Monday, February 28, 2005

May you be happy; may you live with ease

LOCATION: Sharon Salzburg lecture at the First Baptist Church, corner of 16th and N St. TIME: Monday night, 8pm* EQUIPMENT: Yourself, breath OPTIONAL: Meditation blanket

When I called my friend Matthew to invite him to a lecture by a Buddhist teacher that evening, I was in my office and didn't realize how hard it was snowing. As I walked over to the church, I was cold and my feet were getting wet and snow was blowing in my eyes. Then I realized that my shoulders were tense and hunched up, and my entire internal monologue for the past five minutes had been a litany of complaint: My feet are wet, my fingers ache, I'm squinting against the snow and it's probably giving me wrinkles, I'm tired, I'm probably going to catch a cold. This was a rather inappropriate way to prepare for a spiritual evening, to say the least! I decided to practice a little bit of mindfulness meditation. I stopped and brought my attention to my breath, slowing it down, and straightening my posture. Suddenly I felt warmer and more alive, and I moved my gaze up from the ground, where I'd been grumpily staring. I thought, "The snow is beautiful and I'm young and alive and full of strength. I'm about to meet a friend I love at an inspirational gathering." It was a still night, with that lovely snowy quality of light like in an old silver plate photograph. And I could hear the faint crunch of the snow under each of my footsteps.

And when I saw Matthew I didn't have to bother trying to be happy anymore. He gave me a big grin and we took off our shoes and stepped into what was essentially a large gymnasium in the bowels of the fluorescent-lighted Baptist church, where a slightly dumpy middle-aged woman was calmly drinking tea in front of a large group of people, most of whom looked pretty much like the type of person you'd expect to be living in DC and coming to an event like this. Many of them were sitting in postures that indicated some type of yoga practice.

I liked Sharon Salzburg's talk a lot, so I'll try to give you some highlights. She started by musing about our journeys here, how we all came to be sitting in a Baptist Church basement - and when I thought about it, it was indeed pretty strange. What causes a hundred people, on a cold snowy night, to gather together in order to learn how to sit quietly and send out loving intentions to all beings on the earth? Sharon stressed the interconnectedness of the world: the close relationships in our lives that we brought into the room with us; all the people in our past who had inspired us (whether through positive or negative example); even the people responsible for the food we ate and the clothes we wore, so that there really was a huge number of people represented in the room.

She talked a bit about her own history with Buddhism - she'd originally been attracted to it because it seemed like such a useful, practical collection of tools to make your life better; tools that anyone at all could use. She said, "Enlightenment is a right that nobody can take away from you."

But she also had a light touch with acknowledging humanity and its foibles - and the way that our self-preoccupation can radically limit our horizons. I particularly liked her anecdote about how she was on a hectic book tour, and got a call from a friend telling her that the Dalai Lama, who was scheduled to speak in DC on the last day of her tour at the National Cathedral, had a Tibetan monk who was supposed to introduce him, but who had fallen ill, so could Sharon do it? She said, "My first thought was...I don't have any shoes! I hadn't packed very many for the tour. I can't do it! But then I decided that in two days, when I'd be in Chicago, I could take a cab downtown and pick out a pair of shoes worthy of introducing the Dalai Lama. The next morning my friend called back and said they'd found another monk to do the introduction. I said fine. I got to DC and arrived at the National Cathedral, which is a magnificent building. But I found that as I watched the stage, all I could think about was the Tibetan monk's shoes. I thought, 'They aren't that nice! I totally could have done that in my old shoes.' Then I looked at the Dalai Lama's shoes - and they weren't very good either. It was an incredible inspiring lecture, in this gorgeous hallowed place, but it was almost entirely lost on me, because I kept on thinking about those shoes."

It's amazing how completely we create our own realities. I was walking to a church in a winter wonderland, but it was frosty drudgery for me; Sharon was sitting in a cathedral with the Dalai Lama, but she was distracted by her ego. It seems like the trick is to quiet your mind by focusing on a very tangible, rhythmic action in the body - the breath - and then expanding your awareness outward, away from your own pains to an appreciation of the wider beauty in the world. The point of loving-kindness meditation is to train your mind to make that shift of perception easier and easier - which brings benefits to the people in your life, but also to yourself.

Sharon led us in a loving-kindness meditation, where we repeated the intention: "May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease." We first directed these thoughts at ourselves, then at a close friend we loved, then at a distant friend, then at the whole room, then at all beings.

Meditating on something virtuous in a room with a bunch of other people who are doing the same thing is an acquired taste (like caviar, or kimchee). From one perspective, you've been sitting down, doing nothing, on a gym floor, for half an hour, and your ankles are starting to ache from lotus pose; from another perspective, you're in the middle of a group of people with really good intentions, and the energy from their love feels like a white gossamer web stretching over the room.

During the question period I asked Sharon to clarify the meaning of "May you be safe." I said I had a hard time with it, particularly with two of my loved ones who are currently struggling. I want them to be happy, and I don't want them to be in danger, but I do know that most of my life lessons have come from terrible experiences. How could I wish for them fewer growth opportunities than I've had?

Sharon said I had two choices: 1. stick with a mantra that made sense to me (like "May you be happy") 2. While reflecting on the meaning of "may you be safe," and the paradox therein, allow it to unfold some more meanings and layers behind the exact interpretation of the words.

I hope to write some more about Buddhism later; I've been trying to develop a meditation practice to complement the yoga. In the meantime, reader:

May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.

*This was a special event replacing Flow Yoga Center's usual free meditation night on Mondays at 8pm. Flow is right next to Whole Foods on 15th and P.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Warrior pose in the Arena Stage parking lot

In warrior II pose, your front toes are pointed towards the front of the mat, your back foot is parallel to the back of the mat, your back leg is straight, your front knee is bent, moving towards a 90 degree angle, your hips are open and both pointing towards the side of the mat, your back straight, your arms extended to the sides, and you gaze over your front fingertips. (My teacher Lisa's voice echoes in my head: "Remember, Warrior II is a big hip opener! Move your front knee towards your front pinky toe! You should feel it opening your hips!")

