Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Art of Being Human

I was recently invited to attend a Buddhist meditation weekend workshop called "The Art of Being Human." A well-known instructor from out of state is flying in to teach it, and it's being held in the beautifully elegant, simple, tastefully uncluttered home of a famous local musician. The other attendees will probably all be affluent, well educated, conventionally attractive white people who wear organic cotton clothes and leave their shoes at the door. There will be healthy gourmet vegan meals served with fresh cut flowers on the table, a lovely garden for walking meditation, and a swimming pool to cool down at the end of each day.

Part of me kind of wants to go, because reading Pema Chödrön really helped pull me through some dismally dark times. Another part of me wants to go, for the rare opportunity of being in a room full of people who drive Priuses instead of mammoth SUVs with 'W' stickers on the bumpers. And yet another part of me wants to go because for ONCE I could be pretty fucking certain that nobody will be serving me deep fried pig penises boiled in the same damn vat of rancid trans-fats they've been re-using for the past 20 years.

But these are extremely tiny parts of me, compared to the hugest part of me, the majority part of me, the part that wants to run shrieking out of the room and burst into flames at the mere thought of paying $125 to be cooped up for three days with this kind of pampered white privilege. And it's not even about the money, because they do offer sliding scale scholarships for those who can't pay.

I mean, please: "The Art of Being Human"? Hell. You want to see some true Masters of meditation in action? Go to any of the packed waiting rooms at Our Lady of the Damned. These ugly, drab, grungy, noisy, cluttered, crowded, smelly, uncomfortable rooms are the "workshops" where I learned to sit in perfect stillness for eight hours or more. This is where I learned to transcend my own jumbled thoughts, desires, physical pains, and frantic emotions; to tune out the noisy world blaring its distracting Regis Philbins and Bob Barkers and Judge Judys; to let go of striving for goals, to abandon hope of fruition; to feel at one with my fellow sufferers; to wait in utter stillness, with Cosmic patience, compassion, and a quiet empty mind. This is where I learned to respect not so much the "Art," but the Challenge of Being Human, of Staying Human, under conditions designed to brutally dehumanize.

The sad truth is, I can't do it, I can't accept the invitation. I've just lost the ability, lost the desire to be part of that tasteful, elegant, self-consciously uncluttered world any more. It doesn't feel real to me. It leaves me empty, but with the wrong kind of emptiness.

I do my weekly meditation at the funky rundown neighborhood washateria now, with the other poor people. We sit together in stillness, watching sheets tumble in the dryers, folding towels with empty minds, letting go of attachment to machines that work and won't steal our money. This is what really feels like The Art of Being Human to me now. Aum.


Blogger Judy Wise said...

Amen. But hey, the food would be nice.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Randi said...

Maybe you should go just to enlighten the others that are there. Sounds like you could share something.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am no longer shocked by what those with privilege do to shelter themselves from the actual challenges of reality. It's why people like that can drift soulfully by a swimming pool while people like you and certain friends of mine and millions of others are brutally pummeled by a reality that gives a fuck if they're feeling at one with the universe while they watch their lives dissolve. If they stopped that soulful drift, looked past the perfect tray of snacks served by a neutrally dressed servant, they'd see the chaos, pain and despair that are the real instructors of the spirit.

Then they'd have to make themselves uncomfortable and try to HELP.

You're ten thousand times the spiritual human that they are. I'm not sure that the artfully uncluttered existence is related to humanity, except in our ability to remain self-absorbed in the face of any scale of tragedy.

3:29 PM  
Blogger BeReal said...

Not all white wealthy people are insensitive, selfish, hoarders. Many are compassionate, caring, considerate people who give of themselves and their resources so selflessly that they themselves sacrifice things. This is even the case with some Republicans.
prej·u·dice (prĕj'ə-dĭs)
Irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion.
An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.
A preconceived preference or idea.
The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions. See synonyms at predilection.

4:04 PM  
Blogger A.Smith said...

Imagine what all that money could do at KIVA...sigh. Yes, I am pushing my favorite money hole, where every penny we can spare (and some times some we shouldn't) goes to pay for our tuition to learn the job of being human.

The problem with systems that isolate us from reality, no matter for how little or for how long, continues to be the aftermath, when the whole facade collapses upon re-entering the chaos of every day life. Does anyone among those people wonder why do monasteries and cloisters exist? These exercises of what I call "spiritual band-aids" only reinforce my belief that there are those who believe that removing one's self from everyday suffering, ours and others, would allow us to go into a "sacred space" where we are going to understand the "meaning of life". If the meaning of life is not by truly living it, experiencing every kind of joy and pain from emotional to physical, developing empathy for those who are suffering and trying to do whatever may be possible within the measure of our abilities to help and to find a place of connection with everyone, alive and dead, then I have been doing it all wrong for a long long time and I am too old to change.

