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.”

~ ~ ~

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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.”

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A Respectful Rebel in an Orthodox Land

Meteora Monastery

Sitting in a cave in Meteora Greece, a few days after Fierce Light has screened at the Thessaloniki Film Festival.  A soft rain has driven me off the purple, yellow white flower speckled mountain trail.   Like Mount Athos, Meteora is a land of towering ancient greek orthodox monasteries. Unlike Athos, women are allowed here, and there is even a convent,  named St. Stefanos.  

Although I am not a Christian (I was raised a Baha’i, used to call myself a sufi buddhist baha’i punk rocker, but now I simply say I’m a divine human, being),  I have a deep sense of respect for all things holy, and the impetus behind the religious calling.  I make a point of trying to cut through the dogma, to the deep devotion that often resonates profoundly in places of worship. I seek the true mystics, the ones who’s hearts are on fire, who have transcended the rigidity of structures to that place beyond concepts where the source of all that is sizzles. 

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 But always, irony abounds-for example, the orthodox religion were the ones who invented the word dogma (not to mention the word Orthodox).  And of course, for them,  the word  has a positive connotation: it means to be faithful, and to follow the precise pathway to God -just so.  Dogma is seen as a divine security blanket that keeps us from falling astray.

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It is ten years since my previous visit to Athos.  At that time I was wide eyed and innocent, in many ways, a naïve pilgrim embarking on a new journey of discovery.  It was far from the beginning of my spiritual search, but the beginning of my  first hand investigation of the worlds holy places, seeking a path, a system, a doorway into divinity, as I circled the planet, visiting everywhere from the Avebury Stone Circle, Lourdes, Athos, Konya, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya, holy native sites in North America-a wide journey into the heartland of many of the worlds beliefs systems.   In each of these places, I took time to really steep myself in their wisdom, spending time in spiritual retreats inspired by each of the faiths I encountered.

I left that journey with a clear understanding, articulated in Fierce Light:  it is the essence of the worlds religions that matters to me, not the particular form.  Spirituality is beyond form. Way beyond.

A few days later, I find myself wandering through Meteora, where the monasteries perch high atop pinnacles of rock, safe from invaders.  In the past, the only way to enter the monastery was to be hoisted up by rope.   Perhaps too, the devotees feel closer to God, up in the clouds.  

After hours of winding through the awe inspiring moss covered pinnacles, alongside sparkling glades, I climbed the spiralling staircase to one of the monasteries that clings to the rock steeple, impossible stone acrobatics.

Velcrow Meteora

I entered the church, it’s byzantine dome painted with ornate frescos, glittering gold halos and angel wings.  I was greeted by an Orthodox monk dressed from head to toe in black.  I told him I had been to mount athos, an excellent icebreaker in these parts, and asked him to remind me of the greeting: evlogites, which means “bless me!” To which one replies, akirosos (no doubt spelt wrong): I cannot bless but God does, through me.

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He showed me around the church, explaining the significance of the many ikons.   I asked why so many figures are dressed in red, and he explained that red is the god colour, and blue is the colour of the earth, except in the case of Mary – then red is the colour for earth and blue is the colour of God.  Interesting for me, as I am shooting a film called Redvolution: Dare to Disturb the Universe.  It is about the path of  what co-director  Sera Beak calls “red” spirituality – becoming your own spiritual authority, being a spiritual outlaw, truly knowing yourself, your authentic Self.  It is about  embodied spirituality-a passionate, sexy, spirituality that isn’t afraid of ecstasty, that celebrates life, being human, that sees God in all things. 

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Panagea

Meanwhile back in the church…

Transfiguration…metamorphisis….extasis…theosopis…greek words were flying about.  My new monk friend explained that to him extasis -ecstasy-was the stuff of other religions, like the eastern religions, and it was an escape.  Much like our induglence in the “sweets” of life, like women.  Yikes. Clearly the orthodoxy was created by men.  

The orthodox path is about transfiguration, he explained, and metamorphosis-through the correct rituals, prayers, divine love and grace, one clears away ones heart and allows God in.  It is about theosopis, not extasis.  Joining with God not escaping into ecstasy.  

I didn’t argue-I never argue with the faithful – but between you and me, I have to beg to differ.  For me, God is also human, God is also creation, God made all of this amazingness, and I have a hunch She wants nothing more than that we celebrate this magnificence. Her magnificence.  With depth, and divinity, for sure, but celebration nonetheless.  And that  celebration can be joyful, it can be ecstatic, and it can be quiet, it can be sober.  It can be both/and.  God doesn’t fit well into boxes of this not that.  God has a bigger palette than that.  God wants us to go for it, to burn bright, to be fully embodied and fully ecstatic, all at the same time, in waves and particles, particles and waves – both/and.   That’s my two cents, just the tip of my tongues worth.  But I kept it there, on the tip.  It’s not for me to argue with a monk, but to listen respectfully, and take what he has to offer, and leave what doesn’t fit behind, in that holy place.  With respect for his calling, his commitment and his sincere love.