Problems with the pose tend to fall into two categories. Some people never challenge themselves in the pose. Warrior II should be very intense; holding it for a while should require very deep, intense breaths. If you don't sweat in the pose, you should be sinking further into your front knee.

And some people masochistally fight in the pose. They glare out over their front fingertips, struggling grimly with the pain in their legs. Besides making you sort of ugly, with an expression like that, it keeps you from holding the pose right - it requires that your shoulders be relaxed, and your hips be gentle and open at the same time that your legs are strong, which is almost impossible to do with a scowl on your face. Staying in the Warrior poses is an uncomfortable battle, but it's a joyful battle that you fight with a light, courageous heart.

I went to the theater tonight with a 93-year old scholar, Lincoln Gordon, who I met at my job. We have season tickets at the Arena Stage, so every month we meet for dinner and a play. When we walked back into the parking lot at the end of the evening, we saw that another car had boxed Lincoln's driver side in. "I'm going to have to get in through your door, Zoe," Lincoln said, and strode up to my door (which itself had not much room). I watched in alarm as he opened my door, slid in with a painful-looking backbend, and sat down with a thump.

Now, the cabin of this car was pretty cramped. I'm a 24-year old yoga instructor, and I could probably have hopped between the car seats fairly quickly, but I probably wouldn't have done it gracefully. Lincoln is 93. Ninety three! His grandchildren are probably old enough to be your parents! He eased one leg over to the other side, and then the other, hoisting himself up with a huff and a puff. It was an awkward position for his arm, and he flailed a bit, accidentally hitting the hazard light button on the dashboard. The car began to flash like a disco ball.

I was watching avidly from outside, chewing my fingernails in alarm. I wasn't sure what to do. Tell him to stop, that I'd get in and drive the car out of its parking spot? Surely that would be patronizing. But what if Lincoln hurt himself? All that contorting surely couldn't be good for his venerable self!

But finally, after a few more seconds of struggle, Lincoln finally made it into the driver's seat. He was panting and sighing and the entire dashboard of the car was flashing - and he began to laugh. His laughter triggered my own relief, and I started laughing too, and for a few minutes we just sat there in the car, guffawing to the rhythm of the hazard flashers.

I'll admit, Lincoln's alignment was a little bit unorthodox, but nonetheless it was the best Warrior's pose I've seen in my life.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Best friend for a day

LOCATION: Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs TIME: Crack of dawn EQUIPMENT: Hiking stuff OPTIONAL: Free spirited dog friend

On Saturday I went hiking on Old Rag mountain with Martin. It was a frosty morning, the first ray of sunshine had just emerged from behind the mountain ranges in the distance, and as we were walking on the fire trail towards the start of the hike, a black dog ran up and greeted us as if she'd been missing us for years. She hopped and panted and ran in circles and licked and generally did that doggy thing of channeling unabashed ecstasy through every shaggy hair.

We patted her for a while and kept on walking - and she followed us. She pranced along with the carefree air of a dog being taken on a walk, running up ahead to sniff things, peeking back to make sure we were catching up, swishing her tail like a celebration flag in the wind.

"I guess she wants to come with us," I said.

"Yeah, the trail's pretty steep and she looks kind of fat and old," Martin said. "I'm sure she'll get tired pretty quickly."

But the dog showed no signs of being tired, and on our next water break she ran back to nuzzle us affectionately. "Get away, cadger," Martin said. "You're not getting any of our water!"

"Aww, I bet you don't mean that," I said, giving the dog a hug.

Old Rag is a beautiful hike, 5-7 hours round trip depending on the variation of the trails you take, and the ascent to the summit features about an hour of serious rock scrambling, requiring hands and feet and coordination, and sometimes a helping shove from your hiking partner. But to our amazement, the dog scampered along with sangfroid, occasionally scampering to the top of a craggy rock and flapping her tongue cheerfully in the breeze.

Fellow hikers shot affectionate glances towards our seeming happy threesome. Our dog was so obviously attached to us and had clearly been a beloved pet for years. "That dog's a badass climber! What's her name?" one passerby asked us.

Martin frowned and opened his mouth, but I'd already sung out, "Thanks! She's called Daisy."

"That dog's going to get us in trouble," Martin muttered. "Pets aren't allowed on this section of the trail."

But on our next break, he sighed, "Want to give her some water?" and cupped his hands for her to drink from.

We kept on walking and the rock scrambles grew steeper, to the point that the blue trail markers really did indicate the only possible feasible path, There was another hiking couple behind us, and we all huffed and puffed our way along. I could hear Martin explaining to the woman behind me, "She's really not our dog. She's been following us all day."

And then we came to a place where you had to climb up a vertical section of rock. I scrambled up first, blithely, and only turned around when I noticed that nobody had followed me. I peered back over the ledge to see Daisy vainly trying to claw her way up, only to fall down. "Try picking her up," I called to Martin. But when he tried, she yelped in alarm and dashed away.

"There's absolutely no way she's getting up here," Martin said. "We're going to have to leave her behind."

"Is there another way up?" I asked.

"Nope," said the man behind us. "This is the best way."

"She can find her way home," said Martin. "She's been taking care of herself fine so far."

I wasn't so sure. We'd already been climbing over some serious rock scrambles for about an hour. Daisy had been fine, but what if she happened to hurt herself on the way back? Nobody would know, and her owner would probably never guess to search so far from home. This ledge was the last obstacle before the summit, where we'd reach the smooth, safe, downhill return path. But if we tried to hoist her up, she'd be even more likely to panic and fall. And she'd seemed totally at ease on the rocks up till now. Surely she had a good sense of direction. What would stop her making it home?

