The Worst Saturday Night Live Performance Ever

I don’t watch the television show Saturday Night Live, hereby to be referred to as SNL. It’s on past my bed time, and there is not a lot of open real estate in my DVR, so SNL just doesn’t make the cut (Don’t worry “Human Target”, mama will always have room in her DVR for you.). It is fairly well documented that I love me some celebrity gossip websites, so generally if something big and/or kooky happens, I read about it.

For days now I keep hearing or reading references to Ke$ha’s recent SNL performance. Finally, and I’ll admit I’m tardy to the party, I saw the performance in question thanks to one of my favorite sites, Ask the Answer B!tch (she’s here to help!). One of her readers posed the question, “Ke$ha was really bad on Saturday Night Live. Has any SNL musical guest been this disastrous?”

The Answer B!tch opened with, “Yes, for the record Ke$ha’s SNL appearance does generally fall under the category of There Are No Words. Some things you just can’t unsee once you’ve watched them.” However, after that she goes on to chronicle some SNL musical performance highlights (or I guess in this case they would be lowlights), including the infamous 2004 performance by Ashlee Simpson.

After days of seeing people allude to this terrible Ke$ha performance culminating with a blog post flat out titled “Was Ke$ha’s SNL Performance the Worst Ever?” I could resist no longer. I watched it.

My biggest concern in watching this is did Ke$ha lip synch? This matters to me because once you have acts like Lady GaGa and Pink doing all kinds of awesome stuff and still singing live, I have trouble accepting lip synching for a single song, on a live television show no less. I’ve watched the video several times, squinting with my nose plastered to my monitor looking for a small microphone being worn at the times she’s not holding the cordless microphone. I’m having trouble deciding. Is there perhaps a flesh toned chin microphone, or does Ke$ha have a mole, or a big pimple? Regardless to it being live or not, the opening features a fantastic voice, one vastly superior to what comes after it. If that was a recording of Ke$ha’s actual singing voice I am impressed. Also, why don’t I hear that voice more?

Of course most of the “Ke$ha performance sucked” commentary stems more from the costuming than concerns about artistic integrity. Oddly, I have no trouble with what I saw. Ke$ha is an intergalactic super hero that has come to fight for your right to party. What’s so hard about that? Let’s get real folks, although catchy, it’s not like the song “Tik Tok” is attempting a cultural revolution or changing the musical landscape. It’s an annoyingly infectious little tune about partying hard. Honestly, her performance may have given the song more depth than it deserved.

I’m curious. My readers are a pretty diverse bunch, what are your thoughts on her performance?

Magnetic Morality

Moral judgments can be altered….by magnets“, says the title of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology article by Anne Trafton. It sounds like science fiction, and rest assured, my friends have helpfully made all the Magneto jokes prior to this article, for your convenience. That said, when discussing the article with my husband, he pointed out that an episode of the television show “The Mentalist” had already talked about this kind of thing. I don’t watch “The Mentalist” because I already watch the original show about a fake psychic solving crimes called “Psych” on the USA Network. (And before you ask, yes, I may have decided to write this article just to get a dig in on “The Mentalist”.) However, in the name of research, I did watch “The Mentalist” episode in question “Red Brick and Ivy”. It was okay, but the reality is far more interesting than the fiction. Particularly since in the episode it was fake.

Images courtesy Rebecca Saxe laboratory, MIT

According to the article “Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

‘The study offers ‘striking evidence’ that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments,’ says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. ‘It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments’, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.”

The experiments that MIT conducted “used a noninvasive technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to selectively interfere with brain activity in the right TPJ. A magnetic field applied to a small area of the skull creates weak electric currents that impede nearby brain cells’ ability to fire normally, but the effect is only temporary.”

Before you get concerned, it’s not as if MIT is creating alternate universe evil opposites of people. “The researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible.”

For example, “subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for a man to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely. In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm.”

I think, like most people, we assume a sense of morality is instilled in us at a young age. That it’s influenced by family, friends, faith, etc. The idea that a certain amount of our morality is an electrical process in the brain means taking a step back and examining the human animal again. As Liane Young, lead author of the paper says, “You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.” You can say that again! For starters, I thought “The Mentalist” thoroughly debunked the idea. If you can’t trust the second generation of fake psychics solving crime, who can you trust? (Yes, I am on team “Psych“, sue me.)

So, what’s the point in me bringing this to my readers attention? Honestly, I don’t have any grand message, or philosophical epiphany to share. It’s just a thing. A thing to reflect on. Our morality, our gauge of right and wrong, is a thing that I think most of us pride ourselves in, that we define ourselves partially from it. This forces us to rethink our own thoughts, and I feel like that is a good thing.

One of the people who commented on the article, wade s, says “I wonder how this compares to cell phone usage, and if prolonged exposure would cause any permanent change.” In a future where average citizens lose the common sense of morality and gradually become evil due to prolonged cell phone usage…..that would be great television! I bet the BBC is already working on it.

Everyday Dharma Challenge: Week Two

(normal text is Rebecca, italicized text is Lama Willa Miller)

We’re at week two of my “Everyday Dharma” challenge. To bring you up to speed, I’ve decided to work my way through my copy of “Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You” by Lama Willa Miller, and the author has been kind enough to offer a response to each week. So what was week two like?

Day one was “Freedom is Communal”. This is a discussion of karma and how sages work to serve every human being. The exercise was “Contemplating Karma”. You are to relax and reflect on how your actions that day affected others. Not much to share with you all there.

