Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Some thoughts on digging for the karmic roots of financial deadlocks…

In the book Faith into ActionDaisaku Ikeda cites Walt Whitman as saying he no longer seeks good-fortune, because of his realization that “I myself am good-fortune.” When I first read that a few months ago, I internalized it as a maxim about self-worth. When I read it again yesterday, with Ikeda’s elaboration that “Our lives themselves are entities of good fortune, entities of happiness, indestructible as diamonds” (Faith into Action, pg. 112), I tied it in with an interesting thought-stream created by some of my recent observations about different methods for making and maintaining financial security.

Apropos of my post last week about failure, the epicenter of failure for many people is finances. I’ve actually met some people who lived above the million-dollar mark and are now living closer to poverty, and another who now works a good-paying job he hates and feel trapped in until the debts from his failed multi-million dollar enterprise are paid off. Debts? I thought, after millions?

In addition to meeting people who were wealthy and now are not, several people have tried to persuade me to become part of some hidden aristocracy by joining a multi-level marketing organization that they just got sucked into, and were persuaded by to prey on the financial insecurities of their circle of friends, or pretend to have something legitimate to offer to job-seekers.

I’ve never been anywhere near “prosperous” by the mainstream financial definition, nor are any of my vocational passions likely to make me much surplus beyond what I actually need right now. I’ve always lived “paycheck to paycheck” and approached my finances through the filter of the reductionist budgeting mathematics I was taught. Thus, my prayers regarding my financial karma have been about increasing my self-discipline in how I manage my money, and for ways to increase my income through being paid more in the niche I’m already in (by doing more of it or getting a raise).

Thinking about my situation, and the above examples of how fragile abundant financial wealth can actually be, made me think differently about the true worth of putting all our happiness-eggs in the basket of financial security and prosperity.

A couple months ago I started a new personal campaign to finally change my financial karma, starting with re-casting how I think, pray, and take action to change it. Most of our prayers are about getting money in the first place, or having more security, consistency, and self-discipline with the money we already have; after reading Walt Whitman’s and Sensei Ikeda’s words I cited earlier, I realized that simply adding to this formula a basic understanding of the Law of Attraction still doesn’t go deep enough to really change the karma that keeps us “broke” or whatever other disparaging label we assign to our financial situations.

These mathematical formulas don’t work to help us manage our money for the same reasons diets don’t work to help us manage our weight. Overspending, and not being able to attract a consistent flow of income to begin with, serve the same purpose as overeating and other addictive behaviors do: They stem from unmet needs, which some of us have buried so deep that it can take years to really identify and meet them in ways that will allow us to release the compulsions to overspend, overeat, smoke, drink, or whatever.

Many of us haven’t saved money because the feeling of deficit is just too large to leave enough room to even think about saving anything for later, regardless of our intellectual understanding of why doing so would be in our best interests. The problem runs so deep, that this insight didn’t even occur to me until last weekend, after almost twenty years of not having any of what mainstream-thinkers think I should have to “show for” all my efforts.

There’s a holistic dimension of financial wellness, just as there’s a holistic dimension to maintaining good health and healthy behaviors. Instability in our finances and in our health-related behaviors are symptoms of the same cultural conditioning and other delusions that lead us to seek our highest selves (enlightenment) from outside ourselves, to not realize that we already have a shared access port we were born with to meet these needs, the same access port that enables us to all channel enlightenment ourselves without requiring an earthly or a divine intermediary.

The first step is attaining this new awareness. I’ll share with you how I put this awareness into practice when I find out how to do so. In the meantime, after reading this, maybe something has occurred to you that hasn’t occurred to me. If it has, and you make it work for you, I invite you to share it with me and your fellow readers. Thank you, and namaste.

Image: “Not all wealth is money” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, colored pencil

Monday, August 28, 2017

Some thoughts on unloading the emotional baggage from our "failures"

When I find myself in an unproductive funk, instead of seeing it as a period of wasted time, I try to increase my mindfulness of what is really going on in and around me. When I do this, I realize that at least some of my inertia is coming from the weight of the negative emotional baggage attached to concepts that otherwise would have a neutral presence in my life. While endeavoring to unpack this baggage is easier said than done, I find that at least trying to goes a lot farther toward helping me eventually get back on track than trying to force myself to get busy or beating myself up for being lazy would.

The most recent concept I examined is failure. To clarify, I am not referring to blameworthy failures, such as giving up, not trying, acting maliciously, taking shortcuts that erode our integrity, or losing someone’s trust through our willful carelessness. I’m talking about what we label as failure because we didn’t achieve what we wanted to: A specific job, maintaining a romantic relationship, breaking out of an addictive behavior pattern, et cetera.

In a great series on YouTube called “The School of Life,” one of the videos ties failure in with rejection: We wrap up so much emotional baggage into the idea of rejection, when all it really means is that what we want does not fit into the life plan of the person who said “no” to us. It’s not that we’re inherently unattractive, not good enough, or whatever, it’s that the person we were trying to connect with had a life plan already in mind before we came along, that didn’t include the possibility of us.

If we write these lacks of desired outcome off as failure, then even if we still analyze them for what we can learn from them, we’ve made the course-correction process that much more difficult by contaminating our experience with the negative value-judgment of “failure.” 

My most recent insights about recasting failure actually came from a training session at work about the new efficiency program our company is implementing. This efficiency program looks at the idea of failure in terms of sustainability, which I hadn’t thought of before. While the “School of Life” video about rejection provides a great alternative to feeling awful about ourselves when someone says “no” to us, this idea of sustainability is great for the situations we label as failure that don’t necessarily rely on a yes or no answer from a particular person or group.

