Friday, July 28, 2017

Jewish fags

This post captures an idea that seems truly relevant to me, though you may find the language in parts quite academic. Perhaps some day I will rewrite in layman's terms... and add a conclusion. 

In Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, published in 2006, sociologist C.J. Pascoe reports on observations and interviews with students in a California high school and interprets their behavior through lenses including feminist and queer theory.  She observed that the ubiquitous practice of boys calling each other fags (or joking about being or pretending to be gay), was not merely a terrible way to harass actual homosexuals (although that happened too).  She saw that "fag discourse" (in the Foucauldian sense of discourse) was a way of proving one's own masculinity (along with other practices such as publicly "getting girls" and boasting about it) and punishing those who failed achieve masculinity within the narrow confines of the dominant gender order.  The dominant gender is defined as positing that all people fit into two discreet categories of male and female, that men and women (or boys and girls) naturally pair together romantically and sexually and that men are superior to women.  The dominant gender order privileges males, over females, heterosexuals over queer people and cisgender people over transgender people.  It also harms all of us by narrowly defining each person's acceptable range of expression based on perceived identity.

I became interested in this book because I was both a target and deployer of the "fag discourse" during my high school years (1997-2000).  Unfortunately, Pascoe suggests, that makes my experiences quite typical.  While I reached a point of maturity in my teenage years (after a girl confronted me in an incident described below) in which I conscientiously refused to participate in discourse I increasingly came to understand as sexist and homophobic, it wasn't until college that I started to encounter tools to creatively express myself and constructively create the type of community I didn't even know I wanted.  In high school, I simply stopped participating, gently spoke my mind and observed in frustration.

I see many of the "regulative mechanisms" described by Pascoe in both the school environment I found threatening and the Jewish youth group that I experienced as saving me from it.  Without giving it much reflection, I had thought that I was called a fag as a generic insult because I went through a period during which I happened to be unpopular.  Through the queer feminist lens, I now see the possibility that I was perhaps expressing myself in ways that didn't conform to prevailing definitions of masculinity and I was punished for it.

I wonder what those behaviors may have been.  Images come to mind of walking around during middle school recess, talking to my best friend, a girl, while other boys played sports.  I was picked on and became shy and withdrawn.  Why was I different?

1) Was it a result of growing up in a household with my sister and a strong mother.  My father, who wasn't much of a presence to begin with, separated from my mother and moved out while I was in middle school.  He likes soccer and was quite handy, but never taught me those things.  

2) Or was it the fact that the masculinity I did exhibit was culturally different from the dominant masculinity in my hometown?  Both of my parents were Jewish immigrants, from Israel and Argentina.  Perhaps my masculinity was more Jewish or latino.  Pascoe talks about how different definitions of masculinity are expected of and aspired towards by white and by black students.  Dancing well or putting attention into ones clothing, for example, could get you called a fag if you are white, but lauded if you are black.

3) Did I internalize the ridicule I received for having a "girl's name" (Ariel) which was the same name as the lead character in Disney's Little Mermaid, which came out when I was 7?  Until this day, I cringe when people pronounce my name like hers.  In any case, I didn't quite fit in and I was punished for it.

When I entered a chapter of the B'nai Brith Youth Organization in the 10th grade, the older boys took me under their wing.  I was an atheist at the time so I refused to pray at meals, but the youth group provided a social outlet that I didn't experience at school.  When I introduced myself to this community, I started shortening my name to Ari so as not to be confused with the "girl's name".  This is ironic because Ariel is a Jewish name and one might think I would find more acceptance within that community.  The boys in my chapter introduced me to others, including girls, encouraged me to participate in trainings, hold chapter leadership positions and attend weekly events and monthly weekend-long conventions.  I benefited in enormous ways for which I am still grateful today in terms of developing confidence, leadership skills and discovering the depths of fulfillment of doing service.  Because the chapter had such a profound positive impact on me, I wanted to offer the same experience to incoming members.

By my senior year, I was so popular that I was elected "Regional Beau" at the annual Beau-Sweetheart dance (our version of homecoming).  Leading up to the election, I declared that it was a bullshit popularity contest and that if I was elected, I would refuse to accept.  I was elected anyway and I didn't refuse to accept.  Pascoe tells the story of a non-normative lesbian elected as homecoming queen.  As Pascoe points out, the ubiquitous practice of electing homecoming kings and queens that Americans take for granted as a "natural" part of high school is not a neutral occurrence, but reinforces the idea that people fit into two categories of boy and girl and that the two are different and meant to be paired sexually and romantically with each other.