Even if you don’t know it, you made ripples!

Day two was about your life-intention. “Actions begin with intention,” Lama Willa explains. She explains three types of life-intention: king-like (where you blaze a trail to enlightenment on your own and then take steps to help others), boatman-like (where spiritual life is a communal endeavor), and shepherd-like (where you put the betterment of others first). The exercise for day two was to determine what you serve and what you would like to serve. You list three things that in your daily life you find yourself serving (my job, my family, my homebody habits) and then you list three things you would like to serve as you move forward on your spiritual journey (my family, my fellow man, my creative endeavors).

Good job. Actions do begin with intention, sometimes unconscious sometimes conscious. It is an interesting exercise to occasionally look at how we actually spend our time and energy. When we look at where our time and energy goes, we discover what we are serving. Most of us spend considerable effort serving things we only half-care about, out of force of sheer habit or out of fear of taking a risk. Sometimes we are simply serving a habit, with no wider purpose, in a self-perpetuating cycle. One way to break that force of habit is to take time to pause and really consider, where am I putting my energy? How am I spending my time? Once we have honestly assessed where our time and energy goes, we can make a choice to re-harness it and send it to things we care about a lot.

In my own case, my weakness (one of countless ones I’m sure) is to take on too many projects. When I remind myself what I actually wish to serve, it helps me refocus my energy and let go of projects that are not in line with my heartfelt ideals. In a sense, that is what a life-intention does; it helps us focus our energy on what we believe in, which brings us to day three….

Day three was where the considerations from day two came to fruition; “Creating a Life-Intention”, essentially, coming up with your personal mission statement. Lama Willa explains, “In the Buddhist context, such statements of intention come under the heading of a ‘vow’ because it expresses a personal commitment to a life-purpose.” The exercise for the day was to compose your own life-intention. I vow to try and make people’s lives be better for having known me.

That is a beautiful intention, Rebecca. It is very much in line with the thinking of a bodhisattva (a compassionate sage). We can approach every interaction with the thought, ‘”How can I leave this person happier and better off than before we met?” What would that do to how we speak, how we move, what we do? Every interaction, every relationship would become opportunity to change the world. We underestimate the power of our daily interactions. What we do and say is not insignificant. The world does not change in huge movements; it changes bit by bit.

Day four was about aspirations. We all aspire to things, and this day was about defining those things and broadening their scope. The exercise for the day was to pick three aspirations (I hope that I my health improves. I aspire to spend more time enjoying the moment rather than worrying about the future. I pray that all of mine and my family’s needs are met.) and then expand those aspirations (I hope that everyone’s health improves. May everyone spend more time enjoying the moment rather than worry about the future. I pray that all families everywhere have their needs met.)

It is interesting to expand the focus of our wishes and prayers to include others. In fact, our own wishes are always a thread connecting us to others. What we wish for, others wish for also, in one way or another. When you include others, it becomes apparent that we have never been alone when wishing and praying, or for that matter when suffering. When we feel, it is always an expression of how so many others also feel. When we need, it is a reflection of others’ needs. When we suffer, it is a reflection of others’ suffering. So when we pray, we can pray for the happiness and fulfillment of all, not just ourselves.

Day five was composing your awakening prayer. An awakening prayer is a combination of your life-intention and aspirations worded as a prayer. May people’s lives be better for having known me. May myself, my family, and everyone’s family be blessed with health, happiness of the moment, and have their needs met.

Beautiful prayer.

Day six was about “Deep Prayer”. “Prayer is the next layer of the meditation sandwich you started making last week,” states Lama Willa. The entry this day outlined prayer techniques. Another point touched upon during this day that I felt was important to share. “In general you should pray to whatever or whomever feels right to you. If you believe in a higher power, call on that power when you pray. But you do not have to believe in a higher power to pray! Many Buddhists simply trust in the law of interpenetration when they pray, the idea that everything is connected and interdependent.” The exercise for the day was to practice the Three Arrivals (remember them?), then read your life-intention aloud, reflecting on each word, read your aspirations aloud, contemplating each one for a minute or two, then recite your awakening prayer. I’ve got to be honest here, this felt awkward, at best.

Honesty is a primary spiritual virtue, so bravo for that! Composing our own prayers and reciting them is not something that we are necessarily comfortable with the first time around. We may never before have put into words our deepest aspirations, hopes and dreams, much less say them aloud. This can feel contrived, initially. I think it is worth working with, however. Over time, it feels more natural, even nourishing.

In many religions, including Buddhism, followers are encouraged to memorize and recite prayers and aspirations that come from the texts and books of the tradition. This kind of prayer has its place. But in my experience, conventional prayer needs supplementation for three reasons.

First, good prayer is connected to the heart. When you recite prayers from a chosen text or tradition, you are letting someone else put words in your mouth. They might be very beautiful words, and there is nothing wrong with repeating them. But, this can become stale over time. To prevent prayer form becoming stale, we need to investigate what our heart needs and prays for.

Second, when you work with composing and reciting your own prayers and aspirations, you begin to explore values and yearnings you may have carried around for a long time, but not yet become fully conscious of. This is a way uncover and bring to light your soul’s subconscious call to wholeness. Once you bring this to light, you can begin to nourish your soul, or—in the language of the book—your wisdom-nature.

Third, deep prayer connects us to others. These values and yearnings are not just personal; they are a reflection of values and yearnings felt by many others. Prayer connects us to the aspirations of the human family. In this sense, prayer helps us develop intimacy with those around us.

