Saturday, February 28, 2015

Loving-kindness



“Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings”

The Buddha’s words on loving-kindness

I love this quote by Buddha and I want to add that both a mother and a father love their child, and their love can be projected on to all living beings.
My hubby has cultivated a special interest in meditation and mindfulness. Six weeks ago he encouraged me to join a meditation retreat. I’m glad I followed his advice. Since I attended this retreat I’ve been practicing meditation every day.
I’m not going to discuss the benefits of meditation on this post. There is research on the psychological and medical effects of meditation, but I will focus on another dimension that is often overlooked. Yet it has the potential to permeate all aspects of our lives.
  After I expressed my interest in loving-kindness meditation, the kind lady who led the retreat gave me this book by Sharon Salzberg entitled “Loving-kindness”.

 You don’t need to practice meditation or to be a Buddhist to appreciate the power of this book.  It inspires you to build a fortress of loving-kindness, regardless of what you encounter.
 The wisdom on these pages is a harbor of peace, a beacon of hope.
 How do we find peace amid the chaos of the world?
 It is through metta that we take the power of love beyond the sphere of our thoughts.
 Metta is the sense of loving-kindness that is not bound to desire, that does not have to pretend that things are other than they way they are. It overcomes the illusion of separateness, of not being part of a whole.
 Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves as well as all parts of the world. We can open to everything with the healing force of loving-kindness. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasures and its pains.
  
 The other root meaning for metta is “friend”. A good friend is someone who is constant in our times of happiness and also in our times of adversity or unhappiness. A friend will not forsake us when we are in trouble nor rejoice in our misfortune. The Buddha described a true friend as being a helper, someone who will protect us when we are unable to take care of ourselves, who will be refuge to us when we are afraid.
 The practice of metta is also about befriending ourselves and uncovering the force of love that is stronger than fear, anger and guilt.  It has nothing to do with sentimentality and desire.
 Desire says, “I will love you, I will take care of you, I will offer you this or that as long as you meet my expectations and satisfy my needs.” This kind of “love” is a bargain based on attachment and desire.
 "True happiness cannot be found in something or some person, because as everything changes, that level of happiness is bound to be temporary."
                  Sharon Salzberg
  
 Many human beings tend to live under the delusion of separation, and yet we are all interconnected. Those who cause suffering do so out of ignorance. Those who slander, gossip, kill, hate, rape, torture, do so without knowing that they are hurting themselves. But hate only perpetuates hate.
 Consider anger, for example. We don't have to deny it. Anger is something we have to acknowledge and accept. The energy of it can be turned into wisdom. It can encourage us to do something to change or improve a certain situation. 
 We have to remember, however, that anger is like the clouds over a mountain. It is temporary. The mountain symbolizes the strength of love: it is the solid foundation that does not disappear, even when the clouds are dense and seem to conceal the mountain.
  All dark emotions can be overpowered by love. 
 I picked the image of an ocean at the beginning of this post to symbolize our inner worlds. Our inner world is boundless. By meditating we tap into it and meet that spaciousness. The vastness of our interior worlds is a part of the outer world as a whole. We are all connected to a boundless universe. 
 When we sit to meditate we do so without expectations. We are not attached to the outcome of the practice.
 "Loving-kindness" tells us life anecdotes and delves into many subjects: kindness,  compassion, morality, suffering, judgments, envy, jealousy, forgiveness and many others.
  Sharon Salzberg explains the concept of mudita.  I sense that many people I've encountered have trouble understanding the concept of mudita. Interestingly,  I can't find a word in English for mudita. Mudita is the joy and happiness that we feel at other people's happiness. It is the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people's well-being. When I was writing this post I reflected on the concept of mudita. 
  Why do people find it so difficult to believe in mudita? Why do they treat it with distrust? Are their minds clouded by competition and judgments?