Even though she almost always wore clothes considered masculine and rarely showed emotional vulnerability, when the lesbian described by Pascoe was elected, she cried and she wore a dress to the dance to everyone's surprise.  She felt there was a policy requiring a dress from an amorphous undefined "they" even though in this instance there were no particular individuals or school policies to which she referred.

I see other heteronormative structures paralleled by those observed by Pascoe, within the organization and culture of the youth group:
  • Chapters were divided into boys and girls chapters (this is not the case in Unitarian Universalist youth groups, nor even other Jewish youth groups)
  • Constant humorous pretended flirting between boys 
  • A chapter tradition of signing the "play shirt" whenever one fooled around with a girl. 
  • Using "Good and Welfare" sharing circle to brag about "getting girls" 
  • Requesting popular songs at youth group dances, all-male chapter members congregating in the center of the dance floor and loudly replacing the song lyrics (which were often themselves already sexist) with our own lyrics that pronounced our masculinity and virility and accused other boys of being gay.  For example (keep in mind that our chapter was Samson #2076).  
    • "2-0-7-6 BBG's suck on our dicks" to the tune "Sumpin' New" by Coolio. 
    • "Samson Man" to the tune of "Macho Man" 
    • "Bend over, lemme hear you say Berger" to the tune of "Boom Boom Boom, Let me Hear you Say Wayo" by the Outhere Brothers.  (Berger was another's boy's chapter.)  
As in the school Pascoe observed, certain enforcers of heteronormativity were initiated by youth and others were built into the adult-sanctioned structure of the organization.  In some cases, adults participated and in others, they simply looking the other way.  Our chapter cheer was repudiated by the adult staff, but none of the songs described above were to my recollection.  Our chapter cheer proclaimed "Samson Once Samson Twice Holy Jumping Jesus Christ, God Damn Son of a Bitch, Rah Rah Fuck."

One day, after I had been in the youth group for about a year, a girl took me aside and told me that the way I was joking about gayness was anti-gay.  Somehow, like many of the students Pascoe interviewed that used the word "fag", I insisted that I had nothing against gay people.  Who is to say our boy-to-boy flirting doesn't even have some elements of homoerotic bonding, I defended?  Then she asked me a very simple question: if there is a gay person in the room (and nobody was out at the time) do you think your joking would make them less or more comfortable?  I felt annoyed because my sense of masculinity was threatened.  Nonetheless, I couldn't deny that she had a point and I stopped from that point forward.  

Thursday, April 14, 2016

How I do and don't want to die

After accompanying my grandfather in his passing I started reading Joan Halifax's Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.  She offers several meditations.  In the first chapter, she recommends imagining how you do and don't want to die.  I share my reflections here:

Worst Scenario of how I die
I am kidnapped by an enemy and tortured physically and psychologically over a period of time that is dragged out.  Part of the torture is that I don’t get to see my loved ones but instead see videotape of them reacting to false evidence that I have betrayed them and let them down.  I am beaten daily, prevented from doing physical exercise and denied adequate food and water in a process that forces my body to slowly decay.  I am left for hours at a time alone with nothing but a mirror so I struggle to avoid dwelling on my fate.  This happens when I am young, before I’ve had a chance to build a family, before I’ve had a chance to really leave my mark on the world.

How this makes me feel: my gut clenches up and withdraws.  Looking at this scenario, I imagine a sadness so big I can’t even bear it.  It seems more like a comic book or action movie than reality.  I feel fear, anger and sadness.

Ideal Death
I have a year.  I have the physical strength and mental lucidity to engage in conversation, read and write.  I can continue going for walks in the woods and doing yoga.

There is time set aside for me to be alone and time for company.  Sometimes different groups will convene according to category (eg. family or Pioneer Valley friends) and sometimes people from different categories will be exposed to each other.  Most of my time is spent with my closest friends, family and colleagues, though there can be time for less close visitors.  I see my passing as an opportunity for opening that I offer to myself and others.        

We sit in silence, do ritual and sing songs, taking the opportunity of the mysterious transition to cultivate deep presence and heart-opening for both myself and others.  I hold a council circle with my friends and family in which we are all invited to begin the grieving and celebration process together.  We say what our hearts yearn to say to each other, sharing gratitude, requesting forgiveness and offering blessings on our next journeys.  This is a moment of connection with me, with each participant's true inner self and with each other.

