RIP Shakti Gawain

 

On November 11, a woman died in Marin General Hospital in Mill Valley, California. She was 70 years old, and her death was due to complications from hip surgery after a fall. For 20 years, she’d had Parkinson’s disease, and later developed Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. There were no articles published about her death, and in fact no stories online at all, other than a notice on the site of the publishing company she founded four decades ago. A week after her death, the San Francisco Chronicle published a pro-forma obituary that borrowed most of its content from the notice and misspelled the name of her first book.

The woman’s name was Shakti Gawain. Her first book, published in 1978, was called Creative Visualization, and it sold seven million copies. All told, her three other major books and assorted workbooks and journals sold an additional three million copies. And yet last week she vanished without a trace, except for the fact that she utterly transformed my life, and likely did the same for millions of others.

Had she wanted to, she could have had the celebrity and fame of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, and other self-help and self-development authors. But she didn’t want any of that. She didn’t do speeches or personal appearance tours or PBS specials. She didn’t hype anything or make any grandiose promises. Now and again she did conduct workshops—I attended one in Orange County, CA two days after my birthday in 1994, driving south from L.A. with helicopters overhead as O.J. Simpson was being chased in his Bronco back north up the 5 Freeway. I remember arriving at the hotel with the chase happening live on TV, the ultimate ego distraction, and the feeling of moving from that surreal carnival into the calm and grounding of her workshop.

No, she was all about the lessons, and the work. And there’s no particular drama or excitement in the work. Her writing style is unexceptional and doesn’t lend itself to quotes; it’s like water that’s so clear and still that you see straight to the bottom. Her lessons and messages aren’t based on footnoted research or scholarship, and she’s not part of any tradition or orthodoxy. It’s a distillation of some Eastern and New Thought teaching filtered through her personal experience. There’s nothing to hang your hat on, so to speak. And yet, her work opened the door to a real and meaningful spiritual life for me by showing me how to find and trust the spark of divinity within myself.

Here’s how that happened. I was 30 years old. My so-called career, really a collection of terrible jobs, had crashed and burned. I’d managed to get married and have a kid, but I was lost and adrift and unconsciously at war with myself. With hindsight I’m aware I was living every day with a low-level anxiety that sprang from my confusion and cluelessness. Often I’d make a move that would work out badly, and realize I’d known better all along. Or I’d feel a strong pull to do something and yet hang back in fear. I would hit these speed bumps all the time and then go back about my business, aware that something was wrong but always blaming it on other people or my circumstances… which if I stopped to consider them just seemed like random bad luck.

The latest terrible job ended like they all did, and my wife suggested I take some time off and be the househusband while she took over as the breadwinner for a while. Our daughter was in preschool, so I got a part-time job in a children’s bookstore that shared the same parking lot, in order to keep an eye on my kid across the way and also to earn a little self-respect money. One day I opened a new box of books we’d received, and on top was a book that clearly wasn’t for children. That caught my eye, so I read the title—Living in the Light—and then the back cover to see what it was about.

“Are you searching for deeper meaning and purpose in your life? Do you sense that you have an inner wisdom that can be a guiding force for you, yet wonder how to connect with that intuitive self? How do you know which inner voices to listen to?” That’s how the blurb started. I felt a twinge or a shiver or something, similar to the feeling when the door of a dark room starts to open, I guess, a kind of anticipatory awakening. By the time I reached the bottom of the copy, my head felt like it was exploding. It was as if my entire life had been leading up to that moment, like I was passing through a crucial juncture even as I was reading the words, and I knew on some deep level that somehow that my life was never going to be the same again.

I read the book, which was predicated on the simple idea that each of us has a strong inner guidance, an inner knowingness, that is 100% present and 100% correct. In animals we call it instinct. In humans, we call it intuition. It’s a little bit magical and mysterious, in that it can’t be explained (Malcolm Gladwell later wrote Blink, a study of intuition in which he tries and fails to disassemble the butterfly). Even more mysteriously, it’s a kind of psychic ability that has access to facts and information that you have no way of knowing in any usual sense. For example, people who won’t get on an airplane because they have a bad feeling about it, and later the plane crashes. We all have this kind of knowing, but because we can’t quantify it or predict it or know where it comes from, we discount it or shrug it off.