I will share some quotes from this book:

“We can give in so many ways. We give materially, in terms of goods and money. We give time, service, caring. Even to allow someone to be just the way they are is a kind of giving. We have endless opportunities every day to give.”

“As mudita grows, we see that the happiness of others is our happiness; sympathetic joy allows us to open further and further with loving-kindness, so more and more we really do want other people to be happy.”

"Contemplating the goodness within ourselves is a classical meditation, done to bring light, joy and rapture to the mind. In contemporary times this practice might be considered rather embarrassing, because so often the emphasis is on all the unfortunate things we have done, all the disturbing mistakes we have made. Yet this commitment fills us with joy and love, and a great deal of self-respect."

“There is always blame in this world. If you say too much, some people will blame you. If you say a little bit, some people will blame you. If you say nothing at all, some people will blame you. This is the very nature of life. No one in this world experiences only pleasure and no pain, and no one experiences only gain and no loss. When we open to this truth, we discover that there is no need to hold on or push away.”

“Despite the hatred and monstrous egoism evident in some human actions, remembering the fortitude, courage and love people are capable of can awaken our appreciation. When we feel happy for others we feel happy and connected ourselves.”

"I have met beggars on the streets of India whose spirits were enormous. I have seen a beggar in Calcutta, with no arms or legs because of leprosy, crawling along the streets with a bucket in her mouth into which people dropped money. Despite her suffering, she wanted to live. "
"Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned. Love is not a matter of currency or exchange. Everyone has enough to cultivate it. Metta reunites us with what it means to be alive and unbound."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Grass Is Singing


 Due to her courageous outspokenness Doris Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa in the year 1956. In her novel The Grass is Singing she wrote about racial inequality, social injustice and the conflicts between the individual and society.
Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old.  
 The Grass is Singing is set in South Africa, under white rule. The first chapter starts with the end of the story: the announcement in the local paper of Mary Turner's murder.   The reason why the servant had killed Mary was an enigma.
        The first chapter is charged with intrigue and a myriad of peremptory judgments and racist statements that provide an idea of the society’s mentality:
“The more one thinks about it, the more extraordinary the case becomes. Not the murder itself but the way people felt about it, the way they pitied Dick Turner with a fierce indignation against Mary, as if she were something unpleasant and unclean, and it served her right to get murdered. But they did not ask questions.”

 Their attachment to their cultural codes was brutal to the victim whom they seemed to consider a threat to their “morals”:
“Whom should it concern if not the white farmers, that a silly woman got herself murdered by a native for reasons people might think about, but never, never mentioned. It was their livelihood, their wives and families, their way of living at stake.”
 This chapter also introduces us to the structure of the South African society. The natives were the black people and the whites were classified into Afrikaners and Britishers. 
 “The ‘poor whites’ were Afrikaners, and the Britishers ignored them.”
  Lessing shows racism and social injustice through forthright statements that make us cringe:
    “He had once killed a native in a fit of temper. He was fined thirty pounds. Since then he had kept his temper.”

   Mary Turner and her husband were British but they were considered “poor whites” and the people made scornful comments about them. Their gossip stemmed from the fact that they did not follow conventional patterns of behavior:
 “The Turners were disliked, though few of their neighbors had ever met them, or even seen them in the distance. Yet what was there to dislike? They simply ‘kept themselves to themselves’; that was all. They were never seen at district dances, or fetes, or gyn-khanas. They must have had something to be ashamed of; that was the feeling. It was not right to seclude themselves like that; it was a slap in the face of everyone else.”

