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Compassion and Peace (when I Accuse You!) July 19, 2020

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“And now the image of [our country] is sullied by this filth, and history shall record that it was under your presidency that this crime against society was committed.

 At the root of it all is one evil man. … Nobody would ever believe the experiments to which he subjected the unfortunate….

… what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.”

 

– from “J’Accuse” by Emile Zola, published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898

J’Accuse! I accuse you! Yes, you! This is all your fault!!!

Loudly, publicly, and bluntly, I accuse you of doing something heinous. Before we get into the details of the accusation, pause for a moment. Consider how you are feeling. Don’t be surprised if you are feeling a tightening; maybe an immediate impulse to do something to defend yourself; maybe – before we even get into the details – you are already spinning the story, as if you know what I’m going to say. Even though this is a safe place (and you probably do know what I’m doing here: i.e., giving you a container in which to practice), you may already be feeling the bite of the hook. Shenpa; it’s the Tibetan word that American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön translates as hook, urge, impulse, charge, or attachment. She points out that while it is usually involuntary “it gets right to the root of why we suffer.”

When you feel it, even a little bit, you are feeling the “urge” or “impulse” to do something to defend/protect yourself… or, at least, defend/protect the afflicted thought that is your false sense of self. Remember, that while this may feel, physiologically, as if someone is threatening you with bodily harm – and while your body will react accordingly – shenpa in this context is not related to physical harm. It is related to suffering and, therefore, Recognizing what you are feeling (and why you are feeling it) is the first “R” in the practice of getting “unhooked.”

“At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

 

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

 

– Nelson Mandela

We are living in a time when a lot of people are getting “hooked” by a large number of things. One thing in particular that stands out is people experiencing shenpa because of loud, public, and blunt accusations. The accusations are all related to what in the yoga philosophy would be called avidyā (ignorance) and all four of the other afflicted or dysfunctional thought patterns. The loudest of the accusations comes in the form of one of several words: racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, or xenophobic. And, let’s be honest, if someone uses the right “mean” word, they don’t have to do it loudly (or publicly) for the accused to feel the bite of the hook. Furthermore, this shenpa-related reaction is so prevalent right now that we don’t have to turn on the news, read about it, or look online to see someone experiencing this particular form of suffering: all we have to do is look in the mirror.

Just to clarify, the suffering to which I refer – the suffering that comes from this particular type of ignorance – is not the suffering of the person who is doing the accusing. Yes, there is suffering when someone is subjected to another person’s hatred and small thinking (and yes, it is related to this same kind of dysfunctional/afflicted thinking), but that’s not the point of today’s practice. Today is more about the suffering of the accused.

Wait, what?

I know, I know, some of you are thinking I’m sleep deprived again – but stick with me.

Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

For further clarification, let’s talk about a former housemate of mine. This person is a person of color (really, a member of more than one ethnic minority group) and held a position of power within a certain organization. They are also male-presenting and, let’s get real, there’s some power in that. At one point while we were living together, my former housemate was accused of being racist and sexist. Now, he was troubled by this for a number of reasons – not the least of which was that (a) as a minority he felt like he couldn’t be racist, (b) he adored and respected women, and (c) he had personally been the victim of a lot of different kinds of racism. Being accused of such a thing is hard on its on, it’s harder when you know how it feels to have that hatred directed at you.

Part of what makes it hard to be accused of being {fill in the blank} is that for many of us the idea of holding a negative and/or stereotypical view of someone because of something they can’t change goes against who we think we are at our core. We reject the very notion that we could hold views that have been described as “unmitigated evil.” Additionally, even if we think there’s nothing wrong with our view, we recognize that such views and the behavior associated with them are not socially acceptable. So, even if we think we’re right, it’s embarrassing to be accused of something that the populace views as wrong.

It all comes down to perception. As I told my housemate at the time, as soon as someone says something is racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, or xenophobic – it is. Full stop. The urge to argue about it is coming from being “hooked” and generates an endless (and, I’d argue, useless) cycle of suffering. Practice the second and third “R’s”: Refrain, Relax. We don’t solve anything by denying what is real in the moment. Our denial, however, is part of what is real and may prevent us from getting to the root of the problem: avidyā.

“I call it, it’s ‘dog-whistle racism.’ It’s something that, everybody could be in the same room as you, but you’re the only person who’s hearing it. And it’s loud and clear to you, as to the reason why you’re being treated this way or not allowed to come here; or being asked for your ID, several times; asked why you’re here; told to go sit somewhere else, even though you’re with a group of people – they don’t see you as part of that group. It happens a lot.”