From this perspective, when we try something and it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted—by not working at all or working for only a limited time—it wasn’t viable as a solution because it wasn’t effective to keep us from backsliding into our original way of doing things. In manufacturing, this means people reverting to less-organized and perhaps closed-minded production methods; in our personal lives this may mean relapsing in an addiction, getting fired from another customer service job because customer service just isn’t in alignment with who we are no matter how hard we try to fit ourselves to it, or being frustrated at our inability to find and sustain a romantic relationship because we haven’t yet learned how to.

A couple of videos we saw during the training give fascinating insights into how our minds work during this process of trying to change one of our personal paradigms. Rather than describe them here, I encourage you to watch the videos about the “Backwards Bike” and the “Five Monkeys” experiment (which you can see by clicking on their titles in blue text).

How we turn these seeming failures into successes, then, is to find out why they weren’t sustainable, and keep making changes until we do achieve the success we want.

A great piece of advice from Buddhist teacher Josei Toda ties in perfectly with the idea of trying to get ourselves past the inertia we may find ourselves stuck in regardless of the list of goals we have set for ourselves. Sometimes, before we can start and sustain actions toward achieving these goals, we need to chant (pray) first to break through our stagnation.

That’s what I did yesterday morning, and as a result I was finally able to produce a new blog post.

Image: “Transition Tree” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; oil pastel

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Some great commentary on relative happiness versus absolute happiness in the fairytale to end all fairytales...

I enjoyed fairytales when I was a young child. As an adult, I get so distracted by the obsolete cultural ideas coded into them that I can’t bring myself to enjoy such tales as Snow White or Cinderella anymore. If someone puts a spin on them that voids their sexist and two-dimensional cultural tropes, however, that piques my interest.

When I watched season one of the TV show Once Upon a Time, I realized that not only did it break the clichéd boxes of many of the most well-known fairytale characters, it also provided some fascinating illustrations of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment versus seeking salvation from outside yourself.

Last week I hinted at Rumplestiltskin’s role as a main factor in the tug of war between enlightenment and fundamental darkness in the fairytale character’s lives, and how they are the source of his power because they keep being tempted to do things the lazy or desperate way by relying on his dark magic for anything from getting out of poverty to having a baby.

I particularly threw Cinderella under the bus for originally being one of the laziest and most dishonest of the “good guys” while she was a princess in fairytale land. Once the curse that propelled the characters into our modern-day world started to weaken enough for the characters to be able to think, she was actually the first to try and change her life through her own intelligence and efforts, despite everyone else’s assertions that she wouldn’t amount to anything. As a poor single mother instead of a married princess, she decided to take the difficult path of keeping her baby, and going to night school so she could gain skills to create a better life for her and her child.

Jiminy Cricket, once again in human form and working as the town’s psychologist, had been at the mercy of Queen (now Mayor) Regina to brainwash her adopted son (and presumably anyone else) who believed in magic in Storybrooke; a few episodes in, he stood up to her and revealed he did have power he could use against her, if he was ever called to testify in a court battle between her and her child’s birth-mother (who happened to be the prophesied “savior” whose arrival in town is what started to weaken the curse).

These two examples show that, while this probably wasn’t his original intent, Rumplestiltskin actually did these characters a favor by removing magic from their lives so they could no longer use it as a short-cut that hindered their ability to do anything for themselves (and to be free of debt to evil people).

This is a fascinating illustration of the Buddhist concept of turning “poison into medicine,” or using what we gain and learn from overcoming our sufferings to attain enlightenment and absolute happiness—victory in life and happiness that are not dependent on exterior circumstances.

This contrasts sharply with the conditional happiness that some of the fairytale characters had in their original world—Happiness that had no foundation because it was dependent solely on maintaining the bliss of their “happy ending”—the longed-for spouse or kingdom or baby or whatever they wanted (and which Rumplestiltskin usually had a hand in procuring for them). Their world’s happiness, then, really wasn’t so much different from what often passes for happiness in our world—and thus, after they got their memories back following the breaking of the curse, it seemed they really were no worse off for being sent here.

When the curse broke in the last episode, the characters weren’t transported back to their world. The implication is then that they will retain both sets of memories—from fairytale land and modern-day Storybrooke—and thus actually have power without having magic. In contrast, Regina and Rumplestiltskin have no power without magic, so they are now at a potential disadvantage to their former victims who now no longer need magic to figure out how to solve their problems.

Now that the characters have actually experienced living instead of just existing and reacting, and can take some ownership of their life-situations, I look forward to seeing if this means they can bring with them the skill-sets they learned in this world back to their own land (if they ever go back) and make a much better world for themselves in which they have ownership of their happiness, and provide more intelligent opposition against any remaining foes.

Or, if they stay in Storybrooke, at least they can learn how to be truly happy and successful without having to rely on an evil, giggling, leather-clad gnome and his purple smoke to conjure it for them while asking for their souls in return.

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Some great commentary on enlightenment and fundamental darkness in the fairytale to end all fairytales...

For entertainment, I checked out season one of the TV show Once Upon a Time, which mashes together characters from several different fairytales, puts unexpected twists in and overlaps between their stories, and then curses them into a small town in the modern-day, leaving them stuck in tension between two worlds.

Watching this show from a Buddhist perspective, I realized it gives some fascinating symbolism for enlightenment versus the delusion (which Nichiren Buddhists call fundamental darkness) that all power to change our lives must come from outside ourselves. In this story’s world, instead of a deity, that power is in the form of evil sorcerers and sorceresses who can fake being saviors for long enough to dupe the desperate (or the simply lazy) into selling their souls in exchange for fulfillment of desires that they could have fulfilled themselves through their own problem-solving efforts, hard work, and use of their moral compasses.

