Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Like Molten Lead, Finnish archipelago off Ekenäs, 2006.
I got a quite a lot out of Sunday's zazenkai. The first one I attended was largely being worried about "surviving" it. Now that I knew that that isn't an issue, having already survived one, I could relax more and focus more on the practice. What's more, my six months of stretching exercises are finally beginning to pay off, and I was able to sit cross-legged a part of the time, which made it less punishing physically. I certainly hurt way less the next day than I did after the first one.
We finished off the zazenkai with recitation. That was another first for me. It made a deep impression; it wasn't at all what I had expected it to be -- it was somehow stark, simple; primal even. It helped that one of the things we chanted was the Heart Sutra, which has got to be one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever to emerge from the human mind.
I went to daisan (a formal one-on-one talk with an instructor). I told her about my practice, and a problem I've been having with it. She told me what she thought about that. We also sat there a while without saying anything, which was kinda cool, because it was the same kind of silence you get when doing zazen, not the awkward kind of "I wonder if I should say something" kind of silence.
A number of interesting things happened related to that.
The daisan was towards the end of the day, and the zafu in the daisan room was way too small for me, and I missed kinhin (walking meditation) because my turn was between two zazens. That meant that I was sitting for over an hour straight with only the short walk to and from the daisan room for a break, and that after six half-hour zazens. Consequently, my legs hurt pretty badly. The interesting thing was that I didn't care, because what was going on in daisan was just so much more important than my stupid legs. So I was sitting on my hurting-as-hell legs in a comfortable posture, while being focused on daisan. The pain was very much there, but the suffering from the pain was if not gone, at least greatly mitigated. That was way cool, and if I can pull of that trick the next time something's hurting, my practice won't have gone completely to waste.
I realized that daisan isn't just about me getting advice in my practice from a more experienced practitioner. It's at least as much about the more experienced practitioner giving advice. Daisan is a practice, for both people in it. I made it possible for her to practice by being there, just as much as the converse. That was also cool.
I'm sure the same is true of dokusan. Zen teachers need their practice too, and it's clearly not just solitary retreats and that kind of stuff. They couldn't do that without any students to teach. So although I'm grateful to have access to a true-blue Zen teacher, even if he only visits a couple of times a year, it's clearly not a one-way deal. Teachers need students for their practice, at least as much as students need teachers.
I learned something else in daisan: that Zen practice comes unusually easily to me. I had figured that it's more or less like this for everybody, but it turns out that apparently it's not. Zazen has, in fact, felt quite natural to me, and I haven't encountered many of the problems that, according to her, most Zen newbies encounter; instead, my practice has been deepening and developing rather rapidly. I've been reflecting a bit on why this might be.
(I realize that there are all kinds of risks related to thoughts like this one. Pride, for example. Although thinking about it I don't really see why I should be proud about finding Zen congenial. I am grateful for it, though. Plus, if I do get any big ideas about being the reincarnation of Manjushri or something, though, I'm fairly confident that zazen, not to mention the instructors and teachers, will sort that out nicely.)
I've always been sorely lacking in ambition. I don't care much for goals, achievements, or attainments.
I love physical exercise, like cycling, hiking, running, stretching, dancing the salsa (badly), or gym, but I dislike, and have always disliked, competitive sport.
As a kid, I used to love building model ships and airplanes, and then threw them away when I finished them.
I dropped out of my university studies because I lost interest, and didn't care enough about the goal of squeezing out my master's to actually squeeze it out, although I'm still very interested indeed in the stuff I was studying formally -- political history, or politics and history.
At work, I love doing stuff, but I hate "doing things for my career." I can't, in fact. I have repeatedly been offered what amount to major promotions, and I've turned them down, simply because I'm not happy ordering people about or counting beans. If that means that I'll never progress beyond my current position, then that's entirely OK with me -- I'd rather do what I enjoy doing for what I'm getting paid now than make a lame-ass job of doing something I don't enjoy for more money. That wouldn't work anyway; I'd just make a hash of it and everybody would end up worse off than before. I get the biggest kicks out of the flow of coding -- translating pure ideas into descriptions that then unfold on a screen, with the magical mediation of the computer. I don't care that much about what it is I'm coding, or if anyone will ever use it. (They do, though, but that's more of a side benefit, from my point of view anyway. My boss would probably disagree about that.)
