New Fierce Light Clip!

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Here’s a new clip from Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, my new documentary on spiritual activsm. It’s opening in theatres across Canada starting May 15th!
This piece focusses one of the film’s themes: that both spirituality, and activism, can take place in our everyday lives, at any moment. In fact, why not in every moment?

It features bell hooks, a brilliant visionary, cultural theorist, and Buddhist thinker.   bell hooks has long been an inspiration for me. Her book “All About Love” has been hands down the most important book I have ever read about relationships – both societal and intimate. She is a mover between the worlds of critical thinking, spirituality and activism, a synthesizer of ideas who, in the face of immense resistance from  academia, is not afraid to say the word “love” out loud.  When we met  in her home in a small town in Kentucky she was gardening in her backyard. To sit in her presence was to bathe in radiance.

 

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A Beautiful Stew

“The Chefs of G~d

are cooking up a special stew

Just for you.”

~ Rumi

fire-drummers

Who are you? I mean really.

Sounds like a simple question, but have you ever actually asked? I’ve posted on the subject before, and maybe once I know the answer, I’ll be done with the exploration. But that might not happen till the day I die! Or maybe it’s just at that precise moment, after my life has flashed before my eyes, that I’ll finally know just who I really am. Ha.

Amazing how we much we take it for granted, how many of us go through life without even pausing to ask that basic question. In my Fierce Light workshops, I often use a simple Zen excercise I learned from one of my inspirators, Roshi Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo. In this partner practice, one person asks the other, “Who are you?” and after listening to the answer, says, with a little bow, “Thank you.” For five minutes. Which is actually a very very long time.

When I first tried it, I felt as if this practice expanded me, from my smaller self, to my larger, larger and still larger Self. At first, the obvious answers emerged- I’m a man, a filmmaker, a son, an artist, a sufi buddhist baha’i punk rocker – all the usual descriptors….but eventually I ran out, and things began to go further afield. I discovered that I am You, I am a blade of grass, a speck of dust, a dentist in millwaukee (that one surprised me!), a murderer, a lover of Love, an ant, a whale, everything that is was and could be…all of the above, and none of the above.

So who am I? I am a gorgeous stew, of the Great Big Enormous Beyond Enormity All Everything Totality, spiced up with the particulars of my souls journey ~ all I have been, known, seen, everything I do, think, feel and love. Especially all that I Love.

My unique ingredients are not who I am though. Rather, I am the dance of my elements, of mind body spirit and shadow, impermanent, ever changing, but rooted somehow in an essential Beingness, that is Me.

Sometimes we think we know someone, or we think we love someone, but what we really know or love, is just one small aspect of their stew. Perhaps the part we lack, or the part we celebrate in ourselves. Sometimes what we love is not even in their stew at all – it’s part of us that we’re projecting onto another. Yikes, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Love is about truly Seeing. Whether we are talking about another person, or ourselves, we cannot love unless we see, honestly, clearly, with an open, forgiving heart. Because we are all stews, it’s okay that part of our unique concoction includes our broken bits. We all have broken bits! In fact, those crunchy, gristly shadowy parts of us, with the proper mixing and spicing – add a dash of compassion, half a cup of letting go, three tablespoons of forgiveness – can be some of the most nutritious parts of our stew. The minerals and vitamins.

But we need to see those bits, bring them into the light, embrace them, release them, and allow them to be part of us. Both/and. Sometimes we need to release the shadows, sometimes we just need to shine the light into the basements of our consciousness, and see what’s there. If we try to repress the shadow bits of us, or deny them, they lurk around in our unconscious, sediment at the bottom of the pot, not properly integrated, and they can throw the mixture off.

We are continually seasoning our stews, and as we become more conscious, we can decide just what the flavour is we’re going for. With consciousness, we can align ourselves with the great Chef some call G~d, and start bringing forth those seasonings that we intuit we are here, on this plane, this planet, right now, to discover.

What spice, what ingredient, what pinch of this, or dash of that, would bring you into harmony? Or put you into the perfect off-kilter place you need to be right now- in case you are a little too balanced? Perhaps, in fact, there is nothing you need, other than what you have in this moment. Phew, that would be quite a feat – to accept who we are, and work with what we have.

