Here are the best testimonials from the first two workshops. I'm pleased, but know that Scott and I can and must do much, much better.
This is one of the best – taught seminars I’ve ever attended. The material was clear and exceptionally well-presented.
Participating in the seminar has relieved the tension in my lower back. It has made the more flexible and agile in one day.
Romeo Dangate II
It was a delight to be presented with this model of personal transformation, one that captures and elucidates personal trial and effort. It’s a message that goes straight to the heart, mind and soul.
I came to this seminar not sure what to expect and got more than I dreamt was possible. I hope I can take this information and implement it in my life in a way that will create a lasting change in my life.
Loved the instruction, gentleness, energy, teaching style, content, passion, the blend of two teachers, awareness, multi-level of students all learning and doing at different levels and the laughter!
I want to learn more, take more classes, and bring others!
You guys are really unto something – a set of bodywork and conceptual tools to help people move their physical health deficits as well an emotional blockage, and ultimately any life challenges. People need a place top begin, and the Path combined bodywork ( long-appreciated world over as a development tool) and intellectual insights into human nature, help folks engage and empower themselves at all levels.
Thank you both immensely. I’ve spent 30 years intellectualizing various disciplines, philosophies, and ways of life. Today I realized my block has been my failure to emotionally connect. Thus with any of it, it wasn’t enough to transcend my battle with depression. Today, everything has come together and I am EXCITED.
Brilliant combination of concepts. Putting psychological and physical work together this way has been very effective… could easily have been a 3-day seminar given the depth of the material. Beautiful, personal and compassionate presentation on the parts of Coach Sonnon and Steve Barnes.
Kyle David Jones
I can’t say enough good things. For the first time in my life I feel hope that I can create the process that will allow me to be the man that I want to be. I feel that I have the tools to accomplish my goals.
Aaron M Stultz
Phenomenal presentation of material! The tools presented are no less than life changing to attain your dreams and desires that are in Alignment with Integrity. Thank you, Scott and Steve.
Joseph Schwartz, CST
For less than the cost of a dinner out, and Cirque de Soleil tickets - an all-day seminar that's fun, physically challenging, and innovative mix of life management and physical practice. I've been to many, many goal-setting seminars, and still learned here critical new information for a follow-through...
Constance C Brown, CST
Friday, June 30, 2006
Here are the best testimonials from the first two workshops. I'm pleased, but know that Scott and I can and must do much, much better.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 12:38 PM
Thursday, June 29, 2006
From Jerry Pournelle's site http://www.jerrypournelle.com :
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Jim Baen, one of my oldest and closest friends, died peacefully last night. RIP
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam;
ad te omnis caro veniet.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetuam luceat eis.
Jim was editor of Galaxy when I wrote the science column "A Step Farther
Out." He was an excellent editor in every sense. Our conversations before I
wrote the columns improved it greatly, and his subtle editing, often not
noticed by me, made it more readable without intrusion. Niven and I hired
Jim to do line and copy editing for our early novels even when we were
working with some of the best editors in publishing.
He has unarguably improved the whole field of science fiction. Baen Books
will continue under the leadership of Jim's long time companion and friend
Toni Weisskopf. He is survived by his daughter Jessica.
Goodbye old friend.
There is an obituary at
We will all miss Jim.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 5:22 PM
Yes, the last twenty minutes feels a little flabby at times. Yes, there are a few plotholes (what? Lois Lane is the only one seeking the origin of that EMP? Exactly what work does Clark do at the Daily Planet? Certainly it isn’t reporting!). And the last shot of Lex Luthor is just too jokey. But…
Superman Returns works splendidly. From the moment we grasp the emotional tenor of the film (one of profound alienation and decency) to the moment Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh) performs his first rescue…arguably the greatest Superhero moment in the history of film, it works.
From the moment we see Lex Luthor (a superb Kevin Spacey) sweet-talking his dying, elderly wife (played by Noel Neill, the original TV Lois Lane!) into signing all her wealth to him, we are home. This is, after all, a comic book world, with absolute villains and heroes. This is the world of Superman, and director Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects) has it down pat. No, I don’t think that Routh was doing a Christopher Reeves imitation. I think that both he and Reeves were playing Superman, and their interpretations were very similar. Reeves nailed the impossible masculine beauty, the power, the yearning. And Routh, bless him, is damned near as good in an instant star-making performance.
It’s a little long, a little weepy, a little childish at times…but also dark, exciting, violent, and, well, just terrific. Wow. A solid “A”
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:37 AM
I feel a need to stay in my spiritual side today. the following was sent to me by Tim Piering, in connection with the martial arts characteristic called "Mushin" or "No-Mind." Man, when the question is: "how do I stand before a man who holds a 4-foot razor blade who wants to cut me in half" the answer had better be accurate. Those who believed myths about consciousness or combat didn't survive to pass them on. Therefore, finding the words of saints which also correspond to those of warriors...well, it's hard to argue.
Witnessing, the spirit of Meditation
Meditation is adventure, the greatest adventure the human mind can undertake. Meditation is just to be, not doing anything - no action, no thought, no emotion. You just are and it is a sheer delight. From where does this delight come when you are not doing anything? It comes from nowhere, or it comes from everywhere. It is uncaused, because existence is made of the stuff called joy.
When you are not doing anything at all - bodily, mentally, on no level - when all activity has ceased and you simply are, just being, that's what meditation is. You cannot do it, you cannot practice it; you have only to understand it. Whenever you can find time for just being, drop all doing. Thinking is also doing, concentration is also doing, contemplation is also doing. Even if for a single moment you are not doing anything and you are just at your center, utterly relaxed - that is meditation. And once you have got the knack of it, you can remain in that state as long as you want; finally you can remain in that state for twenty-four hours a day.
Once you have become aware of the way your being can remain undisturbed, then slowly you can start doing things, keeping alert that your being is not stirred. That is the second part of meditation - first, learning how just to be, and then learning little actions; cleaning the floor, taking a shower, but keeping yourself centered. Then you can do complicated things. For example, I am speaking to you, but my meditation is not disturbed. I can go on speaking, but at my very center there is not even a ripple; it is just silent, utterly silent.
So, meditation is not against action. It is not that you have to escape from life. It simply teaches you a new way of life; you become the center of the cyclone. Your life goes on, it goes on really more intensely - with more joy, with more clarity, more vision, more creativity - yet you are aloof, just a watcher on the hills, simply seeing all that is happening around you. You are not the doer, you are the watcher. That's the whole secret of meditation, that you become the watcher. Doing continues on its own level. There is no problem; chopping wood, drawing water from the well. You can do small and big things; only one thing is not allowed and that is, your centering should not be lost. That awareness, that watchfulness, should remain absolutely unclouded, undisturbed.
In Judaism there is a rebellious school of mystery called Hassidism. Its founder, Baal Shem, was a rare being. In the middle of the night he was coming from the river - that was his routine, because at the river in the night it was absolutely calm and quiet.
And he used to simply sit there, doing nothing - just watching his own self, watching the watcher. This night when he was coming back, he passed a rich man's house and the watchman was standing by the door. And the watchman was puzzled because every night at exactly this time, this man would come back. He came out and he said, "Forgive me for interrupting but I cannot contain my curiosity anymore.
You are haunting me day and night, every day. What is your business?
Why do you go to the river? Many times I have followed you, and there is nothing - you simply sit there for hours, and in the middle of the night you come back."
Baal Shem said, "I know that you have followed me many times, because the night is so silent I can hear your footsteps. And I know every day you are hiding behind the gate. But it is not only that you are curious about me, I am also curious about you. What is your business?" He said, "My business? I am a simple watchman."
Baal Shem said, "My God, you have given me the key word.
This is my business too!" The watchman said, "But I don't understand. If you are a watchman you should be watching some house, some palace. What are you watching there, sitting in the sand?"
Baal Shem said, "There is a little difference: you are watching for somebody outside who may enter the palace; I simply watch this watcher. Who is this watcher? This is my whole life's effort; I watch myself." The watchman said, "But this is a strange business.
