A Beautiful Stew

“The Chefs of G~d

are cooking up a special stew

Just for you.”

~ Rumi

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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?

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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. 

Mary

 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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Truth is a Pathless Land

“Because I am free, unconditioned, whole, not the part, not the relative, but the whole Truth that is eternal, I desire those, who seek to understand me, to be free, not to follow me, not to make out of me a cage which will become a religion, a sect. Rather should they be free from all fears – from the fear of religion, from the fear of salvation, from the fear of spirituality, from the fear of love, from the fear of death, from the fear of life itself.” – Krishnamurti

 

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I just spent the weekend in a Zen retreat, with Roshi Enkyo O’hara, of the Village Zendo in New York. My friends Michael Stone and Michelle McAdorey run a meditation center here in Toronto called The Centre of Gravity  and lucky for us, have been inviting her up once a year to lead a retreat.

I first came upon Roshi Enkyo through a remarkable series of synchronicities.  In 2000 I was in Hiroshima, shooting  Scared Sacred, my feature documentary based on my journey to the ground zero’s of the world.  Scared Sacred is inspired by the meditation practice  of Tonglen, the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion.  

While I was filming the ceremonies on the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb, I met Daniel, a Zen monk from New York City.  In fact, turns out he was the first married ordained gay Zen monk in North America.  Daniel and I were both at Hiroshima for a similar reason. He was doing a series of poems and photographs about searching for light in places of darkness.

A year later, I found myself in New York City, in the wake of 9.11, at a reading of poets for peace.  That night I filmed  Ann Deaver Smith quoting Professor Cornell West on the difference between hope and optimism: “optimism is based on the notion that there’s enough evidence that allows us to think that things are going to be better. But hope – hope is saying,  it doesn’t look good at all – so we’re going to make a leap of faith to create new possibilities based on new visions that allow us to engage in heroic actions against the odds.  That’s hope!”  

That quote was in  the film for a while, but I finally it cut out.  I still miss it.  I compensate by reading the quote aloud at every Scared Sacred q & a.

The walls of the Cooper Union Building were decorated with poems by children about 9.11.  The little ones were there, buzzing with excitement about their poems being displayed.  I asked one of the parents if I could interview some of them, and she said I would have to talk to their teacher.  She pointed him out across the room.  It was Daniel.  

Later I talked to him about why I was in New York City – continuing my journey to the Ground Zero’s of the world in search of stories of hope.  He told me of his Zen teacher – Roshi Enkyo.  He described her as a remarkable invidual, someone who is both deeply spiritual, but also deeply engaged in the world, committed to activism, to creating positive change in a world of suffering.  She is  a member of  the Zen Peacemakers Order, and does a lot of work with AIDs activism.   But right now, in the midst of 9.11, her Zendo had become a place of refuge and peace activism.  It was only two blocks from the twin towers.   A few days later I was in front of Roshi Enkyo, interviewing her for Scared Sacred. Her words became the heart of that 9.11 scene in the film.

Over the years Roshi Enkyo has appeared in my life again and again, as a wonderful, brilliant, challenging and heart expanding spiritual teacher.  I did a life changing ten day retreat with her in New Mexico, at Upaya,  with Roshi Joan Halifax, I visit the Village Zendo whenever I can in NYC, and have sat two retreats with her here in Toronto at the centre of gravity.  This weekend I realized she is the most consistent teacher in my life.  

I am not a joiner.  This is something I have realized, and made peace with.  For the longest time, on my spiritual journey, I assumed that eventually I would settle into a single path and make that my home.  I can see the benefits – focus, discipline, the ability to really go the distance with support.  A solid container within which to work. Community. The vastness of a lineage.  

When I was in my twenties I was a student of Pir Vilayat,the wonderful Sufi saint of the Sufi Order International.  At one gathering Pir was doing initiations into the order, and I decided to join and receive my Sufi name.  When I came before Pir, he asked me what religion I was raised in.  I said the  Baha’i Faith.   He said, “oh, same thing as Sufism.  There’s no need for you to join.”  And that was that.  Although I was no longer a Baha’i, I was also not a Sufi. It was the last time I tried to join anything.

Today I am unapologetic – joining just is not for me- perhaps I’m  just too much of a spiritual rebel, too much of a trouble maker to rest in any one container.  I have this urge (ever growing) to continually blow up boxes.

But I’m not so arrogant to think I can do it all myself – I welcome guidance, I seek guidance, in all it’s forms. So it was a great moment of recognition for me this weekend, that I do have a teacher I can count on with the Roshi.  Even if I will never join her order, there is a source of wisdom in her, and the core teachings of Zen, that will always serve as a touchstone for me.

Not that those core teachings offer easy solace or any form of escape.  Zen asks us to stay right in the thick of things.  In the midst, the middle, right between form and emptiness.  Between the material world and the boundless ground of being.  Right where the friction is.  In a state of freshness, openess, a comfort with “Not-Knowing.”   Moment by moment, not knowing what’s next.  Spontaneous becoming, this is what faith is to me.   

Roshi focussed on the heart sutra this weekend, a deep deep well of wisdom – which demands us to let go of wisdom itself, to let go of the path, to let it all go.   No attachment. No grasping. Let go.

And in that letting go, a vast spaciousness occurs.  And in that space, life itself is renewed.  Fearlessly. The path forming below your feet with every step.

 

~                          ~                       ~

doorani

The original Scared Sacred was a interactive web site, done in 1995 at the Banff Centre for the Arts.  As part of the site, I did a peace called “Cyber Limbo”, about the pope’s elimination of limbo.   The piece culminated  in an excerpt from the Heart Sutra.   You read it by scrolling down…