I have the support of loved ones to review my past, including photos, videos and journal entries.   From my deathbed, I reflect on my life and my loved ones reflect as well.  We record our proceedings so we may offer them for the benefit of others.

How it makes me feel: I feel warm and happy with these images.  It gives me a sense of peace.  I’m reminded of the apparently ironic tenderness, intimacy and love that emerges with the Auschwitz retreat.

What I am can do to die how I want to die

  • Eating well and exercising can increase the likelihood and lucidity and strength later in life.  
  • To achieve this goal does seem to require some organization of old photos, videos, and journals.  If time were short, doing that on my deathbed could be beyond my capacity.  
  • Caring for my relationships while I’m alive helps ensure that I have meaningful connections by my side as I prepare to transition.
  • Sharing this vision with my loved ones could help prepare them for the possibility that it takes place.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Writing Our Story

I had a great anniversary weekend with my partner.  I cut and pasted excerpts from my journals over the year of our encounters together (a practice I've done with different people or institutions over the years).  I selected pieces that: 
  • celebrate wonderful moments
  • share insights and lessons I’ve learned about my personal growth through patters I want to transform
  • mark moments of having moved together through challenge
  • illustrate early fears for which there was clear evidence of evolution by the end of the year.  
I sometimes use my journal to make sense out of the hardest moments and I didn’t focus on that.  I focused much more celebration than problem exploration.  I wanted to promote a sense of comfort and confidence.  I see this not as sugar-coating or sticking our heads in the sand, but rather taking into account the malleability of memory in order to proactively choose, promote and actualize a realistic and ambitious vision of the life we are creating together.  This practice reinforced to me the way in which we are the authors of our lives.

Saturday morning, after I went outside to get something: 
Me “You have to go out and see the snow.” 
Her: “I can see it from the window.”

I convinced her and we had a pleasant walk.  We each grabbed a banana for the road.  After some time, she expressed her first moment of hunger and fatigue.  I wanted us to continue up a hill to the end, which was near.  She asked again and we turned around.  The woods were magical and beautiful with freshly fallen snow, which also slowed down our feet dragging along.  She was excited to find a vast array of horse tails. We both started to feel hungry, tired week. 

This was the perfect anniversary activity because when things turned out much more difficult than we expected, we maintained a sense of humor and did our bests to support each other and take care of ourselves – ultimately returning home, scarfing some food and dozing off spooning together for a nap – a rare accomplishment for both of our under-slept bodies. 

After that, I read excerpts from my journals.  It was touching to remember the points of growth, vulnerability, enjoyment and care.  

Finding Flow in Dance

Pollinate, Friday February 5
I participated in the yoga class (staying on the desired side of the fine line between bliss and anxiety) while my partner got dressed up.

Some great dancing.  I had a shift.  Instead of seeing my partner as the perfectly embodied expert and myself as the clumsy geek, I started to see that both of our expressions are ours and that each person’s style is fine just as it is.  Sometimes, either or both of us are in the flow individually.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes our flows jive with each other.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes, our habits and patterns synergize with the music, our moods, the food in our belly, the people around us... the constellation of the stars.  Sometimes not.  She can teach me belly dance techniques.  I can teach her yoga asana alignment.  Sometimes these practices connect us to the flow of a particular dance floor, or with particular people.  Sometimes not.

Dance Spirit, Sunday, February 7 
I attended another dance event with my partner and her 2.5 year-old son.  At first, he was reluctant to stop nursing.  I hid behind the sheet.  His mother asked "Where's Ariel?  Can you find him?"  No budging.  I walked away and said that he probably couldn't get me.  This eventually lured him away from her as he started to chase me around.  Over the course of several trips together, I've seen him grow more comfortable dancing with me and we've developed certain games together that we can re-deploy without starting from scratch.  As his dad describes, this event provides him with expansive play space.  

A fetish is a story masquerading as an object.
- Robert Stoller.

He needed to have his blocks.  “Can’t we just zap each other with our hands?” Mama asked.  “No.” Mama went to get from the car.  He chases us with the blocks and zaps us.  Sometimes, as I fall down from the zap, I lift him onto me and we do a bit of contact dance.  Occasionally, he relaxes into the dance and we spin, lift, release, twirl, together.  Sometimes, he wants to get down and return to the safer structure of the game.  While doing a bit of my own dance, I am fluid and responsive towards his.  I learn form him.  Engaging him in this way gives me a focus that eases some of my anxiety about being on the dance floor and helps me slip into joy and fluidity.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Why I Limit Email

Friday, November 28, 2014
I have always appreciated that traveling is a time to get out of habitual ways of thinking and acting and to look at life with an elevated perspective.  One habit I can’t maintain while traveling is that of checking and responding to all emails (almost) every day and of obsessively checking my email several times per day. 