Martin climbed up to join me, but as we started walking away we heard a desperate "Yip yip yip yip yip!" Dear reader, no words I could ever find would express the desolation and betrayal in those barks. We turned around as if we'd been pulled by a rope and stood watching Daisy down below, dashing back and forth and making futile little scrambles up the rock.

"I mean, she can definitely find her way home," I said, unconvincingly. I thought about asking Martin to turn around and go back over the rock scrambles with Daisy, but I really didn't want to; it had been a grueling hour of climbing, and I'd strained some muscles in the back of my leg, which was starting to hurt. Repeating all the climbing would probably turn a slight injury into something much more serious.

As we stood there helplessly, Daisy darted out of view, we heard a "scrit-scrit-scrit", and all of a sudden she emerged at the top. You know that scene in the adventure movie when the hero jumps into a deep hole and everyone just sort of stands around and waits for the hero to make it out, and all of a sudden there are majestic swells of classical music, with joyful piping trumpets and gigantic cymbal clashes, and you see the hero's fingers on the edge of a hole, and then they pull themselves up, all dirty and beat up but with a proud grin? It was just like that. Daisy sprinted over to us, wiggling and panting and licking whatever she could reach.

"My god," Martin said. "That dog is totally crazy."

The other hiking couple must have heard the triumphal music, because they turned around. "Wow! I can't believe that dog made it up!" the man said. The woman walked over to us with an expression of concern on her face. "You know, she's wearing a collar - I checked on the address," she said. "It says 'Sperryville,' and I think that Sperryville is about twelve miles away. Since she's been following you - " She shrugged.

"She ran up to us right at the start of the trail, though," I said. "It seemed like she was living there."

"So maybe the address here is Sperryville too?" the woman said. "Did you see her come out of a house?"

"" We all turned and looked at Daisy, who was sitting back on her haunches with a smug grin. "There's a park ranger who staffs the Old Rag parking lot," I said. "I'm sure he knows all the people in the area. We can go and ask him about her when we get back."

"Are you sure?" the woman said. "Because if she's a runaway..."

"Don't worry," I said. "We'll take care of her."

Obviously feeling that she'd discharged her responsibility, the woman nodded, turned, and kept walking.

And Daisy kept on trotting along with us. I wonder if she could understand human speech, because with every passing hiker who called out, "Wow! How did that dog get up here?" she seemed to perk up. "Showoff," I muttered, and Daisy turned around and panted happily at me.

The rest of the day was lovely; going for a walk is ineluctably better when you have a happy dog running nearby, smelling things. When we stopped for lunch, we gave her some of our avocado. But as we neared the end of the walk, the subject of Daisy's fate became harder to avoid. It seemed as though she'd picked us for new owners, and that was impossible.

"Are you a runaway, Daisy?" I asked, as she wound herself around my legs. "I'm afraid I can't adopt you - my apartment is too small and I don't have any time to take you for walks." My imagination took me through a series of horrifying montages: a gruff park ranger, denying knowledge of the dog; the trip with Daisy to the pound; her reproachful eyes as I leave her behind to be put down.

And then, as we walked back towards the parking lot, we passed the driveway where we'd originally met Daisy. The sun was still shining and in the distance, we could hear the sound of heavy metal music coming from a barn in the field. Daisy's ears perked up, and without even a backward glance, she ran down the driveway, and across a bridge towards the barn.

Martin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. "I guess she was with the band," Martin said. "That was baggage at all."

A hiking couple behind us heard us laughing and stopped. "That's not your dog?" the girl asked.

"Nope," I said. "She just followed us for the day."

It's not always that you get such an easy, consequence-free relationship from life, is it? Daisy found us, loved us, and left us, seamlessly. And yet I am still thinking about her - with the strange feeling that I cheated somehow. Because relationships have a cost, and every friendship has responsibility; the more valuable the friendship, the greater the responsibility.

I think the reason Martin was so reluctant to claim Daisy as his dog was not that he liked her less than me, but that he was more aware of the responsibility that even a joking assertion of ownership incurred. "I'm a tribal person," he told me once, and it seems I'm lucky enough to be in his tribe: for example, he drove the two hours for the hike in the morning, letting me sleep, happily carried the heavy backpack for the duration of the walk, and took care of me in a thousand other ways that seemed invisible because they felt so natural. If Martin had ever said that Daisy was his dog, he'd never be even able to consider leaving her behind at the rocks, or denying ownership to a park ranger who could fine him for an illegal pet, or leaving her with a park ranger with a probable fate at the pound.

A complaint I've heard about California culture is that people there are very friendly, and impossible to trust. Someone will greet you as if you're their best friend in the world, but if you ask them for help the next week, they'll never return your call. If you're lucky, bad things never happen, you never need the help, and you can luxuriate forever in your large group of affectionate fair-weather friends. I don't know if it's an accurate complaint - I've never lived in California - but Daisy was certainly lucky that she never needed anything from me.

Friday, February 18, 2005

A note on internet dating

I love dating people on the internet. It's such a wonderful way of meeting random people you'd never run into otherwise, and, unlike in a bar, you can get a pretty good sense of their overall intelligence, wit, and background from what they choose to portray about themselves. I used to be quite shy and I attribute whatever ability to work a room I now possess to the practice I got from talking to strangers all the time.

So yes, I'd recommend it to anyone, particularly if you're new to the city. But for heaven's sake, don't expect to meet your one true love! The one complaint I have is with overly sincere profiles with hopes and dreams and detailed inventory of baggage. Would you tell all that to someone you met at a bar? Of course not! They wouldn't understand it anyway; they have no context. Instead, you tell them little jokes or interesting things about the world. If they feel a connection, they're going to pay attention to your clues about your hopes and dreams and figure it out anyway; and if they don't, it doesn't matter how explicitly you tell them, they're not going to care.

I haven't actively dated on the internet for a long time, but I've left my joke profiles about Slavic peasants with radioactive mutations and anthopomorphized underwear up, because they seem to give people a laugh, which is something that pretty much everyone can use, always.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Internet dating


"Oh help me! I am, like, totally stuck in this drawer!"

