Saturday, May 18, 2013

Wind and Intention - A Meditation


Leaves loosen their grip on life and become blown about by the wind. Trash by the roadside billows up and gets swept along in the wake of the traffic passing by. A tumbleweed bounces and rolls across the emptiness, only stopping when a tangle of brush or a fencerow rises up to halt its wandering. Things that are dead get blown by the wind, things with no mind of their own – lacking in intention.

 
I remember watching the pollen from our backyard Chinese Mulberry seemingly explode into the sunlight to drift like fog upon the barely moving breeze. And the maple seeds… I’d watch them helicopter down from the tree tops, landing nearby or far away as the particularity of their structure and the movement of the air dictated. Yes, and I’ve come to learn that those “dead” tumbleweeds disperse their propagules as they go, or when they’re stopped by something rooted in moist and life-giving soil. Things that bear life get blown by the wind – things that carry in them the intention of something larger than themselves.


 
 
 

I spent the day today as I do a couple of times each month, working at a place where new immigrants and refugees gather to learn English and become acclimated to life here in the United States. I speak with them about their intentions regarding work and education given the new circumstances that they’ve been presented with. How could a young Somali woman growing up in a refugee camp have known that the winds of conflict and compassion and geopolitics would blow her life all the way to St. Louis? But now that she is here she lives with renewed intention. Likewise, how could a young Iraqi man, while cooperating with the U.S. military in his war-torn country, have known that the winds of those chaotic world events would one day blow his life to a place that he never thought he’d even visit in a hundred million years? But now that he is here he lives with renewed intention. So…, when do we allow ourselves to be blown by the wind and when do we root ourselves with intention?

 
My partner is busy with some meetings this evening, so after leaving work I let myself get blown by the wind up and down South Grand Avenue – browsing through Dunaway’s bookstore…, photographing things blowing about the streets and sidewalks…, eating Vietnamese food at Pho Grand…, shopping for ethnic groceries at Jay International… It felt rather good to be a “bachelor” once again – blowing wherever the wind might take me. And since I’d no idea where the wind might take me, I put only an hours-worth of coins in the parking meter – just long enough to browse the bookstore a block up the street and then return to feed the meter once I realized where the wind was blowing. That was my intention, anyway. The wind, on the other hand, blew my attention this way and that, and it wasn’t until it had blown it back to my car a couple of hours later that I saw the parking ticket on my windshield. Ah, but I didn’t let it get me down. My intention was to be fully and truly alive!

 
Some of us are blown through life, rarely living with the kind of intention that roots our awareness in the ground of our existence. Buffeted, we are, by whirling gusts of karmic wind – like dead leaves swirling in the alleyway. Others of us are blown through life, actualizing an intention that encompasses the entirety of our being – living each moment like a wind-borne seed that has just sensed the most perfect conditions in which to sprout.


 
 
 

My writing has had a different energy of late. I’m working on longer pieces – guided steadily by intention – even as I remain open (as intended) to the creative process bringing forth posts in a single day or evening like these posts of late. What is the wind and what is intention? They seem to merge at times – or perhaps they arise from the very same place. Does not the intention inherent in the wind-borne seed exist in perfect harmony with the wind itself? Perhaps that is the very best of intentions we can form – to be one with whatever winds might blow us about.

 
Later in the evening I found myself blown down to Meshuggah CafĂ© in The Loop, intending to write a post about wind and intention. I like to write there in the evening sometimes – sitting at a table watching the pedestrian traffic getting blown by the wind up and down the bustling boulevard. Unbeknownst to me, however, it was Noir at the Bar night, and I walked right into the middle of a crime noir reading, replete with the requisite violent imagery! How could it be that the wind and my intention to engage in a spiritual exploration combined to root me in such a place at such a time? And so it is that our intention and our awareness can find root in the unlikeliest of places. This post is one result.

 

 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, May 10, 2013

Letter to a Young Existentialist


Dear friend,
 
You have come to question what all of this means: your life and love, your toil and entertainment; your tears which give way to laughter which give way to tears all over again; the ceaseless frenzied activity that you’ve been invited to join – activity that you fear will only serve to keep you occupied until such time as you return to dust, as all of life, as mighty civilizations, as entire species inevitably turn to dust, over and over again.

 
Young friend, you now stand peering into the dark, cold abyss of meaninglessness. Congratulations! Yes, congratulations. For you, young friend, are alive – fully and truly alive. Oh, sure, we’re all alive (until, of course, we’re not), but to live nobly on the brink of this cold and dark abyss is to be fully and truly alive. This and this alone will be your rock.