More than anything, the key to being a tasty stew is truly integrating your ingredients, letting them flow together, play off each other, bring out the best in you, the whole You. It might seem unlikely – how can that broken heart ever be part of my flavouring, surely it’s going to turn me sour – but really, the choice is yours. As Viktor Frankl said, in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, we can lose everything except for one thing – our freedom to choose how we respond, to whatever comes our way.

The Chefs of G~d are cooking up a special stew – named You. Our small, individual stews are each a part of the Great Stew that constitutes all of creation, in fact all that is manifest and unmanifest, seen and unseen. Each one of us is an essential ingredient. This world, this universe, would not be the same without you. Thank-you for the vitamins, the minerals, the spices, the salty sour sweetness you bring to the mix.

Maybe it’s time to turn up the burner, and bring those juices of creation and destruction, tragedy and comedy, eros and pathos, compassion and ecstasy, love and limitless possibility, to a boil! What do you have to lose?

fire

Spirit In Action

“The whole human species is on trial now. These next few decades will determine whether or not our species is a locust species or a bumblebee species. We’ll either scour this planet to the bones and destroy our own civilization and most other species, or we will find a way to bring ourselves back into harmony with our mother, with the earth.” – Van Jones

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We live in a time when things are getting better and better and worse and worse faster and faster. There are two graphs, building steam and momentum – the upward graph of the forces of life, and the downward graph, representing the forces of death and extinction. These are the two dominant trends that humanity, and our innocent blue planet, are facing: what visionary Matthew Fox calls the forces of biophilia, and the forces of necrophilia. This time of raging wars, financial collapse, environmental devastation and fear mongering is also a time of tremendous possibility, when we all have the opportunity to step into our true selves and become part of the tidal wave of change that is sweeping the globe.

For the last few years I have been traveling the planet, shooting a feature documentary called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action.” The film is now complete, and is starting to come out into the world right now! It’s about the rising power of “spiritual activism”, contemporary stories of what Gandhi called “Soul Force,” what Martin Luther King called “Love In Action,” what we’re calling “Fierce light.” It is the power of action, combined with the depth of Love. I have been seeking out those visionaries and every day heroes who are working to transform themselves and this world of crisis, and I have discovered enormous cause for hope.

Spiritual Activism is not about religion, it is not about any form of dogma, it is activism that comes from the heart, not just the head, activism that is compassionate, positive, kind, fierce and transformative. And fun! Being spiritual, and being an activist, can be a lot of fun – in fact, it should be a lot of fun. Being a spiritual activist means taking our part in creating change, with a spirit of positivity, and a balance of interdependence and self determination. Nothing could be more inspiring and more rewarding than being the change we want to see in the world, within and without.

For me, true spirituality is a fresh, living truth. Ideology is frozen spirituality, whereas I see spirituality as the evolutionary impulse itself– it is evolving and adapting along with the ever changing context of our lives. It is still rooted in timeless truths, but truth as inner knowing, not external imposition. Spirituality also involves that which is beyond the immediate senses – the unseen. This includes emotions, feelings, energy, and the openness to possibilities beyond the material.

Spirituality involves taking a ‘depth’ perspective, being willing to look under the surface, and beyond the narrow confines of the strictly rational mind, to a consideration of as many dimensions as possible. An integrated approach, which includes your own perspective, the perspective of the other person, the community, the planet, and the universal, divine perspective – weave all that together, and you have a spiritual perspective, a perspective that recognizes the interconnectedness of all that is. This is a naturally heart expanding perspective, which is why we can say that G~d is love – when we see ourselves as part of everything, the natural response is one of love.

Leela Kumar, the Dalit human rights activist featured in Fierce Light, defines spirituality as community – recognizing that we are all part of a greater whole, a vast and interconnected system of interconnecting systems. There is a sense of awe that settles into your being when you consider this truth deeply. And out of this, emerges a sense of divine play – a joyous celebration of the miracle of creation.

I believe we are seeing a true Zeitgeist emerging, a new form of change making that begins in the human heart, and radiates outwards. I’ve seen it from New Zealand to Vietnam, from Africa to Washington, from Mexico to Sri Lanka to South Central Los Angeles. I saw it in the tremendous surge of grass roots support that brought Barack Obama into the Whitehouse, a “yes we can” spirit that captured that imagination of a nation tired of inauthenticity and spin. Tired of a politics of hate and division. The whole world celebrated Obama’s victory. The whole world is hungry for change.