After a three-week trip, I look at my email inbox.  It feels like looking at old lover with whom I keep reengaging even though I’ve tasted the sweetness of liberation from our recurring pattern of drama and dysfunction.  I sit here craving her.  Wanting her.  Remembering full well why I stepped away and remembering just as poignantly why I made a habit in the first place.  A bad habit.  An addiction.  It hurts inside to recognize that a habit is a bad one and to choose it again and again. 

The first time audit I ever did revealed I was spending about half my work time on email.  This was troubling to me, considering that much of my time on email was spent nervously scrolling back and forth in a state of overwhelm.  This inspired my first leap into studying personal productivity and time management, which has involved negotiating and renegotiating my relationship to email and other work habits over the course of the years.  I'm confident I could not have achieved what I've achieved without having broken the stranglehold of habits that didn't work and introduced mindfulness and choice into my work life.  

Having been away three weeks, the visual cues in my office trigger my email checking compulsions and yet I’ve also got enough distance to feel how good it is not to indulge, how nice it is to have choice, to be free.  David Allen convinced me of the value of daily Inbox Zero, which I’ve been (mostly) limiting to one 25-minute chunk per day (a “Pomodoro”).  Timothy Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Work Week argues alternatively for ½ hour of email per week.  Email, he argues, keeps us reactive instead of proactive, responding to relatively unimportant things that take lots of time without getting results.  I find this to be true in my work.  Ferris recommends batching like tasks, eliminating distractions and interruptions and automating processes in order to liberate yourself to live the life and do the work of which you dream.  

Sitting at this threshold, I see possibility and also resistance, fear.  The ego holds onto an old wound even when freedom is in sight.  Why is my ego structure is wrapped up with email addiction?  It gives me a sense of being important, of mattering, being necessary, indispensable.  It gives me cause to increase my heart rate, get a burst of adrenaline, increase focus, a sense that I’m responding to something urgent, staying on top of it, handling it. 

Previously, as Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café, overseeing a weekly meal, there were time-sensitive responses for which people were waiting.  If I didn’t respond, I’d slow down one cog that would ripple to other cogs in the system.  But, in order to be more aligned with my personal purpose and increase my positive impact on the world, I’ve made changes in my work life.  People aren’t relying on me to fill volunteer slots each Saturday, but I have committed to publishing a book.  I’m not getting random inquiries from volunteers, but I’ve committed to multiple types of regular monthly correspondence with a set number of emerging Café leaders.  I’m not attending various meetings every week, but I am cultivating long-term relationships with high-leverage national partners.  Instead of time-sensitive quick responses, my current commitments require focused concentration, from an elevated perspective, over a prolonged period of time.  Especially because much of this work will be done sitting in front of a computer, habitually checking email threatens to distract me from moving forward on these commitments.  

There are costs to the presence, choice, efficiency and effectiveness I will experience as a result of this shift.  People have grown to expect quick responses from me and may be disappointed if they don't here from me.  There will still certainly be times when responding to a time-sensitive email will influence a social or work situation.  In order to readjust people's expectations and also encourage them to contact me by phone for urgent matters, I follow Ferris' suggestion and use an auto-response that explains my new policy.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Please Support me in my 2014 Street Retreat

Please consider supporting me to participate in a street retreat on May 8 in New York City.  As a participant, I commit to fundraising $500- part of which goes to support the service agencies that care for us on the streets.  After you donate, I will add your name to a bead on my mala bracelet, so you will be with me on my journey.


Why am I returning to do a street retreat for the 4th time and, in November, an Auschwitz retreat for the 6th?  Looking back on my reflections from my May 2013 street retreat (below), I see how:

  • The retreat provided me with a powerful experience of deep listening
  • My May retreat resonated with me through my year
  • The practice of listening reveals to me greater levels of depth every day
  • I could really use another experience of intensive practice   

Then and Now 

Last May, I was nervous about people managing Stone Soup for one weekend in my absence.  Since then, I let go of roles that were't right for me and moved into new ones.  Today, there is an active Leadership Team who has been making meal management better and better each week.  

Last May, I was working on the Café full-time, nervous about what would happen when my unemployment rant out.  Today, I receive a part-time salary while we serve a growing number of people each week, sometimes surpassing 100 guests.    

