Virtual Satsang

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Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category


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  • You Don’t Know Jack: This recent feature film on the life of Jack Kevorkian (starring Al Pacino), was a pleasant discovery. It’s a very good overview of Kevorkian’s role in the right-to-die movement during the 1990’s – plus Pacino is fantastic.
  • The Rise of the Tao:

    … RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

  • Edendale Urban Farm
  • … A handful of urban farms have cropped up in the neighborhood in the last decade or so, including Silver Lake Farms. Kahn says he also knows of at least 15 families in the area who raise chickens in their backyards.

    Still, when Kahn first persuaded his friends Louise and Jozef Bilman to let him tear up the elegant lawn behind their white Southern Revival home and replace it with planting beds, some neighbors were skeptical. When he added chickens to the mix, one woman worried the entire block might catch avian flu.

    Five years later, the neighborhood has embraced the farm.

    Parents take their children here to feed the chickens their favorite treat: pink flowers from the bougainvillea vines that grow like weeds. Other neighbors bake Kahn quiche in exchange for eggs. The farm occasionally hosts cooking lessons and by-donation yoga classes, and Kahn dreams of building a stage for bands and community theater.

    For now, only the eggs are for sale. Most of the crops — which include carrots, mushrooms, passion fruit and sugar cane — go to feed the volunteers who help Kahn keep the operation running.

    The food is grown organically, without pesticides, and is irrigated with gray water from the laundry machine and shower.

  • Tastes of Japan: In the culinary world, Japan is the new France: up-and-coming chefs flock to Japan to study, rather than France or Italy. Audio below:

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November 15, 2010 at 7:44 am

Turfing (in the Rain)

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Turfing, or Taking Up Room on the Floor is a dance style associated with another Bay Area product, hyphy music. Here are some of the Bay Area’s finest Turfin’ in the Rain — Turf Yogis!

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November 10, 2010 at 8:27 am

Posted in Art, Social Justice


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November 8, 2010 at 7:45 am

Posted in Malas, Meditation, Seva, Social Justice, Yoga

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Peter Maurin on (Political) Priorities

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Along with Dorothy Day, Maurin co-founded a newspaper and soup kitchen that evolved into one of the largest social activist communities around (the Catholic Worker Movement). He was well-known for challenging the establishment through his Easy Essays. In light of election results in the U.S., here is an easy essay that I recommend to politicians everywhere.

The needs of the poor
take priority over the desires of the rich.

The rights of workers
over the maximization of profits.

Preservation of the environment
over uncontrolled industrial expansion.

Production to meet social needs
over production for military purposes.

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November 4, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in Quotes, Seva, Social Justice


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  • Bhagavan Das is Here Now: This classic article from the Jul/Aug 1998 Yoga Journal chronicles the spiritual journey of the man made famous in Ram Dass’ classic, Be Here Now. Unbeknownst to many current yoga and kirtan fans, after returning to India and doing the spiritual teacher circuit, Bhagavan Das went mainstream for a period of years. So much so, he was a car salesman and born-again Christian for years. At the time of the article, he had just published a book and had returned to Eastern Spirituality.
  • Golden States of Grace: Recently featured in the LA Times, this exhibit/book captures stories of spirituality in marginalized communities.

    A Los Angeles-based photographer who is drawn to marginalized communities, Nahmias found that all of these disparate Californians shared a sense of spirituality that infused and helped define their lives. As he spent time with them, he said he found “stories of dignity and stories of people going against the grain.”

  • The First Christians: I hadn’t heard of this remarkable 2004 PBS Frontline documentary until a few weeks ago. The first hour reminded me of a book (A Life of Jesus) by the late Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. As always Frontline did a fantastic job of interweaving interviews with academics, with a lots of archeological footage.
  • The Tea Party has gotten more religious: This episode of Heart and Soul examines the relationship between America’s Religious right and the Tea Party movement. I’ve definitely noticed that many Tea Party endorsed candidates are conservative Christians. What may have started out us a Libertarian movement has increasingly gotten more religious.