On one hand, Rumplestiltskin and Queen Regina (Snow White’s stepmother) are the obvious villains—They have no moral compasses, derive satisfaction from other people’s misery, and seek to increase their own power by taking power from other people. On the other hand, all the fairytale princes, princesses, wannabe princesses, and commoners they dupe are just as blameworthy: Not only do these so-called good guys seek shortcuts out of their problems through making desperate deals with Rumplestiltskin (even while telling him to his face how dishonorable he is), they then try to cheat their ways out of their contractual obligations to him, and even imprison him so he can’t come after them in revenge for their trickery.

These “heroes” then rationalize their own virtue with the justification that they made their bargains with him for good causes—to save their kingdoms, or get out of poverty, or connect with their true loves; and it’s a bonus in the backs of their minds if they can out-trick the trickster by turning his own greed against him in some way. It’s the old “the end justifies the means,” which has always been morally problematic, and in the end, didn’t work, because almost all of their so-called “happy endings” were illusions that Rumplestiltskin created, and thus owned—just as he owned their social status or their earthly treasures or their first-born babies—and could take back at any time.

In their quest to out-smart and then try to neutralize Rumplestiltskin, the heroes missed an important point: The source of his power was them. Evil can only be as strong as we allow it to be, and they created and maintained the need for him. They even continued to make deals with him for information about magical fixes after they imprisoned him, demonstrating that they learned nothing in their supposed victory over him. 

Regardless of his reputation and other people’s warnings, one character after another had continued to fall prey to his temptations to take a supposedly easy way out, despite Rumplestiltskin’s own warnings that magic comes at a steep price, and in some cases even his reminders that they had the option of doing the work themselves instead of making a dubious deal with him. He told Cinderella, “You don’t like your life? Change it!,” and she still chose to give in to her desperation and the idea that hard work and patience were beneath her, and made a careless deal that cost her a price she wasn’t willing to pay.

Rumplestiltskin got the last laugh from his prison cell by giving to Queen Regina a curse he created, which dissolved all those “happy ending” delusions at once and plunged everyone into our world. Once they were “cursed,” with all their magical crutches and shortcuts taken away, the characters were then forced to do what they should have done all along: Use their own brains and actually work to solve their own problems. When they started to do this is when the characters actually became likable to me, and when the show started to get interesting.

I’ll continue my explorations of this fairy tale to end all fairy tales in my next post.


Image: “Clashing Magic” by Karla Joy Huber, 1992; centrifugal-force splatter-painting

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Energy medicine" isn't a "woo-woo" thing -- It's part of every religion

Contrary to what some people seem to believe, practicing our religion should feel good. Two of the most important spiritual take-aways when we feel good about our faith are connecting with our spiritual Source energy, and enhancing our healing and overall well-being.

I really felt the spiritual priority on connecting with Source and on our healing at the “Sounds of the Spirit” interfaith musical presentation last month, which was hosted by the Interfaith Leadership Council (IFLC) at the Sikh community’s Mata Tripta Ji Gurdwara Sahib in Plymouth.

At the presentation, representatives from Hindu, Sikh, Native American tradition, and SGI Nichiren Buddhism each gave a brief description of the role that sacred sound—in most cases music—plays in their religious practice, and performed a few minutes of some of their sacred sounds. (You can read about the individual presenters on the IFLC's Web site by clicking here.) 

The Hindu and Sikh musical traditions stem from India, and the performers presented some specifically devotional music as well as some classical Indian music on such instruments as the veena, dilruba, and a variety of drums.

Mary Vorves and Steve Nelson demonstrated a few of their hand-made drums, as well as Native American cedar flutes, both types of instruments being among the most sacred sounds to me personally, as someone who's had close ties with Southeastern Michigan’s Native American community. In Native tradition, the drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Drumbeats—as well as gongs, which I’ll get to later—have healing vibrations, particularly for our heart-rhythms, our bodies’ energy flow, and our brain waves, and drumming is one of the ways that Native American and other indigenous people around the world incorporate healing into their spiritual practice both publicly and privately.

One of the recent developments I am really appreciative of in the interfaith community is the gradual increase in representation and participation of spiritual traditions beyond the Abrahamic religions and Hinduism and Sikhism. Other groups have of course participated, but not nearly as often. This was the first time in a while I’ve seen Native Americans in the program, and the second time I’ve seen SGI Nichiren Buddhist participation.

The SGI Nichiren Buddhist presentation was expressed through chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, led by Carolyn Ferrari. Carolyn, whom you’ve read about here before as the founder of the Vanguard Discussion series, presented a few basic points about Nichiren Buddhism (including helping differentiate it from other forms of Buddhism), and how we incorporate sound into our practice. She also invited audience participation, so I and one other person got up on the stage with Naima Barker and another SGI member who had come to support Carolyn to chant into the microphone and lead the audience in a few minutes of daimoku (chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo). I was of course pleased to see how many people of various faiths in the audience were chanting along with us.

My biggest take-away from this event was how I felt during and after it. While the term “energy medicine” has become heavily contaminated by stereotypes about “woo-woo,” energy medicine is an essential component of religion—people just don’t realize this because they use other terms to describe the spiritual, emotional, and even physical benefits they receive from their religious practice.

The event’s finale was incredible—led by Christopher Davis, creator of Sacred Wave Gong Immersions, the last several minutes of the event were a vibrational meditation facilitated by an impressive array of four gongs. The performance isn’t intended as entertainment or as an explicitly religious practice; Davis created his performances based on the healing properties of the vibrations of the different gongs he’s used.

Incidentally, the gongs he brought today were tuned specifically to the heart chakra and the breath, so they couldn’t have been more apropos for an event focused on sacred sound and healing in religious tradition. He played the “Mercury” gong the most, which is tuned to the air / breath and to the heart chakra; a few times he even unhooked it from the rack and walked around making sure each audience member got to feel the vibration directly.