As we were leaving, I told him perhaps one day I would return to Mount Athos-it is a beautiful, holy place.
“Yes”, he said, “but the real holy place is right here”. He tapped my heart, “wherever we are.”

I couldn’t agree more.

“Pray for me” he said, as I stepped outside the monastery gate, into the sunshine. 

Now, as I walk through the stone trails, lined with purple flowers, sun glistening, flocks of birds swooping and gliding, I can feel the presence of divinity everywhere.  It is in the very air. As I walk in the midst of the sublime beauty of creation, it is clear that this is my communion.  And that for me, as a spiritual rebel, I will always be a little, and sometimes a lot, unorthodox.

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A Pilgrims Progress

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Thessaloniki, Greece

Today I introduced Fierce Light at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, here in Greece. I recounted my last visit to this lovely sea side city, back in 1999, when I was shooting Scared Sacred, the film about my journey to the ground zero’s of the world, searching for stories of transformation in the face of crisis. At the time I was facing my own crisis. First my girlfriend at the time decided to leave the project, and return home. Then my video camera was stolen from my car in France. Then the car itself was taken from me. I was left on the street in Italy, with nothing but the shirt on my back – even my coat was gone. I decided to do what any destitute pilgrim in that part of the world would do: I headed for the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos.

I traveled here, to Thessaloniki, where I was blessed enough to be granted a pilgrims pass on short notice – normally it takes six months, but there had been a cancellation, so I was admitted immediately. Then I went to an internet café, sent an email to a millionare I knew, explaining my situation and asking if she would consider supporting Scared Sacred, and then took the bus and boat to Mount Athos, where I went on one of the most powerful 10 day personal retreats of my life, walking from monastery to monastery along the craggy cliffs, following the directives of my inner voice, meditating constantly, and meeting some truly remarkable mystics, as well as confronting the staunch dogma and structures of Orthodoxy, and the patriarchs. Talk about patriarchy, and power over – this was the birthplace of it! But the journey was truly profound and moving.

When I returned, I received an email from the millionare – yes, she would fund the film. And so the journey continued – with an added passenger. A little black kitten named Hara, who I rescued from being abandoned on the street, rejected from Mount Athos because – she was a girl. I ended up traveling through Greece, Turkey, Israel and India with Hara, finally finding her a home with friends in Bhopal.
In honour of my return to this land, over the next few weeks I am going to share excerpts from my journal from both that journey to mount Athos, and the journey I will undertaking in the coming week, to Meteora and Delphi – home of the ancient oracles, where the entranceway reads, “Know Thyself.”

_____

When we see each other, when we trust each other,
there is no need for ego, no reason for ego,
no possibility for ego.

-Father Archdimandrite Dionysius

Mount Athos, Greece, 1999

The bus winds down a final hillside, arriving at the port town of Ouranopolous. At the far end of a concrete dock an iron freighter awaits. I join the bustling crowd of pilgrims and monks boarding the ship. The monks come in a variety of flavours. Most wear baggy black pants covered in long black cotton dresses, topped out with a decent black coat, or perhaps a well-worn black vest. Headgear is a black hat, tall and rounded, velvet for those well up in the hierarchy, simpler cotton for those in between and sometimes just a black toque for the more independent of the monks. The occasional shaggy character in rough-hewn clothes is most likely one of the hermits, forced from his lair, perhaps for medical reasons.
A sign posted on the dock warns that:

1. Only Those Authorized May Visit Mount Athos.
2. No Women Are Allowed.
3. No Video Cameras Are Allowed.
4. No Religious Items Are To Be Taken Off The Peninsula.
If any of the above laws are not respected, severe penal action will be taken by the legal body of the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos.

Don’t mess with the monks. Legend claims that Mother Mary declared Athos her land, off limits to all other females. There is even an edict barring female animals from the Republic, but that has proven difficult to enforce, wild animals being notoriously disrespectful of laws. There are whispers of ancient scandals in the land, stories of women sneaking in, some disguised as monks, living secretly inside the republic for years.

The captain stands on the wide metal gang plank and inspects our pilgrims’ certificates, full-page parchment, suitable for framing, necessary for travel. Glorious shafts of light cut through the clouds in the direction of Holy Mountain. We pull into Daphne, the one place of free enterprise on the peninsula, a small port town that serves as the nexus point for boats and paths to the monasteries, Sketes and hermitages.

The living arrangements in Athos vary from the large monasteries, in which everyone lives, eats and worships communally, to Sketes, small communities in which each house has their own church. In the houses there are generally several monks and one elder, or sometimes a larger group of monks. Scattered about the peninsula, but particularly at the very tip, are isolated hermits, who live in caves or simple rock huts. The most ascetic of these subsist on a tiny amount of bread and water, sleeping on rough mats on the cold ground, dedicating their lives to prayer, chanting for hours every day.

The gangplank crashes onto the dock and we step into the Byzantine era. It is a crowded soup of monks, all with long beards, hermits with their grizzled faces and walking sticks, dozens of dirty cats meowing sadly, searching for tidbits of food. A group of young monks stand at end of the dock throwing bits of bread to a school of fish. A monk sits on a wall in front of the one restaurant selling hand crocheted black prayer bracelets. The tiny shops are crowded with icons, images of Jesus and Mary, laundry soap, rosaries, and cakes of black incense.

