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Archive for March, 2011

Albert Camus, Nobel laureate, resistance fighter and humanitarian, was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. He is of great importance for me and the way that my ideas and perceptions have been shaped throughout my adult life, and he has made a profound and lasting contribution to the modern understanding of the human condition in terms of basic personal ethical responsibility and broader social relations. His long novel The Plague is one of the great modern stories which explores what it means to be a thinking, feeling human being in times of suffering and oppression, and shows through character development and story arc the meaning of life from a humanitarian viewpoint. In a time when the world was polarized into different camps, Camus emphasized the inherent value of human freedom and conscious choice and shared existential issues. He also spoke and worked against totalitarian regimes and criticized or rejected their proponents in the free societies, such as the Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus represented and embodied what is called “The Engaged Man”.

Albert Camus can be put in the same category as Dr. Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and the Dalai Lama as one of the great voices for hope and a commitment to humanity which is both broad and deep.  Like the group mentioned earlier, he represents and teaches a kind of universal responsibility. His words and actions show people a real alternative to one-party totalitarianism, blind religious belief, mere nihilism and unevolved personal self-obsession. For Camus it is not about belief or dogma, it’s not about “god” or money, it’s about freedom and responsibility, which we must engage no matter what our path in life. This is based on the fact that we are all humans and we must learn to live with ourselves and with others. The point is to live life consciously, to live as human life matters, no matter if it is our own or that of others. Camus stressed that slavery and coercion, lies and propaganda, had to be rejected on all levels for people to become authentic, conscious and ultimately free. This simple idea is the most important stepping-stone to a more human world and to more broad-based cooperation between the peoples of the world. Ultimately that is what matters.

Albert Camus is one of the main influences on my understanding of what it means to be a human being, this is still true some 15 years later. The Plague was the first book that I read of his during highschool, and it still keeps popping up in my everyday life and struggles as a guide to help me remain on the path of wisdom and compassion. The Plague is a long book about struggle and suffering, it is true, but that’s what life is, both for those who do not care for others, and for those who do. The question is how each of us faces struggle and suffering, alone or together. The answer Camus gives is that we have to give a damn. If I could sum up my meditation practice in a nutshell, I think that I would sum it up the same way, “just give a damn and you will be more present and compassionate towards yourself and others”.

Another point that I find is crucial in Camus’ philosophy is that we can be neither victim or executioner in life, and to be someone who stands fast in the middle, someone who strongly works for balance on our long road to freedom. Our past is not a binding condition nor is it our potential. We can re-choose to awaken to our own shared humanity, which is indeed no different from awakening to ourselves and our own hopes and our own lives. For better or worse, probably both, we are all in this together. Camus will always be a friend that I travel this path with, his words and actions will always remind me to give a damn and to share my humanity with the people that surround me. I am forever indebted for how his writings have changed me, and I will always consider Camus to be one of my closest and dearest friends, even though we have never met in the flesh.

I leave you with his essay Neither Victims Nor Executioners, it was a series of essays by Albert Camus that were serialized in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, in November 1946. In the essays he discusses violence and murder and the impact these have on those that perpetrate, suffer and observe them.

NEITHER VICTIMS NOR EXECUTIONERS by Albert Camus

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail–a net which threatens to strangle us.

It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression… that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation.

I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis– and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future–that is the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are.

For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder, and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is done, and that is as far as I can go at present….

However, I want to make clear the spirit in which this article is written. We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice.

Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be–that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of–do not wish for them success in power politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe.

This is the kind of elementary truth we are likely to forget amidst the furious passions of our time. Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability and the universal inter- communication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice, and lies destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them.

But these evils are today the very stuff of history, so that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot “escape history,” since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here.

The “point” of this article may be summed up as follows: Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will, then, continue.

But I will ask only this simple question: What if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of history on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren–supposing they survive– find themselves no closer to a world society?

It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they continue to do so,there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life.

The essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price they must pay…. All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.

After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.

Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

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I have been feeling very nostalgic lately, going through my old record collection (pulling out the bands that marked my teenage years like Nirvana, Bad Religion, NOFX, Rancid, etc.) and watching way too many clips on You Tube about the grunge explosion of Seattle and the year that punk “broke” (1994 when it hit mass society, not the actual birth of punk).  I was watching a clip about Green Day tonight on the release of Dookie and the eventual movement that came to the mainstream. We can discuss a long time about the fact that Green Day was not punk because they sold out blah blah, achieved major success blah blah, left the underground scene that supported them for the kids of the suburbs and shopping center blah blah; but this is not the point of this post. What I had forgotten was that during their first American tour after the release of this seminal release (which is debatable I agree), they brought an opener from their old scene, Pansy Division (an openly queer pop-punk band that had great releases like James Bondage, Touch My Joe Camel, etc.). They met a lot of resistance when they arrived in the Midwest where certain venue owners would not allow Pansy Division to play, once they did play because of the threat of Green Day not hitting the stage (Green Day would always tell these owners that if Pansy Division did not play, they didn’t play) they would get lectured by venue owners about how it is not right to be singing about such topics to the youth of America. This set the stage for the last frontier in our society, the acceptance of LGBTQ (for those of you who don’t know the acronym it means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer) lifestyle in mainstream society.

When I think of this I am brought back to the writings of Judith Butler, a personal idol of mine, she is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. She is the Maxine Elliott professor in the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature departments at the University of California, Berkley. Her book, Gender Trouble, completely turned my world upside down and literally put me on my ass. This book radically challenged my role as a heterosexual male in this society and my relationship to the rest of my fellow brothers and sisters, it made me learn concepts like heteronormativity, gender performance, and so much more. I mean, we all questioned our sexual identity at one stage in our lives, and if you are thinking that you are excluded from this statement I think that you are not being honest with yourself and should really look inside with some honesty.

The crux of Butler’s argument in Gender Trouble is that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality—the natural-seeming coherence, for example, of masculine gender and heterosexual desire in male bodies—is culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time. These stylized bodily acts, in their repetition, establish the appearance of an essential, ontological “core” gender. This is the sense in which Butler famously theorizes gender, along with sex and sexuality, as performative. The performance of gender, sex, and sexuality, however, is not a voluntary choice for Butler, who locates the construction of the gendered, sexed, desiring subject within what she calls, borrowing from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “regulative discourses.” These, also called “frameworks of intelligibility” or “disciplinary regimes,” decide in advance what possibilities of sex, gender, and sexuality are socially permitted to appear as coherent or “natural.” Regulative discourse includes within it disciplinary techniques which, by coercing subjects to perform specific stylized actions, maintain the appearance in those subjects of the “core” gender, sex and sexuality the discourse itself produces.

A significant yet sometimes overlooked part of Butler’s argument concerns the role of sex in the construction of “natural” or coherent gender and sexuality. Butler explicitly challenges biological accounts of binary sex, reconceiving the sexed body as itself culturally constructed by regulative discourse. The supposed obviousness of sex as a natural biological fact attests to how deeply its production in discourse is concealed. The sexed body, once established as a “natural” and unquestioned “fact,” is the alibi for constructions of gender and sexuality, unavoidably more cultural in their appearance, which can purport to be the just-as-natural expressions or consequences of a more fundamental sex. On Butler’s account, it is on the basis of the construction of natural binary sex that binary gender and heterosexuality are likewise constructed as natural. In this way, Butler claims that without a critique of sex as produced by discourse, the sex/gender distinction as a feminist strategy for contesting constructions of binary asymmetric gender and compulsory heterosexuality will be ineffective.