 
 
 
I know, I know..., these words must hardly sound like the kind of rain that can turn the desert that you are feeling now into the richly forested certainty that you so crave. I know, as well, that you will turn your back on this abyss and set out for the horizon in search of the kind of rain that you think must surely be out there somewhere just beyond, just beyond. And you will find it.

 
Yes, you will find the rain that you now seek. It will pour down upon your face and cool your heated brow. It will quench your thirst and drip down off of your body to soak deep into the earth. Flowers to please the eye will sprout and bloom. Plants to nourish your body will grow and fruit. Your forest will grow, and within its shade and protection you will fall peacefully and easily into sleep.

 
But you will awaken once again. And when you awaken you will realize that the rain you thought was real was but belief, and the flowers and once-nourishing plants were but ideas that now lie lifeless all around you – in various stages of decay. Your forest will be gone, as if it had shrunk back into the desert earth from which it sprang after those welcome rains poured down. And beside you…, yes, as close to you as it is now, perhaps even closer for your sense of deep betrayal, will be the abyss.

 
And when that happens, just look down. No…, at your feet! Your rock has always been there – the rock of living nobly beside this dark and cold abyss. Look around you. Every eye that you gaze into belongs to someone who is trying just like you to live as nobly as they can beside this cold and dark abyss. Yes, there are many who, as you did, fell asleep amidst their forest. Their eyes are open, and yet they sleep. Be kind to them. Love them. Be of assistance to them. Become a part of their forest if that is what they truly need. We all need a glorious rest from time to time! And when they awaken, as you did, keenly aware of the abyss: Be kind to them. Love them. Be a companion to them. For you are fully and truly alive.

 
                     Sincerely,

                     One who knows well the abyss...




Image Credits
 

Christ of the abyss image via:


 
 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, May 3, 2013

Living Below the Line - Reflections on the Challenge


Yesterday was my final day of the Live Below the Line challenge. Now, I can’t say that I’m unhappy about that, but I do think that I’ll be reflecting upon this week for some time to come. Fact is, I’ve learned a lot – both about what others have to deal with on a regular basis and about myself. I’ll elaborate on that, but let me jump to the bottom line first. It looks like my final tally for the five days comes to $6.90, or about $1.38 per day, “well below” the $1.50 constraint of the challenge. Yeay! But how did that happen? I thought I was going to be using every last penny!
 

 
 
As it turns out, I’ve got about another day’s supply of my soup concoction remaining after today. I simply overestimated my need in that regard. Thus, I gave myself a 1/6 credit on the cost of those ingredients. Likewise, the carrots; I only ate about half of them. Unfortunately, I only came to these conclusions late in the week, so I didn’t have the opportunity to add on any “luxury” items that might have otherwise made my menu more enjoyable – with the exception of using 4 whole ounces of soymilk on my oatmeal yesterday morning! I started out the week using about an ounce of soymilk in my tea each day in order to neutralize the acidity, but I stopped for days 3 and 4 because I thought I might be spending too much. Likewise, I didn’t take my vitamin supplement on days 3 and 4. I think that pretty much explains all of the adjustments. The details are below.

 
My partner and her daughter devised a much better strategy than I. Instead of making a big batch of something, they kept their ingredients separated and priced out by serving size. They were then free to mix and match different menu items as their bodies and their palates dictated. This also allowed them to know with greater precision where they stood each day with respect to the $1.50 limit. If I do the challenge again, I’ll approach it more like they did. Yes, it requires greater planning, but it seems worth it in the long run. For instance, if I knew in advance that I was going to have such a cushion, I would have added in some fat on a more regular basis – milk on my oatmeal or olive oil in my soup. That would have made my meals much more satisfying. Preparing food on a daily or even meal-by-meal basis is also more in keeping with the food preparation habits in the developing world where food refrigeration for leftovers or precooked food is lacking.
 

 
 
 

I’ve lost a few pounds, maybe more – not necessarily a bad thing in my case. However, if I were to remain on such a diet long term it might end up becoming a problem. It would definitely require me to be a lot less active than I am at present, and that would require a more significant lifestyle change than I’m ready to make right now. I also learned a little bit about what it’s like to make tough and perhaps even life-changing choices. My foregoing my vitamin supplement for two days is almost a laughable example, but it does reinforce the point that people are sometimes forced to choose between that which is good for their long term wellbeing and that which alleviates their hunger today.

