Jun
05

Summer fertility

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Summertime and the living is easy. My tomato plants are flourishing alongside peppers, kale and squash, thanks to a healthy application of compost on the garden this year. Good soil makes all the difference. I’m enjoying sinking my creative roots into fertile  soil this summer, too.  The big news is that my second book is nearing completion! It’s about singing in a prison choir, and also takes a look at a number of prison issues. Incorporating personal experience, interviews with prisoners, volunteers and prison administrators, it also features correspondence from prisoners reflecting on life behind bars. This summer I hope to complete the revision process and begin looking for a publisher.

Other news is mostly musical. This week I’ll be at Village Fire, a Singing Festival near Decorah, Iowa, linked to the Community Sing movement. I look forward to being among some creative, progressive people, learning more songs, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, and enjoying the gentle landscapes of the Driftless Area. I’ll also give a short presentation on the prison choir, during the Community Presentations time.

Just before driving up to Decorah, on Wednesday, a few members of our Iowa City Community Sing group will be doing something new – leading songs at the Stead Children’s Hospital for families, patients and staff. Organized by Lois Cole, they’ll be five of us sharing the healing power of song. Should be fun.

Other doings: I’ll be at the Path of Bliss Summer Retreat outside of Kansas City at the end of June, and look forward to reconnecting with my spiritual roots and old friends. It’ll be a good opportunity to sing kiirtan with a large group, and do some deep meditation. I’ve been asked to perform at Lammasfest on July 29th; it’s a pagan festival, and though I’m not a pagan I look forward to meeting and interacting with these nature-centered folks; I’ll be performing from my CD “Into the Mystic,” a number of Prabhat Samgiit Bengali devotional songs, and probably a few Community Sing songs. I’ll be accompanied by a talented violinist, Natalie Brown. And, on August 13, I’ll be giving a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Society, as part of their “Love is a Muscle; How do you exercise yours?” series. I’ll be speaking on my experience studying to become a spiritual counselor at the One Spirit Learning Foundation.

Hope your soil is warm and fertile!

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Apr
07

Conversation with the monk dude.

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On March 28, 2016, I was interviewed by Dada Nabhaniilananda aka the Monk Dude, on his program Conversations on Love, Wisdom and Creativity. We talked about my book, about spiritual practice, about music, and other things. An unedited version can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz3AQjIacqY

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Feb
26

On a Mission from God?

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[This post was originally published in “The Myrobalan Seed.”]

“We’re on a mission from God.”

Proclaimed in righteous tones by John Belushi (or was it Dan Akroyd?) at a key moment in the American comedy film “The Blues Brothers,” this line of dialogue conveys the urgency, the conviction, the characters’ utter sense of being right in their hilarious, if destructive, quest to do good. They’re called to do important work – dammit! – and nothing is going to stand in their way, even if it leads to multi-car pileups.

It’s human to cling, sometimes, to a sense of stubborn righteousness, which is what makes the Brothers’ lampooning of it so funny. (And because they also represent a ‘stick it to the man’ anti-establishment attitude, we cheer, but that’s another story.)

A Buddhist teacher once remarked that when you meditate, there’s the danger that a sense of self-importance can grow. You may become obsessed with the grandeur of your practice, bolstered by your own growing sense of change. This problem has also been called spiritual materialism. The ego can as easily get enmeshed in spiritual work as in any other kind of work. Just because one is meditating, that doesn’t mean the problematic aspects of the ego go away.

Those who see their lives as an unfolding spiritual path may sometimes feel they are on a mission from God, or at least in tune with the Universe. And that’s not a bad thing. Not only does such a commitment mean you’re doing the crucial work of becoming yourself, learning to love, and coming closer to God. If the path is worth its salt, you’re also taking on a dedication to service and social justice. A blossoming realization of the connectedness of creation, the underlying unity of things, calls you to act, with compassion, with determination, and hopefully with common sense, to build a better world. It is important work.

But it can also be tricky work. There can be danger in commitment to a lofty goal; the danger of self-aggrandizement, of overzealousness, of “triumphalism” – the idea that your way is the only way. It’s a razor’s edge path that needs to be walked with care.

History’s pages are replete with stories of folks who were overly sure of themselves and their message, who rained down religious intolerance, paved the way for colonialism, foisted destructive notions of sin on others. Of teachers who didn’t measure up to the standards their followers expected.

