Saturday, October 10, 2009

Crashed by Robin Wasserman

Crashed by Robin Wasserman is a sequel to Skinned, a novel I have never read. I picked up the second book unaware that it is a sequel and, by the time I realized I was reading a sequel, I was already so caught up in the story that I didn’t care. In fact, after a few chapters, I was tempted to stop reading the second book, go find the first, and read it before going on. However, it was easier to just keep reading Crashed; and that is what I chose to do. At times, I thought it was a bit melodramatic but, ultimately, the roller-coaster plot line, complete with turns and shifts, and I closed the book content. This is the second of what will be a trilogy and Wasserman has created a surprisingly good cyber-punk science-fiction story, complete with the dystopian horror deeply rooted in our contemporary society. In other words, where we are now echoes loudly throughout where this story imagines we will be. Everything from social networks to surgical enhancements to recreational narcotic use has become par for the course in a world where death is not necessarily the end. Most interesting for me was the paradox of Lia Kahn’s existential awareness or lack thereof. Lia thinks in oxymoronic terms of contradicting realities. She was dead; she now lives. She cares; she doesn’t care. She wants to face the truth; she wants to deny the truth. Everything and nothing, she tries to balance it all and fails . . . and succeeds. There is a depth to this novel that lends itself to discussion, to debate. It is the type of novel that, had I read it as a teenager, would have made me want to read it again and again. It doesn’t provide easy answers. Is plastic surgery a boon or bane? If we can create selves on the internet why can’t we continue to live after we die in some cybernetic form? And if this really is the logical conclusion to our present state of being, are we prepared to make the necessary changes to avoid the inevitable? The book invites the reader to think, to question, and, above all else, to feel. And, although a bit melodramatic at times, the novel itself is satisfying.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Imagination First by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon

Imagination First: How to Unlock the Power of Possibility by Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon is meant to fill a gap that is not often addressed. With so many books on creativity and such, where are the books on imagination itself, those odd moments of inspiration or epiphany that excite a person to be creative? In the introduction they explain it using a formula: Imagination --> Creativity (imagination applied) --> Innovation (novel creativity) Hence, the title—imagination precedes everything that follows. And what follows the introduction is a collection of short essays with concepts that reinforce the different ways of inviting imagination to stir, to awaken, to simply be. Although the chapters are called “practices,” there is little practical application in this book. If the reader is hoping to have exercises to do at the end of each suggestion, there will be disappointment. However, it shouldn’t take much for an imaginative reader to find ways to apply some, if not many, of the precepts the authors are suggesting. The book is overflowing with resources, quotes, and if one idea mentioned is inspiring, the reader is easily able to explore it further by seeking out the resources. There are a few dropped balls on the part of the authors. (For instance, when they recommend Oblique Strategies but say that these cards are out-of-print and very expensive to obtain, I learned that the surviving creator has made a free downloadable version which surprised me mostly because the authors seemed unaware of something I found quite easily.) I can’t say whether this book is very good or not because I am, by nature, an “idea person.” I have a lot of ideas for stories, for poems, even for blog posts. I also have ideas for decorating, for drawing, for collage, for calligraphy, for more. I simply don’t have the time and/or energy to fulfill all of my ideas. But I like to think about different things and this book sparked some things in me and made me smile. I had to put it down on more than one occasion because my mind was racing with yet another “aha” moment. If I were less inclined to being an imaginative person by nature, I wonder if I would have found this book as much fun to read. I would like to think so. ~*~ A capacity for imagination cannot be outsourced. It is our greatest domestic renewable resource. (26) [M]odern life is almost completely free of stillness. (43) Quoting Bartlett Sher “Chekhov . . .exists more off the page than on.” (104) Naming is a simple thing but has great power. (116) Quoting V S Ramachandran “It is almost as though we are all hallucinating all the time . . . and what we call object perception merely involved selecting the one hallucination that matches the current sensory input, however fragmentary. Vision, in short, is controlled hallucination.” (117) Learning to discover honors the spirit of a quest; learning to repeat a result does not. (135) The problem is that too much of formal education—for adults and children alike—is run like a flight simulator, where a premium is placed on replication of a result rather than discovery of a role. Replication may be more enable to measurement, but discover, alas, is better preparation for how to be. The difference is the difference between playback and play, between copying and creating. (136) In our desperate ego-coddling efforts to fend off failure and inch toward power, we do two costly things: First, we hug the status quo tight, because that is the rational way to avoid the cognitive dissonance of being possible wrong or a fool or a failure. Second, we forget what children know intuitively, which is that there’s a useful way to fail and a wasteful way. The wasteful was to fail is to deny it or hide it. . . . The useful way is to treat failing like a learnable skill—something that, with effort and reflection, we can get better at until one day we can reach the point of mastery. (189)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Commit to Sit Week One

The Commit to Sit article is available online and as a pdf download. Day One I wrote my three morning pages and then did the AM Yoga with Rodney Yee standing practice before settling down to do the morning meditation. I found a meditation mp3 that is perfect for my needs (given that I cannot find my end chime cd).

