A seat at the table

When I was a Senior in high school at a fancy boarding school in Connecticut, the famous New Republic editor, writer and LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan came to speak. I was thrilled that I was invited to have dinner with him along with 2-3 other students.

One of the other students who was invited to dinner was our Student Body President. He was a star wrestler and an all around good guy. Larry and I were seated on either side of Sullivan. Across the table, if I recall, was the President of the Gay Straight Alliance, Atlanta. She was a theater tech geek with short hair who wore a lot of black, big ear piercings and combat boots. She was often mistaken for a boy and was in an openly gay relationship.

I had to recall today if Atlanta was even there at the table on that night,16 years ago. What I do remember clearly is that I felt like I had a right to be there, and to sit by Sullivan’s side. I was an outspoken, activisty student and was a casual board member of the GSA but really spent my extracurricular hours focusing on Amnesty International and a Human Rights Watch chapter I had started. I was, at the time, bi-curious but certainly not openly so.

But more importantly for this blogpost and this realization today, I was cisgender and relatively feminine in appearance. I conformed (more than Atlanta anyway) to centerlands conceptions of beauty and social charm.

As this moment rose to the surface of my memory today, I realized that that was why I was seated next to Sullivan. In truth, I probably seated myself there. I felt completely entitled to my place next to a celebrity LGBT activist and writer like Sullivan. Indeed, that was how deeply and blindly I had embraced my privilege and then appropriated the work of our school’s GSA, thinking I was the better spokesperson.

Remembering all of this today in quick flashes over lunch — and drafting this post relatively hurriedly afterwards — reminded me of Katie Loncke’s post over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship about being invited to attend a Buddhist Summit at the White House and going to DC. And then not entering the building.

My first thought when I saw her post was that clearly she should have gone in. But reflecting now on my own choice to take that seat next to Andrew Sullivan and represent the GSA sheds light for me on the nimble dance that Buddhist meditation practice has trained me to do.

Faced with the same opportunity today, I would do as Katie did outside the White House and notice the strong excitement and urge to take that seat next to Sullivan — and then get curious about where it was coming from and see the hand of ego in it.

I would see the urge to prove myself worthy as a young woman of color who wasn’t in the popular girls’ clique, and the allure of the prestige associated with being seated next to an intellectual superstar. And I would ask myself what good I would honestly be contributing by sitting there — not in simplistic terms but in far looking, nuanced ones.

And finally, I’d pull the chair out for Atlanta next to our guest of honor, give her a wink and take a seat across the table.


Beware all enterprises that require new clothes: Part 2

A recent post on Lululemon’s blog extols Ayn Rand and encourages Lululemon-wearing yogis (but mostly yoginis) to read her books for inspiration on how to “elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness” (the company’s motto).

I have a hard time understanding the connection between accumulating expensive yoga clothes and rising to greatness, especially in elevating a personal yoga practice, which is multi-limbed. But perhaps that’s the fundamental conceit Lulu has lost sight of.

I am reminded here of American Yogi Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “Beware all enterprises that require new clothes, and not the wearer of new clothes,” which gave me occasion to rant about Lulu before.

One of the yamas  (internal restraints) within the eight limbs of yoga articulated by the sage Patanjali is aparigraha or non-grasping/greedlessness.  And I’ve found it useful to activate this yama in my life by asking myself that simple question when I’m contemplating something I want or “need” to acquire: Is it necessary?

Specifically in the case of the Lululemon tank I thought for a long time about buying: Is it necessary to elevate my practice –  my whole practice, including the cultivation of the yamas in addition to postures?  The answer was no, because the blessing of yoga practice is in its ability to fashion a new wearer of clothes, not the new clothes.

“By “the body,” these ancient traditions are not referring to the body in relation to the world: large, small, healthy, beautiful, round — but rather to the sense of the body as a frame of reference.” – Michael Stone, Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind  (emphasis mine)

My attachment to the tank was an obstacle to cultivating this sense of the body that is actually the opposite of self-image.  Buying it would have cultivated attachment and grasping.  Clearly, it was not necessary.

So instead, I bought two tanks from American Apparel at a fraction of the cost that serve me very well and don’t inspire the same clinging.

Back to Ayn Rand – a commenter on the Lululemon blog noted “Ayn Rand wore a huge gold dollar sign brooch and was known for saying: “Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue.” A wonderful slogan for a multimillion-dollar corporation, perhaps.”

There is a clearly discernible alignment between Rand’s values and Lululemon’s hinged on self-reliance and individual motivation.  But it’s a limited view that reflects The Yoga Bubble and is most firmly rooted, in this case, with striving, accumulation, and self-image.

I do recommend reading Atlas Shrugged.  But I also recommend balancing it out with two of Barbara Ehrenreich’s books – Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided to help cultivate understanding, perspective, and compassion – and aparigraha.