Brahma Viharas for Activists

A couple of years ago I wrote about the Brahma Viharas (aka the Four Divine Abodes, aka the Four Immeasurables) and their Near Enemies. If you’ve never heard of these concepts, I highly recommend that post as a more thorough introduction and overview of what they’re all about.

If you’re already somewhat familiar with them, here’s a quick table outlining the Brahma Viharas and their Near Enemies, the latter representing what can happen when we get a bit self-centered vs focusing on others, even if we start out coming from a good place. This table also shows the Antidotes, or the Brahma Vihara we might want to bring into our practice if one of the Near Enemies starts to take over.

Brahma ViharaNear EnemyAntidote
Metta / LovingkindnessAttachment to a person or a particular outcomeKaruna
Karuna / CompassionGrief, overwhelm, or despairMudita
Mudita / Sympathetic JoyIntoxication with someone else’s good fortune, choices, or life pathUpekkha
Upekkha / EquanimityIndifference or apathyMetta

And here’s diagram I created to show the same thing, highlighting in a more visual fashion the interplay between each of the Brahma Viharas… noting also the dynamic between interdependence / care / connectedness (toward the outside edge of the diagram) and self-centeredness / ego-clinging (toward the inside of the diagram):

I created another, more personal version of the same diagram after realizing how regularly I cycle through this exact pattern when it comes to social justice issues:

In my better moments, I find myself at the top right in the land of Metta: filled with a sense of kindness that emanates outward to all beings, omitting none.

But often, particularly when I’m faced with news of the latest injustice — someone has been attacked because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation, for instance, or I perceive some community I’m a part of as not being as inclusive as they could be, for instance — my sense of lovingkindness starts to decay into Metta’s Near Enemy. I can become quite attached to views about how people SHOULD behave, how they SHOULD treat each other, how justice SHOULD be enacted, etc.

According to this system, that’s when I need to bring in the next Brahma Vihara: Karuna, or Compassion. Not only for the beings that I perceive as being oppressed and marginalized, as I mention in this diagram, but also for their oppressors, or the people who are behaving in less-than-inclusive ways, whether due to hatred or just plain old ignorance.

Continue reading “Brahma Viharas for Activists”

For Nothing is Fixed: podcast and poems

“Fixed” as in: permanent / unmoving / unchanging;
“Fixed” as in: repaired, made whole.

On this theme I present this timely and provocative conversation between Viveka and Paramananda. So much of what Viveka says (and not just in this podcast!) resonates with my experience, in particular:

Just because we’re physically together doesn’t mean we’re vibing together… Just recognizing that when we’re physically together doesn’t mean that all bodies are able to be there in the same way has been a huge teaching for me.


How can we actually co-create a space that everyone is genuinely able to be welcome with others, to be welcoming others? …There’s something about the beautifulness of our differentiation where we can actually welcome each other fully.

Their conversation takes as its springboard this poem by James Baldwin, which Paramananda recites beautifully (and from memory!) at 4:40:

For Nothing Is Fixed
by James Baldwin

For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed;
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing,
the sea does not cease to grind down rock.
Generations do not cease to be born,
and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails,
lovers cling to each other,
and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other,
the moment we break faith with one another,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


Here’s another excerpt of a poem, which I heard for the first time this afternoon. Apparently it is stenciled on the streets of Salem, Massachussetts in such a way that it is only visible when it rains, and I wish I could find the poem in its entirety:


All around the globe, Right Now, people are busy filling in the cracks of our world with gold, and I’m deeply inspired.



Anni Albers
Untitled, n.d.
lithographic crayon on graph paper
2312 × 1512 in. (59.7 × 39.7 cm)

I found this lovely weaving/drawing/metaphor here

Gordon Walters and another attempt to ride the Möbius strip out of dual thinking

When I was a kid, my dad showed me a symbol he had come up with during his days in Berkeley in the 70s. It’s confusing either way you hold it:

IMG_20181126_171308     IMG_20181126_171314

To my great delight, a similar image started showing up all over Auckland back in July:

Gordon Walters, Painting J 1974
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Courtesy of the Walters Estate.
Source: The Auckland Gallery website, accessed 26 November 2018

I loved the Gordon Walters exhibit at the Auckland Art Gallery, aka Toi o Tāmaki; I went twice (the museums here are free for New Zealand residents!) and bought the catalog to add to my collection of art books addressing the spiritual in abstract art. I also thought the Gallery did a good job of describing the cultural-appropriation controversy the artist found himself in the middle of, not to mention the fact that Walters and his friend Theo Schoon apparently appropriated artistic ideas from Rolfe Hattaway, a patient in a mental hospital?!