Last May, I decided to leave my men's group in order to initiate teaching a Dharma in Action workshop series.  I taught the first session to 9 students last Sunday.  

Last May, I was completing a certificate in non-profit management and considering business school.  Today, I have started studying more closely with Bernie to complete my Ministry ordination and I am launching a new organization to support additional Cafes around the world.  

Thank you for supporting me on this path of letting go of stale roles and stories, tuning in to the creative field around me and waking up to new opportunities, again and again.  

May 2013 Street Retreat Reflections

The theme of this street retreat for me was listening to the manyness.  My intention was to plunge as deeply as I could into the three peacemaker tenets of Not-knowing, Bearing Witness and Loving Actions.  Listening to the manyness is about bearing witness to the whole.  Meditating in Washington Square Park, hearing a saxophone player in the distance, dogs barking, birds chirping, construction clanging, kids laughing, people talking... a giant symphony, a beautiful cacophony and all of it so alive, so perfect and my likes and dislikes and emotional reactions, all of them teachings. 

Our retreat liturgy defined Not-knowing as “the source of all manifestations.  Seeing all manifestations as the teaching of not-knowing.”  How do I treat my teachers?  I listen carefully to what they say, with my heart and head.  Can I treat all manifestations like that?  Can I treat all people like that? 

Listening to the manyness of Washington Square Park, my struggle to listen to some of my colleagues came to.  Tears shed, with a little opening.  Leaving meditation, the whole universe was a bit softer, my step lighter... tender and present.     

I witnessed my own reactions, empathy and annoyance, fear of saying the wrong thing and the joy of laughing with old friends and strangers.  I got to know my street allies, sharing deeply about work and love.  I listened to a man tell me how drugs brought him from earning $70,000 a year to living on the streets and how he quit drugs, but is still working on quitting alcohol.  I watched a fist fight erupt and get broken up.  I saw a Muslim argue with the preacher at the evangelical services required of guests in order to receive a meal at the Bowery Mission. 

As a meal program administrator, I was sensitive to the minute differences in logistical solutions to the challenge of feeding people on a tight budget.  I was sensitive to the relationship between program logistics and guest experience.  I was sensitive to the relationships among and between guests, staff and volunteers.  I saw that program staff and volunteers are on a stage with a spotlight shining on them and that they set the tone for the whole room, whether stressed out and yelling to hurry up or sharing a relaxed smile.  I noticed how different locations handled wait time.  I considered freshly logistical considerations at the Stone Soup Café and my drive to create meal programs that honors the dignity of all was invigorated.   

Thursday, January 09, 2014

First Session Teaching Yoga at New Gig

I prepped for my restorative class.  I asked my roommate to bless me, so I could be grounded in the confidence that who I am in the most important thing I offer.  I had a pretty gentle attitude with myself and with the teaching.  I basically used the Iyengar restorative sequence straight out of my teacher training manual.  I kept people in poses for 3-5 minutes.  

Base Sequence (included a few more poses

Baddha Konasana3
Adhoa Mukha SvanaHands wall; head block & blanket3
Setu BandhaBlock5
Viparita KaraniBlanket5
Twist right and left3
Supta Baddha KonaStrap, blankets5

I gave some instructions to follow the breath, drop into the body, let go of thoughts.  There was still some restlessness.  I tried to listen and adjust.  My stuff was definitely too much for one woman.  I later noticed the description promised "very gentle".  I asked for feedback.  There were 5 students.  Most said they liked the challenge level and they liked a few poses in particular: supported setu bandha, supta baddha konasana and viparita karani all received accolades.  One recommended I start off with asking people their names and trying to get some info on what is sore on them or what brings them to class.  I like that.  They said the previous teacher did "cat and cow" and also "thread the needle."    

In my training, restorative is very inward, meditative practice capable of invoking deep states of relaxation.  Poses are held for prolonged periods of time, like standard Iyengar style, but more so.  Props are used to find the perfect level of repose/stretch. Next time, I might explain this "perfect level" more.  It can't be too intense nor too easy.  I might also give a better overview of my sense of restorative, instead of just diving in.    

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was having less rigorous options in case someone couldn’t do what I asked.  A good teacher should be able to cater to various ability levels.  In a way, the first class served as something of an assessment.  Of the five students, two seemed to be around my age and three were probably middle aged.  The younger folks were probably just fine with the rigor and could have used more.  As it was, I considered the class to be of low to moderate rigor. 

