Pop Culture Writings

The grab-the-back-of-your-head kind are the best

The lights go down and it’s just you up there

Getting them to feel like that

-Joni Mitchell

Eeeeya.  I find it so freaking fascinating to watch celebrity unfurl.  Adam Lambert is my reward for enduring what is, for the most part, the tedium of American Idol.  I get to be in on the process – in on an emergence.

I love this voice.  His singing voice is so beautiful – the tonal range, the emotional range, the genre range.  His voice feels good on my skin.  I also love the voice of who he is.  He’s dealing with the ramifications of becoming one fulcrum of the culture wars with considerable grace.

My readers (that sounds good, doesn’t it?) know that I’m a slavish Adam fan.  More on the slave part later but suffice it to say I’m wearing through the 1’s and 0’s on the new album, following Adam’s Twitter, have a subscription to Adamofficial.com and have been combing the web for interviews.  Don’t miss Michelle Collins from VH1.  Her Adam interviews are fresh, fast, witty – the perfect wannabe BFF.  Other great pieces: Ken Tucker (music critic often heard on NPR’s Fresh Air) and his colleague Michael Slezak who actually manages to ask Adam some interesting questions.  Which is a good thing cause pabulum questions ring particularly dumb on this highly aware person.

The American Music Awards (AMAs) firestorm has created the perfect moment to check in.  The living-under-a-rock recap:  Adam got a position of major honor on the AMAs – the music industry promotional extravaganza that was carried by ABC November 22.  He performed the title track from his new release, For Your Entertainment, and in the spirit of the BDSM flavored lyrics, dragged and groped dancers and led them around on leashes.  What he did that was unrehearsed was to grab a couple of dancer’s heads and hold them briefly to his crotch.  The “simulated fellatio” that got all the blow-by (haha) was (not surprisingly) the male dancer’s head.  After an unplanned tumble (which he likened to feeling like a cockroach after being sprayed) and a tuck and roll (nice aikido, Adam!) he proceeded to lay an aggressive holding-the-back-of-your-head make-out on a male band member (who is straight but was not offended and had invited Adam to grab his hair.)  Adam wound up the performance with a middle finger to the camera.  I’d include a link here but Dick Clark Productions got all the clips pulled.

The next day Adam’s appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America was canceled but he was picked up by CBS’s The Early Show.  Lots of kerfuffle ensued including intervention by GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).  Album sales have been brisk (though less than one-third of the music industry’s largest debut  week to date by Susan Boyle.)   A right wing group has filed a complaint with the FCC with the intent to have ABC fined for showing “filth and indecency” on broadcast TV.  Adam performed at 10:55 pm, long after the 10 pm cutoff for children watching.  The FCC complaint is based on a 9:55 pm time in the Central time zone.  As I learned after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the super-bowl some years ago, FCC fines are no trivial matter.  They can fine every affiliate that carries a show and it can run millions.  ABC has cancelled other upcoming gigs but Adam still appeared on Barbara Walters Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009 on December 9.  Lest we celebrate too much, Glenn Beck was also included.

The other major Adam conversation has been around his degree of suitability as a gay role model.  Adam appeared in a group shot on the cover of Out magazine (the “Out 100”) – Out apparently wanted him solo.  Out’s editor Aaron Hinklin then proceeded to publicly grouse about Adam’s not appearing solo or soon enough on Out and also the heterosexy spread Adam did for Details.  Apparently, one of Adam’s managers asked that Adam not be portrayed as “too gay” in the Out piece.

Whew.  Not bad for the first post-Idol month in the public.  Adam has been surprisingly adroit in addressing his critics in a way that is both nuanced and non-defensive.  On the Ellen DeGeneres show he admitted that on the AMAs he went a bit too far for a first post-Idol impression and understood that ABC would be somewhat taken aback by material that the didn’t see in rehearsal and that got them hot water with the FCC. Adam says that adrenaline and competitiveness go the best of him after watching AMA acts he admired.  In interviews Adam also takes Out’s Editor Aaron Hinklin to task for setting gay rights “back a few steps” in not allowing him his freedom to be politically responsible or not as he chooses.  As Adam explained in extensive MTV interview, the AMAs middle finger was in part for Hinklin.  More on that.  Ah, so juicy.

Here’s where I want to dig around: the actual performance, the album, the sexual politics and all the wonderful and fragrant combinations of ”we-spaces” and how they lie writhing around in my particular interior.  What are “we-spaces”?  A we-space is the unique energy, communication and understanding of any group of people, from a group of two to millions.  In Adams emergence as a celebrity, there is a lot to unpack: the messages around Adam, the “meta” information – that is the information about the messages telling us what kind of messages they are – and the implications for Adam, and for culture and politics.  And, not insignificantly, all these are filtered through my perspective and experience.

Before Idol, Adam Lambert was a talented singer with a part in the touring company of Wicked.  The people on whom he had an intense impact were people with whom, for the most part, he had personal interaction.  And then celebrity happened and fairly suddenly millions of people (myself included) feel an investment in him.  In each of the we-spaces that we feel a part of, we’re using what we can touch of him to make meaning and that meaning is an irreducible combination of him and us.  For the right wing group that filed the FCC complaint, that meaning has to do with “indecency and filth” and the possibility that Adam’s charisma will lend itself to the furthering gay rights.  That is a not an unreasonable – it’s why he’s on the cover of Out magazine.

For the we-space of Adam and his devotees, much meaning is around defending his freedom to be artistic in the way he chooses, regardless of politics.  Adam is commanding tremendous public mindshare: the reverberations of all this meaning-making layer and collide.  That is the power of celebrity and one of the many prices of fame.  So Adam’s Twitters that it’s “not that deep” are a little lame: of course it’s not that deep for the individual artist.  But when that artist starts meriting mindshare, it’s deep for various we-spaces in various ways.  If Adam went a little over the top lewd in a club years ago, there were few reverberations.  Now there are.

Adam hopes that those who don’t like him will “turn their attention elsewhere.”  That’s like Jane Fonda hoping that those supported the war in Vietnam would not try to suppress her famous voice.  Her art was pretty much inextricable from her politics.  When Adam sings, “there he goes, my baby walks so slow…sexual!” it’s political.  His comfort with his homosexuality is hard-won; it’s the result of explicitly political work.  Gay politics has been crucial to his having a space to be a mainstream artist.  In turn, his art defines a space within the cultural dialog surrounding gay politics.  The chances that those who oppose gay rights will turn “turn their attention elsewhere” are low.

What about the actual performance?  It wasn’t Adam’s best art, a fact he’s humbly acknowledged.  The slight irony is that the controversy around Adam at the AMAs diverted attention from an uncharacteristically weak theatrical performance and vocal (the only time I’ve ever heard Adam off key) probably saving him from getting royally slammed by the critics.

A few of the songs on Adam’s debut album read as a dialog with his audience.  The title single, For Your Entertainment is a double entendre that compares BDSM with the control Adam takes of his fans for their arousal.

Oooh, do you know what you got into

Can you handle what I’m ‘bout to do?

‘Cause it’s about to get rough for you

I’m here for your entertainment

Oooh, I bet you thought that I was soft and sweet

Your fallen angel swept ya off your feet

Well I’m about to turn up the heat

I’m here for your entertainment.

Unfortunately, at the AMAs, one of the entendres got lost.  The song is about sex and control of the audience but the performance was only about sex.  If there’s anything a BDSM “master of pleasure and pain” must do is control space, energy and attention.  The number had too many dancers, too much movement and too much groping for Adam to control the visual focus.  The music video of this song hits both entendres perfectly.  When, on the video, Adam pops an eyebrow at the camera and sings, “once I’m in I own your heart,” he does.

Excuse a slight digression here on public references to and depictions of coercive sex.  There is a crucial dynamic in BDSM between acts of bondage, dominance and sado-masochism and a meta environment of performance and play.  In a meta context of respect, limits and safety, consensual participants can experience the arousal of coercion.

