Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Lotus Haze

Odysseus removing his men from the company
of the lotus-eaters [via Wikipedia]
My eldest son is a big fan of the Percy Jackson novels. The stories are set in the modern era heavily interwoven with ancient Greek mythology. Last night, the kids and I watched a recent movie based on the book The Lightening Thief. In the story, Percy and his friends are on an urgent quest to return Zeus's stolen lightening bolts to him; if they fail, the Gods go to war, and the world will descend into chaos and darkness.

There's a scene in the film, where the characters wind up in Las Vegas in a fictional place called the Lotus Casino. The characters are repeatedly offered lotus cookies which, when eaten, put them in a euphoric haze divorcing them from any concerns of their quest. When they finally snap out of the haze (based on divine intervention from Percy's father Poseidon), they realize they lost 5 days. The story is based on the Greek myth of the Lotus Eaters, where a race of people living on an island of North Africa consume narcotic lotus fruits and flowers causing them to perpetually laze in peaceful apathy.

This morning I couldn't stop thinking about this story. Like many, the world of ancient Greek myth and how it relates to my personal daily experience often feels ancient and distant. The modern world, steeped in rationalism and a generally monotheistic world view tends to dismiss these lessons. We can feel so evolved, confident in our hardened monotheistic, agnostic or atheistic stances. I think its easy to look at this world of goat men with a complex pantheon of quibbling deities and dismiss it all as being simply fanciful. While its true these stories are not "realistic," I think many of their lessons have simply morphed -- perhaps influenced by, perhaps evolving independently, but always taking on the vocabulary of their respective traditions. For example, within my own Sikh tradition, the lotus eating world is referred to as maya, or the illusory world; its the one we're mostly steeped in. We pre-occupy ourselves with the mundane, materialistic and pleasurable while often dismissing the more important work of world improvement -- things like the elimination of poverty, war, and suffering --  as too distant, naive, or not possible.

So I started asking myself, what are my lotus cookies? Am I in a laze of peaceful apathy? Then I realized I had just spent an hour of my morning thinking about real-estate. Not to knock anyone who thinks about real estate, I actually think its quite important for folks who need a home or earn a living from it, but for me, well, I don't -- its just a mentally lazy distraction. I also started thinking about the hours I laze away doing things like: dinking around on my ipad, obsessively reading the news, twiddling with my phone, and facebooking or twittering.

Sadly, I realized the list is quite long. So, after this reflection, I had an overwhelming urge to start my day with a non lotus eating activity. Doing something "world improving" feels so grand and abstract. I wasn't quite sure what it could be, so I decided to just write up these thoughts in the hope that someone somewhere might benefit. And now, I leave you with the clip from the movie that inspired this post.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Embracing the Other

My mind has been racing non stop ever since I learned of the tragic Sikh Gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin. This evening I've been thinking about two things in particular. The first is the idea that someone could be so deluded by hatred for an "other", meaning someone different, or outside the mainstream, that they would feel the need to shoot them. The second is the extreme suffering my fellow turbaned Sikhs have been experiencing across our nation.

What struck me about the latter point, after reading the many tales of horrible encounters, was that I do not have similar stories. Like 100% of baptized Sikhs, I always get pulled aside at the airport for extra security, and I certainly have stories about being glared at, followed, or stared at by someone frightened by my appearance, but in general, these tend to dissipate as soon as I flash  a smile, ask how their day is going, or break the ice in some similar fashion. I also notice these negative things usually don't happen in Seattle, or at least my bubble within Seattle, and in general, are not something I would classify as serious or threatening.

As a little background, I only became a fully turbaned and bearded Sikh two and a half years ago, and for almost a year of that time I was out of the country. So I was not with a turban in the virulent wake of 9/11, nonetheless, it still strikes me as curious.

This evening, I had a thought. Today was Seattle Night Out, a Seattle tradition when we block off our streets from traffic, break out the barbecues, and chat with our neighbors. Its a wonderful way for the community to get to know one another.

So while enjoying a lovely evening with my neighbors, it struck me that we Seattleites are extremely, perhaps abnormally, comfortable with the notion of the other. The other, as in -- the one that is different from the main stream. As I looked around, I noticed a few neighbors with colorful tattoos, a lively gay couple with two sweet children, and an ever helpful male neighbor of mine, who happens to have fluorescent purple hair, neon blue nail polish, and black and white knee high horizontally striped socks. And as always, no one, not even the "normal" folks really noticed any of this as this sort of thing is  quite common in Seattle.

I believe Seattle, in a way, acts as a magnet and sanctuary for "others." So then, given all these "others," I suppose its only reasonable that a Sikh turban and long beard doesn't get noticed much either -- after all, its just another other. And perhaps if the shooter had been exposed to more "others," his heart might not have been filled with such hate.
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