farm Workers. The boy included the name of the town and proudly showed it to the teacher.

“Oh, man,” the storyteller said, “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know.’”

The boy didn’t know that the symbol he saw on t-shirts, banners, and posters, had been co-opted by a gang. The boy’s drawing could not be entered in the contest.

“That was when I realized that up until a point you can be a little kid and then you can’t.”

California’s Central Valley

He told us about working beside his father in the fields and how pickers would trade rows so everyone had enough. He laughed as he remembered out-of-town relatives arriving to glean nectarines from trees edging the streets. His favorite times were riding in the car to the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town before his town had its own store.

On those trips he could look out the window at the scenery passing. 

He told more. About the time a bird struck the windshield when his mother was driving. The time he pushed his teacher for grabbing his headphones, and the man fell, and he was charged with assault.

About when he stopped smoking weed and how stupid his friends looked when they were high but how they passed the blunt, skipping him, without giving him grief.

He told us how he could look at a math problem and see the answer arise without touching a pencil. (“I don’t know how it happens,” he said.) He told us about a girlfriend who mentioned a test he could take for college entrance and how no one could believe it when he scored so high.

“People with scores like mine. They go to MIT,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I had known. I wish I had known that I could go to college and all that.”

I wish I had known is a phrase I heard often from inmates.

One man, upon writing his first poem, told me, “I wish I had known earlier that I can do this. I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I had this in me.” 

On one visit, we used a simple Venn diagram to compare how we perceive in “artist mode” with how we perceive in daily life. An inmate observed, “This is weird. Thinking about my mind in two ways.” He stuck with it, then commented, “I can bring these together. I can be my ‘artist self’ more often.”

Another writer spent more than a year revising the same wonderful poem of numbers that held a pattern he perceived. He was dealing with schizophrenia and a brain injury. Beautiful and complex, his poem operated outside of any recognizable linear progression, any expectations of a “healthy mind.”

At first, the poem was no more than sounds. Over time, the sounds stacked up to make meaning. 

One day, he delivered the poem to the room, reading from a creased piece of lined paper. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone applauded. With persistence, he had made sense. He had untangled a portion of his thinking through effortful experience.


Walt Whitman: Now I will do nothing but listen,/To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it./I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals./I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,/I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following…

In the introduction to the 1921 Modern Library Edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg points out,

Throughout “Leaves of Grass” there recurs often a wild soft laughter carrying the hint that it is impossible for a poet to tell you anything worth knowing unless you already know it and no song can be sung to you that will seem a song deeply worth hearing unless you have already in some strange, far-off fashion heard that song. An instance of this wild soft laughter is in the closing lines of “Song of Myself,” where it is written:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and of my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am unstranslatable.

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapour and the dusk.

In every work of art and every conversation we respond to there’s that feeling of recollection. It’s the marvel of connection. It’s embodying metaphor, from Greek metaphora, to transfer; it’s the conveyance of meaning between one living creature and another over the broad valley of experiences and genes that make our dispositions and keep us from being all the same, too tamed.

Experience is related to experiment. All experiences begin as experiments, don’t they?

Greeting an inmate, I’d say, “It’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to be seen,” he’d respond.

Toward the end of M Train, Smith’s ellipsoidal gift of black and white photos, flavors of black coffee and brown toast, her shared beauties, fantasies and phantasms, she observes,

We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs us all.

Face-to-face teaching keeps me present. And time measured at the pace of the body. Creativity. And attempts at kindness.

An act of kindness is a risk, an experiment. An act of kindness is a bit (binary + digit), a unit of information expressed as a 0 or 1 that added up any which way equals the experience of being human.

Sharing a story is a kindness. Receiving one is, too.

In her story, Smith describes the kindness of cafe workers and friends, the tender care she receives from the hotel maid who nurses her through illness in a strange city.

As an adolescent, I was a committed wanderer and a risk-taker. Lucky, I see now, to have received so many kindnesses, to be alive and free.

This poem dates back 20 years, written when I was leaving adolescence for adulthood and dedicating myself to wondering how everything is connected. I’m still at it.

Hold Still

1.

Kindness is as kindness does,

a woman in the laundromat

tells me.

2.

In my life I’ve had kindnesses.

Twice my windshield wipers broke,

once in a North Carolina blizzard

and once in a Kentucky thunderstorm.

Both times strangers fixed them for me

for free

so I could see to carry on.

3.

