Relativity

Reviewed by:

“Relativity is a wonderful read . . . well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships.”

Relativity by Antonia Hayes is a wonderful read. Hayes deserves a wide audience for this book. Relativity is Hayes debut novel, well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships. One of Hayes’ singular achievements in this work is her non-judgmental stance and balanced voice.

For protagonists, 12-year-old Ethan, his biological father, Mark, and his single mom, Claire, sometimes explosive, sometimes tender, often hard-to-read shifting points of view have the ring of truth. Indeed they should, for as author Hayes says in interviews the novel’s impetus is largely based on autobiographical fact but the characters and evolving plot are fictional. The novel is set in Sydney Australia, Hayes’ hometown although she now lives in San Francisco.

Another character omnipresent in the novel is ideas created from theoretical physics and cosmology. Hayes’ writing of complex abstraction is masterful. By having, albeit a remarkable 12 year old articulate his understanding of these ideas, she makes them accessible to a wide audience.

A tattoo on Mark’s arm illustrates the interaction between science and this troubled family, ‘E=mc2’: Ethan equals Mark and Claire. Ethan, a brilliant and precocious boy fascinated by physics, Mark, a mysterious figure in Ethan’s life until he is 12, and Claire, a professional ballerina, who ends her performance career to care for her son.

No other spoilers in this review for that would mar your reading of this compulsive, compassionate, and intelligent novel. It grabs you from the jarring opening page and on the last page you gasp at the fitting paean of appreciation for the force of gravity and how Hayes links the implications of physics to the plot.

“Gravitation shapes our universe. Forms tides, heats planetary cores. It’s why fragments of gravitational matter clump together into planets and moons, why stars cluster into vast, rippling galaxies. Earth isn’t going to crash into the sun, the moon won’t collide with Earth—gravity keeps them safe in orbit. It always attracts and never repels; it brings the planets back.

Gravity is insistent. It firmly stands its ground. We never stop accelerating toward the center of the Earth at 9.8/s2. That curvature in the fabric of space-time is a phenomenon we experience every day, an invisible experience we all have in common.”

Light years from the rarified conceptual realm of scientific ideas, Ethan’s family is mired in hurt, excrutiating guilt, and a combination of hate and love not yet understood or clarified. Microcosmic and macrocosmic perceptions of human experience do not align—yet.

“Claire got dressed. Her head was full of contradictions, as though each hemisphere of her own brain were battling some civil war. Confusion left her with a strong desire for solitude, to be left alone with her conflicting thoughts. She felt completely disorientated, questioning her entire life. What if her heart had reshaped itself around a lie? Part of her was angry . . . another part of her utterly distraught.”

Ethan, a child on the cusp of adolescence, is the perfect vehicle through which the story unfolds. We learn at the same time he does the mysterious twists of family history, burial and reframing of tortured memories, a family constellation torn apart.

Gravity does not operate the same way in this family constellation as it does on a universal scale; the stars do not align, at least not on the surface. But at the quantum level gravity and relativity are present although to the untrained eye particles heave and bubble like chaos itself.

Hayes invites us to look deeper into the quantum level of her characters’ psyches. Our clue to this interpretation is Ethan’s pet rabbit named, Quark. As Hayes explains, quarks are elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter. Quarks combine to form particles called hadrons, the components of atomic nuclei.

The matter that constitutes stars is the same matter firing neurons in our brains. At some level Ethan is already the space-time traveler he strives to be. After all, the title of the novel is Relativity.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/relativity#sthash.rnDkrJJr.dpuf

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Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

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Reviewed by:

“A satisfying read on many levels . . .” 

Fragrant Palm Leaves is the work of a person in his mid-thirties coming to terms with realistic acceptance of the meanings that arise from his monk’s training and leadership role in trying to reform Buddhism in his country, Vietnam. Included in these musings are the great possibilities of leadership and mission as well as significant disappointments of personal loss.

The strength of the journals lies in Hahn’s honesty in his writing. The journal entries are not private musings but poignant and often powerful reflections, inspirational messages directed at his followers. A controversial figure in Vietnam as he went into to exile (for the first time) in May 1966, he wrote that he doubted if the collection would pass the censors. “If it can’t be published, I hope my friends will circulate it among themselves.”