La Perla Posted by Hello

I am a: woman
Seeking a: man
Interested In: Friendship, Play, Dating, Serious Relationship
Age: 24
Location: washington, District of Columbia
Country: United States
Area Code: 202
Occupation: stuck in a dark underwear drawer
Education: College Degree
Ethnicity: Pink silk, tres lacy, merci!
Religion: goddess, naturellement
Star Sign: tee hee hee, whatever you want it to be!

Last great book I read
She left a copy of the Kama Sutra in the drawer with me. That book was very informative - and he was such a gentleman, too...[giggle] One time I got thrown on top of the bookcase and there were all these intense fellows like Shakespeare and Rilke and Nabokov...golly, my mind swims just thinking about it! I was happy to get back to the underwear drawer to take a nap.

Favorite on-screen sex scene
Oh, it's usually too dark for me to see...

Celebrity I resemble most
Prob'ly, like, Cleopatra! Because she was totally sophisticated!

Best or worst lie I've ever told
I convinced clean_blue_cotton that our owner had become Amish and was planning to trade us in for a petticoat. Tee hee hee, I'm such a kidder!

If I could be anywhere at the moment
Draped recklessly around my owner's lovely ankles

Song or album that puts me in the mood
Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties
OutKast - Where are your panties?

The five items I can't live without
I'm not alive, silly!

Fill in the blanks
going commando is sexy;
wearing me is sexier

In my bedroom, you'll find
Silk tapestries, yoga mat, books, and a fancy underwear drawer that hasn't been opened for ages!

Oh, you've got to help me! I love my owner so much, like, she is a total doll! Tee hee hee! She takes me to all these neat places like art museums and music shows and bookstores and lectures and parks and dance classes, so it's, like, super broadening for my mind. And she's always striking up conversations with strangers and getting into mischief. Gotta love it! But she only wears me when she's got someone in her life and has the opportunity to lounge around in luxurious underwear. Otherwise she wears that horrible prude clean_blue_cotton, and I just sulk in the drawer.

I'VE BEEN STUCK IN THE UNDERWEAR DRAWER FOR MONTHS!!! At least it smells like lavender in here. But I'm, like, SO BORED!!! It's a terrible situation for a flirty pair of panties that loves to see the world. So I need someone to inspire her to wear me again. Unfortunately, she's rather picky. Judging by on the people who have ripped me off her before, you're probably cute enough to get looks on the street, able to keep up in a conversation on Russian literature, and you have a strong character that expresses itself in an unusual and engaged life. Me, I'd settle for a pretty face and a pair of hands gentle enough not to tear me, but what do I know? I'm just a pair of panties.

Internet dating 2


"Stay away from my owner if you're handsome!"

Posted by Hello

I am a: woman
Seeking a: man
Interested In: Friendship, Play, Dating, Serious Relationship
Age: 24
Location: Washington, District of Columbia
Country: United States
Area Code: 202
Occupation: hugging a perky butt
Education: College Degree
Ethnicity: Hmph. 100% cotton, thanks.
Religion: One day I'll go to that washing machine in the sky
Star Sign: What do you think I am, a polyester-brain?
Relationship Status: Single

Last great book I read
Clean Living in a Dirty World

Most humbling moment
When she left me in the drawer and put on that pink la_perla airhead

Favorite on-screen sex scene
Goodness gracious, I can't believe this question! It's shocking, don't you think?

Celebrity I resemble most
I can't imagine that ANY celebrities practice clean living!

Best or worst lie I've ever told
OK, well, I'm not 100% cotton. I've got 5% spandex - but I STILL have plenty of old-fashioned values.

If I could be anywhere at the moment
Soaking up her sweat on a nice brisk jog

Song or album that puts me in the mood
Oh, I like hymns! They're nice! And Bach is so soothing.

The five items I can't live without
I could certainly live without that lacy pink fool, la_perla, gossipping next to me in the underwear drawer all the time.

Fill in the blanks
a nice brisk sweat is sexy;
a good cold shower is sexier

In my bedroom, you'll find
None of your business! I'm hoping not to have you in here at all!

You WON'T. My owner is very picky and she's not in love with anyone right now. As a result she usually wears cotton panties - that's me! But whenever she falls in love, she usually wears silky lacy frivolous underwear - or nothing at all. And I get stuck here in the dark for weeks at a time.

My owner has been going on a lot of dates with people she's not attracted to. As a result, I get worn a lot. So I'm hoping to find more DC political hacks, TV watchers, anxious fake artists with trust funds, and people who have grown up too much to laugh when my owner crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue. That'll make sure I live a fun, active life! If you're creative, kind, and have an original intellect - STAY AWAY! I'm warning you! I hate that boring underwear drawer.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


There was a black bird
tree's length from my head

And another
to alight
on a fractally unfolding
dead black branch

My eyes were limitless
and the speck of water half-hidden
in the feathers on his leg
shone to me
bright as the blood under my fingernail.

Tip toe length taut with light
I thought he saw me
and thought back to him:
here to me
Reached thought to the muscles in his wings
Come. Fly here. Oh please

Everything went
and wings half-opened -

but then, no -
and but again -

and then he

but just to another knot on the branch -

And every dry leaf in the forest drum rattled all at once
brittlely crackled to the knocking breeze
like billions of grains of sand on a beach!

Looked up again

tree was empty


Red branch
Black branch
Red branch
Green branch

One ant - two ant - five - nine - twelve -

Mushrooom treetrunk
moss moss moss moss

Tip tap splish splash
Pine cone throne.

Green leaf
Brown leaf
Red brown green.

Try to tell you
what I mean.

Boulder shoulder
Rock grey ground

One day this too
will come down.

Spider skeeter
web web web

Smallest biggest
in your head

Wind drop rain blow
leaf sky leaf

All is beauty
cloud bark east

Don't listen to me.