  Then the story progresses by narrating Mary Turner’s life: her unhappy childhood and her dysfunctional relationship with her parents. Mary, however, grew into an intelligent, efficient woman. She worked as a typist and had an active social life. One day she overheard a conversation that disturbed her, and this event became a turning point that would change the course of her fate. Her friends were discussing her private life and criticizing her for being single into her thirties.
“She was stunned and outraged; but most of all deeply wounded that her friends could discuss her thus.”
“And she was even more disturbed and unhappy because they seemed just as usual, treating her with their ordinary friendliness. She began to suspect double meanings where none were intended, to find maliciousness in the glance of a person who felt nothing but affection for her.”
 Mary met Dick and they got married. They eked out a living on a farm in South Africa. Doris Lessing offers us a vivid account of their setting and their isolated lifestyle, and this is one of the aspects that I enjoyed the most. She makes you feel that you are right there with the characters.  
The reader can feel the heat of the place crushing one’s spirit.

 The place became oppressive from Mary’s perspective. Dick, on the other hand, was in love with the farm and the seasons; they were ingrained in his life and became the fuel of his enthusiasm to seek new alternatives to improve their prospects, even though everything he tried failed because he was not persistent enough and did not make wise decisions.
  At the beginning Mary kept herself active. She set high standards whenever she embarked on activities around the house or on the farm, but over the years the environment sapped her vitality and jarred her motivation . The way she ill-treated the servants perturbed me. She was exacting and cruel to the servants whereas her husband was kinder and more attuned to their needs. 
  It took me a while to comprehend that her harsh behavior had something to do with standard expectations on how a woman had to keep control over the servants. Being kind to them would have meant losing her power.
    The stark outcome of their financial situation and the lack of enticing activities pushed Mary into a state of immobility. She lapsed into a deadlock. It was like returning to the sorrow of her childhood. Amid her meaningless existence a new servant (Moses) entered the scene and a strange relationship developed between them.

If you want to learn more about Doris Lessing, check this  fascinating interview in The Paris Review.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thank you

"Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength."~ Sigmund Freud

 I want to thank all the people who took the time to read and comment on my previous post. It takes energy and wisdom to face the facts. I also appreciated your feedback. I replied to all your comments today.
  From now on I will be publishing a post every Saturday; my plan is to keep a regular schedule for this blog. (I may add a post on a weekday occasionally, but this is not going to happen very often.)
  This is the poem I selected this month. It was written by Karen Little. I also want to thank all the poets who submit to Southern Pacific Review.
 It is an honor to read your poetry.
    Till next Saturday.




Saturday, February 14, 2015

The effects of prejudice in America


“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored.”~ Aldous Huxley.

A prejudice is a silent evil demon; its voice is reality.
A study published by Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues at Yale University provides some important facts that we should not ignore.
 In this study half the scientists were given the job application with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached. Results found that the female applicants were rated significantly lower than the males in competence, how likely they were to be hired, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.
 The scientists also offered lower starting salaries to the “female” applicants: $26,507.94 compared to $ 30,238.10
  I also want to make clear that both male and female scientists were equally guilty of committing gender bias. (In other words, the gender bias has nothing to do with all the lies that we hear on a regular basis to justify the difference in salaries.)

 Four in ten American households with children under 18 include a mother who is the sole or primary earner for her family according to a Pew Research Center Analysis of Census and polling data. It has quadrupled since 1960.  Yet women in the US make an average of 0.77 cents to men’s $1.00 doing the same job.
  Women constitute over half of the United States population, but a woman has never been able to become president or vice-president. 
In 2013 women represented only 10% of all governors and held 18% of all US congressional seats.  
 Only 12 of the 100 largest cities have female mayors.
 Twenty-three states have never had a woman as a governor (California and New York are in this list).
 Do you think these figures reflect “equality”?

There is evidence of gender discrimination against female candidates. In 2008 an experiment was done where two congressional candidate credentials were presented to a sample of respondents: Republicans were more likely to say they would vote for a father with young children rather than a mother with young children. They were also more likely to vote for women without small children than with small children.  