Even paths that take pains to distinguish spiritual wisdom from religious dogma have their problems. Though embracing spiritual values does make a difference, any organization made up of human beings is going to have its rough edges, since people are at many different stages of development. Spiritual organizations also get caught up in controversy and turmoil, their leaders fall, members are left feeling angry and used. Disagreements lead to hurt feelings, traumatic disruptions of self, even schisms.

I don’t want to toss any babies out with any bathwater here – there are plenty of spiritually-oriented people who live good, authentic, integrated lives. But life is a constant tug-of-war between self-centered and self-giving tendencies. So I’ve been thinking about what I can do to keep things in perspective for myself, and moving in the right direction. Perhaps these suggestions will be of use to you, too.

I try not to get bent out of shape when things don’t happen exactly as I’d hoped. Some people call this nonattachment. Doing the work, but not having an egoic investment in the outcome. But it’s also important that nonattachment doesn’t manifest as non-caring or non-involvement. It’s not passivity or quietism. It’s also not an excuse to bypass one’s own emotional or psychological work. (Spiritual bypass is a term psychologists are beginning to recognize, connoting the tendency to use a commitment to spirituality as a way of avoiding dealing with one’s own personal problems). Nonattachment is a kind of letting go, a surrender, a relaxing, not a tensing, into whatever comes your way.

I try to understand that everyone has a shadow. In Jungian terms, the shadow is the material in our consciousness that we sweep under the rug, the things we’d rather not acknowledge, the unflattering or messy elements that everyone possesses, but sometimes we repress. Organizations have shadow sides, too. For example, when leaders make mistakes, and instead of acknowledging them, the organization tries to cover them up, the shadow grows. Instead of focusing only on light and love all the time, which can become, frankly, a little saccharine, we need to acknowledge and work with our shadow sides, too. By recognizing that flaws are a part of being human, we can take steps to heal, not reject, the broken parts of ourselves. That leads to wholeness.

Some spiritual groups operate through the use of hierarchies of authority. Obedience is expected. That’s fine; it helps them to run smoothly, and may also be a method of cultivating humility. But such obedience has also to be nested within a framework of wisdom and maturity. Those who commit to it have to do so with open eyes. They cannot blindly do what someone else tells them to do, but need to develop their own conscience, their own sense of discernment. Famous last words: ‘I was just following orders.’

Getting grounded on a daily basis in an ethical commitment is helpful. Not an “ends justify the means because we’re on a mission from God” morality. But an ethics based in the everyday, in the rubbing of elbows with those I meet on the street. Remaining as humble as the grass, as modest as a tree, as someone once suggested. Offering respect and opportunity to all, because we recognize a common humanity in all.

I also commit to a daily meditation practice, one that allows me to feel a sense of connection and joy. And I try not to see my daily practice as an egoic accomplishment, something that allows me to claim superiority. It’s simply a settling into a sense of love and peace. This is, after all, what drew me to a spiritual path in the first place. Sometimes it’s important to get back to basics. It’s all about the love. If a practice doesn’t increase your love, I’d say look elsewhere.

Finally, I realize that a sense of humor goes a long way. Just as the Blues Brothers skewered the human tendency to take oneself too seriously, humor can be used to put things into perspective.

There’s a curious tension at play in all of this, the tension of cultivating a healthy ego, and knowing when to let go of that ego. It calls for daily self-examination. I’m certainly not saying people shouldn’t be taking on important work. But it’s all about the way things are framed. If one engages with the work of the moment in an open, humble way, takes time to see the beauty of the little things instead of obsessing over grandiose visions, one can remain balanced and present, get good things done, and keep things in perspective.

And not have to deal with too many car crashes.

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Oct
16

Prabhat Samgiit translations

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At my readings I generally sing a few Prabhat Samgiit songs (see Music page), and people generally ask me if English translations of these Bengali songs are available, and I generally point them toward the link on the CD liner notes that links to myspace. Turns out that myspace page has long been out of date, and you can no longer post large blocks of text, like translations, on the new myspace pages. I didn’t know that, which goes to show how long it’s been since I’ve checked out myspace. Anyway, I’m posting the translations from the CD songs here on the website, under Music, and also on my Facebook page. As for the link listed in the CD liner notes, I guess this is an opportunity to personally interact with everyone I sell a CD to, let them know about the change, and cultivate a new friendship.

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Feb
24

MLK, Edgar Mitchell, and Dr. Who

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“The Curve of the World? Does that refer to the long curve of history in the universe, you know, arcing toward justice?” The question was asked of me during a recent event at the Conscious Living Center. Why, yes, I said. Yes, it does. Although MLK’s quote was not in my mind when I titled the book, I think it’s a great reference, especially since the book describes how social justice needs to go hand in hand with spiritual practice.