Who is going to pay you?" He said, "It is such bliss, such a joy, such immense benediction, it pays itself profoundly. Just a single moment, and all the treasures are nothing in comparison to it."
The watchman said, "This is strange. I have been watching my whole life.
I never came across such a beautiful experience. Tomorrow night I am coming with you. Just teach me. Because I know how to watch - it seems only a different direction is needed; you are watching in some different direction."
There is only one step, and that step is of direction, of dimension. Either we can be focused outside or we can close our eyes to the outside, and let our whole consciousness be centered inwards - and you will know, because you are a knower, you are awareness. You have never lost it. You simply got your awareness entangled in a thousand and one things. Withdraw your awareness from everywhere and just let it rest within yourself, and you have arrived home.
The essential core, the spirit of meditation is to learn how to witness.
A crow crowing...you are listening. These are two - object and subject.
But can't you see a witness who is seeing both? - the crow, the listener, and still there is someone who is watching both. It is such a simple phenomenon. You are seeing a tree; you are there, the tree is there, but can't you find one thing more? - that you are seeing the tree, that there is a witness in you which is seeing you seeing the tree.
Watching is meditation. What you watch is irrelevant. You can watch the trees, you can watch the river, you can watch the clouds, you can watch children playing around. Watching is meditation.
What you watch is not the point; the object is not the point.
The quality of observation, the quality of being aware and alert - that's what meditation is.
Remember one thing: meditation means awareness. Whatsoever you do with awareness is meditation. Action is not the question, but the quality that you bring to your action. Walking can be a meditation if you walk alert. Sitting can be a meditation if you sit alert.
Listening to the birds can be a meditation if you listen with awareness.
Just listening to the inner noise of your mind can be a meditation if you remain alert and watchful. The whole point is, one should not move into sleep. Then whatsoever you do is meditation.
The first step in awareness is to be very watchful of your body.
Slowly, slowly one becomes alert about each gesture, each movement.
And as you become aware, a miracle starts happening; many things that you used to do before simply disappear; your body becomes more relaxed, your body becomes more attuned. A deep peace starts prevailing even in your body, a subtle music pulsates in your body.
Then start becoming aware of your thoughts; the same has to be done with thoughts. They are more subtle than the body and of course, more dangerous too. And when you become aware of your thoughts, you will be surprised what goes on inside you. If you write down whatsoever is going on at any moment, you are in for a great surprise.
You will not believe that this is what is going on inside you.
And after ten minutes read it - you will see a mad mind inside!
Because we are not aware, this whole madness goes on running like an under-current. It affects whatsoever you are doing, it affects whatsoever you are not doing; it affects everything. And the sum total of it is going to be your life! So this madman has to be changed.
And the miracle of awareness is that you need not do anything except just become aware.
The very phenomenon of watching it changes it. Slowly, slowly the madman disappears, slowly, slowly the thoughts start falling into a certain pattern; their chaos is no more, they become more of a cosmos. And then again, a deeper peace prevails. And when your body and your mind are at peace you will see that they are attuned to each other too, there is a bridge. Now they are not running in different directions, they are not riding different horses. For the first time there is accord, and that accord helps immensely to work on the third step - that is becoming aware of your feelings, emotions, moods.
That is the subtlest layer and the most difficult, but if you can be aware of the thoughts then it is just one step more. A little more intense awareness is needed and you start reflecting your moods, your emotions, your feelings. Once you are aware of all these three they all become joined into one phenomenon. And when all these three are one - functioning together perfectly, humming together, you can feel the music of all the three; they have become an orchestra - then the fourth happens, which you cannot do. It happens on its own accord. It is a gift from the whole, it is a reward for those who have done these three.
And the fourth is the ultimate awareness that makes one awakened.
One becomes aware of one's awareness - that is the fourth. That makes a Buddha, the awakened. And only in that awakening does one come to know what bliss is. The body knows pleasure, the mind knows happiness, the heart knows joy, the fourth knows bliss. Bliss is the goal of sannyas, of being a seeker, and awareness is the path towards it.
The important thing is that you are watchful, that you have not forgotten to watch, that you are watching....watching....watching.
And slowly, slowly, as the watcher becomes more and more solid, stable, unwavering, a transformation happens. The things that you were watching disappear. For the first time, the watcher itself becomes the watched, the observer itself becomes the observed.
You have come home.
--From "Meditation - The First & Last Freedom"
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:27 AM
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
I find myself touched by my (admittedly distant) contact with Amma, and over the last few days have thought more deeply about my own spiritual quest. In my mind, everything that we do is connected to spirit, even if we have no conscious awareness thereof.
The “Core Transformation” discipline states (and in my mind, presents excellent proof) that everything we do, one way or the other, is connected to spirit. In my mind, much of what I have done on this blog, including racial and political discussions, has been an attempt, however feeble, to understand how our everyday life is connect to this higher purpose.
I am careful here…because I have no wish to be dogmatic, or to exclude atheists or agnostics from the discussion. Nor to exclude those on either the Right or the Left. There are individuals I would have no interest in engaging with in these matters (Ann Coulter’s book “Godless” strikes me as a perfect example. A woman who “satirically” calls for murder, and spews as much “satirical” hatred as she does has absolutely nothing to say to me about her “spiritual” beliefs. I have no idea what form of Christianity she professes to follow, but find it impossible to believe Christ himself would approve.)
All major religions seem to me to point toward the same blessed mountain. All of them have been, to differing degrees at different times, corrupted to political purpose. The genius of separating Church and State in our Constitution speaks to this: human beings are afraid of death. Religion salves this fear. Human beings are hierarchical and rigid, and mistake their private beliefs for public truth. The joining of religion and politics, in my mind, opens the doorway to hell. I would rather live in a country run by the Mafia than the Church, even though I have vastly more respect for the Church. Why? The Mafia won’t torture you to death “for your own good.” Its zone of control does not extend beyond this world. When the zone of control extends into eternity, there is literally no evil that cannot be justified in the name of spirit, and that, to me is an abomination.
Spirit strikes me as the most intensely personal arena of thought or action. For myself, I try to act in a way that my behaviors are healing, joyful and appropriate in all basic arenas: survival, sex, power, emotion, communication, and thought. If I do that, the spiritual arena seems to open itself effortlessly. Flaws are always found in the “lower” levels first, and given a sound foundation in body, mind, and relationships, spirit grows like a healthy flower.
At least, that’s my feeling on the subject. Any thoughts?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:00 AM
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Had a fascinating experience Saturday night. A dear friend took me to see Amma an Indian holy woman with the reputation for being a genuine Saint. I am always interested in such things…my experience with Sri Chinmoy opened my mind and gave me visual proof of certain extranormal phenomena such as the human aura. I wondered if I would experience anything similar with Amma.
She was out at the LAX Hilton, right next door to where I was conducting the PATH seminar, and I took that as a spiritual nudge…I was supposed to see her.
So I went, despite my fatigue after a gratifying, intense workshop. The Hilton was filled with pleasant, happy people, the entire atmosphere peaceful and kind of “buzzy” with anticipation. Amma is a love avatar, dispensing simple wisdom and healing hugs, sitting on a stage without moving, eating, sleeping or otherwise acknowledging physical needs for days at a time, greeting her followers with infinite warmth…or so I had heard.
There are thousands of her followers in Los Angeles, and it seemed they were all at the Hilton. I had to take a token to get in line to see her…and from the slowness the line was moving, I intuited I wouldn’t actually get to interact with her until the wee hours of the morning. THAT wasn’t going to happen. I’m no saint—I need my sleep. But I thought I’d see the space, at least, and have a chance to feel her presence.
I was finally admitted to the central room. There were hundreds of chairs, where devotees sat. At the back of the room were a series of tables where books and CD’s were sold. The room was, again, buzzing with anticipation. Up at the front was a stage, with people lined up at the side. And on that stage sat a giant.