The book was very simply written, but the lesson wasn’t so simple. I tested out my intuition, first on little parlor tricks on the order of finding my lost keys. When those worked I tried more complicated experiments. What I was doing without quite realizing it was learning to trust myself at an extremely deep level. Often I’d return to Shakti’s book, or her recordings, and her calm (faintly Southern accented) voice was very loving and reassuring. A few years into this process, she wrote The Path of Transformation, essentially a companion piece meant to clarify and enlarge the meanings of Living in the Light, based on what she had been hearing in workshops and personal sessions. Meeting her at the workshop was a little thrill, but since there was no drama about her, she just calmly acknowledged my thanks and appreciation. It was all about the work.

As the years passed, my “tests” of intuition became fewer, but much more difficult. I passed through some severe periods of doubt and trial, only to come through them with my faith strengthened ten times over. It was essentially religion without religion… spirituality discovered completely in action and doing. I hesitate to call intuition the voice of God, because I have no idea who or what God is. Neither do you, if you’re really honest with yourself. But I don’t need to know what it is. I know that it’s alive inside of me, that it wants the best for me. I know it doesn’t want me to be comfortable, necessarily, or even “happy” in the usual sense of that word. Sometimes it seems very quiet and far away, and then suddenly it’s hugely present and it reveals itself as having been at work all along. Over time, I’ve learned to trust it so completely that I don’t even think about it much. My life as I live it today would have seemed like a miracle to my 30-year-old self in that bookstore.

They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And so Shakti Gawain appeared, changed everything for me, and then quietly faded away. Her passing hit me hard, though: like the death of a parent. A wise and loving parent who has given you everything you need to live your life as a happy self-actualized person, and so you might undervalue the gift, thinking you did it all yourself. And you did, but only after someone else showed you the way. In fact, every day of my life for the past 30 years has been a tribute to Shakti Gawain and the power of her teaching. To say I’m grateful seems inadequate. To say I loved her seems almost silly. I owe her everything. There’s no way to repay the debt except to keep living out the truth she showed me, to be a small ripple in the energetic influence she had on millions of us.

Chef

Chef

In the wake of last week I’ve found myself reading everything I can find about Anthony Bourdain. His death hit me hard, and I’m still trying to figure out why… I wasn’t a regular viewer and I hadn’t read his book. I figured I’d always have time to get to him in a more major way. “I must have thought you’d always be around,” as Jackson Browne put it in “For a Dancer,” his classic song of coming to terms with grief and loss.

And I suppose that sense of him as reliable is a big part of the shock and disappointment. You knew he was out there, exploring new by-ways and finding new people to meet, new cultures to shine a light on. He seemed like an adventurer and an old-school hero, masculine, stoic, impatient with bullshit and foulmouthed and funny about it. But also new school: open, non-judgmental, unafraid to admit vulnerability and failure. A guy who, if he ever happened to have a suicidal impulse, would just tell you about it, make a wry face, and toss back some more oysters and beer with a shrug.

You try to make sense of a suicide, and of course you can’t know why for sure even if you’re close to the person, but there was a clue in the long New Yorker piece about him that ran a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked how he felt about being called “Chef,” and he said somewhat testily that he had earned that title, but then he went on to say that it did bother him to be called “Chef” by somebody whose culinary skills were way beyond his. It seems he was a decent, hardworking cook but nothing out of the ordinary. So maybe he suffered from a form of imposter syndrome.

We want a hero, no more than that we need a hero, that’s a deep yearning of humanity from our earliest days up to the present. But if you’ve ever been called one, or treated like one, you know how ridiculous it sounds. “No man is a hero to his valet” the old saying goes, meaning you can’t regard someone as heroic when you’ve gotten to know them well, seen them in the fumbling, gross, clueless, haggard, indolent ways most of spend the majority of our time. And if you can’t be a hero to your valet, you certainly can’t be one to yourself, knowing how often you feel and act like a crushed, sad, helpless victim.

But if you can’t really “be” a hero, you can act heroically from time to time. Try something new, go outside your comfort zone, face your fears. Reach a hand out to somebody who needs it, treat a “lowly” person with respect, give somebody some appreciation for what they’re trying to do even if they’re not quite making it. A simple act of kindness or consideration can make a life-changing difference to somebody, and in that moment you are a hero to that person. And in that context, “Chef” or any other nickname isn’t a title as much as a thank-you, a pat on the back, a salute. People were grateful to Anthony Bourdain, because in a world of posers and users, he talked and reacted and laughed like a person. We need more of those.

Paul Prudhomme, I Love You

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In New Orleans for the first or second time about 15 years ago, I was walking down a street in the Quarter when I saw a line of people on the sidewalk. It took a second to realize they were waiting at the door of a restaurant. This was still mid-afternoon, but the line was longish already.

