Monday, November 20, 2017

Detroit can save itself, if we actually listen to the residents tell us what they want and don't want from us

For the one-year anniversary of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn Ferrari invited all the former panelists back and centered the discussion on race relations, particularly in the city of Detroit.

Specifically, our discussion centered on the commentary in the Focus: HOPE documentary “In Pursuit of Hope,” which features city residents’ reflections on the few-day-long 1967 Detroit riot, including what led up to it and what people in Detroit are doing now to help assure it doesn’t happen again.

The stark picture painted by the residents’ narratives really brought home the eerie similarities between the inner city and the reservations that the U.S. government forced Native Americans onto—Habitable patches of land from which the investment money, resources, and education that could help residents create viable businesses and prosperous communities have been removed, and given to the people in the surrounding areas which were deemed more deserving of them.

One point that really stuck out for me from the documentary was that all the attention (and judgment of Detroit as a failure) has focused on the people who fled the city, leaving abandoned, scary neighborhoods, burned-out buildings, and closed schools. Little attention or credit has been given to the people who stayed, and have been working to stabilize and help their communities prosper.

Focus: HOPE is one organization that has been empowering Detroit residents to help themselves rather than conditioning them to rely on “hand-outs” from “white saviors,” a term UrbanDictionary.com defines as “western people going in to ‘fix’ the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.” (For an informative analysis of this devastating socio-political phenomenon, please click here.) Another example is the Artists Village centered on Lahser and Grand River, which I’ve made a couple explorations into (and blogged about here).

The more dialogues I have with people who grew up in and/or still live in Detroit, the more I realize that Detroit is capable of restoring itself if we just let it.

By this I don’t mean cut all ties and just let them figure it out on their own in isolation; what I mean is that we need to let the people who live in Detroit have a chance to determine their own fate, rather than more affluent outsiders assuming what should stay and what should go in the city. What many people are lauding as Detroit’s supposed “comeback,” after all, is not so much a self-restoration that could truly be considered a comeback; much of what they’re actually referring to is gentrification—bringing in real estate, dining, retail, and entertainment that most long-term residents of the city can’t even afford to partake of.

That’s not saving Detroit, that’s taking it away from its residents.

All that being said, one thing that can help make discussions about interracial and intercultural reconciliation more productive is to stop insisting on the ideas of “blame” and “fault,” which have always gotten us nowhere.

If, because I'm mostly “white” (my Native American ancestry being invisible to most people), I treated myself like some kind of villain, or allowed other people to view me as a villain because the system favors “my kind” and not “their kind,” then I’m not going to come to any productive conclusions that will do anything other than make me feel defensive, ambivalent about my social position, and uncomfortable talking with anyone who isn’t in the “white” box.

On the flipside, I can say that, as a person who has something that many other people don’t, I have a social responsibility to share.

This mindset encourages me to think, What ways can I help my neighbors or friends who don’t have what I have? How can I encourage them, change my ways of thinking and behaving to help bring about a culture-shift that helps them prosper? What legislation can I support? What greed-based businesses can I boycott? What local businesses can I patronize and promote?

The way to finding these answers starts with dialogue, and sharing what we’ve learned from our conversations. That’s what I strive to do here, and I’ve got more to come next week.


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Image: "One World Heart" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, gold gel pen

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

There's no such thing as isolated incidents in history...

My November is turning out to be just as inter-culturally and inter-religiously diverse as October was: Last weekend I attended the final 2017 meeting of the Michigan Professional Communicators with interest in religion and cross-cultural issues (MPC), an SGI Buddhist panel discussion about race relations in Detroit, and a panel presentation by two Filipino adoptees about their experiences growing up in white American households and then going on successful quests as adults to find their birth families in the Philippines.

The first of these events I’ll dive into is the MPC meeting, which was held at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. This choice of venue was lauded by participants as very timely and apropos given the recent national rise in anti-Semitism, and in ignorant people’s sentimentality for (and defense of) Confederate, Nazi, and other oppressive symbolism from our not-so-distant past.

For the first hour of our gathering, the docent gave us an abridged version of the standard tour, presenting us with an excellent, concise accounting of the main points about how the Nazis were really able to develop enough power to do what they did—for years without anyone really interfering.

