Industrial Strength Spirituality

From Friday’s Globe and Mail
May 14, 2009 at 4:34 PM EDT

If rockers were the cultural gurus of the sixties, and techies like Steve Jobs and Nicholas Negroponte were the nineties’ watered-down version, documentary filmmakers may very well be emerging as the new prognosticators of where we’re headed.

Velcrow Ripper, the 45-year-old filmmaker with the part-punk, part-New Age pseudonym who lives on the Toronto Islands, is a clear example. His widely praised 2004 documentary Scared Sacred, a tour of war-devastated lands, was intended to be less a documentary and more of a meditative piece and call to arms.

And so is his second film in a planned trilogy – Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action. The new film takes Scared Sacred a step further by trying to get at the motivation for activism, examining how inward-focused spirituality can compel people to act outwardly, protesting against injustice and environmental degradation.

While filming Scared Sacred, Ripper found that what got people through horrific, wartime tragedy was a sense of personal meaning. “I witnessed it firsthand. Those who had a sense of meaning, whatever it was that gave them that, were the ones who survived. Those without any meaning were the ones who gave up,” he says.

“One of those sources of meaning was to take action, to actually try to stop what had happened to them from happening to anybody else. And I began to realize that the relationship between sources of meaning – a depth of understanding in one’s inner life – and taking action to create change is a really harmonious thing. The spirit and the action, they go together really well. In fact, they are meant to go together.”

This kind of talk has made Ripper the doc community’s version of a star. He gives lectures and conducts workshops to share his vision of spiritually conscious activism. Still, he rejects the idea that Fierce Light simply preaches to the choir. Instead, he deliberately lets emotions run high in the film to move audiences – even if not everyone agrees with its political assumptions.

“The theme of Fierce Light is about coming from the heart, as well as the head. It’s going to be unsatisfying if you go to it looking for facts, facts, facts. The reason I did that is because the film is about soul force … what I call almost an industrial-strength spirituality.”

Yet Fierce Light doesn’t aim for a kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help airiness, nor does it reach transcendence like the 1979 documentary masterpiece Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy. Fierce Light never strays from its street-level, activist core.

The filmmaker grew up on British Columbia’s idyllic Sunshine Coast and was raised in the Baha’i faith, which is based on the spiritual unity of all religions.

But even that was too confining for him. As a young punk rocker, he felt torn between spirituality and activism. At a hippie gathering, surrounded by kids called Feather and Crystal, someone gave him the nickname Velcrow, with an added “w” to lend a measure of mystique. (Velcrow’s friends know him as Crow.)

“As I went along, it became clear in many activist circles that you had to stay in the closet as a spiritual person,” Ripper says. “Spirituality wasn’t something that was part of the picture. There had been a real rejection of religion because of fundamentalism and the human-rights abuses done in the name of religion.”

However, something new is afoot, his films argue, and that’s what Ripper is becoming a figurehead for: It’s the interest, building for years now, among those on the left – an acknowledgment that spirituality seems to be at the heart of activism.

As Ripper adds: “My Facebook profile has a quote from Antony Hegarty, the New York musician, that says, ‘Hope and sincerity are the new punk.’”


Shambhala Sun On Fierce Light

Fierce Light: An Interview with Filmmaker Velcrow Ripper
By Elena Johnson

What do the American civil rights movement, an exiled monk’s return visit to Vietnam, and a community of people trying to save an urban farm in L.A. have in common? According to Canadian documentary film-maker Velcrow Ripper, they are all examples of what he calls spiritual activism, and they are just a few of the inspiring stories featured in his latest film, Fierce Light.

“Spiritual activism,” Ripper explains in a recent phone interview from his Toronto home, “comes from the heart. It’s beyond polarity. It’s coming from a place of compassion, of hope. It’s based on what we are for, rather than what we are against. It’s what Ghandi called soul force, and what Martin Luther King called love in action.”

He says, “I wanted to find that hope in the world, to interview the people that were doing that work – activism with a spiritual basis, a sense of interconnectedness.”

Fierce Light includes interviews with former civil rights movement leader John Lewis, exiled Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Dalit lawyer/activist Leela Kumari, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, eco-philosopher and Buddhism scholar Joanna Macy, and actor/eco-activist Daryl Hannah, among others.