Day seven was entitled “The Sage’s GPS”. Essentially this discussed how everyone can get lost, or feel lost trying to follow their spiritual path. We all know that a Global Positioning System can help you when you’re lost getting somewhere, well to help you when you’re lost on your spiritual journey you have Ground, Path, and Summit to help you. The Ground of your spiritual journey is your wisdom-nature. The Path of the spiritual journey includes all the ways your wisdom-nature is awakened and developed. The Summit is the fruition of your intention. The exercise for the day is contemplating all of these: The Ground, The Path, and The Summit. Consider them contemplated.

Now the question comes to mind, when are they going to make a car-installed version of the sage’s GPS? It might say things like, “Detour around self-absorption”.

And with that, we end week two. We’ll talk again next week!

See you then!

About Lama Willa:
Lama Willa Miller is a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied and practiced meditation for the last twenty years, training with Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Venerable Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, and other teachers.

She completed two seminary trainings [three-year retreats] at Kagyu Thubten Choling in upstate New York, becoming authorized as a lama, a Buddhist minister, upon completion of her training. Before and after her retreats, she spent time in Nepal, Tibet, and India, studying Buddhism and engaging in service work.

She currently lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two dogs, where she writes, teaches Tibetan Buddhist practice and meditation, principally with Natural Dharma Fellowship. She is also working towards a PhD at Harvard University.

Lama Willa is author of the book “Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You” (2009, Quest Books), a practical guide for getting started on the spiritual path. Visit her website here.

To follow Lama Willa on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/lamawilla.

On Facebook? Join the Everyday Dharma Facebook group.

Am I Stupid?

“Two people unsubcribed from the Buffet today,” I told my husband flatly, “It doesn’t bode well that two people unsubcribed while we’re holding a contest that subscribers are automatically entered into.”

“It’s ‘Kiss with a Fist’,” my husband responded.

“What? You mean the music video from my blog post?”

“Yep, it probably offended them.”

“What?! Why on earth?”

“It’s the violence, it was a knee-jerk reaction,” he guessed.

And that’s when I realized that I must be incredibly stupid.

In my article I described Florence and the Machine’s song “Kiss with a Fist” as “channeling inner rage in just the cutest way”. I found Florence’s description of a mutually destructive relationship excellent. The brutal lyrics teamed up with perky rock and sing song melody was a highlight of the album for me.

And here’s why I’m stupid. Never. Never, ever. Not once while listening to the song, singing along with the song, dancing to the song. Not once did I think the lyrics were about a man and woman actually physically beating each other up. I really never did.

So, am I stupid? A bad feminist? A bad person?

According to Joanna McNaney in issue 46 of “Bitch” magazine I am probably all of the above. In her write up of the song she states, “Yeah, I know – songs don’t hurt people. But in just two minutes and four seconds, ‘Kiss with a Fist’ chips away at all the good that anti-domestic violence organizations try to do for the protection of women on a daily basis.” Later she says, “I realize that it’s possible that ‘Kiss with a Fist’ is supposed to be one big metaphor for a terrible relationship. But what comes across is a song that quite literally spells out that not only should abusive relationships be tolerated, they should be welcomed as an alternative to loneliness. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll stick with regular kisses and classic rock for the time being.”

First, I can’t help but poke at “Bitch” a little bit by pointing out that the woman in the song deals out just as much punishment as she takes. In terms of violence to violence, the woman is most assuredly equal, or possibly greater, than her partner. It’s silly to point out, since it never occurred to me until now that someone out there might have viewed this song as some sort of how-to manual for beating the crap out of someone, but alas, I couldn’t help myself.

That blurb aside, really? I mean, really? There are people out there who didn’t think the song was a metaphor? I’ll admit it; I can’t decide who the stupid one here is: me, blissfully ignoring a literal interpretation of a song, or them, somehow content to only acknowledge a literal interpretation of the song.

I own Body Count’s first album that features the song “Cop Killer”. I never thought Ice-T was saying, “Hey everyone, let’s all get guns and shoot some cops!” I thought he was expressing pent up outrage for a justice system that is particularly callous towards what happens in many low income urban areas. I own Nas’s “Untitled” album that features the song “Sly Fox”, which has Nas saying he’s going to get a hold of Fox News personalities and throw them off a roof. Again, never entertained the vaguest notion that Nas was literally going to hunt down Bill O’Reilly and kill him. And I own Florence and the Machine’s album “Lungs”, which has the song “Kiss with a Fist” and despite it’s litany of violent acts I never thought that Florence was in a physically violent relationship or thought that actual physical violence was an okay way to be in a relationship.

Maybe I am stupid; however, if the alternative view is smart, I’ll gladly be called an idiot.

Everyday Dharma Challenge: Week One

(normal text is Rebecca, italicized text is Lama Willa Miller)

Well, I just completed my first week of the “Everyday Dharma” challenge. Technically I am now one seventh of the way to finding the Buddha in me! So, what was the first week like?

It was quite manageable. “Everyday Dharma” is broken up into seven chapters, one for each week. Within those chapters, text is broken down into individual days, complete with a spot to write the day’s date at the beginning of each! Each day has a passage to read, an exercise to try, and a quotation relevant to the text and exercise for that day. I found it easy to budget a little time in the evenings to devote to this. I don’t know how the next six weeks will play out, but this first week was rather low impact as far as time consumption goes.

