What We Can Do In These Troubled Times

We are currently in a very troubled time in society.  Rage, anger, hatred, and fear are often at the forefront of our media.  Terror and hate crimes seem to run rampant.  Fears of others due to their race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, or social background are incredibly blatant.  As I write this article, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has just recently occurred.  Over one hundred individuals were physically injured or killed – and untold others have been emotionally scarred by this senseless violence.

Being born in America in the late twentieth century, I have been fortunate to be raised in a culture of relative peace.  But over the last decade, and particularly through the rise of social media and online news reporting, violence has been sensationalized and made more immediately pressing.  We have become inundated with scenes of horror.  And at the same time, we have increasingly become desensitized to it.  Our “entertainment” has become increasingly brutal, almost to the point of gladiatorial events.  Video games and mainstream films are dominated by graphic violence.  These systems almost purport the idea that an acceptable way to deal with anger and frustration is to go hurt another individual.  That taking a life costs very little and is not terribly damning, according to America’s entertainment.

Moreover, our desensitization extends even more heavily to groups that do not directly include us.  “What does it matter if tens of thousands of people are slaughtered in Syria; we don’t know them, they’re a different culture, and that’s just part of what ‘those people’ do.  Who cares if sixty-four citizens of Chicago were shot over Memorial Day weekend, as they are predominantly poor, black men; and that doesn’t really include me.  So what if a room full of LGBTQ-identified people are lit up by a radicalized homophobe with a semi-automatic rifle? I’m not gay; it’s not my problem.”  It seems that feeling separateness and apathy has become the dominant perspective of Americans and the West in general.

And here’s the problem: if we just identify with the small group with which we surround ourselves, then – you’re right – it doesn’t matter.  If we just identify with being white: it’s a black people problem.  If we’re Christian: it’s an Islamic problem.  If we’re straight: it’s a gay problem.  If we live in a first world country: it’s a third world problem.  Whatever your vantage may be, it’s easy to isolate oneself and decide it really doesn’t matter because it does not immediately affect you.  With the rise of social media, online messaging, and increasing globalization, the goal we must all strive to reach is the understanding of this: all of these struggles are HUMAN problems.

It does not matter your race or ethnographic heritage, it does not matter your religious ideology or spiritual tradition, it does not matter your country of residence or gender identity: the welfare of all human beings is of concern for each of us.  Violence against another living creature – human or animal – is NEVER an appropriate act.  Intentionally causing pain to another being is ALWAYS wrong and unjustified.  I comprehend that we all have hurts, fears, prejudices, misunderstandings, and more; but it is our work as human beings to resolve those conflicts WITHIN OURSELVES.  It is our task to become free, loving, accepting, and tolerant inside.  It’s too lofty of a goal to say we must love and embrace one another as brothers and sisters, but we can surely achieve tolerance and compassion for our fellow humans.  These are some of the simplest skills we teach small children in preschool; surely adults can conquer such.

This is a goal every citizen of Earth can attain within his or her lifetime: cultivating empathy for the whole human race.  Teach your children to respect and listen to their classmates.  Console a neighbor in his time of suffering.  Forgive the woman who wronged you in the past.  Speak love.  Teach kindness.  Practice forgiveness.  And remember two of the “golden rules” I heard frequently while growing up: “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you” and “If you haven’t anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all.”  Those simple childhood guidelines could have worked wonders had the attackers in any of the recent shootings taken them to heart.

We can choose to focus on the discord, the pain, the suffering – or we can choose to focus on the good.  Pay attention to the people in your community helping one another.  Thank the stranger who went out of her way to pay you a small courtesy.  Bake some cookies for a friend just to let them know that you love them and wish them a nice day.  Find ways to cultivate kindness, generosity, heartfelt gratitude, and love.  We can only change the world by changing ourselves.  So let’s start with that.  Begin espousing the behaviors and views that you want the media and the world around you to exhibit.  Recognize your place as a global citizen.  We’ve got a long way yet to go towards unity; but we can make it there, step by step and inch by inch, if we just put in a little work ourselves every day.

Namaste (the peace within me bows to the peace within you, inside we are all one).