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November 1, 2010 at 7:27 am

Posted in Faith, Malas, Social Justice, Yoga

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  • Soft Belly Meditation (“a practice in relaxation”): A 4-minute guided meditation from Washington DC-based Center For Mind-Body Medicine.
  • Yoga in the U.S.: In a previous post I highlighted Kausthub Desikachar’s bewilderment with the unending number of Yoga brands in the U.S. (Kausthub doesn’t feel such is the case in Europe). There is a growing sense among some in the U.S. Yoga community that Yoga is becoming too commercialized. Below are just two of many recent articles on the subject:

      1. What happened to yoga?: Some Boston teachers attempt to redirect American Yoga back to its spiritual roots.

      2. Opinions run hot about nudity in advertising and Yoga Journal’s role in contemporary yoga culture: The comment thread on this Yoga Journal blog post continues to grow, and the latest print edition has several more letters on the subject. My position is that the magazine needs ads to subsidize the articles (on spirituality) that readers have come to love – either run ads or jack up the subscription price. Censoring individual ads would be a slippery slope. In any case it would be tough to come up with an ad censorship system that would satisfy all readers.

  • America Out of Work: These moving stories, from unemployed Americans, get beyond the headlines and statistics to remind us of the day-to-day struggles faced by many families. It got me thinking about the following quote from the Christian monk and peace activist Thomas Merton

    God speaks, and God is to be heard, not only on Sinai, not only in my own heart but in the voice of the stranger … God must be allowed the right to speak unpredictably

  • Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: Americans struggling with balancing work & home life should know that a competitive, capitalist economy like Germany has quite a different take on this issue. B&N interviews Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer in Chicago and author of Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life

    Q: But the Germans have a lower GDP than we do. Doesn’t that mean that our quality of life is better?
    A: One day we’ll get beyond that and see that the European standard of living is rising. You can pull out these GDP per capita statistics and say that people in Mississippi are vastly wealthier than people in Frankfurt and Hamburg. That can’t be true. Just spend two months in Hamburg and spend two months in Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s something wrong if the statistics are telling you that the people in Tupelo are three times wealthier than the people in Germany. Despite the numbers, social democracy really does work and delivers the goods and it’s the only model that an advanced country can do to be competitive in this world. I mean that not just in terms of exports, but in terms of being green at the same time. That we can raise the standard of living without boiling the planet shows how our measure of GDP is so crude.

  • How do we measure standards of living?: Speaking of measuring living standards, a recent Marketplace story examines alternative metrics. Audio below (story starts around minute 21:00):

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October 18, 2010 at 7:23 am

Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries

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[Seva Series: Profiles of seekers dedicated to the service of others.]

Founded by Jesuit Priest Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries (HI) has been serving (ex) gang members and the youth of East L.A. since 1992. HI has been in financial trouble lately, and while things are beginning to look up, they are still in need of contributions.

Father Greg (or “Father G” as homies call him) has had a lifelong commitment to living the Gospels through social justice. (Father G is a true Karma Yogi!) From his early days as a priest in Bolivia, through his work as a peace negotiator during the gang wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and now through the employment opportunities and other programs of HI, Father G has worked tirelessly for the people in the barrios of East L.A.

For more on Father G and his work, follow the links below. And if you can, donate to Homeboy Industries!

  • Tattoo Removal: One of HI’s most popular services, they own and operate (through volunteer doctors) the equipment used for their on-site service.

    Tattoo removal is a critical positive step in a long and challenging journey out of gang life and into positive social integration. Homeboy offers free tattoo removal on site. Ya’Stuvo means “that’s enough, I’m done with that”. Tattoo removal is often the first and most urgent treatment accessed in a continuum of case-managed economic development, health and social services offered through Homeboy Industries. In spite of the fact that tattoo removal by laser is known to be painful and takes an average of eight to ten treatments per tattoo, and in some cases up to 1 year to complete, patient retention is virtually 100%.

  • Tattoos on the Heart (The Power of Boundless Compassion): Father G’s recent book is full of funny and inspiring stories. By far the best introduction to the history and mission of Homeboy Industries.
  • Greg Boyle on Fresh Air: In this recent interview by Teri Gross, Father G gave an update on the current financial state of HI (at the time of the interview, not-so-good) and his health (cancer has been beaten back for now). Audio below:

  • Tavis Smiley interviews Father G
  • Homeboy Industries Trains Ex-Cons for Brighter Prospects:

    In the race to train America’s “green-collar” work force, a group composed mostly of former Los Angeles gang members on parole is an early participant. Their training is funded by Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps people with criminal pasts find employment.

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October 15, 2010 at 6:58 am

Posted in Faith, Seva, Social Justice

Tagged with ,

Is Off the Mat Naive?

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A recent post by Carol Horton alerted me to a Tikkun article questioning the efficacy of Spiritual Activist programs such as Off The Mat and Into The World. By singling out Off The Mat co-founder Seane Corne, the author and Tikkun generated more traffic than they probably anticipated! In fact the comment thread for the original article grew so long, the author created a follow-up post to highlight his responses to the many counterpoints raised by readers.