I was astounded that, nearly three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, our society still lives with eerie parallels to the experiences of Germany and its neighbor-states leading up to the rise of the Nazis—and how ignorant most people are of these alarming warning signs.

We fail to see them only because of the surface-level differences: It’s so easy to say that our nation is too powerful (in contrast with the defeat and destabilization that left Germany wide-open for an authoritarian political coup in the years after World War I) or enlightened to ever allow such people to come to power again in the West; but the truth is that there’s nothing random about our current increases in authoritarian religion, authoritarian politics, mass shootings, terrorist infiltrations, human trafficking, institutional-level anti-Semitism, and so on.

Such people have never sprung up in a vacuum, and there’s nothing “senseless” or “pure” about their evil.

In her book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past, Jennifer Teege makes the point that dehumanizing Nazis—or any genocidal hate group for that matter—means we deny responsibility that humans could even be capable of such cruelty. As a misguided form of self-defense, we try to rationalize such experiences instead of think critically about what collective karma contributed to this, and thus identify ways to help prevent that thinking—and those actions—from coming back again.

Instead, we have been taught to disregard and dismiss Nazis as freaks and move on, instead of acknowledging their movement and their actions as symptoms of a much-larger and still-existent problem. We contribute to their re-creation every time we choose such dismissal over honest reflection about the true state of our society—every time we label current politicians and mass shooters and berserk police-officers as random freaks, who should be ignored or quarantined in the hopes that the larger problems they represent will just go away.

After contemplating what I learned last Friday, one thing I realized is that whatever I was taught about the rise of the Nazis and the resulting Holocaust when I was a child was not enough, and I clearly wasn’t old enough to truly understand it as part of the larger context of human experience.

Childhood education gives the impression that large historical narratives such as the rise and fall of the Nazis were isolated incidents in history, instead of as part of a continuum of living history, that hasn’t just abruptly ended to create a new volume of humanity’s evolution.

Recent events have shown that we’re still in the same book we were 70-plus years ago, if not in the same chapter.

Education about long-term historical movements should not stop with grade or even high school, which is why I’m so glad there are such institutions giving tours like this, and organizations such as the Interfaith Leadership Council (IFLC) hosting diversity-and-inclusion educational events for adults. Now that we’re old enough to understand it in its context, my vision is that, this time around, we finally own that because we as a species created this kind of evil, we have the power to stop it.


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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

From Harry Potter to Diwali: Another fascinating convergence of neo-Americana and interfaith adventure in my efforts to be a world citizen without leaving Michigan

Part of my mission for this blog has always been to create a narrative reference guide for otherwise-unknown cultural and spiritual ideas, actions, and groups in our local area that are helping to contribute to unity in diversity. I realized recently that it has also served as a magnet, attracting more and more people into my life who agree with these cultural shifts and are glad to finally meet other people who are doing something to help slowly push them into mainstream consciousness.

One of the marvelous factors of this phenomenon is that I’m meeting these people not only at events focused on interfaith and intercultural exchange, but while doing more every-day or secular things, such as writing in my journal at Starbucks, going walkabout with my best friends in Detroit or Royal Oak, attending performances, talking with vendors at art fairs, or while attending a Harry-Potter-themed event at a tea house in Rochester.

The latter was certainly not an every-day thing, and I had simply expected to have a magical-themed good time there with my best friend Dan, who was treating me to the event as my birthday present. Dan was invited by Tonia Carsten, the owner of Tonia’s Victorian Rose Restaurant and Tea Room, whom he met several months ago after searching for a local tea house near him. He’s been an almost-weekly regular there ever since, and throughout his conversations with Tonia he realized that she is a kindred spirit, whose personal and cultural interests go beyond her own upbringing and running a local eatery.

Tonia too has a personal stake in interfaith and intercultural harmony, being from a Christian background and married to a Hindu man from India. Before she was a restauranteur she worked with an agency helping recent Indian immigrants with their transition to residency in the United States, which is how she met her husband and their circle of friends. I just read on her Facebook page that she has traveled to eleven countries, which is another great demonstration of her commitment to living a life with broader and more inclusive horizons than what’s in her immediate vicinity.