Saturday, February 12, 2005

Satya (Truth)

Satya, or truth, is one of the five yoga "yamas" - ethical precepts. I haven't had a good discussion of it in teacher training; we skimmed over it: "Yeah, you're not supposed to lie, duh." I think it's a lot more complicated than that.

But first I want to tell you about a book I'm reading called "Faster than the Speed of Light" by Joao Magueijo, a Cambridge theoretical physicist who started a controversial school of research based on the idea that the speed of light in a vacuum is variable. Einstein's general theory of relativity is as close as the scientific community can come to gospel, and I think the shock of the psychological scorn and anger Magueijo faced when promoting his theory opened him up to a more philosophical world view. (A scientist whose career never had a hitch is probably less likely to think hard and deep about the context of the community surrounding him: the ways in which irrational humans have organized themselves to create rational science, and the benefits and failings of the current system.)

"Faster than the Speed of Light" explains all the relevant physics (using mostly words and a minimum of math), but it's also full of anecdotes about scientists' lives, personalities, and insight into the personal dynamics of their collaborations.

Magueijo writes, "But even if this idea is discredited - always a possibility, if not a likelihood, with any intellectual breakthrough - there are several reasons why this story is still worth telling. First, I want people to understand the scientific process for what it really is - rigorous, competitive, emotional, and argumentative. It is people endlessly debating each other, often shouting their disagreements. I also want the nonscientist to understand that the history of science is littered with speculations that sounded great but ultimately did not demonstrate explanatory power and ended up in the garbage bin of scientific inquiry. The process of trying out new ideas, and then accepting or rejecting them, is what science is all about."

And even besides this interesting insight into the community of theoretical physics (which, let's face it, it's probably too late for any of my readers to dream of seeing on the inside), the book has some great cocktail party stories about Einstein. For example:

*When Einstein was a teenager he had a strange dream about watching cows near an electric fence. A nearby farmer switched on the current to the fence, and to Einstein it seemed that all the cows jumped away from the fence at the same time. But when he compared notes with the farmer, the farmer claimed that the cows had jumped off one by one. This dream haunted Einstein and was a big spur to his ponderings about relativity.

*Leopold Infeld was a Polish scientist who worked with Einstein in the 1930s. When it became clear that Germany was about to invade Poland, Einstein tried to sponsor Infeld to immigrate to the States, but he'd already sponsored so many other Jewish families that the US authorities had begun to ignore his affadavits. Out of desperation, Einstein decided to write a popular science book in partnership with his friend: The Evolution of Physics, which they cranked out in just a few months, became an extreme success, and made Infeld suddenly desirable to the US authorities.

*Einstein had a lot of cats; he loved them, but they roamed around his house, scratching at closed doors. He decided to cut holes in the bottom of the doors, producing cute little cat doors. In that year he had roughly equal numbers of large and small cats. So he cut out two holes in each door: a large one for the large cats, and a small one for the small cats.

But I have gotten side-tracked, dear reader! I set out to tell you about truth, but instead I have been telling you stories.

Let me try again:

It's a continual frustration to mathy people the extent to which non-mathy people*are terrified of math. An English major might talk forever about the trickiest nuances of semiotics, but show him a simple equation and his eyes glaze over faster than a supercooled magnetic monopole: "Oh no, I don't have a math brain." As a result, any communicative attempts between the world of math and the world of math fear have to be couched almost entirely in English, even when the syntactical contortions required make the result far more ocmplicated to explain than the original equations would have been. Even in my university - which was a good university! - introductory economics courses were forbidden to use calculus, lest they frighten away the tender humanities types, and the badly sewn seams in the mangled syllabuses that resulted would have made a tramp ashamed.

(But lest you get too smug, math-y types, you are often equally as culpable. For example...I speak for everyone who has related a terrible problem to a mathy friend and, instead of a sympathetic hug and a receptive ear, instead got a flippant remark or a lecture on how they handled the problem wrong; then, upon being asked to explain their wrath, received the reply: "Oh, I just don't understand that emotional stuff." It's not that hard, people, if you're willing to try!)

Anyway, a book like Magueijo's, aimed at a general audience, is pretty much precluded from using any equations, except for "E=mc2", which you can get away with - just. As a result, the metaphorical capacity of the English language is stretched like silly putty, twisted into all kinds of bizarre shapes, tie-dyed, given amphetamines and hallucinogens, and made to spin around in circles really fast. There's probably the richest literature of attempts to explain special relativity, with a cast of characters ranging from the original cows on fences, guards on trains, people on space ships, flying clocks, pilots of planes, and reckless characters who somehow manage to ride along with single particles of light. But we have the phoenix universe sub-model of Big Bang theory, which explains the flat horizon problem by means of successive cosmic bounces. Or the concept of a geometrically "open universe"; it is infinite and resembles the saddle of a never-ending horse. Let me quote a random Magueijo sentence: "Flatness, rather than being an unlikely tightrope, became the inevitable valley into which the inflationary universe had to flow."

Of course, if you can't use the actual math, any of these colourful metaphors are just going to be an approximation, fitting the phenomenon you're trying to describe in just a few ways. The phoenix universe doesn't have red feathers and the Big Bang didn't actually sound like a balloon being popped. So another tendency of non-mathy pop physics books is to present you with an introductory metaphor that explains a thing, allow you to grasp it, and then after a little while sweep the rug away from you and explain that the original metaphor was misleading. When trying to explain gravity, for example, you often start by outlining a Newtonian universe full of pool-ball planets. Then, when you get to Einstein, you admit that this original metaphor was completely wrong. Again I quote Magueijo: "To see how inflation solves the horizon problem, I have to admit that I have so far simplified the problem. However, simplifications are often unavoidable if one wants to discuss physics without mathematics - and the version of the horizon problem I have given you is qualitatively correct for Big Bang models. Nevertheless, it breaks down for inflationary expansion because a curious subtlety comes into play..."