Everywhere I travel, I have found people rising up with a series of shared values. Paul Hawkens, author of Blessed Unrest, calls it the largest undocumented mass movement in history – humanity’s immune response to a planet in crisis. He has set out to do the research, and has discovered that millions of individuals and organizations are answering the call to compassionate action, a call that is needed to transform planetary suicide into a time of rebirth and regeneration. It is what Alice Walker calls “The Human Sunrise,” the incredible power of human beings stepping into their authentic selves and stepping up to take responsibility for the change they want to see in the world.

What’s so wonderful about this movement is that it doesn’t have to require anything dramatic. Small changes are just as important. When billions of people make small changes, this results in enormous change. We don’t have to join anything to be part of this wave of transformation, we don’t have to sign up, pay dues, or get a funny name. We can if we so desire – there are many organizations that reflect these shared values – but if you’re not the joining type, if you’re someone like me, you still have an important part to play. This exciting transformation begins in our own hearts, when we dare to care. Each and every person has a role to play in this profound shift in consciousness, a shift from the small ‘me’ to the great ‘we.’ This is the evolution of activism, and the evolution of spirituality – a revolution of the heart.

Elegant Simplicity

“True surrender does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action. Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is in the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation.”
–Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

“So. You lost your home. You lost your belongings. You lost your lover. Keep losing. . . lose everything. Then move on to the true loss-ego loss. You can be of service. You can fulfill your destiny. But only with a clear mind and a gentle true heart. You do not need inner fireworks exploding. You are not working towards a Big Bang. All you need to do is be present. You are simply opening to who You are. Who You really are. You are a coiled snake, an untapped resource. Don’t lie dormant all your life. Please. This is real. Lose your silly doubts. Lose them. Lose everything, but trust. Remember Satish.”

~ ~ ~

satish

Satish Kumar grew up in India. At the age of eight, despite his mother’s objections, he decided to leave home to join a wandering order of Jain monks. His hair was pulled from his head, one strand at a time. He tied a white cotton mask over his mouth, which was to remain in place the rest of his life, to prevent him from accidentally breathing in an insect, and thus taking a life. He was given a small feather duster, in order to whisk the path before him, to protect the caterpillars, the worms, the ants. The Jain’s vow never to harm a living being, no matter how small. Satish began a life of spiritual devotion, living off of alms, teaching in the communities during the winter, studying and meditating in the monastery during the summer.
The years passed in rigorous devotion. Then one day, at the age of eighteen, he was given a book of teachings by a man named Mahatama Gandhi. Satish was suddenly struck by the revelation that for the last decade of his life, he had been living only half of the equation. Gandhi was offering a complete vision: the path of spirituality merged with the path of action. Here was someone who was truly practicing the principles of Ahimsa, of non-violence, not just by avoiding causing injury, but by actively working for social change.

Soon after this breakthrough, Satish and a friend crept away in the dark of night, leaving behind a pile of clothes under their blankets to make it appear as though they were still asleep in bed. The ruse was discovered and they were captured at the train station. It would be a disgrace to both their families and the monastery, if they were to desert the order. But Satish was determined, and finally he did escape, finding a sanctuary in the ashram of Vinobah Bhave, Gandhi’s greatest disciple.
Satish became a spiritual activist, working to uplift the lives of India’s ever expanding ocean of poor. He joined Vinobah’s land “Boondah,” a vast journey on foot across India, asking land owners to give a small percentage of their land to the untouchables. Over the years, more than twenty-three million acres of land was donated to the landless outcastes.

1953 marked another turning point in Satish’s spiritual journey. After seeing Bertrand Russell on television getting arrested for protesting nuclear weapons, he became inspired to make his own statement against the deadly trajectory of the atomic age. Satish vowed to do a personal pilgrimage to the four nuclear powers, on foot, from India, to Russia, Paris, London, and Washington DC, bringing the wisdom of ‘Ahimsa’ to the leaders who controlled the weapons that could, with a single push of a button, spell the end of life on this sacred earth.
Before he left, Satish stopped in to ask his guru to bless his journey, and offer advice. Vinobah was no stranger to long walks.