The film also documents several political actions in progress, such as the movement to save the largest urban farm in North America from impending demolition, the yearly protest at the controversial U.S. military training institution once known as the School of the Americas, and the efforts of a group of two thousand Hyderabad Dalits to resist violence and oppression, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh’s second return visit to Vietnam after 40 years of exile.

I first heard about Fierce Light during the Vancouver International Film Festival in October, and decided to attend the world premiere. The film went on to garner the NFB Most Popular Canadian Documentary Award and a Special Mention for the Nonfiction Feature Film Award at the festival, and has now been screened at several international film festivals. It will be released to theatres in May.

Ripper feels that in making the film he was tapping into a zeitgeist. In fact, he says that spiritual activism has been called the largest political movement in history. During his research for the film, he interviewed Paul Hawkins, author of Blessed Unrest, a book that examines hope within the worldwide movement for social and environmental change. Hawkins calls spiritual activism “the movement of movements” and describes it as “humanity’s immune response to a world in crisis.” He has compiled a list of organizations engaged in some form of spiritual activism, and his total is now well over a million.
Ripper is no newcomer to documentary film-making or to world travel. He has directed or done sound work for 28 other films, and made his first documentary, Iran: the Crisis, in 1979 at the age of 16. His recent films are characterized by a narrative style and by his deeply personal approach – engaging with a question that concerns him, and seeking the answer.
“The term ‘fierce light’,” he explains, “plays with the collision between seeming opposites. The title is like a Zen koan that I slowly unpack… Where is the fierceness, within the light?”

Ripper used to describe himself as a Sufi-Buddhist-Bahai-punk-rocker, but says he’ll never belong to one particular tradition. However, his most consistent teacher is Zen Buddhist Roshi Enkyo O’Hara, based in New York city, and he says his life is deeply informed by Buddhism.

I ask him if Buddhist principles such as non-harm and compassion are common characteristics of the movements profiled in Fierce Light. While he describes the film as “inter-spiritual” in scope, he acknowledges that compassion and non-violence are clearly at the heart of the political actions in the film.

“The American civil rights movement is a profound example of this – standing up with love in your heart, and protesting violence with non-violence. The powers that be didn’t know how to deal with this. The idea of responding to love and non-violence with violence was very unsettling.

“Another central concept,” he says, “is the idea of interconnection – or interbeing – which is similar to the Ubuntu theology that Desmond Tutu speaks about.”

Tutu, a Nobel Laureate and a former leader in South Africa’s struggle against Apartheid, says that Ubuntu means that one person’s humanness is intertwined with another person’s humanness. “What dehumanizes you,” he explains in the film, “inexorably dehumanizes me. And what elevates you, elevates me.”

Ripper also traveled with Thich Nhat Hanh and members of his sangha on their second return-trip to Vietnam. Their intent was to conduct a series of healing ceremonies to heal the wounds of war and to offer teachings and retreats. I’m curious about the effect this experience had on Ripper.

“Thich Nhat Hanh is such an embodiment of fierce light,” he says. “He is the most peaceful and gentle man you’ll ever meet. And yet he is fierce – he has a sword that will cut through ignorance and illusion, and that’s what he’s here to do. His style of Buddhism is completely connected to humanity and the earth; it’s not about transcendence. He’s the person who really coined the term ‘engaged Buddhism.’”

Ripper also notes that this experience influenced his style of filming. He says that, for him, cinematography always involves being in the moment, trying to connect to the beauty that’s around him, and trying to pass that on to others through the film itself. But when he was filming the monks and nuns, he says, he was especially aware of being focused on the present and on walking mindfully, for example, rather than rushing from shot to shot.

“There’s actually a quality of documentary film-making that requires stepping into the present,” he says, “and letting go of preconceptions – allowing images to unfold, without clinging or grasping. It’s very much like a Buddhist approach.”

When I saw Fierce Light, I was particularly struck by a motif that recurs throughout the film: a person with their eyes closed, as if in meditation, opens their eyes and smiles widely. When I ask Ripper about the intention behind this, he explains, “All over the world, almost everywhere I went, I asked people – strangers – to close their eyes, and when they opened them to look straight at the camera and imagine that they were looking at the most beautiful thing they could ever imagine. These people, in the film, they’re looking out at the audience with this love in their eyes.” His intention, he says, was for the audience to feel they were being looked upon with love.