Upon reading this, I was struck by the similarity of physics metaphors to Zen koans. Both are attempts to illumine mysterious and impossible-to-translate truth in a language that's completely unsuitable for it. Zen Buddhism is the the overwhelming moment; the vivid and infinite NOW; it's the study of an experience that cannot be put into words - and yet the only way to describe it to someone who has not experienced it is with words.

One of the most famous Zen koans:

A monk came to the renowned Zen master Joshu and asked, "Has a dog Buddha-nature?" Joshu replied, "Mu!"
Of this koan, Hakuun Yasutani writes, "Literally, the expression 'Mu' means no or nothing, but the significance of Joshu's answer does not lie in the word. Mu is the expression of the living, functioning, dynamic Buddha-nature. What you must do is discover the spirit or essence of this Mu, not through intellectual analysis but by search into your innermost being."

You may also be familiar with What is the sound of one hand clapping? or It's not the flag moving, it's not the wind moving - mind is moving.

And I like this one:

Once, when Chief Minister Ts'ui entered the temple, he saw a sparrow evacuate on the head of a Buddha statue. He asked, "Does a sparrow have the Buddha-nature?" The Master answered, "Yes it has." The Minister asked, "Then why does it make droppings on the head of the Buddha?" The Master replied, "Why does it not do it upon the head of a sparrow-hawk?"

Hakuun Yasutani writes, "In ancient days there was no koan system, yet many people came to Self-realization. But it was hard and took a long time. The use of koans started about a thousand years ago and has continued down to the present." I think these words are very interesting, because they seem to imply at first glance that the koan system has streamlined the process of Enlightenment. But notice that he never explicitly says that!

And Suzuki writes, "For a while you may read books, but be careful to set them aside as soon as possible. If you do not quit them, you will get in the habit of learning letters only."

How can we explain theoretical physics without math? How can we communicate the experience of enlightenment to someone who's never had it, in a medium that's directly opposed to it? It seems to be with a series of successively contradictory metaphors, fudging the complicated details, or paradoxical stories with layers of interpretation: in short, with lies. After all, in my friend Ben's favorite Picasso quote: "Art is the lie that helps us see the truth."

I was a terrible liar when I was growing up, and most of my lies had less to do with the desire to get something, than a fascination with the subjective nature of reality, and how easy it was to manipulate in other people's heads. Most of the time, I ended up distorting my own reality as well. For example, I once told my brother that our parents were witches and were fattening us up to eat us. My descriptions of the terrible fate in store for us were so vivid that I convinced myself as well, and for the next week my parents were baffled at their wide-eyed, skittish children pushing their food listlessly around on their plates, until we both forgot about it.

Or - and this is probably familiar to many of you - there's the pretense of sickness to get out of a day at school (particularly important to me since school for me was a sort of daily psychological torture chamber.) You limp down to the breakfast table, ashen-faced and coughing: "Mum, I think I'm sick!" Halfway through this day of illness, I usually did feel genuinely ill.

Even today, when I meet obnoxious people at bars, I'm tempted to make up a strange story: I'm a hammock architect, I'm a White Russian princess in exile, I'm a fortune cookie editor, two of my nieces were snatched from their cradles by ravening dingos. Or else I'll repeat urban myths I know to be false but which are just too cool not to repeat. I appease my conscience by making the lies so obvious that only a fool would believe them, but every once in a while someone actually swallows it, and I send off a poor dupe into the world, with a new version of reality, in which a man somewhere, attempting to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, inadvertently saved his own life when the bullet excised his inoperable brain tumor.

Grappling with my oft-irresistable temptation to make shit up, I often wonder what the world would be like if nobody was capable of lying. Things would be so much simpler! And yet it's an impossible dream, for the ability to lie is intimately connected with imagination and creative ability. In either case, you're picturing a reality that's different than the one which currently exists. Liars, dreamers, artists, and revolutionaries are all just different mixes of a particular attitude towards that imaginary other reality; sometimes it's used to illuminate the ultimate truth, and sometimes to obscure it. A world where I couldn't tell my silly lies would also be a world without people who could understand theoretical physics, or tell a Zen koan, or imagine a community governed by democracy instead of tyranny, or imagine the Last Judgement and then paint it.

Besides, the truth can be dangerous or overwhelming if you don't know how to handle it yet. That's the reasons that so many different scientific and religious traditions choose to parcel it out to us slowly. The fourth step of the yoga "ashtanga" path (the first three are the yamas, niyamas, and asanas) is pranayama, or breath control. Iyengar warns that if you have not mastered the first three steps, pranayama can be incredibly dangerous and perhaps even lead to insanity. And we all know what happened to poor Semele when she asked Zeus to reveal himself fully to her: she was burned to a crisp.

Oh, dear reader, what is the meaning of truth in this muddled existence of a thousand veils? Does a lie have Buddha-nature?



*Themselves the originators of this rather artificial dichotomy.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Don't take a backpack to Rock Creek Park

LOCATION: Rock Creek Park, up where it starts to get fat TIME: Anytime! EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Darling bicycle DISCOURAGED: Big ole ball & chain (backpack)

I recently finished Jared Diamond's book "Collapse! How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed", in which he analyzes varies ancient and present-day societies and how they succeed or fail at managing their environmental problems. The first example in the book - chosen because it's an isolated example - is Easter Island, whose inhabitants perished after they chopped down every tree on the island, and could no longer build boats to go fishing. Jared started out in geography, and the most common criticism I've heard of his work is that it's "environmentally deterministic," not giving human culture enough emphasis. I don't think the criticism is entirely fair - Jared is usually careful to emphasize that he's focusing on only one of several important factors - but he does admit that when he was teaching some of the research from the book to his undergraduate students, their overwhelming question was, "How could the Easter Islanders have done it? What did the person who cut down the last palm tree think? How did such a stupid decision get made?" After failing to answer these questions adequately, Jared decided to devote a whole chapter in his book to the failures of group decision making. These involve issues with lack of knowledge or foresight, habituation (if a change happens slowly enough, you may not be aware of it), and various political economy issues.