As someone who often sees the world in terms of the potential for quilt top patterns, the show gave me all sorts of inspiration for some appropriation of my own. As of this writing I’m seriously considering a Möbius quilt, just to ensure it’s entirely impractical and complicated. And nerdy and fun.

I’m really liking the Möbius strip as a symbol for non-duality:

[T]ry to choose an “up” and a “down” on a Möbius band. When you slide along the band, you eventually wind up at the same point you started at, but “up” has become “down.” … Its storytelling potential is clear: you travel around something, only to end up back where you started but disoriented.

Thanks to Evelyn Lamb over at Scientific American for that quote. It reminds me a lot of having once been a California girl driving North up Australia’s East Coast, on a different Highway 1, behind a steering wheel on the right side of the car, my car on the left side of the road, as the sun set over the hills, not over the ocean, and the entire world felt inside-out.

Up / Down. Both / And. Wherever you go, there you are… wherever that is.

Someone please go see the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York and send a report

I have a lot of feelings about the Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibit currently showing at the Guggenheim in New York City.

Screenshot 2018-10-21 at 3.56.15 PM

A Lot Of Feelings!

A sampling:

Disappointment. That I didn’t realize this show was on until a few days ago, and so didn’t plan my schedule or budget in a way that I could make the show in person. Maybe I can see it next Spring, when it’s apparently coming to MOCA in Los Angeles (according to Moderna Museet at least, why can’t I find any evidence of this upcoming show anywhere else!)? ***UPDATE 17 January 2019: that link no longer mentions such a show either. It must have been a mistake 😦

Delight! That I discovered the show’s existence in time to pre-order the catalogue at a huge discount.

Anger. Of course the female artist who was one of the first abstract artists in the world was forgotten by history.

Hope. She may have been “unknown” during her lifetime, but that’s been changing since the ’80s, when her work was first made public via an international exhibitions… who else’s life’s work is still yet to be discovered? What might this teach us about the fluidity of history, and for those of us who attempt to document the past, humility at our inevitable inability to capture it all?

Curiosity. She kept her work hidden, stipulating that it not be shown for 20 years after her death. Depending on which account you read, there are different reasons for this. Why? How might her choice inspire, or at least inform, both my own choices, and my own feelings about how things go down in the world of women, work, and sharing our creativity and life’s work with audiences at all?

Confusion. Are all the paintings in the spiral gallery? How can this layout do justice to her massive pieces? Or maybe the bigger ones aren’t included in this exhibit? Or maybe those are being shown in the adjacent galleries?

I mean I’m no curator but I’ve been an enormous fan of Hilma af Klint since I first discovered her paintings twenty years ago, and in poring over the internet for photos of other exhibits, I discover that I react very strongly to how her work has been shown in the past. Some exhibits shove the works far too close together for my liking, for instance.

I love this particular juxtaposition:

Photo by Moderna Museet, source

And look how spectacularly they were presented in Berlin:

Photo by batmantoo, source


So yes, argh, I wish I’d known sooner so I might have made plans to visit New York while this show will be running. In the meantime, I’m imagining the opportunity to do this:

Source: …how can you find the original sources anymore on the internet?! I found it here, which includes a credit that I’ve tried and failed to track down further: “Photo @johanoevergaard”

Or even this:

In the meantime, I will watch this:

…and hope that someone who understands everything I have written about above will physically attend the show in person and tell me all about their experience.

Choosing to walk my own path: the beginning

Group X, Altar paintings #1. Hilma af Klint (c) Hilma af Klint Foundation

I keep thinking about the months of January through June of 1998. I struggle with how to label this period, because to say something like “this was a massively influential time for me” or “it was the most pivotal inflection point of my life” feels like an understatement.

Looking back, I genuinely believe that choosing to leave the life I had known up until that point allowed me to begin to discover who I was. And because I was, for the first time in my life, evaluating the world around me based on my own lens / my own value system / an expanded sense of what might be possible, I discovered several practices and perspectives that have been with me ever since.