I largely agree with Carol Horton’s take on this:

And regardless of whether it’s in fact a valid critique of OTM (and I believe that it’s not), it’s important to recognize that it’s not simply mean-spirited and crazy to raise these issues. There is a long, unhappy, and all-too-often deeply shameful history of white people traveling to foreign lands in the name of “doing good,” while in reality doing nothing more than serving their own self-interest.
… Regardless of how good or aware OTM and similar organizations may be, some people are going to question the motives of white American women working with Black African children. That’s OK; that’s understandable. More than that: To protect against continued abuses, whether intentional or unconscious, it’s important.

I’ve observed Seane Corn interact with students and she strikes me as a compassionate and humble person. If any group can emerge from this controversy stronger and better, I think Off The Mat and its leaders most definitely can and will.

However as a person of color who grew up in the developing world, I’ve always wondered why Off The Mat took volunteers overseas1. I definitely can detect a bit of spiritual tourism in the promotional material. There are certainly more than enough service opportunities in the U.S., particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Heck, New Orleans alone still needs many volunteers. Doesn’t it make sense to keep things close to home? Besides reducing the overhead costs (airfare alone must be exorbitant), immersive experiences with minority populations close to home seem more likely to translate to social justice initiatives that can be sustained long after Off The Mat graduate from the program. Better yet, Off The Mat grads benefit from learning about and interacting with people much closer to their backyard.

In the long run Off The Mat will benefit2 from this controversy. A passionate critic from outside the Yoga community can surface “problems” that escape the attention of those caught up in novelty of Off The Mat. At the very least Off The Mat will probably revisit some of their training materials (which makes their programs stronger). I hate to say it, but Yogis can sometimes be a bit on the dreamy side – even those engaged in Seva. And as many NGO’s have found, venturing overseas requires quite a bit of cultural and historical knowledge.

(1) Then again, the Nov/2010 issue of the Yoga Journal just devoted 10 pages to high-end Yoga Resorts in exotic places (Costa Rica, Mexico, Bali, …).

(2) It also serves as a “welcome to the blogosphere” moment for Off The Mat. I did think the tone of the two Tikkun articles were a bit harsh.

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October 14, 2010 at 7:15 am

Posted in Seva, Social Justice, Yoga

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  • Shambala Sun profiles Jack Kornfield: Kornfield’s Wise Heart has found a spot on my list of my favorite books on meditation. I found that it is best savored – read slowly and revisited. I continue to reread portions of it. I can’t wait to read his upcoming book, The Buddha is Still Teaching.

    Before cofounding Spirit Rock in the late eighties, he helped create the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts—the first retreat center in America dedicated to the 2,500-year-old form of meditation called Vipassana, which employs mindfulness of breath, bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions to ground the racing mind in the here and now and penetrate the nature of reality. … He has organized councils of Buddhist teachers to meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala; taught loving-kindness meditation to inmates at San Quentin prison; hosted men’s groups for former gang members in Los Angeles with poet Luis Rodriguez and storyteller Michael Meade; and led a peace march alongside rabbis, sheikhs, and imams through the streets of the Holy Land.
    … A year ago, Kornfield was giving a talk in Barre when he lost consciousness and dropped to the floor. When he woke up, he says, “a dozen doctors were peering down at me.” At a neurologist’s office a few days later, he and his daughter Caroline heard that the initial diagnosis was of something grave, degenerative, and possibly life-threatening. “You don’t look so good, Dad,” Caroline said. He told her how much he loved her. “Oh Daddy,” she replied, “I wanted you to be here for my wedding and to be the grandfather for my children.” They both wept.
    A day or two later, Kornfield attended a council of senior teachers at Spirit Rock. Another teacher present at the meeting, Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness is an Inside Job, says that he conducted himself with composure and dignity. “We always start by going around in a circle and telling each other how we are,” she recalls. “That morning Jack said, ‘I have to go first.’ If it was a rehearsal for how any of us should do it if we reach that point in our lives, Jack did the rehearsal really well.”
    A painful rehearsal is what it turned out to be. The neurologist’s diagnosis proved incorrect, and in the past few months Kornfield’s tremors, dizziness, and other symptoms have lessened. Still, the ordeal was a potent spur to his appreciation of the fragility of existence.