At a previous “Sounds of the Spirit” event, one participant said Davis explained he chooses to go last because his gongs absorb energy from the previous presentations, and then echo it back to the audience in a sort of energetic musical montage. This participant “heard” echoes of all the other instruments that had been performed in the preceding hour at that event as she was absorbing the gong vibrations.

For me, I felt the gongs push the healing spiritual energy that was all around us in the room into my own energy field, like a massage for my soul.

And I could tell when I looked around the room that it definitely had a similar effect on everyone around me.

Image: Detail from "Nothing Without Love" by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, gel pen

Friday, June 16, 2017

Cultural and religious spotlight: Chùa Linh Sơn Detroit Buddhist Temple in Warren, Michigan

A couple weekends ago I had a wonderful time with my dear cousin Rachel and my best friend Daniel Moen at the Chùa Linh Sơn Detroit Vietnamese Buddhist temple on 9 Mile Road in Warren. Linh Sơn is special to Dan and me because it’s where we went on our first one-on-one outing when we became friends in 2010, when “temple-hopping” was a big thing of ours. I still treasure our periodic visits there over the years because of this association, and because it’s an amazingly beautiful and peaceful place to meditate and chant daimoku.

When we first found this place, I was a spiritual free-agent seeking a form of Buddhism that suited my life. In 2015 I finally found what I was looking for in SGI Nichiren Buddhism; now when I go back to Linh Sơn, I enjoy it from the perspective of a person visiting the home of friends who practice a different version of my religion, instead of from the perspective of investigating to see if I want to practice it myself.

Dan and I knew that Linh Sơn practices a variation of Mahayana Buddhism (the large umbrella category that Nichiren Buddhism also fits under). We have only gotten minimal specifics from the people there due to the language barrier, however, so I decided to see if I could get any comprehensible English through auto-translating Linh Sơn’s all-Vietnamese Web site.

After putting the Web site through Google’s auto-translation, the only thing I could verify for sure is that the “Chùa” in “Chùa Linh Sơn” means “pagoda.” To put it bluntly, the auto-translation reads like a Buddhist Mad-Lib, so I recommend not even trying it.

Instead of continuing to try and figure out what its exact teaching is, I decided to simply appreciate this place for our experience there. The experience we have when we go there is something that few people experience when they go into a house of worship other than their own—even Christians walking off the street into a church of a different denomination. No one asked us if we are Buddhist, or why we were there. They just correctly assumed that we were there to pray, they spoke to us, invited us to lunch with them downstairs, communicated some of the essential cultural and temple etiquette to us, and even gave us a few lovely gifts—all using makeshift sign language (with a little English thrown in by the two people available who speak it).

Even though I had no idea what the monk said during his dharma talk, I got the impression from him that he is a kind man, and he really took a shining to Dan particularly, and he spoke just enough English to convey a sincere invitation to us to come back any time, especially Sundays for meditation, and told us that sometimes there is someone there who presents the dharma in English.

These folks are following the Buddha’s path in whatever way they’re following it, I thought, and they seem really happy doing so, so it's clear that they get the basic purpose of Buddhism. When I offered prayers at their altar I chanted my daimoku for them, for the success and happiness of their community, and for whatever goals they came to the United States to achieve.

Every time we’ve been to Linh Sơn, almost or everyone we’ve encountered there is from Vietnam or one of its neighbor-countries. While I don’t have any plans to learn to speak Vietnamese, or to have an immersion experience in the community, what I value about going to this temple and to the immigrant-run businesses on and near Dequindre Road in Warren (including the delicious Phò Hàng Restaurant and Q Q Bakery) is that it expands my definition of what “America” is really made of, especially at at time when so many people are trying really hard to make that definition narrower and narrower.

For the record, I have had the privilege of this cultural enrichment because of Dan, whose ethnic identity to date has been more pan-Asian than specific to his own ethnicity. Recently, however, he has finally directly connected with his Filipino rootsincluding having just gotten back from a family reunion in the Philippines with his birth family, whom he's been wanting to find his entire life and finally did a few months ago! Yay!

I’ll write more about my reflections from this experience with two of my favorite people next week, and in the meantime I encourage you to watch Dan’s amazing documentary-style video about our outing by clicking here.

Image: "Ahimsa" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

An honest and respectful "no" is better than a begrudging or exhausted "yes," for a few reasons...

When Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi said that “to not advance is to retreat,” and our mentor SGI President Ikeda said “Buddhism is win or lose,” they were not expressing hard-hearted absolutism. They understood that when we truly tap into our inner wisdom while trying to encourage someone, we can tell the difference between someone who is trying to avoid the difficulty of personal growth and someone who is struggling to fill a role that is not in alignment with their vision for kosen-rufu in their lives.

For many people who say “yes” to voluntary community responsibilities, these roles are great opportunities to push themselves in healthy ways. For others of us, while it may be good to give community leadership a try for a while, we must then be honest with ourselves and our colleagues if we realize that these responsibilities do not suit us after all.

If we say to ourselves after each time we do tasks we can’t bring ourselves to enjoy, “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” we negate both our own feelings and the benefits of our actions, because over time those actions will become contaminated by reluctance or resentment.

There are a few benefits of telling our colleagues a respectful “no”. One is that we may get out of the way of a successor who will both enjoy the work more and do it better than we did. Another is that we may strengthen our bonds of understanding with our colleagues, through transparent and honest dialogue about what our strengths and interests really are.

When we approach this dialogue from a high life-condition and with gratitude for the opportunity to serve, (rather than start it when we’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed), then our sincerity and our concern for doing what is right by the people our services affect will shine through, and make our decisions easier for reasonable people to accept without misunderstanding our true reasons.

Yet another benefit of relinquishing responsibilities we aren’t in alignment with is that we stop wasting time. During our self-assessment, we may realize we have spent as much or more time resisting—and complaining about—our responsibilities than we have actually spent fulfilling those responsibilities.