“It is a long journey. You’ll need some protection. I want to give you two weapons to protect you,” he said.
“How can non-violent people carry weapons?” Satish asked.
“Non-violent people carry non-violent weapons. The first weapon is that you will remain vegetarian under all circumstances; the second is that you will carry no money, not even a penny.”
“Not even a penny?”
Vinobah explained that money is an obstacle to real contact. “If you have no money, you will be forced to speak to people and ask humbly for hospitality. Secondly, when you are offered hospitality you will say, ‘I am sorry but I eat only vegetables.’ People will ask you why? Then you can tell them about your principles of non-violence and peace.”
Satish and his friend set off on foot, for eighteen months, bringing nothing with them. Nothing, but trust.
~ ~ ~

August, 1999

A month ago, Angela and I drove the just purchased red VW Polo to Devon, in the south of England, where Satish lives in a stone farmhouse. Today he’s the director of Schumacher College, an international hotbed of deep ecology thinkers, as well as the editor of Resurgence magazine. Known as the ‘sage of the deep ecology movement,’ Satish is a vibrant man in his sixties, who recently completed an Indian tradition in which the householder sets off on a pilgrimage, in the years after the children leave home.
“My mother said that if you have not had a pilgrimage by the time you are fifty, it’s time to get going!”
This latest pilgrimage took him to the sacred sites of England: Glastonbury, Canterbury, Lindisfarne, and Iona. Still walking, after all these years.
Satish welcomed us into his home, and began bustling around his old farmhouse, setting an enormous kettle atop an old wood burning stove. As he scooped the tea leaves into the pot he recounted a story from his great walk for peace. When he and Menon, his traveling companion, were passing through Armenia, a woman from a tea factory offered them four packets of tea.
“They are not for you,” she said, “Please give one to our Premier in Moscow, one to the President of France, one to the Prime Minister of England, and one to the President of the United States of America. Tell them that if they get mad in their minds and think of pushing the button to drop nuclear bombs, they should stop for a moment and have a fresh cup of tea from these packets. And remember that the simple people of the world want bread, not bombs, want life not death.”
After walking for eighteen months, from the grave of Mahatma Gandhi to the grave of John F. Kennedy, Satish returned to India. He went to see Vinobah, who was on his eternal walk throughout India. After greeting him warmly, Vinobah said, “You have done well. It is brave and courageous. But ultimately, you need go nowhere to find peace. It is within you. The centre of the earth is here.”

~ ~ ~

I asked Satish if he could think of what I call a ‘Scared Moment,’ a moment of fear, from his life’s journey. He thought for awhile before responding. “The only moment of fear I have known is when you are meditating. With your will and your thought and your concentration you are trying to be one with the world, to see everything as a tapestry, as a web of life. Sometimes you feel that ‘I am thinking. I think therefore I am.’ And this ego scares me, this pride, this separateness, it scares me, because my Jain and Gandhian and Hindu and Indian holistic mind wants to melt with the world and not remain separate. Like a little pool of water separated from the lake, from the river or the ocean. So I want to break the boundaries. But moments come when the boundaries hold on to itself and I’m clinging to my separateness. That clinging to separateness scares me.”

This fear is a final defense mechanism of the ego itself, a resistance to it’s own submergence. In his heart of hearts, beyond that flickering illusion of fear, Satish is fearless.

“I’m not afraid. Fear is not my friend and I don’t travel with fear. Fear is only because we don’t trust the universe mother. You come into this world naked, without any possessions, without any money or house or anything. The moment you take birth, mother’s milk bursts out of her breasts to feed you. Only three percent of creatures upon this earth are humans, ninety-seven percent of them are tigers, snakes, elephants, deer, worms, butterflies and millions of other species. They will be fed, sheltered and everything will be looked after by the principle of the mother earth, and the universal law of the divine presence. And nobody is afraid out of those ninety-seven percent. Only humans are worried, afraid to stiffness. A little bit of fear like salt in the food is alright, but if you put too much salt in the food, food is inedible.

“If you put too much fear in our lives, life is not worth living. So for the future, I have no fear. God, Mother Earth, the Mother Principle will look after everything. So for me trust is the guiding principle, and fear is not the guiding principle. I trust in God and I trust in people and I trust in nature and I trust in universe.”

The Scared Sacred Journey #3

Italy, October, 1999

I find a cyber café and send an e-mail to Angela, updating my list of woes. She writes back:

What is going on! The lost traveler, no possessions, just his inner voice and a second hand I-Ching book. Obviously taking you in a direction you were destined to go.