When a broad audience is exposed to arousing messages about coercive sex there is justifiable concern.  A broad audience, almost by definition, implies a continuum from people who would never coerce sex regardless of arousing cultural messages to people who would act out their brutal impulses without any arousing images of sexual coercion in the culture.  In between these extremes are people who may allow themselves to act out impulses to coerce sex because their cultural context is making these look acceptable or even cool.  Here it is the meta message that is even more critical than what is depicted.  The rape in the 1988 film The Accused starring Jodie Foster gives a meta message of horror and pain rather than arousal, inviting the audience to identify with Jodie rather than her attackers.  The rape in the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange invites the audience to identify with the rapist and to see rape as an act of individual freedom and rebellion against an oppressive state.

Richmond, California is still reeling from the two and a half hour gang rape of a fifteen year old girl at a high school homecoming by at least ten men during which at least ten to twenty others stood by, laughed, took pictures and came and went from the scene.  It would be naïve in the extreme to suppose that complex cultural messages don’t contribute to brutal behavior.  An incident like this – with so many participants and so many witnesses – reminds us that sexual predation is more than just individual pathology.

Eminem also sang on the AMAs, announcing himself as

Ooww Ladies and gentlemen
The moment you’ve all been waiting for ..
In this corner : weighing 175 pounds,
with a record of 17 rapes, 400 assaults, and 4 murders,
the undisputed, most diabolic villain in the world :
Slim Shady!

Eminem may be naming Slim Shady as a villain but the clear meta message is that this villain is a cool and rebellious rap boy.  Naming Slim Shady as a villain almost gives Eminem deniability; he can say that he is not condoning rape, assault and murder while still, at a meta level, inviting identification with brutality.  This is a huge concern when presented to a mass audience.

The meta message of For Your Entertainment is clearly about consensual play (although I’ll register an objection to the lyric, “there’s no way to ring the alarm/so hold on until it’s over.”)  But the difference between the AMA performance and the video allows us to look at how delicate meta messaging can be.  What is so clearly play and performance in the For Your Entertainment video got dampered down in the forced and frenetic AMAs performance making it just the teeniest bit creepy in a very un-Adamish way; it became a little bit more like real – not play – coercion.

Watching the meta message also helps us unpack the tension between Out magazine’s editor Aaron Hinklin and Adam.  If a representative of Adam’s management did in fact ask that Adam not be portrayed as “too gay”, we can understand why Hinklin bristled.  It is precisely a homosexual’s right to be authentically homosexual that everyone in the gay rights movement has worked so long and hard for and it is why we are rooting so loudly for Adam.  When a manager or a publicist seems to undermine that authenticity, the gay rights community will send up an understandable howl and feel a resonance of Rock Hudson.

For Adam, though, what’s the use of the gay rights movement if he doesn’t get to be any way he wants to be?  If he’s held to a standard of gayness doesn’t that defeat the freedom the rights movement has ostensibly built for him?  It’s like Wanda Sykes joking that Barack Obama’s being president allows her, as an African-American in the public eye, to be able to relax a little and not be so constantly on good behavior because “white people are watching you!”  Once a marginalized population starts achieving the mainstream, there’s room for a breadth of behavior with less risk of stereotyping.

But I think Hinklin underestimates the power of the context – the meta environment.  Adam’s management’s comment was in the context of a mainstream star who has been unequivocal in his statement of sexual preference, even refusing to hide behind bisexuality when confronted with his willingness to occasionally make out with a girl.  The Barbara Walters special commercial even used Adam saying, “I’m a homosexual.  You better deal with it” as a sound bite.

So when Adam does a truly beautiful and erotic spread (why does writing about sex make everything a double entendre?) in Details with a woman it is, again, in a context of his very public stance asserting his sexual preference.  Adam said there was one word to describe the photos – “heterosexual.”  Which, in itself, is interesting but heterosexuality – being the dominant and default modality – rarely gets named or called out.  The photos invite us to a dissonance that, in my opinion, furthers gay awareness by creating a confict between the heterosexual message and the meta message of Adam’s homosexuality.  The further meta message of that gorgeous photo series is, to me, what Adam has so wonderfully called the universality of sexiness; that eros and arousal don’t necessarily mean sex in the Clinton-esque sense.

In the protest against Adam’s censure, many (including Adam) point to a “double standard” wherein Madonna’s kissing Britney Spears could be shown on TV where Adam’s kiss was pixilated.  I agree with the political strategy of pointing this out but I’m not the tiniest bit surprised at the different reactions.  As Adam has pointed out, gay men have been portrayed on TV as very safe and asexual (note Queer Eye and a pretty sexually suppressed Will on Will & Grace.)  But more than that the meta context of Britney and Madonna is that they are well known to be (at least partially) straight.  That straight men find sexual interactions between women (always women who look and act straight) so erotic and unthreatening is a testament to their assumption of heterosexual dominance.   Saturday Night Live’s Wayne’s World did a hilarious take on this. Wayne and Garth were eager for a video of some girl-on-girl action.  When the video turns out to be real lesbians, Wayne and Garth do a long “eeeeeuuuuwww!”  Straight women kissing don’t threaten heterosexual dominance; gay men kissing do.  The double standard isn’t about homosexuality per se; it’s about homosexuality that is liberated from the dominance of heterosexuality.

All of the controversy is making the For Your Entertainment album more complex and interesting to me. I find it particularly satisfying in that it seems to deepen and reveal Adam, despite the fact that most of the songs were contributed by industry heavyweights.  These songs are his choices and he’s a co-writer on four of them.  The album is not Thriller or Born to Run – seminal albums on which every song is amazing – but Adam did a good job of pleasing the breadth of his fans from dance/club to rock to power ballads to his signature wailing to the emotional vulnerability that I love.  The fear for Adam’s debut was that overproduction would make that gorgeous voice untouchable.  That is partially true.  The heavy synthesizer sound seems appropriate for the dance tracks but a lighter touch would have been better, in my opinion, on the more emotional material.  My favorite track on the album is the song I believe Adam was most active in writing: Broken Open.  It’s sweet, sad and poignant (if not grammatical; there’s the ubiquitous lay/lie error lying – not laying – smack in the middle of the lyrics.)   In a pop world that’s mostly about as original as a suburban mall Chili’s, the song is a haunting one about supporting a loved one through emotional upheaval.  Also a standout for me is another dialog with the audience song contributed by Pink, Whataya Want From Me? Adam is singing this one on various TV shows displaying his emotional vulnerability and safe-enough-for-kids side.  Buy For Your Entertainment.  It’s well worth it.

So, yeah, I continue to be drawn to Adam’s development and I continue to root loudly for him.  And I’ve often pondered (since my love of John Lennon days) the real meaning of this odd thing that is celebrity love.  I do feel a kind of love and I think he must also feel a kind of love for his fans – this anonymous we-space that is allowing him to finally make a grand living as a singer.  But what really arouses such strong feeling?  Why can we feel something from a song, in an audience, that is sweet in its own way and so different from what we feel with lovers, friends or family?  And performers have been notorious for expressing depth and vulnerability with an audience that they may find difficult with those close up.  Is it the anonymity itself that allows us that special emotional space?  Our knowledge that we can experience what we experience without accountability?  What an odd thing it is – a kind of anonymous presence.

So, yeah, I’ve still got my middle-aged woman crush on my Adam.  He’s theorized that middle-aged women love him because they remember the feeling of 70’s rock.  Nope, that’s not it at all for me.  I wonder if this crush is related to that deep and strangely intimate bond between straight women and gay men.  Gay men are also legendary in their devotion to powerful straight women stars such as Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Bette Midler.  Interestingly, the gay man/lesbian woman friendship seems way less…how to say it…ferocious.  Maybe it is that in a context where male heterosexual sexuality is the paradigm of sexuality itself, both gay men and powerful women bond over their mutual marginalization in the way they erotically relate to men.