The memoir opens in 1962 in mid-winter at Columbia University in Manhattan and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thay is in exile from Vietnam for his controversial challenges of the government and the traditional Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his eighties now, is a Zen Buddhist master, a peace activist and the founder of global Communities of Mindfulness. He has written scores of books and is known affectionately by followers as “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese).

In the first section of the journals many striking descriptions of Thay’s reminiscences of the secluded mountain monastery and retreat he built with his friends and comrades—monks and nuns—at the place they named Phuong Boi contrast with his descriptions of the stark winter beauty of an American northeastern winter. “Phuong” means “fragrant” and “boi” is a palm leaf on which the “teachings of the Buddha were written in ancient times.”

Anyone who has resonated with a “place of the heart” now lost to them will be powerfully moved by Thay’s descriptions of life at idyllic Phuong Boi and his sheer joy in the beauty he finds there. His realization that he cannot remain attached to this place is a lesson for us all. As he writes, quoting another monk, “Phuong Boi doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Phuong Boi.”

Whether it is in the starry sky in Vietnam or a winter storm in New Jersey, in any place he lives Thay finds solace and cosmic connection to nature. “I still respond to the call of the cosmos . . . with all my body, with every atom of my being, every vein, gland and nerve, I listen with awe and passion. That is how I feel when I hear the call of sky and earth.”

Among many other reflections Thay touches on the passing of youth and the permanency of truth. He shares several instances of his own growing realizations on the nature of reality and illusion. These moments contain the clarity of awakened understanding. They are illuminating and encourage us to continue in our practices knowing that we, too, can experience the conviction of Truth. “How can we continue to live if we were changeless? To live we must die every instant. We must perish in the storms that make life possible. I cannot force myself back into the shell I’ve broken out of.”

Thay returns to Vietnam in 1964 after his stint lecturing in the USA and although Phuong Boi has fallen into ruin in the tropical environment, he and his cadre of followers devise Buddhist practices in the impoverished rural village communities where they find themselves. These practices are the bedrock from which will evolve the Communities of Mindfulness that Thay will establish around the globe. Several years later Thay goes into permanent exile and settles in France where he builds Plum Village, a monastery and retreat center serving thousands of followers over many decades. There are several Communities of Mindfulness in the United States committed to serving the spiritual needs of all.

A satisfying read on many levels: a great introduction to Thay’s ideas, to the majesty of his poetic writing, and to understanding the inspiration for his spiritually based activism.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/fragrant-palm-leaves-journals-1962%E2%80%931966#sthash.xBbqmyCa.dpuf

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Voluptua: A Novel

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Author(s):
Release Date:
June 1, 2013
Publisher/Imprint:
Turn the Page Publishing
Pages:
247
Reviewed by:

“The writing is weak. Somewhere amid the tangle of words and images is the potential for a novel, but not in this fictional effort.”

Voluptua is a novel about an inner search. Nothing wrong with that. After all Virginia Woolf wrote “we (writers of fiction) should make use of whatever comes our way.”

Author of Voluptua Jason Martin is a lifelong academic, a professor of French and Comparative Literature, and for the past 20 years an involvement in Amazonian shamanism. Perhaps he would have been better served writing a memoir of his life’s journey, because this is not a novel but a thinly disguised effort at making fiction from personal experience.

The crafting is transparently obvious, even amateurish. As a novelist and memoirist I know the effort involved in creative undertakings. And many novels are exactly what Woolf asks for: fictionalized attempts at conveying life experience, but author Martin’s endeavor does not succeed as fiction.

Rather Voluptua is a critique of the pettiness, intrigue, and sexual adventures that often accompany academic life. In the latter sections the book becomes a series of lectures on Amazonian shamanism served up in digestible bites to the 29-year-old protagonist, Ellen, as she transitions from “the prison” of academia to the mind-blowing “freedom” of inner exploration using a powerful natural hallucinogen, the ayahuasca brew.