It’s been a busy two weeks, and March promises to be just as busy for The Curve. I read at the Institute of Noetic Sciences meeting in Bettendorf, IA, on Feb. 13. What a wonderful group of people! And interesting to note that the Institute, on a national scale, was started by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, no stranger himself to viewing the world’s curve from a different perspective. In fact, seeing the earth from space was instrumental in stirring an awakening in Mitchell, which led to his interest in noetic science. It was a good event, with some special interest in Prabhat Samgiit (Bengali devotional songs) and kiirtan (spiritual chant). A few IONS members said they might drive over to Iowa City for our monthly kiirtan on the first Monday of each month (at the Unitarian Society in IC).

In March I’ll be traveling to San Francisco to visit old friends and give a few readings. I’ll be at Open Secret Bookstore in San Rafael on March 14th, and Eastwind Books in Berkeley on March 16th. Then I’ll be traveling to Phoenix to attend the wedding of an old friend, Monica Sandschafer. A reading is lined up in Phoenix as well, on March 21st at Desert Yoga. See my events page for more info on these readings, and if you’re in the area, please come and invite your friends.

On a parting note, I’ve recently begun enjoying the latest BBC incarnation of the TV show “Dr. Who.” The doctor’s travels through time and space are a good reminder of the importance of perspective (a perspective that treats all our fellow travelers – human, plant or animal – with dignity and love), as we navigate our own journeys on this big blue marble. As the good doctor notes in the first show: “The turn of the earth. I can feel it. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a 1000 mph. The entire planet is hurtling round the sun at 67 thousand mph. We’re all falling through space.”

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Nov
23

Hunker Update

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It’s a chilly but sunny late November Saturday in Iowa, a good day to hunker and update my blog with the latest news on Curve of the World. There have been several reviews this fall, one in the latest issue of Wapsipinicon Almanac, and one in US Review of Books. There’s also something in the works, a review or interview, with a new publication called Yoga Iowa. This cool magazine made its debut at the Iowa City Yoga Festival in October, where I also had the opportunity to read from the book and sing a few songs. That was a nice-sized crowd, and very enthusiastic. Yoga teachers and students are – big surprise! – a natural audience for my book. We had a great discussion, especially about yoga in America, and the question of sticking to yogic roots versus innovation and adaptation for a Western audience. It was a busy weekend as I also took part in the Day in the City of Literature at the Iowa City Book Festival the following day.

I have two readings scheduled for December. On Dec. 5, I’ll be at the Book Cellar, in Lincoln Square, Chicago, at 7 p.m. And on Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. I’ll be presenting at The Center in Iowa City. Hope to see some of my former writing class students there. Wishing everyone warmth and vigor as we enter the season of cold, a good time to pivot inward and reflect on our spiritual natures.

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Sep
23

What’s in a name?

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At a recent reading, someone asked about the title of my book, “The Curve of the World.” Since the title is a distillation of the book in a very condensed form, designed to attract and intrigue the reader, as well, hopefully, as compel them to buy the book, I was happy to talk about the challenge of coming up with it.

On a basic level, the idea of the world’s curve refers to travel and its transformative effects. There’s that T S Eliot line about how the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. A curve carries us away from our starting place, to a point we cannot see or know from that starting place, and then brings us back again, changed. Such is the beauty of travel.

But the curve has other resonances as well. Curvature is attractive – so many things in this world owe their beauty to form, to curves. In one chapter of the book I write, “The objects of my desire appeared curved – pregnant pineapples, crescent moon bananas.” Curves can sometimes be distractions, although desire is something which is constantly changing. Certainly, human sexuality benefits from the appreciation of the curve. But, rather than solely seeing other people and objects in an objective way, spiritual practice can give us the tools to interact with the world as a sacred place, transformed.

Another resonance of the curve relates to how consciousness is described in yogic philosophy, as a curved wave pattern. One goal of meditation is to make one’s own consciousness more subtle, in effect, calming the mind until our brainwaves follow a pattern of “longer wavelength,” until, ultimately, we tap into an infinite ‘straight-line’ pattern of divine consciousness, the curve disappearing altogether. Until that point, however, the curvey creation of the world serves as a field for us to express our compassion, a place for us to serve. Such is the beauty of Tantra – the whole beautiful world is a place for us to learn from, to be distracted by, to be creative in and with, and to embrace as sacred.

What does the curve mean to you?