Then I recognized the third person in line: Billy Payne, the piano player from Little Feat — a man who is an idol of mine. I doubled back and said hello to him and garbled out some fan talk, just thinking “wow, Billy Payne.” I said something that made him smile, and that was sweet. All that day I was overcome by the encounter itself… but then later, I got to thinking: what the heck was that restaurant? Evidently so good that even somebody of Bill Payne’s caliber of awesomeness is patiently waiting in line to get in.

It was K-Paul’s. I hunted it down later — it’s hard to find, just another storefront on Chartres St, half obscured under the wrought iron. The inside is also fairly anonymous, just checkered cloth-covered tables and a big brick wall, ending at a kitchen with a huge window where you can see the chefs at work. There’s no fuss about anything, absolutely no sense that you’re anyplace special.

But oh, holy god, the food. Gumbo, etouffee, bread pudding, and a blazing hot cajun martini, that’s what I had. Everything perfectly proportioned, everything incredibly simple. And every single bite was mind-blowingly delicious. All the attention that other restaurants put into the decor and fancy menu and waitstaff performances, K Paul’s puts into the food. I’ve had some great meals in a lot of cities over the years… but that was the greatest dinner of my life.

Read Paul Prudhomme’s obituary and know the reasons why: not just his inventiveness and skill, his generosity and openness, but his commitment to the basics of good cooking. Think about that window into the kitchen: something you see in pizza parlors but never, ever in a fine restaurant. It’s indicative of the man’s whole attitude of transparency and inclusion. This sentence of the obit hit me hardest: “In keeping with Mr. Prudhomme’s gospel of fresh ingredients, the restaurant had no freezers.” I mean, what restaurant has no freezers?

The same restaurant that Billy Payne would line up for at 3:30 in the afternoon. The best damn restaurant in America.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/us/paul-prudhomme-creole-cajun-louisiana-cooking.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

Getting into Cars with Alex

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A business trip took me to San Francisco this week, which gave me the opportunity to look up my old friend Alex. He drove all the way out to where I was staying to have dinner with me, but when he arrived I didn’t get his text right away. So he circled the block and waited until I got it and I hurried out to the nearest corner, where he stopped and picked me up quickly at a corner.

We’ve all had déjà vu, that sense that something happening now has happened before, but you can’t remember what. This was like that except that I did remember: countless other times I’ve stepped into Alex’s car over the last 40 years came rushing to my mind all at once.

We met in 1974, in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior and at that age, those years are a chasm. He could drive and I couldn’t — a stick shift I might add — he had relationships and I didn’t, he’d experienced controlled substances and I hadn’t, though he took care of that eventually. He liked me and more to the point he approved of me, and that meant the world to me at a time when I was struggling with huge family issues that had rocked my self esteem. We were on the school paper together, and when I’d write something he’d take it into the room where the seniors were and read it to them, laughing and putting it up on the board and telling them I’d be the editor of the paper someday… the first time somebody saw something in me. I didn’t see it until he did.

Alex was this impossibly glamorous figure: whippet-thin, blond hair parted in the center and hanging to his shoulders, handsome in a fierce hawklike way, with piercing blue eyes. He played rock guitar like a star, could write well enough to make a career of it if he wanted to, was gifted at math and science, but disdained and minimized all of his own gifts. I remember one time in the late 70s when he picked me up, he took me to the lab where he was working, because he wanted to show me something. I was itchy and impatient to go start partying but he insisted that I look at this tiny thing on a small sliver of glass. “That’s a microchip,” he said. “Someday that’s going to change the world.” One of many conversations I should have continued but didn’t in my headlong rush to go waste my opportunities.

Another conversation that always sticks in my mind is when we first bought a house. I was still in my 20s and in way over my head with a wife and baby, just a kid trying to be a man. The place was the only thing we could afford, a cool little Art Deco bungalow in a terrible neighborhood, a fixer-upper in need of just about every kind of repair. He came over to check it out and we sat cross-legged on the floor of the empty living room, the cool desert air of Los Angeles blowing in through the open windows, the night sky dark beyond them, and he said “your house is beautiful, man.” Just a small thing but again that glimpse of hope and that seal of approval for a step I wasn’t sure of yet. Awesome.

Alex loved David Bowie and he had Bowie’s offhand indifference to himself, the same chilly remove and distance. Actual, real cool. It can’t be faked, or acquired. I’ll never have it, but I sure do know it when I see it. We can be heroes… yeah. He would have laughed then, just as he would now, at the idea of himself being any kind of hero. Every time we’ve met up since high school, he’s talked about me and my accomplishments and acted like I was the somebody.  Talking cynical and intellectual and pretending he doesn’t have the biggest heart around, like he never saw a suffering mess of a boy and put a hand out. Like it was nothing.