Maybe it’s the implication of erotic flexibility that arouses both strong women and gay men; the possibility of exchanging power and playing with roles and dominance.  I’ve always been pretty turned off by the 70’s Led Zeppelin version of “Whole Lotta Love.”  But from the mouth of a gay man, (one stroking his microphone stand), the suggestion that he be my “back door man” feels, meta message wise, way more consensual, less dominating, more playful and, frankly, way more erotic.

So Adam, you go.  We’re with you.  I have to admit to being a little worried about the possibilities for his love life.  To experience a deeply satisfying love he’ll likely need a boyfriend who’s highly complex and sophisticated and aware and vulnerable and they’re few and far between.

Adam, I hope you find your Yoko.


Complex Hotness: The Meanings of Adam Lambert

Every celebrity is a cloud of meaning making; meaning that is irreducibly them and us.  It’s hard to remember when last a celebrity warranted the attention lavished on Adam Lambert – and warrant it he does.  Something unusual has happened here, the meaning of which is both fascinating and a joy to untangle.

First, apologies to Mr. Lambert: yes, I get that a lot of this has nothing to do with you.  On the other hand, a lot of it does and in a very inspiring way.  From behind your eyes, and to your infinite credit, you “get” lots of what you’re doing here.  But there are some structures that you don’t see and couldn’t see precisely because of where you are – behind your eyes.   Part of the meaning cloud is your audience’s creation. But you have used every ounce of staggering sultriness to ask us to dance.  And dancing we are.

Newsweek columnist Joan Raymond confessed that neither she, nor many of her middle-aged “cougar” friends could stop thinking about Adam.  (Why Cougars Crave Adam Lambert)  Yep, and as a cougar with thirty years of mindfulness practice, I’m watching exactly how this young man is affecting me inwardly.  He’s been a soundtrack for my dreaming.  His subtle energetic power is clearly formidable, and, I’m happy to say, that when Adam plays as a background task I find my foreground more optimistic, more willing to risk, my committed to giving and, as with many, more horny.  I’ll let the horniness obscure the energetic complexity here (as Newsweek did) for a moment and then return to deeper issues – there’s a lot more going on.

The idea that androgyny is bland is as insulting as it is inaccurate.  Fascinating that Monsieur Lambert has struck such a cord with boomer women, but it’s not just boomers who find this manifestation of sexual life force utterly compelling.  Women everywhere are jockeying for position to be Adam’s witty and cherished BFF, or as Michelle Collins of MTV’s Best Week Ever gushed in a smart, sweet and hilarious interview with Adam, “If you need a surrogate, I’m here.”  (Best Week Ever)  On 20/20, Adam even admitted to being a little bi-curious.  Hang in there, Michelle.

Folks, this hot kind of androgyny is what a lot of us were looking for.  We weren’t asking men to suppress their life force, for god’s sake, just not to use it to dominate and repress women.  (And let me clarify: I’m talking about the domination or submission that is the subject of awareness.  Playing with dominance and submission – particularly in sex – as an object of awareness is a completely different story.)  Ever wondered why evolved women are such notorious and proud fag-hags?  This kind of androgyny glorifies women without diminishing men.  What women thankfully cherish in their gay boy friends is that sexuality isn’t a zero sum game; womanliness doesn’t diminish manliness or vice versa.  It just all overflows as a giant volcano of eros.  Bring it on, baby.  Gay boys are sexy to women because they’re equally as uninterested in dominating women as they are in sucking up to them.  The history of heterosexual politics falls away in our intimacy and play.  I love my gay boy friends. We don’t worry about who goes the guy stuff or who does the girl stuff we both do both and I know a lot of women who crave this “bothness” in a primary relationship.

Adam-otopia is deeply sexy; erotic in the most profound sense of awakening and moving the life force toward that which is higher, clearer and stronger.  I’m not too proud to feel – in this particular pop culture moment – infinite light hitting my grateful skin.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while: what does it look like when a person exhibits mastery of skills that have been traditionally assigned to women and mastery of skills traditionally assigned to men?

Adam’s got skills that are taught more to girls: emotional connection, the people-pleasing smile, the sweetness and an unyielding supportiveness, even with competitors.  One American Idol vocal coach admonished him to stop giving his competitors such good advice.  But he’s also got the skills taught more to guys: he’s utterly strategic, articulate and focused.  He’s got the confidence to play with the big kids.  There was a delicious moment on AI when mentor Jamie Foxx noticed the equality with Foxx that Adam announced with his demeanor: “You don’t give a shit who I am, do you?” said Foxx.  Adam dissolved in laughter but showed no inclination to retract. When Danny Gokey was literally shaking in anticipation of the news of whether he, Kris Allen or Adam had been cut from the top three, Adam was unintimidated.

I have argued in an academic article that easy mastery of both male and female skills is a hallmark of advanced evolution.  As Lambert says in Rolling Stone, “I don’t know why our society has such an emphasis on masculinity and femininity – it’s really gross.  I don’t think you’re truly sexy until you don’t care about that.”  It’s a point that took me twenty-five pages but let’s make it an invocation.

I actually get a little choked up realizing that Adam’s clear blue eyes and broad smile are the reason I did gay rights political work in the 80s – maybe it’s a little sliver of what Jesse Jackson’s felt at the Obama inauguration.  Adam’s deflection of a reporter who said, “Do you want to answer the question that’s been dangling over your head?” was sweet, funny and non-acerbic.  “It’s not dangling over my head,” said Adam, “It might be dangling over yours…” to which he added in Rolling Stone, “I like things dangling over my head.”  It’s a huge victory that we hardly realize any more that it would have been, even twenty years ago, nearly impossible to show this kind of comfort with one’s homosexuality in the middle of such acute mainstream scrutiny.

So, gay rights activists and feminists, (Harvey Milk, would you have just loved this boy?) here’s our baby – sexy, gorgeous, comfortable in his skin, a master of many things both traditionally female and traditionally male and even Jewish.  Madre de dios!  Even better when he and AI champ Kris Allen (to Allen’s great credit) chose to double-handedly defuse the culture wars.  Allen, a devout Christian, is seen as completely comfortable both accepting the hugs of his homosexual transgressive friend and also initiating a surprise hug during a backstage interview.

And there are more signs that Adam may herald an unusually high stage of evolution.  He talks repeatedly about letting his decisions be guided by “who I am.”  But he seems to exhibit precisely the paradoxical disidentification with self that seems to come with deep self-knowledge and self-acceptance.   Several writers have commented on Lambert’s ability to hear the judges’ critiques with unusual equanimity — as though doing kaizen on his product.  While he clearly loves his theatrics, he seems oddly still at his core, and able to hold his personas lightly and at arm’s length in a way that even intellectual glam-rockers like David Bowie did not.  There’s a quality of unattachment in Adam’s theatrics that seem to allow his “real self” to float away, unimpeded.  Stranger still is a sense of ebullience and humor behind even his most leatherish, bad-boyish antics that makes me melt in my seat with its sophistication.  No wonder us cougars can’t get enough.

Compare Adam’s rendition of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” to our memories of Mick Jagger singing the Stone’s classic.   Mick seemed like a seriously unsatisfied guy.  For Adam it’s all a smile and a wink and a poke in audience’s ribs: “yeah, there’s a lack of satisfaction and it’s kinda fun to scream about.  Let’s scream together and get off on it!”

I’ve even gotten hooked on Adam’s brother Neil’s blog; the writing is smooth, succinct, insightful and hilarious with that Jon Stewart-ish sang froid that belies Weltschmerz.  Neil describes Adam’s Rolling Stone cover as “lips slightly apart doing his best ‘Which of your kids am I going to defile? Son or daughter?’ face.”  Which works as irony since it seems that there’s nothing about Adam’s sexuality that defiles.  Compare this to the older generations of rockers: Jagger seems like his sexuality could easily defile; Gene Simmons seems to defile everything in his presence.