Day one was about your wisdom-nature. The idea is that essentially we’re all already walking around with enlightenment inside of us. We are all already sages, we just haven’t recognized it. The exercise for the day was to reflect on your wisdom-nature, which was to answer the question when have you felt deeply at home in your own skin? I actually struggled with this quite a bit, as I continued reading the exercise I came across this text, “You may not even be able to find something that is a self when you try to hold onto it. Even that is not a problem! If you find nothing, rest in the groundlessness of the experience of not finding. As a famous Buddhist parable goes, ‘Not Finding is finding’.” Not finding, check!

Good start! If the spiritual path is not disorienting, nothing is happening. ‘Not finding is finding’ means that ‘not finding’— a moment of being lost or disoriented— is the first step to non-conceptual knowing, the knowing that experience things as they are. When you look inside and cannot find a ‘self’ or an ‘I’ or an answer, you are close to seeing the selfless inner Buddha, which is too boundless to be grasped or ‘found’ by our conceptual mind. It is beyond being a self or an object of thought, beyond duality, beyond concepts, and beyond subject-object dichotomies.

Such a non-conceptual realization only comes about when we let go of grasping. As soon as we have ‘found’, we have grasped onto something, and we are lost in dualism. Therefore, not finding is a sign of being on the way to a deeper finding, free from a finder or something to be found. We find enlightenment not through striving, finding and attaining, but rather by letting go: by not striving, not finding, and not attaining. The more you give up, the closer you get. The less bound by structure (oriented), the more possibility for freedom. You’re in good company with the sages, Rebecca!

Day two was about struggle and how it’s a sign you desire to awaken. Basically, if we’re at peace and content, we would already have found our enlightenment. Our angst comes from the fact that we know that not all is well, that we want peace and freedom. So my angst is a friendly reminder that I want freedom. Lama Willa says, “The challenge of the seeker is to recognize the potential of that tremendous drive for freedom and channel it constructively. The spiritual journey is about not eliminating angst but learning to make it work for you.” The exercise was to analyze struggle by considering an issue you struggle with and in a calm state ask yourself, “When I was struggling, when I was discontent, what was the cause of my struggle? Was it caused by outer conditions? My mind? My body?” My ultimate source of struggle currently is my health, which is delightful mix of all of the above. Not sure what to do with that.

I’m glad you brought up health, Rebecca, because it is something every one of us struggles with or will struggle with someday. The Buddha classified illness as one of four inevitable human sufferings (he called them “the four great rivers of suffering”) that everyone must face by virtue of being alive. The others are birth, aging, and death. In a human life, not one of us will escape these experiences. Being in a body means we are going to be born, get sick and eventually die. Even if we die young, we still experience some process of aging, along with the changes and occasional losses that brings.

Because these four sufferings are so ubiquitous, they became a primary concern of the Buddha. He was interested in suffering because it is a universal condition, and he made it the subject of his very first sermon and many other sermons after that. Today, the human condition has not changed much. We still wonder, how can we best cope with these and other various forms of human suffering? When we are ill, for example, is medicine enough to relieve us? To answer this question, it can help us to distinguish between pain and suffering, as related but distinct experiences. If pain alone were the problem, medicine and other kinds of palliative measures would be enough. We would rely on these measures to address the pain and we would then be fine. Right?

But pain alone is not the problem. On top of physical pain, almost immediately, comes another kind of pain, a second-order pain called—in Buddhist texts— dukha, or suffering. Dukha includes not just the illness, but the mind’s reaction to illness. When we are un-well, we don’t just think, “I am ill. I may as well just be content with that. No problem!” Instead, we have a great deal of difficulty accepting it. Even when we know we have no choice (we can’t ‘think’ ourselves well!), it is difficult for us to be happy. The illness is accompanied by thoughts: Why me? Why now? How did this happen? We feel frustrated. That frustration again feeds our resistance, and the cycle continues. After all, it seems to us that un-wellness interferes with our life, our longevity and our plans, so why would we not resist it?

But, the Buddha pointed out an alternative to the cycle of struggle. He pointed out that it is not actually the un-wellness itself that interferes with our life and happiness. Illness, aging, loss, and death are unavoidable but they are not inherently the problem. The problem lies with our inability to trace the causes of suffering, and to find deep acceptance. Unless we intervene in some skillful way, pain always turns into suffering. This process unfolds not from external conditions, but from a set of unconscious, internal conditions. He called these internal conditions “root afflictions” (or we could say “basic cognitive-emotional tendencies”) and classified them as three: ignorance, attachment and aversion. Ignorance is our most basic tendency to bifurcate the world into a dualistic place, a place where there is a “self” separate from a “world out there”. On the basis of that root ignorance, we give rise to the tendency to cling (attachment) and the tendency to resist (aversion). It is these that make pain into suffering. We resist un-wellness, and as soon as we do, we engage in a push and pull with our experience. We feed attachment to wellness and aversion to un-wellness. We are struggling. From struggle with our pain, comes suffering.

Finding an alternative to this struggle relies on discovering that that we have a choice. The first step is to notice there is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. So when you are struggling with health, explore whether the health condition (the body) is really the ultimate source, our whether the way we meet the health condition (the mind) is the source. This is the first exercise the Buddha had his monks do: explore suffering and its causes.

The second step is to notice we have a choice between acceptance and resistance. We don’t have to resist all the time, just because that is what we have done before. We can work on acceptance, not as a door to becoming passive, but as a door to releasing the grip struggle has on our life a bit. When we release the struggle, even a bit, we can begin to explore the ways pain is useful. It is useful in many ways: for developing compassion for others, for reminding us of impermanence, and for helping us let go of attachment. From that, one can even develop gratitude for pain and un-wellness. Much more could be said about that. Maybe the next book.