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I lean against an ancient stone wall that lines the ocean, watching the bustle on the one dirt main street of town. A portly older man sits down near me. He seems a little lost.
“Is this where one finds the boats that go to the south?” he asks, in a thick English accent.
“I don’t really know-I’m trying to figure out that myself.”

His name is Martin, and he’s searching for a boat to Dionysius Monastery.

“I’ve come to have a look in on my nephew. He just up and became a monk two years ago. Strangest thing! Didn’t speak a word of Greek either. His mother can’t come to look in on him, of course, and there’s no father, so I’m elected. To tell you the truth, our Claude was always one of life’s misfits. Ended up bumming around Europe, playing music on the streets to get by. Just barely getting by. One by one all the strings on his guitar broke, until there he was, playing with only one string. His earnings got too thin, so he wound up at some kind of a center where they would give him food and he would help around their farm. All he had to do was go to church services. And there he found God. Ended up in England, living with a Nun, and then met this Greek Orthodox chap. I think they recruited him. Numbers are down here in the monasteries and they need fresh blood. Hard to keep the place up and funded if there’s no one staying. And of course, the developers are just waiting to hop right in the second the place is vacated-this would be a prime tourist attraction.”

A boat pulls up to the dock and we are able to determine that it goes to Dionysius. I decide to follow Martin – I can begin my walk South from there. Although I don’t have a reservation, I’m hoping that showing up with a monk’s relative will help. We line up, pay our three hundred drachmas on board, and take a seat inside.

“There’s one of the head boys, I’d say.”
Martin points to an older monk with a neatly trimmed gray beard. Trailing along like ducklings is a retinue of ardent young monks, carrying his bags. They sit down at a bench near us, immediately launching into a basket of bread, apples and cheese, chewing with gusto.
“Are you Catholic?”
“Oh no, I’m just a good old prottey. Protestant. Bit of a heretic really. Still, I respect it all well enough. I like to go to churches and cathedrals when I’m traveling. Like in Spain, at the church of Santiago. Although, I have to say, I had my wallet swiped while we were in there.”
“In the church? Is nothing sacred?’
“Yeah, right in the bloody church. The nerve of that bloke. Makes you wonder about human nature really, that someone would stoop so low. So what brings you here?”
“I’m making a documentary called ScaredSacred. I’m traveling to the Scared and Sacred places of the world.”
“What do you mean by Scared?”
“Places like Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Bhopal, Afghanistan and so on.”
“You know, it’s strange, but I’ve been thinking of going to Auschwitz. Not sure why really.”
“It certainly brings it all home. It makes it real. I went before dawn. As the sun came up an old man appeared, with a single rose, which he placed on the gas oven. The whole concentration camp is maintained as a museum. They encourage people to come, because humans are too good at forgetting. And we need to remember.”
“I think I will go. God, what a project. Tell me, what are you searching for in these places?”
“I want to try to understand how it is that some people are able to go through the darkest days of human history, and find a way through to the other side; perhaps even transform the crisis into a breakthrough. I don’t know if you are feeling this, but I have a sense that there are dark days ahead. Maybe all this millennium anxiety is part of it, but I think even without it, there’s pretty good evidence that this little planet is in for a shake up. Going to these places in a way is like time traveling into a possible future we might all be facing. I want to bring back stories of hope, and strategies for creating hope, for transforming the scared into the sacred.”
“And the Sacred places?”
“I want to experience the faiths of the world first hand and try to understand their core, their essence. Perhaps at their holiest places, this will come through with greater clarity. I believe there is a current which runs through them all, and I want to touch that. I want to know, really know, what the sacred is, and see if I can find it, in both the places of light, and the places of darkness.”
“I’ll say it again, God, what a project. Hey, look at that!”

Looming over us is the spectacular monastery of Simone Petra, a stone fortress clinging to the top of a craggy cliff, a thousand feet above. Construction cranes tower even higher above the monastery. The entire peninsula has received a large influx of cash, and many of the monasteries are undergoing re-constructive surgery. We pull in briefly, just long enough for a handful of monks and pilgrims to scurry off. Further along we pass the low-lying monastery of Gregorious, spread out near the coast. It too is surrounded in scaffolding, workers moving here and there with wheelbarrows. Ten minutes later we arrive at Dionysius. The boat bashes into the concrete dock, the gangplank is lowered, and we disembark behind the important looking monk and his retinue.

“Looks like we’re being blessed with a visit from the top dog,” Martin whispers.

The endless sweep of stone steps proves tiring for Martin, who has a bad foot. I convince him to let me take one handle of his extremely heavy bag.
“I don’t know why it’s so heavy, it’s really only clothes.”
The Elder sings a mournful hymn as he leads the procession. Behind him a monk chants a sonorous prayer in Greek, echoed by the group. Another runs ahead to videotape. It’s a major visit, to be sure. We pass under a high stone archway into the monastery complex. Above the entranceway, a painting of Mother Mary welcomes us in, gold leaf halo glittering.

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