I still remember when Adrienne Clarkson was nominated Governor General of Canada and to be able to take her mandate had to marry her long-time partner John Ralston Saul, it did not matter that they had been together for as long as I could remember and seemed in love, they had to attain an image of the traditional couple (you know, if you love something why don’t you just marry it!).  Heteronormative behaviour is everywhere, I remember when same-sex marriage was passing in the House of Commons, I was talking with a queer friend of mine and wanted his opinion on the whole institution of marriage and if he wanted this bill to pass or not. I agree that everyone should be able to do what they want and not be discriminated based on race, gender, or sexual orientation and was a firm supported of same-sex marriage. To my surprise, he was not interested in marriage and found it to be a heteronormative institution and did not need this to be able to live a full and happy life. This debate brought to light the idea of performity and how we are trying to make a sub-culture adhere to a “normal” belief of how we are to celebrate and perform our relationships. This made me think, I was pushing my heteronormative behaviour on a community that was maybe not so welcoming to this institution. I find that the same-sex marriage debate is bigger than the actual act, it is a question of human rights and that we should all be able to express our love in the way that we see fit, including marriage. But, I must say that it made me question my performity and how I, being the one that was attracted to punk rock based on the fact that I could be myself and fuck the norm was doing it to others.

Something that has always amazed me of the human race is that we are all different, the only other thing in nature that I can think of that is similar are maybe snowflakes, and we should celebrate the many differences that exist within our species. Built into our culture is a natural tendency to compare ourselves with others. From the time a child starts Grade One, he or she becomes aware of subtle, or not-so-subtle evaluations and placements. Whether the teacher is showing an example of “good work,” or the pecking order is being established on the playground, each child has a sense of where he or she stands in relation to others. We are raised in a society that fosters consumerism, the goal of advertising is to make us think that we need more and that we all want the same things, what we have or where we are in life is not good enough. The media also likes to focus on the unrealistic standards of beauty and style to make us feel like we are on the outside. This is completely the opposite of how it should be, I mean, the reason that Kurt Cobain touched so many people was mainly based on the fact that he was signing about finding his place in the world while feeling isolated and an outsider of society and it unrealistic demands, just like every other kid in America.

What I suggest to all of you for the next little while, instead of seeing what you have in common with your friends, take time to see what makes you different and celebrate that! This can also make us realize that even though we are different on so many different levels, we still get along! So lets stop trying to make everyone the same and respect and treasure the differences that we also share. One thing that my meditation practice has helped me discover is that I have to trust myself and most importantly ALWAYS BE MYSELF, no matter how different I may think that I am. If you want to be truly happy, you must be yourself and accept others for who they are! Trust yourself and what feels right for you! I will close this late night rant with a quote by one of the greatest dharma teachers, if you want my opinion, Ajahn Chah:

“You should be your own witness. Don’t take others as your witness. This means learning to trust yourself. People may think you’re crazy, but never mind. It only means they don’t know anything about dharma. But if you lack confidence and instead rely on the opinion of the unenlightened people, you can easily be deterred.”

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I am back from retreat; the normal stuff happened, went in without expectations only to find that I had them anyways; my old friends all came to say hi during my sits, fear, doubt, anger, etc. One thing came up though, mundane moments (at least what I would consider to be mundane in my everyday activities) seem to take on more meaning and I realized that all moments are precious and not mundane at all if we take the time to be present during these moments, when we meet them with mindfulness we are able to see how all experience is precious no matter the quality. One thing that I always noticed, and must say that it was much more present this time, is the whole speech of bringing our mindfulness practice into the real world. I have always found this somewhat awkward as a statement, I mean, isn’t it real life when we are in the retreat center living with a 100+ people in a somewhat small area, you are living everyday life (I mean I had to get up, be in relationships with people even if it was silent, and have to ‘work’ by scrubbing toilets everyday… sounds like real life to me…). What I find harder is the mundane moments in this “real-world”, we are bombarded with stimulus every second that we are awake, right now I am typing on this computer and have some punk band blaring in my ears, so it is completely normal that we get bored with these so-called mundane moments and are stuck in plans for the future when we are doing a job that we find repetitive and pointless unless you are one of those lucky ones that actually has a job that you love and enjoy those moments. I feel like I am babbling a little too much, but lets look at mundane moments to show that there is no real such thing and we can finish off with what I find is the best example of accepting our situation in life to be able to find happiness in what we do with our friend Sisyphus.