Day three was about caring and how it is a sign of compassion. The exercise was to observe your thoughts and drives. Throughout the day you need to ask yourself, what am I caring about at this exact moment? Where is my energy going? Afterwards you ask yourself, What do I really want to care about? You’re asked to list three things you want to channel your energy towards during your spiritual journey. Friendship, The Magical Buffet, self exploration. Next!

Beautiful. Almost anything can become the Path. Friendship as Path, Blog as Path, Self-exploration as Path. You’re on your way!

Day four was where meditation was introduced. Curses! The exercise was meditation on the three arrivals. Actually, this wasn’t that bad. It instructed you to relax your body, focus on your breath, and try to settle your mind into the present moment. Lama Willa tells you to aim for five quality minutes. I don’t know how good my five minutes were with regards to quality, but five minutes was doable.

Meditation can be profoundly simple. We tend to make meditation harder than it is, but it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a big project. It is not primarily a practice, but a way of being present. To be present in a certain way, once you catch on, is easy. It just takes some patience and perseverance in the beginning to catch on.

In the practice of the three arrivals, you are just learning to be present in a certain way. You land in this place, in this body, in this breath, in this moment (a reality we often are not fully inhabiting!) and stay there for awhile. Being fully present, without a lot of complication, is profoundly healing. It is also a much deeper practice than it first appears to be. To know that, you have to stick with it and “plumb the present moment”, again and again, the way an ice-fisherman drops his line again and again. This is one of my favorite all-time—or real-time!— meditations, because it is so easy to do. It only takes a bit of intention and mindfulness to find an island of calm in this present moment, to replenish, and recharge.

Day five was about your body, it’s your temple you know! The exercise was to do the three arrivals meditation from day four and then contemplate on the gift that is your body. After your meditation you’re supposed to write out three things that you will do to repay your body for all it does for you. Despite my admitted health issues, I treat my body pretty darn good. Not too much or too little of anything. Honestly, I treat my body better than it treats me. Screw you body! I’m not “repaying” you! You owe me!

Glad to hear you are already on to this one! Say a little prayer for the rest of us as we clean up our temples.

Day six was about admiration and how it’s a sign that you’re gifted. If you’re like me, you constantly compare yourself to others and come up wanting. You find people every day that embody qualities you wish you had. Lama Willa explains that we think we’re not gifted, “But you are gifted – it comes with your wisdom-nature. How do you know that? Because you could not recognize a gifted person if you were not gifted yourself.” The exercise was recognizing your innate qualities. You think about someone you admire, what is one quality you admire in that person? Then you are to think of a time when you manifested that quality in yourself. This is quite difficult for me. As you’ll see in the next paragraph, with most people I admire, their wit is the thing I admire most. Which makes for a pretty boring, non-inspirational response to the question. It’s like, whenever I make a witty turn of phrase I’ve channeled that quality. Not very Buddha-like I suspect.

I’ll beg to differ. What’s un-Buddha-like about humor? I’ll argue that bringing happiness and laughter, with skillful intention, is Buddha-like. Without a sense of humor on the spiritual path, we’d never make it. We’d wallow and die in our earnestness. Humor can be therapeutic, deconstructive of the ego, even enlightening. It has a way of breaking up our usual way of looking at things. It is structure-shattering. I think that ‘breaking up’ activity is what makes us feel free in a moment of laughter. That freedom is not unrelated to the freedom of awakening, the liberation that results from loosing track of the self. Humor loosens us up for bigger things. It also challenges us to be connected to the minds of others (we have to think about what would make them laugh, right?), and reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. It depends on the motivation and compassion behind it. I think the key to making wit a spiritual virtue lies in motivation, and of course partly in talent. You have both, so keep it up for our benefit, Rebecca!

Day seven was about the power of emulation. Lama Willa explains that you don’t have to impersonate someone to achieve spiritual success, but rather that you can learn selectively from the examples set by the people you meet in life. You’re asked to pick three personal heroes, list what about that person inspires you, underline some of the words that reveal the hero’s strength. Here are three of my personal heroes and their traits: Kathy Griffin, wit, work ethic, fearlessness persistence, accessibility, Aaron McGruder, wit, fearlessness, intellect, Kuan Yin, compassion, selflessness, devotion.

Thank you for sharing your personal heroes with us. One of my spiritual heroes was my grandmother Bessie. She embodied a sweetness that is difficult to capture in words. When I knew her as a child, she was a big, slow-moving, white-haired, buxom woman with a smile that would melt a glacier. She was nice to me of course, being her grandchild, but that is not what impressed me. What impressed me was the way she viewed the world and people we would call “strangers”.

For Bessie, the world was basically a benevolent place. At least, that is how my child’s mind perceived her. It was not that she was naïve, but she had a way of seeing through the world’s roughness to some deeper gold. She smiled at strangers in the supermarket, was kind to her neighbors, and left the postman chocolates every holiday. She always assumed the best right from the first moment of meeting someone, and because of that, the best emerged much of the time.

It is interesting that personal heroes can teach us by what they do not say. I never heard Bessie utter a disparaging word about anyone, something that really stuck with me as I grew older and was exposed to the harshness of the world. That is something that is really not so easy for a person to avoid! I now realize that took a lot of self-control and intentionality on her part. It is so very easy for us to resort to blaming when something goes wrong. This is a strategy that never works, and somehow she had discovered that. She showed me that it is possible to adhere to one’s truth without looking for blame. It is also possible to forgive, without enabling. She embodied that. Maybe she learned that through facing hardships growing up in the early part of last century in a rural community. She lost her parents early, had her first child in a tent in a logging camp in Idaho, and worked hard as one of the few women to become a school principal in the 1930’s.