   Not only do voters discriminate on the bias of gender, political parties do as well. When a sample of female state legislators was asked whether or not they believed that their political party encouraged women more, less or equally encouraged women and men, 44% of the sample responded that the party was more encouraging to men. Only 3% responded that the party encouraged women more than men.
  When I was preparing this post I came across the comment of a woman who had worked as an engineer in three countries: the United States of America, the UK and Norway. She said that she had endured sexism in the workplace in both US and UK, but not in Norway. She also shared this interesting article. As far as I know many women in Norway work part-time and the economy did not collapse.
 In Norway gender equality is taken so seriously that they recently passed a bill to make military service compulsory for women.This is not something I would recommend in the United States of America because  sexism is routine in American Military Academies according to the Pentagon
  A sexist culture is deeply ingrained there. Not surprisingly, Defense officials said that students at the academies see sexual assault and crude behaviors as an almost accepted part of their academy experience. Victims feel peer pressure not to report incidents.

  Sexism does not always happen on an unconscious level. It comes to the surface and speaks to us clearly when we hear remarks like the one made last year by Erick Erickson when he said that situations in which women are the breadwinners are “unnatural”. He also stated that the male is the one that has to dominate. 
   Sexism still exists, so why do so many people get mad when we talk about it? Why do they believe that we should ignore the matter and pretend that it does not exist?
 The US Constitution embraces equality and liberty, but reality has not caught up with it yet.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

O Pioneers



O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers
Walt Whitman

 O Pioneers is about the life  of immigrants who settled down on the plains of Nebraska in the late 1800’s. Willa Cather deals with many fascinating themes that make this novel a timeless story:  love, friendship, social prejudices and the relationship of the immigrants with their new environment. (I fell in love with My Antonia three years ago and I didn't know I would love O Pioneers just as much).
 The heroine of this novel is Alexandra Bergson, a woman ahead of her times.  Before her father passed away, when she was still a teenager, he entreated Alexandra to be responsible for the land. Therefore, the financial future of her family fell upon her shoulders.
 Eking out a living in Nebraska meant making the land productive and sustainable.  Unlike her mother, who was unable to adjust to the demands of the new place, Alexandra found ways to make the land prosperous, enabling her siblings to make a living on their farms.  
 Alexandra had three younger brothers, and she was able to surpass her siblings in terms of financial accomplishments. However, she was not free of the gender inequalities that shaped the prejudices and behaviors.
   Willa Cather is skillful at showing how women were judged differently from men, and some of these judgments continue to resonate.  I will analyze these aspects of the story because I think they tend to be overlooked by the critics.
 Alexandra was confident and practical, but she did not have time or energy to devote to love. Her brothers were  ashamed of the fact that she was still single at age forty. On the other hand, her friend Marie was married. She fell in love with Frank and married him hastily, but she later found herself in an unhealthy relationship.
 Marie was outspoken, spontaneous and affectionate whereas her husband was possessive and short-tempered. He drank too much alcohol and often bullied her. This marital mismatch led Marie to withdraw from him and to fall in love with another man: Emil (Alexandra’s youngest brother).  
 Alexandra was too pragmatic to sense that Emil and Marie were in love with each other.  She was interested in her male friend Carl Linstrum, but her brothers Lou and Oscar opposed a potential love relationship with him because they were convinced that Carl was only attracted to her money. Besides, they hinted at the idea that a man would not care for a single woman once she is in her forties. Through this conflict Willa Cather shows how the male characters feel they have a right to her money and to opine about her personal affairs. They also imply that as  women age, society does not expect them to get married. 
Did the same idea apply to men? No; it is made clear in the novel that Carl was expected to marry somebody younger. Hence, this idea carries the innuendo that a woman is a kind of love object that only serves the purpose of marriage when she is young.
 I will share some extracts of their conversations to support my statements.
Lou turned to his brother. ‘This is what comes of letting a woman meddle in business,’ he said bitterly. ‘We ought to have taken things in our own hands years ago. But she liked to run things, and we humored her. We thought you had good sense, Alexandra. We never thought you’d do anything foolish.
“Alexandra rapped impatiently on her desk with her knuckles. ‘Listen, Lou. Don’t talk wild. You say you ought to have taken things into your own hands years ago. I suppose you mean before you left home. But how could you take hold of what wasn’t there? I’ve got most of what I have now since we divided the property; I’ve built it up myself, and it has nothing to do with you.
“Oscar spoke up solemnly. ‘The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title.”
“Everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!”
 ‘I only meant’, said Oscar, ‘that she is old enough to know better, and she is. If she was going to marry, she ought to done it long ago, and not making a fool of herself now.’
Another reason why I believe Alexandra was ahead of her times was her understanding of Ivar.  Ivar was a sensitive compassionate man who probably had a mental condition that made him vulnerable. People did not understand him, so they criticized him and shunned him. Alexandra, on the other hand, knew that Ivar was in need of empathy:
As Ivar talked, his gloom lifted. Alexandra had found that she could often break his fasts and long penances by talking to him and letting him pour out the thoughts that troubled him.”
  Alexandra stood up for him whenever people tried to have him sent to an asylum. She continued to let him work for her despite the rumors against him. She disregarded what other people said and endeavored to support him instead of getting rid of him.
 After something bad happened, Alexandra found out that Marie and Emil had been in love with each other, and she was very disappointed with Marie. Interestingly, she blames Marie for the love triangle, another sign of how the social dynamics played against women by making them guilty of situations that do not only involve the female sex. (After all, her brother Emil had never been blind to the fact that Marie was indeed a married woman).
 “She blamed Marie bitterly. And why, with her happy, affectionate nature, should she have brought destruction and sorrow to all who loved her?  That was the strangest thing of all. Was there then, something wrong in being warmhearted and impulsive like that? Alexandra hated to think so.”
 Later in the story Carl would make her see that it had not been Marie’s fault. Yet there's still a tinge of blame in his statement:
 "It happens like that in the world sometimes, Alexandra. I've seen it before. There are women who spread ruin around them through no fault of theirs...they are too full of love, too full of life."
 Even though Alexandra and Marie were so different, they had something in common: their love for the land. This feeling for the land was a source of comfort and hope. Willa Cather describes this deep connection in her poetic prose:
“The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