I mulled over this chapter with particular interest after the events of this weekend, in which I displayed a spectacular failure of individual decision making during a bike ride in Rock Creek Park. Rather, it was a series of small decisions, each of which seemed reasonable at the time, but which added up to mind-boggling stupidity.

So, yeah. On Saturday morning, I decided to take a ride in Rock Creek Park before heading off to my yoga teacher training (which would be seven hours long, from 2pm - 9pm, making some morning sunshine imperative for my sanity.) We use a lot of books in the training, so I was wearing a backpack loaded down with snacks, books, a change of clothes, and water. It was a beautiful day to ride, and before I knew it I'd passed the zoo and found myself near a field opening up into several trails through hills.*

I leapt off my bike and locked it up. There was one trail that seemed to beckon me: deserted, speckled with sunlight, winding next to a trickling brook. Now, I have Thoreau-ianly romantic attitude towards nature; my spirit soars and I try to merge into it with all my senses. (This is an attitude that C.S. Lewis warns against in his writings about spirituality; he says that nature can be a great pathway to the divine, but that we should never forget that the divine is also super-natural. Sorry, C.S. I can't help it.) Anyway, it's tough to ecstatically merge with nature, and dance lightly over the stones in a burbling creek, when you're wearing a whopping heavy backpack. It was quickly becoming a ball and chain. I needed a place to dump that thing.

I noticed a brick building at the other end of the field: aha, it was bathrooms! Surely, I thought, there must be some kind of hiding place inside the woman's bathroom. I ran over and went inside, but the inside was completely austere, devoid of nooks or crannies. And the ground was incredibly muddy with snow melting in the sunshine, so there wasn't anywhere outside I could leave it without getting it completely dirty.

The pack seemed like it was getting heavier and heavier, and my excitement when I'd thought I'd found a place to leave it had been so great that I was reluctant to give up the dream of skipping freely through the trees. I considered leaving it in the bathroom anyway and just taking the chance. But in these days of terror alerts, I reflected, someone probably would have reported it as a bomb.

The sun had been temporarily hidden behind a passing cloud, and when it reemerged a single beam of light shone upon bathroom building, lighting up the tiles on its roof. It was as if a chorus of angels blew their trumpets together, and I realized: I could leave the backpack on the roof! If I put it right on the middle, the sight line of someone standing on the ground would never put it into view for them, and it would certainly be safe for the hour I'd need.

My yoga practice has endowed me with strength, flexibility, balance, and the opportunity to indulge my love for clambering on things. I tried to scale the rough stone wall of the building, but I couldn't quite make it to the intermediate ledge I needed. Not a problem - there was an empty garbage can on the other side of the building, which I dragged over and jumped on top of. From there, I sprang onto the ledge, and then pulled myself up onto the roof.

I started walking across it gingerly, trying to figure out the best concealed location for the pack, and I was a third of the way across, when I heard a faint "Crrack!" and felt the surface under my feet shift slightly. I froze in terror, and a cavalcade of nightmarish images whizzed through my mind: the roof cracking open, myself, stuck in it, legs dangling down into the ladies' toilet; the police arriving to pull me out; the lawsuit for building damages; my embarassed attempts at explanation to a series of stern-faced bureaucrats...would they even have read "Walden"?

Very slowly I took my backpack off and threw it behind me off the roof, then retraced my steps with infinitesmal movements, hardly daring to breathe. I jumped onto the ledge, the trashcan, back down onto the ground, picked up the backpack, and went for my walk.

I guess sometimes in life, no matter how much you'd like to, you just can't get rid of your baggage.


*I never really "got" Rock Creek Park until I looked at a map - I'd only ever been to the south parts, near Dupont and Adams Morgan, where it's extremely skinny and you're basically walking next to a horrible road the whole time with cars whizzing past. I didn't realize that it widens out to the north and actually becomes a nice place to relax.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Yoga Teacher Training, Weekend II (Friday)

This week the woman I work for asked me to collect some articles relating to health, economic development, and foreign policy for a panel she was speaking on today at the "Health Policy Forum." I asked her what she was speaking about and she said, "I haven't decided yet, just get some interesting stuff and I'll figure it out."

So I collected a wide range of articles: regressions showing that malaria causes poverty and not the other way round; an article condemning environmental groups who try to prevent developing countries from using DDT on a small scale to repel mosquitos from homes (since it is so effective at saving lives, and supposedly negligably damaging to the environment on such a small scale); an article analyzing the public good nature of research on developing country disease vaccines, and laying out details for incentives that could be used to induce Western pharmaceutical companies to invest in it more; an article on the relationship between the US and the World Health Organization (which is under the auspices of the UN, hence often suffers when the US causes the UN budget to freeze, yet often also benefits from extra-budgetary donations from the US, particularly for its AIDS programs); an interview with an epidemiologist who complained about the lack of international coordination and wasted effort in the tsunami relief effort (among other things, US Midwesterners have been sending sweaters in the mail - not the most efficient use of resources); a poll of American citizens about foreign aid showing that they were remarkably willing to spend money on AIDS relief, particularly in Africa - in fact, political experts on average underestimated their generosity by half. I also pulled up some OECD data on Official Development Assistance, as a percentage of GNP, by donor country, as well as specifically health-related assistance, by donor country.

I met with my boss and handed her the articles one by one, describing them. Then we had a little conversation about the psychology of American voters when it cames to foreign aid, and how they were disproportionately more willing to spend money on health-related aid compared to other aid where the benefits were more subtle and harder to explain or prove. I gave her my data. She nodded and rushed home to take care of her daughters.

This morning the articles were still in their place on her desk. She hadn't touched them after her conversation with me. The Health Policy Forum was all day, from 8:30am to 5:30pm, and she was speaking on the last panel, which began at 3:45pm. (Can I just mention that I hate hotel conference ballrooms? Good heavens. Gigantic underground caverns with no sunlight and vast steppes of tackily floral-motifed carpet, as far as the eye can see.)