Ellen travels to Iquitos, Peru, to find the “right” shaman to guide her before she begins experimenting with this psychedelic inducing drink brewed from various Amazonian native plant infusions. But in first half of the novel we are subjected to Ellen’s sexual experimentation with other professors, seedy Cuban gigolos, even an Indonesian janitor. Later in the book under the influence of ayahuasca she has phantasmagoric sex with four identical men.

Evocation of the Amazonian jungle setting likewise does not pass muster—not if you have read powerful novels of that locale such as Ann Patchett’s recently published State of Wonder set in Manaus, Brazil with its famous oddity, a full blown European opera house built at the juncture of the Negro and Solimões rivers in the Amazon basin. This landscape comes to fictionalized life with every visit to the opera house, every turn of the river, and every insect filled encounter of her protagonist’s journey. Martin’s Iquitos remains flat on the page, a flimsy film set of cardboard cut outs.

One can sum up Voluptua thus: A young academic teaches French Literature at a small liberal arts college among malicious, sensationalist peers who indulge in sexual machinations. She has dreams of traveling to Peru to try something she has recently learned about: a natural psychedelic concoction: ayahuasca.

She pursues the hallucinogen to unleash her “better” self but hesitates when she knows that ingesting ayahuasca involves much vomiting (“purging.”) Eventually she undertakes both the physical and metaphysical journeys and throws up—a lot.

Jason Martin has done neither himself nor the city of Iquitos and Amazonian shamanism a favor in publishing this book. The writing is weak. Somewhere amid the tangle of words and images is the potential for a novel, but not in this fictional effort.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/voluptua-novel#sthash.2mk80FLP.boBxGdYP.dpuf

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In the psychology of personality if we use a model such as the Enneagram, we are helped to face our emotional avoidances. This is a huge step towards cultivating psychological wellbeing. If you are coping with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse or other family members, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.

Previously I highlighted three avoidances, failure, pain, and vulnerability. Let’s examine three other common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as internalized anger, not anger that devolves on others but anger at oneself for not being perfect and so allowing the situation one is facing to have manifested in the first place. Those who avoid this kind of anger see themselves as moral standard-bearers and they see the potential for perfection in the world. Yet they can never make the world as perfect as they perceive it could be. The panacea for internalized anger is to try to bring an ever-expanding awareness that the way things are is perfect in itself. To see the “imperfections” caused by stress as perfection inherent in the way things are.

Another avoidance is feeling ordinary, living in a mundane. The cause of stress is processed as a feeling that you are special. Stressful situations are to be avoided and they pull you into a messy emotional morass where you do not belong. You are ill because you thought of yourself as too special to take healthy precautions, those routines are for others. Your extended family is in turmoil because no-one realizes your uniqueness and they blame you for relationships not running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he does not appreciate your creativity, and anyway (s)he should never have asked you to do those mundane tasks in the first place. The panacea for those avoiding ordinariness is to cultivate compassion and empathy and see the basic goodness of all life in every moment lived—whatever that may be.

A third avoidance is not to form connections on an emotional level. You overvalue privacy and independence and draw back from personal conflicts. Engaging in stressful situations drains you and you guard your time and energy. You try not to let stressful situations arise by continually signaling your unwillingness to engage. You can easily withdraw into the safety of your mind, pull up the drawbridge of communication and interaction and literally not be present, even if you are in the same room. The panacea for those who avoid interacting on an emotional level, however low key, is be present in a calm, balanced and non-judgmental way that can be helpful to everyone in charged situations. If others feel your presence and attention they will accept and appreciate your rational perspective.

A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Anger, or Dear Ordinariness, or Dear Emotional Connectedness. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological wellbeing.

In my next blog I’ll look at the final three common personality avoidances.

You can read more on the avoidance and other aspects of the psychology of personality in my books Know Your Parenting Personality and The Enneagram Intelligences. More information at http://www.janetlevine.com

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Winter Solstice 2012

 

Breathe, relax, center and smile. Let things come and go, and just let be. It’s not about trying not to think but about letting things come and go. Learning to relax, just be,center, and naturally meditate is a well known spiritual secret that people ought to be able to learn and integrate into life. Like mental flossing, it keeps one open and free, calm and clear.