And so here’s the reason that I sat down to write this – to unpack why my reaction to Mr. Lambert has been so deep, so complex and…well…so happy.

And I arrive at deep gratitude and awe at the nature of evolution and a deep optimism and appreciation of Adam’s generation.  We worked to create an environment where this preternaturally talented, ebullient, strong and strategic being can be comfortable in his own skin.  Evolution – particularly feminism and the gay rights movement – seemed to manifest in his gloriously supportive parents and in a context that can revel in the sexiness that is groundbreaking in its combination of androgyny and sweetness.  The fact that he is so good with the press – so non-defensive and forthcoming (oddly, even when avoiding the gay question) feels as though it derives from him paradoxically not taking himself particularly seriously and at the same time handling his life and persona with conscious strategy.  It’s almost a definition of detached engagement.  Adam is what happens as we evolve.

And when I connect with him, listening to his voice or reading interviews, it’s this evolution that is erotic.  We made a space for him to evolve and now his evolution inspires us to our best energy.  This eros, this horniness runs deep; it vibrates to the very essence of eros in the double meaning of eros as sexual and evolutionary.  As Adam puts it, “Sexuality is universal.  What’s sexy is sexy!”  The feeling of eros pulling loose from its moorings in masculinity and femininity, hetero or homosexuality and launched as self-as-object?  A complex and inspiring hotness.

Thanks, Adam.  You rock.


Sookie and Bill gazing

Sookie and Bill gazing

Toward an Integral Media Criticism

When did I walk away from away from that doctoral program?  1981?  I was three courses and a dissertation away from a UCLA PhD in Theory, History and Criticism of film and TV.  A doctoral dissertation away, however, can not be considered close.  A friend likened writing a dissertation to having a low grade fever for several years.  You’re never really sick enough to just lie in bed but you don’t feel very good, either.

Looking back through an integral lens, it is precisely the “flatlandedness” of my classically postmodern education that did me in.  If I had to write one more paper about a film or TV show that may have looked fun/happy/liberating/progressive on the surface but was really repressive de-sublimation that erased capitalist and patriarchal hegemony, I was going to puke.  Buddhists are accused of not being much of a party crowd, but try postmodernists.

Postmodernist film criticism includes some real grostequeries:  those French could write without irony about Jerry Lewis as a transgressive and liberating figure.  And one school of “feminist” analysis was organized around Jacques Lacan’s Freudian work on “presence and absence” or penis vs. not-penis.  I would come to my graduate seminars and whine, “are we going to do weenie-ology again today?  Apologies to all the Freudians out there and shout-outs and props to our dawg Sig for his groundbreaking genius, but Freudian feminism still seems to me a little like a civil rights march led by Strom Thurmond.

What postmodernism did give us, of course, was an appreciation of the power and subtleties of the Lower Left; that culture and language and signs and meanings – our intersubjectivity – pervades our consciousness.  We learned that we must consciously intend to make this pervasive ideology (and this was my favorite concept from postmodernism) “opaque.”  Social meaning making is so complete that it is transparent – we don’t even perceive it unless we make an effort to make it opaque.  Our Lower Left frames the questions we ask and thus shapes the answers that seem possible.

As KenWilber has so brilliantly elucidated, postmodernism eschews hierarchy.  Nothing can be better, stronger, higher, more good, true or beautiful than anything else because all those evaluations are hopelessly just perceptions and “all perceptions are perspectives, and all perspectives are embedded in bodies and in cultures” (Integral Spirituality, p. 43.)

In postmodernist literary criticism (including film and TV), it was our job to uncover the ideological underpinnings of these perspectives; thus every paper was about capitalist and patriarchal hegemony, blah, blah, blah.  When we saw the slightest ray of light, we’d put on our Herbert Marcuse glasses and see a bait and switch; a phony “freedom” ultimately in service of repression.

Which, thinking back on it, is actually kind of weird since postmodernism is so Marxist and Marxism is, when you get right down to it, about liberation.  But what models of liberation did we have in pomo-dom?  The Soviet Union?  That illusion may have gotten my parents through the 30’s but didn’t do much for the 60’s.  Sexual de-repression seemed like a possibility but after a lot of fun (but, sorry folks) kinda empty fucking around, 70’s feminism started to ask whether that was really freedom.  Maybe necessary but insufficient for freedom?

I always perceived finding a spiritual path as my camera zooming out; a model of liberation that could transcend and include (to coin a phrase) and could situate politics and art and my deep, deep yearning in context.  Integral Theory zooms us even further out, widening our perspectives to make it all opaque situating it all – even spirituality – in a grand theoretical framework.

So it is with a huge relieved sigh that I’m circling back to film and TV criticism with a big update!  We get to talk about truth and beauty and freedom and what’s good and right!  Whoo hoo!

And I have to admit I’m still way, way, way more interested in the Lower Left intersubjective space than I am in naming something “art” (or not).  I’m interested in the meaning we’re making in our we-space and especially in making opaque that which is transparent.

But now I have a different way to evaluate the “good”.  Given the progression of states and stages, given our multiple lines of development, what do films and TV shows support?  What skills do they (per one of my favorite concepts from developmental psychology) “scaffold?”  Does a piece help us see more perspectives?  Does it help move us from ethnocentrism toward world-care?  Does it inspire us to greater physical skill?  And on the states scale, do films and TV shows help shift us to non-ordinary consciousness?  Inspired, engaged and progressive non-ordinary consciousness or dark and defeated non-ordinary consciousness?  The horror biz certainly explores shadow pretty thoroughly; does it do so in a way that is present to horror but unattached?  Does it use horror for transcendence or does it wallow in horror, celebrating that which is darkest and regressive in humanity?

What I learned at film school was how to look not just at the ostensible story but also at the way the piece invests and directs attention and energy.  The Freudians popularized the term “cathexis” – Wikipedia defines it as “the process of investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea.”  One of my mottos, “follow the cathexis.”

So with that promo, stay tuned.  You may have seen my blog in this space about American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert.  Some of the things I’m thinking about: the HBO series Trueblood written and directed by American Beauty writer and Six Feet Under writer/producer Alan Ball.  The show is compelling but I keep feeling like openly gay Ball has his wires a little crossed here in positing a civil rights struggle for vampires.  Are vampires deserving of civil rights?  Since the show analogizes the gay civil rights movement (vampires are “out of the closet”) does our questioning of whether vampires are deserving make us question whether gays are deserving? And on a states level, what is going on with this vampire stuff anyway?  What does it mean to think of the undead as sexy as hell? (haha.)

I may even take on comedy which is notoriously the hardest (and least funny) material to analyze.  Full advanced disclosure: I worship Jon Stewart.  Comedy is hugely complex in its play with subject/object identification.  It has always seemed to me that there’s a big moral difference between laughing with and laughing at.  I saw The Hangover last week and I wonder if someone being so drugged out as to extract his own tooth with a pair of pliers is funny.  Is it funny if we identify with the character or is it just funny if we see him as an object?  Is what you find funny a good way to get at your shadow?

More to come.


So You Think You Can Dance Finale

Oh my.  There is a lot to love on television.  I’ve studied television and movies a LOT (nearly a PhD) so it is with some expertise that I’ve argued over the years that the best of television is, more often than not, better than the best of movies.  I even had a few TV-vs.-movies comparisons where the TV show and the movie was tackling the same subject and the TV show did it with much more nuance and dimension in an hour than the movie did in two.

And, of TV, my very favorite show of ALL time is So You Think You Can Dance.  This is where TV shines – doing things no movie (even the Krump documentary) can do.  The element of surprise is there in real time: we’re not sure who will falter and who will show an unexpected superiority.