 

– Canadian author and CTV news anchor Andrea M. Bain, appearing on ET Canada (07/16/2020)

There are very few, if any, modern (First World) societies that were not built on a foundation of ignorance. Here in the United States, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are – in many ways – the very bedrock of our civilization.  (Are you tightening up over these statements? Take a deep breath. Sigh it out. Repeat and then read on.)

To me, a woman of color (from the South, no less), everyone in this country has been socialized to be have ignorant thoughts (be they racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, xenophobic, ageist, and/or ableist. Yes, everyone! To turn away from this is to turn away from the opportunity to fix the problems that result in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, xenophobic, ageist, and/or ableist behavior. Let’s be clear here, we may not (at this stage) be able to change our thoughts, but we can in this moment change our words and deeds/actions by paying attention to our thoughts. An accusation brings awareness to what’s real in this moment. It’s an engraved invitation to practice. Yes, it is a really stressful, awkward, and horrible invitation, but it’s still an invitation.

By accepting the invitation, we accept the opportunity to make real change. Bringing awareness to what’s going on in our minds (consciously, unconsciously, and subconsciously) gives us the opportunity to decide how we want to engage the world and the people in the world. In other words, pausing for a moment to recognize what is happening in this moment allows us to move forward with the final “R,” Resolve. It gives us the opportunity to internally declare, “I just had a racist thought, but I’m not going to follow that up with straight-up racist behavior. I’m not going to be racist today. I’m going to be {fill in the blank}.”

Here’s the thing though: You only get to fill in the blank if you let go of the impulse to defend yourself against the accusation. You only get to fill in the blank if you let go of the attachment you have to believing you are something you like when someone is accusing you of being something you dislike. You only get to fill in the blank if you allow your “false sense of ego” to die. Yes, you have to let go of you think you are. All of that is to say, you only get to fill in the blank if you let go of your avidyā.

“If we can see shenpa just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it. Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

 

“As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so. My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit.”

 

– from “J’Accuse” by Emile Zola, published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898

 

Today in 1898, the novelist and essayist Emile Zola fled France after being found guilty of libel in a case associated with the “Dreyfus Affair.” The libel case and subsequent conviction were based on an open letter in which Zola accused the army, the government, and even the court system of illegally arresting and convicting Captain Alfred Dreyfus of espionage and treason. Dreyfus was a French artillery officer, who was also Jewish, and there was no indication (or evidence) that he committed the crimes in question. In fact, two years after Dreyfus was court martialed and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit, evidence proved that the real culprit was a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy was tried, found “not guilty” of conspiring with the Germans, and allowed to retire in 1898, with the rank of Major. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, who brought forward the evidence against Esterhazy, was transferred to Tunisia. Once he was out of the country, military officials portrayed Picquart as anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, military officials manufactured evidence against Dreyfus (and convicted him a second time) – and all of this was leaked to the press.

While historians still debate why Dreyfus was arrested, framed, and convicted, everyone agrees that he was innocent. This is not revisionist history. His innocence was firmly established at the time – which is why Zola, a noted writer of the time, was so outraged. Knowing the power of his words and the power of his reputation, Zola penned a 4,500-word article which was published on the front page of L’Aurore. The headline, above the fold, read “J’Accuse…!” and almost 300,000 copies were distributed (on January 13, 1898). That was 10x the normal distribution. The open letter was a detailed timeline of “L’Affaire.” It included names of officials, accused them of anti-Semitism, and provided explicit details to back up the accusations. Zola wanted to “hook” the government and force them to sue him for libel so that all of the evidence from the secret court martial cases would be made public. Additionally, Zola’s letter further incensed the French public, which became even more outraged by Zola’s trial and conviction. His sentencing did not go well, as it turned the already volatile populace further against the military. As Zola fled, more publications took up the fight, the world started watching, and the citizens of France began what many consider major social reformation. They took a look at themselves and the reality of what they were versus what they professed to be: a Catholic nation or a republic where all citizens had equal rights regardless of religion.