This raises an important question: do I cater to the students who have a certain expectation based on what the prior teacher did or do what I think works best and allow students who are the wrong fit to filter out while perhaps new ones would come in for whom the previous classes were not rigorous enough?  There is also reality that “yoga” and “restorative yoga” mean different things in different contexts, namely at a gym vs. a yoga studio. 

At one moment, I looked in the mirror and saw myself teaching.  While I taught history and took yoga classes, I fantasized about teaching yoga.  It took me a couple years after getting certified, but I’m finally doing it!  And that makes me happy.  I like giving instruction.  I like getting feedback from students.  I like hearing about their challenges and problems and just listening to them.  I like seeing what works and what doesn’t.  I like bringing them fitness and peace.  I like sharing what I have experienced.  I’m really glad to be doing this and to teach the Dharma in Action workshop in the Spring. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Breathing: how deep is too deep? Why do I want to increase and decrease stress at the same time?

I listened to track 4, “Deep Breathing” of Relax; 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress with Daniel Goleman to focus my morning practice today.  I felt some hesitation to use this CD in my morning practice.  I’ve been practicing for years after all- I could give meditation instruction.  Do I really need a CD?  However, I decided to be open and see what I could learn from it.    

Goleman starts by explaining that when we feel tension, we make our breathing more shallow and fast.  He provides simple instructions to put my hand on my belly, deeply breathe in relaxation and breath out tension.  I found the instruction and practice to be a helpful thing to which to return when my mind started to drift.  I started to breath deeper and longer than he was suggesting and actually found that made me winded, so I slowed it down.  I tried to keep my attention on the practice while also letting other thoughts, emotions or sensations flow through me.  I remembered I was planning to make a phone call to a government agency that I was feeling anxiety about.  I observed the desire to make my breath more shallow and used a touch of effort to deepen it.  At another point, the sun rose to a point where it was gently shining on my face.  In this case, it eased and supported my relaxation practice.   I made a phone call to a government agency.  At the end of the practice, he recommends keeping the practice throughout the day.  I kept my hand on my belly when I made the actual phone call and simply observed how shallow my breath really got.  I then deepened my breath slightly.  
I understand that meditation and yoga lower stress hormones like Adrenaline and Cortisol.  I also understand that psychologists differentiation between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).  I enjoy what I understand to be an adrenaline rush when I go on a roller coaster or mountain bike down a hill, or face a work challenge that I consider meaningful and manageable.  Why would I seek to increase Adrenaline in some circumstances (while biking) and decrease it in others (while meditating)?  To me, biking and meditating seem to compliment each other as part of a balanced life, but are they actually working in opposition to each other?      

Monday, April 08, 2013

2013 Street Retreat Donation Request

I don’t do street retreats to understand poor people better.  
On street retreats, we stay on the streets for 2 or 3 nights with no money.  When I go on the streets, I’m not pretending to be homeless or experimenting with a life I would live in an alternative reality.  Its just me, Ari, same person as always.  There’s a liberty I get on the streets, not despite the physical discomfort and practical difficulties, but because of them.  It gets me in touch with something- something I find traveling, something I find in meditation.  It helps me cut through the bullshit. 

I go on the streets in order to understand poor people.  
I go on the streets to understand myself better, to undertand my friends, family and coworkers better.  By getting out of my comfort zone and routine, my habitual way of seeing the world loosens up.  It helps me see all people in front of me for who they really are instead of who I think they are.  

From this perspective, the man sitting next to me at a soup kitchen isn’t some guy hidden in the corner.  He’s a person sitting next to me.  And maybe I feely happy to sit next to him or maybe angry or repulsed.  I practice bearing witness to whatever comes up and acting accordingly.  This impacts how I do my service work.  It impacts how I do everything. 

Raising a Mala
For all of the street retreats organized by Zen Peacemakers, a donation is requested of the participants in order to offer donations to the social service agencies that support us.  I am committed to raising $500 for this end, plust $71 for travel.  In our Zen Buddhist practice we call this assembling a Mala – a rosary of prayer beads.  If you contribute, your name will be attached to a mala bead that I will wear on my retreat.  As such, you will join me on the retreat and I will share my experience with you when I return.  Please click the link above or send a check made out to "Hudson River Peacemaker Center" to

Ari Pliskin
79 Prospect St
Greenfield, MA 01301

Text about my last street retreat 
Photos of my last street retreat

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Benjamin Franklin's13 Virtues vs. the Buddhist Precepts

Inspired by Franklin Covey, I borrowed from the library and listened to Benjamin Franklin's autobiography.  I felt inspired to compre Franklin's 13 virtues with my community's version of the classic Buddhist precepts.  (See links for detailed versions) 

