Friday, November 14, 2014

Letting God Out of the Box: Reflections on Frank Schaeffer's New Book, "Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God"

I wanted to write a formal “review” of this book, but initially couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Fabulous book!  Everybody should read it.”  On second thought, while I absolutely love the book, I predict that most atheists and Christians will probably hate it, and I’m not here to try to convince anybody.  The book is not a theological treatise and presents neither an argument nor an apology.  Rather, it is a personal, candid and heartfelt discussion of the author’s journey of faith, seeking to “give love, create beauty and find peace” in the face of limiting and dehumanizing dogmas.  The intimate writing style, as if we were sitting and having a conversation with the author, invites honest reflection on our own journey, and in response to that invitation, the words came pouring out!  So, I hope you will indulge me, before I return to reviewing the book.  While I am no longer an atheist and God is not per se a “belief” for me, I can very much relate to what Mr. Schaeffer has written.

I became an atheist around age 11 or 12 as a result of having attended evangelical private schools which completely turned me off to Christ.  From my perspective today, being totally in Love, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could manage to make Jesus unappealing, but they did.  In addition, I was a big fan of science from a very early age, thanks in large part to the t.v. show “Star Trek,” which I began watching with my father when I was just a toddler.  I had already concluded that the religious world-view was at odds with a factual explanation of how the universe works.  Now, I could have lived with that, if religion as it was presented had been attractive for any other reason, which it was not. 

My childhood understanding of “Christianity” could essentially be summarized as: “Everything that is fun is bad,” and God was a mean old man on His throne up in the sky, ready to send us to hell for the slightest infraction, even though He had already allowed His own son to be tortured to death on our behalf to somehow appease His righteous wrath over the predictable sins of creatures whom He had endowed with free will.  It seemed to me that, being omniscient, He should have known what would happen. Moreover, He would send starving people in Africa to hell merely for not believing in Jesus, Whom they had never heard of, and it was our parents’ fault for not giving more money to the church’s missionary projects, and by implication, our fault for not nagging them sufficiently to do so.  I had other theological doubts, but the last straw was when they told us that rock music was from the devil, which I knew in my heart of hearts could not possibly be true.  So, I threw out the Babe with the bathwater, but I felt like Something was missing.  I began to study Zen and yoga.

My atheism continued until my first year of college in Florida, when I ate magic mushrooms which grew at cow farms near my school in the springtime.  That experience of infinite Love, Being, Consciousness and Bliss demonstrated Something beyond a shadow of a doubt.  As an atheist I was inclined to believe that It was a phenomenon created by my own brain, but it must have been a part of the brain that was previously inaccessible to me.  It was Beauty and Perfection completely beyond anything that I could ever dream or imagine despite my best efforts.  People commonly called this “seeing God,” but I was reluctant to call It “God” because It bore no resemblance to the angry old man in the sky.  One of my companions, when asked if he had seen God, replied, “No, but I saw where He lives!”  Thereafter, I was motivated to study yoga/ meditation more seriously and in greater depth, and my practice really began to bear fruit.

While pursuing my degree in Philosophy, I studied theology and comparative religions and hung out with people of different faiths, including Buddhists, Sufis and Hindus.  I began to realize that my childhood fundamentalist education had been quite limiting, and maybe God really wasn’t so bad after all.  My Hare Krishna friends presented God as friendly, fun, beautiful and cool.  Like Christianity, the Hindu religion also imposed a fairly strict moral code which, if violated, could send you to a bad reincarnation for many offenses including illicit sex (anything outside of marriage, and contraception within marriage!), drinking alcohol, or eating meat.  Nevertheless, their positive input inspired me to again consider the possibility of a Personal God.

Years later in southern California I rediscovered Jesus thanks to Jon, (ironically!) a rock musician, one of the coolest people I’d ever met.  I was surprised to learn he was quietly a mystical Christian, and he also practiced meditation.  Through Jon I met some loudly Christian metal musicians and began attending Calvary Chapel, mostly because a lot of my friends went there.  The music was great and it seemed pretty hip, although I soon learned that in reality their doctrine was rather fundie.   Among other things, apparently gay people were going to hell and while rock music was not, after all, satanic, yoga was and I needed to immediately stop doing it lest demons take over my body.

Shortly after my conversion, I ran into an old childhood friend Pete who, it turns out, had been a Christian all along but I never suspected it, because he smoked pot and listened to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.  We were discussing my newfound faith and he asked, “So – do you believe the Bible is the literal Word of God?”  “Yes!” I said, as per my indoctrination.  Pete smiled, raised one eyebrow, and asked, “And you’ve actually read it?”  “Yes.”  I had, indeed, been forced to read it quite thoroughly and to memorize parts of it, as a child.  “Ok,” he said, “then what do you do when scripture says something that you just know in your heart, cannot possibly be right?  Do you blindly believe it, or do you use the mind that God gave you?”  “Is this a trick question?!” I wondered, because as far as I knew, we really didn't have a choice.

Encouraged again to trust my heart over propaganda, I kept doing kriya yoga and meditation, where with increasing consistency I encountered that Love, Bliss, Beauty and awesome unity that the humble fungi had revealed to me many years before.  Having given it much prayer and after visiting a variety of churches, eventually I found myself quite at home in the Episcopal Church due to its Liturgy and sacraments, “all the pageantry, none of the guilt,” a strong tradition of spiritual practices, ecumenism and support of vocations, and so comfortable with paradox, ambiguity and diversity even to have a couple of atheist priests among its clergy.  I enjoyed a beautiful, wonderful, ecstatic relationship with God for many years thereafter.

I tried being an atheist again in 2010 when I was mad at God.  He had allowed my mother, a saintly woman with pure childlike faith who never doubted, “Whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive,” to die a horribly painful, slow, agonizing death involving loss of limbs, sanity and dignity, which dragged out for years despite her own prayers and those of myself, my sisters in the convent, and all our faithful friends and family.   When He didn’t heal Mom and her condition worsened, we prayed for a quick, merciful death, and that didn’t happen, either.  So I decided, clearly this God thing was all a lie, a fantasy. 

I told myself that we were, after all, just clothed monkeys with guns, who threw verbal feces at each other; monkeys who made art and music for no purpose whatsoever, and bombs to blow each other to smithereens, breeding mindlessly and without restraint, to the point that we were depleting our finite resources, destroying our habitat and drowning in our own waste.  We were really just walking, breathing bags of skin containing chemicals, like biological batteries which can recharge to a limited extent by taking in nutrients until entropy finally catches up, the bag starts to leak, the chemical reactions cease and we’re gone.  Unlike batteries, these bags of chemicals were seemingly conscious and capable of reproduction, but to what end – to bring more bags of conscious chemicals into a universe with no God, no Love, no Beauty, no meaning, only eternal darkness and despair?

I tried, but it didn’t work.  It was just too awkward, like when you’re mad at somebody and trying to ignore them, but you keep running into them at the grocery store.  It was no longer a matter of “belief” for me, because I didn’t so much “believe” in God, as I experienced God.  No matter what else might be happening in the external world, when I did my yoga, I experienced that incredible Love, Being, Consciousness, Bliss that had become more Real to me than anything.  Now, when I was mad at Him about Mom, I just avoided doing my spiritual practice for a while, but that couldn’t last.  It was like cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Anyway, God would sneak in when I looked at the moon and stars, or listened to Om roaring in my ear as I surfed in the tube of a wave, or felt the kiss of the sun on my cheek.  I don’t know why He let Mom suffer so, but in our Episcopal mythology of the Incarnation, He suffers with us.

In my darker moods, especially now that I am perimenopausal, I do sometimes flirt with nihilism, but it’s become more difficult.  The yoga I started in 1976 made big promises, and in 2011 it finally delivered.   A few minutes after I began doing Heart of Yoga, a seemingly minor refinement of the breathing technique that I had just learned from Mark Whitwell, my entire reality changed.  The Love, unity and clarity that I had first glimpsed with the help of the fungi, and subsequently experienced with increasing consistency during my daily meditations over the years, suddenly burst forth and took over my everyday consciousness.  This is what yoga is supposed to do, but I was nonetheless surprised when it happened.  Since then I have experienced the Presence of God essentially all the time, closer than my own heartbeat, and Love pouring through me.

Maybe it is just “all in my head,” a new trick my brain learned from an improbable symbiosis between fungi, cows and humans, reinforced by years of practice.  It makes no difference.  Whether God is “real,” or whether we are just pitiful monkeys who, in between flinging feces at each other, make up stories to console ourselves in the face of a dark, empty and meaningless universe, either way, what else is left, but to be that Love in the world?!  I teach people yoga to allow them to experience for themselves the gospel that God is Love, and I join my voice with others in the hope of making the world a better, more humane place before the darkness swallows us all up.  And this brings us back to Frank Schaeffer’s delightful book.   