But this season has been a little flat.  There’s no one that I find nearly as exciting as (well, this is unfair cause he’s just a freaking monster) Danny Tidwell or Travis Wall or Jamie Goodwin or Sabra Johnson.  I pawed through my old seasons a little last night and came on Sabra and Dominic’s Ne-Yo love piece.  There was so much more heart there.

Kayla is breathtaking technically and ridiculously gorgeous – no question.  But it’s true that there is something that feels a bit shallow about her personality.  She doesn’t quite convey the deep drama.  The closest she came was in Mia Michael’s “Addiction” piece and even there you got more feeling from the slightly wacky but wacky in not as good of a way as Mark Kanemura, Kupono.

And Brandon.  What is it about Brandon and stirs me to ooh and aah in my head but not my gut?  I remember being absolutely haunted – haunted! by certain dancers on this show – most notably Season 1 winner Nick Lazzarini.  Talk about luminous!  Blake McGrath was shocked to find that people liked watching Nick better than him – it’s about light, Blake.  When Nick dances it’s like the sun pouring through storm clouds to be overly poetic.  But really.  All of the arts are about conveying light.  Even the best dark and scary stuff is about recognizing the shadow and the mystery and confronting it so as to better cleave to light in all its complexity.  Think Wade’s Rama Lama, or the piece it references, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

This finale did not, I’m very sorry to say, give me chills.

Why is it that all the hoopla about the big live audience and the Kodak theatre made me feel more alienated from the dancers when it makes me more excited for the singers on the American Idol finale?  Dance is so intimate.

Wade Robson Group Number

OK, I love Wade, but football players and cheerleaders?  Gene Kelly tried to combat the stereotype that all male dancers are gay.  Evan did not help this project by fumbling a three foot girly pass from Brandon.  Cheerleaders who are a little too much for the boys?  Uh…yeah.  It didn’t look too hard to be too much for these boys.

And I get that these guys are exhausted.  It’s about attitude, not raw movement.

Jeanine and Evan

Being who I am I like all the little gender switch ups and have been waiting for one of these girls to lift one of these guys cause they’re strong as rocks and I’m sure they could do it.  Yay, Jeanine!

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to re-watch this number and I can’t remember it.  The only note I have is gender switch.  So that says a lot.  And Jeanine is my favorite.  But by the end of the show I was wondering if Jeanine had actually danced with Evan and then I remembered a bunch of jokes about Jeanine and Sonya beating up Evan and Evan saying he’d never respond cause he’s a gentleman.

For the record, I think any glorification/sexification of domestic violence is a big, whopping don’t ever, ever do it.  I’ve been doing research on women on men violence and apparently it’s a way bigger and scarier problem than we’ve all been lead to believe.  So I kinda shut down when watching this.

Which leads me to wonder why I’d make an exception for Twitch and Katee and the door but I guess it was because they seemed so evenly matched.

There was some cool stuff in the Sonya piece but what I keep reading from the choreographers is, “out of ideas.  Need one more piece…eek!  Out of ideas…”

A slight pause for a word about the judges: can I send some big, big love to Adam Shankman?  He is so expressive of his genuine excitement for great dance and young dancers.  Mary and Nigel also have this enthusiasm but it’s not just the botox that’s made Mary lose the nuance of support.  When you scream about everything it becomes, pardon me, a little one-note.  And Nigel has that weird Brit “I was very touched” completely deadpan thing going on.  Or silly expressiveness.  Give me some Shankman Jewish feeling and articulation combo.

Brandon Solo

OK, let’s get real – it was not as good as the killer solo he did previously.  It was a little frantic.  And yes, the board shorts did detract.

Mary is right to beat him up about the self-esteem thing because there’s something about his admittedly glorious technique that doesn’t project.  He’s an amazing dancer.  Amazing.  He did all his moves.  His moves are great, amazing and awesome but sorry, Brandon, I trapped a half a yawn coming out.

Oh how jaded we get by greatness.  Sorry.

Brandon and Kayla

Tyce is seriously hot and cold.  He can pull off the cancer thing and then do pure Broadway cheese.  In this piece he’s rethinking Bob Fosse’s Bye Bye Love death scene from All That Jazz.  OK!  I think I can improve and update Beethoven’s 7th, second movement.

Note to lighting designers:  I get the backlighting light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel death thing.  But when you backlight you can’t see the dancers’ faces.  You used backlighting or dominant top lighting on a few other numbers tonight.  Thanks so much!  Couldn’t see the dancers!  Hello!  If I had Juliet’s self-discipline I’d go find the video.

Tyce’s version of this lost the pathos and the radical, radical this-is-the-moment sense of Fosse’s work.  And they probably didn’t want to ruin the finale by noting that the pirouettes were out of sync.  True to the fabulous direction, I couldn’t see both Kayla and Brandon but I think Kayla fell out of her last turn.

These are both amazing, beautiful dancers and Tyce is an uneven but can be brilliant at times choreographer.  But I could not help remembering All That Jazz and how powerful this piece is.  It actually made me feel into what the death process might be like – how often does dance do that?  Tyce’s version?  Ugh, not so much.  It was just a dance.

Jeanine Solo

OK, so my girl comes out and just flipping massacres her solo!  What is left after all we’ve seen that can impress us but a moment of s-l-o-w con-fucking-trol.  Jea-fucking-nine!  You GO, girl!  Thirty seconds of the best work she’s ever done on this show and she’s a tango GOD! complete with rose in teeth! Coming out of those pirouettes as dead center as freaking Danny Tidwell!  OMG!  OMG!  You GO!  The place goes wild!  Jeanine beaming her face off!  Shankman freaks and says she fought off Brandon.  I’ll say, baby!   Imagine the body of work she might have had if paired with someone technical initially.  As soon as she got Jason, she did one of the most beautiful pieces of the season.

I compared her to Courtney Galiano from last season but Jeanine is so much better, deeper, meatier.  Love this girl.  (But not as much as Sabra or even Katee.)

OK, now the show is starting.

Evan and Brandon

Oh Lori Ann.  Look at the dancers you actually have in front of you.  Evan and Brandon for a battle?  Nasty Boys?  Mary got on to Evan for not being nasty but come on, Brandon is a complete fairy from the muscle-y fairy worlds.  He has a complete fairy consciousness.  He gave it his best snarly shot but come on.  No one loves poofy boys better than me but save this number for Joshua and Twitch.  Evan was even worse than Brandon here but aggression is neither of these boys’ long suit.

I’m worried that all the attention to Evan being not as good of a dancer but oh-so-sweet and popular is going to get him the victim puppy dog vote.

Kayla and Jeanine

At least when we scrape the bottom of Mia’s creative barrel the stuff that’s left down there is better than most others’ crème de la crème.  Mia’s piece moves the women from stage right to left taking off layers of clothing as a metaphor for the SYTYCD journey.  OK.  Because Kayla is downstage, Jeanine is ahead of her so it kindof balances out.

What I find interesting is that even though Kayla’s extensions are a little cleaner and bigger and her movement more dynamic and sharper, I still want to watch Jeanine more.  It’s that x-factor.  Jeanine seems to give it more feeling.  Jeanine is a better actor.  Jeanine’s last garment unfortunately sticks at the dramatic last moment making them face the “light of fame” on slightly different beats.

Despite the fact that the lighting design puts their faces in shadow most of the time and the camera can’t seem to find them both, this is my favorite coupling of the night thus far (heh, heh) and personally, I think these are the top two.

Evan Solo

OK, I hope we don’t have a Kris Allen culture wars, red states vs. blue states thing going on here.  Yes, Evan loves his family.  Very nice.

And he does a nice we’ve seen this before Broadway yes you do a good job at this solo.  Zzzzzz.  And can we stop saying Gene Kelly and say Donald O’Connor instead?  Then we can give him technical props and lose the rather ralphing image of Evan doing American in Paris.