A lady said Better get in, reaching

for the passenger door. It was raining

that night too and I was walking shocked,

barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me

to a dry place with orange couches.

I remember that.

She likely saved my life.

4.

Has kindness been done to you?

I can’t believe in angels quite

but I see butterflies.

Kindnesses alight like butterflies

midday on bare arms

delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.

 

first published in We Have Trees (Swim, 2005)

Pets: Small World, Big Love

My pets have taught me about kindness. Kindness and its cousin, love.

In graduate studies for psychology, I learned from Professor Michahelles that showing a child that you understand he loves you is as necessary as showing the child he’s loved by you.

I think this is because children, like animals, inherently expect affection to be a colloquy.

They unlearn this expectation through living.  That’s not a bad thing. Experience includes suffering and joy. (Sit with each of the words in your upturned palms and feel how they balance the scale of life.)

Loving is an action; it sets forth a purpose. It gives meaning. Children, and animals, so skillful at engaging with the now, thrive on being received. They need to know we know they love us.

How do we do this? With children, accepting what they have to offer is key. As a school teacher, I was handed dented playing cards, ribbon bits, smudged poems, and other tokens and, wonderfully, hugs and smiles.

The moment something is offered provides a potential for connection.

The mind thinks, “I’m busy. I don’t really want a pencil stub.” The wiser heart, however, pipes up, “How courageous is this child to extend her hand.” Then, aloud, “Thank you.” In a flash it happens. As adults we must be ready to glimpse it, to, as Georgia O’Keeffe urges, see.

We receive the love of animals by honoring their needs for safety, food, play, learning and comfort. By providing for them we acknowledge their single-pointed focus on us, how they wait for us, watch our faces and gestures for cues, acquaint themselves with our language, and make us feel necessary. As Vint Varga writes, animals provide an opportunity to connect with the less intellectualized side of ourselves. That side matters, too.

Isn’t love in this small-big world ultimately about paying attention

My Little Bird this week published my article on how to pay attention to pets, particularly apartment pets. I dedicate it to my roommate, Tucker, the terrier mix, trained in love by our dog friend, Molly, and to Sasha, the first doggie.

 

Metta meditation

There are as many versions of Metta meditation as there are meditation teachers. From lesson to lesson, the instructions I offer vary slightly depending on setting and students.

Here’s how this Metta meditation works.

Four sentences provide a chassis for the vehicle of sharing compassion. 

May you know safety.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you experience contentment and joy.

May you live with ease.

Home-base is friendliness: You’ll call to mind an image of yourself, contented, or an image of someone you love deeply and unconditionally. (In this practice, animals count as people, too!)

You’ll take the mind and the heart on an excursion through friendliness, kindness and compassion. Notice where that feeling abides in the body. Let the feeling spread to suffuse the whole body.

Sequentially call to mind and offer well-wishes from the heart by silently reciting the sentences for:

  • someone you consider a loved one, a friend or family member
  • someone you don’t know well and you appreciate, an acquaintance, a service provider
  • someone for whom you feel neutrally, an attendant, a neighbor
  • someone who presents difficulty for you, toward whom you may react with aversion
  • someone you love…use an unqualified feeling of kindness to bring you back to home-base

Moving through the images of each person is like watching a slide show. Keep a sense of the previous slides of the people you recall even as you conjure the next.

You can conclude the meditation here, resting in the easy chair of the heart. Breathing.

Or choose to conclude with a final image of yourself, at this moment. Know that friendliness is a limitless well into which you can dip your cup to satisfy your own thirst or another’s.

Or conclude with a broad well-wish for the world. (This is how the recorded version ends.)

Ready?

Settle into a comfortable seat. Be sure your posture is awake and alert and carries a sense of sincerity. Support yourself with pillows and blankets. No need to be distracted by discomfort.

Guided Metta Meditation (approx. 10 minutes)

From My Diary, July 1914

Amid the world’s insistent troubles, and any of your daily own, may you find in July 2015 some moments of beauty, kindness, goodness, love, joy and light.

From My Diary, July 1914

Leaves
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.
Lives
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Birds
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Bards
Singing of summer scything thro’ the hay.
Bees
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.
Boys
Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Flashes
Of swimmers carving thro’ the sparkling cold.
Fleshes
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
A mead
Bordered about with warbling water brooks.
A maid
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of her looks.
The heat
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Her heart
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Braiding
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Brooding
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Stirs
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Stars
Expanding with the starr’d nocturnal flowers.