Her life was not easy. She had just realized that having a hard life was not an excuse for bitterness. It was instead a reason to be grateful for the good things one has. Dear Grandma Bessie was a deep teacher for me. She taught me that the world is not perfect, but we don’t have to take world’s imperfections personally.

And that concludes week one. See you here next week!

About Lama Willa:
Lama Willa Miller is a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied and practiced meditation for the last twenty years, training with Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Venerable Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, and other teachers.

She completed two seminary trainings [three-year retreats] at Kagyu Thubten Choling in upstate New York, becoming authorized as a lama, a Buddhist minister, upon completion of her training. Before and after her retreats, she spent time in Nepal, Tibet, and India, studying Buddhism and engaging in service work.

She currently lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two dogs, where she writes, teaches Tibetan Buddhist practice and meditation, principally with Natural Dharma Fellowship. She is also working towards a PhD at Harvard University.

Lama Willa is author of the book “Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You” (2009, Quest Books), a practical guide for getting started on the spiritual path. Visit her website here.

To follow Lama Willa on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/lamawilla.

On Facebook? Join the Everyday Dharma Facebook group.

Got Plans for May 8th?

May is rapidly approaching and with it comes the 6th Annual Oneonta Spiritual Arts Fair!

If you recall, last year I attended this event and had a fantastic time despite having some unfortunate car trouble. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to head out to Oneonta, NY and see how things go this year!

Last year the place was packed with vendors and workshops and this year looks like it will be a full house and full day again! Some things to look forward to include: psychic readings, Yoga, Tai Chi, Tibetan Buddhist meditation, Zen meditation and chanting, aura photography, Feng Shui, tons of vendors, and more! Also, like last year, Llewellyn author Deborah Blake will be there selling and signing her books!

Date: May 8, 2010
Time: 9:30 AM – 5 PM
Cost: $3 for admission (All the workshops are at no additional cost, but you obviously have to pay vendors for their services, such as readings, etc.)
Where: Unitarian Universalist Society at 12 & 16 Ford Avenue, Oneonta, NY (There is a large free public parking lot right across the street.)

This is a fun way to spend a Saturday! I hope to see some Magical Buffet readers there, but if you can’t make it, don’t despair, I intend to write all about it again this year!

Everyday Dharma Challenge: The Introduction

After completing “The Colbert Healthcare Challenge“, where I read the now horribly irrelevant 1018 page House healthcare bill and shared what little I learned with Buffet readers, many asked what was next. I had never received so much feedback and support as I did when I undertook the challenge of reading that monster. This caused me to realize that much like when reading a book, watching a television show, or seeing a movie, people liked it when the main character actually does something. Since I’m the closest thing to a main character that The Magical Buffet has, I thought, well I better not just rest on my laurels, I had better do something. Thankfully, a package from Quest Books arrived with just the thing I was looking for.

“Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You” by Lama Willa Miller. I’m always interested in learning more about different spiritualities, I had already been struggling to develop some sort of meditation practice, and it took me more than seven weeks to read the House healthcare bill. Sold! I decided that the next thing I was going to tackle would be going through Lama Willa’s book day by day, and sharing the results of each week with everyone here on The Magical Buffet.

I’m extra excited about this project because by some incredible luck the author, Lama Willa Miller, has agreed to offer her thoughts about each of my weeks! How does a Lama respond to references to Kathy Griffin’s suck it philosophy? We’ll soon find out.

Now I should take a moment for full disclosure. First, I have actually already completed all seven weeks. It made more sense, and makes things more convenient for a busy author (That would be Lama Willa, not me.) to have it all at once to look at. So I’ll be publishing one a week, but yes, this won’t be in “real time”. Also, I feel I should point out that I am fairly familiar with Buddhism. I’m by no means an expert, but I know more than some. Lama Willa comes from a Tibetan Buddhist background, I’m more knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism. I have more of a preference for Japan’s Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism than Tibetan Buddhism. Lastly, I am horrible at meditating. Just awful. This makes my affection for Zen extra especially funny and wrong.

With all that out of the way, there is nothing else left to say but to stay tuned for Rebecca’s “Everyday Dharma” challenge! Buddhism may never be the same!

10 Questions with Ellen Evert Hopman

1. First off, we’ve been in contact for around 2 years, how is it possible that I’ve never done an interview with you? Am I the worst or what?

We live in “interesting times” and such things often get overlooked. Do not fret, all is forgiven!

2. My readers know you from your nonfiction work that has been featured on the site: assorted tree folklore, a review of “A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine”, and your award winning essay “Female Druids”. What they may not know is that you’re also an accomplished fiction writer. How did you evolve into also writing fiction?

I don’t think I had a whole lot of say in the matter. I am convinced that the Spirits are “using me” for lack of a more elegant term. I am one of those people who has to write every day or I feel that I am not living up to my life’s purpose.

Tackling fiction was terrifying at first. I was not an English major and my training has mostly come from reading voraciously since the age of five. I have now penned three novels. Happily I seem to have found a certain rhythm to the writing. After the first one or two chapters the characters take over and then all I have to do is follow them around. I am just a scribe, recording their actions and what they speak about. It’s rather like watching a movie unfold.