A second note comes in from my mother. Accustomed to having a son who has always been a bit of a loser (of wallets, passports and keys), she’s not too surprised:

Hi Steve. I forgot happy birthday. I hope that wasn’t the day you were ripped off. ‘Sorrow not if in these days and on this earthly plain things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy and heavenly delight are assuredly in store for you.’ Baha’u’llah. Bye take care of yourself, never mind your goods and chattels. Love Mum.

~ ~ ~

There is a growing movement called ‘Voluntary Simplicity,’ in which one deliberately reduces one’s possessions to only that which is truly needed. Some choose to eliminate anything they haven’t used within a year or two. Others cut out unnecessary appliances-weed whackers, electric frying pans, television sets, all the things we think we need, but really just want. Life becomes uncluttered. There’s a sense of liberation. It’s not the same as poverty; it’s a choice. Ironic that the simplicity forced upon the multitudes of poor becomes a radical act of will for the privileged few. A strange form of suffering, drowning in stuff. But suffering it is. And the cause of suffering-the wealth of the first world is only possible through the exploitation of the rest of the world. Voluntary simplicity works, on many levels. Does involuntary simplicity count? How about involuntary humility?

~ ~ ~

“So. You lost your home. You lost your belongings. You lost your lover. Keep losing. . . lose everything. Then move on to the true loss-ego loss. You can be of service. You can fulfill your destiny. But only with a clear mind and a gentle true heart. You do not need inner fireworks exploding. You are not working towards a Big Bang. All you need to do is be present. You are simply opening to who You are. Who You really are. You are a coiled snake, an untapped resource. Don’t lie dormant all your life. Please. This is real. Lose your silly doubts. Lose them. Lose everything, but trust.”

~ ~ ~

I’d wanted to visit Assisi, home of the wonderfully mad Saint Francis, an early practitioner of Voluntary Simplicity, but now I’m fleeing on the next train. Hopefully I won’t continue running from disaster to disaster, from country to country, like a whipped dog. My inner voice exhorts me to trust, but I’m having trouble following that advice.
It’s cold. My sweater and coat are gone. But across the tracks is an extravagant cactus in a cracked lime green pot perched on an ancient wooden pedestal set off against a rich red brick wall with dark green moss in the cracks, creeping ivy studded with purple flowers pouring down from the balustrade above. Wish I had a camera.

I sit by the water, pull out my miniature ‘I Ching’, select three Italian coins, and throw a reading.

Sky Over Thunder

Fidelity
Be True

Rising
An expedition south bodes well.
You will see great people, so do not worry.
Flexibly adapt to the time.
And you will rise.

Rise by truthfulness.
Rise through empty lands.
Rise through the unknown.
Like a tree rises to the sky.

Humility
Be Humble

I know what I’ll be having for dessert today: humble pie.

The Scared Sacred Journey Part 2

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1999 – France

It isn’t long before I enter the city of Marseilles. A second wave of sadness hits me, the memory of another loss, just two weeks earlier. It was here that my girlfriend, Angela, had made the decision to leave the project, to return home. I remember the train station, the pictures in the photo booth, kissing away our final moments together. “Am I making a mistake?” she asked. I had said no, because the decision was already made. The plane ticket was bought.

For the last two weeks I’ve been asking myself, again and again: why didn’t I say yes. You are. Don’t go. But I didn’t. Instead, I walked out of the station into the noisy city of Marseilles, searched out a café and ordered a Croque Monsieur. It was horrible. White bread with cheese on top and an ugly slice of ham inside, done in a microwave. Sounded better in French. I forced myself to eat it, then trudged down a long stone staircase, into the little red car and out onto the highway. Alone. A primal moan emerged, wracking my body. My Inner Voice offered it’s usual level minded take on the matter, which irritated me immensely at the time, but eventually I’ve come to realize it’s true: she did have to go. This is my mad journey. We’d failed to make it ours.

