© 2018 by MADELINE MCNEILL

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BERKELEY AND SAN FRANCISCO



I'm in Santa Cruz at a coffee shop drinking Jasmine tea and eating a warm chocolate pastry. The coffee shop is called The Abbey and is joined to a church. It's open to the public and there are a ton of students working on computers. It looks like a regular coffee shop, then I peer through a side door into church offices and a sanctuary.

I'm jealous. I want an abbey. Not a coffee shop, but a real one where people practice vocal arts, meditate on the inner movements and sensations of the core, and immerse themselves in ideas of body philosophy.

I was in the Bay Area last week. I planted for four days in Berkeley in the elegant home of a disc golf friend of Jeremy's. Disc golf hospitality came through again on my behalf. The husband was out on tour, so I hung out with his wife, a nice woman, retired and ready to travel once some home renovations are done. She gave me my own room. Folded towels were laid on the dresser with an extra key resting on top. She told me to stay as long as I want. Grateful. They live a few blocks walk to campus, so I could easily venture and explore.

Berkeley is bustling. I walked by lots of restaurants, lots of businesses that have grown to support the thousands of students who live there. Much more ethnically diverse than Spokane. Lots of gentrification. Poverty showed in tents and makeshift shelters in small parks and along sidewalks. I walked to campus. After consulting maps and getting lost a few times, I plopped myself down in the office of an undergrad adviser in the theater department. Long story short, I told him what I do (combine opera technique with somatic disciplines to create new philosophical ideas of self as body) He responded with encouragement for my work, but not much advice for how to go forward. Berkeley, he said, is almost totally focused on the undergrad experience and what I'm doing is grad level stuff that ventures into interdisciplinary realms that Berkeley isn't exploring, yet. He recommended I check out the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

So, the next day, I did.

I rode the BART (underground transbay tube) and walked upstairs into the light of human ingenuity. Buildings and concrete and cars and signs and humans. The class system in cities divides humans by elevation. On the sidewalks, low class people are hanging out. Mostly black people gathered, sitting, listening to music, talking, joking, hustling. People (often of a lighter skin tone) weave in and out with an air of purpose, some disappearing into the buildings rising high above the streets. At the entrances of these buildings are security guards, stationed gatekeepers to the upper echelons of high society. I entered the lobby of the California Institute of Integral Studies. The white walled ground floor doubled as an art gallery. It displayed a Tibetan mandala under glass. Irony. There were also several paintings of female Hindu deities—green multi-limbed ladies with ample breasts and seductive eyes. I was greeted by a security guard sitting at a solitary circular desk stocked with school pamphlets around the rim.

“Hi, I would like to talk to someone about the school.”

He asked for my ID. I forgot it...oops. He sighed and called upstairs,

“There's someone here who wants to talk to an advisor. She doesn't have an ID.... Ok. Sure.” He hangs up the phone. “What you can do is get onto the website and make an appointment, and someone will get back to you.”

“Ok.” I said. “Would it have made any difference if I had my ID?”

“No.” He said. “There are a couple people out sick today, so they're a little short staffed.”

“Alright. I'm disappointed because I came from Berkeley, and I did email and call yesterday and no one returned my message.”

“Well, the person you want to email is Mahesh.”

“Ok thanks.”

So, I sat down at one of the tables next to a Hindu goddess smiling from inside her golden frame. I took out my phone and emailed Mahesh with a short introduction. I wrote that I was sitting downstairs. I waited. Occasionally I asked the security guard questions across the lobby just to break the silence. “Hey! How's it going? Have you lived here long? Do you like it?”About an hour later, Mahesh came downstairs. The security guard pointed him to me. I smiled and introduced myself and after a few minutes conversation, he invited me upstairs to check out the school. Yay! I felt worthy. We rode the elevator up, where it opened into warm school décor. Mahesh kindly invited me into his office to talk about what I'm interested in.