  The metaphor of love seemed to be inscribed in the landscapes around them:
“There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.”
Have you read this literary classic? Share your thoughts.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Education


"Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is."~Isaac Asimov

"People think of education as something they can finish."~ Isaac Asimov

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Italian art

“Justice and Peace embracing"  intrigued me. I wonder why Antonio Balestra resorted to the image of two women staring at each other to symbolize peace and justice. Even more enigmatic to me is the presence of Cupid who is gazing up at them. This work of art made me ponder over the interconnection between justice and peace. But why is Cupid there?
  I don’t have the answer to this question, but Cupid is an emblem of romantic love. Romantic love implies that lust is involved, and lust may be attached to possessiveness and jealousy; these emotions are rooted in a desire to control the "loved" one. These emotions taint love. They can cause pain and suffering, so I surmise they may represent a threat to peace and justice.
During the Christmas season last year we enjoyed the exhibition of Italian Art at the Milwaukee art Museum.  The paintings I share on this post were all part of this exhibition that explored five centuries of Italian art.

  Another painting that entranced me was "Vanitas". We don’t know who painted this one but critics believe the woman in this picture is Mary Magdalene.
   Mary Magdalene had been involved in behaviors that spattered her reputation, but she underwent a deep transformation and became the embodiment of repentance.




“Virgin and Child” by Giovanni Bellini invites us to blend with the atmosphere of peace evoked by the tender interaction between the mother and her child.  There is a hint of concern in the mother’s eyes, but their precious bond is a powerful energy that captivates the viewer.










“A painter and his model” tells the true story of a novice who had been courted by a man. In this intense scene painted by Pietro Aldi (1852-1888) Filippo Lippi implores the nun to leave the convent; her wistful eyes drown in shame. 
She later absconded and they ran away together.