This book resonated with me on many levels, although I am no longer an atheist and I find the word “believe” problematic.  It is probably a “niche” book, but perhaps a niche whose population is growing as more and more people begin to question their childhood faith and search for deeper meaning.  If you love Jesus but hate religion; if you believe in a God Who is bigger than the Bible; if you are confused about the difference between science and religion and/or you’ve been told you must choose between them, this book is for you! 

Be honest, my Christian friends:  Do you ever feel embarrassed for the God of the Old Testament?  What do you do with the “unpleasant” bits of scripture, like (just to mention a few), the several occasions where God tells his people to kill their neighbors, including pregnant women and little babies, but keep the virgin girls as booty?  Or the incident when God sent bears to maul 42 children for making fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head?  Likewise, perhaps you find dubious the doctrine of hell, whereby God would condemn mortal beings to eternal torment even for merely having incorrect beliefs.  On a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Bart and Lisa use an iRunes app to open a portal into a school in hell, where they see a young man writing something over and over on the blackboard; Bart asks, “Hey, pal, what are you in here for?”  “The heresy of Docetism, the belief that Jesus' body was just an illusion.” 

Frank poses the question, “Can you imagine me consigning Lucy [his granddaughter] to oblivion because she had wrong ideas about me?  Can you imagine me burning her forever because she didn’t believe in me, forgot my name, called me the wrong name, thought I had six arms… or brought me fruit when I asked for a lamb?... I am not a good man and yet can you imagine anything that would cut [his grandchildren] off from my love?” 

Faced with such issues, we have a choice.  We can do mental contortions in attempt to invent clever explanations and apologies for God, as Frank’s evangelist mother did in the previous book (Sex, Mom and God), but the results are unlikely to be satisfactory.  Alternatively, we can let go of dogma and trust God to be God.  Let God out of the box!  As we are told in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

Some of my other progressive Christian friends try to modify the religion to be more in line with scientific and historical “reality,” which involves eliminating doctrines about miracles, the virgin birth, the Trinity, even throwing out the entire book of John (my favorite gospel!), and/or re-defining the “historical Jesus” as a mere man, which IMO is kind of like neutering the lion.   Mr. Schaeffer takes a different approach.  He is not very concerned about doctrines per se.  Rather, he comes from the Orthodox apophatic tradition, which says that God is beyond doctrine and cannot be defined by the intellect, but only experienced.

The title of the book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God” is, as my husband and many other people have pointed out, contradictory per the definition of “atheist.”  From the apophatic standpoint, “believes” could perhaps better be replaced by “experiences,” but I am sure the author was very aware of the contradiction and purposely chose the ironic and thought-provoking title.  Frank is an “atheist” in the sense that he believes in the scientific explanation of the material universe which, I think it is safe to say, most educated people do.  As I have explained previously in my blog, there is no contradiction once we understand that science and religion are two separate spheres or dimensions of human existence which serve completely different functions.  This brings us to the central premise of the book, which is that we humans are multidimensional creatures who experience reality on different levels. 

One of my very educated and intelligent friends told me, “Religion is silly!  I choose science.”  But, the question is, “Choose it for what?”  The purpose of science is to objectively explain the nature and workings of the physical universe, which it does quite well, as far as it goes.  Now, my friend would say, “Science fully describes reality, because the physical universe is all there is!”  The problem with this assertion, of course, is that any such statements about Ultimate Reality are necessarily metaphysical in nature and therefore can neither be confirmed nor denied by physical science.  It would be a circular argument akin to the fundie dogma, “The Bible is the only and complete word of God.  How do we know?  Because the Bible says so!”   

In any case, the purely physical approach is inadequate to express the entirety of our human experience.  For example, according to science, “love” is simply evolution using your hormones to trick you into breeding, passing on your DNA and caring for your offspring so that they, too, can pass on their DNA.  The magical feeling you share with your spouse that makes you believe he or she is the most beautiful, wonderful person on earth can be objectively explained by chemicals in your brain; however, it can only be enjoyed subjectively.  Love, like Beauty, belongs to another dimension of human existence:  the subjective realm of art, music, poetry, mythology and religion, the purpose of which is not explanation, but inspiration.  There are different kinds of “truth.”  It’s not either-or.  To choose science “instead of” religion is like choosing dinner instead of dessert when you could have both; you will certainly survive although you may become bored.  Choosing religion instead of science may seem delicious, but it’s not a balanced diet in terms of your physical health.

When challenged by his atheist friends, “Frank, God’s only in your head!”, he answers, “Yeah, whatever.  What isn’t?”  This is very true because, as Frank points out, ultimately the “physical world” as such is a perceptual construct of the human mind and senses, whereas we know from physics that what we perceive as solid objects actually consist of mostly empty space.  He says towards the end of the book, “My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love.”  I believe that, and it’s the same Love that holds the universe together, which I experience in the center of my being.

So, we are multidimensional creatures and in at least one of those dimensions, we can experience God.  Religion is merely the sociocultural context which frames that personal experience.   Being freed from dogma, what happens to our faith?   It is a huge relief to realize that God does not need to be defined, defended or explained.  We can enjoy religious mythology when we stop trying to pretend it is something that it isn’t.  If there is a God, He cannot be confined to the man-made box that is religion.     

Frank makes the case that following Jesus is not about believing certain doctrines, but rather, how does our experience of the sacred affect our life?   It should move us to express divine Love through our actions.  He discusses at some length the humanism of Jesus, and even suggests that the Enlightenment was a Christian heresy, the results of which can be seen in “godless” countries like Denmark today where most of the population is atheist, and yet their social policies are more consistent with Jesus’ teachings than our own “Christian” nation.   They take care of their widows and orphans, provide universal healthcare and education, and enforce laws preventing the powerful from preying on the weak.  On a personal level, letting God out of the box has made our faith stronger, our joy deeper, enabling us to give love and create beauty, and in so doing, to find peace.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reviews from Yoga Students

My yoga students have requested a venue where they can give reviews.  So, here you go!  Feel free to use the Comments section, below.  Your feedback is appreciated.  Namaste.

Reviews from Spiritual Direction, Counseling and Psychic Clients

Several clients have offered to give reviews on my services in Spiritual Direction, Ministerial Counseling and Psychic Readings.  So, here is a venue where you can do that!  Feel free to use the Comments section, below.  Your feedback is appreciated.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Another Look at Religion

Note:  I shared this post on a popular blog site recently and to my surprise, was immediately accused of "attacking atheists."  That certainly was not my intent.  If anything, I thought I was "attacking fundies" and reassuring the atheists that despite what they may have heard, liberal/progressive Christians are on their side!  I apologize that the point did not get across.

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Once again I have found myself involved in discussion around an issue that keeps coming up, the same thing back and forth endlessly, so that I think it is worth addressing in my blog for future reference when and as needed.  The issue this time is religion.  My atheist friends and acquaintances often try to engage me in arguments about my alleged “Christian beliefs” which they aggressively repudiate – not realizing that, in fact, I’m on their side. 

For example, they will point out that fossil evidence proves living creatures have been around a lot longer than 6000 years, and radiometric dating shows the earth is 4.5 billion years old; that it would have been physically impossible to fit 2 of every species of animal and all the supplies needed for them on Noah’s ark; and that Jonah could not have survived in the belly of a whale.  They scoff at the story of the first woman, whom God had created from a rib of the man He made out of dirt, being deceived by a talking snake, resulting in the damnation of the entire human race, not to mention, as they were the only people, whom did their kids marry?  Therefore, science proves that the Bible is not true!  Umkay…  but I never said it was.  Having attended college, I do know the difference between science and mythology.  Doesn’t everybody?  Apparently not, based on the furious and ongoing debate.

It’s almost a “straw man” argument, except as I understand it, that would imply conscious and purposeful misrepresentation of your opponent’s position, whereas it appears the atheists sincerely believe that this is what we (religious people) think.  And we can blame the fundies for that!  Because, as incredible as it may seem to any modern educated person, there really are people who believe that the Bible is a magic book literally dictated word for word by God, every word inerrant (never mind internal contradictions), a complete and perfect guide to life, a moral handbook, and a science textbook.  Even more disturbing is the fact that some of the people who hold this belief are elected officials whose job is to govern our nation!  But, while the fundies claim to represent all Christians, they most certainly do not; they just happen to be the loudest and most obnoxious among us.  Unfortunately, they have managed to convince nearly everyone that their particular brand of “Christianity” is believed by all of us.