This does not mean that we should never try to expand our healthy limits beyond what is comfortable right now. We just have to change how we do it, and trust ourselves to know what is best for us despite what other people may think is best for us. I said last week that many of us need to take our human revolution more slowly, so part of this healthy-pushing is to identify and then honor our own natural pace for sustainable self-improvement.

One way I’ve been practicing this lately is when I’ve committed to a gathering or outing and then found myself feeling more tired or socially-reluctant than I thought I would be. In such situations, I ask myself, “Am I willing to go for an hour?” I then remind myself that I can leave whenever I want (politely, and without having to justify my early departure), and I have the choice of saying no if I am asked to volunteer for something. Then, I find that if I am willing, I enjoy and participate more fully in the activity, maybe even say “yes” to something small, and may not even have to leave early after all.

Developing an accumulated karma of honoring small commitments is what helps us slow-bloomers build up toward expanding our healthy limits if necessary, rather than pushing ourselves to be as useful as we can even when we’re overdue for a major life-recalibration.

This is like gradually increasing our fitness: If we go from being sedentary to trying to sprint, we’ll injure ourselves. If we start with walking, then walk a little longer each day, then do some short jogs, we can gradually increase our fitness level without injury.

Equally as important is identifying how long it feels good to jog for, and not continuing to increase the time until our enjoyable exercise turns into an exhausting chore. We may even realize we would rather swim than jog—If so, instead of committing to another month or year of jogging, we need to go find a suitable body of water to cultivate our inner fish in.

In addition to getting a better idea of what our healthy limits are, taking these small steps and checking in with ourselves as we go will help us identify what we are truly the happiest doing, and what is best left to other people who are obviously energized by what we felt exhausted by doing.

Image: “Mystic Main” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, silver Sharpie, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, colored pencil

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Some thoughts on finding the Middle Way between doing what we really want to accomplish and not pushing ourselves past our healthy limits

So much of our cultural conditioning is about “pushing” ourselves, and this combined with our society’s insistence on extremes too often leads people to push themselves past their healthy limits and into the crash-zone. We all know those people who seem to say yes to and be able to do everything; what we don’t see is that many of them are tormented by frequent or chronic physical health problems or other sufferings they don’t share with us, because they feel that they are doing the right thing by continuing to strive to make everyone else’s life better without taking enough time for themselves to really discover what will make their own lives better.

A big part of my human revolution lately is finding the balance between striving to be productive enough to accomplish everything I’ve committed to do, and not pushing myself past my healthy limits to the point where I feel so burnt-out that I don’t want to do anything.

Part of this process has been chanting to increase my capacity. For me, this doesn’t mean increasing my capacity to take on more responsibility, more projects, or more activities, but to increase my capacity to better handle and make progress in what I’m already trying to do.

Thus, I’ve done a lot of self-exploration to identify what my capacity really is, rather than assume what it is based on people’s or society’s expectations of me because of the demographic categories I fit into.

One of the ways I’ve been assessing my capacity versus what I’m demanding of it lately is imagining my energy system as a main circuit-breaker panel. I’ve found this analogy to be helpful for identifying which of my circuits I’m trying to draw too much electrical current from (think about what happens if you plug a vacuum-cleaner and a space-heater into outlets on the same circuit), and for recognizing when my input-power is lower than the amount of energy I’m trying to draw from it. This is helping me visualize where I need to draw my boundary lines, as a way of not only honoring myself but of being true in my relationships with other people—especially when in large groups.

A few months ago, I reflected with a good friend about our similar experiences of striving to become more community-oriented when our original inclinations were to be loners. It’s not about being “introverted” or “shy,” he pointed out; whereas naturally-outgoing people find large, lively gatherings to be energizing, more naturally-inward people like us have the opposite experience: It takes us an enormous amount of energy to manage ourselves in such gatherings. This doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy ourselves or that we resent people for wanting or expecting us to participate; it does mean that we need a lot more recovery-time before our next interaction that involves more than one person.

Some people’s lives are so outgoing and so fast that the lives of people who are more reserved and who take a more gradual approach to personal growth look like they are not moving at all in comparison—which would be synonymous with stagnation and defeat in Buddhism. This misconception indicates a need to develop a deeper understanding of each other and not be so quick to tell others, for example, that they “should” strive to become more outgoing or do more in their community. Even if it may not appear that they’re doing much, we have no idea how hard some people are really trying, and how much energy it’s really taking them to do whatever they are doing.

This is especially important to bear in mind if a group’s emphasis is on rapid change or rapid growth: Some of us, especially those of us striving to overcome addictive behaviors, and who have exhibited emotional patterns that have been labeled as “depression” or “anxiety disorder,” need to take our human revolution more slowly.

I’ll continue these thoughts in my next post.

Image: “Mystic Main” and “Balanced Current” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, silver Sharpie, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, colored pencil

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Speaking the “the universal language of music” with inspiration and instruments from around the world -- The musical stylings of Daniel Moen

Saturday May 20th I had the amazing experience of witnessing—and being a part of—the first solo concert of Daniel Moen, accomplished Detroit-area musician, photographer, graphic designer, animator, and all-around entertainer. I’ve been close friends with Dan for about seven years, and have had the privilege of witnessing his personal evolution—and human revolution—that led up to this production.

Dan was encouraged last year by the folks at Starkweather Arts Center in Romeo, Michigan, where he is a regular at their open mic night, to do a solo show. Starkweather hosted the show at the Romeo Masonic Lodge 41, as part of the two organizations' concert-series partnership. Dan has been composing and recording his music at home for a while now, and regularly uploads his songs with videos on his YouTube channel. He records tracks in layers, combining himself playing live instruments, electronic tracks, sound effects from nature, samplings of chants and vocalizations from various languages, and even occasionally himself doing different forms of indigenous throat-singing.