What happened (in a nutshell)

Two and a half years into a Bachelor of Science degree at McGill University, I had become disillusioned with science as a way to explain the world. I fell into an existential crisis that called my entire approach to life into question: Why was I working toward a degree that reduced everything I loved into numbers and statistics… particularly when all the trends seemed to show that everything was doomed?

More importantly: Why was I in university at all? I certainly hadn’t made a conscious decision about the matter. Twenty years into my life, I suddenly realized I had been blindly following the path that had been laid out for me, with little regard for what I actually wanted to do, much less who I actually might be.

Then “Ice Storm ’98,” one of the worst national disasters in Canada’s history, hit…. right at the beginning of McGill’s winter semester. Continue reading “Choosing to walk my own path: the beginning”

When the medium limits the message

Here are three offerings that really drove home the whole “the medium is the message” message for me this week. I’ll share more of my own thoughts in separate posts; here, I’ll let the artists speak for themselves.

One: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette [this is just the trailer, you can read more of my thoughts on it here]:

Two: This video essay from Lindsay Ellis [more of my thoughts on this video here]:

…and Three: something my friend Ethan wrote in the description of the Kickstarter campaign for his latest art book, The Evening Pink. [Please give him your support! And I’ve written up more thoughts about slow, thoughtful engagement, etc, here:

I am concerned about the distribution and reach of independent cultural production in 2018. The last time I pre-ordered an edition, in 2012, the cultural landscape was quite different. We used blogs! Artists are now producing more content for less pay, on channels that ask for shorter encounters with artworks. This is discouraging when you make books, and want to facilitate a slow, thoughtful engagement.


Keeping the baby AND the bathwater

We are complicit with everything we buy and click on and watch.

I’ve been struggling for months (if not years? decades?) to make sense of where to file the work of once-favorite actors, artists, comedians, scientists, authors, thinkers, etc who turn out to have done some very awful things (see: #metoo).

A couple weeks ago, someone suggested that I consider integrating both the baby AND the bathwater, rather than trying to figure out what to keep and what to toss. The idea of this approach appeals to me… but how?

This Art Assignment video does an excellent job of both articulating the conundrum and describing what’s actually at stake / why what we choose to do matters. Host Sarah Urist Green outlines a few approaches (including some both/and AND either/or options), and poses some very relevant questions to ponder as we each grapple with how to appreciate someone’s content, even as we condemn their behavior:

In addition to the quote I included above, here are a couple more that stood out to me from the video, but I highly recommend you watch it all if you’re at all interested in these issues.

Who reaps the financial rewards of our attention?

The context of this one was the question of whether or not to watch the latest controversial YouTube video, but the larger point is that these choices have impacts in any genre:

I can’t bear to think that I’ll… contribute financially in any way to that person and their fame. Our attention matters, and it’s also being closely monitored, amounting to ad dollars and influencing boardroom decisions about what kind of stuff gets made.


Clear as mud: Black Willow, Mississippi Mud, and FBI informants

LomaScott very rarely plays songs more than once in a sitting, so the fact that we’ve now listened to Loma‘s Black Willow six times in a row is no small endorsement. I agree: it’s infectiously beautiful, darkly haunting, the lyrics are provocative… definitely worth playing over and over, and there’s something about the album cover art, too.

I finally decided to look for a video and Lo, not only does one exist, it’s in a similar vein as the ones I have posted twice before:

And the plot thickens! The video’s first comment on YouTube is from (actor, producer, and writer) Daniel Martine, who points out that the song sounds eerily similar to a song called “Mississippi Mud,” a Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles song with a grim history:

In his comment to the Black Willow video, Daniel continues:

The story is about the death of black students who protesting [sic] at Jackson State in Mississippi in ’70. Not long after Kent State shootings happened. But it didn’t get the press of Kent State, because they were black students.

I can google up no evidence that Loma may have meant Black Willow to be a straight up homage to the song and/or a rememberance of the events that took place at Jackson State, not to mention the inequality of the response thereafter compared to shootings of white students. But I could understand that the band could have gone there Continue reading “Clear as mud: Black Willow, Mississippi Mud, and FBI informants”