–Lama Surya Das, Dzogchen Center, Austin, Texas

 

Season’s Greetings, I decided this year instead of a rundown of where I have been and whom I was with, and what I saw and what I didn’t see. As well as what happened to me and what didn’t happen, I’ll share two useful “message” out of the hundreds that come my way each year. The first is from one of my Buddhist meditation teachers, Lama Surya Das. How often this year I have heard these words in my head “breathe, relax, center and smile.” It is such a powerful mantra, and so useful as a centering or attention practice.     

The other (below) came my way from another teacher, Lawrence Hillman, who quotes the Apple visionary, Steve Jobs (who literally changed our world). I love Jobs’ imagery of connecting the dots of our lifelines.

My heartfelt wishes to you and yours for a healthy and fulfilling 2013. May we all “connect the dots” awaiting us and learn a little more about where we are going.

Steve Jobs once said,  “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

At this threshold moment in history, I wish to remind you that nobody can predict what will come in the future and that if you trust that part of you that knows this, you will connect the dots in due time.

–Lawrence Hillman

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Several times a year, with permission, I use this blog space to share student responses to what they are learning in my classroom. This is the response of a high school senior to an introduction to meditation practice.

1. The Universal Breath

The diamond mind of sharp, concentrated focus and the profound physical state of relaxation create a terrifyingly brilliant experience. Meditation, deeply and intricately connected to Eastern philosophical cultures, allows an individual to follow one’s own breath to find an inner state of harmony and to develop an awareness of one’s basic goodness. Compassion for one’s self and others is crucial in a harmonious society.  Through meditation, guided by the breath, one can leave the chaos and distractions of the external world for inner tranquility.  Few things are universal. However, the gentle inhale and exhale of breath, bringing oxygen to the bloodstream and thus enabling life is a common, shared experience throughout the human species.  In accordance with Eastern teachings, inner goodness—or the innate and natural tendency toward good—exists within every person, just like the breath.  With attention to the breath, one can journey to find ones inner goodness and gain the experiential knowledge that comes from meditating.

2. Confusion or Liberation

Many teachings of philosophy incorporate a metaphor indicative of the closed minded nature of the majority of human beings, whether it is the metaphor of the cave in Plato’s The Republic—where all the people watching the shadows on the walls of the cave are in utter disbelief of the world outside and shun the man who has seen beyond—or, as depicted in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, the people who cannot look within themselves to find their own inner goodness and instead live in fear of themselves and the world around them.  Our consciousness manifests within the universe in two distinctive states: confusion or liberation.  Liberation is the state of enlightenment and meditation is the means by which one can access such a state of internal clarity, peace, and harmony.  As outlined in Shambhala, basic goodness is the innate good of “being alive” regardless of more material things such as “accomplishments or fulfilling our desires.” To acknowledge basic goodness is to recognize our “actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good.” Through meditation, one can become awake, acknowledge the superficiality of society while maintaining an unshakable understanding of true, basic goodness. Meditation has given me a refuge as I have seen a glimpse of the universe within myself.

3. The Essence of Now-ness

A spiritual warrior is “one who is brave” and such bravery must manifest in “the tradition of fearlessness”; “ultimately…the definition of bravery [is] not being afraid of yourself.” I often feel disconnected and almost alienated from the world around me when my mind and body are pulled in different directions and even divisions of my mind—my heart, my soul, my conscious attention, my focus, etc—are at odds with one another.  In a chaotic world, it is easy to fall victim to compelling and yet opposing forces.  If one allows this to happen, the luxury of introspection is lost, as is the awareness of basic goodness. As “synchronizing mind and body is looking and seeing directly beyond language”, I find meditation weds my deepest, most profound inner conflict: how to understand science and religion in relation to one another.  The answer, lies within the gentle, peaceful harmony that is buried within each of our chests and can be traced to the gentle rise and fall of the chest with each deep inhale and each beautiful exhale.