All three novels take place in late Iron Age Ireland and Scotland. Only two are in print at this moment, “Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey” deals with the very first encounters between the indigenous Celtic tribes of Ireland and their Druids, with the Christian missionaries. It takes place several centuries before Patrick. He gets all the press but there were missionaries from Gaul and Coptic monks from Egypt actively converting people several centuries before Patrick appeared on the scene. It is written from the point of view of the Druids and includes rituals and ancient Celtic beliefs and practices. It also deals with the concept of sacred land as it was once understood by our European ancestors. Something we need to re-learn as a species if we are to have a future on this planet.

The second book continues where the first one left off. “The Druid Isle” deals with sacred water and the mystical voyages of the Celts called immrama. It takes place in the Hebrides of Scotland on a real island where I was privileged to spend time in 1983. That island was once a holy place of the Druids but was taken over by Christians in the fifth century.

The third book does not have an official title yet and it is sitting on the publisher’s desk awaiting approval. It deals with sacred fire on the land and in the sky. The three books make up a trilogy that honors Land, Sea and Sky, the mystical “Three Worlds” of the Indo-Europeans which form the basis of Indo-European cosmology.

3. In 2008 “Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey” was published. Now the next book in the series, “The Druid Isle”, has released. Without giving too much away, what can readers expect from the new book?

“Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey” is an introduction to rituals for all the holy days and life passages as understood from a Druid perspective. “The Druid Isle” goes more deeply into the actual training of a Druid or Fili (sacred poet). I would hope that the reader would understand Indo-European spirituality a bit more deeply after reading the second book.

4. “Priestess of the Forest” and “The Druid Isle” are fictional stories, but were carefully researched. What kinds of factual things can readers learn from these two books?

There are details such as clothing, food, housing, weapons and relationships that are researched. However, much of it comes from my own imagination, vision or intuition, or from whatever Spirits are guiding this process. For example, “Priestess of the Forest” came out in February of 2008. In April of 2008 British archaeologists announced the discovery of the very first Druid grave.

In my book the characters had shown me a Druid funeral rite which involved the herb Artemisia as a drink and as incense. When the archaeologists opened the grave they found inside a container that had last held Artemisia tea.

So far nothing quite as dramatic has happened with “The Druid Isle”; however one interesting thing did come to my attention after I finished the work. The characters of the second book showed me how the Fili (sacred poets) of Ireland made a peaceful transition to accepting the Christians and one of the major characters in that process is named Lucius. Shortly after I wrote the book I learned that the very first Pagan Celtic king to build a Christian church on his land was named Lucius. He was British.

These little confirmations show me that maybe somehow I am on the right track with all of this.

5. Do you feel that perhaps readers learn more from a compelling fictional story, rather than reading straight nonfiction?

The Druids were and still are intellectuals. Once thing most Druids of today have in common is that we are avid readers and generally highly educated. In ancient times it was exactly the same. However, there are many folk out there who would rather read a fast paced novel with lots of warrior action and romance in it and get their history and teachings as a by product. Not everyone gets joy out of hefty scholarly literature.

There are people who have thanked me for writing the books because they just didn’t have the temperament to read the scholarly tomes. I feel these books are a painless way into the mindset of the Druids and also a little primer on how to be a practicing Druid of today.

6. Now that “The Druid Isle” is published, what’s your next project that my readers can look forward to?

As I mentioned there is a third Druidic novel waiting to be accepted by the publisher. I am also putting the finishing touches on a book of Highland herbs and Scottish lore.

I have a new herbal that came out this month that teaches a person how to make simple and inexpensive first aid remedies from spices and foods found in the kitchen. It’s called “Making Kitchen Medicines – A Practical Guide”. You can order it here (eventually it will be at Amazon, Barnes and noble and other places)

7. Because my readers may be curious, you’re a Druid Priestess. How is a Druid different from a Wiccan or Pagan?

“Pagan” is a generic term that covers many different paths; Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidism, Asatru, etc. I wrote a book called “Being a Pagan – Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today” (with Lawrence Bond) that explores all the many paths and permutations of Paganism. In case anyone is interested you can find all my books on my website www.elleneverthopman.com

Here is a definition of Paganism from The Papal Apology Project, an international effort that I was a part of some years ago;

“Modern Paganism (sometimes referred to as “Neo-Paganism” to distinguish it from original and indigenous pre-Christian folk traditions) is a revival and reconstruction of ancient Nature-based religions, adapted for the modern world. Paganism is an umbrella term denoting a collection of natural religions of the living Earth. Pagans generally view humanity as a functional organ within the greater organism of all Life, rather than as something special, created separate and “above” the rest of the natural world. Pagans seek not to conquer Nature, but to harmonize and integrate with Her. Paganism should be regarded as “Green Religion,” just as we have “Green Politics” and “Green Economics.”

See more here.

“Wicca” is a modern religion that was invented in the 1930’s primarily by Gerald Gardner but with the help and inspiration of a number of others. If you want to learn how it was put together the best book I have read is Ronald Hutton’s “The Triumph of the Moon”. Wicca is duo-theistic and posits that “all the Gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess”. Wiccans cast circles and call in the four directions. Wiccans are cheerfully eclectic and find no harm in invoking Pan, Thor and Kwan Yin into the same ritual.