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Aug
01

Radio, radio

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It’s been a busy summer with some exciting experiences curving ’round The Curve. After a tour to North Carolina, and a reading in Fairfield, Iowa, I traveled to a Path of Bliss retreat in the Catskills, where I was able to give a short reading to 150 people, and sell quite a few books. Last week, I entered the quiet studios of WSUI for an hour-long interview on Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa program, speaking about the book with my old friend Dennis Reese. The show aired on July 23rd, and you can find podcasts at IPR’s website. I just learned that another radio interview is in the works, this time on Des Moines’ KFMG program The Culture Buzz.  I also had a wonderful time speaking to a Book Club in Frytown, which selected my book to read and discuss this month. The hosts were very gracious, and we had some interesting discussions around the topic of theology and direct experience of God.

Some upcoming events: Aug. 14th, 6:30 p.m. at Radiant Om Yoga Studio in Windsor Heights, IA, I’ll be reading and singing. Then, at 7 p.m. on Aug. 22nd, I’ll stroll next door from my home to the Conscious Living Center, 2711 Muscatine Ave. for another evening of devotional music and reading. Also, I’ve been invited to read at the Iowa City Yoga Festival on Oct. 12th.  Stay tuned!

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Jun
02

A river runs through it

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The month of May overflowed, like a river in seasons of too much rain, with readings. In early May I enjoyed the home-field advantage at Iowa City’s Prairie Lights Bookstore, as well as the benefit of a nice review by Jeff Charis-Carlson in the local paper. I was thrilled to read to eighty people. The audience questions were also good, such as Tim Bascom’s on writing about spiritual experience – how do you write about the ineffable? Check upcoming blog posts for my thoughts on this. A week later, I drifted into the driftless area, the beautiful valley surrounding Decorah for a reading at Dragonfly Books. I had no expectations, but there’s something about that town – a river runs through it, perhaps carrying a constant flow of vital energy. Decorah also has one of the best food co-ops around. Anyway, another good turnout – 20 people – with further good discussion, especially about the question of the reliability of memory and how memory can be jumpstarted. Ten days later I flew into Raleigh, NC, stayed with some friends, and attended a meditation retreat at a beautiful Methodist Summer Campsite beside the Cape Fear River. There I was able to give my first campfire-side reading, which was fun. From Raleigh, I rode with friend Vishvamitra to Asheville, which like Decorah and Iowa City, is known for its progressive/healing/music energy and for its rushing river, the French Broad. Had two readings here, one in the AM yoga center. As this was attended mostly by fellow AM members, the mood was devotional, and I read mostly from chapters dealing with love for the divine, and stories about our teacher. Finally, on June 1st, at Accent on Books in Asheville, a small crowd, but an enthusiastic one. The question of ‘risk-taking’ on the spiritual path was raised and discussed. I’ve enjoyed wonderful hospitality throughout my tour of NC, and return home Tuesday, tired but happy, to my home of Iowa City, where I hear the Iowa River has been doing its own surging. I hope this kind of flood is well-contained…

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May
03

Reading, Writing and the Ego

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Peter Mathiesson, the author of The Snow Leopard and many other books, and a Zen practitioner, once opined on the page – if spiritual practice is about letting go of the ego, experiencing the world fully in an unmediated way, does that mean that writing (a very filtering, mediating, often ego-centric process) take us out of that space? Can a spiritual practitioner remain authentic while engaging in the kind of manipulation of reality that is writing? Mathiesson turned to one of his Zen teachers for advice. The teacher basically told him not to get worked up about it. When you’re meditating, meditate, he said. When you’re writing, write.

I confess to a similar anxiety around giving readings. I’m up there on the stage, projecting a persona to the world, doing my best to entertain. It’s easy to get wrapped up in an egocentric state. What I’ve been trying to remember is that I can also try to enter the reading experience while cultivating a state of compassion. I can try to see those in the audience as “Thou” and not “It”, to use Martin Buber’s terms. That I’m not simply putting my ego up there and hoping for some strokes. That I can, hopefully, bring a spiritual presence to these readings. After all, this is why I wrote my book, to share ideas around spirituality (including its link to social justice), and raise awareness. I’ve got five readings coming up in the next six weeks. I hope to remember these things as I enter into them.

Coming up: May 6, Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City.        May 10, Dragonfly Books, Decorah, Iowa.    May 29, Asheville, NC, house reading.    June 1, Accent on Books, Asheville, NC.     And June 15, Revelations Bookstore, Fairfield, IA. Hope to see some of you (thou) there!

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You can get your copy of "Curve of the World" at the following outlets: Direct from the publisher, Bottom Dog Press, or at Amazon.com