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.


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.