The California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is a private college providing undergrad and graduate degrees in fields like Somatic Psychology, Expressive Arts, Transformative Leadership, and Women's Spirituality. CIIS embraces multicultural studies of spirituality including indigenous practices. It's also New Agey. There's a grad degree called “Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness.” I have crossed paths with this kind of academic culture before. I happily immersed myself in the academic culture of Fairhaven college in Bellingham, Wa. I also lived in Boulder, Co for three years which is home to a Buddhist University called Naropa. CIIS is much bigger and more ethnically diverse than what I experienced in Bellingham or Boulder, but the general academic layout is similar.

I learned a lot in Bellingham and Boulder. They changed my life for the better. There's a lot of wisdom in the somatic arts, but I want to make a criticism of these academic institutions from where I am now. The underlying philosophy generally follows New Age beliefs. Ya don't question them. They take scientific ideas and blend them with spiritual ideas to come to the conclusion that we have supernatural abilities. We can feel and manipulate subatomic particle activity (aka energy). Our minds and consciousness are imagined as fluid clouds of subatomic particle movement rather than body processes that require flesh. We are energy. And because energy is neither created nor destroyed, we are....infinite!

The division of mind|body|spirit is strong with these ones.

Why is this bad?

First, I think New Age theories are incorrect. Second, it's bad to think we're infinite with energy powers. It's naive. It's escapist. It makes money and feeds capitalism. It puts the “mortal body” at the bottom of a hierarchy, while blissful, happy (supposedly infinite) emotions are on top. At CIIS, the study of “body” revolves around healing trauma. When the body breaks, that's when you address it. But what happens when you are all better? Well, then you focus on being blissful, infinite, and supernatural. You detach, again. To me, this reinforces the culture that keeps us neglecting bodies. It focuses on positive emotions rather than the natural range of human experience. I'm all about the healing arts, but after we heal, we should create a badass culture of BEING A BODY! Death, pain, sadness, joy, life, grit, gumption, skills, mastery. We need culture for all that. And we need smart people creating that culture. Smart people who teach young people...like professors at colleges. Forget the infinity stuff. Get in the streets. Figure out how we are BODIES and create culture for that.

That's what I think. And I said so at a talk the next day. Mahesh mentioned that CIIS was hosting its first Inclusion and Diversity Symposium the next day, an all day event of free talks at the college. So I came back to San Francisco. It was impressive. I met some new people, ate some good food, and went to a couple talks including one called “LET'S TAKE THE NEXT STEP: African Cosmetology and Western Science.” A black woman professor presented on the mythology, culture, and belief system of an ancient African civilization. Her co-presenter was a white professor with flowing Einstein hair. She presented a bunch of information, her own research, but I honestly can't remember any of it, partly because she delivered it so dryly, like she was reading an encyclopedia. We listened to her speak in the low ambiance of fluorescent light. Then Einstein hair talked about how these African people had powers, relating it to New Age science, and if we could only tap into that, just imagine what might be possible! Then I raised my hand and disagreed, raising some of my points above. And people looked at me like I was an ignorant heathen. I argued for a few seconds, but nobody was having it, so I let it be. The discussion quickly changed topics back to woo woo, people talking of transporting consciousness and astral projecting and perceiving energetic states. Naive. Escapist. I thought of the people three floors down outside the building. After it ended, I left. Back downstairs. Back to the streets. The low class poor people hanging out on the sidewalks surrounded by buildings. A small drunk black woman began dancing to hip hop. Nordstrom here. Tech firm there. Buildings and cars and signs and humans. I walked to the BART entrance, down the stairs to the dark tunnel under the city, underground. I boarded the tube, back to Berkeley.