“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”

 

– Alfred Dreyfus, after accepting a Presidential pardon

Dreyfus was offered a Presidential pardon in 1899, which he accepted; however, he was still considered a traitor to France and spent several years under house-arrest. It would be 1906 before he was officially exonerated by a military commission, readmitted to the army and promoted to major, and then named to Knight of the Legion of Honor. He retired within a year, but returned to the army at the beginning of World War I. He would eventually be promoted to lieutenant colonel and be awarded the rank of “Officer” within the Legion of Honor. When he died in 1935, he was given full military honors – plus a little extra pomp and circumstance since his funeral procession occurred during Bastille Day. His tombstone inscription is in Hebrew and English, and only refers to his unfaltering service to France.

Zola returned to France after the French government collapsed, but would die of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. In 1908, during a ceremony to honor Zola by interring his ashes at the Panthéon, a right-wing reporter would attempt to assassinate Dreyfus. In 1953, a roofer admitted, in a death-bed confession, that he had murdered Zola by initially blocking the chimney. Years after the fact, there were still people getting “hooked.”

“Working with shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there’s no way to be arrogant. The trick is to keep seeing. Don’t let the softening and humility turn into self-denigration. That’s just another hook. Because we’ve been strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we can’t expect to undo it overnight. It’s not a one-shot deal. It takes loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way. It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

Please join me for a compassionate 65-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, July 19th) at 2:30 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is in effect. If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom. You can always request an audio recording of this practice (or any practice) via email or a comment below.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

 

“Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson  

 

 

### RRRR(R) ###

Compassion and Peace (with regards to Ralph Waldo Emerson) July 15, 2020

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“Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens — that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place — that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you — they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child — and, shenpa: almost co-arising.”

 

– Pema Chödön

When I was growing up, as a Black girl in the South, I got my hair done. You might say I was getting a permanent, getting a relaxer, or getting my hair processed. Either way, getting my hair done was a lengthy (and relatively expensive) endeavor which, as it did in the 70’s, involved lye. Lye, can refer to a variety of metal hydroxides; however, in this case I’m referring to sodium hydroxide (NaOH). The same chemical used in soaps, detergents, and drain cleaner (specifically because it can breakdown hair clogs) was included in most commercial hair straightening products for African Americans with a certain texture of hair. These products could, and often did, result in chemical burns on the skin of men, women, and children. Sometimes the physical scars were permanent; sometimes you were just left with the memory of the horror of feeling like your scalp was being burned off your head. Obviously, this was an experience people wanted to avoid – so, everyone had to keep their cool in the beauty shop. This made some subjects off limits. Specifically, we didn’t talk about sex, religion, and/or politics.

Talking about sex, religion, politics, and any subject that combines one or more of the three is a guaranteed way to “get a rise out of someone.” And, what is inevitably rising is your blood pressure, your body temperature, and your passion (“suffering”). Talking about sex, religion, politics, and any combination of the three is a great way to get “hooked” – which means conversations involving those subjects are great times to practice “compassionate abiding” and the Four R’s (Recognize, Relax, Refrain, Resolve). I would even suggest that if you have a way with words, or you are engaged in conversation with someone who has a way with words, it might be helpful to start the practice before you even start the conversation.

I know, I know, to some my suggestion sounds ridiculous. Yet, people who have a way with words have a way of getting a rise out of you. Words have power. Remember, words are related to the first two powers (siddhis) unique to being humans. People who have a way with words can be very powerful.

“A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue. Then he is instructed in what is above him. He learns that his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness. That which he venerates is still his own, though he has not realized it yet. He ought. He knows the sense of that grand word, though his analysis fails entirely to render account of it.”

 

 

– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson had a way with words. He was one of the leaders of the Transcendental Movement of the 19th century and consistently encouraged poets, scholars, the clergy, and everyday people to turn inward, to take a look at themselves. He was a teacher of “Young Ladies” and influenced naturalists and pioneers of the environmental movement, like John Muir, and political and social theorists, like Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. He inspired people like Walt Whitman to write poetry, to properly capture the spirit of the United States. He supported abolitionists like John Brown and inspired people like Henry David Thoreau to go into the woods to live deliberately and to discover, through Nature, who/what they were and from whence they came. He believed all things were connected to God and, therefore, divine – radical religious thinking for a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Yet, he was invited to speak to Harvard students twice, in 1837 and 1838.

Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” resulted in an invitation from Harvard College’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837. By most accounts, “The American Scholar” went off without a hitch. It was an introduction to Transcendentalist and Romantic views on Nature, as well as the American scholar’s relationship with and responsibility to Nature. He talked about cause and effect, history, and the scholar’s role in writing history. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called the speech “the declaration of independence of American intellectual life” and, 95 years later, Phi Beta Kappa would name its newly established literary magazine after the speech. The speech also resulted in an invitation to deliver the commencement speech for his alma mater, Harvard Divinity School.