I removed the speedometer/odometer thingy from my bike, simply because I don't want to measure my cycling. I feel freer when just rolling away as my body tells me to. I prefer familiar roads so I don't need a plan or a map and can just go wherever I feel like; they're never quite the same, and every ride is different.
I prefer a steady salary to working like mad for an eventual big payoff.
I enjoy cooking, for its own sake: the alchemy of transforming ingredients into something different. Eating is fun too, but it's not really the point.
I used to love going fishing with my grandpa, but never cared much whether we actually caught any fish; the point was to sit in the boat listening to the water slap against the sides, and my grandfather tell his endless and fascinating stories, and go through the soothing motions of whatever kind of fishing we were doing. Of course, the fish were cool too, but they never were the point. My grandpa never forgot to mention that either; he was never disappointed over not catching anything. Instead, when coming back empty-handed he just cheerfully noted that at least we caught a nice experience. Or "lucky that this isn't our job." That sort of thing.
My grandpa rocked. He lived well, and died, literally, with his boots on, at the ripe old age of... old, past his mid-eighties I think. He keeled over from a massive heart attack just before he was about to launch into another story to his friends and neighbors, following a bunch of vigorous gardening. Lucky man.
Put another way, I'm a process guy, not a goals guy. In today's market-driven society, that's generally a Bad Thing. Zen, on the other hand, is all process and no goal. Okay, I mean, sure, there's kensho and all that commotion, but I'm fairly certain that kensho is just another dharma gate, albeit a particularly pretty one, not a goal in and of itself. Zazen is pure process for its own sake -- except that it has a scaffolding of community, ritual, and philosophy to direct it. I'm sure that once you get really good at keeping your attention on your practice, you'll find it easier to keep your attention on anything you do; in a sense, everything becomes your practice. I certainly have a ways to go before I'm at that point, though. A decade? Two? More?
That's why I find Zen so congenial. It isn't new to me. It's me sitting in that boat, trailing a line in the sea while my grandpa tells about the time a billboard advertising oatmeal saved his life. It's me a half-hour into a bike ride, spinning the road underneath like silk thread onto a spool, when I feel like I could go on spinning like this forever, connected to the landscape, at the same time immobile and moving. It's all that, only now I have a name for it.
Monday, December 28, 2009
The PowerShot S90 is Canon's attempt at making a "serious" compact camera in shirt-pocket format. It's black, relatively expensive, not much bigger than a deck of cards, and it's really good at what it's made for, while being completely unsuited to doing what it's not made for. I like that in a camera, other than the expensive bit anyway.
FeaturesThe S90 packs a lot of features in its small body, and most of these are genuinely useful -- geared toward making the camera usable in a wide range of conditions, and giving the photographer lots of meaningful control over what it does. It has a bright (f/2.0 at the wide end) lens with a "human-scale" zoom range of 28 to 105 mm equivalent, it has all of the standard exposure modes, it is fully RAW capable, it has a largish sensor with a lowish (10M) pixel count, and it comes with pretty effective optical in-lens image stabilization. The LCD is large, bright, and pretty sharp, too.
It does standard-def video. I'm not much into video. We don't even have a high-def TV (although my computer monitor would certainly qualify). I only shoot short clips as "moving snapshots" in situations where I'd otherwise (and also) shoot regular still snapshots, and all I do with them is look at them occasionally and post them on Flickr where they're compressed beyond all recognition, which means I'd probably be happy with a cell phone camera for that purpose. Therefore, all I can say about that is that it gets the job done for me -- the few Christmas clips I took in pretty crappy light turned out quite nice, crisp, non-artifacty, without a whole lot of noise, except that the camera adjusts exposure in steps rather than smoothly, which made the picture brighten and darken a bit jumpily.