“But this action, of the eyes opening, can be interpreted differently by each person who sees the film,” he admits. He says it could be interpreted as a call to action – to get up off the meditation cushion and put your beliefs into practice. It could also be felt as the opposite – to take some time out from your activism and sit down on the cushion.

“We need that deep inner knowing,” he explains. “We need that meditative centre. That’s what gives us the strength and the soul to deal with the world in crisis. But we also need to be active and get out in the world and make the change.”
He says he hopes the film itself can provide an experience of awakening for people. “I hope that it breaks people’s hearts open, but in a way that opens us to change, a way that gives us a sense of hope, possibility and inspiration, as well as a sense of urgency.”
Ripper’s current favourite quote is “Hope and sincerity are the new punk.” That’s from Antony Haggard, lead singer of New York City band Antony and the Johnsons.
“It’s not so uncool anymore to be sincere and hopeful,” says Ripper. “The days of post-modern irony – the snark effect of the 90s – that’s withering.”
He adds, “This is going to be more than a movement. I think it’s the leading edge of a global shift in consciousness.”
* * *
Fierce Light will be released to theatres this month and to DVD in September. For more information, see

New Fierce Light Clip!

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.


A Beautiful Stew

“The Chefs of G~d

are cooking up a special stew

Just for you.”

~ Rumi


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?


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


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?”
“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.

The Oracle of Delphi

Leave Me Alone (Don’t Ever!)

I once had a friend who was in a relationship crisis, and he was completely distraught. His life had been dedicated to spiritual practice, and increasingly, to teaching meditation and spiritual thought. He said to me, with a look of confusion, “I can go into deep Samadhi (Samadhi is a high state of meditative awareness) in meditation, but I can’t figure out relationships.”

I’ve experienced the same struggle in my own life, and I have a feeling we’re not alone. But increasingly, I am learning that the real spiritual juice is in the full spectrum of life, of a life fully lived, in all it’s complexities, with all it’s colours – from glowing sunrises to deepest darkest shadow. Spirituality is not about inner peace necessarily – it’s about full engagement with all that is.

Last year Sera Beak and I interviewed LaSara Firefox (author of the books ‘Sexy Witch’ and ‘Yoga Mama’) for the film Redvolution: Dare to Disturb the Universe and she told of a time in which she became convinced that her busy life, her children especially, were keeping her from her quest for union with the divine. After some deep soul searching, she came out of that place, and realized that in fact, G~d lives and breathes, laughs and cries, in relationship. In relationship to each other, in relationship to the world, in relationship to ourselves.

It’s such an important lesson to learn for those of us with a spiritual bent. Being spiritual is not about the time you spend on a meditation cushion. That is incubation, that is preparation. The real work, the real Work, takes place in the real world.

While disembodied spirituality can doom relationships of any kind, embodied spirituality is the pathway to true love. Author and cultural theorist bell hooks defines love as “the committment to another’s spiritual growth.” Sounds like a great recipe for mutually enhancing relationships-the kind of relationships that leaves both parties expanded. It means meeting beyond the ego, beyond the limited self to the divine person we all are. A committment to being a source of inspiration and transformation for each other is the key to a deep, spiritual relationship.

Another way of defining love is “being seen” – being truly, wholly seen. That means recognizing and seeing all of who a person is-their perfection, and their very human imperfection. We’re all works in progress, and that is the exciting thing about being alive. We are all made of light and shadow. No one exists without both. If we were all light, we’d float away. And if we were all shadow, we would sink into the swamp. Recognizing the fullness of who we are, and being seen for that, appreciated for that, and understood for that, is a fierce love.

Here is a short film I made that pokes fun at my own spiritual foibles when it comes to relationships. It’s called “Leave Me Alone (Don’t Ever!)” and is part of a collection of short films called “Breaking Up in Three Minutes.” It’s actually a true story, based on the break up with my first true love – I was about twenty-two or so at the time. In the wake of that loss, I set off on a great voyage of internal discovery, spending three months hitchiking from Montreal, to Newfoundland and back again. I returned to the city, certain that my new found spiritual realizations would win her heart. Alas, it didn’t work. But at least I got the catalyst for some true reflection and growth, reams of bad love poetry, and a funny film out of the deal. When all else fails, there’s always laughter!