But it was everything.  Thanks, man. I hope you never stop picking me up.

 

The Pope Smokes Dope

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Click here to read Pope Francis’ encyclical
, released last week. Let’s start with my frank admission that I have not had time to read it in its entirety… yet. But the parts I have read are blowing my mind. It’s what the hippies were saying in the 60s, basically, but it’s coming from the Pope.

His points about climate change are getting all the attention, but really this is a stunning critique of modern society and its completely wrongheaded values — consumerism, capitalism, over-reliance on science and technology, social injustice, violence and war, and the destruction of the Earth.

And he shows how those wrong values all spring from the same source. He knits everything together, showing how all of the major troubles of the world can be traced back to us… to individuals… to people like you and me, who have lost (or never had) a basic attitude of humility, of wonder, of gratitude. People who view the world as something to be used and discarded. He brings it all down to selfishness, basically, and shows the irony of how placing yourself above everything else destroys not only you, but others.

This is a deeply spiritual document, and a lodestar of wisdom and guidance. Personally, I’m not a Catholic, or a Christian, but so what? No human being really knows the nature of God (as the Pope has admitted), so we’re all making guesses in the dark there. In the meantime, we live in a physical world, and we’re fucking it up and we all know it, and he shows just how we’re doing it. And why we feel so lost, so alienated, so afflicted.

What’s wrong with humanity and society is what’s wrong with us. The global crisis is our crisis. The answer isn’t even that complicated. It’s love, for ourselves and others and our planet and everything on it. Not conceptual love. Love in action… which is actually not easy. If you don’t find it painful and difficult, you’re not doing it right. Because love in action means subjugating your ego, and recognizing that you’re one among many, no less no more.

I’ll be reading the whole thing. I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be trying, again, only harder this time, to live it. I hope you will too.

Giving the Bird

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Put a Bird on It
Mixed media
O’Connor, 2015


This is a public art project by my friend Brendan O’Connor entitled “Put a Bird on It.” Brendan is a local artist whose mission is to “art-up” the city of Orlando. His medium, interestingly, is the ugly stuff that’s all over every city… the stuff you train your eye to look past or ignore, like dumpsters, bus stop seats, or in this case traffic signal boxes. It’s subversive in a way, because while it’s transforming something utilitarian into something whimsical, it’s also drawing attention to the very thing everybody is trying to ignore.

Somebody got the message, because yesterday the Florida Department of Transportation took down this signal box on the flimsiest of pretexts. Too close to the road, they said. This despite their having signed a contract with the Mills 50 district to initiate the project. You could ask why they just discovered this now, after the box has been there for decades; you could ask why the box was there at all if it can be removed in a day with no effect on traffic. But of course you’d be asking the wrong questions, because those are questions of logic and this was obviously about something else.

And although I love Brendan, I understand this decision. As an artist myself, I live with decisions like it every day.

One of the central wars of humanity is the ongoing, endless war between the Artists and the… let’s be polite and call them the Non-Artists. The N/As have damaged or destroyed countless works of art in this war. In 1924, MGM producer Irving Thalberg whittled down Eric von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed from eight hours to two. In 1963, the government of New York City demolished the original Penn Station, a soaring 1910 landmark of breathtaking beauty and elegance, and put a squat, faceless monstrosity in its place… one that could only have been approved by a committee of bureaucrats. In 2001 the Taliban dynamited two enormous Buddhist statues that had stood silent watch on the side of a mountain in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan since the 6th Century. And the list goes on.

Art and beauty and creativity are subversive because they draw attention, by contrast, to what is not artistic and beautiful and creative: greed, intolerance, power, control, and the raw fear that lies beneath those things. Many people, the N/As, live in this consciousness of fear, and many of them don’t even know it. And so creativity, with its positive and uplifting vision of possibility and potential, does not inspire them. Art, with its window into new ways of looking at things, does not uplift them. It terrifies them. It makes them aware on some level of what a small game they’re playing, of how limited they are. And so, like children who violently reject what they don’t understand, they feel nothing but an urge to destroy.

And so if you’re an Artist like Brendan, you need to understand that through your work, through your very existence, you are making some people very, very uncomfortable. Angry, in fact. You are stirring up opposition, sometimes very powerful opposition. Often this opposition has a lot of money, because money is often the compensation for people who have turned their backs on larger possibilities. Making some people squirm and begin to hate you for it is part of the job, and in fact it’s a sign that you’re doing something right. You’re inadvertently shaming these limited, unfulfilled, unhappy people, and they will make you pay a price for that if they can.