Having lived among the poorest of the poor while working in Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Kenya and assorted other less known places when I hear about things like this I can only think of what Mahatma Gandhi responded when asked what he thought of western civilization: "I think it would be a great idea".

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.
~ Eden Phillpotts

4:27 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

Bereal, not all white wealthy people are those things. But white wealthy people have PRIVILEGE, and loads of it. And like Ani Difranco put it, "privilege is like a headache you didn't know you didn't have."

How difficult to spend time with all these people who are walking around without that headache, people who don't even realize how good they have it...when your own head is pounding. When your own head has BEEN pounding, and won't STOP pounding. How difficult to talk about what it means to be human when they are approaching it from their place of privilege, but you have to spend three quarters of your energy just trying to get your pounding head to recede into the background for one goddamn minute so you can focus on something else.

Think too, about what Liz said - that her art of being human has been related to the art of STAYING human. When that has been your challenge, how do you communicate that to those who have never experienced that sort of dehumanization (and most white wealthy people probably haven't)?

5:08 PM  
Blogger Kanga Jen said...

Yikes! I can't speak for Liz but I interpreted her post as less about ragging on the Buddhist meditation attendees and more about explaining where she's coming from. Everyone has to find their own way, and if someone finds their personal peace through pampered exclusion, who are we to slam them for that?

Liz, this was a great post - gives me a lot to think about.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Trasi said...

I can see both sides of this argument - I've been around plenty of the kind of people you talk about at my little neighborhood yoga class. People who get off on the whole "oneness" of Buddhist meditation and yoga and what-not. Yet, as I sit there and try to get my own mind to shut the F up for one GD minute, I truly don't know the hearts and lives of these people enough to know if that is really who I am sitting next to. Humanity can find rich and poor alike. Disease too. True, that the wealthy can afford faster and in many cases better medicine, in a more pleasant environment. But many times even rich people suffer and die. They still vomit until it's just stomach lining coming out. They still lose loved ones and feel pain and have to deal with bullshit in their lives. Just not "I'm flat broke" bullshit. I'm not saying they can't suck as humans sometimes, just that being white and earning a decent salary doesn't make a person an asshole. I've known just as many poor assholes who couldn't give two shits about me or anyone else. And who knows if that is who really WOULD be there? Hell, I don't know, perhaps you do know that for sure. I'm just surprised to see that you've already decided that without even knowing the actual people there. You might find the event and the setting pretentious in its simply crafted way, but the human beings there deserve a chance to at least prove themselves one thing or another. At least, that's my view. One of a million, I'm sure.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

No, I don't mean to be judging these people. I too am white and privileged and insulated in more ways than I can even begin to comprehend.

I don't pretend to be in any way superior to them, it's just that I find myself unable to feel like part of that particular world any more. Not because it's a bad evil world or anything, it's just that something inside me broke and I can no longer feel like I'm part of it. And I would guess most of the people I sit with can't either.

My path has just come to be such a different one. In a way I'm suspended between two worlds and not really a part of either.

6:18 PM  
Blogger layne said...

I'm paying attention. I've had similar experiences recently, the last at the Whole Foods Market in Baton Rouge, where I found myself in a panic at the clear clear clear illustration of John Edwards' two Americas. Expensive groceries, luxurious and exotic and packaged just so. Did I really need produce from Asia? Does anyone, other than people who live in Asia? Who spends $120 on a bottle of wine, and why?

Not only the shoppers but also the people behind the counters, the checkers, the people stocking the shelves, all seemed cut from some other pattern than what I'm used to. It just felt wrong.

8:18 PM  
Blogger debinca said...

Well here is the deal, if you think you'd like to go then you should. If its not where you want to be then don't go.

But remember sometimes you're in a place to receive and learn whats offered, then other times you might be there to teach and set an example for the others who are watching.

I know you have set an example and taught many who come here many new things about life, you've got a gift with words and directness, perhaps this weekend could enlighten those to the issues you've come across.

But I'm wandering here........... lord Liz just got and have fun with whatever you do, if this isnt a fun thing... forget it!!

10:53 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Why does it have to be all or nothing? Why not get something out of all the worlds you travel in, while some may be more comfortable than others, admittedly? I can't see why you would not feel comfortable with this (assumed) group. You're crazily intelligent, open to new ideas, and anyone going there wants to be there, to be open as well, I think that's fairly safe to assume. If they didn't, they'd be out shopping.