  • How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain: Includes an interview1 with Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.
  • And it turns out, you don’t have to be a yogi to reap the benefits of meditation. Even those who participate in short-term training courses can alter their brains, according to research published this summer: In a collaborative study between the University of Oregon and the Dalian University of Technology in China, neuroscientists discovered that a Chinese meditation technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT) could alter the connectivity in the brain after just 11 hours of practice. Using a type of magnetic resonance called “diffusion tensor imaging,” the researchers examined the white matter fibers connecting different brain regions before and after training. The changes were most dramatic in the anterior cingulate, an area implicated in emotion control.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn on how he combined his passion for mindfulness with integrative medicine, and the early days of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): I remember a friend recommending Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living to me many years ago. I was already interested in meditation and mindfulness, but the that book really inspired me to keep going.

    MBSR really developed out of going around and talking to doctors in the hospital while I was working in the cell biology and anatomy department. This was 1979—so, thirty-one years ago. I was thinking, “I’m thirty-five. I really don’t want to be doing molecular biology research anymore; I want to do something that has to do with my meditation practice and bringing the Dharma into the world in ways that address the infinite levels and forms of suffering. The idea was, “Would it be valuable to the doctors and these patients if there was some kind of a safety net that would catch those people falling through the cracks of the healthcare system and challenge them to do something for themselves?” It’s the kind of work no one can do for you.

    It’s about cultivating what I call “deep interior resources” for learning, growing, healing, and transformation. The ability to cultivate those deep interior resources is grounded in the cultivation of attention and awareness and self-compassion.

  • How to live in Southern California on $2000 a year: As a long-time volunteer in a soup kitchen, I’ve heard stories very similar to the one in this article.

    I am an old man in his sixtieth year. I have entered that decade of life which destroys the last illusion and beyond which lies death, swift or lingering, actuarial or real. I am also poor, incontrovertibly, humiliatingly poor, for the first time in my life. My total annual income, from a modest pension ($1980) and the interest ($168.75) from an equally modest savings account, is 6 percent of what I earned in my prime-and less than two thirds of the property tax I once paid on a five-bedroom home with swimming pool in Westchester County, New York. I am divorced and living alone in an alien city of 800,000 strangers. My aging body betrays me day by day; the ground I am losing now I lose forever.

    … I SURVEYED THE TEXTURE of my new approach. Free lunches. Cut-rate bus tickets. Retail discounts. Methodical-and tedious-tours of the thrift shops in quest of shorts and T-shirts, items in such low supply and high demand that one has to arrive at the thrift shop long before it opens, to join a cluster of earlier birds. I was in a Burger King when the thought that had been nagging me through the months of wearing poverty like the king’s new cloak leaped to the front of my consciousness. I was sipping what turned out to be my last free lemonade. It is no trouble to get one. With patience, and by never standing twice in the same line, one separately acquires a paper cup of ice water, sugar, and lemon slices (“For my iced tea, please; you forgot”) and combines these ingredients in a booth.

(1) Sharon Gannon on The Importance of Meditation:

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October 11, 2010 at 8:04 am

Bo Lozoff on the Spiritual Search and Interrupted Bliss

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From “We’re All Doing Time” (p. 29):

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the spiritual “search” that we lose sight of the fact that it’s an inner journey. Our greatest discoveries are gained simply by learning how to be still. That’s all meditation is when you get right down to it: Sitting perfectly still – Silence of body, silence of speech, and silence of mind. The Buddha calls this “The Noble Silence.” It’s just a matter of STOPPING.

Bo Lozoff is the co-founder (along with with Ram Dass) of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation, non-profits that have active programs in many areas including prison reform, social justice, and clean energy. Far from being isolated and withdrawn from the world’s problems, Bo has has had a long-term commitment to social justice, particularly prison and criminal justice issues. Along with service, members of the Human Kindness Foundation are committed to living “… a simple lifestyle and a personal spiritual practice”.

In the videos below, Bo describes how his work with prisoners continues to shape his views on spirituality. An activist whose actions are grounded in a strong spiritual practice, the world could use more people like Bo.

[Update (10/29/2010): At a gathering tonight, a friend who has known Bo and his wife for many years mentioned that there have been disturbing allegations about Bo (abuse of power, inappropriate sexual behavior). My friend said that after a year away from his community, Bo is back in North Carolina and his wife continues to stand by him. Like other supporters, my friend still supports Bo's work with prisoners, but is disturbed by the allegations. I for one get a bit wary of organizations when a hierarchy emerges and decisions are made by a guru. Groups should regularly revisit their organizational structure as a safeguard against the centralization of authority.]

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October 7, 2010 at 7:04 am


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