One of the distinct features of Dan’s live performances is that whenever he plays an instrument from another culture, he will give a brief introduction to it and to the cultural group it’s from. Far from simply picking instruments at random because they sound cool, Dan has done in-depth research into every musical item he owns, as one of the ways he applies his passion for learning about and experiencing cultures.

His music also has a deeper purpose than simply entertainment. He composes and plays multicultural music in the spirit of honoring the cultures and people who inspire him, not to appropriate or capitalize on their style. He hopes to one day be able to give back to the cultures of origin from any monetary proceeds he makes from selling music that features instruments or musical styles from those cultures. He also maintains sensitivity to concerns about cultural appropriation, to make sure that what he is doing is respectful to the cultures of origin rather than coming across as an uninformed American interpretation of their music.

Some of his songs he will never sell, due to the personal nature of the songs (such as musical tributes to specific people), or if the cultures he’s drawing inspiration from have been disproportionately victimized by—and are particularly sensitive about—cultural appropriation for profit (such as Native Americans).

While the dozen or so instruments Dan brought with him to the show in Romeo—including the Chinese guqin, Chinese bawu, Irish tin whistle, Native American cedar flute, African mbira, African mukuri, Australian didgeridoo, Indonesian suling, Hebrew kinnor, Brazilian berimbau, African djembe, and my personal favorite, the Chinese hulusi—don’t even represent his entire collection, they do represent a pretty good cross-section of Dan’s style and the cultures he draws most of his inspiration from. (Click on the names of the instruments to learn more; you can also go to YouTube and type in the names of the instruments to find demo videos of what they sound like.)

Dan performed several of his original songs, most of which are featured on his YouTube channel, including “Bawu Dreams,” “The Yi Wedding,” “The Water Emperor,” “The Spring Clan,” “Temples and Jungles,” “Northern Grasslands,” “The Sky,” “Song for Joe,” “Mediterranean Groove,” “Daughter of God,”, “The Peaceful Sanctuary,” “Soar Across the World,” and “Triumph of John.”

The latter song is one of the most personal songs Dan has ever composed, and it never fails to draw tears from almost every person in the room who knew John Suggs, the father-figure for our friend group, as well as we did. The first time Dan aired this song for other people to hear was at John's funeral last year. Musically, what is distinctive about this song is that Dan did use every single instrument he owned at the time in the song, laying down layer after layer in the recording until he captured every sound that he wanted—including audio clips of John’s laugh that was pure joy to hear, and John leading our drum night group in singing ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s prayer of welcome.

All of Dan’s art is not just about connecting people to cultures but people to each other, so it was only natural that Dan wanted to share the stage with some fellow artists from his inner circle. I was delighted and honored that he invited me to recite my poem “My Heart Tells Me Something Different,” while he played the African Mbira in the background. Guitarist and composer Ryan Muns served as the opening act, delivering heart-stirring monologues and a few songs from his new album “Selah.” A few of Dan’s songs were also accompanied by the dancing of multimedia artist Kona and professional dancer “Angelique Ziara.” Our dear friend Joe Black also performed a song with Dan, to which I added some light percussion on a Hawaiian gourd instrument.

We concluded the show with a freestyle drumming circle during Dan's “Soar Across the World,” all of us feeling that we had indeed done just that.

Miigwetch, Dan, for one of the most heart-warming, original, and memorable musical experiences of my life.

Image: “Soleiluna” by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, highlighter

Monday, May 15, 2017

With one foot in mainstream medicine and one foot in holistic healthcare, Heather Jose describes how to be not just a "survivor" but a "thriver"

A big theme for me since last year has been combining my Buddhist practice with holistic health, to both heal myself and help others think beyond diagnostic labels and textbook clinical outcomes. Through this, I have developed a greater interest in the stories of other people treating themselves as whole human beings in their journey to better health, rather than as broken machines that need fixing.

I found one such story, Heather Jose’s Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, to be an excellent bridge between mainstream and holistic health. Jose used both mainstream and holistic methods to overcome a sudden stage IV breast cancer diagnosis, which her first doctors assumed would be fatal. Instead of accepting this, she became her own “hero” through maintaining certitude in her victory, enlisting the help of family and friends in unique ways, and by using her clinical misfortune as an opportunity to make life-long improvements to her health.

One of the most fascinating things Jose did early on was acknowledge the nasty slippery slope it can be for patients to do medical research themselves. Instead of making their experience that much harder by rigorously researching their conditions and falling prey to the power of suggestion regarding how they “should” be feeling, it would be far more empowering for patients to enlist family or friends as “information-managers” and focus their own thoughts and actions on the process of getting well.

Jose also decided, instead of living like a “leper” in medicalized isolation during the course of her mainstream treatments, to craft an entirely new health-promoting lifestyle with the help of her family and more holistic-minded health and nutrition specialists, to both counteract negative effects of the medical treatments and assure that she would be a “thriver” instead of just a “survivor.”

Jose beautifully sums up the results of her efforts in her reflections about the day she was discharged from the hospital. She described how she and her family “were learning so much, how every day has so much to offer, how we spend far too much time on things that don’t actually matter, and how we have a say in how things turn out. We were healthy, we were eating well, exercising and nurturing our spiritual lives. It was crazily ironic to think that my cancer made my life more abundant than we had ever known.” (86)

Jose’s book is as much about her journey to reinvent who she is as a person living on a different vibration than most people around her as it is about reinventing herself as a cancer survivor. While she does still heavily identify with the label of a person affected by cancer, her outlook doesn’t have the same kind of heavy, fatalistic feel of people who make that such an integral part of their identity that it seems to perpetuate the presence of cancer in their lives, as though they still have it. Jose makes it very clear her point in still identifying with her clinical diagnosis is to help people form a more empowered way of surviving the disease, rather than feeling like “victims” of it and living in fear of the possibility of its return.