Kayla and Evan

Tony and Melanie give these two a country-western jive number than gets some criticism from Shankman (deserved, I think.)  Kayla is wearing what looks like an old salsa costume (with the poofy butt so that all the hip movement is emphasized) but with knee high cowboy boots.  OK so the costume department is also tired.

Nigel says that we finally see Kayla’s personality come through here but I don’t see it.  Mary is correct in pointing out that the connections between them aren’t working so they can’t lean against each other’s weight.  All in all, it’s a bit of a mess to be honest.

Kayla Solo

Unlike Jeanine who thought about this strategically and figured that she had to do something different, Kayla does her usual beautiful stuff.  The vibe of the solo doesn’t seem to match the music but I don’t think choreographic creativity is going to be where Kayla goes with her career.

Nigel boldly endorses Kayla to win the competition which given the Simon Cowell Adam Lambert endorsement is clearly the wrong thing to do.  Backlash ahead.

Jeanine and Brandon

OK, Debbie Allen, tell me that THIS Paso Doble doesn’t do it for you.  I take back everything I said about Brandon being poofy – he machos it out of the park for this one.  But Jeanine!  Baby!  She’s wearing some goth BDSM outfit straight out of San Francisco Halloween and dancing to a big dramatic thing from the Matrix.  There is a big jete into a glide that is awesome and they rip up the floor on this.


I hope all the straight women and gay men who watch this show take themselves in hand and vote for Jeanine.  Katee was top two last year.  The guys on this show have stood out more than the women but this year I think both Jeanine and Kayla are better than Brandon.  But he is great.

Evan clearly the weakest unless we have a culture wars vote.

Next three are really close but I do like Kayla slightly better than Brandon and Jeanine the best.

“Should” order:  Jeanine, Kayla, Brandon, Evan

“Will Be” order:  Brandon, Evan, Jeanine, Kayla


This next piece is a little academic: it’s a paper I wrote for my class in States of Consciousness for the Integral Theory Progam at JFKU.   I do think it’s pretty accessible and gives a feeling for some of what I would be teaching.

Using Death to Inform Everyday Awareness,

Using Everyday Awareness to Practice Death

Rebecca A. Bailin

ITH5059 – States of Consciousness

John F. Kennedy University

Spring 2009

And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad

The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”

From Mad World by Tears for Fears


The Buddha brought his disciples to the cremation grounds to meditate on the nature of the transitory. Tibetan Buddhism sees death as a crucial moment in which the disembodied soul[1]determines its next incarnation by the nature of its consciousness; according to this tradition, the freedom of enlightenment can be achieved in the after death states or “bardo” realms. Western mystical traditions also focus on death; Carlos Castaneda’s teacher, Don Juan, counsels Carlos to “use death as an advisor.” Disparate traditions see death is a way to inform and transform the spiritual practice of the living. Some even see living as a way to practice for the special opportunities of the after-death disembodied consciousness. This paper will explore how a consciousness of death impacts every day states of awareness and how every day states of awareness can be used to rehearse the exalted after-death states necessary to move a soul on to a higher karmic track.


Dr. Evan-Wentz (1960) published his version of the esoteric Tibetan teachings on death in 1960. The teachings describe the after death states, or bardo realms, and the states of consciousness in which they should be encountered. The soul gets many chances to recognize reality and thus determine its next birth. First the soul is set before the primary clear light:

O nobly-born (so and so by name), the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path [in reality]…Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about the experience it in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself; and abide in that state. (p. 91, punctuation, capitalization and italics in the original.)

To me, this seems to be a description of non-dual awareness in that “thou thyself” is like (or, we might say is) the void and cloudless sky. Abiding in non-dual awareness is a recognition of pure reality. If the soul is able to accomplish this, the soul is liberated from the wheel of birth and death and no longer needs to reincarnate. Interestingly, though, there is a further injunction: the dying person is encouraged to resolve on love and compassion to “take advantage of this death” and act for the “good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitable expanse of the heavens, as to obtain Perfect Buddhahood” (p. 94.)

If the soul is unable to recognize reality in its purest form, it traverses more bardo realms, each of which presents a consciousness challenge and a chance for liberation. In the Chonyid Bardo (the third bardo) the dying person is told,

O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. .. do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here…be not attached [to this world]; be not weak. Remember the Precious Trinity.[2]

The quote continues, describing the invocation that is the “vital secret of recognition:”

May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;…when at this all-important moment [of opportunity] of achieving the great end, May I not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms. (p. 103)

In just these short segments we see a model of liberated consciousness that is both unattached and dedicated to the good of all sentient beings; both engaged and non-clinging.

According to my teacher[3] the true esoteric understanding of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which I will sometimes refer to as “The Book”) is that, as he said, “these are the bardos.” The injunctions of The Book were to be practiced daily so that one might practice and achieve liberated consciousness while in the body. In his opinion, waiting until death would be too late; one’s awareness would be overwhelmed, confused and confounded by the after death realms unless one learned to be both unattached and engaged in life.

My teacher was also a great aficionado of the series of books by Carlos Castaneda, describing the mystical teachings of Don Juan Matus and other masters. The awareness of death is crucial element; in Journey To Ixtlan (1972) Don Juan shows Carlos how to see the shadow of his death just over his left shoulder,

Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet…. [We have to ] ask death’s advice and drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them. (p. 34-35.)

In both the Tibetan Book of the Dead and in the teachings of Don Juan, an awareness of death changes the consciousness of daily life. And death-informed daily life allows the practitioner to meet death, when it comes, openly, with full cognition, freely and possibly, ecstatically. Armed by these giants of spiritual teaching, I ask myself how I might manage my states of consciousness so that, in every moment, they are strong and independent, yet engaged. Don Juan told Carlos that one “sees” death over their left shoulder with a shiver. How can I know, with a shiver, that my own death is at my left shoulder and yet, in the spirit of Don Juan, remain buoyant, playful and free of dour self-importance? How can I be both engaged and completely in touch with my non-existence? For me, this is the ultimate koan.

Waking: Ordinary and Special

The assignment to see death over my left shoulder is easy today. As I write this, I have just learned that a close friend had a stroke yesterday at age fifty-three. She’s all right. She’s getting speech and movement back and it seems as though the stroke was not too damaging. None of us are immortal. And yet we all are.

The awareness of mortality brings many gifts and I hope to avail myself of these without having to have a terminal disease or near-death experience. Seeing death over my left shoulder reminds me that non-ordinary states are easy to come by; there is a magical night on the other side of every sunset. Balancing Don Juan’s perspective with that of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is, I think, a beautiful tantra; to appreciate every moment without clinging. The following is from Castaneda’s 1974 work Tales of Power. I have searched long for these quotes in the actual text but have been unable to find them; I was able to find them online (Castaneda, n.d.) For me, these particular quotes are state-changers. Don Juan tells Carlos,

The life of a warrior cannot possibly be cold and lonely and without feelings because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved. And who, you ask, is his beloved? I will show you now. His love is the world. He embraces this enormous earth. The earth knows that he loves it and it bestows on him its care. That’s why his life is filled to the brim and his state, wherever he’ll be, will be plentiful. He roams on the paths of his love and, wherever he is, he is complete.

We are blessed with the power of Castaneda’s writing. Don Juan’s words exude non-ordinary states like fragrance. In this next section, we can feel, with heartbreaking poignancy, the grief of ordinary consciousness. Don Juan sits with Carlos in the evening and the two hear a dog barking in the distance. This is one of my favorite passages in all of spiritual literature so I will indulge in a lengthy quote taken from the same web site as the above.[4]

Listen to that dog’s barking. That is the way my beloved earth is helping me now to bring this last point to you. That barking is the saddest thing one can hear. That dog’s barking is the nocturnal voice of a man. It comes from a house in that valley towards the south. A man is shouting through his dog, since they are companion slaves for life, his sadness, his boredom. He’s begging his death to come and release him from the dull and dreary chains of his life. That barking, and the loneliness it creates, speaks of the feelings of men, men for whom an entire life was like one Sunday afternoon, an afternoon which was not altogether miserable, but rather hot and dull and uncomfortable. They sweated and fussed a great deal. They didn’t know where to go, or what to do. That afternoon left them only with the memory of petty annoyances and tedium, and then suddenly it was over; it was already night.