Mundane moments, you bored right now and find that nothing is going on?, look around there is so much to experience! If meditation practice has taught me anything (besides loving-kindness and calming my mind of course) is that life is a gift and we must experience it, every moment is a gift and a teacher. We sometimes find our teachers in the oddest places, I have been surprised how some of the most mundane repetitive moments in my life have been some of my greatest teachers. Meditation is teaching me to approach every moment as if it was the first time, I try to bring the curiosity of a child to all moments of my life. Nothing can save you from the mundane, there is no one coming to help us; eternity is all just more of the same. Novelty is the last refuge of that dream that is my ego. There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to move anything (in any way) from here to there. There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to keep anything (in any way) from moving from here to there. Again and again, I must lift this foot then that one.

Congrats, you’ve done the dishes, do them again! Congrats, you had a good night’s sleep, do it again! Congrats, you went to work and dealt with the daily grind of getting there, do it again! Congrats, you made supper, do it again! Tonight your eyes will close and in the morning they will open again, then you will blink your way through yet another day. Again, I’ll breathe in. Again, I’ll breathe out. Breath: the mark of the scrupulous and saturating specificity of the repetition that is being. Breath: the raw iteration of life itself. Life is nickels and dimes. Every moment, ten thousand points of iterated resistance, ten thousand irritating mornings in the bus or subway, ten thousand irritating customers, ten thousand pleasures and ten thousands pains. We all dream of living life frictionless, floating in zero-G. I dream of that symmetry breaking moment when everything will shift into the adjacent possible, my tax refund having finally (and definitively!) arrived. I dream of that “end” at which all of my (spoiled) actions aim. But, instead, we should be happy that this end never arrives!
Don’t get me wrong, novelty can and does come. But no matter how good and tasty it may be, it will not bring me what I hoped. We want a new job and we get it, but we still have to deal with interpersonal relationships with difficult people in the workplace, we still have that annoying commute every morning and afternoon. You still have to breathe – inhale again, exhale again, repeat! We want to fall in love, and we get the opportunity, but then all the tedious aspects of a relationship still come into play, dirty laundry, cleaning the house, the asynchronicity of libido, that sale at Walmart to get the hockey equipment for your child, etc.
This reminds me a little of Albert Camus and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is the absurd hero. I am not going to get into it too much, the absurd is a concept that I have used in my early life to help make sense of the world and my relationship to it. When we examine the absurd with Camus it is important to note that it is not a negative thing, it is a stepping stone to help us in creating meaning in our own lives. Sisyphus is a great example of this, condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain just to have the boulder roll back down to the bottom and Sisyphus have to start all over again, for the rest of eternity. The reason for the punishment is not important here, but his relationship to his punishment. The gods thought for some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. This is why Sisyphus is considered by the ancient Greeks to be one of the wisest and most prudent humans. So Sisyphus does this punishment, get to the top of the mountain and the boulder falls back to the bottom by its own weight and does it all over again (you have done the dishes, great! now repeat!). He watches the boulder roll down to the bottom and makes his way down to push it all over again. During one of the returns to the bottom he walks with heavy feet to begin the torment of which he will never know an end. The lucidity that was to consitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. If this descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This cannot be stressed enough. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism. His fate belongs to him, his rock is his thing, when he contemplates his torment, it silences the gods. There is no sun without shadows, and it is essential to know the night. He knows himself to be the master of his days.
But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Novelty can be a red herring. There is no place to go. You won’t find what you want over there. You’re still going to have to breathe – again and again and again. Repeat. At every step in the problem, life demands that we show all of our work. No credit is given just for getting the right answer. There’s no skipping ahead. It’s groundhog day every day.Can you bear it? Can you root out that secret wish for the banality to end? Can you cut the cord to this secret wish, the secret wish that animates your basest fantasies, your most ordinary chores, and your most authentic spiritual longings? How many disguises does this wish – this wish for an end to the paper cuts! – have? Have many faces does it wear? How much life does it suck from the color of your cheeks?If you think I’m being bitter, you’ve misunderstood. I’m being compassionate. There is no help on the way, eternity will just be more of the same, I promise! This wish for novelty is the last dream of the ego. No one will save us from the grace of the mundane. Breathe. Nothing could be more merciful.

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