Which, of course, it is not.  So when my atheist friends rant on and on about the profound stupidity of fundamentalist dogma, all I can say is, you’re preaching to the choir.  And if anything, it probably pisses off us liberal and/or progressive Christians even more than it bothers you!  They make the rest of us look bad, as evidenced by the fact that you have bought into the fundie dogma and believe that we are the same as them.  So as a yogini and an Episcopalian, I would like to share a fresh perspective, another way of looking at religion.

Note, I consider myself a yogini first and a Christian second.  This may shock a lot of Christians and qualify me for burning at the stake.  Be that as it may, my rationale is that yoga is one’s personal relationship with the Divine, whereas Christianity is a religion.  The former is direct subjective experience of That, whatever you want to call it, while the latter is merely the sociocultural context which frames our experience, the religious mythology which provides a colorful backdrop for the rituals we share as a community.

One might argue that “relationship with the Divine” presupposes a belief in the existence of God, presumably the God described in the Bible, but this presumption is incorrect.  For me personally, and I think I can speak for other yogis as well, it’s really not about “belief” at all.  “Belief” is an intellectual construct.  I don't so much "believe" in God, as I experience God.  “God” for me is not a doctrine, but rather a label I put on my inner mystical experience which, while completely subjective, is at the same time shared by others in my community. 

Now, some atheists have stated that mystical experience and/or any kind of religious feeling constitutes mental illness, and that religion is a form of mass psychosis which ought to be “cured” by forcible medication.  We will put aside for the moment that this view is reminiscent of the treatment of religion in a totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union, with dubious political implications for its enforcement in a free society.  From a purely psychobiological standpoint, though, it could equally be argued that people who are incapable of religious feeling have a deficiency in the part of the brain where such experiences originate and which probably serves some evolutionary purpose.  What I call “God” you might call “the part of the brain that lights up on MRI during meditation.”  The latter description, while scientifically accurate, is less poetic.

And that is what we are talking about here:  Poetry, mythology, ritual, drama!  The point that both atheists and fundies seem to have missed is that religion is not supposed to be literally true in the scientific sense.  The atheist argument against the factual veracity of the Bible strikes me as rather silly and pointless, akin to stating that Harry Potter violates the laws of physics, or that the history and geography of the earth depicted in the Lord of The Rings is inaccurate.  However, atheists understandably feel compelled to make the argument because the fundies insist on imposing their religious mythology as literal fact on everybody else via the political process.  It has also been argued that we don’t need religion anymore because science can explain everything, but the purpose of religion is not to “explain” the natural world.  The argument would go away if only both sides could simply understand that religion is not science, period.

So what is the purpose of religion, then?  It is like art, literature, music, dance or theater, intended to enrich the imagination and nourish the soul.  It is supposed to provide a deeply personal, yet at the same time, shared communal experience of the Sacred by means of music, chanting, incense, candles and ritual – “bells and smells” as we Episcopalians say.  The sensory input and mythological imagery stimulates the part of the brain which allows for what Jungian psychology calls a “transpersonal” experience of the archetypes in the collective unconscious.  These figures populate all religions and include such themes as The Mother of all life, and the Dying and Reborn God who feeds us with His own flesh.  Whether or not these “archetypes” exist in a literal sense outside of human consciousness is irrelevant to our enjoyment of the ritual.

I like to use the example of the Nutcracker ballet.  Watching this ballet – in person, if possible! – is a time-honored ritual of the winter holiday season.  We become absorbed in the music, the magic, the drama, the incredible athletic and artistic talent of the dancers.  Especially those of us who have danced feel as if we, too, could put on pointe shoes, to join the dancers leaping and spinning across the stage, or even take flight!  We delight in the costumes and characters as we watch the familiar plot unfold, although we already know quite well what is going to happen.  I have never heard anybody complain of the ballet, “This is completely unrealistic!  Toy soldiers do not come to life to battle rats in your kitchen in the middle of the night!”  Everybody understands, except perhaps very small children, that it is not supposed to be real.  

The other issue which provokes non-argument on my part is “biblical morality.”  Critics correctly point out that the Bible contains some really horrible morality, especially regarding the treatment of women and children, e.g., God advised the Israelites on several occasions to slay every last one of their enemies including little babies, except to keep the virgin girls as booty; you can sell your daughter as a slave; and a girl who is raped in the city should be put to death for adultery, as she didn’t scream loudly enough, whereas one who is raped in the country should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to remain alive – and married to the rapist.  The New Testament is also full of misogyny on the part of Jesus’ disciples, although he himself was shockingly feminist in that he publicly spoke to women and treated them like human beings where women had the same social status as cattle or broodmares.  On more than one occasion I’ve been challenged, “How can you support a doctrine which oppresses women?!”  I don't.

We can enjoy the Nutcracker without basing the laws of our society on the ballet, legislating that women ought to starve themselves and dress in tutus, or that men should don soldier uniforms and devote their lives to battling rats.  Likewise, it is neither necessary nor desirable to adopt a 2000+ year-old Middle Eastern “moral code” in order to celebrate our Christian ritual, and it is not appropriate to impose the barbaric customs of that time and place on our modern society.  When I mentioned in a Facebook discussion the other day that contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are misogynistic, somebody looking for an argument challenged me, “What about, ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’  Don’t Episcopalians follow the Bible?!”  Thank God, we do not.  That is why we have female priests, and why our church has been on the forefront of promoting women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. 

Like liberal and/or progressive Christians of various denominations including Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist, we’ve read the book thoroughly, critically, and gleaned the wheat from the chaff.  The message that we choose to take away is:  God is Love, and we are to love our neighbor, which entails promoting human rights, social justice and taking care of the poor among us, not using the ancient book to deny science, bludgeon women into submission or prevent gays from marrying.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The View from Here

In the course of my work as a spiritual adviser and yoga teacher, I get asked a lot of questions.  One is, "What is the benefit of doing yoga?"  Naturally I am excited to start talking about Divine union, and realizing your spiritual ideals in a tangible way, but given the popular notion of what constitutes "yoga," most often the response is, "umkay... but will it help me lose weight??"  There are, however, rare individuals, especially on the Advanced Yoga forum, who want to know, "If I practice yoga, will it lead to enlightenment?"

Occasionally people ask the amusing question, "Are you enlightened?" or, conversely, they will assert, "You are not enlightened!" [never said I was].  LOL!  It is "amusing" because obviously the question cannot be answered by "me," since one of the features of "enlightenment" is the understanding that this little self, the ego, is a mere mental construct, a sort of lens or filter through which Consciousness at large experiences life.  The statement "I am enlightened" makes no sense, because who is speaking?!  Sometimes, though, they will persist and demand to know, according to certain precise technical definitions, which state/s of samadhi, if any, I enjoy.

I don't particularly care about these nit-picky definitions, but some people are really into them.  I was having a discussion with one such friend about whether or not thought still happens after nirvikalpa samadhi.  My friend said no, of course not!  but I had to wonder, how would the person then function in the world?  Surely the brain must still operate in some manner, with or without ego awareness.

I did some research online and encountered the writings of an advaitan enlightened master who, when interviewed, declared, "there is no sensory input whatsoever, no thinking of any kind, the mind and senses are completely dead!"  Um, if so, then how are you hearing what the interviewer is saying and how are you responding to the question?  One of his students, likewise said to be a totally enlightened master having attained nirvikalpa samadhi, wrote a very beautiful and quite lengthy poem which discussed and analyzed in some detail how "my master destroyed my ego with a glance of his loving wisdom," "I was previously in darkness but now in the light," "my master did this, I responded thusly, this happened, that happened, and now I don't exist at all and my mind is completely dead!"  - went on for pages about how his mind was completely dead and nonexistent.  Apparently the poem basically wrote itself?!

The best one, though, was another enlightened master who, when someone asked about his cigarette smoking habit, replied, "I am not smoking. You only think I am smoking because of your belief in the illusion of separate persons inhabiting these bodies. I do not exist, therefore how can I be smoking? It is illusion on your part." So, I'm not going to discuss or dispute the various definitions of samadhi, other than to say that the idea can be taken to silly extremes and, as with "enlightenment," there may be an inherent linguistic problem in discussing it.

With regard to "enlightenment," my teacher Mark Whitwell, echoing U.G. Krishnamurti, says that the search itself is the problem.  We are fine just as we are.  There is nothing to be achieved.  Mark has said, "It is intimacy we need, not enlightenment."  Yoga is not a means for reaching some far-off goal, to become something that we are not.  Rather, yoga is simply relaxing into what he calls our "Natural State."  And what would that be like?

I don't know exactly what it will be like for you.  Everybody is unique.  There are several different schools of yoga which appeal to various personality types.  E.g., there are those who favor jnana yoga, which I explored for a while in my youth, until I became bored with the mind chasing itself like a dog chasing his own tail; you know he's never going to catch it.  Knowledge can be very freeing, but there's a big difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it experientially.  But if it works for you, great!  Or maybe you are a karma yogi working tirelessly to make the world a better place, offering up all the fruits of your labors, knowing that God is the only Doer; you find your nirvana in digging wells and building houses for the poor.  Good for you.

