Essays

Survival Will Always Be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s speculative fiction novel Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a future global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later. I often find post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the possibility of going on past disaster. Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “survival is insufficient.” This phrase—tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline—comes from a Star Trek episode. In the book, the phrase, “survival is insufficient,” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other seemingly useless things that are apparently secondary to basic biological survival. To reprise the 1912 labor slogan, we need not only bread but also roses: Beauty is integral to surviving and thriving. What does it mean for us to fight for roses—for more than survival—when so many people are not even surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production …

Interdependent During a Pandemic

Last summer, my partner and I worked on a research project about wildlife trafficking in southern Africa. While trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn tends to dominate the headlines, we also examined smaller species such as the pangolin—which is both the most trafficked mammal on earth and one possible source of the novel coronavirus. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lesson from our research stands out as particularly crucial: Wildlife trafficking is not a problem of protecting a single species in a single place. Rather, it is a global problem, composed of unaddressed poverty in rural communities, middlemen profiting from illegal trade, and indulgent demand for exotic food and art. It is a problem from roots to leaves, which unfurl thousands of miles away. The same is true of the virus now ravaging human society. It knows no boundary. It reaches my aging parents in a small mountain town, my anxious students scattered across the United States, and my friends in rural Botswana with limited access to healthcare. In a recent letter …

Photograph by Trudi Lynn Smith

Toilet Paper as Terror Management

The toilet paper aisle at my local grocery store was the first to go barren. Similar scenes of scatalogical scarcity are now the norm across North America as consumers prepare for months of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. You can find footage online of shoppers fighting over the last roll, and The New York Times recently reported on a toilet paper shipment requiring police escort. It is peculiar that in the early days of this crisis, a pooping accessory took priority over food. Survival instincts appear low in late capitalism. Fortunately, there is a body of social psychology that helps explain the collective impulse to put our heads in our asses in this moment of genuine crisis, and it’s called “Terror Management Theory (or TMT). TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book The Denial of Death. According to Becker, the intense existential fear caused by the reality of death compels us to psychologically buffer ourselves with fantasies of supremacy that compensate for …

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground

I’m writing this in the still-early days of the pandemic. Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments are requiring self-distancing and closing non-essential services. Increases in coronavirus deaths are in store, though the curve may have been flattened. Much of the predicted economic carnage lies ahead. It feels like the calm before the storm. How do we work with our minds in this situation? What meaning can we make of what’s happening? Ayahuasca My core spiritual practice these days is ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture and traditional medicine long used in Indigenous ceremonies in the Amazon basin. Within a well-crafted ritual container and led by someone deeply trained in ayahuasca chants and healing, twelve or so of us drink ayahuasca and experience a night of insight and sometimes visions.1 I’ve drunk sixteen times and almost every time experienced a connection with the sacred; from the point of view of the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena, I’ve worked with my patterns, my root traumas, and how I show up in the world. The experience …

Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple

Relax, everything is out of control. —Ajahn Brahm Finding Ground March 13, 2020 In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness. —Thomas Merton I thought I was handling it all quite well. With the increasing cases of coronavirus, the disappointment of recent election results, the cancellations of the many social gatherings I’ve come to rely on, I was being practical. I hadn’t been glued to the news, I was washing my hands and making time to check in with friends. My pandemic supplies were more-or-less stocked. There in the grocery store, though, another reality became clear. While my head was managing, my body was freaking out. I know this saran wrap feeling in my chest well. It’s fear. It’s anxiety. It’s uncertainty. Doom is a breath away. Though my mind had it “under control,” my body reminded me of the …

On Lineage and Whiteness

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  I spent a lot of time during my youth pondering my family story and where I came from. While kicking rocks around my suburban street, I would wonder, “Why do we call ourselves Greek but don’t speak the language or cook the food? Why doesn’t my family feel like other Greek families I know?” My family name comes from someone who signed the Declaration of Independence; my mother’s family holds the Greek ancestry. I’ve always felt that I’ve straddled different worlds. When I say I’m Greek, it feels as if I’m holding onto some name from a previous life. My maternal grandfather (Papou) was a man of noble actions. He taught me that giving someone my word was worth more than gold, and that I should treat everyone I met with honor and respect. When it came to instructing his grandchildren on Greek heritage …

Examining Whiteness with Meditation

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  The author of this essay is a person of European descent living with the legacy of settler colonialism in the United States. The essay is addressed to people who are white; however, all people are invited to read it. Our search for understanding in matters of race automatically inclines us toward blackness, although that is not where these answers lie. It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity. We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to …

‘May I Also Be the Source of Life’: Embodied Resistance, Existence, and Liberation in Bodymind as It Is

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  And until they pass away from pain May I also be the source of life For all the realms of varied beings That reach unto the ends of space. – Shantideva1 In Mahāyāna Buddhism, I have been taught that body and mind are not two separate entities. They are one: bodymind. There are seeming limitations of the specific and located human bodymind I call “myself,” this named entity that comes into being at a certain point; lives a certain span of years, days, and minutes; then goes through the death process of dissolution of form and cessation of bodymind activities. To be embodied in the ordinary, day-to-day sense means that I am subject to sickness, to aging, and to death, which are all forms of anicca/anitya, impermanence. True enough. How is it, then, in accordance with the Bodhisattva vows I took in 1983, that …

Body Knowing as a Vehicle for Change

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  It is my great pleasure to reflect on this insightful essay by Kelsey Blackwell, “What Does the Wisdom of the Body Have to Do with Racial Justice?” Although my work does not specifically focus on racial justice, I am actively engaged in work in the realm of embodiment, awareness, and social system change. I practice a social art form called Social Presencing Theater, a name given by the co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer, who is cited in Ms. Blackwell’s essay. The roots of my work are in meditation and dharma art. Like Ms. Blackwell, I too have encountered resistance when inviting people into body-knowing practices in professional or organizational settings. However, over the past decade Social Presencing Theater (SPT) practices have become part of the culture of practitioners who are applying a Theory U framework to social system change. Theory U is …

The Movement Within the Movement

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  How can we become conscious of the hidden story our bodies are telling with their every motion? While our words can speak falsehoods, the language of our body will not allow us to deny the truth. Movement has the capacity to unearth repressed memories and ancestral traumas that shape the way that our DNA is read and transcribed. Our stories are literally encoded in the way we move through the world—move through life. Movement and its symbology are the language of the subconscious. I became conscious about the repressed trauma that my body was carrying through the narrative I was expressing in my freestyle dance movement. This question of how we become conscious of our body’s hidden story is the core inquiry of my dance company, Embodiment Project. In my study of movement, spoken word, and the human condition, I’ve learned that dance can …