HandlingOne of the S90's selling points is that it puts as much photographic control behind physical buttons and dials as is possible in such a small package, and it makes the package customizable. The most innovative usability feature is the click-stopped ring around the lens. Its function can be changed with a button on the top of the camera, and it shifts to various purposes depending on the shooting mode. Together with the rotating thumb dial, the four-way rocker switch, and the programmable [S] button, this gives full control over any of the exposure parameters (shutter speed, aperture, exposure value, ISO) plus focus (manual, auto on half-press, auto with AF lock) in any of the shooting modes.
The way the controls reconfigure them in the different shooting modes is initially confusing, but once I got the feel for the logic with which this happens, it started to feel quite natural. I especially like the fact that the C(ustom) mode lets me preset both the focal length and focus to "street mode" -- i.e., medium-wide, wide-open, focus set to manual and more or less hyperfocal.
Three Way Traffic, Tokoinranta, Helsinki, 2009
The only real problem I have with the handling is that the rear dial isn't click-stopped. That means that it turns pretty much by itself, which means that I have to always check that I haven't accidentally nudged whatever it controls (usually exposure compensation) where it doesn't belong. A relatively minor problem, but a puzzling one as it's pretty damn obvious and would have been very easy to avoid -- and Canon has click-stopped rear wheels on their SLR's, and has had for decades.
Of course, a camera this small doesn't handle as well as a bigger one -- it's easy to put a finger on top or in front of the (surprisingly powerful) pop-up flash, it's not always easy to hit the right buttons especially with gloves on, the wrist strap will float in front of the lens if I'm not watching out, and so on -- but none of these things have obvious fixes that would not involve making the camera significantly bigger, which would sort of defeat the purpose of the design in the first place. I'm generally pretty fussy about ergonomics, but you have to make allowances for size.
Overall, I'd give the camera an A- for handling and accessibility of the shooting controls, when taking into consideration its size. In absolute terms, it'd be about a B- or C+: better than, say, the Sony DSC-V3, but of course nowhere near as good as any dSLR I've used -- or the Minolta Dimage 7i that I owned and loved for a while. That ugly, plasticky little monster is, in my opinion, still the best-handling non-dSLR digital camera that I've used.
PerformanceThe S90 is a solid performer, with no truly outstanding features but no huge flaws either. Metering is reliable and unsurprising, auto white-balance gets the job done well enough most of the time, auto-focus is precise and about average speed for a small compact like this. What's more, it's possible to assig AF lock to the [S] button, which makes pre-focusing a breeze, though, making focus speed not a concern for most situations. Shutter lag when pre-focused, either by half-pressing or with the [S] button, is virtually nonexistent making for very precise timing -- at least as good as with the film Leica CL I'd love to shoot if I could just put up with the bother of dealing with film.
Shot-to-shot time is sufficient for my relatively deliberate shooting style, although someone who likes to grab a series of shots in a situation might feel differently. I haven't felt like I'm waiting for the camera in any situation, except when using the flash in cold temperatures -- it takes a few seconds to charge up. For comparison, the Sigma DP1 feels really, really sluggish; its slow shot to shot time is really my biggest single beef with it.
Battery life is one area where the S90 is noticeably worse than its predecessor in my bag (the Fuji F100FD). Where the Fuji would keep shooting for what felt like forever, the S90 will start warning about low battery after a couple of hundred frames. I hate shepherding chargers, and I really wish that camera manufacturers would do what phone manufacturers just agreed to do, and settle on a single, standardized charger. USB, for example.
Image qualityFirst, let's get something out of the way: this is not an SLR. It's a shirt-pocket sized small-sensor camera with a tiny standard zoom. In other words, if you're expecting it to deliver the same quality as, say, an EOS-5D with a nice prime like the 35/2.0, then you'll be disappointed. Nor does it come close to the maximum attainable image quality of the DP1 with its almost arrogantly sharp 28/4.0 equivalent lens.
However, for what it is -- a small-sensor, zoom-lens ultracompact --, the picture quality is pretty amazing, really. I'd say that it puts up a pretty good fight with an entry-level digital SLR using its kit lens, candela for candela... assuming you shoot RAW.
Sensor qualityI've left ISO on AUTO, which works well for me. The camera will bump up the ISO once the shutter speed drops to about half the 35-mm-equivalent focal length. It goes cheerfully up to ISO320 or thereabouts, and then drags it up from that more reluctantly up to ISO1600. From where I'm at, that strikes a pretty good balance between noise and blur for hand-held shooting.