Now I’m alone, racing towards the Italian border, the project at risk. I plunge into the darkness of a long tunnel cutting through the French Alps, self-torturing loops of regret orbiting through my brain. My gear’s been stolen. I’m alone. I don’t have enough money. I’m alone. I can’t replace the gear. And did I mention? I’m alone. As I approach the Italian border, a new tension strikes: I’m afraid of customs. I couldn’t afford insurance for the Polo, and I’ve heard that to be caught uninsured in Italy means a large fine, or even imprisonment. I anxiously peer through the wavering headlights, expecting to have to face a customs officer at any moment: “Your papers please?” But I burst out of yet another tunnel, pass by a small sign surrounded by EU stars that reads, ‘Italy,’ and that’s it. I’m in a new country. I pull over at a money changer’s to get some Italian cash. I say, “Bonjour.” The teller replies, “Bonjiorno.”

Tunnel after tunnel through the Italian night. The toll is steep, ten dollars to go about twenty kilometers. But the road is hugging the coast and there are no alternative routes. Eventually I find an exit, readying myself to pay close to one hundred dollars in tolls, only to discover that there’s an open gate. My pulse stutters as I think of my uninsured state of being, but poverty forces me to be daring. I braze on by. Just past the gates, a number of motorcycle policemen in black with baggy pants are at the side of the road, writing up tickets for cars they have pulled over, perhaps for doing what I have just done. I keep glancing at the rear view mirror, anticipating wailing sirens and flashing lights. But no. I’m through and have just saved a hundred bucks that I don’t have. Excellent.

I find myself in Imperia, a groddy town on the Italian Riviera. It’s a bit whorish, a little seedy, not all cleaned up like the French Riveria. I like it already. I pull over to take a break. As I step out of the car I notice a pair of Italian loafers sitting on the curb. They have holes in the bottom, but fit perfectly. I walk down to the seaside, feeling all Italian in my new shoes, the beginnings of a replacement wardrobe. I wish they hadn’t of taken my razor though: my beard is getting itchy.

A meditative statue of Mary faces the ocean, arms outstretched, blessing the sailors. I pause in front of her, breathing deeply, allowing this icon of Mother Love to calm my mind. Out on the pier, men cast fishing lines into the sea with a soothing whizzz.

A young couple are pushing their child along in a wheel chair. His mouth is frozen open, his body paralyzed. Their son. I study his still features as they wheel him along the boardwalk. He probably likes it down here, by the ocean, even if he can’t show it. It puts my problems into perspective. What do I know about suffering? Nothing.

When I come back to the car, there’s a cop writing up a parking ticket. It must be a ‘No Parking Zone.’ I didn’t understand the Italian signage. I watch him from a distance, waiting for him to finish writing up the ticket and leave. He begins meticulously writing notes while talking on a mobile phone. Oh God: he’s probably calling a tow truck. And I can’t stop him, because of my insurance problem. He moves down the street, but remains within sight of the car. I contemplate leaping in and making a getaway, if he would just turn his back for a few minutes. But that would be crazy.

A few minutes later a tow truck arrives. I stand watching as the men get out, lower the jaws from the back of the truck, open them wide, and clamp down viciously onto my innocent vehicle.

Good-bye car. Just let it go. Goodbye the last of my belongings. My small library: ‘God in all Worlds,’ ‘Call of the Dervish,’ ‘Fire Under the Snow’ and ‘Kundalini Yoga for Beginners.’ Gone. A box of special objects collected in each of the Scared and Sacred places that I’ve been to so far. Let it go. Too much collecting, too much attachment. My shoes. Oh. These Italian things are falling apart and no good for hiking. Need shoes. Tent. No more camping. Stove. No more cooking. Oh no: my journal, stored inside my palmtop. I search frantically through my handbag. I have it! And my passport, and my bank card. I even have a pocket-sized I Ching. So it could be much worse.

The drivers climb into the cab of the tow truck, raise my car up into the air, and drag it away. My brain numbs as I watch my little red VW evaporating into the depths of the Italian legal system.

Gone.

I feel light headed, surreal. Estranged in a strange country with little more than the shirt on my back and a pair of shoes with holes in the soles. Which aren’t even mine. Now what?