Anyway, my boss was speaking at a different conference, in New York, in the morning - about the current account deficit - and was flying in on the 1:30pm, so she arrived at the conference about 15 minutes before her panel started. I saw her in the lobby looking through my data in a folder. "Hi," I said. "Do you know what you're going to say?" "Nah," she said. "I'll figure it out when I do it."

Two people were speaking before her, and they'd obviously both prepared extensively - the first person had an elaborate PowerPoint presentation. Then my boss strode up to the podium. She's a beautiful woman with long blonde hair, a strong chin, piercing eyes, and a penchant for stiletto heels.

There are few things more exhilarating than watching a display of sheer talent, so my boss's speech riveted me. Waving her hands gracefully for emphasis, she described the nature of a health-related global public good, as well as a national public good, and the different motives for funding them: self-interest, or a desire to aid development. She explained that curing tropical country diseases hadn't been in America's direct interest until recently, with growing research into bioterror defense, and related a funny anecdote from the Aspen Strategy Group (which, last summer, focused on just that.) And she waxed philosophic on the nature of the American voter.

To be honest, it wasn't exactly her arguments that impressed me so much; if I'd seen them written down, I would have been interested but not blown away. The several parts of her speech weren't quite logically linked together, and the anecdote about the Strategy Group, upon sober reflection, seemed a bit extraneous. But that wasn't the display of talent: it was the fact that she'd composed the speech, under pressure, in the space of about twenty minutes, while listening to her fellow panelists (and she really listened to them, since she responded to points they made) - and delivered it flawlessly and confidently, engaging the audience and convincing them that every word coming from her mouth glittered like a diamond.

Damn, she was a good performer.

Teaching yoga also involves performance, I am discovering in my teacher training. Teaching a vinyasa (flow) yoga class ideally involves moving your students through a complicated choreography, with every inhalation and exhalation accounted for, at a metronomically steady pace. I'm nowhere near this ideal; it is fantastically difficult. With a soothing, steady voice, with a tone that's both reassuring, and inspiring, with a stance and gait that projects confidence, you have to create a flow on the spot - not only creating the movements from pose to pose, but a planning for a balanced larger pattern of movement arching over the whole hour, often with a theme (recurring hip-opening poses working into a particularly intense asana), figure out the words to use to describe movement so that alignment is intuitive, communicate appropriate emotions in response to the lessons of the poses and your students' own performances, physically adjust your students' bodies to fix misaligned poses and to sink them deeper into stretches, and strike a balance between responding to your students' energy (slowing down the flow if they seem tired) and attempting to change your students' energy and inspire them into new life. And all this has to happen against a perfect rhythm of inhaling and exhaling.

It's in the performance aspect of this that the skill comes in. I can easily jot down a flow sitting right here. Teaching it is entirely another matter.

Today we broke up into small groups and took it in turns teaching each other standing flows. Here the home lessons I've been giving to my friends really paid off (Thanks, guys!) because it felt easy and routine. But the guy who taught me lost his train of thought a few times, or said "Exhale" when he should have said "Inhale," and didn't describe poses clearly, so that even when I knew them I found it hard to get into them. I think he was nervous. It's not that he didn't know his stuff; it was that he couldn't access that knowledge, through the anxiety.

I think part of what yoga teaches you - and what my boss already has - is the confidence, the inner strength, and the mental relaxation needed to practice a skilled creative process, under pressure, in front of a group of people. I've read a few articles on meditation for musicians which I think have similar ideas. When you're in that zone, time seems to slow down, and your mind feels as cool as a tall glass of ice water.

My friend Ben wrote about his idea that different people respond differently to pressure; some thrive and some crack (including, unfortunately, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.) What he doesn't mention is that this characteristic isn't necessarily static. You can learn to change it. And it's something I aspire to.

Not that I'll ever look as good in a mini-skirted suit and stiletto heels as my boss does.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Old Lamp I Found in the Trash

Your lamp is bending, he told me. And it was.
I'd joined the broken halves with duct tape
and now majestically the lamp
was nodding its head down to the pillow.
Shadows flashed and grazed me with the spotlight.

Prop it - prop it against something, I gasped.
Oh, I'd never have yielded the heat of the moment
To something like a floppy lamp. He rolled off me
And leaned it on the table.
We'll have to throw it away, he said. I was panting.

His messy sunrise of hair, the curve of his buttocks,
the touch of his hand. He said,
How can people make love with the light off?
I want to be able to see you.

This was all long, long ago. There was a drop of sweat
running along my neck. Outside
night rested on a blue green spring.
The empty ache as he withdrew with a shudder....
Why do I still remember?

In the morning before leaving he towelled his hair
As the sun rose up through the window slats.
Later I found a used condom
Draped on the bedside table.
He'd tossed it and it splatted, plop!
Like a Dali clock.
Then he'd reached out and - click - it's all black.

Letter to a Lost Lover

The ocean brings us beautiful corpses
So that we do not forget.
But what looks (from a distance)
Like a buried behemoth of a shell
Is just a sheared top slice resting flat.
Perhaps its ghost of a body
Rattles around the seabed
Whispering watery curses.

Seashells in a spray of white
Could be a sleeping Titan's spine
(Like when I woke up on the sand
To find the wind had covered me
Toe to crusted eyelash, sand
In my mouth, sand
In the salty pages of my book.
I was just waiting for you to come back.)

Still waiting, I'll walk down the beach.
It's grey and blue and green
In sight and smell and
The jetsam of man is one with the rest.
That's not a washed-up jellyfish there,
It's a plastic bag -
That's not a rusty iron ring here,
It's the broke back of a horseshoe crab. Dead.

I'd love to sob into the sea
And confess all my sins, swim
And wash them away.
The ocean doesn't know.

You could bathe one million evil doers
Then strain the ocean with a sieve
And still not find
One grain of sin.