When shooting RAW and tweaking the sharpening and noise reduction parameters in conversion, the camera produces a perfectly usable ISO1600 -- I'd say it's roughly comparable to ISO3200 pushed to ISO6400 on my EOS 5D, except without the pattern noise that sometimes starts to emerge. ISO800 looks more or less like straight ISO3200 on the 5D, and ISO400 is perhaps a bit better than ISO1600 on it. In other words, it's about a stop to two stops behind the 5D sensor, which has a roughly similar pixel count but is about eight times bigger.
Helsinki Venice, Hakaniemi, Helsinki, 2009
When sharpening and luminance NR both turned off, and chroma noise reduction turned up about halfway, the high-ISO photos come up looking grainy and slightly soft, but rather pleasant -- not unlike ISO400 color neg or slide, actually, and a great deal better than high-speed color film.
At lower sensitivities -- ISO80 to about ISO200 -- the S90 is remarkably clean, about comparable to ISO400 on the EOS 5D.
Trucks in the Mist, Hakaniemi, Helsinki, 2009
I haven't even attempted to measure the dynamic range of the sensor, but it seems decent enough -- I have to watch the highlights a bit more than on an SLR, but that's only to be expected for a small sensor. The Fuji F100FD with its high-DR, high-ISO modes is better in this respect, but then you can do the same thing by underexposing and pushing the RAW file a stop or even two (assuming you're metering at ISO400 or less).
Earth to Sea, Töölönlahti, Helsinki, 2009
That's pretty damn amazing for a small sensor, in my opinion. It's certainly the first small sensor I've come across that trounces the one on the Fuji F30, ISO for ISO: in practice, it's about a stop ahead for ISO400 and above. When converted with a gentle touch, the pictures come out looking very dSLR-like, with the fine detail, few artifacts, and subtle gradations I'm used to seeing from them. I have come across no sensor-related artifacts such as banding or other pattern noise when not pushing the sensor beyond the ISO80-1600 range it's built to handle.
As an aside, Canon's DPP does a pretty good job of the conversions and is, in its current incarnation, quite pleasant to use. However, Adobe Lightroom 3.0 Beta produces better pixel-level quality. In particular, DPP occasionally produces odd moiré-like "patterns of smear" in areas with high-frequency detail such as gravel, fabric, or vegetation; Lightroom renders them beautifully. None of this is visible in 20 x 30 cm prints, though; I imagine you'd have to print at least A3 size for it to show up even under close examination.
Lens qualityThe lens on the S90 is about as good as an entry-level or mid-range dSLR standard zoom. It's not bitingly sharp and is a hair lacking in contrast, and it gets a bit soft toward the corners wide-open at the wide end, but then it's not really bad at any focal length or aperture either. Center sharpness is pretty good and very consistent all through the range. It has a bit of lateral chromatic aberration, and some purple fringing towards the corners; the former can be very effectively addressed in post-processing, and the latter is about what you'd expect in a standard zoom.
The lens has a quite a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end. However, the camera's JPEG engine, and Canon DPP, will automatically correct this if you let it. Adobe Lightroom 3.0 beta won't (although I understand that the final version will).
One area where the lens does rather well is flare resistance. The occasional flare spot does show through in extreme conditions, but they're relatively dim, relatively rare occurrences, and the camera does not show veiling flare -- washed-out shadows in contrasty conditions -- very easily.
Sunlight through Plexiglas, Tokoinranta, 2009
The interesting thing is that the lens is bright: at f/2.0, that's a stop more than most other compact digital cameras and nearly two stops more than a typical standard zoom (say, the optically comparable Canon 28-105/3.5-4.5 USM I have in my bag somewhere). That goes a long way to making up for the sensitivity advantage large dSLR sensors have -- at the wide end, anyway.
What's it good for?The PowerShot S90 is just about the best take-anywhere camera currently on the market. Compact size is of paramount importance in this mission, and while there are cameras out there that are smaller, none of them offer easily accessible full photographic control or anywhere near the kind of low-light capability the S90 has. It has a few correctable usability niggles (in particular, the spinny rear dial), but in my opinion no truly glaring flaws; its control scheme is unusual enough to require a bit of practice to learn to use and appreciate. It's not a camera for complete photography novices, though, although it does work perfectly competently in auto-modes as well; the number of buttons and dials and the number of functions they control will seem confusing to start with.
With reasonable camera technique and gentle RAW conversion, the S90 will get the picture in the box just about as well as a dSLR with a kit zoom, even if it can't match the image quality of a larger-sensor camera with a truly exceptional lens, such as the Sigma DP's or the micro-4/3 cameras from Olympus or Panasonic paired with their fantastic pancake primes. This is a camera for photographing human-scale subjects at human distances, not stuff like wildlife or sports, and it excels in that mission. The combination of a bright lens with a sensor that holds up well at high sensitivities, and Canon's tried-and-true image stabilization, means that taking indoor situationals without a flash is no problem at all. With the greater depth of field afforded by the small sensor, I'd go as far to say that it works better for this mission than my EOS-5D with a bright lens -- it's harder than you might think to get focus on the nose with an f/2.0 or brighter lens.
Tower, Christmas, 2009
The Canon S90 takes the single, big advantage of a small sensor -- compact size -- and squeezes the maximum of photographic capability out of it, particularly tailored for low-light human-scale shooting. Significantly pushing its limitations would inevitably impose a bigger body. This is what the S90's bigger sibling, the PowerShot G11, does. It is significantly more capable in many ways, but at that size and price, why not go the extra mile and go with an EP-1, EP-2, or GF-1, or perhaps one of the Sigmas if you don't mind doing the work needed to get it to produce the magical quality of which it's capable?
I still think that my ultimate take-anywhere camera would be something like the Sigma DP2 done right, with truly responsive performance, a good LCD, and consistent image quality that you don't need to jump through hoops every time to get. This doesn't appear to be on the cards right now, at any price; even the Leica X1 is significantly limited in many of the same ways as the Sigma DP's. The S90 comes closer to that ideal than any digital camera I've yet used, and I have a feeling that it'll be a quite a while before something even closer to it comes along.
Red Yarn Package, Kaisaniemi, Helsinki, 2009
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Sunlight On Dead Reeds, Helsinki, 2009
I've now been practicing zazen regularly for about half a year. Eight months if you count from when I first started; five months if you count from when I started to sit daily (more or less) instead of two, three times a week; four months if you count from when I started to sit with a sangha. Christmas break is here, so it's a good time to do a little stock-taking. What have I put into the practice, and what have I gotten out of it?
The first part of the question is pretty easy, on the face of it anyway. I've put in between a half-hour and an hour and a half a day on average, including some stretching I need to do to get my legs in a condition where I'm able to sit on them more or less without moving for 20-40 minutes. I mostly sit at home, but go to the zendo every Thursday unless something else comes up.
Additionally, I've put in a day of zazenkai last month.
When I'm doing zazen, I resolve to do my best to keep my attention on the practice, even if it mostly feels like I'm diving for a coin in a murky, bubbly pool and placing it on the surface only to see it sink again -- except for the few times that the coin floats, for a few breaths or sometimes longer. It's not an incredibly pleasurable practice, but it's not incredibly hard or punishing either; sometimes it's rewarding in its own right, sometimes less so, and at the end of a day of sitting, it hurts like fuck, but not more than after, say, an unusually brisk session at the gym.
The second part is a bit more complex, even on the surface of it.
I'm feeling a great deal better right now than I usually do around this time of year. November and December don't usually treat me very well -- it's a stressful and hectic time at work and the darkness at these latitudes gets to me. Plus I've never been much of a Christmas person to start with. I even had a minor breakdown about this time of year a couple of years ago, and even last year I was in pretty ragged shape despite resolving to do what I can not to let it happen again.
Right now, however, I feel pretty good.
I'm physically in excellent shape; in some ways in better shape than I've ever been. I'm sleeping well. The minor stomach problems I've often had are gone. I'm able to eat certain foods again that had started to disagree with me, with no ill effects. I sit up, stand, and walk in better posture. I've lost the extra weight I had gained over the past decade or so. I'm more supple than I've ever been, and in better muscular shape than I've been at least since my aikido days twenty or so years ago, perhaps longer.