“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.”

 

– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today in 1838, eleven months after receiving a lifetime of accolades for his “The American Scholar” speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed six of the seven members of the Harvard Divinity School graduating class, Unitarian theologians like Andrews Norton and Henry Ware, Jr., and the Divinity School Dean John G. Palfrey. Keep in mind that, at the time, Harvard Divinity School was closely associated with the Unitarian church (having originally been established as a Unitarian school) and that Emerson was a former Unitarian minister. The fact that Emerson had left his position at a Unitarian church was no secret – in fact, some would say that “The American Scholar” speech was a reflection on his own spiritual crisis. Perhaps, the scholarly aspect of his relationship with Nature was so inspiring that no one paid much attention to the religious part. With the commencement speech, however, Emerson left no doubts about his beliefs.

He outlined how Transcendentalism and Unitarian theology didn’t fit together and proclaimed that moral intuition was a better guide than religious doctrine. Furthermore, he discounted the need to believe in the historical miracles of Jesus (who he defined as a great man, but not God); denied the need for a “personal God;” and basically declared that the clergy (including those in attendance) had killed God and killed the Church with ministry devoid of life.

 “Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation. As is the flood so is the ebb. Let this faith depart, and the very words it spake, and the things it made, become false and hurtful. Then falls the church, the state, art, letters, life. The doctrine of the divine nature being forgotten, a sickness infects and dwarfs the constitution.”

 

– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson expected his speech to inspire debate, maybe even a third invitation back to Harvard. Instead, today’s 1838 commencement speech pushed people’s buttons and got them so “hot” (or hooked) his critics started attacking him personally. He was called an atheist and someone who poisoned young men’s minds. It was implied, in print, that his speech was barely intelligible and “utterly distasteful.” Norton called Transcendentalism “the latest form of infidelity,” and Ware (who had been Emerson’s mentor during his time at Harvard) delivered a sermon a few months later that was seen as a point-by-point rebuttal to Emerson’s speech. Instead of an invitation to come back, the 35-year old Emerson was banned from Harvard for 27 years (and 6 days). When he returned to deliver the 1865 commencement speech, his words were a reflection of a country that had been at war with itself, as well as a reflection of a man whose spiritual community had been at war with him.

“MR. CHAIRMAN, AND GENTLEMEN : With whatever opinion we come here, I think it is not in man to see, without a feeling of pride and pleasure, a tried soldier, the armed defender of the right. I think that in these last years all opinions have been affected by the magnificent and stupendous spectacle which Divine Providence has offered us of the energies that slept in the children of this country, – that slept and have awakened. I see thankfully those that are here, but dim eyes in vain explore for some who are not.”

 

– quoted from the 1865 Harvard Divinity School commencement speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Please join me today (Wednesday, July 15th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom, where I just might push your buttons. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

 

“I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.”

 

– quoted from the 1838 “Divinity School Address” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

### TRUTH BEAUTY RIGHTEOUSNESS ###

The Bard of Democracy (and of getting better air in our lungs) May 31, 2020

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“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”

 

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

 

– excerpts from the essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (b. 05/25/1803)

 

“I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.”

– Walt Whitman (b. 05/31/1819) as quoted in a February 1902 article by John Townsend Trowbridge, published in The Atlantic Monthly

 

There are times when we have so much churning inside of our minds and our bodies that it can make us physically ill. It churns and churns, until it spills over. Or, another analogy is to think of all of that emotion as water inside of a pot on top of an open flame: it’s “simmering, simmering, simmering…” until it boils over. When we are children, we are taught to be mindful of the hot stove and the pot that sits on top. We watch our elders; placing various ingredients inside, stirring, churning, adjusting the flames – even tasting along the way, sometimes even letting us taste a little. We watch and learn that we can make something delicious, or potent medicine, or poison, or paint and dye. We watch and learn that if we don’t pay close attention we will make a big, unusable, inedible mess. We watch and learn that if we are not careful, we can hurt ourselves or others.

Many of us in the United States of America were raised with the idea that America is the great melting pot – a mixture of so many different cultures and flavors coming together into a single delicacy. The term started gaining traction as a metaphor for the USA after the production of the play The Melting Pot, which premiered in Washington, D. C. in October of 1908. The play had a happy ending. However, years before it was written (way back in the mid-1800’s), writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had noticed that no one was watching the pot, or the open flame.