Buddhist Precepts (Zen Peacemaker version)
Benjamin Franklin's Virtues
1. non-killing 8. Justice
2. non-stealing: be satisfied, give, ask for and accept ??
3. chaste conduct: dignity, give and accept friendship and love without clinging 12. Chastity
4. non-lying: listen and speak from heart 2. Silence, 7. Sincerity
5. not being deluded by use of intoxicants 1. Temperance
6. not talking of others faults ??
7. not elevating self and blaming 13. Humility
8. not being stingy: use all ingredients 5. Frugality
9. non-anger, suffering-> wisdom 11. Tranquility
10. Honor my life as instrument of peacemaking ??

Franklin Virtues with no clear Buddhist pair
3. Order
4. Resolution
6. Industry
9. Moderation
10. Cleanliness

Franklin's virtues with no clear Buddhist pair seem to me to exemplify the "Protestant Work Ethic" that Max Weber believed made American culture so unique.  While the Dharmic tradition includes karma yoga in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism, I am not familiar with any strains within the Dharma traditions that place as much emphasis on the nitty gritty of daily self-management and work as do Franklin and his heirs.  Instructions to the Cook comes close, though it focuses more on a Dharmic perspective on organizational life than on personal work.    Perhaps because I was born American, I find the American tradition of pragmatic wisdom very refreshing and inspiring.  It certainly compliments the Eastern tradition which I hold so dear.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Help me take a pilgrimage to India

In the Zen Peacemakers, we invite friends and family to sponsor a bead on a "mala," to support us in our work and join us on our trips. I’d like to ask you to help me participate in the Pilgrimage to explore the Buddha’s Footsteps and social issues in India in January. I won’t be needed on staff, but I would love to participate and blog about the social issues in India. In order to promote the trip, I took on a study of the Buddha’s geographic path and guided our web community through a virtual tour of India. Because we achieved our attendance goals, our tour guide partner will wave my tuition fee, but I still need to pay for the plane ticket, which costs more than I have in my bank account. Would you help contribute to this goal by clicking above.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Online Customer Service and Corporate Social Responsibility

What role does a strong customer orientation play in Corporate Social Responsibility? When I saw Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in Silicon Valley last year, I appreciated his passionate concern for the customer, but I wasn't convinced that a customer-orientation alone accounts for a solid CSR orientation, as it almost seemed like he was suggesting. Nonetheless, our customers are people of course, and making them happy does make the world a better place. By looking at the effects of technology on customer service, we can start to imagine what it would take to address the needs of all stakeholders, including those who are not currently customers.

Technology enables some people:

The low cost of producing and distributing digital messages and the relative anonymity that comes with them will invite some passives to become more active complainers, particularly those who have high "customer technology readiness." We see this with the viral spreading of the United Breaks Guitars video and the Yours is a Very Bad Hotel Powerpoint presentation. Cyberbullying, online dating and blog comments all elicit behavior that is different from their face-to-face equivalents. However, as I discuss in an article I wrote about online community, there is much debate as to whether digital content about social issues enables behavior that wouldn't have otherwise taken place (such as protests in Burma, or more recently in Egypt) or whether it becomes just another form of passive consumption and distraction.

Technology use changes:

While banner ads had grown to a $9 billion per year business in 2004, by that time click-through rates had already dropped in effectiveness from 10% to .025% over the years (Services Marketing: Integrating Customer Focus Across the Firm, Ziethaml, Bitner and Gremler, 498). There were similar changes in the decreased effectiveness of telemarketing. New media makes it easier to reach more people at a lower cost, but the ability to instigate action may become diluted with time. The virality of online complaints and their detriment to sales will most likely fluctuate as both technology and our use of it change and adapt.

Implications for digital service recovery:

From the side of the firm, we need to create effective online venues that invite and respond to feedback from customers who are digitally oriented (just like we provide telephone venues for those who are phone-oriented). By providing a pressure valve that gives them voice, we channel them to share their complaints with us instead of complaining about them to others. We see a similar phenomenon is society at large. As Samuel Huntington points out in Political Order in Changing Societies, it is necessary for a democratic society to provide a legitimate arena within which to redress grievances in order to avoid violence, rebellion and revolution.


