Thursday, December 12, 2019

Guard Your Sensory Doors

Today the yoga teacher began by saying that it is through the sensory doors that we get in touch with the world. But during today’s yoga, we wanted to guard the sensory doors intentionally.

This is the reason she doesn’t use music in her teaching, because she wants us to focus on yoga.

During the whole day, I have been thinking if I have guarded my sensory doors mindfully.

We live in a world of information overload. I do not subscribe to printed newspapers. But every day I look at the New York Times, Politico, Huff Post, World Journal (in Chinese) and sometimes South China Morning Post.

In addition, I watch videos from Hong Kong and Taiwan. During the past six months, I have been following the Hong Kong protests and sometimes spent hours watching commentaries by different KOLs (key opinion leaders). Watching the news often makes me upset, sad, and angry.

I have told my students many times about the need to protect our brains and guard our time. In Crazy Busy, Dr. Edward Hallowell says that many of us are suffering from ADT (Attention Deficit Trait). ADT are people who have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time. As a psychiatrist who has diagnosed and treated thousands of people with ADD, he is seeing more and more people suffering from ADT.

Our culture and modern life create the environment for developing ADT. We watch TV, eat dinner, check our phone, and talk to our children at the SAME TIME during dinner.

We boast we can multitask, but this may affect our brain’s function. Dr. Hallowell writes, “as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amount of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.”*

After I talked about Dr. Hallowell’s research in a class, a student canceled several of her social media accounts and said she needed to wean herself from spending so much time checking messages.

I did not have her problems until two weeks ago. My friends were amazed when I told them that I did not have a smartphone till two years ago. I had only a flip phone. Since I sat in front of my computer all the time, I didn’t need a smartphone to check and respond to emails. I also did not want to be connected 24/7.

I finally decided to change to a smartphone because I found a phone plan that was even cheaper than my flip phone plan. I went to and bought the cheapest one (on sale for $69).

I was not addicted to my phone and did not carry it around every day. Sometimes I purposely left it at home, so that I would not be connected all the time. The cheap phone worked for me, except it could not take beautiful photos as iPhones or Samsung phones could.

During the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to buy a nicer phone because I need to take a few videos for a project.

So, I bought a top-of-the-line Samsung phone that came out this year. And my problems began!

The screen is so nice and the images so sharp. They appeal to the eyes.

I have always wondered why my friends can respond to Facebook posts so fast. Now I know. My Facebook app shows the number of likes, comments, etc. I have received. It is so tempting to check what my friends have said.

The Outlook app and the Google mail app show the number of new messages. The YouTube app shows the number of new videos I have subscribed to. The apps in my old phone would not show these numbers.

Suddenly, I find myself checking my beautiful phone all day—a practice I had proudly avoided until two weeks ago.

As I am typing this, my phone sits right next to the laptop, smiling at me.

How can I ever do or write something seriously if I am checking my phone all day? I will be busy responding to emails, checking Facebook likes, and looking at how many steps I have taken today through another app.

Guard your sensory doors should be my inner mantra from now on. Dr. Hallowell wrote CrazyBusy after he has written a very popular article, “Why Smart People Underperform” in Harvard Business Review. At my age, I am not so concerned about underperform or overperform. But I need to protect my brain and live a fuller life. Not becoming a slave of a small device that I am attached or addicted to.

In this age when there are so many external demands, close or limit some of the sensory doors may bring sanctity or inner peace. At least a healthier brain, I hope.

p.s. I wrote this in 49 mins, including checking Dr. Hallowell’s article. I could have done it faster if I didn’t check the Facebook likes!

*Edward Hallowell, “Why Smart People Underperform,” Harvard Business Review, January 2005, 57.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Doing Yoga in Hard Times

Inspired by two best friends who did a fasting retreat to take care of their health, I went back to yoga after a long hiatus. I decided to tune up my body before I return to Atlanta to teach at Candler School of Theology in January.

The small yoga studio can accommodate 8-10 people. Yesterday’s class was quite full with 8 people. The teacher Joy (not her real name) was a middle-aged woman. 

A woman in her forties came in a few minutes before the class and had tears in her eyes. Another woman in the class apparently knew her and began talking to her. The crying woman then told the class that she was sad because she has a family member who is sick. 

On my! I didn’t come to yoga to hear family tragedies….I came here to practice.

As she apologized for her crying, one woman said, “Crying is cleansing. There’s no need to be ashamed.”

Some of the women in the group clearly knew each other and offered support.

