Articles

Along the Stream, Doing Nothing

Of fascination and its opposite
Behind the house in New Hampshire where we lived when I was young there was a steep, overgrown hillside, and, at the bottom of the hillside, a wide parking lot. Marking the far end of the lot a stream curved and turned back on itself, eventually flowing out through a culvert that ran beneath the road. I’ve always recalled that stream with a very particular fascination, but the true nature of that fascination only settled into language a few weeks back. It’s as if the trace of that experience had been concealed somewhere in my body, and now, holding an asana in a studio in Silver Lake, something came open, releasing or “unconcealing” that trace into words. Pondering that moment, I feel my age, and recall how my grandfather Tony, toward the end of his long life, often travelled back into the years he spent as a young man “beside the River Blue” in Eastern Arizona, an idyllic time full of plump game, lively music and pretty women.

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Disgust on Traction

Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Rebel Dabble Babble –

I’m on Traction in downtown L.A. last month and I hear the sounds of domestic violence coming through the walls of a warehouse. Somebody’s yelling, getting slapped, cutlery is being broken. This is in the Arts District, where Los Angeles drops its ambivalence about being a city and develops some street culture. There’s a sign beside the door where the guttural cries seem to be coming from: The Box Gallery. Entering the building turns out to be the cultural equivalent of changing the bandage on a stranger’s hideous and possibly terminal infection, and yet, with my dying breath I would defend the artistic quality of the work that was on exhibit there.

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Toward an Experimental Politics of Nonviolence

In school I studied history because the teachers in that department were particularly good. One of my favorites was a guy named Alan Trachtenberg, who had just written an important book about the rise of the American corporation during the Gilded Age that closed out the 19th century. Robber barons, railroads and a ferocious assault on labor and the working man, according to Trachtenberg, fueled in the U.S. the collapse of space into time, jump-starting the development of the 24-7 economy that now shapes our daily lives. I loved also the Annales school of French Marxist historians centered around the work of Fernand Braudel, whose painstaking, longue duree approach to history involved turning a multitude of small facts over and over again in search of clarity. Read Full Article

Shame in the New Gilded Age

The Neo-Victorian Era and Two Thin Red Lines—

When I was five years old I watched my father split his head open with an axe. We were living in New Hampshire at the time and it was winter, the fields deep in snow. My father was splitting logs in the basement of our house. He was a physically powerful man, and while young he had worked for several years on his father’s sawmill on a mountain outside Tucson, Arizona. I sat on the wooden stairs and watched him divide the logs with a rhythmic metallic chuck, the pieces dancing away onto the cement floor. At the apex of a full-bodied downswing, the head of the axe caught on a piece of old clothesline concealed near the rafters and the sharp blade swung around and struck him hard in the back of the head and he cursed and knelt down. Paralyzed, I watched his deep red blood flow out from where his fingers clenched the wound. The blood matted his black hair, and pooled around him on the dusty cement. Unable to move or respond I sat rigid as my father staggered past me into the bright daylight, a dripping rag now pressed to the wound. Charging around to the front of the house, he left a thin trail of red in the white snow. Then, after more shouting, I heard the car engine kick into life and drive off. Shivering as the sun sank down, I sat listening to the furnace tick in the shadows. Hours later, my father returned with the wound stitched closed and found me in the same position. Read Full Article

The Aristotelian Detour

And the Excluded Middle Way

I’ve been writing lately about this experience you can have in a sitting practice of non-separation, and how fundamentally it clashes with our commonsense view of ourselves as being unique individuals who exist separate and apart, distinct from all others, clearly defined and continuous in time. Interesting to me is the boundary between these two contradictory ways of relating to experience, the separate and the non-separate. Perhaps because of my work as a theater artist, I experience this boundary very much like the border of a stage. When we practice meditation for a while, we learn to experience a strong reactive emotion without enacting it—the reactive emotion still does its thing, but it is now at a slight remove from us, exactly as if, again, it were performing on a stage. Across that imaginary line all our fears, hopes and sorrows leap into life, a vivid promenade of fantastic creatures signaling through the flames before subsiding into empty space. Read Full Article

The Bodhi Tree and the Turin Horse

The stories could not be more different, but they resonate with each other in interesting ways. The meditative adept, half-starved from the rigors of ascetic practice, sits beneath the peepal tree (henceforth known as the bodhi tree) and, after a final encounter with the spirit of evil, attains an awakened state. Touching the earth, the adept raises his eyes to the morning star (the planet Venus, actually) and the shift takes place. Many years later, in the city of Turin in Northern Italy, a philologist, his body wracked by illnesses and dysfunctions of all kinds, reads a passage in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment about a horse being whipped. Feeling an odd excitement, he closes the book and walks out onto the crowded streets. There, as if by the operation of fateful symmetries, the philologist encounters a draft horse being savagely whipped in precisely the manner described in the novel he had just put down. Weeping and crying out, he throws himself on the horse, losing his sanity. Read Full Article

Field Mapping

Complex Systems and the Six Realms of Dharma —

It was while reading the somewhat scandalous thinker Willem Reich that I first encountered the idea of emotional traumas being encoded into the flesh and blood circuits of the body. Freezing into a kind of “armor,” these encodings work to shape and delimit the ways we perceive the world, hence wielding an out-sized influence over the course our lives take. This was in the early 1990s, and I was reading Reich along with some of the Frankfurt School thinkers (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, etc.) who (broadly speaking) collide psychology and social theory to see what falls out. Behind this roller derby approach was the idea that both Freud and Marx addressed only half of the puzzle of humanity’s chronic dysfunction. Freud focused on the internal at the expense of the social; Marx the opposite. By considering them together, the thinking went, perhaps progress could be made on the crude and repetitive pathologies of warfare, social injustice and other forms of pointless violence that define us almost completely. Read Full Article | Photograph by Andy Ilachinski

Raging Waters

We spent the first Friday in September with our nine year old daughter and three of her friends at Raging Waters Amusement Park in San Dimas, California. Rushing down the steep, uterine canals of rides with names like Freefall, Speed Slide and High Extreme we slam into the unborn moment alongside a menagerie of modern American types out of a Simpson’s episode. Gangly, pimpled high school kids laugh and flirt with each other among heavily inked biker dads and tattooed Latinos with big bellies and long black braids as FM radio pumps loud out of hidden speakers everywhere. Read Full Article

The Giver of Fearlessness

The sign that we have encountered truly great art is the sense we get that the work is experiencing us rather than the other way around. I’ll give you an example. When I was in my teens the MOMA book on Marcel Duchamp showed up around the house. Mona Lisa with the little mustache was on the cover and inside you could see most of Duchamp’s work along with essays by writers like Andre Breton and Octavio Paz. Looking through the book, casually at first and then with greater absorption, I experienced for perhaps the first time the transgressive elation produced by the Great Art Encounter. It was a bit like loosing my virginity only less hectic, and that little piece of ecstasy, that release from weight, is still there for me whenever I think about Duchamp’s work. Read Full Article