What is rich for me is layering the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s injunctions upon these. The Book warns that in the after death realms, each vision that is not recognized as the soul’s own thought form will pull the soul into its realm – into its state of consciousness. The soul will linger there and forget liberation. For me, the ultimate state of consciousness is the type of profound love that Don Juan describes understood as the soul’s own thought form.

It is here that I begin to understand the concept of deep and profound commitment without clinging. There is a sense in Don Juan of fullness without grasping that is inordinately beautiful. It is that non-grasping fullness that I believe fulfills the injunctions of both Don Juan and the Tibetan Book of the Dead; the sense that one chooses a beautiful, loving, luminous, funny, ruthlessly authentic thought form and recognizes it as such. Such a recognition brings extraordinary delicacy to waking life.

Sex, Relationship and Desire

Sex, relationship and desire create a unique opportunity to practice both full commitment and non-grasping. As evidenced by Jenny Wade’s (2004) studies into transcendental states catalyzed by sexual activity, even practitioners without an explicit spiritual practice can be vaulted into non-ordinary states in sex. What is interesting about this, to me, is what I’ll call a kind of “natural tantra”: transcendence is achieved where it should, logically, be least expected. It is exactly in this arena which is the most embodied, the most fleshy and the most fertile ground (no pun intended) for grasping and clinging that unexpected leaps into transcendental awareness are found – even by those not seeking them! It seems that it is paradoxically and precisely the clinging and grasping of lovers that catapults them to states beyond the body and beyond the individual self. Sex calls to lovers with ears to hear to not settle for the mundane and ordinary.

Physical sexual practices can disclose states of consciousness that seem close to those prescribed by the Tibetan Book of the Dead: oneness with all being and a dissolution into clear light. These seem to be achieved by, at a minimum, fully embracing life and the moment. Lovers describe a blissful disembodiment that, ironically, follows from intense attention to the body. Conversely, an awareness of mortality may bring even more presence and intensity to sexuality forcing lovers to focus on the “here and now” which may, in turn facilitate transcendence. Even some of the staggering intensity of Ken Wilber’s description of his love for his late wife Treya seems unimaginable without the overpowering pressure of her impending death. The reality of death makes life precious; the bliss of a precious life prepares us for the dissolution of after-death transcendence.

In the sex issue of EnlightenNext (43), Andrew Cohen discusses the developmental potential of sexuality with Ken Wilber.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the sexual experience doesn’t necessarily affect deep self structures – the kind of structures involved in the process of the individual literally moving to a higher level of development. (p. 48)

Even though Cohen is talking her about structure development as opposed to state development, I suspect he might say the same thing. I would agree that sexual experience doesn’t necessarily affect deep self structures (or states) any more than food or power or money does but to me that is beside the point; these life activities have the potential to affect both state and structural development. We must alter our intent so that mundane reality begins to bear upward developmental pressure. Awareness of death is one way to do this.

Emotion and Shadow

My thesis is that all aspects of ordinary life present opportunities to practice dying. This is certainly no less true in doing shadow work. John Welwood, in his excellent work Toward a psychology of awakening (2000), explains that,

Many spiritual traditions speak of three different tendencies that keep us tied to the wheel of suffering: the tendency to reject what is difficult or painful; the tendency to grasp onto something solid for comfort and security; and then tendency to desensitize ourselves so that we don’t have to feel the whole problem of pleasure and pain, loss and gain at all (p.12).

Welwood’s organization of these tendencies seems to have been derived from the Buddhist basics of being “neither attracted nor repulsed”; fundamentals that we read in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to Welwood, it is a part of the project of therapy and spiritual practice to combat all of these tendencies; essentially to practice in life the after-death attitude prescribed by The Book. In therapy, the practitioner can begin to fully appreciate the power of her or his own thoughts in creating or exacerbating pain and pleasure, loss and gain, comfort and security. I hope that this shadow work can be carried into the bardo realms where the practitioner, having become accustomed to deconstructing and analyzing thought and emotion, would be adept at recognizing the “visions” of the bardos as constructed by consciousness. Welwood, to his credit, also warns against becoming attached in fascination to the process of therapy itself; even that which is designed to liberate can lead to bondage. Don Juan’s antidote for this problem is particularly powerful – he uses humor and play to defuse the self-importance of self-analysis and self-reflection.

For me personally, “negative” emotion has disclosed some of the deepest truths I know. I am thinking in particular of the death of my dog in 2007. I considered my dog one of my core teachers and his death was extraordinarily powerful for me. After he was euthanized, and I held his dead body in my arms, I had the most powerful sense that I have ever had of the ever present paradox of both corporeality and dissolution. My grief was devastating but so was my bliss. I found an equanimity then that has not left me since; a sense of calm in the face of nonexistence.

One shadow arena that I continue to explore is my flying phobia. I find it fascinating that I have been unable to surmount this fear in spite of all my practices; it seems to be visceral in a way that is untouchable by my spiritual experience. This fear makes flying so unpleasant that it raises the “cost” of travel so that it is prohibitive. Since I don’t fear death, and there are so many ways in which I don’t fear losing control, it is baffling to me that this fear remains. I sometimes imagine dissolving into the air outside the plane and I find that comforting. What I learn from this is that all practices and techniques are limited in some way; maybe this is just something that I must live with while I am in a body.

Positive emotion can sometimes be even more of a challenge than negative emotion. I find that intense pleasure can be considerably more intimidating than pain. It is hard to let pleasure pass; it is hard not to hold on, but it is with precisely this holding that we repress our mortality and our dissolution. It is imperative that we plunge deeply into pleasure, but with equanimity.

Dreaming and the Subtle Realms

The mastery of lucid dreaming is supposed to be essential for navigation of the bardo realms. This may be the case, but since I have never been a lucid dreamer, despite many attempts, is difficult for me to comment on the impact lucid dreaming might have had a practitioners life and death. What I experience is something that seems close to the descriptions of witnessing dreaming; that is, there is a sense of a watching of the actions of the dream. I have also noticed I practice equanimity in the face of disturbing images and actions. It is as though there is a disembodied voice coaching me to be calm. Interestingly, in dreaming, I seem to be less disturbed by fear than by a garden variety type of anxiety. I often wake up grinding my teeth over my dream world “to-do” list (get to New York, land on the building, get down the stairs, go to the meeting, get something, get out.) I wonder if my driven quality will be my downfall in the bardos; I may wander through eternity carrying out tasks on a project plan.

For those, like me, who see in the astral or subtle realms in everyday life, it is a constant awareness task to remember that this “seeing” is a combination of both object and subject. Even if subtle visions are confirmed by a “community of the adequate,” this does not makes the objects of subtle sight fully object. The choice of a community of the adequate is skewed by the subject and the “groupthink” of the community of the adequate influences the subject. When I remember to be aware of the complexity of subtle vision is helps me to step back from this “visionary” state of consciousness and to both believe my visions and question them at the same time. This practice, will, I hope, serve me well in the bardo realms in recognizing that the “horrific and beatific visions” are, at least partially, a construct of my own subjective awareness.