I have also changed -- if only a little -- in the way I interact with other people. I listen just a little bit more and talk just a little bit less. Sometimes I pause to consider what I'm saying and how I'm saying it, instead of twittering merrily away in my usual idiom. I still have problems dealing with anger -- I have a very quick temperament -- but I've only exploded at anyone twice this year, which is considerably less than usual.
I'm eating less, and eating better; I eat less meat, and smaller portions. Not because I'm forcing myself to eat less, or avoiding things I'd really want to eat, but simply because I'm more aware of what's going on, and sort of naturally stop when I'm full. I've also stopped drinking more than three glasses of wine (or the equivalent) at a go, not that I did that all that often to start with. I also derive more enjoyment from what I eat.
I've also been going to the gym regularly, about 2-3 times a week. I've been maintaining this routine with much less effort than before. I've had a gym membership for three or four years now, but always was a bit sporadic about it, like most people I suppose.
I've been doing without computer games for about three months so far. It was a bit hard at first; I didn't miss gaming as much as the thought of permitting myself to game. Right now, I'm not even that interested; I look in on RPGWatch every once in a while, but I feel almost no desire to play the games being discussed there. (When the next Dwarf Fortress is released, I just might cave, though.)
According to my wife, all this has made me more relaxed, cheerful, and generally nicer to be around. Not that she ever complained, mind.
So, I feel good because I've been doing things that are good for me. What's this to do with Zen?
First off, I'm pretty sure that some of the beneficial changes are direct consequences of zazen, in particular, my dramatically lower stress level and the disappearance of various (relatively minor) psychosomatic problems associated with stress. This year has had its share of stress factors, perhaps more so than most, but I'm coping with them much, much better than before. I'm also pretty sure that the changes in the way I interact with people are due to it.
However, the rest are what you might call secondary effects. Thing is, zazen has made it easier for me to do all of those things that do me good. I'm less indecisive; for example, I just go to the gym without waffling about it much. I'm more conscious of what I do, or don't do, and why. Hakuin's Zazen wasan describes zazen as the key that opens the way to other good things, and that description works pretty well for me. Zazen just makes it easy, or at least easier, to do the good stuff, and not do the bad stuff. It doesn't work overnight, and it hasn't suddenly resolved every last one of my problems -- but it has made it easier to deal with them.
Enlightened I ain't, but this shit is clearly doing me good, and I intend to keep doing it. Tomorrow's another zazenkai, and I'm quite looking forward to it.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
...or whatever the hell you're celebrating at this time of year. We're going to my parents' place, along with the rest of the extended family, to pig out on salmon, herring, roe, beetroot salad, traditional Finnish root vegetable dishes that taste pretty awful really, plus ham from a happy, biologically fattened pig. There will also be beer, wine, cake, probably some singing, and very likely some drama.
So a very merry Christmas and happy New Year to anyone and everyone reading this!
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Looks like we're headed for a white Christmas. This boat is just nearby where I live, and it looks like somebody failed to take it out of the water on time.
What I'm really curious about, though, is the line of tracks from left to right, paying the boat a quick visit. It was a long line of tracks on the ice, quite solitary, following the shoreline, coming ashore for a brief while, and then cutting across the Kaisaniemenlahti toward Tokoinranta, proceeding in a stately straight line of one who knows exactly where they're going.
They look like dog tracks, but then what kind of dog is adventuring on the ice all by himself? There are plenty of rabbits here, so I'm thinking that it just might be a fox come to show them a bit of love. They're pretty big for fox tracks, though, but with all that tasty rabbit to eat, perhaps they get a bit big.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Fourth International (Trotskyist) Salutes Beginning Of Ski Season Three Weeks Ahead Of Plan, originally uploaded by Petteri Sulonen.
Yay, snow. I'm supposed to be wild with joy at having a "real winter," a few weeks early to boot. Snow is all very nice to look at from a safe distance, for sure, but personally I find it cold and wet and incompatible with temperatures suitable for tropical primates such as Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
There are weird things tucked away in the city. I came across this the other day. It looks like a phone booth, cast from concrete, with a steel door, and formerly painted green. It's full of something broken, the glass on the door is long gone, and the door is red with rust, but the brass lock is shiny and new.