Art and words by: Kaelan Strouse

Learning to Love One’s Self

As humans, we are a mass of contradictions.  “I am a good person” can often be paired with “I am selfish.”  When getting dressed for the evening, “I look great” can live alongside “I look like crap.”  So often throughout the day our minds can fluctuate between “I am a star” to “I am nobody,” or “I am amazing” to “I am less than shit,” or “I am so lovable” to “I am unworthy of love.”  This is the human condition: to continually fluctuate in our perception and understanding of who and what we are.

From the Western perspective, we are supposed to solidify our identity and construct a strong persona.  “I am Kaelan.  I am six feet, one inch tall.  I am relatively handsome.  I am smart, kind, and trustworthy.  I am a loyal partner.  I have a clever wit and am generally well liked by individuals.” And according to this view, the more we reinforce those ideas, the more secure and happy we will live.  But what happens when those opposing thoughts creep in, as they will do?  What then?  Do we let the whole foundation of our self-understanding and self-confidence dissolve?  If we cannot quantify and label ourselves, then who are we?

In Eastern philosophy, there is the idea of “samskara.”  This word roughly translates to mean “impression.”   Every experience we have in our life leaves an impression on our subtle body.  Imagine, if you will, a man made out of tin.  With every experience he undergoes, another little dent is made on his metal exterior, pushing it inwards.  Over time, those dents and divots will accumulate, pushing his surface further and further towards his hollow core, until he eventually turns into a ball of metal.  He went from an open and expansive being to a contracted, solid mass.  This metaphor illustrates the exact same process that happens to us internally as we live our lives.  As little children, we start out open and free; but as life experiences accumulate, we continuously contract until we become dense, heavy, and constricted.

Not only do we have to contend with the myriad experiences we’ve undergone in this life, but (if we are still following Eastern logic) also from every previous life we’ve ever lived, which can be many.  This means that we have centuries of impressions pressing on us, pressuring us to contract, that we must overcome.  Now, going back to my original point about the difficulty in attempting to succinctly label our identities, it furthermore means that old impressions can surface and contradict longstanding opinions we have about ourselves.  Have you ever had a strange thought come into your awareness seemingly unassociated with your usual train of logic?  Yet it seems unusually potent?  This could be an old samskara surfacing.

We are assembled by layer after layer of impressions, each vying for our focus and our willingness to include it in our definition of “this is who I am.”  We are filled with so many contradicting identities and desires that it becomes impossible to pin any one down as “this is me.”   Yogic philosophy says that in our previous lives we have been every different gender, race, sexual orientation, belief system, religion, etc.  Because of these opposing and overlapping experiences, the more we try to limit ourselves to any box, the more we realize that we don’t really fit.

“As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.”

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of self-help books.  One of the common themes of this genre is the importance of positive thinking and trying to identify with only the more happy thoughts that bubble forth.  It encourages creating affirmations to affix your amazingness in your psyche.  And book after book, I found myself failing at this.  I felt like I was attempting it well, but my results were lackluster.  I felt frustrated with myself for not being better at this.

Then, when I was twenty, I discovered meditation.  Specifically, a meditation practice rooted in Kashmir Shaivism, Vedanta, and Vajrayana Buddhist practices.  What all those foreign words mean is that it was no longer was about identifying with my positive thoughts.  I discovered that ALL thoughts – the good and the bad, happy and the sad – all sprung from my samskaras.  And that I was actually none of them.  Going back to the image of the tin man, I was the empty space between the sheets of tin.  I was pure awareness.  The thoughts floating into my mind were merely distractions from the pure bliss, truth, and light that occupied the space within me.

Moreover, this emptiness inside was actually none other than the pure awareness of God.  I am God, God is me.  In this lineage/tradition of meditation, I discovered an understanding of non-dualism.  This means that there is no separation between myself and the divine, or the divine and, say, a tree.  Every physical item on Earth (and indeed the whole cosmos) is nothing but pure divine awareness manifested in physical form.  Just as light can express itself as both a particle or a wave – so too, divine awareness can express itself through energy or physical matter.  This is the very substance of current quantum research: everything can be in both the physical and non-substantial form simultaneously.