Now, I was in the back of the room, so I was darned curious about what I was seeing. If I stared at the giant, she seemed to slowly shrink back to human size, but if I looked away, and then toward her…she looked like an 8-foot tall Samoan football player, not a 5-foot tall woman. Her head looked HUGE. Yes, she was wearing a crown of some kind, and that doubtless created a bit of optical illusion, but that didn’t explain it. I CAN’T explain it. Amma, this tiny little spiritual woman who was greeting her followers with an indefatigable heart and body, simply didn’t compute in my visual field. I was looking at a phenomenon that was similar to, but very different from, my perception of Sri Chinmoy’s aura about 12 years ago.
I remember that one of Chinmoy’s followers said that my perception of his aura was a gift from Chinmoy to me. Another of my teachers said, no, that was a measure of my own sensitivity and perception. I don’t know, I really don’t.
But if I was to guess, I would say that I was indeed blessed, given a momentary glimpse of who this tiny, blessed woman actually is. I can’t explain it, and won’t try to. I’d like to think it was a reward for giving everything I had to students who had traveled across the country to meet me. Perhaps a hint of what we are if we only get out of our own way. But whatever Amma is is way beyond my conscious understanding, that’s for sure. I don’t want to theorize about it too much. I’m just happy right now, and especially happy for my friend, who has accepted her path.
Finding the Light in your life is one of the very finest things in the world.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:30 AM
Monday, June 26, 2006
Well, the second path Workshop is done...and I'm starting to get a better grasp on how this is going to work. The participants were fantastic. We had no dead wood in the room at all, and the reactions seemed to range from "a good time" to "utterly unbelievable." I can live with that. I thank all of you for participating. The truth is that the essence of the workshop can't quite be put into words. But if Scott and I can be completely honest about our process, the human mind has the ability to "read between the lines" and see that thing that cannot be seen...we're all just bits of protoplasm moving away from pain and toward pleasure...and simultaneously we're gods pretending to be ants. So strange. So marvelous.
thank you all.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:58 AM
Received this note this morning.
Dear Friends of Jim Baen and Baen Books,
>> >At this time we regret we are unable to give you positive news regarding
>> >Jim's condition.
>> >As many of you know, last Monday Jim suffered a stroke. The doctors
>> >describe it as a massive bilateral stroke in the thalamus. Jim has not
>> >regained consciousness and his condition has become severe. He is
>> >resting comfortably now, and appears to be in no pain; however the
>> >doctors' prognosis is grave.
>> >We know that very many people care for Jim and have been hoping and
>> >praying for a positive outcome, but we wanted to share this information
>> >with you, as so many have asked and expressed great concern.
>> >Jessica Baen & Toni Weisskopf
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:55 AM
Friday, June 23, 2006
A news story is boiling around the edges of the blogosphere. As of this time, I simply haven't read enough of it to make up my mind. The essence of it has to do with documents and emails obtained by the BBC indicating that members of the RNC conspired to disenfranchise over a hundred thousand black military personel in 2004. Especially egregious (if this is true) is the fact that many of them were in Iraq at the time, and therefore denied absentee ballots. If this is true,
1) It certainly explains why the Voting Rights Act needs to be in place. If groups are being targeted by race, I don't trust individual states to correct this. There is simply too much history of certain states refusing to acknowledge abuses toward their darker citizens.
2) Bush really, truely is not the President, and the mistakes around Iraq stop looking like mistakes. One has to take Richard Clarke more seriously when he says that our administration wanted Iraq even before 9/11. Something terrible is going on here.
I beg my readers to look into this story and report back. If this story is true...(and exit polls predicting a Kerry victory suggest it may be) then our country was stolen in 2004, and perhaps in 2000 as well. And we may be in grave danger of losing our democracy.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:07 AM
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Short note today, as the next two days are prep for the Path workshop. I did want to speak about physical things a bit—I’ll come back to it later in more depth. Right now, I’m having fun looking at fitness techniques that require minimal time.
This is possible because certain types of fitness: max strength and certain types of aerobic fitness, for instance, can actually be OVERTRAINED in less than an hour’s work a week. The Tabata wind-sprint protocol, superb for building wind, is just ten minutes or so of wind sprints twice a week. Your max deadlift can be approached in only about 20 minutes of actual exercise a week—or less.
The real problem is that fitness rests on a bed of health. Health can be defined as “wellness”—sound joints, flexible back, peak functioning for internal organs, etc. So any consideration about “fitness” has to ask about its impact on health. For instance, Pavel’s original PTP routine is superb on strength…but the “Power Breathing” technique it suggests is, by the Evil Russian’s own admission, a health risk. Not for me!
However, Pavel has still created one of the three programs I thought I’d list that deliver real, no-b.s. fitness in less than an hour a week.
1) Coach Sonnon’s FlowFit. Terrific for overall fitness, flexibility, basic cardio, coordination…just a really, really intelligent approach. Requires about 45 minutes a week. WWW.Rmaxinternational.com
2) Pavel’s “Enter The Kettlebell” system. He’s REALLY done a good thing here. By isolating the two most productive KB exercises and exhaustively explaining them, he created a fitness system delivering SERIOUS cardio and SERIOUS strength in…wait for it…34 minutes a week. Four daily workouts—two five minute strength workouts, two 12-minute Tabata-Style cardio killers. This is extremely smart stuff. In combination with FlowFit, you’d have a program addressing virtually every component of fitness…for an investment of less than 90 minutes a week. I’d call this combination a Best Bet. WWW.dragondoor.com
3) Matt Furey’s Combat Conditioning. Hindu Squats and pushups are extremely high-yield calisthenics, and real benefits can be reaped from just 15 minutes of work, 3-4 times a week. WWW.MattFurey.com
And no, I don’t get a dime from any of this.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:34 AM
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
This Saturday, Scott Sonnon and I are teaching the second PATH workshop at the LAX Marriott. I’ll have to start thinking more seriously about it tomorrow—today is my last writing work-day this week.
Not worried…I know what I’m going to be teaching, but this is a good opportunity to bring it up to conscious level. Let me go through this…
1) All my life, I’ve been looking at the question of success, and how human beings can achieve their dreams in an honorable fashion.
2) The route to accomplishing this can probably be best summed up in Tim Piering’s statement that you need a) Well defined written goals and b) the ability to take action despite the voices in your head.
3) Those goals should be in balance (health, relationship, career) because otherwise conflicting values can tear your life apart.
4) The ego thinks that it is you. Any experience powerful enough to change your life is powerful enough to trigger massive fear response.
5) Moving from one level of accomplishment to another requires an infusion of energy. This can come from many sources, including a focus of emotions, or an increase in physical fitness.
6) Fear is reflected in chains of muscle tension. Breaking these chains is one of the positive benefits of disciplines line yoga and tai chi.
7) The overall pattern of energy flow in life can be…well, not predicted, but let’s say intuited. A fine model of how life flows can be found in the steps of the Hero’s Journey, a view of world mythology throughout history. This pattern reflects human experience.
8) The overall pattern of energy flow in an individual human being is possibly best represented by the yogic chakras, which suggests that there are seven levels to consciousness, ranging from purely animal to purely spiritual—and all levels are necessary for personal evolution.
That’s the basic stuff. Scott created the phenomenal FlowFit system of physical motion. It has about 80% of the basic benefits of yoga or Tai Chi (energy, flexibility, overall strength and endurance, core strength, coordination, etc.) and can be learned in a single day.
The most interesting aspects of FlowFit (to me) are:
1) Teaching the triumvirate of Breath, Motion, and Structure…which can be applied to any other physical activity.
2) Teaching students to enter flow state. Physical flow is probably the single most sought-after (and elusive) aspect of fitness.
3) Triggering the neuroimmunoendocrine response, also known as “second wind.” This “membrane” is one of the keys to removing inappropriate fears from your life. It is also analogous to the “Dark Night of the Soul” in the Hero’s journey. Man oh man, do the monkey-voices in your head sound off as you start pushing yourself physically! Running in college, for instance, was my introduction to that voice: it would literally tell me I would die if I kept running.