It always surprises me how the mind refuses to settle down. I could not even begin to list the many thoughts, images, and ideas that popped up as I tried to focus on my breath. As I became aware, each time, I simply returned to the breath, as the article suggests.

In the evening, I timed the meditation poorly. This was partly because of Rob’s schedule, and I may have to do the evening meditation in the late afternoon to avoid what happened the first day. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me. I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t done any yoga beforehand or if it had something to do with having eaten dinner before sitting down to meditate, something I know I shouldn’t do but did anyway. (It is commonly taught by meditation teachers that it is best to meditate on an empty stomach or two hours after one has eaten. I had eaten a complete meal merely 30 minutes before I sat down to meditate.) So that was my day one experience. Flawed but still lovely.

Day Two Yesterday, I used my zafu (meditation pillow) and sat in a simple cross-legged position. Because I was so very uncomfortable towards the end and even after the meditation, I decided to try the morning practice without the zafu. There was no difference and, by the time I had completed the 20 minutes, my legs were both asleep. I don’t know how to change this. The issue was less pronounced on day one because I was able to do my complete yoga practice. However, I had problems while trying the twisting practice on the same dvd I had used on Day One. In fact, after nearly falling out of a pose twice, I then had leg cramps in my quadriceps while doing three-legged downward dog. When Yee had us return to three-legged downward dog and my muscle once again tried to contract into a cramp, I gave up on the yoga altogether and moved to sit down.

As before, my mind juggled and jumped all over. And when the final bell toned, marking the end of the practice, and I moved to stand, the pain was cringing. I don’t feel the discomfort while I am meditating. I don’t feel the tingling numbness of my limbs falling asleep. But when I go to move it is so immediate as to make me gasp. Because the vertigo was particularly challenging yesterday, I exhausted myself with maintaining my balance. As a result, by the time I should have been sitting for the evening practice, I was collapsed on the couch, fighting nausea. I ended up falling asleep for a few minutes (no more than fifteen) and woke up with some numbness in my head, neck, and left leg. I hate it when that happens. So I didn’t fulfill the commitment today but there is always tomorrow.

Day Three I used the zafu this morning but decided to sit in cobbler’s pose. This was a mistake. It did not afford me the stability I needed and I was soon feeling as though I were sitting in the teacup ride at Disney World. Not fun. I opened my eyes to help me stabilize myself. Now, according the article, I’m supposed to keep my eyes open with a soft gaze and the reason I haven’t been doing that is because the dogs, if they see my eyes are open, think I should be petting them. And why not? After all, I am sitting there at their level and if I am there, eye-to-eye with them, then I should and even must pet them. But this morning, Snowdoll was curled up in the guest room and Romanov was lying calmly beside me so I figured I would be safe in opening my eyes and keeping my gaze soft while still able to use my vision as an aide to my sense of stability.

Well, it would appear that we had a bug come in out of the cold last night and it was crawling its gradual way toward my body’s warmth. I am so afraid of insects that I become paralyzed, frozen in fear, whenever one comes too near me. You can imagine how I was feeling as this creature moved towards me. I couldn’t decide if I should close my eyes or keep them open but either way I was no longer meditating. And then another one appeared. ARGH! It’s an infestation. (Because, yes, in my world two bugs would be an infestation worthy of my packing up and relocating to another room or even another domicile. I am well and truly that afraid of these things.)

Miraculously, I suffered through the bug attack. As it turns out, they were not as interested in me as I had originally thought or perhaps they didn’t pick up on my fear and decide they could win. Either way, they turned about and headed away. Of course now I’m afraid to find out where they went and am not sure what we can do about it if we do figure it out but Rob will soon know about the dire situation and need to do something about it.

In the meantime . . . back to my meditation. Sitting on the zafu in cobbler’s pose was not a good idea. Although my legs did not completely fall asleep, as they had the previous times, I had to move my legs into a cross-legged pose. Oh well. I’ll try hero’s pose later today, during the evening practice. In the evening, I sat in hero’s pose on the zafu, turned on some meditation music, and completed the practice. I actually lost track of time and probably sat longer than 20 minutes. When I stood up, there was only a slight stiffness. Nothing as painful or hard to move through as when I tried to sit cross-legged or even in cobbler’s pose. So now I know—hero’s pose with a zafu. Maybe later in this commitment, I’ll try to do it without the zafu. For now, I’m just grateful I found a way to sit that doesn’t cause me to experience stabbing pain and limping discomfort afterwards.