As I practiced meditation more and more, I began to sense the same awareness residing in people I met, nature, and surroundings.  Life began to feel like a sea of interconnected awareness, rather than my previous vantage as being an isolated being alone in the world.  I began to identify less with “I am so-and-so and I do this and I won that,” but “I am pure, I am love, I am bliss, I am everything, I am nothing.”   In India there is a very famous mantra: “Om Namah Shivaya.”   It roughly translates to mean: “I bow down to my Inner Self, the Self of all.”  The same radiant light within me is the same light within each of us.  It is merely the layer after layer of samskara that prevents us from seeing it.

To illustrate this point: imagine a big bowl of cookie dough.  This represents pure cosmic awareness; the dough is God.  Well, a chef comes along and breaks up the dough into little balls.  And the balls start to forget that they are actually all the same dough; they identify as being differentiated.  And the chef then dips some in chocolate chips, totally covering their surfaces and hiding the dough beneath.  He dips others in sprinkles.  Maybe a few fall in the trash and get covered in garbage.  Now, the balls think “I am chocolate” or “I am rainbows” or “I am rubbish.”  But, really, they are ALL still cookie dough; they’ve just forgotten their true selves.

It’s common adage to hear spiritual masters say: “You don’t need to become enlightened, you already are.  You just need to remember.”  In order to do so, we must meditate.  Through the process of sitting in meditation every single day, we actually buff out those samskaras, those dents.  We expand outwards, recreating that inner openness that has been constricted by time and experiences.  By cultivating a daily practice, we become more free, happy, and alive.  While my earlier attempts to become happy and confident through positive thinking failed, I soon began to find the happiness and joy I sought by letting go of identifying my thoughts as being “me.”  I continue to learn that I am so much more.  I am God.  I am Consciousness.  I am Bliss.

This is why my home is filled with artwork and photos of enlightened yogis, gurus, great saints, and Tibetan and Indian deities.  Each depiction is a connection to a being who has realized total and complete identification of their cosmic selves.  And when we gaze lovingly at them, they can inspire that same state within us.   It’s why it’s so important to seek out these beings and have them in our lives.  The space within us resonates with the vaster space inside of them and begins to grow.  We begin to feel the same expansiveness that they have attained.  And soon it’s no longer “Kaelan from Chicago,” but “I am light.  I am joy.  I am truth.”  I am bliss. And so are you.

Namaste (the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Inside we are all one).

Art and Words by: Kaelan Strouse

Buddha photo by: Michael Fawcett

Why We Need to Choose our Surroundings Consciously

A few months ago I moved from Chicago, Illinois to sunny Los Angeles.  I left the gloom of winter with its perpetually frozen sidewalks for the warm and welcoming air of southern California.  It is the home of television, web, and cinema industries – as well as fake breasts, fluffy dogs, and reflective sunglasses.  Seven sports cars on every street corner.  Bikinis as an appropriate fashion choice while shopping at the mall. Men and women with jewelry on each finger.  My senses have been overwhelmed by the garish and the glamorous clashing together – the beautiful and the bizarre playing equally, side by side.

Over these few months, I have noticed myself acclimating to these unusual sights. I remember an instance when I first arrived in LA and went to sign up for a gym membership.  The young woman who assisted me had inflated her lips with collagen to such a size that I wanted to ask if I could borrow them for my nephew’s swimming lessons.  My grandmother’s pin cushion would have looked more demure on her face than those puffy pink lips.  In addition, her fabricated eyelashes extended so far down her face that they brushed the tops of her cheekbones.  I was surprised she didn’t require a construction crane to leverage her eyelids apart.

But that was just my first day in Los Angeles.  Last week, I came across the same membership advisor, and to my total shock I found her face inline with what I now perceive as “natural.”  It no longer seemed exaggerated to me – even though I’m certain the lips and eyelashes were of the same proportions.  My perception of what is “normal” has changed by being indoctrinated into a culture where what is excessive elsewhere is merely commonplace.  What would be considered a monstrosity in the Midwest seems elegant in LA.

And this change in perception frightens me.  Within such a short period of time, my spectrum of what is acceptable has shifted.  And while this type of shift has been very positive at other times in my life (such as learning to see my sexuality as a gift and blessing), I am pretty confident that I do not want to adopt the appreciation of excess that is so prevalent here.  I do not want to think that “more” and “bigger” is “better,” or that outer façades are the most important attributes of a human being.  I want to see a person with facial characteristics blown up past anything nature would have provided as being comical. I don’t want to loose my ability to discern the exaggerated from the sincere.

When I reflect on what attributes I would like my surroundings to encourage, the following come to mind: empathy, simplicity in living, compassion, sincerity, truthfulness, creativity, and seeing the innate perfection already existing in all living beings.  And I am not sure that this La La Land culture cares about all these qualities – nay, even some of them.  The question then becomes whether I should endure here and fight against the dominant culture, or seek a home elsewhere.  If I stay, I realize that it will require cultivating a strong support network of individuals that harmonize with my vision of the world and remind me what is truly important for real happiness and wellbeing. I don’t want the way that the majority of Angelenos see the world to become my prevailing vantage.

“I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.”

Throughout history there have been examples of men and women who have stood against hate, bias, anger, and public disapproval, and endured.  They became beacons of hope for people to emulate. But is that the best way to build a life (since it’s certainly not the easiest)?  Would those people have chosen to weather those storms had they been able to go elsewhere? Do I want to become a lighthouse, rising above the salty waves and winds that attempt to pull me back into the deep of superficiality? Wouldn’t I be better suited in a culture that cherishes the same values as I?

Several decades ago, a great meditation master named Swami Muktananda talked about this very topic.  He called it “paying attention to the company you keep.”  In many of his books, he discussed how we will rise or fall to the general level of the individuals surrounding us.  For the past seven years of my life, I lived in a yogic ashram.  I was surrounded by a community of spiritual aspirants.  Every day we meditated, chanted, cooked healthy food, did selfless service.  Everyone was interested in growing and cultivating their best selves.  The people that surrounded me had qualities I aspired to attain.  Furthermore, I had wonderful family, childhood friends, artistic collaborators, and an amazing partner nearby to help raise my level.  I yearned to be the mean of the wonderful people surrounding me.

Since coming to LA, I have been entirely on my own. There has been practically no one here with whom I interact with on a regular basis.  So does that mean that I am now the average of the few people I see with any regularity – such as the grocery clerk at Whole Foods, or the neighbor that’s bitter and resentful of everyone?  Certainly, I am still in regular contact with my loved ones from back home, but they aren’t physically here with me.  And that provides a unique challenge for identifying my actual peer group.

A more recent figure that has similarly stressed the importance of our surroundings is Warren Buffett; he calls this practice “Marrying Up.” Mr. Buffett articulates this as choosing a spouse that is more amazing than yourself, and inspires you so completely that you begin to pick up their best qualities.  He argues to choose the same for one’s most intimate circle of friends.  I do feel tremendously blessed that I have “married up” in terms of my partner and my closest friendships. I have some truly fantastic people in my life.  But these fools aren’t here with me.  And, frankly, FaceTime isn’t quite the same as a real life interaction.

So what’s a yokel to do?  Shall I stay here and “batten down the hatches” for a spell, enduring the toxic waters?  Or do I find a more amicable culture in which to reside?  If I stay, then I certainly need friends, family, and my partner here with me, as well as finding locals that mesh with my priorities and worldview.  I am scared, though, that I will travel further down this abyss of superficiality and decide months from now that such practices as injecting human growth hormone or melatonin II as being acceptable life choices because is so permissible here – and it plays upon my insecurities of being too skinny and pale.  I sincerely wish to cultivate a life where I see myself as already perfect, and that true attractiveness comes from my inner light shining brightly outwards.

I suppose it comes down to this: our surroundings have a profound effect on us.  What matters most is that we become conscious of what those influences are so we can choose to flow with them, or fortify against them.  We all have blessed areas of our lives: people or institutions that remind us of our innate worth, beauty, intelligence, and god-like spark.  We all also have areas in our lives that encourage our deepest fears and tensions to multiply.  As an actor I am in an industry that can sometimes highlight these constricted and dark areas of my psyche; but the art form also has the capacity to bring light, joy, laughter, enlightenment to many individuals.  Ultimately, it doesn’t so much matter where we are, so long as we are using our lives to make ourselves better than we were yesterday and make the world a better place.  It’s all a journey – and we might as well enjoy the surroundings.  For the vistas will change before we even notice them passing.

Namaste (The enlightened part of me bows to the enlightened part of you – inside we are one.)

 

Art and words by:  Kaelan Strouse

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