4) Raising energy through proper breathing, aerobic physiological adjustments on the cellular level, increased flexibility and grace of motion, reduced muscle tension.
5) Teaching an internal reference for exertion. This is CRITICAL, and absolutely genius level. You are learning to exercise the way natural athletes do it. The difference is startling.
Here’s the kicker: any skill learned in one area of your life can be transferred to others. So, by tying the three aspects together and then giving a simple, effective tool for clearing the mind through rhythmic exertion, and clarifying dreams and goals to increase motivation, we can give participants an experience of life lived with greater joy, purpose, energy, and fulfillment.
That’s the overview. To be frank, the Path is intended to be a non-dogmatic, non-sectarian spiritual discipline. Take it, try it, and then reverse-engineer it and apply what you have learned to your own life. The Saturday workshop is the beginning—you have to take the lessons home and apply them to your life for six weeks, which seems to be about the minimum period for any kind of deep change to anchor in. That’s the overview. Hmmm. Not terribly ambitious, are we..?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:27 AM
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
I saw this last night with my daughter and her boyfriend: pretty much a perfect audience for a movie like this. There’s no real character development, and the lead (Lucas Black) has zero charisma. However, movies like this are all about the cars—not even the “hot girls” who decorate the scenes like Christmas tensil.
Black, you see, plays a kid named Shawn Boswell, a bad-egg racer who is headed for juvie. His mom ships him off to his father in Tokyo, where Boswell discovers a new type of racing, called “Drifting,” which is sort of a controlled skid-slide, and quite cinematic. And it is Drifting that saves the movie. Watching sexy Japanese cars swivel and slide through hairpin turns in Busby Berkeley choreography is really kind of fun in a dumb way. Wish that the characters had been more interesting, or the Yakuza sub-plot a bit more engaging. Oh well, at least they put action hero Sonny Chiba on film for the first time since “Kill Bill.” Give it a B-.
Yes, rapper “Bow Wow” plays the only black kid in the film, a street-hustler named “Twinkie.” He is the only character in the film who…well, let’s just put it as they did in an old, classic “In Living Color” sketch lampooning Danny Glover’s character in “Lethal Weapon”: “He can’t drive! He can’t fight! He’s not interested in sex!”
Disgusting how amusing America seems to find that stereotype.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:00 AM
I get asked this question a lot. I was reminded of my answer by a new student who is an actress…because I think acting is fabulous preparation for writing. My standard reply is: “Take theater and Journalism.”
Theater because acting teaches you character from the inside-out. Journalism to learn research, discipline, deadlines, and the ability to capture snapshot-impressions of a situation or locale. All invaluable skills. Combine them with careful reading program, and you have a fantastic base for writing. Plot, you see, is story seen from the outside-in. Acting, as I suggested, is story from the inside-out.
When you have both of these, you have a valuable tool indeed.
So…watch “The Actor’s Studio” and read interviews with fine actors (not just stars). Try to grasp the way an actor approaches the creation of character…it may surprise you how applicable their ideas are to writing.
This is even more vital if you wish to write for the screen. A television or film writer has to remember that real, live human beings have to interpret their words, have to breathe life into their scenes. We’ll talk more on the specifics of this later, but why not make a list of your all-time favorite actors, and then find interviews where they share their methods of preparation?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:00 AM
Monday, June 19, 2006
You know? I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this tale of the hapless priest Nacho (Jack Black) who dreams of becoming a Mexican wrestler. Drop-dead comedy? Queasy cultural parody? Not sure. But I saw it in a theater packed with Hispanics, and they loved it, so I have to assume that it is as affectionate as it initially seemed. The trick here is that the director (Jared Hess, of “Napoleon Dynamite”) has reeled Black in just a tad, so that he is actually playing a character rather than just Jack Black (which would actually be entertaining enough). What results is a surprisingly sweet-natured tale of dreamers, losers, people who are holding onto the world by their fingernails. Nacho, you see, wants to make money wrestling so that he can buy decent food for orphans. And with that totally unfair gambit, you feel like a scrooge not to cheer for all of the nuttiness. Nacho, you see, has a platonic crush on a nun that is so heartfelt and beautifully played on both sides that you find yourself confused: exactly what am I supposed to be hoping for, here? Nacho, you see, has a skeletally thin wrestling partner (Hector Jimenez) with whom he has such natural timing that it brings to mind classic comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy, or Abbot and Costello. Director Hess is a genuine talent, with a feeling for quirky, forgotten characters living in the shadows of society…but he never mocks them, and allows them to keep their dignity…and their dreams. This is a very funny, curiously honest movie, and I have to admit I loved it. Give Nacho a big hand and a solid “B.”
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:12 AM
Friday, June 16, 2006
I can feel it: the excitement is growing. For the last week,
I've boiled the story for the sequel to GREAT SKY WOMAN
down into terms so simple an eight-year-old could
understand it. 'Once upon a time...' the synopsis goes.
About twelve pages of densely braided story threads
I started by looking at my female protagonist, because I
wanted to be absolutely certain that she got proper
attention. In the first novel, the male character, Frog, got
slightly more focus than I wanted. These things happen.
So I'm compensating this time. I'm playing with some
important themes, and one of them has to do with
male-female relations and matriarchal structures. For
many years I've wanted to read a story about a
matriarchal structure that can defend itself against
a brutal patriarchal invader. This will be the one.
There are elements that have to do with the origin of
human consciousness: this book is sort of Cognitive
Paleoanthropology, guided by speculations by
everyone from Julian Jaynes to Noam Chomsky.
The point is that in a story with so many complex,
and complicated elements, it would be easy to forget
the central focus: telling a good tale.
So I sketched it out on 3X5 cards, boiled those back
into a simple fairy-tale type story, put it into an outline
...and read those simplified pages over and over. And
over. And over. Letting the youngest writer inside
me (talk about Chomsky's theory of multiple 'thinking
devices' in the human mind!) memorize the tale.
Letting the youngest part of me that can understand
speech tell me if the tale is engrossing.
Allowing my subconscious to tell me if the shape,
direction, taste, and smell of the story holds water.
Is grounded. Has heat. Yes, I know I'm mixing
metaphors terribly, but I'm trying to give you a sense
of something that goes on inside a storyteller that
can't quite be explained, but is nonetheless quite real.
At any rate, I woke up this morning knowing that the
story is sufficiently developed. It is time to lay it out
in Final Draft, to create an (approximately) 400-page
script of the story. In this process I'll feel my way
into the characters, and get a sense of whether or
not the pace is working.
Then...after the script is done, and flows, and works,
I'll turn it into a novel. I've done things this way for
about six books now, and it works surprisingly well
for me. Let's see what happens this time.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 2:13 PM
Thursday, June 15, 2006
I just heard that Jim Baen, one of the most influential editors inthe science fiction field, had a stroke, and has been in a coma for the last twelve hours. No more information at this time, but those of us who consider ourselves friends, or have admired the vast contribution he has made to the field, well...if you believe in prayer, this would be a good time.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:23 AM
Just a short note today—off for yoga class at 11, and then I have to tape an NPR “All Things Considered” book review at 3, so time is tight.
But I wanted to continue the thoughts on applying the Hero’s Journey to your work. The second step is the Rejection of the challenge. Friends, if your character doesn’t freak out just a little bit at the thought of the actions or problems ahead, you haven’t chosen your character and/or designed your plot properly.
A story is about the moment when someone changes. When their life change. One door closes, another opens. And traversing that emotional territory is terrifying. Any event powerful enough to force a change in our habits or personality is going to trigger fear…the only question is what will we do with that fear.
Some people run from the fear, some are paralyzed by it, others energized. But make no mistake: if your character is not afraid to take the next step in your story, you have given her a trivial challenge, one that will depend on the cleverness of your writing rather than the honesty and depth of your characterization.