Art is in a precarious position in this brutal world, but so are love and joy and peace. Maybe we couldn’t appreciate these things so much if we didn’t have the N/As constantly threatening them. The answer is to keep on creating regardless. The answer is to keep on giving those people the bird.

Some Better Questions

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program, I’ve heard and read a lot of discussions that start with a question whose premise could be summed up as “there are bad guys out there, and what if torturing them can help save lives?”

This question doesn’t need to be answered so much as rejected and shamed as the utter bullshit it is. Torture is immoral and abhorrent to any notion of civilization, and if that’s too fancy for you, it’s illegal in this country and a war crime everywhere in the world. So the question is irrelevant. It’s like asking “what if murdering someone does some good?” or “what if there’s some value in racism?”

The question is not only irrelevant, but it’s predicated more or less on this assumption: that terrorists are inhuman monsters with evil agendas that they will only reveal if we show we’re willing to be even more brutal than they are. And that somewhere, there’s a ticking bomb, thus giving whatever pummeling we choose to administer even more moral force and urgency. It’s a question that comes from watching too many bad movies and TV shows.

And finally, it’s a question with a simple answer. Torture does not work. It doesn’t yield actionable intelligence. This is a widely accepted consensus view in the intelligence community.

Here are some better questions to ask in the wake of the Intelligence Committee report. I’d like to hear some powerful and respected voices asking these questions:

Shouldn’t the words “enhanced interrogation” make us all deeply ashamed of the culture of euphemism that corporations and politicians have fostered? Shouldn’t every “journalist” who ever used those words to describe torture make a public apology?

Have we become so cynical and jaded about our government that we really don’t care what atrocities it commits, as long as we’re “free”? And does “free” just mean free to be left alone to munch on tacos and watch TV?

Why are we so afraid of terrorism? I was eight blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and I saw the towers fall right in front of me, and later I ran through the smoke and debris to safety, and I’m not afraid of terrorism, or terrorists. They’re criminals, that’s all. Find them and arrest the fuckers. Why are we making them into some existential threat? Americans used to have some balls — what happened to us?

If we allow torture to be a policy of our government, what exactly makes us different from “the terrorists” anyway? Our good intentions? Our self concept as noble and good people?

Are we going to do anything about the CIA? It’s a government bureaucracy, just like any other. Are we going to continue letting it do anything it deems necessary, including deceiving two branches of government? Why is the CIA off limits to a thorough housecleaning? Are we simply afraid of the CIA? And if we are, is this still a democracy?

This program was authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The names of the people who did so are not a secret. Why is it so unthinkable that they should be prosecuted for war crimes? Why can’t that idea even be floated in the mainstream media? Is it because they are powerful, and more to the point in our celebrity-bedazzled culture, famous?

Why is it that many conservatives, usually so quick to paint everything in stark black and white, good and evil, right and wrong, suddenly see the issue of torture as one big gray area? Right-wingers are always talking about “accountability.” Why don’t we hear any of them using that word in this case?

Why haven’t Democratic leaders been much more visible and staunch in their opposition to this? Why didn’t they loudly call out President Obama when he essentially caved on the issue by issuing an order rescinding the policy and then kicking everything else about it under the rug? Why are Democrats now vocal about the report but largely silent about Obama’s lack of leadership on this issue?

Is it because politics in this country has become nothing more than a sport, with fans rooting for their team regardless of what it does, as long as their team is perceived as winning? Is the conservative silence on torture, or worse, defense of it, simply driven by the fear that it might be bad for Republicans? Is the Democratic position (if there is one) driven by the same cynical calculus?

Those are the questions that I’d like to hear asked in public, but the really tough questions are the ones we should be asking ourselves:

Do we kind of like the idea of torture? Have we been fed so much revenge-fantasy pop culture that we’re into it now? Do we feel so powerless and small, are we so full of impotent rage, that the idea of some righteous CIA dude giving the works to a swarthy foreign guy in rags makes us feel just a little better about the world and ourselves?

Or are we just not paying attention to any of this? Is it just more news and information we can’t really use? Do we think it has nothing to do with us, so fuck it?

And so is torture — the deliberate infliction of unbearable pain that serves no purpose except as an outlet for humanity’s worst impulses —  just one more He Said/She Said, meh I’m really not sure, let’s agree to disagree kind of thing? Because that’s the perspective of a sociopath.

Have we all become sociopaths?