It’s easy for those of us who have always preferred a health-promotion approach (instead of the more common disease-identification-and-treatment model) to expect people we know to get right on board with us if we say that their medical doctors are only giving them a fraction of their available options. Some people have been so conditioned for so long by fear-based medicine that they can’t just leap completely from that to holistic health without anything in between.

Such people often need a bridge, and I highly recommend Heather Jose’s blended approach of mainstream and holistic health as an excellent example for those who are vulnerable to being persuaded by fear of dying into signing up for treatments that can be just as damaging to their health as the disease itself, and discounting the value of any holistic approaches to supplement if not replace their medical treatments.

One of her friends stated in the book that Jose’s loved ones got to “piggyback off her survival” (129), and Jose did us a wonderful service by sharing that benefit with the rest of us by choosing to publish her narrative through Read the Spirit Books.

You can also read more about Heather Jose’s wellness tips and teachings for people learning to thrive during and after disease-recovery at http://www.readthespirit.com/go-beyond-treatment/.

Flower illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Monday, May 8, 2017

Song and Spirit Institute for Peace's new location is, for me, at the intersection of interfaith and Kosen-Rufu

In a 2014 post about my experience with the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, I made the point that “being part of a religious community doesn’t necessarily mean you all have to practice the same religion.” The original worship services conducted at Song and Spirit are Christian and Jewish, and while I didn’t fit into either of those categories myself, I always felt spiritually at home there. 

Song and Spirit was an important part of my spiritual life from 2013 through early 2015, and I realized last Friday while attending my first Kabbalat Shabbat (Shir Hanishama) in over a year that it still is—regardless of the fact I now practice Nichiren Buddhism and no longer blend elements from different religions into my personal spiritual practice.

When I shifted my interfaith focus from shared worship to “the individual friendships and working relationships I have with people of other faiths,” the bonds I made at Song and Spirit were among the top of that list. I decided last weekend that the services at Song and Spirit can still fit into my spiritual life as celebrating sacred time with my friends, enjoying singing spiritual songs, and hearing the wisdom from Chazzan Steve Klaper and Brother Al Mascia, OFM, that transcends the contexts of their individual religions.

I don’t take the religious elements home with me to incorporate into my personal practice anymore, but I do take the warm memories of my experiences with my friends home with me—Even more so since last Friday’s Shabbat was the last one to be held at Song and Spirit’s original location in Berkley, Michigan. This summer, the organization will be setting up shop in a new space, and has already begun hosting some of its musical worship programming at Unity of Royal Oak.

Instead of feeling sad during or after the service as I looked around the cozy, vibrantly-colored combination library and worship space, I felt so grateful that I got to have one more heartwarming and soul-moving experience there.

I spent a lot of time at Song and Spirit’s Berkley building as both a worship participant and volunteer in 2013 and 2014, and I was pleased to notice that the positive vibration of those memories pre-empted any sense of sadness that could have come up. For sure there will be times I’ll think of how I’d love to be able to sit in that library again, walk those halls again, and socialize with the volunteers and the Duns Scotus friars there; regret and loss are feelings I’ve been working very hard to kick out of my life, though, and I was pleased to see how much progress I have made in not letting them crowd out my enjoyment of the present.

I hadn’t brought a camera, so instead I looked closely around the room during and after the service, to inscribe in my memory how everything looked and felt—The Shabbat candles, the beautiful rainbow-mosaic banners on the walls with the names of the Divine and the word “peace” in several different languages, the brightly-colored Tallis that the community made for Steve Klaper as a gift for his ordination as Chazzan which hangs over the altar-space, the stained-glass flaming bush (a community art project on which I assembled one of the leaves) atop the arc-cabinet housing the Torah, and of course the arc itself. I was struck by how much Song and Spirit's arc looks like a giant butsudan, so in my head I now think of it as the “Jewish butsudan.” 

Most importantly, I was so glad to re-kindle my relationships there, and though I won’t start attending every event again, I do look forward to participating with the Song and Spirit community in both the organization’s new headquarters and its new worship-space at Unity of Royal Oak. Song and Spirit hosts many interfaith educational opportunities, and I’m particularly interested in the Torah study that Chazzan Steve Klaper is thinking of re-instating, to help people understand key teachings and historical elements of the Old Testament that have been totally misinterpreted and mistranslated ever since Christianity removed them from their original Hebrew context.

While having more than one spiritual home used to feel like a crowded house that I needed to clear out some space in, I now see that there is enough room in my Buddhist home for participating with Song and Spirit as part of the interfaith component of my vow for kosen-rufu.

Image: "Interfaith Collective 2" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008 and 2015; Prismacolor and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The more we talk with people, the easier it becomes to learn how to bridge our differences

“Those who at least recognize that they may have all kinds of unconscious prejudices are likely to engage far more amicably in intercultural dialogue than those who are convinced that they have no prejudices,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wisely points out. He goes on to say that “When we stop reflecting on ourselves and asking ourselves questions . . . we don’t listen to others and cannot engage in dialogue. Dialogue for peace starts with a humble and honest dialogue with ourselves.” (December 1, 2001 World Tribune, pg. 10)

The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has a strong tradition of dialogue, created by Daisaku Ikeda. Since the 1970s, Ikeda has met with many revolutionary thinkers and activists to demonstrate ways in which we can work together with people who have different beliefs than us. (The complete list of Ikeda’s published dialogues is available here.)

The purpose of dialogue is to find ways to meet in the middle to negotiate regarding issues we may not agree on, and thus learn from and expand our thinking through our exploration of our different viewpoints.

At the April 14 Vanguard Discussion series event on “Respect for the Dignity of Life,” which I wrote about in-depth here and here, facilitator Carolyn Ferrari prompted us to reflect on the challenges of relating with people different than ourselves in our current national culture which is deeply divided by the “existential division of self and other.”