 
And that brings me to a really important revelation – at least on my part. I’ve often found myself shaking my head, figuratively speaking, at the prevalence of fatty fast food amongst those who neither appear very healthy nor very well-off. Wouldn’t their money go so much further with some healthy homemade food? After this challenge, however, I have a better idea of the dynamics of hunger that might be playing a part. When we’ve been chronically hungry or deprived and we finally get the opportunity to enjoy a “decent” meal, our bodies are going to be inclined toward something high in fat rather than lean and nutritious. In that regard our bodies are more concerned about fattening up for the sake of survival in this present moment than with the negative health effects that won’t necessarily materialize until a year or more down the road.

 
I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t at least mention the “food desert” phenomenon – the reality that large swaths of urban areas are without adequate grocery stores or produce markets. Thus, even if someone wants to maintain a better diet, he or she might be forced to settle for whatever is available in those convenience stores and fast food restaurants that happen to be close by.

 
And what about the psychological impact of poverty? What is it like to always know – either consciously or unconsciously – that you are doing without even as others around you seemingly have everything they want?  Now, some will likely suggest that this should simply motivate the impoverished individual to work harder for that which they need, but I think that is a far too simplistic view. The idea of working hard for what one needs presumes that work exists to throw oneself into, and that is not always the case. These five days of low-grade hunger have allowed me at least a little bit clearer glimpse of what it must be like to live day-to-day with the “otherness” that poverty can etch into one’s psyche. Healthy communities are composed of members who feel themselves to be valuable and valued members thereof. The “otherness” that poverty creates is neither healthy for the individual, nor is it healthy for the community. Just consider the increased costs to the community related to healthcare, crime and punishment, fear and anxiety, and the loss of human capital.

 
In closing, this challenge has allowed me to more accurately empathize with the living conditions of over a billion people living in extreme poverty today. I’ll continue to look for ways to turn that empathy into action. Likewise, I intend to donate to the local food banks to a larger extent than I have in the past. With respect to my own diet: I plan to rely on unprocessed foods more so than in the past, in addition to cutting back on sugar and caffeine. I’ve felt very consistently clear-headed all week long – something that I largely attribute to narrower swings in the boom and bust cycles of sugar and caffeine consumption. I also intend to be more mindful of my food consumption and preparation so as to illiminate food waste and maintain a consistent supply of healthy food options. Not being prepared with healthy options at home is probably the number one reason that I succumb to the temptation of quick and convenient, but expensive and unhealthy alternatives.

  

Gosh, I feel that there’s so much I still want to say, but let me stop here. Thank you all for reading! If at any time you become moved to donate to the cause, you can do so by accessing the Live Below the Line donations page. Oh, and I really, really have to give a big thank you to those who helped me meet my fund-raising goal (under the name markfrank). Thank you so much! Donations will be accepted until May 31st. Please have a healthy and peaceful and empathic weekend!

 

 
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Living Below the Line - A Darker Side of Poverty


About a year ago I did a couple of posts focusing on the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi – Can Wabi-Sabi Save the World? & Envisioning a Wabi-Sabi World. I’ll leave it to the interested reader to check those out further, but what is salient to this present post is the meaning of the word wabi. English words frequently associated with wabi are: quietness, solitude, simplicity, and poverty (Iwamoto, 2008; Munsterberg, 1957; Suzuki, 1959). I bring this up in this current context because my experience of this Live Below the Line challenge has, in fact, been very wabi. It has fostered introspection, contemplation, and a deep spiritual appreciation of something that we normally take for granted – the food that we eat.

 
 
 
I wonder, however, if perhaps my previous two posts might have seemed to veer towards the romantic – making extreme poverty seem like a blessed nudge toward deeper spiritual understanding rather than the dire hardship that it is. Indeed, there is a reason that wabi-sabi has come to convey a rather romantic aesthetic sense, but the poverty of living on less than $1.50 per day (for all of your needs, not just nutrition) is not romantic in the least. And so, with this post, I want to express two important points: 1) the beneficial spiritual aspect of being attuned to that which is truly needed, and 2) the hardship and inequity of having to live at a level below that which is truly needed. Whereas others are forced by circumstance to live with inadequacy day in and day out, I have taken on this challenge by choice; and that, in a nutshell, is the difference between grinding poverty and the spiritual appreciation fostered by voluntary simplicity, between indigence and the “poverty” of wabi.



Tomorrow is the last day of my challenge. I want to compose a wrap-up post but I'm going to need more than a day to put it together! Please stay tuned. Thank you for reading!

 
 

References

 
Iwamoto, H, (2008). Japanese aesthetic sense through Zen. The World Sacred Text Publishing Association, Tokyo.

Munsterberg, H. (1962). The arts of Japan – An illustrated history. Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Published by MJF Books by arrangement with Princeton University Press.

 
 

Image Credits
 

Image of girl and barbed wire via:


 

 
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank