Saturday, September 18, 2010

Soft Eyes and ASL

As is often the case, two very different sources of information came together for me recently, helping me to understand something very important. Here is what happened.

When I was at Camp Mark 7's "Silent Week" camp this summer, I noticed a curious thing. There was a woman at camp who was just starting her journey to learn ASL. She had taken a class or two, but going to Silent Week was going to be a stretch for her. I definitely know how she felt, because I was in the very same place last year.

I noticed that when we were chatting that she was staring intently at my hands. This was especially noticeable when I was finger spelling. I remembered one of my first tutors encouraging me to not do this, to pull my self back a little and take in the person's face and shoulders as well as their hands. I knew intellectually that my tutor was right, but I wasn't able to do it. I would hone in on the fingers, and as a result, I would miss a very valuable source of information - the person's face.

The second source was an unlikely one -- a television drama that J and I have been watching: The Wire. Set in Baltimore, MD, this show follows drug dealers, junkies, teachers, dock workers, and police. In season four, a seasoned detective gives a new detective some important advice: that she needs to have "soft eyes" at a crime scene.

Soft eyes means you are looking at nothing and looking at everything at the same time. Instead of focusing hard on one thing, we relax the muscles in our faces, take a breath and release the focus. This is the same as when you are doing eyes-open meditation, when the gaze is about 12-18 inches in front of your face, a little lower than normal eye level. Try it right now.

Soft eyes relaxes more than your forehead, at least for me. It relaxes your jaw, neck and shoulders as well. It helps to put you in a mental state that is close to "shower thinking", where your brain isn't firmly focusing, but relaxed and able to allow new thoughts and combinations of thoughts to happen. It also increases your peripheral vision.

When I use soft eyes, I find I am much more able to follow signing, especially signing by native ASL signers. I stop reading SIGN SIGN SIGN and instead move to concepts, ideas, thoughts. I am able to "hear" the "voice" of the signer.

When I am fiercely concentrating, I tend to be more scared. I am more relaxed, which absolutely helps me.

Granted, you need enough vocabulary to get started, but if you are a ASL student with a year or two of classes and interactions under your belt, give it a try.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Book Review: God is Not One

One day I was doing a bunch of ironing, and I had the tv on, to distract myself from that boring chore. I happened upon a program about Stephen Prothero, and his new book: God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter. This man really got my attention with that title. 

I have heard people say, when talking about religions, "We are all going up the same mountain, right? Just up different paths." This always kind of disturbed me, but I didn't really know why. It sounds like the right thing to say, doesn't it? But as a Buddhist practitioner who was raised as a Catholic Christian, I know that the teachings of the Catholic Church and Buddhism are directly at odds with one another. But it was hard for me to understand exactly what the difference was, on a more metadata level. 

Stephen Prothero does an outstanding job explaining the 8 great world religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and the religion you never heard of but is everywhere: the Yoruba religion of West Africa (and the world, due to the vast diaspora of African people.) There is also a chapter on Atheism. 

The thing that made this book so valuable for me is that Prothero reviews each religion by discussing what it defines as the problem it solves, and what the solution is. Because each of these religions sees the problem differently, people who share that world view aren't really in the market for what the other religions are offering as the solution. 

For example, the religion I grew up with was Christianity. The problem, according to Christianity, is sin. The solution is acceptance of Jesus as lord and savior. The problem, according to Buddhism, is suffering. The solution is non-attachment. Think of it as a lock and key. The lock each of these religions views as the ultimate reality are different, so of course the key of one won't work in the lock of another. As a Buddhist, I don't even grok sin. It isn't in anyway a part of the equation. I don't want salvation. Heaven offers no lure for me. In fact, the idea of a heaven that excludes others seems really profoundly wrong! 

I think it is important that we ask ourselves, why do we find it necessary to say that everyone thing is the same? I understand that "you aren't from around here, are you, stranger?" has been the prelude to most of the world's suffering. But I don't agree that saying we are really all the same is the solution. Because we aren't. And we need to appreciate and celebrate that fact, not be afraid of it. 

Find a copy of God Is Not One and read it. Wonderfully informative, and I promise you will appreciate your own spiritual/religious tradition more than you ever have before.