Which brings up the next question: what are YOU most afraid of? Dig deep, because the answer to this question may be of critical importance in the furtherance of your career, the integrity of your relationships, and the health of your body.
Once you’ve identified areas that trigger fear, build your next story around those stresses. Give your character the same, or analogous problems. Then…watch and see what they do. You may be surprised!
So…what are you most afraid of in life? What fears have held you back, distorted your perceptions, stolen your energy?
Get to work!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:13 AM
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
A note! I just got my boxes of 1st edition hardcover GREAT SKY WOMAN and they look great! In celebration, I’m going to give FREE autographed copies to the first ten people who order a copy of the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG course, so if you don’t have your set, check it out today!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:23 AM
“I simply followed (my teacher's) instruction which was to focus the mind on pure being 'I am', and stay in it. I used to sit for hours together, with nothing but the 'I am' in my mind and soon peace and joy and a deep all-embracing love became my normal state. In it all disappeared –Myself, My Teacher, The World and Only peace remained and unfathomable silence.”
Unfathomable silence. What a concept. The reason you can’t see the forest for the trees is that the trees aren’t the forest—they grow IN the space of the forest. To see the forest, you need to perceive the space between them.
In the same way, the real “you” is the space between your thoughts. The one listening to the babble. The roar of the drunken monkeys can drown out the best-ordered, most logical progression of fantastic ideas.
I can only claim to have spent hours, a few minutes at a time, or a few seconds at a time, in that space. No noise. No doubt. Nothing but clarity, and for those moments my life makes perfect sense, and the world makes perfect sense, and I am contented and at peace.
Then…the monkeys act up again. They speak of race, and gender, and money, and thwarted ambition. And here’s the kicker: every minute I spend thinking about those things is a minute neglecting the Path I’m sworn to follow.
I can’t seem to help it sometime. I’ll watch a movie, or listen to a conversation, or run into one of my emotional walls, and BAM, suddenly I’m trapped in my external definitions.
There are dangers in going too deeply into the silence, as well. It is addictive. No pain, shame, anger, disappointment, or fear. Just a sense of connection to the first moment of my life, and a line of light stretching to my last breath. Not bliss. Just being.
Dangerous. So much more attractive than most of life…but life must be lived. My son needs my guidance, my daughter needs my hugs, my wife needs my companionship, my creditors need my money, and my friends would like to hear from me from time to time…
So the trick is to walk that tightrope. To engage with the realities of life without being consumed by them. To peer into the silence and peace…and still be worldly enough to strive to complete your human potential and fulfill your mundane obligations. That seems to be to be the task at hand…
Posted by Steven Barnes at 11:22 AM
Monday, June 12, 2006
A reader recently asked how you maintain the balance between plot and character. The answer is that it will never be perfect, and if you have to err, err on the side of whichever aspect of story appeals to you more personally. But remember that plot is the revelation of character in a specific circumstance—the two are inextricably intertwined.
Imagine a movie scene: a bank robbery. Standing in line to cash his check is Clint Eastwood. We all know how this scene is likely to play out. Now imagine the same scene, and standing in line is Woody Allen. The scene will turn out a very different way. So take care to balance the aspects, but remember that that balance will never, ever be perfect.
I spent the weekend taking everything I know about the Great Sky Woman sequel, Shadow Valley, and putting it all on 3X5 cards. It made a stack of about 130 cards that I wrapped with a rubber band, and carried with me everywhere, taking every spare moment to just roam through the cards. All of the main character’s scenes were on white cards. The major antagonist’s scenes were in red. The second lead’s cards were in green. I’m just letting my subconscious marinate in the entire story. I look at it backwards: where does the story end? What is the most important climactic scene? Do I build to it properly?
Where does it begin? What is the inciting incident? What is character X’s moment of greatest despair?
I’ll ask myself these questions endlessly, until I feel that my mind can answer all of them. That no matter what direction I view the characters from, their world makes sense, is organic to their nature.
Then I will take the next step…
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:38 AM
Friday, June 09, 2006
Working on the sequel to Great Sky Woman (publishing on the 29th of June!) I began to realize that there were a dozen different plot threads that I wanted to pull together, and it was starting to look a bit too complicated.
That deviled me on the original book, making large chunks of the writing process less than pleasurable. So I’ve promised myself that I’ll do the appropriate work in the outline form, before I begin the actual writing.
One of the LIFEWRITING techniques I like is to select the single most important character, and run them through both the Hero’s Journey and the Chakras. What I want to know is: what does this character want? What do they need? And what is the gap between these two things?
As I walk their journey with them, I have to deepen my understanding of who they are, and who they wish to be. Now, it’s absolutely true that only when I write the actual book will I dive to the core of their psyche. Once I’ve hit their core, and understand the character fully, I look again at the overall story structure, asking how the external story aspects dovetail with the inner needs, the inner journey.
The lead character, a medicine woman named T’Cori (which means “no name” in her language—the first book basically deals with the adventure that earns her a name!) is faced with a group of challenges: holding her people together, finding them a new home, preparing herself for the challenges of leadership, healing relationships, surviving danger, building a family, vanquishing her nightmares. It’s pretty intense, and involves a dozen fully realized characters. My conscious mind can’t handle all of that. So by paring it all down to a single p.o.v., I can see how the entire story looks from her perspective. Once that works, and works completely, I can go back, weave in the other characters, and know that her story has the narrative strength necessary to support the entire book.
Once I know that, I’ll be able to start writing with confidence. Along the way, I’ll discover massive amounts about T’Cori and her world, discoveries that keep the book fresh, and constantly surprise me…and therefore the readers as well.
You should always strive to balance the known and the unknown. To give yourself a skeleton to flesh, but also room to roam and grow. This is the tension between the conscious and unconscious mind…and the basis for creative exploration.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:14 AM
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Yesterday, I held my new book, Great Sky Woman, in my hands for the first time. Book number twenty. Something between two and three million words of published fiction. Twenty-six years of being a professional writer.
The book is beautifully designed…I’m seriously proud of it. Is it good? Geeze…I don’t know. I know I did the very best I could, pushed myself to the limit, researched more than I ever have…but doubts remain. They always do. You see, there is a problem with re-writing.
The problem is this. Imagine that you are polishing a ball bearing. Every time you finish a polish, you also increase the magnification of the lens you use to inspect it. Every time you look through the new lens, you see more imperfections and rough edges. So you polish. Then you increase the magnification again…
This is what happens as you re-write. You become more and more sensitive to smaller and smaller problems, and if you aren’t careful, you can polish a book for years, and never be satisfied. This has happened to many, many writers: they don’t realize that they have become sensitized to flaws so tiny that no reader would ever see it.
And as a result, they produce a fraction of the work they might otherwise have given the world. It’s sad.
How do we move past this? You know something, I don’t have a solid answer for you. Deadlines are useful, as are strong editors, who pry that manuscript out of your hands. Absent these motivations, you have to create your own. “By such-and-such a date, I will finish the project and send it out for sale and evaluation.” That can work, as can recruiting a stable of good readers, or setting some arbitrary number of times a book or story can be re-written.
Other than that, you have to go by subjective impression. There’s nothing wrong with this…as long as you look back over your year and see that the work is actually getting finished. If re-writing becomes an excuse for never finishing a project and moving on…it’s time to change the rules of engagement!
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:29 AM
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Just keep in mind the feeling 'I am', merge in it, till your mind and feeling become one. By repeated attempts you will stumble on the right balance of attention and affection and your mind will be firmly established in the thought-feeling 'I am'. Whatever you think, say, or do, this sense of immutable and affectionate being remains
as the ever-present background of the mind.
n Nisargadatta Maharaj
There are ten of these “I am” verses that Tim Piering has us memorizing, reciting, working with…the above is number four. I’ve started dwelling on them as I go to sleep at night, and when I wake up in the morning. Also, during formal meditation, combining “I am” with my heartbeat meditation. Very nice.