It is important for a company to be responsive to our customers just as it is for a democratic government. But what would it mean to apply the same type of responsiveness to other stakeholders who are not currently customers?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Studying: Online, Body & Zen

I started my first online course today in Marketing. It is with mixed feelings that I dive into the world of e-learning. On the one hand, I am excited by new possibilities created with technology. Intriguing both the educator in me and the computer geek in me is curious about what features they use to fascinate the learning experience. At the same time, I feel a bit of nostalgia. I miss the classroom experience- meeting other students and the teacher. Also, even though I enjoy spending my entire workday in front of a computer, I also love highlighting books. That being said, it doesn't make sense for me to print out many pages of course readings. We'll see how this goes. So far, there are several power point presentation "lectures." That certainly feels a bit more distant than a face-to-face lecture, which could also very well include a power point.

I'm also studying for my yoga finals. Guiding her through some asanas, I explained some basic anatomical concepts to my girlfriend, identifying various bones and muscles in her body. This is perhaps the other end of the spectrum from online learning. I reviewed various muscles, including their location and actions. It is astounding how many muscles there are and how they are intimately woven into each other. We looked at various reasons why it is difficult to maintain an erect back in seated poses like dandasana. In my case, it is from tight hamstrings, which run along the back of the leg and wrap up around the hip bone I think that maintaining an erect (or actually slightly curved) back can also result from weak back muscles or some tight muscles in the back itself, perhaps the erector spinae or latissimus dorsi.

I also learned today that my Zen Teacher Eve became was promoted from sensei (teacher) to roshi (a teacher of teachers). I don't see this as necessarily having a major impact as she was already teaching independently and doing a phenomenal job. Next week, we start the winter intensive. I've been maintaining 10 minutes per day of sitting, while joining the zendo schedule once or twice a week. Its been hard to attend while balancing yoga class. I often find myself rushing from Zen to Yoga and back. That's pretty funny.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I signed up for a business school class

The board of the Zen Peacemakers recently decided to sell our property in Montague, MA. I have been living, working and training here for the better part of the last two years. Amid this period of change, various energies surge and flux as various overlapping elements of our community forge new paths. The local meditation community, which has been known as the Montague Farm Zendo, is looking into options for a new roof. Bernie, the founder, is focusing his energy on spreading the three tenets and Socially Engaged Buddhism domestically and in Europe. I am helping him with that as his assistant. I am a lame duck tenant.

When I learned about the farm's fate as well as layoffs, I felt disillusioned. The developing Montague Farm Zen House and the Symposium on this campus were dreams come true. Everything was coming together. And after the Symposium in August, the thing I feared most was suddenly happening. It was hard to avoid getting wrapped up in worrying about the significance of the daily twists and turns of a relatively high period of uncertainty in an uncertain universe.

Returning to the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat in November, I felt comforted by the feeling like I was part of something much bigger than the campus I live on. I reflected on the reason I came to Montague in the first place: to be part of a Zen House, a dharma center where service to the community is viewed as a spiritual practice on par with meditation. I asked myself what I still lack to be part of such a center?

I decided to sign up for a business school class so that I could further develop practical tools to implement my beloved vision. I switched from listening to podcasts on social media marketing to listening to audiobooks on business development.

I was inspired and emboldened by my contribution to Auschwitz and Symposium registrations. And yet, it wasn't enough. As we discussed at the Symposium, Socially Engaged Buddhism needs to find a business model that is right for us in this culture in order for it to survive. My dream is a sort of a modern Buddhist Catholic Worker House. I did my internship at Haley House, a former Catholic Worker House in Boston. A modern version would mix high tech (Internet) and high touch (face-to-face) and would also be hybrid charity/social business.

While the recent past has felt worrisome, there has also been excitement of possibility amidst change. To be part of something new means standing out on a limb. Uncertainty is good training.

What do you think is necessary to make this dream viable?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Cadavers make me think of peace, zombies and cell phones.

I went to the cadaver lab to study yoga anatomy. There is something extremely comforting about seeing the dead body of a Vietnam vet who died of old age. Vietnam is usually something that makes me angry. Makes me want to fight war. And not that we shouldn't, but we all die anyway. I imagined the escape routes I would take in case the body turned out to be a zombie. I wasn't sure whether it would be better to throw a chair at the zombie or just run straight for the door.

My girlfriend wants me to stop holding my cell phone by my face. Valley Advocate says they cause cancer. Cell phones could be the cigarettes of the future. The industry will certainly fight for them. Maybe its killing me or maybe these are anti-technology rumors spread by organic farmers. Everybody has preferences and everybody thinks others would be better off if others shared their preferences (including me). Sometimes, we say others will die if they don't follow our preferences. Sometimes they will. Eventually everyone will.