All I can really tell you is, how things look from here, from my perspective as a bhakti-tantrika practicing Heart of Yoga technique.  It has given me (among other things) exactly what I had wanted all those years:  Divine intimacy!  The God Whom I had previously experienced only during meditation burst forth into my waking existence as an immediate, palpable and continual Presence.  Oh, there were other perks, too, like the deep, vast inner silence; the quieting of the monkey-mind; the blessed relief of no longer carrying the heavy burden of the self, having been lifted from my shoulders; the end of fear and worry; feeling for the first time in my life, truly comfortable in my own skin.  But most of all, the incredible, infinite Bliss and Love of God, right here, closer than my own heartbeat.

Now I'm not going to get into an argument about the Personal versus the Impersonal Divine which, depending on whom you ask, one is superior to the other.  God delights in manifesting to His or Her devotees in Personal form, as we are persons.  At the same time, God is beyond personal and impersonal.  And while we're at it, God is the only Reality, but everything is a manifestation of the Divine!  God wanted to manifest as us, these personalities, in these bodies, in this natural world, and as tantrikas we celebrate it.  The creation was not a mistake.  The body is not a prison from which we need to escape in order to "get closer to God" if that were even possible which, as Mark points out, it is not, because God is not absent.  Rather, as long as we remain in this body, it is a vehicle for Sacrament.  And our spouse, if we are fortunate enough to be blessed with one, is literally God's Love for us in the flesh.

This is a perfect arrangement for a bhakti-tantrika because all aspects of life become an offering: the kiss of the sun, the caress of the breeze, the smell of the warm earth, flowers and grass, the taste of food and wine, physical and mental labor, surfing, dance, asana and sex.  All love songs on the radio are for Him.  Every experience, each breath an offering to the Beloved!  There is an increasing translucency to the self, which only exists to experience God and to please Him.  As much or as little of the self may be preserved so that it can be given to God in the oneness of lovers, or a drop dissolving into the ocean.

It is a state of being more utterly, completely in Love than one would think possible.  As Mark says in his book The Promise, "Your relationship with Source Reality is extremely private, deeply personal, and utterly passionate. I want you to be besotted with Source Reality, to love your life as passionately as you would a secret lover. And I’m promising you that you can."

With a consistent daily yoga practice, burdens are released, the heart is opened and Love begins to flow as we relax into our Natural State.  Eventually that Love pours through every cell in the body.  And there are absolutely no restrictions on how far you can take this relationship, no limitations on how deep you can go with Divine intimacy.  If anybody tells you otherwise, they are either lying or misinformed.  It just keeps getting better.  Yogani at AYP has said of this state, "like falling into an endless abyss of ecstasy."  At least, that has been my experience.



Rock & Roll Yoga Mass

As discussed in my previous posts, I had happily reached an agreement with ASCAP that I could contact the artists (or their representatives) directly for permission to use the dozen classic rock songs on my Rockin' Yoga playlist for my classes here at Lothlorien House.  However, I was quite surprised at the overall negative response that I received!  While the George Harrison and Alanis Morissette representatives kindly gave their permission, everybody else, including the Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd folks, told me I had to pay the ASCAP license even after I explained to them that I could not afford it.

I was going to just give up, but then while doing yoga the other day I was reminded of a legal loophole: Churches do not need a license to play any music - including "secular" songs - during worship service! And we can do that, because I am a minister, Lothlorien House is technically a church (a branch of a religious order, The Community of Francis and Clare), and the type of yoga that we teach (Heart of Yoga) is, in fact, "whole-body prayer."

What do we mean by, "whole-body prayer"?  Most commonly, people conceive of prayer as talk:  to tell God all kinds of things that He/She already knows, like what we think ought to be done for various people in our lives, or complain, apologize, give thanks, praise, etc., or even chant the Names.  But, there’s more.  What if you could pray with your whole body?  What if your movement and breath was a devotional offering, as well as a direct participation in the actual presence of God?  That’s exactly what it is. Our breath is from the Spirit who breathes life into us, and our body is the temple of that Spirit.  With a regular consistent yoga practice, this becomes no longer an abstraction or a belief, but a real experience.  And then after doing our asana with pranayama technique, which is a form of moving meditation, we can go into seated meditation or “contemplative prayer” – where there is no need to talk or do anything, just Be in that wonderful loving Presence, resting in our oneness with Life.

So, if anybody here in Panama City is interested, we will be happy to host a rockin' yoga worship service on a Saturday or Sunday evening.  It will be something along the lines of the "Rave Mass" that got Father Matthew Fox in trouble, except instead of dance, we will do asana.  The service will consist of gentle asana, pranayama and meditation while listening to Zep "Stairway to Heaven," Hendrix "Power of Soul," and other great spiritually-themed classic rock songs.  I promise to keep the sermon, if any, very brief.  We will offer Communion (bread and wine) for those who are interested, before winding down with some Floyd "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and Beatles "Across the Universe" for meditation.  I look forward to hearing from anybody who would like to join us for this event.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Fascists Have Taken Over Rock & Roll

In previous posts I have described my legal battle with ASCAP, namely they approached me last winter demanding that I purchase a license from them in the amount of $99 per year in order to be able to legally play music (that I already paid for) in my home yoga studio, which I am running at a loss to myself, netted $0 last year, and only have 2 students at the present time.  It would also be necessary for me to buy a license from the other agencies, BMI and SESAC, as some of the songs are under their jurisdiction.

Happily, after some discussion, the ASCAP representative agreed that I could just ask the individual artists for their permission to use the dozen songs on my proposed playlist for yoga.  I was quite confident that this approach was the way to go, as I was acquainted with several of the artists, and in my work with some of their fan clubs have always found them to be very understanding and interested in such projects.

In fact, back in the 1980s I had discussed with Jon Anderson of "Yes" my dream of having a yoga/meditation center where I would play music including theirs in the classes, and he was all in favor of it and encouraged me, "I believe it will happen!"  I figured all I would need to do was to contact him and the others, (or the representatives of the late musicians such as Jimi Hendrix), explain my situation and obtain their permission.  As they have always been very kind and generous in responding to any reasonable fan requests, I did not anticipate any problem.

The thing that I did not understand, and which frankly I am still trying to wrap my head around, is this:  The artists don't actually control the rights to their own songs!  Somewhere along the line, they sold those rights to the publisher and/or the record company.  I learned this in the process of researching how and where to apply for permission.  I also discovered that most of the smaller independent labels and publishers have been gobbled up in recent years by a handful of big corporations such as Warner, Universal and EMI.

What this means, my friends, is that the corporations now own rock & roll and dictate by law who may listen to it, under what circumstances and at what cost, and the government backs them up with the power of police and courts.  If you do not comply, you will be shut down, as has happened to a couple of businesses here locally who failed to pay the license fees.  And the artists have no say in the matter.

So if, for example, I was to contact Sharon Osbourne, who has always been extremely gracious and several years ago during the RIAA crackdown had announced on her t.v. show, "Hey kids, you go ahead and download as many of Ozzy's songs as you want!!", it would not do me any good.  Even if Sharon were to tell me, in writing, "Yes, dear, of course you may play Ozzy's 'Back on Earth' in your yoga studio!", that would not in fact give me legal permission to do so and I would still be liable for licensing violations, because the Osbournes do not own the rights to Ozzy's song - Universal does.

Likewise, I could approach Jon Anderson and say, "Hey Jon, remember our conversation back in the 1980s about using Yes songs for yoga and meditation?  Well, I finally have my own studio, as you predicted I would, and now I need permission to use those songs."  Whether or not Jon remembered the conversation, I'm sure he would support the idea with his usual enthusiasm for all things spiritual.  However, even if he were to say, "Yeah, you should go for it, definitely!" and give me his written blessing, it would have no legal consequence.

Nonetheless, I sent letters to the respective publishers, still feeling quite optimistic that they would grant me permission for the very limited and more than likely non-profitable use of the few songs, for a couple of students, in the modest yoga studio in my own home.

I was very encouraged when Wixen immediately gave me permission to use George Harrison's beautiful and uplifting song, "This Is Love."  However, the Warner representative told me to purchase the ASCAP license if I wanted to use the Yes song "Love Will Find a Way."  When I explained that I could not afford it, the history of my relationship with Yes, the circumstances under which the music would be played, etc., he replied essentially, "Oh well, too bad."