– Wilfred Owen

Be considerate

Yoga’s ethical guidelines support and expand the practice of the postures.

How do they apply to 21st-century American life?

Ahimsa, the first of the guidelines, yamas, translates as non-harming and, by extension, kindness. Another way to think of ahimsa is through the English word “consideration.” “Consider” means “to examine” and may derive from the Latin word for “star.” To be considerate means to show careful thought, to not inconvenience or hurt others unthinkingly.  When we’re up for the challenge, we can attempt to go through the day considering each person, in fact every other living thing, as precious as star dust. We can breathe and pause, wonder a bit at the complexity of this world, and pull back from hasty judgements and cruel thoughts.

Best part? This, like all yoga, is a process. We’re all mean sometimes. We all hurt ourselves and others with words, thoughts and deeds. As a wise teacher told me long ago, everyone makes mistakes. They’re a problem when we make the same ones again and again. Breathe. Forgive. Let go. Be kind.

 

 

Here are  poems for thinking about thinking about kindness.

James Wrights’s beautiful A Blessing where human and animal meet.

“And the eyes of those two Indian ponies/Darken with kindness./They have come gladly out of the willows/To welcome my friend and me.”

Not harming another creature in David Wagoner’s Meeting a Bear.

“Meanwhile, move off, yielding the forest floor/As carefully as your honor.”

Kindness to oneself, practiced with the help of a friend, in Perie Longo’s Learning to Walk.

“Starts with sitting still, listening/to how time lengthens in silence./A friend moves off the horizon, her words/of comfort a hook to grasp, to cling to/like the steel traps I sometimes throw down/in disgust.”

On the Island of Recollection, my own poem about receiving kindness where you can.

“You learn to fish for kindness among/gentler creatures, agree to praise a god//on Sundays when offered a seat in the pew.”

 

 

 

Ahimsa

In a recent review of a book on genocide, Stephen Budiansky writes that genocidal murder is an act of extreme social and psychological compartmentalization. The killers perceive their actions as outside of their “normal” lives and are able to return to their regular affairs without remorse. They treat murder as a job that occurs during a set time in a separate space with little to do with their everyday home and family lives.

Compartmentalization desensitizes a person to the whole. Genocide is extreme atrocity. Less extreme, also damaging, are the minor abuses that occur through daily fragmentation, the ones that erode our shared landscape. For example, whenever we think of “home” as bound by property lines, we exclude what’s beyond that perimeter. Every time we think, “That’s not my job,” we narrow ourselves to rigid and artificial functions. Watch a driver speeding through an unfamiliar neighborhood: the street’s viewed not as someone’s address but a thoroughfare. Think of the act of littering, discarding what’s unwanted, marring another’s space, leaving clean up for someone else.

Compartmentalization is fragmentation. And a fragmented world is in shards. One thing yoga does is provide a path to potential wholeness.

Willful destruction and mess-making? Okay for the kiddies. On grown-ups, not so cute.

(But realize that, just like following the many steps to bake a scratch coconut cake, you don’t know how the investment turns out until the timer rings.)

Whole. Cake. Good.

Ahimsa is the first step toward wholeness. One of five practices to guide ethical action in a person’s life, ahimsa is a rational choice in favor of non-violence, non-injury, kindness; it’s taking the course of least harm. Ahimsa is cultivating love and compassion. It’s friendliness, caring, affection, understanding. It’s large-, not small-heartedness.

Every choice involves a loss. In ahimsa the loss is of the negative, the no. Not destruction, but construction. Not desecration, but consecration. It’s not hurting, maybe helping.

Not a great place to spend all your time.

Ahimsa, the heart of yoga, is about de-compartmentalizing, leaving pigeon-holes, not characterizing, stereotyping, branding. Asana–the poses–support the practice of yoga, movement with breath, I with Thou, this with that, internalizing the truth that my world is your world.

A challenge for Americans, who have the luxury of cherry picking from the art and science and philosophy of yoga’s tree, is to employ enough self-control that their physical practice on the mat is not an end in-and-of-itself and instead a rehearsal for ethical practice in the world. Outside of athletics, “fitness” implies eligibility, competence, readiness.

Yoga, without ever getting out of a chair, can make one fit for the label “human being,” a label that comes with a whole lot of responsibility to others: a broad awareness, an encompassing sympathy. Ahimsa.