One of Tonia’s visions for her tea room is a variety of different themed parties, based on particular media interests, historical people, or eras that would fit well with the restored Victorian décor and style of her venue—including the several “Muggles & Wizards” dinners she’s hosted so far. She has a Oscar Wilde-themed dinner coming up this weekend on November 12, and Christmas High Tea events scheduled for December, and she mentioned a few other ideas to us. She’s also open to Dan’s idea of considering a Steampunk night, which we know for a fact would be popular in this area.

After the dinner, Dan extended Tonia’s invite to me to join her, her husband, and their friends for their Diwali party. Diwali is a festival originating in India, commemorating a particular victory of good over evil from Hindu Scripture, and also serves as the Hindu New Year festival. Historically, the main decorational tradition of Diwali is the lighting of clay lamps, and many other candles to signify the driving out of evil (darkness) by the light (good). In modern times, while people still light candles, they also light sparklers and firecrackers, and in India the fireworks celebrations rival big-city Fourth of July events in the United States.

We arrived at the house ahead of Tonia (who still had cleanup to do after the Harry Potter event), and were greeted warmly by her husband and their friends. Even though this was the first time Dan and I had actually met any of them, they greeted us as friends and we had free-flowing conversation about both Diwali (giving Dan and I an overview for our first-ever experience of it), and miscellaneous topics of both spiritual and secular interest. After some delicious Indian food (which we had just enough room for after our delicious meal at the Victorian Rose) and good conversation, the parents summoned the children to join us and we all went into the backyard to light sparklers and firecrackers.

If you’d like to read more about Diwali, you can on the Hindu American Foundation’s Diwali Toolkit Web page, a page of “fun facts” about Diwali from CNN.com, and a recent USA Today article about Diwali.

This concludes my three-part series about my colorful birthday-weekend adventures, and in my next post I’ll have something to say about the November 10 Michigan Professional Communicators interfaith networking meeting to be held at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Stay tuned, and, as always, thanks for reading.


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Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Celebrating ten years of WISDOM, with over 20 new examples of how Friendship and Faith can “change the world—one relationship at a time”

People tell me they’ve never heard anywhere else a lot of what I write and talk about, and they can’t imagine how they would find such information and news if someone hadn’t personally presented it to them. For example, a few months ago I showed the book Friendship & Faith to a Buddhist friend, and she replied that she hadn’t even known books like that exist.

Friendship & Faith, which I first read in December 2011, is more than a collection of women’s interfaith friendship stories from the organization WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit). The stories are grounded in recent major events in southeastern Michigan or in larger intercultural narratives, such as historic barriers between ethnic and religious minorities whose co-existence in the same communities has been characterized more by ambivalence than by cooperation. Some of the women describe how they even went beyond transcending their differences with individuals to becoming involved with (or founding) initiatives that create organized, systematic approaches to weakening the fallacy that some people are just too different from us to ever become our friends.

Earlier this year, I was informed by WISDOM co-founder Trish Harris that Read the Spirit Books was going produce an expanded second edition of the book in commemoration of WISDOM’s tenth anniversary as an organization of women dedicated to promoting unity in diversity in MetroDetroit.

The second edition of Friendship & Faith includes over twenty new stories, bringing the total from 28 to 51. I was honored to be invited by Trish and by Read the Spirit co-founder David Crumm to not only contribute my own story, but to assist with content-editing for some of the other new contributors. I had the honor of assisting Jeanne Salerno, one of WISDOM’s newest board members who shared her magnificent story about her spiritual bridge-building efforts as a Catholic Christian in Muslim Egypt while working for an international economic development organization, and Victoria Freile, a Baha’i friend whom I’ve been acquainted with for many years and was delighted to finally get to know better through helping her and her husband Pablo share her story. 

I was fascinated to hear that Victoria’s story had some similarities to the one I wrote for the book. Hers focuses on overcoming her family’s initial discomfort when she (and a few other family members) transitioned from being Catholic to Baha’i. My story focuses on my relationships with my Baha’i friends—many of whom have been like family to me for over ten years—when I began spreading the word among them that I had become Nichiren Buddhist.