Then yesterday I heard back from Experience Hendrix LLC, which being a small independent publisher would hopefully be more sympathetic, but no; they likewise said I had to buy the ASCAP license to play "Power of Soul [Power to Love]" and they did not care about my circumstances.  That's when I really lost it and broke down sobbing, not just because they said "no," but because of the principle involved.  I simply cannot imagine that our beloved free spirit Jimi Hendrix would tell me, "No, I'm sorry, if you're too poor to pay the license fee, then you can't play my song."

A teenager in the 1970s, I grew up on rock & roll.  In particular, the special songs I had chosen for the play list, like "Power of Soul" and "Stairway to Heaven" constituted the soundtrack of my life!  For our generation, rock music was more than just "tunes."  It represented freedom, equality, rebellion against The Establishment, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.  The songs gave us inspiration, courage and solidarity.  But The Establishment has won.  The big corporations have co-opted rock & roll and even most of the smaller publishers have followed their lead.  It's all about $$ now.

Most of the other songs on my list are published by Universal, Warner and EMI, who have not yet responded to my inquiry, and at this point I am not at all optimistic.

Several friends have suggested that I could invite independent artists to play music for my studio and indeed, I know of some very talented people who could do so, but that is not the point.  I am not looking for "background music" and yoga does not require music.  This was just a special playlist that I wanted to do in this particular manner.  I don't want new songs.  I picked the specific songs that I did for a reason, both lyrically and musically, and for the history and meaning that they have for me personally and for many of my students.

Meanwhile, if I want "music for yoga" per se, we already have that!  My teacher Mark Whitwell's wonderful album "The Pure Love Project" was designed for yoga and he has given his students permission to play it for our classes.  Or, so I was told, and I do note that it says "copyright 2013 Mark Whitwell."  On the other hand, it is distributed by RED, which is a division of Sony Music.  Therefore I question whether in fact Mark is in the same boat as all the other artists, in that Sony actually owns the rights and therefore it would be illegal for us to play this CD without a license as well?

I could, of course, just go ahead and pay for the licenses using a credit card and deduct it as a business expense on my taxes.  Given that I am at least $40,000 in debt already, a few hundred $$ is just a drop in the bucket, right?  Yeah, I know it's bad to use credit cards, but I will certainly rack up more debt than that this year for necessary expenditures like maintenance on my vehicle, food for my animals, or any number of other things that I don't make enough $$ to pay for.  It's the American way.  The banks own us.  But the yoga playlist is not a necessity, it is a luxury I can't afford, and an investment that makes no sense given the very limited/negative income from my tiny home studio, which will probably close soon.  I can still use the special playlist myself - so long as nobody else is listening.







Saturday, May 31, 2014

Update on Rockin' Yoga

I am very happy to announce that I have reached an agreement with ASCAP (see previous post)!  Because there are only about a dozen songs that I would want to use for my yoga playlist, the ASCAP representative agreed that it would make sense for me to just contact those artists directly to get their permission to use the songs.  If I get their permission directly, I would not need the ASCAP license.  I am currently in the process of contacting the artists (or their representatives), and as soon as I have obtained permission to use all of the songs, here is the playlist that we will be using for Rockin' Yoga at Body Soul Bliss:

Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
Power of Soul - Jimi Hendrix
It's Love - King's X
Baba - Alanis Morissette
If I Die Tomorrow - Motley Crue
Nothing Else Matters - Metallica
Back on Earth - Ozzy Osbourne
Carry On Wayward Son - Kansas
Love Will Find A Way - Yes
This is Love - George Harrison
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun - Pink Floyd
Across the Universe - The Beatles

In addition, we already have permission to use our teacher Mark Whitwell's fabulous (albeit non-rocking) "Pure Love Project" CD.

So, hopefully soon we will be playing music at Body Soul Bliss!  Stay tuned.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Music is for The Rich Only

My previous post, Rockin' Yoga, was written in October of 2011, when I taught at City Arts Coop.  At that time I had a handful of students who participated in the class.  It was a beautiful venue, a lot of fun, and I love the people and the ambiance at City Arts!  But, because there just weren't enough steady students, I could not afford that studio, and returned to teaching in my own home, an aging double-wide, where I could only accommodate three students max in the converted living room.

In January 2013 I had two remaining students, one of whom occasionally enjoyed doing Rockin' Yoga. By March, defective plumbing had attracted an impressive rat infestation, resulting in a fire and a burst pipe which thankfully put out the fire but gave rise to Black Mold, rendering the double-wide partially uninhabitable and wholly unsuitable for teaching yoga.  Meanwhile, I became very ill from the Black Mold and therefore was unable to teach, even after moving into Lothlorien House with the lovely new studio.  I could barely keep up with my other jobs.

In November I received a package from ASCAP addressed to "Artistic Director, Body Soul Bliss LLC" inviting me to purchase a copyright license for music.  I had no idea what it was or why I would want it; I have not written or performed music in public for many years, with the exception of karaoke. So, like most of the numerous promotional materials for various goods and services which continually arrive in my mailbox, this one went into the trash.  Shortly thereafter I received a followup letter stating,

Dear Artistic Director:

I recently sent you a package explaining copyright licensing for the music in your establishment.  Included in that package was the ASCAP license agreement and invoice for fees...  the ASCAP license gives you legal permission to perform any of the over eight million titles in our repertory...  If you have not done so already, please sign the license agreement recently sent to you, and send it to us, along with fees specified on the invoice...

Sincerely,
Traci Lawrence

"Legal permission"??  I replied by email, "We are not interested, but thanks anyway," because I suspected the letter was some kind of scam (which perhaps, indeed, it is) and more pertinently, because Body Soul Bliss was for all practical purposes out of business.

When I began teaching again this month, May 2014, I went to the ASCAP website to find out whether or not I really needed said license, and if so, why, and what it would cost.  According to the website, yes, all businesses including yoga and dance studios need a license to play music.  This is the conversation that ensued.  On May 5, I wrote:

Dear Traci, 

I was going to shut down Body Soul Bliss last year due to lack of business, but have decided to stay open for the occasional private yoga lessons even though there's no $$ in it.   I would love to be able to offer those few occasional students the option of listening to music that I already have in my collection, those songs which I have paid for several times over the years, first on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, not to mention numerous expensive concert tickets, VHS, CD, DVD, and most recently, i-Tunes.  A good portion of my lifetime income has gone to music in one form or another!  But the fact is, I am currently living below poverty level.  My yoga studio nets negative.  I went to your website to get some idea how much a license would cost and could not find any information about it.  Can you give me at least a vague idea of how much a license would cost for somebody in my situation?  Thank you.

On Tuesday, May 6, she replied: 

Good Morning Jamie, 

Thank you for the email! I am happy to answer any questions you have, if I don't cover everything, please let me know. First off I will start with the cost, the smallest category we have is 75 clients or less which would put your 2014 license at $99.27. To touch on a couple other points that you made, unless your studio is totally quiet, you would still need a license. All CD's , DVD's , iTunes , etc is all copy written material, meaning that once you purchase it you can play the music all the time for your personal use but once its used in a business per Federal Copyright Law, you need authorization and that authorization comes in the form of the license we offer. I hope this makes sense. Please don't hesitate to call me if it's easier for you to answer any further questions.  Hope you have a great day!  Regards,

To which, I replied later that evening:

Dear Traci, 

Thanks for your quick reply.  My total gross receipts for teaching yoga in 2013 = $120, of which $20 involved music.  So far this year my gross receipts for teaching yoga = $40, without music.  I teach yoga because it is my vocation, but I cannot make a living doing so.  My primary income is from psychic readings, which do NOT involve music. I teach yoga on the side, private lessons for a few rare students, in my own home, where I have sacrificed my living room in order to have a studio. I would teach for free if I could afford to do so, but since I have to take time off my other job/s to teach, I must charge for my time.

Traci, I am a huge supporter of music, I have many musician friends, and I have worked for their fan clubs and over the years done many promotions for them as a volunteer. I totally "get" that artists should be compensated for their work and that people who make a profit off of the music, should pay the artists a fair percentage of the profit.

But, under the circumstances, do you really think it is fair and/or appropriate for me to pay $99 per year to play music in my class when last year I only grossed $20 (before expenses!) on classes with music? Is it really fair that I should pay the same fee as someone who has 75 clients and, unlike myself, is actually making a profit?? Or, can only rich, successful businesses legally play music?

I'm very sorry, but that is just insane! I would be happy to pay a reasonable percentage, even say 10% per class w/music, so if I made $20 I would give you $2. I am sure that is a much higher percentage than a business with 75 clients would be paying. I look forward to hearing from you and hope we can find a reasonable and mutually agreeable solution here.