It's really hard for me to break into these institutions. It's frustrating. If you speak against the dogma, you are dismissed as ignorant or disrespectful, or to use more liberal vocab, “intolerant” and “non-inclusive.” It makes me mad that I have to wave my arms like a crazy woman to get some attention. My reasoning, though, is solid. Just look around. The philosophies in power are not working. Bodies are dying, hurting, being neglected, not being trained, fulfilled, or cultivated with a range of sensory movement. People are crying out. We need to refocus and restructure. Reclaim spirituality for the flesh. We need to learn to be bodies.

I'm starting a spirituality of being a body. Body philosophy is the conceptual framework. The idea is the core muscles contribute to processes of emotion, mind, consciousness, and “soul movement” accounting for the felt experience. This challenges theists and New Age people who believe their felt experiences are perceptions of the supernatural—they believe they are feeling spirits, energy, and infinite life.

I disagree. I think we are finite bodies. That said, I don't have any problem with imagination. Imagination is awesome. Lord of the Rings, Wonder Woman, A Wrinkle in Time, haven't seen Black Panther yet, but I want to soon. Mythology is essential. Fiction and fantasy in art stretches us. And it's fun. Superheroes are fascinating. Making cartoon animals talk gives us empathy for the natural world. Exaggerations in art highlight absurdity helping us see truth. Imagination moves us into dream states where we can plant seeds for growth and new ideas. I think of tarot readers as real time novelists. They read the person in front of them and weave a story on the spot with the play of the cards. The story moves client into a state of imagination like they are watching a movie of their life, a fantastical adventure that helps them explore themselves in new ways. It's awesome. In the end, though, we always exit the theater and take a breath of air, still a body.

My question for people is: why do you need to believe you are infinite? Why do you need to believe you are magical? What are you making up for? What is so terrifying about planning and creating for the next generation of humans? Why do you insist on always thinking about how you will continue living forever?

I get it. We are in the destructive throes of industrialization. The majority of our spiritualities have roots in pre-industrialized society before machines, before the power to destroy all of humanity. Industrialization is power, and we are a part of it. People want to believe that if we just embrace the mythologies of the past and pray to the ancient gods, they will come and save us. If we can just perform the old myths once practiced in nature, now in cities, it will bring nature back and melt the problems of industrialization away. But that's not how we are going to solve our problems. If we want to dismantle the destructive powers of industrialization, we have to dismantle industrialized society ourselves.

This process starts with realizing our reality as bodies. We have to ask, what do I need as a body? What do others need as bodies? And in asking those questions, we will soon be having a conversation about flesh needs and limits. We will feel humility. We will think about mortality. There is no way we will move forward if the entire population of humans believe we are infinite, limitless, and magical. Thinking like that continues the mentality that keeps us pushing limits. It continues the destruction of industrialization. If there is a spirituality that supports a continued human civilization, it will be a spirituality that accepts the reality of mortality, individually and culturally. It will be a spirituality of being a body.

Yet, in being a body, there is still a full potential for life. Mastery, art, imagination, skill building, joy, are all possible. You ever watch someone who is really good at something? An athlete or musician or dancer? They make it look so easy. That's mastery. It happens after years of practice, honing movement within the body's natural limits. Want to know the secret? Masters exert at only 75%-80%. They know that they perform at optimum when they are moving smooth, not pushing to the max. They have learned to organize detailed movements throughout the body, small movements supporting other movements, creating one fluid motion. Moving with coordinated ease, they are masters of being a body.

Right now, we live in a culture of overexertion, constant pushing past limits. It's not a culture of skill building, or mastery. Institutions that promote spiritual beliefs that we are infinite and limitless, rather than flesh bodies with limits, are not helping. They are contributing to the problem.

So what do we do? We figure out new ways of thinking. We create a spirituality of being a body. I'm trying to do that, but it's difficult when I'm simultaneously being ignored or demonized for being a close-minded kill-joy.

What can I say?

Hey y'all! I've got some great ideas. Support me. Support others creating a spiritual culture of being a body. I'm not close-minded and I'm not a kill-joy. I'm passionate. I'm smart. I love life. Let's solve some problems.

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