I gave the example of having to assign a value-judgment to every aspect of ourselves and to each other. Even if a person is giving unsolicited praise, having to insist that “you’re this and I’m that” often makes people feel alienated and misunderstood, by implying that we and our attributes must be ranked against other people—And that when ranked against another set of people, there is always the risk we'll come out with a lower ranking.

Assigning value judgments to people, religions, careers, economic status, and so forth is an affront to human dignity. Dignity has been defined as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect,” as Carolyn pointed out, and such dignity should be treated as an inalienable right, not conditioned on how we are ranked when compared with other people by using our religions, ethnicities, cultures, careers, nations, or personal opinions as criteria.

One of the most damaging forms of this is the rankings assigned by race, as Vanguard panelist Daniel Moen pointed out. Last year he wrote a report about the “the youth, the media, and its effects on race,” for which he interviewed dozens of people. “The biggest thing I realized,” he said, is that a lot of people “on both sides were actually more terrified of trying to bridge” their differences, “because of the fact they were afraid they’d be judged.” He said his friends who are white were “terrified of talking about race” because they feared being labeled racist. His studies got even more interesting when he realized that his friends of color were just as hesitant to discuss race in the larger intercultural context.

He realized that “They actually have more in common than they realize,” and that one way to help us get through these restrictions and judgments is for us to bear in mind that “individuals are not the representative of the whole,” meaning that it is not correct to judge an entire ethnicity or culture just by the actions of one person or even a group of people.

The only way to start to bridge the self-and-other divide is to talk to people. “Once you start to talk to someone, they become human,” as Susie Beber paraphrased from a book she read.

To conclude this second installment of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn challenged us to read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the United Nations, and pick one of the rights that we can seek to foster in our communities. She invited people to email her at vanguarddiscussions @ gmail.com with their thoughts, or with ideas for upcoming discussion topics for the Vanguard series.

I look forward to sharing with you about what we come up with when the third event takes place in a few months. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Illustration (SGI lotus) by Karla Joy Huber, 2015; Prismacolor marker, white-out pen, Decopage on fabric

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Helping people form a beneficial connection to Buddhism through interfaith and intercultural dialogue - The Vanguard Discussions series

“Commandments or expressions like ‘must’ or ‘have to’ no longer motivate people in this day and age,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says. “This is a time in which no one will act unless they are truly convinced in their hearts. . . . For this reason, fruitful conferences and discussions are becoming all the more important, while one-to-one dialogue is becoming tremendously vital.” (Faith into Action, pages 181-182)

Dialogue is a primary activity in the practice of SGI Nichiren Buddhism, to not only deepen our understanding of our own spiritual practice, but to build bridges with people of other spiritual and cultural perspectives. The Vanguard Discussion series, which I introduced you to last week, is a great example of such bridge-building dialogue. Carolyn Ferrari created the Vanguard Discussion series to serve as “public forums that allow artists to address community and societal issues from their unique perspectives, and share how their art informs change, and presents concepts that challenge the status quo.”

Last week I talked about my and Kathryn Grabowski’s presentations, and now I’ll share with you some highlights from the presentations of musician and sound engineer James Beber, and multi-media artist Daniel Moen.

After starting his music career as part of a rock band, James Beber decided to find additional ways to use music to bring people together. He began learning audio engineering, and is currently developing his own recording studio and label, where he will produce not only his own but other people’s music. “Art and culture are pretty much inseparable,” Beber pointed out, and his “final goal in this endeavor is to throw art festivals around the world, and show actual proof of the humanistic power of Nichiren Buddhism.”

What he means by this is to use the principles of Buddhist humanism—including the ideas that everyone is capable of attaining enlightenment, and that we (rather than an external force) have the power to shape our own world and our future—to both empower and unite people from different cultures and perspectives to work together and enrich each other’s experience.

Like dialogue, the idea of art and cultural festivals is also part of the SGI’s legacy. The SGI emphasizes the value of our diversity, and encourages its members to branch out and form bridges with people who are unlike us to enrich and strengthen the range of our human experience, rather than to make us all more like each other. Regarding propagation, Daisaku Ikeda’s emphasis in his interfaith dialogues and other peacemaking efforts is on helping people “form a beneficial connection with Buddhism,” rather than on “converting” people to become Buddhist.

The fourth panelist was musician, graphic designer, and photographer Daniel Moen, who also happens to have been my best friend since late 2010. Dan, like me, has always been interested in Buddhism, and has been on a lifelong quest to continuously diversify both his cultural and his spiritual perspective by studying different philosophies, and then building as many bridges as he can between people of these different philosophies. He incorporated chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo into his spiritual practice, and has participated with the SGI community enough to be considered part of it, without having made the decision to “officially” become Buddhist.

Dan’s work is inspired by his love of culture, which grew out of his interest in exploring his own heritage and being inspired by the heritage of people around him. He was born in the Philippines and adopted by an American family, and grew up in a community with almost no ethnic or cultural diversity. (He and his sister were “the darkest people in our school,” as he put it). His art—which includes freelance photography, themed photographic compositing, painting, performing in the Elf Ensemble at Michigan’s Renaissance Festival, and playing a wide variety of instruments from around the world—reflects his passion for interfaith and intercultural bridge-building, as well as social justice. I’ll discuss more about Dan’s insights—and his upcoming concert—in my next post. 

“Everybody is an artist, even people who say they are not,” Dan expressed. He then elaborated on this with something profound he read on Facebook: “What I mean by that is that your soul is the paint brush, and the canvas is your life.”

Whoever wrote that on Facebook sounds like they’d fit right into the conversation that followed our presentations, which I’ll write about next week. Please stay tuned, and thank you for reading. Namaste.

Image: "Elemental Ashiko" by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white-out pen, highlighter