I’m a long way from the merging spoken of in the verses. Am quite certain that my current emotional changes are disrupting the deep calm necessary to perceive truth and dissolve illusion.
That’s alright. I have time. My sense is that if you continually expose yourself to the appropriate questions or stimuli, eventually you will “stumble on” the right balance. During your day, you will notice yourself functioning at a higher level, and can index that sensation for future reference.
The problem, of course, is that these states (creative states, spiritual states, higher consciousness states) are difficult to explain to those who have not experienced them. So naming them isn’t much use in communication of non-ordinary reality.
But the states are real. And in them, one finds limitless energy, an almost overwhelming sense of love and gratitude, and the ability to absorb an absolutely incredible amount of emotional or physical distress without losing focus.
“a sense of immutable and affectionate being.” Wow. What does that mean? I’m not certain…but I do believe I’ve seen it. I’ve watched the body language of certain of my teachers, watched the way their faces light up when then speak of these inner states. I’ve felt my own tensions and distress melt away when my meditations allow my ego to step aside. They are real. Moments in public speaking, writing, martial arts, love-making, parenting, when there is nothing other than the action, and I have (temporary) access to a state of total aliveness, awareness, and faith. It is fascinating, and memory of touching those places sustains me in the worst of times.
Yesterday, I spoke with my dear friend Charles Johnson, one of America’s most honored writers. We spoke of the artist’s life, and the challenge of living in harmony with the ways of nature and man. We spoke of race, and culture, and responsibility…I am still absorbing and assessing that conversation. A few years ago, Chuck, Tananarive, playwright August Wilson and I sat in a coffee shop until three in the morning, speaking of similar things. August is gone now. His work remains, and it is a remarkable contribution to American stage craft and literature.
What is my place in all of this? Really, it can’t be anything other than working, at every moment, to be the most authentic Steve I can be. I know that guy. I like that guy a lot. Deep inside him, beyond everything else, he possesses, well, an immutable and affectionate sense of being.
Yeah. I like the sound of that.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:38 AM
The relationship between public celebrity and private lives is great fun to speculate about, but who really knows how “real” the Jennifer Anniston-Vince Vaughn relationship really is? Who cares? Apparently, much of America. Tabloids have only to feature a picture of Anniston and her erstwhile rival, Angelina Jolie, on the same cover to boost sales.
One would suspect that there is much private pain in Jen’s life, as she struggles to build a major film career, and deal with one of the most public divorces in memory.
“The Break Up” comes in the middle of all this. Marketed as a “wacky comedy” it is actually an intelligent, rather insightful, painful trip through the slow-motion destruction of love and dreams. Their characters, who have been living together for a couple of years, find themselves in a place of total miscommunication. Vaughn is an amiable slob, childish, self-centered, and oblivious. Anniston is manipulative and dishonest. A match made in heaven.
It’s painful to watch them thrash around, each believing that they know what is right, and what will work, and what the other is thinking. Yuck. Most of the really funny moments are in the trailer…and what remains is a fairly adult comedy of mismanners, and overall some of the best work Anniston has done. I’d give it a “B.”
WARNING: MAMMY ALERT.
There is only one dark face in the entire film. In a movie swollen wall-to-wall with slender, attractive, well made-up white women, the single black character is an obese, unattractive black woman bus driver who works for Vaughn. Thanks a lot, Vince.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 10:19 AM
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought 'I am'. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally, without any interference on your part.-- Nisargadatta Maharaj
I wanted to thank everyone who wrote kind thoughts and comments on my (sometimes painful) musings about myself, my career, etc. It is a difficult subject, because, after all, I have achieved a lot of success…so it is reasonable to ask what in the world I’m complaining about.
It is also, I think, natural and reasonable for some of you to have pointed out the need to develop the black audience, especially black males (not much of one right now). That is the route that my current publisher (Random House) is trying to follow, and they’re having some trouble figuring it out…but I sure wish them luck.
My basic points, before I try to move on, are these:
1) Race alone cuts sales. I think this is due to the same phenomenon that makes black male sexuality so dicey in movies. I remember asking comic book editors why there were so few black characters in comics. They said, in no uncertain terms, that when they put black people on the covers, IN GENERAL, the comic’s sales tanked. Same artists, editors, writers, distribution channels. Hold steady for everything else, put a black face on the cover, and there was a predictable dip in sales. This is the phenomenon I’m talking about—purely and simply, the SF community isn’t half as “progressive” as it thinks it is.
2) If Heinlein had been black, he wouldn’t have been as popular. Let’s say he was writing the exact same quality work, only with black characters. First, mega-editor John W. Campbell was known (and I’ve had this verified by two living writers) to have very strong, negative racial attitudes, and simply wouldn’t have published it as often. Second, the readership wouldn’t have been as thrilled.
What if he’d written white characters? HE WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN AS GOOD. Multiple reasons for this. First, if he was black, he couldn’t possibly have known white culture as well as a white man of his intelligence and experience. How do you know how families are, behind closed doors? Experiences in churches, military academies and scientific communities if those institutions are even partially segregated? The cultural patterns of a community are absorbed from childhood. Researching them is quite useful, but nothing like living them all your life.
The second reason he wouldn’t have been as good has to do with the nature of art. Let’s say Campbell said: “we’ll publish these stories if you change the race. Our readers don’t want to read about Negroes.” That’s a believable comment. What happens psychologically to poor young Heinlein?
He started out wanting to share his dreams, his vision, and of course to make some money. He has been treated like a second-class citizen all his life (and the stories he heard from his father would be horrifying to him!) but figured that his intellectual gifts and creativity would force the world to be color-blind. That little boy inside him is tap-dancing, saying “they’ll love you!” And then this. No, they won’t love you. No, they are offended by the sight of you. But if you’ll shut your heart away, we’ll be happy to let you entertain us, enlighten us, educate our children even as your own get nada. No, we won’t publish pictures that look like you on the books or magazines, or allow you to create black characters with humanity. But you may create white heroes all you wish. Deep inside, our readers would turn away from you with contempt…but you, young Heinlein, are the Exceptional Negro…far better than your brothers, and we’ll be happy to make you an honorary white man…as long as you stay in your place.
That is a soul-killing road. Quite hard to keep your emotional balance. It gets worse. Once he has been forced to admit that the very people he wants to write for don’t really want to know who he is, he will look differently at the very books he reads. Unless he is VERY careful, books featuring white heroes will start to irritate him…unless he literally disassociates himself from his own race. He would find himself floating in a community that only wants him if he shuts up about some of the issues closest to his heart. If he stays ABOVE the issue of race, he can succeed. But clearly, the majority of his readers, fellow writers, and editors cannot do this. To ask him to have this ability in addition to his writing and researching skills is asking quite a bit.
Am I talking about myself? Not quite. I certainly don’t think I could have written Mr. Heinlein’s books. Could he have written mine? Don’t know, and that’s irrelevant. I’ve known black writers who were forced into writing white characters to survive, and it’s not a happy sight. The simple creative joy the creative children within them once felt just gets burned out.
So…what is my strategy? “I” don’t have one. My reactive, intellectual mind can’t find a way out of this box. I’ve struggled for years. There are ways in which I’ve solved it as well as any human being I know of…and it still ain’t solved.
So I have to use my intelligence against itself (in a manner of speaking) and admit that I CAN’T DO IT.
What then? Well, the answer is deceptively simple. Fiendishly simple. “I” can’t do it because the “I” isn’t real. It is an ego and social construct, and can never survive contact with actual existence. And the racial problem in America, growing out of history and a very, very real problem of human perception, as well as heirarchicalism, ego, guilt and fear, CANNOT BE SOLVED ON THE LEVEL OF “THIS” AND “THAT.”
How can it be solved? By love. By time. By the cycle of birth and death. I’m just a man who was once a boy who looked out at the world and saw no place for him in it. I struggled to define myself, and found no role models for most of what he wanted to be. Made some REAL mistakes by accepting the wrong definitions for love, manhood, some other issues. I put the death of my first marriage squarely on those mistakes, and I regret them with my whole heart.