We began by practicing different breathing exercises: three-part yoga breath, belly breathing, and breathing in through the left nostril and breathing out through the other side, etc.

This was to warm up and after 10-15 minutes, the body felt quite warm as the internal organs were massaged. You massage the organs by expanding and contracting the diaphragm.

As we continued to do different yoga poses, the teacher sometimes became chatty and there were friendly responses from the room.

I HATE to listen to banter in yoga, good-natured or otherwise. I came here to relax.

I realized others might have come to seek community, especially during the holidays, with so much to do and so much pressure.

Joy turned out to be a very good teacher. She offered some of the best comments on the pelvis I have ever heard.

While teaching one pose, she said: “Move your pelvis freely. Turn it and try to put in at a different angle.”

Then she said, women were not allowed to move our pelvises freely. Patriarchy wants to control our pelvises. Wow, so true!

Later, when we were doing the Warrior I pose, she told us to square our pelvis, so that the navel would face the wall.

She said our pelvis needs to be strong and pliable—strong so that we can stand up and pliable so that a baby can come out from the birth canal.

Then as if catching herself, she said not every woman is a mother, but the belly is the seat of creativity. We may not give birth to babies, but we can give births to new things. We can all be creative in our lives.

As we were doing the baby pose, Joy asked us to relax all parts of the body. She said much of unresolved emotions are stored in the pelvis (in addition to other areas of the body). Contemplative exercises allow us to get in touch with the still body, beneath the thinking and feeling bodies, so that we can get in touch with these unresolved emotions.

This was such a good reminder for me, a teacher of spirituality.

Joy told the group to listen to our bodies. Listen to what the body was telling you today. We could modify the poses to accommodate our needs.

The body is not supposed to suffer because of doing yoga. Instead, yoga is to ease suffering in the future.

After doing yoga for an hour and 15 minutes, I felt my body was more relaxed and my joints more flexible.

As we concluded the practice, Joy asked us to dedicate the practice to ourselves or to someone else. I dedicated it to my brother. Joy said the usual saying: “May all beings be protected. May all beings be free of suffering…..”

When we said namaste, I was grateful to the company of yogis who practiced with me.

The woman who cried at the beginning stayed behind and apologized to Joy for crying and disturbing the class.

I walked up to her and consoled her, “I met you for the first time. But when you shared your story, I felt honored to be invited to be part of your community. There are times in our lives that we need even strangers for support…”

Then out of the blue, I began telling her that I have a brother who is going to have surgery for a brain tumor the following week. . .and started crying.

She embraced me and tried to offer some kind words.

As I walked back home, I thought what a wonderful yoga class I had. My feelings for the crying woman has softened during the short span of the class.

Doing yoga together is to create community—whether we chat during the class or not. The silent assembled bodies, the rhythm of the movements, and the commitment to support each other in our practice are gestures of building community.

The holidays are hard times. People may not have loved ones to share the holidays with. People may hate the big family dinners, for they have little in common with their relatives and don’t know what to say to them. People may have loved ones who have died and can’t share the joy of the season. 

Do something during the hard times. We can choose to do something to ease suffering in the future. I am glad that I went to yoga that morning.

Traci C. West’s Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality

More than ten years ago, Traci West, other religious scholars, and I participated in a group to discuss the intersection of postcolonialism, womanism, and queer studies. I am glad to see that West includes all these perspectives in her book Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence. West has written about and fought against violence against African American women for a long time. Based on her encounters with activists and scholars in Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa, West broadens the conversation in her newest book to include Africana wisdom on ending anti-black racism and gender-based violence.

The book recounts West’s visit to Cape Coast and Elmina in Ghana, where slaves were kept before they were loaded as human cargo onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The slave trade was an integral part of European colonial expansion, and anti-black racism played a key role in it. Comparable to what Paul Gilroy has done in The Black Atlantic, West attempts to suture broken memories of Africans separated by oceans. Her account of Africana activism and resistance in four countries represents a countermemory to the global myths of progress and modernity, and a subversive description of neoliberal capitalism, which targets and sacrifices black female bodies. It documents how Africana activists and scholars have fought against colonial legacy, anti-black racism, and heteropatriarchy across the continents.