The main narrative in my story is an extended version of what I shared last year in three posts (here, here, and here) about my experience losing the father-figure of my “fr’amily” (friend-family), John Suggs.

There are many things which make Friendship and Faith stand out from other books about building relationships across cultural and religious lines, including that many of them are candid and raw instead of sentimental. The writers “don’t sugar-coat anything,” as I said in my post about the first edition. “In a book about finding unity in diversity, one might expect to find cookie-cutter platitudes that romanticize humanity’s underlying homogeneity as a species. It’s true that human beings are all more alike than we are different, but this sentiment can be taken too far, to the extreme of neglecting the value of the uniqueness of individuals and cultures. . . . Most of the authors talk unsentimentally about how they’ve overcome religious bigotry or racism, and in some cases about how they’ve overcome their own initial prejudices and mistrust of particular types of people.”

With the book’s second edition, I also re-affirm that “I strongly recommend this book for anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of Metro Detroit’s history and what its contemporary interreligious, intercultural landscape is truly like,” and that this book is “a valuable resource for high school and college classrooms as recommended reading for comparative religion or social studies courses.”

I of course also highly recommend it for individuals who not only want to be inspired by heartwarming true stories but want ideas for how to get directly involved, particularly in the metro Detroit area—because it’s where I got a lot of my involvement ideas.


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Image: Left panel of “The Inner World of the Heart” by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic gold gel pen

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Remember how we were told that we shouldn't discuss certain subjects in "mixed company?" In this case, the opposite is actually true

When I realized recently that last year was the seed-planting for changes I wanted to see in my life, and that this year has been the harvest, I felt like celebrating. This feeling was well-timed, because it happened to coincide with my birthday.

So, it was only fitting to celebrate the 38th year of my non-mainstream life in a non-mainstream way: Instead of throwing a party, I chose to have a great time culture-hopping these past two weekends, mostly with my best friend Dan—from a stage performance intended to help foster much-needed cultural shifting, to the ten-year anniversary awards dinner and book launch of one of our amazing local interfaith organizations, to a whimsical event at a new local culture hotspot, to celebrating a sacred festival with some new friends that they brought with them from their home country.

On October 14 was the first of these wonderful events, a performance of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” produced by the Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company and featuring our dear friend Carolyn Ferrari. I first read about this show nearly twenty years ago in the Detroit Metro Times, in a write-up that included Ensler’s grace in the face of critics going bonkers over a woman daring to use “that word” in the title of her show, and of course about daring to speak so candidly and unashamedly about women’s anatomical, health, social, and sexual issues that we are still constantly scolded for being impolite, improper, embarrassing, or even somehow immoral if we discuss openly, especially in “mixed company.”

The content of the “Vagina Monologues” is based on interviews with many different women from many different backgrounds, “including a six-year-old girl, a septuagenarian New Yorker, a vagina workshop participant, a woman who witnesses the birth of her granddaughter, a Bosnian survivor of rape, and a feminist happy to have found a man who ‘liked to look at it,’” as the Web site describes. The stories range from humorous to heartbreaking, including both examples of women reclaiming the power of their bodies (i.e., their autonomy as human beings), and stark reminders that too many women are still being robbed of their right to be free of abuse and ridicule based on their gender.

I’ve written before about the ample proof that we still have a long way to go in our long-standing battle against sexism, and this production—and perhaps more importantly, the resulting dialogues—is an excellent resource in that struggle.

One thing that makes the “Vagina Monologues” stand out from other candid media expressions of long-suppressed women’s voices is that it makes its controversy-confronting points without having to be outright accusatory of men as a whole. This is in refreshing contrast to the film “Miss Representation,” in which the emphasis on the misdeeds of men and male-dominated culture is, in many of the featured comments, downright insulting to men, and thus risks alienating male allies to its message.

There were several men in attendance at “Vagina Monologues”—including Dan and our friend Brian—and they commented on how much they appreciated hearing these stories and how the show made them think differently about the challenges that the women they care about still face today. The impression I got is that the show helped them have a more accurate understanding of the level of sexism that women still deal with regularly—and thus a greater respect for those women and willingness to increase their mindfulness about making sure they are not unintentionally perpetuating negative cultural conditioning against giving women as much public voice and social power as men have always been able to take for granted.