Involuntary Simplicity

“Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life.”
– Richard Gregg, Vhishva Bharati Quarterly, 1936

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Southern France, 1999 ~ The Scared Sacred Journey

Five a.m. My body pulls me out of my dreams, anticipating the wake up bell of Plum Village monastery. I rise up in the trembling half light, gradually remembering where I am: on a train tracing the gentle contours of the Cote d’Azur. I yawn, stretch, and pull out a Yoga book I was recently given. Following the illustrated instructions, I fall into a deep Kundalini meditation, concentrating on sending life energy up my body, from lower node to higher node, building force as it climbs the energetic pathway, from node to node, base to center, heart to throat, until the current reaches the epicenter of my forehead, where I let it pool and stay for awhile, before moving it higher still, to the crown. It feels as if the coursing force wants to continue rising, straining to burst out and up. Although it’s a new technique to me, the practice feels intrinsic. Something new, something powerful, is building inside me.

Sudden jolt. Hiss of air brakes. My eyes flash open: the train is at my stop. I grab my pack and lunge for the closing doors. Too late. I get off at the next stop, smiling despite my goof-up, enjoying the opportunity to stand on the platform in the still morning, under a bright moon casting blue shadows. Soon enough another train appears, and I roll back to the little village of Carri-la-Rouet.

My red Volkswagen Polo is still there, waiting near the station, intact, though reeking of rot from a two week old bag of groceries I’d forgotten to bring with me to the meditation retreat. I stop off at a patisserie and pick up a round of fresh Camembert and a baguette, then drive to a quiet spot on the coast. I settle under an ancient grove of wind stunted pine trees that cling to a crag over-looking the ocean, and boil water for tea on a folding alcohol burning stove. I savour the bread and cheese mouth by mindful mouthful, in the slow chewing manner I’ve just learned from Thich Nhat Hahn, at Plum Village. The sun slowly emerges from a flat expanse of steel blue ocean, drenching the Azure Coast blood red. I breathe in the crisp air, content, and stroll down to a shore of time softened white pebbles tinged with morning light. Strewn with plastic bottles, straws, hypodermic needles, styrofoam bits, and unrecognizable modern industrial poly-carbonic detritus.

I mutter to myself, “How pathetic. This could be a perfect spot. Why doesn’t someone just clean it up. Gawd, it wouldn’t take long that, just a little effort and…”
My Self interrupts. “Good idea. Why don’t you?”
“What?”
“Why don’t you?”
“Well, because…” I search for an excuse, “Because it would take too long.”
“A single little beach?”
“But I don’t have a bag!”
“Go get one from the trash can.”
“You really want me too?”
“I’m telling you too.”
My Inner Voice rarely gives orders, so when it does I try to obey. There just so happens to be a bag of garbage bags tucked under the garbage can. I begin the slow process of extracting endless bits of plastic from the smooth stones. I start with the most infuriating – hundreds of tiny stir sticks, intricately interlaced with the pebbles. I transform the tedious into an exercise in plastic archaeology, teasing stories from deep within the garbage. There are tales of seductions from the sea voyaging condoms, mysterious medicine vials stained with the sad residue of drug addicted lives, the inexplicable comedy of a strange sphere of hair. Echoes of the violence inspired by an array of plastic war toys: soldiers, swords, and miniature hand grenades.

After an hour I move onto the big stuff, breaking into a power run, second bag soon bulging. In one corner of the beach I encounter a pile of stinking organic matter, flies buzzing. The sun beats down and sweat streams off my forehead. It all gets to be too much, and I stop to take a few deep breathes. My gaze lands on a rocky alcove at the edge of the beach. Nestled inside is a plastic Mary with her hands clasped together in prayer. Etched on her base are the faded words, “Genuine Lourdes Water.” I smile and try to refill her with ocean water, but she leaks, no doubt the reason for her burial at sea. Despite this imperfection, or because of it, this ‘Garbage Mary’ will go on to circle the globe with me.

After five hours of hard going I’ve filled three garbage bags and the cove is again pristine. I strip off my clothes and dive into the cool water, floating on my back, refreshed. I stretch out naked under the cloudless sky on the hot white rocks. Clean rocks. I pull my clothes back on and wander back up to the car, parked at the edge of the beach.

The door is wide open. My pack. Is gone. Gone! Inside it was the video camera. The microphone. The tape stock. All my gear. A shock of unreality courses through my body. It’s happened. It’s finally happened. Everything. Everything! I jump into the car and start to drive, mindlessly. I slam on the brakes and sit under a leafless tree, trying to calm my mind, but finding it more useful to wail out loud. My frustration propels me up and back into the car. I floor it, heading for the Italian border as fast as a Volkswagen Polo can go, getting the hell out of France.