I believe that my own death will be ecstatic. There is a beautiful film called God Said Ha made of a one woman show performed by Julia Sweeney (“Pat” from Saturday Night Live); it is a poignant and heartbreakingly funny rendition of her experience of her brother’s death from cancer. In his last hours, his hospice workers were trying to encourage him to let go to death – he was suffering and was not expected to improve. They guided him through a meditation in which they asked him to imagine himself jumping on a trampoline – jumping higher and higher and higher until he simply disappeared. He died in only a couple of hours after that exercise.

I believe my death will be like that jumping or like the death of my dog, Tantra, who simply left his body in my arms and became All. Sometimes I feel my own death and the shiver of it is the excitement of ecstatic dissolution. Sometimes I am simply walking down the street of Sausalito or looking at the night sky and feel expansive and calm and happy beyond the meaning of that word and I think to myself, “my death will be like this.”

My belief itself is a practice. I believe that anticipating my death as ecstatic will help make it ecstatic. I know that the physical part of it will be, by definition, difficult. But I think of this parting of body and soul as freedom and I believe that this thought will help to make the experience, when it comes, one of freedom: freedom and fullness and dissolution.

All of these practices are in service of the highest state-stage. To be honest, I don’t know how the state-stage I experience now or that I will experience by the end of my life matches the map proposed by Wilber in Integral Spirituality (2006). Much of what Wilber says about state-stages does not exactly resonate with my experience so either, a) the higher state-stages are over my head, b) my understanding of the map is incomplete or c) the map does not fit me. All I know is that I feel the Clear Light always even through pain, fear, annoyance, pleasure or any phenomenal state. I see the clouds but I know the sun shines above them.

It is my solemn (and playful) intent to live the paradox of full engagement and complete non-attachment both at the same time in a way that these two qualities not only do not conflict, but support each other utterly.


Castaneda, C. (n.d.) http://www.prismagems.com/castaneda/donjuan4.html retrieved June 6, 2009.

This is a web site that carries an extensive quote from Tales of power that I have, for some reason, been unable to find in the actual book; a google search made it accessible on this web site.

Castaneda, C. (1972). Journey to Ixtlan: The lessons of Don Juan. New York: Pocket Books

In my opinion, one may skip the first two Castaneda books and begin with Journey to Ixtlan. The first two books revolve around Carlos’ use of psychedelic drugs which tends to lead people to imagine that these drugs are necessary to non-ordinary states and experiences. Using death as an advisor is introduced in this work.

Castaneda, C. (1974). Tales of power. New York: Pocket Books

Tales of power, following on Journey to Ixtlan elaborates and makes practical how death is used as an advisor. Journey and Tales are two of the most influential books of my life. And, most likely, my death.

Dalai Lama XIV (1997). Sleeping, dreaming and dying. Sommerville, MA: Wisdom Publications

Even though I find the Dalai Lama, honestly, to be a little lame, the assigned reading for this class was a good overview of some classic Buddhist material on states and supported the concept of being neither attracted nor repulsed.

Cohen, A., & Wilber, K., (2009). Is sex a path to god? EnlightenNext, 43, 42-50.

Wilber’s frequent dialogs with Cohen usually make for interesting reading, particularly given their informality. In this dialog, Wilber argues that sex can lead to very high states of consciousness and Cohen contends that, in practice, sexuality tends to be very hard to manage karmically. Indeed.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1960). The Tibetan book of the dead. London: Oxford University Press

Dr. Evans-Wentz brought the Tibetan esoteric teachings to westerners. This work is absolutely invaluable though it is difficult to read given that it is a kind of incantation to be spoken over the body of the recently deceased.

Lenz, F. (Ed.) (1970). The last incarnation. Malibu, CA: Lakshmi Publications

This is a book of writings by the Rama’s students; more of my pieces made it to press than any other student’s – a huge honor. This book, probably more than any, gives the tone and substance of the non-ordinary states experienced in the study with my teacher and gives a strong sense of what ordinary life is like with a guru.

Lenz, F. ( 1994.) Surfing the Himalayas: Conversations with Master Fwap. New York: InterGlobal Seminars, Inc.

My guru wrote two fiction books designed to convey his teachings and there is some interesting material about living a life with presence and also facing death. I would not recommend these books as great literature; Rama’s unacknowledged shadow material taints them for me.

Wade, J. (2004). Transcendent sex: When lovemaking opens the veil. New York: Pocket Books

Wade researched non-ordinary experiences in sex; the results are surprising in their breadth. Most interesting is that people could have transcendental experiences without any spiritual background and with partners they did not know well.

Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening. Boston: Shambhala

I believe Welwood does an excellent job of making the advice to “be neither attracted nor repulsed” that we find in classic Buddhist texts practical in a psychological sense. He explores the ways that practitioners often disown attraction and repulsion.

Wilber, K., (2006). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston: Shambhala.

This recent text of Wilber’s focuses on how spirituality can respond to the insights of both modernism and postmodernism. The elucidation of structure-stages and state-stages and how they relate is crucial. The highest state-stage is required to see what The Book calls the “Clear Light.”

Appendix I: Extended Quote

Although I have not been able to find this quote in the text of Tales of power, I was overjoyed to find it online because I believe it to be one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature. I have quoted it at some length in the paper, but it is too long to be included in an academic article. This particular quote has been an important gift to me so I will take the liberty of quoting it fully in this appendix.

I would also suggest considering several passages from these works for future classes in States of Consciousness. Like some of Ken Wilber’s best riffs, their power is that they not only talk about changes in states of consciousness, but by their poetry and embedded intent, the actually invoke altered states for those with eyes to see. From Castaneda (n.d.)

I am going to disclose to you a warrior’s secret. Perhaps you can call it a warrior’s predilection. The life of a warrior cannot possibly be cold and lonely and without feelings because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved. And who, you ask, is his beloved? I will show you now.
His love is the world. He embraces this enormous earth. The earth knows that he loves it and it bestows on him its care. That’s why his life is filled to the brim and his state, wherever he’ll be, will be plentiful. He roams on the paths of his love and, wherever he is, he is complete.
This is the predilection of a warrior. This earth, this world. For a warrior there can be no greater love. Only if one loves this earth with unbending passion can one release one’s sadness. A warrior is always joyful because his love is unalterable and his beloved, the earth, embraces him and bestows upon him inconceivable gifts. The sadness belongs only to those who hate the very thing that gives shelter to their beings.
This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom.
Listen to that dog’s barking. That is the way my beloved earth is helping me now to bring this last point to you. That barking is the saddest thing one can hear.
That dog’s barking is the nocturnal voice of a man. It comes from a house in that valley towards the south. A man is shouting through his dog, since they are companion slaves for life, his sadness, his boredom. He’s begging his death to come and release him from the dull and dreary chains of his life.
That barking, and the loneliness it creates, speaks of the feelings of men, men for whom an entire life was like one Sunday afternoon, an afternoon which was not altogether miserable, but rather hot and dull and uncomfortable. They sweated and fussed a great deal. They didn’t know where to go, or what to do. That afternoon left them only with the memory of petty annoyances and tedium, and then suddenly it was over; it was already night.
The antidote that kills that poison is here; this earth. The sorcerers’ explanation cannot at all liberate the spirit. Look at yourself, you have gotten to the sorcerers’ explanation, but it doesn’t make any difference that you know it. You’re more alone than ever, because without an unwavering love for the being that gives you shelter, aloneness is loneliness.
Only the love for this splendorous being can give freedom to a warrior’s spirit; and freedom is joy, efficiency, and abandon in the face of any odds.

[1] Throughout this paper I will refer to the “dying person” as a “soul.” There is certainly considerable philosophical debate about whether the soul exists and whether and how it exists after death. It just seems odd to refer to the entity wandering the bardos as a “dying person” is it does in The Book. The Book covers many days and it would seem that the person is, at some point, not just dying but dead.

[2] The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha

[3] Rama/Dr. Frederick Lenz (1950-1998.)

[4] I have copied the full quote into the appendix below.


Sookie and Bill gazing

Sookie and Bill gazing


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