Postcolonial scholars have been concerned about representation of the Other in knowledge production. In the Introduction, West discusses her decolonizing method, which includes interweaving narratives with theoretical analyses, paying attention to reason and emotions, and being open to uncertainties and messiness. What impresses me most is her refusal to produce “objective” ethnographic data of the countries she has visited. She insists on keeping the border between the researcher and native informant fluid by presenting portraits of “intercultural dynamics in motion” (20). West  tells us her reactions on visiting the Candomblé temple in Salvador, Brazil, her uneasiness about her host’s suspicion of her intention, and her discomfort in gazing at black male prisoners. Her account shifts back and forth between gender violence in the US and foreign contexts. This juxtaposition prevents her readers from objectifying other peoples and demonizing their cultures as if gender-based violence is uncommon in the US.
Her decolonizing method requires utmost honesty and self-reflexivity. West has devoted her professional career to the study of gender-based violence and especially intimate violence. This is a topic that not many have chosen to focus on, because it is hard and emotionally taxing. West does not want to objectify the victim-survivors or invite a kind of voyeurism into their suffering. Yet her narratives successfully portray the gravity of violence, and its cost to the human body and soul. West admits that she has unresolved questions and reveals her “vulnerabilities that include uncertainties, hopes, blunders, awakenings, and commitments” (17). In those poignant moments when West caught herself reflecting on her cultural biases and class and heterosexual privileges, she invites her readers to unlearn their habituated ways of being and be self-reflective in entering another cultural world. The book is beautifully written. For example, West narrates the affective experience she had while she sang “We glorify your name” in a ritual of remembrance, rode in a bus with common people in Brazil, and dipped her toes in the cold ocean after a long day of listening. The book engages not only the readers’ intellect, but also elicits emotional resonance.

In the American individualistic, consumerist culture, spirituality has often been described in private, personal, and transcendental terms. In contrast, West grounds her discussion of defiant spirituality in activism, especially in combating violence against black LGBTQI persons in South Africa. This defiant spirituality is communal, embodied, antiracial, interreligious, and practice-based. It is a spirituality that “accentuate[s] the human-life enhancing and connectivity” (194) against death-dealing forces that condone violence against black women. It involves challenging existing cultural myths and Christian misogyny and homophobia, crossing identity borders, organizing collective action, and forming alliances. Defiance spirituality is not timid or meek but involves faith-based confrontation of white racist realities and of the hypocrisy of faith communities when religious rhetoric does not match action. Using the ritual of remembrance at the Cape Town Free Gender group as an example, West shows the importance of creating space to grieve and to remember.

The conclusion has a thought-provoking title “Hope as a Process.” Hope is often described as a state: whether you are hopeful or hopeless. Hope in Christianity is associated with time—the final eschaton. “Hope as a process” signals contingency without secure promise, directionality without assured outcome. For West, this hope is found not only in those nurtured by religious symbols and faith, but also in secular activists working for justice. She argues that “defiant Africana spirituality and Africana hope are interdependent” (227). This is because “Africana spirituality births Africana hope for solidarity in ending gender violence, which in turn fosters a solidarity within which hope can be found” (227). Africana defiant spirituality involves antiracist commitments, countercultural courage, and forging alliance within the politics of intercultural dynamics. West concludes that learning defiantly with Africana activist leaders from diverse settings has given rise to hope. She describes this learning metaphorically as a blackening process, which repudiates the denigration of blackness by white Christianity and colonialist thought. I want to add that this blackening process also involves seeing the complexity and contradiction in any given situation. It chastises us not to find an easy solution by resorting to naïve hopefulness or romanticized hope. It has the humility to admit as Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know as also I am known.” (I Cor. 13:12, KJV).

As I was reading this book in the past months, the news of the Hong Kong protests occupied my mind as I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I pondered about the relation between civil disobedience and defiant spirituality. During her short visits to each of the three countries, West talked to leaders, participated in meetings, and visited sacred and historical sites. She did not have a chance to observe mass protests and describe defiant spirituality manifested in the “assembled bodies” (Judith Butler) of mass demonstration. In her examples of changing the marital rape laws in Ghana, combating sex-trafficking in Brazil, and challenging discrimination against LGBTQI persons in South Africa, I wonder why kinds of mass action was needed. The protests in Hong Kong were largely peaceful in the beginning, but with increased police brutality, some of the protesters have turned radical and violent. I have been thinking about the limits of defiance. In The Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil, Candice Delmas says we do not only have the duty to obey the laws, but the duty to justice, and “the duty of justice demands resisting injustice, bettering institutions, and frustrating wrongs, and it supports principled disobedience in the process. Given our less-than-ideal polities, obeying the law is neither the sole, nor necessarily the most important, of our political obligations” (106) During the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, protesters used different strategies, some were violent. I need to think more about the ethics of social actions and the principles of non-violence to effect social changes.

*This blog is based on a paper presented at a panel to review the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 24, 2019 at San Diego, CA.