During intermission, our event host took the opportunity to share with us a bit about the mission of the Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company, which is as much about safeguarding and promoting local culture as it is about bringing good entertainment to the metro area at historic or otherwise distinctive small venues in and around Detroit. The company’s mission also includes social justice, which for this event included collecting donations at all of the performances for the Detroit-based outreach organization Alternatives for Girls.

As I mentioned above, I have a few other recent interfaith and intercultural adventures to share, so I’ll dive into them in my next posts.


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Image: “Elemental Woman #2,” by Karla Joy Huber, 2007; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Monday, October 16, 2017

Some thoughts on breaking out of the uncanny valley between perceived failure and the breakthrough into success...

I’m finally starting to see changes that I’ve long been working for in my life—Some of which have been so long in coming that I had started creating Plan Bs to replace them with. I’m witnessing the foreshadowing of changes I’ve wanted to see at work, I’m gradually increasing the number of print books that my writing is featured in, and I’m clarifying what to say yes or no to regarding being of service to others in ways that are in alignment with the lifestyle I’m creating.

So, my recent lack of focus, lack of motivation, and lack of interest in community activities I’m usually passionate about seemed counterintuitive to how I expected to feel after tasting these recent karmic cookies that have been put on my plate.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda makes the great point that “encountering a wall is proof of the progress that you have made so far” (Daisaku Ikeda, For Today and Tomorrow, October 8). So, after much reflection and daimoku, I decided that the wall I’ve been facing for the past few weeks is yet another valuable opportunity to challenge my long-standing self-doubts and skepticism that things can continue to “work out” in the way it now appears they can.

When I distilled the fruits of my recent reflections into four key insights, I realized that the factors behind these insights are not unique to me—which means that what I learned may be useful to you, too, if you fear sabotaging (or have sabotaged) your success with your self-doubts or lack of success-sustaining skills. So, here you go:

1) Our doubts and undervaluation of our successes are often much deeper-rooted than we think, and realizing this presents an excellent opportunity to finally challenge those delusions so we can enter the unfamiliar territory of self-actualization with empowerment and confidence instead of with disorientation and suspicions.

“It’s not important how you compare yourself to others but how you compare yourself to whom you were yesterday,” Daisaku Ikeda says. “If you see that you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved a victory.” (Living Buddhism, June 2017, page 28)

2) The unfamiliarity of this new territory means that now is the time to increase our diligence and our human-revolutionary efforts, not slip into complacency and think that the hard part is done. The transition period between what’s predictable (hard work with minimal or unrecognized payoff) and what’s unpredictable (seeing rewards and opportunities that require skill-sets we haven’t had reason to cultivate until now) is the most likely point for self-sabotage—such as relapse into addictive behaviors we think that good-fortune will help protect us against—because our new habits and new ways of thinking haven’t become firmly established yet. When I started looking at it this way, I realized why I’d seen some setbacks in my human revolution lately. It’s the whole “not seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

“The true victors in life,” Daisaku Ikeda says, “are those who, enduring repeated challenges and setbacks, have sent the roots of their being to such a depth that nothing can shake them.” (For Today and Tomorrow, March 15)

3) This is part of what Buddhism and other Eastern religions call “mastering your own mind.” In Nichiren Buddhism, we call this sort of thing “fundamental darkness,” which is a fancy and spooky-sounding term for the doubts we harbor about not only the value of humanity as a whole, but about the value of ourselves and each other as individuals. We doubt if we really are that important in the big picture, we doubt that we can really make the kinds of differences we want to see in the world around us, and we doubt if we even have the necessary qualifications to make any kind of worthwhile change in our current state—especially if we don’t have the college degree, community influence, wide acceptance of our peers, material success, or anything else society tells us are eligibility requirements for achieving greatness.

“The fundamental aim of Buddhism,” Daisaku Ikeda points out, “is to live in a way that is true to ourselves.” (Faith into Action, pg. 26)

4) And lastly, upon finally hearing some “yes” in areas of our lives that we’re far more accustomed to hearing “no”—or no response at all—an important question we now need to ask ourselves is: Now that we no longer have the protection of rejection, what do we want to anchor ourselves with?

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

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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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