“Druidism”, at least the kind that I practice, is firmly grounded in the folklore, language, music, art, religion, archaeology, beliefs, prayers, hymns and incantations of the ancient Celts. There are other types of Druids who are more Wiccan and some Druids who are actually practicing Masonry with a paper thin veneer of Celtic flavoring, but the type of Druidism I practice honors the Three Worlds of Land, Sea and Sky and addresses only the Celtic deities. We make offerings to water, fire and trees and try to use actual charms and incantations from genuine Celtic sources.

8. If any of my readers wanted to learn more about Druidism, where would you suggest they start?

I would suggest going to the Whiteoak website and checking out the basic reading list. It was put together by fifty or more Druids specifically to cover all aspects of our beliefs, history and practices. When you have read five or more of the books feel free to apply to our discussion list (which is by invitation only). We also have a teaching program that leads to initiation for those who are so inclined. But the first step is always to do the reading and then get on to the discussion list.

As a shameless self promotion I have to plug my own books, each of which is designed to instruct the reader in basic Druid spirituality. “A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year” takes you through the seasons and teaches the appropriate herbs to use for ceremonies and life passages such as weddings, funerals, house blessings, etc., giving the spiritual and medicinal properties of all the herbs.

“A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine” teaches about the Irish, pre-Roman, Ogham alphabet and specifically the oldest version which is called the Tree Ogham because the letters are all named for trees. In that book I teach the spirituality and medicinal uses of trees. I also teach about the Celtic Fire Festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasad, and include a primer on Ogham tree divination.

These and more of my books can be found on my website. As an author I really appreciate it when people go through my site to purchase books!

9. Have you found any portrayals of Druids in popular culture that you liked?

Not really. That’s a sad statement but I find that Druids are usually portrayed as men and often as violent, murderous creatures. Female Druids are generally ignored and overlooked by popular writers. I wrote an article on female Druids that you published a while back (thank you!) and I hope people will read it to see what they have been missing;

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.

I’d like everyone to look deep inside and ask themselves what kind of world they really want for all the Earth’s creatures. And then call your representatives and demand that they listen!

About Ellen:
Ellen Evert Hopman has been active in American Druidism since 1984. She is co-chief of the Order of the Whiteoak (Ord na Darach Gile), a popular author of Druidry-related titles including Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey and The Druid Isle (Llewellyn), and a master herbalist. She lives in Massachusetts.

To learn more, visit her website, The Order of the WhiteOak (the Druid Order of which she is Co-Chief), Shrine of the Goddess Brighid (that she co-created with J. Craig Melia), Llewlleyn, and Dreamz-Work Productions (where you can get your copy of “Making Kitchen Medicines” which will soon be available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other outlets).

Music Matters

Music matters. I don’t have facts and figures to back up that statement. Sure, I could go online and find them, but you know it’s true, so why fight with WordPress to create a link? Music inspires, educates, and liberates, that’s just how it is, no sense in denying it. Can’t imagine a world without it, and I think I’ve made it pretty clear from previous posts that I wouldn’t want to be in a world that doesn’t have it. I was surprised to learn that from 1996-2001 music was banned by the Taliban in Afghanistan. What is that world like?

Many of you may have heard about the documentary “Afghan Star“. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a film documentary that follows the lives of contestants and producers of a television show in Afghanistan called “Afghan Star”. “Afghan Star” makes “American Idol” contestants look like total wusses. And before you email me compelling stories about the lives of the struggling as to yet already be semi-well-known AI contestants, answer me this; Any former AI contestant have to live under government protection for singing on stage? Yeah, I thought so. Music was banned. However, 60% of the Afghan population is under the age of 21 and the Taliban has lost some of its hold, so that’s right folks, music is back.

“Afghan Star” brings pop music to the people, following the same basic structure that we know from “American Idol”. It’s an elimination based performance contest where people use their phones to vote for their favorites. A third of the country watched the finale of the season followed in “Afghan Star”. This is contestant Setara performing.

Is it just me, or that just damned catchy? I sit and shimmy at my keyboard every time I play it. Notice her jaunty swaying? Well, in Afghanistan that’s the equivalent of Madonna dry humping the stage while rolling around in a bridal gown at the MTV awards. Or perhaps it’s Madonna’s simulated masturbation rendition of “Like a Virgin” for the Truth or Dare Tour? Either way, whatever the most offensive visual Madonna has busted out in public, Setara’s rhythmic swaying is its equivalent.

Setara was doomed to get knocked out of the competition for being so brazen, and as predicted, she was. Although, just like any artist with nothing to lose, she went full out for her farewell performance.

The dancing, and worse, exposing her hair, caused an uproar and death threats. Surprisingly, it was the other female contestant Lima, who was very demure and conservative that ended up living under the protection of her local governor at the end of the film.

But Rebecca, you’re ready to say, that’s all well and good, but that’s one show, and it’s pop music. That’s not really music. One, I’d dare argue that in a country where music has been banned for 5 years, there is nothing more important than a vibrant pop music revival. Second, would a band of pretty Afghan boys in skinny jeans channeling indie Brit pop make you feel better?

In that case, here you go!

That was Kabul Dreams, and they claim to be Afghanistan’s first rock band. I don’t know if that is an entirely accurate claim, but they are a rock band, they are in Afghanistan, and they’re the only one I’ve heard of, so that makes it good enough for me!

There is music in Afghanistan again, and that means that truly anything is possible. That’s what music does, no sense in denying it.

As a quick aside, for those of you who tend towards heavy metal, can I suggest checking out “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”? It’s about Iraq, not Afghanistan, but it follows the only heavy metal band in Iraq. You can watch it for free thanks to Hulu! In fact, if you’ve got one and a half hours, you can watch it here now!