The box is next to an old red brick building that looks like a military barracks, right at the edge of the bright, new Ruoholahti district, facing the huge construction site of Jätkäsaari. They're building a new residential district there, after recently decommissioning the port, which has been relocated further from the city center. I wonder what stories it has to tell...
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Some of them sound a bit like this:
"Om Namah Shivaya. OM OM OM SHAKTIPAT RULES! THANK YOU MOST OF ALL GURUMAYI!"
I had heard that she had spent some time at some ashram in the US, so I figured this must've had something to do with that. I got curious, and Googled Gurumayi, which led me to the Siddha Yoga website. After a while, I found myself fascinated by a spiritual snarl that tied in remarkably well with my musings about the problems related to finding good meditation masters (or, less ambitiously, avoiding bad ones).
Siddha Yoga is a new religious movement based on Kashmiri Shaivism (veneration of Shiva). It's pretty deeply rooted in Hindu tradition, and like many similar guru-centric movements it's based on the concept of shaktipat. (Mata Amritanandamayi, aka "Amma the Hugging Saint," and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles fame are two better-known characters in the same line of business, as it were.)
As far as I understand, the idea behind shaktipat is that the spiritual seeker can find enlightenment (moksha in Hindu terms) through the intermediary of an already enlightened and spiritually perfected guru. The guru can trigger something called "kundalini awakening" in the seeker; the seeker will then focus her spiritual energies (through meditation, yoga, and suchlike) on the guru. The guru acts simultaneously as a guide, an object of worship, and a "mirror" for the seeker.
I have it on good authority that lots and lots of people have experienced kundalini awakening through shaktipat, and by all accounts it's a very powerful and often meaningful experience. I figure that like ki, karma, or kensho, it's a label for an experiential reality, although one that's hard to deconstruct or explain.
(Zen practitioners would certainly consider it nothing more than a particularly irritating makyo -- a pesky side-effect of meditation that distracts attention from the practice, and is therefore an impediment to enlightenment rather than a path to it.)
I have little doubt that shaktipat works more or less as advertised -- a sincere seeker completely abandoning herself to a talented guru who knows what she's doing will experience kundalini awakening, whatever that may be. Reading stuff written by Siddha Yoga practitioners, it's clearly given a great deal of... something or other... to a lot of them.
A bit too much, in fact, when it gets to "Everything I have, I owe to Gurumayi!" (Yes, that's a genuine quote from a Siddha Yoga follower, although not my acquaintance -- even if she has expressed rather similar ideas in different words.)
The obvious problem is that shaktipat will only work if the seeker puts himself completely into the guru's hands. You can't dip a toe in it, or attempt to make use of it while remaining skeptical about the guru. It'll only work if you worship the guru, as a representative of the Divine.
And that, friends, is playing with fire. Unless the guru is a true-blue saint, that kind of adoration will destroy her -- and when the guru is destroyed, the followers will go around the bend too. And even if the guru is a true-blue saint (I'm sure they exist, although they must be insanely rare), they can inadvertently do a huge amount of damage, simply because of the insane amount of power given to them.
What's more, it doesn't take much digging to discover that Gurumayi, nor her predecessor Muktananda, is probably not a true-blue saint, nor does SYDA -- the organization running Siddha Yoga -- look any nicer an organization than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. I won't recount the tawdry details; you can Google them up easily enough all by yourself -- the keywords "muktananda, nityananda, gurumayi, scandal" will get you started.
Siddha Yoga is clearly no Scientology or Jonestown: practitioners have lives outside the group; they don't break off contact with friends and family, and they seem like a generally cheerful and happy bunch of campers. For the most part. But it's definitely creepy enough to give me the major heebie-jeebies.
And whatever way you look at it, Siddha Yoga would come up with warning flags on most of my little checklist from a week or so ago -- you have a murkily-run corporate structure, a guru claiming unique spiritual status and demanding complete devotion, a variety of scandals about sex and money, and none-too-edifying descriptions of emotional dependency and trauma from ex-followers. From where I'm at, shaktipat is bad news.