Today, May 7, I received this response:

Jamie, 

I cancelled your account based on our original conversation that you were not playing music, so currently you do not have an account with us. I understand that you may not have 75 students but I am not at liberty to change your license fee based on the Federal Copyright Law as well as ASCAP being obligated to work under Federal Consent -decree which means we can't make adjustments for specific businesses, We have the different class sizes by which we have to follow:

Under 75
Under 150
Under 300
Over 301

As I mentioned before if you do not play any music you are fine, if you play one song or play music 24 hours a day in your business, then you need a license. The license is not governed by the income you make, is based on how many student/clients you have and again, 75 is the smallest category.

Hope this helps.

To which I replied:

Dear Traci,

So you really ARE saying that:

1.  I should pay a license fee equal to 500%, i.e. $99 for a single one-hour class with $20 gross receipts, or 82.5% of total gross receipts for all classes including those NOT involving music (based on 2013).
2.  A person teaching 2 yoga students out of their own home should pay the same license fee as a successful studio with 75 students. 
3.  If I'm too poor to pay the license fee and/or the fee is totally out of proportion to my income, then I can't play music for those 2 students. 
4.  You are rejecting my generous offer to pay 10% (!) of gross proceeds per class involving music.

Wow. What a racket.  I wonder how much of the money you collect actually goes to the musicians.

I have meanwhile been informed that I can legally play Pandora or the radio, but I'm not interested in those.  I have a very limited list of songs by a few specific artists that I would want to use.  Maybe I will just contact those artists directly to get their permission.  My teacher has given us permission to use his CD in the past, and I have a feeling Sharon Osbourne may likewise be sympathetic.

Thank you very much.

- Jamie Brown

cc:  Better Business Bureau, Nashville
       Sharon Osbourne

***********

So, there you have it.  As Ms. Lawrence stated, the law is quite clear:  You must pay for a license even if you only have one student and only play ONE song, even if the cost of the license is five times the gross income from that one class and even if your business is, in fact, not making a profit.  And you must purchase the same license as a successful studio having 75 students.  No negotiations or compromises will be made, period.  If you are too poor to afford the license, then you simply can't play music.  After all, music is only for the rich - right?!  

Musicians would, no doubt, find this quite ironic, since many of them started out poor.  They know what it is like to survive on Ramen noodles in order to pay your electric bill so that you can power an amp that goes to 11.  They understand the looming threat of homelessness when you don't make enough money from your gigs to keep a roof over your head.  I don't believe that most of them wrote their music only for the enjoyment of rich people.

Upon doing some research, I did learn that there is a loophole in the law, namely, churches are not required to have a license to play music during worship services!  Lothlorien House is a church and I am a minister.  Yoga is literally whole-body prayer.  Therefore, all I would have to do is offer yoga sessions for free and call it "worship," which technically it is, and we could play whatever music we want.  That would be the ideal solution, if only I could afford to take time off my other jobs to teach for free.

Meanwhile, Mark Whitwell has already given us permission to play his absolutely beautiful, albeit non-rocking, "Pure Love Project" music during our classes.  I am still waiting to hear from Mrs. Osbourne.  Rock on, friends!  But only if you can afford to pay the required license fee.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spanking the Monkey-Mind: Autoeroticism and Religious Guilt Tripping

[Disclaimer:  This post contains adult subject matter, so if you are under 18 please do not read it without your parents' permission.]

To my surprise and delight, I have somehow become the "Dear Abby of Tantric Sex."  People from all over the world, including a large fan following in India (a country I have always loved, the birthplace of yoga!) contact me with their questions about yoga, spirituality and especially, sex.  I am honored and humbled that these strangers trust me with their most intimate personal concerns, and I take all such questions seriously.  Being a bhakti-tantrika, I regard sex as sacred and to be treated with reverence, but at the same time, it's ok to laugh, and my regular readers are already well aware of my tendency to sarcastic humor.  To my new readers, I apologize in advance.

This blog post is in response to questions that continually come up about masturbation.  I have had so many inquiries on the topic that I decided to go ahead and write this, rather than having to constantly repeat myself.  Many young men have shared with me their concerns about this matter.  In addition, based on the messages, others have taken liberties with my Facebook photos.  I choose to regard it as a compliment and sincerely thank God that my photos can still be so "inspiring," given my advanced age and increasing decrepitude.  At the same time, however, it also demonstrates how very desperate they are, to be using photos of a 51-year-old, especially since my "raciest" ones involve a bikini or relatively conservative Vulcan underwear.  Apparently young men in those countries do not have access to any decent porn, such as Playboy, and must settle for seeing an aging yogini on FB, much as in the olden days when boys in the U.S. had only the Sears catalog underwear ads.

Their desperation also, of course, speaks of the societal dysfunction which has led to these questions, with or without the associated behavior related to my photos.  There is a great deal of loneliness and frustration in the world, compounded by repressive socio-cultural traditions which give a person no way out of their dilemma.  Many young men have difficulty finding a suitable partner, especially in societies where women are expected to wait until marriage and "good girls" don't have premarital sex for fear of damaging their reputation.  Meanwhile people are waiting longer to get married, until they have finished their education and are established in their career.  This is actually a good thing in terms of economics, because marrying and having babies before completing education is a significant cause of poverty among women and children worldwide.  However, the situation leaves young people with no sexual recourse at a time in their life when hormones are raging.

Fortunately here in the West we had a "sexual revolution" in the 1960s and 70s, thanks in part to Hugh Hefner's promotion of the Playboy philosophy, "Nice girls like sex too -- it's a natural part of life. Don't be ashamed of it," hence the wholesome "girl next door" look of his models.  Now, one could argue that the Bunny costume was silly and/or degrading, but be that as it may, Hef's philosophy was a breath of fresh air in our formerly stuffy, repressed society.  As a result, my American and European friends struggle less with their sexuality, and I don't get as many of these questions from them.  The women ask me about sex and relationships, but not about masturbation per se, either because they aren't doing it, or they are doing it and it's working out fine and not a problem.  It seems to be more of an urgent, pressing concern for men, which perhaps is understandable; certainly if I had one of those remarkable organs I would want to play with it, too!

My younger brothers in India and the Middle East write to me in great distress with their concerns about masturbation.  One sincere young man, a member of a fundamentalist Christian church, contacted me quite worried about the impending Rapture/Tribulation, which is the doctrine that Jesus will come back and whisk His followers away to heaven before the world basically goes through 7 years of hell under the Antichrist.  I assured him not to worry, because according to that doctrine, if one believes such things, Christians will be taken away before the bad stuff happens.  This nice young man then confessed to me that he feared Jesus would leave him behind because he had masturbated!  And he is not alone.  Many other young men have likewise told me they actually believe that God will send them to hell, or perhaps a bad reincarnation, for this grievous sin.  And BTW, contrary to popular belief, Christianity has no monopoly on sexual repression!  It is common to the fundamentalist branches of all religious traditions including Hinduism and Islam.

Now of course, my atheist friends will say, "Well, that's what happens when you believe this kind of bullsh*t in the first place!  Get rid of religion and everybody will be fine."  Indeed, many people have lost their faith specifically because of the sexual repression enforced by fundie religions.  My worried young friends will be relieved to know that according to modern science, masturbation is perfectly normal and healthy, perhaps several times a day for most young men, the frequency decreasing with age, depending on opportunity and circumstances.

But, it is not necessary to throw out the Babe with the bathwater, and as a minister of reconciliation, I am here to help religious people embrace their sexuality as the sacred gift that it is and be thankful, rather than fearful of damnation.  In all of our religious mythologies, God made matter, including our body and sexuality, and called it Good.  Moreover, in Christianity and Hinduism, God saw fit to incarnate as a man in a human body at least once, or perhaps many times.  Somewhere along the line, the insidious gnostic dualism "Spirit is good, matter is bad" contaminated our religions, leading to the doctrine that sex and physical pleasure is a sin.  And the specific Christian prohibition of masturbation is actually based on a misinterpretation of scripture.

Now, what parent among you would give your child the most wonderful, excellent toy and then forbid him or her to play with it, or even to touch it?!  God would have to be either stupid or cruel to have created us with this powerful, pleasurable sex drive and then forbid us to enjoy it, even privately with our own bodies!  As an Episcopalian, I believe that God is neither stupid nor cruel.  But, as a yogini it's really not a question of "belief" at all; I speak rather from experience.  God is way more Fun than He/She is given credit for, more Fun, in fact, than literally anything.  You can trust me on this, but you don't have to take my word for it.  Other yogis like Steve Ross, Yogani and Ramakrishna have said so, too.  That is why, when your yoga practice reaches a certain point, you don't have all these concerns anymore, and how I was able to be happily celibate for 14 years until I met my husband 9 years ago.