But along the way I put my foot on an authentic path of self discovery. I can’t always hold onto my insights. I can’t always keep my balance. It’s hard to keep your balance when you can’t see the walls or ceiling or the floor beneath you. But something within me, something deep and sacred chose this path for me. It said: “This is what you will do with your life” and I said “yes.”
And there it is. I also realized that the Hero’s Journey says that one cannot rise from one level to the next without passing through the Dark Night of the Soul. Steve Perry nailed that one, folks—(for a redneck, he’s pretty damned smart). Midlife crisis? Maybe. Existential crisis? To be sure.
My ego is dying, guys. An entire way I defined myself is screaming, shaking, begging, struggling. The path I set my feet on a lifetime ago is demanding that I continue Becoming, revealing, moving onward. It hurts terribly at times, and is unspeakably lonely…
But what is the way through the Dark Night? Faith. Faith in myself. Faith in my companions. Faith in the divine power that created and sustains me.
I know not what the path ahead might be. I only know that between birth and death we have a chance to sing our song. If that song is sung in the forest, and there is no one to hear, did it make a sound? You bet your ass it did. And I’ve been blessed to reach millions of people…actually a billion, if you count my “Baywatch” episodes.
What do I do? The answer is found in my daily practice. You, all of you, are part of it. I wake up in the morning, and vomit this up, warts and all, declaring to the world that I want, I accept, what is next. That I love the life I have been given, even if at times I recoil from the demands. Notice how much I’m using the “I”? Wow, what a conundrum. The answer lies in extinguishing it, and it clings to life like a…well, like a demon.
“Refuse all thoughts except one: the thought 'I am'. The mind will rebel in the beginning, but with patience and perseverance it will yield and keep quiet. Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen spontaneously and quite naturally, without any interference on your part.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how legitimate my arguments are. How accurate my perceptions about race and culture, how much in denial I think America, human beings, or the SF community is. What matters is that, once you’ve seen the light, you cannot turn away without damning yourself. All of my painful thoughts might be valid, but none of them are the light. None of them can get me out of this box.
Is it heads? Is it tails? The answer is found in stepping back and seeing that it is a damned quarter.
The problems I see are real. And the solution is not found on the level of ordinary thought. It takes a willingness to connect with both the animal survival urges, the sensual passion, the physical vitality, the emotional honesty, the intellectual clarity and, most importantly of all…the spiritual commitment.
Am I willing to die for this? Am I? Because if I’m not, why the hell did I, do I, spend my life doing this. Either it is important enough to give my all…and that includes my ego as well as my life itself…or I have squandered my gifts and time.
Lord, I try so hard to stay centered, and balanced. And every day is a test. But that’s true for all of us. All the time. All our lives. I have my cross to bear—and so do every one of you. I’ve never wanted you, or anyone else to bear mine.
I’m strong enough to bear my own cross.
But wow, that Dark Night of the soul is a real mind-twister, isn’t it?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 9:36 AM
Monday, June 05, 2006
When the 'I am myself' goes, the 'I am all' comes. When the 'I am all' goes, 'I am' comes. When 'I am' goes, reality alone is...
-- Nisargadatta Maharaj
So.. Here’s the truth about what’s been troubling me. Since the death of Octavia Butler, I’ve been taking another look at what I’ve accomplished in my own career. I certainly never considered myself as fine a writer as my friend, or for that matter the wonderful Samuel Delaney. But there I am, the third member of a triumvirate of black SF writers, and the only one left in the field. Oh, Walter Mosley writes SF, but you’ll notice that most of his readers are…well, Walter’s readers. Not SF readers. He is a stellar, bestselling writer who operates in several fields. Not as much comfort to me as a home-grown writer would be.
You see, when I came into the SF field almost 30 years ago, I thought that other writers of color would enter the field after me. They did…and they were all women. In thirty years. Not a single black male SF writer came in after me. What the hell..?
And when Octavia died, I began to think more deeply (and perhaps gloomily) about what that means. The short version is that there are environmental pressures in the field. SF is modern mythology, mythology exists to place the mythologizers in the center of the universe, and SF basically salutes Northern European faces, languages, image systems, mythologies, world views, and so on. As I’ve said many times, 99% of everything you see in the SF field is white people and their imaginary friends. No one wants to take responsibility: they blame the editors, the art directors, the advertising departments…everyone except where the blame belongs: the nature of human perception, and the persistence of human fear. That slight, 5% disconnect that makes it both more unlikely that a males, black or white or Asian, would pick up an SF book without someone who looks like themselves on the cover. And a 5-10% shift in sales patterns is GIGANTIC when multiplied across generations and millions of readers. It’s enough to create an apparently intractable problem.
Or so I tell myself. It isn’t that black males don’t like SF. It isn’t that they don’t dream of writing careers. It isn’t that they don’t go into the sciences. Surely, it doesn’t take more raw ability to write SF than it does to be, lets say a physician. And the percentage of black physicians (about 3-6% depending on your data source) is way higher than the percentage of SF writers. As is the percentage of blacks writing fiction in general.
Here’s the problem: it makes a great target for my Drunken Monkey. It whispers to me that Octavia, better than me, couldn’t support herself in the SF field. That it wasn’t until the Women’s Literature movement, and Black women readers in particular discovered her that she started making money. The suspicion remains that Chip Delaney found far greater acceptance and success in academic writing and Gay-themed work than he ever did—or could—in the SF field.
And that brings me to my own ego-driven inner ravings. I started my career with certain goals, hopes and dreams. Now, let’s make it clear—in any reasonable sense, I’ve surpassed them (career wise) that is, I’ve done everything that little boy inside me dreamed of.
But there is honestly, seriously, a part of me that thinks I’ve gone as far as I can in the SF field. That there is just a limit to what I can do. If there had been just one black guy who came in after me and succeeded. Better still, if anyone had come in and blown me away, I’d have just said “well, Steve, maybe you’re not good enough, don’t work hard enough” to reach certain goals. But no one came in. And in some very important ways, no non-Caucasian has ever done much better than me in this field. And considering how much better there is to do, that’s a little scary. In other words, I have no proof that it is even possible to do better than I have. I’m proceeding on faith, and when Octavia died, that faith took a hit. I realized that, to a disturbing degree, I was alone in the world. And that was frightening.
So…what do I do? If I’m right, I’m heading down a dead-end street on a runaway train, career-wise. If I’m right, the closer I get to my truth as a writer, artist, and man…the more likely I am to be writing things that the market doesn’t want to read. And that’s disturbing to me, frankly. It impacts my ability to feed and protect my family. It is terribly sad to that little boy inside me, who just wanted to be loved and heard.
I’ve been thinking about this, trying to disprove my thesis (and all it would have taken is one black male writer succeeding other than me) and when I’m tired, or in grief, or under pressure, it’s tough. On a logical level, I can’t disprove it. The thought that I can’t is comforting to the demons in my basement. They whisper “stop trying. Stop telling the truth. No one wants to hear.” The voices are traitors to whatever potential remains untapped within me.
There is no answer on the level of ego. Everything I think about American culture, about human perception, about the origins of racial miscommunication, may well be true, and will be healed only by time. Long after I’m dead, perhaps. I can’t know. And what do I do while I sift through the data?
There is no answer that my conscious, calculating mind has been able to find. But that doesn’t mean that there is no answer. “When the 'I am myself' goes, the 'I am all' comes. When the 'I am all' goes, 'I am' comes. When 'I am' goes, reality alone is...”
My salvation is to go more deeply into the process. Beyond race and gender, beyond life and death. Better men than me have struggled their whole lives to “understand” the issues that have, perhaps, limited my success. Perhaps. I don’t have the time or the temperament to fight those battles again.
But if I set myself to dig directly into the source…perhaps. If I remember that the smaller my ego, the tinier the spaces I can slip through.