Day Four Having found the right pose in which to sit, I find the practice easier. My mind still bounces and I find myself occasionally amused by the way I try to distract myself with some of the most inane ideas. It helps that I wasn’t attacked, or at least threatened, by any crawling creatures. After a day that proved to be more complicated than usual, I did not do the evening’s practice. Hmmm . . . every other day I’ve dropped the evening ball. It does suggest how our day’s schedule and events can hijack the intentions of the day.

Day Five A lovely practice. I have been trying to count my breaths to get some idea of how often I breathe. In this way, I hope that I will be able to practice without a timer to tell me when the 20 minutes are up. This will also free me to do a shorter or longer practice as needed. I had guessed I breathe about six times per minute but this seems to be slightly off. I’ll know in a few days, after I take an average of each day’s numbers. Also, I did some pranayama breathing (ujjayi breath) and held my hands in anjali mudra. The heat my body was generating was quite lovely. I know that doing yoga first also helps me because I am less stiff going into the practice and, therefore, less stiff coming out of it.

My evening practice started off with the dogs bringing their bones to me and gnawing on them contentedly, with a little noise as well. Then Rob walked in but he was surprisingly good about not making any noise that would distract me. The dogs had tired of chewing their bones (and licking my hands).

Day Six
I had a late afternoon “morning” meditation. Thirty minutes, because the commit-to-sit challenge encourages 2 hours of meditation over the weekend. I used some meditation music from Stan Richardson and, in the background of the last song, was the cacophonic sound of Sandhill cranes. It was quite lovely listening to them in the background, occasionally getting so loud they out-sang the flute music. I sat in hero’s pose on the zafu. No special mudra.

The evening meditation was completely unsuccessful. I was sitting on the zafu and I felt as though I were falling. I shifted the zafu and my position to feel more stable. Still felt like I was falling. This time I ignored the perception, assuming it had something to do with the vertigo and that I should know better. I did, however, make sure I was as stable and centered as I could be before convincing myself there was nothing to worry about.

Apparently, there was because a few minutes later (at least five, judging by my breath count) I literally toppled off the zafu and hit the floor, my head barely missing the edge of my desk. I am assuming that, in my thinking that the floor beneath me was tilting, I was shifting my weight slightly to compensate. As a result, I over-compensated and actually caused myself to fall onto the floor because I threw myself off balance. This is, obviously, a strong argument for me to learn how to meditate with my eyes open. I know that, ideally, one is not supposed to stare pointedly at an object, maintaining a soft, unfocused gaze throughout the practice. However, I may need to find a focal point and let that be the standard by which I navigate my meditation. If I see the object shifting or tilting away from where my eyes are gazing (or, which is how it would really be, I feel my eyes moving to follow an object that I perceive is tilting either away from me to one side or the other) then I can safely guess that the inanimate object is not moving and it is I who has shifted, regardless of my perception. Although it is not ideal to have to focus on an object while meditating, it is also not ideal to have vertigo. All things considered, I think it is fair to say that compensating for a condition is not a compromise that will detract from the quality of my meditation experience.

Day Seven The Commit to Sit Challenge suggests that the practitioner sit for two hours over the weekend in thirty minute blocks. Because I literally fell off my zafu yesterday evening I decided to try to meditate for three thirty minute blocks. Morning practice was lovely. I had already done my yoga and knew my body was going to feel challenged today because the vertigo is strong. I sat on the zafu in hero’s pose with an image before me. I had nearly forgotten that I need a focal point but there was a cd case nearby with an image of Christ on the cover (the cd is The Way of Saint John of the Cross by Susan Muto PhD for those of you who care to know). I placed my hands on my thighs and allowed myself as wide a base as I could comfortably make. As I’ve already mentioned, it was quite lovely.

For the afternoon meditation, I chose to have Thich Nhat Hanh chanting the heart sutra in the background. I dedicated the practice to the monastics of Bat Nha and it was a marvelous meditation experience. I still had my thoughts bouncing around occasionally. And early on, I had a foot cramp which forced me to change my sitting position. I worked through that and still had to contend with a very uncomfortable tightness in my back. And yet, for all the discomfort and shifting around, I never felt that I fully lost the meditative state of deep relaxation. I was genuinely surprised by how quickly the whole experience passed. Truly lovely.

In spite of my delight at the thought of doing a third meditation (regardless of the pain in my back), I didn’t do a third practice. Rob was not feeling well and I chose to give him time rather than give myself any more. We watched the diabetes show together, him lying down while I sat up. Then we watched Dexter together. Together when he wasn’t going to the bathroom and trying not to be sick. The commitment to sit daily does not mean I should neglect the other relationships in my life but it is a wonderful reminder for me to pause every day and spend time in relationship with myself and my body.