The yogic philosophy is that sexual energy is also spiritual energy, and sex serves two basic functions:  The biological purpose of sex is procreation and stress relief, while the spiritual purpose is Love and Ecstasy.  For many people, orgasm is the closest they will ever come (pun intended!) to meditation.  In tantric yoga we have techniques to send that energy up the spine and prolong the orgasmic state for hours, or indefinitely.  Needless to say, this is incredibly satisfying.  However, unfortunately, the same fundie religions which forbid premarital sex and masturbation nearly always forbid yoga as well, and I would not recommend celibacy to anyone who does not have a serious yoga practice.

Here's the thing:  At the base of the spine is incredible sexual/ spiritual energy coiled up waiting to be expressed, the powerful creative energy of Life itself.  If you try to repress it, it's eventually going to come out one way or another, and maybe not in a polite manner.  If you are a yogi, you can channel that energy and offer it up in ecstatic prayer.  I can teach you how to do that, but it requires a lot of discipline and practice.  Otherwise, you are left with very few options according to the fundie religious dogma with which you have been brainwashed.  You can attempt to be celibate using "sublimation," which is where you try like hell not to think about sex, while basically exhausting yourself doing other things such as sports, intense physical exercise, housecleaning, digging ditches, building houses for the poor, etc.  In all likelihood you will still end up having wet dreams, which is your body's way of releasing sexual tension and some believe, is also a reason to feel guilty.  Or you can get married too young, for the wrong reasons.  Or you can just suffer and moan about it to Dear Tantric Abby.

I would recommend, my young friends, that you make peace with your body and God who created it.  Ideally, I would like to see you find a good sympathetic friend with whom you have mutual respect and trust, in order to practice safe sex (please, use birth control!) until you are ready to settle down and start a family.  If that is not possible then you will inevitably take matters into your own hands - which is perfectly normal!  Do not allow the religious dogma of repressed, bitter old men to ruin your spiritual life.  Are they wiser than the Creator?  There is no need to feel guilty about a natural biological function.  Stop beating yourself up over beating off.









Friday, May 23, 2014

My Counseling Services

In addition to teaching yoga, I also offer spiritual counseling.  Since 1992 I have worked as a professional "psychic" for several famous services including Psychic Friends Network, and currently am with a Very Famous Service Seen on TV Which Cannot Be Named for Contractual Reasons, as well as my own independent site, where I also offer spiritual direction.  What are the differences, you may ask, between these services and why would somebody choose one over the other? In particular, what does "psychic" mean and isn't it demonic?

The latter question comes up sometimes because here in the Bible Belt, which is dominated by fundamentalist churches with extremely limiting doctrines, people have been taught that "psychic" = "fortune teller" = "occult" or "demonic." It is assumed that if indeed psychics have access to hidden information, or predictions about the future, we must be obtaining that information from demons. Many, many years ago when a dear friend gave me my first Tarot deck for my 14th birthday, my own mother, who was raised somewhat fundie, was horrified and told me the cards were "from the devil." Actually, the Tarot was the original card game from which modern playing cards evolved, and today you can even get Christian Tarot cards such as "The Jesus Deck," which has Bible verses and themes from scripture.

Now, while there may be "psychics" out there somewhere who consult with demons, I don't, nor have I met any other psychics who do. It simply wouldn't make sense, because demons are notoriously unreliable and delight in telling lies to trip people up and to cause as much grief as possible. They find this extremely amusing. Even if a demon had access to real information, they could never be relied upon to deliver it accurately. So dealing with them is a waste of time, at best. I personally only interact with demons when requested in the course of my work as a minister if they are bothering someone and I am asked to expunge them.

So, if not "demonic," where then do our "psychic powers" come from?? Well first of all, that question implies that "psychic powers" and "demons" are real, which of course many modern educated people, especially atheists, would deny. They would say there are natural explanations for these phenomena, i.e., the psychic pumps the client for information and picks up on subtle verbal cues. Certainly there is some truth to that, and as a psychic, I endeavor to obtain as much information as possible from my clients in order to provide them with the most accurate and in-depth "reading." I do, however, seem to have an ability to "tune in" to people on an empathic level and help uncover information of which they were not fully conscious. If indeed this is a "psychic power" then I am sure it is a natural gift from God, which most psychics will acknowledge.

I use the Tarot as a tool in this process of uncovering information. Now, fundies will object, "God forbids divination!" This, obviously, is untrue since the Hebrew priests had their own divinatory tool, the "Urim and Thummim," which was sanctioned by God. In any event, I don't use the cards for "fortune telling" as such. Rather, with my background in Jungian psychology, I use them as sort of a complex Rorschach. The cards contain archetypal images from what Jung called, "the collective unconscious," the level on which yoga says we are all One. They "work" because the archetypes are themes common to the human experience which we all share and nearly everyone can relate to. The images on the cards provoke discussion about the client's situation and feelings.

Now, it is true that in the course of my work as a "psychic" I sometimes make predictions about the future, simply because clients expect it. That's just part of the job, and I can do it with a reasonable degree of accuracy by carefully examining all the data at my disposal, including my knowledge of human nature. If this makes me a "sorceress," then likewise meteorologists, stock brokers and investment bankers must also be "sorcerors."

The reason I am working as a "psychic" is because State licensing restrictions forbid me to practice my profession as an M.A. Psychologist in the United States. When I got my Master's degree in California I was able to legally practice as a Ministerial Counselor, but the law has since changed so that ministers may not practice counseling, at least here in Florida, and all U.S. based online counseling services require their staff to have the respective licensing in the State where they live. This is unfortunate for the public, because back when ministers could legally counsel, it was possible to obtain therapy for as little as a $20-40 donation, whereas now people can only consult State licensed therapists who charge $125 or more.

But, thanks to the internet and globalization - one of the few positive examples of globalization that I can think of! - people now have access to therapists around the world. ProvenTherapy.com is leading the way in this new trend of online therapy available internationally. Not being limited by U.S. licensing restrictions, ProvenTherapy is able to hire counselors based on their own unique qualifications and experience, and to offer their services to the clients for significantly less than the cost of therapy here in the U.S.

Now, as a client, why should you choose a "psychic" or a "therapist"? Some people call a psychic line for advice and feedback in helping them work through their difficulties because of the social stigma of "needing therapy," i.e. the implication of "mental illness," and the psychic advertisements do specifically state, "for entertainment purposes only!" Others, however, may turn to a psychic simply because they do not have insurance coverage for mental health and therefore assume that they cannot afford to see a therapist. Well thanks to ProvenTherapy.com, that is no longer the case! Nearly all of the therapists on staff charge less than $100 and many as little as $50 an hour, or $45 per week by email, which is quite affordable.

The third category, "spiritual direction," is pastoral counseling specifically aimed at answering questions of a religious or spiritual nature, which is my specialty!  As a spiritual director it is my privilege to help people explore and deepen their relationship with God, to move beyond dogma and experience divine intimacy.

So, now people have more options. If you appreciate the mythology of the Tarot and want to approach your counseling session from more of an artistic or "entertainment" perspective, you would probably enjoy calling a psychic. If, on the other hand, you are dealing with serious issues and you want direct, straightforward psychological help, and/or you are wary of the religious stigma associated with "psychics," then I would refer you to ProvenTherapy.  Although I am no longer on staff there since going full-time with the Famous Psychic Line, I can recommend several caring and professional therapists.  Finally, if you want to deepen your spiritual life and improve your relationship with God, you would call a spiritual director.  Either way, I would be happy to help! Call me. We'll talk. No big whoop.







Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our New Project

Note: This was written in November, 2012. Clean & Green by Design closed in September 2013 due to lack of business. As of the present time, May 2014, Hawk and I have yet to find a way to make a decent living. He continues with his low-paying, part-time subcontract at the beach, spending a fortune on gas for the commute. I have retired from medical transcription due to severe deterioration of my typing skills, and continue to work as a "psychic," in lieu of having the appropriate State license to practice psychology in the U.S., although I am doing so at a counseling service (online) based in India. Meanwhile, our plan to turn Lothlorien House into a nonprofit yoga studio/retreat center was derailed when the County revoked our homestead exemption and raised our property taxes by 48%, requiring us to move back into the House in order to reclaim the homestead. We have had a couple of students here, but Hawk and I have decided we do not feel totally comfortable teaching in our home, so at least for now, I will be teaching only via Skype.

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In a previous blog post back in August I had described the economic circumstances affecting our yoga studio. I refer the interested reader to that post, Body Soul Bliss May Be Closing – but in short, due to our living in an impoverished hick town known as “The Redneck Riviera” and specifically, our location 45 minutes away from the “happening” area on the beach, we have been unable to make a living teaching yoga. Hence our new project: Clean & Green by Design.