Emerson encouraged American scholars, clergy, poets, and every day people to take responsibility for the-pot-on-the-flame that is society. He kicked off the Transcendental movement and inspired people like Whitman, who decided he would be “The Poet” that Emerson said was needed to capture the spirit of America. Born today in 1819, Whitman was the father of “free verse.” He wrote about what he observed and what he perceived. So, he wrote about baseball, and slavery, and leaves of grass, and women’s bodies, and women’s rights, and men’s bodies, and their rights, and his own body, and about all of humanity crossing a single point over decades. He wrote about breathing, and about questioning everything.

6

….

“Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,

For you only, and not for him and her?

7

A man’s body at auction,

….

Gentlemen look on this wonder,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for it,

….

Within there runs blood,

The same old blood! the same red-running blood!

There swells and jets a heart, there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations,

(Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms?)

This is not only one man, this the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns,

In him the start of populous states and rich republics,

Of him countless immortal lives with countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries?

(Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries?)

8

A woman’s body at auction,

She too is not only herself, she is the teeming mother of mothers,

She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers.

Have you ever loved the body of a woman?

Have you ever loved the body of a man?

Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations and times all over the earth?

If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred,”

 

– excerpts (abridged) from “I Sing The Body Electric” by Walt Whitman

 

The first edition of Leaves of Grass (published in 1855) contained twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. It was a collection intended to fit in someone’s pocket. Right off the bat, Whitman had critics – and those critics included luminaries like Willa Cather (who called him “that dirty old man,” “the poet of the dung hill as well as the mountains,” and compared one of his poems to what would happen “If a joyous elephant should break forth into song….” But, among his fans, was Whitman’s inspiration: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s approval inspired Whitman to not only produce a second edition of Leaves of Grass (published in 1856), but to add poems and increase the number of pages to 384. He did not stop there, however. After “33 y’rs of hackiling at it” (according to a letter Whitman wrote to a friend) – or after “thirty-five or forty years” (as announced in the New York Herald) – Whitman released the sixth, seventh, or ninth edition (depending on how you count) shortly before his death. This 1892 edition is referred to as the “deathbed edition” and contained almost 400 poems.

In a mini biography for Biography, Dr. Robert Hudspeth, Research Professor of English at Claremont Graduate University, said, “Whitman was called ‘The Bard of Democracy’ because all of his poems are based on the notion of a universal brotherhood. He thought that the possibility of America was to achieve a brotherhood that no other culture had yet been able to achieve.” This view of what the country could be was a true melting pot – that is to say, a heterogeneous society becoming a homogeneous society by virtue of all the cultures melting together to form something new. Whitman saw the ideal (American) society as one where everyone recognized the value and humanity of everyone else. What he saw around him, however, was that the-pot-on-the-flame that is society was boiling over. Instead of coming together, melding together, everything (and everyone) in the proverbial pot was churning in a way that overflowed; meaning, some things (and some people) were getting pushed out of the coming together process. The country was becoming homogeneous not because it was melding together, but because it was excluding certain aspects that made it heterogeneous.

Whitman tried, he really did, but ultimately, he could not get enough people to pay attention to what was happening around them. People, even back in the 1800’s, were distracted by his sexuality and the sensual nature of the poems. Writers like Willa Cather referred to his work as “ridiculous” and people in power (including the head of the Department of the Interior, for which he worked) called Leaves of Grass offensive, filthy, and/or sinful (especially to Christians). As harsh as some of that sounds, these are some of the least caustic reviews. (Much worse was actually printed in the press.)

And so here we are… Fast forward and the-pot-on-the-flame that is society has officially boiled over. Walt Whitman knew it was coming and he didn’t just leave us a little advice. He left us a whole manual for moving forward. In the preface to Leaves of Grass he wrote “This is what you shall do….”

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

– from the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman believed in celebrating the body, exploring, questioning, and coming together – and we can do all that in yoga. Please join me for a 65-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, May 31st) at 2:30 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is an upgrade that went into effect yesterday (Saturday, May 30th). If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

(NOTE: The YouTube playlist includes recordings of some of the poems, as part of the before/after class mix. These tracks are not included on Spotify.)

 

“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs.”

 

– Walt Whitman writing about the new game, baseball, in the Brooklyn Eagle (07/23/1846)

 

 

### “A KELSON OF THE CREATION IS LOVE” (WW) ###