I walk in different worlds too. It's good and bad in all the worlds. I wouldn't prejudge the experience (I know you're not prejudging the people) or think you may not be comfortable in "that" world. You are entitled to be part of any world you choose, whether to take something from the periphery of it or much more. There should be some tidbit of good stuff to take from the experience.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Lymphopo said...

It's not that I don't feel comfortable, or that I fear I wouldn't fit in, or that I'm somehow not entitled to be there. I've been to meditation workshops before, I've known that world. I still know the script by heart: I know exactly how to play the role of educated white Buddhist workshop attendee. I know what to wear, how to move, how to speak, what to say, what not to say.

But there's something new and different inside of me now that just won't let me play that game any more. I just can't do it. And it's ok, I'm not complaining, it just is what is. I'm at a place now where I learn more about The Art of Being Human by sitting in the laundromat with other weary impoverished downtrodden women. I'm sorry I don't have the words to explain it any better than this.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Trasi said...

Maybe it is just more desirable for you to be around people you feel might understand what it is like to go through such hell. Even if you never discuss it, you can just feel it in the air between you. Being in an environment that is pampering maybe just feels empty. It seems to me, anyway, much more rewarding when I talk about something difficult going on in my life, if the other person actually "gets" what I am saying and can commiserate to a certain degree. Maybe it's that feeling on a grander scale.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely put.

People who are unclear on the concept of "privilege" and what to do with the knowledge of it might find it useful to visit this friendly link:

"Check My What?" by Andrea Rubinstein

I think I may have first found this link at your previous blog, Liz.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Lucid Dream Yogini said...

>>>"I know exactly how to play the role of educated white Buddhist workshop attendee. I know what to wear, how to move, how to speak, what to say, what not to say."<<<

You know, it might be fun to go and just be YOU, instead of playing a role. It might be a totally different experience than you've ever had, if you've always attended these kinds of workshops before while playing a 'role'.


11:39 PM  
Blogger Axon said...


It's the old story; "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." You don't need to go to a meditation workshop because you're not searching anymore. Not to say you're "enlightened"; only that you've already found more than meditation can show you. Meditation is a door, and you don't need to keep walking through that door. It may well be said that meditation (and sensory deprivation, drugs, what have you) are simply substitutes for actual practical experience in preternatural consciousness that comes from extreme adversity. In the absence of those challenges, meditation is a useful exercise. In the wake of them, it's a monumental waste of time. It's like studying piano scales after giving voice to an aria.


12:52 AM  
Blogger Polly said...

Hey - I just linked to your blog through Geoff Coupe's and I have to say that was a fantastic post. How right you are. Extremis can produce the deepest base points of human experience, and the idea you have to pay a hundred dollars to ponce around like that to find out what it means to be what you already are, sounds so indulgent. Like viewing a disaster site from a helicopter.

Great site. thanks for that.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Julie B said...

I found a lot to think about in your post and the comments. My first reaction to what you said was amen! But then I reflected upon our circumstances where we do have insurance but my husband now has 3 type of cancer and we have interminable waits in hospital and clinic waiting rooms or small cubicles of an examining room. I found my self telling the patient representative at the the hospital that "yes, you treat everyone equally, equally badly." The medical situation in our community is dire. Doctors are leaving en masse. We could not get a pulmonologist appointment for 5 months and my husband has a lung tumor.
Now for every appointment I carry my canvas bag with supplies to last hours. Last week we were waiting in an exam room for over 3 hours and finally had to leave for another appointment. One of the residents came in the room and asked what we were doing there. All I could say is "We be hangin here." We were waiting for the urologist to confer with the hematologist and the urological oncologist about the lung tumor that is probably a metastases.

Yeah we have privilege for all the good it does. Hospitals and doctors offices are the most dehumanizing places I can think of. I have sat on both sides of the desk in a clinical setting and I certainly hope I was human in both circumstances.
My blog is at

3:57 AM  
Blogger Rent Party said...

Yes - I learned part of my meditation skills because of being lucky enough to be from a beach town in California, you could gaze out to sea and not pay for it ... and partly by standing in line for hours among the underprivileged, although the fact that I was even in that country was a result of my own privilege.

Still, when religious types and therapists say I must not have learned meditation because I did not pay a specific for it to an expert or do it in a church or temple, I lose my meditative cool and want to kick them in the stomach and knock them down. Preferably off a bridge and into a thick bayou.

1:47 PM  

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