Poet Li-Young Lee speaks about the power of the breath and how, when one pays attention to it and trains oneself to go beyond the shallow, superficial few seconds we have usually allot each breath, one can change their perspective.  With deep breath comes deep thought.  Reality transforms as we ground ourselves to be present in each moment as our lungs fill to their full capacity.  Meditation is a perpetual state of introspective focus, the union of body and mind, and comes to find peace within reality.  To be afraid of nothing is to be “experiencing that very moment of your state of mind, which is the essence of ‘now-ness’.”

4. Meditation—Access to Clarity and Alleviation of Fear

Throughout our guided meditations, I have become deeply invested in the experiential aspects of learning.  My personal experiences have been profound. In the first meditation, I focused intently on the breath.  I felt my lungs open as my posture improved, my shoulders rolled back and my head aligned with my spine. As breath pushed my diaphragm out, and my focused dropped from the tension of worldly thoughts, I felt the bright warmth of light radiate within my chest cavity.  To articulate my experience in the most juvenile of manners, I felt a tingle, an excitement that radiated from my concentration and my breath that I experienced as a child when waiting for Santa Claus to come, with his mystical reindeer and brightly wrapped presents, on Christmas Eve.  In coming out of the first mediation, I found it curious to equate the two experiences, but as I internalized the innate sensation, I realized that I found hope, pure joy, or, ultimately, unadulterated goodness through meditation.  As a child, this sensation is easily accessible, as we are not so grounded in the superficial realities we engage in later.  However, as we grow up, we fall into our roles in society, becoming fearful of the back corners of our minds.  Meditation is our access to clarity and alleviation of fear.

My second experience meditating came to me when I heard our teacher say, “Good, the energy in the room is much better now” as everyone’s focus had dropped from their heads to their bodies.  In a focused trance  I had forgotten those around me.  As I heard the vibrations of her voice, reminding me of their presence, I shifted my focus to the energies in the room.  Immediately, from the blank, dark of my mind, a spiraling gold light materialized, twisting towards me.  Shocked, I abandoned the image and dropped down to the breath once again.

Back in class, we spoke about transformational figures and monks who had devoted their entire lives to meditation.; we spoke of how those individuals have an incredible presence and that their goodness emanates from them at all times.  On some level, I believe that everyone has an energy that radiates from within.  Without the clutter of language and the trivialities of words exchanged, we can sense others’ presences as I intensely experienced in my meditation. Through meditation, we can find the true, good energy within ourselves and channel it.  The Dalai Lama responded in the movie “Kundun” when asked if he was the Lord Buddha, “I believe I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”  In this manner, each person has unknown, universal goodness within themselves that can be reflected in the eyes of others.

5. Harmony Between Mind and Body

In abandoning fear, in diving within myself, in finding harmony between body and mind, I have unearthed a compassion for those around me, as well as for myself. Fear inhibits our potential beyond belief and above my desk, I have the quote “Be fearless: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” as a constant reminder that so often, the bars of our cages—cages that define our social and cultural experiences in life—are fashioned from our own thoughts of fear and apprehension.  To release oneself from such negativity is to sit gently on the earth and allow the soul to reunite with the sky, to find harmony between body and mind is to access basic goodness.  To meditate is to find “drala”: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that [go] beyond any dualism.” Meditation allows me to understand my ego and the societal cultivation of empty materialism so as to align myself with the metaphysical or the universal spirit of goodness.  Through meditation, I see myself, and those around me in relation to the earth and the sky.

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It has been an interesting couple of weeks. I have been on holiday with my son, my niece (his cousin), her husband and their two baby girls, aged 4 years and 17 months. We have been visited by my ex (my son’s father) and by my son’s friend. That makes three generations under one roof and provides a petri dish for examining family dynamics. At times I have found that I was listening attentively to a four-year old as she recited the story of “Cinderella” and then I created and play-acted with her our own post-modern ending after the ending, while also playing a game with the baby of repetitive calling of our names to one another, listening to my niece’s logistical plans for the day, and my son’s account of the baseball game the previous night. I observed how space opened in me to be attentive and accommodate the various interactions. This is situational dynamics that I am sure many of you recognize. I enjoyed the shift of energy and the non-stop activity from six am until somewhere around eleven pm.
(more…)

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