Coincidentally, as I was in the midst of working on this blog post, one of my fellow HOY teachers, Jason Brown (no relation), posted in his excellent blog On The Merits of Not-For-Profit Yoga: “There is no greater obstacle to becoming a highly skilled yoga teacher then having to work at an unrelated job to pay rent and eat.” He raises some very good points about the economics of teaching yoga. As I would put it: “There is no greater obstacle to working as a highly skilled yoga teacher, than trying to make a living.” I have had the privilege of learning from some great masters in my 36 years of yoga study and practice, and I have taught (often for free) since the early 1980s. But gainful employment using the skills acquired over that lifetime eludes me.

The going rate for yoga classes in Panama City has dropped by about half since we opened in 2009. Several new studios now offer classes for $5-7 and some for free. What I have gradually come to realize is that the only people in town who can afford to pay $10 for my classes (or $20 for private instruction), plus the cost of a couple of gallons of gas, are those who have more than one job, put in lots of overtime or work on-call, and therefore often miss their class due to work. And those who have time for yoga and the 1.5-hour commute, do not have the money. Some of my students have argued, “You are a great teacher and if people are serious about learning Real Yoga, they will make the drive!” If I were Mark Whitwell or Steve Ross, students might find the trip worthwhile. Being only myself, teaching in our humble home studio, a [full disclosure] rat-infested double-wide trailer a 45-minute drive out into the boondocks where you pass signs that say "Jesus Saves" and "Deer/Hog Slaughtering" and might imagine you can hear the theme song from "Deliverance," it is understandable that people will take advantage of the inexpensive classes offered in nice fancy buildings on the more civilized beach, where we had hoped to relocate.

When we were unable to sell the farm and/or find a good home for our beloved horses, Hawk and I decided to offer “Equine Assisted Learning,” or “Yoga with Horses,” a trendy new activity in more affluent areas. I had wanted to call it, “Equine Therapy” but learned that it is illegal to use the word “Therapy” since I am not a licensed Therapist (Psychologist) in Florida. I don’t know how people offering “Yoga Therapy” can get away with it, but I am fairly sure Florida will soon regulate the hell out of that profession as well. Unfortunately, my [very expensive] equine liability insurance specifically prohibits allowing handicapped persons near the horses, thereby ruling out my plan to work with "special needs" kids.

Still, I thought somebody would be interested, but despite extensive advertising, only one person has inquired about our program, a lady who told me that her daughter "needs horse therapy.” I explained that while we can’t call it “therapy,” there is no doubt that horses are, indeed, therapeutic! You can bury your face in a horse’s sweet-smelling mane and have a good cry, and the horse will nuzzle you with its velvety nose as if to say, “There, there, dear, everything will be ok.” I assured her that riding the horses would be good for her daughter and she was eager to make an appointment. However, when told it would cost $25, she quickly hung up and I never heard from her again, which is odd because ordinary non-therapeutic riding lessons around here cost $25 and any form of "therapy" costs upwards of $125. Now some of my hard-core PETA friends might object, “But isn’t that cruelty/ exploitation of the horses?!” No, it is not, but that is a subject for another blog post. In any case it is a moot point because we have no customers, but at least I can write off the horses’ living expenses on my taxes, a neat trick which I learned from the Romneys.

So the horses continue their life of leisure, while Hawk continues to work on his dangerous and low-paying construction contract. I have had 2 other jobs, both of which are night shift: medical transcription and Psychic. The former has been petering out for years and extremely fickle; I would go days or weeks with hardly any work, and then suddenly be flooded with hours and hours of transcription, typically on nights when the Psychic line was ringing off the hook and I had a yoga class scheduled for early the next day, and I would be typing until dawn, mostly oncology, which is extremely depressing. As for the Psychic job, it is very enjoyable but pays only about $5-10/hour, versus $100/hour I would be making if I could legally work as a Psychologist doing essentially the same thing, except in psychology we normally use Rorschach rather than Tarot cards.

So on the days when I had a yoga student scheduled, I would drag my tired ass out of bed, do my own abbreviated yoga practice (usually around 15 minutes, rather than the hour I would prefer) and frantically attempt to get my home clean enough to welcome the student, who may or may not show up, depending on their work schedule and/or any other considerations which might arise. This process takes me about an hour, plus half an hour to make myself presentable. Now some of my students have kindly said, “Oh, you don’t have to clean house on my account!” Well, yes, I do. Really. I live here in this trailer with my 2 feral cats and my feral man. His word, not mine; in fact, when we were with Mark Whitwell at Omega last year, Hawk said to him, “You and I are not like other men. We are feral.” Mark did not dispute that observation.

I won’t go into all the gory details, but e.g., the bathroom which my students use belongs to my beautiful feral [and straight] man, whose beautiful hair which reaches nearly to his waist tends to get washed down the sink no matter how often I nag him not to do that, resulting in a perpetually clogged drain. And my feral cats love to roll around in the sand outside and then come into the house and clean themselves vigorously, licking and scratching and depositing large amounts of fur, sand, pine needles, and various other debris on the floor. Naturally their favorite place to do this is in the yoga studio, where they enjoy soaking up the good vibes left behind by my students. Sometimes they also bring prey into the studio, play with it and eat it there, leaving entrails. So yes, it really is necessary for me to clean the studio before you arrive. And let’s hope you are not a vegan, because we may have had eggs for breakfast which our chickens kindly gave us and the smell of which would gag you. We do live here, after all.

As time goes on I am less comfortable with having students in my trailer home. I really feel that I need a studio separate from our living quarters. But, Krishnamacharya taught in his home – am I better than him, that I need another studio?! I don’t know what the conditions or the social expectations were in India at that time, however, he did have a wife and presumably she kept the home in order. Maybe that’s what I need – a wife! Meanwhile here I am charging $10 for a “semi-private” class (3 students or less), which people say is too much, and which becomes around $8 after taxes, for spending an hour in preparation and an hour in class time if the student shows up. I had offered semi-private classes thinking that I could do a group class for the students who could not afford private lessons; however, I discovered that it is quite difficult to reliably schedule even one student, much less get 2 or 3 of them together at the same time. As a result, the more casual students were getting private lessons for $10 while the serious students were paying $20 for that privilege, which is not fair and obviously also not sustainable.

I was mulling over this situation, sobbing while I scrubbed my bathroom. When I am depressed and my life feels out of control, I find cleaning quite therapeutic, as it visibly makes the world a better place and obtains at least a temporary victory over entropy. Earlier I shoveled a couple hundred pounds of manure and the horses had comforted me as best they could. I had found my true vocation as a yoga teacher but could not make a living. The late-night medical transcription was literally killing me and didn’t pay nearly enough to be worth the torment. The Psychic work was wonderful but didn’t pay the bills. One of my fellow yoga teachers in town makes her living as a waitress. I am too much of a klutz to be a waitress. Another teacher works at Publix, and I did consider getting a job there but learned that the only openings were at a store a 2-hour drive away. And if I were able to find any kind of a regular 8-5 job I would not be able to teach anymore, nor do my Psychic work, and no jobs around here pay enough on their own. What on earth could I do?! As my tears fell into the sink I thought of my first job at age 17, when I worked as a maid.

A maid! I can do this. It was only a summer job for a girl on her way to college, and I never dreamed it would become my career at 50; I was going to be an astronaut, a writer, a psychologist or medical transcriptionist, but God knows, I would far rather scrub toilets than transcribe one more report of a cancer patient being burned and tortured. Having just recently lost my step-mom to the ravages of chemo, I wanted nothing more to do with it. The next day I discussed it with my former yoga student Amy, whose horses also live here and who no longer has time or $ for yoga due to having 2 children and 2 horses. Amy informed me that she had been thinking of starting a cleaning service using natural nontoxic products. It turns out we are both good at painting, too, and share an interest in design. Hawk and I designed and built our beautiful house (which is currently rented) and would enjoy doing more of that. So Amy, Hawk and I have created a new company, Clean & Green by Design, which hopefully will allow us to pay our respective bills. Unlike yoga, there is apparently a big demand for house cleaning in this town.

I had said I would give the yoga studio until summer but, the mortgage needs to be paid now. Therefore, I have put a temporary hold on classes here at Body Soul Bliss in Lothlorien. My serious students can continue to come here, and if anyone else shows up I will not turn them away, but I have stopped actively advertising and only offer private lessons. When my tenant moves out the end of May, we will convert that house into our new yoga studio. We can fit 10 students in the great room, and the house also has 2 lovely guest suites. Among other things, Hawk and I plan to offer tantric retreats for couples where we will share, with due reverence, our knowledge of philosophy and technique, and then leave the students to their private “homework.” The house would be a great retreat for anyone wanting to get away for a few days of peace and quiet out here in the country, walking in the woods or communing with the horses. It is a beautiful, tranquil building and hopefully students might find it worth the long drive. If the cleaning & design business generates enough income, we might even go non-profit and teach yoga for free, not because we want to, but because it may be the only way that we will be able to get students and thereby fulfill our vocation of teaching Real Yoga.