If I use my pain and fear to motivate myself to find the truth within my existence to an extraordinary degree, then I will be able to reach out to those readers who crave a writer willing to extinguish the flame of his own ego in order to dig to the truth. A rarified atmosphere.
But really, is this different than asking the question “what will it take to bring about racial harmony in America? Or justice and peace in the world as a whole?” If I cannot move beyond my wounds, have I the right to ask people to slip into Alpha-state and absorb my metaphors?
Perhaps not. So…this is just my particular cross to bear. We all have them. For some reason I chose this one. I just never thought that I would bear it alone, for so long.
Last Friday in class, Tim Piering opened my eyes a bit. I was able to see beyond my pity and selfish needs to a point of light. I have to focus my mind on where I’m going, not on the obstacles I see. There is no joy in Mudville if I concentrate on the obstacles. On the other hand, if the social barriers I’ve perceived all my life are as strong as I suspect, it would be disastrous to be in denial about them.
There is a middle way. A way of adhering to your goals and dreams and principles, while not being foolish about the possible dangers. That way has been marked out by innumerable spiritual men and women: teachers, warriors, saints, philosophers. I think that my only hope is to trust them, and trust my own heart, and to keep moving forward.
“I am” I think to myself as I lay down to sleep. Over and over again, that central miracle of existence. “I am.” And when I awaken during the night, I think “I am.” And when I awaken in the morning, “I am.” Over and over again. Not “I am black” or “I am not as successful as I’d like to be” or “I am 54 years old” or “I am alone in a field that does not want people like me…” or anything else. Just “I am.” The only thing that is self-evident, cannot be argued with in any meaningful way. The bedrock foundation on which all other knowledge of the universe must be constructed.
I am. For another day, I am.
And today, that is enough.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:24 AM
Friday, June 02, 2006
Focus your mind on 'I am', which is pure and simple being.
Be with it all the time you can spare, until you revert to it spontaneously.
There is no simpler and easier way.
-- Nisargadatta Maharaj
Over the last weeks, you’ve watched me get distracted from my path with considerations of human relationships, race, health, and emotion. It isn’t that I expect my tolerant readers to do anything about the demons that devil me. This blog is a way of expressing the things that arise as I deepen my personal practice.
There is a knot in my psyche that has been plaguing me for months now. I may speak of it soon—at the moment, the content doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I can feel it raging in my mind, running around and around in a circle like a trapped rat.
Let’s just say that I am engaged with a puzzle that has no obvious solution. That very fact makes me suspect that the answer cannot be found on my current energetic level—that I actually have to evolve as a human being just a little more before I’ll be able to glimpse the true nature of my dilemma…let alone a solution.
This morning, I awoke at 4:15 and got out of bed at 5:06. I dressed, and drove twenty miles to Pasadena for the martial arts class taught by my old friend and teacher, Tim Piering. What kept running through my mind was that I needed to talk to someone, someone who knew me and my struggles, who has the wisdom to operate at a higher level on a very consistent basis. Tim is a man who reminds me of Coach Sonnon in some ways—he’s gone beyond martial arts (four black belts, former All-Marine Judo Champion) to embrace a spiritual path. If I could speak with Tim, I thought, he might help.
I sat in the parking lot of the Japanese community center until 5:55, thinking that perhaps no one was coming, when the other guys pulled up, and then Tim himself. I mentioned that I’d like to have lunch with him to discuss some things, and he graciously agreed.
Then…during class, something happened. Tim teaches in an odd, eclectic fashion, moving back and forth between physical technique, sparring, theory, breathing exercises, and philosophical discourse quite fluidly. The movement is different enough from my beloved Silat that it forces me to ask questions about pure motion, pure intent, the nature of personal and conflict interaction—without fixating on technique, which is far less important than the mental state of the combatants.
And Tim did some work with what he calls the “I Am” verses, a simple and direct way of attaining great mental clarity, perhaps a doorway to the quality or state known as enlightenment.
What I can say is that we were reciting verses, and I had commented to one of the other students about how my brain is running in circles on a certain issue, using up valuable compute cycles I should be investing in my work.
We sparred a round, and then recited, and then sparred…and something broke open inside me, and I almost cried, right there in class.
And the answer was this: the devils currently plaguing me may be correct. The problems I perceive may well be real. But my only option is to learn to clarify my own perceptions, to rise to the level of resolving dualities. Whatever problems I face, my ability to face them will be dependant on the amount of my true capacity I bring to the battle.
Or to put it another way, I must be as authentic as I am capable of being, without withhold. God, it is so hard. Right now, in some very critical ways, I have no guides, no mentors, am walking in territory not merely unknown to me, but to which there are no explicit guides.
I’ve been brought to this place in my life by my ambition, my loves, my drives…and coming along with those things were, of course, my wounds, confusion, dishonesty, and cowardice. All of them whisper in my ear. Some of them scream. And the only way to sort my way through that forest is to become calmer, deeper.
What am I? My belief is that I am a spiritual being having a human experience. It is so, so hard to remember that. So easy to believe that I am defined by my external realities. Sigh. Arrgh. All right.
It was a bit spooky the way Tim cut right to the heart of what I needed. But that’s why I was willing to get up at five in the morning to play with him. He’s that kind of guy.
Posted by Steven Barnes at 2:25 PM
Thursday, June 01, 2006
What makes a relationship work?
Steve Perry pointed out yesterday that relationships aren’t a matter of finding a perfect mirror image of self. They are more in the nature of completing yourself, finding someone who can teach you and show you things about yourself you could not find on your own. Couldn’t agree more.
Still, the basic point remains: unless you would consider yourself attractive, it is unrealistic to expect others to be attracted to you. Saying that “the person inside me” is attractive, wonderful, spiritual, loving…is a beautiful act of faith. Learning to express that person so that others can see him, well, that’s a little tougher. The same point of view would lead us to seeing everyone as wonderful, spiritual, loving…deep inside. And so I believe we are. But how many of us have that kind of vision? Perhaps after we’ve gotten to know someone, yes. If Tananarive was caught in an oil fire, and all of her skin burned away, I would still love her, period. But would I have fallen in love with her if she’d been a burn victim when first we met? I sincerely doubt it.
How about if we’d lived next door to each other, and I’d gotten a chance to know her? Or if I’d loved her writing, and met her after years of correspondence? You know, that’s possible. Not likely, but possible.
I need someone who can share my life with me. Love isn’t enough, and never has been. Physical attraction isn’t enough, but it helps you stand out from a roomful of possibilities. Intelligence isn’t enough, and neither is talent. Similar values are critical—I’ve been enough of an odd duck all my life, and damned if I’m going to wake up every morning next to someone who thinks I’m a strangeling.
But what else? At the core of it all, what are we looking for? Companionship? Sex? A business partner? A parent for our children? All these things and more factor in.
And what qualities do we seek? I need honesty, passion, ambition, sensitivity, intelligence, clarity, and creativity. To the degree that I bring these things to the table, I can get them in return. Of course, as Perry hinted, you don’t WANT an exact match—that would be boring. So I might trade some of my ambition for some of her sensitivity. I might settle for a bit less creativity if I can get more clarity. But I wouldn’t expect to attract, and hold, someone of much greater intelligence, beauty, or ambition than I possess.
And honesty? Well, I think I value that more than almost anything. Not that it can’t be accompanied by politeness, or discretion, or sensitivity. But I need a partner who can help me figure out the territory I’m passing through, and desperately need accurate reporatage on what they see in me, my projects, the market, the society I interact with…
This is especially important to the degree that I’m traversing territory that is culturally unique. Where do I go? Who do I talk to? When I have fears, doubts, despair, when I stumble, where do I go? If my mate won’t tell me the truth, I’m in terrible trouble. Hell, I might be in trouble even if I DO hear the truth. But if I sink into a morass of comfortable lies, dear God I’m in trouble.
So honesty would be close to the top of my list. The highest value? Not certain. But without honesty, I’m not sure anything else would count. What about you?
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:41 AM